Kissing Manhattan Goodbye

So, it’s time to say farewell to the city I love.  A week from today, if you have a drone, you will find us driving north on the I-87…through Albany…onto Exit 30…and then fifty more miles, through Lake Placid, to our home at Rainbow Lake.

I’ve heard it said so many times: “New York City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Fine, I understand everyone has different tastes.  Besides, it’s all true what people say about New York.  It’s so big, crowded, diverse and varied, that whatever anyone says about the city… is true.  It’s safe, dangerous, cheap and way too expensive.  It’s all true…but I love the vibrant life, liberalism, culture and gravity.  Yes, there is an intense gravity to this place…someone once said that everyone should live in New York City at least once in their life…and I agree.

I lived on the Upper West Side for over twenty-five years.  With some exceptions, I loved every minute of my time.  Then, I retired and in 2011, Mariam and I decided to get bought out (our building was going condo) and we decided to head north to our place on Rainbow Lake.  We needed the quiet.  Mariam went part-time, working from home on the computer.

We got our quiet…sometimes, it seemed to me, a little too much.  I was lonely.  Only a few of our friends made the six-hour trip to visit us.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to come back for six months, on a full salary, to put things in order at Mariam’s place of business.  We got a sub-let on W. 74th Street and became New Yorkers once again.  I saw my son more often and reunited with old friends.

But, not all went as expected.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I found myself falling into a mild depression.  I brought many of my “works-in-progress” for my writing  projects.  I lost the creative energy to plug-in my memory stick and write a few chapters.

The winter was wet and chilly.  The spring was little better.  Then it got really bloody hot.  But, we saw a number of Broadway and Off Broadway shows that were fantastic.  We made friends at our local pub, the Beacon Bar.  We had a good time.

And, now, we’re packing things up…unread novels, unread magazines and putting away unfulfilled trips.

This was kind of an experiment ….to see if we could ever move back here.

I’m conflicted.

The “Dream House in the Woods” can sometimes  be something you’re not expecting.  Where are your friends and local pubs “where everybody knows your name?”

It’s just another move in our lives.  Mariam will be retired and I need a hobby.  I was thinking about carving duck decoys….I’m serious.   Maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. Maybe I won’t.

Maybe I won’t and just drift on my kayak.

Stay tuned.

Six Days Can Be A Long Time

[Photo credit: Mel Brown]

The moment happened a few hours ago.  I was probably sitting in Starbucks on Broadway and 75th Street when the time came and went.  I was aware of the time, but I was likely checking my email.  Our apartment wifi was dead for the time being.

It was an arbitrary time, marked only by a sweeping second hand on an office wall clock.  It turned over at 5:00 pm on June 12, 2017.  One moment it was 5:00 pm, and then it was another time altogether.

So, what’s so important about this?  That changing moment marked the end of a work day for my wife, Mariam…an ordinary work day.  But, now, she now has only six days left to the end of her working career, her fifty-one years in health care is coming to a close.  That’s a long time of working and an inspiring event to celebrate.  Ever since she graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing, she has changed bed pans, helped AIDS patients, started up a cardiology unit in a hospital, and rose to being the head of the hemophilia treatment center at Mount Sinai Hospital.  She also is the president of two boards, both in the bleeding disorders world, in the intensive and competitive world of New York City.

I have expressed my concerns about the vacuum that will enter her life from a powerful position…into retirement.  She says she is not concerned.  I trust her instincts…but I still worry.

Her boss, Dr. Chris Walsh, is now reviewing aspects of her job.

“I’m going to miss you,” he understated.

I am proud of Mariam’s accomplishments.  I am looking forward to when she will be by my side, each day…for years to come…to travel and to sit at home…reading, playing chess, discussing politics and learning new things. We’ll be having a quiet dinner at a small Italian restaurant on 73rd St. on June 21.  Yes, June 21, her final day…and the traditional Summer Solstice.  How appropriate is that?  The longest day of the year.  The days will be getting shorter, but I will be there with you, Mariam, to help you through the long winter nights to come. And, I will be there on December 21, the traditional Winter Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer.  I know that’s the date you look forward to the most.

I will be there when the black flies come and go and the mesquitos arrive.  I’ll be there when the hail hits the roof and the leaves begin to fall.  I’ll light the campfire and I’ll play some Leonard Cohen for you on Spotify.  I’ll be there to ease you into your years of retirement.

Good luck to you, Mariam.  God speed!

Six days can be a long time…after all, that’s how long The Creation took.  Let’s hope there’s rest on the seventh day.

Two Candles

I’m sitting outside in our small garden. I’m trying to read a novel written by Hakan Nesser.  He writes great nordic noir mysteries.

It’s a warm night.  I bought two new candles to illuminate the dusk in the garden.  We had a friend over and ordered Chinese. I had my fried rice and dumplings. My little radio, in the living room was tuned to WQXR and I was listening, faintly heard,  from the garden, a Gregorian Chant.

We talked. I read a few poems from a new book from Barnes & Noble.  I had my friend listen to Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize on my iPhone.

By the time we finished, the candles were melted into the holders. I paid $2.47 (+tax) for each candle….at the end of  the evening’s dinner and conversation, both candles were gone.

What does that say about candles? Friendship? Dinner conversation?

Candles, some of them, burn quickly….like life.

I Am…

arts2

It was the day before the inauguration.

I found a local gym that offered a month to month membership.  No long-term contract.  And, it was only$49 per month.  Ok, there is no pool (I don’t like to swim anyway and ALL pools have water that, to me, is just above freezing.  “Heated pools” …just a myth.  And, I tend to get water in my ear which keeps me from hearing clearly and forces me to keep poking my forefinger in my ear to clear it out (it never works). And, there is no sauna in this gym, which is fine with me.  My apartment is warm enough and I don’t really want to sit in a tiny room with a few older naked men.

I’m Irish, not Swedish.

So I worked out on a bike for about an hour.  Got my heart rate to about 107 and I left sweat on the arm rests.  I had Spotify on my iPhone and was listening to some modern “Americana” music.

Then I punched the “cool down” button.  I had burned off several hundred calories which I was about to replace a block away at the Amsterdam Ale House.

I went upstairs, without  a shower (remember the above reference to naked men) and pushed the door to Broadway.  I was met by an enthusiastic woman and a guy with a camera. [To get to my gym, you have to enter the lobby of a small off-off Broadway theater.  The gym is down stairs.]

The woman had a sheet of paper.  She asked if I would just say ‘who I was’ and what I was ‘fighting for’.  I misunderstood what she said and thought that I would have my picture taken.  I felt that I looked like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.  I needed a haircut and felt tired and miserable.

A day later I walked into the theater lobby to go down to the gym.  It was then that I saw the papers lining the walls.  The papers I turned my back on.  The sheets of paper that I had declined to write a phrase and a comment.

As I read the sheets, I felt ashamed I didn’t have my own on the lobby wall.

I left the gym that afternoon…not with sweat on my forehead …but with a tear on my cheek.

Read some of these!

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The Man in the Crowd

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[My photo: Not on the night of the party]

I was surprised that the Beacon Bar didn’t just close for night to provide the space for the private function.  Only the bar itself was open to regular customers.  The rest of the space was ‘reserved’ for a party…or whatever it was.  And a party it surely was…except for one man.

No sign was needed to tell me that the such and such bank was opening an office in Mexico City or that Doris, in Accounts Receivable, was retiring.  So, how did I know it was a large group of bankers?  It was simple.  They dressed like bankers.  All the men were in dark suits and the women (alas, only a few) wore dark power suits. A generalization, I realize.  But I have only a limited time to tell this story.

I arrived in time to secure two seats at the bar.  I ordered a Chardonnay for my wife (who was still forty minutes from arriving) and a Greenpoint Pale Ale for myself.  Then the rush of the crowd began.  The front door opened so many times the wind blew my napkin down into the dark recesses of the floor among the purses, shopping bags and boots and umbrellas.

I looked around and the sea of black outerwear made me think I had crashed a convention of funeral directors.  I kept my iPhone in front of me and checked it often…just to look like I had something to do.  Finally, Mariam arrived and began telling me of her day at the office.  Then we both fell quiet, trying to decide if we should order a second round before Happy Hour ended at six or go home and try to stream something on TV…it rarely works and most of the time we’re left to listen to WQXR and Mozart and Vivaldi and Beethoven.  A better way to spend time as far as I’m concerned.

But we lingered.

It was when Mariam leaned down to get her handbag that I looked over her lowered shoulders and scanned the room.  That was when I saw him.  I stared at him for a few more seconds than necessary.  I looked around the room and noticed that everyone was engaged in a conversation of some type…some in groups and more than a few couples.  (Office flirting?  Most likely).

I looked back at the man.  He was alone, sipping a white wine.  His eyes kept darting around the room, looking for a friend or anyone to talk to.  No one was paying him any attention.  At first I thought that he was not part of the party…but somehow, he fit in…with his black trench coat and graying mustache and conservative neck-tie.

Then, like an unexpected wave from the sea of memories, I thought of how I often found myself in similar situations.  At school dances, faculty parties, childhood gatherings and adult reunions.  I’ve never been very good at making small talk.  I often just stood against the wall or at the end of a sofa and pretended I had something very important on my mind.  The only important thing on my mind in those situations, was how lonely I felt.

I looked back at the man.  Still he stood by himself.  Still he kept looking around.  Still he sipped his white wine.  I felt an intense sorrow for the guy.  Then I thought that perhaps he had just fired someone or that he was the office snitch and was distrusted and disliked by everyone else.  But, I dismissed that negativity.

He was simply invisible to the others.

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[My photo: not on the night of the party]

I mentioned the guy to Mariam who turned for a quick glance.  She understood my thinking.

She turned to me: “Why don’t you make your way to the men’s room and stop and ask him what the party was all about?”

I made up my mind to do just that.  I took a sip of my half-empty glass of Greenpoint Pale Ale and turned on my chair to begin my push through the crowds to get to the rest room and to take the opportunity to be the only person to speak to the lone man in such a crowded space.  When I slid off my seat, I noticed he was gone.

My hesitation had made me miss out on making a complete stranger feel that someone noticed him.  Something I wished had happened to me…all those years ago.

 

Coal For Christmas

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[Artwork:Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Another year and another chance for me to share this holiday post…

 I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-ninth year. The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings. I’m the old one now. I am the carrier of the family history. When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold. No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

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 ever 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.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

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, literally, 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 rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a 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 kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  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.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low 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 of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern. He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

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.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

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, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

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

My father was helped 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. My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

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

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

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 be used to 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,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

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[Artwork: Unfinished watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

snowroad

Sure, I could be walking down this snowy, quiet and picturesque road.  I could be thinking about the approaching holidays, the snow men, the fire in our downstairs living room wood burner…but I don’t imagine I’ll be making this walk.  Don’t get me wrong, I love snow.  I always have.  But as I stand in the middle of this road to take the photo, I can feel my lower back aching from the shoveling I already did twice today.  And now my left knee hurts.  What’s that all about?

It’s Monday afternoon.  On Saturday afternoon, I was on our roof in a tee-shirt and a leaf-blower and a pair of ear protectors (they look like high-end Bose earphones).  I couldn’t hear a thing.  The only way I knew the blower was ON was to watch the twigs, pine needles and wet leaves fly away…away to the back deck and the front porch.  This would require another half-hour of leaf blowing.  I stood on the roof like the Colossus of Rhodes…like Paul Bunyan.  I looked down at my wife whose job it was to help keep the extension cords from kinking up.  She was saying something to me.  I couldn’t hear a thing.  She could have been saying “the house is on fire and I just called 911” or she could be saying “I need to go to the bathroom”.

That was just this past Saturday. On Sunday, it began to snow.  It’s 5:30 pm on Monday as I write this and it’s still snowing.

That’s a quick transition from late fall cleaning to mid-winter torture.

Take a look at the next two photos.  The top one was taken an hour or so ago.  The next one was taken a year ago almost to the day (give or take a week or so).  Which photo shows a happy contented 69-year-old guy?  Which one depicts a senior citizen who is cursing the weather gods and feeling his lower back going south?

snow-shoveling

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Trust me.  Both photos are of the same man.

No, I don’t think I’ll take a walk in a winter wonderland.  Instead, I’ll pour a glass of Cabernet and watch the darkness descend on the view toward the lake.  I’ll think of how quick things change.  How you’re young one minute and lost in late middle age the next.  How your friends are laughing and loving and talking and dancing one minute…and then their heart stops the next.  I’m not being morose here…I’m still grieving my childhood buddy, Jimmy Merrill, who passed away last Thursday.

Old friends, old loves…and memories.  I’m Irish so I tend to dwell on these things.

A little dose of melancholy falls into everyone’s lives.  It’s not a bad thing.  I just have to keep my eye on the future and the fact that there will be a day when the snow will melt and the crocus and the Lady Slippers will grow beneath the ferns and color will return to the world.  It’s so monochromatic right now.  But, that’s to be expected.

Another month must pass before the days begin to get longer.

dore