Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cyclone Drama

Now I know what “hell on wheels” really means.

I took a ride on the world famous Cyclone roller coaster today and having survived this experience I can you two things: this was my first time on this attraction. And it was probably my last.

I was part of a select group of just four people who had been given a special ride on the Cyclone and while I was quite honored by this star treatment, I am really happy to be alive.

If there is a record for screaming the phrase “Oh my God” repeatedly in under two minutes, I smashed it to pieces.

Now, you may be wondering why a man who is afraid great heights and excessive speeds would willingly climb aboard a roller coaster knowing full well that he would have to deal with, well, great heights and excessive speeds.

I had been contacted by Ariel Kaminer, a New York Times columnist who is doing a story about the Cyclone.

She had come across some of my blog postings where I wrote about visiting my father at a Coney Island nursing home a few years ago. She asked me about some of my memories of the area and I made the mistake of telling her that I, a native Brooklynite, had never been on the Cyclone.

That’s one email I wish I could’ve taken back because Ariel quickly shot me a response suggesting that we meet up and take a ride on the renowned roller coaster. And I actually agreed to this.

But I don’t blame Ariel for getting me into this predicament. The person I’m really angry with is Henry Hudson, who, according to the mural on the New York Aquarium’s wall, landed on Coney Island in 1609. If that English bastard had just kept on sailing I never would’ve gotten into this mess.

In doing my research I learned that the Cyclone opened on June 26, 1927. It was declared a city landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

Wikipedia tells me that in 1948 a coal miner with aphonia visited Coney Island and, according to legend, he had not spoken in years but screamed while going down the Cyclone's first drop, saying "I feel sick" as his train returned to the station. Yes, folks, that's the Cyclone—it’s good for what ails you.

I arrived a half-hour early and strolled around the boardwalk. There were some signs of life in the amusement area as shooting galleries and other attractions were lifting their shutters and getting ready for customers. The Nathan's clock informed everyone that it was 95 days until the July Fourth hotdog eating contest.

I tried psyching myself up, recalling how I had survived Space Mountain in Disneyland just a few months ago. How could a significantly older ride compare with that modern monstrosity? I’m going to be just fine, I told myself.

I walked by the Cyclone and my nerve began to fade. The thing looked...old. Inside my head I shrieked it’s dilapidated!— and that's a word I don’t use lightly.

A sign told visitors they had to be at least 54 inches tall to take the ride and I actually did the math on my own height, hoping I might have somehow shrunk during the night. But, no, I met the height requirement with ease.

I kept hearing this strange wailing noise, like lost souls looking for away out of purgatory. It turned out to be the wind blowing up through the Astrotower across the street, but it didn’t make me feel any safer.

This roller coaster ride came close to not happening at all. Astroland owner Carol Hill Albert told us that the heavy rains that we’ve been having recently had caused the tracks to swell and high winds were slowing down the cars.

Okay, I thought, that’s a wrap. I came down here ready to ride this bugger, but the people in charge said it wasn’t going to happen. See you in July.

Ariel was insistent, however, because she had a story to do, but I was a little unnerved. It was kind of like arguing with a pilot when he tells you it’s not safe to fly. You stay on the ground.

Along for the Ride

Seeing the car get stuck on a curve and watching the roller coaster crew climb down the tracks really had me going. I could just see myself in that situation--only in my version I'm screaming my lungs out and the SCPA has to shoot me down with a tranquilizer gun.

I must credit Ariel with giving me every possible opportunity to bail on this thing. It was her story, not mine, she said, and it would be perfectly okay if I remained on Planet Earth.

I really appreciated her concern, but…I couldn’t. Call it pride, call it stupidity, call it denial, call it whatever you want, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t go through with the ride. Of course I wouldn't be able to live at all if something went wrong, but I wasn't thinking that far ahead.

I didn’t want to give into my fears. People talk about the threat of homegrown terrorists; well, I have an ingrown terrorist, a screaming berserker inside me who sees death, mayhem and destruction lurking behind the most mundane acts. If I didn’t ride the Cyclone, that terrorist would win.

Before our ride, we met with some of the people who are planning to build a new amusement park on the Astroland property. It's going to be called Luna Park and it turns out the company's president and CEO is named Ferrari, which was my grandfather’s name. Maybe we're family?

Luna Park, of course, was the name of a Coney Island amusement park that opened in 1903 and closed in 1944. My mother used to tell me about being at Coney Island the night Luna Park burned down.

Years later I was speaking with a friend of my uncle’s who told me that he had been a reporter on the old Brooklyn Eagle and he had covered that fire in Luna Park.

Miss Cyclone 2010 graciously agreed to join us on the ride and she gave us some useful tips. Don’t strain, she said, don’t squeeze the bar. Just go with the ride and enjoy it.

I didn’t actually believe I was doing this until that bar came down in front of me and we began the slow ticking ride up to the first drop. I'm on the freaking Cyclone, I thought. There's no turning back now. I was seated next to Jen Gapay, owner of Thirsty Girl Productions, a lovely woman who did her best to console me, but it was hopeless. I clamped my eyes shut and began reciting the Hail Mary.

We reached the top...and then…we fell. They say the first drop is the worst and they are so bloody right. I began the “Oh my God” chorus and kept it up for next 110 seconds—the longest near two minutes of my life.

I stopped worrying about the car stopping and began to freak out about the thing flying off the tracks and landing somewhere in Carnarsie.

“It’s okay…” Jen said as we whipped around the track. “This next one’s not so bad…”

It was bad enough. I was thrown from side to side like a cork in a tidal wave. Why did I ever agree to this? Space Mountain was indoors; it was a controlled environment. The Cyclone is up in the sky and it’s made out of wood.

I opened my eyes ever so briefly as we slowed down and finally came to a stop. I staggered out of the car, apologizing to everyone within earshot for my gutless behavior. I told Miss Cyclone that I tried her relaxation thing, but it didn't work. She assured me that it takes several rides to get this down.

All right, so I didn’t see much of anything. But I did conquer my fears long enough to actually get on the damn thing. I got a really cool Cyclone hoodie and a hug from Jen, which is more than Henry Hudson ever got. The only Coney Island ride I haven't tackled yet is the Wonder Wheel, but I may wait on that one for a little while.

I came home that night and learned that my former sister-in-law’s aunt had died that very morning. She was being cared for at the same Coney Island nursing home where my father had been. I was just a few blocks away, but I had no idea she was there.

She was such a sweet, gentle lady and I feel badly about her passing. It's another reminder that life is brief, that you should do things that scare you, and don’t ever surrender to your ingrown terrorist.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Walk, Don't Die

I was sitting on the R train Sunday morning when the screaming started.

We were at the 45th Street station in Sunset Park. I was going to a gym class in Manhattan and I had left my house ridiculously early so I wouldn’t be late.

I was overdoing it, but it's always a good idea to give yourself a little extra time when you're traveling at off-peak hours. There are fewer trains on the weekends, so if you miss one, you’d better have something to read.

Perhaps that thought was on the mind of a young woman who was racing down the steps to get onto the train. The doors were closing just as she got to them and she tripped—perhaps the platform was slippery from all the goddamn rain we were having.

Whatever the reason, she managed to somehow slide her leg into the space between the train and the platform, which I didn’t think was possible at this particular station. It was the kind of freak occurrence that you couldn’t do if you tried a hundred times. But there it was.

“Stop the train!” the woman screamed. “Stop the train!”

The conductor opened the doors and the screaming grew louder.

“Oh, my God, oh, my God...”

I kept looking to see what the problem was, but I didn't see anything. All I heard was someone crying. Finally I stood up, walked over to the door, and there she was: one leg completely invisible, wedged into this tight spot, with tears rolling down her face.

I was joined by several other passengers and initially we just kind of stared at this bizarre scene. How do the hell did she do that? And, more importantly, how the hell do they get her out?

Bear in mind that this was happening just days after a woman was killed in an Upper East Side train station after jumping down onto the tracks to retrieve her gym bag.

A young man who was just entering the train had enough sense to kneel down and take the woman’s hand.

“Somebody help me,” he said and I took the woman's hand for a few moments. I stepped out of the car and noticed that it rocked slightly--these newer trains apparently have shock absorbers that give them a little bounce.

I got a couple of passengers to help me push up against the car and create a little bit of space so the woman could get out of there.

While we did that, two other passengers helped the woman pull her leg free. She sat on the platform for a few minutes, but one of the riders insisted she stand up, which she eventually did. However, she did still want an ambulance.

I suspect she probably could have gotten out on her own, but she panicked. And who can blame her? When your leg is pinned between a concrete platform and several tons of subway car you're probably not thinking too clearly.

I returned to my seat and an elderly man in a Yankees cap—there always seems to be one of these guys around during a crisis—started talking about how dangerous running for a train can be.

“I got my arm caught in a door one time,” he told me. “And it went numb. After that I just stay away from the door.”

A woman who I believe was the station manager went into the motorman’s car, threw some switches, and came out to deliver a lecture.

“Why y’all gotta be running?” she shouted. “Y’all act like this is the only train we got. There’s another one behind this.”

The young woman sat on the steps drying her tears and I checked the time. I was thinking, hey, she’s okay, the EMTs are on the way…can we go now?

No, actually, we couldn’t. The train was being taken out of service. The motorman told us we’d have to cross over to the other platform, go back to 59th Street, and take an express into Manhattan.

I had to start my trip from just about square one and all that time I thought I was saving by leaving early was evaporating.

Still, I felt sorry for the young woman. It could’ve easily been me or anybody else in that predicament. I’m always running for trains, or dashing across the street just as the light changes.

I often blame this behavior on the manic pace of the city, but we have to resist that chronic need to be someplace—any place—fast. It really isn’t worth dying for.

I was just climbing up the stairs when I heard the sound of train heading toward the station from the other direction. And so I and everybody else from that dysfunctional local did what New Yorkers do best.

We started running.

If I had stopped to think I might have realized that running in the subway station was what caused all this misery in the first place. But I had a train to catch.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rain Check

This is the kind of day where you want to pull the covers up over your soul.

It’s raining like hell here, the wind is blowing and you feel really sorry for anybody who has to be outside right now.

I went out twice today and both times and I got soaked to the skin and bone.

Enough, already; whatever I don’t have now I’ll do without.

The rain does have its good points. Like a snowstorm it forces you to slow down and look at yourself. And you can take care of those little things you've been meaning to do.

I’m into my fifth day of no diet soda. That may not sound terribly impressive, but anyone who knows me will probably go into shock upon hearing this.

My family has pleaded with me for decades to cut out Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. Every New Year’s Eve since the Carter Administration I’ve resolved to stop drinking the stuff and every year that was the first resolution to hit the deck.

In fact over the years, it only got worse until I was drinking three cans during the day and coming home to chug down most of a two liter bottle at night.

I switched to the decaf recently, but I was still getting the artificial sweeteners and other chemicals along with—burp!—the carbonation.

But a terrible bout with acid reflux and a trip to the emergency room changed everything. It also got me to finally go to a gastroenterologist like I've been promising to do for years.

“You drink all that soda and wonder why you have reflux?” my doctor shouted at me when I told him of my beverage habits. “Bad! Bad! Bad!”

I’ve never had a doctor ream me out like that. I thought he was going to hit me with a rolled up newspaper. But like a true addict I made one last try.

"So you I think I should cut down?" I asked, ready to be struck with the New York Times.


I still wasn’t feeling well a few days later, so I called and told him about the online horror stories I had read regarding carbonated drinks and cancer. The Internet is a hypochondriac's fantasy land: you scroll through all the diseases and symptoms say, "Jesus! I got that, too?"

My doctor was not amused.

"You’re making yourself crazy for no reason,” he said. “I’ll make you better, I promise.”

A friend told me I was strong for giving up the diet soda so quickly, but I know it’s not strength behind this reformation. I’ve been reprogrammed, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

Now I walk right by the soda shelf in my grocery store without stopping. I heard somebody crack open a can of soda the other day at work and the sound alone was enough to give me heartburn.

I do feel badly about the old Chinese lady who comes around here on Sunday nights and picks up my empty soda bottles for the deposit money.

She could probably put her grandkids through college on all my empties alone, but I’m afraid she’ll have to find an alternative revenue stream now.

The funny thing is that I don’t think the diet soda was the source of my misery. There are certainly plenty of good reasons to quit that vile stuff, but I believe I was having a bad reaction to Xanax, which I had been taking because I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

Xanax has been a blessing for me when it comes to getting on an airplane. I actually look forward to travel now, instead of falling into a fetal position and screaming “I’m gonna die!” every time I book a vacation.

But the nurse at the ER warned me that Xanax was highly addictive and advised me to get something else.

And, after taking this stuff for a week I finally got around to doing a little research and found that reflux has been associated with Xanax. That’s what I get for self-medicating.

So at least for now, I’ve washed Diet Coke out of my system like a good rainstorm cleaning off the sidewalk. I do drink some ice tea, but not much and it's not carbonated, thank the Lord.

I also have to cut down on my cholesterol, so my diet has shifted radically inside of a week.

I hope I can stay on this new path and stop making myself crazy for no reason.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

You're So Vein

At least my veins look good.

I had planned on going to the gym on Sunday morning, but I ended up in the emergency room at Lutheran Medical Center instead.

I had been feeling this discomfort around my chest for about three days and when it refused to go away, I finally went to the hospital.

It started Thursday night right after supper. I had been feeling pretty good; I had come through a tough week without blowing my stack, at least not too much, anyway.

And then I started feeling lightheaded, my stomach gurgled like a cauldron, and my chest felt a little...weird. I sat down and said "what the hell is this?"

I actually considered called 911. I got dressed, got out my insurance card and sat in my living room with the phone in my hand.

I’m not a young man anymore, of course, but I’m also a bit of hypochondriac. I pictured an ambulance and a fire engine pulling up in front of my house in the dead of night with the lights going. I saw myself being carried out on a stretcher in front of everyone on the block so I could be treated for…gas?

I kept telling myself that I was okay, this was nothing, but then a lot of people have said those same things just before they died.

I thought about calling some of my relatives, but I didn’t want to upset them. I considered calling my ex-girlfriend, but she might have taken my actions as a lame excuse to get back together. So I went to bed.

I got through Friday and felt reasonably well, but then the symptoms returned at night and once again I thought about calling for help. And once again I didn't.

I tried to calm myself down by looking up the symptoms of a heart attack on the internet, but just about everything you can name could be a symptom of a heart attack and I damn near had a heart attack reading about this stuff.

While I was checking my emails, I spotted an online ad that featured an attractive young woman standing over a tombstone and the words “What if you died tomorrow?” floating over her head. Somehow I managed to sleep that night.

When I woke up Sunday feeling no better, I decided to cave and go down to Lutheran. As I waited for the nurse to call my name, I thought about the minor things that I let upset me and how foolish it is to waste so much energy getting angry or being worried all the time.

I have to say the staff treated me really well and they were all so professional I immediately felt better.

And no less than three nurses stopped by to say what great veins I had. No one’s ever complimented my veins before, so I didn't how to respond. Gee, thanks, you should see my liver.

Apparently my veins are easy to find and thus prime targets for injections.

“If any of your friends are nurses,” one of them told me, “they’ll know what we’re talking about it.”

By the way, my nurse also told me I looked like I was in my thirties, so I guess it’s all in the veins.

I got a blood test, a chest X-ray, and an EKG. They gave me Mylanta, hooked me up to a blood pressure machine that squeezed my arm at regular intervals, and they even put the oxygen tube in my nose.

The ER was all too familiar, as my sister and I have been here many times when our parents were going through various illnesses and seizures. Only now I was the patient.

The tests came back okay and my doctor thinks it may be some kind of stomach problem. I feel a little foolish for doing this now, but I didn't want to take any chances.

The most painful moment of the day came when I pulled off those EKG stickers. I may not have any hair on my head, but I’ve got plenty on my chest. Or at least I used to.

My doctor wants me to take some antacid medication to see if the trouble is in my guts.

“And if it’s not that,” he said, “then it’s your nerves.”

Nerves? Me? You don't say...?

I still haven’t removed the hospital’s plastic bracelet from my wrist. And when I do, I think I’ll keep it as a reminder of the promises I made to myself about calming down and being more positive. I’ve got to take care of these fabulous veins.