Archive for September, 2011

PESTS, PUERILE PLEASURES…. And Other Gym-Related Horrors

| September 28, 2011 | Comments (0)


The first indication that there was a small, four-legged, furry visitor were the tiny specks I thought were miscellaneous bits of dirt but which turned out to be mouse droppings. Tending to ignore unpleasant things in the hope that they would just go away, I swept up the miniscule rodent pellets and put any further thought of a mouse  out of mind.

Several days later in the laundry room as I reached for a stack of freshly dried, snow-white towels, I saw once again on the backdrop of the virgin-white fabric a trio of mouse feces artfully and purposefully arranged, I was sure,  to catch my attention. The time for action had arrived ! But what to do ? With an aging – she is going on 18 – toothless cat on the premises I was in a quandry as to how to get rid of Matilda Mouse (I hoped it was a mouse and not a giant rat, Rufus the Rat!).  If I put out poison, Miss Putri the Cat might sample it and dispatch herself to Feline Heaven. If I set a Victory Trap, she would surely approach the cheese and end up with a broken paw. After days of deliberation I settled on a third option, the Sticky Glue Trap whereby the mouse sniffs and steps on a peanut butter-flavored, glue-impregnated platform and gets stuck, unable to flee.

After a week with no further mouse-sightings and no disturbance to the Sticky Trap, I  was convinced that Matilda had simply moved on, gone to greener pastures, to another house where the pickings were not so slender. But it was not to be. Matilda, it seems, was a well-brought up lady. Later I found a stash of  her excrement discretely deposited in the boiler room in a dark corner. The little thing was indeed well-bred.

Days passed and I decided on a policy of co-existence. While I did not remove the Sticky Trap – that would be admitting humiliating defeat – I no longer actively  looked for Miss Maus or harbored mean thoughts about doing her in. I knew she was there and dutifully swept up the modest dung piles  I found in out-of-the-way locations.

Then one morning as I was cleaning Miss Putri’s litter box in the bathroom, my glance swept the space and I saw her. A tiny coal black creature,  inquisitively staring at me from a corner. There was almost a tameness in her tentative posture; then she made her fatal move, scampering for the door. Primordial cave man instinct kicked in and I raced after her – she was not a fast mover –  raising and then lowering my shoe on her back as she cleared the door’s threshold . She squirmed for a second and then lay motionless. I plucked her up by the tip of  her delicate little tail. As she dangled in front of me I saw her luminous black eyes, winsome little snout and come-hither whiskers. Her coat was onyx-black and shiny.

I burst into tears as my little friend – she would have been my friend if she had not tried to run from me; we could have become pals and I would have fed her and cleaned up after her – twirled before me. Why had I done that ? Why had I snuffed out her life? Why are we humans so cruel ? My week, if not my life, had now been ruined. I must turn to other matters.

My gym in mid-town Manhattan, in the Turtle Bay neighborhood, to be exact, is a place of horror and wonder. A refuge of harmonious solitude and a snakepit of stress and rejection. There are people there whom I hate and love.  Sometimes the same person at the same time, if that is possible. Let me elaborate.

In this enlightened age of politically correct attitude and civilized discourse, I am here to tell you the atmospherics of  the male locker room with all  its  rowdy baggage are alive and well. My favorite character  – let us  call him Professor Chow even though I have never learned his real name in the twenty years we have been going at each other –  is a  5-foot tall, 90 year-old Chinese gentleman who sometimes but not always wears his dentures. In broken English he informed me, at one point, that he had been a professor of Chinese art which he taught in spanish. Now each day when we see each other, usually nude, he yells at me, “Hey Muddahfuckah !….”  The conversation that ensues is not repeatable, but involves discussion of male organ size – ha ha ! mine is bigger than yours, you big asshole – and accusations that he saw me engaged in unspeakable acts with movies stars (his favorite is my  alleged addiction to cunnilingis with Whitney Houston).

Usually his blast lasts a couple of minutes whereupon I pick up the baton and throw back at him even viler, grosser epithets. On a particularly lively day I will lunge to grab his crotch and he will shriek at me, “You fuckin’ pervert, lay off me !” Other locker room denizens, well-pressed Wall Street bankers and tight-lipped lawyers, shake their heads, roll their eyes and maintain a disapproving, stoney silence. Our routine usually lasts less than five minutes by which time we are totally drained and purged of any stress or worry that may have been been bothering our minds. Who needs a shrink when there is Professor Chow ?

One day after our tirade had played itself out, Professor Chow approached me and speaking quite clearly – his dentures were in place, as I recall –  said in a low, confiding voice with a look of sadness in his eyes, ” You are my only friend in this gym. Nobody else talks to me and I will always remember your kindness.” I was speechless and a bit confused and regretful thinking that this new, touchy-feely confession would alter our dynamic and that I would never again have hanky-panky with Whitney.

Not at all… the following day, the professor confronted me  in the steam room bragging of his equine proportions, telling me I had the pathetic endowment of a toad. I breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that our abuse had reached a new level of therapeutic vulgarity.

I could end this tale here and now because the story has been told, but I see that the  title of this piece calls for more         ” horrors.” So let me name but two – there are many more, but two will suffice because I must move shortly to the kitchen to cook dinner.

Our locker room commodes have recently been upgraded and are now “auto-flush.” But the flush mechanism timing device  malfunctions and the flush itself is of tsunami violence. Therefore…need I really go into further detail at this point ? – a visit to the john is often more than you asked for. Sort of a bidet on steroids.

More horror? Before I begin my daily swim I usually stretch by the poolside for a couple of minutes. Yesterday the life guard told me that I should tone down my stretches. It seems one of the senior ladies – an octagenarian lolling in the pool after her aquatic arthritis class – reported, looking up at me, that my stretch movements were indecently provocative.  Must be Professor Chow’s therapy that has turned me into an exhibitionist.




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| September 15, 2011 | Comments (2)


File:Ricksha art.jpg

As a child my fondest dream was to be rich.  When my father asked me : What would you do with all that  money if you had it? Would you buy lots of candy or a bicycle or the longest electric train ever made, I shook my head and told him I would do one thing – travel the world and live in grand hotels. Five-star hotels with deep, long swimming pools, hotels that had vast lobbies where I could sit and watch people with piles of suitcases enter and leave, guessing where they had come from and what languages they were speaking. Hotels like the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu where there was a drinking fountain that spurted pineapple juice, not water. That was the kind of life I wanted to live.

Years later my wish came true when I actually lived in a hotel for many months on end. I was assigned to work in Dhaka, Bangladesh and was compelled to cool my heels in the Dhaka Sheraton until the apartment I had contracted to rent was available.

After several weeks my hotel fantasy turned sour. I began to hate it.  I felt the maddening claustrophobia of a luxurious jail. The over-chlorinated swimming pool made my face a shriveled prune after fifteen minutes in the water; ten minuter longer and my eyes were screaming red sockets reminiscent of a horror comics monster.  The tennis courts were no better. Enclosed by a chain-link fence, the tennis terrain looked onto a fetid garbage dump peopled by  scavenger children in rags who clawed the enclosure,  wailing ” Backsheesh! ” as  the wives of Japanese salarymen batted balls with their trainers and strawberry-faced Englishmen sipped gin and tonics, grousing about the weather and the ” bloody locals.”

The lobby was no better. Darkish and freezingly airconditioned during the day, it was filled with the shrieks of wailing brats, the children of overpaid multinational CEOs,  dragging their nannies across the carpeted expanses while their disinterested mothers sat in over-stuffed lounge chairs, glassy-eyed,  a cocktail in hand, gossiping with their jaded homologues.

My move to the flat in the bucolic  Dhamondi neighborhood of Dhaka occurred just when the flame trees were in full blossom.  They were a glorious sight. Huge and fan-shaped,  their ancient  branches  seemed  smeared by the bloodiest of scarlet paint brushes. When evening breezes blew, their delicate blossoms would flutter to the ground creating curling, shifting ribbons of red.  The apartment was on the top floor of a building overlooking a small lake where local fishermen squatted on its edges, tempting carp with their long poles. From the balcony I watched them fish, then lay down their gear and prostrate themselves when the evening call to prayer – the azan – was announced in melodious tones over the mosque loudspeaker by the imam. It was indeed a mixed-up, globalized world, I mused, as I sat on my balcony perch, nicely woozie from multiple gin and tonics,  contentedly talking to myself, contemplating the reverent fisherman, their bottoms in mid- air and their faces buried in the green sod, facing Mecca.

My abode was a rarity in Dhaka, being an apartment. Most expat dwellings were either villas or mansions, luxurious to be sure,  but constantly plagued with break-ins and burglaries; well-heeled foreigners living in houses that were open and hospitable to evening breezes were also a welcome mat to dacoits who were numerous in an impoverished local population where un-employment was a gnawing fact of life in most households. I was thankful to be securely housed in a fortress-like structure fronted by an iron enclosure.

The apartment building was entered through a fenced entrance to the side of which was a gate house with a shop of sorts. My landlady’s youngest son, a man in his 30s, was mildly retarded and the store had been created to occupy his time. The glass  shelves in its showcase were filled with little tea pots, coffee cups and other bric-a-brac that gathered dust as Azziz sat in his chair behind the counter looking vacantly into space. I never saw anybody ever purchase anything from him. Once, taking pity on Azziz, I stopped in his emporium and tried to buy a tea kettle. My attempt to give him some business failed since he seemed to have no idea what the item cost and no interest in finding out from his mother, the formidable Haja Efendi.

My household consisted of myself and my manservant, Abdul, who had worked for years in a hotel somewhere in the  Middle East. He carried his hotel training with him to the Dhamondi flat. Rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom were folded in little origami arrangements, all arrow-like and pointy, and other chain hotel touches including a bowl of fruit on the bedroom dresser and a Hershey’s  chocolate kiss on the pillow attested to his still being, mentally and stylistically, in the Dubai Hilton. When I asked him why he had come back to Bangladesh, he left the room without answering me and re-appeared five minutes later with a woman and four children, each a year apart in age, introducing me to his family. Crammed into one room in a shack behind the apartment building, I felt sorry for Abdul and his brood. Sometimes  tipsy after numerous sun-downers, I would lurch to the edge of my balcony and think of calling Abdul and his little clan to come and live with me in my spacious four-bedroom pied-a -terre, but  I never asked him and the move never happened. In the tropical, neo-colonial East one never did radical things like that. ” It just isn’t  done” was a shibboleth that had survived  wars of independence  and fights for freedom and remained  one of the many relics of colonialism that was alive and well in the “enlightened”  late 20th century.

Abdul was a perfect “gentleman’s gentleman” who had perfected the subtle art of being a background person. Friendly and cheerful but totally unabtrusive, I was never aware of eyes peering from the kitchen or through the dining room curtains, but somehow he always knew when my gin and tonic needed re-filling. Increasingly, I came to rely on Abdul especially after my cranky refrigerator which I had unwisely bought in an impetuous second-hand negotiation, began to ” bite” me. Whenever I touched the refrigerator door, I got a sizzling shock. I never heard Abdul yelp after touching the thing so I assumed he was somehow immune to being shocked.

In June the monsoon arrived with a vengeance. My peaceful balcony became the storm-tossed deck of an endangered frigate, lashed by sharp sheets of rain and vicious, howling wind. So compelling was the drama of this diabolic weather that I was often drawn out into it, a gin in hand laughing madly as I was blinded and drenched by the relentless downpour, delighted and at the same time frightened to be absorbed by the ruthless elements. Incredulous, Abdul would watch me from the safety of the dry kitchen, surely saying to himself that these white infidels were strange beyond belief.  

 For the three months of this pitiless rainy season,  my movements were restricted. Not having a car and relying mostly on the local rickshaws for transport, I never ventured far from home. Occasionally I would visit the cultural center of the neighboring Soviet Embassy, whose Stalinesque structure I could view from the corner of my terrace. The time was  the late 1980s and the USSR was not faring well. Bled to death by a senseless war in Afghanistan and threatened by rumblings in its scattered  republics, collapse was in the air. Entering the halls of its culture palace in Dhaka, its walls  battered by the howling monsoon, one felt sorry for this pathetic, ill-conceived experiment, Lenin’s dream turning into a tacky nightmare with peeling paint. The more threadbare the Embassy become, strapped by a shrinking Soviet budget, the more defiant and proud were the cultural center’s exhibitions. Sic transit and not much gloria.

 The best part of my day was what I called my royal rickshaw routine. Promptly at eight  on weekday mornings, after breakfast tea, I would descend to the apartment entrance, Abdul’s oldest son, aged five, carrying my briefcase. Waiting at the gate my faithful retainer smilingly assisted me into the waiting rickshaw which would peddle the half-mile to my office. There is something majestic and sublime about riding in a rickshaw, the version being pulled by a bicycle and driver. The french summed it up beautifully when they described riding in a Saigon cyclo-pousse as ” hatez-vous lentement”, hurry slowly. I cannot deny the  regal feeling of being conveyed in a coach and four to Buckingham Palace.

One day on the way to work in my coach and four, the driver  suddenly decided to take a less-traveled route to the office.  Why, I don’t know. Normally we followed the flow of foot traffic, civil servants and other workers walking to their jobs, weaving around the other rickshaws and bug-like, sputtering Bajaj, all flowing in a typically Asian movement of people. That morning our path was clear and quiet as we moved silently through noiseless greenery, not a soul in sight. It was hard to believe that I was in teeming Dhaka. As we rolled tranquilly through this patch of urban countryside skirting a small maidan where goats grazed, an eerie sixth sense seized me and my serene state of mind suddenly  turned apprehensive.

Before I knew it my rickshaw had screeched to a halt. Blocking our path was a large. long motorcycle mounted by three youth dressed in the style of South Asian “hipsters” – long hair, Lennon-ish western clothes and dark glasses. Two of them dismounted their cycle steed and approached us, wielding sharp objects. My rickshaw driver sat impassively on his bicycle seat watching the highwaymen do their work. In seconds I felt the pointed pressure of what seeemed to be a rather dull  letter-opener, pressing into my rib cage. Not having the benefit of a language in common  – I spoke no Bangla and my assailants were devoid of even rudimentary English, much less such practiced, classic phrases as ” Your money or your life !” – I found it useless to protest as they silently snatched my briefcase, rifling through its contents. Alas, much to their chagrin the robbers found only one thing in my bag – dry, boring United Nations reports. Exasperation mixed with disappointment as they sped off on their motor bike, flinging my case into the nearby maidan where a herd of goats were grazing on tin cans and crab grass. The briefcase’s contents landed in a muddy patch with papers scattered everywhere; within seconds, the report’s pages were set upon by the grateful, horned grazers.

Reaching my office, rather deflated and a bit shaken, I alighted from my coach and four feeling distinctly non-regal.

Never had a UN report been so appreciated and eagerly “digested” as it was that morning by the Capricornian audience on the roadside. Don’t believe it when you hear people say there is no market for United Nations reports. I know places where these masterpieces of obtuse prose are eagerly devoured.

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Vaudeville, Phone Fraud and Other Time Warps

| September 8, 2011 | Comments (0)



In the Fall of 1963 I found myself in Glasgow, Scotland. It was not my planned destination; I had been hitch-hiking on MATS (Military Air Transport) aircraft, starting in  what was then the Kingdom of Libya and had ended up, by pure chance, in Scotland.

As a  GI assigned to the huge American base called Wheelus Field  – this was when Libya was still a kingdom and nobody had yet heard of  Lieutenant Ghadaffi –  I had the right, as one of the perks of military service, to fly free “space available” on any Air Force plane that would accept me. All I needed was to be in uniform and have in hand a set of leave orders saying I was authorized to be on vacation.

Down at the air strip, there was no telling what you might find in the way of aircraft going all over the world.  Approaching the flight desk, I heard an Air Force sergeant bark out “We got a med evac flight headed for Morocco and a recon leaving for the Sudan.” I waited for something better and eventually heard the word Glasgow. Not far from Edinburgh where I had friends. I had told them to expect me one day.

Ditching my military rags for civilian clothes, I managed to make my way from the fog-shrouded NATO airbase to the Glasgow train station and found myself on the Flying Scotsman, sleek and polished,  headed for Edinburgh. Looking out the window from my smoke-filled, second-class carriage as we idled on the quayside of  the darkly gothic station, I saw the Train Master, clad in top hat and tails a la Alice in Wonderland, remove  from his vest a giant-sized pocket watch attached to a long gold chain. Glancing ceremoniously  at the time piece,  his arm circled in a dramatic sweep as the screech of a high-pitched whistle  announced our departure, he signaled us on our way.

After surmounting some directional difficulties due to varying American and Scottish pronunciations of the word “Glencarse” (drop the “R” in Scotland), my destination, I connected with my friends. Over the next few days it seemed we never slept. It was high summer and Scotland was in the land of the midnight sun, but I was young and excited to be in a strange, new place so sleep deprivation never bothered me.

Lacking a diary account or a video record of my trip, the decades have washed over my memory bank leaving only blurry, pleasant recollections of a time spent with good friends. And unlimited quantities of liquid hospitality – in Scotland it is not unheard of to have a wee dram at noon – have reduced my reminiscence of the Highlands to a misty reverie.

But one image of my trip remains hauntingly clear. My last day in Edinburgh we strayed into a tattered, run-down section of the town where inhabitants were shabbily-dressed and sour smells of boiled cabbage and stale beer prevaded the drab alley ways. As my host muttered his dis-satisfaction at having gotten  a bit lost, we passed a neglected building that appeared on the verge of collapse. About to move on, my ear caught the strains of a tinny piano coming from somewhere behind the dilapidated doors of  the derelict structure. As I followed the sound I noticed an old sign above the portal  that read “LAURIE VAUDEVILLE. The strains of a rickety ditty became louder and I found myself in what must have once been an elegant theatre. Guilded columns soared to a frescoed ceiling; elegant, empty balconies  looked down on an orchestra section where no more than a dozen spectators sat in torn, maroon velvet seats.

On stage an ancient actor was singing and dancing, his cane twirling as he laughingly sang in a half-mad voice, thick with brogue ” One day twas o’er at the Isle of Skye…..Donald, wher’re  yer trousers !” As I approached the stage, walking up the center aisle of the orchestra section I perceived his wrinkled face so  heavily farded with make-up that his features were indistinguishable. A grinning  red mouth framed rabbit-ish yellow-brown teeth and had been  painted somewhere to the left of his own lips; his eyes were drowned in dark eye shadow. Flour-white powder covered his cheeks and bursts of pink rouge gave him a strangely radioactive appearance.

I gazed at the audience. Some were quietly sleeping; others snored loudly, waking periodically to the sound of their own snorts  while the remainder slobbered on their vests or talked to themselves in gibberish. The stage was set with the backdrop of a misty Scottish castle, kilted figures dancing on its moat, flinging arrows into the sky. Most remarkable was the music which was produced by a full orchestra – some twenty members it seemed – ensconced in the orchestra pit, clad in tuxedoes.

As I drank in the insane scene around me, I felt my friend’s hand on my elbow and heard him say insistently, ” What are you doing  wandering into this dump? We nearly lost you !” Near tears, I was speechless to respond to his remonstrances and allowed myself to be pulled out into the daylight from  where  we retraced our steps to a more respectable part of town.

I was moved beyond description by this brief, not-to-be forgotten time warp encounter, so redolent of what ? The Orwell novel “1984” came to mind where the protagonists find themselves in a part of town that has somehow not been touched by Big Brother and the horrible homogenization he has created.  Time marches on relentlessly leaving some creatures, at once noble and pathetic, in its wake.

Some years later in Thailand another time warp occurred. A friend and I were speeding along the city’s expressway in his new Mercedes on our way to a glittering dinner party in Bangkok’s upscale riverside neighborhood. As we descended the fly-over onto a concrete ramp, we came upon and nearly struck with his car, a trio of Thai dancers –  withered, ancient dwarves dressed in elaborate, tattered brocade court dress, accompanying themselves with flute and drums as they swayed and twisted their bodies in ancient motions, oblivious to the high-speed traffic that threatened them. As we passed, I rolled down my window and on impulse threw some coins and paper money their way. The paper bills were caught by the wind and flew off  beyond reach, out of sight; the coins rolled away settling under the path of on-coming cars. I hoped the dancing dwarves would not rush to their death trying to retrieve them.

Closer to home was another time warp –  my mother. Even in old age she retained the melodious, youthful-sounding voice of a girl in her prime. At one point, after my father’s death,  she was back in touch with  a man who had been her beau fifty years before. They engaged in frequent, lengthy phone conversations and, overhearing the friendly tone of their banter, I suggested to my mother that they should meet.

Looking at her 200-pound image in the mirror, she rolled her eyes and laughed, saying to me, ” I was 18 then and weighed 120 pounds. Why destroy a dream?”

And why disturb a time warp?


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