Voices

A publication of The New School Institute For Retired Professionals

It’s Only Stuff

by Leslie Bedford

The flames exploded through the roof and into the sky. Feeding on the night air, they stretched up and out towards the neighboring trees. Standing stunned at the rear of the house, I could imagine the tall pines sending distress signals down through their roots and out to the more distant maples and birches. Beneath the largest pine, its two halves joined by wire and time, our granite Korean mountain god, half buried in needles, waited stoically to see what would happen.

Through the night came the caterwauling of fire trucks. They raced up our drive and parked on the front lawn. Firefighters—one woman—in heavy black slickers and red helmets jumped out. They dragged fat hoses through and around the house. Water was everywhere; great streams that soaked the fire and all it had touched.

Eventually it was over. The exhausted firefighters hauled in their hoses and equipment and headed home. The night was quiet again. The trees were safe. All that remained of the wing that had held a master bedroom, bath and basement were charred beams, piles of black ashes and smoke.

In the following days we scanned the mountain of ash looking for lost belongings. A copper bracelet, once coated with silver, poked out. A single sneaker. Sunglasses. A rip of blanket. We had rakes but little desire to stir up the smoke or dust.

A sparkle of blue caught my eye. It was the remnants of a dress I had worn in 1992 for the gala opening of my big exhibition: the night the highpoint of my career, the dress its metaphor. Picking it up, my hands registered its weight. Despite being a crumpled mess, grimy and melded grotesquely together by the fire, it felt the way my body remembered. How the fabric, encrusted with blue bugle beads, slid over my hips, how the neckline hugged my shoulders, and the way the back dipped down almost to my waist. The dress became a portal into weeks of recalling what was lost.

We met a couple at dinner. They also had experienced a house fire years before. But, she assured me, they quickly realized it was “only stuff.” Having just begun to fill out an exhaustive inventory of losses for the insurance company, I could only nod in feigned agreement.

****

Wooden bedstead, queen size mattress and box springs, two bedside tables, two reading lights.

Framed watercolor.

…..This hung for decades over Frank’s parents’ double bed in California. When his mother died in 2004, we brought it home and hung it next to the bed so we could see it more clearly.

I lie down, turning my head to look at the watercolor on the wall. A small adobe church surrounded by a wire and wooden fence, two scrubby trees in an overgrown yard of natural grasses, purple, blue, green, brown. A wash of sunlight across the front.

Only silence along the dusty mountain road between Taos and Santa Fe that we traveled years ago when the children were young. The painting’s glass reflects a stand of birches outside our bedroom window. I fall asleep.

Pine bureau, painted black, with three large drawers and two smaller ones.

…..In the dresser was a silky black T-shirt with Aqua Expeditions on the black. Purchased on board during a week-long cruise in 2012 along the Amazon with our daughter, her husband, our son and his serious girlfriend.

Exploring the river with guides in long canoes, pisco sours and gourmet meals. One day the women go out in their own boat and, after choosing which movie actress each liked best, act out a jungle adventure. Ben’s girlfriend, Jennifer, identifies with the star of Winter’s Bone because the bleak scenery and story recalls her Appalachian home. She confesses that before she left, one of her crazier relatives warned her we would throw her in the river to keep her from marrying our son. They become engaged soon after.

…..The bottom drawer held a handwoven rebozo in a red and black weave, particular to one of the villages in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Fading with time and sunshine, but still a treasured souvenir of many visits to Oaxaca and Los Baules, the textile shop on cobbled Macedonia Street. Somewhere is a photo of us at an outdoor restaurant celebrating Valentine’s Day. I am wearing my shawl and holding a red rose.

…..In one of the top drawers was an antique Navajo necklace. Silver and turquoise strung on leather. Squash blossom pattern. Purchased in Arizona c. 1912.

My mother-in-law wears this on special occasions, like her 90th birthday. We have a photo of her on her grandson’s arm, grinning into the camera. She is a short woman so the necklace hangs down almost to the waist of her powder blue dress. The piece had belonged to her grandfather. A lawyer in Wheeling, West Virginia, he used to visit the Southwest in the early 1900s and bought it, along with various baskets and rugs and other pieces of jewelry, from the Indians. When he died, the family discovered he hadn’t kept up his life insurance payments. His widow, Mabel, had to move in with her daughter in Los Angeles. They say she kept a big jug of sherry by her bedside–for “medicinal” reasons.

…..On top of the bureau was an inlaid wooden glove box from the l9th century. My art conservator brother restored it for us as a wedding gift and included the slides taken to document the process of replacing the inlay and gluing in a new blue velvet lining. Among its contents were two pairs of silver earrings, both purchased in 2000.

The Museum Group holds its fall meeting in Ottawa this year. My friend Leslie invites me over for brunch. Fresh strawberries crushed on a buttered baguette and café au lait. We visit her favorite jewelry store downtown and I buy two pairs of earrings. She chooses that time to tell me that her breast cancer has returned. And then she is gone. Like Nan and Janet and Jane and Claudine. All of them at age sixty-four.

In the big closet I stored all my summer clothes and many other things that needed safe keeping.

…..Dark blue chiffon and silk mother of the bride outfit.

The ceremony is in our backyard. There is a trellis made into an arch covered with vines and flowers. Behind it is the field and a distant view of Catamount. Folding chairs and two musicians under the trees. I walk from the porch on my son Ben’s arm. Frank comes out with our daughter. She is so beautiful. Everyone is smiling and smiling.

…..Gray, pleated, sleeveless dress with empire waist.

Jennifer’s mother calls to talk about what we would wear for the wedding. She says she had never bought a dress for herself. I want to race out and get her one, but she finds a beige outfit advertised in a magazine at a house she is cleaning. Beige and gray are the colors my new daughter- in- law chooses. Understated and elegant. Her brother brings a jug of genuine moonshine to the reception; I am caught on camera in my grey dress, taking a sip and making a grimace.

On the floor was a large, square, blue and white pillow from Pottery Barn, New York City

I place the pillow carefully on the floor in front of the picture window so I can see Catamount through the pines and maples. Their branches form a triangular opening, a window into the sky that helps frame my gaze and calm my mind. I settle onto my pillow. My hips and legs are stiff and sore, but gradually they start to relax. I listen to the silence, and then begin to focus on my breathing.

Each day something else comes to mind.

****

By the front door is a second stone figure, this one a Japanese Buddhist saint named Jizo, who still sports the white grosgrain neck ribbon he wore for our daughter’s wedding in 2011. He has been waiting patiently for us to remember and reflect and then return to the ordinary business of life.

 

Leslie Bedford has worked in, consulted to and taught about museums for many years. She has a doctorate in Museum Studies and a book on the art of museum exhibitions. An enthusiastic writer, she will be co-coordinating this fall’s Writing Workshop study group.

Fear of Falling

by Claude Samton                            

It had been a cold snowy winter and I was worried about falling in the street. There were some close calls on icy pavement but I’d managed to stay upright. I made it through the entire winter, walking on ice and snow, never falling. Now it was a beautiful sunny spring day in March. I had just left Beth Israel Hospital where I’d been given a stress test.

As I reached Mercer Street, I stepped onto the sidewalk.

My foot caught the edge of the curb. I fell and my head hit the pavement.

A young Chinese boy helped me up and asked if I was all right. ‘Yeah I’m fine,’ I replied, noticing that my sunglasses were broken. I put my hand to my head, there was blood flowing from my forehead. Luckily I had several old napkins in my bag and held them over the wound, then pulled my hat down to hold them in place. I started walking toward the subway. The head was the immediate problem,  but as I walked, I noticed a pain in my right leg, that my left hand was swollen and that I was lurching from side to side as though drunk. I managed to make it home, change clothes, clean myself off and call my doctor. He was on vacation.

Should I return to the hospital ER or, better yet I thought, check Google?  A dozen sites came up, most of them discussing the symptoms of head injury from mild to severe. They included headaches, nausea, dizziness, glossy eyes, loss of memory, inability to speak. The item that caught my eye was ‘age over 60,’ which mentioned that dementia can be the result of a head injury in seniors. I went to the bathroom and talked to the mirror, I seemed lucid.

Another Google site that stood out mentioned Natasha Richardson who had fallen on her head while skiing. She was talking and joking after the fall and refused treatment. Several hours later she complained of a headache and was taken to a hospital.  She died the following day. This was interesting information. I had a headache, but it was not severe. How bad did it have to be for me to go to the hospital? Knowing myself, I figured that the headache came from worry, but how could I be sure?

I called my girlfriend, who was at work and couldn’t be reached, so I called my ex-wife. ‘Oh, I’m sure you’re OK,’ she said, ‘It’s all in your head.’

 

Next, I called my sister. ‘Call your doctor,’ she counseled. ‘Someone has to be covering.’  Someone was covering and finally returned the call two days later. I called my son Matt who scolded me, ‘Dad, why are you always falling?’ I tried to remember the last time I fell, but couldn’t. Maybe my memory was failing because I’d hit my head.

Anyway, I called two more friends. One cautioned me to stay in bed; she mentioned an elderly womanmy age, actually—who fell down the stairs, hit her head and died. Another friend tried to calm me down by telling me her father fell on his head and was fine for over nine months, then one day collapsed into a coma.

I decided not to call anyone else and haven’t looked at Google since.

 

 

 

Claude Samton has been an architect, photographer, and more recently a writer and illustrator of nine books listed on Amazon Books.

 

 

Qutie on the Q

by Claude Samton

The Q train runs north through SoHo at high speed to the newly built Second Avenue Subway stations on 72nd, 86th, and 96th Street. Within twenty minutes I can be at my ophthalmologist’s office on East 70th Street. Generally I get a seat, although going to see the doctor last month, I stood up.  Seated facing me was an attractive well-dressed woman.

She looked up and said,

Hi, Claude, how are you?”

“Fine,” I said, not recognizing her.

“Are you still in your loft on Mercer Street?”

“Yes, I answered.”

“And how are your sons?” She asked.

‘They live in Brooklyn,” I responded without any idea who she was.

I began to feel uncomfortable as she asked, “Are you still seeing that woman?” Obviously she knew me quite well. She then remarked about her wonderful memories of SoHo.

Finally, looking for some sign of recognition, I asked her,

“So what are you up to these days?’’

“Oh, the same thing I’ve always been doing.” she said.

Just then, it was my stop and I got off the train.

Now, a month later, I still have no clue who she was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Claude Samton has been an architect, photographer, and more recently a writer and illustrator of nine books listed on Amazon Books.

Where is it Now?

by Tom Ashley

A recent New York Times article more than caught my eye. A Chicago landmark restaurant, the Cape Cod Room, had closed its doors. Opened in 1933 in the equally famed Drake Hotel, the eatery had served up cocktails and dinner to generations of Chicago titans along with notables such as Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Michael Jordan, the Beatles and seven U.S. Presidents. It was also a second home to my one-time boss, ad genius Leo Burnett.

Post college I toiled for Leo for a decade. Intense meetings often rolled down the street after 6pm and continued at the ‘Codder’ and usually ended as the doors closed at midnight.

In 1974 I accepted a position as Director of Marketing for Ralston Purina, a Burnett client, with blessings from Leo.

I moved to St. Louis but found myself back for two days every other week. I always stayed at the Drake and was considered family in the Cape Cod Room.

While in Chicago on June 24, 1984 my life changed forever.

I had an early dinner alone and remember going to the bar for a nightcap before retiring to my room. My recollections are vague from that point on. I often have to catch myself from adding details to my storyline that I can’t quite separate from a dream. The one certainty is that I was found in my darkened hotel room barely clinging to life. I was in excruciating pain and had been bound with duct tape. I desperately didn’t want to die. I had been perspiring profusely and in a pool of blood. Somehow I managed to slip one sweaty hand free to slide my blinking telephone to the ground, dislodging its receiver. Did I plead for help or pass out? I don’t know.

Five days later I awoke in the intensive care unit of Northwestern University Hospital (ironically my alma mater) and was greeted by frightened stares from my wife, my twelve year old son, doctors, nurses and a pair of uniformed police officers. Claustrophobia enveloped me. In addition to people there were noises, wires, monitors and tubes extending from a half-dozen bags of fluid and into my body.

I said nothing. My wife and and son, in tears, drew close telling me they loved me and that I was going to pull through. All I recall was thinking — this is what it’s like to be shot. I was wrong.

“Mr. Carlisle, try not to move and keep as silent as possible,” a doctor said to me. “You were kidnapped by a ruthless gang who drugged you with chloroform and harvested your left kidney.”

I didn’t want to lift a finger. I wanted pain medication. I wanted to sleep. I remained at Northwestern for another two months with my emotional state shifting between unstoppable tears and an overjoyed reality that I was still alive. Every day I would look into a mirror and see my bloated face slowly begin to return to normal bit by bit. My physical therapy provided a constant source of progress and pride. I took four hours of a pounding workout seven days a week. Even with daily sessions of work with brilliant psychologists, my mental state has never returned to anything close to normal. I’m terrified of hotels and now, paranoid, carry a fully loaded 38 Special with me at all times, even by my bedside.

In 1984 there were few cameras in hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators or hallways. Protecting my remaining kidney forced me to give up alcohol and live on a boring macrobiotic diet. Long ago I settled my lawsuit with the owners of The Drake with a nondisclosure agreement so money will never be an issue. It still doesn’t make me close to whole.

Funny thing…the Chicago Police Department, which was getting nowhere with the case, had a breakthrough. In 2007 DNA evidence led them to the the leader of the gang. His name was Leslie Schorr and he had died in Chico State Prison, killed by inmates. There were no tears from me.

Funny thing – my gallows humor has me wondering who has my kidney. I’d like to meet that man or woman and get his or her side of the story.

After a lifetime in broadcasting sales and production, I found a love of writing at the IRP thanks to the support of my coordinators and classmates.

 

 

8.28.63

by Tom Ashley

“What are you doing?” inquired Edward “Ted” Lewis, the crusty and revered columnist and chief of the Washington Bureau of the New York Daily News. “I’m researching stories for McGowan and Van Den Heuvel,” I said as I plowed through a pile of AP and UPI clippings stacked on my desk. It was one of my duties as the go-fer for the then two million daily readers of New York’s ‘Hometown Newspaper.’

Lewis looked at me and barked, “You’re coming with me to hear Dr. King speak.” We made our way on foot to the Lincoln Memorial from the National Press Building. My eyes widened. Standing in the sweltering 90 degree heat, I saw massive poverty on a level I’d never witnessed before. Eschewing our press passes, we stood among the throng. As speaker after speaker cried out for justice. I saw an old man in patched overalls and a beat up straw hat, barefoot – standing but a foot away. It shocked me as I witnessed hundreds more in tattered clothing standing and cheering.

In my hometown of Detroit in 1963 there was zero unemployment, and I thought that my hometown represented a happy lifestyle for all. I’d worked alongside many apparently satisfied blacks in my father’s commercial laundry business. Blacks were always welcomed in our home at Christmas and 4th of July parties. I’d failed to recognize the absence of blacks in my neighborhood, my school – my whole environ.

As Dr. King referenced the hundredth anniversary of The Emancipation Proclamation in his “I Have a Dream” speech, I glanced over at Ted Lewis, the embodiment of the tough-as-nails, hard- nosed-right –down-to-the Lucky-Strike- dangling-from-his-lips reporter, weeping.

Shaken, we walked back to our office in silence. We’ve all heard King’s indelible words repeated many times since that day, but all I see in my mind’s eye is that poor, poor man, having made his way to our nation’s Capitol, standing in his bare feet, seeking justice.


After a lifetime in broadcasting sales and production, I found a love of writing at the IRP thanks to the support of my coordinators and classmates.

 

Uber, Juno and Me

by Sharon Lewin

I was full of regret about my decision to have foot surgery last March. I had pain for many months afterward and could walk only short distances. We had recently moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan but all my activities—orthopedic surgeon, classes, dentist, friends, hairdresser—were in Manhattan. Taking the subway was out of the question.

I started taking Ubers. Mostly, I took Juno, a popular ride-share company based in Brooklyn, but people are less acquainted with Juno. I use the term “Uber” generically because Uber seems to have become the Kleenex or the Xerox of car services.

I learned a little about the ride-sharing business. Juno drivers are mostly happier than Uber drivers because:

  1. Juno pays them more per ride.
  2. Juno gives them a free Samsung cell phone their first day on the job.

I had never seen cell phones as big as these Samsungs. They appear to be a hybrid of a cell phone and an Imax.

However, Juno drivers are almost all Uber drivers too because Uber has the most riders. One driver told me Uber takes 30% of every ride. Juno used to take only 10% of every ride but raised their cut to 16%. Uber also makes the drivers provide their own cell phones. After each Juno ride, I receive a message from the driver saying, “I made $3.08 more driving for Juno than I would have driving for another company.” Obviously, it’s not always $3.08. The amount varies commensurate with the fare.

I found that most drivers had two cell phones. I would hear, “Police activity ahead.” Then on instant replay, “Police activity ahead.” Also, “Red-light camera ahead red-light camera ahead.” Sometimes drivers had both cell phones mounted on their dashboards but I began to notice that some had one phone mounted and the other in their laps. Not uncommonly, they were looking down at the phones in their laps which made me concerned they were texting. I would ask, “You’re not texting, are you?” Not a single driver admitted to texting.

My younger son lives in Crown Heights and likes to walk. He works in Manhattan on the very far west side. He has walked the Great Saunter four times, an organized but poorly publicized 32-mile walk circumnavigating Manhattan, sponsored by a group called Shore Walkers. Their web site calls their annual event an “epic urban hike.” The walk takes about twelve hours, after which you receive a paper certificate of completion and four Advil.

This son will often walk home from work across the 59th Street Bridge into Queens and then down into Brooklyn. Or he walks across the Manhattan Bridge. The distance from his job to his home, according to Google Maps, is nine miles with a walking time of three hours. As I said, he likes to walk. I, who could at that time not contemplate more than twenty careful steps, felt jealous.

In the course of taking frequent rides with Uber and Juno, I found myself engaging in conversation with my drivers. If my driver was voluble, the conversation flowed smoothly. If the driver was sullen, I was prepared to put in the work to extract information.

When Uber upgrades me to a better vehicle (at no charge to me, they like to point out), the app tells me so. Juno does not let me know ahead of time. This particular Thursday, I ordered a Juno, expecting a Toyota Camry. So, imagine my surprise when a huge, white, luxury SUV rolled up Fulton Street. I needed a footstool to climb into the car. The SUV was eclectically decorated. To start, the back window was painted with bold white Arabic calligraphy in large letters. Inside the car, the front bucket seats were covered in fitted, quilted camouflage fabric with a cut-out for access to the seat adjustment levers. There were two bucket seats in the back as well, one in which I was comfortably seated. These were covered in poufy, tufted black synthetic leather. Behind the back seats was a bench seat and behind the bench seat was a vertical string of blue lights, insouciantly hung on the inside of the calligraphied window.

The driver, a young man, had two hairstyles: lower and upper. The bottom half was shaved. The top half was poufy, similar to the tufted back seats. An elastic black hairband, the kind women used to pull their hair back to wash off their make-up, separated the hemispheres. He was wearing a tunic which is known as a thawb or dishdahsa.

I asked him what the writing on the back window meant. He answered, “God is Great.” For most people, that might have been a conversation stopper, particularly if you believe, as I do, that if there is a God, she’s a woman.

I plowed ahead, undaunted. I told him his car was very beautiful and asked if it was his. He said, tersely, it was. I asked him if he was proud of his car. He didn’t answer. I asked if he just drove for Juno or for other companies and he said, “Juno and Uber.” I pressed on. “Is driving your only job or do you other work?” He said, “I work with my father.” I would have liked to know what work he did. I imagined it was a family business, perhaps manufacturing padded camouflage seat covers.

One steamy summer night I took an Uber home from the upper east side of Manhattan. The driver, age 50 he told me, was friendly and open. He said Uber does not treat drivers fairly. He was a big fan of Juno because the company vets drivers carefully and only hires those with an excellent driving record. He was a divorced father of two teenagers and had been a teacher but driving made him more money than teaching had. He was working 16 hours a day to help support his kids. The driver told me he lived in Harlem. Sometimes he would be unable to find parking near his home when he was done for the night, so he would sleep in his car. When he awoke, he would just start driving again.

One night after driving for many hours, he needed some exercise. He walked into Morningside Park where he saw a strange animal he described as a cross between a fox and a raccoon. The animal stopped and stared at him, so he stared back. As he recounted this, we were crossing the Manhattan Bridge but he called it the Brooklyn Bridge. I knew it wasn’t, because the subway runs across the Manhattan Bridge, but I felt it would be wrong to correct such an exhausted person.

For the rider, there is a bait-and-switch aspect to both Uber and Juno. The original interface on the app always shows tiny cars congregated around your pick-up location, instilling deep optimism that a car is nearby. But as soon as you commit to your ride, the tiny cars dissipate and the app tells you, “We’re looking for your driver.” Time passes, sometimes minutes, then the app says, “We’ve found your ride.” The driver is often “just completing a ride” and is only 13 minutes away. I don’t understand where all the tiny cars went.

During my months of pain, I looked forward to being able to resume subway travel. The subway is fraught with crowds, train delays, exceptionally boring and redundant advertising and freezing air-conditioned cars. But it’s inexpensive and fast. Actually, it’s only fast sometimes. My least favorite aspect of riding the subway is people who board the train to perform. One day a performer sang the alphabet. Four times. Off key. I don’t mind performers in the station because I can listen or not, but on the train, it’s intrusive. Many performers appear to be religious. They say, “God bless” or, “Have a blessed day.”

In 2018 there were many articles about the hardships of New York City cab drivers since the advent of ride-sharing. I worried about the taxi drivers who were struggling to survive the competition. I told an Uber driver my concern and he said, “Taxi drivers aren’t nice, the way I am.” He said, “Don’t worry.”

I wanted to support taxi drivers, so when I was traveling within Manhattan, I tried to take cabs. One taxi driver complained that Uber drivers don’t have to pass all the tests he had to pass. Then he asked, “Why are you going to 57th and 12th?” I said I was going to a movie theater. He said, “There’s no movie theater there.” An argument was narrowly averted because we pulled up to The Landmark right as things could have gotten ugly. While I was paying, the cabbie said he had not seen a movie in 20 years but he heard Beirut was a very good movie and advised me to see it.

All those months when I was riding in an Uber, Juno or taxi, I would look longingly out the car window and see so many people effortlessly moving their upright bodies through the city. Some were strolling, some were walking with great purpose, some were carrying parcels, and most were wearing headphones. They made it look so easy.

Now that I have been able to resume subway riding, I miss my conversations with my drivers. Happily, I can walk several miles a day, although I’m not quite ready for the great Saunter this May. But when I’m returning to Brooklyn, tired, after a late evening in Manhattan, I feel torn. Should I just walk to the subway station? Most of these nights, I pull out my phone and order an Uber. Or a Juno. I can ask the driver a few questions. Perhaps I’ll get some answers.

 

Sharon was an internal medicine and infectious diseases doctor, first in Greenwich Village for five years and then on the Upper West Side for thirty more. She retired two years ago and was determined to join the IRP, take piano lessons, exercise every day and write. She has accomplished the first. This essay was inspired by the ride-share drivers who were generous enough to engage with her in conversation.

 

Shaggy Dog

by Lisa Cristal

So I’m on the plane sitting in my aisle seat. I look over to my left and see a big fluffy collie in the middle seat and an older man by the window petting the dog.  The man notices me staring and says, “Yup, it really is. I need to straighten out a couple of things with the stewardess.  Do you mind watching her for a few minutes?”

“No problem,” I say.  I’m so excited to be near Lassie, and, as if she senses that, she nuzzles my arm.

I hear a voice say, “It’s nice to be sitting by such a big fan.” I look around, startled, and then hear, “Yes, it is me. I can talk to humans if I want, but don’t want my trainer to know. If he found out, next thing you know the scientists would lock me away for testing. Besides, I like to make my trainer feel like he is accomplishing something. Sometimes I pretend to be confused and then successfully complete the requested task. It helps his self-esteem.”

“Wow! I have two dogs myself.”

“I could tell you were a dog lover.  That’s why I decided to talk to you.”

“So tell me about your job. Do you like what you do?”

“As with any actor, the perks are great. But sometimes I wish I could show my acting range.  I mean, how many times can I rescue members of my family?”

“Of course,” I murmur sympathetically.

“Honestly,” Lassie said, “if it were up to me I would have left Timmy in the well.  What a brat!”

I responded,  “Timmy is totally annoying. But if he didn’t have so many issues, I guess you wouldn’t have your rescue moment on the show….I guess you know a lot of movie stars.  Have you become close to anyone?” If Lassie were a human, I would have sworn her eyes darkened.

“I guess you are referring to my early starlet days with Rin-Tin-Tin. Sure he was a lot older, but I loved him. But you know how it works, I became more successful and he couldn’t handle it. Can you keep a secret?”

I nodded.

“We did have a litter together.  Our trainers hid it from the world.  It was hard, but I know the pups went to good homes. In fact some of them also are in movies.  They aren’t pure breeds, so they will never be stars like their parents, but they make a good living.  You’ve probably seen some of them in Westerns,  resting with cowboys by the fire or doing stunts.”

As I opened my mouth to ask another question, Lassie’s trainer returned and silence ensued.

You know, my shrink told me to stop telling this story, but I thought one last time couldn’t hurt.

 

Lisa Cristal, an author of factual legal treatises, decided to try her hand at fiction though IRP’s Writers Workshop class. Thanks to the members of the class for their unflagging support

First Flight

by Carol Grant

In the early 60s, my closest friend Lynn and I decided to take our first vacation as independent adults. We had just completed our first year of employment..she as a physical therapist and I as a graduate nurse and we had managed to save a small amount out of our meager salaries. Lynn’s parents had just returned from a trip to Mexico and they told us how reasonable everything was and encouraged us to go. They made it even more enticing by describing their itinerary. It all sounded so simple: a direct flight via Air Canada to Mexico City where they recommended their hotel and the city sights to explore and then on by bus to Taxco, San Miguel de Allende and Acapulco.

We decided to purchase our tickets and then shopped for our travel outfits. We bought  new summery dresses with pinched waists and very full skirts, cute pillbox hats (inspired by Jackie Kennedy, of course), white gloves, handbags and very high heels. Those were the days when people really dressed up to travel by air! I seem to recall that we both dared to buy our first bikini bathing suits as well!

Oh yes, did I mention that this was a first flight for both of us? We were both extremely nervous but we tried to look very worldly and sophisticated as we climbed the exterior steps of the small “prop” plane in our wobbly high heels. We tried to appear nonchalant as the small plane began to roar down the runway and seemed to take a lifetime before it actually rose above the ground. I was amazed and enthralled as I looked out of the window to see my city below. I glanced at Lynn and  to my shock realized that she was perspiring profusely and her face had a distinctive green hue. I then remembered that Lynn had always suffered from car sickness and was in distress as the plane wove and slanted as it climbed and turned south. I grabbed the small paper sac from the pocket in front of me just in time and Lynn was very discreet in her misery. Gradually, when the plane reached its desired speed and altitude, Lynn’s normal color returned, and we both calmed down and chatted about our upcoming adventures.

To our mutual dismay, after a smooth flight of several hours, the plane started to vibrate, the engine seemed to stop and then restart again and we seemed to be rising and falling in the sky. Everyone in the cabin, including the two stewardesses (before the days of “flight attendants”), looked very concerned and frightened. I admit that even my sturdy stomach became queasy and my mouth became very dry. After about 10 endless minutes, the pilot announced that there was engine trouble and that we would be making an unexpected landing in the Mexican town of Tampico located on the Gulf of Mexico!

The plane sputtered , shook and  groaned as it gradually descended. We were instructed to bend our heads down onto our laps.  We were all shocked by the loud sound the plane made just before the landing gear was released and then the wheels actually touched down on the tarmac.  The pilot immediately pressed on the brakes and the plane came to a very abrupt stop. Our plane had landed! Needless to say, there was a spontaneous cheer and many people uttered “Thank You, God” or “Gracias, Deo.”

When the stewardess opened the door, we were literally hit by a sensation of being on a different planet as the heat and humidity was like a moist barrier that we had never experienced. We were helped down the stairs and led into a very small one story building which had a large picture window,  one small unoccupied desk, a single restroom, a large ceiling fan revolving slowly  and several old metal chairs scattered around the room. There was no air conditioning and the heat was stifling. This apparently was Tampico’s very local Airport Terminal!

Within ten minutes after our arrival, there were at least fifty people, including adults and children who were outside the dirt streaked window and peering in to get a glimpse of the extraterrestrial beings who had just arrived from outer space! Thus began our first evening in Mexico.

The four Air Canada employees (two stewardesses and two pilots) tried to reassure us as they were attempting to converse with the local authorities and airport employees. They told us they were trying to reach their Air Canada supervisors to get instructions, but the telephone connections were very limited. They did learn that there were no local airline mechanics nor spare parts available. It would be a very long evening…

As the sky darkened, the parade of  window gawkers gradually dwindled and we surmised that  probably most of the town had paid us a visit. However, it seemed to us that they had been replaced by men of all ages who surveyed us with leers, hand gestures and comments that we could not hear or translate, but seemed threatening. The prospect of spending the night in this suffocating room was alarming.

Finally, the Air Canada pilots informed us that we were going to be saved! An AeroMexico plane on its way from Mexico City would pick us up and return us to the city before dawn. We were all very relieved until an old graffiti-decorated plane careened recklessly down the runway and stopped in front of the  building with a shudder. The “crew” descended and entered the waiting room. The two pilots were dressed in old jeans with stained T shirts and wore cowboy boots and sombreros! The two women who accompanied them were large, buxom females with dyed-blonde hair who wore mini skirts, tops cut off to expose their midriffs, and stiletto heels. This motley foursome was to be our saviors?

The four pilots attempted to communicate, but appeared to be floundering until one of our passengers who was bilingual came to their aid. It was announced that the Mexican crew would be going into town to have dinner while our luggage was transferred to their plane. We all felt helpless by this point but really had no choice…stay in Tampico for the night or risk our lives flying with the “cowboys”? No one could say when the Air Canada plane would be viable again so there really was no choice except to board the rickety old relic which awaited us.

After about two hours, our Mexican “saviors“ returned, laughing and obviously well lubricated! We reluctantly boarded their “spaceship” which was even worse on the interior. Seats were broken, litter was everywhere, empty bottles were strewn under the seats and in the aisles and the rank smell was overwhelming. The two “cowgirls” were no help so we grabbed the least stained seats we could find and soon discovered that even the seatbelts were  broken. The take-off was very loud and shaky but we were finally aloft. Of course, flying in total darkness was another new experience for us and I know that I prayed the whole flight. Meanwhile, the two Mexican women spent most of their time going in and out of the cockpit from which we heard much laughter.

The crowning event of that flight was the serving of refreshments to the passengers. The women came down the aisle, which was already littered with debris, holding metal trays filled with tall bottles of Mexican BEER! One of the women tripped on the torn carpet almost beside us and the whole tray crashed to the floor. The beer splashed us and the odor wafted throughout the plane. I joined Lynn, who was already making use of one of the brown paper bags she had found on the seats. The other woman hastily went to the restroom and came back with a roll of toilet paper, which she didn’t offer to us but unwound up and down the aisle’s stained, torn and soggy carpet!

We actually landed smoothly at the Mexico City airport just as dawn was breaking over the city. Our taxi driver must have wondered how these two disheveled young women dressed to impress, but reeking of perspiration, beer and vomit, ended up arriving at the airport at 5am on an antique Mexican plane.

The rest of the trip exceeded our expectations and our Air Canada flight home was smooth and uneventful.

The following year Lynn and Iwent to Jamaica, but that is another story…

 

This essay was stimulated by the topic, prompts and support given to the study group “Guided Autobiography”  by coordinator David Grogan  in the Spring 2019 session. Thanks also to my co-students in the group who listen attentively and support me in my writing efforts.

 

90th and Broadway

by Lorne Taichman

I don’t know his name. He opened a fruit and vegetable stand on the corner of 90th and Broadway about the same time we moved into the neighborhood, about a dozen years ago. We made the mistake of befriending him right at the outset, saying hello, warm greetings and so on. He always responded in kind, acknowledging us with a quirky little head tilt. It did not take long for our greeting to turn into an expectation on his part and some guilt on ours that we would purchase fruit or vegetables from him. I say it was a mistake because we soon realized that the produce he sold was of very poor quality. For example, once he convinced me to buy a package of figs: “Fresh. Very fresh. Six. Only two dollars.” Five of the six were inedible. Yet every time Ettie and I passed without stopping to purchase anything, he looked at us accusingly. Ettie is convinced he examines our parcels from Barzini, the grocery store on the other side of Broadway, looking for evidence of betrayal. I would often place items he doesn’t sell, such as milk or eggs, at the top of our parcels to throw him off the scent. Sometimes I would walk an extra block so as to enter our building from the 89th Street entrance where he could not see us at all. My most frequent ploy was to walk along the opposite side of 90th Street hoping the parked cars would conceal my passage from his view.

Nevertheless, that little fruit and vegetable stand supports an entire family. There is a wife, a large heavy woman with rough features and a fierce look in her eyes. Her face gives no hint of past youth. She is undoubtedly far younger than her appearance would suggest. She wears a headscarf and all is covered but her face. I can’t help it, but when she is sitting, resting alongside the stand, my gaze automatically zeros in on her two thick, meaty thighs straining against a dark, heavy skirt. I have never seen her speak a word to or exchange a glance with her husband. There is also a grandfather, an elderly gentleman with a rather kindly look. He knows how to say numbers and to make change, but he has never uttered any other word. And there is a son, a young teenager with alert eyes and a warm open smile. Often, all the family is present, standing idly awaiting the next customer. They are closely tuned to each other’s movements: when the father moves a few apples higher in the stack, the wife follows by shifting a few other apples sideways along the row followed closely by the grandfather transferring still a few other apples slightly lower. I suspect it is a very tight knit family that provides critical emotional support to one another in what must be a very strange land indeed.

What strikes Ettie and me is that, although we see and greet the owner every day, we know nothing about him: we don’t know his origins, his customs, his thoughts, even, as I said at the outset, his name. I often wonder what he sees, what judgments he makes about our behavior and ethics. In the summer when young women walk about in tight fitting, revealing clothes, what goes through his mind? Does he know we are Jews?

Like many Jews, Ettie and I often wonder, in a playful sort of way, who would save us when the Nazis return. It is a game we play to help us take measure of the inner core of a person’s character. We both agree that we would not be able to count on the corner fruit and vegetable man to shelter us. Perhaps he plays the same game and wonders if, in this angry land, we will save him. Probably not.

I suspect the gulf between us is larger than a language barrier. Our worlds are so different we likely have no basis for exchange. In truth, I am somewhat relieved that I cannot know his thoughts, for fear there would be views I would find disturbing. Perhaps he feels the same way about me. I wish him well but the distance between us is immense, even though he is right at the corner.

In winter he closes shop. He tells me it is too cold to stay in New York and goes back home. It is a relief when he is gone. I can now stride guilt-free across the corner of 90th and Broadway carrying my Barzini parcels with the fruit and vegetables sticking out at the top. Our salads definitely improve.

 

This essay was written as an exercise for the Guided Autobiography Class. Lorne Taichman was a physician-scientist. Writing has opened a whole new world for him. 

Loti

by Carmen Mason

Miss Benita Kroll, an early survivor of the raging blows from an initially beguiling but soon thankless husband, taught fourth grade at Boothbay Elementary her whole life. Her mother, Emerald Baxter (jewel-named but quite plain) begged her to flee to a new town, but she decided to stay put.

Never to be fooled by appearances again, Miss Kroll sized up her students in about five days: who the sheep, who the sheepdogs, who the wolves and who the stallion (never more than one) to finally reveal itself and canter deftly through, with grace and restraint to June.

At first Miss Kroll thought Loti sheep-like, unassuming, somewhat withdrawn or perhaps just reticent, like one with a secret treasured rather than shameful. She was skinny and wore home-made dresses (Miss Kroll could tell by the original styles, unusual fabrics and buttons and hand-stitched hems) and her brown hair was long and loose and looked home-cut, probably with a kitchen scissor or a razor. She was alert, articulate when called upon and she wrote about books and dreams, beetles and mica schist, and  solitary walks through the oval gardens near her project (the only one in Boothbay). And Freddy and Peter, the two most handsome boys (one a wolf, the other a sheepdog) were in love with her, probably because she was feminine and gentle-voiced yet rode her bike to school, played all the rough games (but as if she were all alone in them), her knees forever bandaged or scabbed over. Her eyes were hazel-green and they looked long and deep at things but not, Miss Kroll incorrectly assessed, at people.

What convinced Miss Kroll that Loti was the stallion – the one whose promise would flower by Spring if not sooner- was the prescient and life-changing act Loti performed one day while on a school trip to the zoo.

As Miss Kroll and her class wandered past the caged lions, pacing and listing back and forth, back and forth, Loti didn’t stop, taunt, laugh or throw peanuts at them as her class mates were doing, smug in their safe, railed off distance. Instead she waved regretfully at the lions, then walked quickly ahead, noticing the rare chipmunks and the bright colored birds flying free. Then, while she still heard her teacher’s calm yet stern reprimands to the class, Loti heard another voice, a loud and piercing harangue and looked ahead to a small bridge arched across a stagnant stream leading to the aviary. A towering woman, arms flailing, was glaring down at a small girl in a stroller. The child, chocolate ice cream dribbling down her chin onto her bright pink sweater, her hands dripping, her ice cream cone now smashed on the overpass, looked up, her face looking lost and afraid. A sweet small child, Loti uttered inside.  Lost and afraid.

“I told you, I told you but do you ever listen?” the woman railed at the child. Then she bent down and unhooked her brown high-wedged shoe. “I’ll teach you, I’ll teach you to listen…” and she drew the shoe high up over the child.

“Oh no, oh no, you’ll stop that at once,” Loti yelled. “No way will you touch her, no way!” Then she leaped into the air and grabbed the poor shoe, then threw it far into the stream.

Miss Kroll and the classmates now surrounded this scene, but not one word or gasp could be heard. The teacher stood ready. The children stood awe-struck. The child in the stroller gently sobbed. Then the shocked woman limped to the bridge’s edge, looked toward the lost shoe, then back at the shocked girl, both seemingly aghast at what they had done. Then the woman returned and bent slowly down to the small child, now silent and still.

The speechless class crossed the bridge lead by their teacher and Loti joined them. But only a minute passed before the woman rose and turning toward them all, called out loud and clear as they receded, “I’m sorry, damn sorry. I won’t ever do that again. Don’t know what got into me – I’m so, so sorry.”

Whether Loti held memories, treasured or shameful, Miss Kroll never learned.  But she knew she’d found her stallion early that year.

 

I have always written poetry and prose as meditation and to make some sense of things.
They are a way to duel and dance with love and fear, joy and discovery.