Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Dirty Looks

David Letterman likes to do this mock-nasty face he calls the skunk eye.

He twists his mug up to one side until he's glaring at you with one squinting eyeball. It's a classic dirty look and I think it's funnier than hell.

But in real life, dirty looks aren't so funny. This week an amatuer boxer was shot to death in Brooklyn after he and his killers exchanged dirty looks. That's all they needed to start shooting: a hostile variation on the skunk eye.

The victim's nickname was "Squint" because of his poor vision and there is a theory that this habit led to his death. The shooters interpreted his squinting as a challenge and naturally the only rational response was to gun him down.

A dirty look is the flashpoint for violence. For years I've heard people say if you look at people the wrong way in this city and you'll get shot. And they're right. So many fights start with the loaded question, what are you looking at?

I was in a martial arts class when I was about 20 and the instructor beaned one of the students with a staff while showing him a technique. The kid got up, angry and sneering, and the instructor got his face and asked "are you giving me dirty looks?"

The kid was pretty upset, but he wasn't going to say too much to a high-ranking black belt. And personally, I thought the instructor was wrong to clobber the guy like that, but you know I kept my mouth shut.

When I was in college I had a guy scream at me on the subway platform claiming I was staring at him. As he was twice my size, I didn't argue. But I still remember a woman at the platform looking at me after this freak was done screaming. I'm not sure if she wanted me to take this bastard on, but if so, she was sorely disappointed.

I got into a very nasty confrontation with my father when I was in college. He had this habit of barging into the bathroom without knocking and I got angry. He started yelling and when I came out I got into his face.

Life With Father

My mother, poor woman, stood between the two idiots and it looked like it was over, but then the son-of-a-bitch looked at me and I looked back, giving him the finger with my eyes. He shoved my mother aside and ploughed into me and I started smashing his face with the blade of my hand, screaming "I'll fucking kill you!" over and over.

My brother cam running out of his room and broke it up and I went off to school. It was one of the more disgusting episodes in my life, but that was one day I didn't feel like backing down from my father. He was always, always hitting or threatening to his us. That gets tiresome after a while.

But what did I accomplish by "standing my ground"? I upset my family, especially my mother, who deserved better, and left myself with an ugly memory that still makes me shudder after 22 years. It doesn't seem worth the effort.

Now at age 84 with Alzheimer's my father is less of a problem and too old to do much damage, but then we did have our little spat on Veterans Day. (See "Man Down.")

Yeah, I'm a tough guy with the nuts in the family, it's just the ones outside the home who scare me. About two years ago I got into a stupid little disagreement with some schmuck in my gym who thought I was stealing his towel (!?). And this was just after I finished a boxing class. I told him I didn't know what he was talking about and took my shower.

When I was dressed and ready to go, I looked his way and he was looking back with that same challenging look my father had some 20-odd years ago. This time I looked away. I blinked first, I backed down, I wimped out, whatever you want to call it.

I guess most normal people would say I was smart not to get into a brawl in my gym, which could have ended in my being injured or killed. (Remember Squint?) And the whole thing sucked even more because it was early January, the start of a new year and I was thinking positively about life. And this idiot had to ruin everything.

And who the hell am I kidding with the boxing anyway? I've been sparring more with the instructors lately and I've seen that fighting, even under controlled conditions, really hurts.

I tell myself that I do this as a reminder that fighting is not an option, but I think there's part of me that enjoys the suffering, that trading blows with a professional fighter makes me some kind of bad-ass. It's foolish, but we live in a society where pushing people around is seen as strength and where tolerant behavior means you're a wimp and wuss, and so many other colorful terms.

So lesson learned. I don't want to end up on the front page of The Daily News. I'll mind my own business, keep my mouth closed and keep my dirty looks to myself. Just don't shoot me.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Port Authority Shogun

Had he lived Bruce Lee would have been 65 years old today.

It's hard to imagine the star of "Enter the Dragon" dealing with the all-too-mortal issues of aging. If you've ever seen any of his movies, you'd swear this incredible being, this force, could never grow old. And, of course, he didn't.

I remember seeing "Enter the Dragon" in high school and, yes, plot wise, it's an abomination, but you knew that going in. It's all about the fighting, Bruce Lee taking on whole divisions of thugs, doing sommersaults into his enemy's face and harpooning that homicidal old geezer in the hall of mirrors.

He was all the rage back in the Seventies. Back then when people said "Bruce" they weren't talking about Springsteen. And then one day he was dead. I remember going back to school after summer vacation and spotting a Chinese kid in my class. He was a martial arts student and a huge Bruce Lee fan.

When he saw me on the first day of school, he didn't ask how my summer went or how I was doing. He just looked at me in disbelief and said two simple words "He's dead." And I knew exactly who he was talking about.

My brother and I used to have a poster of Bruce Lee from "Enter the Dragon" hanging up in our room. I think I got it at King's Plaza Mall, at a store that was going out of business, but the memory is pretty hazy. I'll never forget that poster, though.

Poster Boy

It's a still image from one of the film's numerous fight scenes and Bruce is all coiled and muscular about to dismember some hapless son-of-a-bitch. It's like freezing a bolt of lightning just as it's about to strike.

I know the poster got damaged in some way, like almost every other poster we had, and we took it down and tossed it out. Now the only poster from the era is the black light image of Jimi Hendrix and I don't even want to guess how old that thing is.

Everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee when I was a kid. When kids got into fights, they would invariably starting doing the whole Bruce thing, waving their arms in circles and making these low frequency feline screeches.

You wanted to be fearless, unbeatable, incredibly cool. If you could be Bruce you could handle yourself on the subway ride home, you rescue smaller kids, and you could drive the girls crazy. Beat the hell out of pimples and geometry.

But there's more to Bruce Lee than ass-kicking. People were obsessed with the guy and he's even being used as a force for peace. There's a statue of Bruce Lee in Bosnia, erected as a way of uniting the various warring factions. They may loathe each other, but everybody loves Bruce.

I wondered how Bruce would have handled the Port Authority Shogun, a fellow--I don't want to call him a freak, even though that's accurate--that I ran into a few weeks ago.

It was a Friday night and I was running late for a friend's birthday dinner. I had mapped out the location on Yahoo! and I figured the place was close to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Only I couldn't find any sign of it.

The terminal was in full bustle mode with commuters heading home for the weekend and travelers coming to and getting out of the city. I took a walk down 41st Street, the one that divides the terminal, in search of the restaurant and suddenly the city, the people, the whole world seemed to vanish and I was walking down this deserted canyon.

I heard this loud metal clattering up ahead and I saw this raggy looking guy swinging a steel pole over his head in a kind of lame kung fu routine. The pole was apparently solid because every time he dropped it there was an incredible and rather frightening noise.

I kept walking, even though I was getting nervous. Do I turn around or cross the street? Or do I stand my ground, whatever the hell that means? All these goddamn people in this city, who usually get in my way, and all of sudden it's just down to him and me.

And then it got worse. As he was twirling the pole overhead, the shogun's pants dropped down to his ankles--revealing that a stunning lack of underwear.

Okay, so was this for my benefit? Was he looking to seduce me? Doesn't seem plausible, even though I'm so incredibly handsome. But if not that, what? Why was this guy exposing his equipment on the dark side of the Port Authority bus terminal?

He quickly dropped the pole and pulled up his pants. I kept walking. If I had been Bruce Lee, of course, I would have gone to town, ripping off my shirt, swirling my arms, and throwing a series of blinding punches and kicks. I would have made this degenerate clown sorry he had ever been born.

Remember how Bruce nailed old Han in the hall of mirrors? Just before he launches his attack, he says something like, "you have offended me and my family and the Shaolin Temple" and then kicks the one-handed paper-hanger through a glass wall. That's what I wanted do to this lunatic.

Prepare to Die

But I'm not Bruce Lee. I'm a short, middle-aged guy looking for my place in this world. And the shogun, well, maybe he was harmless, but that metal pipe was nasty.

I walked by and the man did not approach me. I felt cut off from the rest of humanity and when I looped back up to Eighth Avenue, I saw that I was several blocks away from the restaurant.

I don't know if I fed the wrong numbers into the computer or if the map software had gone haywire. In any case, I felt like an out-of-towner, getting lost in the big city and running into one of its demented residents. Wait'll the folks back in Schenectady hear about this!

I wonder what happened to that guy, what his story was, why he was there doing this bizarre show for an unwilling audience of one. He was probably some drug addict who will someday be scraped off the sidewalk in the shadow of that big, heartless building and no one will ever miss him. He'll evaporate like a cloud of bus fumes.

The world won't mourn his loss, the way it did the passing of Bruce Lee. No wailing women, no devastated fans, no legends that would live on for decades after his death. Just a rubber bag, a toe tag and a hole in Potter's Field.

Maybe the shogun wanted to be Bruce, just like we all did in high school. He wanted to be feared and respected in a city and in a world that does their best to grind you down. I can't see anyone putting up a poster of this guy in their bedroom, unless they wanted to scare away intruders.

This perverted dance in the street light's beam was probably this guy's only big moment. And if I had gotten the restaurant's address right, I would have been spared witnessing it.

So Bruce Lee's gone, like so many idols. That's one of the rules for getting in the club. You have to die young and at the top of your game.

If you're still alive after a certain time, then you're old, you're a has-been, and you should step out of the way and make room for the younger generation. I wonder if that would have happened to Bruce if he were alive today. Imagine calling Bruce a has-been. Society forgives a lot, but growing old is unpardonable.

So, happy birthday, Little Dragon. We may have gotten old down here on earth, but we can still dream about being like you.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Pilgrim's Pride

And so another Thanksgiving goes into the record books.

I'm sitting in front of my computer, stuffed to the gills and listening to "Porgy and Bess" (?) on NPR. All the guests have gone and my Aunt Margaret just called to thank me and my sister for a wonderful time.

Most of the cleaning is done, I put out the trash, left some food for Flash, my alley cat amigo, and, praise the Lord, I don't have to work tomorrow. Can't remember the last time I had the Friday after Thanksgiving off and I am truly thankful for this, I can tell you.

This is the first holiday celebration we've had at home since my mother died three years ago. Prior to tonight we always went to restaurants for the holiday meals because my sister and I couldn't bear the thought of sitting at the dinner table and looking at my mother's empty chair.

But some time has passed, and to be honest, my father really isn't in good shape to go out. He's looking frail lately and with the problem he's been having with incontinence, well, it just seemed like a good idea to stay home on the range.

We got a local restaurant to cater the dinner (for a mere 300 bucks) and had nine people over here. In addition to my aunt, the guest list included my cousin, his wife, and his wife's parents.

My friend Stephanie came down from Hartford and I warned her that it might be like eating in a senior citizen home, but she was okay with it and seemed to fit right in with this bunch. If I were her, I'd be worried...

It came off pretty well, though the squash could have been a little warmer. Joan and I were so worried about burning the food, we only heated it up for a short time. Still it was good stuff and I didn't have time to cry over my mother, since we were both so busy putting the meal together. I guess that's what her holiday meals were like, always jumping up and getting things for people.

I usually hate it when people speak on behalf of the dead, but I know my mother wouldn't have wanted anyone crying over her when we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves.

I associate my mother more with Christmas, but Thanksgiving always brings memories of my Aunt Loretta. She was my father's sister, a great, heavy women who lived in this old apartment building in upper Manhattan where my father grew up. We'd ride all the way up on the West Side Highway and walk up all those flights to Loretta's apartment, where you could smell the food cooking from two floors down.

Show me Some Love

Loretta would waddle out of the kitchen crying "Happy Thanksgivin'!" and squeeze the beejesus out of me. I was a little kid and I always looked forward to Loretta's WWF-style bear hugs. It made me feel safe, it made me feel loved. I remember one year my father telling me to get "dolled up" (dressed nicely) because Loretta was so sweet on me.

My siblings and I would play with our cousins while the adults drank and usually argued about something. The house would get so warm we'd open the windows and let some cool air flow into the apartment.

I remember one year when my father was feeling no pain, as the expression goes, and he decided to torture my aunt's cat. Every time the cat walked by him, he'd reach down and pick it up by its tail. And every time he did, Loretta would come flying out of the kitchen shouting "you stupid sonaofabitch!" in her surprisingly high voice and proceed to pound the hell out of my father with her massive hands. Then he'd do it again.

Now so many of those adults, including Loretta, are gone. The one's who have survived can't do much for themselves and they certainly can't host dinners. I remember talking with my mother after Loretta died and we both agreed Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without Loretta running the show. But we moved on, the children have moved up a notch in the holiday pecking order to the adult level with all its responsibilities.

I miss the ones who have gone, but I like helping out the ones who are here. What the hell? I can't be a child forever, though I confess I'm making a pretty good stab at it.

The old timers don't fight like they used to, which is about the only good thing I can say about aging. No screaming matches or drunken arguments. We just feed them and put them to bed. I feel badly for my cousin's in-laws. They are so old, so frail and frightened, both of them need walkers. Is this what the Golden Years are all about?

For years I used to work on Thanksgiving Day. I was a reporter at the Pocono Record and since somebody had to work on the holidays, I made a deal with my bosses to take Thanksgiving with the understanding they'd leave me the hell alone come Christmas. (I worked one Christmas Day in Connecticut and it was freaking horrible.)

One Thanksgiving in Stroudsburg I went over to a church to cover the dinner for the poor and homeless. I normally wore a dress shirt and tie at work, but since it was a holiday and none of the suits were around, I put on some old jeans and a work shirt.

When I got to the church, the hostess approached me with this huge, warm smile and said in these soft, gentle tones, "hi, how are you?" Immediately I knew she had sized me up as a homeless guy and I quickly identified myself. I'm here to cover this thing, lady, not to take a seat, okay? I tell that story a lot, and I told it tonight, and I always get a big laugh.

But maybe I should have played along and sat down at a table with people who really knew what hard times are like. I could get their stories without them knowing it, which may be underhanded, but I may have gotten a clearer, more honest picture of what it's like to rely on the kindess of strangers for your holiday meal.

These people didn't have a loving Aunt Loretta to cook for them and to squeeze them to her breast. They just had the church and each other I guess. And some days that looks pretty good.

I don't have a family on my own and at times like these I wonder what will happen to me if and when I reach my golden years. Maybe I'll wind up at a church dinner, with no one but the other strangers at the table. And if I do I'll thank God for whatever they put in front of me and wink up toward heaven at Aunt Loretta.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Losing the Light

I hate covering trials.

I've been a reporter for, ye gods, something close to 20 years and I've only covered a handful of trials and preliminary hearings. And I've pretty much hated them all.

Time loses all meaning in court. Things that in the real world would be done in no time grind down to extreme slow motion as soon as you add a judge and some lawyers. You sit there and wonder when the hell you're going to get out of there.

You watch the sun go down, the shadows grow long and the stars come out and you're still in this goddamn courthouse.

And then you start taking it personally, as in, could you bastards just reach a verdict of some kind, just or unjust, logical or insane, and let me go the hell home?

You swear you're going to quit this nonsense, going to find another job, break down and become a PR man like some many other ex-reporters and start pulling down some real money for a change.

It's like being punch drunk without climbing into the ring.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

I'm just recovering from the latest fiasco tonight. I was in federal bankruptcy court today covering a hearing where the fiscally challenged Delta Airlines is looking to scrap the unionized pilots' contract.

It's big news, no doubt, certainly the biggest case I've ever covered. And it was exciting: here I am in downtown Manhattan with all these big time lawyers and major news organizations. Everyone was crammed into this small courtroom and I had to stand at the door to hear anything. I felt like a high roller.

A woman from CNN (my old company) asked me how long the hearing would take and I just shrugged. It could go on forever and, you know, I was almost right.

The case started with a bang as the pilots' attorney stood and asked the judge to recuse herself on the strength of some of the judge's comments about the pilots in an earlier proceeding. Well, that got Delta's attorney hopping through his rear end, claiming he had been sandbagged and blasted the pilots' attorney for his courtroom theatrics.

Close to two hours, people, that's how long this battle went on. And, big surprise, the judge decided she wasn't prejudiced against the pilots and ordered the hearing to continue. Then another schlamazzle began over the pilots' pension issue, more time went by and we still hadn't gotten to the opening arguments.

I got tired and went one flight down where reporters could sit in an empty courtroom and listen to the hearing on the sound system. I usually like to see the faces that are talking, but I was too frazzled by then. I knew what these guys looked like, so I sat at one of the attorney's table and tried to stay in the upright position.

The hearing took on an eerie atmosphere, with these disembodied voices arguing with each other. The window in the reporters' courtroom was opened a crack so the wind made these bizarre sounds like a lost spirit. And it kept getting darker.

I remember covering a rape trial in Stroudsburg, Pa. for the Pocono Record some 15 or more years ago, and when the jury got the case, me and the reporter from the Easton Express hung out in the hallway waiting for a verdict. And it kept getting darker.

Hang it up

Now, of course, while you're suspended in this legal limbo, the rest of your life goes on, usually in a bad direction so you can do nothing about it but worry. In this case my father's homecare attendant, Mary, left me a message saying she had called the police on our upstairs tenants because they were having yet another brawl.

I loathe these people. They are white trash to the hilt, they've turned our house into a two-story trailer park and I curse the day I ever laid eyes on them. But I'm not a bitter or anything.

Anyway I'm talking with Mary in the hallway when this woman comes flying down the hallway and starts yakking at me. It turns out you're not supposed to have a cell phone in the courthouse at all. The woman, whoever the hell she was, told me I had to give me cell phone to the marshals six storeys below.

I toyed with the idea of slipping my phone into my pocket and just pretending I had gave it in, but I don't have that kind of nerve or that kind of luck. I'd see a marshal in the hallway and look so guilty I'd wind up on trial myself. No thanks.

It got to be around 6 o'clock when the lawyers got through their opening arguments. The judge, who kept up interrupting the attorneys with her questions, comments and observations, finally noticed how late it was and wanted to get the hell out of there. We're all supposed to come back tomorrow at noon.

I retreived my cell phone and discovered that it was raining, so I had to walk five blocks back to my office without an umbrella. I called my editor and he said he didn't think he needed a story, since there was no ruling. I would tend to disagree, but I was so tired, I wasn't going to argue. No story? No problem.

So now I'm home and I'm getting ready to watch another day turn into night while the lawyers argue, the judge rules, and the reporters wish they had chosen another career.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Bird is the Word

And now, live from Planet Freak Show, we bring you the Case of the Purloined Parrot.

I usually hate to preface a story with the words "this is true" but a recent case out of Florida makes this little disclaimer mandatory.

It seems this woman down there was so enamored with a classic car that she swiped an exotic parrot from her employer, stuffed the bird down her bra (!?) and tried to swap the little bugger for the vintage vehicle.

The deal went south, however, when the car's owner turned out to be a good friend of the parrot-napper's boss. It really is a small world after all.

"The circumstances of the case are the most bizarre I've ever encountered," said veteran wildlife investigator Lenny Barshinger. Where's Long John Silver when you need him?

I recall an old Monty Python bit about a bogus news program that focused only on the news for parrots. So there would be stories like "No parrots were involved in a 5-car pile-up on the M-5 today."

And then there was John Cleese's classic dead parrot sketch where he plays an irate customer returning the parrot what he bought store not two hours ago turned out to be dead. He gives the store owner about a dozen alternate expressions for death before finally shrieking, "this is an ex-parrot!"

Beautiful bird, the Norwegian Blue. Lovely plumage.

I can't imagine stealing a parrot for any reason, and if I did, I really can't imagine stuffing the thing into my clothing. I would think having an animal with a beak anywhere near your breasts would be dangerous for both parties. But I am a little jealous since that bird was getting more action than I've had in a long time.

And what kind of business deal is this? I've heard of oil for food, and guns for hostages, but a bird for a card is a little out there. Now you can't drive a bird, but a car doesn't talk. Unless it's that car from Knight Rider and I think that might have been a fake.

What makes people do this? Is it a strange sense of entitlement, a failure to know right from wrong? A feeling that they are above the law? Or are they just fucking stupid?

Or maybe it'll catch on. I was walking by an Asian store in my neighorhood that sells vegetables and fish when I saw a sign that I thought said "We Accept Catfish."

Hmmm, I thought, now there's an interesting pay structure. What if I brought in a trout or even a parrot? We could have a whole animal bartering economy and finally move on to the cashless society I've been hearing so much about.

Weasels, anteaters, boa constrictors, gazelles, chipmonks and armadillos could all do double duty as currency. Now it could get a little messy and the wallet and pocketbook would need a radical-design, but that's a small price to pay for getting back to nature.

I noticed that sign actually says "We Accept Food Stamps" and they only sell catfish. For money, not woodchucks. So another great idea goes down the tube. But it never hurts to keep a few parrots around the house just in case.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Cat's Pajamas

Oh, the irony...

For years I have tortured my sister with my degrading, hateful comments about cats.

Rancid fleabags was my expression of choice, but I made full use of the language in describing my loathing for felines.

Now, I was just kidding, of course. I was trying to torment my sister by ragging on her cats. I don't have anything against them--nor anything for them, come to think of it. I was just playing around.

She always threatened to get me a cat as a punishment and I always swore I'd donate it to the nearest Chinese restaurant. So it went on over the years. She'd put her cats on the phone so I could hear them purr(?!?) and describe what they were doing while she was talking to me.

Hey, who cares about them stupid cats? I got better things to do then waste time on those obnoxious, lazy, overfed trouble makers.

Or then again, maybe I don't. It seems now I am in need of cats, or at least one, to scare away the mice (or worse) that have gotten into this house.

I put poison down in the cellar, of course. But that cellar is a hellhole and the bastards have been tunneling in from the front garden. (I suspect a rat or two may have joined the party.)

But I don't want these vile creatures in my house and I don't like spreading poison around the old homestead. So, what's left?

Alley cats, that's what. They're always around, knocking over the garbage, brawling and fornicating in the alley at the dead of night. For all the trouble they caused me, the least they could do is help me get rid of the rodents.

I went to the grocery store and walked back to the pet food section. I know nothing of cat food, except that I wasn't buying the canned crap. The odor, the very look of the stuff makes me gag.

So I went for the dry food and I found the perfect brand: Alley Cat, complete with a cartoon of a scruffy looking feline on the bag.

I got some small paper dishes and put on food in the front garden and the backyard. My plan was to have my house reeking of eau d'cat so mice, rats, kangaroos, zebras and any other type of vermin would haul ass out of my home and never darken my door step again.

I put on food once and the next night I forgot. The following morning I open my door to get my paper and there are two cats in the middle of the street looking at me with this wounded, dismayed expression.

How could you forget us? They seemed to ask. What kind of person are you?

Look, this is business. I feed you, you scare away the mice. We don't have to like each, we don't even have to see each other to make this thing work. I'll put down the food, you put down the mice. Got it?

The Calico Queen

At one time mice were unthinkable around my house. At one time my family's house was cat central. With our pet Phoebe, a beautiful calico cat, we had more litters of kittens than you could shake a scratching post at.

Phoebe had her own way of doing things. While she spent time in the house, she also hit the streets, coming back when it suited her. We always had dogs and we had to keep them separated, but, aside from a few skirmishes, we got by without any bloodshed.

Phoebe and her broods ruled the cellar of our house. We'd put down food and water and Phoebe would take care of the rest. I have dim memories of Phoebe and her kittens running down the stairs from the second floor of our house, their tails up in the air.

We gave away a lot of Phoebe's kittens, and we kept a few. I remember Figaro and Domino, a beautiful black cat with a white spot under his chin. He turned up dead one day, poisoned apparently by some godless bastard and I recall how angry and upset we all were. And Phoebe, of course, was crushed.

We could go on vacation for two weeks and as soon as my father turned the car into our driveway Phoebe would pop up out of nowhere, her eyes reflecting green in the car's headlights.

Phoebe got older and she had to have a hysterectomy, so there would be no more kittens. And then, it seems like a short time later Phoebe was feeling sick. My father put her in this ancient cat box we kept around and when he came back the box was empty.

I remember when he told my mother, how she burst into tears, poor woman. My grandmother had died a few years before that and our dog Schnapps had also gone to his reward. With the death of Phoebe now my mom shook her head and sadly said, "it's the end of an era."

That may sound a little strange but I know what she meant. My grandmother, Schnapps and Phoebe had spent a lot of time on this earth and they spent a lot of it together, so, yes, when Phoebe died, there was a feeling around the house that a chapter in our family history had come to an end.

My sister said I should put down water along with the dry food. I joked about strolling musicians and porter house steaks, but honestly it does feel good to help the buggers out. They have to eat from garbage cans, deal with scorn, foul weather and speeding cars.

I guess some days we all feel like an alley cat in a harsh world, so putting out some food and water seems like the right thing to do.

And I like to imagine that I could be feeding one of Phoebe's descendants. God knows she had enough kittens, maybe this is one of her grandchildren coming to our house each night to empty the food dish and scare away the mice.

Maybe it's not the end of an era after all, but the start of a new one.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Thank you, Judy

You never know where you'll meet a decent human being.

Most days they can be awful hard to find and if I went searching for one, a huge corporation would be the last place I'd look.

But that's what happened last week when I called my father's insurance carrier to find out what I could about his IRA.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and he's never been one for keeping records, a trait that I unfortunately inherited.

My mother was always the one that did the finacial paperwork for them, although my father always maintained he was the brains of the outfit, despite the acute lack of evidence.

Since my mom's death three years ago, his financial records have pretty much gone to hell. I've done my best to keep up, but my hatred off all things financial and my stunning lack of apptitude in these matters has resulted in some rather sizeable gaps in my dad's portfolio.

I had to call the insurance company to see what was going on with his IRA. I won't mention the name, but they've got a blimp and a cartoon dog on the payroll so you take it from there.

Naturally I had to go through the answering service contortions, pressing button after button until I got a real person. Her name was Judy, she had what I think was a southern accent and she wanted to know how she could help me today. So I told her about my father's scattered financials and explained that I was calling because of my dad's condition.

Judy told me she couldn't tell me much unless my dad gave her verbal permission. Since I was calling from work, this would be a little difficult. Now I'm not sure what happened next, but somehow Judy went from being another telephone android to being a kind, caring flesh and blood woman who really did want to help me.

I know what you're going through.

That's how it started, when Judy said she understood our situation. She told me about her mother, a former school teacher who had Alzheimer's. She was known for her great spelling ability, but as the disease progressed this same woman didn't know how to put her shoes on.

Judy said her mom had trouble recognized her--her own daughter--but always recognized Judy's husband. She called Judy's brother--her own son--"the heavy fellow" because he was a few pounds overweight. And she called her son's wife "the woman from Tennessee" and nobody knew why.

Judy went on and on with this story, pouring all into my brain from some telephone call-in center somewhere in America. It was such jarring combination of the intimate and the impersonal, I didn't know how to handle it.

Judy finally finished her story and she wished me luck. I was almost in tears by then and I thanked her for kindness. This kind of compassion, real compassion can't be taught in some kind of telemarketing school. You've got to be born with it.

I'm sorry I didn't get Judy's last name because I would have actually written a letter to her supervisors telling them what a great employee they had. I wonder if they would frown about such familiarity with the clients. You're supposed to be a heartless robot like the rest of us, Judy. Get with the program or turn in your headphones. Let's hope not.

So, Judy, I'll thank you through this blog. The few minutes you spent talking to me about your mom meant so much to me you have no idea. And I guess the best way to honor your kindness is to pass along.

Take care, Judy. I'm so glad we got to talk.