Boxed In

Shop Boy’s previous experience with origami had consisted chiefly of folding those little triangle footballs that you “kick” with a flick of the finger through goalposts — an opponent throwing down something like “loser” hand signals facing one another.

In fact, at Wilkes Deli in Glen Rock, N.J., I believe Shop Boy and a co-worker named Robert set new standards of excellence for the game. (I don’t remember Robert’s last name — he was a dental student and a whiz at cutting roast beef, which was extremely hard to do if it was a rare hunk of meat. The customer would always want it “sliced thin,” which meant “shards o’ beef” in Shop Boy’s shaky hands. I figured I’d make it up to the customer by giving them two pounds when they asked for one pound, then charging them for a half-pound. Seemed fair. Heck, they came back, right? Robert also handled making most of the scrambled egg sandwiches for the Jets and Giants fans on their way to games at the Meadowlands. I could never get the knack of cooking eggs in a microwave.)

Anyway, this was soon after gymnast Mary Lou Retton had become America’s sweetheart in the Olympics. So there she was across the store, flashing that winning smile, arms upraised, on the Wheaties cereal box. Forget the finger goalposts. To score a point, Robert and I needed to clear a deli counter and an aisle of produce, reach the back wall and guide the football between Mary Lou’s arms.

These were low-scoring games.

But they passed the time between the morning and afternoon rushes. And they kept Shop Boy’s mind off the bugs. Yes, those bugs. I don’t dare even speak their name. Ooh, yick.

See, we kept a really clean shop — Robert was a finicky dude (good for a dentist, I think) even when the owner wasn’t around. But you can’t run a deli in a building in the New York metropolitan area for 25 years or more without an occasional infestation. All your delivery boxes contain them. (Mary won’t even let Shop Boy bring a wine box from the liquor store into the house.) And once inside the building, they find “dates” and get busy making an army. So it was that one day, Mr. Wilkes stopped in with his wife to check on things — he had, like, four stores by then — and noticed a loose board in the door frame between the kitchen and the main deli. It was so loose, in fact, that when he poked at it, the board crashed to the floor.

And Shop Boy’s heart stopped. The entire door frame was alive. The bugs came screaming out of there, leaping, scattering, bouncing off appliances … and running through Mrs. Wilkes’ bouffant hairdo. Shop Boy’s fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and I was at the far end of the store before I realized my feet were moving. Mrs. Wilkes? Cool as a deli pickle, gently plucking bugs from her ‘do.

After a massive extermination project, they rebuilt the entire door frame. But I could never pass through it again without having my skin crawl.

So Shop Boy’s not good with bugs, either.

Just my luck. Here in Maryland and points farther south, there are waterbugs that live outside but tend to congregate on warm nights near lighted areas to copulate and such. The loading dock beyond our factory door is one such place. At this point, Mary’s so tired of hearing me gasp as I open the door that she’s taken to going out first and doing a Mexican hat dance to break up the sex party and clear Shop Boy’s path to the car. What a gal.

OK, Shop Boy’s going on and on …

But one more quick story: At the University of Rhode Island, Shop Boy did a work/study hitch as kitchen help. Well, after summer break, we prepared to open Hope Dining Hall to the semester’s first breakfast seekers. My supervisor called me aside and handed me a rag. The cooks were about to turn on the big ovens for dinner prep and there might be some bugs fleeing as the heat increased. This dude wanted me — me! — to subtly kill the “runners” so that the sight of them wouldn’t disturb the diners passing nearby in the food line.

Well, he underestimated how many bugs there’d be and how disturbing to diners the sight of a young man frantically swinging a rag — and jumping up and down to keep bugs off his feet — could be. Eventually, they pulled me out of there. But the psychic damage was done.

Look, can we talk about something else, please? Oh, that’s right … my blog.

Football … folding …. paper … oh, yeah …

So, anyway, now somehow I’m the origami box guy. Happened innocently enough. We were vacationing in Colorado Springs, having lunch at artist Mary Helsaple and filmmaker Neal Williams’ place in the foothills (heavenly view and a practically vertical driveway). Steve Martin, who’d run the Springs’ performing arts center before moving on to a great old theater — the Elsinore — in Salem, Ore., was there with wife Tina and daughter Allison. We’d heard Allison had done some origami and wondered if she knew how to make paper boxes. Mary’s always looking for cool ways to package the stuff we’ve printed for boffo delivery. Going the extra mile and all that.

Allison’s apparently a pretty good teacher — wonder how she’s going to feel about being included in a dispatch about bugs, though — because Shop Boy learned the first time. Those groovy boxes Typecast Press made for a spread in Baltimore Magazine‘s seasonal entertaining guide? Ahem.

Want the secret? I’d tell you but then Mary would have to kill me.

Let’s just say that squares of pretty paper within arm’s reach are in harm’s way. Give Shop Boy five minutes, you’ll get a nice square box. I’m just that good. Heh-heh. What? That stuff we printed isn’t square? You want a rectangular box? That’s less deep than half its width? I, um … Allison didn’t show us that. Uh, her cheat sheet must be around here somewhere. Allison!!!


Guess Shop Boy’s plan for world domination through origami still has a few bugs in it.

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