BLINK MOMENTS AND AN OLFACTORY POSSE… I Smell a Gringo !

| August 15, 2012 | Comments (0)

SUBWAY PASSENGERS ABOARD A NEW YORK CITY TRANSIT AUTHORITY CAR ON THE LEXINGTON AVENUE LINE ARE OBLIVIOUS TO THE... - NARA - 556813.jpg

It’s been happening to me for many years; for as long as I can remember, as a matter of fact. I’m referring to “BLINK MOMENTS.” I have them at the most unexpected times and in the least anticipated places.

For example, a few months ago during an afternoon out-and-about in Manhattan I passed a TASTI KREME  shop, one of those unspeakable places I refer to as Diabetes Central, a joint I would not be caught dead in. Only wouldn’t you know, it was that “once-in-a-blue moon”, one time a year moment when I was seized with the urgent need to partake of a TASTI KREME, to bury my face in that non-descript overly sweet confection until my face was covered with goo, my nostrils clogged with sugary mush, my visage as unrecognizable as Fred Astaire in black-face at a minstrel show.

I hasten to add, to repeat, that I don’t do this kind of thing very often, to emphasize that I rarely eat sweets. Even as a child I prefered aspirin and broccoli to eating ice cream cones and donuts. Yes, I WAS a strange child, a boy who read Nancy Drew instead of the Hardy Boys, an only son who played with dolls instead of baseballs.

Be that as it may and back to the TASTI KREME shop, seconds after entering the establishment and ordering one of their vile products, I was seized by an aura. I realized I was having a “blink” moment. As though I were in the grips of speaking in “tongues” and without any pre-meditated intention  of doing so, I blurted out to the employee on the other side of the counter, a young latino man of perhaps twenty-one years, “You’re a doctor!”

The young man’s jaw dropped as did the lump of cake he held in his hand, my order landing on the steel counter with a soft thud. “But how did you know that?”, he gasped. “I’m an intern at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and I’m here filling in for my kid brother who’s sick and couldn’t come to work today !” I shook my head in disbeliefe at what I had said and what the young doctor told me. As we stood staring at each other over the counter, not knowing whether to laugh or scream, I heard myself mumbling, “This kind of thing seems to happen to me all the time !”

Young Doctor Tasti Kreme was so impressed that he refused to charge me for the “death in a cup” dessert I had ordered. My blink talents seemed to be paying off with tangible rewards.

I hasten to add I am not the only person who experiences “blink ” moments. In fact, a best-seller has been penned carrying that very title, BLINK. The book cites various  examples of “blink”, those moments  when the “blinker” realizes the truth, the hidden reality that has evaded detection by others. Often these blink moments have great practical value, carrying with them millions of dollars that weigh in the balance until the treasure in question is swept away by blink.

Perhaps the most famous example of blink detection involves a Greek statue that was to be purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Valued at tens of millions of dollars when it was about to be added to the museum’s collection in the 1980s, the authenticity of the statue was vetted and approved by every expert and every technique known to the art world. Except for one person, Thomas Hoving, formerly the Museum’s Director who as  an independent art consultant  examined the statue and stated, contrary to existing expert opinion, that the statue just did not “seem”  to him to be a real antique. Luckily, the Museum demurred in its purchase. Shortly thereafter a obscure technique, new to the science of antiquity aging, revealed that the statue was in fact only a few years old.  Just as my TASTI KREME encounter revealed totally unexpected information, Hoving’s blink moment served the museum well !

In  my case, I hasten to add that my TASTI KREME blink was not an isolated occurrence. I “blink” with alarming regularity and my revelations are not always met with approval. Some months ago I was invited to a  dinner party in Washington, DC. The crowd was feminist and “do-gooder.” In a gathering of six, I was the only male. All of the other guests had recently returned from assignments in the Third-World and as the evening unfolded one tale after another was recounted, telling of noble efforts overcoming  incredible odds and daunting challenges in the war on poverty, ignorance and corruption. My ears were filled with the sound of “strong women doing the right thing.” I chose the wiser path to valor and kept quiet for most of the evening.

Most prominent in this “save the world” show-and-tell was Shirley who had just returned from one of the “Stans” where she had worked for two years trying to make things right. Small business schemes for women; water-sharing cooperatives in dry zones; village-level health care; good stuff.  Which “Stan” Shirley was in slips my mind; it could have been Afghanistan or  Uzbekistan or  Krgystan, no matter. The work she did and the difficulties encountered made Shirley emerge a heroine. Appreciative murmurs from her fellow diners punctuated the tales Shirely told us as we sampled our Thai curry and Indonesian satay.

After the meal, I walked through the agreeable twilight of Dupont Circle with several of the guests. As we savored the evening, the food, the company and the accounts of noble works performed for the down-trodden, one of my fellow-strollers opined that she found Shirley to be one of the most dedicated, selfless people she had ever met.

As I was about to mumble my agreement I felt a blink moment upon me. Seized by the power of blink, incredible to my own ears, I heard myself say, “I think it’s all bullshit ! Shirley is a spook ! She works for the fucking  CIA !” My feminist, development-set friends turned on me ferociously. I think I even received a blow to the head from one of their purses. Scurrying off into the night before I was pulverized by  the gals – one of them was a black belt martial arts expert ! – I cursed my blink powers and wondered why I was endowed with this strange “gift.”

Needless to say, my name was mud with the girls. After that evening  I received a blizzard of angry emails telling me my head should be examined. What to do ? I asked myself. As with so many things that seem to occur in my life these days, the only thought I could muster was that useful, all-purpose three-word, Chance the Gardener-like aphorism, “So Be It!”

Six months later, I received a cryptic email message from Rose, one of Shirley’s bosom buddies. They had served together saving souls in that benighted, war-torn “Stan.” “I must see you immediately !” read the message.

Meeting the next day, I could hardly contain my curiousity as I sat across from Rose in a crowded Manhattan Starbucks. “What ! What !”, I implored. Smiling ruefully, Rose whispered something. Competing with the blare of Starbuck’s  jazz soundtrack and my own diminished hearing,  Rose’s words came across as so much unintelligible  mush, the underwater mumbling of dolphins mating in an aquarium.

I moved within inches of Rose’s painted lips, yelling once again “What !” This time Rose yelled back, almost blowing my head off with, “You were right ! Shirley WAS a spy for the CIA !  She IS a  fucking, low-life  spook! It all came out in an audit the NGO carried out a couple of months ago….We always thought something was fishy about her…!”

At this point with my TASTI KREME credentials already in my BLINK dossier, I shrugged, giving Rose a matter-of-fact smirk.  All I could think of  saying was,  “I told you so ! Maybe you’ll listen to me next time !”

After so many “revelations” BLINK has become old-hat with me. But there is a new kind of BLINK that has just surfaced and it freaks me out. What I will call COLLECTIVE BLINK.

Here’s what happened: last week I was tired; dog-bone, dead tired as I got on the 6 train back to the Bronx. I entered a crowded car at 125th Street. There was only one stop till I got off at 138th and Third Avenue. The train was packed with latino women all talking at once the  way latinas can do, non-stop shouting, like opera singers who can continue to emote without seeming to stop to take a breath. Fatigue seized me to the point of near-collapse. Then deep within, I felt an intestinal rumble, a signal that major flatulence was about to occur. What to do ? I could compress my rear cheeks and suppress the wind that was begging to emerge. Or… I could relax and let slip the softest, quietest of farts. Who would know ? The train was crowded; there were perhaps a hundred people in the car. With  dozens of riders around me, surely there was safety in numbers and nobody would be the wiser if I let fly with a quiet jet of backside air. Beside the train was about to pull into my stop, the PA system had just announced, “138th Street and Third Avenue.” Home free !

As the train pulled into my station I relaxed my cheeks in blissful release. The rattle of the noisy car and the squeal of squeaky brakes erased all other sounds around us. Done ! I had let fly with a modest, sedate bit of wind. Before I knew it a raging chorus of latinas closed in, attacking me, “YOU FLEW A FART!”

But….HOW did they know ? It was all so quick, so silent, so…small !  As I dodged the shouts and raised fists of the  irate female crowd, I wondered, does gringo flatulence smell different from that of other races ? Research needs to be done on this matter !

As the train doors opened, I fled to the safety of my rat-infested, urine redolent subway stop. Never had freedom smelled so good !

BLINK is alive and well and waiting to strike where you LEAST expect !

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EAST 140th STREET SOUTH BRONX …There’s No Place Like Home !

| August 8, 2012 | Comments (0)

I live on East 140th Street in the South Bronx. The tonier name for the neighborhood is Mott Haven. When I moved here  fourteen years ago, I had some posh stationery printed up that included “Mott Haven” in the letterhead  logo.  Now, that stationery has been used up and I see no need to put on airs about living in a Camelot called Mott Haven when the reality is: I live in the South Bronx, plain and simple.   I guess in the past fourteen years I have become a tad defiant about my address and where I live ! Love me, love my Bronx !

I live on a leafy block bound by Willis Avenue to the West and Brook Avenue on the East.  If the trains are running without a hitch, by taking the  6 line I can be at Grand Central in just over 15 minutes. So even though we are not in Manhattan, I tell my friends I am an honorary Broadway Baby !

This morning I was awakened  from a wine-induced slumber in my third-floor bedroom by the snarl of pitt bulls. No, we don’t have such creatures roaming about our house; those canine sounds rose  to my window from the neighbor’s back yard, two houses to the east. Still blinking, I look through the window blinds and see three dogs tethered  on short chains, trying to move about. It seems  my neighbor’s grandson is breeding dogs. But why must they be kept on short leashes ? Is he training them to be cruel fighters ?

The  pitt bull house is inhabited by a black family and includes at least four generations. The Big Mama of the house, who is said to have been a seamstress for the late society doyenne, Brooke Astor, moved there from the projects down the block before we arrived in the neighborhood. Presumably she owns the house which is the same size as our brownstone, the big difference being: whereas we are TWO people rattling around in our four storeys, there seem to be dozens of people living in Big Mama’s house, family members, friends. visitors. A steady stream of human traffic comes and goes, up and down Big Mama’s front steps. It reminds me of my adopted country, Indonesia where there are always people about and one is never lonely.

In front of Big Mama’s house, as is the case with most other dwellings on the block, there is a lot of “stoop action”, people hanging out on the front steps, lounging in folding chairs on the sidewalk, chatting, playing music, drinks in brownpaper bags being consumed. Particular attention is given by the “stoopsters” to the act of car parking which is a much indulged-in activity on our block given the city’s alternate-side parking rules that dictate the moving of cars every two days to accommodate  those useless monsters called street cleaners.

Every other day, one side of the street is to be emptied of cars so these behemoths with gigantic brushes can whisk the street clean. The only problem is: they don’t do the job they were designed for. Debris that finds its way to the road seems to be merely re-arranged and re-distributed by the street cleaning trucks to a different location a foot or two from its original resting place. The other morning I tested the efficacy of those giant brushes by putting a piece of newspaper on the street. After the cleaning monster had come and gone, that piece of paper was still on the blacktop; the only difference being it was wet. I think the planted scrap of paper contained the obituary of Gore Vidal. Gore would have been proud that even a two-ton street-cleaner could not remove his likeness from the road !  (Note to the Mayor of New York City: sell all these trucks and import a thousand Indian street sweepers from the lanes and alleys of Calcutta; they’ll do a much better job and we won’t have to move our cars.)

In any event, the parking of cars is a much-watched activity and keeps the stoopsters busy,  kibbitzing during late morning hours for most of the week. Their running commentary as cars park and re-park is not unlike a sports-caster following an Olympic event. The stoopsters are mainly male, predominantly black and don’t appear to be gainfully employed since they populate the stoops during what are normally considered weekday working hours, 9-5. The main reason we got rid of our car, a cute little silver Honda that we dearly loved, is I could not stand the stress and pressure that came with parking under the watchful eyes and wagging tongues of the stoopsters. Tight city parking is no easy task and I do pride myself on being an expert in navigating my vehicle into the tiniest of spaces. The only thing is, bumper-kissing is inevitable; you cannot park on a crowded city street without sometimes touching the cars in front and behind you.

The stoopsters who station themselves by Big Mama’s house are particularly exigent observers of how cars are parked. Needless to say, a number of Big Mama House inhabitants are car-owners. One of her grand-daughters – or is she a great grand-daughter ? She must be around 20 years-old – owns a shiny, new Lexus. Another female off-spring has an imposing SUV. At least ten pairs of eyes are glued on me and my pitiable Honda when I extricate my vehicle and re-park it. Even when the tenderest bumper kiss occurs – when my car touches the fender of the Lexus, a Hallelujah chorus erupts from the stoop and, like as not, Big Mama’s  grand-daughter emerges from the house,  a frown on her face, hands on hips, her  three-inch painted  fingernails digging into her skin tight jeans (how DOES she get into those pants ?), glowering at me while I  execute  my vehicle removal. And ofcourse,  when my little Honda does kiss her Big Lexus, all hell breaks loose.  Even the softest tap threatens legal action.  “You damage ma car and I’m gonna sue your ass !” You would have thought I had engaged in date rape ! She wishes….

I like some of Big Mama’s  “family” and I’m not too crazy about other members of her household.  Her son, Jeff-Jeff is likeable and always dresses in red. He must be in his mid-30s and, on a good day, stands around 6 feet tall. His  imposing pot belly is testament to his being a regular customer of McDonald’s and White Castle and to his sedentary life style. Jeff-Jeff usually appears on the stoop around 10 AM and hangs out till dinner time. We have amiable chats and he tells me how when he was a teenager, he was almost tapped for basket ball stardom. As he waddles back to the stoop after giving me a good-morning hug, I think, “You’ve come a long way since your basket ball days, Jeff-Jeff.”

Another member of  Big Mama’s coterie is Wally. He is tall, athletic, handsome and courtly and I must admit I have a crush on him. He is my favorite person on the block. Probably in his late forties by now, last year Wally’s hair suddenly started going white. Is that what happens to black men in their late 40s ? It seems to be happening to our President !

Jeff-Jeff’s sister is a piece of work. Seesy, by name, she likes to hit the bottle. One evening our paths crossed as she staggered up the street and snarled at me, “Get outta my way, you white homo mother-fucker.” Racism and homophobia are alive and well on our block !

Most of the other neighbors on the block are latinos of one provenance or another. There are Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, a black guy from Honduras. Friendly and eager to chat as latinos are wont to be, I was glad for a certain period to have the opportunity to practice my spanish with them. Far better than the Spanish classes I took at the United Nations, these street encounters were the real thing where I learned useful phrases and interesting slang.

Alas ! My chats with the latino neighbors have ceased. It seems that word has gotten out that I am queer and they no longer speak to me. As we say in Spanish, “Me dan la espalda.” They give me their back. When I walk down the block, they turn away from me and no longer give me the time of day. No “Que Paso’s ?” or “Buen Dias!” Just silent stares.  Probably when I was younger this would have bothered me. Today it doesn’t. There’s something about being 73 years old that is comforting. I’ve been there, done that, seen it all and experienced almost everything. Smoked heroin and danced with Henry Ford II’s daughter at a Wilmington, Delaware  debutante ball for a DuPont ingenue ; flown on the Concorde twice and shook  hands with the King of Bhutan ! Attained Nirvana and came back to this flophouse world for a little more nasty action ! There ain’t nuthin’ I haven’t done, Baby. Probably half of those latino stoopsters are closet queers anyway, I tell myself ! The joke’s on them. If you haven’t tried it, don’t knock it! Christopher Hitchens famously said picnics, champagne, anal sex and Proust were over-rated. At least he was 75% right !

But back to the pitt bulls. As I watch them from my third-floor bedroom window looking down as they strain on their tight, short chains, howling and barking, I am tempted to knock on Big Mama’s door and ask her if she knows how those dogs are suffering.  But I guess I am a coward. I might run into Seesy or the long-nailed Lexus owner.

I suppose Voltaire was right when he said, “Il faut cultiver son propre jardin”, or words to that effect. “Cultivate your OWN garden”, mind your own business and don’t mess with the neighbors.

It may sound strange , having written these words above, but I still love my street. At least it’s not boring and  the antics of the stoopsters give me something to write about ! Remind me to tell you about the “cane people.” that army of able-bodied young men who walk my street wielding canes, hanging out when they should be working. The Bronx is the “poorest” county in the United States.

Could the reason be: why work when you can get welfare? I’m just tellin’ it like it is. If you don’t believe me, come and live in my ‘hood.

The influx of Mexicans to the neighborhood is refreshing. They are hard-working, happy people. Even with  almost no knowledge of English, they are not deterred. They open streetside taco stands and hawk cheerfully from vegetable carts, they sell giant hunks of watermelon and helados, shaved  ice flavored with mango syrup.  Old-fashioned immigrants who aren’t afraid of work. I just hope they don’t get hooked on the welfare drug and become navel-gazing, self-pitying stoopsters.

South Bronx, warts and all, I love ya !

 

 

 

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FROM RAG DOLL TO FEMME FATALE…Only a Matter of Time

| August 4, 2012 | Comments (0)

Hazel was not an ugly child, but she was homely, deadpan homely. Too thin to be called cute, which was sometimes  the saving grace of  children bereft of any shred of infantile pulcritude, Hazel was loose-limbed and uncoordinated, resembling nothing so much as a rag doll. Even her mousey brown hair was limp and lacking in character, plain as dirt; there was just nothing to be done with Hazel.

An only child, Hazel was born to aging  parents and was the apple of their eye and wanted for nothing. Even when she was still in grade school, Hazel’s mother, Flo, would plan her daughter’s future with meticulous detail as she unwound after work, having a highball – a tall vodka and iced tea – in the family’s living room. As one highball stretched into two drinks and then a third – “What the Hell !” Flo would say,  her drink spilling and her speech  thickening, “Things happen in three’s, don’t they !” – Hazel’s adolescence and then her adulthood would unfold in living color.

First, Hazel would make Dean’s list with her straight-A report cards, then she would be selected as a cheerleader and root for the Dragons, the high school basketball team. Well-fueled with Long Island Iced Tea, Flo at this point would jump to a standing position and weave through several imagined cheer leadering routines on the carpetted living room floor  – Chugga Lugga, Chugga Lugga, Sis Boom Ba ! Dragons, Dragons, Raa, Raa Raa ! Depending on the number of drinks under her belt, Flo would either transition to a Black Foot Indian War dance or simply collapse on the carpet to be scooped up by the two Japanese maid servants who always seemed to be hovering in the wings.

Flo was proud of her heritage and what she had done with her life. She wanted Hazel to follow suit and be a success too.  Being the first white child born in Black Foot Indian territory on the tribe’s largest reservation in Montana, Flo was proud she could speak Siksika, the Black Foot language . In the 1930’s she was also one of the few women of her generation from the West to get a college degree. Her first marriage had ended in disaster and death. Riding in a pick-up truck on a dusty country road outside of Billings, there had been an accident, a collision with a tractor pulling a load of hay and Flo’s husband and infant daughter were killed instantly. On-lookers at the scene of the accident remembered the image of Flo, dis-oriented, sitting in a ditch by the side of the road silently trying to re-attach the severed head of her baby daughter to its decapitated, bloody body.

Ending up in Seattle, Washington in the late 1930s, Flo threw herself into a job trying her best to forget what had happened back in  Montana. In her office she became known as a first-class worker and, after hours, gained a reputation as a good-time party girl who could left a glass and tell a joke alongside any man. Pearl Harbor had just been attacked , Seattle was flooded with uniforms and Flo met a handsome Navy ensign. After a whirlwind courtship they parted company and weeks later she received a telegram from a Navy base in  San Diego containing five words, “Is it yes or no?” Flo fired off a one-word answer, “Yes!” and left for California two days later where she married Herman in a dockside ceremony before he shipped out for the Pacific. Nine months later a child was born. Flo named the baby Hazel in honor of her first daughter who had died five years earlier on a Montana roadside.

Four years later the war ended and Herman was demobilized, landing a cushy civilian job in Japan advising the Japanese on economic recovery. Flo and Hazel joined Herman setting up their household in that golden era when Japan loved the United States, when submissive, hard-working Japanese servants were available for a song and when US government subsidies were so generous that one could practically pocket the totality of one’s salary for that Florida retirement dream  home that lay over the horizon.

Herman was never wild about the name Flo had insisted on giving their daughter. It was not a pretty name like Vanessa or Dolores or Sylvia and there was nothing you could do with it; it couldn’t be modified or tweaked. Unlike Milldred, which was a plain name that could be  shortened  to  the cuter-sounding “Mill”, Hazel was hopelessly Hazel. “Haze” or “Zel” were ridiculous and risible. Imagine, Herman thought to himself, responding to such a handle! “Zel”  sounded more like the nickname for a milking cow than a girl. But faced with his wife’s non-negotiable stance about the name Hazel, “I just want it, Herman, and that’s that !”, Herman acquiesced, being a soft-spoken man who never went against the current. His motto, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, had paid off so far in his life and he had no intention of changing horses in mid-stream.

Flo’s drunken Long Island Iced-Tea plans for Hazel continued apace. One late afternoon alone in the living room except for the household’s  two Japanese retainers, Kazuko and Chioko, who stood silently and dutifully awaiting the rattle of ice cubes in the empty highball glass, a signal that “Mama-san” needed a re-fill, Flo launched into what she foresaw as Hazel’s adulthood. Addressing the two uncomprehending servants, Flo said that first, Hazel would attend college – where she would go and what she would study was not specified at this point. Then she would meet the right young man and they would marry and Flo would PERSONALLY  oversee the  furnishing and decoration of the newlyweds’ household. There would be this and that and so on and so forth, but most particularly Flo insisted that Hazel’s new home be curtained with apple-green drapes. This she repeated and repeated. And even though Kazuko and Chioko hadn’t the slightest idea what Mama-san was talking about, they wisely nodded their heads, bowed slightly, assenting with “Hai SO desu ! (Yes that’s right)!” So it had been decided then and there that Hazel would live happily ever afterwards and that there would, above all, be  apple-green curtains.

Time passed, Hazel did marry, but there were no apple green curtains. Hazel and her new husband, George, Geordie to Hazel, honey-mooned in the Virgin Islands and liked the place so much that they decided to remain. In the tropics there were no curtains, only rattan window blinds to block the sun. If she were still alive Flo would have been disappointed, but what Flo didn’ t know wouldn’t hurt her, Hazel thought.

The years had been kind to Hazel. And it all began with a name change. From the day she arrived at college in Miami, Florida, Hazel’s name had been the butt of jokes. A kindly big-sister sorority friend suggested that Hazel might want to change her name, not modify it but change it 100 per cent. They thought and thought what the change might be and came up with the name Velle. The idea for the new name came from an unusual source. A popular detergent in use at the time was called VEL. While it was a well-known product, it was not so famous that borrowing the name and tweaking it with a modification would be recognized as name theft and open to ridicule. Admittedly it WAS a gamble. Imagine if it had occurred to anybody, what an uproar would have followed ! Ha  ha! That girl’s named after a laundry detergent !  But no one was the wiser,  the gamble paid off brilliantly and Velle it became.

As  Hazel/Velle matured, the advantages of being very plain became apparent. She was an open book, a clean slate,  a tabula rasa.  While at nineteen she had still not developed anything that could recognizably be called breasts, that was not a problem since there was always padding; “falsies” could even be insinuated into a bathing suit. Hazel’s mousey brown locks had disappeared, replaced by a platinum blonde crown.The  bangs created by Jose, her Cuban stylist gave Velle a foxy look. She was definitely Velle now, no longer Hazel. Jose  was also a wizard with make-up. Hands fluttering, he turned her non-descript mouth into a  red, bee-stung pout, naughty and inviting. The final touch was a cigarette. French-inhaling a long, slim Winston, Velle was Bette Davis circa 1940. Men followed her, asked her for dates.

Life was sweet in the Virgin Islands. Both Velle and Geordie had jobs at the premier hotel on the island; before long Geordie rose to be General Manager. Time passed and a son was born.The child was no trouble and scarcely changed the comfortable routine Velle and Geordie had carved out for themselves. They half-joked that the little boy’s real mother was the kindly Caribbean lady who was with him day and night.

Geordie began spending long hours with clients and Velle found herself with time on her hands. As she whiled away the hours having a drink by the hotel pool or sitting alone over coffee in the cafe, she was often joined by the hotel’s strapping young French chef, Phillipe who had recently joined the hotel staff, having fled the frantic cruise ship scene for what he described as the sane world.

Philippe was a sailor from Brittany and a sympathetic listener. Without realizing it, Velle began talking a lot to Philippe. She told him about her unhappy, homely childhood, her eccentric mother prone to drunken Indian dances; the marriage she felt was dissolving as she spoke. Philippe confided that he was a lonely person still looking, at 35 for the right mate who could understand him.

The day before Christmas 1980 Velle told Geordie she was leaving. He could have custody of their child, she said. She and Philippe had planned to buy a yacht and sail the world, navigating the boat to exotic destinations for rich tourists with a yen for the unusual. There was no place for a child in such a life. Geordie said he understood. They had a drink on the hotel terrace and said goodbye as friends. Once plain  and homely, always plain and homely, Geordie said to himself. Velle still had to prove that she was fetching; you could take the Plain out of the Jane,  but somehow the girl would always remain a plain malcontent.

Velle’s adventure with her frenchman was indeed an adventure. She confided to her friends who had clucked disapprovingly of her mad move, when she up and left Geordie, abandoning her three-year old son, that she had absolutely NO regrets at all… none whatsoever… it had all been fabulous.

In 2000 Velle and Philippe undertook the voyage of a lifetime with a six -month trip to Tahiti. They agreed, as they relaxed over sun-downers in Papeete after the sail, that this had been a second honeymoon. Velle had never been happier as she reflected on where her life had taken her, from a mousey little frump to a sea-sailing adventuress with an Errol Flynn-handsome husband. The following day Phillipe complained of a sharp stomach pain as they worked on the yacht’s rigging. Six months later, Philippe was dead having succumbed to cancer. Velle was left with the yacht and nothing in the bank except a note for the unpaid loan  on the boat.

Somehow Velle was unphased by it all, the death, the sudden poverty. In her heart  of hearts she knew the reason: being born and raised plain gave you strength. You had to fight, to struggle, to make yourself noticed, to matter. And she had done that and would continue to do so as long as there was breath in her body.

Six months later Velle found herself on Fifth Avenue in New York City working as an executive house-keeper for the super-rich Hirschorns. Super-rich as in having donated a wing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, super-rich as in having an entry foyer in the their apartment the size of a Wimbleton tennis court.  Dolly Hirschorn’s daughter, Mitzi, had been on a  South Pacific cruise with Velle and Philippe, a customized adventure with gourmet meals prepared  by the chef, “roughing it” in the way the super-rich are entitled to do. Through the super-rich grape vine, the most reliable way to find the best servants and retainers, Velle came to her job at 1030 Fifth Avenue. Velle’s duties were surprisingly light. With so many homes around the world, the Hirschorns were seldom in residence at “1030” as they called the Fifth Avenue place. She was more of a houseguest than a servant, Velle told herself. Mrs Hirschorm had only one iron-clad rule. NO white wine in the house. Spilled white wine, Mrs. H. said, was the enemy of antique carpets and one thing she could not tolerate was damage to her priceless rugs.

Velle laughingly assured Mrs. H. that she had nothing to worry about. For openers, she told her employer, she almost never drank; more important, she couldn’t STAND white wine. They both chuckled and agreed that things would go swimmingly.

The summer passed quickly and pleasantly enough for Velle. With her generous salary, free live-in accomodations including meals prepared by the live-in chef – even though the Hirschorns were not there, they felt the kitchen staff had to “stay in practice” and prepare meals – Velle was well on her way to accumulating a nest-egg. The loan on the yacht had been paid off and Mrs. H’s son had recommended a bundle of mutual funds to Velle that were paying sweet dividends.

Velle was pleasantly tired, having spent the day in Central Park. Returning to  “1030” around 8 PM she greeted her favorite doorman, Irish Johnny, and took the private penthouse elevator to the 30th floor. Tip-toeing barefoot across the priceless antique carpet in the foyer, she headed straight for Mrs. Hirschorn’s master bathroom adjoining the bedroom suite. Giggling, Velle decided she was going to be “naughty” and give herself  a spa treatment. She would run a piping hot bubble bath for herself in Mrs. H’s huge, deep, private tub , the kind of bath Chioko used to prepare for Flo back in Japan; she would get something nice and rare from the Hirschorns’  well-stocked liquor cabinet, have a drink and slide into the soothing, scented water.

Turning on the full-sound stereo and selecting some early Sinatra, Velle savored a rare brandy, the kind of spirit only known to the super-rich. Ambrosia. Yes, the super-rich really knew how to live. Maybe money couldn’t buy total happiness, but it sure came close to it.  Tipping the decanter again, Velle lifted her glass and toasted the golden sounds of the “Chairman.” Sinatra was the coolest, she giggled to herself, realizing that she had become tipsy.

Looking down at her feet she saw a stream of water coming from the master bath. Yikes ! Velle thought. I didn’t turn off the bath water and it’s run over and the bathroom’s flooding. Rushing to the tub she turned off the water then laughed at it all. What the hell, she thought. I’m not spilling white wine on her precious carpet ! Finding herself in a devil-may-care state of intoxication Velle decided to take her bath with her clothes ON ! Like when Philippe would throw her into the pool with her  dress on. What mad fun that was !

Mounting the granite steps to the tub, her brandy glass in hand, Velle  uttered a lusty “Bottoms Up !” As she twirled merrily on the slippery marble, giggling, she fell  with a deadly thud, hitting her temple on the sharp corner of the tub. Sinking into the warm water, a lovely pattern of scarlet encircled Velle’s smiling face. Sinatra was in high form; the superlative sound system made it seem that the Chairman was right there singing to Velle.  He was. He was crooning her favorite song, “For All We Know, We May Never Meet  Again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“DIDN’T IT GO BY…AWFULLY FAST?”

| August 1, 2012 | Comments (0)

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“It’s raining hard !”

Can I hitch a ride ?”

“Sure ! My umbrella’s wide,

I can fit you inside !”

The downpour’s over

And the sun’s out again,

But we’re still clinging.

I do  like your grin!

DIDN’T IT GO BY AWFULLY FAST ?

The ground is all white,

Our mountain top’s calling.

I’ll follow you down,

Please help !

I’m falling !

It’s fun if we ski

When there’s just you and me !

I’ll build you a snowman

Three feet high.

His nose is a carrot,

It points to the sky!

It’s cold and I love you !

What more can I say ?

The woods are dark,

I’m glad we’ve lost our way !

DIDN’T IT GO BY AWFULLY FAST ?

The warm, perfumed night

Sports a full silver moon.

You take my hand,

We make love in a mirrored room.

You tell me a tale

And I laugh like a child.

We make love again,

Am I beguiled ?

DIDN’T IT GO BY AWFULLY FAST ?

We build a house

Big enough for two.

I tend the garden,

The rest is for you!

Decades pass, the years creep by

On little cat feet.

Isn’t time sly ?

We’re still here together,

A grumpy old pair.

But we’ll bear each other.

There’s love in the air.

DIDN’T IT GO BY AWFULLY FAST ?

The end is near.

I hold your hand.

The nurse hovers by you,

Where can I stand ?

You can’t say a word,

There are tubes everywhere.

The room smells stale.

More than I can bear !

But your eyes smile

And tell me

That you are at rest.

These  fifty years together,

They’ve been the best !

DIDN’T IT GO BY AWFULLY FAST !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE METRO, THOSE BUREAUCRATS, THAT BODY ODOR… Why I Love France

| July 28, 2012 | Comments (0)

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It was in the late summer of 1969 that I came to really love France. I had just returned  to  Paris from a two-week holiday in Corsica. Actually “boot camp” would be a more apt description  because  my stay in Bonifaccio in the south of the island was anything but a vacation in the traditional sense.

I had enrolled myself in a sailing course at the Centre Nautique de Voile des Glenans, a famous sailing school founded by members of the French Resistance. It was a no-frills, no-nonsense operation and I had already participated in one session at the mother school in Brittany. I had enjoyed my time on that storm-tossed, rocky  coast  even though I learned very little about sailing. The weather had been turbulent and the pace of instruction brisk. A slow learner, more often than not I found myself lagging behind my fellow sailors  who were quick to master the intricacies of knot-tying  and sail-folding while I sat with a pile of rope on my lap, green and  sea-sick, cluelessly fingering the hairy coils that never seemed to cooperate.  Nonetheless, I told myself,  it was an exhilarating  experience; perhaps the  greatest exhilaration being the moment the course ended !

A seeming glutton for punishment, when I learned another Glenans course was being offered in southern Corsica, I jumped at the chance to experience a part of France – Napoleon’s France ! – that I had never  been to before.  Surely the weather would be sunnier than  gale-prone Brittany and maybe, with the pace of life in the Mediterranean reputedly more laid-back than in the north, I would be able to learn my knots and keep up with the rest of the class.

The Centre had chosen a picture postcard location for the school, a  protected cove surrounded by limestone cliffs plunging into calm, turquoise blue water. If you climbed the falaise and walked a way, across the Straits of Bonifaccio, you could see Corsica’s wilder sister, Sardinia where bandits were reputed to linger in the untamed interior of the island. When the breeze stirred, fragrant whiffs of thyme, rosemary and lavender filled the air. The chalky landscape was stark and we were billeted in simple tents. As we settled in I fantasized I was a Foreign Legionnaire on bivouac. As for toilet facilities, when I asked where the restrooms were, the camp manager looked at me, barked “La-bas ! (over there !)” and gestured to clumps of high sage brush – “le maquis” – a hundred yards away. How appropriate, I thought! Almost like the “maquisards”  (resistance fighters) who had founded the school, we were told to “prendre le maquis” (take to the bush, go underground), but with a decidedly different mission from “les braves” who had, according to popular legend, liberated France.

Even more interesting were the options for performing our daily ablutions. There were no showers and very limited supplies of fresh water, the latter being rationed  strictly for drinking and cooking purposes. Even our dishes and eating utensils, as  I came to learn from the “special  kitchen assignment” that would be given me before too long, were to be washed in the sea with salt water. And most unusual, as it turned out, there were NO mirrors in the camp and nobody – whether by intent or accident – had brought a reflector with them, even the girls who constituted an important contingent in our group. Imagine spending two weeks without looking at one’s self !

The boats we were assigned to sail were the simplest of dinghies, stubborn little craft that seemed to have a will of their own. On our first day out, as my mates and I struggled to steer our boat into open sea, I felt the insistent tug of the hull of the dinghy pulling us back to shore which at that point consisted of jagged rocks and inhospitable cliffs. Try as we would, the boat would not follow our command. As the gentle breeze turned into a strong wind, I could see that we risked being dashed again the sharp rocks.

Seizing what I thought was a brilliant initiative, I suggested that two of the three of our  crew  jump overboard and, by means of the stout rope coiled at the bow, pull the boat out as they swam toward open water.  My suggestion having been accepted, the three of us stared at each other in silence wondering WHO was to jump over board and who was to remain on the boat. Before we could resolve this knotty question, a motor launch appeared, captained by the “Chef de Camp” and we were towed out beyond the rocky menace of the cliff.

Once out at sea, we received a smart tongue-lashing from Suzette, the Chef. Although diminutive and Vietnamese, she made up for her petite stature and supposed Asian femininity by shouting at us in a booming voice laced with four-letter words. It was obvious what we should have done as we were getting sucked towards shore, she said, every other word being “con” (stupid asshole), so WHY didn’t we follow sailing SOP (standard operating procedure)! Boats always had the tendency to move towards rocky cliffs, she told us; WHERE was our common sense  and why hadn’t we taken appropriate action ! Nobody had an answer although I speculated to myself that I  missed a crucial part of the blackboard chalk talk earlier that morning on the beach when my attention had wandered, puzzling over a knot I had been trying unsuccessfully to tie for the umpteenth time.

That evening after dinner around the campfire there was no roasting of marshmallows or singing of songs. Instead we were treated to a seminar of self-criticism that encompassed not only our sailing prowess,  but also  our inter-personal human relations skills – were we kind, reasonable, helpful, understanding ? Did we respect the group dynamic ? Led by the indominable  Suzette, I began to think a meeting of Maoist Red Guards was being re-created. I had read that such Maoist sessions always involved a villain or a scapegoat. That night I was the target.

Standing over me so the camp fire’s flames lit up her face, turning it into a witch’s mask of accusation, Suzette proceeded calmly and methodically in true court martial-style. She noted,  glancing dramatically at her over-sized diver’s wrist watch raising her arm in a dramatic sweep, that the school’s boats had departed for the day’s sail at 1030 AM after receiving detailed instruction about what would  encountered on the water that day. She pointedly reminded the group that the dangers of being pulled toward shore and how to avoid such a tug had been addressed during the beachside chalk talk and  that everybody had indicated they understood.

So WHY did Alouettte (our dinghy) find itself drifting towards shore and WHY was a rescue necessary ? Furthermore, she added menacingly, WHY had Sailor Sam (we were all adressed as “Sailor” followed by our given names) proposed a hair-brained action, telling his mates to jump overboard and tow the boat out to sea? Impossible ! Unacceptable ! When Suzette called on me to defend myself, I was speeechless. She concluded the session saying everything I did encapsulated the opposite of what Glenans was trying to teach its student sailors. Where was the cooperation, the respect for group dynamic, the attention to carefully explained instruction? On the verge of tears I was glad that the night’s darkness hid the shame on my face.

I thought back to the moment of our arrival in Bonifaccio and the “welcome” we were given by Suzette. Ordering us to stand in a line for inspection, I knew from the get-go as she eye-balled me that I was on her shit list. Perhaps it was because she knew I was American and, being Vietnamese, she had taken a dislike to a citizen from the nation that was attempting to obliterate Vietnam; after all it was 1969, the height of the American War in her country.

The self-criticism having been completed, I waited for the verdict and the punishment. Rhetorically asking the circle around the campfire “And what should Sailor Sam do to help him realize his mistakes ?”, she answered her own question before anyone spoke by saying, ” While we cannot send him to the fields as perhaps he best deserves, we can put him in the kitchen where, while he cooks our meals, he can reflect on his faults and bad attitude !”

And so it was that I became the Glenans cook for what seemed like an eternity although, in fact, the corvee lasted only two days and I quite enjoyed the stint. As I teared up chopping  dozens of raw onions I found myself glad that there were no hated knots to tie. I had bragged earlier to several fellow sailors that I was a master at cooking pasta dishes. Now I had the chance to put my money where my mouth was and the result of my slaving over the camp stove was a roaring success. Even the cruel Suzette pronounced my spaghetti “Une triomphe !” Without trying, I had become the most popular person in the camp !

Before I knew it  we had “graduated” and I emerged none the worse, perhaps a bit sadder and wiser from my brush with Maoist self-criticism. And best of all, it was agreed, we were bursting with energy; we felt “renewed.” I thought it must have been the result of washing our bodies for two weeks with only salt water. We felt tan, buffed and tingling, glowing  with the aroma of healthy body odor. Like a school of salted fish.

When I returned to Paris, I found a stack of mail under my apartment door. On top of the pile was an official-looking letter from the French Ministry of Finance. Wondering what it could be about, I tore open the envelope to find a letter enclosing a check for 300 francs. Six weeks earlier I had had a run-in with the police in the subway, the Metro. I had walked through an open gate onto the subway platform without using my Metro ticket. The “portillon” or barrier  had been open with a sign saying “Due to repairs underway, gate open and no ticket necessary.” By utter chance and as bad luck would have it, at the other end of the line when I exited the train, a uniformed guard asked to see my ticket and proof that it had been used. I explained what had happened, but apparently I was not convincing.  My choice, the policewoman said, was pay a fine of 300 francs on the spot IN CASH or go to jail. I saw several other passengers – hapless African street vendors -being roughly  dragged away for alleged fare evasion  and I decided that paying was the better part of valor.

The following day I penned a letter to the METRO office, the RATP, (Regie Autonome des Transports Parisiens)  explaining what had happened. I retraced my steps to the open gate that had caused me the trouble and took a Polaroid picture which I enclosed  as an attachment. Luckily the gate was still open when I returned. Thinking about what might have happened if the incident had occurred in the United States, I never expected to hear back from the RATP. In the States, if I were lucky I might have received a “Dear Rider”  form letter saying my communication was very important, thanking me for “choosing” the subway, assuring me that my “feedback” was appreciated. Nothing more.

What I held in my hands was personal letter from a REAL person apologizing for the regrettable inconvenience I had experienced. It was composed with elegance and understanding. The word “bureaucrat” so often used in a pejorative sense, suddenly became synonymous with “hero.”  Somehow the check,  welcome as it was, seemed unimportant. I felt that France had recognized my existence, that she was taking care of me, that I belonged. That she loved me.

It’s funny how we come to love things and places. With me and France it was all about body odor on a Corsican beach, cock-ups in the Metro and a letter from a faceless functionary.

 

 

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