“Be Nice To Me Tom, I Have Cancer”–An Inside Look at one of NYC’s Most Well Known Writing Schools

“Be nice to me, Tom, I have cancer,” she said seconds before I gave her my honest opinion.

No one laughed at her comment. The tension was thick as she threw me a wink and a smirk. I wasn’t known for being diplomatic. My critiques were blunt, harsh and honest.

I thought, “I’m supposed to watch what I say just because she has Stage IV breast cancer?” If she was in a wheelchair and couldn’t speak I’d give the same feedback. This was a writing class, not a charity event. It was my turn to tell her how I really felt about the 20-page scrap she’d handed out the week before.

“I only had 48 hours to throw something together,” she added.

I shook my head and thought, “I should get paid for my feedback.”

******************

Classroom #1

I enrolled in my first memoir writing class in January of 2012 and immediately googled the teacher. I expected a boring curriculum vitae about a literary genius. Instead, I found pictures of a woman sporting a tattoo of a flower from her elbow to her shoulder. There were numerous articles about how Mayor Bloomberg yanked her from the Bronx school system because she had written about her former life asPetro #4 a sex worker and published it in the Huffington Post. She was on the front cover of the Daily News and the first page of the New York Post. The further I explored Melissa Petro, the more uneasy I felt. In the year that followed, she’d plastered episodes from her sex life in online mags such as The Rumpus, xoJane, The Friskey, Salon.com and others.

I thought, “Oh shit, what am I getting myself into?”

I’d been writing short stories for decades. I craved interesting memoirs and well-written fiction. I’d read books by Frank McCourt, Jeanette Walls, Augusten Burroughs, Paul Auster, Pete Hamill, Roth, Salinger, Hemingway and others. I felt it was time to take my writing to the next level.

“How is this woman going to teach a Saturday morning memoir class on a topic other than sex?” I wondered. A family member phoned me and said, “Get your money back! She’s teaching a writing class? What the hell is this school thinking?”

Petro #2 I pictured a ditzy tramp in a tight black mini-skirt, red pumps, hot pink lipstick and dangling earrings giving us raunchy lectures on plot and dialogue. My stomach felt queasy. I’d never known a prostitute or met one for that matter. But Petro was a former hooker. A “hooker/teacher” as the papers referred to her. I’d try one class and make a decision to stay, or get credit for another class. It turned out, I didn’t have an issue with the teacher; it was the quality of writing that irked me.

Each week, three or four students were assigned to hand out a 20-page excerpt from a longer piece of writing they’d been working on. It didn’t matter if the piece had been revised or fresh. The following Saturday, we’d critique it. The author being “boothed” or “critiqued” couldn’t speak until the end. After the second session, I couldn’t wait to read a segment from someone else’s life story. But, in my opinion, what I ended up reading was worthless babble with a slew of grammatical errors. Not one writer bothered to edit his work. Some of the students were graduates of Columbia, Harvard, and Barnard. How was that possible?

One woman traveled from Rye, NY and brought her laptop to class the first week as if to say, “I’m that good.”  Her writing stunk, not from content, but from the overuse of smelly adjectives. I read through this mess as an osmagogue of malodorous, smellsome, graveolent and frowsty lexemes stung my eyes.

Another highly medicated lady conjured up some comedic nonsense that in my opinion, made no sense. She fancied herself the next female David Sedaris with dialogue from therapy sessions she had kept while tripping on mushrooms. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make myself care how often she laughed and rolled onto the floor in front of her shrink, one time ripping her jeans at the crotch.                                Devil #1

A woman from Trinidad handed in a piece from a memoir about raising a son who had been diagnosed at a young age with schizophrenia. She described the exorcism performed with someone yelling about a devil. “Devil! Come out of ma son! You gittin’ all angree and causin’ him da bad life.” The first ten pages were one long sentence with no periods, commas or quotations.

I said to myself, “What in God’s name am I reading?”

I do not consider myself a master of the English language, but if you say you’re a Harvard grad, how do you have the audacity to show up to a writing class and hand in this crap? Petro gave us the standards on feedback.

“We’d like to keep this a safe environment. We’ll start out with two positives about the writer’s piece, and then two suggestions for improvement.”

I wasn’t sure how the class would react to my “constructive criticism” but I didn’t care. Safe environment? Why? If I had to slog through this gunk for eight more Saturdays, then the writer would have to listen to very little positive reinforcement. It wasn’t because I disliked the person. I wanted the author to realize, that in my opinion, if you wanted to be a writer, take it seriously. Practice your craft.  It seemed that Petro and I were on the same page for the remainder of the course, only her feedback came across as much more professional.

A few writers handed in readable pieces that I enjoyed. Some of the students appreciated my feedback. They loved that I told my perspective. Most didn’t and took it personally. One lady yelled out, “You’re the Simon Cowell of this writing class!” It puzzled me that the majority of the class would praise a piece of writing that was so bad, you could smell the rotten egg odor emanating from the page. What were they afraid of, hurting someone’s feelings? My work was critiqued twice. I nodded and thanked the class but took the reviews with a pound of salt knowing that, in my opinion, half the class was illiterate.

After our final session, I thanked Melissa. The feedback she gave on my memoir was very helpful. She inspired me to keep writing and even forward a small piece I’d written for a homework assignment to some online magazines. It was published in the April 2012 edition of parentingexpress.com. Parenting Express

Three weeks later, I entered Advanced Memoir on a weekday evening with a different instructor. I had googled him and saw that he’d published a memoir. I was impressed. The first day he jotted down some authors on the marker board and asked if we’d read any of their work. I was intimidated. In the class, there were 12 writers I’d never met, two who came to the first session with handouts for feedback the following week. One by one we introduced ourselves to the class. Some had taken this teacher as many as five or six times. One gentleman was in his ninth consecutive session with the same teacher. I couldn’t wait to read his work.

Since this was a more experienced group (so I thought), I anticipated quality writing in the form of pristine manuscripts and page turners. Instead, I was handed, in my opinion, more rolls of toilet paper stained with Toilet paperrun-on sentences and misspelled words. Each week I’d hear the same garbage, “I loved this piece” and “This story moved me in so many ways.”

I thought, “This crap moved me as well, from the kitchen to the bathroom with stomach cramps.”

My feedback hardly varied. I was just as brutal with my comments. When referring to the person being boothed, we had to use the word “author,” one of the teacher’s strict rules. He’d often interrupt my train of thought and ask what I meant when I said “the author’s intro put me to sleep” and “the dialogue is lame.” Some of the writers were a bunch of zombie-like neophytes when it came to the written word and I was embarrassed to be in their company. The last class couldn’t have come more quickly but I needed to keep writing. I enrolled in another writing class with the same instructor.

 

*********************

 

The second she started to cry, I heard my name in the plethora of sobs.

“Tom! Do you realize I’m writing this for my daughter so she has something to read when I’m gone….”

She wailed as three women ran behind her and hugged her as if to say, “He’s an asshole, don’t worry about it.”

I had made a friend in the class, Xiomara Maldonado, soon after the term began. We messaged back and forth a few times and started a friendship. It was in that fourth class, the night of August 2nd, that hell broke loose. The woman with Stage IV breast cancer told the class that because she had volunteered to switch booth places with someone else, she had had to quickly conjure up a piece of writing to hand in. That’s all I had to hear. She got an earful.

“First, I didn’t understand any of it. Not sure where you’re going with this. If this is part of a bigger piece, you need to sizzle us at the beginning. There’s no character development and the dialogue is just plain horrible…”

I went home and emailed Xiomara. She said I needed to be more diplomatic in my approach. We practiced back and forth. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine that happening. I received an email from the teacher. In some ways, I felt terrible. I emailed an apology to the student. She sent me back a “go screw yourself” message. The teacher emailed us, frustrated.

 

Massage Therapist #1Two weeks later another woman handed in an odd piece of writing written in the 3rd person. It was about her after-hours occupation as a massage therapist offering happy endings. She didn’t prep us. I thought the writing was plagiarized from a romance novel. That’s what I told her. The following week she never showed.

After the woman with breast cancer left on a vacation for South Africa and never came back, the massage therapist dropped out. The final showdown came after the sixth class. I had critiqued a piece of writing from a woman who had broken off a ten-year relationship with her boyfriend. It was a one-sided rant about her long-time nebbish.                                                                                                                          Tuna Fish

She slandered him by saying, “You called me to ask me how to open a can of tuna fish. I’m on a date, you prick.”

I ripped it apart saying I wanted to hear his side. Most of her dialogue was written out of frustration. It was far from believable. She stood up after class and began a heated argument with the teacher. It got loud, then louder. I left when the walls began to shake. I received an email from the instructor the following morning telling me never to take his class again.

I wondered if I had done some emotional damage to some students along the way. Could it be that I was discouraging the next Dave Eggers? I even imagined a hysterical young girl calling her parents after class and hiccupping into the receiver.

Luggage“Ma! I was a creative (hiccup) writing major. Who (hiccup) is he to tell me…”

But then again, in my opinion, these three women did have excess baggage. They were a group of disturbed women who should have never been in a writing class. I’m not one to hold back. If you hand in an unpolished manuscript, I will shred you, but in a way I feel will make you a better writer. That’s what people needed to understand.

 

I took a different teacher next. I’ve stuck with her and the same school because I’ve made some very dear friends in her classes. I’m sure there are those who don’t want to see or hear from me again. I’m fine with that. The handouts I read weekly are still laden with bad sentence Orange Is the New Blackstructure, raunchy distasteful content and grammatical errors. Two of last term’s students handed in 30 page single-spaced bore-fests. How does that happen? An author was formally invited to one of our classes last term. She had written a book that will soon appear as a series on Netflix. Only eight out of 14 students showed that night. Where is the respect? I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.

After the term ended, I made suggestions to the school on a written evaluation. In my opinion, students should have to hand in a 10-page piece to be critiqued by a board of writing teachers, and wait to be appointed to the next level. I’m at the point where the only feedback I care about is the teacher’s.

I’ve since read my second instructor’s memoir and enjoyed it. I emailed him afterwards and he responded favorably. In my opinion, the dirty air has been cleared. I’ve kept in touch with Ms. Petro ever since that first class. Xiomara and I are still the best of friends. If you want to be a writer, hug that keyboard every day. Pound those keys. Keep rewriting until your fingers bleed. Take a writing class and be a perfectionist. Learn to take criticism, even if it’s harsh. It hurts, but there may be a kernel of truth in it that will make you a better writer.

Winston Churchill  In the words of Winston Churchill, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Now that’s nice.

All the Way to the Moon

UA Westbury 12The second we wandered into the parking lot that hot Saturday afternoon we stood there dumbfounded.

“Now what?” I asked her.

“I don’t know. You said we could go to a restaurant.”

“When did I say that?

“When we were in the taxi,” she said.

“Oh really, I said…”

“Daddy, you said we could go when the movie was over.”

“I believe the credits are still rolling inside and…”

“C’mon Daddy!”

“You do realize we’re in the middle of nowhere without a car, right?”

 

*****

I-Dont-Know-How-She-Does-It #1

It was a sunny, cloudless autumn day in September 2011. I’d inhaled a half a bottle of Tylenol that morning trying to ward off the skull pounding I’d woken up with. One month after Marlee’s last hurrah as a camper in upstate, NY, we had planned to spend the day together. She had wanted to check out the new Sarah Jessica Parker flick, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” Under duress I said, “Fine, we’ll go.” I would rather have waited until this one came out on DVD, but I didn’t want to disappoint her. Parker was an unknown when I’d first seen her in “Honeymoon in Vegas” playing opposite Nick Cage and Jimmy Caan, and “Striking Distance” with Bruce Willis. I was able to tolerate her for years alongside Cynthia, Kristin, and Kim. Thank God I’d never heard about the Morgans. My headache was getting worse with every thought of this post-Carrie Bradshaw bad review. Even if I fell asleep, Marlee would end up telling me “how she did it.”

As we stood outside the UA Westbury 12, sweat seeping from our pores, I noticed the service road we had driven in on and decided to walk toward it. There wasn’t a strip mall or restaurant in sight.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Does it really matter?” I answered.

“Why are you…?”

“Listen, we’re in Westbury, there has to be something around here.”

“So you’re just walking?” she asked.

“That’s right.”

“You’re strange.”

“No, I’m your father trying to find a place to eat,” I told her.

 

*****

 

A Bug's Life #1I’d taken three-and-a half-year-old Marlee to her first movie, “A Bug’s Life” in December of 1998. I’d driven off to the theater with Marlee in the back seat going, “Bug bug.” She had a pink bow in her hair and was squirming in her car seat in anticipation of watching a cartoon on a big screen. I looked in the rear view mirror and she was giggling, “Bug bug..haha.”  The movie had only been out a few weeks so we left early to make sure we got a good seat. Marlee scooted into an aisle seat midway down. She had a big smile on her face and the right junk food for her first movie: popcorn, soda, candy. “This is way too easy,” I thought. The lights went down and previews started. Twenty minutes into the movie I looked to my left, no Marlee! I looked to my right, then left, then right. What a fright! I stood up, my heart racing. There, in the dark, rolling on her side, down the aisle, was Marlee, laughing. “Bug bug, haha, bug bug.” I shook my head and threw my arms in the air. “Oh my…what the…?” I ran after her and picked her up near the 2nd or 3rd row. I carried her up the aisle. As we passed our seats she pointed and cried, “Popcorn daddy! Popcorn.” Our afternoon at the cinema had lasted forty minutes.                                                                 Daddy Day Care #2

The following summer she managed to sit still for “Inspector Gadget” and cheered on the “Spy Kids” a few years later. Right before her 8th birthday I took Marlee to see “Daddy Day Care”. We were visiting my parents in Rockaway, NJ that day. After lunch at the food court in the mall, we made our way to the AMC. Toward the end when Eddie Murphy expressed his dislike for the new cotton candy cereal in a company meeting, Marlee leaned over and whispered,

“Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Now?”

“Yeah.”

“The movie’s almost over,” I told her.

“I can’t wait,” she said.

“Right now?”

“Daddy, please.”

So, with eight minutes left I took Marlee to the bathroom and waited outside. The clock ticked. I waited some more. By the time she came out, the theater was letting out. To Marlee’s dismay, we had missed the ending. She cried right there in the hallway and insisted we try to go back into the movie. I told her we couldn’t and next time to go poopy right after she ate. Six months later we saw “Daddy Day Care” on video all the way through.

 

*****

 

As Marlee and I traipsed in the heat down the service road next to the curb, I found it odd that no cars were driving by. The area was deserted. We walked and walked until I had to stop from exhaustion.

“This is crazy,” I told her.

“You wanted to do this,” she said.

“Really? I wanted to do what? I came by train, then taxi and…”

Gas Station #1  “You should have rented a car,” she barked.

“That’s enough. Let’s keep walking,” I told her.

She rolled her eyes and continued along the path of starvation. A few minutes later we stood on Brush Hollow Road staring at each other. At this point I thought about calling a taxi and having the driver drop us off at an eatery somewhere near Plainview. But then I had an idea. We crossed the street and wandered into a food mart at a gas station. Someone had been cooking a hot dog inside as we walked in. Footlong fumes floated up my nose and my mouth started to water and the sight of Drakes Cakes, Ring Dings, Twinkies was unbearable. I felt like ripping open a package and shoving a cupcake into my mouth. A man with a handlebar mustache behind the counter said that there were no places to eat anywhere in the area.

“Nothing?”

“No food.”

“What about an Olive Garden, Applebee’s, TGI…?”

The man shrugged. I shook my head in disgust. Then I peered across the street where we had come from and saw a sign in front of a building that read “Viana Hotel & Spa.” I pointed to the hotel and said to the man,

“What’s over there?”

“Ah, very nice place. You find restaurant in there.”

Our problem was solved.

 

*****

 

One year after the “Daddy Day Care” fiasco, Marlee wanted me to take her to see “Mean Girls.” She was almost nine and fascinated with female teen stars. Every other weekend, we’d spend our afternoon with Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan. After the movie we’d talk about the scenes we liked and the ones that were simply not funny. I’d become the classic teenage daughter-movie-Dad. On the weekends that I didn’t have Marlee I’d rattle off dialogue and scenes from these flicks to my friends who had kids Marlee’s age.

“You mean you haven’t seen Freaky Friday? Jamie Lee…let me say this, for her age, she can act. The part where she was playing guitar off to the side on stage…”

“And Jennifer Garner..”13 Going on 30”..great movie–the “Thriller” scene, hilarious…you have to see it!”

Then I’d call Marlee and say, “Remember the scene where…”                                                                                                                                                Mean Girls #1

The premiere of “Mean Girls” was packed. Ten minutes before the movie started I stood up to find that I was one of three dads in the entire theater. There was a mother or teenage girl in every other seat. Mothers, daughters, their friends, and friends of their friends just kept coming in and walking down the aisle. I looked around and said to myself, “This is insane.” When the previews came on, they were still filing in. There were teenage girls sitting in the aisle because there were no more seats! The movie, written by Tina Fey, was to become Lindsay Lohan’s most memorable role and one of the highest grossing films that year raking in $130MM on a budget of $17MM.

Two months later Marlee asked me if the movie had come out on video. Every week by phone she’d say, “Daddy, I want The Mean Girls.” I’d tell her there wasn’t a “the” in the title. It was just “Mean Girls.” She’d still whine, “I want The Mean Girls.” I’d been dating Jan, my girlfriend, for a few months at this point. After hanging up from me, she’d call Jan and say, “When’s my dad getting me The Mean Girls?” Jan would say, “When it comes out on video.” Then she’d repeat herself, “But I want The Mean Girls.” A month after that I was ready to smash the phone against the wall. Every conversation consisted of the words “Mean Girls.” I had almost wished we’d never gone to see it.  That September, “Mean Girls” hit video stores. We dashed to the old Barnes and Noble on 66th and Broadway, went down the escalator, to grab a copy.

Barnes and Noble #1    When Marlee saw the racks of DVD’s that day she was amazed. She asked me if she could get one more DVD. I went to the next section and scoured the CD’s while Marlee hunted for another movie. When I returned ten minutes later, she was splayed out on the tiled floor, 20 DVD’s around her.

“What the…?”

“I don’t know which one I want.”

“Is this necessary?! C’mon, pick all this up. People can’t even get by.”

“But Daddy, I want a movie.”

“I know you do, but you can be civilized and pick one out normally. Who does this?!”

“It’s not fair.”

“Oh my God. Look at this mess!”

Three months later, she owned, “Meet the Parents,” “Big Daddy,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” and “New York Minute” on DVD. The manager at Barnes and Noble would nod and smile when he saw us every other week. Marlee’s second home was at the foot of the escalator, on the floor, with DVD’s scattered everywhere. She wouldn’t do it any other way. Her list of “DVD’s Daddy Will Buy Me” was over 50 and she carried it with her.

Viana Hotel #2

The cool atmosphere inside the Marco Polo Restaurant & Lounge in the Viana Hotel almost put me to sleep standing up. There was classical music playing overhead. Each dark green formica table had silverware on top rolled inside of burgundy cloth napkins and was set for dinner. The small dining area had a parquet floor and was well lit. Marlee and I looked at each other and shrugged. I walked over to the bartender and asked if the restaurant was for hotel guests only. Two minutes later a waitress came out and seated us. It was 4:30pm. We were the only diners there.

“Daddy how come we’re the only ones here?”

“It’s early, I guess.”

Marco Polo Restaurant #1 “Shouldn’t more people be here?”

“Listen, if I knew why this place was deserted on a Saturday afternoon I’d write an article…”

“You’re weird.”

“Your answer for everything. I’m weird.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s a hotel, in Westbury, Long Island. Big tourist spot!”

I finally got a giggle and a roll of the eyes out of Marlee. We sat and waited until our potato skins with sour cream appetizer came out and then, dug in.

 

*****

 

By the time Marlee entered junior high school, our weekends together dwindled as she wanted to spend more time on Long Island and had told Jan and me that she was bored in the city. An afternoon movie with Dad and dinner afterwards wasn’t enough. She’d call and tell me about the latest horror movie or romance flick she had gone to the night before with a group of girlfriends. Afterwards, they’d go to a diner and cause a ruckus laughing and cackling. Our theater escapades together faded into the Manhattan skyline. I was a bit disappointed but had known it was only a matter of time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Jersey Girl #2

Marlee’s love of DVD’s though never diminished. She had boxes filled to the top in her room, some of them still in the wrapper. Our favorite movie, “Jersey Girl,” with Ben Affleck, always sat on top. This was the one Marlee watched the most and quoted from on a regular basis. We had seen the movie one night on HBO and Marlee loved it so much that I bought her the DVD. Shortly afterward, Marlee wanted me to quote the lines with her, particularly from a scene toward the end with Will Smith and Ben Affleck chatting in a media publicist’s waiting room. She’d call me up at random and say,

“Daddy, how far you love me?”

I’d answer, “All the way to that table.”

She’d reply, “No you don’t. You love me all the way to the moon, and back down to the dirt.”

We’d be hysterical and recite the dialogue from beginning to end.

Mermaid #1Out of the blue a few years later, Marlee said she wanted Jan and me to take her to see “Aquamarine” about a mermaid who comes to life and swims in circles for ninety minutes. The afternoon movies with Dad and giddy time with her girlfriends had now become an evening event with the family. After the movie I looked at Jan and shook my head with an expression of, “Are you kidding me?” After seeing “Marley and Me” on New Year’s Day and then “Little Fochers,” the family outings ended. We could never agree on a movie after that, and having painfully slogged through “Aquamarine” I wasn’t about to suffer through another disaster.

 

 

*****

 

After stuffing our faces with chocolate mousse and cheesecake, I walked over to the bartender and asked if he could call me a cab. The restaurant dimmed the lights as dinner guests began to arrive. After I paid the bill, Marlee and I left the restaurant and walked down a few steps into the small lobby where we had entered. Marlee sat on a black leather couch and I paced.

“When’s the taxi coming?”

“The guy just called. We’ll wait,” I told her.

“For how long?”

I shook my head. “What do you have an appointment?

She gave me a deep sigh.

 

*****

 

Marlee had texted me earlier that morning and wanted to see this movie as most of her friends had seen it already. My only method of transportation back then was the LIRR and a taxi. I wasn’t able to rent a car on such short notice. Then I thought, “A taxi to Westbury? Am I crazy?” Even if Marlee wanted to come into the city, she couldn’t. Her grandparents were out for the day. There wasn’t anyone to drive her to the Hicksville train station. I had no choice. We decided on a time and a theater. I took the subway down to Penn Station, then rode the train to Hicksville and hopped into a taxi. After picking Marlee up, we headed to Westbury. Marlee was excited as she was spending the day with Dad. Taxi pic #2

“It’s so cool that we’re taking a taxi to the movie,” she said to me as we headed down the Northern State.

“Tell that to my pocket,” I told her.

“Why are you so weird?” she asked me.

The driver turned into the Westbury Music Fair parking lot which was empty and Marlee and I looked at each other. Then I saw him peering at me through his rear view mirror. I leaned over and articulated to the driver “I need the UA Westbury 12 Cinema—you know, the movie theater.” As usual Marlee laughed under her breath as we made a right turn out of the lot.

 

*****

 

We stepped outside and got into the taxi when it pulled up in front of the Viana. Marlee gave Ms. Parker’s new flick a positive review as we gabbed about it all the way back to Plainview. I told Marlee that they should make a movie about my life and call it, “I Don’t Know How He Does It.” As usual she gave me the roll of the eyes as if to say, “There’s something wrong with you.” We said our goodbyes at the front door a few minutes later.

On the way back to the train station I thought about the day and how much fun we’d had. It had been our 3rd movie in the last three years. But, I didn’t care about the movie so much or the restaurant we had eaten in. It was all about spending quality time together. Once again, I had found a way to make our day in the dirt enjoyable. I’d consider that a happy ending.

Moon #1Marlee & MeDaddy pic #1

Try Not To Blink

Eye exam #7

June, 1967

My mother called it the Grown-Ups’ room. I called it boring. All doctors’ offices seemed the same back then: dark and stuffy. They were either a one-person show with a crooked shingle on a neglected front lawn, or packed into some dreary compound with other stethoscopes. Some had tan leather couches and others had plastic or wooden chairs. There were newspapers on end tables with ripped out articles and coupons, and a few magazines sat in a plastic bin that jutted from the wall. There was a smell like soapy dishwashing liquid in the room and some days the aroma was more like furniture polish. Crayons were always scattered on an end table next to a beat-up coloring book. Some had floors with puke green tile or pale gray carpeting and the overhead music was barely audible. A few had plants and artificial bouquets on coffee tables. Women with bright red lipstick wore their everyday dresses with pumps and the few men who rushed in on their lunch break had dark sport jackets, thin ties with clips, and hair parted to the side. In the Grown-Ups room, kids had to put on their soldier faces until their name was called. That day, Dr. Silador’s office was torture for me. At the age of four, going on five, I’d rather have been playing hide and go seek.

“Ma, when are we going in?” I asked.

“In a minute,” she told me.

“But when?” I repeated.

“Soon,” she replied.

“Soon, when?” I persisted.

“Soon, when I tell you, that’s when,” she barked.                                                                                                                                                                       Wonderama #1

Chatty Cathy #2   I sat with a long face on a wooden chair that hurt my tushy. Mom was never specific on wait times in offices. She’d use that firm whisper tone and stick her index finger in front of her lips. “Shh, kids, sit still, five more minutes.” Her five minutes seemed to drag on all day. My three-year old sister Susie was glued to my hip. She brought her talking doll, Chatty Cathy and giggled and rolled with her on the floor spitting out the words from Wonderama, “wocca doo, wocca doo.” We watched that show on Channel 5 every Sunday morning the way that other families went to church. We loved the fake snakes in a can. After school I’d prance around the house with a toy microphone singing, “Kids Are People Too.” Mom used to say, “Who do you think you are, Bob McAllister?” My mother, a teacher, was taller than the other ladies who used to come over to our house. She was big boned, but not heavy, with chocolate brown hair and soft, hazel eyes. Her words were firm. She’d scold, we’d mope, not talk back. I used to think she was born with chalk and a ruler in her hand.

The only reason I had told Mom I’d see the eye doctor was because she’d said we could go to the Barn on Hamburg right after. It was the biggest ice cream palace in our north Jersey town of Wayne, on a main stretch of road called Hamburg Turnpike. I’d always thought the Barn on Hamburg was a funny name for an ice cream store. My pre-school teacher Miss Sally was always yapping about horses and pigs in barns. When Old Barn Milk Barwe’d leave the door to the boy’s room open she’d yell, “You live a barn? Shut the door!” Now I know what she meant: barn doors were always left open so the horses and pigs would get some fresh air. On humid summer days we’d run through the backyard sprinkler for a few hours, then jump onto the beach towels inside the steamy back seat of the car and head for the Barn. Mom would park the car and Susie and I would run up to the outside window. The woman would lean on her elbows and say, “Hi kids, what’ll it be today?” I was chocolate. Susie was vanilla. We’d take two licks, and then it would melt all over our hands and faces. Eventually, the napkin would stick to the cone and Mom would yell, “Kids, you’re getting it all over!” If I behaved, the Barn on Hamburg was better than getting a new toy.

Mom was thumbing through a magazine when a nurse wearing a crooked white hat and carrying a clipboard opened the door and called, “Tommy Migdale.”

“C’mon, Tommy, get your sister off the floor. We’re going inside,” she ordered.

“Now?” I asked.

“Right now,” she told me.

We all followed the crooked hat into a desolate hallway and wound up inside The Little Room, which was Mom’s code name for the doctor’s white-walled infirmary. The nurse slipped the clipboard into a big yellow folder on the door and told us to have a seat.

“Dr. Silador will be in shortly,” she said through her nose.

The eye machines looked like still robots from a late night horror movie. On the counter were tiny white plastic bottles and small thick oval pieces of loose glass. In front of us was an oversized light green chair. I thought, “I guess that’s where the doctor yells at you if you’re bad.” The Little Room had no music. It was quiet until the fat man came in. He had a long white coat, glasses, hair on his face, and wore a big watch that was on backwards. After a long stare at the paper on the clipboard, he spoke.

“Hop up in that chair, young man.”

“Ma, I’m scared,” is all I managed to say.

“Tommy, do what the doctor says,” she whispered.

“But, Ma,” I whined.

“We can sit here all day, son,” he smirked.

“But, Ma,” I said, I tugging on her dress, “that’s where all the bad people go.”

Dr. Silador sat hunched over on his stool. He never smiled, just stared at me.

With a sigh, I walked over and pulled myself up onto the big light green slippery chair. It had a smell that reminded me of a hot summer day up in my treehouse when Mom’s plastic cups filled with lemonade lined the aluminum floor. He swung one of the robots in front of me and told me to rest my chin and forehead against it. Then he twisted my face and told me not to blink. I squirmed. His cold, clammy index finger and thumb stretched my eye open while he zapped a bright light into the center. His “uh huh’s” and “we’re almost done’s” were annoying. Then he Eye exam #2slid to his right, looked into my left eye, and the light got brighter. My eyeball was on fire. The pain stabbing my eye was agonizing. Dots of blue, yellow, and white, floated in front of me. “Try not to blink, son,” he repeated.  Seconds later he swung this other thing in front of me. It was a cold metal mask with two round holes I was told to look through. I wanted to jump down and run out of the room when it pressed against my nose and hurt my eyelashes.

“Ma,” I cried.

“She’s right over there, young man,” Dr. Silador told me.

It was as if a cloud from the sky drifted into the Little Room and parked itself in front of me. There was this foggy stuff I’d never seen before on the two holes and I wanted the fat man to wipe it off. Then I thought, “How can he check my eyes with all the smoke in the room?” He just kept spinning the wheel. The doctor’s beard and white coat looked light gray. I wanted to go swimming in the plastic pool in the backyard, not be here with the mean man.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“See?” I wondered.

“Son, the eye chart straight ahead,” he said.

Eye exam #4     Then the bearded man scribbled on the clipboard. He spun a wheel that clicked and clacked on the side of the cold metal mask and said, “Is it better this way, or this way?” What was he trying to do? I was able see the image of the nurse with the crooked hat, Mom, Susie, Chatty Cathy, Dr. Jerk, and nothing else.  I didn’t see any letters, numbers, charts, or whatever the fat man was making me read. I thought about my friends, records, books, Magilla Gorilla, Top Cat, and the bin of toys in my room. I wanted to call him a name and run out of the room. After each round of clicks, clacks, and silent letter guessing, I’d shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

I shrugged again. “I guess, yeah,” was all I said.

The fat man stood up and told me to lean back. Then he kicked a metal bar at the bottom and the seat tilted.

“I’m going to put some drops in, Mrs. Migdale,” he said.

Blurry eye chart #2 “Drops?”

“For dilation,” he mentioned.

“Dilation, why?”

“Ma, I don’t want drops,” I whined.

“Doctor, is it necessary? He’s only four.”

As Dr. Silador reached for a plastic bottle on his table, Susie walked over with Chatty Cathy and reached for my hand.

“Excuse me young lady,” he stammered, bending over to guide Susie back to Mom.

“Doctor, I’m not sure what—-”

“Mrs. Migdale, please,” he barked. “There’s an issue here, I need to dilate.”                                                                                                                  Drops in eye

In the shadow of a dull overhead light, the doctor hovered over me with his beady eyes and plastic bottle. I resisted as he leaned in, pushed my head back.  When he tried again I cried, “Ma! I want the barn!” Within seconds, his sweaty fingers pried my lids open. I winced, yelled, and pushed his hand away. The fat man handed me a tissue, then removed his glasses and wiped his eyebrows with a towel. He told my mother that my eyes needed to get bigger and to wait in the Grown-Ups room until he was ready to see us again.

Back inside the Grown-Ups room I saw a distorted image of a dark-haired girl with glasses and a patch covering one of her eyes underneath. She looked at me with a serious face as I squirmed in my chair. I’d wondered what was wrong with her and if she was waiting for her eyes to get bigger also. Mom whispered that the girl looked familiar and might be a student in her school.

In Wayne, the young and old knew my mother. She was every student’s favorite teacher, every parent’s hero. Kids would spot her in supermarkets, movie theaters, shopping malls. Parents would run up to her in the street. We’d hear “Hi Mrs. Migdale! wherever we went. If she had run for town Mayor it would have been a landslide. There was almost a waiting list to get into her class.

Theunis Dey     Mom said she and I would be entering Theunis Dey Elementary School at the same time. She’d teach second grade and I would be in kindergarten. Why did my mother have to teach in my new school? It wasn’t fair. I never understood why I had to go to that school when I liked the teacher and my friends at Country Day, the pre-school I’d been at for two years. Maybe because I was afraid my mother would hug me in front of my class or wave to me if I was in the lunch line. I’d pictured the kids shouting, “Tommy Salami, is your mommy driving you home today, or you gonna take the bus with us cool kids?” I was really mad about the whole thing.

Mom leaned in and asked, “How are your eyes?”

Chatty Cathy glared at me as Susie giggled.

“It’s fine,” I answered.

“What can you see?” Mom asked.

“I’m fine,” I blurted.

“Well?” Mom wanted to know.

“Nothing,”

“Nothing?”

“It’s bright and blurry, I don’t know,” I shrugged.                                                                                                                                                                    5th Dimension

My mother knew all the singers and bands and would sing to Susie and me in her car or in the kitchen, while she was cleaning the dishes. Sometimes she’d hum the beginning then make up the words as she went along. We didn’t know any better. It sounded good. Then she’d belt out the melody as she tapped with the beat. “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon, we could float among the stars together you and I, for we can fly…” We knew that one as the “balloon” song sung by five people trapped in some unknown dimension. Mom was head over heels for some guy Perry Como and worshiped Frankie Laine. If Susie and I giggled during one of their songs in the back seat, Mom would yell, “Kids, do I have to pull over?!” Most of the time she’d just crank the volume. She’d tell us that when she was a teenager there were black and white posters of those singers in her room and she “played their records until the needle warped.” Mom was so weird.

I tugged on her dress that day when I heard the “balloon” song over head in the Grown-Ups room.

“Balloon! Balloon!” I screamed.

“Balloon,” Susie repeated.

Mom leaned in and gave us the old “Shush kids” for the umpteenth time.

“But Ma, the balloon song is…”

“We’re in a doctor’s office,” she told me.

“But I want to sing like you do,” I whined.

“Shhhh…” she repeated.

“It’s not fair,” I said as I folded my arms. “Daddy lets me sing all the time, and why do we have to be here anyway?”

“Nurse Dottie sent us here.”

“Well, she’s stupid,” I let her know. “Nurse Dottie has high hair and fat legs.”

 

____________________________

 

Hazel #2Maybe I should have blamed Nurse Dottie. She had given me the eye test that morning. In Mom’s words, “it was convenient.” Her old friend Dottie had an office at Packanack Lake Elementary School, the same school where Mom had taught. It was her final year. That day she brought Susie and me to school with her. We’d seen Nurse Dottie only a few times but never met her. When class ended, she dragged us in. Nurse Dottie was a heavier version of Hazel the Maid on TV, but without the white hat and the nasal tone. Her bee’s nest was coated with bobbi pins and smelled like a bag of cotton candy. In the hallway, I gave Mom a hard time.

“But Ma, why do we have to…”

“Shush, it’s for kindergarten.”

“I don’t wanna go here for kindergarten?”

“You’re not going here for…”

“It’s not fair!”

“Nurse Dottie’s gonna check you to make sure…”

“But, I don’t wanna go…”

“You’re going.”

There were phones ringing and a lot of chatter. People walked in and out, Mom sat. Susie played with Chatty Cathy. Somehow I ended up in front of Nurse Dottie’s desk and was asked to read an eye chart. I wasn’t sure where to look. Eye chart? Where? Mystified, I remained silent in my plaid shorts, and light green polo shirt. With one hand over my left eye and my right hand in my pocket, I saw a white sheet on a wall really far away, nothing else.

Eye Chart #3    “Your Mom tells me that you’ll be in kindergarten next year,” Nurse Dottie smiled.

I stared at her bee’s nest and nodded.

“Myrt Withers is a sweet lady. I bet you’re excited.”

“Myrt? That must be Mrs. Withers’ first name. How weird,” I thought.

“I am,” I told her.

“Good, then stop daydreaming and read the chart,” she said.

I stood, stared, and shrugged. Why did Mom have to take me into Nurse Dottie? She kept repeating, “you can’t go to kindergarten until you get a check-up?”  Nobody I knew got one of those. I felt fine and didn’t want to talk about my new teacher Mrs. Withers. Mom said she was a jolly soul who sneezed a lot and had a bigger beehive than Smiling Dottie. I just wanted to leave.

“Tommy, don’t look at me, look at the eye chart,” Mom said.

There were no letters, just black smudges of blur. Nurse Dottie yapped on and on about a letter E. Is the E facing left, right, up, down? Her words faded and my thoughts drifted to other things like The Barn and playing kickball on the playground at lunchtime. This eye thing was boring and I wanted Mom to take me home.

Nurse Dottie walked over and bent down. “C’mon. Get that hand out of your pocket and read the letters,”

I looked at her and sighed, “I’m nerbus,”

“Nervous?” she questioned.

“Tommy, what’s wrong honey?” Mom asked.                                                                                                                                                                             Eye chart #5

If I had any clue that there was a white poster with letters hanging on a wall, I would have spit out a few silly words. Maybe I was tired or not feeling well, but there was no eye chart with the letter E, just unclear visions of paper and objects. What was the big deal? Mom told me once that her eyes get stuff in it when she wakes up from a nap. Mine do too but this wasn’t a nap. I felt gunk on my eyelashes and wanted to wipe it off so I could see the letters. Why didn’t Mom take me to see the nurse in my pre-school? I liked her. One time she put a band-aid on my knee when I fell off of a swing. She was just as important as Nurse Dottie. Mom used to say, “The kids love Nurse Dottie. She gives them medicine and they feel better.” So did the nurse in my pre-school.

Then Nurse Dottie walked over to Mom. “I’m gonna send you guys over to see Dr. Silador on Ratzer Road, have him check Tommy’s vision.

Mom seemed upset. She picked up Susie and grabbed my hand and said, “OK kids, let’s go?” Go where? I wasn’t sure what had happened. Then we were on the sidewalk. It was so hot. The sun was shining and I could feel the heat on my legs. As Mom reached into her purse and flipped on her sunglasses I asked her if Nurse Dottie knew Hazel the Maid. She never answered.

 

________________________

 

There was a high-pitched voice coming from somewhere. Mom said they had called my name. I didn’t want to go back in. Dr. Jerk was mean and all he did was say “son” and shine lights in my face. It was blurry, and sometimes there were streaks of bright lights but I couldn’t see much. I thought I heard the girl with the glasses and the patch on her eye saying goodbye to the fat man. It could have been a different girl but I don’t think so. I remembered her voice from before. It was definitely her. Maybe she could come with us to the Barn later and get an ice cream cone. How come Dad wasn’t here? I had to squint and follow Mom into the Little Room.

Then the fat man came in and this time he mumbled some words and looked at Mom, smiled at Susie. He pulled up a stool with wheels and told me to hop up into the light green slippery chair that smelled like a lemonade stand. He handed me a lollipop and said if I was good he’d give me another one for the car ride home.

“Ma, my eyes,” I cried.

“Your eyes?” said Dr. Silador.

Eye exam #5 “It’s all blurry, I told her.

“That’s good, it’s what we want,” said the doctor. “Now, let’s have a look.”

He stretched my eyelids open with his stubby fingertips and beamed a toy flashlight bulb into the center of my eye. It was bright, white, and made my eye water. His stare seemed to last an entire day.

“Ow! Ma, it hurts,” I cried again.

“We’re almost done,” the doctor uttered.

“It hurts!” I sobbed.

“Try not to blink,” he said.

Then he rolled his stool to the side, stood up, and said something to my mother. All I heard were words like “lens” and “thick” and this phrase “born of them.” Mom gasped, cried, and sat down. He nodded and said “I’m sorry.” Why was he sorry, because he was a mean man and made my mother cry? I already knew that. She put her hand over her mouth and repeated, “Doctor, are you sure?” Susie had crawled under a chair with Chatty Cathy and was lost in her make-believe universe.

Look What The Cat Dragged Out

LaSalle St #2

It seems like only yesterday that I moved from Long Island into my girlfriend’s studio apartment in Manhattan on the outskirts of West Harlem on the Upper West Side. My building sits between Amsterdam and Broadway, on the safe side of the street, barricaded in with, maybe twenty or so security guards. It’s across the street from the General Grant Housing Projects. Why would I risk my life and move into a neighborhood where I can’t tell if it’s gunshots or fireworks? Why would I subject myself nightly to hearing a man from 13 stories up blare out of a mega-phone, “Stay in your car.” It’s hard to explain. Since high school I’ve loved the sight of Times Square, the thunder of Broadway, the sizzle of excitement. I’ve always wanted to live here, regardless of the neighborhood. Public transportation has become my way of life now and I like the fact I can order food and have my laundry delivered and never have to leave my apartment. I’ve always loved the bright lights and have gotten used to the roar of the subway. It’s the people on my floor that I’m not so sure about.

Lady and Dog#1I saw Ramona the other day. She’s this short, doughy woman with thinning light brown hair and glasses in her mid-sixties who lives at the end of my hall. Somehow she’s always in eye view. It’s almost as if she sniffs my scent as I exit my studio. Most of the time she’s either waiting for the elevator with her dog Dirty Harry, or waddling down the hall ready to spill the latest saga of her chaotic escapades into my tenuously tranquil life. Sometimes she’s outside, rain or shine, shuffling down the path of least resistance. Nevertheless, she’s everywhere. Once in awhile her gossip makes me laugh. Other times I’m not coherent enough to even concentrate on her senseless babble. But, she’s nice so I try to listen.

This time she stopped me as I was heading to the subway to inform me that she had enrolled herself in BarberShop school. I stood there smiling as she walked away. “Yoga or Tai Chi” I thought to myself. But, BarberShop school? Before I continued my getaway she blurted out, “It’s the only way I’ll meet a man!” Somehow I can’t picture this lady giving a clip, shave, and an Aqua-Velva spritz to an older gentleman on a humid Saturday afternoon.

“Now that I’ve razored your scalp, will you go out with me?”

The following day Ramona told me she hired a woman to organize her closets. What does that mean? I imagined a female lumberjack in black high tops and a ponytail banging nails and ripping out floorboards. Ramona, her assistant, had a ruler between her teeth rolling in drywall, and Dirty Harry was covered in wood chips.

Then I thought, “If it’s closet space you need, why not stuff the dusty clothes into garbage bags and ship them off to the Salvation Army?”        Closet #1

Plenty of the financially less fortunate could use a smock or an old pair of baggy jeans, even if it is stenched in dog breath. I believe the organizer was going to gather and toss thousands of wire hangers Ramona had kept in boxes at the bottom of her closet. Don’t they have programs on TV about people like this? The stuffer was a woman she plucked from the depths of Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. In a matter of minutes, the good Samaritan must have been knee deep in Ramona’s dirty laundry and agreed to do this task somewhere in the neighborhood of three times without pay. Why would a stranger volunteer such a service? “Our dogs seem to have a chemistry,” Ramona explained. A chemistry. So, two dogs sniffing each other’s private parts in a park brought the hoarder and her helper together?

Then she stopped me in Met Food, our local supermarket to tell me she’d received an anonymous letter in the mail. The sender was foolish enough to scribble a return address.

“He said I was an effigy of the devil!” she cried.

Devil #1 I cracked a smile and held back a chuckle. “The devil?”

“What kind of a human would forward a letter like that?” she asked me.

Maybe Dirty Harry had crapped on the sender’s shoe by accident. Or maybe the letter writer became subjected to an earful of her mindless chatter and got offended at something she said. I shrugged, shook my head, and told her that the sender was probably drunk or stoned. She changed the subject and once again I was lost in her one-sided conversation.

 

I thought about Adele the other day. She was the 89-year-old Jewish lady with the white hair, walker, raspy voice, and coke-bottle glasses, who lived next door. Adele reminded me of an older Anne Ramsey in “Throw Momma From the Train,” only a tad nicer. I never knew Adele existed until the day she rang my doorbell. Unbeknownst to me, she’d been friendly with Jan, my girlfriend, for a few weeks when she decided to           Anita #1welcome herself into my life. As soon as I opened the door that afternoon, there she stood, sideways, hunched over, clutching her walker, in a white cloth nightgown, glaring at me as if I’d eaten her last chocolate chip cookie. We stared each other down for a few seconds, and then it happened. In a deep gravelly tone she belted the words, “Where’s Janice?” leaving out the “r” in a fairly heavy New York accent. I didn’t know how to respond, so I stared.

“Who are you?” she barked.

“Tom,” I replied.

“Well, where’s Janice?” she repeated.

I shrugged and with that, Adele wandered back to her apartment slowly hanging on to that walker for dear life.

A week later the bell rang and I just happened to be home alone again.

“Yeah, where’s Janice?” she snapped as I answered the door.

“Not here,” I told her.

She eyeballed me. I smiled. Then her gruff voice echoed in the hallway,

“Who are you again?”

“Tom, the boyfriend,” I answered.

She gawked at me for a few seconds and then decided to disrupt my evening with the Knicks.

“Tom, the boyfriend, could you help me? My remote is broken. The TV doesn’t work.”

Remote #2I agreed and told her I’d slip some shoes on and come right over. Adele’s pint-sized television had to be twenty years old and sat on a wooden table that was older than that. The volume was cranked up to the highest decibel, because apparently she was hard of hearing. Because of her poor vision, the TV remote was twice the size of a computer keyboard. I wondered how she was even able to lift it when attempting to change a channel. I mean, this contraption mirrored a heavy piece of slate you’d find in a quarry. Each number had to be eight inches in length, four inches in width. The sight of it was comical. I laughed. Then she belted out over the loudness,

“What’s wrong?”

I pointed the remote toward the tube and pressed the number three.

“Nothing,” I yelled.

And with that, the television was fixed.

As I was leaving she grabbed my arm, breathed in my face and said, “Tom, the boyfriend, can I give you some ice cream?”

Two weeks later I was back inside Adele’s neatly cluttered apartment taking the batteries out of her over-sized remote as this time it wouldn’t work at all. I took the elevator down, hopped over to Duane Reade, spent six dollars on double A’s and all was well.

Now she began spewing out phrases from her scratchy voice when I entered and left such as, “Come in, my good friend Tom” and “You’re a doll.”

Adele was in her wheelchair one night when she saw Jan by the elevator. She told Jan to lean down into her face.

In a soft, hoarse tone she whispered into Jan’s ear, “I love him, he’s such a mench.”

In a matter of weeks I had gone from “Who are you?” to “a mench.” What a priceless turn of events. Adele passed away about six months later. I think about her all the time.

 

Christie Smit #2I knocked on Chloe Stack’s door the other day. She’s the quick-witted, energetic, pretty African-American woman with a big chest who wears lots of jewelry and lives across the hall. Her quips are so instantaneous that sometimes I think they’re rehearsed. I could be at my mailbox, meandering down Broadway, or throwing out the trash. There she is, smiling and passing me, and at the same time tossing out some dig such as, “Who cuts your hair, Ramona?”

One morning Stack and I walked out of our apartments at the same time to go off to work.

She glanced at me and in seconds shook her head and uttered, “Look what the cat dragged out.”Black Cat #1

I yawned and with morning tears dripping from the corners of my eyes, responded, “How do you do it?”

As the elevator door opened she asked, “Do what?”

I answered, “Think of this shit. It’s like your brain is on cocaine.”

She smiled and as we hit the ground floor she threw her black leather bag over her shoulder, winked, and chuckled, “See you later, cowboy.”

I had accidentally locked myself out of my apartment one night throwing out the garbage. I’d forgotten to unlock the doorknob as we had a plumber come in to fix a bathtub incident that day. In a daze the door slammed behind me and by the time I realized the door was locked, my own private hell had broken loose. On the stove was a pot filled with water, the gas light on. The plan was pasta, not leaving my keys inside the apartment.

There I was, standing in the middle of the hallway, swearing under my breath, “Oh shit!”

20130314_201638I took the elevator down only to find the lobby empty. Where are the security guards when you need them? I rode the elevator back up and knocked on Stack’s door.

Through a tiny opening she stared at me, “What happened now?”

I stood there silently as this may have been the first time I’d ever knocked on her door. It felt strange.

“Speak up sonny, I’m not here to schmooze,” she told me.

“I locked myself out and…”

As I continued, she opened the door, mumbled the word “figures” under her breath, let me in, and was dialing security. It was only the second time I’d been in her place. There was no dust, not a spec. No newspapers, magazines, strewn clothes anywhere, just a 60-inch flat screen that looked like one giant piece of glass. At one point I thought about emptying a bag of chips onto her floor, and then eating them in front of her.

Still on the phone she turned to me and wanted to know, “Hey, hot shot, what letter are you in?”

I stared dumb founded.

“I guess the drugs have kicked in?” she asked.

Then I realized and smiled. “Oh, letter, OK, E.”

She hung up, plopped herself down on the other couch, threw her legs over the top and sighed, “So, what’s your poison, dude?”

I wasn’t thirsty so we sat and made small talk until security arrived. He opened my door and I immediately unlocked my doorknob as Stack and Mr. Security stood in her doorway and flirted. I scampered back into the kitchen and breathed a sigh of relief as the pot of water had just started to boil.

Stack had a 6’5” firefighter boyfriend for fourteen years. That’s right, fourteen years. No marriage, no kids, fourteen years. Talk about longevity. I’m not sure what ladder he affiliated himself with, but for some reason he was always here, and not out hosing down a luncheonette somewhere. The firefighter had size 18 shoes. They weren’t shoes really, they were muddy clodhoppers. They took up the entire welcome mat. We always knew when he was here. We saw the hoppers and heard his deep bass voice echoing from inside. I think I might have seen him twice. Both times he nodded. Several months passed and I hadn’t seen the big shoes or Stack in quite a long time. Ramona chewed my ear off one night and told me that Chloe and the firefighter were over. I guess there was no more spark. It’s been awhile since then and I rarely ever see Stack anymore. It’s sad because I miss her snide commentary.

 

20130314_201239“Choo Choo” Charlie crossed my mind the other day. I pictured him getting off the elevator with his 10-speed bike, wearing his psychedelic helmet and shorts. That’s right, shorts. He wore them even in the dead of winter. I’d see Charlie in the lobby or outside in sub-zero weather, there he was, in shorts, with his bike. That bike was Charlie’s life. I never saw him without it. But, what made Charlie so unique was that he didn’t work. He was a stay-at-home-Dad who took care of the kids, well, tried to. They used to run up and down the hallway and scream until all hours of the night and Charlie was summoned by his working wife to keep them under control. They’d play kickball, softball, dodgeball in the hallway. Their cackles were so loud our apartment door used to shake and balls used to crash into the wall just outside our door. I mean really, isn’t that what the great outdoors is for?                                                                                                                                                                                          Bicycles in Hallway

Charlie used to park his 10-speed in the hallway which was fine, until his working wife parked her bike next to his. Then one day as I got off of the elevator I saw the two bikes and a card table. The following day, a coffee table was thrown into the mix. Before long, half of their three-bedroom apartment was stashed at the end of the hallway. We were waiting for the book-shelves.

I said to my girlfriend Jan, “What the hell are they doing down there?”

They weren’t renovating. I mean, the guy didn’t work, so what was all of that shit doing in the hallway? And the shit kept moving, closer and closer to our door! I expected one day to come home and find good ol’ Chuck just outside his door, in a recliner, smoking a stogie watching a football game on his sixty inch plasma that he hooked up to the ceiling. The kids didn’t care. They were chasing each other underneath tables and slamming into lamps. Even Chloe pulled me aside one day and said, “That family’s a fire hazard!” Then one day, it was all gone. I stood, stared, and wondered where all the junk went. Days turned into weeks. I ran into Ramona who told me that Charlie and his family were packing up and moving to Israel. The moving trucks came and good time Charlie and his bike were no longer around. The hallway was quiet.

It doesn’t end there. The cat fights from below are horrific. God only knows what these women are fighting about. Every night it seems the same two women step out into the darkness and bark at each other. I just hear voices. You’d think by now they’d have figured out who the father was. Sometimes I hear screams, like someone has slipped off a balcony and is hanging from an air conditioner for dear life. I rush to the window, but all I see are lamp lights and television screens across the way, inside other apartments. I don’t have any idea where these voices are coming from.

Marbles on a floorFor the past two days I’ve heard something drop on the floor above me which just happens to be my ceiling. I’m assuming it’s a marble. Why would someone drop a marble onto a wooden floor? Is that normal? Then the damn thing starts to roll and I’m following this thing with my ears. I’m up and walking across the apartment following a marble. Suddenly, it sounds as if the same marble careens off of a table and smacks itself into something. I’m in the bathroom shaking my head. Should I take a broom and bang on the ceiling? I mean, what the hell are they doing up there? How am I supposed to sit still? The other day I had to crank the volume on the television because two cop cars decided to chase their suspect down Amsterdam Avenue right outside my window. I couldn’t hear myself think. Then, out of nowhere, a moth and a dragonfly decided to battle it out on the kitchen light. I must have left the window open by accident. The dragonfly was as big as bird. It scared the shit out of me.

The other day, someone from our floor taped a note to several apartment doors. The writer bitched more than once that someone pulled down the metal handle and stuffed the garbage chute with an oversized bag, then walked away without making sure the bag slid down the chute. The concerned numbskull who penned this prose stated that if it continued, they would complain to management. They also said they’d tell the office that they’re living with a bunch of “pigs.” So, now I’m a pig living on the same floor as the devil. Only in New York.

Pig #1Devil #3

A Bus, the Park, and Other Things

As I drove into Cunningham Park that humid, overcast morning in Jamaica Estates, Queens, back in June of ‘07, my mind became lost in a maze of confusion. The entrance was a long windy narrow road that veered off of Union Turnpike. Trees to my right, gravel, and abandoned dusty    Cunningham Park #5parking lots with boulders to my left. I lowered the driver’s window and a maple syrup scent trickled into the car followed by a smoky after-taste of acorns. There was more than one fork in the road and no sign of life anywhere.  I thought to myself, “Where is the Berkshire Hills lot?” At the end of one quiet lane I saw a Greyhound bus in a large parking lot, it’s driver leaning up against the side thumbing through a magazine. I got out of my Camry and walked up to him.

“Hi, I’m looking for the buses to Berkshire Hills Emanuel Camps,”

His demeanor was quiet and brief.  “Berkshire, who?” he asked.

“The camp buses, is this the right lot?” I questioned.

“There’s eight of ‘em. What lot you lookin’ for?”

I sighed and said, “That’s why I’m asking you.”

Greyhound bus“This is Greyhound, no camp,” he stated.

I shook my head, took a deep breath, and started to walk back to the car.

“North side, or south side?” the driver yelled out.

“What?!” I asked.

“What side of the park is the bus on?” he wanted to know.

I waved and kindly thanked him.

“It’s OK, I’ll find it…somehow,” I informed him.

One month earlier, on the drive back to Long Island, Marlee, my daughter, informed me that she was going to sleep-away camp. The day camp she’d been attending for the last few years had only accepted campers up until the summer after fifth grade. Marlee was nearing the end of her sixth grade year when she sprung the news to me on the Northern State Parkway. At first I found it hard to believe, but after several minutes, the conversation turned serious.

“Sleep-away camp?” I questioned.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Who’s idea was that? I asked.

“Mommy’s,” she told me.

Camp Apollo“Mommy’s? What happened to Camp Apollo?” I asked.

“I’m too old,” she told me.

“Too old?!” I exclaimed.

“Why do you keep repeating everything?” she asked.

I went silent for a few seconds then glared at her.

“I can’t go past 5th grade with them,” she explained.

“You’re kidding me? And you’re going to sleep-away camp?”

“I guess,” she answered.

“For how many weeks?” I asked.

“I don’t know, mommy found it,” she revealed.

Berkshire Hills #2Marlee’s mother had surfed the internet for weeks looking for a reputable camp without speaking to me. A successful on-going task she’d done on her own without any confrontation. In other words, she went behind my back and figured I’d never find out. I’d been separated just over four years and our and conversations were rare. When we did speak I would try to hold our verbal sparring matches to the bare minimum by hanging up in the middle. She’d either relentlessly text me back, or leave voice mail messages asking for an immediate response. The subject of sleep-away camp never came up in any of our bitter altercations. My mind went into a frenzy.

“How could she go off to sleep-away camp now? She doesn’t even know anyone who’s going. What if she gets homesick?”                                           Lake Owego pic #2

Then I remembered my summers at Lake Owego, the sleep-away camp my parents signed me up for in Milford, PA at the age of nine. What were my parents thinking back then? Why did they send me away to summer camp at such a young age?

I had attended for the entire month of July, four summers in a row, and learned to be independent and self-sufficient very early. By the time I had graduated high school, the transition to college in the mid-west was easy. Only then did I realize that my parents had made the right decision. The thing that concerned me was being stuck with a bill from a camp I knew nothing about.

Marlee’s grandmother phoned me a few days later and apologized for not speaking with me sooner. She told me the director had already been phoned, the fee had been negotiated based on several underlying factors, and the deposit had already been sent. Then she told me the details. The camp was in an obscure area of upstate New York in a town that bordered Great Barrington, MA, called Copake. Marlee would be going for seven weeks, and the bus would leave from Cunningham Park in Queens at the very end of June. She gave me the director’s name, phone number and email address in case I had questions. On the day of departure, she and her husband would drive Marlee to the Park, and I would have to meet them there if I wanted to see her off. Marlee and I spoke the night before.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

“Why wouldn’t I?” I answered.

“No, really, are you?” she whined again.

“Yes,” I insisted.

“What time?” she wanted to know.

“What time, what?”

“What time will you be there?”

“The time that it says the buses will be arriving. It’s on their site,” I told her.

“Which is?”

“Listen, enough with the questions, when you get there, you’ll see me,”

“Fine,” she blurted out and then sighed into the receiver.

Cunningham Park  #4   I printed out mapquest’s most direct route and ventured into an area I was unfamiliar with. As I entered Queens, I rolled down the window at stop lights and asked other drivers if I was headed in the right direction. No one knew English, and the ones that did, shrugged their shoulders and had no idea what I was talking about. “Where am I?” I thought. I had a picture of this Park in my mind as some tiny field in a run-down neighborhood with a rusty swing set and damaged monkey bars.                                                                                                                                                                   Cinningham Park #6

Oddly enough, I stumbled upon an endless forest minutes later filled with miniature gardens, baseball fields, eateries, tennis courts, bicycle paths, and countless parking lots. I’d passed a sign at the entrance that said, “Welcome to Cunningham Park.” After weaving in and out of several narrow crossroads and entering the wrong lot more than once, I turned into a small unpaved area and saw kids in tank tops, sandals, and baseball hats, with their parents. “This has to be the right place,” I thought. Car doors had been opened and trunks popped. Duffle bags, suitcases, and large cardboard boxes were scattered everywhere. I sat and waited until the bus pulled in. Marlee and her grandparents came shortly after. Camp was officially in session. As the bus pulled away almost an hour later, I waved goodbye as she looked out the window, a sad but definitive moment. Visiting day was four weeks later. Jan, my girlfriend, Marlee, and I, spent the day in Great Barrington walking in and out of shops, and eating lunch at Friendly’s. Then we took a sneak peek at the campgrounds. It brought back memories.

One year later I had an idea.

“Hey Colin, you live in Jamaica Estates, right?” I asked him.

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m thinking of taking the subway to Cunningham Park this year rather than drive,” I told him.

“Really?”

Yeah, my car is rattling from all the wear and tear I’ve put on it lately. It doesn’t sound too good. Besides, I’ll save on gas, tolls, and mileage. My daughter leaves for camp in two weeks.”

“Good idea, it’s easy,” he said.

A colleague of mine lived a few blocks away from Cunningham Park and rode the subway every morning to downtown Manhattan. He said door to door it was 90 minutes. I’d be going the opposite way but thought, “Can’t be much different. That’s almost as long as it took me last year.” The bus was slated to leave at the same time, 7:30am, from the same beat-up parking lot. Colin had given me vague directions that I failed to write down, but simple enough that it would be a smooth commute. I’d leave myself enough time to catch a train from Herald Square at 34th St. that would take me directly to Jamaica (the last stop) and then I’d hop a bus to the Park. I tried to explain to Marlee that it was much easier for me to ride the subway than to worry about my car getting stuck, or other cars on the road. I could sit and read for an hour or listen to music. There would be less stress and no aggravation. The night before she left for camp we spoke.

“But Daddy, you said you’d would drive to…”

“When did I say that?” I asked her.

“You said,” she whined.

“I said what? I’m taking the subway and…”

“But why?”

“Why does it matter if I take the subway or drive?” I wanted to know.

“Because you won’t make it,”

“Why would you say that?”

“You won’t and…”

“Listen, I’ll be there, probably before you,” I told her.

“Ugh, bring gum and magazines then,” she nagged.

“What?”

“I want gum, and magazines so I can read on the bus,”

“Alright, fine,”

I had stepped onto the downtown subway in West Harlem the following morning at 6:05. My Harry Potter book magically opened up and I sunk my nose into the fine print. Within minutes I was riding the express train down to Times Square. Ten minutes after that I wandered through the Herald Square station looking for the F train uptown to Queens.

I thought, “I should have done this last year. I’m so ahead of schedule.”                                                                                                                                       F train #3

On the F train platform, I couldn’t remember where Colin had told me to stand. Bits and pieces of his endless drivel floated in my head. If only I had paid more attention to his random chatter. His voice echoed inside my subconscious.

“When you get to the F, make sure you’re in the last car and ride that to the end…When you get to the F, make sure you’re in the first car and ride it to the end…When you get to the F, make sure you ride it to the end…”

I started talking to myself. My thoughts became scattered and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I paced back and forth, waiting, not knowing, which direction this train would be coming from, or where to position myself on the platform. My cell phone clock read 6:25, almost an hour to get to the Park. The bus would drop me at the entrance and I’d walk and somehow find the lot. Several minutes later I calmly sat on an air-conditioned F train anticipating a smooth ride. I got on somewhere in the middle and glanced up at the electric subway stops near the top of the wall and counted “14” stops until Jamaica. It was 6:35.

“This is the train to Jamaica, the next stop is Parsons Boulevard.” I peeked at the time. It was 7:10 and I was still sitting on the F train with two stops to go. The anxiety built in my system. I felt a wave of stomach cramps but knew that once I was on the bus to the Park, they’d go away. At the Jamaica station, I darted up the closest stairwell to the outside, looked left, then right, and couldn’t locate the bus stop. I saw a small crowd of people gathered in one area and asked someone where the Q17 bus stopped. Someone smiled and said “here,” and I quietly let out a sigh of relief. When I glanced at the time it was 7:17.                                                         Stress Pic

The Q17 pulled up and before I dropped my metrocard into the slot I asked the bus driver,

“You go to Cunningham Park, right?”

He gave me a blank stare. The passengers weren’t paying attention as I asked again.

“Cunningham Park, right?”

“Union Turnpike, not Cunningham Park.” he nodded sideways.

Q17 #1I stumbled over my words. “My friend is, lives a few blocks away. He told me that you go, uh, that this bus goes right to Cunningham Park.” I explained.

He stared, said nothing, then shook his head “not this bus.”

I got off and waited on the sidewalk without a clue. Two minutes later the Q36 pulled up. The bus driver shook his head. When the second Q17 driver told me that no line goes directly to the Park, I felt nauseas. My chest clamped up and I couldn’t breathe. Mild dizziness set in and I began to panic. My cell phone rang at 7:24. I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them.

“Daddy, are you almost here?”

“Hang on cookie, just a few more minutes,”

“The lady bus driver said she’s leaving in five minutes,”

“Oh God, tell her to wait, please.” I begged.

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I’m here, in Queens,”

“Ugh, so, how much longer?”

“I’m not sure how I…”

As I was speaking with Marlee someone tapped me on the back. I turned and saw a short black-haired Asian woman in a tight black dress and high heels. She carried a handbag and pointed down the block.

“Excuse me?” I asked her.

“Daddy?” Marlee continued to talk.

I took the phone away from my ear for a second and questioned the Asian woman.

“What?”

“You need taxi?” she asked me.

Taxi pic“Taxi? Here?”

“Yes, down block, taxi,” and pointed to a place down the street.

“Marlee, let me call you back,” I told her.

“But Daddy, the bus is gonna leave,” she moaned.

“Hang on, tell her to please, hang on,”

I made a mad dash in the direction of this lady’s index finger and within a minute a half, found myself at a taxi stand telling a driver I needed to get to Cunningham Park in a hurry. “Two minutes,” he told me. He puttered onto 179th St. and within seconds was giving me a tour of some of School Bus with kidsthe most expensive homes in the nation. “That’s nice, that’s nice, please, faster.” He crept along as if he was a tour guide and I was his out-of-state tourist seeking approval. When we hit Union Turnpike it all looked familiar. He circled into the lot in the midst of a hundred parents and friends. The astonished look on their faces was priceless. I felt like a rock star boarding the bus before my 52 date east coast tour. I paid him, thanked him, and jumped out. I hopped onto the bus and noticed that every camper had boarded. The lady bus driver was perched in her comfort zone with the motor running. It felt as if the wind had been knocked from me as I traipsed down the aisle toward Marlee.

“I made it cookie. Do I ever let you down?” I said catching my breath.

“Hi Daddy!”

I opened the knapsack and handed her a package of chewing gum and three magazines.

I leaned down, gave her a hug, kissed her, and told her we’d see her in a few weeks on visiting day. I expected a round of applause but instead they all glared at me as if I was some famous celebrity. As soon as I stepped off the bus, it pulled out. “Another twist of fate,” I thought as I stood in a daze and watched as the Berkshire Hills carriage left that dirty lot. My cell phone clock read 7:40. Under my breath I stared into space and said, “Thank you.”

A few minutes later, my ex offered to drive me back to the F train. I opted against ten minutes of meaningless babble and wanted to walk and listen to my itouch. It was far, but in the moment, I didn’t care. As a Dad, I had crossed the finish line with pride and dignity, scored the winning goal, sunk the winning basket. With my headset in, the Cowsills played on.  I’ve never really considered myself a rock star. In Marlee’s mind that morning, I wasn’t anything else.

Cowsills....Marlee and Me #2Barrington Brewery

Something Special

Tom and Jan #5I remember the night I messaged her on jdate, The day before Memorial Day. May 30th, 2004.

I remember that first date at Henry’s on 105th and Broadway, in the city. June 5th, 2004. She told me she was a licensed massage therapist. I told her I was an institutional bond salesman. She thought I was a bail bondsman.

I remember when she told me that her birthday was 2 days before mine.

I remember when the waiters removed the metal fence surrounding our outside table at Deluxe, on the UWS, as we were eating dessert. They were closing up for the night. We laughed.

I remember the first kiss outside of the entrance to the apartment building.

I still remember the taxi ride down to Penn Station, and the LIRR ride home.

I remember calling my parents and telling them that I had finally found my soul mate, for real this time.

I remember when she called me to tell me she loved the flowers. Delivery wasn’t until the end of the day. The florist got lost. Thought the flowers were going to Johnny Brick on Carlisle St. We still get a good laugh from that one.

I remember that 2nd date in Central Park. It was on a Friday afternoon. I had brought a shopping bag filled with wine, cheese, and beer.

I remember that third date at the Heartland Brewery. I got to Times Square early and hung out at the Times Square Brewery which no longer exists.

I remember when I saw her apartment for the first time. I stayed until 2AM and then had to drive back to Long Island. There was no staying over.

I remember parking my car on Riverside Drive and walking to LaSalle St. It’s a wonder my car never got towed.

I remember calling my friends and my sister in NJ, “Listen can Marlee sleep at your house this weekend? I’ve got another date with Janice.” Tom and Jan #10After four weekends I had no one else to call.

I remember the July 4th BBQ at Robin & Steve Kushner’s house in Manalopin, NJ. That was the first night I stayed over at the now infamous Club 13E.

I remember the 5th date at the 79th St. Boat Basin. She handed me the key to the apartment.

I remember our first movie: The Notebook. She cried all the way through it.

I remember that trip to Fire Island on the 31st of July. We were much older than everyone else. I don’t think they knew.

I remember the day we drove to Rockaway, NJ to meet my parents.

I remember the day she met 9 year old Marlee. Marlee wanted to play hide and seek at the Harlem Street Festival.

I remember going back to Henry’s celebrating my 42nd birthday.

I remember when her friends Tamar & Lisa took us out for our birthdays. Uncontrollable laughs and a ton of inside jokes. I didn’t mind. They were her friends and I was glad she was having fun.

20130213_202042I remember canoeing in Central Park the week after Labor Day and listening to the Guitar Man.

I remember the day we agreed that I would move in to #13E. I was staying over at least 2-3 times a week by this point. We agreed on a trial run.

I remember our 2nd and 3rd movies: Sideways & Ray.

I remember our first Thanksgiving in NJ. Marlee was with us. When we got back to the apartment, she locked herself in the bathroom with the remote.

I remember that first Chanukah when I took Marlee to see “Christmas With the Cranks” during the day while she took a nap.

I remember driving to Roosevelt, NY to tell my friend Andrew, the guy that I was living with, that I’d be officially moving to NYC. We picked up the rest of my things.

I remember our 4th and 5th movie: Closer & Million Dollar Baby.

I remember our first New Year’s Eve in NJ, at the Knights of Columbus Hall, with my friends George & Alex and Robin & Steve.

I remember closing out the P.O. Box in the Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City and letting everyone know that I was now a resident of NYC. That was January of ’05.

I remember our 1st trip to Florida to meet her family. January 13th to the 16th of ’05. We met her 11 year old nephew, Jeremy, for the first time. ItTom and Jan #1 was the first time I’d ever been to Boynton Beach.

I remember when my sister and brother-in-law Steve came into the city. We went for a memorable dinner of Japanese at Kinoko on 72nd and Broadway. It no longer exists.

I remember going away on business to Arizona the first week of April of ’05. It was the first time we’d been apart. It was difficult, but we made it through.

I remember telling her about Marlee’s first play. She couldn’t make it. The Who’s “Tommy.” Marlee was in 4th grade and was in the ensemble. What a production.

I remember our first Passover at my parent’s apartment in April of ’05.

I remember us swimming at Marlee’s 10th birthday party at the Best Western in Fairfield, NJ. It was a pool party.

I remember the Memorial Day parade in Wayne, NJ on Valley Road. We sat in the hot sun and reminisced about what had happened one year earlier.

It’s difficult to describe how much my life has changed over the past nine years. I’ve had to battle through the NJ nightclub scene, travel a few hundred miles to the Catskill Mountains and back, fight through traffic on the LIE and Northern State, only to find the love of my life right here in the Big Apple.                                                                                                Tom, Jan, and Marlee #1

In doing so, I’ve witnessed some very memorable moments:

Tomand Jan #11Like the time fearless Jan proceeded to argue with a very overweight woman on the #1 train downtown. The oversized buxom was peddling $ from men in order to feed her friend. Jan became outraged while I just sat and couldn’t care less. The brew ha-ha became heated but Jan won!

Then there was the time anxious Jan went to hail a cab on Lexington Avenue after my Christmas party in 2006. Unbeknownst to her I was right behind her and got a finger in the eye. The contact lens popped out. She felt so terrible she got down on the pavement in her dress and high heels and hunted til she found the lens. Simply incredible.

One of my favorite ones is the time Jan, Marlee, and I went to see The Incredibles on opening night. During the previews, Jan spilled an entire bag of popcorn on the floor. Til this day, Marlee still jokes about it.

And the other time on the number 1 train. This time it was around 1AM. A burly obnoxious guy was taunting a drunkard sitting next to him. The drunkard had been annoying two women a few minutes before, throwing things at them from where he was sitting. The burly man took out a $100 bill, waved it in front of the drunkard and yelled, “I bet you $100 dolla-s you can’t woop my ass!” Jan immediately stood up in front of a tired and non-caring crowd and said to me, “I’m going over to say something.” My response, “SIT DOWN before you get your ass kicked in!” You gotta love her heart.

Or the time when Jan and Marlee walked into the ladies room in a restaurant. Jan went into one stall, Marlee another. Marlee got done first and came out to where we were sitting. Thinking Marlee was still in the bathroom, after Jan finished up, she bent down and started making funny hand gestures underneath the door in the stall Marlee was in, only Marlee wasn’t in the stall. Pretty embarrassing to see the look on Jan’s face when she walked out into the restaurant and saw Marlee.

You may or may not remember the time Jan got stuck in an elevator on Park and 95th for 2 hours! I kept updating my status on Facebook as she texted me. She had been massaging a client and stepped into an empty elevator at around 11:15 pm. I got a text at 11:30 from her letting me know she was stuck. The texts came every 20 minutes. By 1:15AM she was out. I had almost left the apartment to assist the repairmen. She remained calm until they pulled her out.

Can’t forget the time that Marlee got sick on the NJ Transit going from Fairfield, NJ into the Port Authority. It was a tad repulsive to say the least. Courageous Jan ran Marlee into the ladies room when we arrived in the terminal and cleaned her up. She went beyond that extra mile.

Together we…                                                                                                 Tom and Jan #8

have experienced the Florida weather, enjoyed the Jersey Shore, stomped it up at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, dined at over 150 restaurants, seen over 100 movies in the theater, gave standing ovations at the conclusion of Billy Elliot, Hair, and Mary Poppins on Broadway, admired Joshua Bell at the NY Philharmonic, have not only cheered at many a Yankee game, but have gotten the tour of Yankee Stadium, went wild at our only Knick game with our friends Xiomara & Sergio, took Marlee to her very first acting class in early 2005 and stayed there while she cried the entire time, have been front row at Marlee’s 4th grade graduation, 8th grade graduation, and every play she’s ever been in, rejoiced in family bar-mitvah’s (4), Marlee’s Sweet 16, painted the town of Great Barrington, MA 5 summers in a row on Marlee’s visiting day at camp in upstate NY, met Goldie Hawn, watch our favorite sitcoms Seinfeld, Friends, and Two and a Half Men almost every night, actually gave up Christina Park on Fox 5, in favor of Kaity Tong and the crew on Pix 11, worship our favorite television series Parenthood, as well as Girls and Enlightened, have fallen asleep on the brown couch, have entertained friends and family in Club 13E, have been back to Henry’s…

On this Valentine’s Day in 2013 I’m wishing my best friend and beautiful partner the BEST day ever. Thank you for being there through the good and bad, happy and sad. Your support in everything I’ve done makes life so much better. I love you, always. I’ve had the time of my life………….

Now it’s time for Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, a Dylan song, a NY Times book review, and then… a nap :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StcykXKBHTs

 

                                                                                                                                 Heart #4

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Good Time

“Are you done?” I asked her from the kitchen.  “Marlee, answer me, are you done?”

Girl brushing hairMy daughter, Marlee stood in front of the full length mirror, brushing and flipping her hair from side to side, ignoring me.

“Let’s try this again,” I suggested. “How much longer do you need? We’re only going downtown. It looks fine.”

“You’re just saying that,” she answered.

I sighed and shook my head in disgust.

“I’m getting my shoes on because I need to go outside and get some air. It’s exhausting watching this.”

“No, don’t leave!” she exclaimed.

“You’ve been doodling with your hair for an hour,” I moaned. “It’s time to go.”

“What time does the boat leave?” she asked.Statue Cruises

“It’s not a boat, it’s a ferry, and it’s leaving any minute now.”

I looked at the clock.

“In fact, the last boat left five minutes ago. It looks like it’s another weekend with Hanna Montana.”

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“I’m kidding,” I told her.

“You’re strange,” she commented. “What if we miss the boat?”

“Then we’ll find something else to do,” I told her.

“You always say that and we end up doing nothing,” she whined, pinning her hair back into a ponytail.

September 2nd, 2007, the day before Labor Day. Marlee had returned from her first summer at sleepaway camp in upstate New York the previous week. I’d promised her we’d have fun this Labor Day weekend, her first full weekend back from the wilderness. Every other weekend during the year, we’d go through the same routine. On Friday afternoons, I’d fight the traffic to pick her up on Long Island and bring her to Manhattan. Then we’d have Chinese food delivered, and before long I’d be dozing off to Miley Cyrus singing “Best of Both Worlds,” and waking Hannah Montanaup to Kyle Massey belting out the “Cory in the House” theme song. The smell of lo mein and kung po chicken would reek so bad I’d have to open every window. She’d never notice that I’d cleaned up and aired out any residual odor. On Saturdays, she would sleep until 2 in the afternoon, get up and watch more Disney until it was time for me to take four aspirin with another take out order. Sundays were my opportunity to sneak in a Yankee game on the YES Network while she slept. Shortly after she’d wake up, I’d have to drive her home. Weekends with Marlee had turned into an endless sitcom marathon.

When she had told me that she wanted to go to the Statue of Liberty, I was surprised.

“Really?” I asked her that night on her cell phone.

110_F_35317477_rBXXvERFrfQoIylzsNOyuJaabv8S9WYq “My friend went with her Dad and she said it was really cool,” she answered.

“Which friend?” I remarked.

“You don’t know her,” she replied.

“Must you give me a difficult time?” I asked her. “Maybe I do know who she is. Did you ever think of that?”

“Not really,” she replied.

I told her that the journey would be quite far and she would need to wake up early and shower. We would have breakfast at a diner near the apartment, and then head off for Lady Liberty right after. It would be a full day of sightseeing and picture taking. We’d sniff in the salty air and wander in and out of souvenir shops.

Even though I’d been a resident of New York for years, I was determined to blend in as a tourist as though I’d never seen this Lady before. The last time I’d even had a glimpse of this landmark up close was on an elementary school field trip back in the 60’s. On the bus that day, my third grade friends kept calling her torch lady. I giggled with them and had no idea what was so great about a green lady with spikes in her hat. Four decades later, that green lady was still an American icon, a symbol of freedom, visited by millions of people from around the world. Some, like Marlee, would be seeing her in person for the first time.

12 O'clock noon  Marlee woke up at noon. I had tried ripping the covers off of her at ten. She rolled over. At 10:30, I hovered over her and sang “America the Beautiful.”  She whined and told me to “shut up.” At eleven, I poked her a few times. The end result was a slap on my leg. I shook my head and thought to myself in disappointment, “Another wasted sunny visitation weekend in New York.” At noon, from the kitchen, I had heard voices. Zach and Cody Martin and their Suite Life had entered our studio. Marlee was fixated. It was as if the remote had been under her pillow all night. She strolled into the kitchen at 12:30.

“Are we still going to the diner?” she asked.

“Diner?!” I yelled shaking my head. “Do you know what time it is?”

She sat down on our light purple suede kitchen chair and said nothing.

“If you’d still like to see the Statue, I suggest a shower, now!” I reprimanded.

She stared at me.

“Now!” I screamed.

“That’s not fair,” she groaned, slowly shuffling towards the bathroom.

“Sometimes, life isn’t fair,” I told her.

By 1:30, her light blue and green Junior Mints shirt had been pulled over her head. The hour long blow drying escapade was almost finished. The day’s itinerary was slowly drifting into another time zone.

“The last ferry leaves at 4:30,” I told her. “It’s 2 o’clock now. We may not make it.”

“How do you know?” she asked me.

“I just called and got a recording,” I told her.

“You promised Daddy,” she answered.

“If we leave now, we may have a chance, otherwise, we’ll have to do something else.” I explained.

She sighed and with reluctance said, “Fine.”

By the time we rode the elevator down to the lobby of the building it was 2:30. A warm breeze splashed our faces in the mid-day sun as we headed for the subway. I was wearing my cut-off New York Yankees t-shirt, jeans, and black Timberland Smart Comfort shoes. Marlee followed in her summer attire seeming anxious, yet annoyed that I’d quickly outpaced her.

Several hundred feet from the entrance to the escalator leading up to the subway platform at 125th St., I felt a rush of anxiety shoot through my system. What if we didn’t make it? What’s Marlee going to tell her friends? I could hear her on the phone. “Yeah, my Daddy really sucks. He said we would see the Statue of Liberty, but, I don’t know, we didn’t.”  Kids, especially girls, talk in code. They’ll know how to unravel that sentence. “Oh, Marlee, I feel so bad for you, poor girl.” The voices faded in and out of my subconscious.

I took a few deep breaths and turned around to see Marlee running towards me and yelling, “Daddy, why are you walking so fast?!”

“Do you want to see the Statue?!”  I snapped.

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Well, walking like a snail is not going to get us there,” I told her.

With an angry glare she blurted out, “You’re mean.”

“I’m mean. Who told you to get up at noon?” I barked.

We dashed up the escalator, through the turnstile, and hurried up the stairs hoping we’d see the next train barreling its way down the tracks #1 train pic #1into our station. The platform was empty. No sight or sound of a subway. I paced while Marlee sat on a wooden bench. Sweat dripped off my forehead and into my eyebrows. My eyelashes itched. The inside of my mouth was dry. I took off my sunglasses, wiped my eyelids and sunglass lenses with my t-shirt, and paced some more. I’d become edgy. My cell phone clock read 2:45.

“When is it coming?” she wanted to know.

“If I knew I would tell you,” I answered.

“How do you not know?” she asked.

Father and daughterI stood in silence for a few seconds shaking my head.

“How about if I jump onto the tracks right now and let you know if I see anything?”  I asked her.

“You’re so weird,” she responded.

“Do you realize I’m trying to get us there in time, so we can see the Statue?” I ranted throwing my arms up in the air.

She rolled her eyes, cleared her throat, and in a low voice uttered, “Whatever.”

The #1 train slowly made its way down the tracks, rolling into our station at 2:55. We’d take the subway four stops to 96th St., then grab the #2, or #3 express train across the platform and ride it downtown five stops to Chambers St. There, we would get off, cross the platform, and hop back onto the #1 again, taking it one stop to Rector St. From there we’d make a beeline for Battery Park. In my estimation, that was the most direct route. We’d have just enough time to buy the tickets, grab something to eat, and catch the ferry.

Marlee took out her ipod earphones the minute we entered the chilly subway car, stuck them into her ears, and dove into her musical abyss. I reached into my Met Food plastic bag, which housed my travel items, and pulled out Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a book I’d been reading for some time.

96th St At 96th St., an announcement came over the loudspeaker.

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to construction, the #2, and #3 trains will be making all local stops down to 14th St. There are no express trains running today.”

It was 3:10. We’d have to sit on this #1 train the entire time. I closed the book, never said a word, and hoped for the best. Marlee glanced at me mouthing the words to a song. At 42nd St., the same pre-recorded voice spoke again.

“Ladies and Gentleman, we are being held momentarily because of train traffic up ahead. Please be patient.”

We sat and waited. The subway doors remained open. We sat and waited some more. I put my hands in my face, slid my fingers through my hair, shook my head and thought, “C’mon subway, move, please. I’ve got a ferry to catch.”  Harry Potter slid back into its bag. The time, 3:30.

Marlee took out one earphone and asked, “How much longer?”

“A few more stops,” I said nodding.

When we finally hit the Rector St. station I was relieved. We darted up the stairs, crossed Trinity St. and headed over to Broadway. Marlee trailed behind.

“C’mon, let’s go!”  I hollered down to her.

“What’s wrong with you?!  Why are you hurrying like this?” she yelled out.

“It’s almost 4 o’clock!” I shouted.

“So,” she replied.

“So?” I hammered. “Maybe we should just go back home. I’ve had enough of this day,” I told her.

“No, I want the Statue,” she answered.

We entered Battery Park and in a somewhat calm disposition, I hunted for signs that read “Statue of Liberty.” Different crowds had gathered for certain events. It was all unknown territory for me. I had stopped and asked a few people where the ferry departed from. Some stared at me and shrugged. Others shook their heads. I thought to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  Where was the ticket booth and line for the Statue of Battery Park #2Liberty?”  My eyes began to water creating a film over my contact lenses and my vision became distorted. I had to blink a few times and calm my nerves. Deeper into the park I saw a sign that read, “Tickets for Statue of Liberty Cruises” with an arrow. We hurried to the ticket booth. The line was wrapped around the building several times. Hundreds of people were waiting for tickets. At 4:10 we quickly entered the line. The minutes ticked. We stood, stared ahead, and waited in the humidity. The line didn’t move. More time passed. Then a security guard dressed in a light blue button down shirt, black pants, and a hat addressed the crowd.

“The last ferry out leaves the dock in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes, folks, last ferry out. A few tickets remain. Those waiting will have to come back another day.”

I glanced over at Marlee. She had tears running down her face. Then she hiccupped.

“Marlee, what happened?!” I asked her.

“I wanted, (hiccup) to see (hiccup) the Statue. You promised, (hiccup)” she cried.

I squatted down and looked at her in the face and whispered, “Listen, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a Statue. It’ll always be here. Let’s get up real early tomorrow and come back. We tried, Cookie. I did the best I could.”

I felt terrible. Her tears and hiccups were now uncontrollable.

“But, I wanted (hiccup) to see the Statue (hiccup) today, Daddy,” she wept.

“So did I, Cookie, so did I,” I said.

Battery Park #4 It was 4:15PM. The line hadn’t moved. Marlee was quietly hysterical. We would have to head for home shortly. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I turned to see a young, middle-aged blonde woman standing next to me with her daughter.

In a southern accent she asked me, “Are you here with your daughter?”

“Yes, why?”

“We’ve got two tickets to see the Statue, but, unfortunately we can’t go. Would you like to buy mine?”

People on the line stared at us. I looked around and made sure this wasn’t some television stunt. “Are you serious?” I questioned.

“The tickets are good. We purchased them earlier today. We can’t go due to our schedule. You can just give me face value,” she said.

I gave her $40. She handed me the tickets. I thanked her. A sobbing Marlee tried to smile. In seconds, the woman and her daughter were gone. What had happened? It was surreal. The time, 4:20.  We dashed from the ticket line, hopped onto the ferry line, and looked behind us. No one. We were the last passengers to board. The ferry pulled out promptly at 4:30. We had managed the impossible. Marlee saw the Statue for the first time and I breathed a sigh of relief. It was a memorable day.

On the way to Long Island the following day, Marlee reached down from her passenger seat, unzipped her duffle bag, and pulled out the framed picture of her and me standing in front of a gray metal fence. Behind us, the Statue of Liberty, beneath a light blue clouded sky. We’re20130208_175856 both smiling for the camera. She clutched the picture.

“Daddy?” she asked.

“Yeah, Cookie?

“You did it. We saw the Statue. It was so great. I had so much fun,” she smiled.

“I did too,” I told her.

“I love you Daddy,” she said.

“Love you too, Cookie,” I mentioned.

With that, we cranked up our favorite Radio Disney song, and in unison we sang. “It’s the best of both worlds, chill it out take it slow, then you’ll rock out the show…”

After dropping Marlee off, I replayed that tap on my shoulder in my mind over and over. It occurred to me what an amazing daughter I have. Once we had entered the subway, she never complained, asked me about the time, or whether or not we’d make it on that ferry. Deep down she knew. She had absolute faith that dear ol’ Dad would come through. Whether it was by some twist of fate or an act of God, we were destined to get onto the ferry that day and I was the hero of a 12-year-old girl. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.