How I Forgot My Pain While Walking Down Broadway

I took a baby step over the curb and onto the sidewalk.  I poked along like an aged dog.  Several days after my back surgery…they said: “Get up. Get out. Walk a little. You’ll get stronger.”

My back hurt.  It was a #7.5 on the Great Medical Scale of 1 to 10.  My only thoughts were about whether I bit off more than my spine could chew.  How many blocks have I come?  How many to the movie theater?  I recalled the hospital stay.

I stayed two nights.  The surgery took about five hours…longer than I was told.  The Anesthesiologist fiddled with my tubes.  They said something about a catheter…I looked at them with big eyes.  Please, not till I’m under…for God’s sake, please!  I rolled over.  It was 8:20 am.

“Do I count back from 100, like the movies?” I asked.

“If you want…won’t matter anyway.”

The earth opened up and swallowed me.  There were no lights.  There were no thoughts.  No dreams.  No visions…and thankfully, no light at the end of any tunnel.  I don’t even recall a tunnel.

I heard someone say it was 3:15 pm.

Who were the nurses? What exactly did they do to me?  They took a disc and relieved the stenosis on my nerve.  Where was the disc? Wasn’t I supposed to get it in a little plastic bottle?  My back began to hurt.  What was my BP?  My temperature?  Who were these people?  I was fixated on my pain.  I owned this pain.  It was mine and no one else’s.

So, I’m on Broadway.  I’m off to see the new Coen Brothers movie.  My pain was on my mind.  How could I sit that long?

I paused next to a window of beautiful clothes for women.  I stared down at the sidewalk.  Pain was going to be my brother and sister, my mother and father, my old girlfriends, my wife, my lover, my old drinking buddies…and the pet dog I was going to walk for years to come.

No one was going to take my pain away from me.  Like a Wounded Warrior, I would wear it like a medal from the battles of the war.

Then I looked across the street…across Broadway.  It was nearing Christmas.  I saw an old man.  He carried a black plastic garbage bag.  I assume it contained all that he owned.  I used my powers to look inside his bag.  There was no pain in there.  He wasn’t carrying his pain on his shoulder.  Where was his pain?

Then, even from that distance, I saw his pain.  It was in his eyes.  He was probably ten years older than me, but he was more fit than a linebacker from the old Baltimore Colts.

His pain was his loneliness.  His pain was his solitude.  His pain was ten times what my pain was.  My back would heal…in time.

But a life without love and without friends is a bitter pain indeed.

I forgot my pain.

I wept for the lonely, the unloved and the forgotten.

Through my wet eyes, I watched the old man continue up Broadway…to celebrate his own Christmas.

I hope the angel on the church steeple smiles down on him tonight…and every night.

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Coal For Christmas: A Holiday Story For You

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread.  Just the kind of poor that would keep his father one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.

It was Northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day, before dawn only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at the walls.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in the remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night…the reality of their lives erased those kind of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  The room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling was turned on.  My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale.  He called out.  He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a small hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years in rural America.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids…on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father hopped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee.  He went up stairs to bed and fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Years later when I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned “The Threat” that would punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them ‘I hope so’ and then tell them to go to hell.”

 Snowman

This drawing was done by the author in the early 1950’s during art class at St. Patrick’s School, Owego, New York.

The story Coal For Christmas has been taken from my book, “In All The Wrong Places”, a collection of short stories.

HAPPY HOLIDAY!

A Random Meeting On The Famous Steps

I’m in New York City on or about December 6, 2013.  We happen to be staying at the Hotel Pennsylvania, located on Seventh Ave. just across from Madison Square Garden.  Our hotel is booked solid, so we must move to another place in order to extend our stay for two more days.  We go out for breakfast at a small place across from our hotel.  They actually wanted $18.00 for three eggs at the Lindy’s annex that is located off the lobby.

Way too much money for such frugal travelers that we are.

We have two hours to kill before a taxi can take us to the Marriott on the Upper East Side.  I want to visit the New York City Post Office, which is about a block to the west.  We walk along 34th Street and there it is.

Engraved above the Greek columns are the famous words about “neither darkness…rain…sleet…from their appointed rounds”.  I go into the lobby and see if the Post Office still does the Letters to Santa program.  They do, but you have to fill out an information sheet before you can get a letter and then have a present sent to the child.  The child who asked Santa for the doll or the truck or the Gameboy.  I buy a stamp.  It’s a Saturday so there are few people in the lobby.  My wife wanders back into the Santa Claus letter department to look around.

I stand inside the heavy brass doors looking out onto Eight Avenue.  I notice that the steps are empty of people.  A few strollers walk the avenue.  Something catches my eye.  There is a couple standing together on the bottom step.  Someone is taking their photograph with an older camera…it’s not a digital model.  I can see that from behind the door.  The photographer is holding the camera up to their eye and peering through an eyepiece.  Not often done these days.

I’m strangely attracted to this couple.  Perhaps it’s their long coats that don’t seem quite in style.  There’s something.

Slowly, I begin descending the slate steps.  My right leg is hurting so each step down is a task for me.  I nearly lose my balance and reach out for the double railings.

Each step down is painful…and it feels like it’s taking forever to reach the bottom…like each step was worth five or ten years of effort.

When I reach the bottom, the man is taking the camera back from the stranger.  The man says “thank you” and the fellow moves on to cross the street.  That’s when I notice that the cars have somehow changed from multi-colors to black.

Something is drawing me to this couple.  I approach and stand facing them.  The man says “hello” and the woman just smiles through her red lipstick.  Her hair is black.  The man looks dashing in a belted trench coat.  The coat is secured by a rakish loose fold of the belt.

I stare at them.  There is something familiar…terribly familiar about these two people.  I began to feel light-headed.  I’m suddenly aware that there is a trickle of blood running from my nose.  I often get nose bleeds in dry and cold weather.

“Here,” said the man, as he offered me his handkerchief.

Are you from out-of-town?, I ask.

“Yes”, the man said.  “Just seeing the sights of the City”.  The woman is staring at me.  I look deep into her eyes.  There’s something I can see but can not name.  I look into his eyes and have the same sensation.

“Do you have any kids?”, I ask, searching for something to make the moment of contact last longer.

“A boy.  He’s three.  My wife’s sister is watching him right now over in Queens.  We hope to have a larger family someday”, the man added…now it was his turn to find a way to stretch the moment.

I’m getting nervous.  I feel shy about talking to such strangers.  Strangers that looked at me like they knew me from somewhere.

A minute later the man takes his wife’s arm and they head to the street to hail a taxi.

“Wait!” I yell.  But it’s too late.  I hear the door of the cab slam shut.  The man looks out at me and smiles in a very peculiar manner.  He waves.  Not a good-bye wave…rather a we’ll see you later kind of wave.  The sped off on Eight Avenue.

I’m left with a sense of emptiness and yearning.  I wanted to get to know this couple better.  But it was too late.

For them, it looked like a cold day.  For me, I was chilled to the bone.  I walked back up to the top of the steps, and had my wife snap a photo of me. Behind my head…at the bottom of the steps, is the spot where they stood.  Over seventy years ago.

I was going through a box of old, yellow and cracked photos just tonight.  I found the one that has haunted me since I was a little boy.  I examined the photo with a magnifying lens.  I can make out the shape of a man behind the heave glass of the brass door at the top of the stairs.

Were they think about having another son?  One who would be on time seventy years late for an appointment?

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My father, when he worked at the Bell Labs in the early ’30’s.

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I’m In Love With Inspector 4

I opened the package several days ago.  After giving the contents a quick once-over, I tossed them on the bed of our spare room.  The bed held a pile of clothes…it was quite out of control.  I glanced at the closet, looking for a coat hanger worthy of my new purchase.  I spotted nothing but those cheesy wire jobs that you get from the cleaners.  Most of the time the cheesy hangers had a paper wrap on them that read: “We Love Our Customers”.  Well, I wonder how much I’d be loved if I found the cleaners home address and stopped by one evening telling the guy that I loved his wife, and could she go bowling with me?

I wouldn’t do that, mind you, that’s too cheesy even for me.

My attention went back to the pile of clothes on the bed.  It wasn’t my fault there were no decent hangers.

“Mariam, there’s no decent hangers in the spare bedroom!”  I figured she’d know where they were or where she put them.

It was lotto night, so I slipped on my new purchase.  I grabbed some change from the kitchen counter.  They were brand new L. L. Bean Lined Jeans.  Did you notice I said “lined”?  Just like I had in the 1950’s when I froze in my parents house.  Now, I’m freezing in my own house.  The difference is that now I can buy my own lined jeans and not wait for my older brother to wear his out.  Once they’re worn out, they’re not very warm, are they?

I drove to the nearest market.  I didn’t like going there because they spiked the prices on everything.  They were counting on your desperation and unwillingness to drive another twenty minutes to where the prices were normal.  I mean, they want $1.19 for a Mounds bar, when in town, the drug store is only asking $.99!  It’s outrageous!  It’s unfair!  It’s blackmail!

Anyway, I scrounged in my right pocket for the $1.19 and for another $2.00 for an Instant Scratch Lottery Ticket.  I grumbled something about highway robbery as I paid the $3.19 + tax for the Mounds bar and ticket.  I had some change so I put it in my left pocket.  I feel it’s important to keep “new” money, i.e., the stuff yet to be spent, in a different pocket than the change.  That way, I can keep track of how much I spend and how much I get to take home (that would be the change, in case you weren’t paying attention).

On the way to the car, I double-checked my left pocket, fingering the loose coins, when I felt it!  They had made a mistake and given me too much change back.  I pulled out the paper.  It was small (not big enough to be legal tender even in really small countries like Andorra or Monaco).  There was some writing on it.  It must be a code.  If only I had my glasses, I could read it.  I drove home with the secret slip of paper in my chest pocket.  That was always a safe place because I only put my Bic pens in there, but I really hate Bic pens so I never use the pocket.  That way the pocket stays safe and untouched.

I’m no fool.

When I got home, I put the slip of paper on the floor and bent down to examine it.

The message was simple.  It read: INSPECTOR 4.

I began to wonder who this Inspector 4 was.  A guy or a girl (not that it matters, mind you).  Were they trying to say something to me?  What was their life like?  If it was a guy, was he handsome? Strong? Buffed? And if it was a girl, was she petite? Cute? Available?

All I can say is that whomever this Inspector 4 is, this I know:  He or she is from Maine.

And we know a thing or two about those Maine folks, don’t we?

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