My Mother’s Roses

Today, I am going to tell you the story of mother’s roses.

Not the kind that grew on a bush. Not the kind that had thorns or came in a bouquet.

No, these roses were made of chocolate. They came in a box and were made by Cadbury’s.

They’re hard to find here in the US. You might be able to find them in specialty sweet shops, usually marked up and overpriced.

This is why, when she came back from Belfast from visiting family, she always came with a box of Cadbury’s Roses that she purchased at the Duty Free Store, either at Belfast International Airport or at Heathrow.

They come in a somewhat oblong box; tapered at the bottom. There are different varieties of milk and dark chocolates each shaped like a rose and with a unique filling or flavor.

And my mother would always come back with a box of them. Prior to my sixth birthday, those roses were for her. After that, they were for me. And I am going to tell you why.

The thing you have to understand about our household is that it was not heavy on the sweets or other unhealthy food. My mother is very health conscious, and was very conscientious about keeping high sugar foods, such as chocolate to a very minimal moderation, even for herself.

To that end, when she came into possession with any of these items, be it a Whitman’s sampler, or a box of Cadbury’s Roses, she was not the type to sit down and gorge herself on the whole box. Not in nutritional philosophy and not in general philosophy.

No, that box was to be shared with the family, where it would last a week, at least. After dinner, she would produce the box. Each one of us, including my dad were invited to select a chocolate. Then the box would be returned to it’s place until the next night where the ritual was repeated until al the chocolate was gone.

When I was five or six, my mother went to Belfast, and, as pro forma, returned with her box of Cadbury’s Roses. And as per family ritual, the roses were doled out one at a time. After dinner, she would produce the oddly shaped box, we would each choose a chocolate rose, and she’d return the box to the top of the high dresser in my parent’s bedroom. The highlight of the evening was getting to savor that rose after dinner.

One day, however, my mother discovered that somebody had been at her Cadbury’s Roses.

She flew out of the master bedroom light lightning, brandishing the box.

“Who has been at my roses???” she demanded!

My sister was immediately ruled out as a suspect. My mother knew my sister wouldn’t dare.

My brother was only about two, there was no way he could reach the top of the high dresser.

Which left one and only one possible suspect.

And who do you suppose that was?

“Robert! Have you been at my roses?”

“No!” I answered

“You are telling fibs!” she wagged her left index finger at me!

“No, I’m not!” I insisted

“Yes you are!” she exploded, enraged that her son would tell such an obvious lie.

And then she deployed the ultimate salvo.

“No more roses for you, Robert!”

So now, every night after dinner, my mother would take a rose. My father would take a rose. My sister would take a rose. And even my brother would take a rose.

Was I allowed to take a rose?

No.

“Robert had his roses when he took them without permission!” My mother announced: I being the cautionary tale and the example for my brother, and I guess my sister.

My brother seemed to enjoy my punishment as much as he was enjoying the rose.

Because the roses were divided among four people instead of five, they lasted longer, and extended the number of evenings I went without a rose.

However, a few days later somebody had been at the roses again.

My mother was furious.

“Have you not learned your lesson?” she fumed.

“But I didn’t!” I insisted

“Stop telling fibs!”

Of all the things. To take her roses a second time and deny it a second time! A head was going to roll like a bowling ball, and guess whose head that was going to be?

Until later in the day.

Until she walked into the bedroom and what did she see?

She saw my brother (aged two) with his hand in the box of roses. He had scaled the dresser drawers, and was balancing by his toes on the edge of a drawer, going to town on my mother’s chocolate roses. Just like he had been doing at least those past two times.

Why, the thieving little bastard!

The only problem is that the roses were all gone. Except one.

My mother felt horrible.

My mother felt so bad she gave me the very last one of her Cadbury’s Roses on the spot.

And ever after that, every time she went to Belfast, she brought me back my very own box of Cadbury’s Roses. Now of course, in the tradition of our family, the roses were to be doled out, one by one to every member of the family after dinner. But it was me who was doing the doling. And me who would keep the roses in their place. And me who fixed my brother with the fish eye when it was his turn to select a rose.

My mother did this for years; every time she went to Belfast, I would get a box of Cadbury’s Roses. It became kind of a long standing joke until about ten years ago I said, “You know, Mom, you don’t have to get me roses every time you go to Belfast. You are forgiven. I am absolving you. You are off the hook!”

When Mary and I were married in 2012, we honeymooned in London. After that, we visited family in Northern Ireland. We flew home out of Belfast International, and had very long layover at London Heathrow before our flight back to New York.

The International Terminal at Heathrow has an amazing duty free store. It practically rivals a department store in size. So during our long layover, we went to the duty free store and bought two boxes of Cadbury’s Roses: one for my mother and one for Mary’s mother. We also bought a bottle of Bushmill’s Single Malt whiskey for us.

Shortly after our visit, my parents visited us, and I presented my mother with the roses. She graciously accepted the roses, but also saw the Bushmill’s bottle and observed, “I get the roses and you get the whiskey?”

Sorry, mom.

Order has been restored in the world. My mother gets the roses now again.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. When I come upstate to visit you, I will have Roses for you. Not the kind that grow on a bush. The kind that come in a box.

And I promise the next time I go to Belfast, I’ll bring you back both Cadbury’s Roses AND Bushmills!

Mr. Underwear

Today, I am going to tell you about a character known simply as “Mr. Underwear”

First, I’ll have to give you a little background.

For the first half of 1986, my dad was granted sabbatical from his job as a professor at a community college, and he opted to spent it in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

So three days before Christmas in 1985 when I was ten years old, my family and I pulled up stakes, left our house, car and our cat in the care of long-term house sitters, flew out of Newark Airport to arrive in Belfast on Christmas Eve via London/Heathrow.

We stayed in the house of my widowed maternal grandmother: all five of us plus her, to total six.

By North Belfast standards, the house was on the large end of average. It was not, by any stretch of imagination, “large”, not by Belfast standards, and absolutely not by US standards. It was simply a little larger than the average. It was a typical “terrace house” that you often see in both UK and Irish industrial cities. They were build as a unit perhaps half a block long, and then subdivided into row houses. Each house had a facade and entrance. Most, my grandmother’s house included, were built at the turn of the 19th/20th century.

Most had a small front yard, often simply a decorative garden, and a walled back yard with an entrance to an alley in the back: called an entryway. Because they were walled on four sides, the back yards were usually dark, grey, devoid of any plant life. It was where you kept your coal if you used it, hung your laundry (most houses there didn’t have dryers in 1986) and took your garbage out the back door into the entryway. The kitchen usually not only opened into this little yard, but also the windows of the kitchen looked out into the yard; not that there was usually too much of a view; usually just the masonry walls of the yard and whatever you put out there. Moreover, the entryways themselves were somewhat dark, and Belfast weather was often cloudy, especially in the winter.

So the five of us squeezed into my grandmother’s terrace house on the Shore Road in Belfast. Upstairs, it had three bedrooms. My brother, sister and I slept in the large front master bedroom: My brother and I on a bunk bed, my sister on a twin bed across the room. My parents slept in the smallish middle bedroom. My poor grandmother had given up her nice master bedroom, complete with large window that overlooked the Shore Road and a view of Seaview Hill for my brother, sister and I. She took the rear bedroom: a small dark room, smaller than the average prison cell, with one window that overlooked the dark, masonry alleyway behind the row of terrace houses. The room was also freezing cold and drafty. In retrospect, by rights I always guiltily feel we should have figured out a way to keep my grandmother in her nice, bright master bedroom, but that’s a whole other thing.

So anyway, upstairs: you had the three bedrooms and a bathroom. Downstairs, you had the front parlor, the living room and the kitchen. The only rooms that got any serious light were the parlor and the master bedroom.

Here’s where we lived: We were in the center house with the peaked roof. You can mouse around to get a look at the neighborhood. You can even mouse your way into the alley behind the houses and imagine how dark it would get in a cloudy day in winter!
https://www.google.com/…/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s3R5-BxPK1Q1r4n…

So we got there, and after a somewhat jetlagged Christmas, where we reunited with different relatives from my mother’s side of the family, I began to explore my new surroundings. I was somewhat limited in where I could go, not only because it was an unfamiliar city and I was ten, but also because in 1986, Belfast was a somewhat volatile place; some areas were downright unsafe. I wasn’t thrilled about the restrictions, in that I had always been what you would call today a “free range kid”.

At home, If I was not in school, and the weather was remotely acceptable, I was expected to be outside, or doing something independently, as long as I was home for meal times, before dark, and not doing anything dangerous or illegal, at least not that my parents would find out about.

I was not happy to be cooped up in my grandmother’s smallish, dark, cold drafty house with all six of us in close proximity. I did not like being limited to a few blocks around the house and only with an escort. I knew the restrictions would lessen as I got acclimated, but I was getting stir-crazy and bored. It also didn’t help that by about 3:45 PM it was totally dark, as is typical in Belfast in December/January.

One of the traditions I was introduced to was “Sunday Dinner”. People in Ireland, both the north and the south are very social, and family usually stayed close by. Sunday dinner, the extended family would get together for dinner. It usually involved ham and potatoes and other items, but that is not a hard and fast rule. Usually it was very early in the evening, sometimes even late afternoon. Remember, in winter, it got dark early.

The Sunday after Christmas was my first Sunday Dinner at my grandmother’s house. In addition to my grandmother and us, also joining us were my aunt and uncle who had not yet had children (married just a couple of years), and my other aunt and uncle who had four children: all girls. Two of them were identical twins, only three years old (Emma and Sarah). One was my age: my cousin Kirstin (Kirstie) and one was a couple of years older: my cousin Claire. That’s a total of……(one, two three…..) FOURTEEN people shoehorned in my grandmother’s terrace house. Not much elbow room.

By the time Sunday Dinner was concluded, it was already pitch black outside. At some point, I ventured upstairs. At the top of the stairs, on the landing was a window. The window offered a view into the back yard of the house next door. It also offered a view right into the kitchen window.

The lights were on in the kitchen, and I reflexively looked into the window. Standing at the counter was a very fat man, wearing nothing but a pair of brightly patterned boxer shorts. I nosily watched him for awhile, just to see what he was doing. Not only was I bored, but I hadn’t yet met any of my neighbors. He was at the counter, busily making himself a large sandwich out of the leftovers of HIS Sunday dinner. It looked like he also had ham.

My cousin Kirstie had just emerged from the living room and I motioned her up the stairs:
“Hey Kirstie! Look at this!”
She came up the stairs, stood at the window and observed for a few seconds, before the pair of us exploded into a fit of laughter. In the meantime, Claire had also emerged from the living room, so we motioned her up the stairs, where she looked out the window, and we had another laugh. My sister was in the bathroom, so eventually, I banged on the door.
“Hey Elaine! Hurry up. I wanna show you something!”
Eventually she emerged from the bathroom, annoyed.
“What?”
I led her to the window, and once she got a look, started guffawing as well.

So at this point all four of us are gathered around the window, laughing, cackling and watching this man make an enormous sandwich, one that would put Dagwood to shame. Wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts that would stop traffic. And completely oblivious to us.

Eventually my grandmother started walking up the stairs, and it took her a second to catch wind of what we were doing. She reached in and yanked the curtain closed.
“Stop it!” she snapped, “That’s not polite”

Which made us laugh harder.

“Not funny!”

The problem was it WAS funny. It was funny the rest of the evening, and kept us laughing.
“I wonder who he is?” My sister wondered
“I know his name!” I said
“What is it?” one of my cousins asked
“Mr. Underwear!” I crowed, dissolving into another fit of laughter along with my cousins.

The next day, as I was granted a little more freedom, I walked out the front door towards the gate. I glanced to over the railing into Mr. Underwear’s front yard, just to see what it looked like. It was a nice, neat little yard: a mosaic of flagstones, a border of well kept flowers, and a neatly painted front gate. I don’t know what I was expecting. Perhaps large pairs of underwear hanging on plant stakes or something.

That evening, I surreptitiously looked down into the kitchen window to see if Mr Underwear was, again, making the huge sandwich in his underwear. The kitchen windows were dark, although I did see the flicker of the TV emanating from the kitty corner living room window, but nothing else. I wondered if he watched TV in his crazy underwear. It was an amusing thought, but not as funny as laughing with my cousins around the window.

The next day, as I headed out to explore my neighborhood some more, Mr. Underwear’s door clicked open, and out came the man himself. He was well dressed, in an overcoat, with a tie and carrying a briefcase. He greeted me pleasantly in his Belfast accent, and turned left towards the bus stop to wait for the downtown bus. I wondered if he was wearing his crazy underwear, or if that was just a Sunday thing.

I didn’t go to church, but the next Sunday, I saw Mr Underwear emerge in his best suit to go to the Presbyterian Church directly across the street. Despite being very heavy, he took a lot of pride in his appearance, as well as his front yard. His tie was knotted perfectly and his suit fit him like a glove. Again, he greeted me pleasantly, and headed off to church.

I pictured the minister, glowering down from his pulpit: “THOU SHALT NOT WEAR CRAZY UNDERWEAR TO CHURCH!!!” I pictured our neighbor blushing and slinking down in his hard, unupholstered, Presbyterian pew. I pictured him singing solemn hymns, and the thought of that coupled with the crazy underwear cracked me up.

That evening, before Sunday Dinner, I reported to my cousins that Mr. Underwear went to the church across the road.
“I bet he wore his crazy underwear to church!” one of my cousins offered.
“That’s gotta be a sin!” I said, not knowing what the Scriptures might have said on the matter.
“Maybe he has special Church Underwear…” my sister speculated.

After dinner, we gathered at the window, to see if Mr. Underwear would appear. We were not disappointed. It was literally a replay of the Sunday before, complete with boxers and sandwich. We had a good laugh, but it wasn’t as funny as the first time. We also had the risk of our grandmother materializing out of the ether (something she was very good at, just like her eldest daughter: my mom) to chide us for being nosy and impolite. We had gotten much comedic mileage from the ridiculous scenarios we concocted around this man, but the joke was running its course and was now close to spent.

While I’m sure that, if we positioned ourselves at the window every Sunday evening we surely would get the same show, after two consecutive weeks, there was no more to the joke. Surely we would chuckle about it every now and then, but the fit of hysterical laughter it sent us into that first Sunday was a one time thing.

I didn’t learn his real name until well into my stay, and it was something very ordinary and forgettable. In this culture, even neighbors addressed each other as Mr. and Mrs. I would see him occasionally, most often in his suit with his briefcase with a newspaper tucked under his arm. He always greeted me pleasantly, he was always very well dressed and very respectable. My grandmother thought highly of him as well, and respectability was very important to her.

I believe he lived alone, but he had a sister who would visit him with two younger boys who attended the prep school for the Belfast Royal Academy; I would occasionally see them in their school uniforms.

And he never learned about the nosy little bastards next door.

The Last Animal I Ever Rode was not a Horse

Today, I am going to tell you the story about the last animal I ever rode.

First off, you have to know I have never, in my life ridden a horse. There is no particular reason: I am certain if presented with an opportunity to ride a horse, I would ride a horse, but it is not on my active bucket list.

I am not a horsey person. I divide animals into two categories: Capable Of Killing You and Not Capable of Killing you, and horses fit squarely into the first category. I know there are people who are all about horses. They read horsey publications. They know all about the breed of horses and famous horses and horsey behavior. They have horse decor in the their homes like horseshoes and things that look like saddles. They read “Black Beauty” and watched “Wild Hearts Can’t be Broken” as a child. Some will show up at the Hampton Classic wearing riding boots, a riding coat, riding pants, a hat and even carrying a little riding crop, without any intention of riding a horse that day. I guess it is some kind of solidarity. My friend from school actually had a barn with three or so horses. His dad raised horses. I tried to give them a wide berth. It’s not that I dislike horses; it’s just that those hooves could give you a powerful kick, and those square teeth could give you one helluva pinch. No, I did not want to hand-feed that horse a carrot. Where there are horses, there are also flies. And sometimes bees. Which I am allergic to. Truth be known, I am wary of any animal larger than a cat.

Now, I have ridden other animals. I have ridden a camel (he was on a leash and led around a compound at the Bronx zoo) I think I was about five.

I rode a pony (doesn’t count as a horse) when I was a little kid, too. He was hooked up to this little round contraption with about six other ponies and made a few circuits.

I have ridden a giant tortoise at an animal preserve in Berkeley, CA when I was a really little kid.

And yes, I rode an elephant at the (ten years defunct) Catskill Game Farm when I was a little kid. They put you on a platform on the elephant’s back and you ride with about five or six other people. I threw up on the elephant.

And then, another elephant, when I was about nine. My family and I were out for pizza. The pizza place was at the end of a strip mall (locally called “Jamesway Plaza”, after the anchor store), where they often set up suspicious looking carnivals in the parking lot, with sketchy characters operating rickety rides at inappropriately inflated prices. When we were kids and asked to go on the rides, the answer was always a non-negotiable no. In retrospect: Rightfully so. What kind of parent would put their kid’s life in danger and pay money to do it?
In fact, back when Six Flags Great Escape in Lake George was called “Storytown”, my dad used to call these outfits “Rip Off Town”, and then sing:
🎶 Rip-off town, Rip-off town, the fun’s not really at Rip-off town….! 🎶” to the tune of the Storytown commercial.

But anyway, while we were having pizza, I looked out the window of the pizza place and saw an elephant in the parking lot. No carnival set up or anything else. Just an elephant.

I said,”Hey, an elephant!”

My mother thought I was pulling her chain, but outside, some entity or another had set up this makeshift arena in the parking lot and was offering elephant rides. There was this big, ten foot elephant, clomping around the arena (which really was just highway cones and ropes), with a big flat platform on its back where there were about six people sitting. And nothing else. No carnival, not even an animal truck or trailer.

Just this one-man show with an elephant being led around the parking lot of Jamesway Plaza in this ad-hoc enclosure.

So after pizza, we were able to convince my parents to let us ride the elephant. So with three other people, my brother, sister and I got on the flat platform on the elephant’s back and rode the elephant around about four circuits of the roped area. It was surprisingly underwhelming.

And you know what? I started feeling guilty. Here you have this huge, intelligent creature, ten feet high, being led around the parking lot of a shitty strip mall so people could ride his back, five or six at a time. Being taken from one town to another like a freak show, by a seemingly unregulated one-man outfit. In Upstate New York, which is about as close to an elephant’s natural habitat as the moon. In retrospect, I wonder how that was legal, or if it WAS even legal. The elephant was gone the next day, onto the next town. I wonder how they got him there.

I’ve always had a soft spot for elephants even if they are very easily in the “Capable of Killing You” category. I know that any large animal with four legs that can be trained is often used as a beast of burden somewhere in the world (you can’t train a zebra). But you know: I am not a fan of elephant’s even being in zoos or circuses. They’re not here for our amusement.

Human beings are a notoriously ungrateful and self entitled species, and an intelligent animal such as an elephant should not be used as an object for our amusement. They should be allowed to live autonomous lives in their natural habitat, free from the threat of large game hunters and poachers. Elephants, to me, are hands-off animals.

Truth be known, I am not a big fan of zoos and not a fan at all of circuses. I thought it was long overdue when Barnum and Bailey decided to close up shop. I don’t like animal exploitation, and clowns freak me out.

I am conflicted about zoos. I tolerate some of them as a necessary evil: to protect an endangered species, and to provide education about them for the rest of us. And I am only slightly comfortable with the ones that have made a significant effort to replicate the animal’s natural habitat.

That elephant I rode more than thirty two years ago was the last animal I rode. I don’t know if elephant rides are even a thing now for kids, in this litigious world. I seriously doubt you could just set up shop in a parking lot with an elephant and start selling rides without the some kind of agency swooping in and putting the kabosh on it. And imagine the protestors.

Now if given the opportunity to ride a horse, I probably would. But it would have to be the slowest, least imaginative, most compliant horse in the herd. A horse that would just let me ride him without putting up a fuss. I wouldn’t want one of those Hampton Classic horses that can jump hurdles. A horse that can jump hurdles is a horse that can buck me off and stomp me with his hoof. There is no denying a horse is capable of killing you, but I wouldn’t want to ride a horse that knows that.

But if there is a horse that fits that low bar, yeah, I might ride him. If given the time and opportunity.

Exotic New Jersey

Today, I am going to tell you the story about why New Jersey holds a special place in my heart, (aside from the obvious: Mary is from New Jersey, indeed was in the 1995 Miss New Jersey pageant, and was 1995s Miss Vineland, NJ)

See, when I was a kid I loved going places. I’d go to Boston a lot to visit my dad’s family, and had been to Ireland a few times to visit my mom’s family. Every now and then my dad would go away on a conference and sometimes we could come along to exotic places like Utica, NY and Williamsport, PA, where we’d drive a few hours and stay overnight. Not only that, but when relatives would visit different places they would send me postcards.
(I think of how conscientious they were: I don’t think I have ever sent an extended family member a postcard. From anywhere! But these were the idyllic late 70s/early 80s)

When I was five or six, I got a postcard from a relative who went to the Jersey Shore. It looked like a great place: a lot of fun and really far away. So I announced I wanted to go to New Jersey. It was on my five year old’s bucket list of places I really wanted to go. If somebody at that time had asked me where I wanted to go more than anywhere else, my answer would have been “New Jersey”. All because of that postcard.

Well, something serendipitous happened. New Jersey had legalized gambling in 1978, but only in Atlantic City. But there was serious talk about bringing gambling to the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY. My dad taught at a community college at the foot of the Catskills, just south of Albany. Were gambling to be legalized in New York, and were casinos to open in the Catskills, it was highly likely the community college where my dad taught would begin to offer programs related to the operating of said casinos.

In the summer of 1981, just a few months after I got that postcard, the community college decided to send my dad on essentially a scouting mission to Atlantic City to observe the casinos and their management. Perhaps there was a conference there as well, I’m not sure. All I remember, at age five, is learning my dreams of going to New Jersey were about to be realized. And I was over the moon.

So, we all got into the car: my parents, my sister and my brother (who was only two) and drove the 5-6 hours down to Atlantic City. I am not sure how much the community college was going to pay to put my dad (and fam) up, but it obviously wasn’t much, because we didn’t stay on the boardwalk. We stayed in one of those little one-level motels on the road leading into Atlantic City, which had a kidney shaped pool right in the parking lot. The kind of motel Mary would refer to as a “No-tell motel”. The kind of motel that, today, if it would pop-up on my search for accommodation on hotels.com, I would say “Noooope!”.

But to six year old me, it was absolutely perfect. Two double beds: one for my parents, one for us three kids (my brother was small enough he could easily fit in), a COLOR TV, and a pool! Later that evening after a dinner (no doubt inexpensive), we went out to walk on the boardwalk which really was made of boards! We went on the Steel Pier, where we got to ride the Ferris Wheel, and we got to see the ocean and the jellyfish, which was no little thing to a kid who lived 120 miles inland.

The next day, however my dad went to his project, leaving my mom alone to entertain three kids. We weren’t far from the boardwalk, we had the motel pool, and my mother had the car. I remember the Playboy Club had just opened, and my mother pointed it out.

“Oh look! There’s the Playboy Club! All the ladies who work there have to dress up as bunnies! They’re called Playboy Bunnies”

On the first level, there were plate glass windows that offered a view directly into the club, and true to my mother word: there were buxom cocktail waitresses with short skirts, bunny ears and tails, carrying trays full of drinks. I was amazed and fascinated.

“That’s enough, Robert. Time to see something else”

I wasn’t ready to leave…….

“Robert!”

Later in the afternoon we swam in the tiny pool in the motel parking lot, where the lifeguard let me play with the life ring, and later when my dad came back and asked how we spent the day, I answered “We saw the Playboy Bunnies!”

We went home the next day, six hour drive home, but it really was the best trip ever, and for some time after that I thought New Jersey was one of the best places. In fact, when I became aware of “New Jersey” jokes, I wondered if they were talking about the same place.

And, short of a few flights out of Newark Airport, and a job interview for a teaching position in South Brunswick, and going through it on a train on the way to Philly, I wasn’t back to New Jersey.

Until I met Mary. Who not only was from New Jersey, but was from South Jersey. South of Atlantic City.

Eventually, it came time to visit her mother for the very first time, who had retired and bought a house in Sea Isle City, a small city on a barrier island between Atlantic City and Wildwood. Mary is frugal, and figured out long ago, the most economical way to get to South Jersey was to take “The Casino Bus” down there.

Here’s how it works: Bus companies (Greyhoud, Academy etc) operate in collaboration with the casinos. The bus goes directly to a given casino, you get a portion of the fare you paid back in a voucher, which must be played in a slot machine. Used to be, they’d simply give it back to you in rolled coin. But old people would go down to A/C for the day, not gamble, pocket the rolled coin, so the casinos got smart to that.
After riding this bus a few years, and seeing some of the characters who ride the bus, I have referred to it as the “Compulsive Gambler Bus”

But the first time, I got on the bus with Mary, and as we approached Atlantic City, I remembered the trip when I was six. I looked at the row of crappy motels along the road into the city (many of which are out of business, boarded up, and ready to fall down) and wondered which of them we stayed at. I’ve made this trip many times since then, and still wonder which motel it was.

I should mention I don’t gamble. But for somebody who doesn’t gamble, I have been in Atlantic City a lot the past thirteen years, simply because it is enroute to visit family. Because it is a requirement you play your bus ticket refund, I have obligingly done that, and on my first trip to A/C, I won back $80. Last time that ever happened.

Atlantic City has fallen on hard times. The Playboy Club is long gone (demolished in 1999). It is impossible to see Atlantic City through the idyllic lens I had as a six year old. It’s in rough shape. Mary & I have often found better means of getting to South Jersey than the “Compulsive Gambler Bus”, although almost all our trips there route through Atlantic City in some form or another. And every time, I remember the joy I had at age six of getting to go to exotic New Jersey.

And every time I go to South Jersey with Mary, I always feel like I am going somewhere special. Because I am. Because family is there now. So it should only be apropos our marriage certificate is a New Jersey certificate.

Say what you will about New Jersey. I have no complaints. Mary: the love of my life came from there.

PS: Our cat is named Jersey, too.
This was because when Mary & I were getting ready to adopt a cat, the New York ASPCA had such crazy stipulations and restrictions (such as not adopting out single kittens, and requiring your employer’s phone #, and leave to inspect your home), we decided just to go across the bridge to NJ and adopt him, where the red tape wasn’t as stiff.
So we called him Jersey.

The Air Conditioner from Lucy Ho

Today I am going to tell you about my very first air conditioner in New York City.

It was in 2004 and in July, and it was sticky hot like today.

Mary & I had recently become a “serious and committed couple”, but we had just spent a hot, sleepless, sweaty night in an un- air conditioned bedroom overlooking Broadway, where it was also really noisy (we used to live on the corner of 207th & Broadway). Thus far, we had managed to tough it out without an air conditioner, but the box fan just wasn’t cutting it.

We woke up tired and sweaty. I was working a temp job at the time; in fact, by some fluke, I had a gorgeous office with a window and a view of the Empire State Building. I shared it with David Ian Lee. I guess it was an executive office, but they ran out of windowless cubicles for temps. David was a funny dude.

And as I was sitting in front of the Excel Spreadsheet on my computer, a little thought came to me. That thought was, “Fuck this heat. Fuck this humidity. I am going to get an air conditioner!”

Only problem was, I didn’t have very much money at all, at the time. A $150 minimum investment was not something to be taken lightly. There was a bit of a crunch. I owed back taxes. I was working this temp job because I had had a long stretch without any gigs that paid anything.

So I decided to try my luck with a used A/C. On my break, I went on Craigslist, and, after much searching, found a used air conditioner for $30, which was my price range. It was way the hell out in Flushing, Queens, but, ok. I called the phone number (because that’s what you still did in 2004) and an Asian lady who didn’t speak English very well answered the phone, and I asked if I could come by that evening to pick up the AC. She gave me the address and directions. Her name was Lucy Ho.

So, after work, I got on the 7 train and headed out to the very last stop in Flushing Queens. Takes about an hour and twenty from Times Square. Then I had to walk fifteen or so blocks to an apartment complex, and find Lucy Ho’s unit. Everybody there was Chinese and nobody seemed to know English at all. In fact, everything was written in Chinese.

I finally found Lucy Ho, and we went up to get the air conditioner.
She was actually selling two air conditioners.

One was a normal white air conditioner of standard size.

She was also selling a big old A/C from the 80s. One of those big, brown ones with the simulated wood panels. It was about the size of a steamer trunk. She plugged it in to show it worked, and the thing roared like a grizzly bear. Had a big, black power cord that was as thick as my thumb. It looked like, if you plugged it in, it would short out the grid for all of Upper Manhattan.

She really wanted to sell the big brown one.

“Work good. Work good. Cool room nice! Do you want?

“No,” I said,”I think I’ll just take the regular one”.

But she kept really trying to pawn the big brown 80s one off on me.

“Oh, but this better. Make room very cold! I give you for $25”

But I still insisted on the regular one. Eventually she gave in, but was disappointed, because she wanted to get rid of the big one.

Well, I picked up the AC to take home. Most people struggle to lift an A/C to put it in their window. Now imagine walking 15 blocks, carrying an air conditioner, with only a vague idea of how to get back to the 7 train.

Not only that, but since it was so hot and humid, the sky had darkened, and I could hear thunder. And then, without any warning, it started pouring. And I mean pouring.

I am soaking wet, completely lost, carrying this air conditioner that weighed a ton and I almost gave up. I thought, “You know what? This thing probably doesn’t work anyway. I bet the rain is going to short it out. It’s going to slip out of my arms and break my foot. If I just set it down right here on the sidewalk and walk away, I bet nobody would see me. I’ll just eat the damn $30 and the four hours I will have invested in this”

But at that moment, I found myself at the stairs of the 7 train. I managed to get the thing onto the train and sat on it the whole way back to Manhattan, where, at TImes Square I still had to get it up the Jesus Ramp, and carry it through the long corridor to the A Train.

I got it on the A train, and sat on it. At 168th Street a guy got on and started panhandling.

I called him over and said,”Do you want make some money?”

They guy said,”What?”

I said, “Do you see this AC? All you have to do is ride with me to 207th Street. You help me get it upstairs to my apartment, you help me put it in the window, I will give you $20 and swipe you back into the subway.”

The guy said,”I’ll do it for $40″

I said, “$20 or nothing”

I ended up putting the thing in the bedroom window myself.

I put it in, cranked it up to max, put a little snack on a tray, watched some TV as the air conditioner did its magic. And it made the room like a walk in refrigerator.

I hadn’t told Mary. She was going to be getting home late, most likely after I was in bed. So I went to bed.

And the next thing I hear was Mary scream. And then start laughing.

She had opened to the door to the bedroom, expecting it to be it’s hot, sweltering self. The blast of cool air startled her, and then she realized what I had done.
And we had a nice, cool, blissful night.

Lucy Ho’s air conditioner came to a sticky end.

In October of 2005 I went on tour. To save some money, we subletted out the room. The subletter was an NYU grad student from Germany. One night she felt a little hot and opened the window. The window the A/C was in. When I installed it, I did not know of such things as air conditioner brackets.

And the AC fell three stories onto the roof of the building next door. By some miracle, it didn’t go right through the roof. Mary told me a week after it happened. Because the grad student was so scared Mary would be mad, it took her a week to get up the guts to tell her.

Mary told her not to worry about it; we only paid $30 for it anyway.

When I came back from tour, I found two things:

The power outlet the A/C was plugged into was ripped clean out of the wall (when it fell, it took the outlet with it). Since that outlet was on its own circuit, it didn’t short anything else out, but there were the ripped, bare wires sticking out of the wall. It broke the fuse so it wasn’t live, although the electrical wiring in that whole building was faulty (there was an electrical fire on the 1st floor a year later).

All the other electrical equipment in the room was plugged into the one other outlet, using extension chords, outlet multipliers etc. The German grad student had rigged all that up, because she was afraid to tell Mary she had destroyed the outlet as well.

And out the window, on the roof of the building next door was the air conditioner, which looked surprisingly intact. It was even still plugged it (because it had taken the outlet with it).

First thing I did was repair the wall and replace the outlet.

All through the winter the AC remained on the roof. When it snowed, there was this white lump. When the snow melted it was still there. When that spring I replaced it with one from Target I paid full price for, it was there where it remained throughout the next summer, into the next fall, throughout the next winter and I think it was removed that following spring.

When we moved to our new place (where we live now) we replaced the AC yet again. That one also came to a sticky end, literally, when Zack was visiting us.
He mailed a couple of his Totino’s Pizza Rolls into the vent. Made a kind of crunchy, wet sound, and then emitted an odor like pizza. Which got worse over time and rusted out the mechanism.

There was one after that, too, but now we have one we can control from our iPhone. We used the bracket to install it so it won’t fall out, and thankfully, years ago, we got Zack out of the habit of mailing his food into vents.

Although I do wonder if Lucy Ho ever managed to sell that big brown A/C from the 80s. Maybe she wanted to sell it because it caused the blackout of 2003!

The Little Old Lady I Thought I Killed

There is a nice little old lady who lives across the hall. She walks a little dog, and has probably been living in the building for sixty or so years.

I refer to her as “the little old lady I thought I killed”

This has a backstory:

About six years ago, the little old lady asked me for help. Turns out, the carbon monoxide detector in her apartment kept beeping. She was short, so she asked me to stand on a chair and silence it. She couldn’t find the super, so I agreed to do it.

When I pushed the “silence” button, it kept beeping. I expressed concern that perhaps it kept beeping because there was carbon monoxide present. She said, no, it always does that, and then asked me to take out the batteries.

Again, I expressed concern, but she assured me it did that often, and she was going to get a new carbon monoxide detector soon.

So I reluctantly took the batteries out.

It was the day before Mary & I were to go to Florida for a week. All through the trip I kept thinking about it and was worried that I may be indirectly for her carbon monoxide poisoning. I considered calling the super to ask him to look in on her, but I didn’t want to seem like I was being nosy. I also didn’t want to rat on her for fooling with the carbon monoxide detector (NYC code requires a working CM detector in each apartment)
It bothered me the entire Florida trip.

When we got back to NYC in the evening, I looked up at the windows to her apartment and they were dark. Her apartment was always quiet, but when we passed her apartment, it seemed especially quiet.

I had aired my concern to Mary before, but she didn’t seem that worried. She pointed out that when we got back there would be a bad smell if she had been dead for a week.

The next day, I was standing in the hallway wondering what to do; should I ring her doorbell, call the super, call the cops……….
and her door opened, and out she came with her little dog on a leash.

“You look lost” she said

All I could say was, “Did you get a new carbon monoxide detector?”

She looked sheepish and said,”No.”

“You should get the super to put one in. You don’t have to pay for it. It could save your life.”

Three years years later when they put in hardwired carbon monoxide detectors in all the units, I breathed a sigh of relief.

And that is the story of the little old lady I thought I killed.

Welcome to The SOS Room

a memoir

This story is for any of my classmates who sat in the S.O.S. room.

I
THE UNIT

Some years ago, I had a teaching position at a middle school in Connecticut. I hadn’t been there very long, but I was not enjoying teaching as much as I expected I would have. I was pretty fresh out of college with a music education degree, and consequently was teaching an aggregate of about three hundred students, aged 11 to 14 (excepting those who failed a couple of times, those few students old enough to drive themselves to middle school) general music and chorus. A detail I apparently missed while getting my bachelors degree was that the middle school general music classroom was a fertile soil for all sorts of bad behavior, ranging from the classic, uncreative mouthing off and spitballs to the more creative and audacious bringing of your father’s pornography to class and showing it to the girls.

At the time, I was laboring under the university doctrine of “Make the class interesting, and discipline will take care of itself”. The implication being, of course, that if you have anyone who misbehaves in your class, it is because your class is boring, and if your class were more interesting, they wouldn’t be misbehaving because they’d be actively involved in the learning process.   So when I had a misbehaving student, I would try to ramp up the interest factor of the class. I would rack my brains, looking for ways to to “make the class interesting” so that “discipline would take care of itself”. However, the bad behavior went unpunished, my lessons became more outrageous in an effort to “make the class interesting”, my grip on sanity became more and more tenuous and things started to reach critical mass. Eventually, I admitted defeat and started sending kids to The Unit (the school’s detention room)

The first few times, the defeat stung, but boy, was it satisfying to walk up to a little misbehaving bastard, who thought he got one over on you and say,”OK Matt. You’ve opened your mouth one too many times. Go to The Unit!”

“But Mr. P………” he snivel

“NOW” I’d snarl.

I loved the look of fear. I loved the tranquility of the class after the disruptive kid had been exiled.

“Jamahl, If I see you out of that seat again, I swear to God, you are going to the Unit!”

“OK Cody, that’s it! Get thee to The Unit!”

I was starting to sound like some of the other veteran teachers I could hear, their barked threats resounding in the corridors, those teachers who were maybe ten years away from retirement, but counting off every day, like strokes on the wall of a prison cell. But it was great, just being able to scare the kids into behavior just by mentioning The Unit. It was like holding an atomic bomb! The look of fear on the faces of the kids at the mere threat of the it: The Unit: What a great name! It must be quite a place! Was it down in the basement, next to the boiler room? Was the teacher of The Unit some humorless old hag who made the kids face the wall and write a thousand times? A barking “drill sergeant type”, like a gym teacher who made them do push-ups? What did they do to the kids down there?

Well, one day in November I was walking in a wing of the school I rarely visited, up on the third floor. I forget why I was there, perhaps to use the “other” photocopier or something, when I happened to walk past the door of a classroom. It looked like every other classroom door in the 1970s era middle school: wood, with a a narrow window a few inches wide just above the doorknob. Except there was a sign on the door, in one of those clear sheet protectors: The Unit.

Well. There it was. It was after 2:30, so school was done for the day and the door was slightly ajar, so I poked my head in. It looked like every other classroom in the school. Carpeted, had large windows, regular desks and colorful educational posters on the wall. It looked like a place you might go to for say, English class, or perhaps Social Studies.

A pleasant looking woman of about thirty must have heard the door because she looked up, startled.

“Oh…. uh ….Hi” I said, awkwardly

She smiled,”Hi! Can I help you”

“No, no. I was just walking around, and I just saw this room,” I explained,”It’s my first year here, you know?”

She nodded.

“So…. ah….. this is The Unit” I said

“This is it” she said brightly

“This is the place kids go when they get written up for acting up in class and that kind of thing?”

“Right here” she answered,”You are…..” she extended her hand.

“Rob. Rob Pagnani. I’m the music teacher for the 7th graders. I also do the 8th grade chorus”

“Oh.. Yes! You’re the one who hates when kids constantly run off at the mouth!”

“Uh…………..Yeah. That’s right! How did you know?”

“Well, since I’m the detention teacher, I read all the disciplinary referrals. And so I often get to know teachers by their pet peeve. Yours is kids constantly running off at the mouth”

“Well……….” I fumbled

“You should see some of the other pet peeves. There is a teacher who sends kids here all the time for squeaking their chairs. She just hates kids squeaking their chairs. Then there’s another one who just can’t stand kids who sigh and suck their teeth!”

“Wow!” I said incredulously.

“Wow, what?”

“Well…….” I looked around at the colorful, well lit classroom,”It just doesn’t look like a detention room.”

“Really?” She seemed surprised

“Well, back when I was in middle school, this was in ’87 or 88, there was this little room behind the stairs, in the basement. They put you there all day if you got in trouble”

“Oh no!” she looked horrified,”Here we have group programs, counseling, self examination.”

“Nope” I continued,”Back when I was in middle school, they put you there and forgot about you until your time was up! It was called the S. O. S. room!”

II
THE S.O.S. ROOM

I am not making this up. The S.O.S. room sounds like a place where they would scrub you down with a steel wool soap pad, but it was the name of the detention room of the middle school I attended in the mid-late 1980s, in Upstate New York. Shortly after I started middle school in 1986, we were constantly threatened with S.O.S., either from the dour cafeteria aides, the hard-as-nails hall monitors, our exasperated teachers or our fire-and-brimstone vice-principal. He was a compact man who had lost most of his hair, but when he gave one of his fiery warnings or reprimands, you could see his scalp turning red through the few grey hairs he had left. It was fun to watch, much as it is fun to watch a wrecking ball demolish a building: as long as you were a few feet back and not on the receiving end of it.

For the record, S.O. S. had nothing to do with scouring pads. In fact, it stood for Students Off Schedule, because, of course, if you were moldering away in the S.O.S. room, you were not on your regular class schedule. Instead, you were sitting on your ass in a little room in an isolated corner of the school. All day.

When I first started middle school, and was first threatened with S.O.S., I didn’t regard it with fear, rather curiosity. First of all, where was it? The school was an older brick building, built in the mid 1930s, and it had originally been the high school. It had lots of corners, blind spots, alcoves, oddly placed stairways and many places where a student could hide from class or sneak a cigarette. There were also many places where one could tuck away a room in which to store misbehaving students.

My friend Geoff joked that it was probably up in the bell tower, which actually sounded kind of cool. It drew kind of a gothic, Tim Burtonesque picture to mind; kids way up in the beams of the structure and among the gears of the the of the clockwork. Kids sitting at old wooden desks as light filtered in through the backwards face of the clock, under a huge bell. An almost Quasimodo-like tableau.

As I got oriented in my first few weeks at middle school, somewhere between dodging the formidable Mrs. Rees ( a home-ec teacher, who I swear to God could be summoned out of the ether simply by you breaking a rule, just in time for her to catch you) and avoiding getting my ass kicked by one of the hoards of bad tempered eight-graders, I tried to locate the S.O.S. room. I was barely keeping out of trouble and I had only been in middle school a couple of weeks, so inevitability told me that at some point in my middle school career I would be there. I just wanted to be prepared.

It could be anywhere in the building; behind any of those unmarked solid oak doors, that, when opened, disappointingly gave way to janitors closets, photocopy rooms, teacher lounges or department offices. Though it was funny to think about it, even in sixth grade I wasn’t so gullible to think it was in the bell tower! I discovered the S.O.S. room by accident.

I was walking through a corridor in the basement; a low ceilinged, overheated passage full of dented brown lockers. I walked through a set of fire doors, and, not looking where I was going I bumped into the metal newell post of a flight of stairs. I must have used those stairs a hundred times; they led to the cafeteria, and on the landing was the stage entrance to the auditorium.

Not looking where I was going had been a problem for me, lately, and man, hitting your nose on a big post of Depression era steel hurts like hell. Seeing stars, I stumbled down a little, dead end corridor behind the stairs and there it was: A solid oak door that I would have mistaken for a closet door, insofar as it didn’t have a window and opened outward. But the door had a piece of white construction paper taped to it, with S.O.S. ROOM written on it with a felt tip pen. So this is it. Maddeningly, because it didn’t have a window, I couldn’t get a glimpse of what, or more importantly, who, was in there, but at least I knew where it was!
The school’s daily attendance sheet had a list of students who were in S.O.S that day so that they wouldn’t be expected in class, along with kids and teachers who were absent that day. It was interesting to cop a look at the sheet and see who was consigned to the S.O.S. Room. There were usually about six or seven kids in there, but sometimes there were only three or four, almost always boys. I remember once looking at the list and seeing only one name on there. I couldn’t help but think how much it would suck to be the only kid in the S.O.S. room; just you and the S.O.S. lady. Must’ve been a long day for that kid!

Sometimes familiar names on the list would pop out. Often I’d see the same names on the list. Sometimes I would see the name of someone I knew. There was this girl called Amber whose name I saw on the list every now and then. Seeing a girl’s name on the list was rare, but a year later I finally met the infamous Amber and immediately understood why she was sometimes on that list. She was a cool girl, and her experience with S.O.S. gave me a certain respect for her.

Amazingly, I made it to February without being sent to S.O.S. In retrospect, I view it as even more amazing, because I was neither angelic, nor was I particularly good at not getting caught. That being said, I think I was the first of my friends to get sent there.
It was because of an incident in the cafeteria, just a couple of days before February break. If my memory serves me correctly it was a day that was so cold out that we didn’t have to go outside after lunch (usually after lunch, they made you go outside). In the cafeteria, there were a couple of TV monitor screens high up on shelves wedged into opposing corners, just above the Rubbermaid dumpsters where we tossed the refuse from our lunch.

On days such as this, the cafeteria aides would often put in a VHS tape, putting to employ the assumption that if a bunch of sixth graders were watching TV, they weren’t killing each other. MTV videos of songs like “The Final Countdown” and “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” come to mind.

Well, I had just finished my lunch and was walking towards one of the dumpsters to throw away my garbage, the video for Genesis’ “Invisible Touch” blaring from the monitors, over the top of two hundred noisy sixth graders. I don’t know what possessed me to do it but I took my empty milk carton, put it on the floor and burst it under the heel of my shoe. Hard.

The bang was amazing, and made everybody in the cafeteria jump. I was impressed. The problem wasn’t the bang. The problem was that the milk carton wasn’t entirely empty. The problem was that everybody was looking at me. The problem was that one of the cafeteria aides was in the line of fire. I forget which one it was; she stood there in disbelief, before angrily wiping off the droplets of milk that the blast of the milk carton had deployed onto her face and sweater.

Of course, I really didn’t have much time to think about it. I was being hauled out of the cafeteria, down the stairs, through the basement corridor with all the lockers and to the main office. “Sit,” the aide directed to the row of straight, wood chairs.

I could hear her angrily scrawling with a ball point pen onto one of the triplicate disciplinary referral forms. Those forms haven’t changed much over the past twenty years. When I was a teacher, they were the exact same format. You had to press hard with the pen and I think the white copy went to the principal, the pink copy went to your parents and the goldenrod copy went into your Permanent Record, where it would ostensibly keep you out any college of consequence and probably out of the army.

Fortunately, this particular referral must have, at some point, gone down the memory hole, because I never found myself in the position of having to explain it away.
The vice principal was out to lunch, so I had to sit there awhile. I got to miss my math class, and half my home-ec class, but I didn’t think Mrs. Rees (my home-ec teacher) was going to let me off the hook so easily. The vice principal returned from lunch and a few minutes later I was summoned into his office. There were a couple of hard chairs across from his desk.

“Sit” he directed (and by the second time in less than two hours you are told to sit, you wonder if you’re going to get a Milk Bone)

He passed the referral across the desk to me. There it was, the fruits of the furiously scrawling Bic pen: Robert popped a milk carton in the cafeteria, spraying me with milk.

“Well?” he demanded

“It’s true” I responded.

What else could I say? Everybody in the cafeteria saw me do it. “But I didn’t know there was any milk in there. I thought it was empty”

He ignored my mitigating statement. “One day. S.O.S.. Get back to class”

Well. Looks like I was going to get to try out the S.O.S. room. As I headed to my home-ec class on the third floor, I wondered when I was going to go to S.O.S. Was I supposed to go straight to S.O.S. tomorrow? Was I supposed go to homeroom first? I’d have to figure that out tomorrow. I tried to sneak discreetly into home-ec. Didn’t work.

“Any reason you’re a half hour late?” Mrs Rees asked

“I was in the office” I answered

“Why?” She demanded

You could always count on Jason to dish,”He popped a milk carton in the cafeteria”

“Wonderful” she said sarcastically.

After home-ec, I ran into Tracy, a kid in 7th grade with curly hair and a pleasant demeanor. I knew he would give me a straight answer.

“Hey Tracy. You ever been in S.O.S.?” I asked

“Yeah, once or twice” he answered nonchalantly

“Well, what was it like?” I asked

“What was it like?,” he echoed thoughtfully,”Boring!” he concluded

“I think I’m going there tomorrow. Do I have to go to homeroom, or just show up at S.O.S.”

“No, you just go to homeroom. They’ll come get you”

So, they’ll “come get me”. I liked the sound of that. Sounded gritty.

So the next day, I sat in homeroom and waited for them to “come get me”. About ten minutes in, they came for me. And a few of minutes later, I found myself sitting in the S.O.S. room. To say that it was the worst classroom in the school would be putting it mildly.

It was about half the size of a regular classroom, had about eight desks. Each one was against an opposite wall, far apart from any other desk.  At the very front of the room were two frosted windows which looked into a window well, where a sort of murky, half light filtered in to compete with the florescent lights in the ceiling. It wasn’t a nice place. Concrete floor, painted grey. Bare walls, kind of a rinsed-out blue grey. And those frosted windows at the front which offered no view. The S.O.S. lady sat at a desk behind you, so you couldn’t see her without turning around, which you weren’t supposed to do. The room smelled strongly of turpentine. It even had it’s own bathroom so you could go a whole day without leaving. I was impressed, in a strange way, at the thought and effort the school had put into making an utterly unpleasant room.

Upon my entry, a dour, humorless school aide directed me to a desk,”Sit there”

A kid who I knew from class looked up from another desk and said ,”Hey!”

“Shut up!” the aide snapped, “Have you been here before?”

“No” I answered

“OK. Here are the rules. Stay in your seat. Don’t get out of it for any reason. Keep your mouth shut. 9th period I might let you talk a little. Any questions?”

I couldn’t think of any,”No” I answered

“Good!” she answered ,”Not a sound out of you!”

There were a couple of signs on the wall. Signs are great; I have always enjoyed reading them because they give insight into the particular dynamic of an environment. For instance, if you go into a fast food restaurant, you will find the signs written in lower-case, in a “friendly” font. In an area that is dangerous, all the potential threats are written in red, all caps. Reading signs in hospitals is especially fun, because, depending on the mood they want to convey, they’re all written differently. For instance, signs about money and billing are in all caps. Signs about chaplains and food are in lower case. Signs about places you’re not supposed to go (i.e operating rooms, the maternity ward) are written in all caps, in red. Here, in the S.O.S. room both signs were written in all caps, black, in felt tip pen on poster-board. On the right wall:

S.O.S. RULES
NO TALKING UNLESS SPOKEN TO
DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR SEAT. FOR ANY REASON
FACE FORWARD
S.O.S. IS NOT FUN AND GAMES. YOU WERE SENT HERE FOR A REASON, AND YOU WILL DO YOU WORK. QUIETLY!!!!!

And on the bathroom door:

THE BATHROOM WILL BE CHECKED AFTER EACH USE. THEREFORE, ANY DAMAGE, SMOKE, ETC WILL CLEARLY BELONG TO THE LAST STUDENT TO USE IT. (empty threat…. it wasn’t)

Well, I settled down to do my work for the day. Except for the smell of turpentine, it was kind of peaceful; no sound except for the wheezing and clanking of the radiator pipes and the old clock without the second hand that clicked every minute.
At about 9:30 AM there was a knock on the door, and a girl appeared in the doorway, in tears.

“You’re late!” the S.O.S. lady snapped

The girl (I do not know who she was) continued crying.

“Sit there” the S.O.S. lady pointed to the last available desk,”And stop that blubbering. It won’t get you anywhere!”

The girl sat down at the desk

“Here are the rules,” the S.O.S. lady,”Stay in your seat. Don’t get out of it for any reason. Keep your mouth shut. 9th period I might let you talk a little. Any questions?”

the girl shook her head through her tears

“YOU HAVE A MOUTH! ANY QUESTIONS. YES OR NO???”

“No Dammit” the girl sobbed

“You got a problem with this, missy, I’ll have you suspended! ANY QUESTIONS???”

“No” the girl said.

I don’t know who she was, but she was kind of pretty.
I did some more of my classwork. By 10:30AM I was done. I had the foresight to borrow a couple of books from the library, so I started reading. The radiator wheezed, the clock clicked. The other surreal part of this was that since the S.O.S. room didn’t have it’s own P.A.system speaker, all the announcements kind of filtered in from behind the door, in a kind of muffled, unintelligible buzz.

11:30 the lunches were delivered from the cafeteria to the S.O.S. room. and it was lunch time. I ate my lunch quietly and then continued to read my library book. The kid behind me coughed, the girl across the room sniffed indignantly, and I realized that since it was maybe twenty degrees outside, the rest of the sixth graders were out on the asphalt outside the school, freezing their butts off, and I was in the nice, warm S.O.S. room reading a good book. By noon I finished the first book.

At 12:30 the S.O.S. lady announced that it was time to go.

“Time to go where?” one of the kids asked

“Time to go home” the S.O.S lady said,”there’s seven inches of snow on the ground, so they’re closing school early”

Seven inches of snow! Because of the frosted windows, which gave onto a pit, we didn’t even know that it had snowed at all! And because the loudspeaker was outside the room, and therefore unintelligible, we didn’t know that school was closing! But either way, it was great! Not only was I getting out of S.O.S. two hours early, I was getting out of school the Friday before February break!

Upon emerging from behind the stairs, I founds the nearest available window and confirmed that the S.O.S. lady was right! There was at least seven inches of snow on the ground! Closer to eight!. And all the kids were going to their lockers, getting their stuff to go home. I ran into my friend Geoff.

“So, how was S.O.S?” he asked

“Wasn’t too bad. I read a book. And look! I got out two hours early!”

“You sure they’re not going to make you do it again when you get back from break?” he asked.

“No. Why would they do that?”

I went to my locker, got my coat and went out to the asphalt yard which was covered with snow, where the school buses were proceeding with difficulty through the snow up the driveway.

Well, they did make do it again that Monday when I returned after February break. I showed up to homeroom, expecting a regular day. About ten minutes later they came to take me down to S.O.S.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I protested,”I already did my day of S.O.S! Friday before break!”

“They closed school because of the snow” the S.O.S. lady said,”So you have to make it up”

“So I only have to do two hours, right? I can get out of here at 10:30, right?”

“Nope” the S.O.S. lady answered,” You’re in here all day”

“Hey wait” I protested,”I only got one day, and I did most of it before the vacation”

“I have you here all day” the S.O.S. lady responded,”Don’t like it, take it up with the principal!”

“OK” I made to walk out

“You walk out of here, you’ll be suspended,” the S.O.S lady warned.

So I stayed. It sucked. But you know what sucked the most?

I was part of the All County Chorus. The sixth grade All County Chorus was scheduled to go for a rehearsal after school at the Ichabod Crane Middle School. (Incidentally, Ichabod Crane is this school district in the county about 15 miles outside of Albany, whose primary claim to fame was the statewide reputation of always being the first to close at the mere threat of snow). Kind of like a field trip. Furthermore, the rehearsal was mandatory for performance in the concert that weekend.

However the school had an obscure rule. The rule was this: If you were in S.O.S., you couldn’t participate in any extracurricular activity that day. You had to leave as soon as school was dismissed. Meaning: If you were the star quarterback of the football team and you had S.O.S that day, even if there was a critical game well……. sorry! No game for you!
And if you had All County Chorus rehearsal after school, well, ….. tough shit!

At the end of the day, after I fumed through my second day of S.O.S. (fuming because I already did my day of S.O.S. and had to do another because of a measly two hours), I got my stuff and found the school bus for the all county chorus, to go to Ichabod Crane. I got myself seated on the bus and pretty soon, my day in S.O.S was behind me, more or less forgotten.

The music teacher got on the school bus and got out the attendance sheet. “Robert Pagnani, Robert Pagnani……… are you here?”

“Here!” I called out eagerly

“Robert, I have some bad news for you” she said,”Because of your S.O.S today, you can’t do All County this year.”

“What???” I asked in disbelief

“I’m sorry, you can’t go this year. You have to get off the bus. I’m sorry”

I jerked up my bag and stormed off the bus. I can’t tell you how pissed off I was. This was a day of S.O.S. I shouldn’t have had to do in the first place. I could smell the injustice of this and it smelled like a waste lagoon outside a pig farm! I think I might have been this pissed off maybe about five times in my life, and I am just shy of thirty-six years old, with many opportunities to get pissed off! Right after I got off, I slammed my fist into the side of the bus as hard as I could.

The cafeteria aide who had gotten the spewing from the milk carton was there in an instant

“Young man, do you want another day in S.O.S.?” She snapped

“Kiss my ass,” I snarled, sotto voce

“What was that? Say that again!” She barked

With God as my witness, in the name of all that is holy, I almost said it again, full voice. It took everything I had in my 11 year old, 75 pound body to resist it. At the time, self control never was my forte, and it took every ounce of everything I had to resist the urge to turn every cubic inch of the air in the whole county a shade of blue like you’ve never seen, but I resisted the urge.

“Nothing. Have a good day” I said through my teeth.

And I boarded my bus to go home, so mad I could have shat nails.

III
EPILOGUE

I wish I could say that was the last time I went to S.O.S., but it wasn’t. I think I must have been there at least five times in the time I attended that middle school, between sixth and eighth grade. I got used to it, it actually wasn’t too bad, just a little boring and kind of bleak. But it was not the deterrent it was supposed to be, for me or anyone else.

A couple of months after the stint in S.O.S. that cost me my place in All County Chorus, my friend Ryan said,”Hey Rob……. guess what?”

“What?”

“I got S.O.S!”

“Wow. What did you do?” I asked

“I stabbed a kid in the hand with a pencil!” he said proudly

“Did it bleed?” I asked

“No. the lead broke off in his hand. I have to go to S.O.S tomorrow”

A couple of days later I ran into Ryan.

“Hey Ry! How was S.O.S?” I asked

“It was fun. I got done with all my work by, like, eleven, and I just read books the rest of the time!”

 

The Rat Song

a memoir

The operatic version of Faust, by Charles Gounod is one of the most expensive operas to produce. It is about three hours long, requires a sizable cast and a corresponding orchestra. Any reputable performance of Faust would also have spectacular costumes and at least above-average special effects. Late October is a very good time to put on Faust. People are thinking a lot about devils and sinister characters around that time of year and Faust really fits the bill. And the performance of Faust I was in, almost exactly ten years ago to the day, conformed perfectly to this timing.

If you are not familiar with the story of Faust, I’ll give you the salient, abbreviated version here: An old man called Faust, realizing that he has squandered his life away, makes a pact with the devil, whose name is Mephistopheles, in exchange for youth. As one would expect in any kind of negotiation with the devil, the currency exchanged is the soul. Faust’s soul, but not for long! Faust does indeed receive his youth, but constantly has Mephistopheles hounding him, micromanaging his business and appearing at inconvenient times. While enjoying his ill-gotten youth, Faust manages to corrupt and impregnate a young woman called Marguerite, and when he finally receives his just desserts (eternal damnation), Marguerite goes up and Faust goes down. The End.

The story itself is a very old German legend, but it was written into a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Apparently, there actually was a Dr. Faust, or more accurately: Doctor Faustus: a teacher, albeit not a very good one, according to literature. “But Doctor Faustus, being of a naughty mind and otherwise addicted, applied not his studies, but took himself to other exercises.” “Other exercises” have loaded connotations and leave a lot to the imagination. The addicted pervert that he was purported to be, he has been accused of everything from conducting satanic rituals, to creating magic potions, to poisoning those who antagonized him to fooling around with little boys. With the exception of the accusation involving little boys, I would imagine it would be pretty neat to have a legacyof more than five hundred years, of which there have been countless stories, plays and no fewer than three operas.

This particular performance was with one of New York’s smaller opera companies, and I had been cast in the compromario role of Wagner. I wanted the role of Valentin: the unlucky Marguerite’s older brother, (a juicy baritone role that involves a chunky aria and an onstage death). That role was already taken, though, by a large, serious, Israeli guy by the name of Oziel. Nonetheless, I had a lot of fun preparing my role. Wagner was your typical “good time guy”, leading a bunch of drinking Germans in song, and teaching them a song about an ugly rat who lives under a wine barrel in a cellar.

I was understandably pissed off when I found that the opening chorus; the big drinking song (Vin ou Bière) in which Wagner had a good portion of his solo material was cut. While I still don’t agree with the move (who cuts one of the most favorite choruses from an opera?), I do understand that the opera was three hours long and they were trying to trim it a bit. Nonetheless, that left me with the song about the rat and little else. To make matters worse, it was double cast, and on the alternating days I would just sing in the chorus. Now, a compromario role is, by definition, a very small role, and when you have to share it with someone else, it is pretty galling because it makes it positively meagre.

Be that as it may, it was still larger than the role I had in the previous opera: Werther. I think the company must have been on a Goethe kick that year. Werther, also an opera by in French that took place in Germany. The opera was composed by Massenet, the story was written by Goethe and it was kind of a downer. It was about a guy called Werther who was in love with a woman called Charlotte. Only problem was, Charlotte was already engaged to a guy called Albert, and only liked Werther as a friend, and made this pretty clear. So Werther did what any sane and rational guy would do: He wrote Charlotte a suicide note and waited until she came by to stop him from doing it and then shot himself. With a pistol he borrowed from her new husband, Albert! Jerk. What a way to ruin someone else’s marriage. And if my part in Faust was small, my role in Werther: Bruhlmann, was miniscule, consisting of one word: Klopstock. Two syllables, two notes, a minor 3rd apart. Luckily, I covered the much larger role of Albert, but didn’t get to go on with it. The guy who had the role, Billy Ray, was much too healthy of a guy.

Obviously, an opera about some creepy, suicidal stalker dude does not have the same draw that an opera about a guy who sold his soul to the devil has. It just doesn’t. People like a sympathetic protagonist, and I theorize that naughty minded, addicted Faust was preferable to moody, brooding, emotionally needy Werther. Faust, at least has some street cred. Who else would have the balls to summon and negotiate with the Devil? Certainly not Werther! If Werther ever laid eyes on the devil, he’d run away, screaming like a little girl!

It was decided that the entire set for our performance of Faust was going to be a huge, colorfully painted crucifix. The crucifix would sit about three feet above the stage at it’s lowest point and was raked upstage at about an 8% rake. The majority of the opera would take place on top of the crucifix, however, the spaces between the right angles; the space between the “trunk” and the each of the “arms” would be used for smaller scenes, such as Marguerite’s prison scene at the end. Not only did that crucifix have to take up the entire floorspace of the stage, it had to support the entire cast at times.

When we were rehearsing on the stage, we had to be mindful of the fact that we were often inches away from the edge of the crucifix, which, during stage movement, especially fights, and larger choruses, was tricky. The number of times Oziel (Valentin) almost fell off the nose of the crucifix into the orchestra pit (probably ten feet, if you count the three feet above the stage) while rehearsing the “Chorus of the Swords (Del’enfer)” was legend, because he had to stand right on the edge. With a sword.

For a lot of the military scenes; the Soldiers Chorus (Gloire immortelle de nos aïeux), we used the costumes we had used as knights from a previous performance of Puccini’s second opera, Edgar. That performance had been the first time Edgar had been staged in the US (like, ever, and I got to cover the role of Frank), but it was likely to be the last, so it was ok to use the costumes for Faust. Edgar’s plot is a little hard to follow for most audiences.

For the church scene, in which the tortured, pregnant-out-of-wedlock-by-Faust, guilt ridden Marguerite goes into the church to seek absolution (which she doesn’t get), for effect they put a couple of the women from the cast in nun habits (Monique and Jocelyn, if I remember, correctly) to walk across the stage. Problem with the nun habits was that the headpieces covered their ears so tightly they couldn’t hear. It wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that they were expected, after their stroll across stage (across the“arms” of the crucifix), to sing with us offstage to flesh out the “Devil Chorus” This was an ominous selection about death and damnation whose only purpose was to mess with the head of the already emotionally fragile Marguerite. There was not sufficient time for the nuns to remove their headpieces, so ear holes were cut into them. Unfortunately the holes were too visible, and from the house made the headpieces look like divers helmets. It was remedied. I forget how, but it was remedied. Because we were offstage, and couldn’t see the conductor in the flesh, they employed a “maestro cam”: a camera placed just under the lip of the stage aimed at the conductor, connected to a 13 inch tube TV on a cart. The chorus was pretty damn horrifying, especially in the context of the bass-baritone of Mephistopheles singing horrible things to Marguerite, about her soul being damned and all that, in the previous selection

A lot of thought went into the staging of final scene, where, as Marguerite is saved and ascends to Heaven. In this production, she gets stigmata. For this, a “stigmata kit” was built backstage. Marguerite would get into her costume with tubes running down her sleeves to her hands. Somewhere under her dress was a system of syringes and plungers, and an infrared sensor taped to her neck. The stigmata kit was controlled offstage by a repurposed remote control that had originally been from a remote controlled toy car. That was the plan, anyway.

The general director had warned us about the kit: “It might look like we’re building a bomb back there on the prop table, but it is the stigmata kit. If I see anyone messing with it, I will personally take it out on their hide!” Knowing what I had learned about this director, both empirically and anecdotally, I had no reason to doubt his words.

The stigmata kit was not to happen, though. The stigmata syringes would deploy either too early, too late, or not at all. They would not stop on time, and then make a bloody mess. Sometimes the remote would turn on the maestro cam TV and switch it to CNN. Legend had it that it started somebody’s Mercedes parked out on the street. A slap in the face to the creative soul who conceived the idea of the “stigmata kit”, it was scrapped in favor of the lower-tech blood pouches. Unfortunately, half the time, the pouches failed to burst, too. I think the gods were trying to tell us that stigmata was not meant to happen in this production of Faust.

Then there was the Devil’s Head. A huge plywood and papier-mache head was created that looked like a cross between a demonic C3PO and a 1950s science experiment, complete with red light bulbs for eyes. The stage didn’t have much of a fly, so for the final prison scene, where Mephistopheles and Faust are trying to jailbreak Marguerite (who has other plans, like not going to Hell), the Devil Head was suspended and laterally “pulleyed in” to center stage, much like a clothesline, while Mephistopheles sang offstage. It was behind a scrim, but it still looked ridiculous.

Because I wasn’t needed for that scene yet, during tech week I remember sitting out in the darkness of the house, watching the scene with my friend Monique and stifling laughter.
“They’re not really going to use that thing for the performance, are they?” she whispered, genuinely concerned.
“God, I hope not!” I chuckled
“It just looks so………”
“Hokey?” I finished helpfully
“Yeah! Hokey.”

Luckily, I think they concurred, so they scrapped the Devil Head, but we were not spared the hokeyness factor completely. Instead of the damnation technique, they tried the redemption tack. As the chorus of angels is being sung and Marguerite is ascending to Heaven, a method actor was used. This guy got to sit around for the first 90% of the opera, then he would put on a white robe, put on a long wig, stick a fake beard on his face and stand behind the scrim with his arms at 45 degree angles, blinking vapidly in a halo of light for the last 30 seconds of the opera until the curtain closed.

Without the fake beard and wig, he was a pretty unassuming looking guy with a Brooklyn accent and an irreverent, bawdy sense of humor, who described this engagement as “the cushiest gig he ever had.” Everybody simply referred to him as “Jesus.” Jesus even got his own dressing room, and private dressing rooms were in short supply in this theatre (the elevator in my apartment building is bigger than the dressing room I had to share with the other Wagner……. Double cast, remember?). Our dressing room doors had a sheet of paper taped to them with our names. Jesus’ sheet of paper read simply “Jesus”. Somebody had cut the paper into the shape of a crucifix.

In the week between the performances in the city and when we took it out onto the road, some of my castmates and I went out drinking with Jesus. At the Hooters on W. 57th Street, I remember about seven of us, when it became known that we were opera singers and were challenged to “sing something”, burst into a drunken approximation ofthe Soldiers Chorus, as Jesus obligingly lip synced along. Getting drunk with Jesus was a lot of fun!

The following weekend we did a “run out” to Red Bank, NJ, where the stage crew had spent the previous day transporting and assembling the huge crucifix. The way the double casting lined up, it was my turn to sing Wagner; the other Wagner was relegated to chorus. I don’t remember too much about it, so it must have gone fine. I got to sing my song about the rat.

Later that week we left for the tour and our first stop was going to be Worcester,MA. We got the bus in the morning, where when roll was called, Jesus responded, ”Yes, my child” when his name was called. We wended our way out of the city, through Westchester County to I-684. By that point the analgesic of the ride had kicked in, and the silver bus hummed north on the highway, eating up the miles as they presented themselves for consumption in shades of grey, charcoal and black. If the leaves in New York City were still somewhat colorful in that last week of October, by the time we reached the point where I-684 met I-84 just outside of Danbury CT, the trees were close to bare. By the time we got to the Massachusetts Turnpike in Sturbridge, they were positively skeletal.

This first performance was the other Wagner’s turn, and the venue was going to be the Mechanics Hall in downtown Worcester. Like the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, I don’t remember too much about this venue, either, although someone had told me that because of the layout of the place, the stage crew had to haul the pieces of the crucifix through the house. Apparently it was better than the place they had the previous year, because the general director commented, “This place is La Scala compared to where we were last fall!”

The next day, we headed up to Manchester, NH, where it was my turn to be Wagner in the Palace Theatre. It wasn’t a long drive from Worcester, and we left in the morning, so by the time we arrived at the Quality Inn in Manchester, we had most of the day before our call to the theatre in the early evening. Because it was the day before Halloween, the hotel staff had decorated the lobby with cobwebs, plastic spiders, scarecrows, witches, pumpkins and gourds. They had really done a nice job and we appreciated it.
“This is so cool!” somebody commented at check in.

However, the decorations were not to last. As we assembled in the hotel lobby to leave for the theatre, we noticed the hotel staff sadly removing all the decorations. “What are you doing?” someone asked.
“We have some Jehovah Witnesses staying with us who called the corporate office and complained,” the woman explained, ”Corporate ordered us to remove the decorations,”
“Oh no.”someone else commiserated
“Where’s Jesus?” Someone else asked, ”Get Jesus in here! Hey Jesus!”
Jesus was outside, smoking a cigarette.
“Yes, my child?” Jesus responded, grinding out his cigarette.
“They’re taking down the decorations because some religious group disapproves!”
“Well, I am Jesus!” He announced, striding through the glass doors of the lobby ”I am Jesus and I say those decorations are ok!”
The hotel staff was not convinced, and I don’t blame them. Jesus just didn’t look very Jesussy without his wig and beard. The cigarette didn’t help his case, either.

We had been summoned to the theatre an hour early to tweak some staging, and when we arrived, we found out exactly why. The stage wasn’t as deep as the one in our theatre back in New York. Therefore, the crucifix had to cantilever over the orchestra pit by about four feet. Because it was directly over the orchestra pit, and the pit wasn’t very deep, the entire brass section had to be moved aside to avoid bumping their heads on the cross when they stood up. Because the pit wasn’t very large, either, and the crucifix cut into the available space, the orchestra looked like a bunch of sardines in a can down there.

The main problem, however, was that the crucifix was built to be supported from all sides. This was especially important, what with the entire cast singing, dancing, fighting and carrying on atop it. In addition to the risk of falling off the end and sides of the crucifix into the orchestra pit, the crucifix would not support any significant weight at the end, because it now hung over the pit. So pretty much all action needed to be moved upstage by about four feet. A piece of glow tape was placed across the crucifix as a line that was, under no circumstances, to be crossed. The risk of falling into the brass section and taking the entire end of the crucifix down with you was enough of an incentive.

There was also some debate about the curtain. Because the crucifix extended beyond the stage, when the curtain was lowered, the end of the crucifix stuck out awkwardly. But if the curtain was only lowered to the height of the surface of the cruxifix, the bottom half of everything and everybody that was placed off the crucifix was visible when the curtain was lowered, which looked kind of ridiculous. If I remember correctly, we went with the first option, with the end of the crucifix sticking out from the curtain.

Despite having a somewhat shallow stage, the Palace Theatre in Manchester, NH is absolutely gorgeous. It has to be around 100 years old; it’s not terribly large, seats maybe a thousand or so. It has been well preserved, complete with crystal chandeliers and cherubs painted on the ceiling. The only other design flaw was that the dressing rooms were directly under the stage. Aside from being claustrophobic with it’s low ceilings, complete with pipes and ducts, cramped, dungeon-like dressing rooms devoid of windows, the sound really carried down there. If there was anything going on the stage overhead, it sounded like the ceiling was going to cave in. It worked the other way too: Sound from the dressing rooms could easily carry into the house.

Performing there was a real treat however, not just in appearance, but in acoustics as well. That was obvious the minute the opera began, and I lustily sang my song about the rat, loving how it rang against every surface in the house. That theatre really made us sound good. I think it was the best performance of Faust we ever did, the only hitch was during the Chorus of the Swords when we stepped just a little too far over the glow tape on the crucifix, but got our butts back upstage when we heard it make a cracking sound! In addition, they were a really good audience, and we got a standing ovation. I often match places with memories, and Manchester, NH has some really good memories for me.

The next day, we were to head down to West Barnstable, MA, to perform in the theatre at Cape Cod Community College. After breakfast at Bickford’s, which was right next to the Quality Inn, where I had a lobster omelet with Jesus (two things I haven’t done before or since: lobster omelet or breakfast with Jesus), we got back in the bus and headed down towards the Cape, first making a pit stop in Nashua, NH.

The performance on the Cape would be the other Wagner’s turn, but I was glad the chips had fallen in such a way that I got to perform in the Palace Theatre in Manchester. This time of year always reminds me of Faust, and that is apropos. Faust remains one of my absolute favorite operas, if not my favorite, right up there with Pagliacci, Thaiis, and Cavelleria Rusticana. I am getting a little old to be Wagner and the role is small, but if the opportunity to play Wagner again ever presented itself, I’d jump at it. It has such great memories and for a compromario role, you really can’t beat it!

WHY I GOT FIRED FROM WHITMAN DUNN (And How it Made Me Happy)

A memoir by Robert Louis Pagnani

For Molly

I

RAGGEDY ANN

Close your eyes.

I want you to think.

Think about, of all things, a bathroom.

Think about it. Imagine it.  Visualize it.  Listen to it.  Yes, I even want you to smell it.

In fact, I want you to think about every bathroom you have ever been in.  A lot, isn’t it?  So many, you can barely visualize all of them.  It’s more like a collage, isn’t it?  A whirling collage of bathrooms; there goes the bathroom from your home with the shower curtain and bathmat you picked out yourself, with the too many bottles of shampoo.  There goes the bathroom in your grandparents house with the pink color coordinated tub, sink and toilet. There goes the bathroom from work with the row of stalls, and if you’re a man, the bank of urinals on the opposite wall.  And here is the bathroom at your favorite dive bar with all the graffiti and the stall with the door ripped off.  Bathrooms, everywhere, a cacophony of toilets flushing, hand dryers whirring, water running.  The smells of disinfectant, of soap, of bleach and, yes, even those odors that are not discussed in polite company.

Think that’s funny, do you?  You can open your eyes now.

This story does not begin in any of the bathrooms in that colorful, cacophonic collage of your mind.  It begins in January of 2005, two months and change before my 30th birthday, in a purpose-built drug testing bathroom. I am wearing nothing but a hospital gown and socks, and I am trying to generate a specimen.  You might be surprised that I had made it to the seasoned age of twenty-nine without ever having been drug tested.

I think, in all the other jobs I had ever had, they preferred not to look for things they did not want to find.  Not that I, or any of my previous colleagues, had ever had a drug problem.  At least not that I was aware. I just had never had my body searched for drugs before.  I guess I had always thought that ones presentation; one’s clear articulation of speech, one’s impeccable dress, one’s perfectly knotted tie would speak for itself.  And if I had the extra money to spend on pot (not that I would be spending it on pot), I certainly wouldn’t be applying for this temp job at Whitman Dunn Capital, a wealth management firm in the network of towering investment buildings in midtown Manhattan.

And that, that was the rub right there.  When I had signed the chorus contract at Opera Company of Philadelphia, the factors I had failed to take into consideration were the time and cost of the commute to Philly.  The low rehearsal rate of pay that didn’t increase until the performances.  Which brought me to this:  the need to supplement my income with this $20 per hour temp job.  In finance, which I assumed, I sucked at, if my performance in math class many years ago in school was any indication.

That was depressing.  I remembered math class.  How it was forty minutes, every day, and I slogged through, hating every one of those forty minutes, barely passing, if I was lucky.  And now here I was, being sentenced to hours of math at a time, for my failure to do the math of the cost/profit ratio before signing my contract with the Opera Company of Philadelphia.  I could appreciate the irony in that.  And now my in-processing into the facility to begin my math sentence involved a drug test.

Only trouble was, that specimen was not forthcoming.  I had tried everything, from visualizing Niagara Falls, Yosemite Falls, Bash Bish falls.  Every waterfall I could think of.  I tried reciting the alphabet backwards and simply clearing my mind, so maybe I could do it without thinking.  I had had two cups of coffee that morning, surely I could produce something.

I couldn’t turn on the faucet, because the spigot on the sink had no taps, I surmised, to keep people from diluting the specimen.  The toilet, also, had its water dyed blue and had no flush lever, I guessed, for the same purpose.  In the humming of the florescent light, and the tiles rising up to the ceiling in the windowless, elevator sized bathroom, it was just me, the sink and the toilet.  And the cup.  Don’t forget the cup.

Amazingly, after a period of time, by this point the drug testers must have thought I had escaped into the vent or drowned myself in the blue water of the commode, the cup was warm in my hand, and I pressed the red button.  Almost immediately the door buzzed unlocked, and a women in scrubs wordless had her hand out to take the cup.  Then the toilet automatically flushed with a pneumatic whoosh and water issued forth from the spigot of the sink.

And then, after a whirlwind of papers, W4 forms, agreements, clauses, triplicate forms, Bic pens, a sexual harassment video, and a credit check, which, amazingly I passed (!!!), I walked into the building, my clothes back on, my tie once again neatly knotted.  Here was the building in which I would be working, and I rode the elevator up to the 19th floor where I would meet my boss, a Ms. Barbara Cohen.

I waited in reception for awhile until Barbara Cohen made her grand entrance.  She was a squat, scowling, lumpy woman of about fifty, with her face made up to the point of being practically white with the exception of her lipstick, which was fire engine red.  And her hair, which was dyed an artificial shade of red and stuck out in all directions.  Kind of like Raggedy Ann. A sociopathic looking Raggedy Ann.  With a scowl to end all scowls.

I stood up, put my best foot forward and extended my hand.

“Ms. Cohen, My name is Rob.  Rob Pagnani and I believe I’ll be working with you.”

She didn’t take my hand.

“No”, she said simply

“No?” I repeated.  Was there some mistake?  Was I on the wrong floor?  Was she not, in fact, Barbara Cohen?  Oh please, let this be the case.  I had read somewhere that lipstick was made from these insects called cochineal, which were crushed into a red paste and formatted in such a way they could be stuffed into lipstick tubes.  Barbara’s mouth compressed and she crushed bugs between the creases of her scowl.

“You will not be working with me.” she snapped, ”You’ll be working for me, and that’s something I want to get straight right now.  I am your boss.”

As I understood it, my job was to process the receipts of travel expenses incurred by stockbrokers, to be either reimbursed or written off, as a tax exemption.  I was briefed on the Excel program used on the computer, handed five fat binders and led into the office proper.

Anyone familiar with a New York office would know this setup; row upon row of gray cubicles in a grid in the middle of the room, a row of offices along the left wall, presumably for the stockbrokers and executives.  And along the wall behind which was reception and the elevator banks, were a couple of pantries and a men’s and a women’s restroom.  There was also a row of windows on the west wall, where if you cut your eyes properly, you could see the southeast corner of Central Park.  There was also a row of windows on the opposite east wall where you could get a view of the steel grey East river and the low, dull buildings of Queens extending into eternity.

“Nice view,” I offered timidly

Raggedy Ann wheeled around to face me, ”That view is for the stockbrokers,” she squawked in her awful, Brooklyn accent, ”Not you.  They’re making us money.  You’re costing us money.  So I don’t want to see you do so much as glance at that window.  Do I make myself clear?”

I was so taken aback I couldn’t answer yes or no.

And finally, after we walked through the narrow maze of identical, grey cubicles, I was shown to mine.  Complete with a desk, two drawer gray file cabinet, a computer and a mesh, ergonomic, chair on casters, which supposedly cost $1500.  Before Raggedy Ann left she had advised me of the cost of the chair and that I had yet to offset that cost with my worth to the company.  Or lack thereof.

II

APPLE JUICE

Well, what was I to do?  I fired up the computer, launched the Exel program, cracked one of the fat binders and started to acquaint myself with the process.  Presently, I heard the roll of plastic casters against carpet

“Hey!”  A voice whispered.
“Huh?”  I looked behind me and noticed that there was a guy, presumably from the next grey cubicle over.  He was still sitting in his chair, which he had rolled back to glance in my cubicle.

“What’s she got you working on?”  He was anywhere between thirty-two and forty, had kind of a bleached out, worn out, stretched out look.  Tired.  I had always prided myself in knotting a nice, symmetrical Windsor, but his tie was askew, done in some kind of half assed knot that looked as though it would take hours to pick apart.  His hair had streaks of grey and was gelled back from his hairline, which looked like it was in the process of receding at an alarming pace.

“Oh,” I looked up.  “This.”  I lifted up the cover of one of the thick binders.  “These travel expense things”

“Yep.  I did those when I first got here.  Doing something different now”

“What do they have you doing?” I asked, not really curious

“Ah….. same shit, different name.  Benny,” He extended his hand and I shook it.  It was clammy.

“Rob.  Yeah, they brought me over here about a half hour ago.” I explained  “Barbara….. you know the red haired lady”

“Bloody Babs”  he leaned back in his seat and chuckled.

“Bloody Babs?” I repeated

“Yep.  My nickname for her.  Stay out of her way as much as possible.  She’s horrible.  Nobody can stand her”

“I kinda picked that up,” I said tipping my hand, ever so slightly.  I did not let on that I had already mentally assigned here the slightly more benign nickname: Raggedy Ann.

“Yeah, you know, I’m just temping here,” I continued, “Just a few months I guess.”

“That’s what you think,” he smirked.

“Huh?”
“Well, here’s how it works.  Did you go to college?”
“Yeah,” I answered, ”Bachelors.  Half a masters”
“Doesn’t matter.  You could train a monkey to do this job.   All that creative study, critical thinking, arts, music…. Whatever you studied.  This is where it got you.  To this shitty little cubicle.”

“Well, you know, I’m only going to be here just a few months max.  Just to make a few extra bucks,” I clarified,” You know, I’m an opera singer.  Not doing too much now though, just have this chorus gig down in Philly”

“Yeah, I was an actor.  Did Shakespeare, you know?  But this is how it works: They’ll keep you here for a maybe three months.  Then you know what they’ll do?  They’ll offer you a permanent position at enough of a raise that you’ll take it.  Not enough of a raise that you’ll be happy, but enough that they know you’ll take it.  Kinda like how a crack dealer gives the occasional freebee to a crackhead?  To get them hooked?  And then BAM!  This is your life.  And by the way, that’s the last raise you will see for a long time.”

“Geez”  I laughed uneasily, ”How long have you been here?”

“Three years,” He answered somberly, ”Three long, grey years.  Haven’t seen the sun in that long, because….,” he gestured in the direction of the windows at the far end,”That view is for the stock brokers.  Because they’re making them money……”

“And we’re costing them money,” I finished, ”I know, I heard it”

“It’s tax fraud, you know,” he said suddenly

“What is?” I asked

“That job.  What you’re doing.”

“Really.  This?”

“This is how it works,” he said,” That binder is full of receipts for expenses the stockbrokers incurred while travelling, or supposedly doing business.”

“Yes…..” I interjected

“It’s supposed to be run through that program so it can be reimbursed to the stockbroker, or written off as a company expense.  Either way, nobody pays any tax on it”

“Yeah, I got a rundown of the program,” I answered

“Well, if you look at those receipts, you’ll notice that a lot of those items sure as hell aren’t business expenses, and therefore can’t be written off.  The IRS would never buy it.  So this program alters the nature of the expenses ever so slightly, or at least makes them vague enough that they hope the IRS won’t ever look too closely.  Let me show you,” He wheeled the chair over to my desk and selected a fat navy blue binder.  He thumbed through a few pages. ”Ah!  Here you go.  Here’s a forty-five hundred dollar tab from Bazooka’s.” He pointed accusingly at a receipt taped to the page.

“Forty five hundred dollars?” I asked incredulously, ”What’s Bazooka’s?”

“It’s a titty bar in Vegas,” he explained flatly, ”Now the last time I looked, I have to pay tax on my titty bar money, you have to pay tax on your titty bar money, but these fuckers……. They get to write it off as a business expense.  And this company pays for it.  Tax free.”

“A business expense?” I asked in disbelief, ”How is a strip club a business expense?”

“Well you know…… they’re entertaining clients, potential investors, it gets listed in the program as food and beverage”

“At forty five hundred dollars??” I asked, ”In Vegas???  What kind of clients? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Wish I was,” he said, ”When you spend some time on this, you’ll see all the crap they run up.  Just for shits and giggles, go through it.  It only took me a few seconds to find a twelve hundred dollar titty bar tab!  Oh, there’s more.  Mysterious charges at 4 AM, emptying the mini bar in a hotel, trashing the hotel room in a drug induced orgy with prostitutes, and then, all of it paid for by the company, tax free, and getting the taxpayers to bend over and take it.”

“Al because these guys are making them money…..”I mused

“But the best part of it is, ”he continued with relish, on a roll now, ”If the IRS ever did a full audit, this company’d throw you under the bus.  They’d say you were acting without authorization and pin it on you,”
“But why would I do that?” I asked

“Ah, they’d trump something up.  But by that point, a few years in federal prison would be preferable to this soul sucking excuse for a job”

“Jesus”   I stood up to stretch my back.

He wasn’t done.  “See that card?”

“This?”  I fingered the ID card on the chain around my neck.  The photo of me wasn’t one of my better photos, ”My ID?”

“Well you know that chip in your card?” He continued

“Yeah.  It’s actually pretty neat.”  It was.  When you approached a door you were authorized to go through, it would automatically click unlocked when you approached it.  No swiping, no tapping, it would just smell you coming and unlock.

“Neat my ass,” he growled, ”It’s an RFID chip.  Do you know what that is?”

“Not really,” I answered, ”It unlocks doors…..”

“It tracks you” he answered, ”Right now, they can tell exactly where you are.  Not a big deal right now, because you and I are exactly where we’re supposed to be: right at our desks.  But that chip can track you within five blocks.”

“Wow”

“Yep.  People have been fired because they said they were doing something work related, and they were tracked to Bloomingdales.  Some poor guy had the card in his wallet, took a sick day, and was tracked to PJ Clarkes out on 59th and Lexington where he was having a beer.  Bam.  Fired!”

“Holy shit.  Really?” I asked.

“Not stockbrokers, of course, because they’re making them money.  Lowly little administrative shits like you and me.  They really watch us.”

“Unbelievable…..”I breathed

“You know, let’s say nature calls at 10:35 AM, so you go to the men’s room.  It logs you in at 10:35.”

“OK,” I prodded

“And lets say, you leave at 10:55 AM,” he continued

“OK”

“Well, I guarantee, within ten minutes, you’ll get a phone call from HR, asking you why you spent twenty minutes in the bathroom.”

“No way!” I chuckled skeptically

“Yes way!”

“Did that happen to you?” I asked

“Yep!”

“So what did you tell them when they called?” I asked

“I gave them all the details!” he answered with satisfaction.

I burst out laughing.  At that moment a grizzled, humorless looking woman, her mouth scrunched up in a puckered scowl, popped up from another cubicle, like a prairie dog, and gave me a look of death, ”SSSSSSHHHHHH!” she snapped.

“Oh….. sorry,” I mumbled as I lowered myself back down to my $1500 chair.  I was having some serious misgivings about this job, but I wanted to stick around long enough to earn at least a couple of paychecks.   I needed them.

“And you know about the intellectual property clause, right?” he whispered

“No, what’s that?” I asked

“You know all that paperwork you signed, when you first got the job?  The ones you didn’t read all the way through, but still signed your life away?”

“I read them” I insisted

“No you didn’t” he said dismissively, ”You didn’t have time.  Well there is one document you signed called the Intellectual Property Clause.  It goes like this:  Anything you create while on company time becomes their property.  Anything you write, anything you say, anything you think!  Lets say you signed a birthday card for your girlfriend.  Bam!  That card is now company property!”

“That’s a bit much.” I said

“Well, you really can’t send personal emails here, and that’s just as well.  AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, that kind of thing……. They have a firewall in place preventing you from accessing your email.  And don’t try sending personal emails from work, remember, they’ll become company property!”

“I think I read that…..”

“You’re an opera singer, you say?” he asked

“Yeah….I guess.  Just doing chorus work, now though”

“Well, lets say, just for the sake of argument, you become rich and famous…”

“That’ll be the day…..” I laughed

“And you’re performing all over the world.  You’ve made a bunch of recordings.  People are buying them left and right.  You’re getting wined, dined.  Gorgeous women all over the map, dropping their panties at the sound of your golden voice.” he continued

“That sounds great,” I added

“OK, well, lets say these guys here suspect that, back in 2005, when you were temping, which is RIGHT NOW, that instead of doing your tax fraud work there, you were thinking about your music, you know…. Rehearsing in your head…. Just going over your music.  Instead of doing your work.”

“OK’

“Well, in theory, they could sue you, citing the Intellectual Property Clause.  They could claim that all the proceeds of your illustrious career were their property, because you thunk it up while on company time, instead of doing your work.”

“That’s a bit paranoid…..”

“Yeah… just in theory.  It’d never happen.  But you know, it’s the principle of the thing…..”

Out of my peripheral vision, I caught sight of a compact guy in a tailored blue suit, storming through the channel between the grey cubicles.  He had an open accordion file full of papers in his right hand, a Styrofoam cup of coffee balanced precariously on the file.  In his left had was his Blackberry glued to his ear, on which he was having some kind of aggressive conversation, and the man was totally oblivious to anything that was going on in the outside world.  The H bomb could have gone off right there in the office, and he would have stormed forward, intimidating, cursing and threatening into his Blackberry.

He also didn’t notice the collision course he was on with a young woman carrying a stack of paper, who, at the last minute, tried to get out of the way, too late.  And there it was: a blizzard of papers in the air, the young woman yelped in pain as the scalding coffee slammed into her décolletage, papers everywhere, the Blackberry went flying, and hit the side of a cubicle.

“You fucking idiotic whore!”  The guy in the blue suit barked, ”You ever think of watching where you’re going?  Huh?  Dumb twat.”

The girl (she was only about twenty three) squatted down to scoop some of the mess in order, the coffee soaking an increasing brown stain into her silk blouse, soaking into the papers, coffee everywhere.  The guy was about my age, give or take a couple of years.

The guy looked around for his Blackberry, located it on the floor, and stormed back over to the young woman.

“Pick that shit up!” he growled.

At that point I had had it.  There was no way in hell someone was going to talk to a woman like that and get away with it, so I got up, strode over to the asshole in the suit, grabbed him by the arms and slammed him into the side of a cubicle with as much force as I could get.

“Hey Creep,” I said menacingly to him, ”Apologize to her right now or you’re going to lose a couple of teeth.  OK, asshole, I’m waiting….. One…. two………”

Actually, no I didn’t.  I just made that up.  Would have made this story a little more interesting, and a hell of a lot shorter, but to my discredit, I did nothing.  I sat there aghast, watching this drama unfold before my eyes.  I think I might have tried to get up to perhaps help straighten out some of the papers, but Benny motioned me back in my seat.

“Sit down,” he hissed, ”you don’t want to get involved”

The woman was trying in vain to get the coffee soaked papers in meaningful order.  Her back was turned, but you could tell she was sobbing.

“Stupid cunt,” the guy snarled

Out of nowhere Raggedy Ann materialized, and Benny and I silently rolled our chairs back to our desks.

“What’s going on?” She demanded

“This……”  The blue suited asswipe sputtered,”  This stupid……”

“Get this mess cleaned up and watch where you’re going in the future,” She squawked, ” Remember, they make us money.  And you’ve just cost us money”

Blue Suit Fucker smugly sauntered away with his Blackberry, ostensibly to get himself a new cup of coffee.  I hope it gave him the runs.

And I sat there with my mouth catching flies, speechless.

When the coast was clear, I heard the casters roll

“Bet that was forty-five hundred dollar titty bar guy….” Benny said

“How can you stand this?” I asked sadly

“Apple juice,” he responded

“Apple juice?”  I repeated

“Apple juice,” he responded again, ”Lots of it”

“I don’t understand.”

He regarded me, dead on.

“Rob, you ever notice that Apple juice and Johnny Walker Red look very similar?”

He wheeled his chair over to his cubicle and I heard the hiss of the zipper on his messenger bag.  He emerged with a plastic one quart Apple & Eve apple juice bottle, filled to the top with an amber liquid that looked like apple juice, but probably did not have a drop of anything that came close to apple juice.

“Apple Juice,” he concluded

“Oh,” I caught on.

“So.  Would you like some apple juice?”

He didn’t wait for a response

“Go in the pantry.  Get yourself a plastic cup.”

“Ok” I agreed

“Just make sure you go to the pantry on the right.  That’s the one for us peons.  The one on the left is for the stockbrokers.  That’s the one with all the cans of free soda.  The Execupop.  Because they make so much money they can’t afford to buy their own damn soda.”

“Alright,” I said, ”I get it.  Thanks”

“Pantry on the right.  Come back here with a plastic cup.  And I shall pour you a nice big glass of apple juice”

III

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA IS NOT TO BE FUCKED WITH

“They’re going to ask for it.  You know they’re going to ask for it”

Ashley’s studio was on the 5th floor of the Manhattan School of Music: a stern, greyish, overheated building on Broadway near 125th Street, built in the very early part of the 20th century.  It had been the old Juilliard, before Juilliard relocated to Lincoln Center.  I had underestimated the amount of time it took to get from Midtown East to the studio, and had burst through the door out of breath, sweaty, smelly and unfocused.  And ten minutes late.  Ashley was not happy about that, and had made her displeasure known.

She was about six feet tall, stood in a somewhat regal, but imposing stance: a cross between a queen and an inquisitor, and had me in a look that was a cross between a gaze and a glare.

“Well…..” I squirmed under her scrutiny.  I wondered where she learned to sizzle people out of those dark eyes like that.  Is that something they taught exclusively to sopranos?  Was it a special secret soprano master class, where they rounded them all up, then got a bunch of divas in there to teach them the glare?  Maybe Maria Callas taught it.  Maybe they exhumed and resurrected her once a year to teach this special class.  Maybe as a final exam Maria Callas would hold a piece of plywood in front of their faces and only let them out when they could each burn two holes in the board.  Now just didn’t seem the right time to ask Ashley that question. ”I was thinking that if I started with the Questo Amor, that’d be my Italian aria. And I have the avant de quitter on the repertoire sheet, so they might ask for that instead.”

“Let me tell you something,” she snapped, ”If you have the balls to put the Largo on your repertoire sheet, they will ask for it!

It was a few weeks before my 30th birthday.  And the repertoire sheet in question was for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, sometimes called the Met Competition.  It had somehow escaped me that in the past couple of years they had lowered the cutoff age from thirty-two to thirty.  A couple of months ago I thought I had two years and change to do the completion.  I had recently found out that the deadline was a matter of weeks.  So now I had to shit once and for all, or remove my procrastinating ass from the resplendent commode otherwise known as the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

I had never liked entering into things before I felt ready, and just hadn’t felt ready to do the Met Competition.  Who knows what bridges I’d burn?  I had heard that if you pissed the Met Opera off enough, they would encase you in concrete and bury you somewhere under Lincoln Center.  Or they’d roll you up in one of those gaudy red carpets and dump you in the East River.  Or silence you forever by pouring molten silver down your throat.  Or something like that.  And a bad audition might just be enough to do the job.  The Metropolitan Opera is not to be fucked with. This is one case where I would prefer to err on the side of caution. But if I wanted to do it, I had to do it now or forget it.  They had the preliminaries for this vocal competition at the major cities all over the country.  Even though I lived in New York,  I had selected Philadelphia, partly because I was already down there working with the Opera Company, and partly because they had the latest audition date, which suited my procrastinating hide just fine.  The late date was not lost on everybody else, so that location was also going to be pretty competitive.  That was okay.  I just wanted to DO the competition.  Winning or even placing was secondary.  I just hoped I kept that reasonably healthy outlook as the date grew closer, but I doubted it.  Never worked out that way.

As pro forma, I had selected five arias, including the extremely difficult “largo al factotum” from the Barber of Seville and the equally difficult “Avant di Quitter ces lieux” from Faust.  I had also chosen the Questo Amor aria from Puccini’s second opera Edgar, interestingly one of the very few freestanding baritone arias in Puccini repertoire.  It was a respectable aria.  And I had picked two more arias from standard repertoire.

My logic was this:

While I could certainly sing the largo al factotum without embarrassing myself (and by extension Ashley), it probably would not place me.

I was much better at the avant de quitter. I actually stood a chance of placing with that, or thought I did.

Out of the five arias on the repertoire sheet, the audition committee wanted to hear two.  I got to select the first aria, they would pick the second.

Using that formula, if I started with Questo Amor, that would be my Italian aria and I doubted they would want to hear another Italian aria, especially since I had the Faust (the avant de quitter), which would rule out the largo al factotum.  They would probably go with the avant.  Not exactly a bluff, but……

Therefore……..

There was no therefore because Ashley wasn’t buying it.  And she was still holding me in that look.  You could have curled up under the piano, and that look would still burn into you.  You could climb into the piano itself, slam the lid, curl up into the fetal position on the strings, and those eyes would burn right into the piano and hold you accountable.  You could slither under the carpet, burrow into the vent, immure yourself in the wall, Amontillado style, and her eyes would still find you. You could open the large, double hung window and jump out, but you would be incinerated to a single piece of ash floating its way down to Claremont Avenue before you hit the ground.

And that look was warning me not to play mind games with an audition panel, much less that of the Metropolitan Opera.  The Metropolitan Opera is not to be fucked with.

But I can be one ballsy bastard sometimes.

IV

THE CLOCK AND THE CALENDAR

It was really starting to take its toll on me: this job, which seemed to increasingly neutralize my will to live.  If I could just get through this month, get to the performance rate of pay (the rehearsal rate was terrible; barely more than the cost of my commute to Philly, forcing me to keep this awful temp job), and I could rid myself of this soul crushing existence.

There was this three hour commute to Philadelphia.  And this preparation for my last and only shot at the Met competition, which was looming closer and closer, bearing down.  And juggling my calendar among all these obligations, trying to keep everybody satisfied.  At which I was spectacularly failing.  When I wasn’t working my temp job, or at opera rehearsal, my life consisted of subway trains, commuter trains, and running from one point to another to catch a train, where each transfer point, if it timed out perfectly, would get me to my next post on time.  And if it didn’t, well, the dominoes fell.  And the money.  The $50 it cost to get to Philly.  The meager paycheck after they deducted the federal tax, the Pennsylvania state tax, the AGMA (opera singers union) dues.

Benny slugged away at his “apple juice” in the next cubicle til he was so shitfaced he could barely stand up, I processed receipt after receipt til the grid of the Excel spreadsheet made me crosseyed, til I could not even look at two intersecting lines without getting dizzy.  Self-important stockbrokers snarled, sneered, berated and blustered their way through my existence. I was constantly stressed out and pissed off.  And negative.  My girlfriend, Mary, wondered what the hell my problem was, why I was in this funk, and I knew exactly why, but no solution was on the immediate horizon.  I was pissing Ashley off with my constant distractedness and eternally being on the losing end of bets I placed with the punctuality of the New York City Subway.  Time was the commodity, and the only thing I had less of than time was money.

I’d race out the door of the office building, tear down the stairs of the subway station at 53rd and Lexington, and if I was lucky, an E train to Penn Station would be forthcoming in the next minute.  If I was extremely fortunate, I would have time to get a sandwich at Hot & Crusty or Zarro’s at Penn Station to take with me on the train.  That was rare, though.  Most of the time, I found myself rushing down the stairs of the platform at Penn with the warning bell ringing loudly as I leapt through the door of the train as it slid closed behind me, almost trapping me in the process.  Or worse, I’d risk breaking my neck on those stairs only to find the butt end of the train sliding down the platform into darkness, those red tail lights mocking me….. so long, sucker!

On the train, I’d get out my music and look it over, get out my cheap MP 3 player and listen to recordings, just to drill it into my head once and for all.  I’d study the bass/baritone chorus line for Aida (the opera we were doing in Philly), look over my completion music, pore over other repertoire choices, as Edison, Metuchen, New Brunswick, Princeton raced by.  By the time I reached Trenton, and transferred to a grimy SEPTA train, I would be so fried, and usually so hungry all I could do was catatonically watch the gloomy, shopworn suburbs of Philadelphia roll by against the white January sky.  Bristol, Croydon, Bridesburg…….

And then at Suburban Station in Philadelphia, the race against time would resume.  I’d sprint out onto Market Street, run like a madman across the front of City Hall, then dash down South Broad Street to Locust Street to the entrance of the large rehearsal hall of the Academy of Music.  With the last ounce of energy I had, my breath ragged in my lungs from the sooty winter air, I’d bound up the stairs and into the rehearsal hall where Orlando, our union guy and senior chorister, was standing impatiently by the sign-in sheet.  If you were late, you’d have to sign in on the blue sheet and get docked fifteen minutes.  And if you were more than fifteen minutes late, you had to sign on in the goldenrod sheet, get docked a half-hour and incur a castigation from Orlando during the union break.  He was a tall, skinny blonde guy about fifty, from Tuscany, and he was a taskmaster.   I saw him dress other guys down (luckily not me…. yet) in his heavy Italian accent, for everything from arriving late to being unprepared with their music, to failing to be adequately warmed up.  Luckily, my sprint from Suburban Station usually warmed me up more than sufficiently.  A lot of the time, though, I’d arrive with Orlando ready to pull the white sign-in sheet away, and I’d look at him pleadingly, while he’d impatiently hold the sign-in sheet and snatch it away as soon as I signed in, to replace it with the blue sheet.  Also, I knew if my union break was consumed by having Orlando tear me a new back passage, I wasn’t going to have time to get something to eat.  I would usually use my union break to grab something, most often from the overpriced Cosi around the corner.

And then, after rehearsing the rhythmic, martial, satisfying choruses of Aida, everything from Sul del Nil, to Guerra Guerra, the starting gun would go off again and I would race back to Suburban Station to catch the train, so I wouldn’t have to wait for the late train that would get me back to New York at around 1 AM.  I cursed SEPTA’s lack of frequency with their trains.

I would sink into one of the grey, poorly upholstered seats in a heap, drag myself across the platform at Trenton, collapse into another train seat and look out at the lights of the New Jersey towns flashing across the black windows until they hypnotized me into a restless, uncomfortable slumber back to Penn Station, where I still had a forty minute subway ride back to my apartment, where I would simply undress, take my contacts out and pass out next to Mary in the bed.  That is, if I could sleep.  Sleeplessness had been a problem, too, lately, and sleep deprivation was adding to the weight of the increasing matter that was taking its toll.  This was not how I envisioned entering my thirty-first year.

V

CHICKEN BONES

“Hey, did you know that Greyhound has this deal:  if you get your ticket online, you can get a ticket to Philly for ten bucks,” Benny hadn’t had his apple juice yet, so he was still lucid.  I had told him of my predicament; my difficulty in finding a cheap, fast way to get to Philadelphia.

“Wow, thanks!”  I fired up the computer, launched Firefox, went to Greyhound’s website.  Sure enough, there was a bus out of the Port Authority that would get me to Philadelphia in enough time to make my rehearsal.  And it was only $10.

And later that day, I found myself in the begrimed, brown, bottom level of the Port Authority Bus Terminal to board a decrepit Greyhound bus that looked like it had survived a demolition derby, by a very small margin.  I didn’t care.  Ten bucks to get me to Philly, hell, at this point I’d ride in the back of a manure truck.

As the door of the bus closed with a hydraulic hiss, I noted with satisfaction I had two seats to myself, and I was the only one on the bus that was so lucky.  Surely, I had played the assholish trick of sitting in the aisle seat and pretending I was asleep so nobody would sit next to me.  And the monitor screen was inches from my face, but I had the whole two seats to myself.  The bus began to back out.

But what was this?  The bus stopped dead, the door hissed open and up the steps huffed a sweaty, morbidly obese woman carrying a plastic bag.  And I realized that the luck gods, once again, were taking a piss on my pantleg.  I was about halfway back and I watched in utter dismay as she squeezed herself between the seats of each row, and I resignedly stood up and stepped back so she could drop herself in the window seat.  Thwunk!  I raised the armrest and sat in the aisle seat, one cheek on the seat, one cheek hanging over the aisle.

The bus resumed backing out, the lights went out, plunging it into darkness, making studying my music completely out of the question, and I cursed every force in nature, and after cursing them, begged forgiveness and asked them nicely if they were done with me yet.

As the bus lumbered through the Lincoln Tunnel the PA system clicked on.  “Good afternoon, welcome to Greyhound.  We’ll be gettin’ into Philadelphia in about two hours and fifteen minutes.  Please remember, there is not to be any smokin’ anywhere on the bus, and the drinkin’ uh alcohol is strictly prohibited.  Even in the bathroom.  Especially in the bathroom.” (especially in the bathroom???).

As if to emphasize that point, an empty Colt 45 bottle rolled its way forward from the back of the bus in an arcing motion.   “My name is Vinny.  Sit back, enjoy the ride and thank you for ridin’ Greyhound. (you’re fucking welcome)  Our movie today will be Napoleon Dynamite.” (Oh GREAT!  A movie!  A movie that sucks!  Wonderful!  Exactly how I wanted to spend a bus ride to Philly with half my ass off the seat.  

            Well, I didn’t have to worry about the movie too much because the monitor screen in front of my face wasn’t working correctly, just flickering into snow.  Nonetheless, I could still hear the idiotic dialogue, through the busted speakers, which distorted every sound at either frequency.  The bus moved at a decent clip down the New Jersey Turnpike; New York City rush hour had yet to begin.

I heard the rustle of a plastic bag next to me, then the unmistakable creak of a Styrofoam clamshell food container being opened, then the salty odor of fried chicken; a big steaming pile of it in the container in the woman’s lap next to me.  There was the frictive sound of her teeth against the bones as she scraped them clean, and….. wait a minute…… what was she doing with the bones?  I realized she was tossing them under the seat, as I heard them clatter to the floor.  And then, for a hot moment, I thought she was shoving me out of the way before I realized she was simply wiping her greasy hands between the seat cushions.  If I had been hungry before I boarded the bus, I sure as hell wasn’t now.

Somewhere before we crossed the Betsy Ross Bridge into Philadelphia the bus got pulled over.  I am not kidding you.  I don’t know why.  It sure wasn’t for speeding.  And we sat for forty minutes while Vinny the bus driver wheedled, bargained, simpered, whined, and finally got issued a ticket from the New Jersey State Police.

And when I finally made it to the Academy of Music, I had to sign in on the goldenrod sheet. And got an earful from Orlando.  And went hungry.

No more bus.

VI

THE NEW YORK PEOPLE

There were about twenty or so of us from New York; occasionally we’d see each other on the train on the way to Philly, and at rehearsal they called us the New York People.  While Orlando could really be a bastard about punctuality, they actually cut the New York People a good deal of slack with regard to time.  Sometimes they would they would let us out a little early at the end of the rehearsal, if they were feeling particularly charitable and sensitive to the infrequency of the commuter trains at that hour.  “Thank you, New York People, you can go home”.  No complaints there.

Word also got out that a young woman, Lucy, a mezzo, had a car.  She lived in Astoria, Queens and had a Dodge Neon.   But there were four empty seats in that car.  What’s that….. 20% of the New York People.  And a bunch of us got the idea.

”Hey Lucy, how’re you doing….. You sound great by the way, I bet you’re carrying that whole section.  Listen…..  you know I live in New York, too…  you think I could maybe catch a ride with you?  I’d kick in for gas and tolls.  I’ll even buy you lunch!”

And so we tried it.  I jumped into the back of the car right where Fort Washington Avenue intersects with the entrance to the George Washington Bridge.  There were three other New York People in the car.  And Lucy at the wheel.  We sped down the New Jersey Turnpike and even had time to stop for lunch at Roy Rogers at a rest area, and true to our word, we all kicked in for Lucy’s lunch, filled her tank and sang her praises.  We found a parking space right on Locust Street and made it to rehearsal a half hour early.

The problems didn’t really set in until our second trip back from Philly.  There are an awful lot of jokes made about fat opera singers, and generally speaking there really isn’t that much to them.  That being said, nobody in the car was particularly small.  And a Dodge Neon isn’t really known for its durability.

Three of us sat in the back seat.  The guy in the middle seat was a big, scary looking bald guy who had a goatee and looked like a biker, complete with the leather jacket.  His name was Aphid, weighed about three hundred plus pounds, was six feet two, and really was just about the nicest, most friendly guy you would ever want to meet.  He sang with a ringing heldentenor, and he really did carry his section.  For reasons best known to himself, he wore a pink Hello Kitty watch, which I thought was an odd juxtaposition against his black leather jacket.  He also didn’t have any trouble falling asleep.  On the way back to New York, by the time we made it to the Ben Franklin Bridge, he would be dead to the world.  And by the time we made it to the Turnpike, he would be sawing logs.

You never realize what bad shape I-95 is in until you fill a Dodge Neon with five ample opera singers.  Every time that car would hit a bump or a pothole, Aphid’s head would hit the ceiling, and he would wake up, say, ”What the hell was that?”  then rub his bald head and go back to sleep before the bottom of the car rebounded against the asphalt and tore the ass out of it.

So it lasted maybe three trips, before Lucy announced that we had collectively destroyed the shocks in her car, and there would be no more rides to Philadelphia.  We all felt bad and gave her the money we had saved on the train fare to cover the cost of getting her shocks fixed.  And the New York People, Lucy included, were back on the train.

No more car.

VII

MR. NO TIE MAN

When I looked in the mirror one morning, I really didn’t like what I saw.  I hadn’t shaved yet, and the black stubble contrasted against the dull, pasty white skin.  There were dark rings under my eyes and what was that…. crows feet??  I turned, so that perhaps I might look better in a different light, but nope, no different.  I looked worn out, washed up.  Old.  I was turning into Benny.  Is this what turning thirty looks like, I wondered?  I don’t think I would even mind turning thirty if I had more to show for it.  But what did I have to my credit at this point?  An opera chorus gig.  A temp job from hell.  Barely a pot in which to piss.  A hostile ex-wife.   A girlfriend who was going to turn into my ex-girlfriend if I didn’t get my shit together fast.  And fucking crows feet.

And when I went through my closet I realized that I hadn’t had time to get to the dry cleaner and was out of dress shirts.  The dress code called for a shirt and tie.  What to do….  I rummaged in my drawer, found a black turtleneck, put on some nice pressed pants, and finished the look with a houndstooth blazer.  And actually, despite my initial assessment, I didn’t look too bad.  I doubted anyone at work would give me a hard time about it.  That was good, because there was something I needed to discuss with Raggedy Ann…… er…. Ms. Cohen.

Mary, always sweet as pie, set the coffee maker up for me.  In fact, she did it every day, no matter how much of a downer I was.  No matter how much I carped, bitched, complained, moaned ad nauseum, about the factors in my life that sucked, I would always wake to find the coffee maker with fresh ground coffee in the filter and water in the reservoir.  And the commuter mug placed right next to it, even though I could barely hang onto a commuter mug without leaving it somewhere and never seeing it again.

As I sipped my coffee on the A train, heading to midtown I rehearsed what I was going to say to Raggedy Ann:  That next Monday was the sitzprobe.  The sitzprobe was arguably the most important rehearsal in the opera.  This was where the chorus, principals, and orchestra got together under the baton of the conductor to run through the music before moving to the staged rehearsals in the house.  One did not miss a sitzprobe.  One did not come late to a sitzprobe.  One did not approach a sitzprobe with anything other than the utmost professionalism.  Ever.

And I needed to get out of my temp job fifteen minutes early if I was to catch the train to Philly that would get me to the sitzprobe on time.  I had brought it up before and I hadn’t gotten an answer.  I needed to get an answer and it had to be yes.  I just wished I had the leverage of being able to tell them to take this job and shove it, but I wasn’t there yet.  I was still in the rehearsal rate of pay.

When I arrived at my cubicle, I came face to face with the first unpleasant surprise of the day.  A shrimpy young man about twenty-five with a bad complexion and over-gelled hair was sitting at Benny’s desk.

“Where’s Benny?”  I asked

“Benny doesn’t work here anymore.  I’m his replacement” He spoke in a nasal, sort of whiny tenor.  I took an instant dislike to him

“What happened?” I asked

“I heard he got fired,” he snickered, ”They said he got caught drinking.  In fact he was wasted!”

I regarded him stonily, ”You shouldn’t spread gossip.”

He looked me up and down, ”No tie, huh,” he smirked, ”Well aren’t you special.  Mr. No Tie Man!”

For the remainder of the morning, everybody, including Blue Suit Fucker, had a smart ass comment about my lack of a tie.

“Hey, lose your tie?”

“Wow, a rebel!  No tie!  Bucking the system!”

“A man without a tie!”

“New look, huh… no tie!”

And the little worm in the next cubicle kept harping on about it, ”Hey, Mr. No Tie Man!”

“Give it a rest, asshole,” I snarled.  I was in no mood to deal with this little weasel and I seriously considered hitting him up the side of the head

“What??” he asked, as though nobody in the world had ever addressed him as “asshole” (somehow I doubt that).

“You heard me.”

“Touchy touchy,” I heard him whine under his breath.

After lunch, I located Raggedy Ann and pleaded my case.

“No,” she snapped

“No?” I repeated, incredulous.

“We need you here.  This is your job!”

“It’s fifteen minutes,” I insisted, ”What would you have me doing for fifteen minutes that was so important?”

“I don’t need to justify my decisions.  I am your boss.”

“I really just need fifteen minutes,” I said reasonably, ”Just fifteen”

“If everybody who felt like sneaking out of work early just went ahead and did it, where do you think the company would be?”

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

“If everybody who had a contract with an opera company needed to leave fifteen minutes early once in awhile and gave you a weeks notice about it, would it really be that terrible?” I asked

“You’re not leaving early,” she answered smugly

Oh, but I am. Try to stop me.

The conversation was over.  And as I turned to leave she blocked my path and glared.

“Tomorrow: tie!”

VII

HOW ARE YOU?

The Academy of Vocal Arts is located in several brownstone townhouses on Spruce Street, in a neighborhood in Philadelphia called Rittenhouse Square.  It is a short walk from the Academy of Music, just walk down South Broad Street to Spruce Street, follow that and you’ll be there in just a few minutes.  And this was where the Metropolitan Opera National Council was having their Philadelphia auditions.

It was a Saturday and I had rehearsal in the morning at the Academy of Music.  There were a few of us there who were going to the Met Competition that afternoon.  I had been very careful at rehearsal not to over sing.  There is a danger in Verdi choruses, especially the bass baritone part.  They’re fun to sing, all those perfect fifths, rhythmic bass lines and and thundering low Fs.  And there is the temptation just to bear down, and if you are not a bass, rather, a baritone, like myself, you can easily shoot your wad, blow out your voice and be unable to sing any high notes without straining for the remainder of the day.  So I was very conscious of that.

After rehearsal, I had a light lunch at Cosi, and walked up Spruce Street to the Academy of Vocal Arts, or AVA, as it was called for short.  For January, it was really mild and the sooty snow against the curbs was melting relatively cleanly.

When I checked in, a white haired, benevolent looking older woman assigned me an audition time and a practice room in which to warm up.

“Just up the stairs on the second floor there,” she said kindly.

I walked up the wide, carpeted stairway, the mahogany bannister sliding in my hand, turned right and located my practice room, as I inhaled the musty elegance of the place.  The practice room had a high ceiling and a window.  And a baby grand piano.  It was beautiful.  A practice room or a studio with a window was still a novelty to me.  Ten years ago, in undergraduate school when I was getting my Bachelor of Music degree, the practice rooms of the music school were windowless, cinderblock boxes buried deep in the bowels of the earth, with beat-up upright pianos shoved against the wall.  And after these years that novelty still had yet to wear off.  I walked over to the large window and peered out at the handsome brownstone townhouses across the street.  I went over the piano, opened the lid, struck a C major chord, and it rang out, in perfect tune.

Well, I was pretty well warmed up from rehearsal that morning, but I did a little vocalizing (always hated warming up, never really did it for me), set my music on the stand and went over a few trouble points in my repertoire.  There was only one problem and it was a big one:  That healthy attitude towards the competition I had had a couple of weeks back, in Ashely’s studio had somehow evaporated in that time, and now I was feeling restless and edgy.  The liberty of not giving a damn about the outcome of an audition rarely lasts.  And I could feel my pulse rate rising, and the back of my throat tightening.  Not good.  Not good at all if I wanted to nail the Avant di Quitter, or if it came down to it, do the Largo Al Fattotum without looking like an unskilled, untalented putz.

There was a solution, and though I am thoroughly convinced I am going to go straight to hell for this, here it is: a shot of tequila.  Just a shot.  An ounce and a half, maybe two.  No more.  Didn’t have to be expensive tequila, either: Cuervo Gold would do just fine, or even Montezuma: the crap that’s like $10 a liter and casual restaurants all over the country use it to make their half-assed, cloyingly sweet Margaritas.  But for whatever reason, a shot of tequila was what it took to relax me, loosen up my vocal apparatus, open me up, get the soft palate out of the way.  Ashley would kill me if she knew.  She would literally tear my head off and drop kick it out the window.  Without bothering to open it.

I didn’t have any tequila, though.  Unlike Benny, I don’t carry my booze in a plastic Apple & Eve bottle.  And remembering to bring my repertoire binder was enough of a challenge without throwing a flask of tequila into the mix.  But I did remember seeing a liquor store on the way here, just a couple of blocks away.  I shrugged into my black pea coat and walked towards the door.

“I’ll be right back,” I flashed one of the old ladies at the door a smile.

The store was dark, cramped, grubby and smelled like cat food.  The liquor was lined up on shelves at one end of the store behind bulletproof glass.  There didn’t appear to be any size smaller than a liter, and that was odd, but I set a couple of twenties down on the bulletproof “lazy susan” style turntable.

“Could I get a bottle of the Cuervo Gold?”

The Latino guy behind the glass eyed me distrustfully, rotated the turntable, took the twenties, grabbed a bottle and set it on the turntable with $5 and change, before rotating it back to me.

“Could I get a bag, please?”  I asked.

He gave me a hard look and sighed heavily, as though I had just asked him for his firstborn child, rotated the turntable again, put the bottle in a narrow brown bag and rotated it back to me.

I felt strangely conspicuous, walking down the street with the bottle of tequila, even if it was in a bag.  The bag had been designed for the purpose for which it was currently being used, and was just a couple of inches taller than the bottle.  I didn’t want to grasp it by the neck of the bottle in the bag; that would make it’s contents obvious, and I knew the white haired ladies with their pearl necklaces and clip-on earrings would not look kindly on me bringing a bottle of booze into the AVA.  Especially when they were having an opera competition in there.

I walked casually down the street; nothing special was in the bag…. A rolled up magazine, a bottle of Evian, a stick of salami…..  I tried to roll down the top of the bag, as though this were my lunch and I had brown bagged it, but who the hell packs their lunch in a liquor bag?  Luckily, the ladies were so busy checking in other auditionees that they didn’t notice my entrance, and I walked casually up the stairs and back into my practice room, which was exactly as I left it, closed the door and locked it.  I removed the Cuervo out of the skinny brown bag, unscrewed the cap and took a swig to the top of the curved label just below the neck of the bottle.

Well, as soon as the salty, warm potion burned its way to my bloodstream, as always, it worked.  I continued warming up, ran through the trouble points of the repertoire, pleased with how my voice was feeling and sounding against the high ceiling.  I praised the forces of nature for putting a skeevy liquor store two blocks away, and forgave them on the spot for the nasty bus ride, the destruction of Lucy’s car, the firing of Benny and the mere existence of Raggedy Ann.

And pretty soon I was in the anteroom, lined up with other auditionees, as the protocol ladies briefed us on what was about to happen.

“You will be announced by name, age and voice category.  You will acknowledge your audience, turn to the piano, greet your accompanist and give him your music”

That all sounded pretty standard, I’d done similar things many times before.

“But when you greet the accompanist, whatever you do, whatever you do, don’t say “How are you?”

One of the auditionees must have looked quizzical, because she clarified, ”He simply hates that greeting.”

A greeting that wasn’t “how are you”…….

Well, there was always, ”How do you do?”  Nah.  Sounded too much like, ”How are you?”

“Pleased to meet you”?  I wasn’t meeting him, though.  He was just playing the piano.

“A pleasure” had creepy connotations, sounded like somebody pleasuring themselves.

And I realized I was overthinking this and I’d think of something.

Before me, there was a buxom twenty-nine year old mezzo, who did a really good job of Carmen; I could hear her through the door.

Then a wispy little twenty-six year old tenor with hair so blonde it was practically white, who actually sounded great when he sang Che Gelida Manina from Boheme, but when he came to Ha! Bien souvent, from Werther he completely crashed and burned. Too bad.  I was rooting for him.

“Mr. Robert Louis Pagnani.  Age twenty-nine.  Baritone.”

I strode out onto the stage.  The space was a relatively small concert hall; what I would call a “wet” space insofar as there weren’t a lot of porous surfaces e.g. curtains, carpets, air vents, to absorb the sound.  The stage could probably accommodate a small chamber orchestra, and had a curved apron.  I acknowledged the hundred or so people sitting out in the house and, as per standard protocol, turned to the accompanist and handed him the binder, open to my first selection.  He was an older gentleman with perfectly coiffed white hair and a severe white beard.

“How are you?”

The words rang out and hovered, resonated in the concert hall, and I wondered for a second who had said that before I realized it was me.  The hall was silent.  The radiator clanked.  An old lady gasped.  Another old lady fainted.

No she didn’t.  I made that up, too.

The accompanist gave me a look of death before the beginning the introduction to Questo Amor.

Despite that gaffe, I realized very early on that my voice wasn’t letting me down.  As a classical singer you are not supposed to go by sound, you’re supposed to go by feel, but it is impossible not to hear yourself and consciously or unconsciously adjust your voice accordingly.  And this hall was giving me back exactly what I needed to hear.  I thought of every crappy audition I had ever done, and how the acoustics of the room was one variable in your performance you could not change, and I wondered where this hall had been all my life.

When you open your mouth to sing before an audience, no matter how big or small, as a singer, you enter into an unwritten, unsaid contract with them.  That contract is that in exchange for the time they invest listening to you, you are promising them gold.  And if you mess up and give them shit instead, even once, you have breached that contract, and it is very hard to spin that shit back into gold.  And it takes one cheeky bastard to continue with the selection, sell it as gold, even while giving them shit.

Fortunately, I was holding up my end of the contract.  I was one with the piano, one with the hall, sang the high G perfectly, and ended with a three-point landing.  Holy shit.

“Thank you.” A voice came from out in the house, ”We would like to hear……”

not the Largo, not the Largo, not the Largo, not the Largo………..

“….. The Avant di Quitter

Oh Sweet Jesus, Thank God

The Avant di Quitter is tricky, though.  It starts off easy enough, but then there is a tempo change.  In that tempo change there is a phrase ”Le premier le plus brave.”  And that “brave”, while not the highest note, determines how you will do for the rest of the aria.  Your pièce de résistance of that aria is the final “O Roi des cieux”, the “O” being sung on a high G, but if you mess that “brave” up, you have already paid a visit to the gold to shit currency exchange for the remainder of that aria, and have the remainder of the aria to think about it.  Kind of like if you jump out of an airplane and your parachute doesn’t open, you have a very long ride down to think about it.

My luck was still holding out, though.  I hit the “brave” perfectly, did the “O roi des cieux” flawlessly, and ended with another three-point landing.  Wow.  Even the accompanist nodded in approval, grudgingly forgiving me for daring to ask how he was.

As I stepped into the antechamber, one of the auditionees who still had a few people ahead of him looked at me in admiration.  “You’ve got balls,” He breathed and I thanked him before I realized he wasn’t praising my performance.  He was referring to my greeting of the accompanist.  He thought I did it on purpose!

Much as I would have loved to stick around, I did have to get back to New York.  I listened to a few more auditionees, grabbed my backpack (which had still the better part of a liter of Cuervo) and buttoned up my pea coat.

“Hey!”

As I walked away from the building in the direction of Suburban Station I looked behind me and there was one of the other guys from opera rehearsal who had also done the competition.  Martin, I think his name was.  A tenor.

“Oh hey,” I greeted him

“You sounded great, Rob, you really did,”

“Wow, thanks,” I said, ”You’re really doing my ego good!”

“In fact, I’d be amazed if you didn’t make it to the next round,” he continued.

“Wow….. keep going, keep going,” I said, before adding, ”You sounded great, too”

“I wish,” he sighed, ” Why the fuck does every tenor in the world have to do Che Gelida Manina?  Don’t they have any imagination?”

“But you did that, didn’t you?” I laughed

“Yeah, but I don’t suck at it,” he answered sullenly.

“You don’t,” I agreed, ”You sounded really good”

“And what was with that accompanist, not letting you say “how are you?”

“I don’t know,” I answered, ”that was weird, wasn’t it?”

“When you said “how are you”, everybody in the back room just cracked up.  The old protocol lady almost had a stroke”

He was laughing, and I was also starting to see the humor in it and I started laughing, too.

“I didn’t do it on purpose, you know,” I said, ”It just sorta……. popped out”

We were laughing in earnest now, and I remembered the tequila in my bag.

“Jerk.  Who does he think he is, anyway” he asked, referencing the accompanist, “Isn’t this competition nerve racking enough without him playing stupid little mind games?  What….. are we here for his amusement?”

“Want some tequila?” I asked out of left field

He looked around, as though he thought a tequila bar was in the immediate vicinity.

“Got some in my bag,” I explained, ”Do you have a cup?”

He did.  It was a paper Starbucks cup, and he dumped out the remaining black coffee into the snow.  I walked over to a bench near a garbage can on South 18th Street, got out the commuter mug I had not yet lost, as well as the bottle of the Cuervo.  I poured the better part of its contents into my commuter mug, and the rest into his Starbucks cup.

“Mexican coffee,” I commented as I tossed the empty Cuervo bottle in the garbage can.

Well, we walked down 18th Street sipping the tequila and having a nice conversation, cracking jokes, coming down from the high of the competition, and getting a nice buzz.  We parted company at Market Street, as he wove unsteadily off in the direction of the 15th Street subway station and I continued in the direction of Suburban Station.

“See you at the sitzprobe on Tuesday,” He called, ”Hope you get that phone call.  Or email”

“Yeah, you too,” I called back.

There was some time at the train station before the next train departed, so I sat on one of the wooden benches and sipped more of the tequila.

If I had been feeling no pain when I walked through the door of Suburban Station, by the time the train got here, I was completely soused.  I wove down the stairs to the platform, barely made it onto the train before I passed out in a seat.

I woke up somewhere around Newark, both still drunk and hung over.  I didn’t even know that was possible: being drunk and hung over at the same time.  I guess most of the time you sleep through the worst of your hangover, and then by the time you wake up, you’re sober, and better able to deal with it.  But, man, this was brutal.  My mouth was dry, my contacts were dry, and the harsh, florescent lights of the commuter train were hard on my eyes.  And my head….  And I still had no idea how I managed to transfer across the platform at Trenton to this train.

I wasn’t sober, but I was still able to drag myself out at Penn Station, find a water fountain (of which there about two), and managed to get to the subway platform where I waited for the cycloptic blue eye of the A Train to come roaring out of it’s burrow and begin my 40 minutes of hell back to my apartment.

And the next day: that hungover Sunday, and the Monday after that, my phone remained silent, my inbox remained empty, and I stopped checking when it became obvious I had not placed in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

IX

HUGE GOLDEN TESTICLES

Tuesday was the day of the sitzprobe and I still had no idea what I was going to do.  Actually I did.  I was going to that sitzprobe.  On time.  My uncertainty rested on the process of that execution.  I had about five hours to think it over.  I had thought of everything from creating a situation that would send Raggedy Ann on a wild goose chase, to constructing a paper mache likeness of myself, Alcatraz style.

The solution came in the form of an older, bald guy, Peter, who needed my help.  He needed my help organizing a program on the computer in the chain of actions directly preceding or following mine.  I cleared it with Raggedy Ann and we set to work.  We made conversation and it turned out we shared a background in classical singing; in fact he had, at one point sung in Wagner operas at Bayreuth.  As it was on my mind, the subject of the impending sitzprobe came up and I confessed I had no idea what to do about it.

He looked surprised, ”Go,” he said

“I know,” I said,” I’m just not sure how to negotiate it”

“Well, we’re pretty much done here.  We accomplished what we needed to accomplish,” he said,” And I can pretty much finish up.  Go ahead.”

“What about Barbara?” I asked

“What about her,” He asked, ”She won’t care and even if she does, who gives a shit?  Don’t miss your train.  Go.  Sing well”

So I did.  I even had time to grab a sandwich from Zarro’s, and I relaxed as I gazed out the window at the ever darkening swamps of New Jersey, past the lights of Newark Airport, across the Raritan River at New Brunswick.  The chips were going to fall where they would.

I got to the sitzprobe a half hour early, ran into Martin the tenor who asked me if I had any more tequila (he didn’t place in the competition either), greeted Orlando and sat down with my section to plough through Aida in it’s entirety under maestro’s baton.

After the sitzprobe, there were some of us who still needed to strip down to our underwear for our final costume fitting, the rest of us walked through the rabbit warren of corridors to the dressing rooms that flanked the stage of the Academy of Music in four tiers, where we were assigned our dressing rooms.  Mine was on the third floor and I shared it with three other guys.  The dressing room was across from a doorway that opened out onto a catwalk and looked out over the stage, about fifty feet up.

The Academy of Music is one of the oldest opera houses in the country, and the one of the only major opera houses that still uses a pulley system on their stage (most others have gone to hydraulics), so it really was kind of a thrill to go through the doorway, and look over the railing as the pulley system hoisted backdrops, scrims and electrical booms up and down.  The stagehands were below, wheeling in enormous statues of Egyptian looking cats, cracking open oversized plywood cases on wheels that contained gigantic slabs covered with Hieroglyphics, and a huge figure of a gilded, anatomically correct baboon.  Complete with a pair of huge, gold testicles.  With a set of balls like that, I bet he would have no problem saying, ”How are you” to the accompanist.  He’d probably also gnaw his nose off in the process.

Opening night, and the performance rate of pay, was the following Friday.

X

HOOVER DAM

I was barely through the glass doors beyond the elevator bank before Raggedy Ann blocked my path.  You could tell she was waiting for me and you could tell she was using the time to get good and steamed up.  The capillaries in her eyes matched her fire engine lipstick and her scowl was squashing bugs with a vengeance.  Her face was whiter than I had ever seen it, despite the makeup.

“I heard you left early yesterday,” she snapped, ”After I specifically ordered you not to, you left early!”

Ordered?”  I repeated indignantly, but then I forced my voice back into a more equitable tone, ”Look, we were done with what we needed to do, it was later in the day, Peter said there was really nothing more to do……”

“You do not work for Peter,” she cut me off, ”You work for me.  I am your boss, and when I tell you not to do something you follow that order without question”

Order.

I stood motionless, watching Raggedy Ann have a tantrum right before my eyes, right in front of the reception desk, and we were getting an audience, too: The receptionist (who was the poor girl who got the coffee dousing, collision and verbal assault from Blue Suit Fucker) looking on sympathetically. There was also the little shit in the next cubicle who had replaced Benny, and Blue Suit Fucker, both of them smirking in the background.  I was watching this little performance, too, but it was pissing me off more and more as each second progressed, and I dared not open my mouth for fear of what might come out.

“When I say “jump”, your only question is “how high”.  I am your boss and your job is to do what I tell you to do.  You don’t make this company any money.  You should be thankful you have this job, and it is not your place to question or undermine my authority!

I watched, incensed, as she flew around on her broom a few more circuits of the reception area, and I still stood perfectly still before she concluded, ”Do I make myself clear?”

I had been waiting for her to say, ”You’re fired,” so I could turn around and walk out the door, never to see this God forsaken place again, but she didn’t.  And I was so furious that my mind wasn’t thinking clearly enough to gracefully extricate myself.

“Crystal,” I hissed through my teeth and glared at her.

“So get to work.  You’re already five minutes late,” as she stormed off.

The girl from reception handed me a glass of water, and I thanked her, though I think a glass of Benny’s apple juice might have done more good.

I returned to my cubicle, sat in the $1500 chair, fired up the computer, as I had every previous morning since I came here.  I opened up Firefox and found Yahoo, where my personal account was.  They had a firewall in place preventing employees from accessing their personal email accounts, but it didn’t take too many workarounds for me to defeat it.

I created a new email message and started typing.  And I typed, oh I typed.  I am not a very fast typist, most of the time I can get maybe forty five or so words per minute, but my fingers were flying on that keyboard.  I have a friend called Molly, a beautiful, kind, woman I met from one of my opera gigs, with a wide smile, brown hair, blue eyes and an ability, similar to Ashley, to hold you in her gaze.  Incidentally, she also was a soprano.  I might ask her about that special soprano master class someday.  I figured I’d send this email to Molly.

I typed with fury, relish, and mania, as though I’d just busted an adrenaline valve somewhere in my body and it was just tearing through the landscape, as though the Hoover Dam had suddenly disintegrated without warning and Lake Mead was now a roaring rapid, uprooting trees and destroying every bridge in its path.

I typed everything.  I typed about the tax fraud, about Blue Suit Fucker and what he did and about the twelve-hundred dollar titty bar tab.  I typed about the Execupop, and the little worm in the next cubicle.  I typed about how much I hated this job and where they could shove it, how much I hated this company and the mangy, flea-bitten, pinworm-afflicted horse they all rode in on.

“Hey, easy, you’re going to break that keyboard,” I heard the little shit whine from the next cubicle over.

“How about I break it on your head, asshole?”  I called back.

I typed everything.  And when I got to Raggedy Ann, I must have filled at least three quarters of a page.

And at last, when I was shaking from rage, joy, satisfaction.  When I was sweaty, exhausted, limp, furious, jubilant and worn out.  When the pulse was ringing in my ears and sloshing through my chambers, I sat back and read my handiwork.  I laughed my head off, just before pulling the firing pin out of the grenade and clicking the “send” button.

And I worked ‘til about a half hour before it was time to go.  I reached behind the computer, unplugged the keyboard, tucked it under my arm as I walked down the channel of cubicles, found a very visible wastebasket, tossed the keyboard into it with an audible thud, and walked out the door a half hour early.  That night when I went to bed, I slept like a baby.

Molly never got that email.

XI

BREAKFAST

Whoever invented the snooze button on an alarm clock really understands human nature all too well.  It almost seems like a custom made invention for me and my tendency to procrastinate on just about everything, including getting up.  And I had just slept so well the previous night, Mary warm beside me, that I just kept hitting the snooze button, until I absolutely had to get up or guarantee myself late for work.  And I didn’t want to miss the show.  There was going to be one.

I dressed respectably, though I didn’t bother with a tie.  I didn’t have time to eat breakfast, but Mary, as always, had set up the coffee maker.  And when I walked through the glass doors into the reception area, I knew something was up, and I knew exactly what it was.  The receptionist was eyeing me strangely, though somewhat solicitously, and I wished I could scoop her up, take her away with me and find her a dream job, where there would be no more fuckers in blue suits.

When I got to my cubicle, there was a guy I’d never seen before standing in front of the $1500 chair that was pushed in.  They still hadn’t replaced the keyboard.  Or fished it out of the trash.

“Are you Rob?” he asked

“I am Rob,” I answered

I am Rob

“They need to see you in conference room D on the eleventh floor”

I am Rob

I rode down to the 11th floor and as I approached conference room D, I noticed there was a security guard standing right outside the door.  I knew exactly what that was for.  They didn’t station security guards outside conference rooms for nothing.  I eyed him and he eyed me as I entered the room

“Roooooob, shut the door, please”

I am Rob.  I shut the door

It was quite a large conference room for what was about to occur, eight seats on each side, one at either end.  Maybe they ran out of smaller ones.  That happens sometimes.  Especially given the impromptu nature of this little powwow. Sitting at the head at the far end was a guy I’d never seen before in a suit.  From human resources.  Had to be from human resources. And in the immediate perpendicular seat was Raggedy Ann.  And nobody else. He gestured to the seat directly across from Raggedy Ann, at a right angle to him.

“Have a seat”

He hadn’t taken his eyes off me since I had entered the room, and he watched me sit in the leather chair.

“Roooooob, Are you aware we have a policy prohibiting the accessing of personal email accounts?”

“Yes, I was aware of that policy,” I answered neutrally

He slid a folder with the company logo on the front towards me.   He had an identical folder in front of him, as did Raggedy Ann.  But theirs were open, so I opened mine.

And there was the email I sent, printed out.  Two full pages, 12 point font, stapled together.  Wow, they even stapled it for me.  And I knew, with satisfaction that they had both read it.  Raggedy Ann knew exactly what I thought of her.  I practiced the Ashley gaze on her.  She looked away.

“Did you write this?” he asked, articulating every word, generous with the consonants, stingy with the vowels.

I flipped to the second page.  Actually, for me being so pissed when I started the email, it was amazingly articulate.  And it was nice to see it on white paper, in document form, instead of on the screen of a computer.  Complete with a staple and in a crisp folder as though it was company property.  Which it was.  My little goodbye prezzie.  From me to them.

“……They are, for want of a better word, a community of parasites; the world benefits little to none from their existence.  They merely exist to enrich a small population which neither requires nor deserves any further enrichment……..

“I did write this,” I answered.

He looked surprised, as though employees who violated the company’s internet policy were not usually as forthcoming, especially when it was their jobs on the line.

“This does not look like an email sent by someone who wants to keep their job,” he observed.

“You’re very perceptive,” I answered drily

“Perhaps you should seek opportunities elsewhere,” he said

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I concluded.

I have never been out of a building so fast.  The time it took, from me being in that conference room on the eleventh floor to the sidewalk of E. 52nd Street had to be record.  And the air outside felt cleaner than it had been all year.  It was delicious.

I walked up Madison Avenue to 59th Street, the day beginning to take momentum and form as the sun moved across the sky from the east, and the weight started to rise from my body, ounce by ounce, then finally pound by pound, and life began to animate itself all around me.  For the past several weeks, I felt as though I had been watching my life march by, with little input from me, as though from a soundproof capsule, in greyscale, and now that capsule was slowly cracking open to let the world around me in.  Color, everywhere, kind of like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the house lands and everything just goes from black and white into color, just like that.  All the sounds, here, now, gone in a second from a tinny mono speaker to a lush, rich surround sound.  Kind of like that sound check chord the play before a Miramax movie.  BRRRRRRROOOOOOING!

I walked across the bottom of Central Park on 59th Street, where the horses and buggies were lined up for the benefit of the tourists, their nostrils snorting and breathing vapor into the chill, and the sky: this rich clear azure.  I looked across the park and noticed the progress they were making on the Hearst Building: one of New Yorks freshest skyscrapers, made almost entirely of triangular panels of glass, and the girders were rising up, poking into the blue.

Isn’t it funny, I mused, how the skyline of New York was always metamorphosising, but people from their offices rarely partake in that life, rarely even notice it happened.  How do you get to see it from a cubicle?  Did you know that before the building is even done, while the girders are still naked fingers pointing at the sky, they have already moved people into the offices on the lower floors?  Did you know that?  I had once joked to Mary once that nobody in the elevator better push the button of a floor that was not finished or they would go shooting into the sky like the Wonkavator.  Mary had thought that was funny.

In the morning, the looming Time Warner Center didn’t cast it’s two ominous shadows over Central Park, and as I drank in the cool, January air, my stomach growled, alerting me I had not yet had breakfast.  There was a place past Columbus Avenue, out by John Jay College, as close to a diner as Manhattan has.  It was time for breakfast.

I sat down at one of the small tables and looked over the laminated menu, and decided on one of the really big breakfasts, complete with hashbrowns, toast, eggs, meat and grease.  I reached into my pocket and grabbed my cellphone.

I tried out the thing that a lot of the stockbrokers did with their Blackberries: slamming them down on the table as though they were the masters of the universe they thought they were.  My phone was a blue, plastic Nokia, the cheap one that came free with the plan.  I had chewed off the top of the antenna in nervousness once, so it looked ridiculous, but I couldn’t resist trying that obnoxious little trick at least once.

I was about to put the phone back in my pocket when the LCD screen lit up and it started ringing.  The phone didn’t vibrate anymore, because I had accidentally dropped it into a deep puddle in Philadelphia.  Didn’t destroy the phone, but it wrecked the vibrating feature, and now all my phone was capable of doing was emitting a disembodied bleat, like a senile llama.

It was a 212 area code; the number was one I had not seen in awhile; it took a minute to remember it was the number of the temp agency who had sent me to Whitman Dunn Capital.  I moved out to the vestibule before answering the phone, because I knew it was going to be quite a conversation.

“Hello?”

“Robert, this is Kim at Advantage Staffing Resources,” She sounded pissed as hell and I don’t blame her.

“Yes,”

“We just received a call from Whitman Dunn,” she said, barely keeping the indignation out of her voice.

“I bet you did,” I said

“Well, they’re furious,” she continued

“I bet they are,” I said

“Well……. we won’t be needing your services any longer,” she finished

“I bet you won’t,” I said

“Well………” she seemed flustered, at a loss for words.

“Goodbye,” I said gently as I pressed the red button that ended the call, removing them, and everything they were associated with from my life forever.

And I went back to my table where my coffee was hot and my breakfast was waiting.

EPILOGUE

 BENNY

New York City has no shortage of overqualified, unemployed performers, but the East Village has slightly greater shortage of small theatres that do everything from avant garde works to Shakespeare.  Mary is very good at finding a deal, and often she has gone on Theatermania.com, and scored us tickets so see some show or another at a discount so ridiculous I wondered how they could offer it.

It was mid April of 2010, and we were sitting in a small, black theatre that holds maybe ninety.  The seats are arranged in three tiers, on three sides around a black, square thrust stage.  Out in the tiny lobby, on a tiny table there is a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white and a stack of paper cups; it is complimentary, and it gives me a twinge of guilt, knowing how little we paid for these tickets to see Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

We had had dinner at 1849, a place on Bleeker Street where the music is too loud, but the food is delicious; they serve perfect steaks and Blue Point Beer, and we had walked our way across NYU to the East Village to this little theatre.  Before the lights dimmed, I leafed through the program to see if there was anyone I might know.  I had looked at the headshots out on the lobby, and the guy playing Falstaff looked vaguely familiar, but from where I couldn’t say.  He had a grey beard, and Mary commented he looked like the perfect Falstaff.  She knows Shakespeare better than I do. I leafed through the program and noted that his name was Benjamin.

As the play progressed, I still tried to pinpoint where I had seen the Falstaff before.  That was good, because Shakespeare often causes my mind to wander, then I guiltily try to align my mind back to the plot line, sometimes with little success.  Were people in 16th century the really that much smarter, or at least more attentive than me?

There was something about the righteous indignation of his monologues that seemed familiar, and out of left field it just hit me.  Bam.  It was Benny.  From Whitman Dunn.  Being Falstaff; no longer the miserable, defeated, lump of drunken unhappiness cloistered away in a grey cubicle.  Falstaff.  With a beard.

At the end of the play, the theatre was so small that the cast exited from the dressing room into the lobby.   And there I was, face to face with Benny, the vestiges of the stage makeup still on the edges of his face.

“Benny,” I said

He recognized me in a second, ”Whitman Dunn.  Rob.  How the hell are you?”

“Good, good.  Yourself?”

“Good.  I am Falstaff!” he announced

“I see that.  And you were great!”  I said.  “This is my fiancée, Mary”

“A pleasure” he said (and I forgave him immediately for using the word “pleasure”)
“You know, I learned that role when I was over at Whitman Dunn.  They were always on my case about how little work I was getting done.  Because I was busy learning Falstaff!”

“You’ll be hearing from their legal department shortly!”  I joked “Intellectual Property Clause.  As in breach of!”

“No I wont.  They went down in the recession.  Man that job….  took a lot of apple juice to get through that.  I’ve cut down though.  Drinking better stuff.  Just less.  Much less.”  he said seriously

“That’s good,” I said, ”You would have killed yourself.  You know, I left only a couple of weeks after you,”

“I heard,” he said

“You did?” I asked

“Yeah.  Bethany from reception, remember her?…. When that asshole slammed into her on the first day you were there?…..We kept in touch and she told me all about it.  She even managed to get a copy of the email you sent and showed it to me.  I just about pissed myself laughing when I read it.  From what I understand, you were the hero for the week!”

“Is she still working in finance?” I asked

“Oh hell no.” he answered, ”She’s going to med school,”

“But remember the asshole that slammed into her?  Well he got caught in some shady deal, and he’ll be getting out of  federal prison in about a year.  They caught him in 2007”

“Wonder how he liked that?”I wondered

“You two want to get a beer with me?  We’ll exchange email addresses.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of that email, would you?” I asked, ”It was mysteriously deleted from my sent box”

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, ”Come, have a beer with Falstaff!”

I would dearly love a copy of that email.

 

White Coat Syndrome

White Coat Syndrome

a memoir

by Robert Louis Pagnani on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at 7:43pm

   

 

I

PERFORMANCE ANXIETY

It is the premier performance of an opera, and I am standing offstage wearing all black.  Up until about ten minutes ago, I did not know how deep backstage I was going to be.  In every rehearsal, I had stood kitty corner where I could see the conductor in the flesh, and hear the orchestra in the flesh.  I had worn all black so no one could see me.  The lip of the orchestra pit, as well as the relative darkness of backstage and my black attire would block my visibility.  Or so I thought.

Twenty minutes before curtain, I was moved about thirty feet offstage.  A monitor: a thirteen-inch tube TV was wheeled in on a cart, for my benefit, connected to a “maestro cam”.  A maestro cam is a colloquial term for a small camera just below the lip of downstage center, aimed at the conductor, so those of us offstage can see the conductor.  The only explanation I was given for the sudden move was,

”We can see you from the house”.

Nobody had voiced this concern in the umpty-five staged rehearsals up to this point.

I was used to seeing the conductor in person.  I was used to hearing the orchestra in person.  And now, fifteen minutes before curtain, a huge variable in my performance was immediately changed.  “Fine,” I thought resolutely,” I’ll make this work.  This is what they’re paying me for, but after this, I am done with this company”.

Only problem was, I felt the pulse in my jugular step up a notch and I couldn’t get it to come down.  Tried some deep breathing.  No dice.  Thought about the party at the U. N. after this was done.  Didn’t work.  I could feel it coming in spurts at all my pulse points.  Whump.  Whump.  Whump.

“Curtain, Five Minutes!”

“Thank you, five!”

“Whump.  Whump.  Whump.”

I had to sit through the first twenty or so minutes of the first act before I had to do anything.  Just half a duet.  Offstage, with a soprano who was onstage.  Didn’t need a costume or anything.  Just had to do the baritone half of a soprano-baritone duet.  Offstage.  Four minutes and thirty-nine seconds.  No costume.  No staging.  Do this, then go home!  Five performances, total.  Pretty easy gig, no?

No was right!  Sitting there in the guts of backstage, I realized I couldn’t hear the orchestra at all.  The only connection I had to the orchestra, or the conductor, for that matter, was this crappy little 13 inch monitor.  Where the sound came tinnily through speakers that cut out randomly.

Five minutes before the duet, and panic started taking over.

“Whump-whump  Whump-whump Whump-whump”

Instinctively, I put a finger to my wrist, and I could feel the vein throbbing, undulating, under the skin.  In cut time.

OK, here it was.  I could barely hear the orchestra and I glued my eyes to the screen for the conductors cue.  And at the critical moment, the screen flashed, then went dark.  Trying to tune into the muffled sound of the orchestra in the distance, I made a guess.  The wrong one.

I had either jumped the gun, or lagged, and here I was, singing my part of the duet, perfectly, but one whole measure either early or late, and one whole step down.  That much was evident when the soprano came in, in perfect tune with the orchestra.  Yet the sound of us together was a dissonant cacophony, me in an incompatible key, and no way to modulate into the correct one, and I noticed that the monitor had once again sputtered to life, a day late and a dollar short.

As the duet ended, I saw the conductors hand go limp as he let the baton drop and his head fell forward as though he’d just been electrocuted.  About five seconds later there was some dubious applause, and the conductor picked his head up.

He was a heavy guy, no older than me, with blonde, limp hair that absorbed the sweat that had accrued on his forehead.  The look on his face as he stared into the camera could have disintegrated a cinder block.  He knew who was looking at the monitor on the other end of the maestro cam, so there was no doubt for whom that glare was meant.  Then the screen flashed, fizzled into snow, then went dark.

I had fucked up.  Hugely. Spectacularly.  Grandly. And it was now time to make the coward’s exit and beat a hasty retreat. If they didn’t want to pay me, fine.  And if they didn’t want to sue me, even better!  I snuck out the stage left exit, through a dank, crappy little dressing room, and into the lobby, where they were setting up the bar for a post- premier-performance reception, complete with champagne and little finger sandwiches about the diameter of an Eisenhower dollar.

The reception was for the patrons of the company, and the performers were expected to attend and meet the patrons.  I somehow got the feeling that my presence would not be expected or appreciated.  And I did not want to be around when the wealthy East Side patrons, one by one, approached the general manager and withdrew their patronage, and by extension, their support for the company, citing the crappy baritone side of the duet.  And I did not want to be there when the composer, who had sat in the front row, dead center, his knees mere feet from the nape of the conductor’s neck, came out of the theatre and deployed his wrath on what I had done to his opera.

There was a seldom-used exit that that gave onto an alley somewhere behind Lexington Avenue, and I considered using that, but seeing as the lobby was empty, I crossed it, in front of the bar then headed for the exit to E. 76th Street.  I had gotten maybe about four yards from the exit and my path was blocked by the general manager, in his greasy hair and three thousand dollar Ferragamo shoes, giving me a look that drilled twin holes through each of the lenses of his Gucci glasses.

“Fucking………” he growled

But I was already out into the night, walking down Lexington Avenue towards the U.N., and it wasn’t until 59th Street that my pulse returned to it’s normal rate and my wrist stopped throbbing.  There would be fireworks, and oh, believe me, eventually they did come!  Don’t think for a minute they did not!

And in that twenty-four hour period, every time I went to my computer to check my email, to see when the other shoe dropped, my pulse shot up.

Whump!  Whump!  Whump!

II

WHITE COAT SYNDROME

I am sitting on a little round stool in an examination room at Weill Cornell Medical Center.  The room is white, and light comes in through the narrow slats of the closed venetian blinds, also white.  This little stool is on casters, and it is the kind that the dental assistant sits on as she scrapes your teeth.  On the wall is one of those blood-pressure readers connected by a curly tube to a black rubber bulb, the other end connected to a cuff around my arm.  Somewhere in all this mess of tubes is the flat end of a stethoscope, one end on my forearm, the other connected to the ears of a petite Asian girl in scrubs.

“It’s high,” she says softly, almost apologetically

“Really high?” I ask

“One fifty-three over ninety-two,” she answers

Up until a month ago, I had no idea what those numbers meant.  Never thought about it.  Never cared.

But I am sitting on this round stool here, and more than one hundred miles upstate, my brother is connected to dialysis.  I am a match.  I have passed the blood tests, I have passed the CT scan.  The sonogram verified that I do, indeed, have two kidneys.  My urine is healthy, protein, creatinine (another new word: sounds almost like cretin, which makes me laugh), at appropriate levels.  Angiogram, chest x-ray went off without a hitch.  Fuck, I even passed the psychological test, with somebody asking me what my motives were for wanting to donate a kidney to my own brother.  But I can’t get my blood pressure down.

“Let’s give it a minute,” she says,” I’ll be right back”

“Jesus H. Christ”  I think,”I have to get this blood pressure down.  Dammit!”

She leaves the wood door ajar.  On the examining table I had set the latest issue of the New Yorker.  I walked the stool over there, Flintstones style. I thumb through it and try to find an amusing article.  It only came yesterday, so I should be able to find something.  I look for a good article.  Something that will get my BP down to the cutoff: 120 over 80.

The pretty Asian girl walks through the door.  I scoot the stool closer to the blood pressure machine and hold out my arm.  Psst.  Psst.  Psst . Psst.  She inflates the cuff and I feel the familiar throb as the cuff deflates and the gauge stops intermittently on the round dial.

“It’s still high,” she says sadly.

“Any lower?” I ask

“one sixty over ninety-five”  she whispers

God Damn it.  Five weeks.  Five weeks, man!  The surgery is scheduled.  The operating room is booked!   And they will cancel it if I can’t get this damn blood pressure down!  Jesus Fucking H. Christ!

I sit on the round stool some more.  A middle aged RN in a white coat walks in.  There is another chair in the room.  It is also on casters and she sits in it and scoots it over to me.  “See, the problem is, you’re getting yourself all worked up. You see all these doctors, nurses.  You’re worried about your brother.  It’s making you nervous, which is spiking your blood pressure”

“I guess so, yeah…..”I offer

“Well, try to relax.  Let me get you a glass of water.  Relax.  Read your magazine.  I’ll be back in about ten minutes,” She walks over to the sink and fills a plastic cup of water, which she hands to me.

I take the glass and try to find a good article, and I do; I find something that keeps me interested until she walks back in.  And when she does, that raises my pulse; I could feel it.

“Whump.  Whump.  Whump”

She hooks me back up.

“It’s still high,” she says sadly

“Dammit!” by now I am genuinely angry.

Five Weeks.  Five fucking weeks to get this down.  Jesus.

“Give me a second,” she says

She walks out and comes back a few seconds later with the doctor.  He’s this little guy with a Spanish accent, who I had been exchanging wisecracks and pleasantries with earlier that morning.

“I think you have White Coat Syndrome,” he says,” You ever heard of that?”

“No” I answer slowly, ”It sounds like something you’d get on your tongue”

He laughs.  “No.  It’s when you get all nervous about medical things.  Doctors, nurses.  Medical implements.  That kind of thing.”

“OK,” I say, “That would make sense”

“And you’re under some pressure, right?” he inquires

“You could say that.”

“And you’re a nervous kind of guy……” he adds

“I don’t know….. I guess so,” I venture

“Yeah, you are.” he says with finality.

III

HYPER

I guess the doctor was right.  I’ve never been what you would call terribly mellow.  When I was in second grade, my teacher always said I was hyper, but I had no idea what the word meant at the time.  And in high school, because I ran track and cross-country, I had to take a physical, administered by the school’s doctor and nurse.  And when they took my pulse, they said I was hyper.  When I had an after-school job as a cashier at Shop Rite, they demoted me to bagger (but no pay decrease, because they were union, which I was happy about), stating that I was too high-strung.

At the state university I attended as an undergrad, I had a roommate (now a principal at a middle school) who always said, ”You gotta relax, Rob.  You gotta be mellow!  Can’t let shit get to you!”  And when I was in an opera scenes program, the professor told me I had to work on my pacing.  I assumed she meant pacing myself to get through the performance.  “No,” she said, ”Pacing back and forth when you sing.  It’s distracting”

Shit got to me and I paced.  The concept of road rage came us and was discussed heavily throughout the late 1990s and I understood (though I never did anything).  Performance anxiety was a thing for me.  Anxiety in general.  Hyper sounds like such a 1980s term.  And short of a few minor issues, it never did me too much harm. Except somehow now, in very short order, I needed to get un-hyper!

I had been to a doctor about six months before my brother’s kidneys failed.  I had told her of my performance anxiety issues.  She wrote me a prescription for beta blockers (I think 10 mg of propanolol) and some Xanax.  I did take the beta blocker for an audition once, but it didn’t get me a call-back, and I had heard that beta blockers can affect your performance in bed, so I gave that up.  And I was just plain afraid of the Xanax.

Don’t think for a minute, though, that when both the doctor and the nurse told me my blood pressure was too high that I didn’t think of those beta blockers in the medicine cabinet.  Don’t think for a minute that I didn’t consider going to the doc for my next BP screening so coked out on those beta blockers that my blood pressure would have no choice but to pass!

IV

YOU MUST RELAX!

It was 2007 and my cell phone was a black Motorola SLVR L7.  A candy-bar phone.  And it was vibrating like you wouldn’t believe.  Every day.  Every few hours.  Every hour, even!

“So, how’s the blood pressure?”  My mother inquired

“High,” I answered

“Well, you need to get it down!” my mother responded

“How on earthl am I supposed to do that?” I asked

“Relax.  It’s very important!” she said.

Relaxing isn’t as easy as you would think.  Most of my adult life, I always thought,”it will be so nice when I can relax”.

And do you know what?  I can relax, and I have relaxed.  Give me a couple of beers, sit me outside in nice weather, and see how relaxed I am.  Put me in a bar with a glass of single malt scotch and a couple of buddies and I’ll be as relaxed as you want.  See me after rollerblading 13 miles, partying with some friends, having dinner with Mary and relaxed will be my middle name!  When the pressure is off, I am as about as mellow as they get!  Horizontal, in fact!  Who wouldn’t like to be a lazy shite?

I was walking up the East Side of Central Park and the SLVR started buzzing again.  It’s a 518 area code, which means Albany, which means something to do with the transplant.

“Hello?” I answer

“Rob, it’s Disiree.”  I’d recognize that flat, metallic voice anywhere.  It’s Disiree, the kidney transplant coordinator for Albany MED.

“Yes” I answer

“I just got off the phone with Leigh at Weill Cornell.”

“Yes,” I continue

“Well, she says your blood pressure is still high”

“Yeah……” I sigh, ”I’ve been trying to get it down. Not sure what else to do.  I’ve been drinking water.  Exercising.  Not eating salty food.  All that stuff”

“I see,” she responded.  There were three weeks ‘til the scheduled surgery, which could be called off at any minute.

“Look, my blood pressure is a little high.  Is that a deal-breaker?” I asked

“I’m afraid it is, ”she responded, ”We don’t want two kidney patients”

That makes sense.  One thing I learned in my research of the subject is that high blood pressure will damage your kidneys.  So they didn’t want to take the risk.  That’s understandable.  But I didn’t want to be accused of being somebody with constant high blood pressure, when my blood pressure only spiked when a medical person walked into the room.

“Dr. Ramirez seems to think you have white coat syndrome.  That’s when…”

“I know what it is,” I said impatiently, ”That’s when you get all nervous when you see a doctor”

“Right.”  She answered,” So they’re going to give you a device on Monday that will take your blood pressure at random.  It’s a cuff you wear for 24 hours.”

“Ok” I answered, dubious, but sensing a solution.

“So be there Monday. 9:30 AM. And be on time.”

“OK”

“And try to relax over the weekend”

V

ENFORCED RELAXATION

It is 10 PM on an infernally hot Saturday and I am in Easthampton.  Or is it Westhampton?  Or Bridgehampton.  I never knew how people could navigate the narrow serpentine roads of the Hamptons, and know where on the island they are.  North fork, south fork.  But it is 10 PM, 95 degrees and the air has so much moisture you could wring it out like a sponge.  The bar is three deep, people coming at it at all sides, like baby birds with their self-entitled mouths open, and the litany of drink orders hitting the bar like snowballs “Vodka tonic….no, vodka soda.  Two….no three.   One with a lemon.”  “Why don’t you guys have any Galliano?”  “Six rum and cokes”  “What kind of beer do you have”  “Hey, I was here  first” and there is tapping on both shoulders….. tap tap tap.  Tap tap tap.  I looked to my left. “Don’t touch me,” I smiled icily, fixing the blonde guy with the fake tan a glare I fervently hoped would convey my desire to bite his head off and spit it into the ocean.  He’s trying to beat the system by coming around the side instead of waiting in line like everybody else.  I looked to my right, the source of the other tapping, at the other bartender, an inept temp from God knows where.

“What?”  I snapped

“Rob, how do you make a vodka tonic?”

“Vodka.  Tonic.  Lime,” I hissed,”You said you had done this before.”

“Yeah, but I never had to make one of those before….” He faltered as he proceeded to fill the glass with Ketel One to 75% capacity. Sans ice.

“Give me that!” I snatched the glass out of his hand and poured the excess vodka in another glass and completed the drink correctly.

Out of my peripheral vision I see the bottle of Viognier mysteriously levitating up and I realize that someone has reached over the bar and grabbed a bottle.  It’s that asshole with the fake tan, the one who had been doing the tapping.  And here he is, the presumptuous douchebag, reaching over my bar and trying to pour himself a glass of wine!

“Put that down, please” I say as evenly as I can, no mean feat, considering how much I wanted to strangle him.

“But I was…….”

I cut him off, ”Do not touch the bottles”

The other bartender is giving a whiny girl with greasy hair and a leathery complexion a verbose narrative on why we have no more Red Bull.  And the people keep coming.  This is an event for one hundred and eighty people, and there were easily double that.  Everything is running out.  Our bar runner is missing in action, or rather, inaction.  He was last seen chatting up a young woman several miles out of his league.  One thing is certain, he might have been getting wasted in the beach grass, as I suspected, but he absolutely wasn’t getting any action!  The crowd, getting progressively drunker and more and more obnoxious continues to make their demands in their rasping, tuneless, inebriate voices, as the fucker with the cigar the girth of a paper towel tube continues to contaminate the air.

The ice had turned to soup and the band was slaughtering a veal farm to the approximate tune of a Beyonce song.  Or was it  Rhianna?  Or maybe Lady Gaga.  Who knew? They were flat.  They were terrible.  Tooth grittingly, stick bitingly, balls shrinkingly terrible.  But they were loud.  The female vocalist sounded like a handheld appliance right before the battery goes dead.

I took a breath in this very short lull and gazed out towards the beach grass, the weeds, to the Atlantic Ocean and the blackness beyond, and tried to detect some kind of breeze coming off the ocean, something that would cut the humidity. Here I was, supposed to relax this weekend, get my blood pressure down and I could feel every pulse point in my body throbbing.

There was a clicking, sloshing sound behind me and I turned around to see that a guy in Birkenstocks had managed to get behind the bar and was washing his hands in the soupy ice, splashing it on his face, submerging his hands again, as though the ice bucket were his private washbasin and he was making his morning ablutions.  I watched for a second in resigned disbelief; the absolute arrogance of these people, how the fuck dare he?

“Get your hands out of there!” I exploded, ”Get out of here!”

“It’s ok,” he said breezily, obviously intoxicated, ”I know the client”

“I don’t care.  Out!”

He tried to help himself to a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon on his way out

“Put it down” I warned

“It’s for my friends……” he faltered

“Put it down” I repeated.

The other bartender, what the hell was his name, Hunter, Chad,  I forget, looked over at me.  His mise en place was a mess.

“Rob, when do we get to eat?”

“Million dollar question,” I sighed,”Whenever we do”

“But I’m hungry,” he whined

“Hang in there” I said as I took some deep breaths.  “This thing is scheduled to end at midnight, and there is only so long these people can drink”

I had bought a blood pressure monitor from CVS, and I found a quiet corner to put it on as I willed my blood pressure down.  The thing buzzed and inflated automatically.  I took deep breaths.

“You ok, Rob?” Mike, one of the other guys asked, concern in his face.

“Yeah , yeah.  I’m just taking my blood pressure.  I have to get it down.  It’s too high, you know?”

“Doctors orders, huh?”

“Something like that,” I answered wanly.

The reading was, of course too high.

I headed over to where the family meal was being served, and surveyed the chafing dishes, looking for something, anything that would be easy on my blood pressure.  Crabcakes: no way, prosciutto: in your dreams, truffled mac & cheese:  yeah right.  Sirloin sliders: ha ha ha!  I miserably took a hard, dehydrated, shopworn looking piece of chicken, some lettuce, and a miniscule portion of tomato and mozzarella salad.  Washed down with water.  Lots of it.

I looked up from sawing my hard, dry chicken with a risibly inadequate plastic knife and there he was; stumbling out from behind a port-a-potty, our wayward bar runner, completely and incontrovertibly in the bag.  He saw me and approached, attempting a slurred and incoherent apology.  Just as I was about to let loose with a profane tirade, he bent over and puked generously, two feet from my dinner.

Almost as if it had been trip-wired, there was a weak flash of lightning from behind the clouds, a crack of thunder, the sky opened up and it was as though the all the angels of Heaven, having drunk the aggregate of every last drop of beer that had ever been brewed in all of history, were urinating aggressively on our heads.

I got out my SLVR.  There was one text.  From Mary:

Try to relax, sweetie  xox.

I tried.

The next day was Sunday, and I slept blissfully til 1 PM, the air conditioner in the bedroom blasting, chilling the room ‘til it was like a walk-in refrigerator.  The thick shades kept the room in relative darkness. I relaxed.  Ahhhhhhh.  At 1:30 PM I padded out of bed and slurped down some ice water.  Mary, who had already been up for a few hours, was sitting on the couch.  She looked up from her MacBook and smiled.

“Today, we’re going to relax.  Practice for tomorrow.”

“That’s a good idea” I said, “Did you make coffee?”

“Not for you.  You don’t need the caffeine.  We have decaf”

“Never mind” I sighed.

VI

THE WEIRD LITTLE DEVICE

The device was remarkably primitive.  It was about the size of a Walkman, 1980’s style.  It had a small LCD screen on the top, as well as a narrow tube, connected to the cuff.  The little Asian girl in scrubs hooked it up, and the RN in the white coat checked the placement.

The doctor walked in and smiled.  “So, have a nice weekend?”

“I had a nice Sunday,” I answered

“How about Saturday?” he asked

I looked at him, dead on, “Pretty goddamn awful!”

He laughed,”How about today?”

“Good so far.  Had a nice breakfast.  Kashi.  Those shredded wheat things.  No coffee”

“No coffee’s a good idea,” he concluded,” Has Leigh shown you how use this thing?”

“Not yet”

“Nothing to it.  Just wear it, and it will inflate automatically.  It will take a reading and record it. It will do this through out the day.  Just leave it alone, don’t mess with it.  Tomorrow, bring it back.  We need to let someone else use it”

“Can I take it off at all?”  I asked,” For a shower or anything like that?”

“Nope.   You even wear it to bed.  Just, when you take a shower, try to keep the compressor from getting wet.  Keep it out of the shower, or put it in a baggie” he indicated the walkman-like box.

“Ready to try it out?”he asked,”Do your first reading?”

“Sure” I answered

He took a paper clip and inserted it into a recessed button somewhere on the box.  Immediately the thing emitted three beeps and the cuff started to inflate.

“It will do this throughout the day.  Pretty soon you wont even notice when it goes off.  The cuff might feel a little sweaty, but you’ll get used to that, too”

The cuff deflated gradually and beeped again as the cycle was complete.

“See! There you go.  Your first reading!”  He beamed.

“So what was it?” I asked,” How did I do?”

“I ain’t telling.” he said,”Don’t worry, this one won’t count.  It’s 10:30 now, so we’ll start it at 10:45.  10:45 tomorrow it’ll be all done, just bring it back by 1 PM, and we’ll call you with the results later that day.”

Twenty or so minutes later I was walking up E. 65th Street towards 3rd Avenue.  So far, I was in a really good mood; the sky was a robins egg blue, and it was only about seventy-five degrees, a pleasant breeze off the East River at my back.  The compressor sat in the thigh pocket of my paratrooper shorts and the hose snaked out to the cuff around my left arm.  I figured I’d catch the express bus rather than bother with the subway today.  It would get me home faster, and I could use this day, this relaxing day as I saw fit.

I stood at the 66th Street stop for the Bx M1 express bus and all of a sudden I heard three beeps and the cuff started inflating.  It took me a second to remember what it was but I felt relaxed as the first cycle completed itself.  The express bus pulled in, a silver “Greyhound” type bus and I climbed into the cool puff of air conditioning, settled into an upholstered seat and watched the Upper East Side roll past outside the tinted glass windows.

The Harlem River sped past on Harlem River Drive as the cuff inflated for a second time and I watched with fascination as it pulsed as it deflated and beeped to signify the recording of another reading.  I could deal with this.

“Hey, check out my new toy!”  I said as I walked through the door of the apartment.  I took the compressor out of my pocket and showed Mary.

“See, it inflates and gets a reading throughout the day, and after a 24 hour period, it averages out my blood pressure”

“Wow, cool” she said

As if on cue, the thing beeped three times and the cuff inflated.

“See, here it is in action!”

“Shouldn’t you be sitting down?” she asked

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”  I flopped onto the couch.

“So, what are you going to do today,” Mary asked

“Not a damn thing!” I grinned

“Lucky you.” She said,”I have to work.  I wont be home til 8 PM”

“Bye, sweetheart,” Mary said on her way to work,”Make sure you relax”

The doctor was  right.  The cuff had only been on maybe two hours, but I barely noticed when it inflated.  I made myself a little lunch then went out for a walk in Inwood Hill Park.  I walked out to the northernmost tip of Manhattan, leaned on the fence and looked across the river to the big rock in the Bronx, where Columbia University students had painted a huge block “C” on the vertical face, through some amazing feat of mountaineering and engineering.

The commuter trains rolled by on the tracks and I thought maybe I would take a ride up the river, just for the hell of it.  Maybe I’d go to the Pallisades Center, a huge mall somewhere in Rockland County.  There was a shuttle bus that went there from the Tarrytown train station.  Just walk around the mall for awhile.  Why not?

My feet took me across the Broadway Bridge to the Marble Hill train station and soon I was gliding on the tracks in a sparsely filled commuter car, as I gazed out at the Hudson River.  The rest was easy, off the train at Tarrytown, into the shuttle bus and into the mall through the entrance at Bed Bath and Beyond.  I didn’t really need anything there, I just enjoyed the scent of the new linens and the domestic feel of the place as I made my way to the mall concourse.

I thought briefly of going into the IMAX theatre; I love IMAX movies and there was a 3D movie about Mt. Everest.  But I reasoned that the purpose of this exercise was to keep my blood pressure down and shooting up my adrenaline probably would undermine that effort.  So I just walked around, first the bottom level then the second level, then the top level where I looked over the railing at the people down on the first level, at the roof of the Piercing Pagoda, and some cell phone dealer.

There was the Best Buy right there, and I thought I’d check it out.  The iPhone had just come out, and people were queued up for it outside the Apple store, but the Best Buy might have something cool.  I needed a new printer, but I wasn’t getting anything today, just window shopping.  After about twenty minutes of checking out massive Plasma TVs, and home theatre systems whose subwoofers made the infrastructure of the mall shake, I figured it was time to move on.

As I walked out, an alarm went off.  A security guard blocked my path.

“You set the alarm off.  We need to know how that happened”

“I don’t know” I answered,”I didn’t buy anything today”

He eyed the cuff and the square lump in my thigh pocket.

“What’s that?” he inquired

“It’s a medical device,” I answered

“What is it, though?” he asked

I felt myself getting irritated, and at the back of my mind I hoped the thing wouldn’t decide to take a reading now.

“None of your business,” I answered

“Could you take it off, please?” he asked

“No,” By this time I was really annoyed,”I’m not taking it off”

“Am I going to have to get the mall police?” he threatened.  He stepped directly into my path, actively attempting to block it.

“Do what you need to do,” I said as I brushed past him, really mad by now, and aware that the thing hadn’t inflated yet so I was due.  Right on cue, it beeped and inflated.

Now I needed to do something that would offset that reading.  I was starting to feel hungry, so I found myself one of the many casual restaurants, seated myself at one of the high tables and ordered myself a beer.  The feeling of wellbeing, relaxation came back, and I ordered a sandwich to go with my second beer.  I was consciously aware of the need to get something that was easy on my blood pressure, so I eschewed the fries in favor of a salad.

Soon it was time to go, the sun was heading west, and I boarded the shuttle bus relaxed, contented and happy.  At Tarrytown there was some time before the next train, so I walked out by a marina in the river and watched as the boats bobbed up and down and a group of ducks negotiated the pylons and the floats.

“So how was your day?” Mary asked, ”Nice and relaxing?”

“Yeah.  I went up to the Palisades Center and did a little mall crawling.  Just walked around.  Had a sandwich and a couple of beers”

“Geez” Mary said enviously,” That sounds like my kind of day.  I didn’t know mall crawling was your thing”

“Normally it isn’t” I said, ”I just kind of felt like it today”

The compressor beeped and the cuff inflated.

“That thing is so weird,” she laughed

I am a creature of habit.  I sleep on the right side of the bed, Mary sleeps on the left. Always.  In secula et in seculorum.  The cuff was on my left arm but the tube was too short to reach the night table.  So the compressor sat between us under the covers, beeping, inflating and recording as I snoozed contentedly away.  I got up to pee at about 3AM.

“Could you do me a favor, sweetheart” Mary asked sleepily in the dark.

“Sure,” I answered

“Could we trade places?  That thing is keeping me awake.”

So we did, and I set the compressor on the nightstand, since it was closest to my left arm.  I was so damn relaxed I didn’t care I was sleeping on the wrong side of the bed.

Twelve hours later, though, I was on eggshells.  I had returned the device and was assured I would hear from them by the end of the day.  Every time the SLVR vibrated, my heart rose to my throat, then the screen would show some insignificant number.  I went back and forth to my MacBook, obsessively checking my email, just in case they were communicating that way.  They say that when a jury takes a long time, it’s a bad sign. Or is it a good sign?  Either way, I was glad my blood pressure wasn’t being taken right now, because it would be through the roof

BZZZZZZT  BZZZZZZT  BZZZZZZT  The SLVR vibrated against the coffee table, moving on its own accord, hovercraft style.  BZZZZZZT  BZZZZZZT  BZZZZZZT.  It was a 212 area code, and I recognized the remaining seven figures as being those of Weill Cornell Medical Center.  BZZZZZZT  BZZZZZZT BZZZZZZT as the phone slid across the table, as if possessed.  I didn’t pick up.  The phone went silent and about thirty seconds later it buzzed once, and the voicemail icon flashed on the screen.

I picked up the phone as if it were a bomb, took a breath and pressed the voicemail button.  “You have one unheard message,” the breathy automated voice announced.  Violet, the voicemail lady, I called her.

I pressed 1

“Rob, this is Leigh over at Weill Cornell.  I have the results of your blood pressure readings.”

A sadistically long pause

“Your average blood pressure is 114 over 74, which is just fine, perfectly acceptable.  I’m just going to email the results to Desiree in Albany, and you’ll be hearing from her, probably tomorrow.  Have a great day”

I played it again.  A third time.  There was half a bottle of Chivas Regal.  I gave myself an executive pour.

VII

GROOVY ON THE 4th OF JULY

It is the 4th of July.  I am in a van, heading back from the Hamptons, and it is about 8:45 PM.  The traffic is hopelessly gridlocked, at barely a crawl from the time we crossed from Nassau County into Queens.  The Queens Midtown tunnel is completely backed up, so we rerouted to the 59th Street Bridge.  We are at a standstill on the bridge, haven’t budged in ten minutes and I am in a really good mood.  The surgery is just ten days away, then they cut me open.  But I am happy; and have been cracking insane jokes the whole ride back from Sag Harbor.

The guy in the Toyota in front of us cuts the engine and gets out of his car.  So does the Ford Explorer to the right.  “What the hell are they doing?” the driver of the van, Gerald, grumbles.  More people are getting out of their cars, and I am watching in curiosity, interest, but not anger or frustration.

One of the girls in the van opens the door and steps out onto the bridge, and so does one of the other guys.  I stand on the step, curious and poke my head out.  Soon the sky lights up with a boom, as more and more fireworks light up the sky over the East River.

More and more people have gotten out of their cars in the realization that nobody’s getting off this bridge until this firework display is over.  I realize I am standing on the 59th Street Bridge, and crazily, I break into song:

“Slow down, you move too fast!

You gotta make the moment last

Just…… tripping down the cobble stones

Lookin’ for fun and feeling groovy!

The sky lit up, and another guy from the van leaned against the hood and joined in:

da da da da da da  daaaaaaaa

Feeling Grooooooovaaayyyyyy!

IX

EPILOGUE

The surgery area of Albany Medical Center is not terribly conducive to relaxation.  It is on the first level of the hospital; very bright, very white and very clean.  The surgery waiting room is a drab little room with no plants, no carpeting, no magazines, linoleum floor and a number of chairs for people to wait, including one that is extra wide, for obese patients.  There are three safety glass windows on one side that look out into the hallway, where a gurney rolls past every now and then, with or without a patient.  At the other end is the patient registration desk, behind a glass window.  The other people sitting there are either those who will be going under the knife, or the families of those going under the knife.  A general environment of unease.

I am in the pre-op holding area of Albany MED.  It is a windowless, oblong room with a lavatory at one end and about eight gurneys along the side walls, each separated by curtain dividers suspended from the ceiling.  I am there with Mary, and my brother Mike is there with his wife, Liz, two gurneys away.

I was shown to my gurney and asked to change into the hospital gown, the cap and the socks.  “Everything off!” the nurse assistant said cheerfully

“My boxers, too?” I asked

“Everything.  Your boxers too!”

“Of course you have to take your boxers off!”  My brother’s voice floated in

from behind the curtain,”Geez……!”

“Just thought I’d ask” I called across the empty gurney to the occupied one where Mike sat.

I relaxed with Mary, cracking jokes, in my hospital gown, socks and the cap, which I set on my head as one would a beret and affected a goofy French accent. Soon they came in to set up the IV port, and the anesthesiologist came in to say hello.

“Good thing they’re not taking my blood pressure now or it’d be through the damn ceiling!”  I laughed nervously

“Shhhhhh!” Mary said,”Don’t let them hear you say that”

Soon the curtain moved aside and a young woman with a scrubs and a tight ponytail came in.

“How’re you doing today?” she asked cheerfully

“Good!”  I responded,”A little keyed up, but ok”

“Well, I have something that’s going to really relax you.”

“Really!”  I was genuinely interested, ”Well, bring it on!”

“I think you’re going to need to take your glasses off first,” she said and I got it that this was it.

“Hey Mike!  They’ve come to take me away, ha ha!” I called across the curtain

I took my glasses off, my watch off, my earring out, handed them to Mary and planted a kiss on her lips.

And the minute that stuff hit the IV port, I was more relaxed than I had been in my entire life, and everything had this rosy edge.  The gurney rolled, then made a 90 degree turn and as I passed in front of my brother’s curtain I tried to flash the peace sign, but I don’t think I could move a finger as the gurney rolled out the door.