Friday, December 29, 2006

"Don't Leave Me"


My father's Christmas presents are still wrapped and waiting for him under the tree. But it will be a long time before he sees them.

My dad had a seizure a week ago and it looks like he'll be going to a nursing home for another period of rehab.

He just got home in November after being away for a month and now he's back on the chain gang.

Only this time its worse. As one of the doctors explained to me, my father's condition has come down a notch for good. They can help him in rehab, but he will not have the same mental and physical abilities he had before.

I saw him yesterday and I have to say he looked terrible--like an ancient infant, helpless, confused, drifting between sleep and consciousness. We're heading into a new year, but for my father every day is the same.

I had come from the Patient Relations (hah!) Department on the first floor, where I had gone to look over several sets of dentures that had no owners.

The hospital managed to lose my father's own pair while we were at the Emergency Room on last week (God, it feels like a hundred years ago) and, to their credit, they were doing their best to find them.

I've never had to ID dentures before. I thought it would be like one of of those old cop movies where they pull the sheet back from the body and the victim's family starts sobbing.

However, this was more like someone cleaning out their attic, as one of the staffers came into the office with a cardboard box fall of false teeth and proceeded to put down several pairs for my inspection.

My father's was not among them, but I would like to know how all these dentures came to be here. Where were the owners? Were they all walking around gumming their food, or was this all that remained of them?

The hospital staffer told me there was a good chance my dad's teeth had been thrown out, which doesn't surprise me one goddamn bit, the way things have been going these last week or so.

He told me he'd put in a request for reimbursement, but I get the feeling the hospital is going to try and weasel out of paying for their blunder.

Once I got upstairs I found my father's bed was gone--removed from the room completely--and I felt that old panic, where I'm convinced he's dead and no one's told me about it.

But it turned out they had taken him downstairs for some tests and it was just easier to wheel the entire bed out of the room then to try and get him into a wheelchair.

Auld Anxiety

They brought him upstairs and I sat with him for about an hour or so. Missing dentures are the least of his worries, as he is being fed through his nose.

The doctors want to put a feeding tube into his stomach, but my family has heard bad things about this procedure, including the possibility of infection. But we may not have any choice.

My father shares his room with a young Orthodox Jewish man who appears to be in a coma. He has not moved any of the times I've been there and he has friends or family who sit with him during the day. While it's tough to see my dad in this condition, this other man doesn't appear to be a day over 30.

I tried to read while I was there, as conversation is pretty much impossible, given my dad's deafness and failing mental state. But he kept on trying to put out the IV and get out of bed to go to the bathroom. The nurses told him to just go in his diaper, but he didn't seem to get it.

Finally, they came in and restrained my father's hands, stretching his arms out so he looked like he was being crucified. I know this was for his own good, but it was awful to see him like that.

After a while, I kissed him goodbye and told him I'd see him soon. Mary, his aide, was down there today and she called to tell me he seemed a little better. She told me that as soon as my dad saw her, he said, "don't leave me."

You know I think I'm a little jealous, but Mary has earned his trust over the last year or so. And he has said similar things to me, but nothing so direct. I think is better equipped to handle his problems than I am.

God, he must be frightened and confused. I hate to say this, but I'm starting to wonder now if it would be better if he just went in his sleep. I'm not saying this for selfish reasons, honest to God. It's just that I can't stand seeing him like this. He has no idea what's going on, his body is failing--it's like cruel joke is being played on him.

And the doctors say his seizure was due to the fall he suffered last week. This enhances my guilty feelings, since I was home when it happened.

It was 2 AM, I had Edith, the night nurse, in the house with me, we had the baby monitor on in the room, and he still fell down and cracked his head open. I don't know what to do, short of strapping him to his own bed at night. I'm trying not to wallow in the guilt, but some days it's very hard.

I wonder if he will ever get to unwrap his presents and if he does, will he even know what they are. My sister and I put a Christmas tree this year, but he will never see it. He'll be in rehab well into January and by that time the tree will long gone.

So, when the ball drops on Sunday, my father will most likely be asleep. When he wakes up on Monday, the new year will be meaningless, and all the talk about resolutions, change, fresh starts, and new leaves, will not matter to him at all.

He'll be in another world, about as far away from the New Year's revelers as he could possibly be.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Tough Christmas


Christmas comes but one a year and all I can say is thank God for that.

My father is back in the hospital, having suffered a seizure on Saturday night, so forgive me if I get a little Ebenezer on you.

I had just gotten off the R train at Prince Street and was hanging out in the Housing Works Used Book Cafe when my cell phone went off.

It was my sister, telling me that my father had just been taken out of the house in an ambulance. I was supposed to meet up with my bud Hank to see Letters from Iwo Jima, but I knew that couldn't fly.

I told my sister I was on my way, called Hank to tell him the story, and then I was back on Prince Street, where I hopped on the N train to Brooklyn.

I guess I was numb, or perhaps I thought it wasn't that serious, but then my cell phone went off while I was on the Manhattan Bridge, indicating I had a message. It was Edith, our night aide, and she had apparently called me first before dialing up my sister.

"Robert," she wailed into the phone. "Come home! You're father is dying!"

I felt so helpless listening to that message while riding over the bridge. I couldn't go any faster and I couldn't even respond as the train was going back into the tunnel.

I got to the hospital and met Mary, our daytime aide, in the ER waiting room. It was Saturday night and the place was packed--there was even a bunch of soccer players in one corner, waiting on the condition of an injured teammate.

There was some kind of commotion going on in the ER, so I had to wait outside with Mary while my sister sat with our father inside. I found out later two federal agents had brought in an injured or ailing prisoner so they cleared out the place for security reasons. Just another Saturday night in Brooklyn.

Kris Krumble

I sat there watching Ghost on the TV and wondering what the hell to do next. The guards finally let people inside and I found my sister sitting next to my dad in one of the cubicles.

He looked terrible, but to be honest, he had been looking awful all day Saturday. He was non-responsive and confused. He would only point for things he wanted, refusing or unable to speak.

When Mary served him spaghetti for dinner, he walked away from table with tomato sauce spread all over his face and strands of pasta hanging from his mouth. It was painful to see him like this.

My sister said he had had a seizure while she was there, and from her description of the incident I was glad I missed it.

The doctor seemed to think that the fall my father took earlier in the week might have been the cause of the latest trouble. (They later backed off from that theory, but I was feeling pretty guilty, as the fall happened on my watch.)

We broke from a dinner break at 11 pm, went back to the house and got two bites out of a turkey hotdog when Mary called to say my father's blood pressue had nosedived. So, back to the hospital we go and wait some more while the doctors conducted more tests.

My sister had befriended a nice Italian lady who had brought her husband in for treatment. I forgot what his problem was, but he had just been discharged a little while ago after a lengthy stay. Sometimes it's hard to quit the ER.

The woman told my sister that she had bought a ton of food for the family's Christmas dinner, but she now planned to throw it all away. I hope she changed her mind and found some use for that food.

There was a young Asian man in the cubicle next to our father's. I don't know what his problem was, but the nurse was making him drink this thick, black, horrible-looking stuff that bore a strong resemblance to motor oil. His friend said the guy was about to throw up and I don't blame him one bit. It was bad enough to watch he swallow that crap.

The doctor finally told us we could go home and on the way out we stopped to chat with an old Scandinavian lady who was propped up on a gurney and apparently forgotten. She was suffering from a bad reaction to some medicine and all I could see was this lonely lady by herself in the ER two days from Christmas. It was heart-breaking.

We talked for a little while and then she squeezed our hands and wished us a happy and a healthy Christmas. I hope we gave her some comfort during our brief talk.

She struck me as being from this old immigrant stock that is slowly dying off--the kind of people who are tough and resourceful, the ones who do a job without complaining. That's really the kind of people we can't afford to lose.

"That'll be us some day in the ER, since we don't have children," my sister said later.

Tinsel Town

We visited my dad on Christmas Eve, but he was still sedated. The doctor was pushing him and shaking him, but he didn't open his eyes. Everything was up in the air, so I went to Manhattan to have dinner with my aunt. There wasn't much to do for my father and I didn't want my mother's sister to be alone on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Day saw us back at the hospital. My sister and I had actually gotten a tree and decorated the thing early Monday morning. We bought cakes and wine and told the folks on my dad's side of the family to come over for dessert.

My dad was talking a little bit, but we couldn't understand much of what he said. In case you were wondering, being in a hospital on Christmas really does suck, and I suspect being a patient there is even worse.

We had to leave at 4 pm, so we wished our dad a merry Christmas and left to get my aunt. Our cousin called us and said they might not be able to make it. Since my sister and I dropped a lot of dough on the food, we were pretty pissed--but we held it in.

Meanwhile, we went over to a Chinese restaurant on Sixth Avenue and bought our Christmas dinner. For those of you who saw A Christmas Story, this might sound familiar, though none of the waiters sang to us.

There were a lot of things going wrong, including some screw-up with our order, and then we couldn't get the wine bottle open. I was starting to wonder whether it was Dec. 25 or Friday the Thirteenth.

But then my cousins showed up, we got out the cakes, and managed to pull the corks out of those goddamn wine bottles. Even the Christmas tree, which was a little on the scrawny side, was looking better.

This was nothing like the Christmas dinners of our childhood, where my mother cooked all day long and the house just filled up with people. Today we just had the next generation, older, childless, and probably not much wiser. Still, I was starting to have fun.

I was walking through Gramercy Park on Christmas Eve and I saw all these lovely decorations and beautiful Christmas trees in people's homes, and I felt a twinge of jealousy.

Why couldn't we have a nice, enjoyable holiday instead of running back and forth to the hospital, wondering whether or not our father will survive to see New Year's Day?

But I know that all families go through this grief, and that envying other people's happiness is a loser's game. Everyone is happy for a while and then things change.

And everyone has the Christmas they will never forget and the Christmas they will never stop trying to forget. It's the way of the world. If you're lucky, you have more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

So, let's lift our glass and thank God for whatever time we have. Next year, we're doing sushi.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"He Denies Pain"


When my father went into the emergency room the other night, the EMT told the head nurse of my father's condition adding that "he denies pain."

I thought that this was an unusual expression. They didn't say my father wasn't having any pain; just that he denied having pain.

It sounded like they way trying to avoid any kind of legal problem should it turn out my father--or anybody else--actually was in pain.

It makes me think of Peter denying Jesus three times before the cock crows, or a suspect in an old black and white crime movie denying a murder rap.

That phrase came back to me today, my father's first full day after being discharged from the hospital. I'm trying to deny a whole lot of pain, but the pain is not denying me.

First, I went to the hospital yesterday to pick up my dad. When I got there Mary, his aide, tells me that my father doesn't have his dentures and nobody at this pig sty masquerading as hospital knows where they are.

I found this particularly infuriating because the emergency room doctor insisted that my father have his dentures when he was admitted into the hospital. I had to call Edith, our night aide, to bring my father's dentures down to the ER at 5 am, along with his meds.

Edith is so on top of things that she had the teeth in a plastic bag that had a label with my father's name and address attached to it. Fool-proof, right? Not exactly.

I had a bad feeling when I put the bag down on the night table in my father's cubicle. I was concerned that would get lost if some numb nuts attendant took my dad to his room without looking for his teeth.

It turns out I was right, proving yet again that you should always follow your instincts. Nobody on the fourth floor knew anything about my father's teeth and the social worker suggested I could do to the ER and look.

Golly, I was pissed. I went down to the ER, which was packed with the sick and the injured, and I could barely recognize the place. I had to just about tackle someone to get some attention and one woman, who I assume was the head nurse, did make an effort to find out what had happened.

While I was waiting, I looked at the patient moniter that listed the names and conditions of the people around me. Next to one name was the phrase "Shortness of Breath" and below that the condition had been cut down to "SOB."

One patient was suffering from "Altered State of Mine" and I was thinking I should pull up a cubicle and stay for a while.

Naturally, they didn't find anything in the ER--the place is just bursting with activity, so a small plastic package doesn't have much chance. I went to see the idiot in Patient Relations and got nowhere. I walked out saying this would not go away.

This morning I called the hospital CEO demanding action. She wasn't there, but I figured I rattled a few cages because I heard from someone else in Patient Relations. I spoke politely to her and she seemed on top of things, so I felt a little better.

That was a mistake. After rushing around to the gym and a few other places, I came home to find a pair of bulky letters addressed to my father and sister.

I opened up one of them and found that the mother of my upstairs tenant was suing us because the fat sow fell down on our property back in April 2005.

I was livid. This old skank fainted on our front stoop when she had a bad reaction to her diabetes medication. As she fell, she grabbed a wooden post on our garden fence, which broke under considerable weight.

Her ambulance-chaser tried to shake us down before with some kind of legal notice, but our insurance company told them to fuck off. And we thought that was the end of it.

Happy Holidays

I should mention here that this case cropped up the other night at the hospital. As I was telling the nurses how my father fell down in his bedroom, he had to put his two cents.

"I didn't fall down," he said. "My tenant fell down. I was helping her up."

I chalked that comment up to dementia, but now I'm wondering if my father might have acquired some kind of second sight. If so, I hope he can pick the winning lottery number.

I have been cursing so much over the last two days I sound like bag lady screaming at the pigeons in Central Park. This kind of bullshit always hits the fan right around Christmas, like Dec. 25 is some kind of hexed date rather than a big holiday.

Everything makes me angry now. I never heard from the hospital so I went to the MOMA in Manhattan for a date with a young woman I met online.

I was riding on the R train and there was a bunch of loud, stupid high schoolers in my car, which ticked me off more than usual. I looked over and saw this elderly woman--I think she was Russian--sitting with a young girl I took to be the woman's granddaughter.

The girl had on her head on the old lady's shoulder in this simple but meaningful expression of love and they provided a sharp contrast to the rowdy pigs around us.

"Let's get away from here," one of these classy young ladies said, "it smells like a fucking stinky vagina."

Yes, and it's probably yours, you little whore. I told you I was in a bad mood, right?

While crossing the bridge on the D train, my cell phone goes off and I find the hospital woman has left me and message and she's leaving in 15 minutes and she really hopes I'll call back before then because she wants to ask me something.

Needless to say, I missed that deadline and now I won't be able to reach her until next Tuesday. Same thing with our insurance company. It was just getting better.

My date called me to say she was running a few minutes late, which turned out to be close to 30 minutes. She finally showed up and in we go.

Of course the "date" sucked, as I could barely get two words out of this woman. I think age was a factor, since she's much younger than I, but then why the hell did she agree to this? I could have gone to the museum alone for the company she provided.

We went our separate ways at the corner of 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue. It was raining like a bastard, but I didn't feel like going home--still angry.

I went down to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and finally caught "Babel," a movie I've trying to see for a while. It was very intense and it did take some of the edge off the day. Some, but not all.

So now all this crap that's been on my neck will be going on through Christmas. I'm on vacation during the week and it looks I'll be spending talking to lawyers, hospital bureaucrats, and somebody who knows how to write up an eviction notice.

I'm denying the pain, I really am. But that doesn't seem to help, so I guess I'll have to alter my state of mind.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ambulance Run


I had to take a late-night ambulance ride the other night when my father fell down in his room.

It was about 2 am Tuesday morning and I heard this tremendous crash, falled my father's voice shouting out "Robert!"

I ran into his room and found him stretched out on the floor right next to his bed. His head was propped up against the night table and we found he had a nasty lump back there.

Thank God I had Edith, my dad's night aide, staying over with us. We just set up a baby monitor that night and it worked perfectly.

Edith and I got my dad off the floor and we checked for broken bones. He was not very responsive, but with the dementia that's not surprising. I debated calling an ambulance, knowing that I'd have to spend the rest of the night in the emergency room and then go to work the next day.

My father had a preliminary kind of stroke called a TIA during the summer and then a real stroke back in October. Both times he fell and both times I let him talk me out of calling an ambulance. This time would be different.

Given my father's age and medical condition, I don't think there's such a thing as hitting the panic button or over-reacting. Every thing now is pretty much an emergency, so I tried calling our local ambulance, which was closed, and then hit 911.

I gave the operator the details while Edith dressed my father. The ambulance showed up and the two EMT's--a young man and woman--could not have been nicer or more professional. They really put me at my ease.

I called my sister and told her what was going on. I told Edith to hold the fort and then hopped into the ambulance. It was all kind of surreal, like it was happening to someone else and I was just watching.

The female EMT was standing over my father, who was in a stretcher, and checking his vitals.

"How do you feel?" she asked him.

Upon hearing the word "feel" I immediately perked up.

"Be careful," I said, "he likes the ladies."

I heard the EMT make a little "ooo!" sound which told me I was too late and that my father had somehow managed to cop a feel while strapped onto the stretcher. The guy could show Houdini a thing or two.

This was my second sleepless night. On Sunday night, when I had no one to help me, my father began doing his late night hallway marches. He knocked on my door at some ungodly hour and wanted me to zip up his coat.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"To get breakfast," he said.

I explained it was only 2 AM and that he should go back to bed. Of course he got up three more times after that.

When Monday morning rolled around I looked and felt like hell. I was trying to eat my breakfast, but my father stood over me, just staring. I explained that Mary, our daytime aide, would be coming in soon to make his breakfast. It didn't work and finally I stood up, took my bowl of oatmeal and went into the porch.

I was tired and angry and my father was like an infant. He wanted to eat and he wanted to do it right now. He kept on taking the coffee can out of the refrigerator and saying "Chock Full o' Nuts"--which pretty much describes my house now that I think of it--but I was so tired and pissed that I told to wait for Mary and stormed into the bathroom to take a shower.

"I told you this fifty fucking times!" I shouted.

It was a good thing I locked the door because I heard my father walking behind me and trying to open the door. I suspect he wanted to try and hit me and I would have been forced to ram his head into the toilet. Just kidding...

On The Ball

But I was better on Tuesday. I was calm and living in the moment--no worries about work, the holidays, or taking out the trash. I was doing my job.

We got into the ER and wheeled my dad into one of the little cubilces so the doctors could go to work on him. I warned the first nurse not to get too close and she heeded the warning. When another nurse came by I started to warn her, too.

"I already heard," she said.

Good news travels fast. The ER was amazingly quiet, but then this was a weekday, so there were not the usual weekend gunshot and stabbing victims, no OD's or car wreck victims. In our wing there was just one little old lady who, like my father, was sound asleep with her mouth wide open.

Time just kind of melts in the ER. There are no windows and with the lack of sleep I felt like I was levitating around the place. I had taken a book with me, but I couldn't focus too well on the type.

As my father slept I got a chance to play hero. A nurse had brought this rolling bureau over to the old lady's bed and began opening draw and draw and taking out various tubes. Well, Sir Issac Newton tells us that if you pull out enough of those heavy draws, the whole goddamn thing is going to tip over, which is exactly what happened.

I sprung into action, grabbing the bulky bastard and pulling it back up on its wheels, while the nurse quickly shut the drawers.

"I've done that," another nurse said.

The first nurse thanked me profusely and told me I was a life-saver. Hey, I didn't have much else to do.

One of the ER doctors showed up and asked me a bunch of questions about my father's health and medications and my answers were shamefully lame, even after all this time.

It turns out that while the EMT's recorded my father's meds, they did not take down the dosages. And then I forgot to bring his dentures, which meant they'd have to give him pulverized slop, instead of the regular slop.

I talked it over with the doctor and then decided to call Edith and ask her to come down to the hospital with the meds and the dentures. She was right on the ball, showing up at about 6 am all bundled up with her hat and boots.

I handed over my dad's teeth and meds and decided it was time to go. I told my dad we'd be back, though he was pretty much out of it.

As Edith and I walked out to the lobby, I dug out my cell phone to call a car service. The ER security guard, who didn't even seem to be listening, suddenly perked up.

"What car service are you calling?" He said. "Eastern? You'll be here till next week."

"I was going to call Your Car Service," I said.

"You'll be here to next week waiting for them, too," he said. "Let me call someone."

The guard picked up the phone and began speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. I was concerned about some scam, but then he told me the car was right outside. And he was right.

You have to figure that guard is getting a little kick-back for hooking up people with the car service, but who cares? This how life works and since we didn't get ripped off, I wasn't complaining.

It was still dark out and my neighborhood was quiet and lifeless. Normally, I would be getting up in an hour or so, but I planned to eat, sleep, and go in late.

I hit the deck when I got home and got a few hours sleep. That was on Tuesday and my father is supposed to come home today. I'm on vacation for the week, so I don't have to worry about work, but after so many hospital runs, all I think about is when will I have to do the next one.

Animal House


I had another one of my bizarro dreams the other night and I still can't get it out of my mind.

In the dream, I see my late mother sitting at the kitchen table in our home. I see her in profile and we exchange some words, but I can't remember what they were.

She nods toward the hallway and I see the spirits of our various pets who have gone on to their reward. Now, it's not the actual pets--Casey, Schnapps, or Phoebe--but somehow I just know it's them.

The animals are fighting amongst themselves and bouncing all over the hallway. I have one distinct image of a mulitcolored lamp from my childhood being tugged by some unseen force. As I watch, a cat becomes visible pulling on the lamp with its teeth.

I start talking to the spirits. I am very upset, close to tears, and I tell them that we loved them all very much when they were alive, but we really need them to get along in the after-life.

I don't remember much after that, which is probably just as well as the little I do recall has got me spinning in circles.

I thought about it later and I decided that when I was telling the animal spirits that I loved them, I was really talking to my mother, telling her that I loved her. My mom has been gone for nearly five years now and I don't think I've ever dreamed about her--or if I did I can't remember it.

As for the appearance of the pets, I'm a little uncertain. I went to a party earlier that night where I saw people I hadn't seen in years, so perhaps that was the spark for the return of the long-deceased animals. But I don't think they represented people from the party.

I'm wondering if the pets were a stand-in for my actual family, and I was asking my relatives to get along. We can be a pretty fractious bunch, but I don't think we're different from most families.

I also feel guilty about how I used to yell at Casey, a dog we had when I was in college and who died on Easter morning when I was working at the Pocono Record.

I was--still am--a very angry person and I took a lot of my problems out on Casey. He was wild and undisciplined, but that was no excuse for the way I behaved. I was flat out mean to him on many occassions and I deeply regret it.

A Friend Indeed

We had fun together, too. I remember during one of my many bouts of unemployment when I used to walk him every afternoon. He always used to come to me first to take him out and one day I decided I would beat him to the punch.

So I closed the door to my bedroom, put on coat and hat and opened the door--and there was Casey looking at me, ready to go.

My mother loved Casey so dearly. She thought she could never love another pet after we lost our other dog, Schnapps, but Casey proved her wrong. She grew so attached to him and I hate myself when I think of how I used to yell at him; I see now that I was hurting her, too.

I have no excuses for my behavior, other than to say I was going through a very bad time both physically and emotionally, which is pretty lame as I think of it. You should rise above your problems, not sink into rage. It's the coward's way.

My father always warned me that the trouble with dogs is that you get so attached to them and then they're gone. The energetic puppy bouncing off the walls suddenly becomes the arthritic old hound in no time at all.

I remember when Casey became so old I would come home and instead of getting up and jumping all over me, he was just lay on his side and thump his tale on the floor.

His back was giving out and we were encouraging my mother to have him put down, something she would not even think about.

"I'm not going to murder my dog," she'd say with great emotion.

Thank God she didn't have to. On Easter Sunday my father went out to the porch and found Casey had died during the night. He quietly bought my mother out and I will never forget the strangled sob she made when she looked down on her beloved pet.

We had Casey cremated and planned to bury him at my aunt's farmhouse in the Berkshires, but we never got around to it. However, when my mother died--another case of losing someone much too soon--we put Casey's ashes in her casket and I like the idea of them being together for all eternity.

In one of my favorite movies, The Thief of Bagdad, a blind man says of his dog that "he is like all dogs--he gives more than he ever gets in return." And that is so true of Casey.

So Casey, please forgive me for the way I acted, and take good care of my mom. No one could do a better job.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Tale of Two Brooklyns


Maybe it was the shirt after all.

I had a date last night with a woman I met online. We had exchanged IM's and a few phone calls and I felt really good about meeting her.

I didn't want to get too excited, I didn't want to get all worked up about some I had yet to meet in person, but this woman came off as attractive, intelligent and funny during out chats, so I confess I was a little psyched to meet her.

I got dressed, trying to look good without showing that I was trying. I picked a gray striped shirt I hadn't worn in a while and strutted out of the bathroom to get a second opinion.

Over the years, I've done this with my mom or dad, but my mother's been gone almost five years now and my dad is suffering from Alzheimer's, so I went to Edith, his Jamaican home care aide, who was sitting in the kitchen reading a newspaper.

"So, Edith," I said, "I've got a date tonight. What do you think?"

Of course, I wasn't really looking for an honest opinion; I was just fishing for compliments. But I forgot to tell this to Edith.

"I don't like the shirt," she said, making a face.

Due to her accent, I had a little trouble understanding what exactly Edith's complaint was, but I didn't feel like changing shirts. And since she takes so great care of my father, I wasn't going to pout because she didn't care for my wardrobe.

I hopped an R train down to Pacific Street walked around Fort Greene to meet my date. I still can't believe how the area has changed, with wine bars, and chic restaurants, and white yuppies. I can remember when it was a crime-ridden cesspool, and now here I was going out for a night on the town.

"A wine bar?" My brother Jim in California said later when I told him. "It used to be just winos down there."

It's the same old story: first the neighborhood was so dangerous you were scared off by the crime and now it's so expensive you're scared off by the rents.

I stopped off at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of my favorite spots in the borough, to see if anything interesting was going on. As I walked around the lobby I saw what I'm sure was the start of a blind date when a man approached a young woman.

"Excuse me," he said. "Are you Lisa?"

"Yes," the woman said.

The man smiled and tugged on the woman's green scarf.

"I thought you said the scarf was gray."

They laughed and left the building, already getting along famously. I could only hope my date would go half as well.

Dina--not her real name--showed almost on time and upon standing up to greet her, I realized she was a good head taller than I. We never exchanged vital statistics, but I'd swear my profile contains those numbers, so she should have known she'd be towering over me. No matter, I thought, let's go forth with the date.

So we started talking. And, once again, I found that while we got along famously in cyberspace, as soon as Dina and I met in the real world, the conversation went south. It wasn't a bad evening, but there was no connection whatsoever.

As I like to say in these situations, I've seen better chemistry at high school science fairs.

I dont' get it. Am I getting something wrong here? Am I giving up too quickly? I don't think so. I'm famous for sticking in there long for the last out long after the bleachers have emptied. There's nothing quite like sitting there looking at each other, both of you knowing that it ain't happening between you and it ain't gonna happen no way, no how.

I swear at this point I think I'd prefer even a bad date--with screaming, cursing, kicks to the gentials, mace and gunfire. At least there would be some kind of passion, as opposed to these pointless meetings that have all the thrill of a getting a chest X-ray.

Dina wanted to help pay for the wine and cheese we had consumed but I said it would be my pleasure to pick up the tab. This was a lie, naturally, and I was waiting for her to insist, but she fooled me and just said "thank you." Damn it, when will I learn?

Forward Into the Past

We went our sepatate ways outside the wine bar, so long, it's been good to know you. The farewell was uncomfortable as Dina said she was heading in one direction to the subway, but when I crossed Lafayette Street I saw she was walking next to me.

"We're going the same way," she said awkwardly.

No, Dina, we're really miles apart.

The academy was showing Babel, a movie I've been wanting to see for a while. I almost gave into temptation and gone into the theater, something I've doing for years to escape reality.

But the film is so long and I didn't think sitting alone in the dark for nearly three hours would be good for me. My sister had told me that a bunch of guys from my old neighborhood were holding their annual Christmas party at a bar in Bay Ridge, so I figured, why not?

I hadn't hung out with these guys much when I was growing up, but it was the holidays and I wanted to be with real people for a little while.

So I left yuppie Brooklyn, with the wine bars, indie films, and painfully hip saloons, and went back to old school Brooklyn, to a neighborhood bar--as in "bah"--and met up with my sister.

I hate to use the expression "blast from the past" but this was pretty close. I saw people I had not seen in ages. It felt good, but it was like going through a time warp. If I had been hanging with these guys for all these, they wouldn't look that different to me.

But with the gap in time, it felt like I had gone through some black hole in the Sixties and popped out in the 21st Century. I was a time traveler. The men, who used to ride bikes and play stickball, now had guts and baldspots. Bobby who was part of the band, had a head full of glowing white hair, like some kind of alien leader.

There was one guy, we used to call him Bon-Bon because his last name began with "Bon", whom I had not seen in something like 35 years.

He was bald (like me), but he kept the hair on the sides, whereas I had gone for the Yul Brenner cut. With his glasses and pencil thin moustache, he looked exactly like Mr. Fink, our old neighborhood pharmacist.

He didn't seem to recognize me and that was fine; it wasn't like he was a dear friend in the old days. I remember Bon-Bon used to curse a lot when we were kids and just as that thought formed in my head, one of my sister's friends told us how her mom always hated Bon-Bon because--yep--of his foul mouth.

I remember a dirty limmerick Bon-Bon used to recite:

I once saw a bird with a yellow bill,

Sitting on my window sill,


I let him in with crumbs of bread,

And then I broke his fucking head.

Back in the day, that was cutting edge, but I didn't bother getting Bon-Bon's phone number on the way out. I came home and found Edith in the kitchen reading her Bible. I told her that she might have been right about the shirt, since the date didn't work out so well. She laughed and nodded.

"There are other fishes in the sea," she said.

Not to mention other birds on the window sill.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mary's Return


Let's pretend this never happened.

Mary called me at work on Thursday. I recognized her number on the call screen, but still I had to ask "Mary?" when I picked up the phone, as if I weren't sure.

We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes and then she got to the point of her call.

"I'll be back to work on Monday."

Needless to say, I was very happy indeed to hear this. It has been less than a week since Mary said she was quitting and things haven't been going very smoothly in her absence.

Edith, our night-time aide, has been filling and she's been nothing of fantastic. Especially since she agreed to take on a new live-in gig on extremely short notice.

Edith is very effecient, dedicated, and hard-working. (Not to mention brave, thrifty, clean and reverenet; okay, we won't mention it.)

But Mary was running all the little things around here and handing the reins over to Edith, while certainly not impossible, would have been a real pain in the kazoo. So going back to the old system is fine with me.

However, I was a little taken aback when Mary just announced her plans and I was tempted to ask "how do you know we want you?" But the truth is (a) we had given her a week to think it over, (b) I don't do that mean-spirited crap, and (c) I really want her back.

Mary said she had been going back to her shrink, who told her that my father's filthy words, thoughts and deeds, were not personal, but the product of his rather warped mind.

However, personal or not, they were pretty foul and I could see how a daily diet of this vile crap would eventually drive you batty.

I told Mary that I was glad to have her back, but that I would have to run it by my sister, who gave her thumbs up that evening. I called yesterday and made it official, but I stressed that she couldn't do this again, that, if she wanted to leave, she would have to give us two weeks notice.

So what have we learned here? Well, first of all, you can't take anything or anyone for granted. People can leave or become ill and you find yourself stuck with all sorts of duties and nonsense you never expected or wanted to have.

I learned that there are no super-humans, that Mary is a person with feelings doing a very difficult job and it overwhelmed her.

And I learned that I could have survived this incident if I really had to. Edith and I were just slowly working out a daytime schedule/plan and that we would have made it work. I also learned, by the way, that she cooks a pretty mean omelette.

I'm closer to Edith now because of this, since we spent more time together, and I think that's good. I found she was getting on my nerves earlier, but watching with my father has been a real eye-opener. She shadows his every moon and puts up with his guff.

I woke up early one morning this week to the sound of my father bellowing "This is my house!"
I went out to the kitchen and saw that he was stuffing his face with raisins while Edith was trying to get him to stop.

It was too late to eat, he was eating too much, and raisins are so small they present a choking hazard for a man recovering from a stroke. I think he may have pushed Edith or threatened her in some way, and I don't like that.

My father's always had a violent streak and I won't let him bully Edith or anybody else who tries to help him. We've had enough people quit already.

"She likes to throw her weight around," he said, as I took him back to bed.

"She's trying to help you," I said. "So you have to listen to her."

So now we get back to the business of finding my dad a home, which means getting him on Medicaid, which, in turns, means finding just about every scrap of financial paperwork he's ever created since the dawn of time.

I can't believe this bastards are actually asking for my mother's burial plot deed(!)--like we didn't bury the poor woman?--but I also know there's no arguing with a bureaucracy.

So, with malice toward none, we will welcome Mary back to the fold on Monday and get back on track. This is one time where "stay the course" actually makes sense.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Jumping Ship


Looks like someone stole my idea...

I still can't believe this is happening, but I have to accept it:

Mary, my father's health care aide, who has been with us for the last 18 months, who basically ran this house and took care of my father's every need--has quit.

Like I said, I can't believe it.

I got the call yesterday morning when Mary told me she wasn't coming back. No two weeks' notice, no attempt at getting a replacement, she just cut and run.

I think of my fantasy of hopping aboard a passing ocean liner and getting away from my father and my life forever, but Mary beat me to it.

As I pleaded with her to stay, explaining that I have a full-time job and can't possibly take care of my father, Mary started crying. She said she couldn't deal with my father's sexual advances anymore.

Now, believe me. I know my old man is a pervert; he always has been. And with the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's or whatever the hell he's got, his behavior has gotten much worse.

Mary said that on Friday my father followed her around the house, demanded that she "pleasure" him (sorry about the details) and wanted her to kiss him.

I know this terrible behavior, but it is nothing that she hasn't experienced before. In the past, Mary always made a joke about my father's remarks, saying she was going to hit him over the head with his cane.

But now, this tough-talking Brooklyn dame, has gone all soft on me. She's become a surrender monkey and left me holding the bag. She sure made a monkey out of me.

Needless to say I freaked; ran up and down the hallway cursing, swearing to puy my father in a nursing home and be done with him. Fuck it, if Mary can bail, why can't I?

Here and There

I feel angry and betrayed. Mary didn't just walk out on my father, she walked out on me. I considered her a friend, I spoke to her every day on the phone, I asked about her new grandson (I bought the kid a present when he was born, for Christ's sake). She gave me advice and comfort. I just don't understand what made her do this.

I put so much trust into Mary; up until yesterday, I would have said that she is the last person on God's green earth to pull a stunt like this.

I always felt so comforted when Mary called me from the house and said two simple words: "I'm here." That meant I could relax, that my father was receiving the best possible care.

Mary was a great cook and an incredible shopper. She could scope out a sale on paper towels or some other important item with her eyes closed. And she took such great pride in her work.

"My father always told me if you can't do a job right," she'd say, "then don't do it at all."

Maybe that's our answer, maybe Mary felt she couldn't do the job right anymore and had to bail. I read about a British heavyweight fighter who, after of years in the ring, just lost his nerve, and stood in the corner crying while his opponent rained punches down on him.

My sister, who often butted heads with Mary, was sympathetic to her situation. She thinks Mary has other issues going on that we don't know about. That might explain the disappearing act, but it sure as hell doesn't excuse it.

Buddhists say that compassion is the root of all virture and I am doing my best to show compassion toward Mary. But I've problems of my own right now and compassion is in short supply.

My sister spoke with Mary and gave her a week's paid vacation. She encouraged Mary to get some rest and decide if she wants to come back. For this week, we have a night aide, Edith, a Jamaican lady who agreed to live in with us.

Edith it is very dependable, very efficient, but she's not Mary. But then, I see now, that neither is Mary.

So now I have to train another person. I've got to figure out what Mary did and try to emulate it. For that reason alone, I'd like her to come back, but I know it will never be the same between us.

I can never trust her again and those words, I'm here, have lost all meaning. She may be here, but what we had is gone forever.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Packed Karma


I got a nice lesson in karma the other night on my subway ride home.

I read this fabulous book on Tibetian Buddhism recently and I've been trying to adopt some of the principles that the author discussed.

I found the whole karma business fascinating--the idea that every action you take causes a reaction in the future--intrigues the hell out of me.

I tried discussing this with my shrink during one of our sessions and he started interrogating me.

"Do you believe in karma?" he asked.

"Well, I suppose--"

"You really believe in karma?"

I felt like I was being accused of something so I immediately denied all knowledge. I told him I like the feeling I get when I do good deeds, but, as a rational 21st Century humanoid, do I really believe good things will result from my acts of kindness?

Well, I guess not, but I don't think I should have to pay this guy to shoot down my little delusions. The big ones, of course, but save me some bits of craziness or what's the point of living? I might as well be a plant.

So I was taking the train home the other night and my shrink wasn't with me. I had just finished a brutal session at the gym and I needed to sit down and go to sleep in a hurry. It was 7 pm, I was sure the rush hour would be over and I'd have my pick of the best seats in the train.

The train was packed, like a cattle car. I don't know if any earlier train had broken down, or everybody else on the R line had gone to the gym, too, but whatever the reason, I was standing in a crowd of tired New Yorkers, not an empty seat in sight.

All right, I accepted the situation, took out my book, and started to read. It was going to suck standing all the way home, but that was the situation. But I got lucky at Court Street when some guy got up from his seat and allowed me to slip right in.

It was an end seat, right against the door guard, just perfect for napping. I wasn't going anywhere. Well, that lasted for two stops, when the doors opened at DeKalb Avenue and an elderly lady got on board. She walked by me, craning her neck as she looked for a spot and I just couldn't stay seated.

I've got to confess that I have occassionally pretended to be asleep when a more seat-deserving person walks by. In fact, it's more than occassionally, I actually pull that trick a lot. But not this night.

I tapped the lady gently on the shoulder as I stood up and pointed to the seat was formerly mine. Her eyes lit up like sparklers and she gave me the nicest smile.

No, Really, I Insist...

"Thank you," she said, in what sounded like an Eastern European accent. "Thank you very much."

I felt like I had done the right thing. I was exhausted, but I had given up I really wanted to someone more deserving. (Schmuck!)

I went back to reading my book standing up. I lost track of time, but somewhere around 25th Street I felt something poke me. I thought I was in someone's way and I turned to see the old lady smiling as she stood up and pointed to the chair.

"Sit down," she said. "Sit down."

I confused for a second; maybe this was some kind of Balkan seat-exchanging custom I was not aware of. You take my seat, I'll take your seat and I'll be in Belgrade a-fore ye...

But, no, she was just getting off at her stop and returning the favor. She held on to the pole until the train came to a full stop and I could see her bag was full of yarn, so she apparently did her knitting on the train. I was fascinated by this woman and I wanted to know her story.

How long had she lived in America? Did she have a husband, children, or did she go home to a cold, lonely apartment, cook herself dinner, and knit in front of the TV? I'd like to think she's got a loving husband and children, and a whole mob of grandkids for her to spoil.

She turned back to me when the doors opened, smiled, and wished me a good night. Then she was gone, but she made me feel very good. I only wish my shrink could have been there to see this bit of karma-raderie.

We pulled into 36th Street and the station manager was telling the crowd of commuters that the N train they were looking out on the express track was going over D line. I accept this kind of thing quiet easily, but I wonder what this must sound like to a foreigner--the N is a D? It's like some cold war spy code.

"The next N train will be here in a minute!" The station manager's voice filled the platform. "The next N train will be here in a minute!"

I thought that was the end of the annoucnement, but then I heard the same man's voice starting to sing, yes, sing, into the PA system.

"When I was seventeen--" was as far he got before the mike went dead.

I'm not certain, but I think he was starting to sing that song Frank Sinatra made famous, It Was a Very Good Year. You know, the one about small town girls and soft summer nights and blue-blooded girls of independent means who rode in limousines? Yeah, that one.

Well, he must have suddenly realized he had left the mike on and cut the sound. Either that or his co-workers got fed up with his singing and yanked the microphone away from him.

I like the idea of people showing their human side, so we know it's not just a recording coming out of the loudspeaker. But honestly, this man's voice was definitely in the don't-quit-your day-job category.

So I went from karma to karoke in one subway ride. I definitely got my two bucks worth that night. And a seat.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Back to Reality


It's been three days and it feels like three months.

My father returned from the nursing home on Thursday and I feel like a ex-con who just had his parole yanked.

Yes, it's his house and yes, he's my father, but I'm still feeling a little stressed.

The pick-up alone was a piece of work. I recently took over the retail beat and--wouldn't you know it?--Thursday was not only the day of my father's discharge, but also the day that the montly same-store sales were released.

So I had to get into work by 8 AM, bang out a couple versions of the story and then get on the subway and head out to Coney Island. Piece of cake, right?

I'm still struggling with the retail sector, so the story came together rather slowly and as I kept on slamming in the numbers from all the major retailers, I had one eye on the time ticking away in the lower right hand corner of my computer.

I think I turned out a fairly decent story, and I see now where I can do a better job next month when the December numbers. But I was wiped from lack of sleep, nerves and too much Diet Coke.

"Don't you wish you had taken this beat in February?" one of my sources said, when retail is dead and Christmas is just a memory.

"Oh, hell, yeah," I said.

But this was trial by fire and I think some part of me likes this madness. At noon I filed in the last version of the story and hopped on the train.

It was strange riding the N train out to Surf Avenue for what I hoped would be the last time--at least to visit the nursing home. I was looking at all the faces on the train: an elderly Asian man who was literally twiddling his thumbs; a middle-aged woman and her adult mentally-challenged daughter, who smiled and giggled like little girl.

Watch the Closing Doors

My mother used to work with retarded adults so I have a pretty good idea the difficulties that woman must be facing with her daughter. God bless you, lady.

The crowd thinned out by the time I got to the end of the line and I strolled at the boardwalk, looking at all the people who were out enjoying the warm weather. It's hard to believe Wall Street and Coney Island are in the same country, let alone the same city, but that's New York for you.

I looked at Cha-Chi's, a bar that claims to be the "home of Wild Women and Wise Guys." It's always been closed whenever I go by and I get the feeling it's been shut down for a while, which is a shame because it seems to have a lot of character, what with the cartoon mobster painted on the wall. I think that guy's actually wearing panties, but I could be mistaken. I sort of hope so.

Now I'm sure this is just a coincidence, but as my father departed Coney Island, Astroland is also heading for the last round-up.

According to the Daily News, "a big-bucks developer bought up the gritty Brooklyn amusement park yesterday in its bid to turn Coney Island into a sparkling new $1.5 billion year-round resort." Nothing lasts in this world, no matter how solid and immoveable it may seem to you.

I met Mary, my father's aide, at the nursing home and prepared to take my father him. It took him a while to say goodbye to all the nurses and fortunately he didn't try to feel any of them up.

My father was still very weak and he needed a walker to get around. Mary had gotten a car for us and we all piled in and headed for Bay Ridge. I thought I smelled something unpleasant and assumed it was the cab, which was in pretty sorry shape. We didn't know until we got home that my father had crapped his pants. Oh, yes, this was going to work out real well.

I hung around for a little while as Mary cleaned up my dad and got him into bed, and then I was back on the train, back on Wall Street, and then back out desk. The whole Coney Island ride felt like some kind of lunch-break dream, except the exhaustion and nerves were all too real.

I had one last errand, uptown, after work, to see my shrink. As I walked up 73rd Street I had to step around a homeless man who had stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the sidewalk and started reading the Bible. He was so still he looked like a statue.

I told my shrink all my worries and fears about having my father home, even though we have additional help. Every time he gets up we all have to watch him for fear he'll fall down and break his hip. At night he tends to get up and walk down the hall to the bathroom. It can make sleep a little challenging.

On Sunday my sister came over to have dinner with my dad. We had to chop up his meal pretty severely or else there's a chance he might choke on his food. He was sleeping when I went back to get him for dinner and he was a little disoriented.

As he held on to my arm he leaned over and said, "I don't know what I would do without you."

I'd never heard speak so directly and it was my turn to be a little disoriented.

That simple sentence made the whole bizarro ride out to Coney Island worth the trouble. And if I ever go out that way again, I'll make sure to stop at Cha-Chi's for a drink. Even if they are shut down and that mobster really is wearing panties.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Beyond The Sea


While I was walking back to the subway along the boardwalk on Sunday night, I happened to look out to the ocean.

I had just come from a rather exasperating visit with my father at the nursing home and I couldn’t help think that this day’s frustrations were just a preview of what life will be like when he returns home tomorrow. In short, I was miserable.

The day was beautiful, unseasonably warm, as they say, and coming in, I saw people on the boardwalk and one of the vendors was selling hotdogs and hamburgers, like it was the middle of July. I didn’t want to visit my father.

Coming back at 5 p.m., however, it was quite seasonably dark, reminding everyone in Coney Island that winter was indeed coming. And as I started my march to the Stillwell Avenue subway station, I looked out on the water saw a huge ocean liner, all lit up and sparkling like some fabulous jewel, heading out for the open sea.

I never thought much of cruises. The idea of being stuck with a group of people who turn out to be boneheads never appealed to me and, add to that all those stories of ship-board plagues, accidents, assaults, and other tales of woe and I pretty much scrapped the whole experience off my list.

But Sunday was different. On this night I wanted to be onboard that ocean liner so badly I could taste it. I pictured myself standing on the deck in a tuxedo, sipping a martini, as the Wonder Wheel, the parachute jump, and my life with all its problems, grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared.

Wait for me, I thought at the shrinking vessel, wait for me.

I would create a new identity, give out a fake name, and maybe put on a quasi-European accent, just to keep my fellow passengers guessing.

I would hit the dance floor every night and sleep until noon the next morning. I'd meet lords and ladies, counts and countesses, industrialists, and stock market wizards. I'd fall in love with a beautiful heiress (and she with me, of course), and begin a whole new life as somebody else.

Selfish? Of course. But then I will be the one bearing the brunt of my father’s care once he returns home. Yes, we’re going to hire people to take care of him, but right now it looks like I’m going to be a prisoner, forced to either give up things I enjoy or scramble to find hired help should something come up.

Close Call

I had a different attitude earlier on Sunday. I went to the nursing home and when I got out on his floor, I saw that he wasn't in the dayroom, his usual spot. Fine, I thought, he must be in his room.

But he wasn't. His bed was empty, there was no sign of him and I felt this pull at my heart. Immediately, Captain Catastrophe thought the worst. Did it finally happen? Had my father suffered another stroke? Had he died? Here I am complaining about taking care of him and now he’s dead.

I asked one of the nurses and she told me my father had gone to mass. I was about to ask if we were talking about the same man, but I didn’t think sarcasm would help. So I went down to the second floor and, looked around, and sure enough, there was my father in his wheelchair, up in the front row.

I hadn’t been to church in a while, but I didn’t feel like leaving, so I found a place in the back and sat down for the duration of the service. I couldn't help but notice that I was one of the few people in the room who wasn't in a wheelchair.

I received communion, but passed on the wine, and after the service I went over to get my dad. It took a little doing getting him out of there, as there was a back-up of wheelchairs, like cars at the Holland Tunnel. But we eventually got out of there and I spent a few hours with him.

We were in the dayroom and I really wanted to leave. They were going to be serving dinner pretty soon and my father was convinced we were in a restaurant. Every time an aide went by--or "waitress" in his view--he tried to flag her down. Finally, he started climbing out of his wheelchair.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"I'm going to complain to the manager," he said.

I got him into his seat, told him I had to leave and reminded him that he was coming home in a few days. I pretended to be happy about it, but let's not kid ourselves. I'm going to miss the freedom I've had around here and I dread having to take care of my father, even if we do have hired help, it'll never be enough.

I've been sleeping in my father's bed, which is bigger than mine, and Mary, his aide, keeps his room quite clean, unlike mine, which is an ungodly mess. My dad's room is kind of like my stateroom, only I haven't sailed anywhere.

I'm not terribly happy at my job, I don't have a wife, a girlfriend, or a child. It just seems that so much of my life is up in the air and I'm at an age when I should be more settled.

I've spent so much time dreaming about being a great writer or filmmaker or whatever that I feel sometimes that my ship has sailed without me.

My siblings and I are going to try taking care of my father at home. However, we're agreed that if it doesn't work out, if we can't take proper care of him, or if he becomes too aggressive or violent, then he's going back into the nursing home.

I'm going to do the right thing for my father and my family and I will not run away, no matter how had it gets around here.

But I'm still working on my accent and keeping an eye out for passing ocean liners. You should always have a way out.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Moveable Feast


When my niece. Kristin, was little, she used to talk about Turkey Lurkey, a kind of Thanksgiving counterpart to the Great Pumpkin, who would give candy and toys to all the children.

She may have borrowed the name from the Chicken Little tale, but the gift-giving character sounds like her idea.

I remember the first year she told me about Turkey Lurkey and the following year I asked to tell me the story again. She started to do just that, but stopped suddenly.

"I told you this last year," she said, sounding a little confused.

Yes, she did, but I loved hearing it. The story, and her unique way of telling it, is one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories.

That was many years ago. Kristin is now a freshman in college and Turkey Lurkey is no more. And instead of a big family get-together, I spent a good portion of this Thanksgiving Day on the subway.

My sister and I started our day heading out to Coney Island to visit my dad in the nursing home. I had planned to hop the N train, but my sister very wisely suggested we crack down and take car service.

Given Thursday's god-awful weather and the fact that we would have to trudge into Manhattan to have dinner with my aunt later that day, I think that was a pretty good idea.

We got to the nursing and went up to the 7th floor to see our father. He was in the day room, or the land of lost souls, as I call it in my darker moments. We had his meal brought down to his room so we could sit with him while he ate.

As he lay in bed waiting for the food, my father told us he disliked his roommate his roommate, a poor bastard in a wheelchair and breathing from a tank of oxygen. He was convinced the guy was my mom's brother-in-law, Leon, whom he hated, but my sister assured him that Leon has been dead for four years.

It didn't matter. My dad is convinced Leon was responsible for putting him in the nursing home, even though we told him the doctor put him there.

"Leon was whispering in the doctor's ear," my father said.

Makes sense to me. The guy comes back from the dead to make sure my father gets stuck out in Coney Island. Oh, those golden years.

We didn't dare tell him we were having dinner with Leon's wife, Marie, also known as my mother's sister, whom the old man didn't like either. So we lied, as usual, and told him we were having dinner with his sister.

His meal arrived and it was hardly a vast Thanksgiving feast. The menu slip said this stuff was turkey, squash and green beans, but I just saw three piles of some alien substances that would never be mistaken for food.

Riding the Rails

Because of the stroke, the food has to be pureed and the liquids have to be thickened to a point where they're almost sludge. Otherwise there could be a danger of my father choking.

My father kept offering us his "food" and I pretended to like it, but, honestly, it was pretty awful. I reminded him of the old Thanksgivings we used to have at his sister Loretta's house, way up on 205th Street in Manhattan. All that food, all that company, all those people who are long since gone or grown so old.

He's coming home in less than a week and every day I feel a little more frightened. I want him to be happy, but I don't we have the skills or the resources to take care of him at home. He is so frail, physically and mentally.

We'll have to hire more people, spend more of his money, and I'll have to be a virtual prisoner. I don't think I can do it, but I'll worry about that next week. It's still a holiday weekend, right?

It was getting late so we wheeled my father out to the day room and I kissed him said I'd see him on Sunday. He said something that sounded like "what about you, Robert?" I told him I was leaving.

As we were walking to get our coats, my sister told me what my father had actually said: "I love you, Robert."

I don't think he's ever said that to me directly, at least not in years, and I felt like such a dirtbag, wanting to get out of there, wanting to leave him there for good. I started crying and told my sister I had to go back to the day room after we got our coats. This time I got it right.

"I love you, Dad," I said, and kissed him again.

On the way out, we ran into Sister Pauline, a nun from our neighborhood, whose mother is a resident there. Sister Pauline's mom is closing in on 100 and, though she's in a wheelchair, her mind is still sharp. She was talking to her son in Pittsburgh on a cell phone and after handing the phone back to her daughter, she turned to us.

"I remember cooking all those meals on Thanksgiving," she said, "and all those good times are gone."

Yes, so I guess the only answer is to enjoy the good times while you have them. We left the nursing home and went by Nathan's on the way to the train station. It was open and there were handful of people inside. I wondered what their stories were, why they were here on this day dedicated to families and togetherness.

If I were a feature writer or a columnist, I would have walked in there and interviewed of them. But I'm a business reporter, so we got on board the N train, and made it to my aunt's place in about an hour.

It was just the three of us, eating turkey and drinking prosecco, my favorite wine. I found it hard not to think of those old Thanksgivings with all those people. They're being picked off, like some murder mystery.

But the point of the day is to be thankful and if you pick up a newspaper and see what's going on in other parts of the world, you can feel pretty small when you complain about your own problems.

So, for the record, I am very thankful for all I have. I'm going to need a great deal of strength in the coming months and memories of the good times I had with my family are an excellent source of emotional octane.

And may Turkey Lurkey stop by your house and shower you with gifts, candy, and memories that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I'll Be There


There's something so depressing about Coney Island in the off-season.

The place exists for summer, sunshine, and people, but lately it's been sorely lacking all three.

Sure, there are some people on the boardwalk and I guess the Polar Bears will start coming around to go swimming. But it's not the same.

I've been spending more time out there since my father suffered a stroke last month and went into the nursing home for treatment. Sunday is my usual day and I'll be there again tomorrow with my sister to visit him for Thanksgiving Day.

My usual routine is to get there in the afternoon and wheel him downstairs to the lobby, where we play cards for a while. Last Sunday he wanted me to take him outdoors, but I told him it was too cold.

"I don't like this atmosphere," he said. "I want to get out of it."

"I don't blame you," I said.

My father will be coming home next Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving, and I can't say I'm looking forward to it. I've enjoyed being on my own around here and I know when he returns he's going to need constant care. We're hiring people, but I don't think it'll be enough.

I guess I'm being selfish, but my father is still not in the right frame of mind. Some days he thinks he's in a hotel, other days he thinks he's in a library.

He refers to my mother in the present tense, as if she's still alive, and it breaks my heart every time. I stopped telling him that she's gone because it just seems to confuse him and he never remembers anyway.

My sister and I got a first class scare this week when some schmuck at the hospital who calls herself a social worker said my father was being discharged this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday weekend.

Needless to say when my sister called me with this bit of news, I freaked. I was in the middle of very difficult story and I had to drop that and deal with these bureaucratic bungholes at the nursing home.

We weren't ready for him. We don't have the staffing step-up, his room hasn't been prepared, we just can't take him now. And why the hell did they tell us he was being discharged on Nov. 30 if they weren't going to stick to that date?

They were talking about my father as if he were a package being delivered by Federal Express--only the FedEx people are far more professional.

I left a rather vicious voice mail message for the social worker, then I said, screw this, I'm not going to argue with this scum bucket. I'm going to the top.

So I called the hospital administrator and did my best Joe Pesci impersonation and told her that they would not be discharging my father ahead of schedule and that there would be serious consequences if they tried.

Ride At Your Own Risk

"Oh, no," she said, "there's been a mistake. I don't know why the social worker said that."

Really? I've got a few ideas, especially since my sister butted heads with this very same bitch last week about how they were treating Mary, my father's aide, when she came to visit him. They knew she wasn't family, so some of the staff were talking to Mary like she was a dog.

In fact, Mary called me from there about a week ago and told me what was going on. She got so upset she started crying. Now Mary is one tough cookie so to hear her reduced to tears was pretty upsetting. But she made a valid point.

"I can't fight with them," she said, "because they'll take it out on your father."

You mean the hospital staff would actually punish an 85-year-old man just to be mean and spiteful? Oh, no, never say it! That could never happen, not in a million years. (Are you getting the sarcasm here? Good, I knew you would.)

Anyway, we got squared away on my father's discharge date and I felt compelled to explain to this woman that we wanted our father to come home (lie) but we needed more time (true).

I took my father back to the dayroom on Sunday and got ready to leave. As I was stepping onto the elevator, I heard one of the aides shout "Jim!" and I saw my dad getting out of his wheelchair and getting into another chair at his table. The hospital wants the stroke patients in their wheelchairs at all times for fear they might fall.

The elevator doors were closing as the aide ran over to my father and I thought about hitting the button and going back into the dayroom to calm things down. But I didn't.

I walked back to the train station along the boardwalk. Yes, there were a few people around. A woman was walking her dog, which was sniffing at the furriest cat I have ever seen in my life. The thing looked like a porcupine. Maybe it was just the particular breed of cat, or maybe the cat had lived through enough Coney Island winters that it grew a heavy coat for protection.

I walked by the go-cart track on the way to Surf Avenue. All the carts were in storage and the place seemed deserted, like a ghost town, but there was music coming from somewhere.

Just my luck, it was Michael Jackson singing "I'll Be There." I thought of how I had quickly left the hospital, how I hated going back there, and how I dreaded my father's return home. I didn't feel particularly good about myself.

There were signs all over the go-cart track. Absolutely No Bumping, one of them said. Ride At Your Own Risk, said another. They sound like good life lessons. Especially that last one. You ride this life at your own risk.

There were actually two game stands open--the BB gun range and some basketball game and the barkers both perked up when they saw me.

"Don't go by, give it a try," one of them said.

I kept going, walking by the big clock that counts down the days to July Fourth, when Nathan's holds its annual hotdog eating contest. It was 226 days and 19 hours on Sunday, so we're even closer as I write this.

And come tomorrow we'll be closer still.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Cold Burrito


This night should have worked out better than it did.

It's Friday, always a good thing. I wanted to do something different, so I went to a reading at KGB Bar, a cool East Village saloon/reading space.

I don't go there often, but when I do I usually have a good time. It's small and the crowd is always supportive. I feel that if I'm going to live in New York I should go to places like this, instead of parking my rear end in front of the television and slipping my brain under the sofa.

I was so proud of myself. Instead of going to a movie and hiding in the dark for two hours, I was going to be out with fellow humans, listening to real live people reading their work. It sounded emotionally satisfying and rather sophisticated.

So how did it end up with me being angry, frustrated, and alone? Well, I think it started with the burrito place.

The reading was pretty good, but as the place filled up with mostly friends and family of the authors, I began to feel more alone. A woman next to me asked me how many authors would be appearing after the intermission and I told her three. (Turned out it was only one more author, but it felt like three.)

I guess I thought things might happen from that little bit of conversation, but I found this woman and I didn't have much to say to one another, despite our mutual interest in writing.

The reading ended and I got ready to leave.

"Have a good one," I told her.

"It was a nice talking to you," she replied.

You call that talking? I had to struggle for every syllable I said to you, honey, so if something nice passed between us, I didn't see it. And if you're being sarcastic, bite me.

There was still a pretty large group of people in the place and I was tempted to hang out for a little while longer, Miss Personality notwithstanding. But everybody seemed to know everybody else and I didn't feel like lurking on the fringes of conversation. And I was hungry.

I walked down Second Avenue, which was filling up with the Friday night crowd. I was going to eat at the Thai Cafe, which I really like, but I couldn't take another night of eating by myself in a restaurant.

I've done it too often and it's just depressing sitting there shoveling food into my mouth why groups of buddies laugh it up or young couples hold hands and smile into each other's eyes. I needed a fast food place that wasn't a fast food place, if you know what I mean.

I looked at gyro places, a hamburger joint, which claimed to have every burger imaginable, except, of course, a turkey burger. I was walking up St. Mark's Place when I spotted Chipotle, a Mexican food chain (duh...). I've eaten at the Bowling Green branch and liked it, so I went it.

The Bowling Green location is a gold mine. by the way. I walked by there on Monday on the way to the post office during my lunch break and the place was jammed like the IRT at rush hour.

People were crammed up against the counter while a line of customers snaked around the interior. It looked like a movie version of a New York eatery, only this was real.

Burrito Junction

The St. Mark's outlet wasn't that crowded on Friday, but it still took me a long time to get my food. I ordered a burrito and watched it sit on the counter, half-finished, as the woman who was supposed to be working on it struggled with another order. It was like Chaplin's Modern Times when the assembly line gets all fouled up.

For some reason, the woman dumped the contents of the burrito into a new wrapper. And then her co-worker did it again, like some kind of strange ritual or rite of passage. If you can take the burrito from my hand, it'll be time for you to eat...

When she finally got to mine, the attendant started wrapping it up, even though I kept saying I wanted lettuce. Finally I had to wave my hands in front of her face and pretty much shout "I want lettuce!"

As I was paying for my meal, I heard her say something in Spanish, and with my paranoia running full blast, I figured saying something about me. I looked at the tip dish with all those dollar bills and decided they didn't need my paltry single.

As I was getting my napkin two young guys were talking as they dumped their trays.

"I remember this movie, Twister, I used to watch when I was a kid," one said. "My nanny and I used to watch it on tape."

Your nanny? I remember Twister; I saw it when it came out, at the multiplex in Southington, Conn., back when I was a reporter for the Republican-American in Waterbury.

It was a miserable piece of crap (the movie, though the newspaper wasn't much better) full of mindless destruction and abysmal dialog. (Just like the newspaper!) I went and found myself a table.

So I'm sitting there by myself, struggling to slice open my cold burrito with plastic utensils. Everyone in the place was rubbing me the wrong way. The young guy in the t-shirt who steps right in the path of the woman on his way to the counter. The fellow on the crutches who bangs against the blond's chair on the way out.

Two young guys are leaving and they see more young guys at another table and it turns out they all know each other, they're shaking hands and exchanging greetings like its Old Home Week.

I hear this grating noise over my shoulder and some guy on roller skates sails up the length of the room to the counter. I can hardly eat this damn burrito and it goes down like wet cement. I open up the Village Voice to check my horoscope and it goes something like this:

"The last few drops in your chalice will soon evaporate," it said. "Your luxurious indoor swimming pool (you know, the one in your fantasies) has barely enough left in it to give a water bug traction.

"And you haven't reached out your arms and cupped your hands in a gesture of feisty anticipation for far too long. So what are you going to do about it all, Gemini? Here's what I suggest: Fill 'er up! (PS: The gas tank of the flying car you sometimes take for a spin in your dreams is also on empty.)"

Great, I got the worst of both worlds here. I don't understand it, but it sounds terrible. I figured it was time to call it a night.

I don't know, but it seems like I'm in a definite rut. It's been said a thousand times, but once you get to a certain age, you really have to work at making and keeping friends. They don't just pop up at the park or playground like when you were a kid. You have to search for them--and not feel like a desperate loser while you're doing it.

On the subway ride home, a man with a guitar got on at Court Street and started singing an off-key version of the Beatle song "Something." I like giving money to street musicians. They literally are singing for their supper and they don't go walking around the car with their hand outstretched, giving you a sad story. These people try to entertain you.

And since I hadn't tipped the burrito buttheads, I thought it would be nice to throw a bone to the working stiffs before the night was over.

I fished out this Sacagawea dollar coin I've been meaning to ditch since the Post Office vending machine spat it out to me on Monday. I squeezed it, trying to put all my anger and frustration into it, like I was driving out an evil spirit.

When the guitar man walked by, I dropped the demon coin into his little black satchel and watched him get off at DeKalb Avenue.

I'd like to say I'm cured of my anger and frustration, but, of course, it's not that simple. No, it's going to take time and effort to make my life more rewarding. I'm going to have reach out my arms and cup my hands in a gesture of feisty anticipation and see what the hell happens.

Fill 'er up.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Old Soldiers Never Die


I bought a poppy from an old soldier this week outside my office.

I walked by him initially, as I save a single each day for a homeless woman who hangs out around the stock exchange.

Each time I see her, I give a dollar bill and she responds with an automatic "God bless ya." I figured I've been blessed enough times I could probably run for pope. Do I have to give money to everybody?

I was about to walk into my building when I began to feel guilty about not buying a poppy. My father is a World War II veteran, recovering from a stroke, and I can't cough up another dollar to help out the cause?

I turned around and fished out my wallet.

The man was just giving a poppy to another guy when I got there. I checked his cap and, yes, he was a Second World War veteran, too.

"My dad's a vet," I said, as I pushed the folded dollar into the can.

"Is he still around?" He asked the obvious question.

"Yeah, he's in a nursing home now."

"My wife is,too," the man said. "But you're young yet."

"Young?" I laughed. "I'm going to be 50 next year."

"You're halfway there," he said. "You've got 50 more to go."

We both laughed and I went to work. The "poppy" is actually made of paper and according to the tag on the stem, it was distributed by the Jewish War Veterans of the USA.

Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree...

I grew up on World War stories, both from my father, the movies, and TV. When we were kids, we loved going to see "army pictures" as we called them, watched Combat on TV, and played army all the time, fighting the Nazis over and over.

My father always used to criticize the war movies, from the battle scenes right down to the quality of the actors' salutes. (He maintained most of them couldn't give a decent salute.) He also got angry when he saw actors like John Wayne and Frank Sinatra portraying soldiers.

"Frank Sinatra did all his fighting in the movies," he'd say in disgust.

I found it hard to believe that the latest World War II movie, Flags of Our Fathers, failed at the box office in spite of rave reviews. An article in the New York Times said World War II apparently isn't real to movie-goers today, that the stories from that time have lost their meaning.

I guess I shouldn't be suprised, but I feel like the sacrifices my father's generation made are being washed away.

My dad had a habit of repeating himself a lot, but with the army stories, I didn't mind. I could hear them again and again, and now, sitting here, I wish I had recorded them so we'd have them for all time.

His stories became mine. I re-told them throughout high school and even today I pick out one of the good ones and repeat it for my friends. You would almost think I was the one who fought in the war.

I used to ride down to the post office at Grand Army Plaza at night so he could mail order forms to his company and somewhere along the way, he'd start telling me one of his war stories. His unit was called "The Timberwolves" and they lived by the motto "Nothing in Hell Can Stop the Timberwolves."

He'd talk about basic training out in the desert, where he'd throw a short piece of rope into someone's tent and shout "snake!" And then he'd laugh as he described his victim running across the sands with his tent draped over his head.

My father's pratical jokes always went too far and he told me how he once picked up a dead rattlesnake and approached a Southern soldier he knew had a deathly fear of reptiles.

The Southerner was not amused as he picked up his rifle and told my father that if he took one more step he would be a dead man. My father decided to bother someone else.

There was the time they were crossing an irrigation ditch on night maneuvers and one of the soldiers fell off the footbridge and into the rushing water. The soldier let out of this terrible wail and one of the corporals came running up shouting, "that was the scream of death if ever I heard it!"

Perhaps, but the fallen soldier was still holding on to the bridge and had not been swept away to his demise.

He'd talk about the men he served with, "Tiger" Ryan, Benny Tornetta, and a guy he would just call the Big Swede. There was the crazy major who walk fearlessly through an artillery attack, while his soldiers were face down on the ground, and yet this very same man was terrified of snipers.

"I came up to him one time," my father said, "and he was in a foxhole. I asked him what he was doing down there, and he said, 'snipers got me pinned.' "

It's strange how this man had no fear of a massive artillery shell, but was terrified by the thought of a little piece of lead.

Of course, all the soldiers hated snipers, who would stay behind in a village, kill a few men to slow the troops down and then come out with their hands up to surrender.

One of my father's buddies was able to pick off a sniper and as the man shrieked in agony, the soldier declared, "scream, you bastard, it's music to my ears!"

My father never bragged about how many Germans he killed or how brave he was in combat. Quite the opposite, he readily confessed how he was terrified, especially during artillery attacks, when shells were screaming through the sky and blowing up around him.

He wasn't much for medals either, saying he was most proud of his intact ass.

Battle Zone

My father was once trudging through a freezing rain storm one night in Holland and looked down to see the corpse of German soldier, its face distorted by a sheet of ice. My father figured he most have set a broad jump record leaping away from the body.

There was a night time battle, which he summed by saying, "man, the shit was flying." And that said it all.

There was the night he and some of his buddies were out on maneuvers and they saw a German soldier coming. The soldier, thinking they were his buddies, asked what time it was. One of the Americans who could speak German responded and the soldier walked into the group of my dad's buddies.

"Yeah," my father would say, changing the pronoun. "They cut this throat."

I found later through my uncle that my father had come back from the war in pretty bad shape. He had two or three friends, also named Jim, who were killed in the same day. One of the men ran a hunting lodge somewhere out west and the three men had talked about going on a trip out there after the war.

I heard one story years ago, where my father was supposedly stuck in a foxhole for one long night with one of his comrades. He talked to the man all night and later found out the soldier was dead and he had been talking to a corpse.

I'm told that after the war he struggled to find a place in the working world. I'm sure the war scarred my father, perhaps accounted for his rages, his insensitivity, his downright meanness. It's hard to say and much too late to correct.

I went out to the nursing home to see my dad today. It was raining pretty hard and the boardwalk was almost empty. We played cards for a while and he said we should go upstairs so I could visit with Mom. I had to gently remind him that Mom was no longer with us.

I mentioned Veteran's Day and he didn't seem interested. I know he always resented guys who saw no action during the war but bragged about being soldiers.

He said there were soldiers stationed London who just about cried when peace was declared. They were nowhere near the action, they worked in offices and they had a whole city full of women whose men were off to war. War wasn't hell for these guys.

I wheeled my father around the floor and he pointed to one man in a wheelchair, saying, "I know that guy." I thought he might have been imaginging things again, but the other man turned and said, "hi, Jim."

It turns out they share the same floor and eat at the same table. This man, also named Jim, is 91 years old, 6 years older than my dad. I asked him how he was doing.

"We're waiting to die," he said simply. "We have no future."

I started to say something, give him some kind of stupid pep talk, but I shut up. Who am I to tell this man how he should feel? He's the one going through this experience, not me.

I took my dad back up to his floor so he could have supper, and then headed out. It was too dark to walk on the boardwalk, so I walked down Surf Avenue in a light rain. I think of how my father marched through much more severe weather, in much more dangerous areas, and I think how that's all being forgotten now.

So I'm glad I went back and bought that poppy. I did it for my father, for "Tiger" Ryan, the Big Swede the crazy major, and all the other soldiers who gave up so much so many years ago.

I don't know if I'm doing it right, but I'm going to salute you guys anyway. As my homeless friend would say, "God bless ya."