Archive for October, 2011

NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED – The Sad Story of My Grandson, Felipe

| October 15, 2011 | Comments (1)

 

One late Fall Saturday, seven or eight years ago, my partner and I decided to get our act together and spruce up Fawlty Towers, the crumbling Victorian rowhouse that had been our home since we moved, some years earlier,  from Manhattan to the South Bronx seeking more space. After a number of rentals since we arrived in New York City in 1989, we felt the discomfort of our tiny but attractive flat near Central Park on the Upper West Side – we joked the space was so narrow our elbows were getting bruised –  and decided to ” homestead”, buying a fixer-upper on an historically landmarked, but somewhat dilapidated street in what was then consided a rather louche neighborhood in the Bronx. Our renovation of the place was punctuated by spurts of work followed by sags in energy and funds; we began to think the place would never get tarted up the way we wanted it to be.

It must have been the crisp Autumn air that gave us renewed resolve that Saturday morning as we furiously scraped and painted. But realizing the sysiphean task before us, we hopped into our Honda and headed for a spot under the highway overpass where immigrant labor congregated. Every morning scores of muchachos  waited to be picked up for the  grunt work they had come to the US  to undertake for Americans now too lazy to lift a finger.

Bunched in groups of ten or more, clutches of ex-rancheros eyed our car as we drove up. Mostly Mexicans and all male, the workers clumped together chatting and laughing the way Latinos do, seemingly without a care in the world although in reality most of them were near starvation and hadn’t a clue where their next meal would come from.

Standing some distance from all of them was a lone figure, a slender, tall-ish youngster who looked more spanish than Mexican. We selected him and drove back to the house where he worked tirelessly the whole day, scraping and painting with amazing skill and diligence. We asked him to return the following week and the week after that. He had just turned  20 and  his English was excellent.

By the end of the month we had become friends and we offered him the spare bedroom in our basement where he stayed for several months. During his time with us we came to know him as one of the brightest, most winning personalities we had ever  encountered. Orphaned at 12 he had worked at an amazing variety of jobs in Mexico and the US that included ranch hand, construction worker, busboy in a New Orleans whore house and junior circus clown at a carnival in Jalisco. His energy and optimism were boundless; just being in his presence was inspiring  and invigorating.

The Mexican immigrant drum system had it that illegals fared better on the West Coast where it was rumored a Mexican Consulate ID card would give them enough status not to be  arrested or deported by the U.S. immigration service, the dreaded INS. So Felipe decided to try his luck in San Francisco.

After several months in the Bay Area, menaced by  Mexican gangs that did not yet exist in New York City, Felipe returned to Guadalajara, his hometown in Mexico. I had visited him in San Francisco and we decided that he should  go back to his country and finish  his studies, first his high school degree and then on to university where he dreamed of studying computer engineering.

In the meantime I adopted Felipe as my grandson, fulfilling a longing I had held for years to have a close family member whom I could mentor and guide to a better life.  For two years, our plan went swimmingly. He not only got his high school diploma, but also enrolled in a prestigious university and earned straight A’s for several semesters. I often  visited him in Guadalajara and decided to buy  him an apartment which I could also use for winter getaways from cold New York. We found a nice two-bedroom flat in a good part of town and he moved there in 2009.

My first inkling that things were not as they should be came over a period of  six months or so when Felipe began asking for more and more money. There was an unending array of  expenses in addition to his regular  monthly allowance – an eye operation he said he needed, orthodontic treatment because he wanted to be more presentable, tattoo removal since Mexican employers would not hire people with body markings, mysterious assessments for the apartment building’s repair, then two automobile accidents occuring only a couple of months apart. Each of these car crashes set me back $10,000. As 2010 turned into 2011, I calculated, including the apartment, that I had spent over $100,000 on my adoptive grandson.

While I did not begrudge him what he needed, my sixth sense told me I was being taken to the cleaners. I learned inadvertently through other Mexican acquaintances that Felipe was contributing to the support of  relatives in Mexico City and that many of his “expenses” were, in fact, fictional, that my money was being used in ways I had not envisaged. Having lived in the Third World for most of my life, I was not uninitiated to the reality that if you adopt somebody from a developing country, you actually end up adopting a whole village, the ties  of the extended family being strong  and sensitive to economic opportunism: if an economic windfall occurs to one member, other family members  come running with extended hands and cannot be refused.

We had a heart-to-heart which I hoped would set us on the right track, but it was not to be.  The worst was yet to come. It came to light early in 2011 that Felipe had pawned our apartment to get cash for a “business deal” he had entered. The details of this venture were so vague and contradictory that I never really understood exactly what was happening. At considerable additional expense, I “unpawned” the apartment, redeeming it for an exorbitant fee.

Mea culpas and apologies were given me, punctuated with lots of  ” never agains.” I began to ask myself what did family obligations consist of and would I treat a biological grandson differently – more indulgently – from an adopted one.

With only two months until his  graduation, I took a deep breath and  vowed  to stand behind him till he got his diploma. We could see light at the end of the tunnel, the finish line was looming in the distance, that big brass ring was about to be grabbed.

But it was not to be. In a phone call that left me numb, Felipe informed me that he had quit school because it no longer had any meaning for him and that he had joined with “friends” in a venture that would make him lots of money. When I asked who these friends were, his three-word answer stunned me : “drug dealers, narcos,” he said.

I now add to the first proverb – “no good deed goes unpunished” – two more shibboleths that also apply to me – ” be careful what you wish for, you might get it” (in this case, a grandson) and “an old fool and his money are easily parted.”

In my  last conversation with Felipe earlier today, I ran out of things to say to him and signed off with “Vaya con Dios.”

 

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BIG BERTHA AND MY OWN PRIVATE WAR

| October 15, 2011 | Comments (1)

 

Forty-three years ago, I peered out the door of a United States  Army helicopter as it flew low over the smoking ruins of a Vietnamese village. Acrid fumes of still-burning thatch – hours earlier the rooftops of orderly houses – assaulted my eyes and nose as I stepped out onto a bed of ashes in a smoldering rice field.

It was 1960 and the war in Vietnam had escalated to a ferocious crest of destruction. As a Foreign Service Officer embedded with the American military, I was part of a “nation-building” team that had been dispatched to survey the damage we had wrought and recommend ways to “win back the hearts and minds” of the farmers whose village we had just oblierated.

My translator and I walked up to an old man standing in front of what had been a house, now a heap of scorched bamboo. When we asked him how we might provide help, he stared at us in dazed silence before pointing to the carcass of a dead buffalo.

“My buffalo is dead and I need a new one,” he said.  “I can’t survive wthout this animal. She plows our fields, pulls our cart to market and provides us with fuel.” My translator and I looked at each other and stammered an apology.

Later that evening, after I had flown back to base camp and was unwinding at the Army officers’ club during happy hour, I told my G.I. buddies about my afternoon visit to the village. When I mentioned the dead buffalo and the old farmer, they fell silent. As I was speaking,  somebody started passing a hat along the bar, and before I knew it, I was handed a fistful of cash, nearly $500.

The next morning,  I helicoptered back to the village and presented the old farmer with the collection. Weeks later, I heard that he had acquired another animal and was rebuilding his house.

An Army buddy of mine, a fellow American I had nicknamed “Flaps” because of his protruding ears, accompanied me to the village and took a photo of the farmer and his new buffalo. Later, Flaps thumb-tacked the picture  to the bulletin board of the officers’ club. The G.I.’s nicknamed the buffalo Big Bertha and she became the club mascot.

Sometime later, I heard that the village was hit again. I didn’t want to know what happened to Big Bertha or her owner. As time passed, both the war and my own personal life nose-dived into crisis. Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive, crippling South Vietnamese bases;  I broker off my engagement to a beautiful French-Vietnamese woman and told my buddy Flaps that I thought I was gay. Flaps told me my sexuality had been an open secret for months. He drove me to the airport for my flight back to the States, and we promised to stay in touch.

I reached the nation’s capital the day after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and found myself in another war zone, with buildings aflame and helicopters hovering in the sky. Still jet-lagged and traumatized by the war I found in my hometown, I proceeded to headquarters for “debriefing” and what I assumed would be re-assignment.

Acording to my performance reports and commendations, I had served with valor and diligence, ” beyond the call of duty.” I had worked for nearly a year in a rubber plantation area sprayed with the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. As I headed down the polished corridor to the State Department’s personnel office, I assumed I would be congratulated on my outstanding service, promoted and offered another challenging assignment.

The interview lasted less than a minute, during which time I was sacked, not lauded. The woman behind the desk informed me that my service had been terminated. Just like that !  Shocked, I asked why I had been fired. Without establishing eye contact, she mumbled, ” I don’t know the reason” and motioned me to the door. The career I had worked so hard for was over in a flash. What had I done ?

The months that followd were rough. I had a nervous breakdown and aimlessly wandered the streets, spending a lot of time in dank, dark bars where down-and-outs drank boiler-makers at 10 o’clock in the morning. But over time, I moved on. In fact, I found another job, excelled professionally as a senior United Nations officer and built a loving relationship with a life partner. Vietnam and my unexplained discharge disappeared down the memory hole – until one evening 42 years later, when I learned the reason I had been fired.

That night, I was celebrating my 71st birthday in a bar in quaint Georgetown, an old neighborhood of Washington, D. C.  Mr. Smith’s was the place. I was surrounded by friends and overcome with the feeling that life was good.

As I lifted my glass to join in a celebratory toast,  I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see the smiling face of my old buddy, Flaps. We had seen each other on and off over the years. He gave me a rib-crushing hug and in a few words that indicated the extent of Washington’s Beltway grapevine, whispered, “That was a real bummer, your getting fired because you were gay.”

It turned out that a fellow Foreign Service officer , whom I knew from Vietnam,  had seen my confidential file and spilled the beans; later it was confirmed to me. My firing was based not on performance, but discrimination. With an incredible sense of relief, I realized that I had done nothing wrong. Better late than never, I thought, as I raised my flute of bubbly.  At long last, I felt myself a winner. the best birthday present possible !

 

 

 

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SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED…..Last Act for Jack

| October 6, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

A bit more than thirteen months ago – it was September 11, 2010 – my friend, Jack Jacoby passed away peacefully in his apartment high over the Hudson River on Riverside Drive. Jack was the quintessential Californian, born 90 years ago in Sacramento, schooled in the liberal halls of UC Berkeley and seasoned by the gentle social breezes of San Francisco.

We used to sit in his apartment on winter afternoons conversing over coffee, facing each other  through a haze of blue Pall Mall smoke. He would reminisce about walking down Telegraph Avenue looking up at the Berkeley Hills. One day as the wind howled up the river rattling his windows, I stated the obvious, asking him, ” You’re a Californian and love the Bay Area, so what are you doing here in this gray, cold city? You should be out of here and back where you belong! ” Jack’s reply was  gentle, but quick and to the point.  After a puff on his cigarette and a  pregnant pause for effect, he smiled and pointed to the river saying, ” That’s the reason !” Following his finger, I looked out the window – there was a sweeping view from the 14th floor – and saw what to me were the grim cliffs of New Jersey, increasingly desecrated by boxy high-rises. I wondered what  Jack saw in that panorama. When I pressed the point, he laughed and said, ” Chacun a son gout. ” Jack usually ended a discourse by making a point in one of the many foreign languages he spoke; Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Korean and Greek to name a few of them.

I was executor of his estate and faced  a mountain of tasks, as summer turned to Fall in September 2010, that were, by turn, boring, complicated and back-breaking. The most immediate challenge was to empty his apartment and deliver it broom-clean so the building could prep the place for the next tenant. As each week passed and the deadline for vacating the flat loomed closer, I grew frantic as I contemplated the task facing me.  Jack had inhabited the apartment for nearly forty years and for the last decade of his tenancy had not cleaned the space. When we first became friends over twenty years before his death, it was a delight to visit him. As a librarian specializing in East Asian languages, he had collected thousands of books;  they lined his walls in orderly rows – Japan, China, Korea – and were interpersed with ancient pottery and curious miscellany including a large Christian crucifix embossed with a prominent image of  The Buddha. Jack explained in one of his delightful, rambling discourses on Asia, that during a certain period of  Japanese history when Catholics were being persecuted by the Tokugawa Clan, the Christians would continue to practice their religion clandestinely by venerating a  cross that had been disguised as a Buddhist object of worship. 

Jack was a lover of plants and the only person I knew who had success in cultivating a flourishing indoor garden. Pots of all sizes were artfully positioned about the flat giving it an urban jungle atmosphere. My favorites were the banana tree, a large sago palm and a massive elephant-footed plant that seemed on the brink of splitting the urn that held it but which somehow thrived and never burst out of its ceramic confines.

As a backdrop there was always music playing at a barely audible level, mostly jazz and 40s big band sounds and an indescribable odor permeating the rooms. Imagine a mixture of incense burned long ago, the slightly acrid smell of cigarettes, the mellow perfume of very old tomes and the avuncular body odor of an 88 year-old man. The apartment had what could only be called a Jack smell which varied slightly according to the seasons. At Christmas and New Year’s one could detect whiffs of slightly singed currants and brandy, the principal ingredients for his famous fruitcake which he would bake every December. Jack worked as a librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue and would carry his fruitcakes by bicycle to the Museum’s annual holiday party. It was said that the Museum’s Director, Philippe de Montebello, and none other than the grande dame, Brooke Astor, were impressed by his baking skills and always took second helpings. Jack was also a skilled potter turning out scores of fine ceramic creations, vases, bottles, jars, plates and the occasional dragon or two. When he was potting, the apartment took on an earthy, pungent aroma reminding me of  clay hills after a Spring rain.

As time passed, Jack began a slow, barely discernible decline and the apartment began to change.  At first there was a noticeable accumulation of dust. It was everywhere – on the floors, the tables and the book shelves. Never fussy about neatness and order, the dust didn’t bother me in the beginning. In fact, it lent an other-worldly,charming, Miss Havershamish air to the place, making me feel I had entered a Ming tomb as I brushed tiny particles of dancing motes off the spine of an old Chinese volume asking Jack for a translation of the title.

Then he stopped watering the plants, their verdant foliage curling into morbid crispness. Always eccentric in its layout with his bedroom occupying the entrance area of the flat, when Jack stopped making his bed – and later even stopped getting out of it – his charming jungle pagoda palace transformed itself into a flophouse rendered almost unbearable  by the strong smell of urine. The shortest distance from his bed to any receptacle was the kitchen  and Jack began using the sink in place of the toilet for his eliminations.

In August 2010 Jack was taken away to hospital and then a nursing home where he remained till September 10. On that day he returned home with hospice care provided. A kindly, grandmotherish Carribbean lady was in attendance. It was hoped that being back in familiar surroundings with his beloved Hudson River in view, he might bounce back to some sort of recovery or at least  enjoy quiet comfort for his remaining days. The hospital bed was wheeled to the  window and cranked up to a sitting position. His return home was all too short. Jack expired less than 24 hours after reaching his door. The last thing he said to me as he lay in the bed looking out at the river, his eyes moist with tears, was, “Why am I living so long?’

 

Most of his orientalia are now in my house in the Bronx turning the parlor floor into an eery expanse of Japanese goddess statues,  Chinese apothecary chests, inscrutable folding screens, kabuki fans and a large lacquer abacus. Just when my own urge to get rid of  “stuff ” was cresting, I became the unwilling recipient of  an Asian flea market.

The paperwork connected with Jack’s passing seemed interminable, but finally after thirteen months I received what I hoped was the last bill for medical services rendered. The avalanche of so-called junk mail had continued unabated since his death even though I had made no further payments to the dozens of charities – legitimate and otherwise – that he had  chosen,  in his later years unwittingly, to patronize. I decided it was time to go to the post office and address the matter of stopping this tsunami of posthumous mail.

I queued at the post office and approached the clerk at her counter as she  nodded into a midday near-snooze. When I announced  I wanted to stop mail for somebody who had died, she snapped to a  state of alertness for a few seconds, murmuring,   ” My condolences.” After a decent interval of silence, I pressed her for what actually had to be done. Returning to a deep contemplation of her fingernails, she mumbled, ” It’s simple, there’s nothing to it; just tell the postman not to bring any more mail.”

I had brought a copy of his death certificate and another document indicating I was the executor of Jack’s estate expecting to be asked for something formal, some recognition that Jack had once existed and was now officially no longer with us. I had anticipated and somehow hoped there would  be a formality at the post office, a small bureaucratic flourish, if you will, that would dignify this one final act that could prove  he had lived among us for nearly 90 years.

It was not to be. The clerk had already turned her attention to other matters and was peering intently into her cell phone. I still haven’t decided if I will tell the postman to stop Jack’s mail from being delivered. His body was donated to science and the remains of his remains were scattered at sea. There should be a piece left of him to venerate and remember. Even the tackiest junk mail has a shred of dignity. At least it’s something you can hold in your hand. Something to remember him by. 

 

 

 

 

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