Friday, March 23, 2012

Aftermath, Again

A little more than three months after my last surgical intervention and I am once again wrapped in a blue paper gown, lying back on an examination table as the attending nurse tells me there will be some discomfort and have I signed the releases yet?  I have, and I know all about the discomfort. I have been dreading today for weeks.
The internet stories I should not have read say the type of cancer I had often recurs. Why was it necessary for me to get that little diamond of information? A little knowledge is not only a dangerous thing, but one chock full of anxieties. Fark.
I can’t look at the monitor above my head. It is displaying the inside of my bladder in a hundred shades of pink as the good doctor manning the camera threaded up my urethra murmurs, “Hmmm. Hmmm.” The last time he did this, the hmms were followed by a loud clearing of his throat and the words, “I’m going to have to biopsy that.”
I hold my breath. Now he’s sort of humming to himself. Is that a good sign? I try to identify the song. Something cheerful? It sounds vaguely like the music from the Alka Seltzer jingle of the 70s. Plop plop fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is… Maybe it’s Wagner’s Symphony in C Major.
“All done,” he says. “It looks fine, but,” he hold up a large syringe of fluids drained from my body.  I hate ‘but’ when it’s dropped like a hair in a bowl of coup. “But, if there are bad cells in here, we’ll have to revisit the area.”
He makes it sound like a trip to Disneyworld.
“Call me at the end of next week for the results,” he adds.
In the bathroom I discard the blue paper thing and put my clothes back on. I’m nauseous, bathed in sweat.
In the examining room I can hear the nurse whistling. Seriously. I can. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s  Shake That Thing.  How appropriate.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Modest Last Hurrah

There were seven of them, all in their 20s they said, though two looked older. The youngest wore a silver plastic tiara that read Bachelorette and she was going to be married within a week. All seven were headed to Ft. Lauderdale in Florida for one last partying weekend, a farewell to their friend’s single status and an opportunity to spend 72 hours away from familiar eyes. I was on the plane, an aisle seat, two young women to my right and three to my left. “Lucky you,” said the one seated next to me, smiling. They were sweet, bubbly, excited, and voluble. “I was warned by three friends not to get arrested,” said the one with short brown hair. “No climbing over the bar to refill my own drinks, which I did once, and then got escorted out.” “I’m  not getting arrested, either,” said the talkative one. “At least four people told me I shouldn’t.”

They had plans. They were going to be on the beach, drink in hand, within a half-an-hour of landing.  They had 72 hours and two said they did not plan to sleep at all, though a third claimed just the opposite. She worked nights back in Virginia and wanted uninterrupted slumber but was sure she wouldn’t get it. Seven young women, two hotel rooms on the beach--the likelihood of much sleep was slim.

The plane was full of young people on spring break, and by the time we landed the women already had met several men and exchanged phone numbers. There would be a lot of texting and tweeting and exchanging of information.  One of the seven had been to Ft. Lauderdale several times before and claimed to know all the best bars, and all the places where young women might drink almost free to lure the young men in.

One, seated furthest from me, had doubts. When her seatmates went to use the bathroom, she scooted over and said, “Really, I think I’m a little too old for this… I mean, I really don’t want to drink and black out.  I had a friend who got drunk on the beach, and she fell asleep and woke up with third degree sunburn. She had to be hospitalized. That doesn’t sound like much fun at all.”  Plus, she said, she had a boyfriend. “He didn’t really want me to go,” she shrugged. “I can understand that. I’m not sure I’d want him to go on a weekend with his crazy friends.”

Two of the women wanted to start drinking on the plane but the uniformed attendant said no alcohol would be served on the flight.  One rummaged through the bag under her seat, brought out a couple of miniature bottles like those found in hotel minibars.  She cracked one open, dumped half the content into the plastic cup that came with the soft drink offered by the airline, stirred it with a finger and drank it down.   Her neighbor drank the rest the little bottle empty. They smiled and exchanged a furtive high five.

When the plane landed they gathered their stuff from the overhead racks and headed straight for the airport exit, then thought better of it, stopped at a bar on the concourse and ordered drinks. The future bride waved at me as I walked by. It was 9:45 in the morning and the bartender, a woman hardly older than her customers, didn’t seem surprised at all.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A Night at the Hotel

I despise hotels. No, wait, it’s stronger than that. Revile? Abhor? Loathe? Whichever, I find the chain hotels—the Hiltons, the Shorehams, the Sheratons—a true blight.
I had occasion recently to spend a single, $226.41-night in such a place. It was a long walk from lobby to room and I made the trip twice because the electronic key given me when I checked in did not work. Its replacement was recalcitrant too. The room, when I finally got in, smelled of ancient smoke and overlooked a pier where a giant cruise ship was docked among the water-borne detritus. A connecting door in the corridor slammed irregularly throughout the night.
There were bottles of spring water available for a buck at any convenient store but priced here at five dollars each. Neither the clock radio nor the little automatic coffee maker worked, and the television remote’s batteries were so weak I had to get within inches of the screen to make it change channels. Not that there was much of a choice if I was looking to watch something for free. The large selection of adult porn features (I was really tempted by Babes, Breasts and Butts but decided against) was $4.95 a pop. Regular feature films were $5.95.  A postcard propped up on the bedside table announced with smug self-satisfaction that in order to conserve energy, the hotel changed bed sheets only ever third day. I assume the staff did change the linen after each room occupancy, but to tell the truth, the announcement did not specify this. Had I wanted to call out using the room phone, I would be charged money. There would be a charge to get Internet service. The vending machines at the end of the corridor demanded three dollars for a bottle of soda. Ice was free, though, a nice touch.
Riding from the airport to the hotel, I noticed there were not restaurants anywhere within several blocks, and when I asked the cabby about this, he told me the three hotel chains that dominated this tourist area had essentially bought out all competing eateries, which of course explained the $17 cheeseburger.
This particular treat was the least expensive entrée available at the poolside café, considered the affordable restaurant. At breakfast, something vaguely resembling an enchilada went for $14, though the second cup of coffee and a finger-sized sliver of pastry were free.
What amazed me was watching middle-class families scarfing down the equivalent of McDonalds meals and paying a hundred or more for soggy fries and doubtful service. I wondered if this was a budgeted part of the vacation stay and thought it must be, along with the $190 Hawaiian shirt offered by the gift shop and the $47 battered shrimp dish on the menu of the hotel’s principal eatery.
The incredible rapaciousness of the hostelry trade confounds me. I don’t remember Arthur Hailey dealing with this aspect of the trade in his novel. Not only is everything criminally overpriced, but the most minute service outside check-in implies a tip.  Money to the young man who whistles for a cab, to his colleague who opens and closes the car’s door, to the people who come and make the bed without changing the sheets, to the waiters, bartenders, maitre d’s, sommelier if there is one, and to the smiling duo who microwave the $14 not-quite-an-enchilada breakfast item.
For such princely sums, one would expect peerless service, but this wasn’t the case. The check-in counter was manned by two grimly cheerful young employees struggling to deal with the demands of a boatload of orthodontists and their spouses on the return leg of a Caribbean cruise. The pool-side wait-staff was overworked and undermanned, and when I called the hotel’s main number around 10 p.m. after arriving home, all I got was a recorded message. I had forgotten my car and house keys in my room. These had been turned in, said the hotel security officer when I reached him the next day. He asked for my credit card number. I gave it to him. There would be a $10 charge to have the keys mailed to my home.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Singer

It is 3:30 in the afternoon and clouds are massing for a summer storm. Three years ago at this time of the year, my area of Virginia was buried under two consecutive snowfalls that crippled the state and federal governments.  Today, it’s 85 degrees, truly unseasonably warm. I am sitting on a bench outside a local Starbucks. There’s a flock of young men and women occupying the tables and chairs. They wear headsets and concentrate on their computer screens; they talk a bit too loudly into their phones.

Next to me, sprawled on the bench, eyes closed and head back, a thin Black woman is in her own world. She has the frayed look of the homeless; there are two empty Seven Eleven coffee cups next to her and three large black plastic bags surround her feet. She is singing softly. At first it is no more than a whispered version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and she appears to know several verses. As the song progresses, so does her voice gain volume and it’s a lovely voice, a full soprano with a quaver at the end, something you might hear on a blues vinyl record from 70 years ago.   

The other people are studiously ignoring her but the presence is tangible; her voice is truly singular, even trained, perhaps. She segues into the theme of the Beverly Hillbillies. She knows all the words to that too, and there’s a certain gusto to the delivery. Her eyes are open now though largely unfocused. She is staring at something in the distance that I assume only she can see. The man at the table next to her folds his computer closed and leaves. At another table, two middle-aged women frankly stare at the singer who is still holding forth about a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin' crude
Another computer man moves away. She does the second verse.
Well the first thing you know ol' Jed's a millionaire,
Kinfolk said Jed move away from there
Said Californy is the place you ought to be
So they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly.

When Jed’s story has been told three or four times, she goes on to Edelweiss, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic sung by Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music, and it amazes me. We all know the tune but how many know the words? I don’t, but she does, and she repeats the last line, Bless my homeland forever, with such heartfelt emotions that the middle-aged women two tables away get dewy-eyed.

And then she’s done. She stands, smiles in my direction. I smile back. She gathers her belongings and trundles away, plastic garbage bags brushing against her skinny legs and I hope the concert will continue at another venue. But the truth is the woman has discovered the secret to invisibility. She has not disturbed anyone seriously enough to warrant an intervention by the authorities but her actions are sufficiently odd as to make her existence to others tenuous at best. I’m not sure whether this is a gift or a curse, but it is certainly worth a song.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The World's Reddest Car

My Ferrari will find a new home next week, hopefully, and though I’ll be sorry to see it go, it’s time. 

It is certainly among the most beautiful cars ever created, and of all the automobiles designed by the Italian genius Enzo Ferrari, it was the one that most caught the public eye and sold in the largest quantity.  All told, some 8,000 Testarossas were manufactured and bought by enthusiasts between 1984 and 1991. How many are left is anyone’s guess, but a good estimate would be about 5,500. It has been called the world’s reddest car.
It’s low, brutish, a two-seater with minimal amenities, a coupe with a fixed roof that premiered at the 1984 Paris Auto Show. Power brakes but no power steering; 12 cylinders, a deep throaty rumble that winds to a scream as you put the car through its paces.  The Testarossa boasts a five-speed manual transmission; the rear mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout (engine between the axles but behind the cabin) keeps the center of gravity in the middle of the car, which increases stability and improves the car's cornering ability. The tires are huge, almost 16 inches across with razor-like treads.
For those readers who might care, the car sports a 4.9 liter (4,943 cubic centimeters/302 cubic inches) Ferrari Flat-12 engine. Each cylinder has four valves, with forty-eight valves total, lubricated via a dry sump system, and a compression ratio of 9.20:1. The Ferrari can accelerate from 0–100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) in 5.8 second and from 0–97 kilometers per hour (60 mph) in 5.2 seconds and on to 161 km/h (100 mph) in 11.40 seconds and can complete a standing (from stationary) quarter mile (~400 m) in 13.50 seconds or a standing kilometer in 23.80 seconds. The maximum speed is about 187 mph thanks to almost 400 HP at the rear wheel.
I bought the car when I had money a decade or so ago and for a year or two I drove it everywhere. It never failed to garner an admiring crowd of mostly young boys and for a while, I would let kids sit in it and have their picture taken, until one boy accidentally dumped his can of Coke on the floor mats.
I took it to the Summit Point race track in West Virginia and let the track pro drive it while I was in the passenger seat. He took it to 179 miles per hour, maneuvered a glide through a hairpin turn that broke the rear end loose, and pronounced it a satisfactory car. I almost peed in my pants. Then I drove it to 160 mph, euphorically passed a Porsche Twin Turbo driven by a new owner even less experienced than I was, and hit 165 on the straightaway.
People call it an ambulatory work of art and I agree. Even standing still it looks as if it’s doing 100. The interior is all tan leather, and the first 250 TRs built came with a matching set of luggage.
In the last few years I haven’t driven it much. I once calculated that, taking everything into consideration, each mile on the road cost me three dollars. Additionally, modern Ferraris depreciate steeply once the odometer passes 25,000 miles. I’m 5,000 short of that.
The day after tomorrow my Testarossa will be loaded onto a covered car carrier and transported to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, there to be sold at a car auction catering to collectors and owners of exotic automobiles.  I’ll be there, touting the Ferrari’s many good points and telling prospective buyers how much I will miss the car, which is true.  I will not, however, miss the maintenance. In 2009, the scheduled engine-out check-up cost me $10,000. Before that it was $5000 for a clutch. There are no cheap Ferrari parts. Should you want to see it in action, go to My friend Miles did a video and it’s worth watching.
I hope it finds a new owner who will appreciate it as much as I did, someone who will  take it for speed-limit-defying rides on curvy roads, enjoy the unbridled joy of its roaring engine, and at least once allow a small boy to sit in the driver’s seat and have his picture taken.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Scam

I have in my hand (I am not quoting the late, great, Senator Joe McCarthy) a check for $6,000 from James Madison University addressed to me and dated mid-February. I could use $6,000—who couldn’t—but unfortunately the check is part of a three-months-long internet scam that began when I put an ad on Craig’s List offering my services to people wanting to practice conversational French.
Within days I received a query from a gentleman purporting to be in Great Britain. It read: “Hello, My name is Dr Devan Frank am interested in your lesson. I would like you to be taking my daughter (Mary, she is 16 yrs old) lesson while i am at work in your city. Am from England(UK) but I'm moving to your area because I'm having 4 weeks contract with Environmental Protection Agency( EPA) in united state. You do not have to worry about transportation,  have negotiate with a cab company that will be driving her down to your place go and come.
So i want you to be taking her for 2 hours per day from Monday to Thursday for 4 weeks. Get back to me with total cost. I wait to read from you shortly, and remember she is all i have and i really want a conducive and pleasant atmosphere for her. Dr Devan Frank

Oh what the hell, let’s play along. I responded: Hello: My fees are $60 per hour. Because this is a one-time long-term contract, I will need a 50% deposit by bank check before we start. This would come to $960. Please let me know if this is agreeable. The lessons will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday. They will be held at my home which I am sure your daughter will find both pleasant and conducive to learning.”

Dr. Frank’s got back to me the same day.  “Thanks for your response,  i can understand all what you said, i want you to help me teach her for 2 hours per day from Monday to Thursday for 4 weeks, i will like you to get back to me with the total cost, it is my financier in the united state that will sponsor me and responsible for the payment, so i  want you to get all information to be use to have the payment, that i can forward it to my financier in the state to send you the check,  you will be paid with Us dollar certified check.
Please get back to me with the amount and i will be glad to update you and make the payment in advance to show you how serious, because i want everything to be done before i will get back to the state. Kindly get back to me with the information so that the check will be made out to you.

Several messages went back and forth. I wondered what kind of father Dr. Frank was to entrust his 16-year-old daughter to a man he’d never met. This, apparently, was not a major concern  of his. He wrote, “Thanks for getting back to me, am ok with the time schedule, i want you to help me take good care of her because she is my only daughter, have forward the information to my financier in united state to send you the  check as soon as possible. If there is any other information i will let you know.”

Dr. Frank asked that I write a check to cover the cab company’s fees and he would reimburse me.  I  responded, “Send me a check for the total amount ($1920) and when it clears I will arrange for a friend of mine to be your driver. She has a Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. You can then pay her separately.

In min-January, I received another message. “Thanks for getting back to me, concerning the cab driver as have told you earlier that have made proper arrangement with the cab company, so they have book me a car with a driver that  will be driving me to work and also be driving Mary to your location every tutor day, the car is for me as my private car for the whole month as far as i don`t have any car in the state.

“But there was a mistake on the check issue out to you, the check have to be two, while one for the tutor and the other for the cab company which i was told that it is been  issued out in one check sent to you.
Please am very sorry for this mistake made, As soon as you received the check you will cash the check and deduct your total charges and help me send the rest to the cab driver via western union which i will provide you the information as soon as you get the check.

“Because the cab company said that they will not agree in working with me by driving me and my daughter without receiving any deposit from me before we arrived to the state so you will have to do that for me as a help, the check will deliver to you very soon. Kindly get back to me as soon as possible.”

So I did. We had a lively exchange of quips—Dr. Frank, however, did not have much of a sense of humor. I was being uncooperative, he said, and there was only one recourse available. He would instruct his financier to send me a check for the full amount to cover everything—cab fares and teaching sessions.

But there was a holdup, wrote Dr. Frank,  “there is a little delay on the check through the courier service. The check will deliver to your location this week possibly Tuesday. Thank you.”

The check arrived a couple of weeks later, delivered by Fedex . It looked really official. Pale blue with routing numbers, made out to me and signed illegibly by what I surmise is the bursar of James Madison. I took it to my bank. The man there laughed, not unkindly, and said he hoped I hadn’t sent any money. Dr. Frank, it seems, is a very active person in the Northern Virginia area, and he has written checks to many, many people.
Some time later, I received an irate message from the good doctor,  

“What's going on there?? Could you please email me as soon as possible. Thank you.”

I told him his check had most unfortunately bounced but I would be glad to meet with him personally and we could work out the details of his daughter’s French lessons.  I expect to get a response any day now.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


So here, as Michael Scott might say, is the deal-io.  Try to estimate the number of people who have figured in your life in more than a transitory manner: The grandparents you barely knew but had to visit anyway, the kids you might have grown up with but haven’t seen in decades, the now far flung cousins who once were close. How about the boyfriends and girlfriend and lovers and mates, and sometimes even the husbands and wives we married in flash of passion and youth and divorced, a few years later, when we and they realized the relationship didn’t have legs strong enough to go the distance. The friendly neighbors who took us in when things were rough at home, the one teacher, mentor or coach who paid special attention. How many people does this make? Dozens? Maybe a hundred?

We are footnotes in each others’ lives. Not always, but more often than not. We might have been important once, but chances are we no longer cast a significant shadow, Good-bye predominance, hello post-script.

This is as it should be. Humans, thankfully, have short memories, and if we were to be burdened with the constant recollections of things past, there would hardly be time in our heads for the present and future, for the situations we must deal with today and the people we care for now.

I never knew my grandparents, for example. The family tales of their lives and exploits make for amusing dinner conversation, and the fact that my mother’s father wrote operas figures only vaguely in my life. My father’s father I met only once, he was a nice, balding man and since I had been told the gene governing hair loss passed from father to son, I probably spent a bit more time wondering about his life than I did that of the folks on my mother’s side. He’s long gone; I still have most of my hair and no longer worry about a hairless eventuality. I no longer remember his first name, which is sad but inevitable.

I do not know where my first wife is, indeed whether she’s even alive, and I am frankly uninterested in searching for her. We did not part on good terms, and I’m sure she thinks of me as often as I of her.  The entire society of people we knew together—save for one or two persons—has vanished from my life. 

In fact, there are more people in my past than there are in my present and even those who figure in recent events may disappear from one day to the next with or without reason. This is often sad, sometimes unexpected, rarely welcome. People come, people go, and those who governed my actions, thoughts and emotions, that small but vitally important community we all have and cherish, is as erratic as a butterfly’s flight path. Once again, this is as it should be. It is said that all relationships end in tragedy. I suspect this is true, though from some we learn more than from others. Those become the longer footnotes, the ones perhaps worth reading.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Thoughts on a Photograph

They’d been married a long time, fifty years almost; they’d had five kids and three remained; Davey had been killed in a car accident 22 years ago and Joe had simply vanished, almost like he’d never existed at all and sometimes Vernon had to look at family pictures to make sure that he’d had two sons. The daughters, Mary, Anne and Julia were respectively in Texas, Iowa and Maine, they called for birthdays and Christmas.

They’d been married such a long time that now they seldom spoke, and even situations that might have been new were already old. There was no subject they had not discussed, no argument worth having that they’d not had. Now they mostly argued about the dog.

The dog’s name was Butch and one day years before he’d followed Vernon home. Vernon would have taken the mutt to the pound but Gracie decided they should keep him, and so they had. Butch was pretty useless as a dog. He ate, he slept, he farted. He allowed a burglar to come into the house once and make off with the engagement ring Gracie had stopped wearing when her fingers swole up and the Discover credit card she kept in the kitchen drawer for groceries.

Vernon hoped Butch might die soon but the likelihood was Butch would probably outlive Vernon. Butch didn’t have hemorrhoids, or kidney stones, or a heart that skipped a beat or two every now and again. He didn’t have ingrown toenails or psoriasis or cataracts.

Gracie talked to Butch in a slow, never-ending monotone. She talked about the weather and her sister Iris, she talked about the price of groceries, the state of the neighborhood streets and—her new favorite subject—her certainty that Mr. Ayoub who lived two doors down and didn’t mow his lawn often enough was a terrorist Arab who would one day kill them all. Butch listened without blinking, his head cocked so that his right ear drooped while his left one stood straight up. Sometimes he growled softly which was enough incentive to keep Gracie talking. Gracie kept a baggie of Kibbles in the huge straw carry-all she was never without, and doled them out to Butch as her monologue went on and Vernon thought his wife and the dog had the perfect relationship, he could walk away and never return and neither dog nor wife would even notice.

And the people who passed them, who watched the old couple starring at the far horizon from  their folding chairs, the young women in bikinis and the teenagers in bathing suits that hung down past their knees, the kids eating French fried and the boys and girls with sticky fingers from Sno Cones, all those people, young and old, they knew there was something final and desperately fragile about this scene, that the slightest wind could blow these frail beings away, and then, they wondered, who would take care of the dog?