Thursday, June 28, 2012

Moving Out

To my readers (you know who you are),

I'm going to be shutting things down here for the indefinite future, but fear not! I will be writing the same sorts of things (i.e. whatever I feel like writing about) over at the Albany Times Union and you are welcome (and encouraged) to read my blog there.

Not much more to say except: Who needs a house out in Hackensack?

I'll catch you on the other side.


Monday, June 25, 2012


When I was a kid, the big unspoken secret in my building was that you and a neighbor could talk to each other on the building’s intercom, thus saving the trouble (and expense) of actually using the telephone. Every now and then, I would simply press the “Listen” button on the intercom in our apartment and more often than not would catch a conversation between two of my neighbors already in progress. You’d think that this would be exciting for someone like me, who thrilled at any type of eavesdropping, but of course it was always the most mundane type of conversation that two old ladies might have on a building’s intercom system.

There was a couple in the building, friends with my mother and stepfather, who had no children (this was always remarked upon by my mother), but had a pet rabbit named “Blondie” who roamed their apartment like a cat, but was, as rabbits are, skittish and unfriendly. The man was a sometime musician and apparently had played with the band The Left Banke whose one hit was “Walk Away Renee” in 1966. My mother had a habit of befriending minor musicians.

When I was in eighth grade, we moved to a building that was much smaller, and I got to know our neighbors pretty well. There is so much to say about our next door neighbor “Lacy” (name changed for no good reason) that I’m afraid I will never do her justice. First off, rumor had it that her family was connected to the mob in some way, which is the vague way everyone refers to this kind of thing. Second of all, she had a sometime job as the receptionist at an auto body shop, but for the most part her job was dating numerous men, some married, some not, who made sure she lived a fairly nice life. She was a little bit older than my mother and her daughter was a little bit older than me. Somehow we all became friends.

When Lacy was getting ready to go out, and her own daughter was not home, she would call me on the phone to help her zip her jeans. And I’d step out of our apartment and go next door to hers, where the door would be left open for me. She would be lying on her back in her bed (which was actually a fold-out couch in the living room) with her jeans on but unzipped. It always looked like an impossible job. There was her slightly round belly and the open zipper of her jeans that somehow had to get closed. She would have a pair of pliers nearby and it was my job to use the pliers to zip her jeans up while she sucked in her belly as much as she could. Somehow it always worked. There were times when I would stay and watch her put on her makeup, which she did at her dining room table, and took at least an hour. You knew she was finally done when she would paint on the tiny black beauty mark on her cheek. If her hands were completely occupied, she’d ask me to light a cigarette for her. I was twelve years old.

I used to spend hours and hours at Lacy’s apartment even though I found her daughter totally boring. She wasn’t the brightest of kids and she didn’t have much of an understanding of what was going on in her mother’s life. Most of the time Lacy spent lying in bed, smoking and talking on the phone, surrounded by her three adoring cats. She would usually be wearing some sort of negligee, no matter what time of day it was. At some point, she had her apartment completely redone and many of the walls had been turned into floor-to-ceiling mirrors. She would talk to you while watching herself in the mirror.

I don’t remember the last time I saw Lacy, but I think it was when I was in college. Apparently one final gesture of her richest and oldest boyfriend was to buy her a condo in Florida and off she went. It is so easy to picture her now, sitting on a lounge chair at some pool, talking on the phone and smoking, her overly tan skin nearly matching the orangey foundation she used copiously on her face. I totally admired Lacy when I was younger. I hope she still paints on that beauty mark.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Special Request Show

The content of this post is based on random requests, which of course means I have to dedicate it to my former college radio show co-host and great friend SZ, who, if you know her, you pretty much also know that your goal in life is to write or say something funny just to hear her marvelous laugh.

I might as well start out with candy. Some of the candy we ate as kids was straight up disgusting. Remember those wax bottles full of colored liquid? And wax lips, which you could eat? Maybe? And pixie sticks, which was just colored sugar in a straw that you could pour into your mouth and something my friend brought in her lunch every single day, which made me jealous beyond belief. And naturally this leads me to circus peanuts, which no one has actually ever tasted, since they have no taste, but everyone can tell you they have the exact texture of Styrofoam. I knew they were orange, of course, but I discovered, after doing a little research, that they are considered “marshmallow candy.” Also this: “In 1963, General Mills vice president John Holahan inventively discovered that Circus Peanuts shavings yielded a tasty enhancement to his breakfast cereal.” I like to picture the steps that led to this inventive discovery.

Speaking of inventive discoveries, let’s move on to the Manson Family, which I never found as interesting as most people did, even though you’d think I would if you know me at all. But due to my fascination with the American presidents I am somewhat interested in Squeaky Fromme who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. Though to be honest, I’d rather write about the assassination attempt on Ford’s life just three weeks later by Sara Jane Moore (not of the Manson Family). And that story is particularly interesting because of Oliver Sipple, the ex-Marine who saved Ford’s life and whose own life changed overnight when he became a hero. Sipple was active in San Francisco’s gay community, but had not come out to his family or his employer. Gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, who knew Sipple, allegedly said that this would be a great opportunity to show that gay people could be heroes. I mean, who could blame him. Sipple asked the press not to mention that he was gay, but the San Francisco Chronicle reported it anyway. Sipple was then hounded by the media and Sipple’s parents back in Detroit were harassed by their neighbors and soon became estranged from their son. Sipple tried to sue the Chronicle for invasion of privacy, but the case was dismissed in 1984. Sipple’s health deteriorated due in part from the PTSD (or “shell shock” as it was known then) he suffered in Vietnam, and he ultimately died of pneumonia in 1989, at the age of 47. For me, this case brings up a whole bunch of interesting issues, including what happens to people who get instant fame (Sipple admitted a number of times of how he was sorry he grabbed Moore’s arm as she fired the gun meant for Gerald Ford, who notably did not invite Sipple to the White House, but rather sent him a short thank-you letter) and what constitutes the private details of a person’s life when he or she becomes a public news story.

But where was I? Oh right, Charles Manson. I only recently learned that the Beach Boys recorded one of Manson's songs, which appeared on the B-side of their 20/20 album. Manson really believed that he had a musical career in his future and was deeply disappointed when it did not pan out.

Which leads me right to The Clash. Back while we were waiting for the Internet to be invented, my friend Christina found a book in the library that actually included the lyrics to all of The Clash’s songs. She had made us both xeroxed copies of the lyrics and we pored over these pages together as though we were reading treasure maps. “Ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl!” we shouted. Slowly all the mysteries were being revealed. We had, together and on our own, watched the movie “Rude Boy” probably a dozen times, with our favorite scene being the one in which Joe Strummer washes his t-shirt in a hotel room rink. It’s not a good movie, by any means, except for the concert footage, but if you were a girl of a certain age it could certainly make you all swoony. I should admit here that the first Clash album I bought was “Combat Rock.” People, I had no idea.

(Brief interlude while I listen to the song “Jimmy Jazz” which is decidedly not off that album.)

Here is probably all you need to know about unicorns: “The famous traveler, Marco Polo, agreed the unicorn was only tamable by maidens, but when he wrote about the unicorn he'd been shown, he described it like this: ‘Scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead. They have a head like a wild boar's. They spend their time wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at.’ It has since been realized Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros.”

Here is a picture of a double rainbow that I took last month. Pretty.

Speaking of rainbows, take note that vintage “Mork and Mindy” rainbow suspenders are available on ebay, which is something of a relief.

Which, oddly enough, leads me to when and how kids grow out of their meanness, and unfortunately I have no answer for this at all. And I'd like to take this opportunity to forgive a certain boy who teased me for, of all things, being flat chested (I was freaking 12 years old in eighth grade!) who when I reminded him recently of this had no memory of it at all.

Good night!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Rules Are There Ain't No Rules

“Is that all it takes, 15 minutes?”

That line from the movie Grease was one of many that would perplex me for years. I was 8 years old when the film first came out and like every single person I knew I was going to the theater and seeing that movie over and over again and yet the sexual innuendo throughout was so over my head that huge chunks of dialogue would just fly by without my even knowing. And yet nothing could stop me. The impact of that film on my life cannot be underestimated. Sometime over the course of my obsession, I begged my mother to buy me the “fotonovel” of Grease, which was like a comic book that used stills from the movie, and until it actually arrived in the mail I truly had nightmares that it would arrive damaged in some way.

Though if you were around when that movie came out, you’d have to agree that its impact was a collective one. You couldn’t go anywhere that summer without encountering a group of kids with their arms around each other singing “We Go Together.” My friends and I acted out scenes from the movie with our Barbie dolls. If you did not know the lyrics to every single song, even the one that Stockard Channing sings towards the end of the movie, you were something of a loser.

But what exactly were we getting out of Grease? If for whatever reason you never saw the movie (loser), here’s the plot: It’s the 1950s. Danny and Sandy meet on some California beach the summer before senior year of high school, they fall in love, she tells him she has to go back to Australia, but then on the first day of school, there she is. Danny is a greaser and Sandy is hopelessly devoted to him, but also totally uncool, despite hanging around with the Pink Ladies, a group of sometimes mean girls, who, if you look closely, are all about 30 years old. After a whole bunch of misunderstandings at a drive-in, the school dance, a car race, Sandy proves she truly loves Danny by wearing a skintight black leather jumpsuit and high heels. Everyone sings “We Go Together” and Sandy and Danny drive off into the sky.

What I’m leaving out here is all the singing and dancing everyone was always doing in the 1950s! This is what made the movie such a hit, of course. Who could forget the song “Greased Lightning” with the line: “You know that I ain’t bragging, she’s a real pussy wagon.” Or even better: “The chicks’ll cream for greased lightning.” I remember singing along to these lyrics as a child, totally clueless. From this movie I learned the terms “knocked up” and what it means to “put out,” though I’m not sure I entirely got the context of either. I noticed, bewildered, that adults in the audience laughed every single time Marty said her last name was Maraschino: "You know, as in cherry."

And yet it was that singing and dancing that kept bringing us back. I recall one time seeing the movie with my mother and some of my friends, walking out of the theater, and then simply turning around and walking right back in to see it again. No one’s parents had any objection to this movie, clearly, though I was not allowed to see Saturday Night Fever, even when the PG version of it was released. The curious message of the ending, when Sandy dresses like a slut (I’m using this word with all due respect) in order to win the man of her dreams, was never questioned. In fact, I seriously imagined that I would be wearing that exact outfit someday since that was clearly the ideal of womanhood. Our John Travolta-loving parents brought us to this movie over and over again. Do you see what I’m getting at? There is something so hilariously innocent and also disturbing about this, which is probably a good way to define the late 1970s, if you think about it. And jeez, maybe it's time I got that leather jumpsuit already.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Smoking: True Confessions

All right, let me just say this up front. I have a very complicated relationship with cigarettes. It’s the sort of thing where I spent many years of my life saying how much I hated them while secretly loving them and then also plenty of time pretending to love them while secretly hating them. But the thing is, me and cigarettes, we go way back.

When I was in ninth grade, and ridiculously young I should add, my friend A. (not her real name) had already mastered the art of smoking and managed to look like she’d been doing it for years. For a couple of afternoons she had let me practice smoking for a few seconds at a time, which was enough to make me write in my diary that night, “A. let me have a drag from her cigarette today and I liked it! Am I addicted???” (content verbatim from my diary)

Though in all honesty, I could go back a lot further than that. Now I didn’t exactly grow up during the Mad Men era, but it wasn’t so far off. I remember when people could smoke cigarettes on a plane, in a restaurant, in a hospital, and, best of all, in a car with the windows rolled up (car windows actually rolled up in those days). My father and stepfather both smoked, which meant that I was never very far from secondhand smoke, and the bronchitis I suffered as a kid may have its origins there. No one really thought about that though. When I was 16 years old, I worked at David’s Cookies with an older boy who actually rolled a pack of cigarettes into the sleeve of his white t-shirt. I’m not going to say that was the only reason I had a crush on him, but it helped tremendously.

I started smoking myself, occasionally, sometime in college. During a particularly stressful and miserable time of what was in general a stressful and miserable time, I took to smoking cigarettes on the porch of the house I lived in or in my room when no one else was home. I was 19 years old and I figured that’s what you did when you were miserable.

But interestingly that was the last time I would ever associate cigarettes with anything negative. In my early 20s it became something fun to do while drinking. Also it became something absolutely necessary to do with someone else. How great it is to have something to do with your hands, people always say about smoking, and that really is part of it. Plus you can’t help loving the grown-uppy way you look knocking the ashes off casually in between drags (something my friend R., a real smoker, had to teach me so I would stop looking ridiculous).

When I was 22, I introduced my boyfriend to cigarettes and he took to it so naturally that within a week he was smoking a pack a day, a habit he kept up for many years (sorry, C!). Whereas I still managed to have the occasional cigarette and, despite my ninth-grade worries, never really got addicted at all. I knew that I was never an addict because the thought of waking up and having a cigarette was always just about the most disgusting thing I could imagine. I really only smoked when necessary and then I could go for a long while until the urge would strike. I’m not going to say all that much about having a cigarette after sex except that if you’ve ever done it then you know just how much you feel like a character in a movie while doing so.

Meanwhile, I often found that after a night of smoking too many cigarettes I would wake up with a certain heaviness in my chest that wasn’t quite pain, but wasn’t quite not pain either. I used to think, Well, this must be leftover from my bronchitis days. My body must really not like cigarettes. Well, of course not. They are disgusting. Smoking is one of the most repulsive things you can do to your body. And yet how cool and grown-up I felt every single time! Doesn’t everyone who smokes feel this way? I’m going to guess that it’s true.

And now? At the very beginning of 2011 I felt that having an occasional cigarette (which I had not done for like 15 years) was a way of celebrating my newfound freedom. By the end of 2011, when I found myself puking in a friend’s bathroom after a night of wine and cigarettes, I decided that was that. And it is, mostly, except when sometimes the idea of smoking with someone feels so thrilling that I forget that it pretty much disgusts me now. There is a strange disconnect between the thrill and the disgust that is not like anything else I’ve ever experienced. Maybe all smokers feel this way. I can’t exactly say.

All I will say is that I hope never to smoke another cigarette ever again. And that also I'm pretty sure I will.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Classic Rock Songs That I Would Never Like to Hear Again

There are tons and tons of classic rock songs out there that I should totally hate by now and yet remarkably I don’t. I mean, nobody really wants to hear Ray Manzarek play the organ one more time and yet we can all kind of sit through repeated listenings of the Doors if need be. And even “Stairway to Heaven,” in which I always find myself thinking, What will be the total number of times I will hear this song in my lifetime? and then answer: n + 1, because there will always be one more time. And yet I keep on listening because that song still works even if you are no longer a teenager whose very soul is composed of it. And even all the Stones songs they play on classic radio shows (none of which come close to my favorite Stones songs) are still quite listenable. And, of course, every single time I hear the first few guitar strums of “Maggie Mae” I am totally psyched to sing along. So if that’s the case, is there anything left? Oh yes, there is. There are some classic rock songs out there that I lost my patience with years ago. These are the songs that would be played in my own classic radio hell. I reveal them here for the first time knowing that, naturally, they will come back to haunt me.

1. Hotel California
All right, this is an easy one. Even if I hadn’t been forced to listen to it a million times in college when the boys that lived above me insisted on playing it day and night on a continuous loop, I think I would have grown to hate it anyway. What the hell is going on? You just can’t kill the beast? Come on, what are you talking about?

2. Money
Ugh. This song bewilderingly is on an album ("Dark Side of the Moon") full of dreamy swirly songs and yet it is exactly the opposite of that. It is like some kind of slap in the face. Who cares if that bass line is one of the most recognizable of all time? The song still sucks.

3. Walk this Way
I don’t have much to say about this one except that no one really likes it, right? I thought so.

4. Rock The Casbah
Okay, seriously, what is wrong with people? This is the Clash song you’d choose to play repeatedly out of all of them? Think of the worst song off their first three albums (Hmm, what would that song be? Maybe “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A”?) and it is still 1,000 times better than this one! The worst experience has to be listening to a classic rock station (in the car!) and hearing the D.J. saying, Next up, the Clash! and thinking, Please don’t let it be "Rock the Casbah"! Please don’t it be "Rock the Casbah"! and lo and behold, that’s exactly what it is.

5. Bennie and the Jets
This song is sort of exhausting, though it doesn’t become really awful until Elton John can’t stop repeating “B-b-b-bennie and the Jets” and then just “Bennie!” in that high-pitched tone that makes my head hurt just thinking of it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cause and Effect

At the very end of 1993, my boyfriend at the time and I made a list entitled “2010,” in which we predicted what the world would be like in that year. This was based on a few things, including what we expected, what we hoped would happen, and, of course, what was happening on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which pretty much informed the future for us. We did not predict jet packs, since by then everyone knew that was always going to be the pretend vision of the future, but we tried to think about what would truly be possible.

Many things were not very visionary on our part ("New York City subway system will be using farecards!") or not very well elaborated ("something will replace microwaves – instant food makers") but some of them are kind of intriguing. We predicted that Europe would be one country (not bad), but also that North America would also be one country (way off). We predicted that there would only be email, no snail mail (even though we didn’t use the term “snail mail”), and that there would be "no more video stores – all movies through cable" (kinda). There are some things on the list ("virtual reality – primitive – consumer selling, medical") that I wish we’d elaborated on and some things that I don’t quite understand ("books will be published through modem – bulletin board, etc."). The first two things on the list ("voice-activated doors, video phones") came directly from "Star Trek."

I’m thinking about this now because of a video clip I saw recently that I cannot get out of my head. One of the guests on a 1956 episode of “I've Got a Secret” was the last living eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination. He had been five years old, attending the production of Our American Cousin, when he saw John Wilkes Booth leap onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, and fall and break his leg. This man, born in 1860, lived to tell his story on television. I can barely get past this fact, much less the rest of the details.

And yet here I am, living in the twenty-first century, the future. I was not a witness to anything as truly remarkable as a president's assassination, but I still remember when television simply ended at like 2 a.m., when, if you were frustrated by a busy signal, you could get an emergency operator to interrupt a phone call, when, as a kid, you could lie across the entire back seat of a car and sleep the whole way home. And these simple things are all pretty remarkable to my own children, who watch "Star Trek" with me now, and notice how not everything seems so futuristic on that twenty-fourth century ship. My favorite episodes are always the ones in which time is proven not to be a linear thing, but round, something you can catch up to if you’re not careful.

Which leads me back to Samuel J. Seymour, a man still alive in the age of television, who proved that somehow the Civil War was still present and not just part of some disconnected past. For his appearance on the show, Seymour received $80 and a can of pipe tobacco.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Some Amazingly Delicious Food that I Will Never Have Again

To be fair, I have had lots of delicious food in my life, some of it in fact quite recently. For example, the scarily addictive fried Brussels sprouts at the Capital City Gastropub in Albany or the other-worldly balsamic vinaigrette at Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington (which I have been known to refer to as “my boyfriend”) or even the pizza I had a couple summers ago at Co. on 24th street, which rendered me completely speechless (difficult to do, if you know me). But what I’m talking about here is food, for reasons that will soon be made clear, that was both insanely good and impossible to ever have again. Sadly, all of them exist as but a memory now.

Vegetarian lasagna in Cork City, Ireland.
About 20 years ago, I was spending a couple of weeks in Cork with my vehemently vegetarian friend Christina when we came upon this restaurant somewhere and had the most remarkable vegetarian lasagna. We couldn’t quite figure out what made it so even though we discussed the possibilities (many years later I realized: Bechamel sauce) and we went there every single day, so stunned were we by its deliciousness in a city known more for its, shall we say, beverages. I’m thinking that if I ever were to find this restaurant again (unlikely) they couldn’t possibly still be serving that vegetarian lasagna. Could they?

The falafel. You’ve heard about this one before, yes? Just an ordinary day it was, but I have no idea what I was doing in the 20s on the east side. I know I was walking somewhere, but I can’t remember where. And then there was the cart. And I figured, Oh, I should get a falafel. And then the guy said, all casual-like, What do you want on it, everything? Sure, I said. And that’s what did it. Whatever combination of things he squirted out of his many bottles of wonderfulness, it turned out to be the most remarkable falafel I ever had. For years I have been trying to find something that at least approximates it. So far I have yet to find it.

Annie’s Mac and Cheese at North Cascades National Park.
My friend Betsy is a national park ranger and has been for most of her working life. This job involves much hiking up and down mountains. When I was about 25, I visited her in Washington and spent five days living with her in the backcountry. One evening, we came back from a long hike, tired and starving, and Betsy made us dinner. You realize I’m talking about boxed mac and cheese, right? So what happened? What I saw was some Annie’s mac and cheese going into some boiling water and then Betsy scraping in some carrots and some other vegetables, I don’t even remember what. But it was, in fact, one of the most delicious meals I have ever had in my life. I don’t really like to question the magic of that dinner. Just take me at my word.

My grandmother’s potatoes and spinach. This was a combination invented to get me to eat spinach, but it was fantastic, trust me. She would mash up potatoes, mash up some spinach, and then mix them together. Whenever I am really sick, this is the only thing I ever want to have when I feel better. And I’ve tried to reproduce it, but of course I can never get it quite right. I never watched it happening, is the problem. It just kind of appeared. Sometimes my girls watch with horror as I absentmindedly mix mashed potatoes and spinach on my own plate, if I ever make them both for dinner. And it’s always good, but not quite as I remembered.

Steve Golby’s salad. Many years ago, I went with my friend Leah to her dad’s house in Elmira, New York, a small town somewhere near Binghamton. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but I remember my complete astonishment as I watched him make a salad. First he took a garlic clove and rubbed it around the inside of the salad bowl. You gotta season the bowl, he explained. I had never seen anything like this. How do I explain it except that it was the late 80s and no one was really making salad like this yet. He put in the usual stuff, but also as I watched, still astonished, he cut up a kiwi and put that in too. Then he mixed up his own salad dressing, something I wasn’t accustomed to seeing either. It goes without saying that this was the best salad I'd ever had in my young life. And this salad changed the way I thought about salads forever. Never again would I be satisfied with iceberg lettuce and bottled Italian dressing. What I had seen was the beginning of the salad revolution. And Steve, who unfortunately died just a few short years later, made it possible for me to be right there when it happened.

Monday, February 27, 2012

How I Learned to Drive

Kids who grew up in New York City are probably considered freaks by the rest of the country in a very general way, but there is one specific way that they are freaky and that has to do with driving. Ask any other American when they started driving and they’ll say something like, The second I turned 16, or even something like, My dad let me drive his truck when I was like 14 and I could barely reach the pedals! Ask someone who grew up in New York when they started driving and they’ll say something like, I guess I was like 28 or something. I just wanted to go upstate on the weekends. Or even, Oh god, I should probably learn to drive already!

Now don’t get me wrong. There are definitely some New York City teenagers that learned to drive at the proper age due to, for example, living in Queens and going to high school way up in the Bronx, as it happens sometimes. These were the only friends I had who had cars and so I did experience the occasional pile up of teenagers heading out to a diner, but nothing so dangerous as drunken teenagers driving around after a party. More common for us was the drinking of Old Mr. Boston out of a paper bag on the D train, or falling drunkenly down the subway steps. Safer? You decide.

So my point is that learning to drive is not one of these huge teenage milestones for New Yorkers, but rather this thing you get around to eventually. My experience was no different. The summer after I turned 17 I took some driving lessons with this guy who owned a driving school and happened to be friends with my stepfather. All I remember about these lessons is that the guy talked about one thing and one thing only and that was The Who, who happened to be touring that summer. I have almost no other memory of these lessons and after they were over, they were just over. The guy went to follow The Who on tour and I never took a driving test, nor did I even drive a car for some time afterward. My permit expired. I went through all of college not knowing how to drive but knowing people who knew how to drive. This suited me for quite a while. Then when I was 26 years old and living in Astoria I took driving lessons again. There was no real reason for me to learn to drive except that I figured that I might need to drive someday and I might as well be ready. Little did I know that a few years later I would move to upstate New York and would find myself behind the wheel of a car every single day. Every single day, just in case that was not clear.

But meanwhile, back in Astoria. My driving instructor was maybe around 30 and was a dead ringer for Ricky Ricardo. And I don’t mean Desi Arnaz, but Ricky Ricardo, if you can see the distinction, which is impossible to explain. He was dashingly handsome and frustratedly impatient with me as I navigated the unbelievably crowded streets of Astoria. I didn’t really think about where I was learning to drive exactly, but when I returned to Astoria, years later, and saw cars doing broken U-turns in the middle of the streets everywhere (a habit which I’m afraid I picked up as well) all I could say was, Oh my god, I learned to drive here!

I took 15 lessons and then Ricky decided I needed 15 more lessons. I think he was right, but I also think that he knew it would be an easy 50 bucks or whatever it was. Oh, and remember the written test you have to take? The best part about that test is that you only have to pass, and that it does not matter which questions you got wrong. So you can actually get a driver’s license even if you think the correct answer to “What should you do if a pedestrian crosses in front of your car?” is “Press down harder on the gas pedal.”

Ricky was constantly fed up with me, but he did like to talk about himself a lot and where he was going out that night and I could always distract him with questions of this sort. But you could tell that he almost always wanted to just grab the wheel from me. On the day of the driving test, the minute I got into the car with the instructor I felt myself actually trembling. Ricky was hanging around outside and I still remember the look of total horror on his face as, in my panic, I proceeded to “press down harder on the gas pedal” and truly peeled out of the parking lot. But the minute I got going, I managed to drive totally normally and I even parallel parked perfectly, something that still eludes me to this day. And I passed! At last I was no longer a freak!

I didn’t drive again for another four years.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Includes Outdoor Space!

For much of my childhood I lived on the ninth floor of a fairly large apartment building in the Bronx, which for some reason I found a picture of online, but its industrial good looks are not worth reproducing here. Inside, however, the apartment was gorgeous and huge: three bedrooms for my mother, stepfather, and me, which meant that the extra bedroom was turned into a “den,” just like on The Brady Bunch.

And for anyone who grew up with an actual backyard, here is what we kids did on our urban terraces pretty much all the time. (What you are missing in this picture is my friend sitting next to me wearing a blue shirt and white shorts, which we had planned via the phone that morning, but I feel that I can only take responsibility for pictures of this sort of myself.)

Now in case you think this tiny space was maybe kind of restrictive, just remember that our thoughts tended to go vertically instead of horizontally (though I did roller skate back and forth on this terrace, but only for practice). My daughters are thrilled by the tales I have told of what my friend and I used to throw off the terrace down to the street below. We started with ripped up pieces of napkins, hoping that someone below might mistake it for snow. Then we decided to use ripped up pieces of cheese with the hopeful thought that someone walking along might get the idea to look up, maybe to see if it would rain or something, and would suddenly see something falling from the sky. That person would then say, Oh! and the piece of cheese would land right into his or her unlucky mouth (it never occurred to us that someone might even like a piece of cheese landing in his or her mouth). The problem was that we were so high up that it was hard to tell if someone was ever looking up into the sky, and we could never get the timing right if that really did happen. Plus my mother was always saying, What happened to the cheese? I just bought some cheese yesterday! Where did it go?

Now that I think about it, I guess there must have been a pile of paper and/or cheese out in the front of our building much of the time, but I don’t think I ever noticed it.

But that’s not the only terrace I meant to talk about. Because meanwhile, across town, in my dad’s apartment on the Upper West Side, there was another terrace. Now if you knew me anytime between the ages of 7 and 27, it is very likely you were out on that terrace at some point. It was up on the fifteenth floor and it faced 73rd street and it was always cluttered, and I do mean cluttered, with tons of plants, including an ultimately enormous tree in a container that my dad picked up off the street (recall my dad’s habit of picking things up off the street), but it had a great view, even if its wide brick ledge made it nearly impossible to throw anything off.

There are plenty of stories about that particular terrace, but the one I want to tell is one in which I used the terrace to break into the apartment. I was maybe around 20 and my dad and stepmother were at their house upstate and I was planning to stay in their apartment for the weekend. I had taken the train in from the Bronx and it was right at the front door I realized I had forgotten my keys. I knew that I could probably get into the building somehow, but there was no way to get into the apartment once I got up there. Or was there? Now since my father had built a greenhouse on the terrace, the only real door separating the terrace from the apartment was actually an iron gate. I knew the key to that gate was in the living room. If I could get as far as the gate, I could probably figure out how to get in from there.

I thought about this for a while standing in front of the building. If my dad's terrace was on the fifteenth floor, I could probably climb over from the terrace on the fifteenth floor in the apartment next door. Would someone actually let me do this? I went to the building next door and buzzed the top floor apartment. When a person asked who I was, I explained that I was locked out and could I please climb into my apartment through his terrace. You may be surprised that it only took a little confused back and forth discussion via the buzzer before I was actually buzzed in. Was the guy just curious? I have no idea. He met me when I got off the elevator and I explained my predicament again, even giving details about my dad in case the guy happened to know him (he didn't). But he did let me walk through his apartment to his terrace and then climb onto my dad's terrace, to which I thanked him profusely. I wondered if even for a second the guy wondered if it was just an excuse and that I was going to rob the apartment next door. If so, he didn't let on. I may not have looked like a robber, but isn't that always the first mistake people make? Anyway.

I opened the greenhouse door and now there was only the iron gate separating me from the apartment itself. Basically the gate was just iron bars that I could fit my hand through, but not my entire body. I looked into the living room and there, hanging not too far across the room on a shelf, on a long chain, was the key to the gate, as I'd known it would be. But how would I get it down from the shelf? It was at that moment, and I kid you not, I suddenly remembered the Brady Bunch episode ("Ghost Town U.S.A.") in which they were locked in jail and they all put their belts together and, using them like a rope, managed to knock the keys to their jail cell off a hook and drag them back to their cell and escape. I used this very same ingenuity, with my very own belt, to knock that key to the gate down and drag it back to me. I unlocked the gate and I was in! Never was I so proud or so grateful for the hours and hours I spent watching The Brady Bunch as a child! I'd also like to add that after this experience I never forgot my keys again, but that would not really be honest.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Brief Musical Interlude

Back in 1979, when I had a record player in my room, I would make up my own dances to the music of Supertramp. I think I may have seen a modern dance performance once because I started, as you do, all curled up in a ball on my bed, and then I would, to the music, slowly unfold, which was meant to mimic birth, you see. This really meant to connect me to the deepness that is Supertramp. It was an album my mother’s friend had gotten me for my birthday. A strange gift really, for a nine-year-old, a record. How could this person have possibly known what music I liked? And I was a bit uneasy at first, you have to understand, having no idea what exactly Supertramp was supposed to be, or was supposed to do. But I soon discovered that the instrumental beginnings of some songs were just perfect for these dances I created in my bedroom. Many years later, a freshman in college, a boy I liked handed me the very same Supertramp album (an unwrapped cassette actually) for my birthday. Again I felt uneasy. What was it about this music? This time, I could hardly bear to listen to it because it brought back memories of those long ago dances in my room. And the boy, who played bass with long, skinny fingers that I could not get over, why exactly did he think I would want such a thing? I eventually asked him, Why Supertramp? I thought you should have this album, he said. And to this day, I cannot decide what I think of Supertramp and it’s likely I never will.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Chair of One's Own

In the fall of 1998, I started working at McGraw-Hill’s School Division, located then at Two Penn Plaza, literally right above Penn Station, i.e. the last place in the city you’d ever want to be. This is how I got my start in educational publishing, but it was completely accidental. I didn’t want this job and told the interviewer as much, but was then offered the job anyway. (I have been tempted to use this approach on other interviews, but have never been brave enough to actually try it.)

One of the more notable things about this job was a certain co-worker I had at the beginning. When he was gone my other co-workers and I finally were able to say out loud that he might have been something like 400 pounds. For about six months, we listened to his loud angry phone calls in which he tried to return things, such as a bed at a store called “Relax the Back” (which I can only say out loud in the serious angry way he said it) and his lunch on an almost daily basis because it was never quite right. For example: He wanted his broccoli not undercooked, did they understand that, because some people liked broccoli that wasn’t entirely cooked, but he didn’t, he could not eat it that way, and did they understand that? Sometimes the anger would be saved for the poor delivery boy who actually brought his (imperfect) lunch all the way up to the 23rd floor and then was given a mouthful for his effort.

Much of this anger (according to him, anyway) was based on the fact that the guy who was in the TV show “The Fugitive” threw a ball at his head when he was a kid and it permanently damaged him. I’m not entirely clear on when this happened exactly, or why, or how the guy in “The Fugitive” ended up throwing a ball at a kid in the late 1960s in a Boston suburb, but no matter. This was his story and it pretty much explained everything about him (according to him). Which is why we shouldn’t have been surprised when he smashed his chair to pieces in the office one afternoon. But we were all very very surprised, as a matter of fact.

Due to his size, he could not fit into regular office chairs comfortably or, in some cases, at all, and there were very many attempts to find a chair that would suit him. The HR people were always coming around with some new kind of chair that would seem good at first, but would eventually anger him and cause a series of phone calls that we were all privy to, as we were to the daily lunchtime calls. (You’d think that working with him would be entertaining, and it was sometimes, but it was also exasperating. He wasn’t even very good at his job, which meant that he had absolutely nothing going for him, in all honesty.) The HR people were extremely delicate about the situation and responded to his angry calls as though they were perfectly reasonable. But then one day when we were all sitting at our desks, working, or not working, but at least looking at our computer screens, we were stunned to hear the sound of smashing wood nearby. Not a single one of us turned away from our screens. This angry 40something, 400-pound man was smashing his wooden chair to bits.

The next day the HR people returned with a bench. What I mean is, they brought in a wooden bench, the kind you might see in a park or in someone’s backyard and could fit maybe four or five people comfortably (I should probably mention, shamefully, that after our angry co-worker had left, the remaining five of us in our particular section of the office took pictures of ourselves sitting together in the bench. There was plenty of room.). Anyway, the HR people left this bench for him as one final attempt at an office chair. You’d think that he might have been insulted by such a gesture, but no, he was delighted. The chair was apparently just the right size and comfort level for him, and so for the remainder of his time there, he was what you might call slightly less angry.

Now when we first started at this job we were all contract workers there, and in a few months our contracts were up. It was then that our angry co-worker made the startling discovery that all of us had had our contracts renewed, all of us but him. He went around asking all of us and then complaining to the higher-ups, but really there was nothing he could do. They told him that they didn’t need as many people anymore. The fact that they needed all of us minus him was not lost on him, of course, but he ended up just accepting it finally. I wish I could remember his last day there, but I can’t. And you’d think that we might have missed him when he was gone, but we didn’t, not for a single minute. I have no idea what became of him, but I do hope that he has at least a comfortable place to sit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Case Study

I’m sure other people have spent entire days at the dentist, which maybe makes my particular day unremarkable, but paying ten dollars for the privilege is really something else.

They have this dental clinic at the local community college, in which students in dental hygiene get to practice on the public, for which the public receives a $10 dental exam and a cleaning, which honestly you can’t beat. A week before my exam, a girl named Shayla with a teeny tiny voice called me and asked about a hundred questions that I happily answered because she was so earnest and sweet. She called a couple more times with questions about seemingly unimportant things (what vitamins I took), but this was all done in the interest of time.

Except that on the day of the exam, as the door to the waiting room kept opening with a new young shiny-faced dental hygiene student calling out someone’s name, I was the last one called. But Shayla did finally show up, and she led me into the clinic, which looked exactly like a regular office with fluorescent lighting and dozens of cubicles, except that in each cubicle next to the desk and in place of, I don’t know, a file cabinet or wastebasket or something, there was a dentist’s chair. It really was a fantastic looking place.

It’s probably obvious to point out that during the visit Shayla sat at her tiny desk and I sat in the dentist’s chair. (An aside: sometime in the late 70s my dad, whose interest in objects left out on New York City streets is legendary, found a gynecologist’s chair and brought it home. I thought it was a dentist’s chair and was never disabused of this notion. I did notice, however, that adults always chuckled at my referring to it as a dentist’s chair and also that it was a total hit at parties. Years later I asked my dad, Whatever happened to that dentist’s chair you picked up from the street? He responded, laughing, Dentist’s chair? That was a gynecologist’s chair! I felt glad that I hadn’t actually known this.)

Anyway. I noticed immediately a little wrapped package on the small table next to my chair, which turned out to be Shayla’s instruments. Shayla mentioned that the instruments were wrapped like that to show they were sterile. They were sterilized in…an autoclave? I asked, because now that I’m writing chapter tests for a medical textbook I have picked up all kinds of information like that. (Ask me about skin diseases!) Yes, she said, completely unimpressed, looking through her instruments. There were tons of them.

Say, did you know that those little hook things are used to measure your teeth? Now wait, I know it sounds like I got tricked, the way that dentists tell kids they’re just going to count their teeth, but really those little instruments have a line on them and they put them up to your teeth to see how far the gum has receded. All this time I thought they used them to pick at your teeth! They are called probes. Did you know that? Does anyone tell us these things except dental hygiene students who are being asked a million nonstop questions that they are, for some reason, happy to answer?

The picking or measuring or whatever went on and on. Shayla had to write down something for every single tooth. There was apparently a problem with number 19. An instructor came over and they had a little talk about my tooth number 19. Turns out I brush my teeth too hard! I have ruined one of my teeth, fool that I am. Sheesh. Also Shayla wasn’t sure but she also thought that maybe I had some bone loss. What is that exactly? I asked, instantly terrified. She explained it to me in precise details that I can no longer remember, but ultimately it came down to: we won’t really know until we do an x-ray. And then I was immediately scheduled for an afternoon x-ray and Shayla explained all about how if there was bone loss then I might actually become her case study and then I’d have to come back a few more times. She then explained that she needed a case study to graduate and asked if I would mind being her case study if it turned out I had bone loss. Do you want me to be your case study? I asked. Oh, I would love it! she said, completely thrilled, and so I agreed, despite realizing that a part of her wanted something terrible to show up in the x-rays.

At some point I exclaimed, My teeth are a mess! I’m the worst patient you’ve ever seen. Oh no, she said. There was this woman, she was like 25, and she already had mobility. (Mobility means loose teeth.) Really? I said, not bothering to disguise my excitement. Yeah, she said. She had celiac disease and I guess her diet was really bad for her teeth. Her gums would not stop bleeding. She never came back again, she added wistfully. Yeah, but, okay, I said, tell me about someone that had bad teeth that didn’t have celiac disease. Oh there was this guy, she began. He never brushed his teeth….

At this point two hours had gone by.

What with all the picking and numbering of teeth and scheduling the afternoon x-rays there hadn’t even been time for a cleaning and so I had to schedule one for the following week, even though Shayla explained again (a little too excitedly) that if I were her case study, it would mean coming back a few more times after that. Fine. Now it was time to leave and come back to the afternoon clinic.

[Insert scene in which I spend the next hour and a half at Target happily trying on boots and sampling dozens of moisturizers.]

Back at the dental clinic, for my x-rays, I had another student, Caitlin, who was less ridiculously wholesome (when I’d asked Shayla if she liked that crap radio station they had playing in the office, she mentioned that once a song had come on that almost had a swear word in it and she was amazed because elderly people come in there!) and also less of a doomsayer (Caitlin: “I’m not a doctor, so I can’t really make a diagnosis, but your teeth look fine!”). I went into the x-ray cubicle and got into the dentist’s chair. They were just trying out the new digital x-ray machine in the office and though it was flattering to hear the supervising dentist say constantly, Wow, that’s gorgeous! about pictures of my teeth, it also took over an hour to get them all done. Caitlin had to set up each shot and then get each picture approved by her instructor, an actual dentist. Digital x-rays still involve that terrible contraption that they put in your mouth, but the results pop up seconds later on the computer screen in front of you, which is a little bit thrilling. The shots of my teeth were discussed and admired for their density.

After all of that, it turned out that I had minimal bone loss, which wasn’t terrible, and I was told that Shayla would explain all of that to me at my next visit. Except someone’s going to have to break it to her that I won’t be her case study. Maybe that girl with celiac disease will return or the guy who never brushed his teeth? I'm sure there must be someone out there with bad teeth and a spare couple of weeks that will help Shayla graduate. One can only hope.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Actual Jobs I Have Had in No Particular Order, Part I

Times Books. Or more specifically, assisting the puzzle editor at Times Books, whose job pretty much involved reprinting the New York Times puzzles in book form. Ah, the good old days of publishing! My job involved occasionally typing a letter or mailing something, but mostly it involved me sitting around doing crossword puzzles. Once I talked to Puzzlemaster Will Shortz on the phone. He sounded, at best, slightly irritated.

David’s Cookies. First off, you take a job in a cookie store thinking you’ll get sick of cookies. Maybe eventually you would have, but not over the six months in high school working there. Now the store was in a rather strange location (42nd Street and 5th Avenue) and this was also a strange time in our nation’s history, involving a craze known as Cabbage Patch Dolls. Around the corner from the store there was at that time a Cabbage Patch Doll Hospital and the folks that worked there, dressed up as doctors and nurses, used to come into our store all the time for milkshakes. I will never forget these brave workers.

Macmillan. This was one of those one-day temp jobs in which I worked as a receptionist. Although even that does not quite capture the actual improbability of this "job." What happened was I sat at a desk in the center of the floor. On either side of me was a door. My job, for which I was actually paid, was to buzz people in to either door when they got off the elevator. I’d like to think that I answered the phone too occasionally, but I really don’t think I did.

The Leonard Lopate Show. There’s plenty I could say about working on the show as an assistant producer, and sometime soon I just might, but I think perhaps my fondest memory is of director Pedro Almodovar staring directly at my boobs and being literally unable to take his eyes off them while talking to me.

La Cage Aux Folles. One summer during college I worked in the costume shop on a summer stock production of this show in Pennsylvania. The show starred old-time comedian Shelly Berman, who was a total jerk, but once laughed hysterically at something I said. Here is where I learned to iron properly as one of my jobs was to iron 22 men’s shirts every single day and my other job consisted of dressing and undressing men in dresses and high heels. I also hand sewed part of a costume for Bonnie Franklin, who was starring in a subsequent show, and who I never met, but who apparently had an attitude problem. This is it.

B. Dalton’s. This store, now a Barnes and Noble, was where I worked every summer when I was home from college. It was on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, and thus pretty much in the middle of where I wanted to be all the time. It’s true that my book collection is a bit larger as a result of working there, but I should add that all of the books were very much loved.

There's more, of course. Isn't there always? Stay tuned.