Saturday, June 30, 2007

River of Life


Now I know how Moses felt.

Bear in mind I'm not talking about the adult Moses, who led his people out of slavery, parted the Red Sea, and brought the Ten Commandments to the world.

I'm talking about the infant Moses, who, before he grew up to become Charlton Heston, was set adrift in the Nile by his mother. (Thanks, Ma!)

I went tubing on the Delaware River today and I got that same feeling of helplessness as I planted my butt inside a rubber tube and set myself adrift in the Delaware.

As I sit here typing this, I am exhausted, sunburned, and delusional, though that last one may be a pre-existing condition. I also stubbed my toe something awful this evening and I think I may have gotten some nasty river virus.

Oh, but I had a great time. I'm hurting like a veteran cage fighter, but I tried something different, I expanded my world and faced my fears. And found they were perfectly justified.

I had won this trip from a singles group when I attended one of their earlier events, a tour of a wineries in the Northfork of Long Island. And I won that trip on the infamous Spin Doctor horseback ride-for-my-life in Central Park.

Once again, I had to get up early, race over to the city and get on board a bus. And, once again, we played that ridiculous "Over and Under" game with the rolls of toilet paper.

And once again my team won. This time I get a chance to--get ready--go white water rafting!

Hey, is it me or are these free trips of mine getting more dangerous? I'm worried I'm going to win a free lion-taming event or be fired out of a cannon. Plus I've won enough of these toilet paper games to include it as a skill on my resume.

The trip was relatively quick going out and in a short while we were all lined up with our tubes at this lovely spot in New Jersey.

I can't swim and, being the nervous type, I decided to request a life jacket. One of the people running the tubing company asked if any one wanted one and I started to raise my hand. Then she went for the wisecrack.

"If you think you're going to drown," she told us, "just stand up."

Everyone laughed and I quickly put my hand down. The water was 4 to 6 feet deep, so I would have looked like a fool if I put one on, but the fact is I can't swim and I'm also under six feet tall. Once again, though, pride won out over common sense. What a shock.

We went down to the river and I was feeling fairly confident. I got into the water without incident and started floating.

I can handle this, I thought, what's the big deal?

Funny I should ask. I noticed that the group was slowly getting away from me. I seemed to be going nowhere and when I tried to paddle, I started spinning in circles.

I've been going in circles for most of my life on land and repeating the process in the water was even worse. I cursed, I fumed, and I fell behind.

I felt like such an idiot. I'm athletic, I'm adaptable, and yet I couldn't get going. Little kids were floating by me and shaking their heads in sympathy. Or was it disgust?

The whole point of this thing was to meet people, socialize and have a good time. Now I was just floating down the river like a mobster's discarded corpse. This was an offer I could easily refuse.

Dueling Banjoes

I started to panic. What if they group got down to the food stand for lunch, ate their meals, and then took off without me? All my stuff--wallet, cell phone, house keys--was all back in the bus. How would I get out of this wilderness?

As you can see, I handled the situation calmly and rationally. I started paddling with one arm, which seemed to work. And which also did a number on my upper arm.

I lost my bottle of suntan oil because I had no idea how I'd turn around to get it. Maybe some unprotected person found it and put it to good use.

My group was completely out of sight. A family from Long Island watching my struggle offered to let me join their group, which, though tempting, wouldn't have solved the problem of my belongings.

And I suspect my tour's organizers might have gotten a little concerned when I failed to make an appearance.

I had all these angry thoughts as I struggled, things from my past that had absolutely nothing to do with the problem at hand. My mind just dredges up these thoughts to make things worse.

That's why mindfulness-concentrating on the breath-is so important in keeping you in the moment.

I also thought of a Three Stooges episode where the boys crowd into a canoe to escape hostile Indians and Curly sends the craft flying across the river like a torpedo with one swipe of his paddle. I was desperate enough to seek Curly's help.

Okay, time out here. I have to acknowledge the repetition in my life. Horseback riding in the park, mule riding down the Grand Canyon, and now this. I constantly find myself in situations that are supposed to be fun, but wind up scaring the living hell out of me.

I'm no thrill-seeker, I don't dive out of airplanes or skateboard along the rims of live volcanos. I just want to have a good time, damn it. Why do I insist upon playing Daniel Boone?

I finally crawled up to the lunch tent. My group was there, but they had, of course, finished their meal. They could have had a 12-course meal and smoked a box of Cuban cigars in the time it took me to get there.

"I'm sorry I'm late," I said, staggering to shore. "But I had to help a woman down river who was going into labor. The good news is she's naming the baby after me."

That got a few laughs and, like a lot of things, I found I had pretty much worried for nothing.

We ate, talked, and then--ye gods--it was time to get back into the river. I was determined to do better this time and I did, at least marginally.

The current picked up at one point and started carrying me in the wrong direction, but the water was shallow enough for me to get up, tube and all, and just walk over to the right side of the river.

A short time later, I started losing control of the tube again and I tried to calm down. This experience was a lot like life, where I get into tough situations I don't like and get all flustered.

So the lesson here is to avoid stuff you know is going to be trouble and when you're stuck, just paddle your way to the clear.

I have to say the weather was great and the scenery was gorgeous. When I took a break from my nervous breakdown I did appreciate my surroundings.

I finally reached the pick-up point and stumbled up onto dry land. One of our group leaders was looking at me rather oddly as I made my way to the bus.

"Your tube is much bigger than everyone else's," she said.

She was right. My rubber donut was indeed the biggest one in the group. That may explain my trouble on the water. I'm not a spastic nitwit, I just had the wrong equipment. Size really does matter--and, in this case, not for the better.

My dad used to say "a poor carpenter faults his tools," and I'll keep that in mind if I ever decide to rebuild my kitchen. On this day, I was the victim.

The ride back to New York was bumper-to-bumper misery. I was getting tired and crank(ier). But we made it and I learned of another skill I don't have.

So let's have a new commandment: Thou Shalt Not Freak Out. Life's tough enough already and the good times are way too brief.

Now, on to white water rafting!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stop Me if You've Heard It



History repeats itself. That's one of the things wrong with history. --Clarence Darrow

My father had an incredible capacity to tell the same story over and over.

Whether it was war stories, episodes from his life growing in New York during the Depression, or his life and times and as salesman for a meat wholesaler, my dad would tell us these stories over and over until the point where I had many of them memorized.

He geniunely didn't seem to realize he was repeating himself. Or if he did, it didn't seem to bother him.

This usually wasn't so bad, and, in fact, the army stories and the tales from the old neighborhood were very entertaining. It was like an old stereo player, where the thing automatically lifts the needle back to the beginning of the record.

When he talked about the horrors of the Depression, my father had a stock line that he'd always say.

"There were grown men selling apples in the street!" he'd say, still not believing it even after the passage of so many years.

Some of the jokes got worn out after repeated telling, but that wasn't so terrible. And I often told them to my friends.

Now if he started off a story with the words, “I think I’ve told you this before” that was a major red flag.

If my father was acknowledging a story's history, that meant you had already this particular story so many times that it had become part of your DNA. Zoning out was the only defense.

I mention this because the apple apparently doesn’t fall too far from the burning bush.

Guy Walks Into A Bar

In looking over my posts from June 2006, I saw one entitled “This Gentle Night,” which described a nightmare I had about my father and then went on tell about the time I took my mother to see The Exorcist.

I love telling that story and over the years it's become an amusing chapter in our family's history.

The only trouble here is that I posted an item the other week called “The Pea Soup Follies,” which, as you might have guessed from the title, was all about the time I took my mother to see The Exorcist.

I have absolutely no memory of writing the earlier post. True, it’s been a year, and I’ve had a lot on my mind, but still, that story is powerful enough that I think I should have remembered whether or not I posted it on the Web. But obviously I didn't.

Good Lord, this is so embarrassing. I sound like some old geezer outside a country store some place in the ass-end of nowhere.

One of my father's army buddies used to say his town was so remote, it was located "10 miles from where you could hear a train whistle." Got that quote down pat.

These memory slips seem to be happening a lot lately. I’m forgetting names and faces, the titles of movies and books. Is this normal or is the first step toward Alzheimer’s Disease?

My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's so I do worry about such things. In addition, studies apparently show that people who are depressed are more forgetful, and some of these people go on to develop Alzheimer's.

I'm hardly the most cheerful guy on the block, but I suspect worry won't help and might make the situation work.

Then I box a couple rounds with one of the instructors at the New York Sports Club. I am becoming punch drunk? Doesn't seem likely since I just started about a year ago and I don't do it that often. Still, I don't want to end up sound like Sylvester Stallone.

I was pretty upset about repeating my stories, thinking perhaps it was God's way of punishing me for mocking my father when I was a kid. But then I interpret every negative thing in my life as God's punishment.

It's a wonder God gets anything done, given all the time He spends zapping my sorry keester.

I went to meeting of Brooklyn bloggers on Sunday and hung out with some very cool people. It was great meeting these talent people in this funky little restaurant/performance space in Flatbush.

I wonder if any of those cool people ever had this problem?

I was getting pretty upset with myself. What kind of loser tells the same story over and over? I thought about deleting one of these posts--which I may do yet--but first I decided to handle it the only I knew how. I'd write about it.

I want to apologize for the repeat post. I have a lot more stories to tell, so there's no need to keep harping on the same on.

I haven't gone back over my other posts to see if there are more reruns somewhere in the mix and readers are encouraged to sound off if they catch one.

And for my part, I promise to be vigilant when I tell stories from my childhood.

Or did I tell you that already?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Better Behind You


The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

My father had this saying I try to remember whenever the going gets tough.

When faced with a tough or unpleasant task, he would say “better behind you than in front of you.”

In other words, get through the difficult business as quickly as possible, instead of putting it off and worrying about it.

This is a great bit of advice that I don’t follow nearly as much as I should.

I didn’t go to visit my father’s grave on Sunday, the first Father’s Day since his death. I didn't pay my respects. It's bothering me, but not all that much. And that really bothers me.

I had received a free ticket to a winery tour in the North Fork of Long Island during the Prospect Park horseback riding fiasco, which is the least they could have done for me, given the misery I went through that day.

The tour normally goes for 80 bucks, and since it was a single’s event, I persisted holding onto the delusion that I might actually meet the love of my life.

I told myself a whole list of excuses for not visiting my father's grave: I find the cemetery depressing, which I do; it’s a pointless ceremony, which I think it is; life is meant for the living, well, duh.

But none of it rang true. I had gone to my mother’s grave on the first Mother’s Day after she died—a terrible time, where I wept and wailed at the sight of her headstone. Even the car service guy who drove us out there got upset and tried to console me.

It was a much different relationship with my father. There was a lot of hostility and a bit of violence, both emotional and physical.

To this day I still getting angry at my father about things he did. The ugly memories come to me so easily, while the good times are buried in bitterness and rage.

There are times I get so angry that I wish I could throttle him, or that I'm glad he's dead. I'm not proud of these feelings, but I can't deny them.

But this week I had a memory of my father the day that was actually pleasant. It goes back to the time when I was a Cub Scout.

This was in the 60s, when my neighborhood felt like a Norman Rockwell painting of small town America. All the kids and their parents were involved in scouting. We went on picnics and day trips to places like Valley Forge and Sagamore Hill.

Everyone would pile into a bus and take off. We spent the whole day out and we usually had a lot of fun.

The monthly meetings were held in the cafeteria of Our Lady of Angels Church and ceremonies were built around Native American traditions. There was this figure known as Akelah, which, according to the Boy Scout Web sit, means "a good leader."

Your mother or father is Akela. In the Pack, your Cubmaster is Akela. Your Den Leader is Akela. At school, your teacher is Akela.

My father was not the pack leader, but I remember one night when he had to fill in for the Great Akela. He had to run an induction ceremony, so he wrapped himself in a blanket, put on a feathered headress, painted red stripes on his face, and welcomed the new members to the pack.

God, this sounds so weird to write about it now, but that’s what we did and nobody questioned it. I stood there watching my father, seeing him as my dad and Akela, the wise leader.

My family was about to go through some difficult times as my parents separated and came very close to divorce. My father wasn't the wise leader during that ugly period. He was the villian, someone we all hated. But it was a long time ago I should put it behind me.

The Leader of the Pack

Sunday's wine tour had the feeling of a cub scout trip. We met on the Upper West Side, got on a bus, where the organizers took roll call.

We took off and spent a long time driving. I was in a dead zone where people around me were talking with each other, while I sat there by myself. No a good place to be if you want to meet someone.

The trip out there took forever. Traffic crawled along the Sunrise Highway and we saw the aftermath of two horrible accidents. It's hard to believe people emerged unhurt or even alive from these twisted and burned out wrecks and I was glad I don't cover car crashes for a living anymore.

During the trip, one of the group leaders suggested we play a game called "Under and Over."

I had never heard of this game, but apparently people who went to summer camp knew all about it. For the unenlightened, the game goes like this: the bus is split right down the middle into two teams.

Each side passes a roll of toilet paper over one seat of the bus and under the next. You have to go to the end of the bus and back without tearing the paper.

I'm 50 years old, I'm looking for a girlfriend, and here I am playing stupid camping games. Where is the great Akelah when I need him?

I worked out a plan with the guy in front of me to hand me the roll under his seat like a center snapping the ball to the quarterback. I got it, handed it over my seat and saw that we were catching up to the other team. We opened a lead on the way back and won the game.

The prize was a free ticket on the company's next event, rubber raft floating in the Delaware. I don't swim and I had already won this trip. I shouldn't be greedy, now should I?

One of them women on the other team sounded really bummed that she was missing out on the trip. So--I still don't believe I did this--I offered her my ticket.

"Really?" she asked in disbelief.

"Of course," I said in even greater disbelief. "I don't want to go."

So I handed over my ticket. And instantly regretted my decision. What the hell was I doing? Maybe I would have fun on this trip.

If I was trying impress this woman, I had just insured that I wouldn't see her on that weekend and I had given her a chance to meet somebody else.

What the hell is wrong with me? I think I'm so desperate to please, to be liked, to be seen as the nice guy, that I often do myself harm.

So I sat there in my seat just stewing about what I done. There is no way in hell I could ask her for the thing back. I toyed with the idea of approaching one of the leaders and telling my rather stupid story in hopes of getting another free pass. But I knew they had given them all away.

Of course, throughout the day, people in my team were saying how psyched they were about winning another trip. One woman I was talking with told she had done it, that it was safe because you stayed in shallow water and wore a life jacket.

I told her I had given by ticket away and she looked at me in shock.

"You did?"

"Yeah," I said, trying to sound nonchalant. "What the hell?"

What the hell, indeed, you nutcase.

The tour was pretty cool and I got to taste some nice wines, something we never did in the Cub Scouts. I was getting tired, though, tired of riding in that bus, tired of trying to make conversation with strangers, with trying to "meet" somebody. It was time to go home.

We finally piled into the bus and got back on the highway. I could hear the woman to whom I had given my trip ticket talking with two other women.

"This trip is on a Saturday," she was saying, "I have to work that day."

My ears pricked up. If she was going to work on the day of the tubing trip, there was no reason for her to keep the free ticket...right?

Then she was leaning over to me and handing me the ticket.

"Here," she said, "I can't use this."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

Shut up, you moron! Shut up! Shut up!

"Yes," she said. "You take it."

So I caught a break, one I really didn't deserve. God looked down from above and said, "Oy, I have to bail out this loser again!"

We rode home pretty much in silence. I recalled a song we used to sing a song called "Three Cheers for the Bus Driver," saluting the man who had made it all possible.

There was line in the song that went, "he's fat and he's jolly, and built like a trolley. This was actually meant as a compliment back then before we had phrases like "morbidly obese."

So I didn't visit my dad's grave on Father's Day. My sister went, taking a long trip out to Staten Island by bus and train.

It's ironic because she probably the most difficult relationship with my dad, but there she was, standing by his grave. I believe my brother and niece went during the day, as well.

I think I'll take my father's advice and put this guilt I'm feeling behind me. It's better having there than in front of me, blocking my vision of the road ahead.

I think the Great Akelah would approve.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Horse Hockey


The directions were simple: follow the horse crap. And that's what I did.

I went on a horseback riding tour of Prospect Park on Sundy and while I won't exactly say that I regret it, I'm pretty sure I won't do it again.

But that will probably change in a few months.

I keep convincing myself that I like horseback riding, but every time I get on top of these huge animals I realize that I'm not cut out to be a cowboy.

Maybe it was all those westerns I used to watch as a kid, where the hero jumps on his trusty horse and rides off to rescue the schoolmarm. They make it look so easy and the horses are always so agreeable.

So, I con myself into believing I'm going to have a great time, and I'll get the hang of riding in no time at all. Then I'm holding to the reins and preparing to meet my maker.

This happened a few years back when I took the mule ride down the Grand Canyon. A co-worker had told me a friend of hers had done this very thing and had a great time. So I tried it and I got Cyrus, the dumbest mule in creation. Even the other mules didn't like him.

Cyrus insisted upon dragging his ass, no pun intended, and walking on the very edge of the canyon. One slip up and we woykd have gone over the edge, and probably buried together because I don't think anyone would bother trying to separate our respective body parts.

While on the same vacation, I went for a day trip at a ranch in Sedona, Ariz., and took a ride on Custer, a monsterous horse that plodded around the brush in slow motion. Aside from being so high I felt like I was riding an elephant, Custer didn't worry me much. I don't the word "bolt" was in his dictionary.

On Sunday, I told myself I had to do something different and horseback riding in the park sounded just great. I honestly don't what I'm thinking at times like these, because I always look back and curse myself for getting my rear end in a sling once again.

My father always complained that horseback riding was boring, that you get bounced around a lot. He also used to talk about a sign in a bar which read "Why are there more horses' asses than there are horses?" The question came back to me on Sunday.

I got up early and headed over to the Kensington Stables near the park. I didn't know the neighborhood and after asking directions three separate times, a young father in a local playround pointed off to the distance and gave me the horse crap line.

I've been following horse crap all my life and it hasn't done me much good. But this time it worked and I found the stables quickly. The stench helped, too.

I learned I was the only male in a group of eight riders, which is not bad. Our leader was a very nice woman who confessed that she was scared of getting on a horse.

I was laboring under the misapprehension that as leader, she would be an experienced rider who could do Annie Oakley stunts in the saddle. This was not a good sign.

We all signed waviers about not holding the stable responsible if we were killed or maimed while riding one of their horses. I love those waivers. Hey, pal, have fun, but if you wind up in a body bag, we don't want to hear it.

Someone in our group--and it wasn't me--felt the need to mention Christopher Reeve, which gave me the urge to follow the horse crap back the hell home.

Our horses were led out of the stable one at a time and I prayed for a small one, a Shetland pony if they had it. I saw kids taking the pony ride and I wanted to take one for myself. I liked the idea of touching the ground with my feet.

They brought one sickly geezer of a horse who looked like he was fresh from a saloon brawl and I thought, that's my guy! But they gave him to one of the women in the group and then, moments later, they took back into the stable, where he probably died a short time later from whatever was ailing him.

Then they bring out Spin Doctor, a huge brown horse who seemed to get larger as the day wore on. I must say the stable had a great staff of volunteers working there and this young woman got me into the saddle and started giving me tips on what to do.

"Don't let him eat grass," she said. "If he does, I want you to pull back on the reins."

I didn't think that sounded like such a big deal, but I agreed. We all lined up and a woman whom I assumed was the owner went around telling us all to straighten up.

"Lady in the blue sweater," she shouted to one of my companions, "put your heels down!"

Lady in the blue sweater? That's how you talk to people? I guess she could have approached this woman and quietly asked her to adjust her position in the saddle, but then she wouldn't have been the center of attention.

We take off and it was going pretty well. The volunteers ride ahead and block traffic so we can get into the park and I'm feeling tall in the saddle. My horse has done this trail a thousand times, so I can pretty much relax.

And then he almost throws me.

Please Don't Eat the Daisies

It seems Spin Doctor likes to pretend he's behaving himself and will then dive into the nearest vegetation and stuff his face. When he saw a patch of grass, he threw his mug down and went through it like a John Deere lawn mower on rocket fuel.

I almost went flying over his head. I was shouting, "whoa!" over and over and pulling for all I was worth.

As we went along Spin Doctor figured out he could do whatever the hell he wanted to do and so he ate everything in sight.

Early on in the ride, I heard some commotion around me. One of the women was having a problem with her horse. I think she panicked and one of the volunteers had to grab her reins. I was hoping for the same deal.

How did cowboys put up with this? I'm just as concerned about global warming as the next person, but I have to say I'm glad we have cars so we don't have to rely on Spin Doctor and his ilk to get around.

At one point, Spin Doctor started to gallop and I freaked out, thinking I'm going to fly off this bastard. I didn't realize until later that he was just trying to fill the gap in the line of riders. I just wish he had said something before making like Sea Biscuit.

"You're a bad horsey," I said, unable to come up with anything else. "You don't eat before I eat."

Spin Doctor had other plans, however, and on the return trip he suddenly bolted, shoved his entire head into the bushes and emerge with what looked like somebody's victory garden in his mouth.

"He is eating a tree," I yelled. "He is destroying all the plant life in the park."

One of the volunteers came up and gave me horse a stern look.

"Spin Doctor," he said, "I'm coming for you."

Apparently the young man made a move with his riding crop, whereupon Spin Doctor took off again. It was a little scary, but by this time I realized he was closing the gap.

I was having so much trouble with the horse and I was so nervous that I wanted to get off right there in the park and take a cab home. But I didn't look like a weenie in front of all those women.

"I can't seem to control him," I said to one of the female volunteers, sounding a lot like a weenie. "He's not listening to me."

"You have to be firm with him," she said.

Firm? I'm riding on his back. What if he gets mad and decides to drop me on my head?

I saw a pack of bike riders go by, quickly, efficiently, none of the bikes eating any grass. I though to myself, yeah, that's how you get around.

I came out to have some fun and maybe meet someone and I wind up wrestling with a 1,000-pound two-year-old. And paying for the privilege.

We finally got back to the stable and I was exhausted. I climbed off Spin Doctor and my legs nearly gave out from underneath me. It took a little doing to get used to walking again, but I was glad to be back on the earth.

After we all dismounted we headed to a nearby restaurant for some lunch. One of the women who was an experienced rider had to mouth off about my time with Spin Doctor.

"My horse was so jealous of yours," she said. "She wanted to be with someone who would let her get away with anything."

Okay, so basically you're telling me I have no cajones because I can't control this glue factory reject? How nice. Let's get together again real soon.

So I didn't meet anybody, I dropped 40 bucks, got a sore ass and some first class agita. But I did break out of my comfort zone for a little while and got to hang with some fun people and one obnoxious equine.

Still, I'm done following the horse crap. I don't get along with horses and visa versa. I'm from Brooklyn, damn it, I'm not Buffalo Bill. If I want to get around, I'll stick to riding the R train.

But that will probably change in a few months.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Keys to The Kingdom


I woke up the other night to screams and a wild dog tearing at my face.

It was another nightmare. This time it was our family dog, Schnapps, or some demonic version of him, who died more than 30 years ago.

All I remember of the dream was that he was viciously biting my face right along the jawline and I couldn't fend him off.

This follows a recent nightmare where my late father was about to attack me. It seems like the dead and I just can't get along.

I opened my eyes and saw it was 12:20 AM on the digital clock. Somewhere in the neighborhood, an idiot in his car was leaving rubber, so the screaming I heard was actually the screeching of tortured tires.

I had to get up early for work that morning so I could cover the same-store sales reports for May. I have to be in an hour ahead of time to start writing the story, which I update about three times during the morning.

It's pretty stressful and this one was made worse by the fact that it would be the last time I would be doing it. I'm being taken off the retail beat because my editors are not happy with my work.

They tell me they'll try and find something for me, but, I'm told, "we may not." I can take a hint: I'm going to be out of a job in two weeks.

That explains the nightmare. I'm worried about being out of work at 50 years old. Why Schnapps was resurrected to attack me, I don't now. He was known to bite, but old Schnapps also loved us very much.

Is he a stand in for my family? Am I afraid they'll be angry at me for losing my job? Hard to say.

The rest of the morning was rough. I got up, bone tired, and got dressed. Usually I'm prepared for this early day, with everything all lined up and ready to go. And I did have everything--wallet, cell phone, clothes, lunch--I had it all, except my house keys.

I honestly tried to stay calm. I knew if I panicked I would never my house keys, even if they were right in front of my face. But I had only held on for a few minutes, until the rage took.

"This of all mornings I lose my house keys?" I raged.

All Keyed Up

Of course, there's the obvious psychological question: did I lose them on purpose because I resent my situation at the office? That's so obvious that I'm tempted to dismiss it out of hand. But I'll hold off for the time being.

It's been a week for keys. Two days earlier I stood in front of my aunt's apartment door with a set of keys that didn't work on the locks.

My aunt's away in the Berkshires for the summer and she wanted to go in there and pick up some items and mail them to her.

Only I couldn't get in.

I called her on my cell and we just couldn't figure out what had gone wrong. She recently changed the locks, but I was certain I had the new set. But it didn't look that way as I stood in the hall. I finally went home empty-handed.

I ran to a jar full of keys in the kitchen and tried every one on the front door. My father kept losing his keys and broke one of them in the lock, so I was constantly getting new sets made.

Add those to the older keys we never threw out and it was quite a stack for me to wade through.

I finally found an extra set and took off for work. I was worried I left my keys outside on the front ledge, where some dirtbag could pick them up and rip me off at his leisure. But I couldn't stick around any longer.

I jumped on the R train just as the doors were closing and sat down to read my paper. I noticed a story in the arts section seemed familiar and that was because it was from the day before.

I figured there was some kind of layout mistake where they accidentally ran the old story in the latest paper. Then I checked the date. The entire paper was from the day before. The Times had sent me a day old newspaper.

Great. Now I'm living "Groundhog Day." Nothing to read, I'm too tired to sleep, and even I could, a pair of idiots at the end of the car were talking and laughing so loudly, sleep would have been out of the question.

At Prospect Avenue a young man in a bow tie stuck his arm in the closing door so he could board the train. He was holding a bagel in the trapped arm, but the conductor opened the doors and he got on board.

I looked to my day-old Times and try to figure why I have this hostility toward people who wear bow ties. I just automatically assumed they're twits desperately looking for attention. It's a prejudice, I know, and I should be ashamed of myself. But I'm not.

I turned my head and saw the bow tie guy was standing right over me.

As if by magic, he's leaning against the door reading The Post with a front page story about the guy who tried to board the Pope-Mobile and a headline reading "Come to Poppa." I assume it was today's paper.

I space out again with my time warp paper and then I hear a metallic clunk. I look up because I know exactly what the sound is--it's the sound keys make when they hit the floor.

A man in a seat a few feet away from apparently shifted in his seat and dislodged his keys. And there was the bow tie guy, sitting across from him, and pointing to the floor.

"You dropped your keys," he said.

I know, I thought, I just don't know where.

Lock It Up

I made it to work on time and started cranking out my story. It's an odd, unpleasant atmosphere, knowing my days are numbered. It's dead man walking and I don't expect any last minute calls from the governor.

I came home that night, called the Times and ask for credit to cover my case of deja vu. I walked into the bedroom, moved a few things around on the bureau and found my house keys. The morning's panic had made me blind.

"If they had teeth, they'd bite you!" my father used to say whenever we missed something that was right in front of us. Well, keys have teeth, don't they? Nothing bite me that morning, except life, and that was right on the ass.

I worked with a guy in the Poconos who used to say "key" when he meant to say "cool." It was meant as praise, but I wasn't feeling too key this day.

My aunt sent my extra keys to her apartment and I went back there tonight. I got the items she needed, took some stuff out of the refrigerator, but I couldn't get it all.

I walked down to Union Square with a shopping bag full of stuff. I passed bars full of young people, drinking and having a good time on a Friday night.

I thought about how old I was, how uncool--unkey?--I looked with a shopping bag, and how I'm likely to be out of work soon, so Friday nights will lose their meaning.

There were the usual clusters of people on the street smoking or lining up to talk on their cell phones.

"No!" one young man declared into the phone as he emerged from a bar and almost bumped into me. "If you're in New Brunswick, you're in the wrong city."

Can't argue with that. But this guy was making me angry, cutting me off like I wasn't even there. I may be middle-aged and facing unemployment, but I deserve to be respected.

I found myself fantasizing about starting a fight with the guy, showing this young punk who was top dog around here. Fortunately I kept walking, though if he had been wearing a bow tie there would have been blood on the streets. Probably mine.

I turned a corner and caught a vanity license plate on a sports car reading "I EXIST" and that seemed to say it all.

Yes, I do, I thought. But I'd like to live a little, too.

I just have to find the right key.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Pea Soup Follies


You wouldn't think a movie like "The Exorcist" could call up happy memories, but for my family it brings back one of the best.

With the strong exception of my father, my mother and the rest of us loved old scary movies.

Not the young-virign slash 'em up garbage like the "Friday the 13th" series, but the older flicks, what my mother and my aunt liked to call "a good creepy."

We liked to sit around the TV and watch all the old Universal horror films, like "Frankenstein," "The Werewolf," and, of course, "Dracula."

"Children of the night," my mom would say in her best Bela Lugosi, "what music they make."

My father was the lone holdout in this happy mix, loudly declaring his disdain for the horror and science fiction genres at every possible opportunity.

Whenever we were watching TV and a good creepy came on, my father would loudly declare "that's me!" get out of his chair and stomp back into the bedroom. My dad would not be caught dead--or undead--seeing a horror movie.

I always nursed this fantasy of my father being abducted by aliens and being forced to tell the authorities what the mother ship was like.

But my dad could have run into Big Foot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster in the same public men's room and still wouldn't have believed what he was seeing with his own eyes. He would have claimed that we were playing a trick on him.

My dad had played a trick on my mother and my aunt when they had gone to see a Frankenstein movie. I don't think I had been born yet, but according to my aunt, my father started banging the doors after they had gotten home from the theater.

The Devil You Say

My aunt and sister were in the bathroom and when she grabbed the doorknob with both hands to keep whatever was out there on the other side, she turned to see my mother trying to climb out the bathroom window. I think my dad really enjoyed that trick.

So when "The Exorcist," one of the hottest movies of the day when I was about 17, came to the nearby Fortway Theater, there was no way my mother would miss it and no way my father would take her to see it.

Seeing movies with your mother can be awkward for both parties, especially the sex scenes.

When my brother and I went with her to see "The Howling"--we didn't even think of inviting my father--she nearly freaked during the part when the heroine's husband does the wild thing with a lady werewolf and the two of them get naked while sprouting fangs and fur.

She was sitting between us and when the juicy stuff started happening she put one hand in front of each of our faces, even though we were adults by then.

When the movie "Blue Velvet" came out on video, my parents asked me if it was good, since I had seen in the theater. I had liked the film, so I said, yes, it was, not thinking how my mother would react to Dennis Hopper's psychotic assault on Isabella Rossellini.

Then the scene unfolds in our living room, with Hopper gnawing on Rossellini's robe and moaning, "ooo,baby wants to fuuuuccckkk!"

As Hopper sucked on his oxygen mask and smacked Rossellini while screaming "don't fucking look at me!" I looked--over at my mother.

She was frozen. Her mouth open, her eyes bulging, it was like a still photograph. She didn't even blink. Maybe renting this movie hadn't been such a good idea, I thought.

During "Deliverance" my mother was naturally horrified at the rape scene. And when Burt Reynolds pulled his arrow from a dead hillbilly's chest, placing one foot on the body and repeatedly tugging--my mother grunted with each pull.

While we were staying at my aunt's house in the Berkshires, we went to a double feature of "Deliverance" and "A Clockwork Orange" at a theater in Amherst--why anyone would put these two flicks together and why the hell we went as a family to see them I don't know.

It might have been my idea, since I hadn't seen "A Clockwork Orange" and I'm a real movie freak. We came in late for "Deliverance" and then watched as Malcolm McDowell went on a tear with a giant phallus sculpture.

After we came out of the theater, I asked my mother what she thought of Stanley Kubrick's film.

"Hideous!" she wailed, throwing her head back, and some of the college students around us started to laugh.

These violent films always seemed to catch my mother off-guard. Years of watching those old black and white spook flicks had not prepared her for what she was about to see in "The Exorcist."

Head-Turner

The picture was a nightmare for her. The head turning, the pea soup flying in all directions, the kid floating in the air and Jason Miller's suicide leap, it all just blew my mother away. I don't think she made a sound during the whole time and when the lights came on, she looked shell-shocked.

I literally had to pick her up out of her seat and guide her up the aisle, one arm around her shoulder, as I held her forearm with my other hand; it looked like some bizarre version of the tango. The theater aisle took on the bad dream dimension as it seemed to stretch on forever.

People coming in for the next screening just stared at us at we came limping out of the theater, clearly thinking what the hell have we got ourselves into?

I remember one man in particular who stopped dead in his tracks with his bag of popcorn held high, looking at us in disbelief.

I always regretted not making a deal with the manager of theater, where I could stand outside the theater with my mom and drum up business. See how scary this movie is, folks? Come on in!

We walked home from the Fortway, my mom muttering the whole way. We got to the house and I walked her up the alley to the kitchen door.

I've always liked my sister's point of view in this portion of the story, where she was in the kitchen, completely unaware of what was going on.

All of a sudden, the kitchen door flew open, my mother came hobbling into the house, and declared in a loud, trembling voice, "I am shadow of my former self!"

We eventually calmed her down and everybody went to be bed, except me.

Now, to be honest, I wasn't particularly scared by "The Exorcist." I had read the book so I knew what was going on and I thought the film was a little cheesy.

I didn't think it had an underlying sense of evil; it was just more of a collection of scary, disturbing scenes.So I decided to re-read portions of the novel to see how they differed from the film.

And that's when I got scared.

Hell, No!

It must have been the combined effect of the movie and the novel, but when I looked up, alone in our living room and I was terrified. I was stranded in the living room, afraid to turn off the light and walk to my room in the dark.

I went through the house and put on a series of lights and then went back and turned each of them off, so as not to be trapped by whatever came out as soon as the lights switched off.

I went to bed, in the room I shared with my brother and I could not sleep for anything. I find demonic possession particularly frightening. The idea that you or a loved one can be invaded by some horrible spirit and forced to do all sorts of evil made my skin crawl.

At least with vampires you had wooden stakes and with werewolves you had silver bullets. What do you do when the monster is you?

Somewhere in the dead of night I switched on my portable radio and tried to distract myself. My brother muttered in the lower bunk about the noise, so I turned the volume down to a whisper and hoped I'd find some solace on the FM dial.

I came across a touchy-feeling talk show boob who had this little ditty about calling upon people during troubled times. You were supposed to say the person's name and ask that they "share with me this gentle night."

Yes, I know, it's stupid and corny, but I had scared the living crap out of myself and I was desperate for some kind of relief.

So I said the name Mary, this alleged girlfriend of mine who had gone out with me only because she had a crush on this alleged friend of mine.

It took a long time for me to figure out that they were both no goddamn good, but I'm a slow learner. And if saying Mary's name could prevent me from puking pea soup, what the hell? No pun intended.

So I lay there in bed, clutching my radio and a little flashlight, chanting, "Mary, share with me this gentle night."

The deejay said that often the person you're talking about will come back into your life after saying this little item. Well, he was an idiot. Mary never did come back into my life and for that I am truly grateful.

She was nothing but trouble and I was well rid of her. I just needed to borrow her name for a couple hours until the sun came up.

I got through the night without the devil getting hold of me. For years we told the story about my mom's Exorcist breakdown and laughed, but I rarely repeated my late night experience. And I never told anyone about calling up the spirit of Mary.

My mom's gone now and the Fortway was shuttered two years ago. I see now her way reacting to these movies was one of the many reasons why I loved her so much.

And some days I miss her so badly I feel like a shadow of my former self. But we did have a heck of a time together and whenever I think of "The Exorcist," I can't help but smile.