Author Archives: admin

July 6, 2016

I’m not sure when I met Mark. Although we were the same grade at the same elementary school, we were never in the same class (that I remember) and we grew up in different neighborhoods. We were “friends of friends”, Mike being the conduit. Through Junior High and High School, our mutual friends brought us closer, but it wasn’t until we were adults that we bonded.

Then we were both professional bartenders, and we would meet up with each other to see what was new in the world. I have said throughout my career that everyone could be a good bartender, but being a great one was something you couldn’t teach; you had to have it. Mark had it, and he had it in spades at Hot Tomatoes. That bar – 3 sided, six or eight to a side – was perfect. He treated newbies like they’d been there forever and he had the regulars their drink before they’d check their coats. He brought people together and left them wanting more. He was the star of the show, the captain of the ship, the straw that stirs the drink.

But he wasn’t the life of the party.

So many people go into a bar with no expectation but hope of having a good time, and they leave with their expectations exceeded. What they don’t know is the person responsible for that is a) sober and b) working until 3 or later in the morning. It’s easy to confuse the person getting you drunk and making your night memorable as being one of your own, and sometimes it’s hard for the bartender to draw that line, but when the party moves on the bartender is there, cleaning up, counting money and watching the sunrise.

Let me be clear: I am not angry about the career choices I have made. It has paid me well, and given me great opportunities. But it doesn’t trade out the loneliness. When I worked in the sideshow there was a saying I learned: “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.” I have been paid well, and I would like to think (based on where he worked) Mark was paid well. That’s the easy. Here’s the hard.

When you are spending holidays with your family, we’re spending them with families we don’t know, or worse with people who hate their family and want to tell us all about it. When you get up on a Monday and bitch about having to go back to work, you’ve got several million people commiserating with you; bartenders work when you don’t. There’s certainly some benefit to that, but it only helps create a greater sense of isolation. In a sense, bartenders are really no different than second shift operators on a help line for your home appliance: we’re just here to do a job.

I’m envious of the friends I have who have made a “normal” life out of bartending. married, kids, the whole shooting match, and I’m sure some of that is their own personality going into it. But I’m also envious of Mark. Because he stayed.

When I graduated High School I sat in the back row of the football field and watched a thunderstorm roll up. I wished it would light the town on fire and burn it down, I was that excited to get out. Mark stayed. Mark made a life for himself, cultivating friendships while creating a career he might never have dreamt about but certainly succeeded at. Meanwhile I kept packing up Honda Accords and criss-crossing the country, the whole time winning awards and stepping up in jobs. But here’s the thing:

Mark could’ve done that.

Like I said Mark had the intangible, the unteachable. Mark was pure and forthright, and he easily could have been a “Rumologist” or a mixology teacher at a high end resort. But he stayed with who he was. Maybe that’s because it was what he wanted, maybe because he was scared to test the waters, or maybe just because he had the life he had and didn’t know what to do with it.

I’ll never know. I don’t know the last time I talked to him, and like all of us that will haunt us. And haunt is the word, because people always say “Nobody should die in vain” and “If one life is changed, it’s worth it.” Well, I don’t believe anyone dies in vain, not for any warm positive reason but rather a cold morbid truth: death is inevitable. Like the rain it comes to the just and unjust; as a part of life to say someone’s death is in vain is to say their life was in vain, and that is something I cannot accept. The least you do for anyone, you do for everyone, and each of our lives matter.

It’s tougher to negotiate the “change one life” thing. I’ll be 45 later this year, and my spots are pretty much where they will always be. And yet today I have been melancholy because I know the life a bartender leads – I know the life I have led – and I am confronted with my own mortality. I look at how I live, the choices I make, the hours I keep (not just for work but also for finding the time to socialize with others) and I recognize I could do better. The truth is though I recognize that far too often, and there are people here, people part of my life, that I want to be better, smarter, healthier, kinder, whatever for, and yet I still fail. If I can’t do it for the living, what hope do the dead have?

And still we beat on, boats against the current, trying to make sense of this thing we call life. Moments like these give us pause, and each of us find our own way to rage against the dying of the light. Some of us will look back and decide we haven’t risked enough, we haven’t lived the way we wanted to and we find ways to throw caution in the wind and cast our lines in the open sea. Others will double down on the choices they’ve made, recommit to the world they are in and bring a new depth to it. No answer is wrong, but the only right answer is the one for you.

My friend Amy, an old friend of Mark’s, texted me something without provocation on my part. She knew this was bothering me (I used the term melancholy) and before I could tell her anything about the blog I was going to write, she said “Jack, please be smiling in his honor.”

I will always remember how he smiled. I will always remember his pure happiness to see people, to be there for people. I will most certainly remember his unquestioned dedication to his friends. What I won’t remember is him ever being angry. Sure I saw him upset when he was stuck working with morons (who wouldn’t be?) but he always found a positive in everything. And I will remember the one joke he told me. With his last name, he could get away with it:

Q: Why does every Polish name end is -ski?

A: Because toboggan is too hard to spell.

I’ll miss you big fella. Rest easy, and save me a stool at your new bar.

Bonus track. Enough said.

June 29, 2016

One of the plus/minuses of moving is I’m always going through the flotsam of my past. I keep like 95% of the letters/cards/whatnot that I get from people. Usually it’s a little painful, and this time is no different. I found a larger trove of cards and letters from a friend than I expected and it reminded me of how selfish I can be. But in the middle of that I found a few gems. One was a letter from a high school friend to me as a freshman telling me and my roommate to blow off class and meet them at the Met. The other was the thing I’m writing about.

A long time ago, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I was not long out of college, I worked for an insurance company. (What can I say? I grew up around Hartford; I think everyone had to for some time, kind of a Nutmeg State rite of passage.) Anyway, I hated the job and the bosses hated the fact that I hated the job. They showed me that hatred by giving me the lowest possible bonus they could. I however was already three steps ahead of them.

The day the bonus check came out, i took it right down to the credit union in the building and cashed it so they couldn’t stop payment on it. Then I went back to my desk and sent out the email that follows. I walked down one flight of stairs, a co-worker drove me to the bus station and I left for my new job and apartment that I had already lined up.

It was, and is, a call to action, one that has sometimes made me miserable over the years as I search for that ideal situation, but also one that I never lose sight of. Ironically the copy I’m transcribing from was sent to me by a coworker from her personal email account. Wonder if it’s still active….

Enjoy.

“Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, I guess it’s time for a goodbye again.”

For a writer, I find myself strangely drawing a blank. This message will be received by two groups: those I worked for and those I worked with. i feel I will start with those I worked for.

There’s an irony that I feel has been missed by the supervisors. In the obsessive search for the perfect stats (editor note: we were a call center for the insurance company), the fact has been lost that to obtain those stats, which could be easily done by the staff working here, the staff needs to want to earn them, and that is not something achieved through threatening and oppressive tactics. There is no one here that is happy with the current situation, and yet that is not to say that there are not people here who want to be happy here, who like the job and want to continue. I’m not saying this place should be run like a Club Med, but instead of intimidating the staff, try respecting them. Very few give their all here because they feel that there is no reason to. Too much emphasis is placed on emphasizing the negative and too little on reinforcing the positive. Respect the staff and the staff will respect you, and the elusive wonderful stats will be achieved. An emperor that rules with an open hand has a far more rewarding and productive country than one who rules with a closed fist.

On to those with whom I worked. I’ve met all sorts of people, from the outrageous to the uptight (you know who you are) and I will take all of you with me. It is the artistic conceit to use that which one knows as fodder for creation, and that which I have experienced here will give me years of material! There are two groups of you, and to each of you I give you a wish:

To those of you who know that this company, or one like it, is your future: keep up the fight. There is much that needs to be changed, and there is much that will be changed. Remember all that you are entitled to, such as simple decency, and do not stop asking for it until you get it. This can be a good place to work, for you are all good people to work with, and you can make it good. It shouldn’t have to be that way; a comfortable work environment is something that should already exist and not have to be fought for, but you can make it that way. Just don’t ever stop. (And remember: the state labor relation board can be your best friend…)

For those of you who know that this company, or one like it, is not what your future holds: the world is out there waiting for you, and you must go and meet it. Some people believe that we live many lives, but since this is the only one I seem to remember, i can only believe that this is it, and therefore we must make the most of it. It is up to you to make the most out of life, for life will not make anything for you. In the end, you will only regret that which you did not do and not that which you did.

I’m out of here kids. My fingers are shaking, my blood is pumping, my body is jazzed and my bags are packed. I wish everyone nothing but the best. If I leave here, and you all, a little different, hopefully better, than when i first arrived, that makes me a happy man. I hope some who knows enough/is foolish enough to take over my position as department court jester, for there is nothing in this world more precious in this world than a laugh and a smile. Since I started all of this with a song quote (B. Joel “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”,) I might as well end it with one (B. Dylan “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues.”)

“I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.”

That was my resignation letter, at age 25, to MassMutual. It went out to about 200 people, and yes, I did receive a standing ovation on my way out of the cubicle farm. There are, naturally, two bonus tracks for this. Click here for the opener, and click here for the one that played over the credits as I left the building.

June 21, 2016

I feel like I have little control over much of my life these days. I’m sure that is a common sentiment for people in all walks of life; even people whose schedule and habits are so ritualized probably feel some level of helplessness over at least certain aspects of their lives. Still, I feel I’m entitled to boast about my situation a little more than most.

First of all there is my living situation. The apartment I was supposed to move into 7 weeks ago is still not done being remodeled. That’s what happens when the people doing the work only do so on the weekends. (And don’t ask why there are now three toilets, none of them hooked up, in the apartment, because I don’t know.) I’m tired of living out of suitcases, tired of living in someone else’s space and tired of not having a space I can make my own. Secondly there is the job I work at. Although things have been rectified and my boss and I are now actually enjoying the type of professional relationship I envisioned when I took the job, he’s still enigmatic as hell, and between his odd mood swings and an ever changing schedule, your guess is as good as mine as to what my workday or week will look like. Finally there’s the novel: I’m sure there’s more that I can do to help it sell, but I don’t know what it is, so I sit here watching the sales dry up.

So this is what I’m in the middle of, and yesterday i just said “Enough.” I needed to do something that was mine to control, and so I decided to brush my teeth. But I mean really brush them.

I know that may sound odd, and your first question is probably “Don’t you already do that?” Honestly the answer is not as often as you think. Some morning I think about how bad my coffee will taste and other days I just straight up forget. And at night, well let’s just say I can take lazy to new extremes. So no, I’m not exactly a poster child for dental hygienestry. You’d think I would be based on the amount of work done the last time I had a dentist, and maybe that was part of why I decided this would be the area in which I reasserted my control.

Whatever the reason I found myself at Duane Reade buying a new toothbrush, better tooth paste, a bunch of dental floss and what could only be described as miniature pipe cleaners. Armed to the teeth (see what I did there?) with my new weapons of cleaning, I went home to do battle.

And battle is what it looked like.

I don’t know if your dentist has told you about these miniature pipe cleaner thingies, but basically they exist because flossing is no longer good enough. One you’re done stringing your teeth like a bunch of pearls, you are then supposed to jam this little wire brush between each pair of teeth as well. I guess it’s kind of like sweeping the floor used to be good enough, but then the Swiffer got invented and suddenly brooms were just the opening act. If you wanted things real clean, you needed a Swiffer to do the job.

Now, not having been a regular flosser as of late, I knew that this could get a little messy. My experience has always been that when I start flossing again the first few times my saliva gets a little scarlety. And that’s always what it’s been, red hued saliva. Whatever blood is drawn by the flossing is minimal and diluted by the saliva almost immediately. Sure, it ain’t pretty to see, but it doesn’t feel me with any sense of panic or worry. The pipe cleaners are another story.

On the list of flavors that I like, blood is pretty low on the list. I honestly probably couldn’t describe what it actually tastes like; I just know that I don’t like it because if I’m tasting blood that means something is seriously wrong. I knew I was going to be in trouble when the first time I used this weapon it went into my mouth the color of wire and came out the color of blood. And I don’t mean tinged. The damn thing looked like I stuck it in a can of paint. Immediately I could feel that unfamiliar and unpleasant taste. This was going to be a challenge.

I mentioned before I’m lazy, but I’m also stubborn, usually in the wrong direction. I’m definitely of the “Telling me no just makes me want to do it that much more” mold of humanity. If I’m drawing blood, common sense says I should probably stop. But I continued, rationalizing it by saying that if I don’t persevere now nothing will change. I need to train my teeth and gums for this sadistic event so they can enjoy improved health.

By the time I was done my sink looked like the floor of a slaughterhouse. I fully expected Brian DePalma to knock on my door and ask me if he could reshoot the final scene of “Carrie” using all the blood I was now diligently trying to clean up before it stained and made my landlord’s sink look like a crime scene. But here’s the thing: I felt good.

Not just good because my teeth were cleaner (albeit probably also a little redder) than they’ve been in quite some time, but good because i had done some small, almost inconsequential activity that let me have some semblance of control over my life. I posted a quick and dirty status update last week about just how tired I felt, and it was – and is – a frightening sense of tiredness. It is the tired that makes me not want to get out of bed. It is the tiredness that makes me not want to talk to people. It is the tiredness of wanting to get in a hot shower and not let it end. It is the tiredness of depression.

Left to my own devices I know that I’m an accident waiting to happen. I’m not known for always making the smartest decisions in general, and when I’m feeling so unmoored from life and adrift in a sea of instability, all of that becomes heightened. I’m not sure what the final straw was yesterday, the event that pushed me over the good edge and not the bad one, but I’m glad it happened. To be sure, depression is not just something a person shakes off, and it certainly isn’t “cured” by brushing your teeth. The longer the apartment drags on the more likely I am to feel this way.

I guess the trick is to find the trade offs and take on the battles you can win. I can’t do anything about the apartment. I don’t know how to do plumbing, install toilets or hook up sinks, and I have to cede that control. I don’t like doing that ever in my life, but I have to accept that’s just the way it is. So I find areas where I can do something that makes me feel positive. I feel a lot ridiculous celebrating that I’m improving my dental hygiene. That roughly puts me on the same level as your typical five year old. But when the big things are falling apart, being able to find the little things and start rebuilding with those makes all the difference in the world.

May 20th, 2016

Second guessing is a habit that very few people ever learn to overcome. What can make the situation even worse is when we have too much time to reconsider our choices. Many times our actions have an immediate result and the best we can do is say “Oh well” and move on. Occasionally, however, we have time to think about if we did the right thing. This might be the reason many people, myself usually included, wait until the last minute when there is a deadline before we make our choices. It’s one thing to second guess yourself after the fact; it’s quite another to obsess about how you might have acted rashly, or didn’t think things through.

A few months ago several people alerted me to a writing contest where the prize was the opportunity to be the writer in residence at The Studios of Key West during the annual Hemingway Days. Seeing as how I love both Key West and writing, this seemed to be right up my alley. Within an hour I had a new story that fit the one criteria: that it be 500 words or less.

Now, even though I may be one of the more impulsive people I know, even I knew not to submit that story right away. Sure enough every day for most of the next week I fiddled around with it. Then I gave it out to a couple of my co-workers at the Monkey Bar who are also writers to get their opinion. Armed with their suggestions I spent a few more days fine tuning the story.

Of course, there eventually comes a point when too much editing is a bad thing. At only 468 words, there wasn’t a whole lot of wiggle room on the story, and I felt like i had finally got it to a point that told the story of the main character, his current relationship, his strained past with his father and his struggle to find some resolution with the two (or not) in a way that was captivating and complete. So then I sent it off, even though I had almost two and a half more months before the deadline.

For the first few weeks I found myself second guessing it, mostly because I knew that I could have taken that much more time with it. Eventually other parts of life got in the way and I found that it had slipped from my mind, so much so that I took a new job and was working there for a few weeks before it dawned on me I might need to ask for an entire month off.

Well, it looks like that isn’t going to be necessary. Although I technically have a few more hours before the deadline of when they said they would inform the winner, I’m feeling pretty confident that they ain’t going to call me. And since I’d not like the story to be wasted, here it is. I’d say more about it, but this intro is already than the damn story itself, so here it is, “Penance.”

The river was sharp, running high with the memories of another challenging winter. The waders I should have replaced last year kept me dry but not warm. It was no matter, or wouldn’t be in a few minutes. As much as my body would be getting used to the chill my mind would be focusing on why I was here.

“No promises,” I called back to her half sleeping voice in the bedroom when she instructed me to bring home lunch. It had been a condition of her coming with me, even if neither of us were sure that she even should: fresh fish every day. Most days that promise was easily fulfilled, but some days a man has to make a choice. Some days have deeper promises to uphold, whether he wants to or not.

Ten minutes passed maybe, maybe forty-five. The structure of time became meaningless in the face of repetitive action. The sun grew behind me, evidenced in the shadows on the opposite bank shortening up before they were consumed completely, and still my arm moved independently of thought. The action was one I had learned at my father’s knee in these same waters, actions I soon had to learn on my own when my teacher decided he had better places to fish and tougher people to fish with.

The strike came hard and strong, but still I moved with instinct. My body became alive and, no longer concerned about announcing my presence to the fish, I moved through the thigh deep current, letting him run but informing him of the futility of it all at the same time. My intensity hardened and I could sense by the pull on the line where he was going next, what his next attempt at escape would be, and I beat him at every step. Still he did not come willingly, and even as I scooped him by the gill and birthed him from his home, he struggled valiantly.

And then he didn’t. Instead, he surrendered against the wet fabric of my flannel, twice as long as my forearm, and let me see him for who he was. He knew somehow that the beauty he possessed would far outweigh the usefulness of his flesh in my kitchen. Now I knew the sun was high above my shoulder because I could see the reflection of so many rainbows in his scales, a shimmering apparition. The more I saw him, the more I believed he was not real, just a ghost coming back to renew its haunting.

He stayed at my feet for a moment longer than most do after I have reintroduced the river to their gills. He stayed with me forever even after I was alone in the kitchen, deconstructing last night’s steaks into a lunch I never promised.

May 11, 2016

One of the loudest nights I ever spent was in one of the quietest places I’ve ever been.

Many years ago, when dinosaurs walked the Earth and I lived on the Upper West Side, I found myself with an unexpected week off from work. I decided to take advantage of the time and visit my mom up in Maine. Now, when I say up in Maine, I mean we drove for fifteen minutes one night to go to dinner….in Canada! What was more shocking than that however was just how loud it was when I tried going to sleep the first night I was there.

People have this expectation of NYC being super noisy 24/7, and I suppose that might be true in certain places like Times Square, but I had never experienced anything like I did in Maine. It seemed like once the sun went down every insect, amphibian, moose and muskrat started singing their love songs. It was an all encompassing sound that never seemed to stop, one that was as unnerving as it was complete.

Conversely I’ve spent some of the quietest nights very recently in my life, here in my apartment. Typically it seems like there is always some noise in the background – the heating pipes coughing to life, some traffic on the streets, stuff like that – but every so often I realize I can’t hear anything. It happens late at night, after I’ve gone to bed but before my mind has finally stopped racing. All of a sudden I’ll notice that there is pure silence, nothing to listen to, nothing to hear, and once again it is as unnerving as it is complete.

Quiet nights in the darkness are not always good for me, and the one I had recently was particularly interesting. (I use “interesting” because it is a far less depressing term than some that might be more accurate.) Without mentioning all of the stops the thought train took, I’ll jump ahead to the final station.

I recognized that although I may talk about and think about long term goals, I very rarely do anything to pursue them. Even short term goals seem to be beyond my reach often times. If no-term goals exist, I excel at them. Years ago I thought about the difference between living “in the moment” and “for the moment.” The first recognizes being aware of, and fully participating in, the present, being prepared for where you are right now. The second to me refers more towards living only for right now and not worrying about (or even considering) the consequences of your choices and actions. I tried to convince myself that I was much more about being “in the moment” than “for the moment” but that was about as effective as trying to tell myself I lost weight by buying smaller clothes, even though I knew they didn’t fit.

A friend of mine told me recently that if a person really wants something, doesn’t just pay lip service to it but truly means it, they will want to get up and do something to make that happen. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, and after I finally fell asleep and woke the next day, still pondering the thoughts from my eerily quiet night, I understood that part of what it would take to make that happen is to pay more attention to what I wanted in the long term, and how my short term (and even immediate) actions would affect that. Simply put, I need to stop and ask myself before doing most anything that requires a choice “Is this good for where I want to be headed?” I don’t always like the answer I come up with, mostly because almost universally the answer is no, and that smacks in the face of the instant gratification lifestyle I have perfected, but it has also taught me to look at the decisions I’m making in a different way. Instead of focusing on what I might be losing now, I instead try to focus on what I might be gaining in the future.

It’s not an easy process to be sure, and part of me feels like I’m making it even harder by talking about it. Many people feel that if they put something out there in the open so other people can know about it, it forces them to be more accountable. Instead of just doing it for themselves they are also doing it for other people, and they do not want to let them down. Me, I’m kind of the opposite. Thanks to the dark recesses of my mind I feel so accustomed to letting people down that this just gives me a better opportunity to do disappoint more people at the same time. (For the record, this is why I’ve never been hired to write inspirational posters.)

So if this is the case, why am I doing this? Self fulfilling prophecy? I certainly ope not. Turning over a new leaf? That would be nice. Something in the middle? Most likely. It’s been a heady few weeks for me, getting the novel finalized and out there, and will continue to be, between my friend’s wedding in Key West, the book signing event I’m putting together for while I’m down there, and the uncertainly of my living situation, and I think that this blog, this thought process, this whatever is important because it helps to give me some sort of grounding in the middle of it all. Who knows.

The truth is it’s all a process, every step of the way, and each accomplishment only brings about the next aspect of the journey. I used to joke about going to Buffett tailgates when people would say it’s a marathon and not a sprint by responding “No. It’s a sprint, a nap and a sprint.” Maybe it’s just (finally) time I realized I need to put away my running shoes and put on my walking shoes.

 

Bonus track. Until I wrote the last line I had no idea what song to listen to. This is what that line inspired.

May 2, 2016

Years of tending bar in Key West has made it a habit of mine to ask people where they are from not long after they settle into their bar stools. This is a habit that has been a hard one to temper over the last several months. It isn’t necessarily a bad way to start a conversation with new guests at the bar, but more often than not it’s reasonably unnecessary. Considering both bars I’ve worked in since I’ve been back are located in midtown east – not exactly a mecca for people on vacation – it’s a simple assumption that they live, work or some combination of the both in the neighborhood. Still, it’s become an even more problematic question at the new bar:

100 yards away is the Sloan/Kettering Cancer Center. It’s regarded as one of the leading cancer institutes in the country, and to get that kind of recognition means you deal with some pretty heavy forms of cancer.

I work mostly day shifts, so when someone walks in during the middle of the afternoon, especially during the week, it’s pretty easy to put them in one of two classes. Class one is a worker, someone who does finance, business or lawyering. They’re pretty easy to spot, mostly because they seem dressed for the role. If there’s any confusion, all I need to do is listen to them talk for about 30 seconds. Class two, simply put, doesn’t look the part.They could be dressed anything from super casual to “Are you sure you leave the house in that?” They come alone, or with a friend, but it becomes obvious quickly that they aren’t taking a long lunch break from the office.

After the first couple of times my question of “What brings you guys out?” was met with “We just came from Sloan” I knew better than to ask. I’ll listen to people and use the context clues of their conversation to figure out what their situation is. As you could imagine, people who are looking for a brief respite while a loved one is fighting for their life, don’t necessarily want to talk about what they are going through. Of course some days they do. This was one of those days.

A guy walked in with whom I rightly assumed was his daughter. He was wearing a UCONN shirt which I complimented him on. We talked about Connecticut, beers and cocktails, and he was so impressed with the French Martini I made his daughter he gave up his plans to sample all of our IPAs and instead switched to a Perfect Manhattan. (Naturally when he asked if I could make one, I said “All my drinks are perfect.”) Before long the wife/mother came over, and also before long I knew that his daughter was across the street.

He mentioned a little, that she had been at another hospital in the city and had been moved here, but didn’t say much more about it, and I didn’t really want to ask. It’s a personal journey and I’m just the bartender. He had mentioned, more to his daughter than to me, that his son-in-law, the husband of the woman who was receiving treatment, would like the bar not only because of the bar itself but also because we had Hoegarten on tap. The three of them talked among themselves, I chit-chatted a little with them, but mostly we were on our own. Until he asked where the restroom was.

I pointed out the unisex one on the main floor (and don’t anyone get started on that please) but mentioned, as someone had just gone in, there were more upstairs. He told me that was fine, he’d wait, and then he sat at the end of the bar and I realized he didn’t need to use the restroom as much as he needed to talk to someone who wasn’t in the middle of the shit storm that was tearing up his family.

His daughter was not yet 30 and she’d been fighting cancer for 2 years. What started as one type of cancer (and soon turned into stage 4) eventually became other cancers as well. In the middle of this two year battle her boyfriend became her husband. And now they were here, trying to tell each other all the right things when he said the one thing to me no parent ever wants to say to anyone:

“We have to decide if she spends her last days at home with her family or in a hospital room.”

I’m sure it’s something every one of them had been thinking, some more consciously than others. They each in their own way had probably had some reckoning that there was not much more to be done, but the hope and desire of success was outweighing the fear of mortality, and nobody wanted to be the first to say it. Still, he had to admit it to someone just to give him the strength to admit it to himself. Joke all you want about bartenders being low rent shrinks, but y’all do tell us things you won’t tell anyone else just because you need to tell someone.

I didn’t really know what to say to him at that point. I’m sure I muttered the work “Fuck” especially when he told me her age and specifically her marriage situation. I grew up with three friends, brothers all of them, one of which was two years older than me. As an adult he had a girlfriend, they got serious and were planning to get married. Then he got diagnosed with Leukemia. Convinced she wouldn’t want to marry him knowing he carried what proved to be a  death sentence, he pulled back his plans.

So she proposed to him.

I don’t have to tell anyone reading this how unfair life can be, and I certainly don’t have to tell anyone that cancer sucks. You can split hairs and say “Well at least she made it to 29/at least she has a supportive family” and so many other things to find the good, accentuate the positive, walk on the sunny side of the street, whatever, it doesn’t change the fact that there is this family who spend their days watching their daughter/sister/wife die and there isn’t thing one they can do about it.

Call me a coward, call me a pussy, call me selfish, whatever, but I don’t ever want to be that father. Hell, I don’t want to be that son, brother, uncle, husband or friend. I certainly didn’t do it because I wanted to, and I don’t even feel like I did it because I could as much as I did it for those who wanted to and couldn’t. But if I could never be in that hospital room again, I’ll take it. And if (when) the situation is reversed, believe me you won’t know. Not until you say “Huh, I haven’t heard from Jack in a while.” I’ve brought too much joy to too many people (and a fair amount of suffering to a few.) Why would I want the last thing I bring to people be so much pain and suckage?

The father came back in the early evening, this time with the son-in-law. (I felt bad. The Hoegarten was flat and we didn’t have another keg.) We talked a little bit more, and I got the icy sense that things, in the span of only a few hours, had taken another turn for the worse. As they were leaving, the father turned to my coworker and I and thanked us. He said that it had been just what he needed, a little respite in the middle of so much crap, a calm spot in the storm. We thanked him and wished the best for his family, but I couldn’t help but hurt, knowing he had a lot more heavy decisions to make, and it would most like be his last calm for a long time.

April 21, 2016

I never did write a blog about that jackass from Harrisburg who sat at a dirty bar spot and then demanded service, to the point where he trashed my friend and co-worker simply for doing his job.

Truth is if I had a dollar for every blog I was going/supposed/had to write I’d be a bajillionaire. Today of course I should write about Prince. And I will probably, but mostly by not talking about him.

I of course knew who Prince was growing up, thanks to purple rain and MTV but i never really understood how important he was until someone played a variation of the desert island disk game with me. The old game was pick nine different albums you’d bring with you to a desert island. Well someone said here’s the new version: One artists, nine albums

At first it was easy: Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet, Bob Dylan. Beyond that though I (and my friends) found ourselves thinking that nine cd’s from the same artist might be much. That was when Prince came to mind

it was funny to me (and a little sad) last month or so when Glenn Frey died and so many people trashed him and the Eagles. Say what you want (or don’t want ) about the Eagles, but they changed how millions of people listened to rock and roll.

Prince Rogers Nelson did the same thing.

Just last week I was talking with friend show hos half time show was easily one of the best in modern times. His rock and roll hall of fame shows are legendary. if you don’t believe me google while my guitar gently weeps prince and watch him show up so many others. He has always played all he instruments on his albums and is probably one of the most influential musicians of the last 30 years.

None of that means you should like him, or even stop what your doing right and listen tot a retrospective. We all know people, musicians , that mean so much more to our friends than they do to us and we can’t understand why they care so much. Until we listen. His music will be everywhere for a while, and I won’t think about it much for a while.

But I will think about this. I could waste my time writing about a douche bag ignorant couple form PA, a couple who have only lasted this ling in my consciousness because I threatened to write about them. Or I could write about a revolutionary musician who has changed my life and the lives of millions of others. And will, long after that couple leaves.

You tell me what’s important.

Bonus track: Screw me. I dare you to ask a friend what their favorite Prince song is. You might be surprised.

 

April 9, 2016

I turn 21 today.

Now I know what many of you may be thinking. “Ummm, I’m pretty sure you passed that milestone years back.” Some of you may even have known me for more than 21 years. Yes, that is all true. Think of it not as an actual 21st birthday, but more of a metaphorical one.

One of the differences between the two is that, unlike my first actual birthdays, I remember all of my first few metaphorical birthdays and truth be told they all kinda sucked. In fact, they doubly sucked because 21 years ago April 9th was Palm Sunday, so it was like the event happened twice each calendar year, once today and once whenever Palm Sunday rolled around. I’m not sure what the opposite of “looking forward to something” is, but that was what I felt when the calendar flipped to spring.

It was the fourth metaphorical birthday that didn’t suck, and that was because it didn’t anything. It was just another day, typical like all the rest, the only difference being my brother called me. Neither of us are big phone talkers usually, and I remember thinking when I got off the phone that it was odd he had called me out of the blue. It wasn’t until several hours later, as I was getting ready for bed, that it dawned on me what the date was and why he had called.

You see, April 9th, 1995 is the date our father passed away. And as horrible as it may sound, I think it was a good thing I had forgotten that year.

In those early years I held on to the date of his passing like it was badge of honor. My grief was something that identified me more than almost anything else. I kept the wound fresh so I could show my pain, remind the world of what I had lost. But by doing that I was dishonoring the memories I had of my father. The truth is that my father is no more that one moment in time – a huge and shocking moment, to be sure – than he is the body that’s buried out in Rocky Hill. And by finally allowing the moment to pass without making it some sort of macabre holiday, I freed myself to remember him for who he had been for 24 and half years in my life and not what he became for the last several hours.

Over the years I had an easy peace with this day. I would try to find someway to honor him. Maybe it meant going to a bowling alley, maybe it meant drinking whiskey and ginger ale while smoking a cigar. (It most certainly did not mean fixing a car however.) And occasionally I made the trip to Rocky Hill, but I always felt a little foolish. Like I said, that stone marker ain’t my father. I suppose I did it out of a sense of family obligation. By now my brother and mother were both living further south, and so I would go to represent all of us.

The other thing forgetting allowed me to do was to remember him more often. In those early years my only thoughts would be of his dying, so I would try to press the memories from my mind the other 363 days of the year. But now, having let that grief go I was free to think about him when I wanted to, when a memory came upon me, and cherish the memory for what it was. It became less about him dying and more about him living.

As I’ve gotten older, the date has taken back on a little more prominence. At 44 I am probably described as middle age, but with a father who died at 59 I can’t help but think that I’m facing the last quarter of my life. And as the years grow longer I see how much has changed from who I was those first early years. I am becoming old enough to be the father that looks back on the behavior and emotions of the son. It has once again become a milestone, not one for me to measure my grief by, but measure my growth, a birthday that is just as important to me as the one that comes in October.

I thought about all this today not only because of the date, but also because a friend of mine lost his father this morning. He’s older now than I was then, but I can’t imagine the pain and questioning and anger is any different, and I know that he will, for better or worse, always look back at today as the start of his new life.

 

Bonus track: My father’s favorite song was “Cat’s in the Cradle”, a downer of a song between fathers and sons if there ever was one, with of course the exception of Cat Steven’s “Fathers and Sons.” Instead I’m choosing a song by Jimmy Buffett. My friend is a parrothead, and this is a beautiful song about a father written by a son. Click here to listen.

March 25, 2016

I was just outside raking a friend’s garden and no, that’s no a euphemism for anything. I’m at a friend’s house, I went outside got her rake and started raking her garden. Not really sure why I did it; certainly it’s not because I’m a nice guy. I guess it’s because I knew it needed to get done, it would help her when it comes to planting new stuff for the spring and living in the city doesn’t give me much of a chance to play in the yard. (They look funny at you when you try to redecorate Central Park.)

The garden had a thick layer of last year’s leaves covering it and it didn’t take long before I had a pretty sizable and rather immovable pile of leaves. Still several feet from the edge of the garden I pondered my options and decided to look in her garage for a tarp. I could load them on the tarp and drag them to the edge of the property where there is a thicket of trees all these leaves would look perfectly natural underneath.

I opened the garage door and saw an even better solution to my problem: a leaf blower. I knew she had one, but since I’ve never had one before my natural response to “we must move leaves” is “pick up a rake. Now looking at the orange and black of these tool made me think “And here I was raking leaves like a chump.”

I brought it out to where my pile was and, after several failed attempts finally figured out how to get it started. That was when I realized that leaf blower is not as simple as, say, quantum physics. The wet pile of leaves was almost as stubborn to the forces of air as it had been to the forces of muscle (such that I have) and, when it finally started to respond, took off in every direction at once. Every direction that is except the one I wanted it to go in.

Pretty soon I mastered enough of the basics to be somewhat productive, and so, one pile moved, I decided to start on the rest of the garden. This proved to be a different sort of challenge, as I had to contend with large shrubs, the walls of the house and an always curious dog. My ultimate downfall, however, were the early blooming flowers.

For some reason I thought they’d be more resilient to the blower, seeing as how they were rooted and all. Nope. The first flower I sent tumbling across the yard made me realize I had to strike a balance between muscle power and machine power. I turned off the blower, picked up the rake and tried my best to at least move the leaves so that the flowers were out of harm’s way.

In the end I think I did a decent job. I’d give myself a solid B. Points in my favor was the recognition that sometimes there is no one best way, but rather two (or more) ways that need to come together and work in harmony to achieve the desired results. I take points off because there are still pockets of leaves stuck between bushes that the rake is too big for and there is nowhere for me to blow the leaves to if I got under there with the machine. I could always cry “But I deserve an A, because I did the best with the tools I have!” However a good operator not only doesn’t blame his tools, he makes sure he has the right ones to do the job with.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll convince her to stop by Lowe’s and pick up the right sized rake. (That’s what people do in the ‘burbs on weekends, right? Go to Lowe’s?) Once again, not sure why I’d want to do this. I think at this point it boils down to me wanting to finish the job I started. And maybe it’s because as a 44 year old bachelor I’m not sure what the big romantic things are I should be doing, so I’ll stick to the little things that I can handle.

Like raking her garden

Today’s bonus track: Only the best song ever about gardens. Click here to listen. And believe me, it was tempting to link up a 40 minute four song live jam, but I know most of you don’t have that kind of time.

March 14, 2016

In a lifetime full of saying odd things, this may just be the oddest: The subway station smelled like piss this morning, and I realized I kind of missed that.

(A couple of things to clear up before I continue. First of all, that is not the opening statement in a blog that will reveal a deep, dark and dirty fetish. This blog will be a continuation of the correlations and disconnections I have been noticing between living here now and living here then. Secondly, if this aroma had been detected anywhere else – in a deli, at a bar, even on the subway itself – it would not have been greeted with nostalgia but instead more of a what “What the hell? Are you kidding me?!” sort of reaction. Now that we’ve cleared that up…)

What made it stand out, besides the obvious unmistakable odor, was the fact that I haven’t smelled it that often since I’ve been back. When I first moved here it was a pretty prevalent odor, but this was also when 42nd Street was still The Deuce, crack was all the rage and NYC meant Manhattan below 96th street. What it also meant was that I was fresh to the city, full of dreams and confidence, and somehow every part of the city, including the filth, grime and stenches became part of those dreams. The city was ragged and edgy (or at least the parts I was brave enough to go to. I’m sure where I went was nothing compared to some of the even more menacing areas) and part of that, I thought, was a requirement.

In the show “Rent”, one friend who has sold out, married into money and returned to the old neighborhood to buy a vacant lot and abandoned building to convert it in recording studios and apartments asks his two friends who have remained behind as starving artists “Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop everyday?” And yet there is something perversely romantic about the notion of the starving artists, living where nobody else can or dares to, on the fringes of society where decay is coming or has already been. Time and again cities have shown growth where artists have pushed to these marginal areas only to eventually be priced out of them by the gentrification they helped bring about. Downtown Los Angeles now, The Mission district in San Francisco a decade ago, Soho here a generation ago. Even the source material for “Rent”, the opera La Boheme, takes place in what soon became the fashionable Left Bank of Paris.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about my latest move here and I was I expected out of it. Even though some of my previous moves may seem to have been built on pretty flimsy notions, this one, even with the job in place, seems to be the flimsiest. In the past I came here with less of an reason and more of an idea. I would come here and make something of myself, become successful. Even though I don’t always seem to agree with it, I have managed to create several successes during my absence, successes that have parlayed me into my employment situation.

Because of that, I don’t need to smell piss in my subway station. I’m no longer a starving artist. I’m no Tom Hanks either, but the romantic idealized lifestyle of youth has been replaced by the somewhat more practical outlook of middle age. I’m starting to not just understand where I am in my life but embrace it and define it. My life is more routine than I ever thought it would be, but for once in my life that thought doesn’t scare me. So no, I don’t need to smell it, and I can’t really say I even want to. Not even sure why I did. Granted, I’m not in the station 24/7 so I can’t vouch for the fact nobody uses the platform as their urinal, I can unfortunately vouch that I’ve seen people piss in the street (in broad daylight no less!) and it was raining today. Rain has a way of bringing out smells that have lain dormant for some time. (One of my favorite jokes is from a comic named Jake Johansen: “New York is the only city that makes it’s own gravy when it rains.) But I’m also not opposed to a little nostalgia.

Not all nostalgia is a good thing though. Many people will tell you that the city is sliding backwards. The “Stop and Frisk” policy, a direct descendant of the “Broken Windows” policy that led to the crackdown on crime and cleaning up of the streets in the early 90’s, no longer happens. Homelessness seems to be on the rise again. Designer drugs, far easier to get than crack but just as dangerous and deadly, are creating a new class of addicts. Maybe the piss in the subway is a reminder of days gone by, or maybe it’s a warning of a future that is looming.

I’m no starving artist, but I’m still an optimist.

Bonus track: I haven’t added one of these in a while, but since I quoted the show, I might as well include the song. Click here to listen.