Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Trouble at the Coffee Shop

Maury, my coffee shop friend, has been both agitated and reclusive lately. I think this is because a new employee is interfering with his wa.

The new guy is a young man in his mid-thirties who is way too talkative early in the morning and intrusive in other ways. Maury and I are similar insofar that neither of us is particularly social in the morning. At seven a.m. I want to read my paper and be left alone, as, I suspect, does everyone else there, except for maybe Debbie Reynolds

Ah, Debbie. It’s not her real name but it should be. She is a tiny and lovely woman in her 80s, a bewigged fan of every team in the Washington area. Since the pro football, baseball and hockey players have not distinguished themselves this year, Debbie is a sad fan, and she’ll talk to anyone about the demise of sports in DC. Maury, I’ve noticed, by and large ignores her, though he does it very diplomatically by closing his eyes and feigning sleep. When cornered, I say things like, “How about that!” and “I know just what you mean!” and “It’s a crime, is what it is.”  And I mean it, too!  Debbie meets her son at the coffee shop every morning. I think they have a bail bond business together.

The new waiter calls me ‘boss.’ I’m not too crazy about that. He mostly wipes the tables of women sitting alone and tries to engage them in conversation. Another good percentage of his time is spent leaning against a booth sipping coffee. He hides his bowl of oatmeal in the cubby that holds the trash and recycle cans and attends to it every few minutes. He is one of those loud, Seinfeldian close-talkers who expands a lot of energy texting and telling the customers that he’s been working since he was fifteen and is looking for a better job.  Godspeed, I say

Fedila, the Ethiopian checkout lady, does not like the new guy. She claims he is the nephew of the morning shift supervisor and does as little work as possible. He apparently asked her out the second day he was on the job and this did not impress her, since she knew he was married with three children. Plus, she told me, he’ll reach into the display case and pull out pastries that he will eat in plain view of the customers, which she considers to be in poor taste.

I go there three or four times a week and can tell you the place has never been run efficiently. I am fascinated by the fact that the exhaust fan for the kitchen gives out directly onto the outdoor sitting area, thereby washing any unwary customer with essence de bagel.

Sometimes a single cashier will try to handle the orders of a dozen people. Other times, five or six workers are behind the counter milling about aimlessly and avoiding the customers altogether. Often, the manager will stand stock still and look around, as if amazed the place operates at all. The person in charge of replacing the fifty-pound coffee urns is a minute grandmotherly Latina who truly struggles to lift the containers. I tried to help her once but she hissed at me like a cobra.

Maury, being a lot more philosophical than I am, takes almost everything in stride except for the new guy. I sense we are on the brink of a volcanic eruption. It’s going to be either Maury or the new guy.

My money’s on Maury.


Friday, September 25, 2015

Signing--The Aftermath

Yogi Berra, who died the day before yesterday, once said, “Always make sure you go to the funerals of others, because if you don’t, they won’t come to yours.”

Book signings are next-of-kin to non-denominational funeral services. People say nice things about you and mispronounce your names, and something you liked is read. Afterwards, there’s a get-together someplace nearby and people drink wine and eat potato chips.

So the book signing for The Fortunate Few went well and the book sold out. I was grateful for all the good folks who attended, and surprised by the non-response and no-show of some friends whose events I had gone to. There were posters of the book’s cover with my name in BIG LETTERS. The five rows of folding chairs were quickly filled. I got to talk a little bit about the genesis of the book, answer some questions about the volunteers and IVS, the organization I wrote about. I signed a bunch of fly-leafs with a barely legible hand. And I accepted (humbly, of course) the congratulations of colleagues. Then a bunch of us went to a small after-signing party hosted by my writer-friend Lori. This was writing life at its best.

It was fun. One More Page Books is an ideal setting for signings. It’s a real bookstore, meaning it primarily sells books, and it’s also a center for the local writing crowd. Hopefully, some of the people who’d never been there before will go again. I’m already planning the signing for my next book, Dope. More will be revealed.




Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Book Signing

So this evening I’ll be hosting a book signing to promote The Fortunate Few, IVS Volunteers from Asia to the Andes, a book I wrote over the last couple of years and that was published a few months ago. It will be held at One More Page Books, a great little store that promotes local authors and kind of gives the finger to Books-a-Million and Barnes & Noble, but not in a nasty way. Personally, I don’t consider B&N or BaM to be real book stores. Mostly, they sell novelties and useless crap; they have large magazine racks and overpriced espresso, and they just happen to sell books, but probably would prefer not to.

It’s been years since I’ve done of these. I’m not sure how many people are going to show up, but I’ve allotted twenty books and four bottles of wine to the evening. I hope no illiterate drunks come.

It struck me that I don’t have that much to say about the book. It took me almost three years to write it with the assistance of a committee that, after a year, I began calling The Gang of Four. G of F members were vastly helpful and made great suggestions, but they also changed their minds on the structure of the book when it was almost finished, all the while assuring me that making the changes they wanted “shouldn’t take any time at all.” But it did.

The book itself has some historical value. It’s about mostly young men and women from largely agricultural states who, generally after college, decided to sign up with International Voluntary Services, an organization created in the early 1950s to assist developing countries and show the people there that Americans were good guys—and gals.

The volunteers were sent to countries they often had to look up on an atlas. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Algeria, Sudan, were not the household names they would one day become. The men and women were sent there with basic language skills and often dropped off with little concept of what they were supposed to do. So they worked. They dug ditches and wells, they built schools, irrigation canals and water [umps. They taught basic English, electrical engineering and suggested agricultural techniques untried in the area. They lived with the locals, and in some cases married them. Eleven of those serving in what was then known as Indochina perished, some due to the conflicts raging there. A few became prisoners of wars and a couple of those spent years in camps.

The volunteers wanted to be apolitical, a difficult thing made even harder since the brunt of  IVS funding came from USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, a decidedly political entity. Additionally, a lot of the IVSers had been raised within the various peace churches—Mennonites, Quakers, Mormons and such—and were morally opposed to the US war in Vietnam. They often felt their efforts to work with the people they’d been sent to assist were undone by US policy.

The Fortunate Few, IVS Volunteers from Asia to the Andes, is mostly the voices of the volunteers, many of whom are getting older now. They did amazing things and shouldn’t be forgotten.

If you feel so moved, go to your local library and ask them to order the book. It’s good reading; you’ll learn a few things. I’m not at all sure that an organization like IVS could exist today, which is a shame.

Hopefully, the knowledge of and appreciation for the accomplishments of these remarkable men and women will not fade too quickly.   


Friday, September 18, 2015

Testing, Testing

So according to my doctor and to the tiny camera he used to peek inside my bladder, I am, for the time being, cancer-free.

The days before a test, called a cystoscopy, I don’t sleep well at all. Years ago, my sister died of bladder cancer. More recently, a friend was diagnosed with the disease, and as the morning of the procedure approaches, I can’t help but going over the various nasty possibilities. The worst of these is that the surgeon would want to remove my bladder entirely and fashion a new one from intestinal tissue. The new one would not work as well as the old one. In fact, my understanding is that a catheter would be involved full-time, and, after giving this option far too much thought, I’ve decided I probably would not want to live that way.  

So yesterday morning, the doctor did not mutter, “Uh ho,” which he has said in the past when he saw things down there he didn’t like. He did not shake his head, or purse his lips, or furrow his brow, signs that all is not well. This week, he smiled, shook my hand, and said, “See you in three months.”  The nurse told me to put my shorts back on and wished me a good day, and the sun shone bright in an azure sky. The test came out negative, which is good news, obviously. I’m breaking my own record of being clean for approximately seven months now, and I am willing to take a bow. If the next two tests follow suit, I will go from three- to six-months intervals between cystoscopies, and I will be very grateful because, just between you and me, a cystoscopy is not a trip to Disneyworld, or even Seven Flags.

I’ve always seen my cancer cells as nasty little squatters that leave beer cans and Burger King wrappers behind; I think it’s entirely possible that the cells finally decided to find a better, more congenial host. After all, every time they’ve so far made a foray in my body, they were spotted, cut out, or incinerated, or flooded with nasty chemicals and chased out of the community. Who’d want to stay in a neighborhood where no one makes you feel welcome and everyone is out to get you? Not me.

I have done a few things differently since my initial diagnosis three years ago, though I can’t swear any of it has a thing to do with a remission…

I upped my intake of water; I drink it with wedges of lime because I read somewhere that citrus has a sort of internal detergent value. I cut down on red meat. I stopped putting artificial sweetener in my tea or coffee, and gave up diet drinks. I started eating more fruit and green stuff and nuts. I abandoned egg yolks, pork sausages (except on the occasional Saturday designated as an Official Pork Product Day [OPPD]), bacon (see preceding sentence), butter, and pretty much everything white—sugar, flour, and rice. I have tried, and tried and tried, and failed, to give up bread. While I have let go of many things over the years—tobacco, alcohol, drugs, dubious women, motorcycles, inline skates, and 12-string guitars—bread still defies me.

Today, I’m clean. Still, I’m sure that (people with delicate eyes should avert them now) I’ll be looking down for traces of blood every time I pee, and any discomfort down there will be cause for alarm. It’s going to take a while to get past the habits I’ve formed over the last few years.

But right now, it’s all good.

Monday, September 14, 2015


My friend Maury is at the coffee shop most days for breakfast. ‘Friend’ is using the term loosely since I hardly know him, and I’m not quite sure how he learned my name. Nevertheless, he’s there, usually drinking from a plastic glass of water and stretched out before the gas fireplace.

Maury is what people used to call slow, and now refer to as mentally challenged. He’s a big guy in his 60s whose pants hang halfway down his butt and his shirttails hang out.  Maury usually changes seat five or six times in the course of half-an-hour. He never reads, doesn’t own a phone, and stares at the gas flames fixedly. He most often wears a cardigan or threadbare sweater, and owns a motley collection of hats; I do envy him his beaten up fedora which he told me he bought at a Salvation Army store in New York in the 60s.

Maury is the king of strange conversations.  About a month ago, he came to my table and said, “You know Jeanne?”

I told him I know a couple of Jeannes.

“Jeanne with her boyfriend, Bob?”

I made one of those faces that says, maybe, I’m not sure. Probably not.

“Well, Bob died,” says Maury. “You ought to date her.”

After a longish pause, I told him I’d think about it.

More recently, he said, rather cheerfully, “I’m an old man, and I’m going to die.”

My first reaction was to ask if I could have his fedora, but since my first reaction to most things is wrong, I kept silent.

He asked me, “Are you going to die?”

I said that in all likelihood I would.

He said, “In that case, you should ask Jeanne for a date. She’s used to men dying.”

Maury lives by himself, I think, in a rent-controlled apartment across the street from the coffee shop. Fedila, the Ethiopian check-out lady, says he’ll come in four or five times a day, and more often when it’s raining. It’s rare for him to order anything more than a small coffee, and he’ll nurse the refills for a bunch of hours.

When he’s not in the coffee shop, Maury can be found in its immediate vicinity picking up stray bits of paper and carefully placing them in a trashcan.  

Four months ago, Maury stopped coming to the coffee shop. His absence was noted immediately. After a week, people were seriously worried that Maury might have passed away or been hospitalized. Fedila asked two regular cops if they could enquire. They did and reported that Maury was nowhere to be found. 

Except that he was. 

Maury had moved to the Einstein Bagels shop two blocks down the street. An imagined—or real—slight had occurred at the coffee shop, and Maury had decided to take his business elsewhere. Fedila walked the two blocks to fetch him back to his regular haunt where he was feted like a hero.

This morning, fedora perched jauntily on his balding pate, Maury approached me, shaking his head. He said, “You’re too late, you know.” With a look of infinite concern, he added, “Jeanne has a new boyfriend.”


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Death

In a little while I’ll be going to the funeral services for O, a woman I did not know well although I saw her often over the past few years. She was in her late 60s, retired and, I think, had it pretty rough at times. I was aware of the veneer of her life—troubles with a grand-daughter, arthritis and gallstones, mental health issues, a child of her own who’d died. I learned from the death notice in the local paper that she’d been a government employee for a good part of her life, that she’d been married and perhaps divorced. Up until yesterday, I did not know her last name; she was simply O.

Over the last decades, there have been many services like this one, where I’ve paid my respects to largely unknown people: The parent of a friend, the sibling of a writer acquaintance, a neighbor who perhaps had invited me in a few times for a cup of coffee. The saddest was the death by a drug overdose of a young man who lived near me and had once come over to admire one of my guitars.. These occasions are now part of the warp and woof of life. There are a lot more funerals than there are weddings.

I wear my good pants and shoes and a blue or white shirt and my only pair of dark socks. I no longer own a tie. In winter I’ll wear a coat, in the summer a jacket.

I may know a few of the other people who come to see the deceased one last time, and if I do, we’ll talk about the weather and generally pretend to having a deeper friendship with O than we really had. We may have a funny story or two, or perhaps a particularly sad one that marked us. We will or will not know the cause of her demise, but regardless, we’ll talk about it. We’ll mention a weak heart, or cancer, a stroke or some other terminal disease, and depending on the amount of time it took for death to finally arrive, we’ll say the end was either a blessing or a surprise. We’ll all agree that O looked particularly good when we saw her less than a week ago. Or particularly bad.

The transition from a live, walking and talking human being to a grainy photo in a paid notice in the paper is always shocking.  Is this really all that remains after years of living and struggling? How incredibly odd and disturbing! Or is there something else, perhaps a place where the essence of life goes to be recycled?

O was a devout Christian. She went to church and sang hymns. She recited prayers and gave alms. She had friends who shared her faith. She believed in God and Jesus and trusted that she would join her savior. This was not a supposition, it was her certainty. I think she lived her last few years with that comfort, that no matter how rough and unfair things here might get to be, there was a heaven and a reward for being a good and just person like herself. She knew her shortcomings and yet trusted her redeemer to open the gates, perhaps with a wink and a nod. I envy her that, as I do not have that depth of belief; I trust such faith must be a relief when the end comes. Perhaps you can even go with a smile and free of fright.

All in all, O’s passing will probably not affect me greatly. It will whittle down by one the people I know and respect. It will get me into a house of worship, where I have not visited since the last funeral service, which was held for another person I barely knew. I don’t expect an epiphany or even an original sermon.  I do expect handshakes and sad smiles and a pat on the back or two, a reassurance that though O is gone, the rest of us are still here, and isn’t that part of what funerals are about, anyway?  

We honor the dead and take stock of the living.