Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Story of Elder: A Thanksgiving Tail

Driving home on Wednesday, Thanksgiving Eve, on my dinner break, I unsuccessfully attempted to stay focused on the audio book playing on my iPod, my mind wandering to the impossible list of remaining tasks that I needed to perform in the little time I had before returning to work. Walking my dog and having enough time left over to cram at least some food down my own throat seemed less likely by the minute. Though normally well within reason, this night I’d thrown a wrench in the works by making an extra stop.

I live a mere four and half miles from my workplace, and on a typical day, with a little cooperation from traffic signals and a reasonable vehicular volume, I can make it to my apartment in fifteen minutes or less. The delay was brought about by my own lack of planning and foresight, combined with poor timing and a desire to, regardless of my less than masterful culinary skills, comfort myself with the tasty meal and the consolatory olfactory illusion of home that I feel is my birthright as an American during the holidays. A Thanksgiving meal, cooked by me, would quell my loneliness and, if I could avoid burning it to cinders, perhaps even swell my pride along with my belly. Not a lot to ask.

I’ve been cooking more in the years that I’ve been separated from my wife and daughter, and have come to take a goofy sort of pride in pulling a dish, successfully cooked, from the oven. So great is my satisfaction, in fact, that I’m often inclined to photograph my work upon completion, as if, during some future party conversation with Emeril Lagasse, I’ll reach into my wallet, whip out a small representation of my piping hot stuffing recipe and casually state, “You see, Emeril, if you increase the amount of the berry medley by, say, even a quarter cup, you get a fuller, fruitier flavor, while adding substantial color to the presentation.” At which point Emeril, totally focused and possibly envious, squints, fully taking in the nuances of what even this small photo depicts as a dish worthy of gods. He begins nodding admiringly, that joyful Mediterranean smile unfolding, furrowing his brows while squeezing his chin over his crossed arms and softly replies: “Ummm. Yes…very nice….” (Being a realist, I don’t presume in my fantasy that Emeril will offer me a full-out “BAM!!”, his subtle acknowledgement plays out just fine.)

I’d waited until the last minute to get the turkey breast this year – typical of me, particularly around the holidays. When I searched the shelves at my 24-hour Wal-Mart, there was nothing but a giant hole where the turkey breasts should have been. Not a single semblance of anything like a plain breast; only highly overpriced, strangely shaped, pre-flavored slabs of what may have been turkey, but some unfamiliar breed, tainted-looking and off-colored with deadly-sounding jelly-like chemical coatings and flecks of something that might have been spices or, given the repugnance of the packaging, fly poop.

Nearly nine in the evening now, my options had become severely diminished. The only hope of an open local grocery store was a Kroger which, thankfully, was directly in my path on the way home. So, fearing that the lines there would entirely consume the majority of my remaining break, I headed toward what I hoped to be the store of my salvation, chanting a mantra of discipline which I hoped would prevent me from falling into my normal diversion: hungrily browsing for other items that I had no need for.

I did well; I shopped quickly, the lines at the self-scan were shockingly small, and I made it out fairly rapidly. Resuming hopeful thoughts of getting some small amount of sustenance after walking Beau, I drove speedily but with relative restraint the straight line road towards my apartment.

As I made the final turn off the main road, my cul de sac now in sight, my headlights fell on the two reflected lights that any driver recognizes as the eyes of an animal, heading straight down the center of the road, at a trot, directly towards me. It was a dog I didn’t recognize from the neighborhood, but it was dark. As is my habit when seeing a stray I hit the breaks in plenty of time and buzzed down my window.

“Hey buddy, c’mere, hey!”, keeping my voice high and sweet and non-threatening, following it with a light whistle, then calling him again. He slowed, looking back over his shoulder, but clearly wasn’t going to stop. I got out of the car, starting to follow him. I’d stopped and my car idling in the center of a small, two lane road, not a good place to park if I was going to have to pursue the runaway. I called to the dog again. He didn’t look back this time, if anything, he sped up, and was now running toward the larger thoroughfare that is Arnold Mill Road.
Good luck, pal, I wished him silently. I’m willing to help any animal that’s lost or in trouble; in fact, my daughter and I have over-enthusiastically given chase on numerous occasions to dogs that might indeed have been in their own front yards. But the circumstances this night were prohibitive, I felt there was probably little I’d be able to do and, rather than abandon my car in the middle of the road and give chase, I turned to get back into my car, when something off to my right caught my attention.

I looked towards the day care center in front of which I’d stopped and saw what looked like a black, four-legged stick figure, cautiously eyeing me from near the buildings entry way. It was a dog, that much was evident. But its proportions were oddly wrong. Exactly what was off, I couldn’t make out in the darkness, so I called it, and it immediately began to make its way, slowly, limping, it appeared, toward me. Hanging its head, almost as if in defeat, it approached, and as it got close to me, I gasped at what I saw.

At first I thought it might have been an Irish setter of the black variety. I’d seen setters that were very lean – in fact my girlfriend Claudia and I, when we were teen-agers, had rescued one from Spanish Harlem that had been abused – beaten, starved its stool bloody with a nearly terminal case of worms – but this dog made that setter look chubby. His ribs and haunches protruded so severely, he looked like a stripped chicken carcass with black fur.

I knelt down to look in its eyes, they seemed to be crying; glassy and spilling tears and the dog licked my face, perhaps in gratitude for the first kind interaction it had ever known. And then the smell hit me like punch in the nose. He reeked of what could only be described as terminal neglect.

Opening the back door, I patted the seat, encouraging him to climb in and, seeming familiar enough with cars, he looked first at the car’s interior, and then, sadly up at me. He was fairly tall, a Labrador retriever my revised guess. A normal dog of his size could have stepped or leapt easily up and into the back of the car. He looked as if had the desire, but nowhere near the strength. Ultimately, he peered once more into the car and then again at me as if to say “Sorry. I’d love to, but, ,. I’m afraid it’s out of the question.”

I picked him up and gently propped him against the back seat rest and he immediately folded down into an awkward lying pose.
By the time I got back behind the wheel and shut the door, the car had filled with his stench to the extent that I became nauseous.

I am a lover of dogs. I have a great fondness for people, kids in particular, as well. But I have always felt a uniquely strong and immediate magnetism to and from the four-legged variety of domesticated canine companions. Whereas people as a whole must pass through the filter of my intuitive scrutiny, having lived through some rough experiences, humans have earned my wariness, at least initially, and occasionally even suspicion. The condition that this poor beast was in was horrifying evidence of the cruelty that some humans are capable of.

I enter into relationships with most dogs with a far greater sense of trust and ease, less suspicion and, more often than not as it turns out, a higher percentage of success than I’ve found possible with humans. (I must un-include children here, because, for the most part and with very few exceptions, they haven’t learned the unfortunate skill set that inclines them toward pretense, suspicion, manipulation and connivery. Dogs are far less likely to hide who they are and rather, tend to show their full hand from the onset. )

Whereas many adults have qualities that can be off-putting, even repugnant, and as a result have engendered in me a sort of cautious reserve, dogs are virtually always who they present themselves to be; what you see is who they are; it’s in your face, immediate and with no propensity toward pretense. Dogs are agenda-less, innocent (though not all are friendly to everyone, at least you’ll know that about them instantly) and usually readable for the type of dog they are. If they are frightened or, for whatever reason, hostile toward you, they will present that to you without reservation or concern for your feelings and in terms that are clear and recognizable. Regardless of your previous experience with dogs (or lack of it) or your ability to speak their language, they are straight forward with all who cross their path, never couching their hostility or withholding their immediate desire to be in a close relationship with you.

Dogs are capable of unabashedly loving or hating a total stranger, without embarrassment or apology (a quality that might serve as a lesson to us all). Sometimes unfortunate for dog companions like me, this propensity on the part of dogs to indulge in immediate, shameless displays of affection will lead some (mine, is an embarrassingly disturbing example of this quality), to publicly practicing sexual deviancies that would result in substantial time behind bars, were they to be practiced by humans and can, at the times and in the locations they often happen, be horribly embarrassing.

I drove around the corner and into my cul de sac, backing into the space in front of my apartment. The nature of my fear had now shifted from my concern about eating in time to what to do with this wreckage of skin and bones. How would Beau, just six months old and all exuberant, joyful and very physically expressive puppy react to this older crippled victim? I felt sure that, in his eagerness to offer an enthusiastic greeting, he’d knock the poor guy down, possibly adding further injuries to his already miserable state.

I left the dog in the car, thinking that I’d walk Beau first, leaving him temporarily clueless about the visitor, at least until I could get some food into him. Naively, I hadn’t realized that the moment I walked in, Beau would pick up the strange scent and start a frenzied investigation to find the source. I leashed him and as he shot out the door and headed straight to get at the car I pulled him around the bushes and behind the building. Once walked, I put Beau back in the apartment, grabbed two bowls, filled one with filtered water, the other with some kibble and fought my way past Beau and out the door.

The dog lay in the back seat where he’d come to rest, not having moved an inch. I helped him out of the car and called to him. He looked up at me with glazed eyes that were sad and hollow and began to follow slowly behind me, head down, limping noticeably. When we got to the spot in front of my window where I’d place the bowls, I guided him to the bowl with the kibble. As he registered the smell of food, he looked up at me with a look that seemed to say “Oh, thank you soooooo much!” and dropped his head into the bowl and gorged. I decided that a short personality test might not be a bad idea, seeing as I was about to bring this dog into my house and possibly my life, for God knew how long.

As he ate, I slowly reached for the bottom of the bowl, out of immediate range of his teeth. Then I brought my hand up to the rim and tugged slowly, as if to take the bowl away. Nothing. He was simply happy to be eating what might have been his first meal in days or longer. Even when I dipped my hand into the bowl and scooped up some of the kibble while he voraciously scarfed the food, he would not evidence even the slightest proprietary hostility. He was as gentle as a lamb.

I grabbed an extra retractable leash from my car and attached it around his neck. opened the front door and brought the handle into the living room, closing the door with the handle resting just inside, the lead fully extended to give him some walking room outside. I stood, wondering how this extra animal might fit into this apartment, already occupied by a cat a large and growing dog and me. As Beau ran back and forth from the window to the door, pleading for access to our new visitor, I tossed a frozen dinner into the microwave, set the timer and stood watching the seconds cooking away as I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. As I looked at the sad, emaciated animal before me, anger began to overtake the pity I’d felt. How, I thought, could a human being let this happen to an animal like this?
After introducing the dog to Beau and my cat, Mao, and blocking off the kitchen with the baby gate I keep for a variety of animal containment purposes, I decided to make a quick video, documenting my find, so that should I be able to locate the miserable wretch who committed this crime, I’d have evidence of what they’d done. Punishing him myself seemed the most rewarding of all possible outcomes, but seeing them prosecuted seemed a somewhat satisfying second winning end result. I used my phone’s video camera and narrated the circumstances as the dog sniffed his way around the kitchen.

I left the new guy gated off in the kitchen with food, water and a blanket to lie on and headed back to work, dizzied by this abrupt turn of events. All I could do was all I could do, I thought, and finished my shift in restless contemplation of what I didn’t know was going to happen.

Upon returning from work, I brought the sad, stinking beast up the stairs, which he negotiated pretty much on his own, and into the bathroom, where I started running warm water into the tub. I’d bought a large bottle of flea and tick shampoo, prepared to encounter all manner of insect life under the fairly long hair of the new roommate. I picked him up and placed him gently in the accumulated three inches of water. I grabbed the large plastic cup that was used for operations such as this and began pouring the warm water over the dog. It ran off, as if he was a huge bony duck. The accumulated grease and dirt that covered him was so thick that I had to work hard, pouring with one hand, spreading hair and kneading the water in with the other, to get him close to saturated. The bath went on for nearly an hour, coating and lathering him - tail to nose as best I could – completely, twice. The water, after draining and reloading the tub for the second shampoo and rinsing, was a dark brown, impossible to see the bottom though the mud-like gunk. And he still stank. But it was a slightly better flavor of stink and at least I knew he was somewhat cleaner and, hopefully, flea and tick free. I dried him off, dismissing my reluctance to touch my towels to his body, and then I looked at the scale on the bathroom floor.

A dog his age, size and breed probably should have weighed in the neighborhood of 75 pounds. After weighing myself, then him in my arms, and subtracting my weight from the total, he weighed a mere 34.5 pounds.

Believing that all creature deserve a personalized title, I named him Elder, as he was now the senior of the animals in the house. Because his physical characteristics were so abnormal, I knew my guess could be far from accurate, but he seemed to be at least two or three years old (a guess that was later adjusted to be a bit older). There was no graying anywhere on his fur. His teeth were an ugly dark yellow and appeared to be rotting out of his mouth, some chipped and a couple clearly already dead and waiting to fall out.

I continued to attempt to feed and water the dog over the next two and a half days, but after his initial enthusiastic gorging, he wouldn’t eat. He drank water as if he was bottomless, lapping up all that as I offered. I later found out that he’d been severely dehydrated for quite some time, partially from the disease he’d lived with for so long, partly due to sheer neglect. I watched his stool on our walks, thinking it likely that he had worms, but there were no such indications, a fact that gratified me, yet left me all the more curious – and worried – about what, indeed had caused his wretched condition.

I’d found him too late on Wednesday night to take any meaningful medical action on his behalf and the following day was Thanksgiving – another no-go for pet care. One frightening aspect of the dilemma was the fact that given this dog’s condition, it was apparent that treating him was going to cost a fortune, if, indeed there was any treatment that could be given. (I’m nobody’s vet, but, to give you a sense of how bad this dog looked – on one walk through the neighborhood on Thursday, I ran into a neighbor I know outside her place, talking to her husband and son. As I told her the story, she looked Elder, hands pressed to her face as if to block what she was seeing. Spontaneously, she burst into tears. Wiping her face, she said: “Oh, my God, it’s just so sad!”.)

Unfortunately, I am not a man of financial means. So, if this dog was going to be saved through medical attention, some sort of miracle needed to happen. Fortunately, I am a man who is always available to miracles.

I made his stay with us as comfortable as possible, allowing him the normally taboo privilege of laying on the living room couch. He’d found it almost immediately, once we’d all awakened on Thanksgiving morning and he was given the run of the house. I cringed when saw him initially, sprawled across the pillows on the couch, thinking of his stench (even after the scrubbing he’d received the night before) seeping into the pillows and permanently ruining the couch. I brought an old blanket out and put it under him, resigned to allowing him at least this small comfortable resting spot.
There he lay, intermittently crying for the next two days. Yet for all the pain that he was in and despite what memories he may have carried of the horrid treatment he’d received from humans prior to meeting up with me, every time I entered the living room, his long tail began to thump, no doubt requiring an effort from his weakened body that was significant. If I bent near to his face, he happily strained to lick me. Occasionally, while I sat at my desk working on the computer, a large, black head would gently come to rest in my lap. Then he’d lose the requisite strength and sink with a knuckle-on-wood sounding clunk to the floor by my feet. It seemed that for Elder, all human sins were forgiven. Dogs, always living in the present moment, let go of the past. We, here in this apartment, were his new family, one that loved and cared for him and despite it all, he seemed genuinely grateful, if not happy, to be with us.

I decided to creat a new video using my web camera, including Elder in all his slightly shinier, cleaner, emaciated glory standing with me at my desk, and posted it on my Facebook page, sharing what I thought was a curiously magical meeting of man and dog, on - of all days - Thanksgiving Eve. I wanted to chronicle this event as a sort of tribute to a lovely creature with whom I shared a debt of gratitude for coming into each other’s lives and giving a far deeper meaning to this day that’s often perceived merely as an excuse to cram food and drink into our bodies, free of guilt.

The response to the video was overwhelming. People were deeply touched by Elder’s plight and the warmth and love and appreciation that came back at me was staggering. Voices from all across the country – and even Europe – cheered us on, wished Elder to recover, even offered to help with his medical bills. It was quite extraordinary and moving, how this dog was touching the spirits of so many.

I had planned to arise early Friday morning and attempt to get my Christmas shopping done. I had clipped some ads from the fliers that had jammed my mailbox for the last week and planned on taking advantage of the Black Friday sales, the 5 a.m. blood lust driven crowds competing for the deals of the day. My motivation was saving a few bucks and being done with shopping, but my reluctance was nearly insurmountable.
Thursday night came and as I listened to Elders whimpering coming from the living room, it dawned on me that Friday would be the only time I’d likely be able to find a vet for Elder and that I’d better commit to getting that daunting task done with more than a couple of hours of sleep.

Friday morning at 8:30, I warmed up the computer and hit the online Yellow Pages listings, driven by the sounds of a crying dog in next room. My first couple of calls were wasted, and left me angry. I was hoping to be led to either an inexpensive practice or hospital or, better yet, one that would take a hard luck case like Elder on a humane, pro bone basis. Okay, I am known to be occasionally na├»ve, but based on the belief that if I was a vet and heard this story, I’d make a damn house call. This kind of thinking, however out of touch with reality, did wind up leading me to the perfect veterinary clinic with the finest team of compassionate healers in the entire universe.

I finally located a woman named Debbie at a local veterinary clinic, who answered the phone with some cheer in her voice and who, after hearing my case, told me that I could bring the dog in and for $45 they’d at least look at him. I almost fell out of my chair.

I had, for gong on three days now, been stuffing a truckload of emotions deep down and away from where they could get the way of rational action. When Debbie told me that they would at least look at Elder, those emotions, like leaves clinging to their branches after a hard fall wind, began to shake loose. Now, I was going to have to face the truth of this dog’s condition, and honestly, I really didn’t want to. I somehow knew, deep down, that it was going to be bad.

I went into the living room and looked at Elder, sprawled on the couch and whining told him, cheerfully as I could, liquid now fighting its way towards my eyeballs that we’d found someone to help. I told him we might not be coming back, but that, all in all, whatever might happen, it would be for the best. I gave him a dog treat and called Beau over to say goodbye.

I raced into my clothes and, thinking as little as possible about the possible outcome of this outing, slipped the spare leash around Elders neck, lifted him into the car and drove the short distance to the vet’s office.

By the time I’d closed the door behind me and attempted to introduce myself to Debbie, who’d stood to greet me, I was already crying too hard to be understood. All the sadness, the anger, pity, frustration – it all fell from eyes as I unsuccessfully tried to expain the reason myself and Elder had come there. It was unnecessary, as it turned out. Based on our conversation and Elder’s immediately recognizable profile, Debbie knew who I was. Things momentarily seemed to have turned upside down - me, appearing to be the patient, being hustled into the only available treatment room and Elder, having accompanied me here, escorting me to the room in which I was to be treated. A sad pair, we were.

Elder and I sat in the small, cramped room, looking at each other, both wondering, I suppose, what was coming next. I found a box of tissues and wiped the tears and mucous from my face, hoping that I’d be better at speaking during the next round of conversation.

And then, as if emerging from behind some hidden celestial partition, two angels appeared in the small treatment room in the form of pajama clad twenty-something interns, Tiffany and Shelby, who immediately turned their healing attentions to Elder, getting down on the floor with him and “Ohh, poor boy”-ing and “Hiya, sweet thing”ing him, stroking his frail body and soothing him into a calmed prone state. I tried to explain Elder’s situation and my own state of pathos to the extent I was able, occasionally formulating words peppered with sniffling sounds broken syllables like “wuh” and “nnhg”. Finally, due to their patience and interpretive skills, they nodded and smiled, indicating that they sort of grasped the gist. I was grateful for their willingness to humor me and I set about pulling myself together.

Before long, Dr. Evans, a somewhat stern, fit-looking veterinarian entered the room and introduced himself. I stood to shake his hand, knowing that if things continued as they had been, it would be the one controlled act I’d manage before falling apart again. He looked up at me with a minor smile as he firmly clasped my hand. “Let’s see what we’ve got here”, he offered in standard, doc-speak. I lifted Elder up onto the shiny steel table in the middle of the room, the sort of table I imagine pet nightmares are made of. I apparently missed the part where he used the stethoscope to check heartbeat and other vital functions within Elder’s chest cavity, and, once done, the doctors voice was neutral as he related that Elder’s chest sounded not-too-bad, though there was wheezing and that a blood test would reveal with more clarity the nature of Elders condition. Then, after a brief pause, as he contemplated Elders ribs, out of nowhere, the doctor stated:

“He’d make for a really interesting skeletal study”
“Wow, doc,” I responded, shocked at this left field statement. “Your bedside manner totally underwhelms me.”

Realizing that what might have been, to him, an innocent and reasonable thought had struck me as less than sensitive, he apologized for the abruptness of his comment.
His initial diagnosis was that he thought there was more to Elders condition that was apparent to both the eye and stethoscope and that drawing blood would reveal far more precisely what was happening inside Elder’s body.

Elder lay patiently, the prick of the needle probably nothing compared to the pain he was already in. As the doctor left the room with the vial of blood, Tiffany approached me.

“Listen, my family rescues tons of animals, horses and dogs mostly, and I was thinking that if he’s treatable, maybe I could take him while he recovers and then we can find him a home.”

My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t quite believe what I’d just heard and flew the two steps over to Tiffany and embraced her, the tears, good ones now, back. I thanked her and then mentally stepped back into that larger picture that, since finding Elder two nights earlier, I’d been drawn to again and again. How awesome, I thought, that this dog, having persevered on his own long enough to find someone to help him, has touched people so deeply that he is, time and time again, being given the help he needs to make it down the road to a better life. Hope was being delivered.
Upon viewing the blood test results, the doc apparently saw a red flag. There was cause to believe that there were “other” issues and that a scan was necessary to pinpoint exactly what it was. I looked to the faces of Shelby and Tiffany and couldn’t make out the level of concern that I saw. Just trust that it’ll keep going in the right direction, I thought. I lifted Elder back down onto the floor and they escorted him into the back for the scan.

As they filed back into the treatment room, the faces of all three told the story before the vet uttered a word. Their expressions clearly showed that whatever the scan had revealed wasn’t good.

It all came down to that news that no friend or relative of any patient – human or animal – ever wants to hear; the singular word that has broken so many hearts and erased so many dreams, the future-killing diagnosis that induces the most hopeless and heartbreaking fear of all. Elder had cancer.

According to the vet, the severity of the disease that afflicted Elder was far beyond that which might, even with the most advanced medications, high-tech treatments or under the most optimistic of scenarios, allow the presence of hope. The doc said that he’d never seen so much cancer in an animal and that the only treatment for Elder was a swift and painless inducing of permanent sleep. I agreed to the recommendation and the doctor left to get the drugs
My emotions flip-flopped again, now from hope back to sadness and I recall having the thought that I was almost used to it now.

Shelby, in an attempt, I think, to snap me back from my misery, said: “Elder found some home fries in the back and he really loves them. Hang on.” She once again disappeared into the back hallway and momentarily returned, now carrying in one hand a small mountain of hash browned potatoes and in the other a large chunk of icing-topped cake. Shelby and Tiffany proceeded to stuff the now ecstatic Elder with all of both items, causing his tail to drum the side of the steel table in a fit of happiness that was wonderful to behold.

Then, the party over, the two interns and I sat Elder back on the floor in a little circle of loving support and stroked and talked to him as they shaved a spot on his arm, making his vein available.

I flashed back over the decades to the previous occasions, fortunately few in number but spiritually shattering every one, that I’d had to bring pets that I’d known and grown to love over many years, the most loyal of companions, to face their final moments with me in virtually this same cold and sterile, brightly lit execution chamber. Of course it wasn’t death row or an evil extermination chamber, but at these sad times the difference seemed negligible. For one who loves a friend of many years, those last moments, looking into that living expression of love for the last time, the sadness of saying that final goodbye, having to accept the reality that the memories will no longer be manufactured but only recalled, the love no longer exchanged face to face, nothing softens the harshness, nor the tearing of one’s heart to lose one so loved, and worse, losing them through one’s own decision, no matter how compassionate the roots of that decision may be.

In our day to day world, it is extraordinary rather than the norm when people offer a kind word or gesture. If they do, it is often in response to something that we did for them, be it simple or extraordinary. But in the dogs world, his day is comprised of a continuous stream of those acts of kindness and reciprocations, disproportionately ebullient gratitudes for even the smallest displays of our affection and outpourings of love that is not required of them but nevertheless doled out in heaping portions as if there was a quota they had pledged to themselves to make on a daily basis. These affections are given freely and based on nothing more than what appears to be their desire to please, seems to run through the species as if it was a genetic attribute, one that we hope for when we choose a dog and are rarely disappointed.

Elder displayed no exception to any of these qualities, though he was unable to express them with the fervor with he once was able. His relentless, though efforted tail wagging, the licks he appreciatively bestowed on my face, and that smile that appeared behind his filmy, sad eyes told those of us who were with him at the end that he was all of those things, possessed every one of those best qualities that we hope for in a human’s companion.

Elder and I and the many people he touched at end of his life seem to have been brought together, on the eve of the day of national Thanksgiving, for what may have been a simple and touching learning experience. Despite the tremendous sadness that we all felt at seeing what this lovely animal had been subjected to, we were touched in a way that moved us to think, perhaps with a more than fleeting concentration, about far more than just the case of a pathetic, abused, neglected dog. The circumstances that brought all the players in this tale together, the timing of events – all of the seemingly random, serendipitous pieces of the puzzle - from the moment that Elder and I locked eyes until the doctors’ stethoscope registered the final beat of his heart, indicated something almost in the domain of magic, some inexplicable purpose at work, a lesson to be learned, some unseen voice to be heard.
I was a mess in the end. But there was an aliveness that I felt that was undeniably real, one that I’ll never forget nor regret. If I was religious, I could rant on endlessly about God’s work being done, a miracle of sorts performed. Being relatively spiritually awake, I can only say that Elder and I seem to have been meant to meet. The staff of that wonderful animal hospital was given the opportunity – and they took it with such enthusiasm, noble purpose and grace – to offer their highest levels of both medical service and human compassion. My friends all over the world were given a glimpse into the life of a dog that seemed to move them from great distances to send their feelings of empathy and love to both an unfortunate young dog and their friend who adopted him.

And, on a Thanksgiving that otherwise might have come and gone with some superficial thanks given and whole lot of turkey and stuffing eaten, Elder and I were given the privileged gift of living in each others' lives only temporarily, but surely in the deepest and most meaningful of ways.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Learning Not To Cry

Monday, November 8, 1965, was a gray, cold and damp day in Manhattan. It was school day, reason enough to want to turn over and seek the refuge of more sleep, an impossibility, but a lovely thought . Even the greenness of Central Park was dulled by occasional sprinkles and a blanket of thick mist in the chill of late fall in the City. Cold and uncomfortable, windy enough to penetrate the layers of clothing I wore; like a skilled lock-picker, that wind blew in strong, seemingly purposeful gusts through the cross streets and managed to make its way around and through those layers and into my bones.

Standing at my locker, I changed into dry clothes and thought about food. As was the case most days, I was looking forward to going home and getting something to eat. I tried to recall if Ellen O’Hara would be there when I arrived. Ellen was a model of all that is to be loved in the Irish people. The kindest woman ever to grace God’s Earth, probably in her mid-sixties, she lived to serve us and with her ever present smile and warm alacrity, would spare no effort in preparing whatever I came up with as an after school snack request. Her tuna salad was legendary, utilizing sweet onions, chopped into tiny perfect pieces, lots of mayonnaise and the secret, magic ingredient: chopped sweet baby gherkins pickles – with a bit of the pickle juice added for flavor. My mouth, as I stood to empty the last of my clothes from my locker, watered just thinking about it.

I had returned with my classmates from athletics, still wet and filthy from the soccer game we’d played on the Great Lawn in Central Park. I loved soccer and was good at it, always used on the front line and because I was a left-footed kicker, either as center forward, left inside, or left wing. I enjoyed the athleticism that the game required, I was very coordinated and used this to my advantage. I loved the occasional contact, the intensity of a long drive downfield, the race with the opposing team to reach the ball, the trickery and deception that one could employ to one’s benefit.

It was pouring by the end of the scrimmage and I’d been covered in mud and soaked through and through. As I tied my shoes, Mr. Dryzga’s voice called from across the locker room, with what I sensed was an almost sing-song tone that masked urgency. He addressed me with brows furled, a serious look on his usually friendly face.

“Kerry, Mr. Hume would like to see you in his office.” That tone concerned me, as did the look on his face, which, although giving nothing specific away, alerted me. That tone hid something significant, something not rooted in a discipline issue, Dryzga spoke with an agenda couched in words spoken just a bit too softly, his eyes giving away a hint of something nearly sad, but something he couldn’t betray and that I had no way of knowing. But I sensed there was more.

“Yes sir.” I managed; mentally reviewing the normally sizeable list of recent transgressions, searching my memory for what it might be that would cause me to be summoned to a personal audience with the chief.

The hierarchy consisted of the principal, David Hume, a large, generally likeable square-jawed administrator who had three sons in attendance at the school. Chris, his eldest was a classmate and casual friend of mine; the two of us would later be expelled together for using teacher’s editions to math books that Chris, good friend that he was and living in the school building as he did, had gained access to.

Peter Clifton, the Assistant Principal and Hume’s preferred henchman was in charge of any and all heavy-handed discipline, think of him as the Herman Goering of St. David’s with a little Dirty Harry cool thrown in. It was he who I was most regularly called upon to visit and who, more than any other administrative figure, I feared.

Dick Dryzga, the bottom man of the top three, was the head of the upper school.

In the dim interior of Clifton’s office, across from his desk, strategically placed just to the left of the well-worn spot on the oriental rug in front of his desk where students stood while hearing the charges against them and awaiting their fate, Clifton had what appeared to be a porcelain golf bag. Inside this vessel of terror was an assortment of long sticks and switches used for nothing but disciplining wayward boys who were brought to him. These intimidating implements of pain were used to punish students who had committed infractions that warranted an order of severity that fell outside the purview of the ordinary classroom teacher. Transgressions for which a “time-out” fell far short of the disciplinary mark (and, it seemed, all too often that mine did).

Clifton’s preferred modus operandi was to bring the guilty student, by now usually worried, perhaps even shaking or possibly wetting himself - before Clifton’s desk. Once inside the office, door shut firmly to discourage any attempt at escape, Clifton would begin the agonizing process of reviewing the facts of the case. As if in some Kafka-esque nightmare, all aspects of the infraction were reviewed in slow, painstaking detail.

Then, if the crime was so suitably punishable, he would take a deep breath, letting it out with an almost sad form of sigh, as if to imply: “Well, son, as you can plainly see - you leave me no choice…” and then send the boy over to the golf bag to choose the dreaded implement that was to be used in his own thrashing. This sadistic added touch served to both intimidate and thoroughly degrade the offender with a delicious combination of Dickensian discipline and mental cruelty, coupled with giving Clifton the personal satisfaction of whipping the daylights out of a delinquent (and in my case – a repeat offender).

But it was rare to be invited to Mr. Hume’s office. This had to be big. But what?

As I slipped on my blazer with its embroidered StD on the breast pocket, and closed my locker, Dryzga said: “I’ll wait for you, Kerry. We’ll take the elevator”. Once again - that seemingly sad flavor in his voice, he turned and walked from the locker room.

St. David’s, located 89th Street, between Madison and 5th Avenues, just around the corner from the brand new Guggenheim Museum. The school, almost exactly one mile north of our house, was likely originally built as a private residence for a wealthy family, probably in the late 1800’s. It was replete with all of the requisite amenities of the wealthy, including marble staircases with burnished bronze fixtures spiraling up to the higher floors, high ceilings under crown molding, chandeliers and crystal lighting fixtures, polished mahogany furniture and of course, as in my own house, a small, excruciatingly slow Otis elevator.

Oh, God help me, I thought. The elevator ride. This is really bad. What did I do? “Okay sir.”

To ride in the elevator – strictly off limits unless your name was Hume (and even then, absolutely verboten during a school day) – you either had to have sustained a significant injury that left you unable to traverse the stairs, or you were walking the St. David’s equivalent of your final stroll to the gas chamber.

I finished my shoe lacing, collected my school bag and belongings and joined Dryzga in the tiny, mahogany paneled elevator. My fear grew as the elevator slowly lifted us towards the fourth floor where the administrative offices of the big brass were. I had to ask.

“Sir, did I do something?” I asked timidly. I would be surprised only if I hadn’t done something. It was with great regularity that I visited the principals office. The weirdness here was that I was being called to Hume’s.

“I think Mr. Hume just needs to have a word with you about something.” was his reply, frustratingly inadequate and inconclusive. Panicking now, my heart rate rising with the elevator, I tried hard to breathe evenly.

Okay, I thought. we’ll see.

Dryzga slid the brass accordion gate open and held the outer door for me and we exited the elevator on the fourth floor. We walked down to the principal’s office, where Mr. Dryzga said. “Just sit in the waiting room. He’ll come out and see you in a minute.”

“Okay, sir”

I went in and sat on the wooden bench in the familiar waiting room, outside Hume’s office. Leaning against the wall, clasping my hands, I noted that the secretary that was usually here, a stand-offish and matronly, highly efficient woman named Mrs. Neighbor was absent. I realized that the school day, and therefore probably her day, too, was over. The bench where I’d sat before, was hard under my ass, looking back now, it must have been a strategy intended to incite the feeling of waiting in uncertainty, being sidelined during the game, warming the bench. On a few previous occasions, I’d committed acts of sufficient egregiousness to land me on this bench. I associated it with nothing but impending punishment.

The door to Mr. Hume’s office slowly opened and his face, wearing a small, forced smile, peaked around the jam.

“Come on in, Kerry”. He extended a welcoming arm.

“Yes sir”

“Have a seat, son.” Hume said in a pleasant, almost fatherly tone. I chose a hard, ladder back chair across from his desk in favor of the large, maroon pillowed one next to it. Why get comfortable now?, I thought.

“How’s life treating you, Kerry”, he asked casually, throwing me off.

How’s life treating me?, I thought. Strange way to start a scolding, if that’s what this was. I couldn’t grasp where he was going with this.

“Okay, sir. Pretty good, I guess.”

He paused. Then looked deeply into my eyes, and said:

“Kerry, your mother died this morning.”

I looked at him. He looked back, saying nothing more.

“No.” I said. I attempted a smile, as if maybe I could bait one from him, exposingthe truth – that this was a joke. Or a test. This could not be something that could really happen.

“I’m sorry, son” he added.

“No.” I repeated. The smile had pulled itself back, the elastic of my facial muscles knowing better, wanting nothing to do with it.

Hume stood and, holding out his huge arms, invited me over into his embrace. Hume was a large man. Football huge. Probably six-three with broad shoulders, a giant block of a man. His arms seemed to reach across the entire width of the room. Numbing now, I stood and walked toward him, not knowing what else to do. As I reached him, his arms enveloped me, leaning down, me reaching up.

An unfamiliar slip from reality began in the midst of those huge arms. I was lost, knowing neither what to do, nor even how to feel. Are there things to do at this moment? What are they, please, someone help me with this.

I felt as though I should cry, but there was some unseen resistance to this thought. It was not a conscious thought that I should buck-up and take this thing like a man. It was, rather, an inability, a loss of some primal connection that I felt I should be able to tap into, but could not. I could feel the absence of something inside me that was palpably missing, it. I needed to know how to cry at that moment but there wasn’t enough room in my head to somehow accept that my mother was dead and to figure out how to cry simultaneously.

Hume’s’ big arms squeezed me lightly. I stood there silent, stunned, wondering what to think.

Hume finally let his arms slip away. He stepped back and looked down at me pityingly. I looked up at him, searching his eyes for answers, seeing nothing useful there and tried to imagine what to do next.

“Someone’s coming to pick you up” he said sadly.

We took the elevator down to the lobby and there was a chauffer already waiting. He took my book bag and I followed him out into the rain.

When I arrived at the house, Ellen met me with a wounded look and a heartfelt hug. She offered me anything she could do and together we went upstairs. In the elevator, on the way to the third floor, she said:

“Your father’s in bad shape, Kerry. Just give him a little time.” This, as it turned out, was a sage warning, a wise predictor of what was to follow. This day would mark the beginning of the end of my respect for my father.

Ellen and I rode the elevator in silence, her right hand resting gently on my shoulder. I loved this woman as I loved my blood relatives, yet I could not yet find words, no questions, no statements, nothing.

As I entered the black room on the third floor, I sensed, even from behind him, my father’s misery. He sat as he always did, perched on the right side of one of the pair of black, silk-covered loveseats, his shoulders stooped and rounded, elbows leaning on his knees, the fly of his pajama bottoms pinched open enough to make us all avert our gazes, hovering over a beer. He sipped one after the other; Ellen was sure to be working hard today, keeping plenty cold and at the ready during this mourning period, glasses of Heineken one after the next, two empty bottles on the table next to the coaster that held his half-full glass.

“Hi Dad” I said.

Nothing.

“Dad?” I watched as he continued to stare ahead, seeing and saying nothing, feeling his pain somewhere else far from here. I walked slowly around the table and touched his shoulder with my hand, squeezing gently, hoping for some, any response.

Nothing.

“I’ll be upstairs, dad.”

I backed away from the table, turned and walked from the room. Again, I felt the swirl of feeling, thoughts, emotions and confusion filling my head. I went into my room and shut the door, dropping my book bag on the floor near the foot of my bed. I sat on the edge of the bed and thought.

I went upstairs and sat on the edge of my bed, thinking.

I wondered what my father was thinking about. I wondered why he wouldn’t talk to me, particularly in this time of death and sadness. Didn’t one comfort their child when times were hard? Did he not care about me? Or was it, perhaps, that he hurt so deeply, that he couldn’t find the words or even some gratuitous gesture. Could he not come out of himself long enough to offer a hug to his eleven year old son who had, after all, just lost his mother?

I didn’t feel angry at my father about this, but, rather, wholly confused and saddened. I didn’t attempt to rationalize his lack of empathy for very long. I simply took it as a sign that our family was going to crumble without my mother and that I would have to be strong. I couldn’t allow myself to whine about this, maybe I couldn’t even speak about it. Maybe that’s what happens when your mother dies. Everything falls silently to pieces. But you don’t get emotional. You don’t rage or cry or emote, at least in any outward way. You suffer silently and get through it. And so I did.

I remember thinking I’ve got to be strong here. Dad is really messed up. I have to just be really strong and I can do this. Then I thought about crying again. Should I cry? Yes, I thought, I should. So I tried to cry, but it was too late. No tears would come. I had apparently shut that door very tightly.

Of course I later saw that my father was simply a very weak man, now wounded and made weaker and more vulnerable by the loss of his wife, a woman who had given him so much. Who had given him virtually everything he had.

At the moment his eleven year old son came home from school, having just learned from a near stranger that his mother was gone forever, my father was immersed in the self-absorbed world of his personal tragedy, so self-absorbed, in fact, that he had no room in his heart to offer so much as an embrace to his also-grieving child.

Sadly, looking back over the years from the viewpoint of being a father myself, that my Dad also missed the potential value that lived in sharing this anguish with and comforting his son, that this experience, shared with each other, could be a of the deepest and most profoundly healing nature, a tool for rebuilding our already sadly deteriorated relationship before it was too late. The opportunity for a new beginning, even as we faced the most painful of endings, might have given us a new chance at a healthy life. But there was no eye contact, no hug, no words at all.

I think of my daughter, Molly and what I would do, how I might respond if a similar event occurred and Maureen was lost to us. Although at the time of this writing, Maureen and I have been separated for several years, my love and respect for her as a woman, a mother and one of the strongest human spirits I have ever encountered remains firmly rooted. Her loss would be heartbreaking, for me as well as for Molly and her three siblings. My grief would undoubtedly be difficult to bear, of that I feel certain. But the thought of leaving Molly, who thankfully is as yet unacquainted with the loss of a family member, to cope on her own, seems wholly unimaginable. Any child, innocent of the emotional armor that adults find with time, age, and multiple experiences of the loss of a close friend or relative, deserves the depth of support that that they can only find, if at all, with those who they love and who love them the most. To experience the intimacy that comes on the wings of death, through the pooling of tears a shared grief, has the broader benefit of character strengthening, spiritual deepening and the opening of hearts to other hearts.

I don’t feel unforgiving toward my father for ignoring me or the opportunity that was missed when my mother died, just somewhat sad, even still. Sad that he missed so much love with his children. So much love, so many great experiences that he could have shared with us all. Perhaps.

And for the rest of my childhood and well into my adult years, but for a couple of times that I was in excruciating physical pain, I never cried again.

I spent years, decades, silly as it may sound, grieving for the grief that I never let myself grieve. Sucking it up, as it turns out is not the way to go. Holding back the tears will, as Simply Red put it: “get to me sooner or later”.

Surely, sooner or later – and in my case, both.

Our education seems as invested in avoidance as we ourselves are by nature, offering no mechanisms, through any educational curriculum, in how to simply cope when the world hurts us. As a result of having no education in this regard, we never seem to realize that when we’re toughing it out, pushing away the pain and believing that it’s a permanent solution, it’s just the illusion of avoidance. But there is no free lunch. Somehow our past, not dealt with, always finds a way back in and returns to haunt us. Call it karma or what you will – the piper gets paid every time.

Remarkably, my tears never went too far. They stayed, tucked away in their little ducts behind my falsely smiling eyes, for decades, and, when I’d manage to break my life into pieces, damaging my relationships with many of those around me irreparably and fleeing no further from the source of my pain than before I’d wreaked the havoc, the cost of their forbearance having wrought its toll on my life, those tears were more than glad to fall from my eyes in abundance. It was if I’d never forgotten.

Now I cry with regularity. When I’m on the phone with a close friend, freaked out by what I think of as the depressing mess that I’ve made of my life. Sometimes, when teaching a class and discussing the grim realities of violence against women and children – I have to stop and compose myself. Watching Sara McGloughlin-soundtracked “Adopt a pathetic abandoned puppy” commercials. Movies like Saving Private Ryan”. The time I lost with Molly for having screwed up my marriage and the pain it caused her. I cry about these things.

And it finally feels good.

A footnote:

Certain events in one’s life hold more weight than others. The events of a particular day can bend the course of a life significantly, severely, and permanently. For example, as in the case of blunt force trauma that shows no visible abrasion or bruising on the outer skin but may cause serious, even life-threatening internal hemorrhaging, the effects of some emotional wounding can take time to fully surface. Unlike physical injuries, the response that we choose and the repercussions we feel around an emotional assault can be postponed, pushed away, and often, at least for the time being, cleverly avoided.

With all of our amazing complexities of personality and ego, our defenses seem poised at every moment to come running to our aid. We have evolved, or maybe better put – devolved – into a species that is able to disengage from unwanted realities at will, using tricks and aids, sometimes temporarily pushing them back from our attention, often burying them so deeply and completely that we never come back around to find and explore, let alone heal them. For some, this may seem to be for the best. But perhaps it is to our detriment; in as far as we skillfully rip ourselves off of the experience of that very personal, meaningful and important experience. Consumed by the intense pain that accompanies traumatic experience, we frantically swim up and away from the depth of our suffering. Yet we are also fleeing the potential growth that it may lead us to, and in so doing may be rejecting a substantial component of the fullness of our own human experience. Lessons are everywhere. In the larger picture of our lives, were we to open ourselves fully to the process of living, we might find that it may not be for us to choose which lessons we should learn from.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Age of Aquarius

I’d been attending a Montessori School in Stony Brook, Long Island, NY, by far the least educationally rewarding experience of my life. An aging hippie named Mark Brubaker ran the franchise. Perhaps Mark had a family member or college buddy on the Montessori board of directors, but it was certainly neither his business acumen, nor brilliance as a teacher of children that secured him his position as director. He smoked pot with a chosen few of the students, myself included. I helped him by doing some light tutoring of the younger students, in return for which he relaxed my attendance requirements and inflated my grades. How the doors to this school remained open, even through the brief period of my tenure, remains a mystery to me.

Mark struggled valiantly but hopelessly to keep the school staffed with teachers and attended by students. After turning down Mark’s generous offer to give me a high school diploma for simply sticking with him through the end of the school year (he was lonely, and short on both intellectual stimulation and smoking buddies), my boredom had reached an unbearable level and I was looking for any way out.

My friend Paul, with whom I’d spent the previous summer in Stowe, Vermont, called and told me that he was working in Manhattan at a waterbed store, that it was blast, and would I like to come work with him. Given my current situation, I couldn’t resist. Despite Mark’s begging and bribery, I wished him well and, two weeks later, headed for the City, into an adventure that was anything but boring.

It was, technically at least, a “sales” job at Aquarius Products, a waterbed store above a pet shop on Lexington Avenue. The Different Drummer, Manhattans hippest rock and roll apparel store was one floor below us in the next building south. The store was located at the epicenter of midtown retail activity, three blocks north of Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s, both of which sat atop the 59th Street stop of the IRT subway, and the foot traffic alone guaranteed any business located within five blocks more than a fair shot at success.

One benefit of the job was living in the store. In addition to sparing me the hassles and expenses of having to rent an apartment and commute to work, I wouldn’t have to worry about sneaking in and out of my sister’s at all hours of the day and night. Despite living only three blocks from the store, she had her own life, including a child to raise in an already cramped apartment. I kept what few belongings and clothing I owned at her place, showered there when necessary and otherwise kept out of her hair. Jill had always been kind to me in the past, opening her home to me for the immediate period after my mother died and at several other points later. Although grateful, I didn’t want to burden her further.

Having my choice of a half dozen sloshing mattresses on which to spend each night was a benefit that I found extremely compelling, and knew would come in useful in future romantic endeavors. And it certainly did.

Although it had not been disclosed to me at the time of my initial interview with Daniel Finestien, the company’s president, I quickly discovered that the store sold more than waterbeds. Although on the one hand it was indeed, an active, legitimate upper-east-side retail store, it turned out to also be a den of illicit drug dealing. The absentee owners, who took a cut of both the legal as well as extra-curricular profits, showed only waterbed sales on their books, and largely overlooked the day-to-day activities involving the sales and on-premises consumption of the drugs.

Danny Timmons was a tall, thin amiable fellow who visited the store only occasionally. He acted as liaison between management and the store staff, and oversaw the books. Danny didn’t party with the in-store crowd. He did his job when he came to the store and, although not entirely innocent, played an innocuous role in the business, mostly reviewing the finances and focusing on the company’s legitimate aspects.

Prior to the arrival of the new “store manager”, I’d been working and living in the store with Paul and later joined by a longhaired, blue-eyed money whiz named Jon. We sold waterbeds, to everyone from neighborhood residents, to loft owners from SoHo, Park Avenue brownstone owners, even the occasional hospital for use in their critical care and burn centers. We installed the beds as well and, once I learned the ins and outs of the various models, I got pretty good at assembling, as well as selling them. It was a very different kind of job, one that, at first, I enjoyed tremendously.

There was a romantic element to the waterbed business. It turned out to be something of a magnet to females. Upon finding out that my apartment was actually a playground, filled with a variety of bouncy, warm, water-filled and sheepskin covered beds, it usually wasn’t difficult to persuade them to at least visit. Paul, Jon and I took every advantage of our little Playboy Mansion on Lexington Avenue.

Word came down that a new manager would be arriving to take over the day-to-day operations of the store. Daniel Feinstein called a meeting and announced that he had hired a new man, named John Weiss. He was purported to be a brilliant sales manger from the auto industry and would lead us all to the next level of success. Aquarius was already the #1 name in New York City waterbeds. John Weiss was going to widen the gap between us and #2 and seal us into the spot permanently.

Weiss was an acne-scarred, nasal-voiced scam artist, who pounced on the opportunity that Aquarius offered him like a hungry cheetah on a weakened baby gazelle. John was in his late twenties but looked considerably older. He was gay and as it turned out, something of a sexual deviant, bringing barely legal boys, the younger the better, up to the store for drug addled sex and debauchery that sometimes lasted for days.

Once Weiss arrived on the scene, the mood rapidly shifted to one of negativity, even danger. If a business could be said to have its own karma, Aquarius’ was turning bad. Things began spinning out of control. The fun went out of the job. It was as if something poisonous had been loosed at the store and it quickly began to seem that we weren’t in the business of selling waterbeds at all anymore.

I had spent over a year at Aquarius, nine months of it prior to Weiss’ arrival. Although increasing the illegal profits, and thus pleasing management, Weiss’ addition to the staff had an increasingly negative impact on everyone around him. As he got more and more out of control with his use of drugs, he seemed to become more and more seedy, a frightening, pervert. His sexual habits, never previously hidden, became flagrant, filthy and outrageous. He abused his power over the rest of the staff, who became servants to his whims. We were charged with doing his work in the store, bringing him his drugs, cleaning up after his days and nights of debauchery, long K-Y jelly-soaked sexual escapades in the back of the store with his boyfriends. It was disgusting and he flaunted it.

Weiss brought in a shady heroin dealer who became a daily fixture at the store. Tony seemed, on the surface, a friendly, neatly dressed black man, quick to befriend everyone. He began, as many dope dealers do, by giving everyone free heroin for the first month or so of daily visits to the store. Then he began charging. Weiss’s heroin consumption alone certainly kept Tony profitable, but the rest of the staff eventually began to chip in as well.

One summer day, Weiss called me into the back office. He had a “fun” opportunity, he said. It involved driving a friends car, something I rarely got the opportunity to do, so at first, I became excited.

I was to drive up to Wilton, Connecticut with David, his boyfriend, to pick up a case of drugs that had been stolen from a local pharmacy by a group of teenagers. As he explained the “mission” I became apprehensive. I knew this was a bad idea, really bad, and I resisted with every argument I could think of. But John held firm, forcing me, threatening that I’d be forfeiting my job if I declined, enticing me with drugs themselves, which he promised to share with me. He stressed the ease of the trip, “just a stones throw” up I-95…but mostly with the threat that I would do it or else…I reluctantly agreed.

The following day, we made the two and a half hour drive and arrived at the home of one of the kids to find that another teenaged had overdosed on Dilaudid, a synthetic morphine derivative. To characterize the drug as powerful falls laughably short of accurate. Dilaudid (clinically known as hydromorphone) is said to be eight times stronger than morphine and three times the strength of pure heroin.

When we arrived at the house, the kids were panicked and clueless as to how to handle the situation. Knowing nothing myself, but wanting to get out of there immediately, I told them to put him in the shower, get ice from the freezer and apply it to his testicles. Hoping for a good outcome, we left the crowd of clueless teenagers, some in tears, huddled around the blue/gray body of their friend, laying fully clothed and soaked in the bathtub, pants pulled down to his thighs, a small mound of round-edged ice cubes piled on his crotch.

Once in the van, we backed out of the driveway, pulled away from the house and around the corner, and stopped at the end of the block. We looked through the box, amazed at the enormous assortment of potent pharmaceuticals. We came across some Merck cocaine, two bottles of it. It is the strongest, purest form of synthetic cocaine available. David and I opened one of the bottles and snorted a huge quantity, a typically impetuous, almost reflexive act that we would realize later, was a tremendous mistake. The soaring, euphoric high of cocaine that entices users to seek it out, lasts for a mere half-hour at best, making the drive back to the city a horrifying three-hour journey of paranoia.

The intensity was magnified to the level of nightmarish when we came upon an accident scene on the interstate, moments after it had occurred. As we slowed, we saw a broken male body lying face down in the far left lane of the highway, a stream of blood running from his head clear across all four lanes of concrete to the right side of the road. Fear and disgust, combined with the nerve-scraping crash from the cocaine and the knowledge that we were carrying a box filled with enough narcotics to send us away forever, silenced us for the remainder of the awful ride back. I drove, maintaining exactly 55 miles per hour until we hit the Triborough Bridge and crossed into Manhattan traffic. We spoke not a word.

When we finally got back to the store, shaken, crashing from the coke and worn out, I was exhausted and panicked. Weiss greeted us, big grin stretching over his pock marked face, grabbing at the box. “Al-right!” he said, walking the box into the back office and starting to empty the contents onto the desk. “Beautiful job, boys. Took too long, but beautiful work.”

“John, I can’t do this any more.” I said. “I won’t do this any more. It’s not worth it. You don’t know what happened up there.”

Weiss didn’t look up at me; he showed no reaction whatsoever. His eyes gleamed as he read the labels on the brown and clear bottles of medicine, a smile growing larger as he read the names of each one. He got to the Dilaudid and opened it immediately. He reached into the desk drawer and retrieved a set of works – syringe, teaspoon, a q-tip, from which he pulled off a piece of cotton. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a disposable lighter. He unbuckled and pulled his belt free, re-threading the end through the buckle and sliding up his forearm to his triceps. I left the room.

That day marked the end of my willing participation in an adventure that had started out as innocent fun and soured the day John Weiss entered the picture. Whether related to his entering the picture or not, and not to refute my responsibility for the part I played in the whole mess that Aquarius had begun, John Weiss seemed to drag with him, a karma that infected all those around him.

Over the preceding three months, I’d been robbed on three separate occasions, all work related. Once, while waiting for the elevator at the Aquarius factory, a smallish Hispanic man with a largish stiletto approached me from behind, wrapping his arm around my neck and pressing the blade to my throat. He asked for my money. It was payday and I had been paid only hours before, cashing my check on the way to the factory. All of the cash from my paycheck was in the right back pocket of my jeans. I reached into my back pocket, searching with my index finger for the crease in the center of the wad of bills. I carefully separated two twenties, pulling them up through the center of the folded bills. Once free, I handed them to him. He said nothing and backed away from me vanishing out the door.

The second incident, this time a street robbery, occurred less than two weeks later as I was about to enter a building to which I was delivering a waterbed. I had unloaded the boxed bed frame and several other boxes containing the mattress, liner, hardware, tools, etc. and had piled them together just outside the main entry door to the building. Again, seemingly from thin air, a man appeared, this time in front of me. Again, a blade was pressed to my throat. This time the tip was pressing straight into my Adam’s apple. “Give it up” he said. I gave it up. He ran away. The financial price I paid was more significant this time. He had taken approximately $200. Dan Feinstien looked quizzically at me as I recounted the story in his office the next day.

“Pretty odd coincidence.”
“I know,’ I said, hanging my head as I stood before him. I felt somehow guilty of being robbed too often. “I don’t understand it either. It’s freaky.”
Dan believed me and knew I was trustworthy. For all of the crazy, illegal things I did, I would never steal, and Dan had a solid belief in my integrity.
“This is the last time you’re allowed to get robbed” he said seriously. “No shit – stop it.”
“I’ll do my best” I promised.
Dan reached into his own pocket, unfolded his own, thick wad of bills and counted out ten twenty dollar bills.
“Get back to work” he said, a half smile breaking over his small lips. “And no more getting robbed.” He tossed the bills across his desk, landing them near to where I stood.”Thanks you, Dan, I appreciate it.”

Believe it or not, less than one month later, the final robbery took place inside the store. It was a sunny Saturday morning, always a busy day and I was alone in the front section of the store near the large plate-glass windows that overlooked Lexington Avenue. While I tidied up after a morning influx of customers, Danny was seated at the desk in the back office, doing some accounting work.

I had vacuumed the entire front area of the store. I switched off the vacuum and sat down on the edge of the wooden frame of a bed, no more than three feet from the front door. I leaned over to pick up a rubber band that I’d dropped next to the bed earlier and didn’t want to get caught in the vacuum. As I stood up, a man suddenly burst through the doorway, nearly crashing into me. He came to a jerking halt in front of me and raised his arm up to my face level, waving in front of my face. He seemed a bit crazy, maybe angry.

“Give me your money, mother fucker!” he shouted. “Now!!”

In his hand was a gun. But the gun appeared to me to be a toy. It had a green handle and a blackish barrel. I looked at him, then down at the gun, then back at him. I stared straight into his face.

Then I laughed.

This appeared to severely anger the man. “You think something’s funny motherfucker? I’ll blow your motherfuckin’ head off, goddamn it!!” At which point I grasped the seriousness of what was happening.

“I’m sorry, sir” I pleaded. “Take my money. Here.” I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the bills that were there. “Here you go. Please don’t shoot me.” He started to mumble something as he took the money and looked at it. And then…

CRASH!!!!!!

An enormous explosion of breaking glass came from the back of the store. Danny had dived through the window of the back room, out onto a small ledge that hung above the back courtyard. I had no idea where Danny could go once he got out there, but I realized that now the robber knew he had two people to deal with.

The bad guy looked towards the back, and then broke into a run in the direction of the back office. As soon as he started toward the back, I made a dash for the front door. I made it through and started down the long, steep flight of red-carpeted stairs, toward the door at the bottom that opened into the street. Two steps at a time, I thought I could make it if I hurried.

I made it down only about eight steps before his voice yelled from the top of the stairs, behind me: “Stop mother fucker!!” I stopped instantly and covered my head, crouching down, waiting for the gun to explode. “Getcha ass back in here. Right now!!” I started back up the stairs – slowly, trying to give Danny more time. “Hurry up, goddamn it!!” he yelled and I moved a little faster, not running.

He waved me into the store and moved toward the back, looking back at me every other step. He glanced into the back room and, realizing that Danny was probably safely out of reach, cursed, rushed past me and out of the store. I slammed the door shut and locked it behind him. I ran to the back and saw the glass all over the back room and out on the back ledge. I picked up the phone and dialed 911.

We later heard that there had been a rash of robberies at second story stores in the neighborhood, specifically, waterbed stores, of which there were three or four in the general vicinity. The robber was a black male who carried a loaded .38 caliber handgun with a green taped handle, which he had use to shoot one of his victims. He was also in the habit of making his victims undress and perform acts of sexual perversion on each other, while he watched.

Fortunately, thanks to Danny’s fast thinking and sheer courage, he and I were spared that humiliation, not mention being shot dead. Danny later said that he’d been sitting at the desk when he heard someone yelling profanities and looked out through the very small area between rooms, through which all he could see, he said, was my face, and a shaking black hand holding a gun up to it.

He’d had to make the decision, he said, of whether to open or just dive straight through the window. He’d known that the amount of old paint combined with the weight of the massive window would make it a noisy opening. His decision sure worked for me.

Once again, fate or God, guardian angel or my intuition, perhaps all of the above, had combined to save me from a frightening situation that could have ended so much worse. How does one get so lucky? Is luck involved at all? I think not.


I began to suspect that looking for new employment might be in my best interest. Whether karma was evening up some score unknown to me, or I was just continuously placing myself in the wrong places at the wrong times, I was on a losing streak of such gargantuan magnitude that I could no longer chalk it up to bad luck. This being the third time I’d been robbed, it seemed that my circumstances were in such a state of decline that, if I didn’t change something soon, I was going to wind up seriously hurt.

At the age of seventeen, years from realizing that I was the architect of my own circumstances, I found myself surrounded by negative influences and events. I’d been repeatedly victimized by criminals in the big bad city, as well a by the tyranny that I was subjected to daily by John Weiss, whose drug use had by then turned him into a mean and hateful, babbling zombie. I’d started enjoying the heroin that Charlie brought around more than occasionally and even found myself missing it when he didn’t show up. This, I knew, was a dangerous sign. I was but a step short of needing it, and that needing impulse is the line which, once crossed is the kiss of death for many users.

All of these negatives combined to stir in my gut, telling me that a change was desperately needed, that I had to get out. And so I did.

(This story is followed by our exploits in Puerto Rico, one of which is described in the "Knife Fight" post)