What are the Odds?

“…Smarty Jones has a four-length lead, Birdstone is moving to be second on the outside…”

Inside the ESPN Zone that night on 7th Avenue and 42nd St., suds flowed, fists pounded the bar, and people cheered. A candied cigar scent floated in from the few scrappy OTB’rs who vied for a little more upscale ruckus. This last leg of the Triple Crown was packed with guzzlers and first-timers ready to witness history. The Belmont Stakes announcer sounded like he was caught in an oxygen tank trying to breathe, excited from anticipation. The volume seemed louder with every inhale.

“…Rock Hard Ten is back to third, and Smarty Jones enters the stretch to a roar of a hundred and twenty thousand…”

Glued to the giant screen above the bar, I stood with a beer, and watched a horse I had known nothing about days earlier make it look easy. Inside, my adrenaline was bubbling for this horse to run faster and faster. I imagined a roar from this restless crowd as Smarty Jones crossed the finish line with a victory. I held my breath.

“…but Birdstone is gonna make him earn it today, the whip is out on Smarty Jones, it’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong away…”

When the race ended, I placed my empty beer glass on the bar and inched my way back to the men’s room. Diehard racing fans stumbled past me out onto a congested sidewalk into the heart of a humid Times Square. A minute or so after the photo finish, the Mets game was flicked on. Jeers and cheers from an anxious crowd filled the sports pub. Several other wide screen plasmas played highlights from old NFL games. This early June night back in ’04 was just getting started. As I stood at the urinal, a tall man in an untucked light blue button down and moccasins turned his head to me and said,

“Some race, huh?”

“A nail-biter,” I replied shaking my head.

“The odds were so in his favor,” the man nodded.

“They were,” I agreed shaking my head.

      In our brief encounter, he mentioned his obsession with jockeys and statistical equestrian jargon. Before long, I’d nicknamed him Lucky Dan, a southerner who’d flown in from Baton Rouge to take a poke at the city and swim in the glory of its neon lights, if only for a race. In a despondent state at the bar he told me that he’d left his wife weeks earlier after her admitted affair. His two young children were home with family. We threw back a shot of whiskey and talked about our marital woes. Then I had to leave to meet a woman. Unsure what watering hole he’d end up in next, he winked and shook my hand. Lucky Dan was a positive chap ready to muster up a night of booze and beautiful women.

“Are you with me?” he slurred in a southern twang.

“Not tonight, my friend,” I told him.

“Come out to Rouge, we’ll jazz the night and…”

His voice faded as I wandered into the street.

I’d hopped onto an LIRR train and rode it from Hicksville, Long Island to Penn Station a few hours earlier to meet Janice, a city woman I’d seen only in a picture and heard briefly on the phone. We’d met online the day before Memorial Day and in-between her sharp wit, and my snappy comebacks, we agreed to meet for dinner the following Saturday.

Over the past year, the dating scene for me had been a B-rated romantic comedy-with-a bad-ending. Most of my dozen weeknight one-act escapades were with strange, dense, self-absorbed divorcees, in my opinion, cashing in on a few hours of relentless self-pity. One had even gabbed with me for six months via phone and instant message and had never wanted to meet. She’d gone so far to remark, “I’m not ready yet, but I’m close.” Another woman yakked with me for four weeks without taking a breath. The night before our first date she called and cancelled. “Tom, I’m orthodox and, well, it wouldn’t be right. You knew that going in.” My response to that was, “And you just figured this out now, tonight?”  Two minutes later, I deleted Rebecca The Religious from my cell phone.

The night before, I’d driven into the city to meet a red-haired personal trainer named Mindy at Café Luxembourg, on 70th and Broadway, who immediately explained that our pheromones were incompatible.

“I can’t feel a signal,” she told me.

“Signal?” I asked.

“Our pheromones, Tom, when our eyes met…”

“Wait. Phera what?” I asked.

“Pheromones. I couldn’t feel the sexual sweat that…”

“Sexual sweat?”

“The erotic matching scent of our skin soaking up…”

“Scent? I’ve known you five minutes.” I interrupted.

It was a Friday night chemistry experiment that ended early with a slab of steak tartar, a handshake, and a soft pat on the back. Deep inside, I knew that this Streisand-like audacious narcissist would again make the archives.

Times Square Subway #1      I shuffled through sewer lid steam on 7th Avenue and sniffed my way past the salty smell of pretzel carts and mouth-watering hot dog stands. I’d even elbowed my way through the bustling crowd to find the subway stairs at 42nd, but was unsure which train Janice had mentioned would take me to my stop uptown. There was the local 1 and 9, the 2 and 3 express, and an army of people with cameras hanging around their necks on the subway station booth line looking just as confused. A bit light-headed from the beer, I sauntered through the turnstile, hoping my conversation with Janice from a few nights earlier would jar my memory. That’s when I heard the piano.

Three steps down, in the center of the concourse a young boy crouched on a stool behind a keyboard. He wore a thin black tie loosened at the neck over a white button down. His red polka dot suspenders were strapped over his shoulders and a pair of wire frames rounded out his appearance. A navy sport jacket was draped over a small director’s chair on the side. A crowd of twenty or so snapped, tapped, and wiggled. “The Entertainer” was spot on. On the ground next to the keyboard was a white plastic bucket filled with dollar bills and coins. In back of him were two stocky men with hats who stood guard while Kid Wonder’s eyes stayed glued to those sticks of ivory. I smiled and thought to myself as my eyes met these strangers, “I love this place.”  When he stopped, the diehards beckoned for an encore. Some stayed as he segued into a much slower song. The piece sounded familiar but my attention soon wandered off into the direction of a noisy subway.

The heat was so thick on the platform that I found it difficult to breathe. My stomach began to cramp and the jitters set in. In one hour I’d be eating dinner with another online stranger. “How long can I keep doing this?” I thought to myself. I remembered the Larchmont woman from 9 months earlier I’d dubbed Debbie Delayed. Her sense of direction the night we met was somewhat off kilter. She showed up 90 minutes late for our date and insisted that mapquest was “technically” in the wrong. The amusing side note to this disaster was that the restaurant was in Larchmont. Then she double parked in front of the pub, jumped out, and flagged me down on the sidewalk where I’d been yukking it up with the bar crowd to let me know she had made it. I was too blitzed by that point to even care. In my mind, that night was over before it started. I had hoped this wasn’t a repeat.

“Excuse me, does this train go uptown?” I asked a man sitting beside me on the #1 train.  I thought to myself, “The sign did say ‘uptown’ so why am I leaning into a scruffy overweight black man with a cigarette stench on a train going in the right direction?”

That was when I started to doubt myself. Fifteen months earlier in Bellmore, I’d walked out of a dysfunctional marriage just shy of nine years, leaving a seven-year-old daughter without a Dad for a short time. In between then and now, the many female acquaintances I courted never lasted. My life had been a rollercoaster of demented drama in the midst of getting settled and trying to find my soul mate.

“Where you looking to go?”

“105th St.”

He nodded and replied, “You on the right train.”

“It stops at 105th?”

“A hundred and third,” he answered.

“Thanks.”

Jolly Roger smiled and eventually dozed off as I sat in deep thought. I’d phoned Janice the day after our chat. It was an overcast Memorial Day. Dark clouds and raindrops had replaced a clear sky and sun. I’d taken my daughter to the parade in my hometown of Wayne and then swung by the local town hall for the annual two star buffet. A few minutes after arriving, I was outside dialing her number.  Not too over confident I muttered, “Here we go again.”

“Is this Janice?”

“Tom?”

“Right on schedule,” I joked.

“Are you busy?”

“Well, I’m standing outside of a VFW hall in a light drizzle with a plate of pasta in one hand and…”

Just then my daughter, Marlee, came bursting through the hall’s screen door and out onto the sidewalk.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

“Janice, can you hold on?”

I covered the receiver with my left hand.

“Marlee, what are you doing out here?”

“I wanna talk,”

“You can’t, go back inside, now! It’s the girl from the computer last night, remember?” I whispered.

“But you left me…”

“Janice, can you excuse me for a minute while I…”

“Is that your daughter?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You said in your message yesterday she was nine,”

“I did, didn’t I. Nine.”

“My favorite age. Can I talk to her?”

“You want to talk to her?”

“Sure.”

I jumped out of the subway at 103rd and Broadway just as the doors closed behind me. The late afternoon heat had crawled into my royal blue button down and sweat began to trickle down my back. To kill time I popped into the Mexican Deli and browsed, chugged a cold draft at Tap A Keg, swapped one-liners with the hostess at Toast, and then entered Henry’s at the corner of 105th and Broadway. Janice’s first recommendation had been a café called The Heights, seven blocks further. The Heights was a bit too loud, in her opinion, so she called me and asked if we could move our date to a quieter place.

“I like that white fence,” I told the hostess as I approached her stand and pointed to the tables outside.

She smiled and asked, “How many?”

“Is that part open?” I asked tilting my head toward the outdoors.

“Would you like to sit outside?”

I paused for a second. “I’ll grab a seat at the bar. I’m waiting for someone.”

It was my third tab in less than two hours. I slid onto a high stool and ordered a draft. Every coaster seemed to have the same pattern, every face looked the same. “Would the night end like this?” I thought as I dug into the small tin of party mix on the mahogany and launched into a daydream. My blurry cell phone clock seconds later said 10:15. I blinked, then blinked again. Debbie Delayed waved from the dimly lit front entrance. I slid off the stool and moved toward the red wood doors out onto the sidewalk. Debbie was gone. The beer in my hand had vanished. When I turned, Henry’s was a parking lot.

“Is something the matta?” she asked.

To my left was an attractive young woman in a beige blouse with the sleeves turned up. Several inches from her eyes was a magazine she seemed to be reading. I noticed her thin light-brown hair in a bun and crossed legs. She glanced over the page at me and delicately plucked an onion ring from her oversized martini glass.

“Nah, I’m good,” I nodded.

“You weh starin’ into space,” she said.

“Where you from, London?”

“Britain”

I smirked, shook my head, and took a sip.

I never caught her name but she reminded me of Diane Keaton’s character Theresa Dunn in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, only a bit more subdued. She was a slender gal with little jewelry and flat shoes. Her boyfriend was stationed somewhere overseas and every now and then her buds would thirst for some quality Upper West Side grub, so she told me.

“Some race earlier, huh?”

“Race?”

“Smarty Jones,” I explained.

“I’m not one for the horses, but I heh’d it was excitin’. Ya hee with someone?” she asked.

“Blind date, waiting, for a blind date,” I told her.

“That’s always gobs of fun.”

I thought, “Maybe I should get Theresa’s number in case Janice didn’t work out. But, what if it did, then what? I’d feel guilty. She’d understand, right? We didn’t exchange names so once Janice comes, we’ll bid farewell. But…” She stared and I stared back. The onion rings sat quietly, untouched. A television on the wall above played a ball game with no sound. Laughter erupted from a table somewhere in the place. Moments later, Janice walked in.

The hostess sat us toward the rear of the restaurant but off to the side where we spent the first few minutes talking about our online chat. Then the conversation turned another way.

“So, do you always flirt with women at a bar right before a blind date?”

I reacted a bit anxiously.

“I got here a bit early so…”

“Early? So that gave you enough time to…”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“You look a bit flustered.”

After a deep breath and a smile, I noticed that Janice was attractively quiet with thick, curly blonde hair, and a pale complexion. A Long Island native, she’d been living in the city since the early 80’s, right after her one year of post-graduate study at SUNY Albany. Her parents and older sister had moved to Boynton Beach during that period and she opted out of the Florida humidity and stayed north. At 5 foot, she stood just shorter than her Dad, the tallest in her family. She left publishing in ’96 and enrolled at the Swedish Institute to become a licensed massage therapist. Three years later she started her own business and had a lucrative practice massaging the ultra-wealthy on the upper east side.

For several hours we exchanged comical dating stories, family tales, humorous lines from old sitcoms. She was well-read and intelligent, graduating number 7 in her high school class of over 700. What did cross my mind several times was the fact that she had never been engaged or married. It was a concern but the night was more important. My daughter, Marlee, was mentioned just briefly. I thought, “If we get serious, how will she handle being with a nine year old every now and then?” Another issue I’d need to consider. But, Janice and I had a connection, a chemistry. There wasn’t a lull in our banter all night.

After dinner, we walked and talked. We shuffled down Broadway to 72nd, and across to Central Park West passing Gray’s Papaya and Sambuca’s Restaurant. She wasn’t fazed by my past, just overwhelmed that I’d been through quite a bit. Up to 96th St. and over to Broadway, we hiked talking about her experiences living in Queens, then Manhattan. She walked me past Tom’s Diner, the one used in Seinfeld. I stood there in a daze as she smiled. We stopped at Deluxe, a café at 112th and sat outdoors for some desert. It had been three hours since we’d met in Henry’s. There was a full moon above us and I told her to make a wish. We both closed our eyes and sat in silence for a minute. When we opened them something seemed to be missing. The waiters had started removing the metal fence and the tables surrounding us. We didn’t get up, just chuckled and continued our conversation where we had left off. They left us alone sitting at a table in the middle of a Manhattan sidewalk where nothing else seemed to matter.

“I guess this is it,” I said in front of her apartment building near Columbia University.

“I guess so,” she answered.

“You think maybe we can go out…”

Before I finished speaking she interrupted, “Possibly.”

We held hands and kissed. I didn’t want the date to end. Moments later I hailed a cab down to Penn Station. It was close to midnight. I peeked out the rear window as we drove down Broadway. She waved. I waved back and didn’t turn around until her blonde hair was out of sight. “What an incredible night,” I thought. “Simply incredible.”

*                                       *                                        *

I opened the apartment door the other day, bent down, and picked up the New York Times from the brown tiled floor in the hallway. Jan was still sleeping so I placed the paper on the purple velvet chair in the kitchen where she’d see it when she got up. She had read the Times cover to cover almost everyday since I’d known her. It was a ritual. The night before, I’d suggested breakfast at Kitchenette, a small eatery on Amsterdam Avenue near our building. I looked forward to the weekends. Sometimes, my 17 year old daughter Marlee would come in from Long Island and visit, but not today. We’d relax in the morning and go for breakfast, and then celebrate our eight year anniversary in the evening. The Belmont stakes was up for grabs once again and my mental bets were on Animal Kingdom and Stay Thirsty. I’d watch it from the best seats in the house, our studio apartment.

We often joke about the day we met and the events leading up to our first encounter. I sometimes imagine a 21-year-old Kid Wonder decked out in a button down shirt rolled at the wrists, tie, and vest, in a dimly lit 3rd Avenue bar. He’s behind a Hammond upright wearing a Fedora. A second one is upside down on the wood in front of him filled with bills and change. The smell of loaded potato skins fresh from the oven lingers throughout. Five television screens throughout the place play some race, any race. The Kid is stuffed in the back playing Maple Leaf Rag while the others pound their fists into the bar, shout, and yell at the bartender, “Another round down here!” Theresa and Lucky Dan are at a table off to the side. Their lips are moving but I can never hear them. They seem to be lost in their own agenda. It’s Saturday in mid-town and the stakes of ending up together are fairly high.

That June night back in ’04, Smarty Jones, the 2 to 1 favorite, lost his bid for the Triple Crown in one of the closest races I’d ever seen. The chance that Janice and I would continue to date, and eventually move in together was quite a long shot. I couldn’t have predicted a better finish.

Talkin’ To the Sun

The subway car stood still. The doors opened. I kept reading. My daughter Marlee, in a trance from a song on her iPod, poked me.

“Stand clear of the closing doors.”                                                              

Ding. The doors closed. Screech.

“Will you cut it out?” I hollered.

Marlee was becoming annoying.

“Is it too much to ask to sit there and listen to music while I read?” I asked her.

“You’re always reading,” she said.

“Well, you’re always listening,” I told her.

With that, my nose went back into the fine print. We’d been sitting on the uptown #2 train in Manhattan for some time.

I had signed Marlee up for acting classes 18 months earlier. I logged on to the internet one afternoon and found a high profile actors Studio in mid-town offering a two hour session on Saturday mornings. Marlee had been selected in 4th grade for the ensemble cast of “Tommy” by the Who, the 2005 Plainview-Old Bethpage High School production. I sat in shock through the play. Marlee was singing center stage. Too many thoughts ran through my head. “Maybe this is her calling.” After four sessions at the studio, Marlee decided to sleep-in on Saturdays. She hated this class that much. She’d never get up from our brown, soft-cushioned couch.

“Marlee get up, time for acting.”

Nothing.

“Marlee, it’s enough, the fake snoring. I see you smiling.”

Nothing.

“Now you’ve done it,” I would yell.

Out of the clear blue, Bob Marley and the Wailers would make one last attempt.

“Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up. Don’t give up the fight.”

Marlee would moan, cackle, sniffle, and with reluctance, sit up. Then she’d make some lame excuse like she had a sore throat, or a stomach ache. Jan, my girlfriend, would eventually pull the CD out and shut everything off.

I thought to myself, “There has to be a school that will teach her the essentials of acting.”

I was seeking a professional who would help enhance her self-esteem, work with her one on one, not just have her read from a piece of paper in a room with fifty other kids. It was worth another try. With a click of luck several months later, we’d landed in the studios of Peggy Lewis and Biz Kids down at Pier 40. It would be a full day of acting, and singing; almost six hours each Saturday. The first time I took Marlee it was a 90 degree day. We had hopped onto the #1 local train from 125th St. and Broadway on the west side of Manhattan, and rode down to the Houston St. stop. Then, we walked, and walked, and walked some more. We looked around and walked again. My feet were sore. The t-shirt I was wearing was soaked. My mouth was dry. I called them and said I was lost. They directed me in detail. It didn’t help. Meanwhile the temperature had risen three degrees. I was out of steam. Were they trying to drive me mad? Where was this place? Was it a hoax? Marlee wanted to go home. She was uncomfortable. Her legs were like wet noodles. We sat on a bench somewhere and took a breather.

“Daddy, what are we going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know. How can we be lost? It’s around here. I can taste it.” I answered.

With one last gust of fortitude left in me, I took a deep breath, looked up to the sun, licked my index finger, and raised it high in the air. I thought to myself, “C’mon sunshine, take me to Biz Kids, please.”

“This way,” I told her.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Earthling, have I ever let you down?”

“You’re weird,” she answered.

The final limp to the steel door was momentous. From the time the subway doors had opened at the Houston St. station, it had taken 45 minutes to find. Biz Kids was stuffed down a narrow causeway by a kayak rental. That was a brutal Saturday morning. Nevertheless, she loved it and looked forward to going every other week.

On this October afternoon, we were on our way back home from a day at Biz Kids. We had gotten on the #2, the express train, at Houston Street which was making all local stops up to 96th St. because of construction. The #1 local train was not running uptown at that station that day. We would need to get off at 96th St. and wait for the #1 train that would take us to 125th St. and Broadway. If not, the #2 would continue, but veer off, making stops in central Harlem. It was cold. I wore my black leather jacket. Marlee had on a windbreaker.

“I told you to put on something heavier this morning,” I told her.

“I wasn’t cold,” she said.

“Oh, I see, you weren’t cold. You’re lucky it’s not a long walk to the subway.”

At 96th St., she poked me. I wasn’t paying attention. I was eye deep into Chapter 5. When I looked up we were at 116th St. and Central Park North.

“Oh crap!” I yelled out.

“What? What happened?” she cried.

“God damn it! This time, you were right and I messed up. We’re going to have to get off at the next stop. It’s 125th St. but nowhere near my apartment.

“Why?”

“Why. Because we should have gotten off at 96th St., that’s why. I was daydreaming, or reading, or something. It’s no big deal. We can just go across and get the subway going downtown or grab a bus. Earthling, I will lead you home, because I am Spartacus.”

“You are really weird,” she smiled.

We walked up the stairs and it hit us like bricks–rain, falling from the sky, in buckets.

“Ho-lee shit,” I mumbled to myself.

“Oh my God!” Marlee shouted.

“Now what?” I asked her.

We looked at each other dumbfounded. Never thinking that it would rain, I never bothered to bring an umbrella or a hat. It smelled like rain-induced smoke, the kind you see shooting up from sewer plates, almost like exhaust from a car. I glanced around from the middle of the stairwell and had no idea where I was. The rain was thrashing down so hard I couldn’t see anything. Dusk was setting in which made it even more difficult. I’d only been living in the city for less than two years and had never been in this neck of the woods. Which way was Amsterdam Avenue? Where did we have to stand to catch a cross-town bus? Where was the downtown subway? My train of thought had vanished. My sense of direction, gone. We stood for another minute and then I saw a heavy-set black man at the top of the stairwell with a doorman umbrella.

“Excuse me, yeah, hi, which way to Amsterdam?” I asked him.

“Fella, you got a long walk. It’s that way.” he pointed.

“Damn!” I exclaimed.

“You got an umbrella?” he asked.

“I don’t,” I told him.

He shook his head and wished me luck. I told Marlee that Amsterdam couldn’t be that far. We’d walk.

“But it’s pouring, and I’m cold,” she stated.

“Great, now you’re cold. Well, five minutes we’ll be home, I promise.” I told her.

“You said you were Spartacus, Daddy,” she said.

“I did, and I am. Trust me on this.”

  In the midst of a late afternoon torrential downpour we trudged across 125th street to the west side of Harlem. The mighty wind gusted. Cars honked. Bright headlights flickered. Windshield wipers swayed. We passed men and women with umbrellas. Some were inside out, others torn to shreds. Store owners were closing up and running full speed to shelter. The rain didn’t let up. I kept looking at Marlee.

“You OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered back.

I held her hand as we crossed Lenox. Water had seeped into my jacket, shirt, and pants. My shoes were flooded. My hair was drenched. My fingers and toes were numb from the cold. Marlee never said anything. We kept walking.

“Just think of the sun,” I told her. “Pretend the heat is beating down on us.”

“Can we tell the sun to keep us warm?” she questioned.

“Yes, you can tell the sun anything you want,” I told her. “Just don’t tell anyone I got us lost.”

Water had crawled into my eyes. I had to blink a few times to make sure my contacts were still there. After we crossed 7th Avenue, I knew we were in the home stretch. It was so cold, Marlee’s hands were turning blue. I had to take a few deep breaths to make sure my body parts were functioning. On and on we walked as the downpour got worse. We hit Amsterdam and I knew it was only a matter of minutes before we would be inside. It had been a memorable twenty-five minute excursion.

When Jan opened the door to our apartment she stood there. Her jaw dropped. We were soaked. The two of us dripped all over the hallway. There were two puddles right outside the door. In a few seconds I had told her what had happened. We immediately took off our jackets, rung them out, and started to thaw. Jan wrapped us in blankets. We sat in the apartment telling her the story.

“My Dad got us lost,” Marlee told Jan.

“Thanks, very much appreciated,” I told her.

“My Dad said he was Spartacus and he’d get us home,” she told Jan.

“Did I?” I asked her.

With a towel on her head, her hand in mittens, and oversized wool socks on her feet, she smiled at me and said, “I had fun, Daddy. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,Earthling,” I winked. “Now, how about some hot chocolate? Who’s with me?”