“Stephen!” “Steve!” “Stee-fan!”  “Steveleh!”

Herb and the guys, we were on Herbie’s stoop, trying to play pinochle by the light leaking out from the smoked glass window in the front door.

“I don’t hear nuthin’, d’you?” asked Steve Bernstein.

“Not a goddamned thing,” said Stephan Goldsmith.

“What you sayin’ I can’t hear you,” admitted  Steven Chestivenofsy, whose parents obviously so confused the agents on Ellis Island that they got revenge by writing down on their entry card the name that would confound them and their family for generations. 

“What’s ya problem, Steveleh?,” Herb whined.  Chestivenofsky twitched a little, moved his rump a few inches on the stone step in reaction to the name his mother always called to him as the sun was setting, to gather him back home to the Chestivenofsky hearth for over-boiled potting meat and diced potatoes.  Herbie, he really knew how to hit the kid’s ticket and once he got going he was merciless.

“Speak up, Steveleh.  Tell Herbeleh here what ever your problemeh is, vish shtash-du?”

“Go fuck yerself,” Steveleh suggested.

“Too tired from banging yer mameleh,” Herb replied.

Chestivenofksy glared.  Mothers were fair game when ranking out the other guy, but when you’re thirteen and begin to have an inkling of what you are saying actually means, the temptation to defend one’s mother’s honor becomes pretty strong.

“So think of somethin’ to say, or play another card, fart-head,” I said with frustration.  “Pretty soon you’ll need to bring out a shabbas candle to see these cards.”  I wanted to get on with the game.  I was pretty sure the “Stephen!” now being re-bellowed came from my own father.

“Nah, can’t see a thing,” Herbie tried.

“Sure,” I said.  “You have no tricks, Steveleh and me we got six, sure you’re happy to tell me ya can’t see.  Tell ya what, you and Goldsmith just concede the game, pay up yer quarter each and we can call it a night.”

“Not a chance,” said Herbie, who played a jack of clubs apparently by reason of seeing the light.

“Stephen, come down and come with me this minute.”  My father’s voice sounded awfully close, and then I realized he was standing three steps below me, arms on hips, his unlit cigar bouncing with his lower lip as he spoke.

“Is that you, dad,” I asked with a bit of astonishment in my voice.

“No it’s Prince Rainier from Monaco and I am looking for my wife Grace Kelley.  Have any of you gentlemen seen my wife this evening?”  My dad was a great one for sarcasm.

“Dad!  Give us five minutes.  I got a good hand here.”

“If you can see the cards at this hour, I would be amazed.  Just throw in your cards, pick up your own quarter and let’s go.” 

In the background the calls for Stephen in all its glorious permutations continued.  It was the name of the decade, or at least the prior decade.  Half the kids you met were some version of Stephen; six of the fourteen boys in my Home Room were Stephens or variants.

“Gotta go,” said Goldsmith, uncomfortable in the presence of an adult.”  I think maybe my mom’s calling me,” and he was down the stairs and a few strides away before he heard my father ask him, “oh really, whatever gave you that idea?”

We walked about a quarter of a block, almost to my house, when my father finally spoke again.

“Ya win?”

“Yeah, did, I did.”

“So how much”

“A buck, woulda been more if ya hadn’t broken up the last game.”

He waved his hand dismissively and invited me by upturned palm to sit on our steps.

“Morris, that you?  Did you find him?  Come in, it’s getting cold.”

“Yes, look, Betty just give me a minute with the kid.”

Silence.  Ma had given us silent permission.

“When I call you, I expect you to come.  Do you hear me?  I feel like a jerk, yelling like that.”

“Sorry dad, but we waz far away, I wasn’t sure if….”

“Do not shit a shitter,” my old man advised.  “I know what you guys were doing, sitting there sniggering . ‘Oh, that has to be Goldsmith’s mother, not mine.’ ‘ Gee, doesn’t Mrs. Bernstein sound cross this evening, glad she is not calling for me.’  You can tell when it is Mrs. Chesty,” using her neighborhood nickname, which was also physically apt, “but with you and Bernstein and Goldsmith, and then there’s that Steven Karov from the back and that new kid Steven, what’s/his/last name again, from the apartment house?  You kids are just playing name games.”

He pulled out a match book and lit his stub.  A puff of smoke surrounded us and the dissipated, followed shortly by my mother calling out, “Morris, you’re not actually smoking a cigar while I am waiting here at the table watching my dinner turn cold, are you?”

“Shit,” he muttered, pulling me up by the arm and moving me down the street.  “Be right in,” he called over his shoulder, “just giving our young prince a talking-to.”

 “So, here’s what we are going to do.  From now on, when you are out playing on the street, night or day, cards or stoop ball or stickball or Chinese or anything, when mother or I call you, you will hear “Murphy.”  And when you hear Murphy, you will come home immediately.”

“Murphy?  What does that mean, Murphy?”

“Well, the wax formations in your ear canals seems to have rendered you deaf to the word Stephen and all its derivatives, so we will call you Murphy instead.”

“What the hell’s Murphy?”  My voice must have been a bit shrill, not to mention the curse word, but he was on a roll and not to be deflected by lesser issues.

“It is simple.  So simple that I think even you will be able to understand.  Is everyone on this block Jewish?”


“Simple question.  Is everyone on this block Jewish?”

“Well, yeah, dad, I guess so.  Far as I know.  Except the super in the apartment house, he’s a negro.”

“And as far as you know, is not everyone in this whole neighborhood Jewish, from Eastern Parkway all the way down to Flatbush Avenue?”

“Yeah, I think maybe yes.”

“And do you have anyone in your class who isn’t Jewish?”

I thought a moment.  “Don’t know anyone.  Even the teachers are all Jewish.  Except the gym teacher, a’course.”

“Precisely.”  My father moved in for the kill.  Being a lawyer, it was all about the kill.  “So, Murphy is a proud old Irish name, much revered on the Old Sod.  Some of my very best clients have been named Murphy.  Except for Sean,” he mused, “but then there is always the exception that proves the rule.”

“So,” he intoned quietly and intently, “when someone around here calls out Murphy in a nice clear voice, there can be no question that, in these here parts, we are calling, and only and exclusively calling, for our son whom we once, in the cloud of the War, had burdened with the name Stephen.  You will not look at Steve, or Stephan, or even the now-sainted Steveleh, and pretend that it is someone calling for their persons.  You will know to a certainty that the bell is tolling for you, Murphy Honig.”

In 1959, Stephan Goldsmith and I shared a freshman room in college.  I had elicited a promise from Stephan that, once away from the neighborhood, I was to be Stephen, a name I promised to acknowledge promptly.  I did not need my first days at college taken up with the humor of my nickname, nor the fear that someone would mis-understand and invite me to join them for Sunday Mass.

So it was with some consternation that I overheard the floor monitor say in yes, an Irish whisper, to a boy I did not know as I passed down the hall: “There he is now.  Freshman.  I understand his name is Murphy….”

When I caught up with Goldsmith later that day – well, as they say, “you should see the other guy.”

Last Night a Boy Knocked

Last night a boy knocked on my door.  It was, indeed, a dark and stormy night, an insistent chilled rain driven by that Northeastern wind for which Boston is dubiously famous.   And yes, as trite luck would have it, a dog did bark; my startled cock-a-poo, preciously named Popcorn in honor of his caramel color, yapped a frenzy and raced to the front door, no doubt hoping for a belly rub from a stranger.  Lest you be fearful, I assure you that at no point in this story will you hear that either a door slammed or that a shot rang out.

It was well after nine, a time when suburban neighborhoods seldom entertain unexpected visitors.  Cautioning my son to stay in the kitchen, as Matt typically followed Popcorn down the hall to open wide our door and great any and all, I walked briskly to the door and looked out the glass panel framing the left side of the door jamb.

A short man in a soaked dark hooded sweatshirt stood in the downpour, strands of dark hair emerging on his forehead and forming a Casear-like fringe pasted down with rain.  He was leaning into the small overhang at our door, rising rapidly on his toes and just as quickly settling back on his heels.  His pasty face, lit by our weak outside lights, glowed in suspicious contrast to both his clothing and the surrounding night.

“Yes, can I help you?” I yelled at my closed door.  He could not hear me but tapped gently on the glass pane to his right, peering into my hallway and offering a polite and tentative wave.   My door has no chain, something I regretted for the first time in the ten years we have lived here.  I was not about to let anyone I did not know into my house, not with my husband away on business, not with a guard dog who would lick the hand of Caligula in exchange for a tummy job.  I had to open my door slightly, just a couple of inches, stick the front part of my head into the opening, and ask again if I could be of help.  No doubt, I thought, a hollow request as I had little intention of actually helping with anything.

I found myself looking through wet eyelids at a teen-aged boy of slight build and modest height.   The spray of water in my face gave birth to the thought that this was a kid standing in the rain and if it were my son I would want some homeowner to listen to his story, open wide the door and give him shelter.  I suppressed that thought, instead girding myself for an anticipated recitation of misfortune.

The boy started to talk, but with the rain, the wind and the dog I could not understand him.  I yelled for my son to take the dog to the kitchen, turned back to the boy and, with misgiving, opened the door wider, absorbed the blast of cold wet air, waved him closer, yelled for him to speak up, meanwhile wedging the edge of my right foot up to the bottom of the door and aligning my body lightly against the door’s length in case I decided to push it shut quickly.

“Thanks, lady.  I’m trying to find 1950 Beacon Street.  It’s dark and I can’t find it.  I gotta go help my sister.  I been driving around for a long time.  I need to get to my sister.  I was texting with her and my phone went dead.  Can I use your phone?”

I couldn’t see a car on the street.  “Where’s your car if you’re driving around?”

“I parked down the block and got out so I could see the house numbers better.  But I can’t find no 1950.  I think I’m lost?  And I need to get to my sister, so can I please use your cell phone?”

“No,” I said, too curtly I’m sure but it was already said.  “I’m not comfortable with that, but if you give me her phone number I can call for you.”

“She lost her cell, she’s on a tablet.  I can’t call, have ta text.”

Another convenient detail designed to get inside my house?  Sounds like that to me.  And who knows if he’s high on drugs, or whatever.  I have experience with drugs, don’t ask how but I do.  And I know two things for sure: on drugs everyone is unpredictable and everyone lies—all the time.

“So do you have a charger at least, I’ll give you my phone, just give it some juice for a couple of minutes and I’ll be able to text her and find her.”  He held out a new model Apple, same model as mine, the rainwater immediately dripping off it in a continuous rivulet.

“I’ll wait out here,”he offered.  I thought, “that’s for sure” as I took his phone and gently closed the door in his face.

Plugging the phone into the charger in the kitchen I saw it was in fact completely dead; this would take a few minutes.

“Why are you being so mean to him?”  My son startled me with his question.

“Look, you have to let me take care of this.  I am NOT being mean, you just can’t let a stranger into  your house.”

Matt started at me skeptically.

“Not when YOU’RE here,” I added, to prove that I was doing this all for his protection so, get off my case and don’t confuse me because I feel bad enough already, and maybe (a thought out of left field)  I should offer the kid a hot chocolate?

“Well,okay, but can’t we help him find the house he is looking for?”

Good idea.  I picked up my own cell phone, scrolling to retrieve the addresses of my neighbors.  One is at 1954, one is at 1948, there IS no number 1950.  This has happened before.  Our street runs through our suburb in a leafy sinuous path, then through another suburb, and emerges into the City where it is first lined with apartments, then skirts Fenway Park, the picks up trees again and meets its falsely bucolic terminus on the top of Beacon Hill near the Commons.  We have had occasional deliveries arrive at our house, the wrong house, looking for our house number in the wrong town, when they should have been one suburb closer to Boston, or in Boston itself.  I went back to the door, opened it slightly, focusing on ignoring the soaking wet kid’s clothing and pale dripping face.

“You sure of the number?”

“Yeah, 1950.”

“Did your sister say Newton?  This street goes through Brookline and then Boston, maybe it’s a number not in Newton?”

“I’m in Newton?  I dunno, she just gave me an address and I plugged it to my phone GPS.”

How the hell can he not even know what city he is in?  “Where did you come from,” I ask.  He names a suburb 45 minutes North; no wonder he is clueless.   I was afraid I was starting to believe the kid, but was not ready to let him in my house. I doubted I’d ever be ready for that.

“Mom, his phone is charging,” Matt called from the kitchen. 

“I’ll get your phone now,” I barked into the rain, as I ever so gently clicked the door shut again.  Back the kitchen, unplugging the phone, hopeful that all of this was about to come to an end, I started as it rang in my hand.  Without thinking, I slid my finger over the screen to connect with the call.

“Louis?”  A woman’s voice. 

“Are you the sister?” I asked.

A pause.  “I’m Louis’ mother.”  A confused momentary hesitation.   Then, in shrillness near panic: “Who are you?  Why are you answering Louis’ phone?   Is my son okay?  Put my son on the phone.”  As I was about to reply, the call dropped.

In seconds, the phone rang again.

“Who the hell are you?  Why did you hang up?  Is my son alright?  Where’s my son?”

“He’s outside my door,”  I answered, realizing that this was not likely to be the most reassuring of replies, however accurate it might be.

“Who ARE you?  What is your phone number, I want to call you back, give me your phone number.”

For some reason I did not want to do that; unidentified putative negative consequences, harassments, skipped through my mind.

“I’m not going to give you my phone number,”  I said defiantly.

“Jesus, don’t hang up,” the mother screamed.  “I don’t understand what is going on but you’re my only link to my son.   Fagodzake, don’t hang up.”

“I’ll give you my cellphone number, how about that?” I offered, thinking as I said it, why would I do that, can’t you get an address from a cell number anyway, why does that feel safer, why do I really care anyway if she has my address, I’m not doing anything wrong, why is this moving so fast, why does it feel dangerous, it’s just about a kid on my front stoop in the rain.

There’s a kid on my front stoop standing in the rain and I’m debating with his hysterical mother on the kid’s cell phone.  “Look, my phone number is 857-435-7983 and I’m going to give the phone to your son, just hold on.”

I found myself scampering down the hall, throwing the front door open wide, watching the kid jump back in surprise, thrusting his phone into his hand, reclosing the door to a crack.  Through the crack, over the sound of the wind, I hear fragments, just fragments –“yeah I’m fine …relax she’s nice … fine …she’ll kill me if I tell you … drunk at some address … Newton …  text her and come get her …. maybe Boston, I’ll figure it out….”

I am now feeling really badly about this.  Here is this teen-ager on an errand of mercy to help his sister who, I guess, is drunk and has no phone and I have him catching pneumonia and he is drenched by a New England monsoon and I have scared his mother to death and why didn’t I at least let him stand out of the rain in my hallway?

There is a knock on the door, still slightly ajar.  Louis’  face appears in the crack.  “Thanks for all the help,” he says slowly, calmly over the wind.  My mom thinks I need to go to Boston, that’s where she lives, I’ll put that in my GPS. Sorry.  Thanks again.”

A wet hand is extended from a black soaking sleeve and I shake it perfunctorily, once up and once down.  Then Louis is walking down the path and disappearing into the storm and all I can say to his retreating body, seemingly unheard, is “I’m sorry.”

Back in the kitchen, I sit at the table drained of energy.  Popcorn sits down on my feet, his warm underside making me notice that my slippers are cold and little wet.

“So he’s okay, huh?” Asks Matt.

“Yes ,he’s okay.”  I think, who knows, maybe his phone ran out of power again, it was only charging briefly, maybe I should have offered to drive him?  I am sitting at the table, elbows close together and resting in a small space between Matt’s little piles of homework,  about to re-explain why I didn’t let Louis into our house, when my own cellphone, still in a tense grip in my left hand,  jangled and buzzed.  I don’t usually pick up for unknown numbers, but I did this time.


“It’s Louis’ mother.  I’m sorry I freaked out, Louis explained it to me.  Thank you for helping my son.”

“Oh, well,”  I said weakly, “don’t think anything of it.”  And I thought to myself ,”why don’t you just leave all the thinking about it to me.”

Stinky Soap

Text of commercial/voice over

[Scene of man working out, sweating, then putting suit on without showering]

Guys, I know what you do. You work out, weights and treadmill and all sort of reps, and then you put your suit right back on because you do not want to shower and lose that perspiration smell that marks you as a real man. You don’t want the guys at the bar to think you’re some sort of sissy or effete snob, right? [Visual of several young guys with five o’clock shadows moving away from a clean-smelling guy in a suit]

[Scene of young guy in shorts sitting in a locker room, head resting on hand like the thinker]

I know what you’re thinking. Acne. Lice. Blackheads. Cooties. Pimples. Ringworm. Crotch-rot. You want to shower, you don’t want to deal with that shit. But once you shower, you’re a marked man. No buddies to hang with.

Now from the laboratories of Schvitz & Co. comes a revolutionary new product that is the answer to your prayers: Stinky Soap. A careful and scientifically proven formulation combining the finest of emoluments, cleansing agents, aloe and softener, suitable for skin and hair also, Stinky Soap also contains a proprietary secret ingredient: eau de sweat. While leaving your body entirely cleansed, without need for jock powder or athletes foot powder or even underarm deodorant, eau de sweat leaves a non-greasy harmless and invisible film that combines with your natural body effluents to create an overall hanging odor of old sweat.

[cut to picture of same man in suit, drinking a beer from a bottle with his friends]

So here you are. You have worked out like a fiend. A hundred reps of everything. You have showered off completely; there isn’t a microbe left on your body. But thanks to the redeeming miracle of eau de sweat, you fit right in with your buddies. [sip of beer covers wink towards the camera] Ain’t Stinky Soap grand? And REMEMBER, only Stinky Soap has eau de sweat. Accept no substitutes.

If you act now, and contact the number on your screen in the next thirty minutes, we will send you ten bars of Stinky Soap for the unbelievable introductory price of $29.95. And that’s not all. For the first 50,000 men who call in, we will add an incredible additional 10 bars of soap and a plastic foam applicator so you can be sure to spread eau de sweat over every inch of your body.

SO—act now, and put yourself on the road to good hygiene without jeopardizing your precious bro-mances.

[picture of a bunch of guys doing a line dance]

Party on, dude. You STINK!


Perhaps you’ve heard of that miracle new product, Stinky Soap. [picture of puce colored bar in the shape of male sex organs]

Perhaps you’ve heard that it will clear out all your cooties and unwanted growing things and leave you pure as Ivory Snow. [picture of a swan floating]

Perhaps you were attracted to the ability to avoid crotch rot and yet still be accepted by your friends [that line dance scene again]

But you haven’t pulled the trigger and joined the Society of Sweat yet—have you?

[guy looking abashed at the camera]

And I bet I know why. [guy looks up quizzically]

It’s the chicks, isn’t it? You think if you smell from sweat you won’t get lucky, right? And let’s face it, you don’t do real well in getting lucky as it is, do you? [guy shyly nods agreement]

Well there is an answer to this problem right under your nose. Do you know what it is? [guy shrugs]

Any bitch that can’t stand your manly natural body odor as the legitimate cost of your amazing six-pack [cut to picture of a guy with no real architecture on his body] doesn’t deserve to hang with the likes of YOU, you stud-muffin you. [guy nods in agreement, grinning]

[visual of man making out with a skanky ugly girl with bad teeth and poor dress]

YOU know that ANY ho who is worth having will want to stay close – real close – to a guy who wears his work-out sweat out to the clubs – and afterwards, in the back of his panel truck [cut to sex in a truck]

BUT if you are still not convinced, those incredible scientists in the lab of Schvitz & Company have invented another brand new product: Stench-be-Gone. Just two drops of this incredible drug behind each ear, and one suppository inserted five minutes in advance, and SHAZAM: the effects of eau de sweat are wholly dissipated and you smell like the little girl you really are —NO, I mean you smell like the kind of guy who some chicks insist upon.

SO if you have ever dreamed of both hanging sweaty with the guys and then afterwards actually getting laid by a girl with more than a high school diploma and a hair lip, order a bottle of Stench-be Gone to accompany your order for Stinky Soap. Just another $59.95 for a two-screw – uh, two day supply. Order now and get free shipping by calling the number on your screen.

[visual of our guy in a fancy bedroom on top of a beautiful girl who is holding what appears to be a diploma from Yale]

You’ll be very glad you did.

False Advertising

The advertisement read:
Giusto is a powerhouse. Its hefty, taut body holds bushes of ripe blackberries and hawthorn berries, warm spices like licorice and cedar, and a beautiful balance between velvety tannins and mouthwatering acidity. Full-bodied, earthy and concentrated with rich, sweet tannins that signify aging potential, this ever- popular selection delivers a lingering finish.

Imagine my chagrin on learning that this advertised item was merely a bottle of wine, and not a young woman. (The clerk at the store, when I telephoned to place an order, was less than understanding and at one point suggested that the police might have an interest in my call, or perhaps McClean Mental Hospital.)

Imagine a “powerhouse!” And although “hefty,” at least taut. Imagine a woman redolent of berries and spices in a “beautiful balance.” No doubt such a person would be “mouthwatering.” And wealthy and kind to boot (“rich and sweet”). Yet still unspoiled by all these wonderful attributes (“earthy”). And such a woman would not much lose her charms over time, having “aging potential” that is “lingering”.

I have decided to cease dating human beings and am building a cellar of fine wine. Although such wines are of course expensive, they are cheap as compared with actually courting and marrying a woman. And they never complain if I do not text or tweet. And if I am stuck late in the office they are nonetheless silently awaiting my pleasure when I finally do return to my home. And failure at sex is now a problem that is off the table; after foreplay with any decent bottle, I fall blissfully asleep without attempting to rally for a boffo finish.

And finally, wine is so politically correct. It can be of any color. It can come from any country regardless of politics, predominant religion, membership or non-membership in any trade alliance. Who ever rejected a wine because the country of origin had failed to pay its fair share of the costs of NATO? Yes, folks, I am a new man these days and, if at work on some mornings I seem a bit unfocused, I am sure you will support me in my quest for the proper work-life balance.


Part I:

There once was a large, yellow rabbit named Arthur. He lived in a small duplex burrow in the lawn across from Central Park South and was very sophisticated. All the bunnies thought that Arthur was cute.

One day, Arthur was walking to the Lettuce National Bank to cash his coupons attached to his Carrotcorp bonds. He wore a black Homburg and red spats. Everyone knew he was wealthy by the way he twirled his cane. All the bunnies thought that Arthur was cute and rich.

Arthur passed a sign and looked at it. He stopped. He was moved; for the first time since he was a child in a Hartford, Connecticut garden he was truly moved. The sign read:
“Fight for Amboulian Literacy! Be of Service to Man and God.”

Arthur’s brow curled in determination. His eyes turned steel-cold in resolve behind his whiskers. Here at last was something worth doing – his idle dissolution was shown now in true perspective, a waste of talent in an age crying for action, measured until now against a posterity all-too-forgetful of its ancestors. Arthur looked proud and strong and determined. Any bunny looking at him thought immediately that Arthur was cute and rich and, his yellow fur notwithstanding, quite courageous.

Arthur tore up his bonds and shaved his head. He donated his cane to the American Legion, his spats to the Catholic War Orphans, and his purple double-breasted surcoat to the UJA. He resigned from eating the grasses in front of the Union Club and the Princeton Club, sent back his membership card in the Hartford Herbivore Society, and took a few memorabilia in a small box and boarded the first steamer to Amboulian. All the bunnies thought that Arthur was cute, rich, courageous and crazy, but since he was rich apologies were made for him.

Part II.

There once was a large yellow rabbit who was born in the hills of Amboulian. He was smart and progressive and literate, and passed through life in a way to leave his mark by helping others such that none could scoff at the ground upon which he trod. All the bunnies thought that Ngomo was cute, smart, courageous and the image of his late grandfather, Arthur of the Lettuce, who had come to Amboulian long ago to be of service and to fulfill his churning intellect.

One day, rummaging through his ancestral burrow, Ngomo came across a small box with a brass ring on top. Gently lifting the cover, he found a book of photographs of his late grandfather. Here was Arthur in spats surrounded by seven beautiful bunnies in a mansion with palm trees. Here was Arthur doing the conga with a socialite lop-eared from someplace called Scarsdale. Here was Arthur addressing a gathering of the National Skeet-Shooting League.

For the first time in years, Ngomo was moved, truly moved. “My, is it not grand,” he exclaimed. “Here I thought life was so full, here I was doing great things, justifying my presence on earth, and yet there must be so much more to life than this!”

For weeks Ngomo brooded, troubled and alone. At last, he took a decision. Packing his few City clothes, he strode off down the road, midst tears and anguish from his people, and lay a course for the great metropolis.

Part III.

Invitation received in the mail just the other day:

“The National Association of Bank Directors Cordially Invites
To a Luncheon in honor of
Ngomo Rabbit
President of the New York Central Park Bank
In recognition of his philanthropy in donating
A very large amount of lettuce
To construct a heated community swimming pool in the basement of
The Central Park Zoo.”

Part IV.

“Except the Lord keepeth the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

Hammond Waiting Room

So there was this screech of brakes and then there I am, sitting comfortably in a green mohair couch that looks very much like the one in our living room when I was growing up.  I know without being told I am in the Hammond Waiting Room and I am, well, waiting.

This room is echo-y, if you know what I mean.  Sounds are muffled but discernable from far back in the room but, when I turn, the light dims after a few yards and I cannot see beyond.  It sure is eerie but for some reason I do not feel upset.  Strange; normally that kind of thing would drive me nuts.

My mother is eating a celery stalk out of a low flat Limoges plate with a celery stalk design in the artwork.  She always had an affinity for plates that reflected their contents.  Our kitchen cabinets were full of platters with turkeys embossed, compote dishes with covers in the shape of some fruit, a tray with a base of green asparagus, a covered bowl with a cover in the shape of a chicken.  Since she had been deceased since 2002, I must confess it was a bit disconcerting to see her but, of course, a welcome sight.

 A dull stench from the corner directed me to my father, smoking a fat short cigar.  He was wearing his hat with the wide brim, or at least one of them.  He had several.  My mother would not allow him to smoke in the house, and he did not allow himself to miss his after-dinner cigar, so off he would go into the night, all a-puffing, and the wide brim protected his smoke, most times, from the vagaries of rain and snow.

Cousin Louis always was overweight and when he died of a heart attack at age 40 or so it caused me to go on a strict diet for two or three weeks, but then I remembered that his father, not my blood relation, also had died young of heart failure and I was thus able to attribute his demise to DNA rather than diet.  No reason to pass on the pumpkin pie after that.  Louis seems thinner now, as when we were in High School and before his first wife ruined him in many ways all of which ruination seemed to gather at his belt line.

But it was my grandparents, looking gray but still mobile, who really caught my attention; they were deep in conversation with a group of even older people who were dressed in rather coarse clothing of a style alien to me.  I got up and strolled over but no one acknowledged me; the words were guttural, poured out quickly, a little Russian I thought, some Yiddish I was sure, something else totally unfamiliar.  My mother’s mother, who passed at 109 years, was closest to me and I reached out gently to touch her shoulder.  My hand rested on her sweater, I could feel the warmth of her body, but she did not turn.  Hard of hearing she was, so I leaned near her ear and almost yelled her name.  No reaction.

I was beginning to get the idea that this was a bizarre dream.  Normally when one recognizes you are in a dream you struggle to awaken.  You may not succeed at first, as dreams are deep in you but, as you climb your mind outward, you ultimately succeed.  Of course, I was now awake I was sure, the real me and not the me in the dream, and I was not sure of my escape route, but I tried to awaken my real self nonetheless.  To no discernable effect.

I had been hungry when I got in the car but dinner at Marcus and Sally always was great so I had denied myself a snack before leaving.  I was still hungry but did not know what to do about it.  I wandered back to my couch to find a folding metal snack table, just like the one in my basement at home, set up at my seat.  A dish of veal picatta with vermicelli dressed in oil and garlic stared up at me; silverware and a glass of rose shared the tray.  I did not, all of a sudden, feel like eating and stood with a start.  I almost ran into Richie, a friend of mine when were both ten or twelve. 

He was wearing Keds high-top sneakers and a scarf around his neck, covering the place where the fence spike impaled and killed him while we were climbing out back one day in 1950 or so.  I tried to stop him, said his name, reached out to his arm, but he kept on walking, a thin smile on his face.  I always hated that smile; Richie was quite the snitch.

Around the room I walked, recognizing everyone but afraid to speak or touch.  There were darknesses where the walls should have been, on all sides, no just behind the couch where the muffled conversations drifted towards me.  I tried to step into the darkness a couple of times but the darkness kept pace ahead of me.  After a dozen or so steps I retreated, unsure of what I was going to find if I continued.

I sat at my couch.  My dinner had not gotten cold.  With want of anything else to do, I ate.  The texture of the food was perfect but I could not taste anything.  I examined, look closely at the food.  I rolled a piece of veal between my fingers until the light breading disintegrated and fell to the floor.

There was a feeling then of a new person standing behind me; I turned quickly.  Everyone else in the room seemed to turn also, just for a moment.  My granddaughter Daphne stood with her soccer ball under her arm.  Her long legs stretched from the edges of her orange shorts to the tops of her orange socks, each with the small “L” team logo, the letter reared back as if ready to kick the small orange ball in front of it.  Everyone else quickly turned away but I rushed to her, calling “Daphne, Daphne” but she just stood their smiling and then dropped her soccer ball and began to foot-dribble away into and around the crowd.

A tear began to find its way down my check but I wiped it away in anger, swallowed and marched off with resolve to find some person or clue to allow me to decipher what was happening; or, I now confess, to confirm or explain away what seemed to me either an incredibly real and depressing dream or a reality so trite and unsettling that it had to be a nightmare.

I do not know how long I have been here as there are no days.  I have not slept and seems no one else sleeps either, but all that is without apparent effect.  I have examined the faces of everyone I have met here and I know them all.  Of course I do.  While I have been here I have been visited by Carl Berenson, a business partner of mine and my best friend in the office; and by Rita Goodby, a very close friend of mine in College who did not respond to my entreaties, a particularly sardonic moment given our history; and by old Veonora Sheldrake, who lived down the block in one of those old houses that were destined to be sold by someone’s estate if only to be torn down and replaced with a three million dollar mini-manse with more bathrooms than bedrooms.

I have come to terms that while this is a waiting room, I am waiting for nothing.  No one seems to leave, or to graduate.  The older residents seem to be able to converse, but I do not know if this is universal and shall come to me in my time, or whether this is an attribute that management has discontinued for newcomers.  The melancholy thought has come to me that I am going to see many more members of my past, family or friends or acquaintances or enemies, too.  I have stopped crying; there is no use to fight it.  What is happening here is just life.  Well, an odd way to think about it, but true, yes?

I am almost looking forward to being able to see some people again, although I do hope their trip here is not traumatic.

There are no animals in the waiting rooj.  I tried to think about that in hopes my pet would appear, in the manner of my favorite veal dishes.  No luck.

I do miss my dog.

Swimming Two Miles

It was the perfect summer job.  Out of doors, good hours, good tips I was told.  Last summer I did inventory in a clothing warehouse, where I sneezed for three months at minimum wage.  Before that, I sold ice skates at a sporting goods store in Rockefeller Center.  Mostly to South American businessmen who arrived with foot tracings of all their family members and their neighbor’s families.  Nothing like measuring foot tracings and matching them up to skate sizes all day to make your summer memorable.

Who knew that there was a private beach club, with cabanas and full snack bar, at Coney Island?  All I knew, growing up in New York, was that Coney Island had rides, amusements, a great roller coaster and the most awesome ride in the whole world, the parachute drop where you were strapped into a swing seat, hauled up on wires about twenty stories, and then just dropped to earth.  It took ten seconds or so, maybe ten stories worth, to see if the parachute would fill with air and bring you peacefully down to earth.  Or, alternately, you were dead.  Add all that to a Nathan’s hot dog with sauerkraut for fifteen cents and you had a day of paradise which you could conclude with an ocean dip with really super waves; you just needed a buddy to watch your gear as everything unguarded disappeared from the crowded beach, absorbed into the mass of humans on blankets so densely spaced that you had to step on someone’s turf just to be able to get to the water.

“You eighteen?” asked the woman at the employment agency? 

“Sure.  I’m a junior in college,’ I replied.  I figured lying by six months was not such a great sin and I wanted a job.

“Social security card?”

“Sure, of course.  Here,” passing my mealy paper card to the woman,  She made a note of the number and handed it back to me.

“Ever hear of Sea Gate?”

“No.  What’s Sea Gate?”

“It’s a bunch of private homes at the end of Coney Island.  Really fancy, a big wall all around it.  They got a beach club there, they only want college kids to work there for the summer, guess they think their shit don’t stink.’  She looked up at me over her half-glasses,, a thin smile on her bright red lips, her true attitude towards her job and towards the rich kids who came begging for summer jobs showing through her veneer: “So, college boy, you can tell me the truth.  Your shit stink?”

“Not if there is a job for me at this place, it doesn.t.”

Big smile.  “You are one smart kid, I’ll give you that.  Here, take this form and go for an interview.  They are real particular, but you look like the button down shirt type they seem to prefer.’

I looked at the form, then thanked her.  As I stood up, I asked how I got to this Sea Gate.  “Well, you a college kid, first test is, see if you can find the place.”  She looked around me to the rows of seats full of kids looking for a summer job.  “Next,” she called.  I was on my own.

“Sea Gate, eh?”  My dad looked up from the Herald Tribune.  “That should be interesting.”

“I dunno.  You know this place?” 

“Sure.”  My father grew up in Brooklyn, lived there all his life.  “You know the beginning of the amusement park area, the strip with Nathans and Luna Park?  Where you get off the subway, the El?  That’s Surf Avenue, around 4th up to maybe 15th Street.  If you keep on going, all the way to the end, you come to Sea Gate.  There’s a security guard, there are some pretty nice homes behind that wall.  What’s the job?”

“It says here on the form ‘cabana boy.’  I think it’s sort of a waiter at their beach club?”

“Sounds like a great job, not being cooped up in an office and you don’t need to take the train into Manhattan.  You’ll have to work weekends I’m sure, but I bet it’s good money.”  He paused and looked up meaningfully.  “We could use it, ya know.  You spend a small fortune up there at school.  Maybe if you have to work really hard for the money you’ll decide to eat the food in the meal plan and not go out to restaurants every night.”

“Dad, I’d work a hundred hours a week to not eat Shepard’s Pie in the student center.  Just tell me how to get to this place and I’ll go and make a fortune for us.”

Well, it’s probably a mile from the train, maybe more  You could walk.  Maybe there’s a bus.  I don’t know.  Never gone there myself, just heard about it.”

Next morning, I walked to the Kings Highway subway station and took the train past Manhattan Beach to the Coney Island stop, end of line.  A trip I had taken often enough.  Walking downstairs, there was a bus stop with a sign that said the end of the route was Sea Gate.  Great.  It took about ten minutes to be dropped off at a circle, end of Surf Avenue, the city street did not penetrate the gate.  The guard house looked over an entry gate for cars and a turnstile for pedestrians.

“Who ya visiting?”

“I’m not sure.  I have an interview at the beach club for a job?”  I passed him my paper.

“Three blocks straight,, turn left towards the water and you’ll run right into it.”

 I walked quickly down the sidewalk.  Quite a place, all single-family houses with neat shrubs and little lawns in front, streets so clean I thought I was dreaming.  In the driveways, a Buick Roadmaster and a Lincoln Continental came into view.  “Holy shit” is the thought that came to mind.  Back in my part of Brooklyn, only the lawyer on the street had a Buick, and I had never seen a Lincoln Continental except on a billboard ad.

The interview was with a pinch-faced woman in a gray suit and a small, sweaty man in a T-shirt with a couple of small holes near the collar. 

Mrs. Moscowitz was from the Home-Owners Association board.  She asked me what college I attended, and asked to see my student ID card that I was lucky to have kept in my wallet after the term ended.  She asked me about my major.  Seemingly American History was acceptable; She smiled widely; lots of gold in her mouth.

The man with the T-shirt turned out to be the operator of the snack bar.

“You ever been arrested?”

“Uh, what?”

“You been in jail?”

“No, of course not.”

He nodded.  “That’s good because you kids gotta make change outta my register when it’s busy and I had a kid once, he thought it was his own piggy bank.”

“I never would do that, steal or anything.”  I was indignant.

Lou, this was I soon learned the infamous Lou who ran what was called around the club a “tight ship,” gave me a curt laugh.  “Oh, yeah, ya will.  Maybe not money but you get one sandwich and one drink on the house and it will get hot as hell serving the members, specially down to the beach, and you’ll start swiping a cola or cadging a frozen Milky Way and forgettin’ to put your money into the register.  But I know who you are, so don’t think you’ll get to make a habit of it.”

I was silent.  Lou scanned down the page from the agency and scowled.  “Ya go to Columbia it says here.”

“Yes, I’m gong to be a junior next year.”

“Don’t like Columbia,” Lou allowed.  Bunch of fancy pants kids who always have a shitty football team; bunch of pansies.  I like kids goin’ ta Brooklyn College, maybe CCNY.”

 I made the mistake of trying to defend my school.  “Well,” I said, “those schools don’t even have a football team.”

Lou’s brow, lined and sweaty, furrowed deeper .  “I know that!  Didja think I didn’t know that?  Still like them schools better.  Better workers, not all stuck up.  The Lions, that’s you Columbia guys, right?   You a bunch of big pussy cats, just a bunch of pussies is all.”  His stare made me decide to drop the whole subject.

The lady from the Association actually cleared her throat to regain the floor, turned to Lou and asked primly if Mr. Pescatori was satisfied with my candidacy.

Lou looked down and mumbled that I was okay by him, but he still didn’t much like kids from Columbia and, thus, was I hired as a cabana boy at Sea Gate’s cabana club, at the far end of Coney Island, for the summer of 1961 at 40 cents an hour plus tips, and a lunch ration of one hamburger or hot dog and one Coke Cola.

At training, the week before the Club opened in mid-June, I learned about the uniform.  White shorts, white cloth belt, white T-shirt with the coat of arms of Sea Gate on the breast, white sox, white pith helmet and white tennis shoes.  Everything but the tennis shoes were provided by, and laundered assiduously by, the Association.  Sounded reasonable to me, in fact it sounded pretty snazzy as well as cool while working outside. 

It was the uniform, however, that turned my dream summer job into the tensest ten weeks of my life.

The job was great.  Lots of fresh air.  Nice people.  Nice looking young girls.  Really good tips.  You usually could avoid the small kids rolling down the beach slope,  trying to take out the cabana boys like bowling pins as we trudged through the sand to deliver mixed drinks and beers to the people in lounge chairs. All summer I got dumped only once, on my second day, although Lou made me pay for the lost food and drinks.  I was making so much money that I refrained from asking if anyone from Brooklyn College had ever been dumped.

And on rainy days the chief cabana boy, a returning guy about twenty with whom I hit it off although he was only a Cornell man, clued me in to stay when it was raining. 

“Why?” I asked, because the other six cabana boys were happy to be released to go home in inclement weather, and sympathized with me for getting stuck with having to stay behind in the rain.

“Because, you’ll see,” was the answer.

Around noon each drizzling afternoon, the men began to arrive, shed their suit coats and ties, and walked down to a couple of the larger cabana tents and unfolded the metal tables.  Decks of cards and poker chips appeared, as did bottles of Haig and Haig and Canadian Club.  Lou stayed open, serving mixers and steak sandwiches in a steady stream.  The tips from the games came in the form of poker chips and the smallest denomination was a whole dollar.  On a rainy afternoon you could make fifty dollars in tips, two boys constantly running back and forth in the rain, water dripping off the rim of our helmets.  And around dinner time when the games broke up, you could tell the big winners as they dropped you a couple of five dollar chips and apologized for how soaked you had gotten.

No, the job was great. The problem was the gauntlet in the subway station.

Seems some of the local teens, maybe also some of the kids of the carny workers who flooded the midway during the warmest months, spent much of their time hanging out under the El, passing judgment on the arriving tourists and beach-goers and talking up the young girls.  A hard-looking bunch they were, they all must have worked out as their muscles filled out their shirts.  Their jeans were tight and pegged, their belt buckles of heavy metal design, and they wore boots even when the temperature was a hundred degrees.  Many had tattoos.  A few drank beers with impunity; seems they were invisible to the transit employees who, I guess, had their own problems and didn’t want to get into a hassle.  Even the cleaning guy just picked up the bottles and swept up the Camels butts without a word.

I guess I was the only cabana boy to commute by train.  I knew a couple lived in Sea Gate, and the older boys all drove.  One morning, and in the morning there were usually a few of these self-styled tough guys hanging out by the time I got there, a couple of them blocked my last step down from the train stairs.

“What’s with the outfit?”

“Why do you want to know?  Anything wrong with it?”

“Well, now that ya mention it, yeah there’s something wrong with it all right.”

When you grow up in Brooklyn you learn that a little street sass is sometimes the best defense, so I gave it a try.  “Well, I don’t see nuthin’ wrong with it, like it’s your business anyway.  I ‘m going to work.  Let me past, will ya?”  Nobody moved.

“We see ya get on the bus to Sea Gate.  Ya work in there, do ya?”

“Yeah I work in there.  Where do you work? Under the El smoking cigarettes?”  I thought that was pretty clever. I moved as if to take a step but the two of them still had me blocked.  Seems street sass was not going to have any effect.

“Well, shit-fer-brains, just so happens we do work here and when some faggit big-mouth gives us crap like we was pieces of shit, then we go to work by taking that muthafukker around the back and beating the crap outta him and taking his money and his watch, and kick him the fuckin’ balls just to remind him that if anyone asks, nothing happened and he don’t know us.”

Time for plan B.

“Look, guys, I’m late.  I’m sorry but I am just working and I need the money.  They make me dress up like this, ya know?  It ain’t my idea, ya know?”  I was giving my accent the full Brooklyn treatment.

“Yeah?”  The biggest guy, olive complexion, long hair to his shoulders, all full of tattoos, is poking my chest, but really hard because he wants me to feel it really hard, “so what sorta faggit job ya got in that fancy faggit place behind that fucking faggit wall, that ya gotta dress like a faggit vanilla ice cream cone?”

So here is what you learn growing up in Brooklyn.  You learn, instinctively, how to measure street cred.  You need to know your own, and calibrate against the cred of the other guy, so you know how to behave.  Sometimes, how to survive.  These guys, they are wearing their street cred in plain view, pecs and tats and Camels burning right down to the lip line.  That’s pretty good street cred, but it is not the only kind of street cred.  Sometimes the best cred is the type that is not obvious.

Now, if I announce I am a cabana boy these guys are going ask what the hell is a cabana, and sooner or later they are going to figure out that I am a waiter in white shorts and pith helmet serving cocktails to rich people behind a stone wall, and then they are going to take me out back and beat the crap out of me and take all my money and my watch and then they are going to kick my fucking balls so I am reminded, if anyone asks, that nothing has happened and I don’t know those guys over there.

“Whattaya think, I’m a life guard.”

“Whah, ya mean like on the beach up on a chair lifeguard?”

“Yeah, they got a chair and I sit up on it sometimes.”  They both step back and I walk down the last riser so I am now on the ground.  This is working, I know it is working…

“No shit.  How’d ya get that job?”

“Well, whaddaya think?”  I am talking good Brooklyn now, no Rs, no grammar, very few Ts.  “Ya godda swim good.  Real good.”  They nod, two heads bobbing.

“Behind the fence, buncha faggit dicks.  Half of em can’t swim ten yards.  But they go into the water like they own it, know what I’m sayin’?  So they godda make sure they got someone to pull ‘em out when a wave goes over them, or for their kids, ya know?”

I survey their faces  I now have some respect.  Maybe they will let me live.

“Yeah, cool, so like how far ya gotta swim to get one a them lifeguard jobs?”

Now this is a problem.  You see, I cannot swim.  To this day, I am petrified of the water.  I am not going to be able to graduate unless I can swim so it is on my list, in my senior year, to learn how to swim.  But as of that moment, my swimming gives new meaning to the phrase “sink like a stone.” 

“So,” I say on the attack, “whaddaya think?”

“I don’t got no idea” says the smaller one, the one I thought was a mute until that moment.  “I can’t swim at all.” 

“Me neither,” says the big one.

Oh, this going to be easy.  I can say whatever I want.

“Well, ya swim out past the waves, the breakers, and ya swim one mile and then ya swim back.”

“Two fucking miles,”  the big one almost whispers.  “How far is that on land?”

“I resist the temptation to suggest it is two miles.

“Well, I get in the water behind the wall. I swim down to just before the parachute ride, then I turn around and go back.”

“Fuck,” they recite together.

I sense my opening.

“And if I don’t get on the bus and get to work, I ain’t gonna be a lifeguard tomorrow, so…” 

I pause.  They step back.  I smile and walk between them.  To my back, someone says, “hey, what’s ya name anyway?”

“Steve”, I say over my shoulder.

“Yeah man, take it easy Steve.  And hey, I’m Emilio.”

“I’m Georgie,” says the other voice.

I am at the bottom step of the bus, and I turn and spread some  my superior street cred with my new minions.  “Glad to meet youse guys.  Stay cool.”  I allow a thin smile, just a little one and only for a second, like I mean what I said but it isn’t a big deal to me, and I get on my bus and we lumber off down Surf Avenue.  I exhale.  I am alive.  I am the king of Brooklyn.

So it is all good from then on.  “Hiya, Steve, goin’ swimmin’ today?” “Every day, Georgie, every day.”  And, “hey Emilio, who’s your buddy?  Oh, yeah, good to meetcha, Jackson my man, be seein’ ya.”  I even get offered a smoke a couple of times; I decline, tell them it hurts your wind when you’re swimming two miles and the surf kicks up and the waves keep pushing against you.

So it is the Sunday before Labor Day.  Labor Day is the last day of work.  It is also the day you get your bonus of $175 for staying the whole summer, which is a lot of money for a college student.  I am coming down the subway stairs with my usual noblesse oblige smile and I see there are about ten guys at the bottom.  I hesitate for the moment, but Georgie smiles and waves, so it all seems safe and I come down to the bottom and say my hellos.

“Ya know, we got an idea,” says Emilio.  “This guy we met, his people work the arcade games, they from Florida.  And he says he’s a real good swimmer.  He says he can swim two miles like it was nuthin.’  So our idea is, we gonna have a race.  Maybe you start just outside the gate, ya know, and go to the parachute and swim back and we see who’s faster, ya know?”

“That’s a hell of an idea,” I tell them.  They are all smiles.  “Yeah and we bet on you and we make a fuckin’ fortune,” says the kid called Jackson my Man for some reason never disclosed to me.

“Well, here’s the thing.  I never said I was a racer, just a life guard.  How do we know I can beat him?”  My mind is searching alternate excuses, I am desperate not to be killed on the spot

Emilio steps forward.  Until that moment, when he is about a foot in front of me, I hever realized how wide he was.  I mean, I knew he was pretty tall, but it turns out he is also as wise as a Caddy.

“Yeah,” he says, “but ya swim  two miles every day, ya tell us, so ya gotta be in shape, right?”   He pauses, looking down sternly.

“Oh, yeah,, no question, but maybe this other guy, he swims a lot too.  I just don’t want you to get your hopes up ya gonna win.”

“Oh, yeah, well see Stevie, we got a lot of faith in you, ya know?”  When Emilio said that it was not really a question.  I see every other head bouncing up and down affirmatively, it seems we have all bonded over the long summer and I am their guy, their swimming guy, no doubt about it.

“And, I gotta work today and tomorrow and then I’m back to school, the beach closes tomorrow and it’s back to school for all of us.”

This is a mistake, I sense it as soon as it escapes my now-frantic mouth.  My best guess is that no one of this group is going to do anything like return to a classroom any time in the foreseeable future.  A couple of the guys look down but Emilio, he drapes an arm over my shoulder and allows he weight to fall unsupported.  I think his arm weighs more than my whole body.  I find myself walking around to the back of the staircase with him.

“So,” coos Emilio as calmly as you can imagine, “when you off work tomorrow?”

I am too scared to lie.  “Well, we close officially at three but we gotta clean up.”

“So, what that mean?  Four? Five?”

“Well not sure, it’s the end of the season, godda put away the chairs, uh the big lifeguard chair, the rope ands and the floats and the boats and all.”

“Fine, still enough light at five.  You come out that place and just turn right and follow the wall to the water, we looked and there’s a path, and we’ll be there with this Pedro guy, and we can do it then.  That way you can get back to yer school next day.  And look, let’s try to do this right.  Rest up today and tomorrow.  Like before a boxing match you don’t do a heavy workout the two days before?  Stay outta the fuckin’ water and save yer strength.”

I nod because I need to get his arm off my shoulders before he drives me into the asphalt like a tent spike, just from the weight of it.

“That’s my Stevie,” says Emilio, and he unwinds his arm and give me a gentle punch of affection in my shoulder which staggers me a few feet to my left. 

I walk past the group and stand at the bus stop.  Emilio gives a thumbs up to the group and now they are barking me encouragement.  “Go get ‘em, you Tiger,” Georgie suggests.  II think to myself, ‘I’m a Columbia Lion, you moron, the Tigers are Princeton” but I am too worried to say anything let alone to correct Georgie so the bus comes and I turn and give ‘em a grin that I know is way too large and I climb aboard and escape.

At break I call my father at his office and beg him to pick me up at the gate tonight, no I can’t tell him why but it is very important.  It is Sunday, he is just doing some paperwork so he sounds concerned and he agrees.

“You got a problem, kid?”

“Rather not talk about it.”

“Well, we are going to talk about it because it sounds like someone is out to get you, or why else do you need a ride.”

I do need help, an ally.  “Not someone, dad.  I mob of maybe a dozen guys would like to talk to me.”

“I see.  What do you think we should do about it?”

“Well, I need you to drive me to work and pick me up at 3:30 tomorrow.  That’s all.  It’s the last day.”

He is driving down Ocean Avenue through light traffic, we are almost home.  “Think we might call the police?”, he asks.

“No, no, definitely  not.”  For some reason I do not want to mess up Georgie and Emlio and Jackson my Man and the rest of the crew, it turns out they are actually pretty good guys underneath their street cred and, besides, life being what it is they don’t have anything but their street cred going for them and sure don’t need some lying button down shirt Ivy League type getting the cops on their backs.

“Just do me a favor and do what I ask.”  I wait a couple of beats.  “That okay?”

“My dad pulls into a parking space and shuts the engine.  “Sure, kid.  Whatever you say.”

After work on Labor Day, with my envelope from the Association jammed into my pocket, I rushed to batten down the tents and asked the guys as a favor to finish my clean-up, which they said was the least they could do since I had covered for them all those rainy days when they had the good luck of being able to get home during the rainstorms. 

My dad was waiting just outside the gate and I jumped into the car without lingering to look around.  I was pretty sure it was too early for the crew to be at the wall for a five o’clock rendezvous.  We drove silently down Surf Avenue and when we got near the train station I asked my father to slow down and pull over.  I peered into the shadowy space around the stairs, deep under the tracks, and didn’t see anyone there.

“I gotta get out,” I told my dad.


“Yeah,” I said, swingout out of the front seat.  “Just be a minute.”

As I closed the door, a thought occurred to me and I stopped it just short of clicking shut.

“Hey, dad, just do me a favor and keep the car running, okay?”  I slammed the door before he could react.

I walked to the stairs and looked around.  How to do this?  Then I saw Julius, the Transit janitor.  Julius was the most placid person I had ever met.  Was he trustworthy?  What were my choices?

“Hey, Julius, can ya do me a favor?”

Julius stopped pushing the trash-can on wheels, and pushed the brooms aside from their small bin so he could see me better.

“Sure, Stevie,” he said.  Those were the first words he ever said to me, I was not sure he even knew my name.

“You know Emilio, right?  The really big guy with long hair?”

“A’course.  He drinks Schlitz all days and drops the bottles for me so I can pick them up and get the nickel deposits.”

That stopped me for a moment.  You never really know about people, do you?

“Well, I have something for him.  Here, when you see him please tell him this is from me, okay?”  I reached into my trousers and gave him me bonus envelope.

“Okay,I can do it if you want.  What’s in it, anyway?”  Julius was a pasty faced man bent prematurely in his fifties from spending his life stooped over picking up other people’s trash.

What the hell, I thought.  “It’s money. A hundred and seventy-five dollars.  I – I owe it to him”

Julius didn’t blink, he just stuck the envelope into his overalls.  “Got it,” he said.

I had another thought, took out my wallet and pulled out a ten and handed it to Julius.  “And this is for your helping me,” I said.

Julius shook has head and started walking away, pushing his barrel. 

“No need to do that, Stevie,” he said.  “Always glad to give a friend a helping hand.”

I walked back to the car.

“How’d it go?, my dad asked.

“Oh, fine.  Fine.  Ya know, dad, ya just never know about people, do ya?”

He smiled and stepped on the gas.

“You can say that again,” he said.  “Sometimes even about your own son.”


I stand on an open plain
With sleet angling into my mouth.
The fur of my parka is no match for it.
It is morning. Gray.
It is cold, deeply chilled.
I have a warm knot in my stomach
from two shots of vodka.
My hosts tell me millions died here—
We call it World War Two but that is a luxury of nomenclature, viewed from a distance.

Here it is alive, seventy years young, the Great Patriotic War.
On this plain hundreds of tanks rolled and roiled.
On this plain, men ran behind tanks, among the exploding shells.
On this plain, men got frostbite inside bunkers where there was no tea.
On this plain, airplanes and bayonets killed all the soldiers once they had killed all the farmers and their children.
On this plain was fought the Battle of Kursk that lasted nine months.
Ask the children in Kiev, and in Berlin, who never knew their fathers.

I stomp the ground. I feel my feet, from a distance.
How can you understand Russia unless you stand here,
Listening to the nothingness?

My son is ten years old.
He is climbing over the burned shell of a tank.
After seven decades they still are here,
rusting witnesses to uncomprehending history.
The bodies long ago have rotted into the ground,
their grave markers are metal turrets, seeming toys.
What do my hosts think of us, standing here speechless,
warmed strongly by ice cold vodka,
while my child climbs the jungle gyms of death?

Numbers of people have no meaning in Russia.
History is a thousand years long gone
And a thousand years yet to come.
This plain has eaten them, chewed them, digested them, deposited them like dung on top of the frozen earth.
What is left is tanks.
And sleet and wind.
Here, have another drink.



The boy in the heat
Swatted our flies, shoved away the other boys,
We were his charge.
When they begged he yelled,
Threw rocks,
Took us down alleys between rows of mud huts on stilts.
He took our wave of the hand as a benediction,
He could not be waved away.
We had not sought his help, his protection, yet
He selected us because – why?
Were we so vulnerable, so gullible, so foreign?
He pointed us to shops we did not enter,
Down streets we feared to walk.
He spoke to us in a tongue we could not decipher.
We replied in French to no avail.
To the side, Taureg men in blue robes looked past us.
When we raised a camera, all in front of us held out their hands.
Returning to the bus, the boy pressing close
Hands cupped in front of him:
Payment for service?
We had contracted for none.
We stared ahead, avoided eyes and cries for recompense.
Seated inside, awaiting others,
He banged and punched the side of the bus,
Loud deep metallic echoes filled our space
And we stared ahead and then
As he lept to beat on our window
I turned in anger, glared through the glass
And cursed in a tongue he did not understand with words he could not hear,
Until our driver stepped outside and chased him with his boot,
Screaming child, bloodied, how old,
Eight I guess,
Running with no shoes.


Across the Sehel
Cursing in Arabic
The Army of France
Shooting anyone who moved.
Plastic bags snarled in the brush
Filled like balloons with the hot dry wind,
Masking, in this land of masks,
The man with the gun
Screaming in rage,
Shaking a fist,
Firing his rifle at the heads of the soldiers,
Seeking recompense for years unfulfilled,
Demanding a reason.
Spitting blood on the sand
Falls the young man
Falling falling dying,
Dying with no shoes.


Appartements meuble a Bamako
In high demand, I am told, by
My computer who would not lie to me.
Risk free, no credit card to reserve, lock in great prices,
Sleeps six for 219 USD.
For the week.
In Manandoroni, not too far from the Niger
Near to Diatoula, and
Replete with flat screen television
For the discriminating tourist
Who might prefer not to venture out too often
Here in the land of no shoes.

Marvin Perchuk Discusses His Pending Demise With Himself

I was disquieted by an article in the newspaper the other day. A World War Two veteran had been lost in a jungle somewhere in the Pacific and long presumed dead. During the process of clearing land for a new beach resort, human remains were found. Seemingly, our Government has the practice of obtaining DNA samples from bodies found in likely places, and seeing if they match to soldiers missing in action. The rationale is that families want to have closure, and to bury their loved ones in friendly ground.

The fact that World War Two ended 73 years ago, and that claimants for the remains of our soldiers are at best 72 year old children of the deceased whose memories must consist only of sepia head-shots, appears to be irrelevant. I cannot deny the need of these children, to link up to a lost parent, although I find it curious. As for aunts, uncles, and indeed grandchildren who by definition were a couple of decades down the road from War’s end, I have even greater incomprehension. As to the cost and therefore the logic of our government’s effort, my view that it is a waste of money, on a cost-benefit analysis, may be cold hearted; I after all know where all my immediate forebears are buried and, for prior generations, no one is looking at the DNA in the bones left by countless pogroms and concentration camps. All in all, this practice carries the pledge of leaving no comrade behind a bit too far for my taste. I cannot imagine the value of placing several bones and teeth, one bone with a drilled hole where the DNA was extracted, in the ground in Keokuk, Iowa with full military honors; although, I am not immune to the sad costs of wars, even righteous wars, and recall my uncles who served in WW2 vividly, right down to Arnold who left important body parts on the Anzio beach.

My personal plan for my remains is to be cremated and, in a highly superfluous flourish which somehow pleases me by its presumed defiance to what we call death, I have specified that my dust be dropped into Cape Cod Bay (at high tide of course) from the deck of my favorite Italian restaurant, while invited guests dine on a menu of my personal favorite Italian dishes. Chianti Classico of course, only bottle with the small Rooster label pasted near the neck of the bottle to denote pure provenance. If grandchildren unknown to a person dead 75 years badly yearn to have their government search human remains across the wild Pacific to find grandpa (noble soul was he, I do not doubt) and bring a few shards of femur home to America, am I erring in denying my own children, and my grandchildren down the line, and my unborn great grandchildren, the comfort and closure and closeness of knowing where I have ended up. Other than taking a swim in the Atlantic, that is?

I asked my Rabbi for her thoughts and, after a moment’s cool stare and a palpable swallow, she suggested that these burial attachments were matters of human emotional reaction without religious symbolism, at least in our religion, and so she had little to offer unless I wanted to be guided by the preference of my adult children. I suppose I could inquire…. Would it be wiser to leave my ashes in an urn on my widow’s mantle so there could be closure by all, that I rested there above the fireplace that always smoked badly when lighted? Are my ashes to be best divided among branches of the family, in increasingly smaller min-urns until my great great great grandchildren are afforded a thimble full of powder? And then to have very distant people wash them out and sell them on a table at an outdoor market, perhaps to people whose hobby is to collect these various ornate vessels?

Or am I best served to be remembered fondly by future generations by reason of being planted in the wet New England sod, hopefully in a concrete outer chest so the ground does not sag down over time when my body and coffin cease to be able to support the weight above? I suspect you are more quickly forgotten, over time, by being in the ground than by being in an urn somewhere, a dusty reminder of complex ambitions at best partially realized. Is being in the ground the same as having one’s ashes dropped into the shallow curl of Provincetown waves, diluted to infinity by the falling tide, tidbits clung to painter lines attaching small boats to their anchors, even a scrap or two on the tongue of an unsuspecting swimmer out for a late-night dip down the beach where the sleepy West End of Ptown is indeed asleep?

I have concluded that these speculations are a conceit. To care about what is left of you when your mind has left was is left of you is to believe that in fact there is something of permanence once you are dead. So many people believe and have believed this just because to think otherwise is so absurdly alien to everything our minds perceive—life. If there is something after life, then there is. To believe that that something relates at all to where the body went, and in what form, is disquieting but absurd. The only impact of all this discussion I am having with myself is the impact it has on the people I leave behind, a harsh realization when you face the most supremely selfish moment of one’s existence, an experience you alone consume and that consumes you alone in the most literal sense.

So I have sent out a reply post-card to relatives of mine down to second cousins once removed. They must certify they are at last eighteen years of age and, having checked that box, they can select a box for the preferred type of body disposal. Since I have attempted to appreciate that I do not possess all the possible answers to any question, I have also left several lines for write-in alternative suggestions. I will share with all of you the group preference, although I may decide to share it only by a piece of performance art.

Stay tuned.

For more information about Duane Morris, please visit

Confidentiality Notice: This electronic mail transmission is privileged and confidential and is intended only for the review of the party to whom it is addressed. If you have received this transmission in error, please immediately return it to the sender. Unintended transmission shall not constitute waiver of the attorney-client or any other privilege.