Sunday, June 30, 2013

Back on the Pain Gang

As I limped into my chiropractor’s office on Friday afternoon, the sound system was playing “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

And, as I prepared to get emergency treatment for yet another flare-up of my merciless back trouble, the Ramones were quickly followed by the Beatles singing “Help!”

WFML was playing the soundtrack to my life.

Once again my back has gone bad on me, once again I’m limping around in agony, and once again I’m cursing the fates, my luck, and anything else that comes into my line of vision.

The only thing different from the last two back attacks is that this time the excruciating pain is radiating out of my left leg, not my right.

And make no mistake--the pain is excruciating. It hurts when I stand, it hurts when I walk and it even hurts sometimes when I sit—including on that most important seat in the house, if you know what I mean. Now that's just cruel.

It started midweek when I woke up with a slight discomfort on my left side. I thought I had probably slept in an odd position and that the pain would work itself out. Instead, it worked itself in and now I can hardly walk.

The three-block stroll to the chiropractor’s office turned into a moveable beast as I limped down Church Street like Walter Brennan.

Every step was torture and I had to stop repeatedly to let the pain subside. I work in downtown Manhattan so the area is mobbed with tourists going to see the 9/11 Memorial. It took a lot of effort to weave around these gawkers and still stay upright.

The Long March

On the way back I sat down in Zuccotti Park and stared at a break dancer who was twisting and contorting his body in all sorts of bizarre angles before finishing off with a back flip. Meanwhile, my biggest challenge was standing up.

I don’t get it. I do the exercises that the physical therapists told me to do and I even got cortisone shots the last time this happened. Yet nothing has prevented this third flare-up in just under two years.

The attacks are becoming more frequent and more intense and I’m afraid they’re becoming the new normal.
The gym, which I love, is out of the question for the foreseeable future and I’m concerned that I may have crossed a line here. I’m not young, but I was hoping I had a few more years of boxing left in me.

Any worthwhile exercise is going to involve moving around in some fashion, so I’m not sure what my next step will be if the doctors tell me to do something else.

And, of course, this had to happen in the summer, my absolute favorite time of the year.

I suffered through an interminable winter, longing for the day when I can walk out the door without putting on gloves and an overcoat and go anywhere I want.

On Saturday I limped a hellacious half-block down to Shore Road Park and stretched out in the grass like a sack of wet laundry. Hoo, wee, ain’t we got fun? Today my sister very kindly drove me to a local supermarket so I could stock up on some food.

I absolutely hate being so helpless.

I’ve scheduled an appointment with my pain management doctor, I’m going to see a local chiropractor and I’m praying that this misery passes quickly.

I don’t want to be sedated. I want to live an active, relatively pain-free life. Help me if you can…

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ham It Up

So what was I talking about? Oh, yeah, forgetting stuff.

I know your memory is supposed to get fuzzier as you get older, but I experienced a few brain blips during the last week that are making me a little nervous.

The first and worst of these was the ham sandwich affair. I bring my lunches to work to save some money and one night last week I got all set to make myself a ham sandwich from the leftovers I had in the refrigerator.

I know I should avoid salted meats, but I like to treat myself every now and then.

The only problem was I couldn’t find the ham. I knew for a fact that I hadn’t eaten it all yet there was no sign of the remaining slices anywhere.

This was ridiculous. I had just made a sandwich the other day. There had to be leftovers.

I pulled everything out of the refrigerator, but the ham had gone on the lam. Either I had thrown it out by mistake or a team of vigilante vegetarians had broken into my house in the dead of night and pulled the pork.

Neither scenario made any sense and that just made me angrier. How do you lose cold cuts, for God’s sake? I finally gave up the search, slapped together a back-up turkey sandwich and went to bed.

It wasn’t until I was washing the breakfast dishes the next goddamn morning that I realized what had happened to the ham.

I never bought it.

Yes, I had picked up some ham during the previous week, but not last week. I wasn’t recalling a memory of an actual incident. It was a summer rerun.

This was freaky. I distinctly remembered slicing up a tomato, getting out the bread and the mustard and making a sandwich. Only I hadn’t--at least, not lately.

And then again...

And this wasn’t the only memory miss. On Friday, I got up early to pick up some things my auntie’s apartment while she was out of town.

I was so proud of myself as I walked down the hallway toward her place. I was taking care of business, getting things done. And then I stopped dead in my tracks.

I had forgotten the keys.

I assumed—oh, that awful word—that they were on my key chain along with all my other keys, but I discovered much too late that I was wrong.

I stood there looking at the door to my aunt’s place like it was the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There was no way in hell that was I going to get into that apartment. I had made the trip for nothing.

And who could forget the blueberries?

Well, me, apparently, because when I made my breakfast on Saturday, consisting of yogurt, fruit, and nuts, I forgot to include my favorite ingredient—the blueberries.

I took them out of the refrigerator. I put them down on the counter. And then I proceeded to make my breakfast without them.

I didn’t even miss them until I went back into the kitchen to clean up and saw them sitting there unloved and abandoned. These berries really were blue. I tried eating some after the fact, but it just wasn’t the same.

My auntie assures me that I’m okay and that I’ve just got too much on my mind. I hope she’s right. I’m not ready to cash out of the memory bank just yet.

But if you ever see me walking down the highway in my underwear with a wastepaper basket over my head, just wave some ham under my nose and point me towards Brooklyn.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bus Stop

I love the Beatles but they were wrong when they said “All You Need Love.”

No, I’m sorry, but when it comes to getting ahead in this money-grubbing society all you really need is nerve.

The following is true, even though I still don't believe it.

My aunt, who doesn’t have a computer, called me last week and asked me to go online and buy her a bus ticket for a trip to New England.

No problem, my pleasure, it’s the least I could do.

I just had to call up the Greyhound website, chose the particular bus my aunt wanted to take out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and click away.

What could be simpler?

So I hit all the buttons, fished out the credit card, and got ready to do business. But first I had to answer one question.

“Is the primary cardholder traveling on this trip?”

I wasn’t sure why they wanted to know. But, Catholic school refugee that I am, I went ahead and told the truth even though I had a feeling I’d regret it.

Why no, I said to my computer screen, this ticket is for my auntie.

And—whack! That little bit of honesty—or stupidity, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes—jacked the bill up $18 by way of something called a “US Gift Tax.”

A gift tax? Just for helping out my auntie? What the hell difference does it make who buys the goddamn ticket as long somebody gets on the goddamn bus? And who the hell gives bus tickets as gifts for God's sake?

That’s not a gift tax, that’s a surcharge, a rip-off, a slap in the face and pain in the wallet. The little shell game just about doubled the price of the ticket.

This had to be mistake. They weren’t seriously going to slap nearly 20 bucks more on the price merely because I wasn’t going to be the actual passenger.

Bang! Zoom!

I immediately dialed the help number on the web site, got transported to some distant part of the globe where no Greyhound could go and I registered my complaint with someone who could barely speak English.

“Yes, that’s true,” the woman said in some kind of accent. “You have to pay extra.”

“Really?” I asked. “And why would I want to do business with you when you hosing me like this?”

I hung up and called the home office somewhere in the Midwest. I was immediately dumped into hold like a mobster's cadaver and forced to listen to crappy canned music while the minutes dragged by.

The tedium was interrupted regularly by a cheerful mechanical voice that thanked me for waiting and immediately shoved me back down into muzak world. After a while I became convinced that this was not a recording, but a live human being who just liked yanking my chain every three minutes.

When I finally did get through, the agent spoke better English than the first woman, but the answer was still the same: the gift tax was for real.

I’m sure the bus company has a perfectly legitimate reason to charge us like this. Just like banks slap a fee on you if you so much as look at your checkbook. And they’re all full of crap.

It seems that every single thing we do after getting out of bed in the morning comes with some kind of price tag attached to it.
I toyed with the idea of fibbing and saying, yes, I’ll be the one on the bus. I mean, who’s going to actually check the name on the ticket?

But I couldn’t be certain about that and I had this image of Homeland Security hauling my aunt off the bus with a sack over her head and flying her down to Gitmo.

I was so bent out of shape over this blatant rip-off that I temporarily missed the obvious solution.

After calming down a bit, I realized that I could just call my auntie, get the numbers off her credit card, and buy the ticket under her name. Then I’d skip the gift tax and I wouldn’t have to burn forever in Hell for lying to a bus company.

I printed out the ticket, brought it up to my aunt’s place, and put it in her hands. Soon she’ll be on her way to her country place where the gift taxes are few.

So maybe the Beatles are right. There's nothing you can do that can't be done; nothing you can sing that can't be sung.

You just have to pay for it.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Night of the Hangman

I parked my car on West Main Street and walked into the woods in search of misery.

I had just heard the police and firefighter departments being called out on the scanner, but I couldn’t decode what particular type of havoc was occurring.

This was Stroudsburg, Pa., a spring night sometime in the early 90s, and, as the police reporter for the Pocono Record, I decided it was worth the five-minute drive from my office to see what was happening.

Illustration by Ryan Bakhsh

I didn’t see any of the usual bedlam that goes on at car crashes or house fires. There was no roiling sea of flashing emergency lights, no screaming sirens; no manic assembly of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances.

There was nothing to indicate that anything was out of the ordinary—until I saw the county coroner walking toward me.

“What’s going on, Bob?” I asked.

“Come here and take a look,” he said.

We walked a little farther in the woods until we came to a clearing where the cops and firefighters had gathered.

And that’s when I looked up and saw a man hanging from a tree.

He was in his thirties, dressed in work clothes. With his head down and his arms hanging by his side, he looked more like a horror movie prop than a human being who had been alive and breathing just a short time ago.

Now I understood why everything was so calm. The victim was beyond help.

The fire chief was speaking with his officers in low tones, discussing how they were going to get the dead man out of the tree.

It was all about logistics now, the best way to get the job done. The man’s story, why he had chosen to destroy himself, didn’t matter anymore. He was an object that had to be removed.

Reporters might appear callous sometimes and, I won’t lie, there’s a fair amount of gallows humor floating around newsrooms. But often what looks like insensitivity is really desperation.

You’re so obsessed with getting the story, so determined to beat the competition that you don’t have time to think about the casualties.

So it’s strange to recall now that as I watched the firefighters set up their ladders and prepare to take the dead man down, I hadn’t thought about how close I had once come to ending up the same way.


My life was in tatters before I moved to Pennsylvania. I was dead-ending at a local weekly newspaper in Brooklyn and struggling with my physical and emotional health.

I was suffering from the Epstein Barr virus, a relatively new diagnosis at the time, and I would periodically come down with mono-like symptoms for weeks on end.

An exercise junkie, I was going crazy from the constant illness and inactivity. I could do little more than drag myself to and from a job I despised.

When I was growing up, I had dreamed of being a famous writer and filmmaker, but in reality I was pushing the 30-year mark and still sleeping in my childhood bedroom.

I was so filled with self-loathing that I got up one morning, looked in the bathroom mirror and actually said the words, “I hate you.”

When I got the call to interview at the Record, I was nervous, but excited. It was a chance to move out, to live in the Poconos, where I had vacationed so often as a kid.

The Stroudsburg area was also the setting of a novel I was threatening to finish someday, so I could do my research and earn a living at the same time. It looked like it might work out well for me.

And then I got sick again.

Deciding I was too ill to travel, I tried rescheduling the interview, but the editor, understandably, was not pleased. We hadn’t even met in person yet and I was already backing out of a commitment.

I convinced myself that I had torpedoed a chance at getting this or any other job, of ever accomplishing anything with my life. And I absolutely refused to see any way out.

“I’m a born loser!” I wailed to my poor mother. “A born fucking loser!

And one day I decided I couldn’t handle it anymore. I couldn’t take being a born fucking loser anymore, so, when no one was home, I walked down the hallway with a belt in my hand and stood beneath a chinning bar I had set up in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom.

I looped the belt around my neck and draped the other end over this piece of exercise equipment that I bought to improve my health, and prepared myself, like an Olympic diver standing high over a pool.

I felt defiant; for once in my life I was in control. I was going to show them –whoever “they” were—that I wasn’t going put up with any more abuse. There was a strange, unnatural voice speaking to me so powerfully it felt as if someone were standing right behind me.

Do it,” the voice said, “do it!

And I pulled on the belt.

I went up on my toes for the worst few seconds of my life before I let go and started gagging.

To be clear, I was in never in any danger of hanging myself. If I had kept on tugging on the belt I suppose I would’ve eventually passed out and fallen to the floor.

This was just a dry run, a dress rehearsal, but as I stepped away from the chinning bar I realized I had done some very serious damage to myself.

I didn’t say a word to anyone in my family about what had happened and I went to work the next day as if everything was okay. But I felt ragged and hollow, as if I were made of glass.

In the afternoon I drove down to the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park on an assignment and on the way to the front desk I ran into two cops I knew from Brooklyn South Narcotics.

We made some small talk and then I started cracking jokes. I’ve always suffered from a need to be liked and I thought—quite wrongly—that making people laugh would also make them care about you. The truth is that often they just think you’re a clown put on this earth just to amuse them and they don't give a damn about you.

But I was so frantic to have someone like me at that moment that I was essentially doing a stand-up comedy routine in a police station for a two-man audience.

The harder those cops laughed, the more jokes I made. It gave me some sense of worth, a way back to the light. It was like I was crawling out of my own tomb.

I was seeing a therapist at the time and he shook his head sadly after I told him what I had done.

“That would’ve been a nice thing for your mother to find,” he said.

He asked me if I wanted to see a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication, but I refused. As we talked I was able to take a step back and take a hard look at my actions. I saw how close to the abyss I had come. And I started to feel stronger.

“I don’t want to die,” I said with determination. “I want to live.”


I drove back to the paper after the firefighters got the dead man out of the tree, wrote up a brief about the incident, and went home.

Suicides were not big news at the Record, unless the person died in a spectacular way, like the elderly woman who had jumped off the Broad Street overpass down to I-80 one winter afternoon when I first took over the cop beat.

That story was Page One, but this man’s death would be buried somewhere inside the next day’s paper.

The next morning I went to my dry cleaner off of North First Street. The woman behind the counter was on the phone and as I put my shirts down, I picked up on what she was saying.

“Well, at least he’s at peace now,” she said into the phone.

No, I thought, she couldn’t possibly be talking about the same man I had seen hanging in the woods just a few hours ago. It was a small town, sure, but it wasn’t that small, was it?

I didn’t want to believe in that kind of coincidence, but the line about being at peace, that absurd little fairy tale the living like to tell about the dead, immediately confirmed it for me.

When she hung up I asked her about the dead man and she told he had been fighting a losing battle with drug addiction.

This man had stared into the same hideous void that I had, heard the same voice saying do it, do it. We both walked into the same dark woods, but only one of us came out.

This man might have been at peace, but I’m sure his family was suffering terribly, torturing themselves as they tried to figure out what they could have done to stop him from ending his life. They’d probably feel guilty for the rest of their lives.

I never want to put my family through that.

It’s been a long time since that day in my parents’ bedroom and I still struggle with depression. It gets bad, real bad sometimes, but I never want to lose control like that again.

If the voice comes back, if I ever do hear those words, do it, do it, I know how what to do.

I’ll look into the mirror, gather my family around me and shout as loudly as possible, “I want to live.”

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Long Hard Road

Thirty-eight years ago I sat in the old Fortway Theater on Fort Hamilton Parkway and watched Charles Bronson knock people down.

This probably sounds like every Charles Bronson movie ever made, but in this case I’m referring to Walter Hill’s “Hard Times,” where the man the French called Le Sacre Monstre played Chaney, a bareknuckle boxer in Depression-era New Orleans.

Bronson has always been my favorite action movie star and, as a teenage tough guy wannabe, I got a vicarious thrill watching him take on all sorts of roughneck characters in illegal boxing matches.

The movie was on cable last week and though I’ve seen it several times, I couldn’t resist recording it and giving it another look. It holds up very well.

Yes, it’s a guys’ movie, but it’s a really well done guys’ movie.

James Coburn plays Speed, a promoter who becomes Chaney’s manager. In contrast to Bronson, who barely spoke 500 words in the entire picture, Coburn has several excellent lines and he delivers them brilliantly.

“Every town had somebody who thinks he's tough as a nickel steak,” he tells Bronson at their first meeting, “but they all come to old Speed for the do-re-mi.”

The great character actor, Strother Martin plays Poe, the cut man who has a way with words and a weakness for opium.

“Some are born to fail,” Poe says of his addiction, “and some have it thrust upon them.”

When a Cajun hustler pulls out a revolver and refuses to pay up after Chaney beats his man, Poe shakes his head sadly and says it's "a poor example of Southern sportsmanship.”

A Man of Few Words

Chaney doesn’t reveal much about himself, even to Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real life spouse, who plays his girlfriend in the film.

“How do you make money?” she asks.

“I knock people down,” he says.

“What does it feel like to knock somebody down?”

“It makes me feel a hell of a lot better than it does him,” Chaney replies.

Bronson was in his fifties when he made this picture and he looks great. Hill, who was making his directorial debut, said Bronson was in remarkable physical condition for his age, but he was also a smoker and “couldn’t fight much longer than 30 or 40 seconds.”

No matter. The fight scenes are great, no kung fu movie insanity; no Rocky-style massacre; just tough guys pounding on each other until one of them gives up. And this film came out three years before Clint Eastwood’s monkey movie.

Despite it’s tough subject matter, "Hard Times" doesn’t have the gory stomach-turning violence that plagues movies today. There are no screeching car chases, blazing machine gun battles or exploding buildings.

No one dies, there is very little gunplay, and while the gangsters, loan sharks and pugilists are quite menacing, they don’t resort to spewing the f-bomb in all directions.

The film traces Chaney’s rise in the illegal fight game as he takes on the fearsome Jim Henry (Robert Tessier), a tattooed, hairless slab of muscle-bound misery who exists solely to hurt people.

When Speed’s reckless gambling gets him in serious trouble with a local gangster, it’s up to Chaney to bail him out by taking on Street (Nick Dimitri), a fighter brought in from Chicago, in a barren warehouse.

The Fortway Theater is now a supermarket. I am now older than Charles Bronson was when he made this film and I learned a long time ago that I am no kind of tough guy. The only hitting I do is on the heavy bag, which, thankfully, does not hit back.

But I can still enjoy this movie, still pretend that I, too, am a sacre monster, and when I move on, I want people to say the same thing about me that Speed said about Cheney.

“He sure was something.”

I like the sound of that.