Archive for March, 2011

Tony and Me….Speaking of Movie Doubles !

| March 30, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

The flurry of news over Elizabeth Taylor’s  recent death produced a number of interesting articles. My favorite piece  detailed the wonders of Liz’s favorite watering hole, a gay bar in West Hollywood that she frequented on a weekly basis until shortly before she passed. She would arrive in a wheelchair with her  dog Daisy and consume her favorite libations which included shots of tequila and those  cocktails she was so fond of with the “little umbrellas” she always demanded.

There was another article that caught my attention describing a woman who played Taylor’s double in a number of films. Interestingly, I found almost no resemblance between said lady and the famous actress. Whatever… I only mention this item to introduce my own story about a double who was down on his luck.

I worked in midtown Manhattan for many years at the glass Tower of Babel known as the United Nations. Actually I didn’t work in THE glass palace that housed the UN Secretariat, but in one of the satellite offices that sprouted up in the adjacent Turtle Bay neighborhood. My office was in a non-descript structure on 45th Street next to a Subway sandwich shop.

Midday, I would stroll Second Avenue looking for new, exciting places to lunch. The stretch of blocks  from East 45th to East 50th was nice enough, not super-upscale, but not nitty-gritty a la Port Authority and affordable for non-expense account budgets like mine. A respectable neighborhood on the rise.  Which was why I was suprised one day on my post-prandial stroll back to the office to encounter a most aggressive and threatening panhandler.

Not only was he menacing, he was also as filthy as  a beggar could get and very loud. Seeing him half a block ahead,  I did what New Yorkers do to avoid such creatures. I went into my tunnel vision mode and cut a wide swath of sidewalk as far from this hobo from hell as I could without walking onto the traffic-choked street.

But the Terrible Tramp would have none of it. He had spotted me and for some reason made me his target. As I quickened my gait and held my breath in hopes of eluding the  “eau de trash” he exuded, I suddenly found his face in mine.

Breathing out  the halitosis of a Komodo dragon in heat, he screamed at me, “I F–KED Tony Curtis!” I  stood transfixed in disgust and fascination. To punctuate his screed, he grabbed my lapels and repeated his chant, “I F–KED Tony Curtis !!”

As I fled his presence knocking over an old lady in my haste to rid myself of this hound from hell, I thought to myself: this claim is so over the top and outrageous that it must be true. People don’t just make up things like that!

It was my kismet to meet the Hound from Hell every time I sallied forth for lunch. And each time  he dove through the crowds for ME and never differed in his crazed pitch about Tony Curtis. One day he seemed less drug-addled and filthy and  we slipped into conversation. Under the scruff, I realized that he was a very handsome man. I  gave him $5 and he suddenly burst into song with a 1950s  hit parade ballad – I think he sang “Hey There” from Pajama Game – dazzling me with a clear melodious tenor voice.

After his song, the moment was right for me to ask him the inevitable: Did you REALLY F–K Tony Curtis? What was THAT all about ? His reply surprised me, but didn’t. He told me that he worked with Curtis on the film “Some Like It Hot” as Curtis’s double and that he did indeed perform the big nasty with Tony. I looked at Terrible Tramp again and his resemblance to Curtis was uncanny. I asked him what happened to his Hollywood career. He shrugged ruefully, giving me a crooked smile as he uttered the word : “drugs.”

My post-lunch strolls turned into a sociable routine that always included “IFTC” (I F–ked Tony Curtis). He seemed to have cleaned up his act and always had a tuneful ballad ready for me and the fin I would place in his hand.

Then my work took me overseas for an extended period. In 1990, I was sent to Iraq after the first Iraq War on a mission that looked at how neighboring Arab countries might cooperate with Iraq in joint development efforts. We were optimistic about the program we had envisaged for these societies on the brink of a hopeful take-off.  Unfortunately that brief interlude of peace was broken by the long Iraq-Iran War and later the tragically mis-conceived Second Iraq War.

When I got back to New York and my routine, I returned to Second Avenue  for my lunches and strolls, hoping to encounter IFTC. I hoped we could have longer conversations and maybe something interesting would emerge like a life story that I could write about  which  would bring us fame and fortune. I was ready to dump the UN and hit the big time !

But IFTC had disappeared. The Avenue was quiet. I berated myself for never having asked his name or which shelter he was living in. Life is like that…come and go.

But I consoled myself with the thought that for a few months I had made a friend – an outrageous, refreshing character – who had given me surcease from the boring, pompous confabs in windowless UN meeting rooms that was to be my fate for a few more years !

Long live Tony and his nameless stand-in!

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When Was The last Time……?

| March 29, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

When was the last time you  skipped rope  or hop-scotched or played jacks? Do you remember how long ago it was that you danced the jitter-bug? Now come on, think hard and tell me when was the last time you did a jitter-bug? Betcha can’t remember!

So many small but important things in our lives that in sum make up who we are and what we do, seem to melt away when we think about the last time we actually did them – when it was, how it felt, where we were and whom we were with.

I often think about things  I loved but no longer do and can’t remember when I did them. I remember back in the mists of time, skiing in the Spring – it must have been May – in Zermatt,  Switzerland. We started early because the warm sun made the snow slushy by early afternoon when it felt like skiing in porridge and we were told that was the time when lots of bones got broken.

By noon we had stripped down, taking off our parkas and sweaters, skiing topless, the sun burning our bodies as we glided down the mountain in the cold air to the Italian side at Cervinia. After a lunch of wine and pasta, light-headed and sun-burned, we jumped on our skis again and hit the trail back to Zermatt before the pistes were no longer negotiable.  Hot sun and cold air – what goes better together? I only found that blissful combination one other time,  when I was standing on the Golden Gate Bridge gazing out across the Pacific towards Asia. It was so exhilirating I almost jumped! Now when was that?

How long ago was it when I was in Zermatt, or for that matter how long has it been since I’d been on skis? I just can’t remember. And those other things I loved to do.  When did I stop doing them? How I adored playing tennis. I was especially fond of playing on red clay courts in Vietnam. When I got back to the States safe from the war, I found red dust on my clothes and never washed them again, wanting to  savor and remember  the moments I had on the court with  my friends in An Loc. When was the last time I played tennis? It was years ago, but I just can’t remember how long it was.

I do remember when I gave up running. It was last year – 2010 – and my knees just told me they had had enough. So now I content myself with walking. I’m contemplating walking a tread mill slanted to a steep angle to mimic the hills of San Francisco. 

In the memory department, I  always think of my  good friend, the late Jack. When I was arrested and told that I could make one phone call, Jack was the person I called. And he was there the next morning to collect me as I stumbled out of jail. He took me to breakfast near City Hall and I ate like a pig. Hours earlier at 5 AM,  breakfast had been served in the jail cell. There were 30 of us fighting over ten baloney sandwiches and four cartons of milk.  Needless to say, the stronger, younger inmates got the breakfast and older jailbirds fasted, not out of choice. That was ages ago, but when?

Jack used to do so many things. He was always making fruit cake. We used make expeditions to the Lower East Side and buy candied fruit from the Jewish stores that specialized in candied lemon rinds and  little  candied green things,  God knows what THEY were….. The secret to his fruit cake was the rum and brandy he used with great abandon when he was baking, pouring lots of alcohol into the batter as he stirred. His fruitcake became famous at the Metropolitan Museum where he worked and Brooke Astor and Philippe de Montebello complimented him on it when he brought some cakes for the Museum Christmas party!

But then one day Jack stopped baking.  We had fished out the last pieces of fruit cake from his freezer and when we had polished them off, I asked him when he was going to bake again and he said he didn’t know. Then I wondered, “When was the last time we baked?” and he said he didn’t know that either. Unless you keep a diary, somehow things just fade away and after a while you can’t remember if you ever even did those things.

It was like that with Jack’s pottery too. He had made hundreds of beautiful pieces of ceramic ware – pots, dishes, cups and plates, even a long, winding  ten-toed Chinese dragon. And then one day he stopped his ceramics and after a fews years, he could no longer remember when he had last “potted”  or if he had even dabbled in ceramics at all. I could remind himthat he had made all those things because on the bottom of each piece he created, he had put his initials  – JJ – and the year.

Now I am about to head out into the blinding warm sunlight cut by sharp,  late March breezes. As I walk down the street, inhaling fresh cool air and soaking up  hot rays pouring on me from a blue sky above, I’ll probably wonder to myself: when will be the last time I’ll  do this?

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Will Chasers…Those Nasty Buzzards…I Mean Bastards…!

| March 26, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

Don, Emma and Merv are all over 85.  All three live in the country, buried deep in what used to be farmland two hours northwest of New York City. They live alone  in spacious, slightly tattered  homes that have been passed down over the generations by their soil-tilling forebearers.

 In the sewing room of his colonial farmhouse, a small cozy space on the second floor where Don’s old aunts used to assemble to sew and do “fancy-work” – crochetting doilies for the arm-rests of the sofa and chairs  in their   formal front parlor – there hangs an oil-painted map, executed in the early 19th century before the advent of the camera, depicting in beautiful detail the neighboring properties – the homesteads –  and their manor houses. Don still lives in such a house, built by his Dutch ancestors in the late 18th century, still very much as it was over 200 years ago.

Except for the usual aches and pains that accompany advanced age these three octogenerians are fit and agile-minded, active and thoughtful. Delightful folks who love to spin a yarn over a cup of coffee or lend a helping hand however they can.  Although Emma reluctantly gave up her license last year, Don and Merv still drive, often handless, as they gesture with animation during conversation-filled, harrowing motor  jaunts through the countryside  careening down rural two-lane roads.

Aside from such similarities, these delightful oldsters have something else in common. They are the unwitting objects of calculating persons who are best called “will-chasers.” They are  avidly cultivated not out of love or even motives of friendship, but  for  their fat bank accounts and the considerable value of their extensive spreads of what used to be cultivated fields of waving corn and barley, now fallow in their old age. Not to mention the antiques and baubles that such old people still use and consider as everyday objects. The old hand-painted property map in Don’s house is worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Living by themselves, isolated in the countryside, these old people are lonely. Spouses have passed away, children, if they have them,  have moved to distant cities and most of their friends –  fellow  farmers who lived lives of toil – have not managed to reach their 80s. Although happy people by nature, as most God-fearing, hard-working Americans of their generation are, their eyes often carry a sad expression, especially as they sit alone on gray winter afternoons when shadows lengthen and darkness descends by 5 PM.

 Don is a confirmed bachelor who has never admitted his gayness inspite of a cache of Men Only magazines tucked under a stack of old phone books in what used to be his farm manager’s office. With Don, it all began with chocolate chip cookies.

 Reggie, a sporadically-employed neighbor, a man in his 30s began visiting Don, first as an electrician who had answered a call for a repair job. Sensing Don’s loneliness and need for friendship, Reggie  became a regular visitor always bringing a bag of chocolate chip cookies which he learned were Don’s weak spot. As time passed, Don looked forward eagerly to  Reggie’s daily drop-ins.

As frequent a caller as he was, whenever Don’s “bachelor” friends from the City would visit, Reggie would disappear like a vampire before garlic. Reggie let it be known that he disliked  New York City and its “weird” places like Greenwich Village.

Reggie’s campaign of ingratiaton continued. Nothing was really required of him other than just being around. He didn’t even have to talk; just sit and listen to Don spin yarns about the old days, about when he was a merchant seaman during the Second World War braving the stormy North Atlantic dodging the German U-boats as his ship delivered Lend Lease supplies to the beleaguered Soviet Union.

One Spring day when I drove up from the  “weird” metropolis to visit Don and his border collie, Sallie,  I found him in especially high spirits. I joked and asked him if he had hit the lottery jackpot, and he replied that he had finally “done it.”

“Done what?”  I asked. When pressed for details, he announced with great satisfaction and pride that he had deeded over to Reggie his farmhouse and 200 acres of prime land.  He added that a clause had been included in the contract that allowed him, Don, to live rent-free for the rest of his days on what now was Reggie’s property.

Half-way through Don’s revelation and my stunned reaction, a smirking Reggie entered the kitchen boasting he had just bought a metal detector to scan the surface of the  farm for any hidden treasures that might lurk beneath the soil. As if Reggie had already not mined enough treasure from Don’s farm! It was all I could do to prevent myself from leaping up and strangling him. Ofcourse, Don had paid for the device. I saw that he had become a landlord of leisure and that such pursuits  now constituted what passed for his  “work.” Don was enchanted with  Reggie’s inventiveness. Just his presence was all that seemed to be required.

But Reggie’s presence soon became a scarce commodity. Shortly after his benevolent gesture to Reggie, Don was emergency-evacuated to the VA Hospital in Manhattan where he underwent triple bypass surgery and remained three weeks for post-op convalescence. During visiting hours, Don’s hospital room was crowded to capacity, but Reggie was never one of his visitors.

After we brought Don back to the farm, I had the temerity to accost Reggie. I asked him point blank why he had never visited Don in hospital. His reply was straight forward and, at least, honest.  “New York City creeps me out”, he said.

These days Reggie is a less frequent visitor and Don is more subdued in his praise of his “heir.” I will give Reggie his due though. He knows the art of making cameo appearances. A friend and I went up to the farm and cooked Thanksgiving dinner for Don. As we were preparing to sit down for turkey, Reggie appeared, deux ex machina-like, saying he just stopped by to say hello but couldn’t stay long since he had another party to go to. Don begged Reggie to at least have a drink with us, but he declined.  I timed Reggie’s “celebrity” stopover. He stayed three minutes.

As Reggie exited, an ear-to-ear grin on his face, I saw Don’s lip tremble and a tear roll down his cheek onto his plate. I turned up the stereo and we raised our glasses to a Happy Thanksgiving.

Emma and Merv have been “done” but at least the objects of their generosity deign to stay for dinner. There are chiselers with class…and then there is Reggie.

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Helping to Pass the Time

| March 21, 2011 | Comments (3)

 

The decline of my friend, Jack, in the final months of his life was  depressing, comical,  poignant and, most of all,  filled with mail. Stacks of it.

Jack was 89 when he died on 11 September 2010. As I fell into the role of care-giver and friend, I ran the gamut of emotions, dealing with his moods. Normally an even-keeled, intelligent person, his final chapter was marked by vicissitudes of dementia which were at first hard to detect, given his laid-back easy-going nature.

And,  as if dealing with his sinking vessel was  not enough, there were maddening challenges presented by the outside world, in particular Jack’s mail.

Over several years, I noticed a quantum leap in the amount of post Jack was receiving. Not wishing to appear over-inquisitive, I commented obliquely that he seemed to be receiving lots of mail. He laughed and told me that I hadn’t seen the half of it, and proceeded to  produce several large plastic bags of unopened envelopes. Leafing through these communications, I realized that he had become a target for solicitation from a ton of so-called charities.

Jack had jokingly told me one of the secrets to his professional success as a librarian was that he could “never say no”; that he could never refuse requests for research assistance or cataloguing or whatever it is that librarians do. Now his helpful nature came to haunt and plague him in the form of mountains of requests for money from all manner of “causes” which had been triggered by  donations he had made because he could never say “no!”

As the months and years rolled by, Jack’s formerly apple-pie neat apartment,  lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and populated by giant plants and out-sized statues of Japanese Happy Gods and graceful Kwan Yin goddesses, gave way to  Kafka-esque stacks of junk mail.

Jack’s two cardinal sins were being old and generous. Already a target for unsolicited mailing as a senior citizen, by sending checks to outstretched hands which emerged from envelopes, he compounded the rush by hungry philanthropies to get even more.

When my role in Jack’s financial affairs became more intrusive and I began helping him pay bills – one day I discovered  he was four months beyond in sending his rent checks – I advised him to pick a few charities he liked and ignore the other requests. At this point mail soliticitations were joined by a barrage of phone calls reaching a frenzied frequency around dinner time.

 The telephone marketing  calls were often rude, overly familiar and sometime even threatening, designed in my view, to intimidate seniors who answered their phones. One tactic was to first-name the person called and pretend to be a friend; another method involved  barking into the phone: “your ‘subscription’ is about to expire!”; then there was always the clincher “if we don’t receive your payment within two weeks, we will be forced to take ‘appropriate action’ to correct this matter of delinquency!”

Once such an offending message was being spoken when I walked into Jack’s office and picked up the phone. I asked what “appropriate action” would be taken  if the magazine subscription expired and was not renewed. I was told that the delinquent subscriber’s name would be “put on a list.” When I pressed for more details asking what kind of list, I was told, “a list for internal consumption.” How many helpless seniors, I wondered, would have thought that their “delinquency” would be reported to law enforcement authorities and in a panic pay for something they neither wanted nor needed.

Try as I did, I could not get Jack to whittle down his donations to a select few recipients. He also began to object to my looking at his mail. “What are you  doing? Why are you going through my mail? Are you trying to take over?”  It was at this point that I came to realize the frustration faced by a well-intended caretaker trying to operate in an open, consensual manner.

 I began to feel myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. If I surreptitiously disposed of the junk mail thereby  cutting down on what were becoming unlimited donations by a person of  very limited income, would I be committing an illegal action? Tampering with mail ? I consulted my lawyer on the matter and, assured that disposal of such “mail” would not be a crime, I began Operation Heave Ho. What Jack didn’t see, he didn’t miss.

Now  he is gone and his ashes scattered in the sea as  he wished. But because of legal technicalities connected to what is becoming a drawn-out probate process, Jack’s mail needs to keep  coming to my address. Most of the junk mail I toss out with mean-spirited glee. But there is one mailing I respect and read with care – the 28-cent postcards from HHV – Help Hospitalized Veterans.

HHV seeks donations for craft kits and sends out postcards with personal, hand-written thank-you notes from vets who have received kits. Today I received two postcards from HHV “penpals.” One card was from Angela in a hospital in Wyoming. With her kit she had built a bird house. She expressed her appreciation to me saying, “Thank you for the bird house. The wild birds will love it.” I thought of Angela, bed-bound, dreaming that she could fly free as a bird.

The second card was from Karen, hospitalized at a Navy Medical Center in Utah. “Thank you for the craft kit. It helps to pass the time.”

Still in my prime, although a rather “mature” prime, I must admit,  my hours fly by all too quickly. But  I know the day will come when I too will need help passing the time. A craft kit will come in handy.

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Boom…Boom !! – Sometimes It’s Better Never to Know

| March 17, 2011 | Comments (1)

 

My friend, Ralph, is a world traveler. Since we retired from the United Nations over a decade ago, unlike me who’s had it with travel, he is constantly on the road. When our paths cross in  the gym on those rare occasions he is in New York City, I can always tell he is back from somewhere. Sporting a deep tan in mid-winter, he will regale me with tales of an Amazon odyssey; seeing him rail-thin he will roll his eyes and tell me about his travails with Delhi Belly or Faroukh’s Revenge.

I recall nearly ten years ago, in the Fall of 2001, seeing Ralph rather pasty-faced and looking like a walking  sack of potatoes. He had just come back from Russia. The trip was so-so, he said, but getting there had been the voyage of a lifetime.

He  had set out from Beijing in the early days of September 2001 aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Ralph said one of the amazing things about that epic train ride was the illusion of timelessness that seizes the traveler, how Monday melts into Tuesday and Tuesday into Wednesday, losing  track of any semblance of time  and how long one had been moving over the vast Eurasian expanse.

Resolved to start a journal of his travels, Ralph was  at a loss to settle on what the date actually was, but  somehow  found himself able to count how many breakfasts he had had in the dining car and from that make-shift culinary calendar to establish that it was September 12th.  As he sat waiting for the surly attendant to bring breakfast tea,  he gazed out the window of the diner and saw that the train was clickety-clacking through what he believed to be Mongolia. The night before, a film had been shown in the first-class club car. It was the story of Mongolian herdsmen and their camels. One camel in particular. 

In grainy color, the movie depicted how despite the herdsman’s best efforts at husbandry, his young female camel would not reproduce. With economic and emotional ruin about to descend on his family, a lute-player was summoned. Travelling for days by camel-back over the steppes,  a small old man, slight as a shadow, arrived at the encampment. After a night’s rest, the musician set to work. Sitting on a stool next to the barren camel, he played his lute for hours. The big-eyed, long-lashed object of his serenade, stood impassively  flicking her tail and moving her ears. At the end of the day, the musician packed up his instrument, boarded his dromedary and headed off into the Mongolian horizon. Thirteen months later, a camel was born.

Lost in thought, dreaming of lutes and camels, Ralph was accosted at the breakfast table by a man of non-English-speaking persuasion. He seemed agitated as he spoke and gestured at Ralph. Of all the languages Ralph spoke and despite the supposed universality of English, no common tongue could be found in the dining car to bridge the linguistic gap that caused the uncomprehended speaker to grow increasingly more bombastic. Hands circulating  wildly above his head, the man sputtered what sounded like, “Boom, boom!”

Increasingly apprehensive, Ralph tried to withdraw into the safety of  the book he always carried, but his excited breakfast companion would not relent. Grabbing a pad and pen from the passing waiter, the man hastily sketched what looked like two tall towers surrounded by puffs of smoke. Little stick figures were falling from the buildings and an airplane was flying into one skyscraper. The childish artwork was just that to Ralph. None the wiser, he excused himself and retreated to his compartment to contemplate the Mongolian vastness.

Emerging later in the day, Ralph returned to the dining car where he encountered an English-speaking  German couple, who recognizing his American accent, poured out their sympathy for the horrid event that had just occurred in New York City,  the attack on the World Trade Towers. Pulling the crumpled piece of  art work from his pocket, he contemplated the  simple drawing and now understood what his frantic breakfast companion had been trying to tell him.

With three days left before his train journey ended in Moscow, Ralph reflected on the tragic news that had unfolded in an almost comical way. As dusk gathered over the great Russian heartland in what he came to call the “blue hour”, Ralph gazed out his window and  sadly concluded, “When terrible things happen, maybe it’s best never to know .”

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