Commodore – A Novel

A novel portraying the extraordinary life of Cornelius Vanderbilt

December 10, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Looking back at Berkeley, Chapter 44 of CC

    Chapter 44

Looking Back at Berkeley

         1968

 

Mark is shopping on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. It has a large parking lot, which means he can drive there. The hippy revolution has not reached Shattuck yet. It looks like the downtown main street of any small city in America circa 1940’s or 50’s. Not far from the supermarket is a Walgreen’s, a Lane Bryant, and a tall men’s shop. In spite of Marks’ political leanings, he can’t forego Twinkies and Devil Dogs, traif to those religiously opposed to processed food, but a comfortable reminder of home.   In recent years, despite the tension, bordering on animosity, between him and his father, home is still a good thing in his heart.

While, by the standards of Great Neck, Mark looks like a bum, he showers every day, and carefully brushes his teeth so that they remain pearly white. His hair is longish and scruffy. He cuts it himself with a hair-thinning scissor. He has a blonde mustache, and most days, a two-day growth. But by comparison, his unkempt appearance is hugely different from the Telegraph Avenue regulars. His Levis are worn thin and soiled, but not filthy. His wrinkled tee shirt is Tide detergent clean. He puts on a fresh one daily after a shower.   Though successful in conveying he is not from the North Shore of Long Island he cannot hide the features he shares with CC, his handsomeness, which gets him looks even in Berkeley.

At the supermarket he picks up chopped meat, hot dogs, spaghetti, Heinz ketchup, Gulden’s mustard, Best Food mayonnaise (Hellman’s California brand), and all the accouterments he is used to at home. Although at restaurants he douses his salad in oil and vinegar, in his apartment he still prefers his wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with Russian dressing, a poor man’s simple combination of ketchup and mayonnaise in no particular ratio.

He has always been an adventurous eater. Like many college towns, Berkeley has a huge assortment of cheap, good, ethnic restaurants. Mexican, Indian, Indonesian, Spanish, Szechuan and Cantonese, Italian, Thai, Brazilian. He’s tried all of them. Fortunately he has an iron stomach. Not just for the restaurant food, without knowing what the ingredients are, a whiff of street food and he is an eager customer, afterwards licking his fingers to extract every last bit of flavor.

After putting his groceries away, Mark takes to the streets.  One of the great things about his psychiatric medical internship at Herrick Hospital is that he is done with exams.  He has a lot of on call hours but no exams.  From 7th grade through medical school, a period of 13 years, for most of the life he has known, the freedom he now has, hasn’t been part of his experience.   When he would try to have fun, contingencies snuck up and grabbed his attention, imminent exams and midterms, not to mention finals, a day of reckoning, vaguely posted in the future, which was never fully absent from his mind.  Now vast amount of free time are his.  He can kill an afternoon, an evening, a weekend, hour upon hour, waste them completely and no harm is done.

Unfortunately, the years of hard work have taken their toll. Despite the reality of his new freedom, he’s still a prisoner. All along he tried so hard for it not to possess him. Not wanting to present himself like most premeds, as a grind, he had always put on a decent show. He tried to give the impression that he didn’t study all that much.  He envied the easy style of English majors, usually off beat preppies. He was more than willing to copy their persona. There was a certain conceit to presenting himself that way. With his terrific grades, emphasizing how little he studied implied he must be very smart.  Plus, playing down his studying, served as an excuse if he did poorly on an exam.

But now, in different circumstances, nothing has changed. Persona is one thing. His premed uptight identity still controls his soul. In theory, in reality, he is free to do as he pleases.  But the truth is the truth. In college, he may have reasonably succeeded in giving the impression that taking it easy, having a leisurely afternoon was more important than wasting it on biochemistry equations. But it was bullshit. Even then, he wasn’t able to fool himself. His spirit was owned by forces beyond his control. Sticky, like summer sweat, guilt has been his constant companion. Still is. He may have tried, he may have insisted to himself, that he relax, but without noticing exactly when and where, he had so ably turned off the mindless child in him, that it was now gone.

The image he cultivated in college was exactly that, an image.  He was no different than the other pre meds, perpetually on the edge of panic, certain that one disastrous exam could ruin his life forever.  He just was careful not to show it. Among the grinds, worried that they might not get grades in the 90’s, all nighters were the usual before an exam. He worried equally the night before, but he didn’t see the point. He knew the material. Yes a professor could ask a trick question. His son of a bitch chemistry professor, Dr. Reed was known for that. But staying up all night wouldn’t help with Dr. Reed’s sadism. Actually, the other premeds knew the material plenty well, as well as he did, but they imagined doom so often, that sleeping wasn’t a choice. Occasionally Mark feared they might be on to something. They understood their situation and automatically did what was necessary. They didn’t care about their nerd reputation. It was irrelevant.

Certainly, being admitted to medical school was every bit as important to Mark as it was to them.   The desperation they so often felt, defined his existence every bit as much as it did theirs. The proof was his dreams, one vivid nightmare in particular:

An hour before an exam. He has run out of time to try to understand the material, which, so far, he hasn’t been able to get down.  The dream is frantic. It has a racing pace which grabs him up into it.. Then suddenly, the racing is gone. He is lost. He doesn’t know where he is. Immediately relevant, he doesn’t know how he will get to the classroom to take his exam. Then the room appears. He throws open its doors. He sees his empty desk. The dream is racing again. It’s now seconds before he will open the exam booklet. There is no greater feeling of helplessness than that moment. The closest comparison is the time he almost drowned. He had gotten good at snorkeling, at least he thought. His confidence allowed him to go far from the shore with out a life jacket. He breathed in a bunch of water in his snorkel. Tried to blow it out, but couldn’t get back the rhythm. He was far, far deeper than he had ever been. He tried floating on his back, tried a gentle breast stroke. The waves kept coming. He kept breathing in water He couldn’t get any air His arms were getting tired. For a moment he thought that this was it. He overcame his embarrassment, feebly screamed “Help.” Which saved his life.

Staring at the exam, it is as if he is awake. His brain is frantically tearing through solutions trying to think of what he can do.  He comes up with nothing. There is no way out.

He felt enormous relief when he awoke. He had escaped. It was only a dream. His mother used to tell him that. But then as now, he can’t snap out of his hell hole immediately. It takes him some time before he feels safe, until his emotions catch up with his awake reality.  

But here’s the issue. School’s done. Exams are forever in the past. He still has that dream!  It makes no sense. He’s been accepted at Mass General and Yale and Einstein for his residency. He was Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. He should be on top of the world.  His vaunted Permanent Record, the one his high school principal held over him and his family when he got caught smoking pot, the key to his future, has been safely put in the past.  The California sunshine is his to enjoy.

Why can’t he soak it up, absorb the warm rays, bathe in their tenderness.   Why does taking it easy still elude him? The California natives simply wake up, eat their Wheaties and they are in that groove, relaxed. Why is the idea of California, the best he can do? Living is an entirely different animal than preparing for it, judging it sweetly, expecting the rewards. He can’t will his way there.

Where did it go? Until he was 12 or 13, he enjoyed himself without effort, without thinking about enjoying himself. When he did, it was simply on to the next thing and enjoying that. Or not enjoying that, but always immersed. Why can’t he have that back?

His guilt.  His guilt.  It shouldn’t be there but it is.  Guilt about what?  He was without sin that day and the day before. And the day before that. He is perpetually busy proclaiming or proving his innocence to himself. Why does it elude him?  He can’t put his finger on it.

Jewish guilt?

Probably not.  For centuries Christians believed God had this huge book where he kept track of good deeds and sins.  He must have had billions of books, one for every person.  Or did he have an incredible memory? Catholics knew they were being watched. They felt the same way as Jews.  So it is definitely not specifically a Jewish malady.

Perhaps his guilt explains why he is so passionate about causes on the left. His compassion for those having a hard time is automatic, as is his anger at those who can be blamed, those partying, who seem to have no conscience as they enjoy themselves.   Except, he doesn’t always agree with politicos about who is to be blamed, the generalizations they make, the lies they so easily slip into their rhetoric.  Anger is only satisfying when it is righteous, and truthful.

But that is an insignificant detail.  His politics provide an outlet which he needs, at least pointing in a direction where something can be done to eliminate unfairness.  Perhaps there are so many leftist Jews because they share his psychology. His guilt is the same as theirs.

None of this rings true.  Catholics have just as much guilt.  Or do they? They can go to confession and have a total brain cleansing.  Jews don’t have that luxury.  Their remedy doesn’t work. More than once he fasted on Yom Kippur. It didn’t do a thing. It had absolutely no effect on his guilt.

He has torn through D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, quoted them to anyone who would listen.  Logically Zen is the answer.  It’s what he needs. He wants to relearn how to lose himself in the moment.     In Berkeley, as in the Village, Zen seemed to be on everyone’s mind, so it must not be just him. What was expected of them, the cherished answers of America in the 50’s. Everyone is pouncing on “stereotypes.” Trying to be free. Zen eliminates every expectation. There is just now.

Except Zen is harder to do than understanding its purpose. The moment can’t be occupied by deciding to live in it.  It takes training.

But training isn’t an option. As enamored as Mark is by the prospect of diving into and remaining in the moment, he’s never given a moment’s thought to how he could bring it about.  Going off to Japan and studying in a Zen monastery was out of the question, inconceivable. It was not even part of his fantasies.  Life, as he had planned, waited for him.  What was he going to do? Not go on to his residency, not become a psychiatrist? Living in the moment is the answer to the puzzle, to the pervasive angst that he lives in. But chucking his life, and taking off for Kyoto has never crossed his mind.   Diving into the paradise of ordinary life, Paradise Now as a Broadway show is proclaiming, will have to wait.  Besides it’s nothing more than a slogan.  He has to take what he can get.  Cherish, like jewels, his epiphanies, believe for that moment that his realization will wash over the rest of his life.

Except, it dissipates fairly quickly. As wonderful as the moment of recognition is, as hopeful as it makes him, as much as he believes that he has finally arrived, found the Holy Grail, the euphoria, that a great discovery brings him, rarely lasts more than a day. Sometimes it lasts 5 or 10 minutes. The belief and celebration that he has arrived, solved the mystery of his existence, is totally gone in two or three days. The best he can do, the closest he comes to loving the moment, and thus, love his life, comes easily, his awe when Tom Seaver is having an awesome day on the mound. His intellectual gymnastics, his Olympian effort, never got him anything close to that.

Mark has reached campus. Left, right, straight ahead, agita is everywhere. Villains have been identified. Their frustration is being mollified by their united anger. Joining them is very appealing to him. It entitles him to let loose against evil forces wherever they may be. Being angry like that brings the innocence of the accuser.

But Mark can join them when suffering is palpable. He is turned off when politicos make generalization that he knows are untrue. Yes if he can feel the pain he can join the shouting of student activists with his own mighty complaint.  More often, however, they are furious and he isn’t. Driving by he has seen the suffering in Oakland, poor black people, decrepit old men, or 50 year-old men looking old, sitting on milk crates drowning their misery in booze. Unsupervised kids trying to defeat the misery all around them, taking charge, by getting into trouble. He’s seen it. It’s allreal. He has locked his car doors when driving through rough neighborhoods.

But, it hasn’t sunk in. How could it, growing up in Great Neck and busy at school? When he was going to law school at night, his father had climbed tenement stairways in Harlem, collecting unpaid bills for a furniture store owner, a neighbor in Kew Gardens Hills. His father sometimes talked about what he saw in the apartments. He had no reason to exaggerate. Mark is convinced the injustice is not fictional and something must be done. But what?

He feels coerced by politicos with an ax to grind. In Berkeley, that happens frequently. Whether they are right or wrong, his instinct is to hold back, to doubt what they report. He no longer challenges. They can so easily identify skeptics as disguised right wingers, or being cold hearted to black people, which is not true. He actually wishes that he could join in with their anger, feel cleansed by their passion, obliterate any possibility that he is not 120% pro black people in everyone else’s mind as well as his own. He wishes he could be left wing in his heart and not just in his head.

A hundred feet away, a crowd of students has gathered. From time to time they let out a cheer. He goes over to see what’s going on. One by one, students are taking out their draft cards, lighting their Bic lighters and throwing the flaming card into the air. One of the students throws his burning card down on the sidewalk and stomps on it. This gets an even bigger cheer. In succession, several of the students go the stomping route. Without a moment’s thought he joins the group nearest to him. He has to borrow someone’s lighter to do it, but the deed is done quickly, probably to not let his doubts veto his admirable intentions.

Then someone produces an American flag and puts his Bic lighter to it. At first it stubbornly resists the flame. The lighter keeps going out. But the student is persistent and finally he has a strong flame. Once again the crowd has become one large group. The burning flag has a higher priority than the draft cards. There are cheers, swoons. Not Mark. He silently watches the flag burn.

It makes him sad. He recalls, as a little boy, helping his father put the flag up on July 4th. He remembers the look on his father’s face, not too dissimilar to the look on his grandmother’s face when she bencht licht, when she lit the Friday night candles. A sacred moment of respect and appreciation. Marks’ grandparents said it often enough. How lucky they were to be in America. It was the same sentiment Lone Ranger fans shared with the grateful recipients of his heroics, those he had rescued. Who is that masked man? Hi-ho silver he proclaimed as he rode off into the sunset.

The sentiment went far beyond the Lone Ranger’s heroics. America had rescued millions. Not just his grandparents. Millions and millions bless America. He still has some of that left. He has no rituals that he practices, no sacred beliefs that he is sure of. Moving forward into his career has an almost sacred absoluteness, but that is utilitarian. His politics bring him to a higher level than being a work horse with no higher beliefs.

Burning the flag isn’t sitting right. Okay Kennedy and Johnson made a mistake about Viet Nam. But burning the flag.

He decides burning his draft card was an empty gesture. As he walks back to his apartment it worries him. Was he seen?

In medical school he arranged the teach-ins against the war. Called the speakers. He chartered the buses to bring them all to Washington for the Pentagon march. Attended by something like 800 people, Mark made the introduction to Ben Spock, the fatherly pediatricians that a generation of mothers revered. He had come out against the war and was speaking at meetings like this one. It went extremely well.

Spock had a remarkable persona. Marcus Welby, Goyisha innocence. That smile. The kindness in his eyes. His raison d’etre was clearly to be of help. So his antiwar fervor means a lot more than a bunch of bohemians sounding off. He resembles the person Mark sometimes wishes for himself in the future. You wouldn’t, for a moment think Dr. Spock had a secret trove of Playboys. His firm, and now his righteous angry voice, somehow seemed gentle and properly concerned about what matters. Human beings. Suffering. After welcoming the audience, before Mark introduced Spock, he had an announcement. He asked the hundreds of doctors present to see him after the talk, if they were willing to do “sympathetic” draft exams. Meaning they would help potential draftees to get a 4F, be medically disqualified from fighting in the war.

Afterwards, he wanted to kick himself for his stupidity. What if the FBI were there? What if they took down his name? Although he was chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he had steadfastly avoided SHO, the Student Health Organization, whose members he assumed were in touch with very radical organizations, the Weathermen, people like that. Most members of SHO were in their first and second year at Einstein. In contrast to Mark, they had been in college when campus activists had been radicalized, when most universities had classroom take-overs, sit-ins, when all of a sudden students were calling the shots, radical students. Mark had not seen that first hand, only seen it on the TV. He didn’t want to be a part of it

Mark isn’t a radical. Upon learning that he was on the libre-virgo cusp, Nancy, who he was crazy in love with for 4 weeks in ‘63, announced that the explanation for what he thought of as being truthful and balanced (although admittedly to an extreme) was that he was born between September 19 and the 25th. Nancy didn’t last long for precisely that reason. She was an air head.

But she got it right. Mark wasn’t a radical. Some people were proud to present themselves as radicals. Not him. He was positioned at the edge, in between. Some card carrying communists, lab workers at the medical school had originally chosen him to be chairman of MCHR. They asked him to arrange for the teach ins. They knew all the phone numbers he needed to contact speakers.

His anger at LBJ over Viet Nam was complete. But he had done nothing about it, so when he was asked to head MCHR, he was pleased to be able to actually do something. It was his chance to be a hero, a role that had been his obsession when he played baseball, but had essentially disappeared. Until now there hadn’t been a vehicle.

As a senior in medical school he had plenty of time. Having been given the position, he was obsessed with doing a great job as Chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. He started a lead poisoning project, another program that tutored kids in the ghetto, and a health careers program.

The health career program was unusually successful. He got 70 people from the medical community to be counselors, 4 kids each. Together they could choose from 300 programs, volunteer meetings with people in the medical community at work. The kids could talk to physical therapists, inhalation therapists, lab technicians, to X ray technicians, to doctors and nurses about what their career was like and how they got there. The emphasis was on seeing them in action.

It could be dramatic. One group followed an operating room nurse into the operating room, while they were doing a gall bladder. Another time a surgeon brought them in to see an appendectomy. The operating room visits were good for a front page second section New York Times story. Doors were wide open for Mark and his program even before the Times story, but after that there were no barriers. Mark had gotten the NYC school system to allow the kids in his program to take time off from school. They provided buses to bring them to the medical school. He had gotten the Commissioner of Hospitals to provide free meals for them at Jacobi Hospital when they came. When he called any city commissioners in Lindsay’s administration, he saw them that day. When he dialed Aspira, the head of the program called back immediately. He seemed to be the real thing, a student activist who could get things done.

He didn’t give himself credit for being a capable administrator. He felt compelled to do something as the chairman of MCHR, so people wouldn’t think he was enjoying the prestige without earning it. But as for the doors open to him, everyone wanted to be part of Bronx Bio Careers. Even Republicans. The plan cost zero. No one got paid, no one asked for a thing. They just wanted to give. And during that year, for some reason, his ego was gone, his motivation uncomplicated. He just wanted to give.

So Mark was anything but a radical. He was very proud of everything he had started and seen through.. There were very few exams during his senior year at medical school. So why not? But now, in Berkeley, he didn’t know why he strove so hard to be a good person. He knew part of the reason he cared deeply about being a good person. He wanted to disprove his own suspicion that he is all talk, no action. It was all part of a piece.

He took pride that he did a lot of charitable things privately, proving to himself that his desire to perform good deeds wasn’t only driven by his need for the limelight. As a child, when he had a powerful belief in God (or, at least, a desire to believe) he was inspired by one of Rabbi Kirshblum’s sermons. Giving charity was most pure when nothing was expected in return, when no one knew about it (other than God).

So he wasn’t a radical. At the time he didn’t know that he was offered the MCHR chairmanship by actual communists, but that wouldn’t have mattered. He was flattered they thought of him. Only much later did it occur to him that his good looks and bohemian but still all American persona made him useful to them. Since he wasn’t a radical, being chosen by card carrying members of party seemed irrelevant. He was proud that he kept his objectivity.

All of his heroes had exclusively become committed left wing intellectuals, but there were a lot of people on the left that he couldn’t stand. How easy it had been when he first became political, believing that people on the left cared about the unfortunate, and those on the right didn’t. The good guys and the bad guys. It was as simple as that. He wanted his basic goodness to be known–at least by the FBI. Because at this point he vaguely believed that the FBI, now kept his Permanent Record. So for them to get it right was important. Rebellious, but basically harmless. If they made a notation in his record like that he would be relieved.

But what if his draft card burning that afternoon was taken too seriously. As for his comments about draft exams, before the 800 people. it was 8 months ago. Nothing ever came of it, or he would have heard about it by now. Or would he?

In frustration, that night as he lies in bed, Mark debates the flag burning. Back and forth– he is for it, then against it. For it, against it. He wonders if his uncertainty, his consistently moderate positions, which he considers the only way an honest person can resist the exaggerations and lies on either side of a controversy– he wonders if that moderation is in reality, a veil for cowardice. He decides it’s true. He is a chicken. Why else would he think so much about how the FBI viewed him. In his calculated self image, that negated his many years of good deeds.

He’s a phony. His positions are all an act to curry favor with…with…He can’t identify who would be impressed by the serious way he pursues objectivity. Most people aren’t that way at all. They want you to side with them. And that is it. So it is not them he is trying to impress, not most people. He decides the person he wants to curry favor with is himself. The standards that rule him is-they are, he half mutters it:

“Me!”

He’s immediately embarrassed that he has sunk so low. Talked to himself out loud.

That’s what the psychotic patients at Bronx State do.

Okay he isn’t a phony. In the end his internal standards matter, which means he is “self directed,” a good quality according to many articles he has read on self esteem. But why does he feel that he’s always putting on an act. Well he is, but everyone else is. Some say what others expect to hear but privately believe the opposite. He isn’t a hypocrite like them.

Or do they not believe something different from what they say? Do they make a point of not thinking privately at all, keeping distracted, watch TV, get on the phone and talk small talk. They want nothing to do with the kind of thinking he is doing now, meandering, zigzagging, doubting, leading nowhere.

Once, one of the few times he was successfully connecting to his father, his father called what he does the same thing everyone calls it, “studying your belly button.” Charitably, on one of the few occasions that he defended his father in his mind, he accepted that his father meant well. His father   was simply giving good advice. “Move on.” But Mark can still hear the accusing tone in which his father spoke. It is his vanity.   He overvalues his importance. Who cares what you find in your belly button? Why do you think what’s there is of any importance. It’s just lint.

His father meant to mock him. To humiliate him if he could. Just so he could remain better than him.

Why? For what reason? So he can score with Mom? She wasn’t there when he said it. He wanted to score with me. Why? Why does he want to win that much? Why does he have to win.

Finally Mark is able to be easier on himself with a generalization that’s true. Guys need to win. They may deny it, try to be better than that, but it’s what their life is about. Victory. Getting over defeat. They root for the Mets, the Jets, the Giants, the Yankees, with far more passion, far more deeply than they let on. They make believe their interest in sports goes no further than entertainment. Which is a lie. Mark mourned for a week, more than a week when Da Bums, the Dodgers were defeated in1952 and 53. Like the whole season had been wasted. All those triumphs, all those nail biters for naught. He said “wait til next year” like all the other Dodger fans, but even when he said it, as he proclaimed his faith in the future, he only half believed next year would be different.

The damn’ Yankees-five straight championships. Jay, his older brother, rubbed it in every October. Jay didn’t deserve to be all conceited about it, the pride he took in the pinstripes maintaining their throne. Anybody could pick the best team and stick with them. What kind of fan is that? What kind of satisfaction can you get from loyalty to those who are characterized as the pinstripes? It’s like rooting for the Rockefellers.

Nothing can compare to the Dodgers victory in 1955. Da Bums put an end to Yankee pinstripes, put an end to their tyranny. Certain moments still glow in Mark’s memory, Sandy Amoros’ catch. And the way he spun around, his throw from the outfield to get a double play. Johnny Padres. Johnny Padres.

Jay and the other Yankee fans can’t come close to the joy of Dodger fans when they finally won. Joy? When the Yankees won, the most they are capable of having is their expectations confirmed.

But maybe they don’t have to get excited? They are perfectly comfortable with complacency, the security that accompanies those who side with winners. Jay has always been like that, ass kissing the teachers he needed, palling up to the powerful. He’s probably doing the same thing with his boss now. It’s his M.O.

Mark never stoops that low. Why else is he in Berkeley? The heroic is being for the underdogs. Even if you don’t win. That’s what it’s all about– beating the pinstripes. That’s why Jay is where he is, happily commuting from Forest Hills.

The only real question is why his bosses don’t see Jay as an ass kisser?

Or is he? All those political fights Mark has had with his father– Jay always sided with his father. Because he controls the goodies? It’s cowardly, taking the easy way. But is it really that? Is he ass kissing?

Jay likes their father. He respects him. Right or wrong he’s on his side. Is it ass kissing when you want to do what your boss expects, when he knows you are on his side, when he thinks of you as his trusted lieutenant, when you respect and like your boss.

But what if your boss were to lose his power, what if he is on his way down, would you stick with him? It’s not a question Jay would ask himself. The rules of the game are you respect your master because he is the master. Not if he isn’t. Suddenly, he realizes that a fantasy he has always had, is based on the difference between Jay and himself. He will be close to his father, when he is sick, when he is dying. To him it has always meant that, unlike Jay, despite the frequent battles he’s had with his father, he’s the one who really cares. Which means he loves his father more than Jay. Because he will be there when his father is down.

Suddenly a saying from Muhammad Ali pops up in his mind:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

He opens his eyes, looks up at the ceiling, smiles.

If only he could do that. His father continued to call Ali, Cassius Clay. He was angry that he changed his name, angry he wouldn’t go to Viet Nam.

Just before his consciousness disappears into sleep, another Ali quote seizes his mind.

He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

Mark’s convinced Ali’s right. Whenever he’s gone in that direction he’s come to that conclusion. The problem is he hasn’t always gone in that direction. His mind, his conclusions are fickle. He wonders if it is his courage.

He finally decides that he is in favor of burning the flag. It puts him on the side of the fearless, which is what he needs in order to turn off his mind.

 

 

 

 

 

November 27, 2017
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

A chapter from CC debating religion

 

It is 1968, a year when conventional religion seemed to dissipate.

 

Chapter 34

 

Mr. Gordon has his coat on near the door of Jay’s apartment. Jay kisses Dora and their baby after he puts on his coat. They are rushing to get out of the apartment. Jay shouts to his father.

“Do you have the tickets?”

“Mr. Gordon waves the two tickets.”

Dora fusses over Jay. “Don’t forget your gloves. It gets cold there. I made you sandwiches.”   She looks at Ira as well. “Don’t throw them out this time.”

Jay smiles guiltily. So does his father.

“We like the hot dogs there.”

Jay takes his gloves out of his coat pocket and shows them to Dora. She stares at her father—in law. Guilty as charged he waits to be sentenced.

“Well?”

“I don’t need gloves.”

She returns from the bedroom with turquoise wool mittens.

“Oh If you told me. Blue mittens. Turquoise blue!” he says with a laugh.

“Aquamarine I knitted them for Jay as a Hanukah present. He refuses to wear them.”

Ira puts them on and claps his hands like a happy nerd.

“Okay. I get the point.” Dora tells him.

“You married a good women Jay. Caring. You remind me of my mother. She made mittens.”

“She was a nag?”

He puts his hand under her chin and lifts it. “A Yidisha Moma…26 hours a day. She cared.”

She steps away.

“Dad. Did you wear your lucky socks?”

“Jay lifts his pants revealing his own wild striped socks.”

“That’s good enough for both of you.”

Mr. Gordon lifts his own pants. His socks are even wilder. Kangaroos eating lightening, and lighting up.

“The question is. Is it good enough for the Jets?”

“God likes striped socks”

“And kangaroo lightening socks.”

“Well there you have it:” Dora tells them.

As they walk down the hall, Dora shouts after them: “Go Jets. Go Namath.”

“Go Maynard”, Ira shouts. “Namath’s nothing without him to catch the ball.”

In unison they shout as they enter the elevator, “Go Maynard.”

At Shea Stadium, as predicted, Namath throws a perfect pass to Maynard who runs it in for a touchdown. The stadium crowd goes wild.   Jay and Mr. Gordon slap hands.

While breast feeding her son, Dora is watching the game on TV. The first half has ended with the Jets leading 16—7.

Dora puts her sleeping son in his crib. She goes to the phone and dials CC’s phone in her dorm. She’s told CC isn’t there, but then a Sheila comes to the phone. CC had given her Jeremy’s number. Dora dials. Jeremy answers in the bedroom. but then hands the phone to CC.

“You watching the game? Jets are beating Buffalo 16—7.”

CC signals Jeremy to give her privacy He goes to the kitchen.

“I haven’t been following the Jets. They don’t get them up here.”

“But today’s game is probably on. Buffalo. You know Buffalo beat them the first time they played, their only victory   They’re 1 and 7.

“So that means the Jets aren’t that good?”

“Are you kidding? That loss was an anomaly. This year there’s going to be another super bowl, the third one, the NFL champs playing the AFC champs. Jay’s told me, with Namath, the Jets might go all the way. It will give the AFC respectability.”

“First they have to get into the playoffs. Jay’s always an optimist.”

“So is your Dad. He’s excited.”

There is a pause. Both are silent.

“Was that your friend that answered the phone? What’s going on with you? We haven’t had a good talk in a while.”

“Well…”

“Tell me.”

Again a long delay. Then: “You can’t tell Mom or Dad what I tell you. Promise me.”

She doesn’t know why she is asking this of Dora. They already know about Jeremy. Perhaps it is to protect her parents from Dora’s judgment.

“Okay, I promise.”

“The guy who answered. Jeremy. He’s one of my teachers. I’ve been staying at his house.” She hurriedly blurts it out. “He’s married with a kid. His wife is in the hospital”

Dora responds coolly. “How did that happen?

“I don’t know but it did… Don’t tell Jay.”

“How old is his child?”

“He’s a toddler.”

“He’s going to leave his wife?”

“He says he loves her. He’s told me he will never leave her.”

“So what is it then? Sex?”

“I love him and he loves me.”

“I’m sure you know what I think.”

“I do.”

“So why did you tell me?”

“I wanted to get your perspective.”

“I blame Mark… He’s filled your head with all this crap. He’s always turning morality into this crazy universe of no right and no wrong. Like it’s up for discussion. Meaning anything is okay. CC what you got going with this guy is not okay.”

“His name is Jeremy.”

“Jeremy” Dora repeats as if named, he now exists.

“He’s a lot like Mark. He’s been arguing that ending the war, saving the planet, are far more important than the rights and wrongs we were raised on. He thinks those are nonsense.”

“It’s not just Mark,” Dora adds. “Everyone’s talking like that. I don’t know what’s going on. Jay told me his therapist was always getting on him about his guilt, like it was the main cause of his problems.”

“Is it?”

“Sure his “rigidity” comes from that but that is what I respect about him. I think therapists making fun of guilt are trying to destroy Judaism”.

“That’s a little extreme.”

“But it’s true. Everyone wants to put an end to Judaism. Remember Robin Schaff? She was a year ahead of us in school.”

“Yeah. She’s very spiritual. When you see Robin you think religion. She’s off somewhere from the bullshit world. She’s serious. She’s with God.”

“She was always that way. She came from a kosher home. But religious? How can you be religious and write songs for Shiva and Krishna and Vishnu?”

“Why not? If they’re beautiful songs, something you could sing to God, reach out to him… Maybe please him. Why isn’t that religious?”

“What you are asking is, do I think Robin has God on her mind when she sings to Shiva or Vishnu? The answer is no. The songs are for not just for Krishna, or Vishnu. There are a dozen different, … I don’t know what they call them.”

“Gods. Indian gods,” CC answers.

“What’s screwy is that’s what Jews believed before Judaism began, before God spoke to Abraham. The Shma is repeated in every service. The whole congregation sings out. “Sha- ma Yisra-el…Adoshem elohaniu… Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

One” she repeats emphatically. Who is she praying to? 12 different deities, 15? Accepting that there is one God is the cornerstone of Judaism. Never mind the rest of it, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…”

“Robin thinks of herself as spiritual. She presents herself that way. I’m sure she thinks of herself as equally holy as the most observant Jew.”

“Perhaps. Except I don’t think she believes in God.”

“Then who is Vishnu, Krishna all the gods she prays to?”

“While Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the newly freed Jews started to worship the Egyptians gods, idols, all kind of mumbo jumbo, some of them got into orgiastic rituals. Naked, drugged orgies. They were enchanted by exciting food. Pleasure. Like that is what life is. Getting as much pleasure as we can, while we can… Do you remember the rest of the story?

CC does. “When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and saw it? He had been in the presence of God, given the Ten Commandments as his gift to his people.”

“And what did he do?

He threw down the tablet, smashed it to smithereens.”

“Robin’s far from stupid. She graduated from Stamford Phi bête, but I don’t know if the thought crosses her mind. That she is not having a dialogue with God, not embracing him.”

“But she is so serious. So accepting. She seems to have godly qualities, her belief in tolerance.”

“Exactly. I don’t know if it crosses her mind. Not only is she renouncing the most holy Jewish belief, that God is one, stomping it with her feet,  Tolerance?   Speaking about it in a loving way… Tolerance? She repeats. Anything. Everything is okay? Whatever floats your boat.”

“So What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s a repudiation of everything a practicing Jew believes. Forgiveness perhaps, being able to ignore other people’s sins. But tolerance worshipped as much as it is. It means every word we hold sacred is wrong, every prohibition we hold holy, all that God ordered us to do and not do. All of it is nonsense. It means the Torah is a book of stories, nothing else. God didn’t talk to us And if he did he was wrong about what he thought was wrong. Claiming that anything is okay. You don’t think that is an attack on Judaism?”

“And Catholicism…All religions. It’s not just people like Robin. Marx proclaimed, “Religion is the opium of the masses. It’s bullshit. All religions. They’re a trick, to make people satisfied with how shitty capitalism is. The Communists took Marx very seriously. The party closed down the synagogues and churches in Russia, and every country they conquered. Religion had to go underground, All because Marx called it opium.”

“Mark and Jeremy are not communists. I can’t imagine either would want synagogues closed.”

“I hope not. No I’m sure they aren’t. I know they are not communists. They love America.”

“So you’re saying it is a coincidence.”

“I think they believe it would be a better world if everyone embraced no religion or a different religion than what they were raised on. Mark has tried to teach me that, and sometimes I think he’s right. You don’t think Jewish guilt is overdone?”

“Overdone!?”

“My therapist always made fun of my guilt. According to him that’s why I’m neurotic. I can see his point.”

“I told you what I think already. Therapists are directly attacking Judaism, not just Judaism, Catholics’ guilt– they feast on their ridicule. But therapist are so slippery. They would never own own up to that’s what they’re doing.”

Spiritual? NO way Robyn is spiritual. She’s selling a Hallmark card religion. Your soul can’t get to a higher place that easily. Catholics only reach a state of grace when they’ve confessed their sins-admitted transgressions they may have kept secret for years, that they were too ashamed to tell anyone. Same for Jews when we fast on Yom Kippur and promise to try harder to be a better person. Our dialogue with God is the real thing, hoping to be returned to innocence. You can’t simply sing about peace and love and jingle a bell to get there. Or stretch your body into a yoga position.”

Dora continues. “You can’t make guilt disappear by making fun of it. Calling it neurotic is a cop out. Jay would come home from a therapy session and tell me crazy things his shrink said, just like yours.”

“Like what?

“Like how everyone has a god within them. They just have to go there. Stuff like that. It’s nonsense.”

“That’s how Jeremy talks.”

“And a thousand other people like him. You can’t be your own God, no matter how many chants you perform. I’ve seen people go there. Get glassy eyed, have this beatific smile. They look like they’re on heroine. It’s the easy way to a state of grace. It may feel the same but—

CC lashes out: “Mark thinks you are the least liberated person we know. Your kosher home. How you force Jay to not eat lobster.”

“So?”

“Lobster was Jay’s favorite food.”

“Poor Jay.”

“Jay can’t drive his car on Saturday. Even to go to the supermarket. He can’t turn on the light. All this mumbo jumbo– he can’t use a stapler, lick an envelope on Saturday. Sins, sins everywhere, about to be committed. Tell me that’s spiritual liberation.”

“Who’s talking about liberation.” Dora answers

“What is it then?”

“Devotion. Knowing what God allows and what’s okay has guided us for centuries. Guilt has been at the core of Judaism for a thousand years. It never occurred to anyone that it could be anything else… You never thought God was watching you? Judging you?”

“I guess so. Well maybe when I was 10. But now…”

“So you think there is no one there now.”

“I suppose.”         `

“So you are not Jewish. Judaism is based on this very simple, sane idea. God is there, he’s watching us, expecting us to follow what he told us to do. It’s all in the Torah. That’s the whole story. That’s the core of Judaism.”

“You mean it’s not lox and bagels?”

“I’m serious”.

“Gefilte fish?”

Dora is smiling but is intent on not being sidetracked.

“That’s why the Torah has a crown on it. That’s why we kiss it as they walk it through the congregation. His do’s and don’ts. Written down. God’s commandments! He watches every last thing we do.   Making sure we obey.”

“And…”

“And nothing. You’re big on the whole Jewish intellectual thing?”

“What about it?”

“How do you think it started? For centuries the most serious scholars studied the Torah inside out, trying to glean every hint God gave us about what he expected. The Talmud, the Mishnah, it was all to try to figure the Torah out. This hippie idea that God is this nice guy saying “Oh well” to everything. That is totally wrong. He wants to be taken seriously. He’s made these rules and it’s our job to follow them.”

CC imitates God’s voice.

“Thou shall not eat bacon and eggs… Sounds like God is not a very spiritual guy.”

“You’re exactly right. He’s not concerned with the spiritual, what ever that means.”

“It means peace and love and understanding.”.

“And repeating those sweet chants. That’s right. God is not a hippy. He has rules and he’s given them to us.”

“In the shtetl the smartest student would be rewarded with a wife from the richest family so that he could study all his life. There was no Ford Foundation. Understanding God’s will was considered the sweetest, the most meaningful way any one could spend their life. Understanding his rules. Interpreting new ones and obeying them. But never mind all that. Let’s cut to the chase. You don’t need the Mishnah or the Talmud to rule on what you are doing. Adultery. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“You really think there is a God?”

“He’s right there, watching me. And you. “

“But that’s so creepy.” She remembers one of Mark’s jokes. “Does he have a calculator counting the sins, or just a great memory…”

“Very funny.”

“That’s from Mark…Seriously, how do you picture God?”

“I picture God as fair. If you go along with him he’s on your side.”

“Religious Jews never get cancer? They never die young?”

“They do. There’s a lot we can’t understand, but who am I to question him? Dora Gordon at 39 Yellowstone Blvd, Forest Hills, Queens?”

“It’s more than that. God can get pissed. He killed everyone on earth but Noah’s family. He’s definitely not a live and let live God.

“That’s true..”

“Well that’s not much of a God to me.”

“Why? Because by Sesame Street standards he doesn’t measure up? I swear, sometimes I listen to the left’s sacred beliefs. and all I hear is a child. La-la nursery school beliefs.”

“I don’t know what God’s like. No one does. But he’s not Mr. Roger’s. A God fearing person doesn’t question God’s character. I mean who are we? Us judging him? We are forbidden to give him a name, to make a graven image of him. We are little nothings compared to God. Ants scurrying around.”

“God fearing? What kind of God is one you have to fear?”

“My father would have said, “You’re 15. You’re going to say what God should be like? He was right. He still is and I’m 26. All I know is without him I’m alone, lost. With him I share in his glory. And there is much glory all around us.

On Yellowstone Blvd?

“Everywhere. Every day the sun rises”

יֹּ֥אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֖ים יְהִי־א֑וֹר וַֽיְהִי־אֽוֹר Yoe mer, elohainu, Ya chi-or, va yachi or.

 

 

“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

 
And God saw the light that it was good, and God separated between the light and between the darkness.  
And God called the light day, and the darkness He called night, and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”

 

Night and day, sunrise and sunset were among his first miracles. I see his glory every morning when I open my eyes. You never feel that?”

“No…Sometimes in the synagogue, when I hear the choir sing. When I sing “Shma Yisrael. God is one! The proclamation means something to me”

CC takes a deep, deep breath, cherishing the Shma.

“God’s allowing you to experience his presence.”

“But what if it all is a sham. God fearing is what they talk you into?

Dora’s voice raises, “Your world is so pure? Creating these men Gods. John Lennon, Paul McCartny. CC, they are just people. Great they can sing, and create a line or two of terrific lyrics. They’re just people, like you and me. Just as lost. Get rid of God and that’s what you are left with, worshipping celebrities. I’d rather reserve my awe for God.”

CC doesn’t answer but then contritely. “I agree with most of what you are saying.”

Dora wants to pound it home further. “I listen to these leftist leaders. Where are they leading students? Away from Judaism? Away from Christ? To where?”

There is a long pause.

“To equality.”

“Marx’s state of grace.”

“You don’t think that is important?”

“Equal opportunity? Absolutely but–“

“You should teach at my school. Some students would listen.”

“I don’t think anyone would listen.”

CC knows Dora’s right. The school used to encourage students to practice their religion.

“When I was a freshman we had these convocations. They began with a prayer. Everyone was respectful.”

“Do they still have them?

“They’ve dropped them, along with having to wear a jacket and tie for dinner.”

“How come?”

“Students were complaining.”

“You mean the college wanted to be hip.”

“I think they recognized that they were old fogeyish.”

“How did they get them to agree, by occupying their offices?”

“Colleges aren’t God fearing. They’re student fearing.” Dora adds.

CC says nothing

“CC, what I like about you is that you are a student, still trying to figure things out. Some of these activists, with their don’t trust anyone over 30. They really think they have all the answers.”

“You don’t think they see a lot of what’s wrong?”

“But that fools them into thinking what they have in mind is better. They’re going to make a perfect world. They are so sure. CC the answer is Judaism….You were Bat Mitzvahed right?

“Yeah..”

“You are no longer a child. You are held accountable. Like an adult. .. By God!”

Dora gives her a moment to think it over, then continues:

“Adultery doesn’t have a question mark next to it. It doesn’t require a complicated interpretation from the Talmud. There is no maybe. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.”

“There’s no wiggle room in your world, is there?… About anything?”

“There is. I have questions about plenty of things but not about the Ten Commandments.”

“So to you I am just a sinner.”

“No. You’re still my family! We’ll be together all our lives. But you’re grasping at straws. I know everyone wants to have someone but…” Her voice raises like a rabbi delivering a sermon from a podium. “You have no reason to be desperate.”

Her voice reverberates, as if Dora wants to be heard in the heavens above, and below, seared into the heart of every believer:

“You’re having an affair with a married man, a father of a young child!”

CC remains absolutely silent, more frozen by indecision then feeling contrite.

Jeremy sticks his head in the door.

She covers the mouthpiece of the phone then whispers loud enough for him to hear.        “My sister-in-law.” CC waves for him to go away.

Dora continues “I know that sounds judgmental but you know what? It is. That’s how it should be. I don’t know how this whole thing started about not being judgmental. It began with therapists. Now it’s everyone. Tolerance. Understanding. Accepting anything and everything you do. Doing your own thing has become the sacred commandment of our times.” Like an orator, she waits for the rhythm to carry her forward.   “Says who?”

Then silence.

From the look on her face it appears CC is being won over.

Unable to be silenced, not confident that she has made her point, Dora continues to press, “It’s a crazy perspective. Not being judgmental? It’s not a Jewish perspective. What else is there? How else can we evaluate what has happened that day? What we are doing. What we are allowed to do. Even if the debate is not on a grand stage, not on an op ed page, not public at all, if it only occurs in the bedroom at night between husband and wife, as they evaluate their own and everyone else’s behavior. Even if it occurs in your own mind, trying to convince yourself that you are not the judging type. You can’t avoid it. What’s the point of trying to rise above your conscience? CC I love you, but you are lost.”

CC remains quiet.

“Are you there?”

“I’m listening.”

“You know Jay was exactly the same.”

“Why the same?”

“Because he had no connection to God. He was observant but things he did had no meaning.”

“Jay always obeyed the rules.”

“I know. But he had begun to feel he was weird for doing that. That is so strange. He doesn’t have to apologize for being the way he is… God has given him a reason why he should not break free.” Dora hesitates…“I probably sound like a Bible thumper.

CC doesn’t answer immediately but then:

“No I know it’s coming from a good place.”

“It is. It’s what I believe… Deeply. …   CC when we first met, we promised that we would tell each other what we really thought. You told me about this because you wanted to know what I thought– didn’t you? If I was okay with it, then it wasn’t so bad.”

CC answers “I didn’t think about it but—“

“I love you CC. Otherwise I wouldn’t be so hard. But it is bad. Sin is sin. God doesn’t like when we do bad things… Wait. The second half is starting.”

Dora makes the sound of a loud kiss. “I love you. Stay away from Jeremy. He’s poison. God wants more from you.”

With an apologetic voice: “Jeremy is in the other room..”

“You don’t need my permission. If you break up with him it won’t be for me. It’s what God expects.”

““I’ll think about it. Just promise me you’ll say nothing to Jay. Or Mom and Dad.”

“I said I wouldn’t.”

Again she wonders why she is asking this. They already know.

Dora hangs up and goes back to the TV. The Jets come running on to the field.

In the stadium, the Jets return to the playing field to the sound of a huge roar from their fans, Jay and Ira slap hands. Jay moves his pants up and down, comically, flashing his socks. They bump asses. Then they slap hands again.

Hearing that CC is off the phone, Jeremy reenters the bedroom.

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

A Plea to Black Moderates (including Oprah)

After Ferguson two New York City policeman were assassinated, then the five at Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. As could be expected from the President, and throughout the black community, the reaction has been both shock and sympathy for the fallen officers and their families. They are calling call for love, not hate, reconciliation not violence, reactions that should be expected of them and the only hope that can see us through.

 

But no matter how heartfelt their reaction has been, we can expect little improvement in the hostility towards policemen expressed by Black Lives Matter protesters and others’ fury about unarmed black men being shot by the police. What can make a great deal of difference is for moderates to straighten the misinformation that animates a good deal of the hostility.

 

From the very beginning of the narrative that the police have been shooting innocent black men, the media has played up racism as the motive. Starting with Ferguson, a shooting that the Grand Jury took the unusual step of making their deliberations public, then followed by Obama’s Justice Department which independently went over the evidence. There was no question that the policeman involved was legitimately defending himself. There was gunpowder on Michael Brown’s hands from trying to grab the officer’s gun. He did not have his hands up. He was charging the officer. These facts were available to any reporter who did a minimum of research. Yet Ferguson is cited again and again and again by the media as an example of the police targeting innocent black men.

 

Following Ferguson, Philadelphia’s police chief asked the Justice Department to study the problem there.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol  dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that OIS, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25. In black middle class neighborhoods no one was shot.

 

Why has the media not presented the facts about Ferguson? Why has there not been more awareness of the Philadelphia study? Most of us who watch the news know how often they amp up happenings, to capture the most viewers. This is true of hurricane coverage as much as racially charged incidents, but there is another factor operating here. The media has been afraid to appear racist by not going along with the Black Lives Matter perspective.

 

I assume similar motivations exist for someone like Oprah or Mayor Dinkins of New York and I should add President Obama. They don’t want to appear to be on white people’s side in these controversies. It is seen as a betrayal. It should be noted that when the Justice Department’s findings totally exonerated the white policeman in Ferguson, it released this information with a condemnation of the Ferguson Police Department for their racist policies.

 

Even after the two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  He did not mention that Officer Wilson had never used his gun before. The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

 

So I am making a plea to black moderates. Before any more policemen are killed it is not enough to whisper platitudes. Your reluctance to speak loudly is understandable but too much is at stake here for you to hold back. Why does no one bring into the narrative the fact that during the Civil war 360,000 white men from the north lost their lives trying to free black slaves? Your courage is needed. It could save lives.

 

 

 

July 5, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

CC: 1ST chapters

 CHAPTER 1

71 year-old Mark Gordon, youthful in appearance, and his son Robert, are visiting Mark’s sister, CC, at her dark depressing Brooklyn apartment. He is a psychiatrist, his son a junior at Yale, which is apparent from his sweatshirt. 68 year-old CC, is skinny, almost anorectic. Her face is wrinkled. She looks older than her age. She lies on a bedroom pillow on her sofa with a cover over her legs.

Mark has entered the apartment with his own key, carrying a boxed new hi definition TV. His son carries a new sound system.

Mark calls from the open door, “CC?… Surprise.”

CC isn’t smiling. Her voice is unappreciative.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well you watch so much TV. I thought you should join the 21st century.”

“Fuck you Mr. White Knight.”

“Fuck you Miss Evil Empire.”

There are several photos on her desk. As Mark works on setting up the TV, Robert studies one of them. It shows CC as a 6 year-old on one knee, wearing a baseball cap with a big smile. Mark, 9, also with a smile, stands behind her with a baseball bat on his shoulder. They are gorgeous children.

Mark is standing behind the pictures. “Turn it around. Which one are you looking at?

Robert turns the photo towards his father.

Mark smiles, “Oh that’s when I made Little League all star.

CC snaps sarcastically, directing her comment to Robert.

“So did your Uncle Jay.”

Robert holds up another photo. Mark laughs.

The photo shows a a beautiful dame, Lauren Bacallish, sultry, around 30 in galoshes with a Kent coming out of the corner of her mouth, her fox fur coat over her nightgown.

“That’s your grandmother. Grandpa took that picture. She was a beauty wasn’t she?

“She was.”   CC answers.

Mark continues, “Could have been a movie star.”

Mark addresses CC, “Remember how we used to choose who was going to wake her up for car pool. How scared we were

FLASHBACK:

Jay, Mark and CC are in front of their mother’s door. Jay is 11, Mark 9, and CC 6. They are adorable, moving their closed fists up and down as they chant together

“One. Two. Three.”

Just before they shoot, unseen by CC, Mark catches Jay’s eye. He silently mouths “One”. They throw their clenched fists down, and shout excitedly,

“ Shoot!”

All three have chosen one. They repeat the exercise and again Mark cheats. Again unseen, he mouths “two” to Jay.

“One.  Two.    Three.    Shoot.”

Having put down one finger, CC must suffer the consequences.  She has to be the one to wake up Evelyn their Mom. She is hesitant.

Jay teases her,

“You should be good at it. You’re her boop-sala. Right Mark?”

Mark joins Jay giggling. He adds his own teasing: “Boopsi?”

Mark and Jay find that funny. They laugh happily

CC opens the door. With the curtains drawn, it is practically pitch black in her mother’s bedroom. Slowly she tip -toes towards the monster, her sleeping mother. She almost trips. Due to the noise from her stumble, protecting her sleep, her mother pulls her quilt closer to her face. CC freezes. She watches her mother closely. Then danger remitting, she moves forward a step or two, all the while keeping her eyes on the monster. Finally, she is bedside.

She whispers nervously

“Mom?”

No response.

Slightly louder.

“Mom. It’s snowing.”

Half asleep, eyes still closed, she answers in a snarling tone that used to, but even now can scare CC:

“No it’s not.”

CC holds her ground

“Mom! It’s snowing. 3 inches. It’s your turn in the car pool.”

Mrs. Gordon’s tone is angry.

“Go away.”

CC’s determination matches her mother’s nastiness

“Mom!!”

“Okay. Okay.”

Still in her nightgown and slippers, with the children following her, she ambles past Mr. Gordon, who is drinking coffee in the kitchen. Eyes half closed, she goes to the front closet, and puts a fox fur coat over her nightgown. Eyes puffy, she puts on her sunglasses. She slips her slippers into galoshes. Mr. Gordon is there with his Polaroid. He thinks the scene is goofy enough to be picture worthy. With a big smile he peels off the picture as it comes out of his Polaroid. . It’s the picture on CC’s desk.

The flash back continues. She is driving with her sunglasses on, smoking her Kent. She’s only half awake. The three children plus two other neighborhood kids are looking out the car window. One of them coughs from the smoke.

Still in a sleep besotted voice, Mrs. Gordon answers

“Okay. Okay.”

She opens her window a bit.

A new childhood photo is studied by Robert, this one of Mark and CC same age as the last photo

Mark is showing off his biceps in profile, fist tight, elbow bent (the classic “Look at my muscle” pose). CC is turned to the camera with her hand overlying the bump on Mark’s arm.

“That has a story, Mark tell his son”

FLASHBACK

Again CC is six. A neighbor boy has pushed her down to the ground. He is poking at her collar bone, telling her to get up. Mark, who is smaller than the bully, steps up and gives him a whack on the head, sending him to the ground. CC looks at her brother adoringly.

He points at the bully menacingly.

“That’s my sister.”

Addressing Robert, “I used to watch out for your aunt.”

In an unfriendly voice CC answers him. “He wouldn’t leave me alone.”

Robert studies another photo.

“Let me see that one.” CC asks.

Robert brings it to her. As she studies the picture of her mother, CC’s face softens. It is a black and white photo of their mother standing at the top of the stair landing, shot from below.

FLASHBCK

CC, again 6, is down at the bottom of the stairs with her father as they wait for Evelyn to appear. Clearly frustrated by the wait, CC looks at her father for encouragement.

In a kind voice he reassures her,

“You know Mom. Everything has to be just right.”

He picks her up. CC croons

“M-m-m–m Daddy, you smell so good.”

They hug. He puts her down. She smiles up at him. He smiles back happily. He hands her a Lifesaver.

“Cherry right?”

“The red one.”

“Don’t tell your mother.”

“She lets me have candy.”

“But not before supper.”

Beryl, their young black maid, watches cheerfully.

Studying CC’s face, her father moves his hand through her hair. She is delighted, as is he.

“You got it from your mother. One day you’re going to break a lot of hearts”

Mrs. Gordon makes her entrance on the landing. She looks amazing. CC gasps. She is thrilled.

“Mommy, Mommy. You look so beautiful!”

Beryl watches affectionately, but also with a touch of amusement at white people’s foolishness.

Still holding the photo, joyous, tearful, CC whispers to herself

“Beautiful.”

Mark and Robert finish setting up the system. Mark turns the TV on, steps back to take a look.

“Not too shabby.”

He looks to CC for approval but it is not forthcoming.

“Who said I wanted a new TV?”

“But look at that picture!”

CC moves a bit on the sofa like she is trying to get up.

“Stay where you are. What can I get you?”

Blunt and charmless CC answers him

“I’m cold. Tea. I have jasmine. Do you want some? How about you Robert?

Mark shouts from the kitchen: “Where do you keep your tea cups?”

Still crabby

“They’re there. Above the sink. Where do you think they are?”

Mark can be heard rummaging in the kitchen. Suddenly there is the sound of a dish breaking.

Furiously she admonishes him.

“All that school. Mr. Shrink. Still breaking dishes.”

“I just-“

Her voice even more nasty

“Pay attention to what you’re doing.”

“Just-“

Witchy, mean she shouts

“I don’t want to hear it.”

As Mark and his son drive home, Robert is upset

“Dad, why do you let her talk to you like that?”

“She has no one else.”

“Still.”

“I promised your grandmother. Robert, she’s my sister.”

“But-“

“You have to understand. She wasn’t always like that.”

Glowingly he adds,

“ We were very close.”

Flashback

The three of them Mark 9, Jay 11, CC 6, are excited to be in Miami during their Christmas break. They are running in every direction checking out their room at the Fontainbleu. Mark puts the TV on. CC goes to the balcony and looks out at the ocean. Jay opens the mini fridge.

“Look at all that Coca Cola. “

He opens a bottle.

“Jay, let me have a sip.”

“Open your own.”

“Come on. I’m thirsty.”

Jay passes him the bottle and he takes a drink. Mark offers CC a sip.

“You want some?”

“Hey Mark. I didn’t say you could give it to her. She’s got cooties.”

“She does not. Open another bottle.”

Mark hands the Coke to CC)

Jay goes back to the refrigerator. Mrs. Gordon enters the room. She is stunning in a bright lavender bathing suit. She admonishes the children

“You better not let your father see you took something from the fridge. It costs a fortune. Here give me your coats. I’ll put them in the closet.”

She brings their coats to the closet and hangs them. Mr. Gordon enters the room. Admiringly, he watches Mrs. Gordon in her bathing suit, with her arms lifted hanging the coats.

“God Evelyn. You are something else. I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

She smiles with a stop being silly expression. The children are hurriedly taking off their clothes and putting on bathing suits handed to them by Mrs. Gordon. Mrs. Gordon picks up the clothes. Ira is as excited as the children. He tells them they can go down alone.

“I’ll meet all of you by the water.”

As they are about to leave. Mrs. Gordon shouts to them.

“Wait.”

Jay is opening the door. She is putting lotion on CC.

“Jay, get back here. You need Coppertone.”

Jay does as ordered. Mrs. Gordon wipes it all over him. Mark doesn’t go to his mother.

“You’re not putting that stuff on me.”

“Then you’re not going swimming.”

“So. I won’t.”

Ira gives him a shove

“Get over there.”

Mark does as ordered. As she rubs the lotion on him she speaks affectionately

“Why do you always have to make trouble?”

As soon as the children close the door. Ira lowers Evelyn’s bathing suit and starts touching her breasts.

“Get going Ira. I don’t want them near the water without you.”

He jumps down the hotel stairs and beats the children to the beach exit. They have gotten off on the wrong floor but then are guided to the beach

Running through the sand Jay and Mark are racing to get to the water. Running as fast as she can, CC trails them. As they reach the turf Jay shouts:

“I won.”

“No. I won. You had to touch the water.” Mark answers

“Who said?”

They hear their father and turn towards him. He’s already in the water. They watch him ride in a wave. Jay and Mark rush forward and dive into an oncoming wave. CC enters the ocean one cautious step at a time. She holds her stance as a wave crashes in front of her. Her father watches her.

“It’s freezing!”

“Just dive under the next wave.” Her father calls out. He moves towards her

She does as directed and proceeds forward. When the water is chest high her hands are held high in the air as she bobs up and down. Once again Mr. Gordon rides a wave in. Soon all three try to imitate their father, but their timing is off.

Mr. Gordon shouts to them

“You have to find the right wave.”

Jay gets the hang of it. He’s all smiles as a wave carries him speedily to the shore. At the end of his run he stands up triumphantly and immediately reenters the water to repeat it. Waist high Mark and CC are still not having success. They watch Jay with a forlorn expression as their father and Jay grab the same wave. Their father approaches them.

Mr. Gordon approaches CC.

“Come here.”

Hand in hand he walks her a bit further into the ocean. A wave knocks both of them down She swallows some water. Mr. Gordon lifts her in the air and hits her back to clear her breathing. After gagging a bit, she’s not only okay, she’s an eager beaver. They move further in to the water.   When they have reached the proper depth, he holds her horizontally and when a wave comes he glides her in. She has a good run. She gets up excitedly, shaking her hands, races back in to the water and repeats another one. Mark, meanwhile is continuing to fail.

“Come here.” Mr. Gordon shouts to Mark.

“No I can do it myself.”

Mr. Gordon’s voice escalates. He’s a bit angry

“Come here.”

Mark is equally angry

“I can do it.”

Mrs. Gordon arrives. They all join her. She towels Jay and CC drying them. Mark takes his own towel. CC’s cold. Mrs. Gordon hands her a sweatshirt. She puts baby oil on CC legs then hands Jay the bottle. Jay puts some on his face. He offers the bottle to Mark. He waves him off.

Mr. Gordon has a Spalding. The boys immediately take the field. He throws pop ups to each of them. They are both ballplayers, relaxed and sure handed.

“Throw it over my head.” Mark shouts

Mr. Gordon does so and Mark races back, diving to make a spectacular catch. Mr. Gordon’s face lights up. He is proud to show off his athletic sons in public. Jay also takes off. Trotting, he catches a fly and throws the ball back.

Mrs. Gordon has secured two beach chairs and spread a blanket in front, not far from where they are playing. On a transistor radio, rock and roll loudly lays out a rhythm.

Imitating Vince Scully, Mark narrates his own outfield play. He shouts excitedly,

“Snider charges…”

He does a Duke Snider shoestring catch, grabbing the ball an inch from the ground and then doing Snider’s famous somersault. As he completes the somersault, landing on his feet, he triumphantly holds the ball in the air. Evelyn watches him. Smiling, she is also proud that he is so graceful, but no where near as proud as Ira, beaming as he catches other people’s reaction to Mark’s catch. One on looker does a thumbs up, which makes Ira’s day.

Mrs. Gordon shouts to the boys

“Don’t knock yourself out. We have to visit Nanny.”

 

Towards evening they are all in Nanny’s dining room seated around a large round oak table with thick glass covering it. Beneath the glass is picture after picture of grandma’s brothers, sisters, parents, children and grandchildren. They are dressed up, posed and formal trying to look distinguished for posterity. Not a smile among them. Everywhere around the apartment there are slightly yellowing crocheted doilies, pillow covers, and the large bed spread that must have taken a very long time to complete. They are presumably family heirlooms, some brought from Russia , but many crocheted by Nanny herself. None of the Gordon’s are fond of them. They give an old fashioned musty look to the condo, but they are treated with respect,

The smells of grandma’s cooking are everywhere. The silverware has been polished and formally set out next to Grandma’s best fleishig dishes. A seltzer bottle with its squirting top is placed in front of Ira for him to control the dispensing of the soda. As usual Grandma and Mrs. Gordon do the serving of course after course.

Stomachs full, Jay and Mark are busting out of their shorts. They are both bored.

“Can we be excused?” Jay asks. “The Giants are on?”

“There’s still dessert, strudel,” answers Nanny.

Mark and Jay look at their mother with pleading eyes? She addresses Ira’s mother.

“Mom. I think we are busting out of our clothes.”

“And members of the clean plate club. “ CC eagerly adds.

“Which says something about your cooking. We all love your strudel.” Evelyn tells her.

“Mom the Giants.” Ira tells her definitively.

“Go.” Nanny tells the boys.

Ira kisses her forehead. “Thanks Mom.”

He leaves with the boys. Evelyn starts to clear the table.

“Go. CC and me will take care of it. She is the best dishwasher in the family.”

Nanny washes. CC dries. As soon as they finish Nanny sits on a kitchen chair. She calls CC over, points to her lap. CC climbs on.

“You are the best dish dryer in the whole world… What’s happening in school?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you learning how to spell?”

“Yes.”

“Spell antidisestablishmentarianism.”

“A N T I..disestablich?”

“Ment.”

“A N T I D.”

“I’m teasing. That’s the longest word in the dictionary.”

“A N T I D”

“Honey. You don’t have to spell it but I want to continue where we left off Thanksgiving. Okay?”

With a studious expression CC begins

“Daddy’s father was Joseph.”

“Your grandfather. He would have been crazy over you. He was so smart. Once he was walking by your father while he was doing his math homework. “That’s’ wrong” He said. “You have to multiply not divide.” Where had he learned that? They didn’t teach math in the shtetl. How do you think your father got all hundreds on his math regents?“

She points to her head. “Brains from his father.”

She squeezes her knee . “From your grandfather… Go on.”

“Joseph was the son of Joshua.”

“What did Joshua do?”

“He made gold jewelry.”

“Beautiful gold jewelry. Look at my earrings? You can touch them.”

CC touches one of her grandmother’s gold earrings.

“Nice aren’t they?”

“I love them.”

“They are yours when I die. Okay go on.”

“Joshua was the son of Pincus…Pincus was…I don’t remember.”

Her grandmother pinches her

“Ow!”

With a strong Yiddish accent she continues:

“Pincus was the son of Samuel. He studied the Torah morning til night. He felt very close to God… Say it again.”

“Pincus was the son of Samuel.”

“And Samuel’s father?”

“I don’t know.”

She pinches CC harder than the first time. CC flinches but says nothing.

“Samuel was the son of Joseph, another Joseph. He wouldn’t be too happy that he’s disappeared so soon. Do you want to disappear forever?”

“No.”

“So respect Joseph. He was a chazan. They say he had a voice that would make the angels cry. Who did that Joseph belong to?”

“Moishe.”

“Right Moses. And his father?”

“Solomon.”

CC’s grandmother smiles and resumes dramatically:

“King of Israel.”

“He was the king of Israel?”

“No just named after the king. But he was wise like Solomon.”

Her grandmother shakes her finger at CC.

“Get it right. Every last one of them is in your blood.  Beautiful music, brilliance, wisdom, studiousness, they’re in you waiting for you to find them.   If you honor them you will inherit their abilities. They are you if you let them be you. If you dishonor them you will be alone and weak.”

Her grandmother takes out her homemade cookie bin.

“You can have one.”

CC tries to take two cookies

In a scolding voice, “Just one.”

The children are all in bed at the hotel that night

“Did grandma pinch you?” Mark asks

“So what.” CC snaps back

“I don’t like her pinching. She shouldn’t pinch.”

“You probably deserved it. What were you doing?”

“Nothing. She kept saying Zeyn Shtil. I don’t even know what that means.”

“It means quiet.”

“I didn’t want to be quiet.”

“So you deserved to be pinched.”

“I like grandma Anne more. She doesn’t pinch.”

“But her cookies aren’t that good. Graham crackers.”

“I like graham crackers” Mark claims

“No you don’t. How come you make things up?”

Jay admonishes the two of them.

“Shhh. Let me sleep.”

 

 

Eleven year-old CC is with her mother at a department store. They are examining a pair of slacks on the racks. She holds up a pair on its hangar and examines it. Looks at them at several different angles.

Mrs. Gordon supplies her oft repeated philosophy

“If in doubt do without-“

CC supplies the rest

“If you’ll regret it, get it. “

Mrs. Gordon smiles affectionately.

In the dressing room Mrs. Gordon is studying the red skirt CC has put on.

“Try the purple one again.”

CC pouts.

“I like this one. This is the hundredth skirt.”

Mrs. Gordon takes a deep breath

“It’s the sixth. I’m tired too. Just try it.”

CC returns wearing the purple skirt.

“Now the red one.”

CC returns wearing the red skirt.

“I’m pretty sure the purple. Try it again.”

CC rolls her eyes. Completely focused on her mission, her mother ignores her. But when she returns her mother’s eyes light up, pleased by the way she looks.

“Now isn’t that better?” She pulls in the waist as she speaks.

“Much better.”

CC is unhappy.

“You’re going to have to trust me.”

The two of them are having lunch at the Stern’s Department store restaurant  CC has taken on a huge slice of coconut cake.

“Honey sit up straight… Take smaller bites.”

Her voice is harsh. She is irritated by CC’s inadequacies, but she knows her daughter is teachable. At the same time Mrs. Gordon is more than happy being with her beautiful daughter and seeing the pleasure she is taking in the cake. She winks at a woman at the next table who is also enjoying CC’s ardor with her slice of cake.

Later that afternoon Mr. Gordon is watching a Yankee game with Jay. Smiling, Mrs. Gordon enters with CC. She is carrying the bags from her shopping venture. CC plops down on the sofa, exhausted.

“How did you do?” Mr. Gordon asks.

“Great. I got this really nice skirt for CC. And some blouses for me. The skirt will be perfect for barbecues at the club. CC try it on for your father.”

“Do I have to?”

“Yes you have to.”

CC takes the bag her mother offers her and leaves the room, her facial expression dramatizing her oppression. She soon returns with the purple skirt on, still irritated with what is being asked of her. Mrs. Gordon holds the skirt in at her waist. CC is standing very lazily.

“Stop looking shlumadicka. Stand up straight.”

She does as directed, but manages to make fun of her mother by standing up straight then slouching then standing up straight. Her father appreciates the humor. Her mother is indifferent.

“Do you like it CC?” Mr. Gordon asks

CC’s eyes roll.

“Well you look beautiful.” He means it. “Let me see the blouses.”

 

It is a lazy afternoon in February 1956. Outside the wind is howling. Occasionally rattling is heard from an unknown source. Mark has a bunch of friends in his room. They are rambunctious, pushing each other down on the bed, jumping on each other, laughing away. Several have pulled off their sweaters and T Shirts. The thermostat is set at 73. One of the boys notices CC at the open door watching them. He closes the door. Mark opens it.

“Come on CC. You can come in.”

She is excited to be included. They close the door. They soon are back at it. screaming and giggling away as she is tossed around. One of them suddenly pulls up CC sweater. It is seemingly not a problem. She has not started to develop. All the boys stare, to see for themselves. She pulls it back down. And within a few minutes it is ancient history as they return to tussling.   But then she is hot and she takes her sweater off..

Mrs. Gordon opens the door and sees CC bare chested.

“CC come out here.”

She does as requested. Mrs. Gordon closes the door

“Please put your sweter back on.”

“Why?”

“Because you are a girl.”

“Mo-o-om.”

“Just do it.”

She returns to the room and puts on her sweater. They keep an innocent look on their face as they return to tossing each other around. But although they are laughing, almost pointedly, the fun is gone

 

 

Mark and his father are in Mr. Gordon’s basement workshop . Mark is an eighth grader. Mr. Gordon is cutting through a two by four while Mark watches him. He notices Mark is unhappy. He is irritated.

“What’s wrong Mark?”

“It’s my science fair project and you’re doing the whole thing.”

“That’s not true. You had the idea.”

“But I wanted to make it myself.”

“You’re too young to use a table saw. It’s dangerous.”

“So teach me how to use it.”

“I don’t know. … Your mother would kill me if…”

“I’ll be careful. Show me.”

“Okay, but not a word to her.”

The table saw’s sound is loud and at first frightening. Mark is at the controls, lining up the wood for a cut. His father is watching every move. Suddenly, Mark cries out:

He is screaming hysterically.

“Ow-oooh!”

Blood is spurting out of his finger.

“Damn’ you. I knew it. How did you do that?”

His screams continue

“Quiet. It’s nothing.”

Mr. Gordon grabs a paper towel and presses it around Mark’s finger.

“Keep this towel on it.   Press hard.”

Mark removes the towel to look.

“Keep it on.” His father screams. “ Keep the pressure on it.”

Mr. Gordon opens a cabinet and brings out his first aide kit. Soon enough the bleeding reduces to oozing. Mr. Gordon dabs it with iodine. Mark screams from the burning.

More philosophical than angry, “It serves you right.” He examines the wound, bandages it tightly. “You’re lucky you don’t need stitches. That’s the last time I let you near that saw.”

A week later the family is seated in the auditorium of Lawrence Junior High.

On stage the principal makes his announcements.

“This year the winner of the science fair… For his The Air We Breath exhibit… Mark Gordon. This is the second year in a row that he has won.”

There is loud applause. Mark’s friends whoop it up. Mark maneuvers in front of CC, Jay, his mother and his father to get to the aisle. His father pats him on the tuchas as he goes by. He gets to the stage, shakes hands with the principal. Mark’s eyes go to his father as he is handed the certificate. They are both proud, but especially Mr. Gordon. He nods Mark who nods back. A picture is taken with the principal shaking his hand. Mark is less conscious of his triumph than of his father’s pride. He looks back again at his beaming father then breathes a sigh of relief.

The next morning, a Saturday, they are all together for breakfast

“How does it feel to be the science fair champ?” CC asks

“I didn’t win. He did.”

“Who is he?” Mrs. Gordon asks sharply

Meekly Mark replies, “Dad.”

Also sharply “I didn’t hear you.” Mr. Gordon continues.

Mark doesn’t answer.

“Next year don’t come to me. You are going to do your project yourself.”

Mr. Gordon looks at Mrs. Gordon for validation. He doesn’t get it . Rather her expression is that he has messed up again, a look that is familiar to him.

“Who wants more pancakes?” she asks the children

They all raise their hand. She gives the pancakes to the children but denies them to Mr. Gordon.

“You could lose 5 lbs.”

Mr. Gordon takes over the grill and pours 6 more pancakes. Disapprovingly, Mrs. Gordon stares at him.

“You can only have 1 of those”.

He puts 3 on his plate, gives CC the remaining 3.

 

 

April,1959, Marks room. Mark is 14, CC 11. The Platter’s My Prayer is playing on the radio as Mark, with his girl friend, arms tightly wrapped around each other, dance a slow dance. Once again CC is standing at the open door watching them. Why Do Fools Fall in Love comes on. Mark simply has to look at CC and they become a couple. The two of them do a fantastic Philly. As the music stops CC continues to look adoringly at Mark. Mark’s girlfriend watches enviously. She shouts over the music to CC.

“I like your moves. You’re as good as Bunny on American Bandstand.”

“What about Mark’s?”

“He’s better than Don. The two of you.”

When the music ends CC looks at her watch

“American Bandstand is on. Let’s go to the family room

While tasting the icing to a cake she is working on in the kitchen, Mrs. Gordon is listening happily to the sounds of rock coming from the family room. She does a few steps, shakes her ass as she sucks on her finger full of icing.

 

A Sunday afternoon in 1958 at the Cedarhurst Golf Club, on the other side of the huge sliding glass doors just outside the dining room, Mr. Gordon is standing in front of a long barbecue grill looking things over. He looks into the dining room. Gorgeous flowers are everywhere. An ice sculpture of a golfer teeing off has a spotlight on it. r. A resplendent assortment of cold cuts, sliced turkey, pastrami, corned beef, chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, pickles, celery and carrot sticks occupy several tables. On separate tables are cookies, pastries of every variety, a spread worthy of a fine bar mitsvah. Evelyn signals him to return to the table, which he does. Mrs. Gordon has already placed a salad in front of the children. CC and Mark are fussing with it, but Jay has made progress.

Ira, bring me two spare ribs.

How do you want them?

Doesn’t matter.

CC speaks up, “ Bring me two burnt ones like you like, Daddy.”

“Hamburgers? Hot Dogs? Lamb Chops? Steaks? Come back with me and tell them what you want.”

He returns to the barbecue grill. With the three of them Greeting Evelyn with a kiss on her cheek Anne proudly sits down next to her in the chair vacated by Mr. Gordon. She’s a vain pretty woman, with large diamonds on her fingers and rubies around her wrist. She and Evelyn go way back. The two of them were the queens of the Midwood High cafeteria in Brooklyn. They were called Betty and Veronica (from the Archie comic books) behind their backs but it didn’t matter. They defined the in crowd.

Things are somewhat more complicated now, but they still preside at the club, at least among the sizable percentage of women for whom looks matter a lot. It has been this way for so long that they take it for granted as the prerogatives of being so pretty.

“How was the wedding?” Evelyn asks Anne.

“Beautiful. Beautiful. They had it at Leonards.”

“What did you wear?”

She listens closely as Anne lays it out.

“You haven’t seen it. I bought this short black dress with a scoop neck with pearls around the collar. The waist comes in and the skirt flairs out.”

“With your legs that must have been something. Which shoes did you wear?”

“My black Yves St Laurent heels with the gold strap. You know the ones.”

“Oooh. Did Abe take pictures?”

“The wedding photographer took a picture of us. I’ll ask my niece for a copy.”

“Good. I can’t wait to see it. How did your niece look?”   “

“Stunning. She was a beautiful bride.”

Seeing that Mr, Gordon is on his way back to the table. Anne gives Evelyn a peck on the cheek and leaves. Mr. Gordon returns with a smile and a full plate of ribs. He has a heroic look on his face, like they were at the beach and parched and he has traipsed 10,000 yards to bring back soda for everyone. He gives Evelyn her spare ribs, and CC hers. The boys have gotten their own food. His heroics are short lived.

“I didn’t say I wanted them burnt like yours.”

“I’ll go back and get different ones.”

Evelyn is short with him

“Never mind. I’ll do it.”

She sashays over to the barbecue table, looking fantastic in her teal summer dress which contrasts nicely with her tan. Out of the corner of their eyes, most of the men in the room steal glimpses of her. So do the women. CC enjoys watching her walk and the attention she is getting. Her mother’s beauty brings glory to the entire family. CC is proud of her.

 

  1. Mark’s a junior in the high school. The whole family is together watching Merv Griffin. Mark is sitting next to CC. He keeps whispering to her. She is paying more attention to Mark than the program. Irritated, Mr. Gordon shoots looks at the two of them. Mark laughs loudly, sarcastically.

“What’s so funny?” Mr. Gordon asks

“Nothing.”

“Then don’t laugh so loud.”

“I just think what he said was stupid.”

“Who?”

“Merv Griffin.”

“Who asked you?”

“Just that-“

“Shh. I can’t hear.” Jay says loudly

“It was stupid.”

Mr. Gordon wants to continue, “We’re all stupid right?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“It’s written all over your face. Seventeen and you think you know more than everyone else.

“Well you’ve screwed up the world.”

“Me? All by myself? “

“You had help.”

“We’ll see how you and your friends do.”

“This is bull shit.”

“Enough with the cursing. Your sister and mother are here.”

Mark stares at his father unintimidated

“What? Bull shit?”

Mr Gordon is close to losing it

“No one’s forcing you to watch Merv Griffin.”

Mark stands and faces his father like there might be fisticuffs. As he leaves the room Mrs. Gordon Pleads with him:

“Mark. Come on. Apologize to your father.”

Mr. Gordon’s expression is also one of reconciliation, but it goes unnoticed by Mark since he has already passed him on the way out of the room. Heartbroken, Evelyn stares angrily at Ira. He looks to Jay for support, which he gets. Whenever Mark has gotten chastised, Jay has notched up his goody-goody routine. He has that look on his face. Likes it’s you and me Dad.

CC turns to her father. She is upset but her voice is sweet:

“Daddy you have to be nicer to Mark.”

Turning to her, He puts his hand on her head, reflectively

“I know. Honey.”

 

A few days after his confrontation with his father Mark is lying in bed reading The Myth of Sisyphus. He’s extremely serious, also sad. He can hear the family downstairs, laughing and having fun. CC comes to his open door.

“Come on downstairs. Dad’s not home.”

“I don’t like TV.”

“Oh come on.”

“I don’t. It’s for idiots.”

CC, in a teasing voice, smiling.

“Oh. Mr. Camus.”

He self-consciously pronounces Sartre correctly, “Sartre too.”

CC imitates his French R comically Sart r e

Smiling, Mark throws a pillow at her. She screams playfully.

 

January 1960. The Gordons have been called to the principal’s office at Lawrence High. They are dressed to a tee, she in a business dress, he in a suit Mark is sitting with them. In contrast to them he has very long messy hair and a three day growth. He is stone faced as the principal speaks.

“I know you are a good family. All three of your children have done well. Mark is respected by his teachers.” He smiles. “His grades are outstanding. Your daughter has

the highest GPA of all the cheerleaders. Mark’s math teacher thinks he is some kind of genius. And Jay. Teachers still talk about him. You should be very proud. “

“We are.”

“I’ll come right to the point. The reason I asked to see you, Mark was smoking marijuana in the boy’s room with two other students. “

Mrs Gordon is demolished, frightened, tearful. Mr. Gordon sees how upset she is, and takes her hand. Neither of them look at Mark. He is studying the ground.

“I’m going to suspend Mark for a week.” He looks at the Mark’s parents. I know he wants to go to Brown. And he wants to be a doctor. With this on his record I doubt he’s going to do any of that. If, and only if, Mark stays out of trouble, this won’t go on his permanent record.” He stares hard at Mark. “So it’s up to you.”

Evelyn looks the principal in the eye

“Thank you Mr. Lapidus. Mark is going to stay out of trouble.”

“You might want to consider a therapist. Smoking pot is no small thing. And why did he do it at school? Was he looking to get caught?”

“Could you recommend someone?”

He writes the name of two people on a slip of paper and hands it to her.

“Either one of those is good.”

 

As the three of them enter the house Mark is not remorseful in the least. Defiantly he addresses his father.

“What are you going to do? Send me to my room?”

“As a matter of fact yes. I don’t want to see your face before supper.”

Unbowed, Mark goes upstairs .After he leaves, discussion between the Gordons begins.

Angrily Ira confronts Evelyn

“There better be no repeat of this. You knew he was smoking pot didn’t you?”

“I’ve smelled it in the backyard.”

“And you did nothing about it?”

“A lot of his friends are smoking it. It isn’t a big deal. His grades are good. Didn’t you drink when you were his age?”

“Actually I didn’t. I had no time with my job after school to do anything but study.”

“Well that was you.”

“Not just me. Everyone I knew.”

“I can respect that. I guess Mark’s more like I was. I didn’t have to work. I had a lot of time to do whatever I wanted. You’ve given that freedom to the kids. I’m sure they appreciate it.”

“I doubt that. They just assume it’s coming to them.”

“You think I’ve spoiled them don’t you?”

“Sometimes I think that, but no it’s not you. They’re just lucky. They don’t have to be careful like I was about my future. Only he’s wrong. He can mess up his life real good if he tries.”

“I think he feels a lot of pressure. Too much.”

“Too much pressure? I had too much pressure. He doesn’t know half of it.”

“No. I just think he feels pushed by us. To be a doctor, to give us nachis. I’m not sure he should feel that?”

“Why not? I did. It didn’t harm me one iota.”

“But what you did wasn’t just for your parents. You wanted it for yourself. You hated being poor. He doesn’t have that.

“So I was lucky to be poor?”

“I’m not saying that, but I don’t think it’s good for Mark to be doing things just to go along with what we expect? It’s not enough of a reason. I think he smoked it in the bathroom because he wanted to get caught. I think he feels railroaded. He wants to get off this train we put him on. Talk to him. Tell him what it was like for you.

“I’ve done that several times. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

“Believe me he hears you. You’re forgetting he’s a good kid. His grades are great. “You think that is just for him. He wants your respect.”

(emphatically) “And yours.”

“Okay mine. Look I’m not saying it was your fault.”

“I’ll bet you’ll figure out some way it is.”

She ignores his challenge and speaks sweetly

“Go upstairs and talk to him.”

Marks’s bedroom immediately after. Mr. Gordon knocks on the door

“Dad I don’t want to talk.”

Mr. Gordon opens the door and enters.

“Well I do.”

Mr. Gordon takes a seat at the end of the bed. Mark waits for what is coming. He says nothing but the look he is gives him is definitive.

“Look I know what I am doing. Alan quit college and he’s doing great. He has his own apartment in the East Village. Every day he can go and do whatever he wants. He has a great record collection and reads all the time. He’s better educated than half my teachers.

“And what’s he going to do when he wants to get married and have children. How’s he going to put food on the table?”

“Growing up in Cedarhurst is not the be all and end all of having a good childhood. You seem to forget that you grew up without anything and look how you turned out.

“I didn’t enjoy it one bit. You know, when Betsy, that’s what we called our old clunker of a Dodge, when it had to get fixed, it was like someone had stuck a knife in my father’s heart. He didn’t know where he was going to come up with the money. Sometimes, he would take it out on us.   Most of the time he was grouchy. That’s the person I mainly knew. I don’t blame him. Vacations, forget it. If we got to Jones Beach once or twice in the summer, that was it.

Okay, Miami is nice in the winter. Puerto Rico. Camp is nice. But all of it is bullshit.

“Bullshit?” he answers angrily

Mark realizes he has overstepped.

“I take that back. It’s not bullshit. It’s nice. What you have given us is nice. You make it seem like that’s everything. Like I owe you my life.”

Not everything. Just certain things. I go to work everyday whether I like it or not. So does everyone else. School’s your job. Doing schoolwork is your job. “

“I do all my schoolwork. I get good grades.”

“But you also have to stay out of trouble. If I got arrested for pot. I’d lose my job.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

“Oh yes I would. They appreciate that I do my job well, but getting arrested. No way they’d allow that. Their reputation depends on us upholding it.”

“Who cares about that?”

“About being respectable? Everyone cares. I care.”

“I was just having some fun with my friends. It was exciting to do it in the school bathroom.”

“But the risk. What’s so exciting about that?”

Mark gets snooty. “Were you ever my age? You don’t know what that’s like, do you?”

“I don’t. It never even occurred to me to risk my future. It would be crazy. Your Mom’s brother… Uncle Manny. He was like that. They were well off. He’d drink himself silly every day. Great when you’re 16 but he never stopped. You see the result.”

He waiting for Mark’s reply.

There isn’t one then softly:

“He’s the one on the Bowery?”

“I never understood what he was doing. There’s fun time and work time. I don’t understand fucking up your life. The Bowery is the garbage can. That’s what happens when you don’t work. .. You just want to have fun.”

“So what do you like to do for fun?”

  1. GORDON

“I don’t know. Go out dancing with your mother. That to me is fun.”

He adds, “With or without alcohol.”

“You think I am going to become a pothead. Don’t you?”

“Are you?”

No. I enjoy it. But no… Truth is I was in the bathroom smoking before English class. We were going to discuss “A Tale of Two Cities.” I wanted to find out what I thought of the book.

“You don’t know without pot?”

“I do but it is different. I like thinking differently. Pot does that for me.”

“Okay fine Mark, but not too often okay, and not in the house, and don’t let your sister see you stoned.”

“She already has.”

“Jesus. Did you get her stoned?”

Mark’s expression answers him

“She’s a freshman in high school!”

Mr. Gordon studies Mark’s face.

“How many times?”

“A couple.”

Mr. Gordon’s stare challenges his answer.

In a guilty unconvincing manner

Three or four, but that’s it.

Shook up, disappointed Mr. Gordon gets up from the bed and goes to the door.

He speaks morosely

“We’ll talk some more about this tonight. After dinner.”

“Dad. I’m sorry. I really am.”

“I don’t want you to get stoned with CC. Ever again!”

“Okay.”

“And you’re to stay out of trouble.”

Mark is suitably contrite

“I will. Believe me. I will.”

“You better.”

Mrs. Gordon has poured herself a cup of coffee and is sitting at the counter waiting for Ira. He arrives looking gloomy

“Want some? It’s fresh.”

“I need something a lot stronger than that.”

He takes out a bottle of scotch from the cabinet. Downs two shots. Mrs Gordon watches him.

“Looks like you had a great talk.”

“No comments from the peanut gallery.”

She stares back at him. She didn’t mean it to be sarcastic

“You could try being nicer to him.”

“You could try being nicer to me.

“Oh, you can dish it out but when it comes to you.”

“Evelyn give it a rest.”

THE GORDON’S BACKYARD THE SUMMER BEFORE CC’S JUNIOR YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL

Mr. Gordon is looking for his pruner in the shed. He’s obviously frustrated. He keeps moving things around trying to find it. He sees Jay coming out of the house.

“Is Mom inside?”

“She went to Trudy’s house.”

“Do you know when she will be back?”

“No, why?”

“I can’t find my pruners. She’s always putting things where I can’t find them.”

“She should be back soon.”

Ira once more goes over the same spots he has looked before. He throws down his gardening gloves, disgusted. He returns to the house and flips on the TV. Using the remote he jumps from channel to channel, pausing a second or two then on to another. He checks his watch frequently. Finally Evelyn walks in the door. She notices mud on the rug.

“Told you a thousand times to take off your gardening shoes when you come inside.”

“Where did you put my pruner?”

“It’s on the top shelf of the shed opposite the door”

“Why can’t you leave things where I put them.”

“I thought you’d appreciate me organizing the shed. It was a mess.”

He’s angry

“The shed is mine. Leave things where I put them.”

“No reason for you to get so pissed. What’s wrong? You didn’t sleep well last night?”

His anger multiplies

“I told you a thousand times. Leave the shed alone.”

“Most men would appreciate that I organize things.”

Ira shouts

“Leave the shed alone.”

“You know-“

Ira’s in a rage)

“Leave it alone.”

Evelyn is hurt

 

‘Fine. I’ll leave it alone.”

“That’s what you said last time. You are just words.”

She starts to cry. She accuses him

“The truth is finally out. You really don’t love me do you?”

“You’re going to start that?”

“It’s true.”

Evelyn’s tears are now flowing freely. Ira doesn’t look at her. He goes to the shed and finds his pruner where she said she put them. He begins to prune a rose bush. Gets pricked by a pricker. Sucks on his bleeding finger. He sees a pretty rose, cuts it and walks towards the house. He hands her the rose. CC is there. Mrs. Gordon throws it in the garbage.

“You’re not going to get off so easily. You know, you are not very easy to live with.”

He looks guilty, like it is all his fault.

“Mom. Dad’s sorry.”

Evelyn’s tone is nasty as she looks at CC

“Who gave you permission to pipe in?”

CC leaves the room.

“You don’t have to take it out on her.”

Ira, you don’t see it. It’s the damn’ pot. She doesn’t think things over. She says whatever comes into her head.

 

On a bright nice Spring afternoon of CC’s senior year in high school, there is happy chatter on the school bus. They arrive in front of the Gordon’s house. CC is going down the bus stairs when she trips and falls hard on the ground outside. The chatter stops. One of the boys shouts out:

“Daddy long legs.”

In junior high she used to be teased because she was taller than the boys. It has stopped since she became so pretty, and the boys have grown, but she hears her tormentor and it adds to the embarrassment of the moment.

Mrs. Gordon sees CC on the ground and comes running out. CC doesn’t immediately get up. Mrs. Gordon puts her arms around her.

“What happened?”

“I tripped. Same thing happened on Monday.”

“What do you mean? Why didn’t you say anything?”

CC gets up with difficulty. Then she falls back.

“I’m all right. Don’t push the panic button.”

“We’ll see what your father has to say about that.”

 

A week later they are in the office of Dr. Kermit Osserman, world famous neurologist. In his examining room Dr. Osserman has two fingers out in front of him which CC is grasping.

“Squeeze harder. Come on. I know you can do it…Come on”

“I can’t!”

“I know you can.”

She is not able to squeeze harder. He sees she can’t.

“Okay let go.”

She watches him as he takes a vial out of his cabinet. He loads a syringe.

“It won’t hurt. Just a little prick.”

He gives the injection. Counts to 30 silently.

“What grade are you in?”

“Senior.”

“Sixteen.Aren’t you young to be a senior.”

“I skipped a grade.”

“So you are smart and beautiful. Okay now squeeze my fingers.”

She does so.

“Can you feel the difference?”

“Yes.”

“Now you are strong…Okay. Go back to the waiting room and send in your parents.”

They enter his office.

“Your daughter has MG, myasthenia gravis. I did a Tensilon test.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a medicine that makes her stronger. It only works with MG.”

“With ordinary activity her muscles get weak, extremely tired, like she has run 25 miles.”

“Why is it called gravis?” Ira asks

At first Dr. Osserman hesitates but then plunges forward

“You can die from it. The muscles can become so weak that you can’t breathe. Only an iron lung can keep you alive.”

The Gordons become ashen faced.

Dr. Osserman continues”

“Fortunately, it rarely comes to that. We have good treatments. Now most people can lead normal lives. Occasionally you’ll have double vision. The eye muscles get fatigued. Sometimes other muscles, but she is not going to fall off a bus again. She won’t win an arm wrestle, but no one will know she has a problem.”

“Do people still die from it?” Ira asks

“I’ve lost 3 or 4 patients from it out of a couple of hundred.”

“What happened?”

Dr. Osserman shrugs his shoulders

“The medicine stopped working.”

 

In the Gordon’s bedroom that night Evelyn is in Ira’s arms crying.

Ira is gentle: “He said 3 or 4 out of hundreds. That means 1%, 2 %. One or two percent “ he repeats. “She could get hit by a car.”

“She’s 16!”

“The main thing is that she take her medicine. “

“I’ll make sure she takes it.”

“What about in the fall when she goes away to college? Maybe she should be told she can die.”

“No way. Ira. I don’t want you to tell Mark or Jay either. The doctor said it is like diabetes. It can be controlled. That’s what we should tell them. She’s a good girl. She’ll do what she is told without us scaring her.”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

1968 The University of Buffalo in the Autumn

 

Majestic elms line the wide pathways criss-crossing the campus. The reds, yellows and oranges of the trees are spectacular. The wind is whipping up, swirling leaves with each gust. Students are hurrying in every direction.

In a classroom fresh air blows in through giant windows left open to a large maple tree turned scarlet in its autumn glory. 29 year-old teaching assistant, Jeremy Slater is on a roll.

Especially in the 60’s every campus had one, a teacher who could turn on his students with his ideas and passion, especially female students. Cynics have compared him to a rock star at a concert. So have admirers.

His green eyes are Jeremy’s best feature. They light up whenever his non-stop ideas hit their mark. Which is frequently. When he gets going, discoveries keep popping out of his head. One thought stimulates the next. Then the next. Riff after riff.

With each inspiration, he glances at CC who sits apart from the others. Away from home, how quickly a child can be transformed into a mysterious woman . To those who haven’t known her, but are seeing her for the first time, our little girl CC, is a vision. Light as a feather, gorgeous, her ginger hair, streaked blonde by the summer’s sunshine, frames her large hazel eyes. There is sadness in them, but they sparkle, becoming almost iridescent, each time Jeremy hits the right note.

Seeing her in the state she is in, the possibility that this could happen, originally led Jeremy to teaching. Normally shy, when he lectures he is transformed, a king on his throne, gazing beyond his courtesans to his empire. He’s able to look and watch others comfortably, but never as much as now, emboldened by the reaction he is getting from CC.

Her eyes dropped to the ground the first time they met Jeremy’s. But now they melt lingering for precious seconds. His heart is beating on the double. She is also done in. Every word seems like it is coming from heaven, from Jeremy who is already there. Fantasies rarely become actual, but when they do- with the class full, and his mind crystal clear, this is the closest he has come to living out his dreams.

Pointing in CC’s direction, a classmate whispers to the student next to her.

“Look at CC.”

“I know.”

“Look at Dr. Slater!”

Both of them have big knowing sarcastic grins on their faces as they watch the two of them, but it doesn’t entirely cover up the envy in their eyes.

.Jeremy writes WITTGENSTEIN on the board. Emphasizing the v pronunciation in Wittgenstein he speaks dramatically.

You have to understand that Ludwig Wittgenstein placed truth above any other human quality. He didn’t have a choice as most people do. It was automatic. Meaning, he’d be seized with doubt. An alarm would go off in his head whenever an idea seemed untrue.

Imitating Wittgentstein, as Jeremy imagines he must have been, he shouts.

“No!”

He looks around the room

“No!” he repeats dramatically.

Jeremy continues

“A conclusion, agreed upon by everyone else, including him 3 minutes before, suddenly has ignited a rebuke. Wittgentstein was particularly sensitive to the power groups of people have to capture other people’s agreement, the pressure they put on others to go along with them, not least because he was as likely as anyone else to get duped .

“But suddenly he would snap out of it. Recognize his previous truth as an illusion. Doubt would erupt from a separate part of his personality”

Jeremy faces the class. One by one his eyes move from one student to the next and continue to do so as he speaks. They rest on CC. She is enraptured by every word , by every hesitation.

“He was a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University. He never published a single article. He never wrote a book. The world eventually learned about him from the notes taken by his students, which were published later on. But without acclaim from the usual places, his reputation was remarkable. Those who listened to him lecture knew he was the real thing. Other Cambridge philosophy professors would sit at his lectures wanting to harvest his ideas. Bertrand Russell called him (savoring every word) “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius.”

Still carried away, Jeremy continues,.

“Who was this man?   Sometimes, during a lecture, he’d drop what he was talking about. He’d call himself an idiot. He moaned helplessly… It wasn’t theatrics. He felt like an idiot.”

“A monumental battle was taking place inside him. What he had intended to say, no longer made sense to him. The remarkable thing is that his misgivings didn’t issue from the challenge of a listener, but from his own thoughts which had gained the upper hand. “

Jeremy takes a deep breath, before proceeding. “Ordinarily people don’t like doubting themselves. It can be crippling. The mind is meant to function quietly. We are confident enough of our ideas so that we don’t have to go over them a second and third time. We possess them.   When challenged we can usually hold on to them, even if a bit of doubt creeps in. Perhaps it is stubbornness or laziness, or simply we may be unwilling to abandon such a nice comfortable place in our mind. We rarely venture into new territory.  We don’t want to. Challenges from others are the last thing we need. Perhaps that is why we join groups with basically the same ideas.”

“Being in a state of doubt can be fascinating. Hamlet, which many consider the greatest play ever written, is all about doubt. We empathize with his discomfort. We wait to see what he will do. But no one wants to be like Hamlet , a frenzied soul tortured by his confusion, on a pathway to self destruction. We try to end doubt at soon as we experience it.”

“It isn’t just us. When we see doubt in others it is unpleasant. Anguish is best kept private.”

“So you would think Professor Wittgenstein would lose his audience when he would lose his way…”

“Just the opposite!” Jeremy calls out happily.

He hesitates. Again he stares at one student then the next.

“The students in Wittgenstein’s classroom were mesmerized by the process. He led them wherever he was going.   He wondered how, until now, he had not seen his mistake. He had an unusual talent. He could cogently present the problem he was having without appearing too self-critical. It was a kind of courage. He was proud of his uncertainty

He’d go over what did and did not make sense as if it were a fascinating puzzle. “

Jeremy looks in CC’s direction.

“So in the end, his public self doubt was a kind of strength. It was part of what drew the professors to his lectures. They knew all too well where he was at.   They too were often stymied. Most had run out of ideas long ago, not a good thing when you are in the idea business. “

“It was the way Wittgenstein went about it. His students recollected his previous encounters with confusion. And because again and again the answer would materialize, not knowing became a fascinating place to be. Out of thin air: Magic.   Wittgenstein would come up with a new way of looking at the problem that, a moment before, had stymied him. The cavalry arrived just in time.”

Swept up by his momentum, in his excitement, Jeremy is now staring almost exclusively at CC as if he is speaking to her, and her alone. The other students are aware of this, but they did not take Jeremy’s course to be given lessons in proper professorial behavior. He has a reputation.

Nor did it seem unusual, that someone, as beautiful as CC, would pull a lecturer’s eyes towards her. Jealous certainly, but the other females in the audience are also encouraged.   Having spent considerable time before class in front of the mirror doing themselves up, and not necessarily dissatisfied by what they saw, they’re hoping professor Slater might leave CC for a moment, and look their way. If it were a modern concert they would be holding up lighters. Or screaming, hoping against the odds, that, even for a fraction of a second, they would get the eyes of John Lennon.

Jeremy still speaks dramatically

Logical positivism, when it was new, had been able to answer a lot of questions that philosophers had long been perplexed by. The name had a ring to it, like existentialism which had captivated the French and German philosophers. Logical positivism was quintessentially English.   Good English words describing philosophers’ most noble virtues. Logic. Clarity. Ever forward to the next challenge. No artsy fartsy French poetry junking up the mind.

Jeremy walks back and forth in the front of the lecture hall.

“Everyone was excited. They thought they had finally reached the promised land. One after another, paradoxes were dissolving using the power of their new tool. Does God exist? If you followed logical positivism’s logic the answer was clear.”

“Then pouf!” He hesitates for effect

“The party was over. They were back to square one. Logical positivism had its own contradiction. Once again, they had painted themselves into a corner. No one, not even the world renowned Cambridge University Philosophy Department could think their way out of the trap. Not even Wittgenstein. “

“What was Wittgenstein’s solution? He quit philosophy. He became a hospital orderly, then a gardener. He never mentioned to his coworkers that he had been a professor at Cambridge. For 10 years no one heard a word about him, or from him.”

“Then one day he reappeared. He had discovered a way out of the corner. He founded a branch of philosophy called Ordinary Language Philosophy. Basically, (pleased by the irony) he said that philosophers should study how ordinary people communicate. That was the way out of their trap.”

Smiling broadly, “In other words, the study of philosophy, all the years spent carefully defining, clarifying, refocusing, driven by a powerful need to get at the truth, is not the way to get there. Philosophers should toss it all out. The language of ordinary people, gardeners, hospital orderlies, his colleagues for the last decade, held the real answer. Cutting flowers, pushing a gurney, undoes the paradox.

“The professors loved it. “

Jeremy swings his arm as if he is swinging a scythe

“It was a coup de grace to the steel certainties that had been their bulwark against confusion, that had kept them focused, but which no longer functioned.”

His words are imbued with conviction. “Among philosophers a convincing new paradigm is as exciting as the discovery of the New World fresh, beautiful, new thoughts, unhindered by doubt.

If it were a soccer match they would have put him on their shoulders for scoring the winning goal. If he were… What’s the words to that song?” His face lights up “Rudolph!”

CC’s face lights up with him

“He would go down in history…. Which is what happened to Wittgenstein.”

He repeats his name as if it were a magical word.

“Wittgenstein!”

The bell rings. Students file out.

Surrounded by students, swarming him, at the lectern, Jeremy’s eyes have not stopped wandering to CC as she gets her books together. Books pressed against her breasts, CC attempts to seem businesslike as she approaches him. CC’s eagerness is still apparent as she joins Jeremy’s entourage at the front of the classroom. It is in her eyes. She waits patiently as one by one he answers the questions of the students. When he is finished, and they have left, he turns to CC. He also is not very successful at appearing calm and collected.

“You seemed interested in Wittgenstein.”

“My brother Mark’s talked a lot about him.”

“Really. What did he tell you?”

“How he came from one of the richest families in Europe.”

“True.”

“How he gave away all his money. Every penny.”

“He was extremely intense and impulsive. All of his brothers were. His father tried to educate the impulsivity away. He was a titan of the steel industry. He hoped to prepare at least one of his boys to step into his shoes.   But he failed. They went in the opposite direction, totally uninterested in business. They did, however, absorb one quality from him. He was incredibly exacting.”

He stops, letting what he is saying sink in.

“Imagine this. Paul, Ludwig’s brother, was practicing on one of the seven grand pianos in the Wittgenstein’s mansion, when he suddenly shouted at Ludwig in the next room: “I cannot play when you are in the house. I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”

“Each of the brothers, continually felt scrutinized. Ludwig was lucky. As a philosophy professor, he had found a good outlet.

“But that feeling, of being scrutinized, is a sickness, paranoia. Being alone with self doubt is a plague. Three of his brothers committed suicide”

“Jesus.”

“Not Jesus. Jewish. By other people’s standards, he was enormously successful, the star professor at the finest philosophy department in the world. Yet he continually felt like he was failing, incapable of meeting his standards.”

“Geniuses frequently have that quality. Jascha Heifetz would practice his violin until his fingers felt like they were falling off. And then he would practice another 2 hours. What he heard coming from his violin just wasn’t good enough. Bits and pieces materialized that were perfect. Moments. But rarely the whole thing. He wanted the impossible. Perfection, again and again and again.”

“Fortunately, despite his shortcomings, he liked himself enough to perform in front of an audience. He was a bit of a peacock. He bathed in his audience’s adulation.”

“Vladimir Horowitz wasn’t so lucky. Despite ecstatic reviews, despite rapturous responses from his audiences, he repeatedly lost confidence in his abilities. He couldn’t perform from 1953 to 1965. It’s happening again. He’s stopped playing in public.”

“You think that is Jewish?”

“Well-“

“My brother told me Wittgenstein wasn’t Jewish.”

“He was raised a strict Catholic by his mother. But his father was Jewish and his mother’s father was Jewish. That’s where the problem came from.”

“Oh.”

Actually, I’m not just talking about a Jewish quality. People who know Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director, say that despite the masterpieces he keeps producing, he often talks about how he isn’t measuring up to what he wants to achieve. Not one of his movies has come close enough to what he expects of himself.

Partly it’s being Japanese. Only the emperor is entitled to be godly, meaning perfect…”

“But he’s got a bad case of trying to get there. The glass is always half empty. He sees it as his job to fill it. He doesn’t understand anything else.”

“Did you see Women in the Dunes?” They had it here at the festival.”

“No.”

“It’s about this guy who is trapped in a large sand pit. He must get rid of the sand that has encroached on his house from the night before, or it will be engulfed. So each day, while it is daylight, he digs the sand away. “

“It returns as he sleeps. It never ends. Eventually he becomes resigned to his fate. We’ll be reading the Myth of Sysyphus in two weeks. The same thing. He has to use every ounce of his strength, every last bit of it, to push a boulder up a hill. If he stops, it will roll back and crush him. Each time he gets to the top of the hill, the boulder returns to the bottom, and he has to start over again. The existentialists thought they had the answer. Choose to do what you must do. By making it a choice you are in charge.”

Skeptical that existentialists have found the answer, Jeremy exhibits the smile of the perennial doubting Jew.

“Eh?”

Without self consciousness, appreciating his manner, from some ancient part of herself, she smiles, touching his arm affectionately.

She imitates him.

Eh?

He laughs.

Jeremy continues

They think a mind game can get them out of it. Choosing to do what you gotta do doesn’t change that you gotta do it.

“My bother Jay does everything he’s expected to do. It never occurs to him not to do it. Yet, he feels very much in charge of his life.

“That’s one solution.”

“Wittgenstein really fascinates you doesn’t he?”

“He does. Do you have a class now?”

CC glances at her watch.

“Not til 2:30.”

“Let’s go to my office.”

She follows him out of the classroom, then through a series of corridors. As she follows, they smile at each other repeatedly. Both she and he are aware of the possibilities privacy will afford.

His office is a hole in the wall with books piled high on his desk. He clears some books off a chair for CC to sit.

“So what is it about Wittgenstein?”

“It isn’t that complicated. He was a genius.”

“You’re in to geniuses?”

“Everybody is in to geniuses.”

“That’s not true. I never thought about it until college. My idea of a stupendous human being was John Lennon. “

“My other brother Mark used to be into Tom Seaver. What a year he had.”

“The pitcher?”

“Right. He’s a big Mets fan. Before Seaver it was Duke Snider and Bill Sharman.”

“Sharman had a sweet jump shot. A perfect jump shot. Swish. It was magic.”

“Until college. Then all of a sudden Mark’s hero became Ludwig Wittgenstein. “

“Sounds like your brother and I have a lot in common. Including Duke Snider.”

“Those somersault shoe string catches. Ballet. You see him do it once and it gets fixed in your memory. No one has ever done that before. No one since. Did you ever see him do that?”

“No…” She studies him. “Does someone have to be a genius for you to be interested in them?

“You want the truth or bullshit?”

“The truth.”

The truth is, that’s what matters to me. The truth? I mostly ignore people unless they are very special. I can fake it. I do fake it, but-“

“So that eliminates me.”

“Are you serious? Did you ever look in the mirror?”

She is quiet, self conscious.

“Just take a look. “

CC is embarrassed, not just with the compliment but with Jeremy’s flirtation turning serious so quickly.

“It must be hard on your wife. You expect her to be perfect?”

“She says I’m a baby, I’m into heros like a ten year-old. She’s waiting for me to grow up.”

“Is she right?”

Jeremy shrugs: “I’m sure she is but I am who I am. Even if I could change it, I wouldn’t. Doesn’t matter. I can’t.”

“Most people find a way to be satisfied.”

“Most people live a lie.”

CC says nothing. She doesn’t know what to say.

“By the way, this Sunday. I’m having a barbecue. Several students are coming. You’re invited.”

 

CHAPTER 3

Jeremy’s Backyard Sunday Afternoon Late October

With the long grey Buffalo winter ahead of them, Jeremy and his wife Carol are thrilled. It is still warm enough to remain outside. Their home is modest, but the fall colors surrounding their yard, lit by the sunshine, are spectacular. Especially, since both of them grew up with their worlds limited to indoors, apartment houses in Brooklyn, museums the only taste of beauty. A backyard in the country, any backyard is as exciting to them as Prospect Park.

Jeremy is manning the charcoal. Carol is setting up the table. Carol is around 5’4”, slightly chunky but pretty with red hair, and large interesting green eyes. She is full of energy. She brings out a pitcher of iced tea. Then she returns to the house and comes out with napkins and paper plates. Then back into the house:

“I think I hear Alyosha crying,” she tells Jeremy. “Lately, he’s only been napping half an hour.”

“I was counting on a two hour nap.”

“He’s just fussing. I’ll be right back.”

Carol makes her way back to Alyosha. On tiptoes she arrives at his room, and watches him without being seen. He’s whimpering, though every once in a while he screams angrily. She goes to the crib and takes his hand. Very gently she sings:

“If you’re happy and you know it, (whispering) clap your hand.”

He is happy. He hardly whimpers when she leaves and makes her way back to the outside, continuing the song for her own pleasure

“If you’re happy and you know it and you really want to show it-“

As she returns outside her singing abruptly stops as her eyes are drawn to CC who has arrived with 3 other students, two guys and one other female. She is blown away by CC’s beauty.

Each offers their hand as their name is called:

“Carol this is CC, Deborah, Gabriel. You know my cousin Jeff.”

Jeff has brought a football. Jeremy grabs it.

“Go long Jeff.”

Jeffrey takes off. Perry, their lab, runs alongside barking. Jeremy throws a perfect spiral which Jeff catches without breaking stride. As the catch is made Jeremy glances quickly at CC, which is noticed by Carol.

“Now you Gabriel.”

Once again a perfect pass and once again Jeremy steals a look at CC, but this time he sees Carol watching him. CC also sees Carol’s reaction.

A little later, back to the grill. Jeremy hands out hot dogs and hamburgers to everyone while Carol is back and forth to her kitchen.

Later, they are sitting around on the patio. Jeremy takes out a joint. Carol isn’t too happy with him bringing out pot in front of the students, but says nothing. He hands it around. They all take a few hits. Carol takes only one, refusing a second:

“Someone’s got to function.”

She remains busy while the others space out. As the afternoon winds down CC approaches Carol shyly:

“Can I help?”

“No I got it under control.”

CC nevertheless clears the dishes from the table and follows Carol inside.

“You took the bus right? No one’s going to be driving stoned?

“Right.”

“Okay.”

Carol forces a smile

“Are you a junior?”

“Senior.”

She holds up her hand, her middle finger crossed over her index fingers for good luck: “Hopefully I’ll graduate in June.”

“Ready to take on the cold, cruel world?”

“Don’t have to. Going to social work school after this.”

“Which one?”

“Columbia.”

“That’s a good school. Are you going home? Did you grow up in the city?”

“When I was young we lived in Queens.”

“Where in Queens?”

“Kew Gardens Hills.   Actually Simon and Garfunkel grew up there. “

“Did they?”

“Art Garfunkel always made it seem like he was from Forest Hills. I think he was embarrassed. Kew Gardens Hills is on the wrong side of the tracks from Forest Hills. But all those songs about home, that was the place.

“Were you embarrassed?”

“Not really. I don’t really remember. I’m told five of us lived in 4 rooms, and we couldn’t afford much of anything. My parents slept in the living room on a Castro convertible. But my father went to law school at night and by the time I was 4 my family made it to Cedarhurst? How about you?”

“I’m from Brooklyn.”

“Don’t really know Brooklyn. My mom and dad are both from there.

“Did you ever see where they grew up?”

My Mom took me once to Fortunoffs. It looked pretty dangerous there. That’s about it.

Carol is amused

“Typical Long Island.”

“What do you know about Long Island?”

“Nothing.”

“Typical Brooklyn.”

They both smile, relaxing their guard. A bond has been made. The marijuana has loosened them further.

“Jeremy’s mentioned you a few times. I was wondering what you would look like.”

“Am I what you expected?”

“Unfortunately yes. Jeremy may seem ruled by his brain but he’s a typical guy. His hormones are in charge. He gets a certain look when he talks about certain students.”

CC is pleased she has been mentioned by Jeremy, less pleased that Carol sees her as a rival.

“You must have been his prettiest student.”

“He tells me his smartest. Don’t know about that. But if he believes it, what the hell. I’ll take it.”

“We were both undergrads at Penn. It’s funny. Even when he was a student he liked to lecture.”

Gushing a bit too much which Carol notices. “He has so many ways of looking at things. Totally unique. He gets so carried away by his ideas.

“You didn’t know him when he was your age. He wanted to be a rock star.”

“Was he any good?”

“Who knows? His band went no where.”

Inspired by the stars in CC’s eyes Carol gets into it: “When he gets going he can be a real turn on. Like his hero Wittgenstein. I assume he’s spoken about Wittgenstein?”

“He has.”

“He’s gotten that lecture down to…It’s very polished. He may have wanted to grow up to be Duke Snider when he was a kid but now he wants to grow up to be Ludwig Wittgenstein. Certified Genius. Were you wowed?

CC blushes.

It’s okay. I can remember how irresistible he was when he got all excited about some new thought. But his-“

“He doesn’t do that to you anymore?”

“I’ve heard his schpiels a thousand times. It’s pretty hard to get excited.”

“I can’t imagine it getting old. “

“Believe me, everything gets old. His thing with ideas is an addiction. He has to have them. Like food. Happy when he’s got a new one, grouchy when there is not enough. Fortunately he has other qualities.”

“Like what?”

“It’s not obvious. He enjoys seeming like a bad boy. He won’t win any awards for being a responsible adult, but he’s actually a nice guy.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s plenty. There is very little cruelty in him Insensitivity yes, but cruelty no. In a marriage that’s what counts. If he could just get his head on straight and finish his thesis, we’d be rolling along.”

“His thesis is a big problem?”

Carol swallows hard:

“Really big. The fact that Wittgenstein didn’t publish has been a perfect excuse. Jeremy can’t just get it done and get his damn’ doctorate. Anything less than a masterpiece, something that will live for centuries, anything less would be humiliating to him.”

CC smiles approvingly. “I like that he aims so high.”

I know that sound heroic, but it leads to deep fears. The professors in his department are nationally known. It’s an unusually creative department. I don’t know why they’re here, but right now U of B’s English department is hot, attracting more and more talent That’s what brought Jeremy here.”

“I’ve heard it’s one of the best.”

“That’s the problem. Ferocious competition, high expectations makes daily life uncomfortable. If he were training for the Olympics, that would be one thing. Everyone understands that kind of glory, the ups and downs of victories and defeats. But where Jeremy stands in the department isn’t really clear. It gets even more complicated when they go for tenure, but that is getting ahead of himself. He should at least get his doctorate done.

I didn’ realize there is so much pressure on him

Jeremy keeps telling me he’s as smart as any of them, which I am sure he is. Only it galls him that he is not there yet. Thinks he deserves in on the basis of all the great ideas he has. A lot of the senior faculty find his ideas exciting, whicdh is very nice but everything hinges on his thesis.   And that’s not working so well. It’s not easy to knock off a masterpiece.

“So he’s given up?”

“Are you kidding? He has the energy of ten men. He works at his thesis like a crazy man. Over a week he’ll write 20, sometimes 50 pages. Good pages. I’ve read them.   Great pages. But by midweek, he’s doesn’t like them anymore. He tears them up.

He thinks that makes him Wittgenstein because he did the same thing. I remind him Wittgenstein didn’t have a wife and kid.

“So all that talk about geniuses. Does he think he’s one?”

“He would never admit that. He knows how stupid it would sound, but I think he believes it. Or something like that. He’s already figured out the perfect defense. If not in this life, than after he’s gone, someone will discover him.”

“He’s said all that?”

No, but we were watching this movie aand the story was something like that and the tears came out like crazy. I asked him about it, and he told me it was nothing. The movie just made him sad, but to me it was obvious.”

Carol hesitates. “Boy I just had one puff of the marijuana and it’s made me like Jeremy. Motor- mouth,”

“ I don’t really think it’ s delusions of grandeur. He’s able to laugh about it with me. But, what ever that genius thing is, Jeremy’s got a bad case of it. He thinks geniuses are the only people that truly belong on earth. Everyone else is taking up space.       That’s one side of it. Then, suddenly, he’ll hate every word he’s written. He fears he is ordinary. Being like every one else scares him. . He thinks I wouldn’t love him. Which is so crazy..”

“You’re saying he is really screwed up.

“Yes, but so is everyone when you really get to know them. Jeremy is Jeremy.”

“You’re Jewish right?”

“Yes.”

“A lot of Jewish men are like him. Very ambitious. Want to, rather, have to be, on top. Nervous as hell that they’re not up to it. That they’re a nobody. It’s not easy to have incredible standards.” It’s twice as hard to be around it.”

“I think it’s exciting.”

“I’m not really complaining. He never bores me. He’s gotten more and more interesting the longer I’ve known him”

“So you’re saying having an ambitiousness husband is no fun.”

“This is way beyond ambition . The genius thing… I’ll admit it can lead to accomplishments, but over the last year- his time is running out to get his thesis done. We’re not having a good time. If we just can get through this crisis then I could put up with my genius husband.”

“Do you try to save the pages he throws away?”

“I should. If he ever gets to where he thinks he belongs they will be worth something.

She stops, listens carefully:

“I hear Alyosha. You want to meet him?”

CC smiles: “Absolutely.”

CC follows Carol into the kitchen, then beyond.

 

CC is on the pay phone in a small alcove in the 2nd floor dorm lounge. She is talking quietly trying to keep her conversation private. Fortunately there is only one other person in the lounge, CC’s friend Brittainy, who’s unlikely to gossip. Mark is in his Berkeley California apartment phone in hand spread out on the couch.

“Mark, come on.”

The last 3 times we’ve talked we’veland up talking about Jeremy.

Mark has matured into the male version of CC, unusually handsome, almost pretty, and like Brad Pitt his eyes are sensitive which is noticeable even with his gruffly unshaven face. His gestures are robust. He speaks with a deliberately aggressive edge, which took him time to cultivate, as he struggled to bury his childhood sweetness and emerge his version of a man. Despite his effort he can’t all together cancel out his still delicate persona. Country Joe and the Fish are playing in the background.

“Mark. He’s married. He has a one year old son.”

He teases, “I know you CC”

Almost swooning, “I’ll admit,) he’s the most brilliant man I’ve ever met.”

She looks Brittany’s way, fearful that she has heard something.

Mark giggles. He’s heard her swoon

“CC you’re in love. You’re in love. That’s what it is.

She grits her teeth . “It’s not so simple. His wife has lupus. I could never do that to her.

“Strange coincidence. You’ve got myasthenia and he’s flirting with you. Does he know?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Still, myasthenia is not a small thing.”

“No comparison. You can get really sick from Lupus. You can die.”

“So could you. He has a thing about sick women.”

“Let’s keep it simple. He’s married.”

“Well…”

“He talks a lot about Wittgenstein. Your hero.”

He’s pleased, “What about him?”

“How Wittgenstein demanded so much of himself. Jeremy’s got the same problem as you. Everything has to be one in a million good or he can’t go with it.

“I’m not like that.”

“Since when?”

“Give me a break.”

“Anyway. He hasn’t finished his thesis. The professors in the English department, according to his wife, love him, but they can only extend the deadline for his thesis so long. His time is running out. Carol’s worried that –“

“Carol?”

“His wife. if he doesn’t get it done by this summer they are going to cut him loose.” “He’s feeling incredible pressure.”

“She told you all that?”

“More or less. We were stoned.”

“Oh, I get it.”

Mark is pleased that CC is still smoking, happy that he turned her on to one of life’s treasures.

“He worries a lot about the upcoming deadline for his thesis. Practically every night he can’t sleep. Lately, nothing she tells him, comforts him.”

In a boasting tone:

“Me, Jeremy and Wittgenstein.”

She teases affectionately:

“Yeah. You like to make things 10 times harder than they have to be.”

“You don’t get it, do you?”

“What’s there to get? How to be crazy?”

“You think me and Jeremy are crazy?”

“And Wittgenstein!”

“You think we are crazy?”

CC doesn’t answer. She’s pleased that she has gotten under Mark’s skin. He’s pleased that she is in love with someone like himself.

 

A week later Jeremy’s class is ending. CC comfortably follows Jeremy into his office without being asked.

“I liked Carol.”

“She liked you.”

“Hopefully, we can get together again. Ever eat at Main Moon?”

“The takeout place?”

“They have incredible dumplings. They have some tables. I go there a lot.”

“Unfortunately it’s not going to happen. Carol’s not happy about my friendship with you. When she heard you came to my office, she let me have it. She doesn’t want me seeing you here.”

“Something I did?”

“No. She likes you. It’s me. She doesn’t like the look on my face when I mention you. Things heat up quickly if I even say your name.”

“She’s that jealous?”

“Not usually but I think she has good reason.”

“What do you mean?”

He moves her hair out of her eyes.

“You can’t figure that out?

He moves closer to her. Jeremy tries to kiss her. She turns her head away.

Jeremy, No. .. Carol..

But when he backs off, he can see the disappointment in her eyes. He goes to kiss her again. She backs further away, but he manages to plant a kiss. He puts his arms around her. CC is not physically strong. He holds her tightly while she resists. He can sense her ambivalence. He hopes no means yes.

Afraid, she reluctantly submits. Her fear excites her.

There’s a knock on the door. They quickly disengage, straighten their clothes. Jeremy’s erection is poking into his pants. He sticks his hand in his crotch and directs his penis down to the floor. CC finds that funny.

And exciting.

 

 

Chapter 4

Jeremy approaches his pal Dave’s office. They’ve known each other for years. They applied together for the graduate program , and were very happy when they both got in.

David is marking students’ papers. There is a knock. Jeremy enters:

“Busy?” Jeremy asks.

“I got time.”

David immediately recognizes that Jeremy is upset.

“Still stuck with your thesis? Believe it or not, I finished mine. I handed it in yesterday.”

Jeremy offers his hand

“Congrats. We’ll have to celebrate.”

“How about now? Let’s get out of here.”

Just off campus is a coffee shop that they both like. It is a funky combination of old oak Windsor chairs grouped around tables. Part of the floor is old linoleum, part unfinished wood. There are two well worn leather sofas, cracking with dryness. With coffee tables in front of them, covered by today and yesterday’s newspapers. Several nice looking student waitresses dress the place up, as well as loud Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Richie Havens, Mother Earth. A busboy puts water in their glasses. Jeremy click s his glass on David’s for a toast.

“To Dr. Maslov to be.”

“To Dr. Slater, who is about to get his act together starting this afternoon.”

“I wish.”

“You wish? Forget wishing. You just have to do it.”

“So what’s your secret?”

“No secret. You just have to tunnel ahead. Dig your way there.”

“Through the mud.”

“Mud, whatever. It won’t happen where you are most of the time. Flying high.”

“You mean the pot?”

“You could use a few less “oh wows!” And more “one plus one equals two.” But even without the pot I think that’s where your head is all the time anyway.”

“Maybe.”

“That’s the secret. Digging. What’s the word everyone uses?… Being grounded.”

“You mean working?”

“Exactly. But real work, not the inspired kind.”

“That’s real. Just because you are excited and enjoying yourself.”

“Well I mean the other kind. Work, work.”

Jeremy waxes poetically,

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

David is impressed:

“I didn’t know you were religious.”

“ You know me, a line here, a line there.”

“You’re not too good with the dust part are you?”

“Doesn’t matter? I’m making enough bread.”

“I’d call it cake.”

David notices that Jeremy is upset. He smiles at him warmly.

“Okay come to mama. What’s wrong?”

“I’m in love.”

“Again?”

“When did I ever say I was in love?”

“You implied it. A thousand times.”

“No I didn’t. This is real.”

“Last time it was real.”

“What are you talking about? You mean Martha? I never said it was love.”

“You said you were turned on.”

“Yeah I was, but this is different. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

David is used to Jeremy’s dramatics which he understands is real to Jeremy, but too often, over the top to take very seriously.

“Go ahead.”

“It’s one of my students.”

“I would expect nothing less. You’re not big on keeping things simple. “

“No. This is something else. I think this is where I’ve been heading all my life.”

David is amused. He gives Jeremy a goofy smile

“Uh-oh.”

The waitress comes to their table. She’s very attractive. Both of them, but particularly David, look at her flirtatiously. She knows it and is enjoying their attention.

“Two coffees.” David tells her

The waitress leaves. She has a nice walk. Their eyes follow her.

Jer3emy begins: “When you were younger, did you think you were going to find this incredible woman and that would be it?”

“You mean like our waitress?”

Jeremy looks him in the eye.

“Did you?”

“I guess so.”

“I’ve built my life around her. “

Amused David replies

“Come on.”

“No I mean it. It’s true. Everywhere I’ve been, I was searching for her. It’s like I was missing this piece of me. You’ve never felt that?”

David’s face is flat:

“Go on.”

“If I went to the museum I would be looking at the paintings, but out of the corner of my eye, if a nice looking woman walked by, that was it for the painting. She had me.

When I lived in the Village I’d walk the streets. Street after street. Same thing. Looking, looking. It’s why I moved to the Village, to up the chances.”

“Plenty of guys do that. They’re looking to get laid.”

“But that wasn’t it. This started when I was 12 or 13. Okay maybe every guy has these hormone spurts. But it wasn’t that. I was looking for… “

“Go ahead.”

“You want me to say it?”

“Yes. Say it.”

“True love!”

It is an awkward moment. They both know it. He continues

“Sounds stupid, but everything important sounds stupid.”

David’s eyes continue to wander through the room, hoping to continue his flirtation with the waitress. He watches her serve another table. Jeremy sees that he’s not being taken seriously. He admonishes him

“Can I go on?”

“It’s all yours. “

“Do you know why I came to Buffalo?…  Yeah you, but you followed me. The real reason… You’re not going to believe it.”

“When it comes to you I believe anything. Why did you come to Buffalo?

“Because when I came up for an interview I saw this student in the cafeteria. It was maybe a glimpse, but she was beautiful. That’s why I came here. To meet her.”

“You were already married.”

“I know.”

“Who was she?”

“I never saw her again.”

“You’re serious?”

“I know it’s idiotic.”

David says nothing.

“But it’s true.”

“You’ve done that more than once?”

Although Jeremy doesn’t say anything the way he looks at him is clear .

“That is so crazy. There’s got to be a name for that. What does your shrink say?”

“He throws it into some big basket. Psychiatry has maybe 6 or 7 of them. He’s actually been hinting that he’s figured me out. “

“Really?”

He’s been hinting. He doesn’t know for sure, but he thinks, along with 6 million other people I have bipolar disorder.

“So that explains you?”

In a sarcastic tone Jeremy continues

“According to him that explains me. He’s nailed it. I’m like 6 million other people. “

“So what do you think your diagnosis is?”

“I’m in love.”

“That’s it?”

“I’m just telling you like it is. I mean I may go overboard…”

“How’s that?”

“Everything I’ve ever done. EVERYTHING. Every award in college, every home run I hit, every basket I scored… People put together a CV trying to impress a future employer. My accomplishments, whatever they’ve been- it’s all been for that day when I would find the woman of my dreams. I’d lay it at her feet. Look at what I’ve done!”

David has a shit eating grin as he speaks. Jeremy notices.

“What’s so funny?”

“Your life is a Hollywood movie.”

“Yeah well. There’s a reason they make all those movies. I’m not alone feeling this way. (seeing the look on David’s face) You still are laughing at me.”

“I know you’re serious. It’s just you have a knack for admitting to things that no one else ever mentions. Well maybe teenage girls. But guys? Not even in passing. Sure I’ve watched those movies and gotten in to them. I’ve been there in real life too. So have most men, but after their ass has been kicked, after they have been humiliated a few times, they’ve learned their lesson. They steer clear. Having a broken heart is not where most guys want to be.”

Jeremy’s attention wanders off.

“Where are you?”

“This song… Carol wrote it.”

Half mumbling half seriously he sings:

“HEY YOU WITH THE BROKEN SMILE

COME ON OVER AND STAY FOR A WHILE

HEY YOU WITH THE HUNGER IN YOUR EYES”

“Can’t remember the rest…”

Jeremy hums the tune for a moment

“Oh right:

I RECOGNIZE THAT LOOK ON YOUR FACE

A SHATTERED HEART STILL SEARCHING FOR GRACE

DISAPPOINTED? I KNOW IT’S NOT THE WAY YOU PLANNED.

DARLING SAVE YOUR WORDS

BECAUSE I KNOW THAT IS THE WAY IT HAPPENS

YOU WOULDN’T BE THE FIRST

TO BE STANDING

WITH YOUR HEART LEFT IN YOUR HANDS

Dave shakes his head. Looks up to the sky.

“Carol…”

“That’s what I am saying. I know about it. Been there. Pretty sure I inspired her song.

I’m sure you did. But most guys after it happens once, twice…   most guys stick to sports. But you. I don’t know whether you’re incredibly stupid or fearless. It’s a stage you’re supposed to get by. You’re 28. Move on.”

“Oh, Mr. Maturity.”

(insistently) “The girl of my dreams, of your dreams, of every guy’s dreams, is exactly that.”

Almost shouting: “A fucking dream!”

“You’re28! Why do you have a problem with that? Why are you stuck?”

Somewhat meekly Jeremy replies:

“You’re right.”

“Open your eyes. It isn’t just love. You make such a big deal about finding the truth. It’s right in front of you. It’s called the way things are.”

“Come on.”

“Your dream girl. You’ve devoted your life to finding her? She doesn’t exist.”

“You’re too chicken to think about this aren’t you?”

“No. I’ve just moved on. It’s not in the stars. I’m right here on earth digging ditches.”

“I’ve dug a thousand ditches. How do you think I got so many fellowships to come here. I‘ve worked my ass off. It doesn’t change anything.”

“Strange coincidence that you’ve fallen in love exactly when your head has to be on straight, exactly when you have to get your thesis done.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with it.”

“You’re in never-never land. You’re fucking Peter Pan (chanting) I won’t grow up. I won’t grow up.”

“You are the biggest cynic.”

“Cynic? I’m just telling you what you already know.”

“Never never land. You got to dig ditches not fly around. Learn how to be satisfied. It is possible. Lana and I have made it work. Warts and all. She’s a real person. No body else gives a shit. She does. I’ll take that.”

“Look, I did the same thing with Carol. And she’s terrific. I realize what I’m talking about is asinine. “

“Puer aeternus. Living your life waiting for your ship to come in. “

“I don’t need that Jungian shit. Look I know you are right. Absolutely right.

“You’re not 14 anymore.”

“You’re right. You’re right. You are right. Believe me I know it. You’re right. It’s not like I didn’t do the same thing. I got tired of waiting. I married Carol to go forward, to get on with it instead of waiting. “

“You fuckin’ seized the day.”

“So you like Bellow?”

I read Seize the Day years ago. I had an epiphany. Only it lasted maybe 4 minutes.

“You read too much. “

“Me? You’re the one. You need to get your thrills outside of books.”

“Look who’s talking.”

“I’m gonna’ sign us up for a polar expedition.”

“We’ll be the first Jews from Brooklyn who grew up in an apartment house to go to the North Pole.”

“How about Antarctica?”

David takes a breath, refocuses.

“So what are you going to do?”

“You know what I am going to do.”

With a gentle still friendly edge of superiority David answers him

I do. Let’s start from the beginning. You’ve waited all your life, everything you’ve strived to become… it’s been for-

“CC.”

“CC! Oh boy. I get it. I have her in one of my classes.” He smiles. “She’s a knockout. Remember at Penn, Davidoff’s class-how he went on about Helen of Troy?”

“The face that launched a thousand ships.”

“He left his wife and kids. CC’s even more beautiful than his girlfriend. I get it…”

“Right.”

“Which makes her all the more dangerous. Chasing Helen resulted in thousands of people dead.”

“And the end of Davidoff’s marriage.”

“I have no choice. I can’t get her out of my head. It’s strange. This is supposed to happen when your marriage is bad. I love Carol as much as I ever have.   We have a good thing going. Carol doesn’t bore me at all. I admire her. I’ve never had a friend like her.”

“That song you sang. She was inside of you. She loves you”

An image come into Jeremy’s mind. Carol smiling at him adoringly

David watches Jeremy as his eyes water. Then defyingly.

“I can’t help it.”

“Do you still get turned on by Carol?”

Jeremy thinks it over

“Not as much. …No it’s fine. She gets turned on and she’ll do practically anything I want to do. Wherever my head goes, it turns her on. She goes crazy.”

“So you have to dream up things?”

“What’s wrong with that? Variety is the spice of life.”

“With CC?”

“We haven’t gotten that far. I don’t know if we ever will.”

“But do you have to dream up stuff?”

“You mean kinky? No. With CC I’m there. I’d go ape-shit for a kiss.”

“Still. You know what you have with Carol. You’re lucky. You have it all. What’s the problem?”

“It’s not complicated. CC erases everything else. I can’t take my eyes off of her. I can’t think about anything else. I’d do anything for her.”

“I understand but-“

“If you were in a room with Elizabeth Taylor you’d want to stare at her. Stare and stare. But you couldn’t. You’d look like a jerk, like a nut. So people buy magazines, or they watch her in a movie so they can get a good look. That’s what CC is for me. Only she is living and breathing. If she could be mine!”

They are both quiet for a few moments.

“Do you remember the first time you saw the Eiffel Tower. You dropped right?

“Yeah, but what about the second and third time?”

“I can get lost in her. Every detail.   It’s new every time. Her dimples. The way her chin-“

“Jeremy I get it…

David waits for what he is saying to register. He sees no signs. He continues:

“Beautiful is nice. Beautiful is beautiful. But a taste… That’s all you get. The last thing you need Jeremy is to fall under a spell.”

“This isn’t a spell. It’s the real thing.”

“Believe me it’s a spell.”

“That’s easy for you to say. Being outside of it you think that way. When it happens… Believe me it could happen to you.” He takes a deep breath. “My head is spinning. I can’t just drop it and go on with other things. I can’t. Who can do that?”

“Millions of people.”

“That’s all you have to say?”

“What’s there to say? Look, the important question is whether you would leave Carol for her. Would you?”

“No.”

“You know that for sure?”

“Absolutely. I love Carol. I know I am lucky. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“So stay away from CC. She’s dangerous. You said you discussed this with your psychiatrist.”

“I’m going to.”

Jeremy has a disgusted look on his face. He puts 2 thumbs down in front of him.

“Your shrink’s no good? Go to someone else.”

“Let’s not go there…”

“Everything you are saying makes sense except for one thing. “

“What’s that?”

“I’m feeling fantastic. I’m finally alive. I look at the trees, the sky. And I see them.”

“hen I’m reading, I’m understanding what’s on the page more than I ever have. The possibility of me and CC does that.”

“Marijuana makes you manic Jeremy.”

“You know, that isn’t what it is. You’ve given up David. I remember this guy…”

(a bit too patronizing) “It’s called growing up.”

(sarcastically) “Big shot.”

 

 

Dr. Weiss, Jeremy’s psychiatrist, finishes writing a prescription for Jeremy. He is focused, confident. Dr. Weiss is extremely concerned as she hands it to him.

“You need to take this three times a day.”

“You’re sure I’m manic depressive? I just don’t know about that.”

“You started seeing me when you were depressed about your thesis. You couldn’t get it done.   That kind of low seems like an illness. This is the polar opposite of it. It’s not unusual on the upside to feel normal, or like you, the best you have ever felt. Bottom line is that you still aren’t taking care of business. It’s the same, no thesis.”

“What I feel has nothing to do with my thesis. I don’t see anything wrong with feeling like this. “

“Well I do. Take the medicine.”

“You’ve had this idea before. I tried meds last year. It just made me tired.”

“This is a different medication.”

“Right. It’s going to cure me, change me.”

“Mr. Slater. Your illness has to be treated. If you don’t comply I may ask your wife to come in for a conference.”

“You can’t do that without my permission.”

“If I have to I will.”

“Fine. I’ll take the medicine. “

He is not convincing. Quite concerned, Dr. Weiss scrutinizes himchPTER

him., but Jeremy doesn’t make eye contact.

As soon as Jeremy leaves Dr. Weiss’ office he tears the prescription up. He throws it into the refuse container next to the elevator.

 

CHAPTER 5

Mark chose to do his internship in Berkeley because, in his mind, it was where the action was.   And in 1968 action was everything . “You are either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem said Eldridge Cleaver. He was part of the Oakland scene, next town over from Berkeley

Mark wouldn’t deny vanity played a part.  As medical school was coming to an end, he bragged that he was heading out to Berkeley. Others may have felt they were making it to the big time with internships at Mass General, John Hopkins and the like. Berkeley, had almost mythical importance to him. He spent a summer there, in 1965. After the Free Speech Movement had put Berkeley on the map the year before. Going to Berkeley for his internship was a no brainer. Berkeley was East Village West

The original bohemian scene which grabbed his imagination and every other rebel that he knew had been the Left Bank, in the 1920’s. Gertrude Stein, Hemingway. Fitzgerald, Cocteau, sipping espresso, at an outdoor café Passionately involved in conversation. Perhaps it never existed, but that image was engraved in Mark’s mind. It was a photograph of what heaven must look like.

December 3 1968, Mark is standing with a huge crowd in Sproul Plaza, outside the student union building. The weather is crisp with a bite to it, like an early morning in Vermont, but with California’s dazzling light.

A speaker is passionately addressing the crowd.

“If we do nothing it’s no different than the Germans looking the other way while the Nazis killed the Jews. We’re dropping napalm on poor villagers in Vietnam. Napalm is a jelly that sticks to you as it burns.  Your whole body catches fire with this goo stuck on you. I’ve seen video clips of children lit up like a branding iron, screaming as they die. Whole families incinerated.   We can’t claim that we didn’t know. We have to stop it.”

Someone in the crowd shouts:

“How? By giving speeches at the student union?”

The speaker counters. “We have to educate people. If each of us talked to 10 people and they talked to 10 people.”

“ That’s all liberals ever do.   Talk. Yackety, yack yack .”

“Well…”

The person in the crowds shouts.

“If you’re tired of talk, if you want to do something NOW! Follow me.”

Thirty or forty students, Mark among them, separate themselves from the others. They cross the street. At first they merely shout wildly. Like Indian war cries in a children’s game. They have no previous experience being revolutionaries. But then a group of them stop a car and start rocking it. They seem to be getting a kick out of the fear they see in the motorist’s eyes. They let the first car go, but stop the car behind it and repeat the rocking. A businessman, wearing a suit, gets out of his car and grabs one of the protesters. He is thrown to the ground by the others, and kicked. He grabs the kicker’s leg bringing him down, but then suddenly 6 or 7 other students are kicking him.

On the sidewalk, perpendicular to the plaza on the corner of Telegraph Avenue, a protester has a lighter with him and tries to set debris on fire in a steel mesh garbage can. Several times his lighter fails to light. But finally, he succeeds. He is thrilled with the blaze. So are others. He moves it into the street, and turns it over, screaming like a wild man who has found gold. It is no longer the sound of a child playing, nor of a frat boy kicking up his heels.

Another student throws a brick through the front window of the Bank of America. It is suddenly very real, no longer students playing at demonstrating. The store window smashed, the mob screaming, then a second storefront window smashed- no one there had ever heard sounds like this before. It excited an unfamiliar energy. The crowd in the street is growing. A third car is stopped. Mark is among those ready to rock this car but then Mark sees there is a frightened child in the back seat. He tries to hold the car down.

“Stop!” He shouts. There’s a little boy! “

Furiously, the student who first drew the mob away from the main group shouts back at him:

“Children are burning in Nam. Right now!”

Despite Mark’s call to stop, Mark’s opponent, with the others, continue to rock the car. Mark walks over to his adversary and shoves him.

The police arrive. They move through the crowd, nightsticks flying. Everyone starts running in every direction. One of the policeman grabs Mark and throws him to the ground. A student nearby starts oinking, distracting the policeman. Mark takes off and is not pursued. The police roughly grab three other students, the slowest, also throwing them to the ground. They put them in handcuffs. One of the three being arrested is a female. The students, who have been chased across the street, start shouting. They are joined by several of the other students.

Not having much experience with the police, onlookers are shocked by how rough the police are being with the girl. The businessman has recovered. As he walks near the crowd several students stare at him triumphantly, like a villain has been demolished, but most of the mocking is addressed towards the police.

“Pig. Oink, Oink.” The pig sounds are relentless

There is fury in the police’s eyes. They throw the girl in handcuffs into the police car along with the others. Several of them charge the crowd on the other side of the street, including those that were watching. But then one of the females, a beauty, brazenly holds her ground, amazingly, defiantly sticking out her chest at them. The police are completely outnumbered. One among many. The crowd senses how vulnerable the police. They exult in their victory, cheering the police retreat. Several of the students have perfected their hog call

“Oink, Oink.”

The police close their car doors and drive away, sirens blazing.

Mark stares at their departure, slowly recapturing his breath.

 

Days later Mark is walking on Telegraph, with his fellow medical intern Bob, surveying the scene. They pass a store entryway where two street people, hippies with long beads around their neck, love tattoos and snake tatoos everywhere on their bodies, are lying on a flattened cardboard box. They have having camped out 2 nights there. Rock and roll blares from their boom box. Across the street is Cafe Med, the famous Cafe Med, originator of the latte. People complained about the bitterness of expresso so they added a lot of latte (milk). In front of the Med is a large number of motor cycles. 8 or 9 Hell’s Angels are hanging out at the outside tables. They too are playing music loudly, their anthem? The Rolling Stone’s Sympathy for the Devil.

“Boy, things have changed.” Marks tells Bob. When I came out here in ‘65, three years ago, the Med was the quintessential beat hang out. Totally different scene.   People would bring a bottle of wine and a baguette and ordered cheese. Guitars would be strumming. Peace and Love. It was nice.

Bob snaps at him

“That was then. You’re such an elitist. The revolution is not going to happen with pie in the sky liberals like you.”

Bob takes out his copy of Mao’s Red book. He starts reading aloud:

“Those who assert this kind of “independence” are usually wedded to the doctrine of “me first” and are generally wrong on the question of the relationship between the individual and the Party. Although in words they profess respect for the Party, in practice they put themselves first and the Party second. What are these people after? They are after fame and position and want to be in the limelight. Whenever they are put in charge of a branch of work, they assert their “independence.”

“Meaning what?”

“Mark. You’re snobbishness is being noted.”

Mark laughs. ““Being noted?” Did you see Dr. Zhivago?”

“A couple of years ago.”

“They kept saying that to Zhivago, for instance when he found patients with typhus. Officially there was no typhus. When he insisted there was, the party representative, as he told him, wrote in his notebook,. “Your attitude is being noted.”

Mark raises his voice. “Noted by whom? The Medical Committee for Human Rights? Fuck you Bob with your Mao bible.”

Bob is neither insulted nor set back by what Mark is saying. He is embarrassed by his shouting in public, embarrassed that other people might think he’s Mark’s friend. He waits for Mark to calm down…

Speaking as if he is a little league coach attending to one of his injured players. “You okay buddy? You okay?”

“Why? The Medical Committee for Human Rights can’t take a little controversy.”

“Just tone it down. Try not to be so abrasive.”

“You mean Jewish?”

They turn into a doorway and climb the stairs.

He looks at the others on the stairway. They are waspy, blonde hair blue eyes. He notices only one other Jewish appearing guy. Unlike New York, the Movement in California is blonde and blue eyed.

Bob continues: “Don’t get me wrong. I think your bluntness is refreshing.”

He pauses then continues in an authoritative way:

“Sometimes!”

“The Oakland Black Panthers are coming tonight. You don’t want to piss them off.”

“Eldridge Cleaver?” Mark asks excitedly

Bob answers in a completely cool voice

“No but maybe Huey Newtown and Bobby Seale.”

The meeting is being held in relatively small room above a store. Several people are seated on bridge chairs in something resembling a semi-circle

Bob and Mark find a seat. Not only is Bob’s Red Book conspicuous. Half the doctors there have their own copy and are reading it. After a short wait the celebrities arrive, four Black Panthers. Huey Newtown is handsome. The others are not, beginning with their menacing strut. The Movement is no longer Stokely Carmichael from Bronx High School of Science, angry in his rhetoric, but still recognizable as a human being. These guys are the kind of people that Mark and other people on a subway car, out of fear, would not dare to make eye contact with.

They take their seat. One of them lifts his fist

“You guys with your lead poisoning project are bullshit. It’s too late for that shit.”

“So how can we help?”

“Help? Where the fuck were you before? We’re hear to tell you that the time is now. The revolution is here. We ain’t bull shitting like our brothers in Detroit. We are gonna kill the pigs, not just talk about it.

Mark looks around the room. Most of the doctors, including Bob, have an adulating expression on their face. Mark catches the eye of Maury whose eyes are seeking him out. Maury silently forms a word:

Meshugy

Mark smiles.

 

CHAPTER 6

It is mid November 1968. Students are walking happily towards the Buffalo football stadium along a campus road lined with towering elm trees. Lit by the sun their leaves are aflame. Everywhere leaves are blowing in every direction. Football games are a big deal on campus, especially homecoming weekend. CC is walking alone. She stops and picks up a pretty leaf. She is quite pleased with its beauty. As she continues she seems distracted. Jeff, Jeremy’s cousin, is walking behind her. He calls out her name. She turns around and waits for him to catch up. She smiles vaguely, but she doesn’t quite know who he is.

Jeff points to himself, “Jeff”

She still doesn’t seem to recognize him. He pounds his chest like Tarzan.

“Me Jeff. You CC. …. Jeremy’s cousin. Jeff.”

Still, from the look on her face, she only half recognizes him.

“ I’m in your Russian Lit class. I read my paper to the class last week? On Alyosha?”

“Right. The Brother’s Karamazov.”

“Right. Right. I liked that paper,” she adds . “What you said about innocence. How Dostoevsky wanted there to be a glimmer of hope, a child standing out from the misery surrounding him.”

“He was good at misery. He got me.”

“Me too.”

Her face brightens, “You captured the contrast. Your Alyosha. Sweet innocent Alyosha.”

“Wow. You really gave my paper a lot of thought.”

“I liked it.”

“What did you think about his idea that without God everything is permitted?”

“Did he really say that?”

Something like that. That was the whole point of the Grand Inquisitor. The Inquisitor knew there was no God but people needed him to make believe there was one so that they would behave.”

Jeff thinks to himself for a moment

CC I had no idea you were a heavy duty student. You take classes seriously. To have given all that thought to my paper-

“I liked what you said. I listen, even when a paper is bad.”

“That must get boring.”

“Not at all. I’m curious. There’s always something.”

“I never would have taken you for that kind of person.”

“What kind?”

“The kind that likes to think a lot.”

“Well…”

“You’re not an action person.”

“What ‘s an action person. You mean do I work out?”

“Do you?”

She smiles. “Not exactly, but I wash my hair every day. You got to have some kind of ritual to keep you righteous.”

Jeff is completely wowed.

“Glad to meet you.”

They are both quiet for a moment as they walk on

“You don’t remember that I met you at my cousin Jeremy’s barbecue.

“Now I do. “

“So why were you confused about who I am?”

CC is a bit dazed

“I don’t know. Just was. New people take time to register.”

“You’re a strange dude CC.”

“And you’s a strange lady, Jeff.”

Happily, they bump fists, and jump a little.

They reach the ticket booth outside the stadium. Jeff is in front of her. He buys two tickets. Hands one to her.

“How much do I owe you?”

“My treat.”

CC takes her wallet out of her pocketbook

“No way.”

“Just this one time.”

Putting her wallet back, “Thank you.”

“Your welcome.”

Jeff hands the two tickets to a ticket taker…. Once inside he studies the tickets.

“Which way?” CC asks

“Follow me.”

He leads her. Ahead of them are steep steps, a lot of them. Because of her myasthenia CC has to stop after about 10 steps. He comes back to help her.

“I’m not in shape.”

“You should work out, jog like me.”

“Right… Did Alyosha give you hope?”

“He did. The other characters were in such agony.”

Leading her, he guides her shoulder but then walks ahead.

“It’s just up here.”

Again he has to backtrack for her as she stops on the stairway. She is bent over, slowly taking deep breaths.

“Sorry.”

“Hey. I’m in no rush,” Jeff answers with a kind voice

They get to their row. People have to stand so that they can get by them. CC almost trips on someone’s foot, but she is grabbed and regains her balance. She does a good job of not seeming upset.

The game has already started. After they are seated Jeff looks around and is pleased by the seats. At the end of their row, one section away, Jeremy and Carol are seated. CC notices. She tries to watch the game but she can’t concentrate.

“You okay?”

“I’m good. Everything okay with you?”

The ball is kicked-off. Buffalo’s receiver is tackled at the 20 yard line. Pretty quickly her eyes go to the cheerleaders, who are waving their pom-poms trying to get a cheer started. There is one cheerleader in particular who is very pretty. CC watches her. Her eyes also jump to Jeremy. Then quickly come back. A student in front of them, wearing a Davy Crockett fur hat, screams: GO BULLS!

Jeffrey notices how distracted she is.

“Are you watching the game? “

She shrugs, a bit distractedly)

“I will. I like to watch the cheerleaders.”

“But the game?”

Not very convincingly she throws her hands in front of her in a comedic half cheer

“Go Bulls.”

They are both quiet for a while. CC continues to look around.

“It’s a beautiful stadium. The grass, the whole scene… I don’t really like football. Don’t know anything about it”

“Oh. So that’s what it is?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve had this look on your face. “

“What kind of look?”

“I don’t know… Anna Karenina.”

She smiles nervously, “No, it’s nothing. I just have this paper I have to get done.”

He looks at her skeptically.

“No really. I shouldn’t be going to the game. It’s due Monday. Tonight and tomorrow night will be all-nighters.”

Carol and Jeremy notice CC and Jeff. Carol does a decent imitation of waving casually. So do CC and Jeremy, but for an instant their eyes lock. Carol notices, but says nothing. She looks towards the field.

A series of football scenes close up:

Linemen slam into each other like two locomotives crashing, subwoofer bangs and grunts

A running back does some fancy footwork, breaks free and runs in for a touchdown: The cheers are tumultuous, which in comparison to the chaos, seem almost melodious.

The quarterback throws a gorgeous long pass. Oohs and Ahs fell the soundwaves. The receiver catches the ball over his shoulder and runs in for the score.

At halftime. CC leaves her seat. Jeremy notices and gets up.

“Going for something to eat. What do you want?” he asks Carol

“Nothing. I’m good.”

CC is on line at the refreshment stand below the stadium seats. Jeremy joins her.

“Buffalo’s gonna have a winning season.” she offers

“Could be.”

Jeremy stares at her while trying to look as if he isn’t. Was their kiss simply a weak moment for her? Was her reaction real? He thinks he knows the answer but isn’t 100% sure. CC also has to know where they are at. Their last time together left her, as well, with more questions than answers.

“How are you and Carol doing?”

He shrugs. “We’re all right.”

“That’s good.”

Jeremy speaks softly into her ear so those nearby can’t hear,

“What happened in my office…”

“You don’t have to explain.”

“I’ve been thinking about what I was going to say. “

“And?”

“I wasn’t sure if it was real.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just didn’t know.”

Jeremy takes a deep breath before launching forward.

“What’s real is…. I can’t stop thinking about you. I’ve gone over what happened a thousand times and I can’t decide. I have to know whether you have feelings for me.”

In a teasing tone, “You sound like Wittgenstein.”

“Don’t know what you mean.”

“Plagued by questions. Your mind not shutting down.”

“Do you know what that’s like?”

She shrugs

“Having someone on your mind like that?”

The teasing continues, “Poor you. Boopsala.”

He shrugs

She studies him

Guess that’s not fun.”

“You ever pick petals from a daisy?”

“No never did.”

“It said you love me not. But then I used another daisy and that said you do.”

“As much as you love Wittgenstein?”

Jeremy corrects her: “Vittgenstein. Vittgenstein.”

She is indifferent to his pedagogy.

“From what I’ve heard about you, your interest in me will last maybe two weeks.”

He smiles and shakes his head: “Romeo and Juliet have lasted 500 years.”

“They’re dead.”

Theatrically, he answers, ”My love will never die.”

“You and me are Romeo and Juliet?”

“Sounds nice.”

She holds up two fingers. “Two weeks. Besides, it doesn’t matter. Carol and Alyosha have first dibs on you. You’re going to have to get control of yourself.”

What matters is in her eyes. He can see that she is interested. He is relieved.

“And how do I do that?”

“It can be done. I got two brothers and one of them-“

“Mark?”

“Not Mark. The other one who doesn’t ask questions. Jay can stop himself.”

“Mark’s the one that’s like me?”

“He’s brainy like you. … And crazy like you.

“What’s Jay’s secret?”

“It doesn’t occur to him to break the rules.”

“Jay’s your boring brother?”

“Boring?”

She shrugs before continuing. “I guess so, but he never seems bored. He’s a regular guy.”

“Meaning?”

“He’s not interested in trouble. It doesn’t give him a charge. He’s a 50’s guy. Graduated Cornell in ‘63. He was a cheerleader when football was the main thing happening on campus.” She smiles. “Still puts on his saddle shoes when he goes to alumni games. Enjoys every minute of every Cornell game.”

“He works at Aetna. “

“That’s not boring?”

“But he’s not. Doesn’t talk enough to be boring. He’s from a different generation. Think Randolph Scott.

Jeremy is amused. “Randolph Scott with saddle shoes leading a cheer?”

“Laugh all you want. His life is under control. He doesn’t say much. His private business is private. He doesn’t have that much he needs to say.”

“The strong and silent type.”

“You got it.”

“As opposed to Mark and me?”

“Look. I love to talk as much as you do. Me and Mark would get stoned and talk for hours. Sometimes we don’t remember what we talked about.”

“Sounds meaningful.”

“Doesn’t matter what we say. I can be myself with him and he is with me. It’s made us very close.”

“And Jay?”

“We have a long history. I love Jay too. I respect him.”

“But he doesn’t know you.”

“He does, but not in a talky way. In a different way.”

CC and Jeremy are now at the front of the line. He buys 2 slices of pizza. The slices are red hot. CC burns her tongue. She blows on the bite inside her mouth by panting several times, rhythmically shaking her hands in the process.

“Looks like you’ve got practice doing that.”

“I eat fast. My mom says I gobble.”

“Gobble?”

“It’s not very ladylike. That’s been my mom’s mission in life, making me ladylike.”

CC’s smile leaves abruptly as she notices Carol high above at the portal exit from the seats. Jeremy soon sees her too. At which point CC and Jeremy try to act as if their meeting is coincidental. Jeremy is not much of an actor. CC moves towards the next concession booth as if she hasn’t noticed Carol. Jeremy walks towards the stairs where Carol is standing at the top. It isn’t clear how much Carol has seen, but evidently enough for her to stare at him with fire in her eyes. He knows that look well. She walks down the stairs slowly, carefully, and walks right by him proceeding to the line for food. He trails behind. She also is having difficulty catching her breath.

“You okay?”

“I’m a little dizzy. What were you talking to CC about?”

“Nothing.”

“How is she?”

He doesn’t answer

“I saw you talking. How is she?”

“We weren’t really talking.”

“Jeremy, you’re a bad liar.”

“Want a slice?”

“No I want a hot dog.”

He holds up a dollar and points to the hot dogs.

“Mustard and sauerkraut?” the vendor asks

“Nothing on it.”

The vendor hands her a hot dog. Standing close to him she speaks firmly.

“Your days of blow jobs are over.” She takes a sharp bite of the hotdog, chewing it defiantly.

“You are hereby warned.”

“Sweetie.”

“Don’t sweetie me.”

Her breathing difficulties becoming more noticeable. Jeremy is genuinely concerned.

“That’s what happens when you scold me.”

“That’s what happens when you give me something to scold you about.”

 

 

 

 

A few days later Jeremy’s class ends. From the back of the classroom CC watches Jeremy as he talks to another student. She is waiting for him to look her way. He doesn’t. She keeps watching him. Nothing. Reluctantly she leaves. As soon as she turns away his eyes are on her.

A few weeks later another of Jeremy’s classes ends. Other than a quick glance, CC doesn’t hesitate. She simply leaves the classroom. Once again, when he’s certain she won’t look back, Jeremy watches her as she leaves.

Another of Jeremy’s classes. The bell rings. The students rise from their seats. CC looks towards Jeremy but he isn’t looking her way.

“Everyone. Enjoy Thanksgiving… Remember what you have to be thankful for!”

Jeremy directs this last remark to CC. She is looking down at the floor sadly, troubled.   Is it over? Jeremy is also looking troubled that he doesn’t have her attention. Students have surrounded him. Just as she leaves the classroom he takes one last look. She isn’t looking at him.

 

CHAPTER 7

 

The Gordons are at Jay and Doreen’s apartment in Forest Hills during CCs Thanksgiving vacation Doreen is lighting the Friday night Sabbath candles. A lace doily, from Nanny, sits on her head. Her arms rotate three times, hands drawn over the flames as if to bring the light toward her. She covers her face as she chants:

Baruch ata Adonoy

Eloheinu melech Ha-loam

Asher kid-shanu bemitzvo’sav

ve tzivanu lehadlik ner shel Shabbos

As she removes her hands from her face a tear emerges. Softly she whispers, “Mom.”

Jay tells her: “She’s with us Doreen. She can hear you.”

Evelyn is thinking of her own mother. Her eyes go to the heavens. She also sheds a tear.

One by one Doreen goes around the table kissing everyone seated there chanting “Good Shabbis” to each of them. Mrs. Gordon wipes away one of her own tears.

Jay gets up when Doreen reaches him.

“Good shabbis Jay.”

They hug. A genuine hug. She kisses him on the cheek. Jay also goes around the table repeating Doreen’s Shabbis blessing as he kisses them.

After Jay’s kiss CC watches the others. For that moment she wishes she had Doreen and Jay’s connection to God

My mother used to bench licht every Friday night., Mrs. Gordon tells the others.

CC asks her in a not challenging way: “How come you didn’t Mom?”

“I don’t know. I don’t do a lot of things my mother used to do. Too much going on at the club. She turns to Doreen. I have to tell you. 7 months after childbirth. You got your figure back.

Doreen holds in her belly

“Not quite.

“Well I think you look great. The apartment too. You’ve done amazing things with what you’ve got.”

Doreen looks at Mr. Gordon

“With your help.”

Mrs. Gordon continues: “You’ve done a terrific job….And Sam is the handsomest 7 month old I’ve ever seen. He’s smart too. I can tell. His eyes study everything.

Doreen turns to CC

“When you going back?”

“Sunday night.”

“How you doing in school?” Doreen asks CC.

“Good. All A’s, except French. I may get my first C.”

“Staying out of trouble too, right?” Mrs. Gordon asks CC

Doreen jabs her mother-in-law with a gentle pinch.

“She’s got to have a little fun.”

“How often do you talk to Mark?” Mr. Gordon asks with a seriousness that wasn’t there previously. He scrutinizes CC as she answers

“Not that often?”

He looks skeptical.

Doreen tries to keep it light

“Say hello to him from me.”

Doreen notices Mr. Gordon’s continued scrutiny of CC.

“Dad. Come into the kitchen. I want you to taste the kneidelach. You said your mother’s were the best. I used her recipe.”

“I don’t know if I can taste anything. I’m kind of full from Thanksgiving turkey.”

Seizing the opportunity Mrs. Gordon rises, “I’ll come in there with you.”

As the three get up from the table, Doreen stops to examine a pendant CC is wearing on some beads around her neck. Mr. and Mrs. Gordon arrive in the kitchen before Doreen.

“Ira. I want you to leave your daughter alone about Mark. He’s her brother.”

“I’ll stop when he grows up… That’s if he grows up.”

“You’re not fair to him… Or to her!”

As Doreen arrives at the entrance, they immediately stop talking. Welcoming her to the room they both smile.

 

CC is unpacking a small suitcase, from her long weekend home in her dorm room A student knocks on CC’s door, and shouts to her

“You’ve got a call.”

CC goes to the public pay phone in the lounge. It is Mrs. Gordon

“Sam has fever?”

“ How high?”

“103. Call Doreen.”

“I will.”

CC doesn’t call Doreen. She goes back to her room. In not too long CC’s bunched up on her bed with a book studying. Once again a knock on her door.

“You’ve got another call.”

“Fearing something serious, CC hurriedly returns to the lounge and gets on the phone.”

“The hospital? Jesus.”

CC quickly puts on her coat and leaves.

 

In her room at Buffalo General, Carol has an I V attached to her arm and an oxygen tube near her nose. She is conscious, but groggy. Jeremy holds her hand.

Carol mumbles, “I need to sleep.”

Affectionately Jeremy moves his hand across her forehead

“Gai Shluffin.”

She is soon asleep. Her breathing is raspy. Furtively he looks over the paperwork at the foot of the bed for a clue. He can’t make sense of it. He checks the IV. He worries that it is coming in too fast or is too slow. All the while he keeps looking at the corridor.

A nurse is at the door. Sternly she confronts him. “You shouldn’t touch the IV.”

“I was-“

“We’re in charge of that.”

“Sorry.”

He watches Carol sleep. He’s concerned that her breathing sounds funny.

“Why’s she breathing like that?”

“She has pneumonia

He is alarmed, “She has pneumonia?”

The nurse is still irritated with Jeremy from the IV. “Doctor’s not worried.”

“It’s a mild case?”

The nurse irritation continues. Jeremy is keeping her from her chores

“Apparently,” she answers presuming Jeremy should know it is mild pneumonia.

CC arrives. The nurse looks at her suspiciously. Then she looks over Jeremy. Given CC’s beauty that is bound to be a thought. As CC tries to enter the room the nurse waves her finger.

“Only family.”

After scrutinizing CC long enough to see she will obey her the nurse moves on.

The nurse walks down the corridor to the next room. Carol is drifting in and out of sleep. Believing that she has gone far enough into sleep Jeremy leaves her and joins CC. He needs to talk. Her eyes reach out to him.

They both look down the hall at the nurse. She isn’t watching them. He hugs her. She responds as if it is a family kind of hug breaking it quickly, but unseen by the nurse, they continue to hold each others hand. They are out of Carol’s sight.

“Is she going to be all right?” CC asks Jeremy.

“She has pneumonia but apparently a mild case. The doctor told me this afternoon he thinks she is going to fully recover. Her kidneys had shut down, but now they’ve started to work again. He said she’s going to be fine. She’ll be home in less than a week.

“When did all of this happen?”

Lupus is like that. It appears and disappears. The worst part is it can come from out of the blue.   Three weeks ago she was feeling like herself, full of energy. Then last week she thought she had the flu, so she stayed in bed. Sent Alyosha to day care. Then she began to get weaker and weaker. The day of the football game she said she felt fine. So we went. Big mistake. After the first half she started getting dizzy again. It lasted a few days. Then she was better. Until tonight, When I came home she was in a daze… confused. It was scary. She’s never been like that before.

There are vague sounds from Carol’s bed.

“I think she’s waking up.”

Letting go of CC’s hand Jeremy moves into Carol’s view. He returns to the room. Carol’s eyes are open.

Barely discernible she speaks

“I heard you talking.”

“Heard what?”

Carol stares at the corridor suspiciously. She sees nothing. She looks at him quizzically, not quite “how could you?” But part of the way there. Then her eyes close and she is asleep again.

Jeremy returns to the corridor.

CC has put on her gloves.

“I’m gonna get going.”

Their eyes are locked on each other.

“Call me if you need to talk.” She tells him

After she leaves, Jeremy places a chair so he can sit next to Carol, holding her hand. She’s awake again. She looks at him with a hurt expression. He looks innocent enough except for his eyes where his guilt is easy to read.

Carol’s parents enter the room. Jeremy looks at his watch.

“You got here fast.”

Carol’s mother answers him. “We were already in Buffalo, for my niece Beverly’s wedding. You met her. Glad we left the hotel’s phone number on the answering machine.

Jeremy smiles. “Modern technology.”

Her mother looks at him expectantly.

“She’s better. Much better. She’s tired but she’s definitely better.”

Jeremy gives his seat to Carol’s mother. She takes Carol’s hand. With her other hand she feels Carol’s forehead

“Honey? I’m here.”

Carol wakes up a bit. Her mother and her talk with their eyes. Little more needs to be said.

Barely audible she tells her mother

“I want Jeremy to go.”

“What did you say?”

Carol speaks more strongly. “I want Jeremy to go.”

Carol’s mother stares at Jeremy coldly. Jeremy looks at her as innocently as he can, but Carol’s mother stare is unrelenting.

“I would like you to leave.”

Jeremy looks into her eyes.

“Mom. I don’t know what Carol told you, but nothing is going on.”

“I’m sure, but please leave.”

“There’s nothing.”

“Carol’s told me enough.”

“What?”

“Enough…Leave.”

Still unsuccessfully trying to look innocent, Jeremy keeps trying to make eye contact with Carol’s mother. She stares back coldly, her fury not fully contained. He leaves with his tail down.

In the corridor he can still see Carol’s mother at the bed. She’s speaking to Carol and Carol appears to be answering.

With tears in her eyes Carol’s mother speaks

“I’ve got you honey. I won’t let you go. You’re going to be all right.”

Carols’s mother gives her daughter’s hand a squeeze. Then, apparently relieved, Carol returns to sleep.

Walking down the corridor Jeremy looks into a room. A family is gathered around a patient, who is evidently quite sick. The patient’s a brother, hat in hand, looks upset.

Disheartened Jeremy walks to his car. He gets in, puts the key in the ignition but doesn’t start the car. For a moment he just sits there.  He stares out at the numerous cars parked in the lot, then at someone in the next car who is sobbing. He turns the ignition. He gasps. With sad eyes he turns around to back up.

At home in this bedroom, he lights a joint. He takes 3 hits. Puts it out with his fingers. He lies back in his bed, staring at the ceiling. About to tear, he gets up to go to the bathroom sink. His dog is blocking his path. He pushes on the dog with his foot.

“Perry. Move it. “

Perry holds his ground. Jeremy’s leg shoves him roughly out of the way.

He calls Alyosha’s baby-sitter:

“Do you think you can keep Alyosha overnight. Carol’s mother is here and she’ll take over tomorrow…good. Thanks

Jeremy brushes his teeth. As he returns to the bedroom, he passes a horizontal bureau.   There’s a picture of Carol. He lifts it up and stares at her. He puts the picture down. He returns to his empty bed, lying diagonally across where Carol would ordinarily be. He takes one more look at the picture of Carol. He falls asleep.

His eyes pop open.   He looks at the clock. It is 4:15 AM. He gets up and puts on his running shoes.

There is a soul to be seen on his block. Jogging, he leaps over a small snow bank that was left from last week’s snowfall. He’s pushes himself. His legs have already lost their spring.

Having made it to the campus 2 miles from home, he starts to sprint. He keeps sprinting and sprinting, breathing heavier and heavier, grimacing in pain. His chest is tightening. He comes to a hill. He pushes himself to race up it.   Faster and faster he goes then insanely faster.

Finally, he collapses.   A campus cop hurries over.

“You all right Dr. Slater?”

The cop extends his arm and lifts Jeremy to a sit up position holding him there as he gasps for air. The cop soon realizes that Jeremy needs to be lying down. Slowly Jeremy catches his breath and begins to look around   He looks at the cop.

“The way you were running. Never saw anything like it.”

The cop reaches out his hand and pulls Jeremy up. He seems to be okay.

“Punishing yourself like that. You could do damage.”

Still breathing hard Jeremy answers

“I wasn’t punishing myself. I like running like that. “

“But there are limits”

Jeremy isn’t listening.

“Each to his own Dr. Slater.”

“It’s not Dr. Slater. I’m not a doctor.”

“My son is in your class. That makes you Dr. Slater.”

When he gets back to the house Jeremy calls CC. He listens to the rings, a sleepy eyed student, doing an all-nighter, answers. He leaves to get CC.

CC is on the phone: “No I’m glad you called”

She arrives at Jeremy’s house 45 minutes later. Jeremy helps CC take off her coat.

“I was lucky. I hitched a ride.”

“You shouldn’t do that.”

“Everyone hitches.”

“At this time of the morning, weird people are out there.”

“It was a milkman going to work.”

“Is it cold out?”

“Not too bad. Weather man on the radio said 41.”

“A high of 41? Or that’s what it is now?”

“Don’t know. Wasn’t paying attention.”

 

He takes your coat and throws it across a chair. She is standing not too far away from him. With the house to himself he is not going to waste this opportunity. Holding his arms out he reaches for her. She takes his hand. He sits on the couch and pulls for her to be on his lap. She resists, ducks away, sits next to him:

He puts an arm around her in a warm not necessarily seductive way. She has a reluctant expression, but she isn’t surprised.

“Carol’s going to be okay.”

“It’s not fair. We haven’t done anything.”

Not expecting that answer CC looks at him bewildered as he repeats: “We haven’t done anything. You and me.”

CC looks into his eyes. He is elsewhere.

It’s one thing if we had… I kissed you. So what.

A long silence. He continues within his thoughts.

“It’s scary to get that sick, CC offers

“Has it ever happened to you?”

“You know about my myasthenia?”

He doesn’t answer

“Once I got double vision for a day. I needed air. I didn’t have the strength to take a good breath.”

“Were you scared?”

“The thought that I could die passed through my mind. For several hours. But I was able to reach my doctor. Something was wrong with my medicine. Hasn’t happened since.”

“You live with that?”

“That along with Elvis.”

What do you mean?

CC laughs

“Don’t worry I don’t like Elvis.”

“It has to be rough.”

I usually don’t think about it. Seeing Carol shook me up.”

He kisses her forehead, comfortingly, but then tries to move to her lips. She pulls back.   She stares at him in a rebuke. How could he think of coming on to her with his wife in the hospital?

He gets it. He stands back. Goes to his room. Returns with his fur collared army jacket.

“Put this on. I want to take you somewhere. Wait, let me get you a sweater.

He comes back with a heavy turtle neck sweater. She puts the sweater on, then zippers up his coat. The coat is 10 sizes too big, but looks great. Unconsciously she models for him in front of the mirror, looking at her left profile, then her right. She smiles at herself approvingly. So does he.

“You’re amazing.”

He means it. She looks both ridiculous and fetching. She knows it.

CC laughs, “For once I agree with you.”

“The jacket’s warm. You can keep it.”

“My coat is warm.”

“Not like this one.”

“Really I-“

“When you wear it you’ll think of me.”

“Maybe.”

She follows him to his car, a black Ford Galaxie convertible, with spoked wheels, 7 years old but polished and in good shape. Many coats of wax and elbow grease are apparent. CC walks half around it admiring it.

“I didn’t picture you having a car like this.”

“Betsy’s my baby. What did you think I’d have.”

“What did Socrates drive?”

“No seriously.”

“ don’t know. Mark has a Volkswagen. I expected something like that. Faculty-ish. This could be on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine. What did you call it? Betsy? Growing up my father had a car named Betsy.”

They get in the car. Warming it up he revs up the motor like a teenager. He settles down and starts to drive. From the look on her face, she is enjoying being by his side as he handles the road.

“I always wanted a convertible. And now I have one.”

CC’s voice is cheerful, “You’re definitely not a typical faculty member.”

Jeremy smiles, “Actually, people in my department go out of their way to break stereotypes. No Volvos. Dr. Franklin just bought a Camaro. Several professors asked where I got this. I could tell. They wanted one just like it. I seem to have started a trend.”

“It isn’t just your car. You’re not… like a faculty member. Usually professors come across as professors, kind of stuffy.”

“Including the ones from the Bronx with English accents.”

“I heard a lot of that in the Village when Mark would take me there.”

“I try to keep it real. Actually, a lot of the time I feel like a student more than a professor.”

“Meaning?”

“I’m not there yet, not where I want to be. I’m still striving. I’m hungry like a student.”

“Which is what I like. Only I’ll bet when you get there you’ll develop a nice little paunch. You’ll be as self satisfied as all the other professors.”

“Maybe, but my paunch will have to wait til I get there.”

“Which hopefully is never. I like the way you are now.”

“I promise you, I won’t have an English accent.”

“We’ll see.”

“What does that mean?”

“Truthfully, you already don’t sound like you come from Brooklyn. When you got going on Wittgenstein you sounded like you were reading from Shakespeare. You had a rhythm, like you were singing a song.”

“Okay. Occasionally I get carried away. But how I sounded when I spoke about Wittgenstein… losing my Brooklyn accent… It isn’t like I became a big shot professor. I just get carried away. Trust me my accent was there. It always will be. Brooklyn is cool.

“Good.”

“For you. I’ll definitely do it for you. No English accent.”

“Not for Carol?”

“No this is ours. Staying young. Remaining a student. She thinks I’m a baby.”

“She’s not romanced by that, is she?”

“How could she be? She knows me 10 years, when we were both babies. She’s left that behind. I haven’t. She needs me to grow up.”

“If being a baby means you will sound like Shakespeare…”

“I don’t know about Shakespeare, but-“

“Half the class went into a swoon. That wouldn’t be possible if you grew up.”

“Carol thinks I wouldn’t lose it. She thinks I could tap it anyway. Even if I became high falutin.”

“Could you?”

“I don’t know. But she’s right. I am there too much of the time.”

“Just stop calling yourself a baby. Those professors with the English accents. They did what they needed to do to come across as a professor.

“Well that’s half way to growing up, finding some kind of public personality so that you appear grown up. At a certain point you need it.

“No I understand. Kids can be irritating. Raw emotion. You can only take so much of it.”

“Exactly.”

“Except, I don’t want you to lose what happens to you when you are inspired. If that means remaining a child I am all for it.”

“Seriously?”

“When you got into Wittgenstein you were carried away. You left Brooklyn not as an act. You weren’t there.”

“He’s touched. He is rarely loved for who he is right now. Carol sees him through the lens of his future, what he will be, what they will be when he gets his act together and claims his doctorate, when Alyosha grows up and gets married and they have children

For the moment the snow has stopped and it is clearing up. Straight ahead of them, bits of light have begun to emerge on the road. Ice has formed on the telephone wires and they are brightly reflecting the sun.

They are outside the city proper. He pulls over and puts the top down. He turns up the heat as high as it will go. She’s wide eyed, excited. She’s never driven in a convertible before, top down, in the winter, and half in the dark.   He unwinds his wool scarf from his neck and puts it around her neck. They drive slowly.

“You warm enough?” he asks.

She snuggles up next to him. He puts his arm around her. They drive silently. They slow down for a red light. But then, considering the hour, he decides to drive through it, proud of his daring. She smiles, which he notices. This appears to turn something loose. Half crazy, he speeds up and hits a series of sharp turns quickly.

Alarmed she shouts: “Jeremy. Slow down.”

The nuttiness continues until the car slides off to the side of the road.

CC screams: “Black ice!”

He slams the brakes hard. They spin around 180 degrees, fortunately coming to a complete stop.

“I can’t believe you. Can you tell me what that was?”

“No I can’t. But you’re right. That was black ice.”

“Do you want to die?”

He ignores the question as frivolous. He turns the car around. His driving returns to normal. The full sunrise has arrived and is unusually beautiful The rumble of Niagara Falls can be heard in the distance. It grows ever louder as they get closer. Finally, it becomes a roar. They get out of the car.

“Close your eyes.” Jeremy asks her

Briefly she opens them as he leads her blindly forward.

“Close them.”

This time she obeys him. She smiles. He leads her through an opening in a chain link fence. They move forward thirty or forty feet.

“Okay open them.”

Her eyes shine, lit by the sunrise. Usually Jeremy pictures a scene and is often disappointed as reality can’t match up with his imagination. Not this time. What is before them is far beyond what he had hoped for. The falls are immediately in front of them, with a mighty roar, still illuminated by night time spot lights. Despite the powerful sound, they are surrounded by delicacy as the yellow-purple-orange light from the sunrise is throwing off mini-rainbows in the mist created by the pounding water.

She speaks into his ear, still shouting a bit to be heard above the roar: “It’s awesome.”

Jeremy also tries to outshout the fall’s roar

“You deserve this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. It just seems like something you deserve.”

“Because I am so stupendous.”

“That and something else.”

“What?”

“There are no words.”

He sees she is starting to melt. He kisses her lightly. Her teeth are chattering from the cold, which ends the spell. He has brought a blanket from his trunk, which he puts around her, but she continues to chatter.        He shouts to be heard over the falls.

“I guess we gotta go.”

Cute, half serious: “No. I like it here.”

“Yeah, but when the moment passes it passes. You can’t get it back.”

“Says who?”

“D. T. Suzuki.”

“Who?”

“It’s a lecture for a different time. Zen. I’ll put the heater on in the car. I know somewhere we can drive to.”

“We talk too much.”

“I know.”

He again tries to kiss her. She refuses. “The moment has passed.”

 

Jeremy closes the top of his car. The heat is blasting away

“How’s that? You warmer?”

She embraces the blanket, and starting with her shoulders trying to warm up, she theatrically undulates down to her toes, letting out a cowboyish shout. She ends with:

“Oooh.”

Jeremy is having a good time. If Dave were here he’d be saying Oh boy! Oh boy! but in the new language, “wow.”

They arrive at another spot, a nice, only slightly less spectacular view, which they can see from the car.

“How’s that?… You okay?”

She smiles.

“You warm?”

“Yes. “

She puts her hand behind his neck. Stares into his eyes.

“You know you don’t have to impress me to get a kiss. Believe me if we had stayed at your house, and you put on Johnny Mathis, it might have done the trick. You don’t always have to be Superman. We’re past the first date.”

“That’s how I am.”

“I know. I had an uncle who was a comedian. You remind me of him. He’d deliver jokes one after another, until we were sore from laughing. Then he’d keep going past the point that we wanted to be entertained.”

“What are you saying?”

“I guess I’m thinking more about how much we talk, both of us.

We don’t know how to seize the moment.”

Clumsily he puts his arms around her. She pulls away.

“Let’s go back.”

“What happened to seizing?”

“C’mon. Let’s go.”

“So it will take magic.”

“Just timing. “

“Bullshit. You can’t move us forward can you? Is it Carol?

She doesn’t answer. They are both quiet. In a romantic daze he continues to watch her.

“You ever think about show business?”

“I would if I had talent.”

“You were in a band. You sang. Carol told me.”

“We went nowhere.”

She notices his mounting frustration. She takes a breath.

“I can’t help it.” She tells him. “How can you forget Carol?”

“Truthfully?”

“Truthfully.”

“I’m not thinking about her at all.”

He finds her eyes, “I’m excited to be here with you.”

“I don’t get it. You love Carol…”

“I do. I truly do.”

“So what is this with me?”

“I’m just telling you the truth. It’s something elemental, a force of nature. Like metal being pulled by a magnet. Ten minutes after I first saw you, the first day of class, I began picturing coming here with you. It just came into my mind. Over and over. Niagara Falls and you. Like a snapshot, no a song playing in my head. not a song. “ He rolls down the window so that the roar of the falls returns. “A symphony!”

“I’m thrilled.”

“You’re thrilled that Carol is in the hospital?”

“I’m upset about that. I’m upset that she could die from her lupus.”

“So.”

“I’ve never felt closer to anyone than Carol. She’s my soul mate. I’ve never had that with anyone. No one. I don’t know if it will ever happen again. You’re going to think this strange… something… I wish she could be here with me and share my feelings.”

“You mean a threesome?”

“I’m not into kinky.”

“That’s good. Look. I still don’t get it. How you can love her and-“

“Be blown away by you? I just am. I’ve never been so excited in my life. Watching you at the falls. It was how I pictured it. Being three feet from you, talking to you, turning you on. It doesn’t get better.”

“That’s because you want to fuck me.”

He is both taken back and thrilled by her cursing. She moves closer to him, or, at least, he sees it that way. He again tries to kiss her but she moves her head away.

Her voice is more emphatic

“I don’t want to. I don’t understand… Carol?”

“Carol, Shmarol. I think you are waiting for me to do one more trick.”

“Okay Mr. Superman. Fly to that tree and fly back.”

Again he tries to kiss her, and again she avoids him. But at least now she is smiling.

“You didn’t fly to the tree… Friends. We should be friends. That’s it.”

“But this is an opportunity. Carol in the hospital… Having the house to myself…”

“You sound like someone at a convention. Everyone going wild because they have a hotel room and their spouse is at home.”

“Carol doesn’t police me.”

“Oh no. What is this?”

He puts the car into drive. Pulls out on the road

“You want the truth?” She asks.

“What?”

“I want to visit Carol.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Not to me. I want this to be real. Whatever I’m going to do. Or not do. I have to see her.”

“I don’t think so.”

She’s determined . “I’m going to visit her.”

Later that morning Jeremy is with Carol. She is a good deal better. The IV has been disconnected. Her catheter is gone. She is woozy and keeps dozing on and off, but she is basically okay. Her mother is attending to her which puts Jeremy in the background. Soon after, CC arrives with Jeff. CC has brought flowers. He stares at CC trying to be dismissive. She is oblivious. Her attention is on Carol.

“Carol. You have visitors.”

She only half opens her eyes.

“Your cousin Jeff told me you were here. How are you feeling?”

Carol doesn’t answer. Carol’s mother insinuates herself so that Jeremy can’t get close to the bed. She looks at him coldly. Then she studies CC. Only Carol and Jeremy can hear her

“Is this your girlfriend?”

“Mom, There is no girlfriend.”

“Look Carol is not stupid.”

He doesn’t answer. He looks at the floor. Carol’s mother turns away from him. Carol opens her eyes, stares sadly at Jeremy.

Carol’s mother continues: “I see the way you look at women. You’ve always done that.”

Carol is more awake: “Mom shush.”

CC turns her attention to Jeff: “Maybe you shouldn’t be here.”

“I’ll go to the waiting room.”

CC hands Carol her bouquet of flowers.

“They’re beautiful.”

Carol’s mother takes them, “I’ll find a vase.”

CC and Carol make eye contact. What is being communicated is ambiguous. A nurse enters: “Sorry. Only two visitors at a time.”

Jeremy speaks hollowly, “I’ll go with them. I have a class in about an hour. I’ll be back.”

Carol watches him as he leaves with CC. She looks at her mother who looks at them with an irritated puss.

“Mom, I love him.”

“I know.”

“It’s not easy for him to be married to me…. My sickness.”

“It’s not easy for any man to be married to any woman. But some do better at it. Your father would never… never.”

“I’m not sure they’ve done anything.”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s a baby.”

He’s a good man. He’s going to grow up. You’ll see.”

“What choice do I have?”

“None”

 

CC, Jeremy and Jeff wait for the hospital elevator.

Jeremy addresses Jeff: “Thanks for coming.”

“She looks better.” CC says to no one in particular.

“You were here before?” Jeff asks

“Briefly.”

That afternoon CC has returned to Jeremy’s house. She is drinking tea on the sofa, staring into the fire in the fireplace. Jeremy sits beneath her on the floor, close to leaning his head against her leg. Then he does. She doesn’t move him away. If she hadn’t understood the situation all along, and chose to ignore, CC has now arrived at the same place as Jeremy. Carol being away is their opportunity. She strokes his head.

“She looked better than I expected.”

“That’s what’s weird about Lupus. You go in and out of being sick.”

CC sips her tea.

“You know, when Carol had Alyosha it was a miracle. Her doctor told her if she were to get pregnant she would have to stop her medications. And that could be disastrous. I told her I didn’t care about children, which was the truth. But I knew she wanted a baby so I went along. We were supposed to wait ‘til she was in full remission. That wasn’t happening so we went ahead anyway.”

“Were you afraid?”

“I thought it was a ballsy move. She didn’t. She wanted to have a child in the worst way. When she’s determined… She has a powerful will. She was pregnant within weeks.”

He looks at CC with tenderness.

“Carol is lucky to have you.”

He moves his head off her knee and looks up. He speaks forcefully:

“I don’t want to talk about Carol. She is not on my mind. You are.”

“And what about Alyosha?”

“Him either. I haven’t connected to him yet. Maybe when he can talk.

“I can’t help it. I feel like Carol is in this room watching me.”

His eyes plead. Then become determined.

“This is such bullshit.”

CC waits for the moment to pass. She gets up, goes to the window. Looks out. He stands but doesn’t move towards her. She stares at nothing in particular:

“So the delivery went well? Alyosha was healthy?”

“Carol had toxemia but they were able to get it under control.”

“Really?”

Jeremy interrupts their flow forcefully

“What’s the point of this conversation?”

“This is just how it is. You love Carol. She’s here in the room with us.”

“This is about us. Carol isn’t here…Right now it’s you and me. I’m thrilled I’m with you.

Her heart throbs as, one phrase at a time, he is nailing his ownership of her.

“Alone…” “In my house…” “It’s our opportunity…” “I can’t help it.”

For a moment she breaks out of his spell. “It’s not as simple as that.”

“As simple as what?”

Her tone becomes nasty: “I’ve heard stories. You’ve done this before. I’m not going to be a fling.”

“Fine!”

He stands up. Hands CC her army coat. She’s surprised but puts the coat on. For a moment she’s flustered. Has he lost patience, telling her to beat it, to go home? She opens the door to leave.

“Where you going? Wait one second.”

Jeremy goes in to the bedroom. Returns with CC’s bag.

“Are you going to leave without this?”

Feeling awkward she takes it from him.

“Hold on.”

Again he returns to his bedroom but he returns with his winter coat on.

“Come on. Let’s go.”

CC stares at Jeremy, her happiness apparent. “Go where?”

“Let’s just go.”

“You have ants in your pants.”

The snow is not yet deep enough to need shoveling, but the tiny droplets are coming down in sheets, with the stiff wind, almost horizontally. Blowing against their face, it feels more like ice than snow. Each drop is like a tiny dagger. Both have been in blizzards before. The news had warned about the hazard. But in Buffalo, blizzards are so familiar that the natives, Jeremy included, have learned not to panic. Besides it is the first storm of the season which loans a certain innocence, novelty, far more than a warning of danger.

A car’s wheels can be heard spinning.

“This is crazy,” she shouts above the howling wind.

“Get in.”

“I’m not getting in unless you promise to drive safely.”

“Don’t worry. Get in.”

As a joke, he pushes the button for the top to come down.

“No way.”

“I’m kidding.”

They drive slowly with the top up. As they drive, the snow has gotten deeper.   Then suddenly it lets up and the sun is shining.

“That’s amazing.”

“What is it they say about Buffalo weather. If you don’t like the weather wait a few minutes. It will change.”

“That’s not Buffalo weather. It’s New England weather.”

Jeremy winks, “Oh well. You win some and you lose some.” In his teacher’s voice: “Where does the quote come from?”

Triumphantly CC answers: “Mark Twain”

He pulls the car over and stops. Once again he reaches for the button to put the top down.

“You’re serious this time aren’t you?”

“I’m just curious what it would be like”

“Crazy is what it would be like.”

“That wouldn’t bother me.”

“Well for us not crazy people, I don’t want to be driving around in a convertible during a blizzard.

He returns the car to the road. At the beginning of winter, people forget. The first serious snow is always a winter wonderland. Enchanted, they watch the scenery as they talk.

“I don’t understand how you can act like Carol isn’t with you.”

He shrugs

“Look. It was my idea to get out of the house. If we didn’t leave I would have jumped you.”

“Would you?” she answers flirtatiously

They drive for a while quietly while they both mull over what is happening.

“You say you love me but-“

“If it’s about Carol I don’t want to hear it.”

“Something else. How can you love me when you know absolutely nothing about me?”

“What do you know about me?”

“That you are the most honest person I have ever met.”

He laughs: “Honest? I talk about truth a lot. I’m obsessed with it, but that doesn’t mean I’m honest. You already know I’ve cheated on Carol before. Basically, I’m not honest at all.

“So why is truth so important to you?”

Jeremy smiles. He is in familiar territory

“I’ve thought about that a lot. Erich Fromm, the guy who wrote The Art of Loving. He knows every in and out. He’s obsessed with love. People quote him all the time.”

“So?”

“He’s been married five times.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“Someone told me it was.”

“Whoever told you that is wrong.”

“Maybe. I’ll look it up, but the idea is still valid. Maybe I talk about truth so much because I am basically dishonest.(stage voice) “Me thinks Thou doth protest too much.”… I know my dishonesty is something I got to fix. So I keep carrying on about it.

“I got a better example. Did you ever watch Jimmy Swaggart?”

“The preacher? …No.”

“They have him in New York. Buffalo stations don’t carry him. When I’m home I land up watching him, practically every day. Sometimes for hours. He’s pretty amazing.”

“Your Jewish. He’s a Christian preacher.”

“I’m not interested in the Christ part. It’s him. He cries. Really cries, from the bottom of his heart. Goes on about how he must have God’s forgiveness for his sins. He means it. It’s powerful. He’s not foolin’ around. It gets to me.”

“He’s just acting.”

“I’ve never seen an actor go where he goes. It’s not an act. It’s real. Tears pour out of him. He’s reaching into the depths of his soul. Trying to free himself of his guilt.”

“Come on.”

“He takes me with him every time. Gets me repenting for everything I ever did wrong. They try to get you there on Yom Kipper, but I just think about what I am going to eat when I break my fast. Jimmy Swaggart does it for me.

“Do you have a punch line?”

“Someone told me he goes to whores every night.”

Jeremy smiles shaking his head, “What a hypocrite.”

“You’re right but the whole thing is real. He genuinely wants forgiveness.”

“And at night, whores.”

“At least he goes to his whores with a clear conscience.”

Jeremy thinks further, “So that’s why I am carrying on about honesty?”

“I don’t know. I think guilt plays a big part in everyone, you, me, Jimmy Swaggart, Erich Fromm. We protest so much because we can’t stand what guilt feels like.”

This is the first time Jeremy has listened to her in teaching mode. He’s perfectly comfortable with it. He assumed she would be intelligent when he was first captivated by her eyes, a certain depth they had, but he’s still a little surprised.

“So you think we shouldn’t do anything. The guilt would be too much”

“Carol-“

He rolls his eyes.

The snow has begun again, coming down harder. Once or twice they skid. Unintentionally. He doesn’t seem alarmed. If anything it focuses him. The wind is now wailing. Constantly. They were right. It is a blizzard. The fact that he is calm, calms her. She is actually admiring his skill driving in the snow.

“Maybe we should turn back?”

“Are you kidding?”

“I’m having difficulty seeing the road? We’ve passed 3 abandoned cars.”

“I love it. Nobody’s on the road. I hope we have 2 feet of snow.”

“ Where are we going.”

“ Don’t know. Just out.”

“Do you have snow tires?”

Jeremy’s eyes are lit up like a madman

“No. But I love this.”

“You mean a city slicker out in the wild. Having an adventure?”

“Whatever you want to call it. I love it.”

“You should have been a white water rafter.”

“Perhaps.”

“You’re a complete idiot.”

“Actually I was thinking we can drive into Canada, see Niagara Falls from the other side. It’s pretty spectacular. Forty minutes. We’ve been going for fifteen.”

“In normal weather.”

“No traffic.   The road is ours.”

“It’s probably snowing worse at the Falls.”

They drive on for awhile, neither saying a word. Finally Jeremy breaks the silence.

“It wasn’t the same with the others. I’ve never felt like this. Never! The first day of classes… I saw you and that was that.”

They drive on further. He pulls over to the side of the road. Turns towards her. Something is bothering him.

“I have a confession. Even before classes… I saw you once walking on campus. I followed you. Did you know that?”

She looks at him with a sheepish smile.

“Actually, I do. You had a strange expression on your face.”

“What kind of expression?”

“Strange, half crazy.”

“Did I scare you?”

“For a moment but no. I liked you watching me. I like your face. You’re sort of handsome.”

“Even with my nose?”

“Especially with your nose. I like it. Later, the way you looked at me kept popping into my mind. You were this mysterious stranger. Like in a novel. (Laughing) One time I pictured you blowing your nose.

“I’ve never mastered blowing my nose in public.”

“I know I’ve seen you. What a mess. But in my fantasy you were perfect….. Blowing your nose like Cary Grant would blow his nose. So suave. I tried to keep level headed. But it was exciting. I was hoping you would follow me again. I actually looked for you for weeks. But you disappeared.”

“Once or twice I saw you on campus. I wanted to know who you were.

She is thinking things over. Finally: “Okay truth time. I arranged to take your class.

Jeremy is smiling: “I didn’t know that. I thought it was sheer luck. Like I did something right and the gods were repaying me.”

“Which gods?”

“I don’t know their names. Gods!”

“Oh?”

Thinking it over some more, Jeremy continues: “You looked surprised the first day. When I came into the room.”

“I know. Even though I arranged it. I wasn’t sure if my information was correct. That you really were the person who followed me. I guess I was surprised that it was actually happening. “

The conversation is making both of them, very happy.

“We have a strange mojo… My friend’s been warning me about you. Telling me to stay away. He thinks what’s going on in me is way over the top. Besides being crazy, he thinks it’s dangerous.”

“Do you think so?”

“I think I’ve fallen in love. “

Speaking so directly brings a wave of awkward silence.   They should have already been kissing and nothing is happening. Is he all talk and no action? There is a book on the front seat. Jeremy points to it.

“Read the first paragraph.”

“Love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise.”

She looks confused: “What does that mean?”

“Don’t know. That’s Samuel Johnson. Don’t understand that guy. The other book. Go to the beginning.”

She sees it and does as directed.

“It is the folly of lovers?…”

“Yes, that one, the Van Gogh book. Page one. It’s underlined.”

“It is the folly of lovers that they act little differently than mad men. Van Gogh knew that folly. He lived it every day.”

“That’s why his paintings leap out of the canvas. When he’d get manic, everything he saw was on fire. He painted it that way.”

She puts down the book. They both look at each other expectantly, but Jeremy starts the car and returns to the road, driving slightly too fast.

“You know what happened to Van Gogh.”

“Yeah. He cut off his ear. “

“Before he killed himself.” Jeremy intentionally makes the car skid. “Which is what you are going to do with this car.”

Jeremy again turns the steering wheel abruptly, teasing them with danger as the car skids for a moment on the empty road.

CC scolds him: “You’re crazy.”

“Me and Van Gogh.”

“He was a nut.”

He laughs and swerves some more.

“It’s not funny.”

Suddenly they go into a serious skid, the car spins completely out of control. An 18 wheeler is heading towards them. The sound of its very loud horn is constant as it approaches them

The truck just misses them but they are on the wrong side of the road. So the danger continues because far off in the distance another truck is heading towards them, Jeremy floors the gas pedal. This digs them deeper in to the snow. They are stuck. He jumps out of the car.

With CC steering he pushes. The truck is coming closer and closer. He moves to the front of the car and pushes from there, as she puts the car in reverse, gets traction and manages to make it back to the right side of the road just as the approaching truck begins to skid. Jeremy, who is still outside the car is almost hit by the skidding truck.

He is white as a ghost when he opens the car door to get in. He pushes his head back into the car seat. Takes a deep breath.

Then, like soldiers in a trench after the shooting is over, working as a team, averting catastrophe together has brought them closer as talking hasn’t. They look at each other.

“That was scary.”

Jeremy is smiling. Nervously bluster comes out of his mouth

“I knew nothing would happen. This car brings me luck. I’m safe as long as I’m in it.

“Are you serious?”

“God told me.”

“I’d like to go back, okay?

“Okay.”

He turns the car around and they drive for a while. Having made his point, that geniuses are spared the usual cautions of others, and that he is half an idiot, chastened by reality(his near death experience has left a serious impression) the swerving stops.

They continue their previous conversation.

“Were you like this with the other students you slept with?”

“You are in an entirely different category. I never followed them.”

“Never?”

He doesn’t answer.

Never? She repeats

Still no answer.

“What about anyone else, when you were younger, in high school?”

I was a completely different person. The Jeremy I am now only came into existence when I got older. Somehow my reading, filling up my head with ideas, changed me. My father told me I discovered myself. Don’t know about that. I think when I was young I didn’t have enough ammunition. Bullies could read my defenselessness in 2 seconds. Having smart thoughts became for me, a kind of ammunition. I eventually had more than enough.

“I’d say.”

“It gave me balls. In high school if I got a wrong look, it sent me reeling. With girls I was this sensitive scared little boy.

“Those are strange years for everyone I was the same way. My father told me everyone is scared when they are in love, especially the first time.”

“And second and third.”

“How may times have you been in love?”

Jeremy doesn’t answer

He smiles fondly: “There was one person back then that I did feel the way I do about you. Marlene Schneider. Exactly the same. I fell in love with her the second I saw her. The split second. One look. She was absolutely gorgeous… Like you.”

She gives him a little shove on his leg. For a moment he accelerates then stops. They swerve a bit.

“After school I used to be a delivery boy at a dry cleaner. Every day around 3:30 she’d walk by where I worked. Starting around 3 I’d be looking at my watch every few minutes. If I had to go out on a delivery around 3:30 and I missed her, it was like a wasted day.”

“Sounds like true love.”

“I never got up the nerve to speak to her. I was scared out of my mind, paralyzed. When I saw her approaching my heart stopped. My eyes were frozen on the ground. Once, just once I looked up, into her eyes.”

He smiles, shaking his head: “I can still remember that moment. Did I see love coming from her? Did she love me?”

“Did she?”

“I’ll never know. I never met her. Not a word between us. In love for years, thinking about her all the time, and not a word.”

Laughing: “So I’m not your first.”

“No actually you’re my second chance.”

She likes the comparison.

“It’s true. Twelve years and I can still picture that moment when my eyes and Marlene Schneider’s eyes locked. I felt this rush. It was like the universe had opened. What did I do? My eyes dropped to the ground and stayed there.”

He stares at her half mad.

“Still, it was something. I’m not going to blow it this time.”

“Did you have acne or something. With your looks I can’t believe you didn’t have girls all over you.”

“I had a lot of girlfriends. And I kept hearing about girls who had crushes on me. With them I had courage, but the only one I really wanted… Marlene Schneider… scared the hell out of me.”

“So how do I know the new you isn’t going to track down Marlene Shneider?”

“I already did. She’s married and had twins.   She’s put on weight. That old feeling was gone.”

“So along comes me. Nice and thin me. Oh and those others girls you slept with.”

“The others don’t count. They threw themselves at me.”

“After one of your lectures?”

Probably. Sometimes I get very carried away. (sheepishly)

Very matter of fact: “It turns the ladies on.”

Jeremy answers shyly, proudly: “I’ll confess. I enjoy it.”

“So the bottom line is you’re a show off.”

“You don’t have to put it that way. I’ll admit before teaching I thought about going into show business. Before my band. As a comedian, an actor. I sang in my band.”

“A comedian?”

“You said I remind you of this comedian you have in your family. When I’m at a party and get high, I can be funny.”

“So your serious lectures, they could have been part of a comedy routine. You just like being on stage? Getting attention?”

“Not at all. A good comedian is totally in to his material. Otherwise he couldn’t do it. Same with my lectures. I really am inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Every time I discover something new about him I flip.”

“Well you’re good at it… Great! It’s not even close. In the three and a half years of teachers I’ve had, you’ve have the best act in town.   You can do what Wittgenstein could do. You can hypnotize your audience.”

Smiling confidently: “Really?”

“Come on. you know that’s what happens.”

“Seriously, how many groupies have you had?”

“Two. They were too hot to resist.”

“So I’d be number three. You really do put on a good show. You have people eating out of your hand.”

Jeremy shrugs.

“And girls wanting to jump into bed with you.”

“But you’re not one of them. This has been different from the beginning. It didn’t begin with my lectures. You had already seen me following you. The lecture simply confirmed the kill.”

“Is that it? You like to kill young ladies?”

“You want to make me into this Don Juan/lady killer. Why don’t you know what I feel about you?”

“Okay. I do. Well maybe I half believe it. But-“

“But what?”

“But nothing. I know something’s happening between us. Truth time? … I gasped the first day of class when you walked into the room. Did you notice?

“I-“

“My mysterious stalker was going to reveal himself. That you actually were my teacher was mind blowing…. And then your lectures…

“I was a stalker? I followed you once.”

I’m teasing…Still, I think you are a Don Juan. “

“How do I prove I’m not? What do I have to tell you?”

“Tell me?… That is not going to cut it. Don Juans tell their conquests all kinds of things. Convincingly! That’s what makes them a Don Juan.”

“Okay. Never mind what I say. Look at me. Look at me this very moment. Look at the way I’m looking at you.”

“You watch the road.”

He pulls over and stops the car, offers his face as a specimen. She takes a long hard look. His eyes are jumping around restlessly.

“You look scared.”

“I am… That means my love is true.”

(playfully) “Actually you look pathetic.”

Jeremy is not amused: “Pathetic or not, I can’t help it. What’s going on with you has been building up all my life. I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

“Come on.”

“You don’t know what that’s like do you?”

“Well everyone’s weird in some way.”

They drive on silently. She looks up at him from time to time. He sees a diner.

“You hungry?”

“No.”

He stops at the diner.

They settle in to a booth. The waitress comes over. She is looking at the weather outside “Takes a lot of courage to be driving tonight.”

“Or stupidity.”

Jeremy smiles proudly and foolishly.

“What can I get you?”

“Coffee, black. Also a hamburger and french fries.”

She looks at CC

“Do you have a chocolate chip muffin.”

“Honey. This isn’t New York. How about a blueberry muffin?”

“Fine.”

The waitress returns with the hamburger and fries for Jeremy and a huge diner size muffin for CC. CC smiles when she sees its enormity. She takes a bite, becomes gabby. The waitress pours Jeremy’s coffee

“You never were crazy about Carol? “

“No. Not crazy.”

“Not even in the beginning?”

“I loved her as I got to know her. Her soul. It’s grown and grown. I love her more than ever. “

The waitress has lingered by their table listening. They realize it. They both look at her. She leaves.

“Did you think she was beautiful?”

“She was attractive. She’s put on a little weight.”

“So why did you marry her?”

Because, at the time, I was ready to get married. I didn’t have to be ga-ga. I wanted to get started, have a family. And she seemed bright… nice. I was right. She’s even more than I imagined. I’ve never known anyone like I know her. The more I’ve known her the closer we’ve become.”

“But you didn’t love her?”

“You didn’t hear me. She is perfect. We’re buddies. We can tell each other anything.

Jeremy notices her bewilderment: “It’s completely different from what you and I have.”

“That makes no sense. You can’t be falling in love with me and love Carol like that.”

“Who made that rule?”

“No one, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

“From day one I felt Carol was in need of protection.. I wanted to give it to her. And that’s what she does for me. Protect me. We’re shelter in a storm. We have a home together which we’ve built and built.”

“That’s what everyone has. I mean if they have a good marriage.”

“But it’s more…You know all those stories they told us as kids, the prince saving the princess. That part of it, feels like love to me. Always has. I just didn’t know it could grow so strong. I’ll never leave her.”

“Can you save her?

“If I can I’m unwilling to die trying….Eight years. I’ve watched over her. And she’s watched over me. She’s my alarm system. Warns me when I am off kilter.”

“So where do I fit in? Am I just eye candy?”

“I don’t know. I have what I have with you. I love Carol but you…” He breaks into a song: “.”

CC has a give me a break tone of voice.   She moves her hands in front of each other like a referee signaling “no basket” “No singing. Song lyrics are such nonsense.”

“You’re so wrong. They come from a real place. You can’t compose a love song without having a broken heart.”

“Please.”

Jeremy begins to croon… decently. He sings loudly

You broke my heart

Coz I couldn’t dance

(sadly)You didn’t even want me around

But now I’m back

To let you know that I can really shake ’em down.  

He stands and starts dancing.

Do you love me (I can really move)

Now do you love me (I’m in the groove)

Ah do you love me (do you really love me)

Now that I can dance

He’s giving a fantastic performance. She smiles which encourages him still more. He repeats the chorus.

Do you love me (I can really move)

Now do you love me (I’m in the groove)

Ah do you love me (do you really love me)

Now that I can dance

CC grabs his hand happily. They start to dance. When they stop they both turn serious. Despite his clown act, his eyes are imploring like Robin Williams, not there yet, not quite finished with his act, never finished. Suddenly this quality hits her.

“I want to get back now. Okay?”

Standing he finishes his coffee. Takes a last bite oh his hamburger, grabs a few french fires, gobbles it down. Wipes his lips with the back of his hand rather than a napkin. Some ketchup drops on his coat. Takes his finger and wipes it off. Sucks his finger dry.

She puts on her coat and takes the muffin with her. The waitress has not brought a check. As they walk towards the door, the waitress is beaming. CC shows the muffin to the waitress.

“No charge but you have to come back and finish your dance.”

CC has already passed the waitress. Unheard by CC she leans forward and whispers happily to Jeremy: “Good luck.”

The snow is coming down harder. The wind is whistling. Engulfed by the storm surrounding them, they both settle in for a determined drive. He starts the car.

“Can I have a bite?”

She breaks a piece of the muffin and hands it to him.

“What did the waitress say to you?”

“She wished me good luck.”

CC is, at first, still amused but that soon fades as they get back on the road. She turns to him, unexpectedly serious.

“You think you can just invent rules for yourself as you go along. Don’t you? Whatever mood strikes you. That’s you.”

“And who are you? Miss consistently?… Jay? “

“Zen rules. Follow your bliss.”

“You sound like Charley Chan (imitating him) Son number 2 say-

“Where do rules come from?   We’re here to be ourselves and enjoy what we are doing. That’s why we are alive.”

Dripping with sarcasm: “Being spontaneous? My mother warned me. Spontaneity turns you into a fat person. You can’t eat whenever you feel like it. Same for sex.”

“So you really like rules?”

“I don’t like them any more than you do, but you gotta have them.”

“Rules, rules rules-there’s too many of them. Particularly if there’s no God. What’s the point?”

“I thought you said God made this car magical?”

“That’s the car god. Not the big guy in the sky god. The big guy-no way he’s gonna tell me how to live. He doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. I’m the only one who can make the rules that I live by.”

“What about the car god? Doesn’t he have rules?”

“Yeah. Change the oil every 3000 miles.”

“You left out one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“God expects you to drive safely.”

They make it home. He parks in the garage. Alert to ice on the unshovelled walkway from the garage, she puts her arm through his. He starts out completely sensitive, protective. Jeremy helps CC over a snow drift. But then, ahead, he sees a patch of ice. He’s off. He runs forward and slides on it like a child. As usual, he looks back expecting her appreciation. He gets it. They enter the house. He goes immediately to the bookcase and opens a book, reads to her:

“Helplessly his mind sang. He flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying trapeze.”

“Who wrote that?”

“The daring young man on the flying trapeze? Saroyan. It made him famous.”

She smiles.

 

Chapter 8

May 1969

Unarmed Berkeley police are standing guard at the newly created and then disassembled People’s Park on Telegraph Avenue. There is a loud roar as they are quickly overpowered by the crowd surging forward. The newly installed fence is pushed down and the vacant lot is theirs. Someone finds the car tire that had been cut down and hangs it once again from a tree to serve as a swing. They are heady with power, their newly accomplished contradiction of the powers that be. But once the rubber tire is again happily swinging, there is nothing left to do. The police have left the area. A good number of the crowd head down Telegraph Avenue where they are soon met by more police. There is pushing and shoving.

Shortly after, at the Herrick Hospital emergency room entrance a police car comes screeching to a stop. Only a few pieces of jagged glass are left where the windshield and windows once were. . With his arms around his partner, a policeman staggers towards the entrance. A nurse rushes forward with a wheelchair. The injured policeman is quickly seated.

Mark and his supervisor, a resident one year older, greet the policeman and his partner as he is wheeled into the treatment area. The p policeman’s shirt has blood stains. He is sweating profusely.

“What happened,” the medical resident asks him?

His partner answers, “It’s World War III out there.”

They help the policeman on to a gurney and close the curtains. He moves carefully, fearful that he may further injure himself. Mark and his buddy have practiced this many times and are efficient. Mark cuts open the injured policeman’s shirt with a scissor. The resident examines the wound on his chest:

“Is this your only injury?” the resident asks the policemen.

“That’s it.”

His partner adds a a bit of detail, “When he tried to stop the crowd. This prick threw a knife at him.”

“He’s lucky. They threw that knife hard but it bounced off his breast bone.     A couple of inches over… We just have to clean it and maybe a stitch or two. “

Two more policemen arrive, also with their windshields gone. Worried, they eagerly question a nurse. She points them towards the location of the injured policeman. They peek in the curtain. One of them addresses the injured policeman’s partner.

“Is Jerry okay? I heard he has a knife wound in his chest.”

“He’s okay. They say the wound is superficial.”

“I see they destroyed your car like mine. The fucks know we are unarmed.

“We were just driving along when the rocks came showering down. We were stupid enough to stop. They surrounded the car. Kept throwing rocks. They pulled me out. Got me down on the ground. One of them was kicking me. When Jimmy got out of the car, someone threw the knife. I guess they weren’t total animals. When he started to bleed that stopped everyone. Like all of a sudden their game wasn’t a game any more. My son could have been one of them.

“Maybe but they own the street. There are instigators among them, cool as a cucumber. Too bad we can’t pick them out. “

“The chief wants us to stay away from Telegraph. He’s calling in the Alameda County sheriff.”

Not long after, in full riot gear, guns drawn, some with shotguns, the Alameda county sheriff’s men have regained control of the streets. Here and there a brave (or stupid) student pops up and screams “pig” at the officers. Or oinks. But most of the students and street people have gone to the roofs to watch the action. They cheer when one of the policemen gets hit by a rock thrown from the roof as if it is a sports contest. A few of them have perfected their oinks. A rock comes flying down and destroys the windshield of a car. In a rage, one of the county sheriff men shoots up at the roof with his rifle. Then several others start shooting.

Shortly after there is bedlam at the emergency room entrance of Herrick

.Doctors are shouting orders to the nurses.

“Start a line. Contact Dr. Nusra to get his ass to the O.R. pronto.

Mark, call the operating room to get ready.”

A gurney with a wounded street person is raced down the hall to the elevator. Nurses run alongside. One of them is pumping air into his lungs, the other is applying pressure to his wound.

A senior ER physician watches them leave the ER. Quietly, angrily he is perplexed, amazed that this is happening: “That guy was shot with a double aught shotgun. They use them to bring down deer. The sheriffs wants to kill people.

Mark speaks to his partner: “When people are angry enough they really go crazy.”

Mark is on rounds the next day. They come to James Rector’s bed. He is conscious but clearly weak.Mark has the chart in his hands. There are several other interns in the group. They talk in front of their patient as if he is not there.

“What’s his BUN?”

“85” Mark answers

“Creatinine?”

“9.”

“Hematocrit?” the chief resident continues.

“22.”

“Probably he’s still bleeding. He may have to go back to the O.R.”

“With that kidney function?”

“What choice is there?”

The chief resident looks up at the heart monitor.

“Plus he’s got atrial fib. “

They leave his bedside. The resident addresses Mark.

“He’s alert enough to sign the papers. Get his signature.”

Mark returns James Rector’s s bed side. He is holding a clipboard vertically so the patient can sign the papers.

“How did this happen?”

Weakly the patient answers,

“I was standing on the roof watching.   A guy near me threw a rock down at them. All of a sudden there was gunfire. Before I could get down behind this wall on the edge, a bullet knocked me down. Don’t remember after that.”

“It wasn’t a bullet.” Mark tells him. “They downed you with a shotgun pellet bigger than a bullet, double aught.”

One of the other interns comes back to the bedside. He pipes in

“They were shooting double aught pellets. They wanted to kill people.”

James Rector speaks: “Gunshots were flying in every direction.”

Angrily Mark adds: “They don’t give a shit. I can’t believe there’s nothing in the news about this.”

The other intern answers: “No surprise for me. The establishment controls the press.”

James Rector adds,

“Amen.”

The next day, outside the office of president of the hospital, Mark is sitting . He is called in.

The president stands holding up a copy of the Oakland Tribune which has a huge headline: STUDENT SHOT BY POLICE.

“Do you mind telling me what this is all about?”

“What’s the problem? It’s true.”

“The problem is we have someone who is in charge of news from the hospital. They quoted you about the double aught shotgun that hit James Rector.”

Defiantly Mark answers him: “And what’s the problem? It’s true.”

“You don’t decide. We decide what the public should and should not know?”

“How is this hurting the hospital?”

“This isn’t your business. I don’t want you talking to the press. Do it again and you’ll be out of here.”

A few days later, after James Rector has died, The Berkely Barb’s Tari summarizes the demonstration:

They thought they could get away with firing guns at their own unarmed children—they did. They thought they could get away with strafing the college campus with blister gas.

 

And they thought they could get away with murder if they dressed it up in official rhetoric., if they call the victim “a rioter”, if they made it look as if the president of the UC student body at the UC student body responsible for it by inciting to riot.

 

Will the people of Berkeley let them get away with that? I really doubt it. The officials talk about they deplore violence while they murder persons all over the world now even in Berkeley. They don’t have a special lease on violence. It can be turned against them

 

They tell us they are only protecting ”liberty” when they mean simply the liberty to kill and imprison us. That kind of liberty will be taken away from them.

 

The people of Berkeley know who the murderers are and know what the term justice means. We know who is responsible for the death of James Rector:

 

Gov. Reagan who said in t press conference this week, that is perfectly all right to gun down students in the streets.

 

 

Chancellor Roger Hynes, who started a war over square block of land then left town turning Berkeley over to his assassins…

 

 

It started innocently enough. April 18th 1969 the Barb on April 18 1969, ran an article entitled ‘Hear Ye, Hear Ye’  It informed readers about a guerilla pop-up park. “A park will be built this Sunday between Dwight and Haste…

 

“The land is owned by the university which tore down a lot of beautiful houses in order to build a swamp.” 

 

In a year the university will build a cement type expensive parking lot which will fiercely compete with the other lots for the allegiance of Berkeley’s Buicks. 

“On Sunday we will stop this shit. Bring shovels, hoses, chains, grass, paints, flowers, trees, bull dozers, top soil, colorful smiles, laughter and lots of sweat … we want the park to be a cultural, political freak out and rap center for the Western world.”

 

Hear ye. Hear Ye

 

CHAPTER 9

CC and Jeremy enter the house freezing their tails off after their abortive trip.

Jeremy heads for the kitchen: “I’ll make coffee.”

“Do you have hot chocolate. I don’t drink coffee.”

“Really?”

“Never learned to.”

He rummages a little on the shelves.

“Here it is. Swiss Miss. Do you like English muffins?”

“Do you have cookies?”

“No. No chocolate muffins either. What about an English muffin?”

“Don’t like them.”

Shortly after they are sitting opposite each other in the kitchen, he with his coffee, she with her hot chocolate. She is still wearing Jeremy’s army jacket. She is picking at the ends of Jeremy’s English muffin.

“I thought you don’t like English muffins.”

“It looks good on your plate.”

She continues to pick at his muffin.

“I’ll make you your own.”

Stubbornly CC maintains her position

“I don’t want one. I don’t like them.

“Coffee, English muffins…What’s with all that?”

“I like what I like.”

With a sarcastic expression on his face, Jeremy watches her drink her hot chocolate

“Hot chocolate. I keep forgetting you’re half child. How old were you 6,7 years ago?”

“13!”

“Exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing” he still has a sarcastic superior expression.

“6 years is a long time.”

“A third of your life.”

“I just don’t like coffee. Big deal…”

His accusing eyes remain.

“Mark tried to get me to drink it.”

“When was that?”

“I don’t know, when I was 11 or 12. He wants me to like everything he likes. Especially if he’s just discovered it. He’s just like you.”

She picks up his cup and takes a sip. She makes a face.

You don’t think that’s bitter? I don’t understand it. Why isn’t everyone drinking hot chocolate? What’s with coffee?”

“You know, you’re not alone. Practically no one in your class likes coffee. I couldn’t wait to try it. It’s something my parents did and children didn’t. So I couldn’t wait to start drinking it.”

“Yeah we are different. No one wants to do what their parents did.”

“So why does Mark like coffee?”

“Good question… Actually I do know. When my parents were in the kitchen he snuck a sip after a big dinner. Did the same thing with wine. He was 8 or 9, just like he used to light up my mother’s butts rthart he found in the ashtray. He doesn’t drink coffee now, but when I was 11 or so he loved coffee and wanted a partner in sin. He had me try it. It just tasted lousy. Bitter.”

“You don’t like to give in to Mark do you?”

“I want to be myself.”

“Which is who?”

Emphatic, angry she shouts

“Me!”

Jeremy is taken back by the depth of her feeling. She is as well. He stares at her expecting an explanation.

“It’s not just him. My mother… She acts like I am still five. I’m tired of being her project. She wants me to be a junior version of her.”

“Your mother-“

“She assumes that is who I want to be. Like she is so great. I can see it in her eyes. Stop fighting and be me.”

“Really?”

“The last few years she’s realized how stupid that is. But she still slips into it. Just assumes I see things like she sees things.”

“Like what?”

“Anything. If she sees a lamp she loves. If I tell her I don’t like it, she doesn’t really believe I don’t like it. She assumes I’m being difficult, or stubborn.”

“She never cut the cord.”

“Not just me. In certain ways she’s like that with my father. She always has to be right. She’ll hear something on TV which supports something she said 6 months ago to my father when they disagreed. She’ll let him have it. Like in your face. She has to win every argument.”

“About what?”

“Anything… nothing. Like you can’t eat English muffins without marmalade. If my father doesn’t enjoy it like she does, God help him.” She walks towards the window. “I don’t know what that’s about.”

Jeremy says nothing. CC regathers her focus.

“It’s not just her. Too many people push on me.”

“It’ll let up when you get older. Believe me at 45 the guys aren’t going to give a shit what you put on your English muffin.”

“My dad’s over 45. It means everything to my mother. Like how could he not want marmalade on his English muffin?”

In a very snotty tone: “Your mother’s something.”

She’s uncomfortable with his animosity towards her mother

“You’re mean.”

“Come on. You-“

“When I put her down it’s okay. I hate her for that moment.   But I love her… But you…”

“Sorry. I really do dislike your mother, but it’s unfair.”

“Exactly, how could you? You haven’t met her.”

“I got it from you. Stuff you told me. I just assumed. This is the first time you said you loved her”

“Are you kidding? I love my mother. She is real big in me. Real big.   She just pisses me off most of the time.”

“Let’s drop it. If you like your mother I like your mother.”

“Is that possible? You hate bossy people.”

“It doesn’t matter. If you love her I do. It’s not complicated. I feel what you feel.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Well maybe not yet, but I can feel it happening.”

“Boy you are big on sap. Be honest.”

“Okay If I met her and she pushed.” He thinks better of continuing… “Let’s go back to where we stared. Whatever Mark was doing, and other guys, trust me, when you get older you’re going to see a lot less pushing. You know how guys want to sleep with a virgin. Especially a pretty virgin. It isn’t just sex they want you to become addicted to. They’re that way about everything.”

“Who said I’m not a virgin?”

“Really?”

“There was a guy in high school. And three so far in college. Sorry. I’m not little Miss Innocent.”

“They may have fucked you, but you don’t seem like you’ve been fucked.”

“Believe me I was.”

“What once each?”

“Well-“

“You’re still a child. Your vagina and your brain are not connected yet. I can tell.”

“It has nothing to do with sex.”

“What about your clitoris?”

“I never had a conversation with it. You have a weird mind.”

“Mark, the battle you are in with him… it’s not unusual. Guys want to change women. Make them the same as them. They don’t like being alone.”

“But I’m his sister not his girlfriend.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter. “

“I’ve been his virgin for everything. Still am.”

“That’s why you don’t want to kiss me.”

CCis incredulous.

“Wo. Let me hear this one.”

“Mark. He’s always pushing you. You have to push back. So when I-“

CC throws her arms around him and kisses him passionately. He’s right there. He unzips her army jacket, pulls up the sweater he gave her, baring her breasts. He lifts her and carries her to the bedroom. The stored up frustration of all these months, all of their conversations, powers him. Her beauty now to be his.

 

February 28, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Commodore: Chapters 1 and 2

Chapter 1

 

Staten Island 1802

For the last twenty days, the weather has been overcast. It’s April yet the gray dark winter sky seems like it will never give way. Not an hour of sunshine to warm the face. Not a single warm afternoon so that the body can lose its chill.

6AM:   Trailing behind his father Cornelius Vanderbilt, nine-year-old (Cornelius) “Cornele” makes his way across the potato fields. Deep mud from the melting snow sucks at the boy’s boots, making it difficult to climb the incline. Old Cornelius is irritated by the slowdown. He’s had to stop his wheelbarrow several times so that his son could catch up.

Gloomy weather like this would sour the mood of any farmer, let alone Cornelius. The freezing drizzle is also rotten luck for Cornele. He and his father would have taken shelter from rain, but his father insists, cold as it is, a drizzle is not enough reason to leave the fields. 

Making things worse, the farm borders New York’s Upper Bay.  A storm may be coming.   High, mean waves are crashing into the shore, sending sprays of icy saltwater into the air.  This joins the freezing drizzle, as gusts of wind sweep the moisture a hundred yards into the farm.

Cornele’s damp wool coat provides little protection. The wind finds its way beneath it, injecting icy chills that cut right through him.   More meat on him would help prevent the chill from seeping into his chest. Every few moments a sharp frozen, aching sensation reaches his bones, especially his knees.

Old Cornelius started this morning as he does every morning, wanting to call it quits.  After the rooster startled him from his dream, he pulled his quilt tighter, kept his eyes closed, and- if only for a few moments longer, fought to stay asleep.

No luck. As the dream dissipated, it left him all nerves, which increased the longer he lay there.

Now, an hour later, angry energy propels him forward. He parks his wheelbarrow carefully, facing up the hill, so that it won’t fall, reaches for his pick ax, lifts it over his head, and swings it wildly into the mud, trying to free a large rock from the soil. He is a man at war, hurling his fury at the enemy, which is everywhere. Cornele stands nearby ready to help his father, but he is aggravating him more than he is helping him.

When they first went outside, Cornele played with the frosty air. He blew out a thin stream as far as it would go and waved his hand through it as if it were smoke. He tried to make rings. His father looked at him like he wanted like to kill him. As usual Cornele doesn’t seem capable of standing still.

“When you work, you work. No bullshit,” he lectures.

Cornele’s heard it a hundred times, heard the anger as his father said it.   Only lately it’s moved beyond aggravation to a fury firing out of his eyes.

Cornele repeatedly tightens his ungloved fingers into fists, trying to prevent them from freezing.   His knees move in and out rhythmically as if he has to pee. From time to time, his shivering escalates into a tremor, which culminates in a quivering little boy moan. He tried to pass this off as a playful sound the first time, but hearing it a second time further pisses off Old Cornelius. He’s convinced his son is exaggerating how cold he is.   He wants Cornele concentrating on what they’re doing, not on what he is feeling.

“The Princess and the pea. Your mother is raising a princess.”

“I ain’t no princess.”

His father is undeterred. He is intent on showing Cornele his mighty swing. The boy has an unobstructed view. Each time Cornelius’ smashes his tool into the earth, it sends mud flying everywhere. He’s practically covered Cornele’s coat and face.   A fleck of mud hits Cornele just below his eye. He flinches. Old Cornelius stares at him defiantly.

“Who told you to stand there?”

Cornele moves two steps backwards. He stares like a deer caught in the headlights.

  His father scowls “Are you waiting for me to say something?”

Cornele’s eyes begin to water.

“Don’t you cry boy. Damn’ princess with her pea,” he repeats. “How’d I ever get a son like this.”

Cornele’s first tear finally slides down his cheek, and then many more. Old Cornelius has seen enough. He will not stand out here with a crying son. He throws down his pick, and storms away in the direction of the house. He shouts, “It’s your Ma’s fault. Made you a cry baby.”

Watching his father march off, Cornele wipes his eyes with his arms. He’s determined not to let the tears continue.

He lifts the pick lying on the ground and swings it solidly into the earth. Old Cornelius hears him and does an about face. He returns and roughly grabs the pick-ax away from Cornele.

  “Your Ma’d kill me…” he mumbles loud enough to be heard.

His father takes a mighty swing. The huge rock comes loose. “See what I mean?” is written on his face. Happy to have another opportunity, Cornele drops to the side of the rock. He digs his fingers into the cold mud surrounding it, and pulls the huge rock completely free. His father brings over the wheelbarrow. His face turns bright red as he lifts the huge rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow tray. Huffing and puffing he drops it in. This tips the wheelbarrow over.

“God damn’ it,” Cornelius yells. The steam is coming out of every pore. When he manages to get a modicum of control over himself he places the wheelbarrow at a better angle.

“Come here and hold this steady.”

Cornele does as he is told. He holds it tightly, trying to steady it. While doing so, he shifts his feet back and forth still trying to keep warm, which is what bothered his father in the first place.

“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he scowls. He grabs the wheelbarrow tray and shoves it a bit, “Like this! Get it straight.”

With Herculean effort, cursing all the way, Old Cornelius again lifts the rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow and drops it in. The wheelbarrow falls over.

Furiously, he shouts loud enough to be heard in hell, “Hold it damn’ you.”

Cornele pulls the wheelbarrow up, positions it, stiffens his body, and tightens his grip. His father again lifts the rock and drops it down. Using all of his strength, Cornele manages to keep it upright.

“So when you want to, you can do it,” his father observes sarcastically, but as he wheels the rock away, there is a trace of affection for Cornele’s contribution.

Old Cornelius will add it to the other rocks, which form a wall cutting across the field. Each rock represents a separate battle. As has become his habit, he glances at the largest one every time he brings a new addition. On nicer days it serves as a trophy, but usually it is too hot, or too cold, too wet too dry—the biggest rock, all of the rocks, remind him of just how badly he’s been cursed by God.                                                                                                        

“Fuck you Jesus. You son of a whore. Stuck me on this piece of shit land. Fucking rocks everywhere.”

With his father gone, Cornele takes the pick and throws himself at another rock. He is able to get it loosened. He gets on his knees and once again moves the mud away with his hands. Happily he anticipates his father’s admiration when he returns.

Old Cornelius’ reaction is completely the opposite. He grabs the tool.   “You are a fuckin’ idiot. I took the pick away once. I told ya. Ma‘ll blame me if you hurt yourself.”

Still intent on showing his son how it’s done, his ferocious swing further placates his rage. His steady stream of cursing, thousand and thousands of times before, has never been enough to get the job done. He can’t shout as powerfully as he needs to. The vehemence of his pick ax swing, attacking the earth, momentarily makes him feel right.

The rock is not loosening.

“Mother fucker. You mother fucker.”

A boulder under the rock isn’t allowing him to get at the dirt underneath. He slams the pick into the earth a fourth time but it has no effect.

For Old Cornelius it always comes down to the same thing, futility. Why bother? You can’t win. He throws the pick ax on the ground.

One son sick and the other useless. Too many mouths to feed. Daughters not sons. There is nothing else to say or do other than quit. He heads for the house muttering all the way, bitter that Cornele has failed him. He had counted on the future when a strong son would ease his toils.

 “Thinks he’s a prince. Nothing. You hear me Cornele,” he shouts. You’re going to be nothing.” A moment later he adds, “Can’t even hold a wheelbarrow. The world out there ain’t gonna wipe your ass like your Ma.”

When his father is far enough away, Cornele lifts the pick-ax and starts swinging.   In the distance, his father turns around. Hands on his hips, he watches his son with the nastiest scowl yet. As he turns back to the house, he kicks a shovel that had been left in his path. He shouts at Cornele.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the shovel there? How many times? Almost tripped on it.”

He picks up the shovel, swings it in Cornele’s direction, and then lets go. It falls far short of its target. Cornele is unfazed. His father has grabbed him roughly many times, but never actually beat him.

   Fussing and cursing, Old Cornelius heads for the house again.

“Nothing! You hear me Cornele. You’re gonna be nothing.”

Phoebe watches him through the window as he returns   She is not happy. She opens the door, stares him up and down.

“Another short day?”

“The weather.”

“So why’d you drag Cornele out there? You already have one sick son. Jacob’s coughing started on a day like this.”

  He doesn’t answer. She isn’t finished.

You managed to come back. Where is   Cornele?”      

Noticing his blue lips, her tone softens.

“There’s hot tea on the stove.”

She’s no fool. He’s regularly disappointed her, but with all his shortcomings, the family could not last 10 minutes without him.   It isn’t easy to chop out their survival against nature’s malevolence. She wouldn’t want to be out there on a nasty day like this.

She shouts for Cornele to come in.   Her voice sounds like it is coming from heaven.   His arms had gotten heavy. He will soon be warm by the fire and sipping tea.

With this in mind he has new energy. He stares at the rock that has been his nemesis, rust colored and smooth. He swings a mighty blow. No luck.   It isn’t budging. He loosens some dirt and takes another swing. Still nothing happens. The next swing does the trick. He is about to lift it when it begins to pour.

He fixes the location of the rock in his mind so he can return tomorrow. Slowed by the mud, he runs towards the house. Hail is bouncing off the ground. That makes him smile. He doesn’t get to see hail very often.

 

It is dinnertime. Cornele’s mother, Phoebe Hand Vanderbilt, and her eldest daughter Mary, are bringing food to the large kitchen table. Phoebe is pregnant. She has a strong face, a straight mouth a little drawn down in the corners, but green eyes that glitter humorously from under thick brows. There is shrewdness in her face, determination, kindliness. But not right now. Jacob, her eldest boy, is coughing the worst yet, hacking away from deep within his chest.

  “Damn’ it. Cover your mouth.” Old Cornelius shouts at him.

  Phoebe brings Jacob a kitchen rag. He hacks away once or twice more, but then coughs more gently before stopping. They settle down. She looks around the table.

“What’s with you Cornele? Why the sad face?”

He glances at his father surreptitiously, before looking down at his plate. Old Cornelius is chewing his food looking as innocent as a priest giving a sermon, making eye contact with no one.   He can keep it up for only so long when she stares him down. She catches his eye for a fraction of a second. That’s enough for him to momentarily lose his composure.

  The portions are meager. There is not enough food for the seven of them. After cleaning their plates, they look longingly at the little that remains. Phoebe takes the meat off her plate and puts it on Jacob’s plate.

  “Here, eat this.”

  The other children stare at the meat.

  “Not hungry,” he replies in a sickly way.

  “Try.”

  “Can’t. I’m nauseous.”

  Old Cornelius and Phoebe exchange a worried glance.

  Phoebe puts the meat on Cornele’s plate.

  “You take it.”

  Charlotte reacts immediately,

  “He always gets everything.”

  “Men’s work requires more meat.”

  “And what do we get? Sugar and spice?”

  “Keep it up and you’ll get the back of my hand.”

Cornele quickly devours the piece of meat. Phoebe pours milk about a third of the way up in each of the children’s glasses.

  Charlotte is not finished complaining.

  “Can I at least have more milk?”

  Phoebe pours the last of it into her glass. Charlotte continues to look expectantly.  

  “There isn’t any more.”

  “I’m hungry.”

  “Talk to your father about that.”

           She still hasn’t let up on his decision to sell Betsy, one of their two cows, for one of   his schemes. As usual, that money brought back nothing. Late at night, in bed, she’s told him a thousand times. She doesn’t mind the booze. It’s the gambling. Just because he loses it over a few months, rather then in one night, it’s the same. He’s gonna land them in the poor house yet. Now with Elsa, their other cow, not producing well…

     Jacob starts to cough again. Old Cornelius stands up and puts on his hat.

    “Where you going?” Phoebe asks him.

     “Out.”

     Without looking back, he closes the door behind him.

  No need for Phoebe to say anything. Old Cornelius storming out is a regular occurrence. She returns from the oven with a plate of steaming biscuits.

“One each.”

  The weather has cleared. The clouds left behind by the storm have made for a magnificent sunset. A schooner, its sails haloed in orange fills their front window.   Almost to touch the color Phoebe goes to the window. She wants to get a better look.

  “Come to the window.”

     Charlotte hardly glances. She knows what’s coming. She’s heard stories about her grandfather a thousand times too many.

   “Like the boat my father had. Some days I’d stand by the shore. Waiting…”

Cornele can’t take his eyes off the boat. In contrast to Charlotte, every time his mother talks about her father he enters into her memory like in a dream. It brings him to a better place. Like songs that sometimes play in his head, his pleasure multiplies each time the story gets repeated.

  The ship’s deep foghorn fills the airways.

  “I could hear him before I could see him. As soon as he entered the harbor, he’d sound the horn extra long for me.”

  The foghorn again sounds its deep extended bass.

“Still sends a thrill through me… It’s why I fell in love with this house… You can hear the ships’ horns, watch the ships come back from the sea.”

  She runs her fingers through Cornele’s hair, as she stares at the boat.

  “He was tall and strong like you…”

  She sees he is uncomfortable.

  “Go keep your father company.”

  Cornele hesitates.

  “He likes your company when he goes walking.”

  Cornele is still hesitant.

  “Believe me. He does. He told me. He used to like it when Jacob could go out with him.”

  She hands him his hat. Cornele takes it and reluctantly puts on his coat.

  Phoebe is pleased. She feels a little guilty for driving Cornelius from the dinner table. This will help. Cornele needs time together with his father when they’re not working. He can be a different person on his walks.

  “Here take this biscuit to your father.” She breaks off another half for him.

  “Preparing for a comment from Charlotte, she goes on the offensive.

“You can each have another half a biscuit.

Cornele catches up to his father. He is deep in a dark mood. They walk slowly, quietly along the shoreline, Cornele kicking pebbles along the way. It is now well into the sunset, the bay slowly changing from orange to red. They stare out over the water as small waves fold into the shore. The sound lures them into silence. It quiets Cornelius’ anger.

Cornele throws a pebble into the water.   A thin ping can be heard as it breaks the surface. Lit by the sunset, circles of color slowly expand from the pebble, becoming less intense, and then disappear.

Cornele measures his father’s mood cautiously. He is still uncertain what will come next. His father throws a pebble. It is again followed by a circle of color.

Cornele lets down his guard a bit. His father takes out a flask and gulps down a swallow of whiskey.

Cornele’s apprehension returns. Could be the beginning of trouble. Then suddenly, another schooner appears, slowly passing them on its way to docking in Manhattan. Ordinarily, Old Cornelius lacks the patience to nurture Cornele’s curiosity. He might begin with an educational purpose, but it too often turns into a lecture.   Interesting details fade, invariably replaced by a lesson aimed at his moral education. This soon becomes scolding, sometimes for things Cornele didn’t do. His father will acknowledge this, but he says its good for Cornele to listen anyway and learn. Old Cornelius can’t help himself. There is so much that needs fixing. There is so much anger in him at the injustice in the world.

   The one exception is ships. Like Phoebe he has a thing for ships. He points: “What is that called?”

  “The bow.”

“That?”   

“The jib sail.”

  The ship’s flag comes into view.

  “What country?”

  “Spain. That’s the Castilla.”

  Sure enough, soon is seen, written boldly, La Castilla adorning the bow.

  “See I told you.”

  “Your Ma says you can name every boat that comes into the harbor.”

“I can.”

“That’s how you use your time? Watching the boats?”

  “They go all over the world.”

  Old Cornelius says nothing but it is clear he is unimpressed.

   “Your Ma also tells me you like to wear your grandfather’s captain hat.”

  Cornele remains silent.

  “You’re too old to play baby games like that.”

  Another ship comes into view.

  Cornele calls out excitedly.

  “That one’s Dutch. It’s Dutch like us.

“Don’t you let your mother tell you any different. The English stole New York from us.” Frustrated, angry, determined he continues, “It should be New Amsterdam.”

  Cornele’s apprehension grows as the anger grows in his father’s voice.

  “Telling ya. I would sell Betsy again. Your Ma don’t understand. Ya can’t get anywhere working with your hands.   No future in it.”

  He looks at Cornele, not sure what he understands. Cornele is, in fact, not listening. He’s planning his escape route, should the drinking continue.

                                                        Chapter 2

                                                                 Late December 1876, a lifetime later.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is sitting on the side of his bed using a cane to support himself. A doctor has just completed his examination. Eighty-four, thin and pale, he groans in pain as he attempts to stand up. Yet, sick as he is, he still radiates authority.   His groans are as much shouting back at the pain as feeling it. When he feels irritation in his throat his raucously loud coughs take over the room.

Below his bedroom window, a mob of reporters has overflowed into the street at the front of his Manhattan townhouse. A newsboy can be heard outside calling out the tidings:

“Commodore Vanderbilt dying. Richest man in America very ill.”

Making it to a standing position, Vanderbilt heads towards the window. An extern, dressed in white, tries to help him, but he is waved away contemptuously.

The doctor begins to stir but thinks better of it.

Outside, someone is shouting “Commodore” over and over.

Vanderbilt mumbles to himself as he moves toward the window. He rubs away the frost with his pajama sleeve and looks out at the reporters.

“Twice as many as yesterday. They’re ready to suck on my bones the minute I die.”

An organ grinder, with a leashed monkey sitting on his shoulder, cranks out a tune.

“A fucking carnival under my window.”

One of the reporters catches a glimpse of Vanderbilt and points. The result is a new round of shoving and pushing as each tries to secure a better position. Everyone’s shouting.

“Commodore.”

“Mr. Vanderbilt!”

Vanderbilt leaves the window.

The doorbell rings, a series of gongs.

“Pendleton. Get the door,” he shouts to the butler, as he makes his way to the second floor landing overlooking the entrance.

“Who is it?”

“A reporter,” Pendleton shouts back, “Mr. Michael Burch.”

Burch leans forward and looks up at the landing.

Vanderbilt moves into full view and straightens up.   Like a bear rising on its back legs, he appears doubly menacing.

“I ain’t dying you mother fucker.”

Calmly, Burch shouts up to him, “Sir, it’s Michael Burch.”

He waits for a response, but there isn’t any.

“Michael Burch. You asked me to come here… You liked my story about you in last week’s Sentinel…Said you wanted to tell me the rest…that ring any bells?”

“I read that article.” Vanderbilt shouts to him in a raspy voice. “I don’t remember asking you to come here.”

“Our readers want to know everything they can about you.”

“Sure they do. Especially, how I got my money. Probably think I have a secret which I’ll take to the grave.”

“Well, do you?”

“Just one. I tripped over a chest of diamonds and gold on Treasure Island when I was twelve. Been living off it ever since.”

“You’re a lucky man.”

“I wanted it enough. That’s how I done it.”

“Can’t be that simple.   You started with nothing.”

“Actually it is that simple. It ain’t the stuff you guys write about. I know it’s hard coming up with news.   Still! Ya ever get tired of bullshit?”

“We’re not all like that. Make you a deal. You tell the story straight and I’ll report it that way. Let our readers decide.”

“Decide what?”

“How you did it. That’s what people want to know.”

“There’s nothing unusual about it.”

“Nothing? You were better at making money then anyone that’s ever lived. People want to know about things like that.”

“I’m sure they do.”

“They’re looking for ideas. What’s wrong with that?”

“I ain’t no ‘how to’ person.”

“I’m sure you aren’t. But something made you succeed. It wasn’t just luck.”

“There was plenty of luck.”

“Not the way you kept multiplying your money. You did it for 70 years.”

Normally, flattery would turn Vanderbilt off, but since he’s become ill, he’s been more vulnerable to compliments.

“People want to figure out how come, what drove you on like that?”

“I’m trying to sort that out myself.”

“There’s a lot of stories floating around, not all of them nice.”

“Not all of it was nice. But none of it was crooked.”

“They say you could outsmart anyone.”

“That’s because everyone thought they were smarter than me. Dumber they think you are, the better you’ll do.”

“See that’s what people are looking for, advice. You have some more like that?”

“No. Only other thing is ya gotta be quick. Act before someone else gets the idea.”

“So you are cagey.”

“You want to call it cagey, go ahead.”

“Well what is it?”

“Who the fuck knows. I just do what I do.”

Vanderbilt starts to cough. He clears his chest and gathers his phlegm, forces the gunk out of his throat. He lets the phlegm

fly towards the spittoon. He hits his mark.

“Getting sick brings out new talents,” he says triumphantly.

“Do you see things differently since you got sick like this?”

“Probably.”

“Like what?”

“That I may be dying got me thinking about a lot of things. ”

“Is that on your mind a lot?” Burch asks with some genuineness.

“You really give a shit?”

Burch squirms a bit, which Vanderbilt ignores.

“Some days, it feels like I’m dying. Other days…I feel like a million bucks.   Like today.”

“You know the Herald is printing a daily report on your health. Been running it for the last month.”

“I know. The countdown. You can tell your editor I ain’t dying any time soon.”

Burch isn’t sure what Vanderbilt believes. His physical deterioration is striking, especially his pallor. Burch saw him at a function a year ago. It’s as if the person before him is someone else, taking measured steps, frail like a ghost.

“Since you are feeling good, how about an interview?”

“Truth is when I read your article I thought about doing an interview with you.

Give you this. Most reporters make up stories to fill in what they don’t know.   In your article you didn’t do that. What you wrote about me last week was true. Every bit of it.”

“I do my best.”

“I respect that.” Vanderbilt observes Burch as he absorbs the compliment. He continues.

“I need that. I want to set things straight. Never understood people my age writing memoirs. Now I do. I want the last word.”

“I can help you do that. People trust what I write.”

Vanderbilt seems perplexed.

“Is something wrong?”

“Sounds like I invited you, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I really don’t remember doing that. Don’t remember it at all. I’m forgetting a lot of things lately. ”

“I was definitely told to come here.”

Thinking further: “Was probably my son, Bill. You got sons?”

Burch holds up two fingers, “Eight and ten.”

“Wait ‘til they get older and become pricks like Bill…”

“You really didn’t ask me to come?”

Vanderbilt isn’t listening.

“I’m sure it was Bill. The fuck has taken over. Convinced the doctors I’m senile. That’s put him in charge.”

He clears some more phlegm from his throat.

“Probably I’m not all there. But all that means is I’m not paying attention to what’s going on around here…Who wants to? I’m stuck with this body that ain’t worth shit. And the fact is, my memories are a thousand times more interesting than the people around me now.”

He takes several labored breaths, than continues. “I keep mentioning people my son’s never heard of. So what? He thinks my talking so much about the past is proof I’m a goner. The doctor agrees it’s a sign of senility. What they don’t get is, these people in the past happen to be the people I spent my life with.”

He hesitates to catch his breath.

“They mean something to me. I’m sorting things out with them. Finishing things up between us.”

“That matters to you?”

Vanderbilt doesn’t answer.

The extern, a tall young man, has followed him to the landing.

“Sir, I think you have to get back to bed.”

He grabs Vanderbilt’s arm trying to force him back to the bedroom. Over matched, Vanderbilt’s hand tightens on his walking stick as the extern begins to pull in earnest. He

cracks the extern on his head, a sharp glancing blow, and pulls his arm free.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” he spits out. “Who the fuck da ya think you are?”

The extern retreats.   Vanderbilt waits for him to leave the landing, which he does. He returns to the bedroom, leaving the door open.

“Shut that door!”

The intern ignores him. Vanderbilt returns his attention to Burch.

“Believe me, the people I’m thinking about are god damn’ more important than the assholes around here. Including Bill when he pokes his head in.”

He looks toward the bedroom.

“Put that down,” he shouts at the extern. He leaves the landing to retake possession of a urinal from the extern. He grabs it out of his hands. The extern gives him a patronizing glance, the same he gives to all the old biddies that he sees.

With Vanderbilt busy, Burch questions Pendleton, “Is he okay?”

“His mind’s sharp as a bell. Remembers everything. What’s changed is now he tells people things he used to keep private. Doesn’t care anymore.”

“Anything else?”

“The last 7 or 8 years the second Mrs. Vanderbilt had made him into a gentleman.”

Pendleton’s pride swells as he speaks.

“Should have seen him at 80, dapper, erect posture; he looked 60. They made quite a couple…Up until this illness. Now he’s more like he was before he married her, yelling and cursing as bad as he ever did.”

Having defeated the extern Vanderbilt returns invigorated. He shouts down to Burch.

“You can bring your ass up here. Except you gotta do one thing first. Tell your buddies to clear out. I want ‘em off my sidewalk.”

“Sir. The sidewalks are public property.”

“Fuck you Pendleton. Who asked you?”

Vanderbilt waits to catch his breath.

Outside someone shouts. “Burch got in!”

“Try it”

There is a knock on the door.

“Burch?” Vanderbilt yells down at him.

“Get rid of ‘em. And get them off my sidewalk.”

“Sir, most of them are not my friends out there.”

“I don’t give a shit. Next thing – they’re gonna invade this place.”

Two more knocks, this time louder, more insistent.

“Pendleton. Get that door and slam it in the man’s face. And none of your bullshit manners. See if you can catch one of his fingers or his nose.”

“Yes sir!”

“Then send someone to the precinct. Talk to Donahue.”

Shouting like he’d like to slap him on the ass, “Pronto!”

Pendleton mutters to Burch:

“He’s the same man.”

“One other thing, Pendleton. After you send someone to talk to Donahue, I want you to get my revolver from the gun case, walk to the back of the house and blow your brains out. And don’t make a mess!”

Pendleton winks at Burch.

“As you wish, great one.”

He adds cheerfully,“ Burch. You can have my story.”

Burch goes to a mirror, nervously slicks down his hair, straightens his tie, and then rushes up the stairs. The doctor, looking bedraggled, passes him on his way down. The doctor shakes his head in frustration. He has a sympathetic look of “you’re next.”

March 10, 2015
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Does Being Afraid Of An Angry Black Man or Crazy Black Teenager Constitute Racism?

I don’t know what to make of the current heated up denunciations of  racism in America.  I thought we were doing so well, then Ferguson, followed by Eric Garner’s death and all of a sudden white society has again been  on trial.  Is it deserved?   White people, like any other people are no angels.  Still I think the criticism of white people has gone way too far.

I am not happy I believe  that.  At best, defending white society right now is taken by others to be complacent. It hints at a certain insensitivity to black people’s hardships, and what else could that be but racism?  I must be harboring it or else  I would be as impassioned as the commentators on CBS news, NBC, ABC and  PBS, alarmed that racism has not been eradicated.

Yet, the facts about what happened in Ferguson have proven to be irrelevant to the plight of black people, truly a non event, in the great halls of black history.  Compared to the injustice of Selma, and  many other examples of white brutality  in the past, the story of what happened in Ferguson  is not an example of white cruelty towards black people    Officer Wilson was justifiably defending himself.

After hearing the results of the autopsy of Michael Brown,  it turns out that he was not attempting to give up when he was shot.  He was in a fury.  He had punched Officer Wilson in the face, and tried to wrestle  his gun away from him.  There were powder burns on his hands from when the gun went off as he tried to grab it in the policeman’s car.  The  bullet entry angles unequivocally  proved he did not have his hands up when he was shot.  Those who claimed he was surrendering were not credible witnesses.  Their stories were full of contradictions.   Brown was 280 lbs, and 6’5″ and he had decided that rather then run or hide from the officer, as his friend had done, he would  charge at the officer.  Many witnesses concurred about that. Here is a video of Michael Brown beating up an old black man. Here is a video of him stealing from a convenience store and bullying the clerk.  This happened shortly before Officer Wilson confronted him

Officer Wilson had never used his gun before.  If he didn’t use it, his children would have grown up without a father.  Scared for his life, he shot, and when that didn’t stop the charge he shot again and again.

The local grand jury spent an unusual amount of time studying the evidence.  Grand jury hearings are usually kept private.  Out of respect for the sensitivity of the situation, the evidence was made public.  All of it.  Didn’t matter.  The national  news,  implied that not only was the officer lying, the District Attorney was suspect.  After all, when the district attorney  was a boy of 12, his policeman father had been killed by a black man.  The whole proceeding was a farce, but then what can you expect in white America?

Obama sent his top  Justice Department people to check on the grand jury’s conclusions.  Their pathologist did his own autopsy,   They interviewed witnesses themselves, some of whom told them they were afraid of giving testimony that contradicted what was in the news.  When they went over the facts of the case, the Justice Department agreed that Officer Wilson’s account of his shooting of Michael Brown  was accurate.   Defending himself was completely justifiable.  The truth about what happened was clear.  But Holder’s Justice Department report worked a new angle.  The reason that the people of Ferguson would not accept the grand jury’s conclusions was that the Ferguson Police Department was so racist that people from Ferguson couldn’t be expected to accept the facts.  Even after two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

Not exactly Mr. President.  That is not nearly enough. Not even close.  As president of all the people, it is his duty to get at the heart of this story, to proclaim the innocence of the policeman. Especially  after  two policeman were killed in New York City, by a killer enraged by what he had been told happened in Ferguson.  We have a new Obama.  Apparently lately, as we can see with his recent reaction  to Israel, his long standing antipathies are  no longer easily quieted.  Apparently his anger about racism has  far more remaining venom  than we suspected.  I suppose that must mean that the degree of racism in the white community has gotten completely out of hand and he can no longer be silent.  Or have things become more comfortable so that he doesn’t have to try to be objective?

If white racism is out of control I just don’t see it.   True I am white and couldn’t possibly understand what blacks have been through.  But still I don’t see intolerance towards black people growing.  I don’t understand why now, why black people are indignant all over again (although in truth, as opposed to what I see on TV I haven’t been particularly struck by the anger of black people I meet).  I am mostly struck by the media’s anger, their usual mob psychology reaction, their wailing over white people’s racism.  I am struck by  liberal politicians  delight, their willingness to grant pundit status to left wing white and black hot heads, stirring the craziness into a frenzy.

Not just the likes of Reverend Sharpton who was suddenly meeting with President Obama, but every politico spouting phony statistics about white policemen’s war against black men, every black mother frightened that their child might be the next unarmed black victim, The whole package of anger and fear, the claims of injustice are seen as having an understandable reaction.  For those enraged about Ferguson, it  doesn’t seem to matter  that Ferguson, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, remains  a symbol of white racism.  Perhaps it is not true in this case, but what about all the other killings of black people we are hearing about.  Ferguson is the tip of the iceberg critics tell us.  The main point is police everywhere in America are killing unarmed black teenagers.  They are harassing innocent law abiding young black men simply because they are black.  Speaking before he met with President Obama about Ferguson and the Garner incident, Mayor Deblasio of New York had this to say:

We’ve lost so many young men of color, young men who should still be alive and with us today, and its clawing at us—it’s clawing at people of all backgrounds. There’s a sense that there’s something wrong in this country that’s going unaddressed…The broader problems that would be discussed at the White House were due to “centuries of racism.”

To me it is astounding that despite what is known,  Ferguson  did not fade away as a hot item.  It is still mentioned in the media as a civil rights cause?  Never mind the media.  By now I would have thought that moderate black leaders would have stepped forward and tried to calm things down. Where is Oprah?  Where is Mayor Dinkins, and Governor Patterson of New York?  Why aren’t black moderates speaking out about Ferguson.  It’s the question Americans asked about Muslims after 9/11.  I assume moderates  fear being labeled as Uncle Toms, accused of denying just how bad racism is in America.  They would be denounced for having sold out.  They got theirs, so sure, what does it matter what the rest of their people have to go through . They’re as bad as the 1%.  Rich apologists that just don’t get it.  This kind of fear of taking on hot issues has become commonplace in America,  the direct result of  the frenzy, the mob psychology that the  media apparently likes to engender.

Certainly the relationship in our country between blacks and whites is not perfect, but I will dare to mutter a PC forbidden claim, the automatically dismissed claim of apologists.  Black people have come a long way,  far beyond anything I might have expected in the 60’s, when Martin Luther King had a dream.  So have white people in their attitudes.  Americans have elected a black president.  Oprah is one of our most respected public figures.  They have elected Deblasio mayor of New York.  His black wife was irrelevant to the voters. Or, it may have been a  plus with the voters.

The lack of racist  attitudes in white people  goes far beyond that.  Turn on the TV during the daytime.  Put on a few game shows or talk shows. Bob Barker is long gone.  Charming, cheerful, friendly, confident  black men and women are often the host or hostess of these confections.  And not because the networks are trying to do a good deed.  These hosts and hostesses are genuinely welcomed into the homes of Americans.  They wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t do the job.  They wouldn’t be there if they weren’t liked in TV land  And these are Americans’ casual acquaintances.   The signs of progress go way beyond simple acceptance.   Many of today’s heroes, many superstars, the stuff of legends, are amazingly often African American athletes and entertainers.  Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Will Smith, and before his current difficulties, Bill Cosby.  They are embraced.  Chris Rock fills up concert halls with biting jokes about whites that go to the gut.  He ain’t no goody-goody gooing up people’s feeling with platitudes.  He receives thunderous applause.  Who does not embrace Morgan Freeman, in what has become  one of our most beloved American movies, Shawshank Redemption? It is love we feel for him.  The same love Jimmy Stewart  gets around Christmas time for It’s a Wonderful Life  How can we be a racist society when there are so many examples of how we are not?

I’m going to bring forward some statistics that are rarely mentioned in the discussion of white racism.  Americans have been willing to spend 22 trillion dollars since Lyndon Johnson’s  war on poverty began.  That is not a small sum when we consider how aware we are of the collapsing infra structure around us. We don’t have the money to fix it.  Yet we still elect congressman who place help to the poor as a higher priority than new bridges and highways.  Moreover, a good proportion of the families of individuals taxed by the government to help the poor are like me.  True, as a New Yorker I tend to only know Jews and other ethnics.  But our grandparents came to America long after slavery was abolished.   They cannot be held responsible for what went on in America before they came.  Let us also not forget, a fact left out of the BLM narrative, close to 300,000 Union soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War, fought over the issue of slavery. Yet so morally repugnant was American slavery, so great did blacks suffer at the hands of white masters, so horrendous was the misdeeds of Southerners in the century following the Civil War, and so poor have so many black people remained, that even though historically Northeners  are not responsible for the terrible abuse of black people, we feel, and  apparently most Americans feel, that special treatment, huge programs costing  huge sums of money  is owed to black people.  It is the least we can do.

True, the money spent on the poor has not only helped black people.  Forty eight percent of the poor are white.   And much of the money has gone into the pockets of  government bureaucrats, many of them white. But I would argue that a significant portion of the  population believed, and still believes, that the government was and  is spending  most of that  money trying to help black people. There is a reason for this belief.

Our vastly ambitious poverty programs only began to capture enormous sums of money in the context of the civil rights struggle.  In many people’s minds, correctly or not, they are one and the same thing .  My point is not to quibble over the numbers.  It is simply the point that accusing  Americans of  being racist, and still being racists,  after their (for most part good hearted) efforts to empathize with, and help black people, does not qualify as a fair assessment of white people’s behavior.  Indeed, no other group in our history has received so much public help.  There were no affirmative action programs for uneducated Jews and Italians and Irish, coming over on the boats.  They, and their children, were expected to make it on their own, come what may.   Kikes and the Wops and  Miks were kept out of country clubs, out of Wall Street, out of executive positions in large corporations.  Their numbers were kept low at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.  Even at Columbia in the middle of New York City, Lionel Trilling was the first tenured Jewish professor in the English Department.  It wasn’t until  the 1940’s that this acceptance was shown to a Jew.  Although he did not, as rumored, change his name, he, like most intellectuals of the time, did not betray his Bronx accent.  And this from a man who was obsessed with authenticity.   The times demanded a certain persona.

Black people have every reason to remember and hate the persecution they have suffered.   Discrimination against meritorious individuals can never be justified.  But given the mistreatment of ethnics, there was never a program to have  Jewish contractors, or Italian contractors shown preference by government programs trying to equal things out.  They  were never beneficiaries of large government programs attempting to eradicate their misfortune.  Nothing compares to what was done, and is still being done to help black people.  Perhaps it is too much to hope for a giant thank you, but at least a modicum of recognition would help the cause of better understanding, rather than incessant accusations that we live in a racist society.

We should not underestimate the effectiveness of our poverty programs. According to the2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, at the beginning of the War on Poverty, only about 12 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Nearly three-quarters have a car or truck; 31 percent have two or more cars or trucks.[9]
  • Nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television.
  • Two-thirds have at least one DVD player, and a quarter have two or more.
  • Half have a personal computer; one in seven has two or more computers.
  • More than half of poor families with children have a video game system such as an Xbox or PlayStation.
  • Forty-three percent have Internet access.
  • Forty percent have a wide-screen plasma or LCD TV.
  • A quarter have a digital video recorder system such as a TIVO.
  • Ninety-two percent of poor households have a microwave

It is not just gadgets and toys that the poor are managing to obtain for themselves.  When it comes to necessities America’s poor are well served.  Despite impressions to the contrary, most of the poor do not experience undernutrition, hunger, or food shortages. Information on these topics is collected by the household food security survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA survey shows that in 2009:

  • Ninety-six percent of poor parents stated that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food.
  • Some 83 percent of poor families reported that they had enough food to eat.
  • Some 82 percent of poor adults reported that they were never hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money to buy food.
  • As a group, America’s poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and in most cases is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels.
  • Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.[

True enough, the average white person can’t figure out where  all the money is going that they pay  in their taxes.   The left shouts  that it is the Pentagon eating up the money, but adjusted for inflation, spending on the war on poverty  (which does not include Social Security or Medicare) is three times the cost of all U.S. military wars since the American Revolution.

So again I come to the same question, why now is there  incessant talk about American racism?  I really don’t  know. I have a wild theory that the complaints are a sign of how far Blacks have come.  I say this  because  Jews, intimidated  by non Jews, only began to speak loudly  about anti-semitism in the 60’s ( even about the holocaust) when they were, at last,  being accepted into society as a whole.  They were too frightened before that.  Other speculations:  Has the bad economy, in the last few years, hit black people so much worse than whites? Maybe.  I  am still bewildered that  whites in this country  so easily agree with the charges.  Or don’t dare disagree. It is completely against the evidence to  glibly assert that the average American is a racist.    There are   problems between black and whites that can be understood as manifestations of white prejudice.   The average American is not color blind.  He may have one or two friendships with black people, but he may not.  And he may choose to live in neighborhoods where he doesn’t need to worry about low class blacks’ criminal activity.  He may have liberal attitudes about black’s civil rights, but if he lives in Manhattan, he most likely considers it a necessity for his children to be educated in a predominantly white private school.  It is fair enough to say that such people probably would prefer that their kids have exposure to black classmates, preferably middle class black children, but even poor black children are acceptable if the numbers are kept to a reasonable proportion.

It is also fair to say that most white people are afraid of lower class black crime and violence.  And I will push this beyond what white people are allowed to say.  Black crime and violence are the biggest problem for  them.  It is even more of a problem for honest hard working black people .  They  too dream of getting out of their lousy neighborhoods so they won’t have to worry that their kids will get shot on the way to school.  If they are ambitious, they want their children  to be exposed to  children who are striving to get a decent education, without being considered a nerd by the ruffians in their classroom.  That presumably was the point of busing, giving poor black kids a chance to be exposed to white kids’ behavior and  values.  I mentioned black entertainers and athletes as heroes for white people,  Do white people also have an ambivalent admiration for  poor black culture, for gangsta rap and clothing styles.  They do.  There is something exciting, something liberating about people who don’t live according to the rules.  This didn’t begin with black hoods.  Edward G. Robinson, James Garfield, Italian gangsters in Mafia movies similarly  captured the public imagination, just as a century before, Europeans were thrilled by American Indians, noble savages who defied civilization’s constraints.  We all have a part of ourselves that hates having to behave, that would like to go wild as hippies once did, singing and dancing and having sex where and when we choose.

But it also frightens us.  Again, when our minds wrap around the subject we  don’t want to be exposed to the violence of lower class black culture.  The numbers are shocking.  While so much has been made of police “racism” particularly after Ferguson and the Trevon Martin case,  nationwide  123 black people were killed by the police in 2009 and that includes many violent criminals.  Since Trevon Martin’s death, 11,000 black men were killed by other black men.  There is reason for white people and black people to be frightened by this violence.  And this is since the homicide rate has drastically decreased in recent years. There is reason for anyone to not want to live anywhere near it.

Is this “racism?” The term  obscures more than it clarifies.  The problems between blacks and whites are too important to be swept up in categories used   by the mind numbing language  of media hysteria.

If we are going to look at things like they are, we can’t have a discussion about racism without including the effect that black crime and violence has had, not only on black communities ( where the consequences are far worse) but the fear it creates in white communities. The 1988 presidential campaign where Willie Horton became a symbol of  black crime had a powerful political influence that is still behind many white programs   Out of respect for black people, white politicians no longer go there.  But the   criminality and violence of lower class blacks  cannot be dismissed as something that racist America has invented. It is real and has consequences.

Where I am going  to say next is on the taboo list of subjects writers and polite people are not supposed to bring up.  But here it is,  the dirty little secret known by every one but no longer brought up  lest they be considered racist.

Every black person  had to suffer in silence through many years of white mistreatment, so it is understandable that now, as their condition has improved   they are speaking so loudly whenever there is an example of their mistreatment by white society.  And well they should.  The quicker you jump on examples of mistreatment the better off you will be.  It will cut it off before it has a chance to spread. One would think that the same goes in the other direction, whenever black people mistreat white people

“An analysis of ‘single offender victimization figures’ from the FBI for 2007 found blacks committed 433,934 crimes against whites, eight times the 55,685 whites committed against blacks.

Though blacks are outnumbered 5-to-1 in the population by whites, they commit eight times as many crimes against whites as the reverse. By those 2007 numbers, a black male was 40 times as likely to assault a white person as the reverse.

How much of that crime is motivated by racism, by black hatred of whites?   Probably, not most of it.  A lot of crime is simply going where the money is, knowing who is easiest to hit.  It has nothing to do with anger at whites.  Given their relative affluence we would expect whites to be the target.

My black doorman in Park Slope thought the media coverage following Ferguson, emphasizing the danger that policemen represent to black teenagers  was ridiculous.  When he gets off from work at 2AM and has to return to his neighborhood, he is thrilled to spot a policeman, black or white patrolling the streets.  He used to be nervous when he saw a bunch of teenagers with their sweatpants hung low showing their crack.   That has let up, since most of them are now in jail, an improvement in the community that he credits the police for.  He understands that many completely innocent black teenagers have been hassled by the police as never before, stopped and searched, and still worse. But he doesn’t see that as a manifestation of racism.  He sees it as an unfortunate consequence of a police crackdown that has resulted in a dramatic decrease in homicides and crime. Finally the streets of his neighborhood are no longer owned by drug dealers with  fancy cars.  Gangs are a horrible problem, but crime is way way down.  Indeed it is so far down, that generation Xers feel completely safe in Harlem, Crown Heights, even Bed Sty.  The decrease in crime has led to a new problem, gentrification.  Segregation is breaking down, which he likes.  He enjoys his increasing comfort with white people.  He and I have become sort of buddies, talking politics and the like.  I brought him latkes on Chanukah, and birthday cake from my wife’s birthday party.  I’ve learned a lot and so has he.

Growing up in the 50’s I had little contact with black people, but when  I thought of them it was with uniformly positive feelings, mainly the result of my Jewish upbringing.  The Jews knew what it was to be hated, to be an underdog.  So that was extended to black people automatically.  In junior high school there were few black students, but invariably one of them was elected president of the class, by their Jewish classmates.  In college the few black students on campus were members of Jewish fraternities .

Coming from that kind of background, in my leftist days I was Bronx chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights.  I did tutoring.  Began a lead poisoning project.  I started a health careers program,  which mentored   280 kids  from the slums with 70 counselors, medical students, social workers, inhalation therapist  even some of the professors at Einstein.  The kids were let into the operating room while surgery was being performed.  They spent an afternoon with X ray technicians.  Etc.  It was a spectacularly successful program run on a budget of 0.  Later it was funded by the Macy foundation, but I founded it with no grants, no help, just good intentions.

But I must also report that my idealism was soon greatly tempered by reality. In 1967  I had a surgery rotation at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx.  That same year the 41st precinct in the South Bronx had been named Fort Apache, a name that lasted until 1975 when the area was essentially burned down.  I was astounded by what I was seeing in the emergency room,  the number of patients being brought in with gunshot wounds, stabbings, women and children, old people and young men, their faces smashed in by heavy blunt instruments, or repeated punches to their  face.  Everywhere was rage and  hatred.

I had never witnessed anything like it.  It was impossible to maintain my sentimental liberalism about black people after that.  I had read about all of this and knew it existed, but until then it was never real.  I could easily dismiss it as a consequence of the way black people had been treated.  This was a time when firemen answering a call in the Bronx often had rocks thrown at them.  On the streets cars were double and triple parked, many of them abandoned, windows broken, stripped of their wheels and any other hardware that could be sold or destroyed.  Graffiti was the least of the problems there.  Garbage was everywhere.  On the few occasions when white people drove through these areas, their car  doors were always locked.  And indeed the doors of neighborhoods throughout the city had double and triple locks and iron bars on the windows.

Growing up, before the violence got out of hand,  my mother actually had a  black friend, a woman at work, Viola, (coincidentally she was Rap Brown’s aunt)  She liked Viola because they had a lot in common, but that was it. That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t, like other Jews (actually everyone but the Italians, who guarded their streets as if defending their country)  flee to a safer neighborhood when black people began to move in to the neighborhood.  We have  cities everywhere where downtowns were deserted by whites out of fear that black people were moving in.  And  it wasn’t, as is often said,  property values.  For the most part,  the abandoned neighborhoods, for  example  the Grand Concourse in the Bronx consisted of renters rather than owners of property.  I know these people and I don’t remember any snobbishness about black people, any derogatory remarks.  I remember fear.  Was this flight from black people  racism?    Or common sense.   Not just white people but black people wanted out of their poverty stricken neighborhoods if they could afford to pull it off and found a receptive place to move to.

Since so much has been made of the police picking on and killing black people I think any discussion of their behavior  has to include the part played by black crime and violence.  To begin with, it is unfair to take policemen’s treatment of black people as a reflection of a more general white racism.   Their interaction with black people in crime infested neighborhoods is  a unique situation   It should be   separated  as an entirely independent issue.  Unlike other members of society who can avoid black crime and violence, they can not run in the opposite direction.  They have to directly confront disorder, drunk and angry individuals, bring them under control.   We can avoid them.

I am no fan of policemen.  Michael Brown was walking in the middle of the street with his stolen cigars, which is what attracted the attention of the Officer Wilson in the first place. All hell broke loose, when  Officer Wilson ordered him on to the sidewalk.

Obviously this young man was looking for trouble. Videos of him in the convenience store where he openly stole cigars show him forcefully shoving a clerk who tried to stop him. (see above)  He made no effort to sneak out with his stolen goods.  Is it possible there was a certain degree of racism in the voice of the policeman, that as some claimed, he told him to “fucking” get on the sidewalk?   Had the man been white and drunk, walking in the middle of the street,  would the officer have spoken more understandingly? I think it is entirely possible, but I have seen a white boy speak disrespectfully to an officer in Forest Hills Queens 30 years ago. I watched as the policeman went crazy, jumping on top of the white boy, hitting him over the head again and again with his nightstick with every bit of hatred the policeman had in his arms.

I have had run ins with the police myself, over nonsense. Afterwards, I played the scene in my head. How dare he speak to me like that. I am a physician, an upstanding member of the community. I was standing on my front lawn.  Didn’t he know who he was speaking to? The creep wasn’t going to back down.  He became angry when I tried to reason with him. He threatened to arrest me if I didn’t shut up and he would have.  Without going into the details I was in the right, but that is irrelevant.  In that kind of situation with the police, the only option is to obey.  It is obey or else.  Most people  may not like it, but they know how they are expected to act.  The policeman is  in charge.

There is no question that some police are bull headed and bullies.  They have the power and they are all too ready to use it. However, I have no doubt whatsoever that if I punched the policeman on my lawn in the face, tried to grab his gun, and I was twice as big as him, and I just might be out of my mind with fury, I’d have been a dead white man.  I’d be one of the statistics for white men killed by the police. According to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the span of more than a decade, (1999-2011) 2,151 whites died by being shot by police compared to 1,130 blacks.

Policemen have dangerous jobs.  They face the worst elements of our society again and again and again. Possibly, Officer Wilson,  if he kept his cool,  could have shot Brown in the legs.  Policemen who lose their cool  should be assigned desk duty. The same applies to soldiers who, during a war situation go ape and start shooting wildly, possibly killing innocents. Such people  might be fine men  in ordinary circumstances but if they can’t keep their cool should they have a gun? My Uncle Lester ordinarily a sweet man,  never left England during World War II.   While on guard duty there he kept discharging his machine gun every time he heard a suspicious sound. (More recently, a white Australian woman, who had called the police, was killed when she approached the police car after he had heard a frightening noise.) Terrified people don’t think things over. They react from their gut. That doesn’t make them criminals. Certainly Officer Wilson  didn’t start out his evening thinking; “ I think I’m going to go out and kill me an unarmed black teenager.”  To reiterate, this was the first time he ever used his gun.

After the Justice Department indicted Ferguson, they were asked by the police chief of Philadelphia to take a look at his department.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol  dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that OIS, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25.

So what does this mean?  Obviously, white policemen should have maximum exposure to black members of the community in situations where there isn’t a confrontation going on.  They have to put a human face on the individuals they are asked to control.  They have to learn disciplined responses to disorderly situations. Training, training, training. But, in the real world, a lot depends on the individual  experiences the policemen might have had.  A few of the policemen may have begun their job with a prejudice against blacks that carried through whatever their experiences.  But I have to assume that even if a policeman began with a very sweet attitude towards blacks and the rest of the human race, seeing the worst behavior of human beings day in and day out, is going to toughen them up, and greatly decrease their ability to empathize  with the plight of black ruffians.  Old black people, children, abused women, sure compassion is easy to be elicited  by them. This is the reason they are there, to help the victimized. But clearly the statistics I cited above show that faced with situations where suspects are out of control, the issue is not racism.  Given their willingness to try to bring violent and chaotic situations under control it is unfair to treat them without regard for where they are coming from.

One other point.  The news is full of videos depicting policemen losing their temper and punching suspects while they are already subdued.  This shouldn’t occur.  Everyone was furious at the choke hold put on Eric Garner.  He should have never died.  It is truly a tragedy for his family.  But does anyone seriously think the policemen were choking him when he kept saying I can’t breathe?  He had asthma.  The officers arresting him could have been more verbal in giving him directions about what they expected, but what I saw on the video was an awkward situation where a 300 lb man fell to the ground taking everyone with him.  I can’t believe the hatred implicit in the belief that the police intentionally were choking him to death.   I have seen a  video on CBS News of a black honor student with a bloodied forehead.  He was apparently drunk and arrested.   Scott Pelfrey of the CBS  showed the bloodied forehead and immediately went to Ferguson and the Selma march (the anniversary of which black people were commemorating at the time).  Quite a dramatic story.   Let me explicitly take my position.  I wish police arrests were always smooth and considerate.  I wish if physical force is necessary, the police would have exquisite control of their arms and legs and bodies, and be able to  to subdue an uncooperative suspect with laser like accuracy with not a mark on them.  I wish their hands would never form a fist, and they  would never lose their temper  and take out their frustrations  on the person they are trying to arrest.  I don’t doubt if, on that particular day, they had some very nice interactions with suspects, they might be more gentle on the next person.  But if the last time, they got punched hard or had an elbow in the eye, it is very possible that they will take it out during the next arrest.  Should they try to be rational and calm at all times?  Should they receive training to do so?  Should we never give up on trying to improve things?  Of course  But fair is fair.  The media has no right to stir up the hatred they seem to love  to engender.  It doesn’t solve the problem.  If I were a policeman right now I would have long ago quit.  But then I am a sensitive type and policemen can’t afford to be sensitive.  They’d land up dead.

The Philadelphia statistics  throw the ball back to black  communities.  These situations between the police and black young men and teenagers are going to keep happening until black violence subsides.  There is hope.  I remember when I was young, when us Jews in junior high did not fear black people.  We feared Italians.  They picked on us.  They were in gangs.  I remember the Corona Dukes.  There was lot of violence coming from them.  They were the tough guys, the boxers and mobsters.  And I remember the police picking on them.  That is all over now.  I assume the same thing will eventually happen with black people.

As I started this essay, I noted that I am very impressed by how far we have come.  Rocks are no longer thrown at firemen.  Neighborhoods are no longer being burnt down (except in Ferguson where 9 stores were set ablaze after the grand jury decision).

It goes much further than that.  The last 25 years has seen an enormous improvement for a sizable number of black people.  Members of my children’s generation have had, and still have good black friends.  There is intermarriage.  They have marched into black neighborhoods, perhaps hoping for gentrification, (as an investment) but have had very little fear.  (My son lived in Bed Sty.)  They wouldn’t walk the streets at 3 AM, but otherwise they feel reasonably safe with black neighbors all around.  There are reasons for that.  Crime rates have dropped enormously.  Most of the punks in the bad neighborhoods are no longer strutting about, spreading fear everywhere, including causing black people to be afraid.  The really bad dudes are in jail.   The local drug dealer is no longer sporting his fine wheels  on the street corner.   He is in jail.  Tough guys have had to join gangs for protection.

I’ll know things have improved even more if I were to see non gay black men in Prospect Park walking  Laboradoodles instead  of  pit  bulls or Rottwillers.  Or if there are no longer reports of black athletes  having to carry guns at nightspots.  Obviously fear motivates the dog walkers in Prospect Park with gangster dogs or macho or some other persona, but in my admittedly infrequent contacts in the park with black dudes, I am usually not  frightened in the slightest.  The culture of the before 9 AM off the leash dog walkers of Prospect Park is extremely peaceful  and harmonious.  For that matter so is the subway from Park Slope to Manhattan.  White people are outnumbered 10:1, but  I haven’t once felt fear in the subway in the last 10 years.  No need to look at the floor.  Most black people are friendly.  I imagine because the bad ones are in jail, but still there is real black-white community on the 2 and 3 train and the Q.  The black teen agers are either on their way to work (or a party), or trying to earn a few bucks by doing acrobatics on the poles or overhangs.    They are not looking to scare anyone and they are not scared of the white faces they meet.  I think they are the greatest.

Even though what Republicans have to say more often appeals to me than what Democrats vote for, I voted for Obama not because I agreed with his policies, but because I thought his election would do a lot for the self esteem of black people, particularly young people.   I am still rooting for them, for their nightmare to be over, for them to feel they can fight their way out of the hopelessness surrounding them.  I am not unusual in having those sentiments. Like many Americans I teared up at Obama’s inauguration.  I was proud of America, optimistic about our future.  I don’t expect kudos for my generous hopes for black people.  I’m sure there are elements of prejudice hiding beneath the surface of my self scrutiny, like there undoubtedly are among most white people.  And black people in their attitudes about white people  But I will defend myself and white society when our good intentions are dismissed as bullshit

When my father was very sick, my elderly mother told me she grew to love Nan, this black woman who helped care for him.  She was moved by this woman’s  love for my  father and her desire to help my mother.  She felt genuine grief at Nan’s funeral. You don’t meet that many people who you love.  That wasn’t my mother being sentimental because Nan was black.  Nor was it an attempt to strengthen her liberal credentials.  My mother couldn’t care less about political nonsense.  She just loved Nan.

That is the only way.  One on one.  I am not asking my liberal Manhattan friends to take their kids out of private schools and stop bullshitting about their liberalism.  One relationship at a time.  That’s how the real thing happens, when it becomes silly to categorize feelings as racist or not racist.  People are just people.  Do I wish I had known more black people over the years?  I suppose, but I also wish I knew more Italians and Japanese, and more Goyim. My wife and I recently had genetic testing of our history.  Both of us were 98.7% Ashkenazi Jews. Those hundred of years of our background has been more than corrected by our millennial children.  Three out of four have married non Jews, which is okay by me.

 

 

 

 

February 12, 2015
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

About my book: The Fear of Death

                                         The Fear of Death  

An argument  with Freud, and a reconsideration of his  ideas.  This book is an attempt to   introduce the obvious into psychoanalytic theory, that the fear of death plays a seminal role in our psychology.   Freud had a powerful  fear of death.  Yet he dismissed its importance in his theories about our motivations.  This despite the fact that  it was, by far, his most pressing neurotic symptom.   It was the lurking monster in his most frightening and famous dream, the Dora dream. He looks into his patient Dora’s throat and discovers a horrifying lesion that he had missed. Like the Pharoah questioning Joseph, he has to understand what that dream means.

It takes hold of him, drives him to work on what  will become “The Interpretation of Dreams.”   The extent to which Freud had no choice  about this undertaking can best be appreciated  from his  letter to Wilhelm Fleiss.  He describes a process of working   “to which every effort of thought has to be given and which gradually absorbs all other capacities and the ability to receive impressions– a sort of neoplastic substance that enters into one’s humanity and then replaces it.  With me it is even more so.  Work and earning  are identical with me–so that I have become wholly carcinoma…my existence from now on is that of a neoplasm.” (Jones 1953)

A strange image describing one’s work, work that was later to be  recognized as inspired.    Eventually, what his dream meant became clear.  The location of the lesion in the back of Dora’s throat was to be the exact spot that Freud’s throat cancer developed many years later. Had he felt a tickle there from his cigar smoking and then dreamt about it.  Apparently. He had looked into the mouth of death.  The cancer eventually killed him.

“The Interpretation of Dreams” is usually considered the birth of psychoanalysis.  Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” He  brilliantly wrestled with what he found there,  asked many of the right questions. He  came up with many right answers.  But if his search for clarity about  dreams, and the working of the unconscious,  was induced by the Dora dream, what influence did it have on the body of his work ? He correctly discovered that in their dreams, unencumbered by the  deliberate mind  that occupies our daytime consciousness, his patients’ unsatisfied sexual cravings push to be fulfilled.  The evidence was everywhere.  But what about their fear of death? Certainly, many people are awakened by a dream in which they are about to die. There is much to learn from these dreams.  Appreciating the reality of death, makes life more meaningful.  It makes one’s relationships, one’s work, one’s discoveries all the more valuable.

Or trivial.  But whatever one’s reaction, it is not possible to understand a person through their  dreams without considering their relationship to their death.  How could someone  describing their work as a cancer, with an openly admitted  powerful fear of death, ignore this aspect of the dream’s meaning and dismiss the fear of death as a major part of our psychology.

I have no answer, but clearly, he was wrong. It is not hard to find the fear of death constantly addressed in men’s thinking.  It is usually transformed, put in a  positive perspective. The best example is religion; to get rid of the fear of death, the Aztec’s practiced human sacrifice to appease the angry Gods.  The Christians offered Christ to a more benevolent Jehovah. It is the road not taken by Abraham with his son, Isaac.

Century after century, Christians worried about their future after death.    Transformed by religious doctrine, they were tormented  with the dark possibilities awaiting them when they died. They were pious (or resolved to follow that path) in order to assure a  place in heaven.   But that wasn’t easy.  Few men are entirely innocent.  Especially in the past they were terrified  that their moments of giving into temptation might land them in hell.  

Even those quietly pious had their moments.  Immortality is the cornerstone of Christianity, its most powerful ideal.  Hundreds of millions of Bibles have been read, studied and  held dear. (in contrast to this book which makes no promises)   Christ promised his believers would live forever. What else has to be said to the fearful flock?

 Today we see a revival of that passion.  Isis members have been willing to  fight ferociously and fearlessly,  offer themselves for suicide missions, with the belief they will achieve the opposite result of their fear. They are guaranteed a heaven that is  quintessentially the opposite of a revered Muslim life.  Life as they have known it has centered on strictly imposed  sexual suppression.  It drives them crazy.  Makes them turn on those who have given in.  Yes they stone adulterers, but their own path is not a bed of roses.   Young men, trying to defy their powerful hormonal push,  pray several times a day to keep themselves under control.

How difference it is in Allah’s dynasty, where they will receive their reward.   Not one, not two, 72 virgins await them in heaven after they die.  It beats the promises of Jesus where heaven has never been adequately imagined.  Angels playing harps?   I suppose that means, paradise consists of innocence completely restored.  Essentially asexual composure awaits the virtuous  Is this the best reward Christ can offer?

 Modern Western secular consciousness is quite different.  Since the existence of God is dubious,  happiness  in this life is all we have.  So that is what we pursue.   The fear of death is resolved very differently.  Virtuous behavior is redefined (exercise, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and the most virtuous of all,  “organic” food).  This belief system is transformative  in religion’s usual ways.    Fantastic beliefs are bought and believed,  logic and evidence tossed away.

That is not a problem.  Whatever bargaining, compromising, and self deception is required, when it comes to religion, the mind is up to the task. Faith and spirituality invariably trump common sense.  Or any and all evidence. Information about nutrition and exercise,  has run in a thousand different directions,  with an astounding number of  easily tested ideas promulgated and  going unchallenged.   

 As might be expected, when it comes to religion, people can  go over board.  In its modern incarnation some people become fanatical about the organic purity of their food.  They become “glaat” kosher.  Many become sanctimonious, outraged by the lack of healthy eating by others. Or they are angry that corporate agribusiness is poisoning them. The inventory they do of their soul would not be recognizable by the conventionally religious  Their virtues and vices are measured  by whether or not they gave in to temptation and ate that slice of pizza, or whether they forgoed their morning workout.

Whatever language we use, the fear of death insinuates itself into our consciousness, demanding solutions.   Unfortunately, this book doesn’t offer a  solution to the basic problem.  As Woody Allen put it  “I don’t want to be immortal because of my work.  I want to be immortal by living forever.”

 

P.S.   Readers seeking great wisdom, (or any wisdom at all) about how to cope with death or dying should look elsewhere.  This book is specifically concerned with developmental psychoanalytic theory.  Twenty-five years ago that was  my passion.  I spent five years writing this book.  It is an interesting primer for those wanting to dive into Freud’s and my thinking about a host of subjects too varied to easily summarize.  I hope it has my usual passion to lay bare mysteries that are unnecessarily ineffable.  I once believed that truth is unmistakably helpful and important,  a virtue of the highest order. I have had no choice.  It is what I must do for reasons unknown to me.  Now I only half believe it is crucial.  Kindness is more important.

January 10, 2015
by Simon Sobo
2 Comments

Ending Insurance Companies Control of Mental Health Care

 

My retirement from psychiatry has allowed independence from fears that caused temperance in my opinions about issues, which all along deserved a passionate campaign for change. This is an article about the stranglehold that insurance companies have had on health care, particularly mental health care, for more than 20 years. First a description of what can only be described as atrocities that I personally witnessed.

I got a call from a social worker at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. The following day they were discharging a female patient, a second grade teacher from New Milford with three children. The social worker begged me to see her the day she was discharged. I agreed to do so. The patient appeared in my waiting room as scheduled. The only problem was that she was so afraid of me that she would not come into my office. To no avail I tried everything I could think of to convince her that she would be safe. Only when my next patient appeared in the waiting room did she agree to enter my office. There were only 5 minutes left in her session, but in that time she told me that she had ruined her life, and all was hopeless. As best I could, I tried to reassure her, but it was obvious that nothing I said was having an impact. We made an appointment for the next day, which she did not keep. I called. Her husband answered. She had blown her brains out the evening before.

This was early on in the HMO era when I didn’t immediately understand the desperation in the social worker’s voice. She clearly knew that the decision to discharge this patient was completely insane.

I was called to the New Milford Hospital ER to see a young woman, holding a baby, who was experiencing her first psychotic break. She was convinced that a spying device had been put in her baby’s vagina. She kept checking her baby’s vagina hoping to find it. Oxford (an insurance company in the Northeast) would not approve hospitalization. They said she was not a danger to herself or others. They wanted her treated at Danbury’s Day Hospital. At the time there was no public transportation between New Milford and Danbury, but even if there was, this woman was not sane enough to commute there every day. I insisted on speaking to a supervisor at Oxford, then to his supervisor. They wouldn’t budge in their decision. The next day I was summoned by administration in New Milford Hospital. Oxford had called them to complain about my rudeness. I confess that I was guilty as charged. As Chief of Psychiatry there I was expected to set an example. This incident also happened early in the HMO era, a time when hospitals were worried about remaining in the insurance company’s network. Early on doctors were also worried about being labeled as a provider who gave unnecessary care. Certain insurance companies let it be known that they were keeping tabs.

I was seeing a woman in her 40’s for psychotherapy who had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. The gods were not favoring her. She had also had a heart attack. Her grown son was drinking too much and her daughter had had an affair, which led to the end of her daughter’s marriage. This woman’s husband was tired of listening to his wife’s troubles. After 10 sessions her insurance company, PHS, decided she had enough psychotherapy. I went through their chain of command appealing the decision. Finally I got to talk to the head of their psychiatric division, Dr. Robert Dailey from Bridgeport Hospital. He told me this woman did not need psychotherapy. She needed hospice. Astonished, I argued that she was not a terminal patient. She was still working and struggling to keep her family afloat. He would hear nothing of it. Case closed.

The situations cited above came from my direct experience. I could describe ten others.   Most psychiatrists have similar stories to tell. Indeed, this article was originally prepared for Psychiatric Times. They felt it was unsuitable because it was old news. As one reviewer put it “everyone has their own horror stories no different than these.” All across America, when it started, it was if a plague had descended on the field of psychiatry. Except this plague had been paid for by our patients, or else it was a benefit bestowed by their employers.

Mistreatment was not confined to mental health care. Patients unfortunate enough to have M.S., or those who had had a stroke, were learning that after initial treatments, they could no longer have physical therapy, the one way they could do battle with the calamity that had befallen them.

Dr. Linda Peeno was the medical director at three different insurance companies, including, Humana. When she came to the conclusion that the first company was unethical she moved on to the next and finally the third before concluding the problem was industry wide. Her conscience was bothering her. She felt directly responsible for the death of several people. This is not why she went into medicine. Although she liked the hours provided by a job at an insurance company, she could not continue. The opposite. She felt she had to reveal to the public what was happening. With a secure job as an professor of ethics at a local university taking on the insurance companies became her life’s work. She has written extensively and well about the problems she observed. Writing for U.S News and World Report in 2002 she described a typical scenario at her job:

“The staff of our medical department had attached questions as the letter passed through its maze to me, the HMO doctor at the end of the decision-making line. If something has to do with medical necessity, I am the final word. Our nurses could make denials if something was a benefit decision. Cosmetic surgery, for example, would be excluded in the certificate of coverage. The number of notes on the letter signals that this request falls in the gray area between outright necessity and clear-cut exclusion–the danger zone for the patient.

The decision is now mine, and I feel the pressure to find a way to say no. If I cannot pronounce it medically unnecessary, then I have to find a different way to interpret our medical guidelines or the contract language in order to deny the request.

A bright-blue square catches my attention. It is from a particularly cost-conscious staffer and contains a handwritten warning to me: “Approve this, and it will be your last!” It is common practice to use removable stickies. After we have finished passing any document around, we can remove all the comments. Official records will reflect only the final decisions and not the process by which we made them.”

From that same article:

“A doctor had called to tell me that his patient was almost 80, lived alone, and could not handle the preparations he would need to make for bowel surgery. Besides, we had already told the doctor that the surgery would have to be done in a hospital over 60 miles away from the man’s home. There was one in his town but they weren’t affiliated with the company. The local hospital had not yet learned to buckle under.

Without the pre-op admission the night before surgery, this frail man would have to drive himself to the hospital almost in the middle of the night, after hours of laxatives and withholding of fluids. When I approved the request, I got a call from my physician supervisor, angrily telling me that we did not pay for creature comforts. I told him I had already done it, but in the future…”

Linda Peeno testified before a Congressional subcommittee on Health and the Environment on May 30, 1996. Her testimony, and many thought provoking articles by her, can be found on the internet. Showtime produced a film Damaged Care that tells her story. She had accomplished a lot. Except about what mattered. Despite her Congressional testimony, her well placed articles, and the Showtime movie, very little changed.

In 2001 I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a lawsuit against an insurance company written in what I thought was a disparaging tone. I understood the sentiment behind the reporter’s attitude. Lawsuits have gotten out of hand. There are far too many of them that are built on lies and exaggerations. In our litigious society, small mistakes, which we all can make, can be exaggerated into a million dollar payoff. The result? Enormous energies directed to covering your ass, which means the multiplication of professionals adept at that noble aspiration. Lawyers and their enforcing bureaucrats get to tell workers what they can and cannot do, which means programed rigidity from the top, the last thing needed in a service based economy.

The suit that the reporter was dissing was not frivolous. I knew the person who was suing. He had lost his 16 year-old son because his insurance company determined that his son must leave Danbury Hospital. It was clear to his father and everyone that knew the boy, that he was  in grave danger and could not be discharged until his condition improved. The boy’s suicide attempt was for real. It was sheer luck that the pipe he put his rope over broke. My patient knew his son still wanted to die and if let out of the hospital he would finish the job. He reasoned with the doctor, he pleaded with him.  He begged.

I called the reporter Milo Geyelin and we spoke for 3 ½ hours. I gave him the details of how what had happened in this case was happening everywhere. Necessary care was being rejected as unnecessary. Several months later he called me. He had written, the lead story in the Wall Street Journal of May 8th 2001. a story about HMO’s control of mental health. That story was particularly focused on Magellan,  the largest mental health managed care company. It was gobbling up all its competitors, particularly less profitable, but more ethical HMOs.  By the journalistic standards of the day Geyelin’s duty was to be “balanced”.  He allowed Magellan to respond. The gist of their defense was mistakes happen, but they were being corrected.

I thought the article allowed Magellan to come across as sincere, as trying their best. From direct experience I knew they were not trying their best, anything but, when it came to siding with their patient’s best interests.  They perceived those who had become seriously ill as a plague on the company, understandable from the insurance companies point of view.   But from the patient’s point of view, insurance companies were a curse, one that had to be combatted along with the illness.

His story didn’t stop there. Magellan sold contracts to large insurance companies (as a mental health carve out, a company that specializes in managing psychiatric care). They contracted to produce providers that would take care of any insured patient in need of care.

They didn’t deliver what they had promised.  In many parts of the country they had no providers available at all. Many on their list of psychiatrists had once been providers but they had long ago given up on Magellan after submitted insurance claim forms were repeatedly “lost.” It required a lot of energy to get paid, and it just wasn’t worth it.

Magellan had their patients in a no lose situation for them. They allowed their patients to only see providers in their network and there were practically no providers available.  That didn’t bother them at all.  Moreover, if, by luck, a patient found a provider, treatment had to wait until the insurance company approved of it. This could take weeks. And too frequently there was no reply at all. They accused the provider of not sending in their form, (usually a lie) or they accused the doctor of filling the form out incorrectly. Probably true given the confusing directions and triviality of the form.

I can attest that it was impossible to reach the insurance company to try to straighten things out. Not only did they choreograph a long musical, “your call is important to us” wait, if you did get through, the people handling the calls were minimum wagers with no authority , little intelligence, and zero energy to climb the mountain of rules, the operational chaos that awaited them should they choose to truly help the caller with his problem.  They were trained to deal with forms. They knew their list of approved symptoms, as designated by DSM IV.  Anything that didn’t fit on that form was like Chinese to them.

It should be noted that, the form had very little room for the doctor to individualize his case, explain things as he saw it. It didn’t really matter. If he were to try, he would be passed right over.  There wouldn’t be a call back even if he had made his case. Clerks have very little tolerance for outliers.

Essentially the process was a scam. Totally legal but a scam nonetheless.  Entirely within the law  medical care was being shaped by purveyors with criminal motives and intent. Patients, who had lost it, forced to finally acknowledge that they needed help, were out of luck if they tried to get that help. They had to meet criteria that were sacrosanct, prepared by experts, hired for the purpose of making sure their patients didn’t cash in on their policies

The amazing part of the story is how Magellan had come out of nowhere, and overnight they were everywhere. It was formed out of the ruins of a failing company Charter Behavioral Health systems. At their height they were a Wall Street darling, a chain of 90 psychiatric hospitals from which they were making industrial profits. In the end Charter was investigated by the Justice Department for Medicare Fraud.  As they closed up shop, selling off their hospitals provided the capital to allow them to quickly become a huge player in managed care.

The irony is striking. One of the very companies that had, on a massive scale, overcharged for care, billed for care never given, with very little difficulty became in charge of what care would be allowed or disallowed. Businessmen to the core, they stuck to first principles. They followed where the money had gone. The denial of care business was now more profitable than the delivery of care. Of all people, they were now deciding what was, and what was not, “necessary” care. The fox was  guarding the chicken house. Every dollar they saved by denying care was money that went into  their pockets..

Managed care companies do not compete in the quality of work they deliver.  The only thing that matters is numbers. Particularly in the 90’s CEO’s were moving from rubber companies to cupcake bakers, to oil drilling companies, with little knowledge needed about the products of the companies they were leading.   As long as every quarter they could deliver the right numbers,  their job security was golden. Magellan was confident that the money they made from selling off the hospital chain would be multiplied by their new business. The sale of ninety hospitals leaves you with a lot of capital, the muscle required to buy up  competitors.

Numbers can also work against managed care companies. For example, an audit of American Biodyne which contracted for 14 million dollars to provide mental health services for Ohio state employees for 2 years found that the firm had actually spent $2.1 million on treatment claims in 1991 and $2.6 million in 1992. The rest of the $14 million went to American Biodyne.

The need to keep medical costs down was the original impetus for HMOs.  This is a real issue. America’s 3 trillion dollar health care costs were, and still are, wildly out of control.   We spend far more than any other country and the results are far from obvious. There is waste and unnecessary procedures anywhere you look.

The problem I am addressing is the decision to put for profit HMOs in charge of cutting costs. Taking care away from ill patients and putting these savings in to the pockets of an HMO amounted to legally stealing care from those least able to defend themselves. It was breathtaking in its audacity.

The head of Oxford, a relatively small company, was paid 28 million dollars a year, the majority of it pinched from sick patients. US Healthcare’s CEO, a former pharmacist, earned 900 million dollars when he sold his cost cutting company to Aetna. His daughter and other family members also got millions not to mention the 25 million dollar jet Aetna gave to him. Inside Edition featured him in an expose on the lifestyles of wealthy HMO executives.

US Health Care executives were put in charge of the company. Changing their name back to Aetna was easy. It took years for Aetna to extricate themselves from the chaos US Health Care had wrought

The Wall Street Journal in 2006 ran an expose, “Health Care Gold Mines.” It was reported that William McGuire, CEO of one of the larger health insurance companies, United Health Care, had unrealized gains on stock options worth 1.8 billion dollars. He had been given the right to “time” his stock option grants. His timing was so extraordinary that questions have been raised that he backdated his purchases. His associates call him “brilliant.” Very brilliant. The Wall Street Journal’s analysts concluded that if the options were granted to him blindly, the chance of his guessing as well as he did, was 1 in 200 million.

Not only have congressional committees long ago had the unscrupulous practices of insurance practices revealed to them.   Newspaper and national magazines have made reports about it, again and again in exposes. Yet the issue has no legs. Nothing changes.

Frankly, at first glance, the quiet on this issue is a mystery. Politicians, and columnists have so often carried on about abortion rights, or gay marriage, or some other higher cause that these issue have become de rigueur in the politically correct playbook. Yet neither abortion nor gay marriage materially affects a great many people’s lives. Health insurance practices do. Why is there silence from media pundits and politicians who love any exposure they can get?The strange thing is that what’s going on in the health insurance industry is no Enron. It isn’t a secret. If not personally abused, most people know people who have gotten screwed by their health insurance company. They have heard stories from colleagues or family members, anguished stories if the illness has been severe. People have come to expect that somehow they will be done in by the small print in their policies.

The absence of a public outcry, the failure of news stories and Congressional hearings to halt the HMOs was one of the reasons I wrote a  novel After Lisa. I had written articles for years with suggestions about how I thought psychiatric care could be improved.  This was, I felt, the most important way my writing could make a difference.  If enough of the public could identify with the Russells, the protagonists in my story, there might be a possibility of change.  After Lisa is based on the story of the case I contacted the Wall Street Journal reporter about. I was seeing a father who had lost his 12 year-old daughter to cancer. His 16 year-old son tried to hang himself. He was hospitalized at Danbury Hospital.

From day one they had started discharge planning. In those days insurance companies had a little trick they pulled. They pressured doctors to get their patient to “contract for safety,” have the patient put in writing a promise that they would not commit suicide. Once this was signed out the patient would go.

AS I noted this boy’s father was convinced his son’s attempt was completely serious. He was desperate.  One of his friends, a social welfare worker said to legally abandon his son. That way they couldn’t discharge him. The hospital answered that his son would be sent to a shelter. I will cut to the chase. The day he was discharged his son successfully hung himself. With two children gone my patient’s opening words to me, when I first met him, was “I am a dead man.”

My hope was, and still is, that my novel, or better, a movie based on the story, might translate the issues enough to arouse the public. When I started I thought discussing the  book on Oprah would bring forth thousands of people with their own story to tell. But, my fear is that even if the best result occurred, with the long history of public exposure about this issue, it too will have no effect.

December 14, 2014 60 Minutes ran a story Denied. It was well done, detailing what other stories like it have done, dead patients the result of insurance company indifference. Has the  60 Minute expose had an  impact? It’s been three months.  The usual silence on this issue continues.  There is no reason to think it will be different than all of the exposes that preceded it.

There is one angle that could have an enormous impact.  What was not covered by their story, or the others documenting insurance company malfeasance, is the fact that insurance companies have no fear of making bad calls (e.g forcing a patient out of the hospital who soon after kills himself).  The embarrassment is minimal (no news story) and the legal consequence nil. The parents and spouses of those who have lost a love one cannot sue an insurance company.   Federal ERISA law forbids it.

This issue has a history. In June of 2001 (see June 21st 2001 Congressional record) the Senate debated and passed the McCain Kennedy Bill, a health care “bill of rights,” that would have allowed lawsuits against HMOs. The vote was 59-36. Changes were made on this bill in the House and then the bill mysteriously disappeared from the political landscape!

Subsequently, several states passed legislation allowing suits against insurance companies. But, on June 23, 2004, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided that while congress could pass legislation allowing lawsuits against health insurance companies by injured family members, states could not do so.   There are suggestions that the unusual 9-0 vote was an indication that this issue was too important, the pressure was too great for the justices to allow controversy.

Nevertheless, the success of insurance company lobbying to not only defeat this bill, but successfully end all discussion of lawsuits is a mystery that I do not fully understand. After all, the media and politicians have vigorously gone after other powerful industries, Banks, Wall Street and Oil companies. Despite their power they have not been as successful at keeping a lid on their controversies.

Because 60 Minutes has not responded to my repeated attempts to reach them about the ERISA law, I am including the phone number of the executive director, Kevin Tedesco, 212-975-2329 in the hope that one of the readers of this article will have better luck. Or perhaps call volume will have an impact. If this were to happen, if 60 Minutes were to take up the issue of the ERISA law’s prohibition of law suits, and if this led to the law being changed, so that insurance companies had to live in fear of being sued, it would change mental health care for generations to come.

But I am not sanguine about the prospects. The issues are in fact complex.  Ultimately the real issue, the debate that has to take place is how we, as a nation, are going to restrict health care to keep costs under control. Managed care companies have been hired to do the dirty work. They are not simply dirty. They are filthy. Powerful forces are lined up to keep things as they are. For instance, when the the Erisa Law was up for discussion in Congress the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  lobbied along with other powerful groups   to not allow the ERISA law to be changed. I assume they are still working hard to keep this issue submerged.

When the Democrats stuck their nose into regulating health care, so health care costs could be reduced, the Republicans rightly identified the “Death Panels” they were looking to set up. The Republican solution was HSAs, high deductible medical plans. This has been partially adopted in ObamaCare. Faced with  four or five thousand dollar deductibles smart middle class shoppers have delayed seeing their doctors and their expensive procedures.

But ultimately we have to bring  the issue front and center. What should and should not be covered?   HMOs have been a disgusting solution. We can do better.

 

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

After Lisa: Chapter 1

Based on a true story

Chapter 1

October 1999

New York City

Glittering crystal chandeliers brightly illuminate the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom as the sound of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz sweeps through the room. Sipping cocktails, guests lightly applaud the MacDonalds as they glide around the center of the ballroom, the floor to themselves. Several dance partners stand at the edge, gathering courage to challenge the MacDonalds for the spotlight. At the tables, gossip is cheerfully exchanged, as, here too, they check on the MacDonalds from time to time. Standing off not far from the bar, spicy singles in their 20’s flirt, their eyes searching through the crowd for the opportunity to find a still better partner.

Strauss has been a great choice for tonight. Retro worked. It’s made the evening grand, not what the guests expected when they received their invitations.

Very high up in the vaulted ceiling, a sniper has positioned himself. He looks through his high-powered rifle, moving through the room, one table at a time.   While the women have spent weeks preparing for tonight; putting the perfect shoes, hair, and make-up together with the right dress, they didn’t expect to be examined through a rifle’s telescopic lens. At the head table, the assassin’s sight focuses on one after another of the guests.  He lingers on a matronly lady covered with serious jewelry, but tonight his goal is narrow. He settles on the MacDonalds as they return to the table. Mrs. Martin MacDonald is a stunning blonde in her thirties. The assassin’s only interest is her dance partner, Martin MacDonald, a silver-haired man with a jutting chin, and a physique chiseled at his club.  Killing MacDonald is the whole purpose of the evening.          

The rifleman is perfectly positioned in a utility room above the ballroom.  Perched as high as he is, behind the glare of the chandeliers, his protruding telescopic rifle is a speck in the filigreed façade. Unnoticed, he will be able to proceed at a leisurely pace, carefully aiming without drawing the slightest attention.  His escape plan should also go smoothly.   He is dressed in a nicely tailored tuxedo. The sniper is confident that after he’s killed Macdonald his dapper appearance will allow him to easily disappear among the guests. He was born with good looks. He enjoys using them.

Joe Tolley, from Channel 2 News, gently clears his throat into the microphone.  People eyes are drawn to the now lit up dais. This part of the evening is the reason they are here.  Everyone returns to their seats.  Tolley clowns a bit, gets some nice laughs.

“Our speaker tonight needs no introduction.  He is a man of our age, a captain of our decade…

Applause. Tolley has prepared well. Leaving little to chance, in front of the mirror he practiced the casual smile he is now presenting during the extended applause. As it dies down he continues.

“Martin MacDonald is the personification of who we are and have become.”

Cheering.

This brings a smile to MacDonald. As he gets up from his chair, he bends forward over the table, and, whispering an imitation of Tolley’s voice, he captures his lisp perfectly.  The men seated nearby find this funny.  Not the women.  They draw back from MacDonald’s meanness, an effect that MacDonald seems to regularly elicit from the fairer sex.

MacDonald winks at his wife. She returns an encouraging smile, which he doesn’t notice. He long ago stopped seeing her. Jauntily he dashes for the stage.   Skipping up the steps he is soon at the lectern.  With his reading glasses low on his nose, patterned after an image of John Adams he saw on TV, he shuffles his papers, looks over the audience from far left to right.

MacDonald is hot. Buoyed by increasing opportunities, at this point materializing daily, he, more than anyone, knows exactly what he has done to create his good fortune. He is proud of it. He looks upward, to his Sicilian grandfather in heaven. He wouldn’t be here today without him.

He smiles broadly at the audience, feeling among friends.  They are completely captured. Who wouldn’t want in on MacDonald’s phenomenal profits?  Who wouldn’t want the wife he has, beneath the glittering chandeliers at the Plaza.

Business Week ran a feature on MacDonald in its May issue. His story is quintessential 90’s. A startup in his garage, an office consisting of a file cabinet, desk, and telephone. MacDonald answered the phone himself.  He did the filing.  Later, as the business grew, he sweated through payrolls, wondering where he would find the money for his 12 employees.  Today he’s unfazed by billion dollar figures. The one caveat? He went into the health insurance business knowing nothing about health insurance. Like so many of the new wave of CEOs his expertise is with numbers. As long as they work he remains the golden boy.

For CEO wannabes in the audience MacDonald offers magic.  For actual CEOs he offers lessons in how to hit the bottom line out of the ballpark.  He’s someone to study closely, figure out whether he’s doing what he claims to be doing.  In not very long they will be expected to replicate Cambridge Health’s profit. If they don’t they’ll soon be gone, replaced by a CEO who will get the right numbers. Anticipating platitudes they don’t expect to learn much tonight. But just in case, Martin MacDonald has their total attention

It’s been 25 years since his graduation from Macalester College, in St. Paul Minnesota. He’s never lost his boy wonder quality. Probably it was the football.  Being a second team All-American linebacker did a lot to shore up his identity. Thrown into the lion pit, he emerged a lion. He has kept the momentum going. He takes great pleasure smashing an adversary in his teeth. It has served him well. Winning is the only acceptable result in his encounters. When the need to fight his adversaries temporarily abates, he has fun. He is a wiz with numbers. There is special satisfaction when the numbers are large. Lately they have been huge.

Growing up he was hugely influenced by his mother’s scrappy Sicilian father and her two brothers, who lived nearby.  A Sicilian style wouldn’t ordinarily work in the insurance industry.  But MacDonald is also Scottish. On the face of it he seems an all American regular guy, a team player, a boy scout, very unlike his ruffian uncles, an insurance man through and through.   Only savvy.

He saw his father, Robert MacDonald, only during the summer, but those summers  powerfully influenced his persona. His father’s cheerful Scotch veneer is what others knew him by and respected.  MacDonald’s adulation of his father made it possible to effortlessly emulate him. It also spiritually connected him to his father’s Scottish clan, one with a long tradition of money cleverness invariably bestowed on the eldest son. So his take no prisoners uncles from Sicily were well camouflaged.

He adjusts the mike, taps it with his finger a few times. Then, with a strong voice he begins.

“My thanks to the American Insurance Association.  I am honored that you are having me here to tell you what you already know.  We need to stick together.  Stand as one.  Be strong. We share the same mission, to put a stop to runaway medical spending, to deliver health care at a reasonable cost.”

Happily, the audience applauds.

Ever so slowly the rifleman scopes MacDonald between his eyes. A voice from inside him urges.

“Now!”

He can’t trust that voice, a hard lesson learned again and again when he made the mistake of trusting his impulses.

The sight is fogging up. He pulls his rifle back into the utility room, and wipes off the condensed vapor with his thumb. All the while he keeps an eye on MacDonald. (an unobserved target can disappear.)  He double-checks that everything else is in order.  Nervously his tightly gloved index finger rubs over the filed off serial number. That was item one in his plan. An identifier that had to be removed. He pulls at the ends of his thin leather gloves to tighten them still further.   He cocks the trigger mechanism: cutting through the utility room’s silence, the sound of precision steel snapping into place with a bit of an echo. He repeats this a second time with military efficiency.  He takes a cartridge case from his pocket and loads.

Soon enough he again has MacDonald’s forehead perfectly centered.  Carefully, calmly–he can almost feel the bullet drilling in to the spot, into MacDonald’s skull. He can imagine the sweetness of that moment

There is a noise somewhere down the hall.  The sniper freezes. He listens carefully for it to repeat. He soon recognizes the scratching of a busy mouse.

“Stay with this,” he commands himself. He must follow a series of steps that have been practiced so often, that when his eyes and trigger-finger have the target in sight, what follows is automatic.   His finger tightens slowly.  Slowly.   He is almost there.

MacDonald’s wit is knocking the audience out. Laughter, cheers, happy shouts interrupt his talk. This has seduced MacDonald into letting it all out. The rhythm of a revivalist preacher rings out in the ballroom.

“Our fight is the good fight, our goal necessary…”

The audience’s enthusiasm pisses off the rifleman.   That stops him.

During training they drilled it in. “Don’t act unless you’re emotionless.”     Focus requires brain silence.   The mind must disappear as the momentum of the plan closes in on the target.   Anger is the natural emotion before and during a kill, but not for a professional. It undoes your skill.

He learned the hard way. In his first battle he got excited, terrified and furious at an adversary who had killed Arnie, his friend standing 3 feet away from him. He shot wildly, like he had never learned a thing.   Fortunately, cool as a cucumber, one of his buddies shot the man dead.

It was the closest he came to getting killed. He had no trouble picturing himself as rotting flesh six feet under. That image subsequently, kept him completely professional.

Twenty-six years ago, at army sharpshooter school, the basic method of training was simple and absolute.   Every step was repeated again and again, again, and again until nothing else is possible other than the next step.   The final decision to kill doesn’t reside with the sniper. It is muscle memory.

That’s not happening now.  The opposite. Normally obstacles to a plan, which inevitably arise, are quickly absorbed as interesting new wrinkles to be patiently overcome. Instead, unexpected events, like the sound of the mouse, rattle him. His concentration is shot. In the army, the sergeant sometimes fed the men greenies, amphetamines to improve their concentration. Given their level of stress it helped them even more than kids with ADHD.

His chin tight, “Focus,” he says to himself in a nasty whisper.

He began so determined.  Righteous anger can move mountains.  Or drive you crazy until you act. For months, unanswerable questions had wormed their way through his mind and exhausted him. First grief, then blame, endlessly assigning it to one person after another including himself.

Then that dissipated. His anguish completely disappeared once the specifics of his plan to kill MacDonald were thought out in detail. Setting it up took over. He went from inactivity, practically in a coma, to energy harnessed by having a purpose.

Getting things done their way. The army had taught him how to stay organized. Concentrate all efforts on the first step before going on to the next.  He needed a well-camouflaged spot with complete vision of the target. As soon as he learned MacDonald was going to speak in the Plaza ballroom, he went through twelve utility rooms located in the ceiling before finding the perfect one. The next thing on his check list-finding a MacMillan Tac 50 rifle was easier than he expected. The Tac is extremely accurate and able to be broken down into a compact form. Fortunately, Marty, his pal at work knew exactly where to find one. It took only an hour and a half to find the guy. And contrary to the image he had, based on Hollywood versions of gun salesmen, the guy who sold it to him was a character, an educated friendly enough black man with a wicked sense of humor. Next he had to find the right size satchel. The first one that he bought was too small so he had to return it and try out another size.

No problem. The view of the dais was so perfect, like a gift from God, it energized all the other steps. Everything fell into place. It may have taken two times on one of the items, or ten. Didn’t matter. It got done.

His smile returned.   At last justice would be done.

Except it isn’t happening tonight.

In truth, even in the army it got more complicated. At the beginning of his sniper training he had no difficulty pulling the trigger.  He carried out three missions successfully without a second thought. He killed whom he was assigned to kill and took pride in his accomplishment.

His fourth assignment brought that to an end. He noticed his target’s red hair.   That did it.  His precision, so easily summoned a moment before, deserted him.   There was no flow. His trigger-finger and eye were no longer one.

It wasn’t a morality thing, at least not that he was aware of. He had no specific thoughts about right and wrong. He knew it was right to kill this particular bad guy, with or without his red hair. There were no thoughts at all. But the red hair kept coming into his mind.

A therapist taught him how to shut that off. But it didn’t matter.   He’d still miss his target again and again.

When the time came he didn’t reenlist. His sergeant more or less made clear that was to be his plan.

Once again the gunman pulls the rifle back into the utility room.  We get a better look at him.  He’s sweating.  His face is alive with emotion.   As opposed to our initial impression, he is anything but a professional.

“Take your time,” he commands himself. That does nothing. Drifting thoughts grab his attention, one after another, without rhyme or reason.

He had imagined the exact instant in detail.    MacDonald, just after he’s made a clever observation, bathed in adulation, a split second before the applause erupts, the audience smiling, congratulating themselves for being there.

Bang!

Blood is the perfect punctuation.

A single shot.

Sweet!

Bang.

It will put them on notice.  Someone’s watching.  Someone

sees what you’re doing.

MacDonald ends his talk. Like a politician at a convention he waves to the audience.

As he returns to his table, the rifleman’s frantic.

He still has a good shot. Now!

He doesn’t pull the trigger.

The rifleman soon makes peace with the new facts. His fantasy about the precise moment of MacDonald’s death was self-indulgent. The joy of catching him at a glorious moment in front of the audience isn’t all that important. Reaching for a French fry, wiping off the ketchup from his lips, blowing his nose, trying to catch the eye of one of the attractive women at his table-any moment will be okay. Shot and killed is the main point. If the deed gets done, the meaning will be clear.   Dead is dead.

This last thought enables the rifleman to cool off. MacDonald will remain in target range for at least an hour. Later will be fine.

Michael wipes the sweat off his forehead. He’s hot and clammy, his shirt and underwear are sticking to him.  He takes off his tuxedo jacket, sits himself on the floor against a huge cable roll stored in the room. Trying to regain his composure, he closes his eyes and inhales deeply, filling his chest with air.

No luck.  His clammy shirt is bothering him. He can’t seem to catch his breath. His mind is still all over the place. Doubts. More doubts. He closes his eyes, drifts through his memories…