Remorse And A Frozen Bottle Of Poland Springs: My Dinner With Chuck

Perhaps some of you remember a rather obscure film from several decades ago called My Dinner with Andre.  It was a really intense movie about two guys who have a conversation over dinner on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

A two-hour movie about two guys talking over dinner…’nap time’, you may think…but the film was brilliant (and nobody gets blown up or vaporized and there are no zombies).

What follows are a few recollections of My Dinner with Chuck:

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I was sipping a Greenpoint IPA at the Beacon Bar on Broadway and 74th St.  I looked at my iPhone…twenty minutes to the end of happy hour.  I was waiting for my old friend, Chuck, from my home town, Owego, NY.  I saw him last at our 50th class reunion in September of 2015.  Before that, perhaps we crossed paths at a less significant reunion (although I believe all class reunions are significant life events)…I couldn’t remember.  The bottom line is that I haven’t really had time to speak with my friend in fifty years!

He lives in one of the Carolinas now…as do many of my class mates who moved to the south and mid-south to escape the rigors of New York State winters. His son (who lives in New Jersey) had scored tickets to the biggest hit on Broadway right now...Hamilton.

It was a matinée and Chuck said he’d love to meet up with me while I was in the City.  He had lived in the “hood” back in the 1970’s, so he knew the Beacon Theater and the adjacent bar.

I took another sip on the IPA.  I looked into a mirror on the column in front of me.  I see two guys walk in.  Heavy set…like Mafia hit men.  It was Chuck and his son.

We moved to a small table and chatted until my wife joined us a few minutes later.  Chuck looked great for his age and his son looked a Hollywood actor…like a young Jude Law.  Funny, but his son is a lawyer (Jude Law?? get it?).

Chuck’s son made a call and soon a female friend of his appeared.  She was a dentist.  I tried to show her my infected back molar but my wife stopped me from peeling my lip back too far.

The lawyer and the dentist went off and the three of us went to pick up a half-dozen slices of pizzas from a nearby joint.  We went back to our apartment and had a dinner of pizza and beer.  It wasn’t My Dinner with Andre, but we talked about so many things from so many years ago.  We discussed one important detail: who was the prettiest girl in the class of “65…we decided it was…(do you think I’m an idiot to tell you?…that’s our secret).  We never sang the Alma Mater but we recalled and exchanged memories that we had both forgotten…each in our own way.  We laughed and had several hours and several really good slices of pizza.

Chuck kept saying how great it was to get together…I agreed.

His son called and said he was busy for the night. Luckily for Chuck, we had an extra bed in the downstairs room.

We stuffed two pillows and found a duvet.  We sat at the top of a very scary spiral staircase and talked before I sent him down stairs for a good nights sleep.

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I went into the fridge and found a bottle of frozen Poland Springs in the freezer.  I figured it would thaw in about twenty minutes and Chuck would have nice sips of ice water before he fell asleep.

Later, I sat up in bed…I had given my fine old friend a block of ice…it wasn’t going to thaw for an hour.  I felt guilty. I felt I let my friend down on one basic of hospitality…a drink of cool water.  A few minutes later I put my head back on my pillow and hoped he get up on time and connect with his son and get back to New Jersey.

He did.  He emailed a thank you note but didn’t mention the frozen bottle of water.

Will I ever do anything really right?  I fell asleep think of the way he described how delicious the cantaloupes were back when we were in high school.

Memories…old friends…these are the things that drive me to sit and write this at 1:30 in the morning.

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)]

A Farewell Letter To Jimmy

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Hey, Jimmy…I can’t bring myself to call you James.  For most of my life you’ve been Jimmy, so there it is.  Mariam and I were in Burlington just this past weekend.  As I wandered up and down Church Street I kept wondering where the restaurant was that we met for the first time in over 50 years.  Mariam said she remembered which block it was on.  I wondered how you were doing…

I was remembering the old days in Owego.  Craig Phelps was probably the nearest neighbor (he lived across the street from me, remember?). But you were the next closest.  Your house was just across the RR tracks and hard by the Brick Pond.  Boy, did we have fun exploring the Pond in those days when only  a handful of kids knew about it?  You and I spent endless hours in our backyards playing “cowboys & indians” and army games with my brother and ‘Doc’ Phelps.  That was quite a time.  It was the time of our lives when few troubling things touched us.

Innocent children.  Innocent young boys playing in fields near the Susquehanna.  Fields of fair games and fair play.  Fields of Youth.

We were rarely ever apart in our years at St. Patrick’s School.  It was in OFA…high school…that we drifted apart.  We hung in different circles of friends.

Then one day (was it 1964? 1963?) you brought over an album for me to listen to.  We sat on our sofa at 420 Front Street and I heard the voice of Bob Dylan for the first time.  I was a Dion fan.  I didn’t get Bob at all.  I said: “This guy can’t sing”.  It was about a year later when I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on a radio station when I was driving back from working at Carroll’s Hamburgers in Vestal.

I got it.  You gave it to me.

Later, we sat on the steps of my house and you talked about this thing happening in Viet Nam.  I was too wrapped up in my girlfriend and plans for college to fully understand…in 1965…what was happening.

You enlisted and you served with honor and I heard you got a medal of some kind for bravery.

Jimmy, you fell below the radar after high school and I did not hear anything about you until I was asked to try to locate you for the 50th Reunion in September of 2015.  Things happened and I was able to find your phone number.  I called and we met for lunch in Burlington.  Such a great time we had…remember?  We recalled the old days and caught up on how “not well” you were.

I wrote a blog about our lunch.  It was quite popular among our Owego friends.

Then, this morning, I get some news on Facebook about you.  News that made me weep for a time as I reflected on our history.

We’ll never explore the Brick Pond again, Jimmy.  We’ll never play war games in our backyards.  Ever again.

Wait, that’s not true…I’ll always remember the times we had and the growing up we did together.  I’ll recall those childhood games again and again to keep your memory alive.  I’ll walk around the Brick Pond again…in your honor.

RIP, my good, gentle and great old buddy.  I’m gonna miss you…….You are the friend I’ve known the longest…in my life.

pat-and-jimmie

 

Here I Sit In Space #275 In The Rose Reading Room: Yet I Am Not Insecure

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It was an afternoon in mid-October.  The rain had fallen most of the morning so when I arrived at the wet slippery steps of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library on 5th Ave., the scattered metal tables were mostly empty and wet.  I posted a photo of the wet tables on Instagram.  It got a little more than a mild number of “likes”…I’ll settle for anything right now.

I made my way through security and up three floors to the newly reopened Rose Reading Room.  It had been closed for about two years (I lost count) because the ceiling in one part had collapsed.  In the years that the Rose Room was closed, I had to be content to write a chapter or a blog in a small but quiet auxiliary room on the second floor.

At least there, it was only a short walk to the Mens Room.  I could leave my laptop and notebook at my seat, which was harder to get than tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert. [ Hey, I meant the seat at the reading room not the men’s room.]

But, here I was at last…in what is arguably the most famous reading room in America.  It was stunning.  It was fabulous and it was breathtaking.  I looked at the ceiling mosaics and the endless rows of reference books.  It didn’t take my breath the same way that the Trinity College Reading Room in Dublin had done.  It was breathtaking because I was sitting in an oak chair that may have been the resting place of John Steinbeck’s bottom while he wrote The Grapes of Wrath…it was hard to tell.

I came in and saw the sign that said “NO PHOTOGRAPHS”.  I searched for a table that had multiple AC outlets.  My MacBook Pro was getting dangerously low on juice.

I found an ideal spot and quickly took a picture from my iPhone…before anyone would notice and come to drag me out and shame me in front of the scholars at work.  It was so quiet, you couldn’t hear a paper-clip drop. I made a slight cough when my iPhone clicked.  No one seemed to take notice.  Safe now, I turned off my “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” ringtone and settled in.

Checking my desk number, I saw that I was sitting at #275.  I plugged in my charger and took out my notebook, pretending to be studying something very serious.  Instead, I was wondering who had spent hours at #275 and what they are writing?

It could have been Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Jay McInerney, Luke Sante or even Bob Dylan, who came here to read all he could find on the Civil War before writing “Beyond The Green Mountains”.

It’s safe to say that all the great American writers sat in one of these chairs at one time in their lives.  After all, it’s a well-known truth that everyone has to live in New York City at least once in their life.  Say what you want…it’s still the Cultural Capital of the World.  But I couldn’t get my mind off the fact that I was now sitting in one of the oak chairs.

And, so I sat…wrapped my scarf around my neck like a French intellectual, and began writing.  I didn’t write the Great American Novel but I wrote a blog called “The Blind Date”.

It got a nice reception on WordPress…but it didn’t get me the Nobel Prize.

That’s coming later.

 

Where Are The Castles In The Sky?

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When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river.  There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river.  Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course.  I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.

My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky.  She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.

“Look,” she’d say.  “See that cloud?  It’s shaped like a whale.”

I’d look and wonder.  Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.

“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.

“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine.  Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.

I think this is what she said.  I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words.  But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.

I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.

In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“What do you see?” I asked Erin.

She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.

“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said.  “Daddy, do you see it?”

“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday.  That cloud is only yours to imagine.”

Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up.  “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book.  It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said.  ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.

“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.

Many years later, I would  manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created.  My children are both adults now.  I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights.  The castles I saw were dark and menacing.

Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes.  I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.

After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up.  I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.

I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren.  It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky.  A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.

A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river.  I was with my wife.  The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods.  When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course.  This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable.  But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.

Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky.  She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes.  I asked her what she remembered.

“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.

“Maybe someday,” I said.

Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife.  Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.

“Yes, mom,” I said.  I see it all.”

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Gathering Dust

IceAxe

I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.

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So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?

 

 

 

The Snow Moon Over The Mojave

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Last night the Snow Moon rose over the Coxcomb Mountains of the Mojave Desert.  It’s the fifth full moon we have watched since our journey began

There will be one more to witness before we are home again.  Will we see the Warm Moon from where ever we will be in the third week of March?  I’ll bet a finback that it will be a cloudy night.

That’s the reason I miss so many celestial events like meteor showers, aurora and eclipses back home in the Adirondacks.  Cloud cover is a way of life when you enter the states east of the Mississippi River.

Out here, in the dry clear air of the Southwest, the skies have been spectacular.

But, my pleasure is mixed.  I feel enchanted and mystical when the full moon is lighting my night-time environment in the soft glow of paleness…like a lingering campfire or night-light that is bright enough, just enough, to illuminate a book or allow me to walk without a headlamp.

This post is celebrating the full moon, but I should be writing one, in two weeks, that speaks to the awesome and dazzling population of stars and planets that a desert sky displays on nights that are moonless.

Last night, I could barely make out the belt of Orion.  I could hardly see the Milky Way…but I could read a poem.

Last night, the giant globe passed by Jupiter (which sits near one of the feet of Leo) and rose high and proud.  The goddess Luna, was strutting her stuff and her act could make you halt in your steps and look up…look up and think sublime ideas.  Think romantic thoughts, poetic phrases and sad memories.  Sit on a rock and look up, look around you, look inside your mind and soul.  Remember someone you loved once…or still do.

I have had many conversations with Luna, the Roman goddess of the moon.  Sometimes she sends her Greek sister, Selene to sit with me and talk of melancholy things.  I’ve been reminded that I’ve been alive for approximately  825 full moons in my life…and I still don’t fully understand how the human heart works and why it’s so fragile and why the moon plays such an important role in our thoughts and beliefs.

I think I need another several hundred lunar cycles to fill in the gaps of my own nature.

“Drink in the full moon as though you might die of thirst.”

–Sanoben Khan