Odds and Ends

Jackhammer

The jackhammer team arrived at our courtyard to break out a portion of our cracked sidewalk.  The sidewalk didn’t look that bad but the front office is touchy about our appearance.  

I opened my front door to greet them.  Two young men were lowering the heavy  jackhammer from the backend of a flatbed truck. The truck drove off,  leaving a generator off to the side and the two men standing by the hammer.  My sudden appearance at the door surprised them. (I cannot resist the sight – and sound – of heavy duty equipment in action.)   “Good Morning,” I said.  I decided to speak English, at the last instant.                     

The two young men turned to face me: Mexicans, about twenty five years old.  I never learned their names. One held a heavy broom and a wide-mouthed shovel.   He said good morning and we spoke briefly, in English, his speech lightly accented.   The jackhammer man nodded and said a word which I lost,  He wore  a light scarf. They had a long day ahead of them and I let them at it. The jackhammer soon roared.

He stopped the jackhammer the moment I opened the door to leave my apartment. Their faces and clothes were already white with concrete dust. The man with the broom collected the broken concrete and the dust, loaded the wheelbarrow and he dumped the contents of the barrow into the waiting truck.  They were still at it when I returned two hours later. 

By now they looked like white sculptures. Their eyes were shiny black holes; their nostrils dull black ; their wet pink mouths seemed obscene. I slipped by, unsettled by  these stark white statues. These were not boys playing games.

They were still at it when I emerged in mid-afternoon.  They had washed their hands and faces and had smacked their clothes clean, but a new layer of dust was already spreading across their bodies. 

      “Hola, che tal, che pasa,” I said, straight out of my high school Spanish grammar. 

      “Hola”,  the broom man answered. 

Off to the side, the jackhammer man, a twenty year old, really, lifted the lower front edge of his T- shirt, stretched it between his hands and he wiped the sweat from his brow, from his face, from his chest and from the bronze flesh of his belly.

 

Love for sale

They’re playing it again, not that they’ve ever stopped playing it.  WRTI Radio Philadelphia, plays it regularly, even after my exchange of letters with the stationmaster (a woman). She  agreed that the lyrics to Love for Sale are despicable. Would she, I asked, consider banning the worded versions of the song from her station? No reply. The song has been a jazz standard since Cole Porter wrote it in 1930.  No need to warn your young ones about the “dangerous” lyrics; they’ll laugh aloud.   Here they are:

Love for Sale

Appetizing young love for sale
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled
Love that's only slightly soiled
Love for sale.  

Who will buy?
Who would like to sample her supply
Who's prepared to pay the price
For a trip to paradise
Love for sale

Let the poets speak of love
In their childish way
I know every type of love
Better far than they
If you want the thrill of love
She's been through the mill of love
Old love. new love
Every love but true love

Appetizing young love for sale
If you want to buy her wares
Follow me and climb the stairs
Love for sale
 

Italian Election

Last week  I received a fat envelope from the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia. It was addressed to Il Signore Calogero Perrone. That’s me. The envelope contained “una votazione per assente”,  (an absentee election ballot).   The purpose of the vote was whether or not  to give the right to vote to Italian prison convicts, and to ex-convicts. 

Of course!  It’s about time!  

I filled in “SI” (for Yes block) with a neat X and I mailed the ballot to the Italian Consulate in Philadelphia in the envelope they supplied. 

Stephen called this evening from California to tell me that he, Il Signor Stefano Perrone, had received his Italian absentee ballot.  “What’s it all about?” he asked.   

He knows little Italian but he has voted before. I explained the issue;  to give Italian prison convicts the right to vote..  “Got it,” he said.  He traced an X in the Yes block, the SI block, that is, and he returned his ballot to the Italian Consulate in San Francisco.  

 

Hunchback 

My son was home for Christmas.  He gave me a big hug, massaging my back with his strong fingers. 

     “You’re touching my humpback for good luck!”,  I said quietly.

     “What are you talking about?” 

My hump has come on slowly.  I’m reminded of it only when I sit in a straight-backed chair or when I lie on my back. Has my sweater, has my pajama top bunched up? Has that little pillow I place between my knees when I sleep wandered up to my back?  I reach back (no easy maneuver) to confirm the hump.  It’s there, I think. 

I’ve known for years that the hump was coming– a family thing. Aunt Jennie was bent in two, her nose to the ground. Who in the family was next?  My mother escaped.  My brothers escaped. No escape for me. 

By my mid-seventies, the upper tip of my spine had drifted an inch from vertical.  X rays of my back since then look like aerial photographs of a curving river – my spine – whose looping descent has stolen inches from my height; well, maybe an inch.

But my curving spine, a hitherto irresistible force, met an immovable object, my coccyx. The spine, thwarted in its twisting descent, has pressed outwards, forming a hump.

     “Dad, are you sure about that?”

      “Not yet.  I’m not a doctor.  But it is, after all, my spine .”

Gobbo

Hunchbacks and their humps, have been revered and reviled ever since the days of the Pharaohs. Here’s The Encyclopedia of Superstition, p.136:  “To play a hunch means to act on your gut feelings or intuition.  Originally it meant to touch a hunchback to ward off  evil or bad luck. This derives from an ancient belief that anything deformed …. is potentially evil.  Consequently when you touch anything “evil” you are transferring any possibility of bad things happening to you onto the object you touch.  For best results, it was important to touch the hunchback’s hump without his realizing it.

In Italy, small plastic figurines of hunchbacks, called gobbos, are sold as luck charms.  (Gobbo is also the Italian word for hunchback.) Rubbing a gobbo’s back is believed to provide luck whenever needed”    


				

La Gatta

“La Gatta” is a poem written in Sicilian dialect by Ignazio Buttitta. I translated it into English. Please follow the link below to see a video of me reciting the poem.

The filming of this reading was conceived , produced,  directed and shot by Cecil. B. Bartram. The English subtitles were created by Erica Jordan.

La Gatta

Even she has gone
Even the cat
Now the house is empty

And what was she? Just a cat
Skinny tail
Scraggly black mustache
Two shining eyes
And a lamenting miao, miao
Always underfoot!

Her hose in air
Four stiff legs and
A low slung belly
Just a cat

But only she could rid the chill,
Lift the darkness from the corners,
The shadows from the walk,

She gave life to things
That are still:
spidery cracks in the ceiling,
The ink stain on the windowsill

She lives in me tonight: my tear filled eyes
My heart sunk deep in a dark well,
A cordless battered bucket
And not a bit of sky to light the way

The children played with her, tossing scraps of paper,
my youngest nodding with sleep
The fire flared, their faces glowed
And mother, children, fire, and love were one

My house, now,
Is a cold empty oven
And I am stranger
Who trespasses within

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.

——————————————————————

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.

—————————————————————

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:

————————————————————–

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.

—————————————————————

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.

—————————————————————-

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.

—————————————————————-

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.

————————————————————————

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.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 7.35.22 PM

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

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 7.47.27 PM

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!

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 7.58.26 PM

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.

 

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 8.04.08 PM

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

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 8.12.31 PM

 

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.

 

Screen Shot 2020-01-26 at 8.05.40 PM

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