Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

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Triple Jeopardy

There are times when your dream doesn’t seem to be coming true no matter how much you work toward it and how hard you wish for it.  You can pray about it, and sometimes the answer is not a resounding rejection, but simply a “not now.”  It may not be the right time yet.  And everyone knows that good things are worth waiting for.

However, I find it much harder to deal with an answer to prayer that appears to be “too late.”  It’s  one thing to have to wait for years to achieve your goal, but it’s quite another to realize that your time has passed.  “Could have beens” are rather sad, which likely accounts for the popularity of YOLO and “no regrets.”  Indeed, it can be difficult to watch someone slogging away at something that might have been achieved years ago but no longer has any reasonable chance of coming to fruition.  Most painful of all is when the person whom you’re watching struggle in vain is none other than yourself.

Then there are those of us whose motto seems to be “never say die.”  Fool that I am, I count myself among them.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago I went merrily off to register to take a test to become a contestant on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!  Um, for the third time.  I told you, some people just don’t know when to quit.

A famous saying posits that taking the same unsuccessful action time and again and expecting a different result is indicative of insanity.  So call me crazy.  I am one of those suckers who appears undeterred by the statistical unlikelihood of winning the Power Ball, video poker in Reno and a place as a contestant on a well-known quiz show.

The first time that I took the Jeopardy! test was years ago, in person, at a road show event held at a giant car dealership in Placer County (coincidentally, the same place I recently went to deal with a recall on my car).  This was back when we lived in California’s Central Valley, involving a fairly lengthy drive on freeways with which I was then quite unfamiliar.  For my trouble, I had the privilege of standing on a long, snaking line in the hot sun until I reached a tent where I could sit at a picnic table and complete the test.  Fifty questions on an orange sheet of legal-sized paper, both sides.  I turned it in to one of the judges, whom I could tell had graded these papers a few thousand times.  The smirk on his face showed me that he knew perfectly well that I hadn’t a chance.  He went down the page with a pencil, making marks at each of my errors.  He shook his head as he handed me back the page.  Dejected, I began the long drive home.  I didn’t even come close.

I didn’t bother trying again for another decade or so.  By then, personal computers had become ubiquitous and I learned that the Jeopardy! test was given online each January.  I knew a few of the answers, but I remember calling out a number of the questions to my wife for assistance.  Between the two of us, we got nowhere.

At least when I took the test in person, I learned that I had failed immediately.  When one takes the test online, it’s a case of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  Of course, they don’t call you (because you did so poorly).  Months go by and you forget about it.  Until, after a few more years go by, you hear that it’s time for the online test again.  Except now it’s being offered at the end of May instead of in January.

What makes me think that I will do any better this time than I did last time?  I have no idea, other than to say that hope springs eternal and that there will always be fools like me.  Just call us “live bait,” as Frank Gilbreth did a century ago.  Or, in the immortal words of P.T. Barnum (even longer ago), “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

I actually think I improved a bit this time.  Not by much, and certainly not enough to make a difference, but a little.  So is it “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out?”

Decidedly, the latter.  The problem, I soon realized, is that I am not as quick on the trigger as I once was (not that I ever was).  As much as I admire octogenarian and nonagenarian marathoners and ironmen, the fact remains that most of us eligible for the senior discount are a bit slower now than we were in days of yore.  Then there are some like myself who have always lagged a step or two behind.  Although I have amassed a great deal of knowledge in the course of my lifetime, I have never been accused of being the sharpest tool in the shed.  And now that I’ve strayed into AARP territory, I find myself playing the part a little too well by forgetting words at inconvenient times and wracking my brain to recall a name or fact that I know I know.  Dictionaries, both the online variety and the thick bound ones on my shelf, are my best friend.  Take it from me, the “senior moment” is a real thing.  So I suppose it’s kind of crazy for me to think that I’d have any chance at all in such a fast-paced competitive environment as Jeopardy!  Never mind trying to come with the questions to their answers, but how would I even press the signaling device fast enough?

Taking a trip down memory lane brings me back to my days as a senior in high school, when I competed against other schools as a member of our quiz bowl team.  Even at the tender age of 16, I was more of a liability than an asset.  As much as I was into trivia, I rarely knew the answer to the question asked.  And if I did, someone else would beat me to the buzzer almost every time.

You’d think I’d give it up by now, wouldn’t you?  Oh, no.  Knowledge of my limitations in no way dissuaded me from taking the test a third time.  I should probably pay attention to Alex Trebek himself, who (when not hawking life insurance) admits that, even after years of working with endless streams of facts, he’d have no chance against a sharp, young competitor.  I believe his words were “he would clean my clock.”

So as I log into the Jeopardy! test website after work on a Thursday evening, I remain hopeful even as I know quite well that I am on a fool’s errand.  I would estimate that I knew about half the answers, more or less guessed at another quarter, and came up entirely emptyhanded on the final quarter.  Inevitably, there were questions that I was sure I knew the answer to, but couldn’t come up with on short notice.  The senior moment again.

For example, the northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.  Ah, geography, my strongest area!  A map of the Keystone State pops into my head.  Pittsburgh?  Altoona?  Uh, the Monongahela? Bloop!  The question disappears from the screen.  Time’s up!  Oh, well.

That night, I woke up suddenly from a dead sleep.  The Alleghenies!  Of course!  Duhhhh . . .

And then it happened again.  The next morning, in the shower.  I simply could not come up with the name of the director known for his work on Titanic.  But, sure enough, while shampooing my hair, it struck me like a lightning bolt.  “James Cameron!” I yelled.

The next day, of course, I again was unable to remember his name.  I had to Google it.  (Uncle Guacamole takes the walk of shame.)

Let’s put it this way:  I am not expecting a call from Sony any time soon.  Uh, or ever.

Clearly, I don’t know when to give up the things of younger people.  If I were truly committed to competing on Jeopardy!, shouldn’t I have done it years ago?  So why can’t I say “too late,” admit that my time has passed, and move on?

I guess I just can’t take no for an answer.

So what do you say, shall we go for number four?

 

Uncle Guacamole’s Fantasy Lunch Counter

When I was ten years old, my family took the short ride into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s aunt.  A lifelong spinster, she was an accountant who lived high in an apartment building that shot its way up into the sky at 435 West 57th Street.  I was highly impressed with everything:  The midtown location, the doorman, the soft music in the elevator, the tiny, compact living quarters, my aunt’s adding machine with the smooth, green buttons and the frou-frou lunch we enjoyed across the street at the Holiday Inn.

The fancy items on the one-page luncheon menu included such delicacies as blueberries with cream.  My meal consisted of a cream cheese and green olive sandwich, with the crusts cut off the bread, of course.  Now, I had eaten a cream cheese and walnut sandwich with my father at Chock Full O’ Nuts, but this was my first experience with an olive sandwich.  My mother rarely purchased olives on the grounds that they were salty and “not good for you.”

After that visit, I begged my parents for olives on a regular basis, and sometimes they relented.  These delicacies were a beautiful thing to behold as I speared and wrestled them out of their narrow briny prison — first the bright red pimiento, followed by the luscious green orb.  I made Philadelphia cream cheese and olive sandwiches on whatever we happened to have on hand — soft white bread from Waldbaum’s, chewy onion rye from Barnett’s Bakery, a Lender’s frozen bagel, Ritz crackers, matzo.  As my sisters and I, bored on the long, hot, suburban days of summer vacation, pulled chairs out onto the shady patio and attempted to devise methods of self-amusement (long before the advent of video games and the internet), I proposed that we pretend to start a ritzy restaurant like the one at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.

My first task, I knew, was to develop a menu.  Of course, I included blueberries and cream along with cream cheese and olive sandwiches, as I strained to remember the other items printed on that page in midtown Manhattan.  Now that decades have gone by, one thing remains unchanged:  I still cherish cream cheese and olive sandwiches.  As an adult, I now have the privilege of eating them almost daily.  Even as a vegan (voluntary) following a gluten-free diet (forced by health issues), I enjoy soy cream cheese and olive sandwiches on gluten-free rice bread.

But there is another thing that has remained unchanged as the years go by.  I still dream of starting a little restaurant that serves all the dishes that I wish were on the menu when I visit a restaurant.  A vegan, gluten-free lunch spot where I can walk through the door knowing that I can eat anything on the menu without asking a million questions of disgusted staff.  And just like back in that summer when, at age ten, I tried to develop a menu out on our patio, I still think of what my fantasy luncheonette would serve.  I have developed a no-nonsense menu, based on vegan, gluten-free dishes that I have actually have eaten, prepared either by a restaurant, myself or my wife.  In time, as more gluten-free, vegan items become available on the market and as customers make suggestions for dishes they’d like to eat, I am sure that the menu would be further developed and augmented.  And so, without further ado, I present you with my modest gustatory proposition.

UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER

where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free

 

Sandwiches served on gluten-free rice bread (add $1 for gluten-free tortilla wrap)

soy cream cheese and olive

soy cream cheese and tomato

PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)

triple decker (vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, choice of jam)

Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)

Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)

California (fresh veggies and avocado – optional: onions, dill pickles, pepperoncini)

Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)

 

Salad Bowl

protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)

garden greens (red leaf and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green olives,

raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)

fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt

 

Spuds, Inc.

baked potato with your choice of toppings (Earth Balance vegan margarine, Tofutti vegan sour topping, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, broccoli, onions, salsa, jalapeños)

 

Hot Stuff

vegan chili (add $1 for loaded:  onions, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, Tofutti sour topping)

vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice

bunless burger (Dr. Praeger’s GF vegan) with fries and salad

sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice

nachos (vegan cheese, onions, Tofutti vegan sour cream, guacamole)

eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)

macaroni and cheese (gluten-free pasta, vegan soy cheese)

fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)

loaded fries (vegan soy cheese, Tofutti sour topping, onions)  (chili or guacamole $1)

gluten-free pizza (vegan soy cheese)  (toppings $1 each:  mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, broccoli, artichokes, tofu, pineapple)

 

Sides

choice of hot veggies:  carrots, broccoli, spinach, corn, zucchini in tomato sauce, vegan “cheesy” broccoli or cauliflower

“ants on a log” (celery, raisins, your choice of peanut butter or vegan cream cheese)

white rice

French fries

chips and salsa

guacamole

beans and vegan cheese

 

Dessert

frozen coconut milk “ice cream” (chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip)

Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies

 

Beverages

fresh brewed iced tea, iced coffee, Pepsi products, seltzer (orange, berry or plain), orange juice, apple juice

 

So, what do you think?  Would anyone actually want to eat lunch at such a weird place?  Anyone out there want to raise some capital for this venture?  Has Uncle Guac finally lost his mind?  Talk to me in the comments.

 

Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

The Dead Place

Fort Lauderdale Cemetery

POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA

I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time.  Funny how traveling can do that.  Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are.  For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas.  Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see.  I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West.  Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.

Everything is so white here:  The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun.  It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.

For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.”  If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions.  Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.

Dad loves gallows humor.  He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:

  • Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
  • What the doctor said
  • “You hear who died?”

After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.

South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.

“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.

“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.

My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.

We attempt to put together our orders.

“Got any soup?”

“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”

“I’ll have oatmeal…”

“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”

“Grits?”

“Nope.”

“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”

“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”

It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.

We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out.  Denny’s had been crossed off our list.

But tonight, something else is on my mind.  It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago.  After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.

But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!

The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery.  It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car.  Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom.  His directions turned out to be perfect.

When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral.  I was sent around to the other side of the building.  There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us.  A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form.  I was to write down the names of the deceased.  The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names.  She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death.  I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996.  When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992.  This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery.  The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.

Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed.  I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible.  My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high.  I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me.  The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable.  It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates.  Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names.  As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation:  Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies.  (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.)  There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones.  A cookie cutter memorial.  Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information.  Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self:  Ask Dad about this.  This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.”  Gag.  As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.”  While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas.  My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.

And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996.  It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.

Summer, 1996.  I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston.  I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day.  I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death.  My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once.  Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline.  The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder.  If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself.  I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away.  I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone.  I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.

I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can.  I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate.  The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately.  As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.

We’re done here.  Let’s go home to California.

 

 

College Buddies

So I knew these three guys back in college.  You know the ones:  The easygoing, happy-go-lucky types who never bothered to go to class and always knew how to get you hooked up.  For quite a few of us, they were our best friends.  And as I wax nostalgic today, I wonder what are the chances of catching up with them again, perhaps on Facebook or Craigslist.  My best buddies from a simpler time of life.

Jim Beam.  Jack Daniels.  José Cuervo.

Whoever said three is a crowd doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  We’d even (ill-advisedly) let a fourth tag along every once in a while, a charmer named Johnny Walker who was always broke, bummed drinks off the rest of us and stole our girls.

I wonder where these fellas are today.  My guess is that one went to law school, another is still playing rock ‘n roll in dive bars for tips, and the last one was buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere.  Maybe I’ll look for them under “Missed Connections:  100 Proof.”

I try not to live in the past, so it’s not that often that I think of college days.  When I do, I don’t bother to don the rose-colored glasses.  My college experience was not what one would characterize as halcyon, really more like a pain in the ass.  I did a few things right (such as ducking and dodging the constant flood of illegal drugs in which the campus soaked like a bloody rag), but I also made a lot of mistakes, some of which proved I was dumber than a doornail.

I will never forget a college roommate who justified his drinking and drugging by insisting that the time to do it is when you’re young.  If not now, when?  When I’m a sad old man who’s a drunk in the street?

I didn’t know those were the choices.  (And this was one of my better roommates!)

My three college buddies came to mind today in connection with my first experience at Kaiser.  That place is nothing if not efficient.  It is a veritable factory, where the goal appears to be to process as many patients as possible in the shortest time possible.  The brave new world of managed care.

I like my new doctor well enough, and I appreciate that I can email her and actually receive a response.  I like the convenience of “one stop shopping” with the lab and pharmacy being onsite.  It annoys me no end, however, that I explained that I needed a particular test, was told I don’t need it, went down the hall for my bloodwork, then was called a few hours after I got home because I’ve been scheduled for that test after all.

How does that song go?  “All doctors have beans in their ears, beans in their ears, beans in their ears…”

What tops that is that I received an email from my new doctor asking me to undergo a test that I clearly don’t need.  After using a few choice four-letter words, I emailed her back to explain the situation in detail.  She emailed back again asking that I consider doing it anyway.

Jim, Jack, José — I need you guys!