Archive for the ‘college days’ Category

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Remembering Charlie

December 1, 2014

Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I think of him still, especially today during World AIDS Day. He is the personal face of this affliction to me.

AIDS has not gone away, but over the years it has moved from the front page headlines to the back pages and now virtually out of the public eye entirely. Many have forgotten, or because of their age, never knew this frightening scourge and its wake of tragedy in the early years of its advent. It seems as though not too many people concern themselves with it anymore unless they have some personal connection. I am one of those people, for my friend Charlie was one the victims when AIDS was still a fearful and misunderstood specter haunting our country.

Charlie was my friend. He was a warm and caring person, bursting with creativity and energy. I think he felt it was his mission to make everyone else’s day brighter. Most people didn’t see the turmoil within him.

I knew Charlie well when we were in college, though I didn’t know he was gay. Perhaps he didn’t either at that time. He married his girlfriend, another of my college friends, but eventually that union unraveled and his inevitable emergence as a gay man was complete. His new partner was an Argentinean he met in New York, but by that time I no longer saw Charlie since the paths of our lives had diverged.

For a while, our paths were one. Some of my most emotionally challenging times were shared with him. More precisely, he, acting as a self-appointed guardian angel, continually attempted to rescue me from crisis.

One such instance occurred during a difficult time in my attempted courtship of the girl of my dreams. She had suffered a heartbreak once and was unsure about the nature of this new relationship with me. I do not blame her for that. However, I was emotionally fragile, and Charlie sought to nurture me.

His family lived in Schenectady, and on the spur of the moment, he convinced me to join him on a long weekend trip home. No one else knew of this, so it seemed that I had disappeared from campus. During the bus trip upstate, I poured out my misery to Charlie, and he comforted me. We talked for hours, more deeply and personally than I ever had before with anyone, sharing stories of our lives and our hopes and dreams. I remember falling asleep exhausted with my head on his shoulder as he sang softly to me. The time we spent with his sister and brother-in-law proved to be a healthy diversion, and my absence, though short, was startling to my sweetheart, and a better chapter between us ensued.

Another incident I remember clearly developed out of my frequent flirtation with academic disaster. I was a diehard procrastinator, but usually could pull the fat out of the fire at the last minute by pulling an all-nighter or three. However, on this occasion I had gotten myself into an impossible jam from which I didn’t think I could extricate myself. I had two major papers due, neither of which I had even started, and one of them had already been postponed once. I knew yet another all-nighter was my only chance, but after struggling late into the evening, defeat appeared to be at hand. That’s when Charlie popped in. He listened to my plight, and without a second’s hesitation sat down to help. The term “help” hardly does justice to his effort. As I composed one paper at my typewriter, Charlie busied himself at another, asking me questions and helping me clarify my thoughts as he typed away. My dire situation had taken a turn, and there was now hope where there had been despair. We finished at dawn, and more than a few laughs were shared as Charlie helped shape my ideas into an admirable and often inspired piece of writing.

Charlie loved Leonard Cohen. His favorite song at that time was “Suzanne.” I think the dark tone that still retained the hope for beauty and love appealed to him. Charlie wrote in a similar vein. I still have his notes and poems and musings written on scraps of paper now yellowed with age. He gave me this after our Schenectady trip:

“I have come to give you the blue blue sky with my hands

and show you the dark dark dawn with its gray lands

where hot meets cold; and besides I have the time time

to spend on forever to gather the sky sky in a rhyme.

It may never be said how much I must need give you

or show you, you, sitting mournfully, weeping, you who

tried to love before and failed failed.”

When the end of college arrived, he gave me a folder with some of his illustrations and what I now understand was his letter of farewell to me. In it I also see the acknowledgment of his new path:

“But this school year is a rebirth for me; it ends in anxiety and joy. I conquered a world and I face reality. Your end-year must be very sad; I wish you the comfort of understanding but the purification of pain. Learn to smile in the face of pain and tragedy. I do it daily.”

I did not witness Charlie’s descent into the horrors of AIDS. I am regretful of that because I could have taken my turn as guardian angel. In a way, though, I’m glad my memories of him were not tainted by his time of debilitation; I believe he felt the same way. I went with a few friends to a small memorial gathering on the Hudson River where we dropped flowers into the flow and shared some of the many Charlie stories we all had.

Because of AIDS, Charlie became a statistic, part of the tragic toll this disease took. But like each of the statistics, he was someone, a real person with family and friends and hopes and failures. Each left behind memories of whatever mark they left on the world and the people whose lives they touched.

Yes, Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I can not, and will not, forget either.

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Protest

July 22, 2012

Much has been written about the turbulent days of the late 1960’s. The memories of those who lived through that time invariably will differ according to the specific time and place of their experiences and the mindset of the person involved. But the social and political turmoil stirred up by the conflict in Vietnam is certain to be at the heart of many of these, for this issue polarized Americans like few others in our modern times.

Washington, D.C. became the focal point of protest against the Vietnam war during my college years, and as the groundswell of sentiment against the war grew, so did the size of the protests. In October of 1967, about 50,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. In October of 1968 the number increased to 200,000. But during my senior year, 600,000 demonstrators converged on our nation’s capital on November 15, 1969, in a monster rally organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. What happened that day had a startling and historic impact on the psyche of the nation and the people who were there. I know this because I was one of them.

At Seton Hall University, like most campuses across the nation, students — some of whom would soon be directly affected by the war — organized locally to voice their opposition.  When the opportunity arose to do so on a larger stage, the organizing efforts grew to match the need, and many who may have been silent previously felt compelled to make a commitment.

My friend Peter and I signed up to be part of a contingent from New Jersey that would bus down to Washington for the November mobilization. At the time, we had no idea of the eventual scale of the event, but the immensity of it became apparent once we got down there. I had never before seen so many people in one place at one time. The streets were filled, and though the expected college students comprised much of the crowd, it also included surprisingly large numbers of well-dressed, middle-aged adults.

Shortly after arriving, Peter and I ducked into a local restaurant to try to grab a bite. The place was packed, and we waited for a considerable time. When a spot at a table finally opened, we sat down only to be accosted by an angry customer on his way out.

“Why don’t you kids cut your hair and go back home! We don’t want you troublemakers here!” he spat out with obvious disdain.

Peter and I were taken aback, not prepared for such vehement antagonism. We struggled for a response, but it became unnecessary, for an older gentleman at the next table immediately came to our defense.

“Buzz off! I’m a veteran, and I live here too. I think it’s great what these young people are doing. They have just as much right to be here as you.” His glare clearly signaled that he meant business. The other guy promptly shut up and skulked off.

“Thank you, sir,”  we meekly managed to respond. Perhaps the tone of surprise in our voices prompted him to continue.

“I mean it. I know what war is all about and what it can do. I’m proud to see you youngsters stand up and try to do something to stop it. A lot of folks are waving flags and wagging their tongues without knowing what they’re talking about, including some in our government.  You just keep on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother listening to them.”

We left the restaurant, stomachs full and morale boosted, and headed for a staging area to join one of the protest activities. Neither of us knew much about Washington, so we proceeded on foot the way se saw the masses heading. Deciding to cut over several blocks to get out of the crush of the crowd, we happened upon scores of city buses parked closely together along the side of the street.

There were cops everywhere. I decided to try to squeeze between buses to continue unimpeded, for the other side looked free of people. All of a sudden, one of the cops came running toward me yelling something I couldn’t quite make out. I turned to see what the problem was when I heard a loud WHACK, the unmistakable sound of wood on metal. The cop had swung his nightstick at me but missed and hit the bus. I began cursing, incensed at the injustice of being attacked for doing nothing other than walking down the street. Peter grabbed me and pulled me away, and we scrambled to safety. It wasn’t until later that I realized the buses weren’t merely parked; they had been placed there as a blockade to “protect” the government buildings behind them.

As we finally got within a few blocks of DuPont Circle, shouting erupted up ahead, and hordes of demonstrators began running our way. An acrid odor surrounded us — tear gas! Peter had asthma and needed to use an inhaler; how would this affect him? We hustled down several blocks to get to a safer area, but Peter suddenly stopped, visibly inhaling deeply. Oh, no. Could this be the start of respiratory distress?

“Peter! Are you okay?” I frantically asked.

“Yeah,” he answered in his normal stoic manner. “You know, I’m actually breathing better!” A whiff of tear gas as a temporary treatment for asthma; who knew?

Dusk brought news of sporadic trouble in several areas of the city. Peter and I were scheduled to participate in a candlelight memorial for soldiers who had died, but as we walked toward the appointed meeting place, a surreal scene unfolded that I will never forget. As the protesters filed down one side of the darkening street, on the other stood a long line of National Guardsmen shoulder to shoulder, rifles positioned at the ready. The silhouettes of the weapons in the soft light of the street lamps created a bizarre and menacing image. An eerie silence enveloped us save for the muffled tramp of feet on the sidewalk. I kept thinking, here I am, walking in the capital of my own country with my fellow citizens across the street — many no older than I —  prepared to fire on me. How could this possibly be?

Suddenly, from our side of the street, the sound of shattering glass broke the silence followed by another and then another as the store windows were smashed. Who could be so crazy? One nervous reaction from a jumpy soldier and a chain reaction of disastrous proportion could erupt. I believe I held my breath and fixed my eyes straight forward for the remainder of the trek.

The candlelight memorial took place as planned in a dignified manner, and it made a deep impact on most of us. Each marcher carried a candle and the name of a serviceman or woman killed in the course of the war. The procession solemnly moved in a single file up to the front of the White House  gate. The names of the deceased were read aloud one by one, their names echoing in the night, imbuing a haunting human quality devoid of politics or rancor to the tragedy transpiring on the other side of the world. These weren’t merely soldiers, pawns in the game of military decision-makers, but our brothers and friends and classmates and neighbors who would no longer enjoy the lives that should have lain before them. I remember being moved to tears as I shuffled forward in that heartfelt gathering. I regret not keeping the slip of paper with the name I read.

That night we stayed in Arlington in the homes of kind souls sympathetic to the cause. We gratefully slept on floors and couches, bunk beds and cots. As I lay in that makeshift dorm, my mind raced.  What had others seen? What had they done? Most of all, I wondered what would be the result of all that had occurred that crazy unforgettable day?

As it turned out, it proved to be a powerful force that would accelerate the momentum of the sentiment to end the war. More and more Americans began to come to the conclusion that this had been a long and costly mistake that must come to an end.  Unfortunately, the final chapter hadn’t yet been finished, and even more soldiers were to lose their lives. After the miscalculated Nixon incursion into Cambodia, further upheaval ensued back home culminating with the shootings at Kent State.

Our final semester in 1970 ended prematurely because of the unrest, and Peter and I graduated into a new decade fraught with problems and the palpable feeling of being on the precipice of major change. Some of our classmates would be drafted into the armed forces, victims of the bad fortune of receiving a low number in the recently imposed draft lottery system. And some of those inducted never returned.

The war slowly ground its way to a halt in April of 1975, an unsatisfactory conclusion devoid of the honor about which many politicians had crowed. The after-effects still resonate to this day in the mental and physical scars of those who served, in the families of those who never came back, and in the memory of a nation that seemingly lost its way.

I think of this now as I watch the weekly parade of photos of young men and women who have perished in Afghanistan, strangely aired only on the PBS News Hour. For some of my generation, Afghanistan has brought back the specter of Vietnam as history appears to repeat itself in a different geography, though I wonder about the curiously apathetic public.  Where is the outcry? Why the complacency?

Perhaps the distractions of the current era and the peculiar insulation from this war have desensitized many of those whose voices might otherwise have been raised. I am neither expecting nor hoping for a return to any “good old days” of dissent, but in its ostensible absence, I worry about the soul of this great nation. If one of its important freedoms, that of an openly expressive democracy, atrophies in a miasma of egocentric materialism and self-interest, our national conscience may be reduced to a few Cassandras who, as poet Robinson Jeffers put it,  “mumble in a corner a crust of truth.” Perhaps the days of protest are gone, and that would be a real detriment, for a cornerstone America’s proud heritage will have crumbled.

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The John Dumm Connection

July 15, 2012

Most of our lives have been influenced by certain individuals we have met along the way that have had a disproportionate impact on us. Where and when this will occur is unpredictable, but the effects can be significant and the memories long-lasting. When I was a sophomore in college, I had the good fortune to meet three such individuals. This trio of upperclassmen who lived in my dorm became a personal holy trinity during a critical developmental period of my adult self.

One of these was a senior named John Dumm. He happened to be friends with the other two, all of whom I considered to be intellectual giants walking amongst the rest of us empty-headed oafs. They read books by Sartre and Camus and Mailer. They watched Fellini and Godard movies. They spoke thoughtfully and seemed to know quite a bit about nearly everything. All three wove parts of their essence into my existence in different ways, but a unique connection with John Dumm occurred through a whim of fate.

After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps, something I had thought of doing since high school though I never before knew anyone who actually did. He wrote me letters from the far side of the world — I had never received mail from a foreign country before, either — and that further fanned the flames of my inspiration. I admired him greatly for his leap into this idealistic adventure, and it seemed quite exotic to have this connection to it.

I subsequently followed through on my own Peace Corps dream, and in the early spring of my senior year I received my acceptance letter. I would be heading off to Micronesia, a small island nation somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, not long after, I found a second notification in my mailbox. My country of assignment had been changed.  My new destination would be the Philippines.

The Philippines?! That’s where John Dumm was! Of all the countries in the world with Peace Corps involvement, what were the odds of that happening?

My path to the Philippines took me through several months of training, first in Vermont, then Montreal, and finally in-country. The last phase took place in Manila, and I began my inquiries into the whereabouts of John. He  lived a seemingly surreptitious gypsy existence with frequent changes of location, and in an archipelago of hundreds of islands, he could be virtually anywhere. My investigation reached a dead-end, and I resigned myself to my only hope, that of an accidental encounter.

When the sessions in Manila concluded, each group of volunteers shipped out to the province in which they’d be living and working for a final period of orientation. My destination was Camarines Sur at the southern end of the main island of Luzon, the province of my eventual assignment. After meeting our provincial director and the local officials with whom we’d be working, we broke up into small groups of four or five to spend a weekend in the field with a current volunteer who would give us insights on what our lives would be like for the next two years. I would be going to a remote island off the tip of Luzon called Catanduanes.

“So, who will we be staying with?” I asked Fran, our director.

“A very interesting guy by the name of John Dumm,“ he replied. My double-take must have been quite emphatic for he immediately inquired, “Do you know him?”

“Know him! You bet I know him!”

ferry to Catanduanes

The next morning the five of us so assigned boarded the small ferry for the ride to Catanduanes. Everyone’s anticipation level was high, but none more so than mine. As the ferry slowly approached the arrival dock in the port of Virac, I could see John standing at the end of the pier. He expected some newcomers but didn’t know about my presence in the group. The boat was secured and the gangplank lowered. I strolled off the ferry and with my best nonchalant act greeted John.

“Hey there. How’ve you been?”

“What!” he exclaimed, “Daborn?! You’ve got to be kidding me! What the heck are you doing here?”

“Well, the same as you, I hope.”

Much catching up over more than a few beers followed as John regaled us with stories both of his recollections of our shared lives at college and his current endeavors in the Peace Corps. Because he lived in a small place in a rather remote area of the island that made travel difficult, we stayed at the lone and rather rustic hotel in Virac. Or at least that’s what he told us; other possible covert reasons fueled my imagination for months to come.

Over the next year our paths crossed several more times, though not in Catanduanes. John’s exceptional abilities propelled him into a succession of innovative positions within the Peace Corps Philippines hierarchy. I usually ran into him in Manila while he was between trips to far-flung places. There were always the tales of his adventures, and I looked forward to them for he was a master storyteller.

When his tour of duty ended, he made a legendary return home, buying a motorcycle in Jolo in the Muslim-controlled southern end of the islands and making a dubiously legal exit to Indonesia by boat. He biked through Asia and North Africa and up into Europe. He survived a crash and attributed his rapid recovery to the restorative sun and salt water of the Mediterranean. As word of his trip reached me, I marveled at this modern-day Marco Polo with great enthusiasm and envy, for I hadn’t the courage to undertake such a journey myself.

Unfortunately, as too often happens, I lost track of one of the important influences in my life. My bumbling attempts to locate him through Googlesque methods always came up empty. However, since fate unexpectedly brought us together once before, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think that some day, when I least expect it, it could very well happen again. I’ll be sure to let you know.

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Gas Man

June 10, 2012

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Summer is here. Time for barbecues, trips to the shore, and family vacations. However, there is another activity that is not quite as pleasant: the annual ritual of students trying to find a summer job. For some, any job will do. Clearly it’s preferable to get one that is in a field of interest, but in most cases the paramount motivation is money. My biggest desire, however, was that it not be boring. My first venture failed miserably in that respect, but the next two summers turned out to be anything but.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I managed to find employment at a fast food joint named Chicken Delight. I don’t know if the customers were delighted, but I certainly wasn’t. As the low man on the totem pole, the worst tasks became mine.

The first of these was to deliver the chicken to customers who ordered by phone. The means of delivery was a small beat-up old Toyota equipped with a metal “hot box” on the front seat. With an eye on the bottom line, the owner decided to cover an area too widespread for efficient delivery. The result was threefold: cold fried chicken, unhappy customers, and meager tips.

One pitfall of the delivery vehicle was that the hot box was not fastened in any way to the seat. Every quick stop the driver made would result in the box tipping forward and the chicken landing on the floor. If you’ve ever looked at the floor of your car, you know this is not a good place for fried chicken to be. This happened on my first delivery run, and I returned immediately to the store to get a new batch. The owner was surprisingly irate, not that I spilled the chicken — an apparently common occurrence — but that I didn’t simply put it back in the container and deliver it. I protested that the chicken was contaminated by the carpet debris, but he said, “Hey, they won’t be able to tell; it blends in with the coating!”

Unfortunately, this made more sense after I observed the goings-on behind the counter. When the fryer was pulled out of the oil, sometimes a piece of chicken or several French fries would tumble out onto the floor. If a customer was present, a big show was made of throwing it away. But if no one was there, it was picked up and packed right into the container. Needless to say, I never ate any of their food.

My other job was to clean up at the end of the night. By then, the aluminum panels behind the fryers and the fan hoods above them were thoroughly coated with grease. The floors were spattered with the stuff ground in with dirt making the going slow and arduous. The boss would usually hang around watching the small TV in the back waiting to lock up. When I finished, he’d give it a perfunctory look and then grunt, thus signaling that I could leave.

I remember clearly the worst night of that summer. It was the 4th of July, and everyone was anxious to leave to join whatever festivities in which they normally partook, including me. That was not to be. It was an especially busy night for deliveries, so I couldn’t get started on my cleanup duties as soon as usual. As I started mopping the floor, the boss said, “OK, I’m gonna leave now. Lock up when you’re done.” As I sponged down the greasy aluminum panels, I could hear the fireworks in the distance and jovial groups of people walking by talking and laughing. And there I was, by myself, greasy and smelling like stale French fries while the rest of the world was having a good time. I swore I’d never take another job like that again.

Luckily, starting the following summer, I didn’t have to. My father worked at Public Service Gas and Electric Company and was able to get me in as a summer replacement meter reader (hooray for nepotism). My father had been a meter reader for many years, so I thought I knew something about the job, but I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into.

In those days, most gas and electric meters were in people’s basements which made it a somewhat intrusive operation. Each town was divided into sections, each of which became a meter reader’s route. Each route would have a book in which to record the consumption of gas and electricity. This book was a heavy-duty rectangular loose leaf binder with a thick, black, hard plastic cover. It was rather bulky and heavy, making it a bit cumbersome to carry, but it was quite handy for fending off the angry dogs which were present in many homes. Accompanying the book would be a ring of keys for the houses of people who worked so the meter reader could let himself in to read the meters.

The second essential piece of equipment was the flashlight, necessary for seeing the meter dials in dark cellars. It also bolstered one’s arsenal against Rover’s unwanted attention. And that was it — no uniform, no no hat, no identification badge.

My training became was assigned to an old timer everyone called Clancey. I had heard his name mentioned in many a story told by my father. Despite his advanced age, Clancey, a short, thin, balding Irishman, could out-walk any man in the Englewood office. He loved to show the young whippersnappers like me what a real master could do. I must admit, he was pretty impressive.

He showed me how to decide whether to loop a street or not, which part of a route to do first, how to deal with both dogs and nosy customers, and how to read and record the necessary numbers in the book. Clancey had several rules he swore by which he drilled into me during training. Always knock loudly (preferably with the butt end of the flashlight) and holler out “Gas man!” when entering a house (“You don’t want to be mistaken for a crook and get shot”). Be sure to check the bottom of the  page for that residence to see if there were any special notations like “big Doberman” or ”third basement step missing.” And, most important, enter by any legal means necessary to get those meters read.

Since I was the Summer Guy, I would do the route of anyone who was on vacation, so I always covered new territory throughout the northeastern half of Bergen County. This also meant that I had many different guy’s books, and each had their own system of shortcut abbreviations or phrases for the special notations. Several of them had just plain bad handwriting. This led to a few strange incidents.

One house in Fort Lee had an odd notation that I couldn’t quite decipher other than the words “watch for.” This was somewhat ominous since I had to let myself in with an attached key. There had already been some close encounters with German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers lurking in locked basements, so I was wary. This was an older house that had a dark unfinished cellar with iron support columns known as “lolly poles.” I called out “Gas man!” as I entered and flipped on the light switch by the basement door.

The dim light of a few bare bulbs was enough to see the meters in their normal position in the front corner. As I moved toward them, I sensed some movement on the floor by a lolly pole to my left. At first I thought it was a very large dog, but when I shined my flashlight there, much to my astonishment the beam settled on a lion! I froze in my tracks, images of the bloody carnage from Tarzan movies I’d seen flashing through my brain. Then I noticed the chain connecting the lion’s collar to the pole. The lion lazily lifted his head off his front paws to indifferently gaze at this petrified intruder, and just as quickly dropped it back to return to its afternoon nap. When I got back to the office and excitedly told everyone, Clancey just chuckled and explained that the owner worked with the circus and often had Leo down there. Good info to have beforehand, I thought to myself.

Another such indecipherable notation was in a book on a route in Northvale way up by the New York state border. Some kind of condition was noted, but I was running late, so I decided to hop the low wire fence to get to the electric meter that I could see on the back outside corner.  Halfway there, I saw — too late, as it turned out — a flurry of feathers coming towards me. It was a rooster of some sort, and the ferocity of its approach made me instinctively turn and run. It got to me just as I was about to vault the fence, slashing at my legs and shredding my pants with its claws. “Oh,” Clancey told me later, “it’s just a fighting cock. I’ve seen worse.” Thanks, Clance.

The strangest encounter, however, was with a human during another key entry in Fort Lee. As I went in the basement. I was confronted by rows and rows of dresses on racks like that which you’d see in a department store. Though unusual, it was certainly not remarkable. I crossed the room and began reading the meters when I heard a rustling noise down the next row of dresses. I caught a glimpse of a woman approaching me. Again, not a big deal. Often the residents happened to be home even when use of a key was indicated, but I had yelled “Gas man!” so there should be no surprises. I refocused to finish recording the numbers when a voice behind me asked, “Everything OK?” It was a man’s voice. I turned and stood face to face with the figure that had been approaching in the flower print dress, but the deep voice and five o’clock shadow told me this was no woman.

“Uh, yes, um, everything’s fine,” I managed to stammer as I backed down the nearest aisle. I got out of there fast, so startling was the encounter. Looking back, I’m sure there was most likely no danger, but I was nineteen and naive and as yet unexposed to such things as were most of us back in 1968. I didn’t bother even mentioning that one to Clancey later.

On the positive side, I did get to meet several people of note. One particularly hot day while doing a route along Palisade Avenue in Englewood, Betsy Palmer, a TV celebrity of the 60’s, invited me in for a glass of iced tea. She was quite lovely even in her duster and slippers.

Another time I met Frank Sinatra’s father (I think it was in Leonia). His meters were in his garage, and he let me in, talking the whole time, mostly about boxing. The walls of the garage were covered with fight posters. It seemed that he wanted young Frankie to go into the fight game, but the boy apparently had other ideas.

I read the  meters of other famous folks though I didn’t actually see them: Elston Howard, the Yankee’s MVP catcher after Yogi, one of the Eisley brothers (remember “It’s your thing, do what you wanna do”?), and crooner Tony Bennett, all legendary personalities at the time. Heady stuff for a young guy like me.

My brief stint in this job that entailed miles of walking in heat and rain, several dog bites (the little dogs were the worst, especially Chihuahuas), innumerable flea bites from standing in the dark cat-infested basements of apartment buildings, severe bouts of spider web entanglement and subsequent arachnophobia, and lonely senior citizens lying in wait to engage in endless conversations gave me a new appreciation for what my father had done all those years. But in spite of the drawbacks, I don’t think a job selling clothing in a mall or shuffling papers in an office would have matched my ever-changing experiences of being a gas man, for in the cellar world through which we traveled, the unexpected was the norm. And that was just fine by me.

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How Muskie Came To Be

January 29, 2012

I’m not sure how common this is, but I am known to different groups of people by different names. This may recall that old comedy routine by Raymond J. Johnson (”You can call me Ray or you can call me Jay…”), but in my case it’s true. My immediate family calls me Bud. People I knew from the Peace Corps or coaching call me Don, and those who know me from my teaching days call me Donald. Then there is Muskie. Yes, Muskie.

How I came to be called Muskie is a rather roundabout story, one that I thought about today because of a load of wash I did. Let me explain…

I had just finished that load of wash — jeans — and caught in the lint trap were several tightly compressed wads of paper. I knew exactly what they were without even attempting to unwad them. They were the remnants of lists left  in the pockets of my Levi’s. Forgotten lists of things to do, things to buy, things to think about. This is not an uncommon occurrence. These lists are all over the place.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I began my obsession with lists. I think it has its roots in a psychasthenic condition that I first became aware of my freshman year of college, though its actual genesis was probably long before that somewhere in my screwy childhood.

I wasn’t actually familiar with the term psychasthenia before then. It is defined by Webster as “a neurotic state characterized especially by phobias, obsessions, or compulsions that one knows are irrational.” My college roommate Tony applied the label after a few months of living with me in the dorm and observing my actions. Each night before climbing up to the top bunk (Tony, who was on the heavy side and thus occupied the bottom bunk, would be gone from the room doing who-knows-what), I would fastidiously attend to my desktop. I would cross off the date just finished on the desk blotter calendar and neatly arrange the items that had been in my pocket on top of it: plastic comb parallel to pens in one corner, wallet aligned similarly with handkerchief in another, books for tomorrow’s classes piled precisely in the center. Anyone who has seen my desk lately would be amazed.

Tony, along with Bob, another guy from down the hall (more about him later), would take great pleasure in suddenly running in, scrambling up the items, and dashing out again knowing full well that I’d have to hop down and rearrange them. Sometimes they would return a short time later, and the whole process would be repeated. If they really wanted to get to me, they would cross off the next few days on the calendar, an act tantamount to war in my book. Pretty crazy, I know. I think they,  in what passed for good naturedness in the mind of a college freshman, were trying to change my weird ways, so I didn’t hold it against them. Much.

This became the first part of my initial college nickname: Psychasthenic. Since I was immersed in a period of spiritual flux (lasting the better part of the next forty years, as it turns out) which stood out somewhat prominently in my Catholic school setting, Agnostic was the second part. The third was an expletive common to all freshman college boys (and everyone else these days, so it seems) which I do not feel the need to specify. So there it was. Psychasthenic Agnostic Fool.

In a rare act of good sense, Bob decided this was not the best of nicknames. Not because of the expletive. That part he actually liked. No, it was something else…too long, not quite the right cachet, too many Latin derivatives. One day Bob had a flash of inspiration. A connoisseur of great literature, he drew upon his stock of references and came up with my new nickname: Muskie.

Muskie? What kind of literary reference is that, you ask? Well, The Deputy Dawg Show, of course. The time-honored Saturday morning cartoon created by that titan of TV animation, Ralph Bakshi, who later (I suppose I should be thankful) was responsible for Fritz the Cat. Now, I was only vaguely aware of the show, so when he came up with this idea, I asked him to explain. The setting of the show was Mississippi (I was from Jersey and Bob from Brooklyn), the characters were animals (including Moley Mole, Pig Newton, Ty Coon, and Vincent van Gopher) (again, I should be thankful), and the plot (what there was of it, anyway) involved petty crimes committed by these critters. None of this seemed relevant. At least P.A.F. made some logical sense.

“Why?” Bob retorted. “Because you look like Muskie Muskrat!” Of course. How could I have been so dense.

This was seemingly following a disturbing pattern. My previous nickname which had followed me all the way through elementary and junior high school and only began to wear off in high school was Mousie. Was I destined to remain entrenched in the realm of Rodentia? I remember when I was in Scouts, one of my adult leaders, the father of one of the perpetrators of the Mousie tag, reprimanded his son and the others. “I know you think it’s funny now, but these names have a habit of sticking.” Prophetic words, indeed.

Muskie, which I hoped would eventually fade as Mousie did, has lasted until this day. My college friends still call me Muskie. My wife met me as Muskie (though she now only refers to me by it), and members of her family all call me Muskie (except for her Aunt Rosie, who couldn’t remember it and called me Wolfie). My niece and nephew, now twenty-one and eighteen, call me Uncle Muskie as do the now-adult children of my college friends. My buddy Frank’s numerous phone messages always raucously begin, “Hey, Musk!” I’m sure it will pop up in a eulogy eventually.

But again, I should be thankful. It beats the original P.A.F. and the possible alternatives like Moley or Fritz. And besides, I don’t really mind. After all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  Bob didn’t say that. Some guy named Will did. William. The Bard. Well, you know.

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Remembering Charlie

December 1, 2011

Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I think of him often, but especially today during World AIDS Day. He is the personal face of this affliction to me.

Over the years AIDS has moved from the front page headlines to the back pages and now virtually out of the public eye entirely. Many have forgotten, or because of their age, never knew this frightening scourge and its wake of tragedy in the early years of its advent. It seems as though not too many people concern themselves with it anymore unless they have some personal connection. I am one of those people, for my friend Charlie was one the victims when AIDS was still a fearful and misunderstood specter haunting our country.

Charlie was my friend. He was a warm and caring person, bursting with creativity and energy. I think he felt it was his mission to make everyone else’s day brighter. Most people didn’t see the turmoil within him.

I knew Charlie well when we were in college, though I didn’t know he was gay. Perhaps he didn’t either at that time. He married another of my college friends, but eventually that union unraveled and his inevitable emergence as a gay man was complete. His new partner was an Argentinean he met in New York, but by that time I no longer saw Charlie as the paths of our lives had diverged.

For a while, our paths were one. Some of my most emotionally challenging times were shared with him. More precisely, he, acting as a self-appointed guardian angel, attempted to rescue me.

One of those occurred during a difficult time in my attempted courtship of the girl of my dreams. She had suffered a heartbreak once and was unsure about the nature of this new relationship with me. I do not blame her for that. However, I was emotionally fragile, and Charlie sought to nurture me.

His family lived in Schenectady, and on the spur of the moment,  he convinced me to join him on a long weekend trip home. No one else knew of this, so it seemed that I had disappeared from campus. During the bus trip upstate, I poured out my misery to Charlie, and he comforted me. We talked for hours, more deeply and personally than I ever had before with anyone, sharing stories of our lives and our hopes and dreams. I remember falling asleep exhausted with my head on his shoulder as he sang softly to me. The time we spent with his sister and brother-in-law proved to be a healthy diversion, and my absence, though short, was startling to my sweetheart, and a better chapter between us ensued.

Another incident I remember clearly developed out of my frequent flirtation with academic disaster. I was a diehard procrastinator, but usually could pull the fat out of the fire at the last minute by pulling an all-nighter or three. However, on this occasion I had gotten myself into an impossible jam from which I didn’t think I could extricate myself. I had two major papers due, neither of which I had even started, and one of them had already been postponed once. I knew yet another all-nighter was my only chance, but after struggling late into the evening, defeat appeared to be at hand. That’s when Charlie popped in. He listened to my plight, and without a second’s hesitation sat down to help. The term “help” hardly does justice to his effort. As I composed one paper at my typewriter, Charlie busied himself at another, asking me questions and helping me clarify my thoughts as he typed away. My dire situation had taken a turn, and there was now hope where there had been despair. We finished at dawn, and more than a few laughs were shared as Charlie helped shape my ideas into an admirable and often inspired piece of writing.

Charlie loved Leonard Cohen. His favorite song at that time was “Suzanne.” I think the dark tone that still retained the hope for beauty and love appealed to him. Charlie wrote in a similar vein. I still have his notes and poems and musings written on scraps of paper now yellowed with age. He gave me this after our Schenectady trip:

“I have come to give you the blue blue sky with my hands

and show you the dark dark dawn with its gray lands

where hot meets cold; and besides I have the time time

to spend on forever to gather the sky sky in a rhyme.

It may never be said how much I must need give you

or show you, you, sitting mournfully, weeping, you who

tried to love before and failed failed.”

When the end of college arrived, he gave me a folder with some of his illustrations and what I now understand was his letter of farewell to me. In it I also see the acknowledgment of his new path:

“But this school year is a rebirth for me; it ends in anxiety and joy. I conquered a world and I face reality. Your end-year must be very sad; I wish you the comfort of understanding but the purification of pain. Learn to smile in the face of pain and tragedy. I do it daily.”

I did not witness Charlie’s descent into the horrors of this disease. I am regretful of that because I could have taken my turn as guardian angel. In a way, though, I’m glad my memories of him were not tainted by his time of debilitation; I believe he felt the same way. I went with a few friends to a small memorial gathering on the Hudson River where we dropped flowers into the flow and shared some of the many Charlie stories we all had.

Because of AIDS, Charlie became a statistic, part of the tragic toll this disease took. But like each of the statistics, he was someone, a real person with family and friends and hopes and failures. Each left behind friends and family. Each left behind memories of whatever mark they left on the world and the people whose lives they touched.

Yes, Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I can not, and will not, forget either of those.

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My Year in the Coal Bin

October 29, 2011

Most of my college years were spent in a dormitory. I don’t at all regret this, for it is there that I met some of my lifelong friends, and there that I had some strange and interesting experiences. However, my last year of college found me living in a converted coal bin in the basement of a tenement building in Newark. My run of strange and interesting experiences was destined to continue.

My girlfriend (who was my eventual wife) lived in this building her freshman year. It was owned by an old Polish woman named Mrs. Jasinski who lived in the front rooms on the second floor of the old-style railroad apartment. My girlfriend and her roommate rented a small room in the back, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with their rather intrusive landlady.

It was at this place where I first met my future wife’s parents. I had planned on stopping over for a quick visit before they arrived one Sunday afternoon. I was riding a friend’s motorcycle, a customized black 350 CC monster with no baffles in the muffler — not legal, but mighty loud. At the time I had long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache. I roared up the driveway to the back of the building to suddenly encounter my future in-laws who had arrived early, mouths agape at the sight of the guy their precious little girl was seeing. I can only imagine the conversation in that car on the way home.

The two girls were not thrilled rooming there, as it proved not to be the most convenient of arrangements. Sharing a kitchen and bathroom with Mrs. Jasinski caused all manner of conflict because of her various idiosyncratic rules and regulations. She also had a habit of rummaging through their belongings while they were home for the weekends. They moved out after one year.

I moved in the next, but several floors below. Why, one may wonder, would anyone want to live in a converted coal bin in a tenement basement? A fair question, to be sure. It was not for the drably painted cinder block walls and exposed pipes. It was not for the absence of a bathroom, nor for the tiny windows or bare light bulbs which contributed to the cave-like ambiance. It was certainly not for the noise from the apartment upstairs.

It was for the rent. Fifty dollars a month. That’s $12.50 a week. For a college senior in 1969 who was down to the end of his bank account, that was reason enough.

Home Sweet Coal Bin

Living there did have its perks. I had gotten to know Mrs. Jasinski during my visits with my girlfriend (which she would carefully monitor) the previous year. She kind of took a shining to younger men. I was student teaching at the time at an all girls Catholic high school nearby in Irvington and would often come home late from some activity or other. I would find waiting for me on the floor outside my coal bin door a wax paper covered plate. In it would be Mrs. Jasinski’s homemade golumpkis or pirogues covered with congealed fat.

My nickname back then was Muskie (given to me freshman year in the dorm because of my supposed resemblance to a cartoon character from Deputy Dog). When I would go upstairs to Mrs. Jasinski’s apartment to use the bathroom before bed (remember, no facilities in the coal bin), she would say to me in her drawn-out gravely voice (imagine an 85 year old Polish Kathleen Turner speaking), “Ooohh, Muuusskiee, you like the perooogiiis?”

Part way through the year, my great friend Rob, who went to Montclair State, moved in with me. On the down side, the jail-cell sized room didn’t leave much space to maneuver. But Rob was good company, and it did now make the split rent only $25.

Mrs. Jasinski really took a shining to Rob. I can still hear her crooning every time she’d see us; “Ooohh, Rrroooobbb, you come take a shower tonight, yeeesss?” Rob milked this for all it was worth. He was angling for a further reduction in rent, but it usually meant more cold greasy Polish food left at our door. But I’m convinced it was this relationship that one night saved our hides.

The family above us could be quite noisy. I usually ignored it, but one night it bothered Rob to the point of action. He turned up the stereo (I think it was Janis Joplin). Now, the fellow upstairs looked pretty much like Tony Soprano (and he may very well have been in the same business), so I urged Rob to forget it, but he was hell-bent on his mission. The noise upstairs increased. Rob escalated the situation by cranking up the music full blast, resulting in loud pounding coming from above. Rob then had the bright idea to make use of our tactical advantage of being in the basement, and he flipped off the circuit breakers to the offending party’s apartment. Thankfully Rob had the foresight to lock the door to the basement first, for the thunderous hollering and pounding testified to the fury we would have had to endure. Mrs. Jasinski got down there in record time (she was not a slim woman) to mollify the brute. They moved out shortly thereafter, and I have to believe it was because of the intercession of our amorous protector.

When graduation time arrived, Rob and I packed up our meager belongings, loaded up his old Buick, and prepared to head out. Mrs. Jasinski seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I don’t know if the coal bin was ever rented out again; it probably wasn’t legal in the first place. However, of all the varied places I would end up living in my life, none could ever match the weird homeyness of my year in the coal bin.