Flotsam and Jetsam

Flotsam and Jetsam

Early mornings I’d lie in bed, watching Margie nurse the baby as she sat in the rocking chair next to the bed. When the baby had had her fill, Margie would place her on the bed: “Dada, Dada, Dada.” She’d climb onto my head, over my face, onto my chest, straddle my neck. We’d talk.

(I’d flap the clean bed sheet with a vigorous flick of my wrists. At the other end of the sheet Margie knew to hold on tight. With our arms extended forward, the sheet hung between us like a flag. To make the first fold of the sheet, we’d step once toward and a half step sidewise, as in a dance. At the top of the repeat step, I’d surrender the sheet to Margie who’d make the final fold.

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Tweezing Nose Hair

Nose hair is an important part of your body’s defense
system. It helps keep dust, allergens and other
particles from entering your lungs. Removing too much
hair makes your nose more sensitive to those
kinds of debris. Plucking your hair can also
lead to irritations, infections and ingrown hairs.
(www.healthline.com)

“Debris? Up my nostrils! Into my lungs!” I cast aside my tweezers.

But, I have never suffered these afflictions – never a chunk of debris in my lungs. I reach again for my tweezers. A pinch, not quite pain not quite pleasure, the kiss of a hummingbird.

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Hay Fever Season

Nasal corticosteroids such as Prednisone appeared on the market in 1955. Antihistamines appeared about seventy years ago. Cromolyn sodium (Spectrum, Intal), seventy three years ago. At the first sneeze we reach for something that will help us.

Before 1955, the the advent of the hay fever season struck terror among the allergic. Here’s how Helen Headley Ridge, my mother-in-law, dealt with hay fever in the 1930s. I found her handwritten note in one of her books, a bookmark:

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Trucking in Williamstown, New Jersey

My cousin, Joey Genova, lives in Williamstown, New Jersey. Joey’s mother was my first cousin. His father was my father’s godson. Joey owns the sole remaining trucking business in town. The business had been founded by his father in the 1930s.

Now Joey’s son runs the southern terminus of the company in Tampa, Florida, and Joey’s daughter runs the office in Williamstown. Joey looks in two or three days a week. If you eat a pizza in Tampa, or a dish of pasta, the tomato sauce very likely has come from Williamstown.

Joey grew up in the trucking business which his father had run from the big house on the family farm. The truck yards, located well behind the house, had been carved out from the farm fields. At thirteen years of age, Joey was already re-positioning the big 18-wheelers around the truck yards.

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Mount Laurel, Mount Holly, Mount Ephraim and Arney’s Mount are the names of old towns in Burlington County, New Jersey. These Mounts are modest, of note only in flat New Jersey. Still, the locals climbed them, for the view, for the air, and to launch the Fourth of July fireworks. Today, Burlington County has sanitary landfills which are taller than the Mounts.

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Cursive Handwriting

In her email, she apologized for her tardiness in answering her grandmother’s hand written letter. She said she could not easily read cursive.
Poor child. She’s never known that gentle regimen, tracing line after line A’s and B’s, and C’s … the perfect O’s, the little tail on the O that made it a Q.

My father kept a copy of his handwritten name in his wallet. On Friday evenings, at the kitchen table, he’d laboriously copy his name onto the back of his paycheck.

Signatures are rich in allusions: letters home, birth certificates, mortgages, deaths. I am reborn whenever I write my name. Her typescript name is not truly hers. My signature is uniquely mine.

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On the Serengeti, On the Medford Leas

A lioness, flat on her stomach in the sparse tawny ground cover, observes the herd of wildebeests from about two hundred yards away. Then, keeping flat to the ground, she very slowly approaches the herd unseen until she is about thirty yards away. She makes her move! She can run fast but not for long. Wildebeests can run fast and forever.

The wildebeests spot the lioness and they flee toward the center of the herd, which is not as tightly packed as it seemed. The perimeter bends inward and a concavity appears, like a bite out of a pizza. A wildebeest panics and darts out laterally. The lioness veers toward it, lunges, mounts it for a a few yards before bringing it down. She claws her way to the wildebeest’s throat. The lioness is exhausted but she holds on.

The fleeing wildebeests slow down. Surprisingly, with the lioness and the fallen wildebeests only 50 yards away, the large pizza bite in the perimeter of the herd fills in quickly and its symmetry is restored. The wildebeests soon graze peacefully even while the spent lioness and the fallen wildebeest are very near. The danger has past, for today.

On the Medford Leas

Two residents stand before that part of the bulletin board that is trimmed in black. “Josephine! I saw her two weeks ago.” A man approaches. The woman turns,“It’s Josephine!” “Josephine! I can’t believe it. She seemed fine.” Others arrive, forming a semi-circle around the bulletin board. The news spreads.
“When’s the memorial service?”

The caterers have prepared a long table along the back wall of the room: coffee urn, cold drinks, and piles of party food, The Lounge is crowded with members of Josephine’s family and her many friends on campus,. A nine year resident, Josephine was popular.
Her grandson’s tribute is eloquent, lightened with humor. Many of her friends speak up, remembering the good times. Soon her family members blend among the residents. It’s a party!

The server at the food table is busy. A lively hemisphere of guests forms in the center of the room. Soon little mention of Josephine is heard. The immediate family members depart first; some have come a long way. Many residents persist; it’s a party. Then they too thin out, some walking with canes, some with walkers, a few with electric scooters. Soon the room is empty. The memorial service is over.


It Dropped

“It dropped,” Margie’s mother would say, more perplexed than annoyed at the betrayal of her fingertips. She was 90 years old.

“It dropped” The baby aspirin fell to the countertop. I pushed it to the edge with my fingertip, into my hand, into my mouth with a swallow of water.

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Flotsam and Jetsam(Reprise)

Did you ever see your parents kiss?
Did you ever see your parents embrace?
Did you ever hear them say, to each other, I love you (ti amo)?

Yellow mealworms, the larvae of the Tenebrio Moliter beetle, were approved for human consumption by the European Union’s food safety agency. Harper’s Weekly Magazine.

Although cheaper I no longer buy my vitamins in the large bottles, which hold 500 pills. At one pill per day, that’s a year, three month’s and fifteen days worth of pills.

Andrea Camilleri, Inspector Montalbano, and I

carlo-four-monthsCalogero lu Nicu, 1929

We Sicilians say idda instead of ella, the Italian pronoun for she and her. Idda is pronounced eeda.
Chi lu fici?” “Eeda.”
“Who did it?” “She did it.”

We never saw the dialect in print, it scarcely existed. We learned it from lullabies, from family lore and from ordinary conversation round the kitchen table. How else could we have communicated with our parents and with our adult relatives?

Neno, Neno lu picuraru. Quattr’ e cinco lu panaru, peh nna vascedda di rigotta ci pizzamo u beddu picciottu. Ne ne ne. ne ne ne – ne ne ne.” I never saw that in print. Neither did my parents. It was a folk song my mother sang as she washed us or dressed us.

Neno neno (nay no, nay no) replicates the sound of a bag pipe, and the sound of a bleating sheep. The Italian version of the song looks like this: Neno neno Il pastore, Quattro e cinque il paniere. Per un vascello di ricotta abbiamo perduto un bello giovane. The song laments the death of a shepherd boy who is murdered for a pot of ricotta.

The Italian il becomes becomes the Sicilian lu; pastore (a shepherd in Italian), becomes picuraru – from pecora, a sheep. Paniere becomes panaru; vascello becomes vasceddu(vash shed doo), abbiamo perduto becomes ci pizzammo, and un bello giovane, becomes un beddo picciottu. The refrain, Ne, ne, ne, is the lamenting sound of the bag pipe.

Panaru (paniere) is a small basket of woven reeds which contain and form rounds of freshly made ricotta. The C in ricotta becomes in Sicilian almost a G. Vasceddu (Vascello) is a small basin or a pot. Pizzammo is idiomatic; it means ‘was lost or was sacrificed’. Beddu, of course, is bello, and u picciottu (pitch oat too) is a young boy.

In English the song says “Nay-no, Nay-no, the shepherd boy – ricotta at four and five cents the pan. For a pan of ricotta we have lost a beautiful young man. Nay-no, nay-no, nay-no.)

sheep-for-blog

We took them for a drive. In the front seat, Zio Calogero and I spoke Sicilian. In the back seat, Margie, my father Leonardo and my mother Giuseppina spoke pidgin English. We rounded a bend in the road and we came upon some sheep in a meadow.

My father and my uncle, pre-1900 shepherd boys, bleated out: “Ne,ne, ne. I joined in: “Neno, neno lu piccuraru, quattr’ e cinco….” and then loudly, Nay! Nay! Nay! “Nay, Nay, Nay,”

Whenever it snowed, my mother would warn us: “Nna cura, e sciddicusu foru.” “Be careful, it’s slippery outside.” Foru is fuori in Italian, in English it means outside. In Italian, slippery is scivolevole. Sci is pronounced shee, as in sheedeecoosoo. A passing neighbor might call out, “Stat’attend’ piccilliddri! “Attenzione piccolini.” Be careful boys! Can you see the word piccolini hiding in piccilliddri? “Nnah coora, peecheeleedree, eh sheedeecoosoo.

Cervello, the Italian word for Brain, becomes ciriveddru in Sicilian.. I was baffled when I first saw ciriveddru in print, but I knew the spoken word. If I did something foolish, my uncle would admonish: “Calidu, doon eh toh ciriveddru?” (“Dov’ e il tuo cervello. Calido?” “Where’s your common sense (your brain), Calido?”)

Calido is the diminutive of Calogero. My uncle was Calogero lu grannu (il grande). I was Calogero lu nicu (the younger), di Leonardo my father, to distinguish me from two other Calogeros, my cousins Calogero di Matteo and Calogero di Giuseppe. We were all third sons, named after the same eldest uncle. Nicu also means physically small. If you were very small, like me, you were nicarreddu.

Minna (meen nha) comes from mammella. which is the Italian word for an animal’s breast, a sheep’s udder, or a goat’s. In Sicilian, minna also signifies a woman’s breast, whereas Seno is the Italian word for the human breast.

My mother breastfed her sons for as long as she could, my brother Steve until he was two plus. She said it was safer that way. In her mind, we sons lived in constant danger of disease and physical harm. (Her father and her eldest brother were murdered in Agrigento in 1926.) We brothers, by no design, ended up living within thirty miles of our mother, close to the minna that had nourished us, that had protected us from harm.

Pruvvulazzu,which comes from the Italian polvere, means Dust in English. Zio Calogero knew a man he called Petru Pruvvalazzu because Dusty Peter wasn’t very clean. There was another man he called naschi lurdi. Naschi, from the Italian narice, means nostril. The Italian word lordo is the English word Dirty. U naschi lurdi, is a snot nose.

Sazeech is an American corruption of the Sicilian word sasizza which is a corruption of the Italian word salsiccia, which in English means sausage. “Who ordered the sazeech?” cries out the server in your local pizza joint .

pizza-toppings-with-hot-italian-sausage-3-of-1

My rediscovery of the dialect was triggered by a birthday gift: two novels by Andrea Camilleri, in the original Italian. Andrea Camilleri, a Sicilian, was born in Porto Empedocle, a small port on Sicily’s southern coast, just below Agrigento.

Inspector Montalbano is the hero of Camilleri’s popular whodunit series. His books have been translated worldwide and they have been made into movies and TV serials. In 2003 the town fathers added Vigata to their city’s name: Porto Empedocle Vigata. Porto Empedocle is the fictional Vigata and Ispettore Montalbano is Vigata’s chief of police and it’s chief detective.

benvenuti

You can buy packaged tour to Vigata, you may stay at the Vigata Hotel. You may retrace Montalbano’s steps, from the solitary jetty where he consults with the seagulls, to his favorite restaurant whose chef, the owner’s wife, spoils him with exquisite daily specials. If Montalbano, working late, does not show up for dinner, she will slip the day’s special into his fridge on her way home from the restaurant.

The novels are heavily larded with Sicilian dialect, with no explanatory notes. Camilleri is pitiless: sink or swim he dares his readers and they love it! A glossary of Sicilian-to-Italian words in Camilleri’s books is available on the Internet. It”s thirty five pages long. My secret is to read the Sicilian expressions aloud; thus I recognize the words. How had Camilleri’s English translator rendered the Sicilian expressions, I wondered? Did my public library own any Camilleri’s?

“Ro,” I asked, “do we have any books by Andrea Camilleri?”

“We must have forty of them!” she said off the top of her head.

Where have I been all these years? Certainly, not with Camilleri. His books are shelved in MYSTERY, a vast section of the library, set apart from the regular FICTION shelves. Had Camilleri’s books been in FICTION, I might have encountered them.

“Ro, can you tell me exactly how many?” A pause: “Thirty-seven: twenty three titles, plus fourteen duplicates.” Next day I went to the library to pick up the English translation. There it was, standing tall in the MYSTERY section !

Buttatavi! (Boot taht tah vee!), The Italian verb buttare means to throw out, to throw away, to dive in! Gettare (jettare) is a synonym of buttare. Sicilians change the G in gettare to IE: Yeht tah tah vi! Dive in, dive in!

Buttatavi! Ietattavi! L’acqua nah billizza eh!”

In English:

Camilleri English

The Other End of the Line

“Forgive me for asking, Inspector, but what can you tell me about the murder of poor Elena?’

“Did you know her?”

“I did, Inspector. If only there were more women like her.”

“In what sense?”

“First of all, she was so cheerful and open, and always smiling. And so friendly. And what an appetite! You know Inspector, nowadays women don’t eat anymore. A little salad here, a bit of chicory with oil and lemon there. But not Signor Elena. She would sit down and order an antipasto, first course. Second course, dessert. And you have no idea how much coffee. All of it sprinkled with good wine. And since she would sometimes come alone but didn’t like to eat alone, she would ask me to sit down with herand we would chat. And you know what? Often, when she would come late in the evening and all the other customers had left and I was starting to close up, we would play tressette when she was done eating. And if she won, she didn’t have to pay.”

Andrea Camilleri, The Other End of the Line. 2019, Penguin Books. Translated by Stephen Sartarelli.

In Italian:

Screen Shot 2020-09-17 at 6.12.18 PM

“Dottore, mi perdonasse la domanda. Ma che mi puo dire dell’ammazzatina della povera signora Elena?”

La conoscevi tu?

“Sissignore Dottore. Magari ce ne fossero piu donne cosi’”

“In che senso?”

“Prima di tutto era una creatura allegra, aperta. ridanciana, amichevole. E aveva un appetitto! Sapete dottore, che ormai le donne non mangiano piu. Una insalatinella, una cicoria con olio e limone. La signora Elena no,. Si sedeva, se faceva servire antipasto, primo, secondo, il dolce e ammazzcaffe (moltissimo caffe, tanto da ammazzarti) Tutto rallegrato da un vino buono. E siccome certe volte veniva senza compagnia domandava che io mi sedessi con lei e chiacchiuariavamo. La sapete un cosa? Spesso, quando veniva tardo la sera, ch non c’erano piu clienti e io stavo per chiudere, alla fine della mangiata ne gioccavamo il conto a tressette. Se vinceva ella, non pagava.”

In Sicilian:

Dottori, mi pirdonassi la dimanna . Ma che mi po diri dell’ammazzatina della povira signura Elena?’

“L’ acconoscivatatu?”

“Sissi, dottori. Macari ce ne fussiro di fimmine accussi!”

“In che senso?”

“In primisi era ‘na criatura alligra, aperta, ridanciana. ‘N’amiciunara. E aaviva un pittito! Sdapi dottori che orama’ le fimmine non mangiano cchiiu’. ‘N’insalatateddra, ‘na cicoria con olio e limoi. Sa signura Elena no. S’assittava, e si faciva serviri antipasto, primo, seccuno, duci e ammazzacaffe’. Tutto ralligrato da un vino bono. E siccome che certe vote viniva sula e non le piaciva mangiari senza cumpagnia m’ addimanava d’assiittarmi con lei e chiacchiariavamo. La sapi ‘na cosa? Spisso, quanno viniva tardo la sira, che non c’erano cchiu’ clienti e io stava per chiuiri, alla fini della mangiata nni jucavamu il cunto a trissetti. Si vincia iddra, nun pagava.”

Andrea Camilleri, L’altro capo del filo, 2016, Sellerio editore Palermo. pp. 153-154.

Vi Fa Bene

Cod Liver Oil

“Take some cod liver oil”, says my son, from California, “it’s good for your immune system.” Next day I ask the young woman who is stocking the shelves of drug-related products: “Where can I find the Cod liver oil, please?”

“Cod liver oil?”  She replies blankly. “What’s that?”

How do I answer that? “Cod liver oil,” I repeat dumbly.

“Oh, fish oil!” she says, “That’s in Vitamins, near Multivitamins.”

I find a vast selection of fish oil, in soft-gel capsules.  I see nothing like the tall bottle of Cod liver oil my mother would hold in her hand when, every morning, she poured a tablespoon each into Frank and me: “Prestu, giu, giu. Vi fa bene, contru lu raffreduru.”  “Quickly, drink it down. It’s good for colds.” Frank complained about the taste, but he complained about everything.

Cod ilver oil

He’d complain whenever my mother served a leafy vegetable, or something like broccoli or cauliflower. She would have got the broccoli from the huckster, who would have bought a wagon-load of produce on Dock Street very early that morning. Dock Street was the noisy emporium into which, in the wee hours, scores and scores of trucks would have converged with produce, picked the day before on family farms across the river in New Jersey.

“Ma,” Frank would cry out triumphantly, “C’e nu cimice nei vruccoli.” “There’s a bug in the broccoli!” We called bed bugs cimice too, and sometimes, disparagingly we called people cimice, In English too: “he’s a bedbug”.

Non e nu cimice.”, my mother would say sharply, having rinsed the broccoli many times before she cooked it. “E solo un po’ di spezi.”  “It’s just a bit of black pepper.”

Sta spezi ha gambe!”  Frank would hoot. “This black pepper has legs!”

fish-oil-capsules

I chose a small box of the fish oil capsules and I was delighted to read, in very small print, that the oil in the capsules came from anchovies.  I love anchovies!  I love the whole family: anchovies, sardines. herring, mackerel. In 1937, my mother tilted spoonfuls of cod liver oil into my mouth every morning “Contra lu raffreduru.”  In 2020, my son – from California – insinuates a capsule of anchovy oil into my mouth every morning, to bolster my immune system. Someday I’ll bite into a capsule just for the taste.  I never thought the oil in my mother’s bottle tasted all that bad.

 

TAKING CHANCES

I climbed my first roof when I was nine years old, up the alley walls, like a lumberjack climbing a big tree with spikes on his heels. Instead of spiked boots pressing inward against the trunk, I was wearing sneakers whose soles pressed outward against the opposing walls of the alley. I’d brace my arms and the palms of my hands against the opposite walls to take the weight of my body, momentarily freeing my feet to hop up the wall eight or ten inches.

climbing alley's walls

When I reached the top of the wall I tucked its ledge under my left arm like a large book and I brought my right foot across the void, hooking its heel onto the ledge inches ahead my left hand, my right arm and hand instantly crossing over to to join my foot. With all limbs engaged on the left wall, I pulled myself up and over it’s ledge onto the roof like mounting a bareback horse and sliding off on its other flank. The people who lived on the second floor of the house across the street watched me climb.

I climbed the alley walls to retrieve the half balls we’d hit onto the roof during our games. We made the half balls from the white, dimpled ones we bought at Mrs. Silver’s for a dime. We cut the balls in half – hiss – with a single-edge razor blade. A broom stick served as our bat.

Dimpled white balljpg

The pitcher stood on the sidewalk facing the batter who waited, bat poised, on the opposing sidewalk. Unleashing his hand with a snapping flick of his wrist, the pitcher would send the half ball sailing, dipping, swerving toward the batter. One strike and you were out. Foul tips were forgiven.

If the batter clipped only a piece of the ball, it might flutter across the street like a wounded bird, to be caught for an out by the pitcher or by the fielder, or else it dropped to the pavement for a single. Ground balls hit past the fielders to the wall were singles. Line drives – splat! – hit vigorously off the building’s first floor facade, were outs if caught on the rebound, doubles if they dropped to the ground, triples, if uncaught off the second floor facade, and homers if they cleared the roof.

halfball

Climbing down was tricky. I’d sit lightly on the ledge of the left wall oozing over its edge on the lateral of my left thigh while holding on with my left arm, and reaching across to the opposing wall with my outstretched right foot making contact and digging my sneaker into the bricks.

Hanging between the walls with my left arm hooked over the ledge and my right foot thrust against the opposite wall, in one swift motion I would unhook my left elbow from the ledge and slide the palm of my left hand down the left wall to about 20 inches above the sole of my sneaker; at the same time thrusting out my right arm, I’d jam the palm of my hand against the opposing wall about twenty inches above my right foot. Spread-eagled, I’d let myself down with the palms of my hands pressing hard against the opposing walls with my hands my arms and my shoulders doing the real work while my feet, letting then holding, stepped down the walls 12 inches at a time. Halfway down I’d slightly relax my feet and I’d skid to the ground – showboating! – my sneakers barely gripping the the powdery old bricks and the crumbly mortar in between.

I climbed the alley walls of a three story building just once, not to retrieve half balls but just because it was there. I reached the top ledge but before I hooked my arm over it to pull myself on to the roof, I glanced between my spread-eagled feet down at the alley walk below. It was a long way down. I descended straight away, carefully.

Sometimes, in summer, I’d climb the big Buttonwood tree whose tall bole was hard against the shafts of the eight-feet tall iron spears that made up the schoolyard fence. The lowest branches of this mature tree were well out of reach unless you climbed the shafts of the spears, and stood on the horizontal support that held the spears together. Standing there with my feet between the spear heads, I’d pull my self onto the lowest horizontal branch. I’d lie there, out of sight, looking down at passers by whose conversation I’d hear in snatches as they passed.

I never climbed high into the tree because the middle branches engulfed the power lines that were strung along the telephone poles that lined the streets.

Joe Greene

Joe Greene has died, suddenly, just short of his ninetieth birthday. We first met at the Universita di Perugia in 1955. He was an ex-GI like me but he remained in Perugia only a month. He knew what he wanted to do with his life: international banking.

He returned to Philadelphia to work in a local bank for about two years. Then he applied for a job with the Bank of America – an international bank – a kind of internship that required maybe two years at the Bank’s New York city office.

He got the job. The Bank knew what it was getting: an honor student at Haverford College, where he had read War and Peace, in Russian. He had read Proust, all of it in French. He learned some Japanese in the Army, while stationed in Japan, monitoring Russian radio broadcasts. He completed a master’s degree in Far Eastern Studies at NYU while he worked at the Bank by day.

I returned from Italy, about nine months before Joe left for Singapore. I took a job with Pan American Airways and settled in Brooklyn. I took a Spanish course at NYU. It fell on the same night Joe had a class. We’d meet sometimes before class, at Chock Full ‘O Nuts, for soup and a sandwich. After class we’d go to the Cedar Tavern for a beer, a mingy hamburger and french fries. Individually, these meals were not sufficient to sustain life.

We’d see each other at Lynn Mallet’s monthly soirees. One night Joe and I were partners at Charades. The clue was a Broadway play. I began to push my hair down over my forehead. “Caligula” Joe cried out almost before I began.

We were great walkers, lean as wolves. One Sunday, we walked from Lynn’s apartment on McDougall Street in the Village, down to Battery Park, then back uptown to the Guggenheim Museum at 89th Street! Joe walked, I trotted a half step behind, for he was 6’1” tall, I was 5’4”.

Joe worked for the Bank of America in Singapore for many years, during the years of that city’s economic miracle. He moved hundreds of million dollars.  In the Spring of 1968 the Bank sent Joe to Saigon, just in time for Tet.

When China opened its borders up to the West, the Bank sent him to Beijing, a dream come true. Joe, alone, was the Bank of America in China. He lived in the former British Embassy compound. His food was cooked in a separate building of the compound and delivered to his rooms. His office was in the compound too. The Chinese government supplied an English-speaking secretary and they assigned a man, who sat at a desk behind Joe’s, whose job was to watch Joe all day long.

The English-speaking colony in Beijing during those early years, sometimes entertained itself by sitting around a phonograph player. Not Joe. He went to Chinese opera, to Kabuki theatre. He walked the neighborhoods, he’d eat street food.

He retired from the Bank after five years in Beijing. He was fifty-eight years old; the best thing he ever did he said. He reoccupied his apartment in Brooklyn Heights which he had been renting out.

Every January we’d receive Joe’s annual letter listing the twenty or so best Broadway plays he’d seen that year; the thirty or so best movies he’d seen; the thirty or so best books he had read.

He haunted the art galleries in Chelsea and on 57th Street. He was a regular at the Sotheby’s auctions, but owned only the few prints and and scrolls he had acquired while was in the East.

Margie phoned Joe every week to discuss the Sunday Time’s crossword puzzle. Joe did the puzzle in pen and ink, with his handsome fountain pen. Margie would turn the phone over to me when they finished. We’d meet for lunch four or five times a year, alternately in Brooklyn and New Jersey. I’d cede the bill to Joe when it arrived at meal’s end.

A joint bill was child’s play to a banker. He’d add the tip to the total, divide the new total by the number of diners and announce what each of us owed. He always tipped twice the amount of the tax. He’d hand the bill to me together with the amount of his share.

Pop and Joe_Montague street

We were having lunch on 57th Street, in the days before cell phones. I needed to make a call. “Joe, please lend me your pen while I use the phone in the lobby.” He handed it over. “Don’t lose it,” he said, “It’s solid gold.”

He abandoned Brooklyn for two months every summer because the air conditioning in his pre-war building wasn’t up to the job. At first he’d rent a house in a New Jersey for a month or two in Ocean City. In July or August we’d get a page of the calendar with our date filled in.

When he grew tired of beaches, so he sought out cities with cool summer climates. We received a calendar page one year from San Francisco, with our week filled in. He knew we’d be visiting my son that summer.

He tried Seattle one summer and he liked it. He tried Vancouver and he was bored: “It’s beautiful but it’s a one weekend city.” Fortunately, there was good walking there.

He went to Ireland twice. and he went to London two or three years running. He’d rent a spacious apartment in neighborhoods that afforded good walking.

Two years ago he took the Queen Elizabeth on a leisurely transatlantic crossing. He stayed in London for a couple of weeks where he visited old friends, especially his godson, Mowbray Mallet Jackson. Mowbray was his last connection to the Mallets, the family that so enriched his life after he’d met Gina and Lynn Mallet in Perugia in 1955.

He traveled First Class on the Queen Elizabeth. The food was excellent and he walked the decks. He said it was easy to pack for First Class. All you need is your tuxedo. Joe, being Joe, washed his socks in his cabin’s sink.

He took the Queen last year too; he stayed in London for a while, then boarded another Queen for a seventeen day cruise to the Norwegian fjords, to Helsinki and to Saint Petersburg. He planned to take a Queen cruise this summer.

I’d call him or he’d call me every week, sometimes twice a week, but never on weekday evenings between 7:00 PM and 7:30 PM. That’s when Joe watched Jeopardy. He hadn’t missed a show in decades.

Around mid-day on February 11, I left a message on Joe’s answering machine. He always returned my calls promptly. He didn’t answer that evening – strange – so I called next morning. When he failed to call by noon I knew something was wrong.

I knew no one in Joe’s building, and the number of the front desk was unlisted. I called Stephen who somehow got the building’s superintendent who told him that Joe had suffered a stroke and was dying in the hospital.

Next day I received an email from Hayden, Joe’s Houston friend, saying that Joe had died, and that he, Hayden, was executor of Joe’s will. He said Joe wanted no religious ceremony, but that he, Hayden, was going to arrange a get together of Joe’s friends in Brooklyn Heights. Would I attend? Of course. Then came Covid19.

Days later Hayden emailed again: The lawyer has requested your mailing address; please send it. I called Stephen. He’d got a similar email. We were named in the will.

“What do you think you got, Dad?” I have no idea. The gold fountain pen would be nice. What about you? “I can’t guess.” I think you’ll get the Krugerrands.

Joe was a social liberal but a financial conservative; he feared a collapse of Wall Street and the Stock Market. But come the crash, he had a survival plan.

His apartment was a five minute walk to the train to Forest Hills; from there a direct train to JFK: at JFK he’d jump onto the first plane to Dublin, or to London, or to Stockholm – or to any other city with a cool summer climate.

Joe kept a small suitcase in his closet, packed and ready to go. In it he kept a drawstring pouch containing the 10 Krugerrands, coin of the realm, in any realm he might choose to alight.

MARGIE’S LETTERS HOME

2/10/20

(Margie wrote her mother often after she moved from Philadelphia to New York City in the 1950s. Her letters, artlessly exquisite, read like the synopsis of a novel: the halcyon years between college and marriage. )

letters on desk

The Apartment on 31st Street:

“Well, we moved. And I will never forget it. The good Lord and He alone is responsible for our success. He provided two things that we couldn’t have done without and that we didn’t arrange to get for ourselves. The first was Harvey, the superintendent of our new apartment, a huge, kindly gent who loves flowers and plants and is a sometimes moving man. He picked up Joan’s desk and carried it upstairs on one shoulder. The second gift from heaven was a hung-over Mexican named Carlos who arrived with Annie’s Scott on Saturday morning driving a really big station wagon. He was very large, but so hung-over that all he could do was drive and moan and squint through his dark glasses, but without his car we could never and moved the sofa.

After hard work on the part of Peter, Scott, Harvey and nous trois on Friday night and Saturday we finally had all the furniture in. It couldn’t have looked worse. The men hated us for getting them into this mess, we hated each other for imagined slacking and weird ideas about where furniture should be placed, and everyone hated the apartment which was MUCH too small and painted all the wrong color. Then at about 4 o’clock, in dropped the Atkinsons and all sat around drinking beer. The guests seemed really and truly to think the place was lovely (and the afternoon sun was streaming through the windows, etc, etc) so people began to perk up. And then IT happened.

Rising flames

Crissy, sitting in the window, happened to look down into the garden and saw what she thought was Armageddon. Great flames were shooting up from a tarp and painting drop cloth Harvey had left on the garden furniture below.. Someone had thrown a match out the window and whammo. After a good bit of aimless hysterical rushing about and bumping into each other, we discovered there was no way to get into the garden to put the thing out. Nobody home downstairs. Harvey disappeared. Joan called the fire department and Peter set off in search of Harvey. I was sunk. I knew the firemen would burst through the doctor’s office, breaking doors etc, and by then the fire would have burned itself out. How much damage would we have to pay?

Well, the firemen (all very young and Celtic) arrived in no time flat along with Harvey who’d been dug out of the corner bar. Also arrived three policemen (more Gallic, but most courteous and considerate). And everyone behaved beautifully.

Decorated flower pot

The firemen, admitted by Harvey to the garden, decided to use materials at hand – blue and white ornate flower pots, water from the little pond (“Geez there’s goldfish in this water.) and the garden hose. By this time heads were sticking out of all the windows up and down the block, and everyone was laughing (some of them a bit uncontrollably) at the sight of burly firemen in helmets and great rubber coats, daintily carrying water in those ridiculous pots and dumping it on the remains of the garden furniture . The firemen just grinned happily at us and waved goodby, while the policemen tried to figure how to report it to bring the least trouble to everyone. We are now rather well known on 31st street.

P.S. We don’t have to pay for anything but two slings for the modern chairs, and that not until next Spring. The landlord has been a peach about the whole thing.

The next day, I just walked out on the mess (Joan hasn’t moved in yet) and went with Peter to the Great Danbury Fair. (No, we didn’t go to Gettysburg.) And by now everything has fallen in place and we love our home, we really do, although Joan and Annie are at each other’s throats over the matter of Japanese prints for the living room. Come and see us soon.”

First Months in NYC

“All of a sudden the big city lived up to all the tales I’ve heard. Wednesday at lunch I found my way to the part of Bryant Park (behind library) where they give recorded concerts every noon. There, under big trees, sitting on benches, steps and walls, were about a thousand people of every description. Most of them were from the Bronx but there was a generous sprinkling of Ivy-Leaguers and assorted tramps and drags. The audience is better than the music which squawks through what Paul would call a most inferior sound system. Still, it’s a most pleasant way to spend lunch hour.

Bryant Park, NYC

Sunday Ed and I planned to go to the beach, but it rained and the muffler had fallen off his car.Instead we had lunch at some posh place on Fifth Avenue, went to a French movie, and then back to the apartment to listen to Iolanthe.

young couple in convertable

 

Even without the muffler (therefore sounding like a hotrod) Ed’s car makes me feel like something out of a New Yorker ad, and to go skimming down Fifth Avenue in such a chic conveyance was almost to much for me. Lunch was delicious and I wish I could duplicate it at home. Have you ever heard of green noodles?

green noodles

They’re some kind of Italian noodles,, not tubular but flat and very skinny, that have been cooked with spinach so that they’re a repulsive green and have a spinacy taste. Over this you have garlic and butter and onion sauce and oooh yummy, but you taste the garlic all day. Anyway the day was perfect and Ed and I seem to be buddies.

Wednesday night Norman and I went out to dinner and to Saratoga (the musical based on Saratoga Trunk). His rich(est) aunt had given him the tickets. It was very lavish indeed, with Cecil Beaton sets; in fact so luxurious was it that you paid little attention to the story and the music which weren’t much anyway.”

Margie the Literary Agent

(Margie writes to her mother about a prospective client, Joan Bennett, the movie star):

Donald Cook and Joan Bennett

“And I have spoken to Joan Bennett! She is, to an extent, a client of ours. Unfortunately she is living with an actor named Donald Cook and they do everything together. But, since they are not married, we underlings must pretend that they aren’t living together (Herb is a friend, so he can know), which necessitates all sorts of elaborate circumlocutions which fool nobody – but offend nobody either. Ah me, what would Ma (Margie’s grandmother) have thought? Or even Daddy? I sometimes wonder if, could he have known what his Petunia (what he called Margie) was exposed to, he wouldn’t have felt obliged to load his revolver and fare forth to defend my innocence. How nice that you turned our so worldly.”

Dissension in the Apartment

“Apartment life is pretty stressed these days and the villain is Joan who is just bound and determined to find fault with Crissy. I am go-between and peacemaker and will probably end up hated by all. Chief bone of contention is, of all things, Bill (Crissy’s boyfriend) Atkinson’s laugh. It’s loud, I must confess, a little grating and can be heard distinctly from living room to bedroom. Joan has taken to going to bed early and wants quiet after 10:30PM. She’s been behaving very badly about it indeed – I’m surprised at her – so Crissy isn’t as cooperative as she might otherwise be. This morning I managed to secure a temporary cessation of hostilities by appealing to Joan’s pity for me as being in the middle, but oh dear.

Sloppy bathroom

And last night somebody didn’t clean the bath tub. Believe it or not, there are young girls of good family who are sloppier than your daughter. Much!”

A New Room Mate

“Well, I think we have a new roommate, and while I’m not overjoyed with her, I’m sure she’ll do and probably liven up the place. Her name is Annie (yes, Annie) Steinert; she is a Boston post-deb, very intelligent and well informed, although she went only to a junior college. She’s just moved from Boston to NY where she has a job in a public relations firm. What I don’t like about her is a kind teen-agish boy craziness and an affected manner of speaking (she’s been heard to use “whoopsie-poo” and “not ruddy likely” in the same paragraph – she always talks in paragraphs) which is too bad because she’s warm, likable and would be very entertaining without trying so hard.. She has a signed Picasso etching.”

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Gloria Swope, Classmate

“Some night this week I’m going to see Gloria Swope, who lives in a luxurious apartment, has a high-powered job, and by her own admission spends the day and most of the night hoping someone will ask her out. This seems ridiculous to me, especially for someone with Gloria’s potential. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing her; we had a long gossipy talk on the phone and I think we can pick up right where we left off at Swarthmore.”

A Suitable Attachment?

Paragon - Baoshijpg

“I think, also, that I have arranged for a ride to Philadelphia with Joe’s attractive friend. The problem now is to avoid Joe and have this paragon to myself for two and a half hours.”

Our Home, Our Haven

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TD has just down-sized from a villa to a Courtyard apartment. I had never met her but I knew that she was a Big Woman on campus, and here she was, emerging from her front door, dragging a wheeled briefcase. She holds a sheaf of files under her free arm. A large black insect crouches on her sweater, just below her nape:

“Stop! There’s a bug on your back.” I brush my hand over the bug but it holds fast. A second swipe knocks it to the ground behind her. TD whirls round like a Rat Terrier, her foot darting out: Squash! She is wearing grey orthopedic Mary Jane shoes.
“A stink bug,” she says scornfully.
“It might have been a scorpion,” I say lamely
“Oh I know scorpions!” she says, “Oh yes! I lived in Malaysia for five years.” I can see her foot darting out, again and again. We introduce ourselves.
“Why don’t you join our table for dinner in the Colonial Room next Tuesday?”
“I”m afraid not.”
Dumbstruck, she blurts out: “Why not? Is it personal?”
“Personal? I hardly know you.” With that, we part company oppositely. I see that Mary Jane darting out.

Maryjane 200127

 

 

 

My eyes smart when I read or if I look at a computer screen for too long. The doctor suspects dry eyes. Do I use drops? I show her my little plastic bottle. Try these, she says, pulling several bottles from a drawer. My eyes recoil at the first splash of the new drops, but after six weeks, my eyes do improve. Meanwhile I read large-print books for the first time. Wonderful!

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I go to our library to make a copy of the letter I have written in longhand. My ball point pen produced a unattractive script. Why do I press down so hard?
I don’t recognize the volunteer librarian who is seated at the front desk. I go to the copier behind the last row of book shelves and I make my copy. I drop my dime into the little wooden cashbox and it drops in silently. That’s strange I thought. I had expected to hear the welcoming clink of coin striking coin, or of coin striking wood.
“Curious,” I say amiably to the librarian, when I reach her desk, “I didn’t hear a sound when I dropped my dime into the cashbox. I like to hear that clink-clinking sound, like a miser who pours his coins from hand to hand.”
She looks at me quizzically: “There may be some dollar bills in the bottom of the box.”
“Of course.” I turn and leave her to her work. Still, I shook that box hard. I heard nothing.

 

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The plastic strap of my Casio wristwatch has split in two. It’s not fixable and Target no longer sells Casios. “Get it online,” said the clerk. No thanks. I’ll find a store that carries it. “You don’t need a watch. It’s in your cell phone!” No thanks, for seventy years I’ve lifted my wrist to see the time.  I’ll find a watch, whose quadrant forecasts the day: breakfast, lunch, supper, bedtime; whose hands deliver day unto night, night unto day.:

“The digital clock is surely the quintessential symbol of the modern sense of time, announcing relentlessly the irrevocable end of each minute, abolishing the sense of cycle, death and rebirth, that is implicit in the rotating hands of the traditional timepiece, which mark the beginning in the very moment in which they indicate the death.” Mary Taylor Simeti, On Persephone’s Island, 1986

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A large candid photo of Margie, pinned to the wall, looks down upon the framed snapshots that crowd my night table. She was 25 years old, about three years before we met. She is sitting in an easy chair with a glass of sherry in her hand. Her eyes askance, she is listening to her unseen interlocutor who stands outside the photo. She is smiling, a triumphant little curl to her lip. She has just scored a touché!

Three women have propositioned me since I moved into Medford Leas five years ago. I am five feet four inches tall, I weigh 136 pounds and I am 90 years old. My breasts sag and I have a pot belly. I have a wattle – not a waddle – a wattle! Keep your chin up. I have a spring to my step, I think. Keep your shoulders back!

“Stephen, do I look like an old man?” Yes, you do.  That’s impossible! Mother is still young.

Three propositions. Two in the last six months! Whatever for? For sex? Good luck! It’s for intimacy: the little private joke, the knowing smiles, the gentle touching, the homing fingers. A new start. A palimpsest, a loss, a gain.

 

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Couples stroll our halls like innocent children. NX, a nonagenarian widower, has had, serially, three partners in five years. They have held hands sweetly – it steadied their walk.  Don’t take my arm, I’ll lay my arm on yours.

X&Y were crowding eighty when they married two years ago, she for the third time. The church – a full wedding mass – was crowded with their children, their stepchildren, their grandchildren and their step-grandchildren. Two years later, they hold hands, they smile. Their joy brims over. They finally got it right.

Medford Leas. It’s like college all over again. They used to sit at the front of the class waving their hands, jumping up to answer every question? They’re here, at Medford Leas. They head our committees, they lead us on off-campus activities, they scrutinize annual reports. Those tough bridge player of yore?  There here.

We dress up for dinner in the Colonial Room. We go slumming in the Coffee Shop. We eat at home. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we celebrate Happy Hour, BYOB. If we stray out of sight for long, if we hole up for too long, there comes a phone call, a knock on the door, a voice calling your name, a pass key trying your lock.

We paint oils or water colors in the Arts Studio and we submit poems to Leas Lit. We sing in the chorus, we watch an old movie. We work in our garden plots and we exercise in the Fitness Center. We push chair-bound fellow residents to their appointments. We obliviate the dementia wing – the Assisted Living quarters are close enough. We paddle canoes and we play four holes of golf. Tennis anyone? We hike the woods stroll the gardens read a book write a blog.

A sunny corridor whose windows overlook a courtyard connects the Assisted Living wing to the main building, and it branches out to the Courtyards where many of us live. We sit there to enjoy the sun, in one of the upholstered chairs, a row of them, with gaps for wheel chairs. We chat, or we sit mutely, alone.

A Passage

Annie Claude and Tom D’Agostino, friends since our days together in Italy, have invited me to Washington DC for two days. I begin my trip in the Mount Laurel bus station, which is not far from my home in Medford, New Jersey. The bus originates in Philadelphia, stops in Camden; pauses in Mount Laurel, continues to Wilmington, to Baltimore, and it ends in Washington DC.

Bus riders

I’m last to board. I step up, I turn and I face the aisle: only two seats left. The one to my left is next to a young black man sitting by the window, staring at his laptop screen. The other free seat is across the aisle, three rows back, by a young white woman who sits by the window staring at her laptop. She and I are the only whites on the bus.

Where shall I sit? Will the young white woman feel more comfortable if I sit with her. How do I know what she feels! Would I feel more comfortable sitting with her. What will the black passengers think if I sit with her and ignore the closer seat by the black man? “Just another Whitey.” But then why hasn’t any black passenger chosen to sit with the young woman? The bus driver, a black man, is poised to go, the motor growls: I sit with the young black man.

He doesn’t lift his eyes from his computer screen as I drop into the seat. When the world was young, fellow travelers introduced themselves, perhaps conversed at length and when conversation lagged, they turned to their books, to their newspapers. My seat mate’s gaze is riveted to the glowing screen of his laptop. I open my book.

The bus stops briefly in Wilmington. Everyone waiting on the platform is black. Some passengers descend, a few come aboard, all black. The seat next to the white woman remains unoccupied.

The bus stops in Baltimore for twenty minutes, and I descend to use the toilet. The station is full of black people, with just a scattering of whites: students, tourists and a few faces working behind the ticket windows.

When I boarded the bus in Mt Laurel, I entered a black world. Bus passengers on the East Coast Corridor – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC – are often black. It’s no mystery: bus fares are relatively cheap, blacks are relatively poor. Surrounded by blacks today, I feel no fear, no discomfort; it is a non-threatening world. I am not restricted to the back of the bus. I don’t have to use a Whites Only Toilet. No one called me Boy. It is a black world, vaguely alien, but benevolent. I am the alien.

My seat mate had not returned so I slid to the window seat. Shortly, a black, middle-aged woman sits next to me. We exchange greetings and then she opens her laptop. I hear an animated voice coming from the seat in front of me:

A young man is speaking aloud into his cellphone. He has a well-trimmed beard that looks like springy boucle’. I listen, I pull out my pen and my notebook:

“… I’m getting out of there. I’m looking for an apartment. If anything happens to my children, I’ll take her to court. Yes, Mother, I know. I’ll call you later” He hangs up and calls someone else, presumably his wife:

“What are the children doing? … You’ve been wearing that same pair of shoes every day for a year. You ain’t taking your medicines!” (He hadn’t used ain’t with his mother.)

He hangs up and makes a third call. He speaks quietly, guardedly. His girlfriend? I can’t hear what he’s saying.

The bus has been perambulating D.C. for twenty minutes. Here’s Union Station! We penetrate its deepest bowels: Murkiness. We approach a long line of windows along a far wall with glass doors that restrain lines of waiting passengers. Green and red blobs of light shine dully above the doors. Buses waiting in rows. The rumble of motors charges the air.

There’s Tom come to meet me! We emerge into the glaring white light of a sunny day. We walk to Tom’s parked car and he whisks me off to his home. My three hour passage through black America has ended.

In the Long Run

Perrone at 90

Doctor Green comes to Medford Leas once a week, on Tuesdays from 1:00 to 4:00PM. He is the house podiatrist whose office is on the ground floor. The six or seven chairs in the waiting room are usually fully occupied. Some residents have serious problems but many come to Doctor Green to have their toenails trimmed.
In old age our toe nails split, they thicken, they discolor alarmingly, they grow opaque, like sightless eyes. Untrimmed, our nails revert to claws. But for Dr. Green we would clatter around the halls like Komodo dragons.
Many residents cannot reach their toes: they have grown stiff with old age, they are arthritic, they have thickened midriffs. Some residents have not touched their toes in years. They need Doctor Green.
I trim my own nails, with an 8-inch long DiamonDeb nail file. Originally, DiamonDeb files boasted embedded diamond dust, but no more. Even so, the rough side of the blade is aggressive.
I sit on the toilet with my foot on a low stool to address my thickened, clouded-over toe nails. I immobilize each toe on the stool’s surface with my fingers. I rasp away until I see flesh again, shining pink through the newly pristine, paper-thin nails. One more stroke of the DiamonDeb would have drawn blood.

 

I wakened at 4:45AM and could not get back to sleep. I turned to the computer and found yesterday’s email from Joe Hanaway. It was about his trip to Perugia with his brother Bill. That was years after I met Bill in Perugia, in 1955.
I responded with a long paean to Perugia. The effort drained me and I returned to my bed where I dreamt for the first time in years:

I was driving through a seedy neighborhood in St. Louis, by myself, in the middle of the night. I stopped for a traffic light and idled in the lane next to the curb. To my right was a shabby parking lot with an old van parked about ten feet away, pointing right at me. As I waited for the light to change, the van slowly, gently, rolled into the side of my car. I jumped out of car to assess the damage. By the time I reached the driver side of the van, its driver had vanished. I turned quickly to see someone driving off with my car.

Where did that come from? From whence the fear? Yes, I had been to St. Louis once, during that cross country trip with Stephen when I fainted in the hotel parking lot, bruising my face, cutting my nose and bending my eye glasses.
And yes, Joe Hanaway lives in St. Louis. Will he be offended by the joke I made about Bill? I twist and turn the rest of the night.

 

They pass each other in the corridor: a young health aide, and a resident, who walks carefully, holding tight to her four-wheeled walker. The resident is accompanied by her own aide
“Have a great day!,” says the young aide brightly, de rigueur.
“You have a great day when you’re ninety three,” the resident growls, aloud, to herself.

 

I had developed a persistent rash on my groin. “Better see a dermatologist. Call Dr. High, he’s the best.” Dr. High was booked solid but his associate, Dr. Klein could see me in two weeks. “Is that OK?”
“ Of course it’s OK!”
Dr. Klein turned out to be a young woman. Pushing my scrotum aside, she looked closely at my groin:
“It’s nothing. Just keep your groin clean and dry. You may be allergic to the soap you’re using. Switch to a hydrating cleanser. Apply this if necessary,” she scribbled a script for the pharmacy.

 

close-up-of-garlic-on-table-760254411-5bcbf91c4cedfd0026f2b89d
Louise McCormick Browne has paused in the cafeteria line and she is looking doubtfully at today’s offering of vegetables: mashed potatoes, zucchini and sauteed spinach. The zucchini is leftover from yesterday.
“Can’t decide, Louise? The spinach looks good. I like spinach.”
“So do I, but it’s the new cook. Garlic in spinach?’ She made a face. “He puts garlic into everything!”

 

I peed the bed last night, one day before my 90th birthday. No wonder I peed myself: they urge us to drink 8 to 10 glasses of water a day. I spend hours looking down into toilet bowls, gingerly taking aim. By mid-afternoon the floor under the public urinals gets sticky.
The trouble last night was that I took a sleeping pill AND a dose of CBD/THC under my tongue AND I drank a glass of sherry just before going to bed. The pill, the CBD/THC and the wine gave me four hours of unbroken sleep! I wakened to a feeling of repose, of release: I was peeing myself.
I jumped, rolled out of bed and stripped it. It was 4:00AM. I made a 50/50 solution of water and white vinegar and I sponged and sponged the wet spot in the mattress. It worked. Next day there was no stain, no smell. My urine, mostly water these days, is as clear and sweet as a baby’s.
My wetting the bed was an accident. It was also a harbinger.

 

Was my prostate the culprit? I hadn’t seen a urologist for eight years. “Call Doctor Correa, he’s good.” I called Doctor Correa’s office: nothing available for six weeks; “anyhow you’ll need to see Dr. Hommes before you see Dr. Correa.”
Doctor Correa’s office is defined by the aisle which begins at the front door. It separates the waiting room and a short, low counter which incorporates the computer work stations of the two receptionists/registrars. The aisle ends at the door to the examinations rooms.Group-of-female-doctors
The door opens: Dr. Hommes appears; she is a nurse practitioner. Before I know it, she sticks her finger up my ass: “Seems fine,” she says, peeling off her rubber glove. “Nothing unusual.”
(“Nothing unusual? You just stuck your finger up my ass!)
She pushes my chest, gently but firmly, and I fall back onto the examination table, my eyes on the ceiling, my feet on the floor. She pokes around: “Nothing unusual,” she says. “The girls out front will schedule your follow up with Dr. Correa.”
I pull up my pants. Routine stuff.  Male doctors manhandled women patients for centuries. Now that the playing field is almost even; we may choose whom we allow to poke around.

 

I sit with Ruth occasionally as she has dinner in an eating area of the Assisted Living section of our retirement community. Ruth is one hundred years old. She can’t walk unassisted but her mind is still clear and her speech can be lively. Her stiff, emaciated fingers catch the eye.

She sits alone, in her wheelchair, at a table that seats four. An aide stops by to point out a morsel on her plate, untouched. Ruth pays no mind. She knows what she likes. She handles her fork and knife awkwardly as she deals with the food on her plate; her food has been pureed or chopped small.

Four plastic glasses line the edge of her placemat: milk, apricot juice, cherry soda and a chocolatey protein drink. Ruth toys with her food but she drinks avidly, using the same goose-necked straw for all four drinks. Redirecting her straw from glass to glass is a challenge. At dinner’s close, with the littered scraps and the splatter of colorful liquids, her placemat resembles a Jackson Pollock canvas, still wet.

Whenever I visit Ruth, I remember to bring four or five after-dinner mints. I fish them out the large bowl full of colorful mint candies on the table outside our formal dining room. I pick out the little rectangles of dark chocolate which are interlarded with mint icing. They are individually wrapped in bright green foil. Ruth is always surprised and delighted when I drop the little green packets by her hand. She loves dark chocolate mints above all things.

 

I feel the weight of my bones whenever I exercise on the floor mat. My skeleton oppresses me, pinning me to the floor. I command myself to rise, as I once did, in one swift movement like a coiled steel spring unleashed.
Instead I roll onto my stomach. I push down with my hands and arms, lifting my upper torso high enough to plant my knee and my feet under me. Then, with jack-knifed legs, straining, I rise, slowly, in sections, like a giraffe but without the giraffe’s pendular grace.
I stand. I steady myself. I throw back my shoulders and I lift my chin: a small victory that blinds me, for the moment, to the humiliations that lie ahead.

micawber

My expenses now exceed my income for the first time in my life. It is unsettling to have breached that iron law of economics. I cover the monthly deficits with checks I draw off the Required Minimum Distributions which I deposit into my savings account.
“That’s what your savings are for, Dad. You knew this was coming.”
But not so soon! My life savings don’t belong to the government, they don’t belong to me, they belong to you and your sister.
“We don’t want your savings: What did your parents leave you?”
Seventeen thousand.
“And what did their parents leave them?”
Zero.
“So spend it!; that’s what you saved for. You want to go to Italy? Do it. That trip to Newfoundland and Labrador? Do it. St. Pierre-Miquelon for a week in February? Do it!”
No thanks. I’d rather restock shelves part-time at the supermarket: health benefit tax zero; no tax on my first $13,000; a win-win for everybody. I’ll restock shelves all night long. I can’t sleep anyway.

Fighting the undertow
I climb the backyard tree
Breasting sky, treading air

I swing the earth below
To catapult me free
To anywhere.

Carlo-JrHigh

My Speech at My 90th Birthday Party

(My 90th Birthday

On a hot summer weekend afternoon, while I was dozing on our living room rug, my mother and father quietly entered the room thinking I was fast asleep. I didn’t stir. They were holding hands, my father leading the way. They softly climbed the stairs, presumably to their bedroom. I was fourteen or fifteen years old. How nice, I thought, that in their old age (they were fifty) they could still enjoy a tumble in bed.
I never saw them kiss. Did you ever hear your father tell your mother he loved her? My father adored my mother but I never heard him say so. I never heard him say, Ti amo. My mother said that she chose my father because he was pink, her word for fair skinned. She’d say that he was a good man, but I never heard her say, Ti amo.

Occasionally, rarely, my father would lose his temper, sometimes at the dinner table. He’d wave the bread knife in my mother’s face: “Ti cavu lu coru!”
Ti cavero il cuore! I’ll cut your heart out! They may have had a difference in opinion in which my mother had prevailed. She would blithely ignore him. Frank and I looked on with quiet interest.
If ever Frank and I squabbled, my father would retrieve his leather razor strop from the nail on the back of the kitchen door. He would hang the strop round his neck and appear before us. Look out! Sometimes he’d flick the strop at our knees, but he never hit us. He almost did so once.
Frank had rudely challenged him and my father raised the strop, not, to flick. Frank ran out of the apartment and into the street, with my father on his heels. I had never before seen my father run. Frank scrambled under a parked car. My father knelt by the curb and flailed at him with the strop, not quite reaching him: “T’ammazzu! T’ammazzu!” I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.
Somebody called my brother Steve who was pumping gas at Heimie’s garage. He came running. He calmed my father and he ordered Frank to crawl out. He gave him a good shake. They walked home, Steve in between: Frank was sniffling, my father was mollified. It was a grand show for the neighbors sitting on their front door steps.

My father, unemployed during the Depression, would take Frank and me for walks along Delaware Avenue, to see the ships in port, to watch the tugs, to gaze at Camden across the river, at RCA Victor Inc., which had let him go in the early Thirties.
On rainy days, he would march us round the apartment, with him at the head. He would thump the bottom of the spaghetti pot with the big wooden stirring spoon, while he sang fragments of an Italian marching song. We had a happy childhood.

My father was called back to RCA in 1938 or so. War was in the air. He worked all the overtime he could get. My mother continued to work, continued to out-earn my father because expensive silk dresses were still in great demand.
In 1939, we moved into a row house of our own, into a nicer neighborhood. The kids in my new school, those from the other side of Snyder Avenue, seemed more American. That’s where Anna Marie Lepore lived.
I went to my first boy/girl party when I was twelve years old, in the finished basement of Anna Marie’s house. Inevitably, we played the spin the bottle game, in which the chosen two enter a darkened room: Anna Marie and I. She had budding breasts, I was still a child, but I knew what to do: I gave her a loud, smacker of a kiss on the cheek, the only kind of kiss I knew. My female cousins had smothered me with such kisses when I was two or three years old: “Un pezzo di pane.! Pasta d’Angelo!” A piece of bread! an Angel Food Cake!

Margie and Carlo

I was back in the United States after three years in Italy and England. I was twenty-nine years old, with a dead end job in Queens. New York City was out of my league, but did I want to go back to Philadelphia? I was adrift. I did begin to spend more time in Philadelphia, every third weekend or so.
Occasionally, I would drive my parents to see their relatives. They would greet us with cries of delight and lead us to the kitchen where the table would be set with prosciutto and bread, with pizzelle and coffee.
All the girls I grew up with had married before they were twenty-three years old. Two of them, Dottie Altieri and Aggie Scalone, invited me – their interesting childhood friend – to meet their husbands and their children. I repeated amusing anecdotes about my European stay.
Saturday nights, at home, I’d read a book while nibbling on my mother’s fig Newtons: oven-brown little fish with appealing open mouths and sweetly curving, split tails.
I wasn’t seeing anyone in New York City; just old friends like Nick and Wanda Rotz, Lynn Mallet, the Hanaways, Joe Greene and a few people at work. I was adrift. Joe called on Saturday to say that his friend, Margie Ridge, would be joining us for the ride back to New York City: “You’ll like her”:
“Carlo,” he said, “this is Margie Ridge.”
She had a shiny wire brace across her front teeth. It was screwed in; only the dentist could remove it. It was gone the next time we met. She had wondrous eyes: luminous whites, pale blue irises like watered-silk set with sapphires. She had a smile that gladdened. I reached for her hand.

Margie’s circle of friends in New York City had thinned out too: they had married, they had moved away. She had become disenchanted with her job, and with New York City.
Margie was an only child. Her widowed mother, in Philadelphia, was not well. Margie was twenty-eight years old. She was stalled.
She was visiting her mother in Philadelphia that weekend when Joe called. He too was in Philadelphia, visiting his parents.
“Margie,” said Joe, “would you like a ride back tomorrow, with Carlo Perrone and me?” “You’ll like him.”
“Yes, I would,” she said. She would save the train fare and she’d avoid the bother, and the expense, if she ran late, of cab fare to the station in Philadelphia; and then, in New York City, getting to her apartment from Penn Station. And she’d meet this Carlo Perrone guy:

“Margie,” said Joe, “this is Carlo Perrone.”
She liked my beret. She liked my smile. She paid no heed to my big nose; hers was not petite. She looked straight into my brown eyes and she purred. I heard the hum.
We grasped hands.

Losing my Aficion

In 1960, while studying at the University of Madrid, I met Joe Fernandez, a forty year-old American, who was finishing up his thesis for a doctorate he’d begun at the University of Pennsylvania. He had left the program at Penn because of its “fussiness.” We’d meet only occasionally in the cafeteria because he was so busy writing the thesis.

He was engaged to be married to his cousin, a school teacher whom he had met in his parents’ natal village in Asturias. He spent many weekends in Asturias but he remained in Madrid one Sunday a month to attend the bullfights. He was an aficionado.

color bullfighter2

I had never been to a bullfight. I did see a bullfighter, not in the bullring, but in an elegant barber shop. I had arrived in Madrid the month before needing a haircut:

“Go to the shop in the Plaza de Cuba,” said the courtly Director of the Summer Program at the University. His hair was cut nicely.

The barbershop was on the second floor of a handsome 19th century building: gleaming mirrors with ornately carved frames to the ceiling; bottles of aftershave lotions lined the shelves – jewel like greens, yellows, reds; barber chairs like thrones; tall windows overlooking the Plaza; a hushed quiet and a young manicurist who put Elizabeth Taylor to shame.

Sus cabellos son muy rebeldes,” said the barber as he ran the comb through my hair. “Your hair is very rebellious.” He wet my hair and cut it with a straight razor, the kind that looked like a long, narrow pen knife with a curlicue at the hinge for the barber’s finger. Carlo Perrone, little Chaps, getting a razor cut haircut!

On my second visit to the barbershop, the manicurist had a customer:

“An important young bullfighter,” the barber whispered into my ear.

The bullfighter’s hair lay flat on his head, like a cocker spaniel’s, with tendrils around his ears and along the back of his neck. He spoke quietly to the girl as she polished his fingernails. I could tell that he was sweet-talking her: she never lifted her head, barely nodding or negating now and then. Did she stand a chance? That hand she held, on Sundays, held a sword.

My interest in bullfights dated to my high school years when I had read all of Ernest Hemingway, but I had never been to a corrida. I was delighted when Joe invited me to go to the fights with him on Sunday. But first, he said, early Friday morning we’d go to a small building attached to Las Ventas, Madrid’s main bullring.

Inside was a circular balcony overlooking an enclosure with a hard packed dirt floor, about forty feet in diameter. We joined a number of aficionados, all men, who spoke quietly. A portion of the balcony was reserved for the bullfighters, the matadors, who were to fight on Sunday.

Each matador was accompanied by one or two members of his team, his cuadrilla, the five or six men we would see on Sunday when they’d enter the bull ring arrayed in their finery. Also stationed around the balcony were four or five men holding bamboo rods about fifteen feet long.

A muffled bell rings, we fall silent. A bull appears from under the balcony and moves toward the center of the ring. A word from the matador and one of the men holding a bamboo rod reaches out and lightly touches the bull’s right rear flank with the tip of his rod. The bull spins to his right sweeping his horns around towards an assailant that has somehow managed to get behind him. The matador watches intently. Another word from the matador, another prod of the bamboo rod and the bull spins the other way.

The matador observes closely, as if his life depends upon it. Of course it does. One of his cuadrilla says something . The matador nods. Does the bull react truly to each prod? The matador does not want a quirky bull. And so it goes all morning long until six bulls were chosen, two for each matador. These are the bulls that will fight and die on Sunday afternoon in Las Ventas, Madrid’s main bull ring.

On Sunday Joe and I had lunch at a restaurant near Las Ventas whose menu included criadillas: the grilled testicles of a bull. Eating criadillas gives you courage: cojones. As we ate – not criadillas – Joe continued my crash course in the lore of the corrida. Some years earlier, he had taken part in a bullfighting workshop in which he learned the footwork, the strategy, the handling of the capes; every thing but the sword.

He had practiced his cape work with a very young bull, a calf really, whose horns were little more than nubs. That calf would never see a bullring because he had been contaminated by the knowledge he picked up in the workshop. It was two o’clock! Time to go to Las Ventas.

color bullfighter1

I remember mostly Gregorio Sanchez, the star matador that afternoon, who was popular in Madrid because he was from Castile. Sanchez was stately in bearing as he dominated both bulls. He moved the first bull around masterfully with a brilliant display of cape work that ended with a quite, that abrupt downward stroke of the cape that transfixed the bull. Sanchez turned, to bow gravely to the crowd, the bull’s horn inches from his back. He killed both his bulls quickly and bravely, volapie, over the horns.

The other two matadors that afternoon were competent, although the younger man had trouble with the kill. Instead of planting the sword into the withers, the matador, at the last instant, flinched sidewise away from the horn, driving the sword into the bull’s ribcage. Three or four inches of the sword emerged from the bull’s side, dripping blood. It was not a mortal wound. The stony-faced matador flicked the sword out of the bull, using his cape like a lasso or a whip, and he finished the job to the crowd’s approval.

At day’s end I was charged up and tired. The spectacle was grand, the teamwork of the cuadrillas was impressive, the bravery of the matadors was inconceivable. Sanchez worked so close to the bull that he was was repeatedly bumped by its flank as it barreled past him. His shiny costume, his “suit of lights”, became streaked with blood, the bull’s, not his.

I didn’t tell Joe, but I vowed never to see another fight, never again see those bulls so tormented. I left Madrid early that summer because I realized I was no longer interested in Spanish literature: I had lost my aficion. I had rediscovered Italy four years earlier and Margie entered my life in 1959.

I never saw Joe again but we wrote, exchanging Christmas cards for many years. Joe got his PhD and he married his sweetheart. He accepted a job offer from a college in Greensboro, North Carolina where he initiated its Spanish program. He hired his wife and for many years, they constituted the college’s Spanish department. They retired to Madrid after twenty years and then we lost touch.

 

Winning the Cruz de Beneficiencia

Occasionally, in Spain or Mexico, a bull that is being carted to the bullring will escape for a terrifying run through the city streets. More often than not it will be an ordinary steer en route to the slaughterhouse; whichever, the bull’s taste of freedom will be cut short by a policeman’s bullet.

The tabloids, especially the sporting ones, always note these impromptu corridas, which are reported tongue in cheek, in the most arch tauromachian style. The authors of these pieces inevitably invoke the name of a long dead matador de toros, Diego Mazquiaran, El Fortuna.

Diego_Mazquiaran_Torrontegui_fortuna

Diego was born in 1895 in Viscaya where his father worked in the coal mines of Bilbao. A coal miner’s wage was hardly enough to support the family, so Diego, at age
fourteen, was apprenticed to a foundry man in the steel mills of Los Hornos. That was a soft job compared to his father’s but Diego didn’t take to it. Like many poor boys in Spain, he was drawn to los toros corridos, the fighting bulls.

By the time he was twelve or thirteen, he and a like-minded friend were frequenting the rustic bullrings in the villages surrounding Bilbao and by night they were stealing into the corrals of the breeding ranches, to run and observe the bulls. It was in Castile that he earned his nickname, El Fortuna (Mr. Lucky).

On their jaunts to distant bullrings Diego and his friend would board the trains surreptitiously, avoiding the ticket collectors by keeping on the move and hiding in the space between cars.. In Valladolid they were standing between the cars as the train pulled into the station, whereupon it was hit from behind by an errant train. His friend was killed but Diego was spared. Lucky.

Upon recovering from his injuries, Diego drifted down to Andalusia, the heartland of the corrida. In Sevilla, he became a delivery boy for a neighborhood bakery. Whom should he find among his customers: the famous Gomez brothers. Joselito and El Gallo, who were two of the stars in Spain’s triumvirate of great matadors. The third was Juan Belmonte. Lucky.

Diego revealed his aficion to the brothers and they took a liking to him. El Gallo advised him, taught him a little, and got him booked into the village ferias where
Diego fought bravely and he gained notoriety. In contrast to the gypsy elegance of the Gomez brothers, Diego had an unadorned style. He relied more on his knowledge of the bulls than on fancy cape-work, although his cape-work was more that adequate. He excelled with the sword, killing in the classic and dangerous volapie style, up and over the horns.

Foetuna in action

He fought twenty-three times in 1914 and in the 1915 season he was judged the best matador de novillos – immature bulls. Some of those “immature bulls” were really difficult mature ones spurned by well established matadors. In 1916 he received his Alternativa – bestowal of senior status: Matador de Toros – from the hand of his sponsor, El Gallo.

Diego, El Fortuna, was a headliner for the next nine or ten years, scoring successes in Spain, Mexico and South America, occasionally on the same card as El Gallo and Juan Belmonte. Joselito Gomez was gored to death in 1920.

Like many young matadors, Diego worked close to the bulls, a risky practice he should have relaxed as he got older and wiser. But he didn’t. Consequently he was gored almost every season, the most serious injury in 1921 when he took a horn in the intestines On that same afternoon the second matador was gored in the buttock and the third man stabbed himself in the foot,

Diego’s injuries took their toll. He was beset by periods of severe depression, milder symptoms of which had first appeared when he was still a boy. In the bullring his performances veered from the occasional triumph to absolute disaster. As he increasingly fell prey to fits of nerves, the disasters began to outnumber even the few workmanlike performances.

As his popularity declined, so did his bookings. He appeared in six corridas in 1926 and only three in 1927. His mental problems worsened and he spent some time in a mental hospital. Discharged from the hospital in late 1927, Fortuna went into involuntary retirement; he was available but the impresarios never called. His luck had run out.

On the morning of January 23, 1928, a bull, perhaps a fighting bull – the reporter’s account is ambiguous – escaped from the van that was carrying it to the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Madrid. Avoiding its captors, the bull penetrated the city limits via the Segovia bridge, “sewing panic” – the reporter’s phrase – as it went. Unaccountably it roamed the streets for about five hours, trampling several people and seriously wounding a woman.

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At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the bull burst onto the Gran Via, Madrid’s busiest boulevard, thronged at that hour with strollers taking the mid-day paseo. The crowd scattered but one figure stood firm. It was Fortuna, who was taking a walk with his wife. He whipped off his coat and at great risk, he drew the bull’s attention to himself, bringing it to a halt with a deft quite of his overcoat. The street was wet and Fortuna, wearing dress shoes, slipped, fell, and recovered, never taking his eyes off the bull.

By now the crowd had returned and it cheered Fortuna as if in the bullring. His eyes on the bull, Fortuna called out to his wife, asking her to go home – it was nearby – and bring back one of his swords. When it arrived, he folded his overcoat to the size of a muleta, he lined up and move in to the kill, volapie, planting the sword halfway in. In the words of chronicler: “The multitude that had gathered around him – which made his heroic act more difficult – erupted into an emotional ovation, and waving their handkerchiefs wildly, requested an “ear” for the providential matador.”

Fortuna ignored the crowd. Using his overcoat like a lasso, he flicked the half-buried sword from the bull’s withers, and retrieving it, he dispatched the dying animal with a deeper thrust into the bull’s withers. In the bullring that act of mercy would have cost him the ear, his if he had allowed the mortally wounded bull to topple unassisted. Fortuna, in the bullring and on the Gran Via,was not one to let the bull suffer unnecessarily.

He was awarded Spain’s highest civilian medal, La Cruz de Beneficiencia. The impresarios of Spain’s bullrings rediscovered him and for three seasons he fought with some success before friendly audiences. But a storybook ending was not to be.

Fortuna’s mental problems returned, in the ring and out. The friendly multitudes turned merely polite and then indifferent. He made four appearances in 1932, two in 1933, one in 1934 and none in 1935, The 1936 season found him in Peru. After a couple of disasters in Lima’s bullring, the authorities, with his wife’s permission, committed him to an insane asylum.

Oblivion. Except on those rare occasions when an errant bull roams the streets of a city in Spain, Mexico or South America.