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.

May Day, 2017: Take the Long Way Home

[Photo source: Me]

So, here I am looking at the new page of my really cool calendar.  It’s May.  Most people will think of flowers and perhaps rising waters.  I used to think of crocus.  That’s when my mother always said spring was here.

“The crocus are up beneath the evergreens,” she would say….for so many years….until she passed away on a beautiful Easter Sunday morning.

It’s also my 24th wedding anniversary.

But, I look toward the end of the May calendar and I see the last date: 31. That’s when I will turn 70 years old!  I try to get my mind around that fact, but I realize that I’m not ready.  I’m not ready to be or feel that old. Where did the decades go?  Who was I as 36?  47?  Who took the pictures?  Am I in anyone’s album?

I know what many will say: “You’re as old as you feel, etc…”  But that’s not the way I see it or feel it.
I have a delightful daughter,Erin, whose life is full with a fantastic husband and an awesome son, Elias.  She is turning 45 years old.  Where did the years go?

I have a son, Brian, who will turn thirty in mid-July.  Where did the years go?

See the calendar photo above? Did I ever pull back the curtain for anyone? I don’t think I did.  I spent a career teaching…but did I make any difference? I’ll never know.

There is a vase of lilacs just behind this laptop screen.  Mariam bought them today.  I can smell that special scent.  It reminds me of the giant lilac bush that grew just behind my childhood home.  So many memories from a fragrance…

I sometimes feel like I’m 18 again when I think of past girlfriends.  Many probably forgot my name over the years.  But, I know that all the young women I meet see me as their grandfather.  That is not good for the male ego of any age.

Thank the stars that I met a woman who is older than me, looks younger than me and has more energy than me and is a hell of a lot smarter than me.

Mariam.  You took a chance on me…like the ABBA song.

I just wish I had some creative energy…to write more and make her and my children proud of me.

I guess that’s what life is all about…finding a partner who shares the same values.

I did.

But, that doesn’t make me fear my turning 70 any easier.

[Me?]

[Illustration: Journey of Life: Constable]

 

Love at the Beacon Bar

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I spend most of my time alone…here in New York City, a city of 8.4 million people.  Sometimes I get very lonely and sometimes I feel forgotten.  None of this is Mariam’s fault.  She works very hard at Mount Sinai…slowly but steadily toward total retirement which should happen sometime after the middle of May.  Sometime around my birthday.  The birthday when I will turn 70!

Mariam and I have a routine of sorts.  We often meet at the Beacon Bar which is a four minutes walk for me, if the lights are in my favor.  I will have glass or two of Greenpoint IPA and Mariam will have a Chardonnay…all this before Happy Hour is over at 6 pm.

Last evening, just as the prices were about to rise and after we had spoken to a few of our new friends, Mariam turned to me and said something that was unexpected…and desperately needed.

Okay, it’s a few days after Valentine’s Day.  And this year we agreed not to exchange Hallmark cards (and she doesn’t really care for chocolates).  We knew how we felt about one another…we’ve been through a lot.  She saved my life when I was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 by finding the best hematologist in the City.

So, what did she say to me?  What did she say that still rings in my ears and especially in my heart?

She turned to me and said:

“I love you, you know.  My heart is full of you.”  I looked at her somewhat mute.  I mumbled that I loved her as well, but I didn’t have that special phrasing that makes a special moment so endearing…and so lasting.

I had never heard it said quite like that before.  There is no Hallmark card that could take the place of that short statement.  No $30.00 dozen of red roses from the corner deli (the heads will sag in two days) that could have smelled better that the scent of words of love…like the ones Mariam said to me…yesterday afternoon, the day after Valentines Day.

Some sentiments don’t need a day on the calendar to guide you.  The special ones come from the moment.  The heart is the only guide you will ever need.

rodeoyuma

I Am…

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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.

crowd1

[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)]

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.