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I repost this essay every year around September 11. I don’t see why this year should be any different.

I

Change rarely visits Bialystoker Street. Every morning, men in black hats make their way to the Bialystoker synagogue for morning prayer. About an hour later, women wearing wigs and black stockings emerge from their apartments, pushing baby carriages with two or three other children in tow. The little boys wear yarmulkes. The girls have patent leather shoes.

So it surprised me to see that the bench outside my old apartment building was no longer there. It was a standard-issue bench with solid-concrete sides and wood slats painted parks-department green. The whole row of them was gone. Poof. Vanished. The only thing that remained was a couple of indentations on the sidewalk.

II

My father complained over dinner about how my mother had this terrible habit of using the word “she” twice in one sentence, when she was referring to two different people.

“I’m constantly having to ask her, ‘She, who?’ my father said, and then turning to my mother, he said, ‘You can’t say “she” twice in one sentence and think I’ll know who you mean.’”

“Eddie, will you stop criticizing me? Enough,” my mother said, throwing her fork down on the table.

It might have been any old day. But it wasn’t. My father was dying of esophageal cancer. As a last ditch effort, he’d signed up for a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering that had a 66-percent success rate. But we were told that morning that he was among the unlucky 34 percent. His cancer was spreading, and he was out of the program. My father was going back to his home in Florida to die.

“Let’s get some munchies,” he said as we walked back to my parents’ hotel. Despite carrying around coffee cakes, pretzels and little cans of apple sauce to nibble on in between meals, my father’s 185-pound frame was down to 128 pounds.

“Everything’s closed,” I said.

We were sitting in a restaurant on 36th Street and Sixth Avenue, so close to the Empire State Building that if it fell, it would hit us. Things like that mattered that day. It was September 11, 2001. There was an eerie quiet in Midtown. Sixth Avenue was nearly empty but for a lone man in a sweatshirt walking down the street with a video camera. At the corner of 35th Street, a homeless man and a man in a suit stood next to each other, watching the news on a television set that was resting on top of a garbage pail. Police tape blocked pedestrians from walking on 34th Street as armed men in uniform walked bomb-sniffing dogs back and forth in front of the Empire State Building.

I dropped my parents off at their hotel and walked to Pennsylvania Station, hoping a store along the arcade would be open. It was 8 p.m. and hundreds of commuters were standing near the board that listed train departures. They were stranded when the entrances and exits to Manhattan were sealed.

My parents were among the stranded. They had come into Manhattan from Long Island for chemotherapy and were on a subway heading to the hospital when the second plane hit. Subway service was suspended, and my parents were forced out of the train at Times Square. They walked all the way to the hospital on the East Side only to find chemotherapy was canceled, but my father was given his CAT scan results. The tumors had not shrunk. They had grown. Dejected, my parents tried to hail a taxi back to Penn Station but every cab was occupied. They eventually bribed a taxi driver, who already had a passenger inside, while he was sitting at a traffic light. They made their way back to Penn Station only to find that the train service to Long Island was suspended, so they orbited the station, trying hotel after hotel until they finally found a vacancy.

I found a store that was open and bought a bag of sugar-coated nuts, M&Ms, potato chips and two toothbrushes. When I returned to their hotel room, my parents were sitting up in bed, watching CNN. They invited me to spend the night. The three of us squeezed into one bed with me sandwiched between them.

“What are you scratching?” my mother asked.

“I think my cat gave me fleas,” I said.

“Go take a shower,” my father said abruptly.

I stood in the shower and thought about a banker I once interviewed for a story in World Trade Center 7 and how that building was no longer there. I thought about my siblings and wondered if any of them ever had fleas. I wondered if I would ever feel my father’s approval or if that void was so deep that even a thousand loving gestures wouldn’t plug the hole.

When I got out of the shower, I climbed back into bed with my parents. I tossed and turned for about an hour on account of my father’s snoring.

“He’s been doing that since he got sick,” my mother whispered. It was something else about him I didn’t know.

The following day, my parents were able to get back to Long Island, and for the next several days, they sat on a couch in my aunt’s house watching CNN. In the footage, the towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The news showed young people lighting candles in Union Square. Mothers and fathers and husbands and wives were wandering the streets, holding up photos of their loved ones in front of the television cameras or taping their pictures to utility poles. At the time, it seemed appropriate. A week later, it was clear an entire city had been in denial.

My parents returned to Florida at the end of September. I followed them down there about a week later. For two months, I researched cures for cancer. I joined a message board for people with esophageal cancer. I investigated the various treatments, proven and unproven. I bought a used book called Cancer Therapy: The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Treatment & Prevention. I ignored thoughts about why the person who bought the book no longer needed it. I couldn’t convince my father to get acupuncture. He didn’t like needles. But I talked him into seeing a Chinese medicine doctor in a nearby strip mall. The doctor’s face was black and white.

“What was wrong with his skin?” my father asked as we left the doctor’s office.

“I don’t know. Something with his pigmentation.”

“If he can’t fix his own skin …”

“Dad. I know,” I said.

I went to Whole Foods Market almost every day to buy whole wheat pasta, organic vegetables and wheat grass. Blueberries were filled with antioxidants. A cup of raspberries a day contained enough elegiac acid to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. I made my father a concoction of cottage cheese, banana and flax seed oil every morning because a doctor in Germany had fed it to people who were near-death, and it had brought them back to life. I put a prohibition on sugar because I’d read that cancer loves sugar. I went through my parents’ cupboards and pulled out every box of soup, every bag of candy, every can of sauce that contained sugar and put them in boxes that I stacked in the corner of the dining room. One night, I heard my father rummaging through the boxes.

“What are you doing back there?” I said.

A small body emerged from the darkness holding a little can of fruit cocktail.

“I just wanted to take it upstairs with me,” he said.

He looked at me like he was in trouble.

“Oh, just take it,” I said.

For much of the fall, my parents would go to chemotherapy during the day while I’d stay at home, cooking meals from a Whole Foods cookbook. The woman who wrote the book had cured her own leukemia with a macrobiotic diet and now had a cooking show on PBS. One afternoon, I decorated the dining room with pumpkins and squash, and twig wreaths covered with leaves from outside. I strung orange lights across the doorway and lit about a dozen candles. I wanted to watch my father’s eyes light up as he walked in. I wanted to save his life so he would love me.

My father had a piece of paper taped to the side of his desk listing the things he would do after his recovery. Go to Bristol, Tennessee, for a NASCAR race. Join the Boca Pointe board of trustees. Check out the new BMW M3. Visit the kids up North, starting with Caren and Ellen on Long Island, then Richie in Massachusetts and finally Steven in Rochester. He called it his victory tour. Nothing was ever crossed off the list. In July, the doctors had given him six months to live. He died in five.

III

I stood on Bialystoker Street and watched two boys play basketball through the chain-link fence. The block was so far east in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that the roadway leading to the Williamsburg Bridge at that point was already aloft. I stood under the road, looking up at the cars going across the bridge. A subway train went by. A jogger bobbed up and down in the caged-in pedestrian pathway that ran along the outside of the span. As my eyes watched him move across the bridge, everything else seemed to fall away, the screeching of the subway, the honking of the car horns. Time seemed to go in slow motion, like when your eyes follow a single snowflake or raindrop as it falls to the ground.

I walked across the street and sat down on the curb opposite where the bench used to be. I thought of a night back in March of 2001, a month after my father’s cancer was first diagnosed. I had called him on my cell phone from 14th Street, and the two of us talked as I walked the 17 blocks to my apartment on the Lower East Side. As we chatted away, it began to snow. It was a crisp winter night, and by the time I reached my apartment, the ground was white. I sat down on the bench.footprintssnow1

“Now that you have cancer, do you find it harder or easier to live in the moment?” I asked.

I wondered if having a finite amount of time would make him want to live each day more fully, or if he was so obsessed with the prospect of dying that it was impossible to think of anything else.

He paused, and said, “It’s harder.”

But then he told me a story about how he had been dancing at a wedding with my mother the weekend before, and for a single moment as they stood on the dance floor, he felt truly content. He was in the moment at that moment, and it felt close to bliss, he said.

As I sat on the curb and looked at the spot where the bench had been, the image of that night in March came back to me. It was the night my father walked me home, and we danced as the snow fell around us.

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A Jog at the Zoo

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Porta-potties. They’re like a reliable friend who’s there when you need them, and yet there are few things on earth more vile. I’ll use them, but when I do so, I don’t breathe through my nose, and I certainly don’t, under any circumstances, peek into the bowl. So I was happy to see a porta-potty near my son’s camp, which was at a local zoo, because after I dropped him off, I’d wanted to go for a run, and I had to go to the bathroom before I set off.

 

I parked in the lot near the potty, and I was about to strap on my new iphone armband to carry my phone so I could listen to music as I ran when I noticed it had a little pocket for a key. I had planned on hiding my key fob under a rock near my car, as I sometimes do, but I opted for the little pocket in the armband. How fortuitous, I thought. I had been contemplating whether the parking lot, which was next to a playground, was a little too populated for the old hide-the-key-under-a-rock trick. I strapped the armband to my upper arm, went to the bathroom and took off.blog fob 4 porta potty

 

The run was like a symphony in four parts: There was the beautiful tree-lined path that appeared to go down to the river but turned out to be a path to the highway. There was the El Camino Trail, a nice gravel path that reminded me of my high school track. It started out on a tree-lined street but quickly became urban, with a skyline in the distance and buildings covered in murals and poems. Once the trees receded, I baked in the hot sun. The third part was a long flight of stairs down to a wide pedestrian bridge that crossed the Genesee River, a brown river that flowed through a green canyon. And the last part I ran as a favor to my son, who said, “Mommy, can you run by the zoo and see me?” It was a stone path that went along the perimeter fence of the zoo, but the path quickly disappeared, and I had to choose between running on the tilted muddy ground or a road for zoo vehicles. I opted for the road but as I moved along the outside of the zoo, within eyeshot of kids at the playground and the snack bar, I feared I looked like a pedophile. I turned around and ran back to the jogging path that wound through the park.

 

After the run, I returned to my car, unstrapped the armband that held my phone and saw the pocket in which I had placed my key fob was empty. I must have dropped the fob somewhere along my route. I retraced my steps in my head, and my mind quickly went to the beginning of the El Camino trail, where the sun was so hot, I had unstrapped the armband and taken off my long sleeve shirt. But the earphones had gotten twisted up in the neck of my shirt, and I had to pass the armband and headphone wires through the shirt opening several times, like unsewing a hem, to untangle the mess. I must have dropped the fob in the process, I thought. I walked back to the path, thinking I’d surely find it sitting there. I did not. I walked my entire route on the El Camino trail, replaying the run in my head: the spot where I saw the old Eastern European looking woman standing on the highway overpass inspecting a sneaker that I initially thought she’d found until I saw she had a matching sneaker on her other foot. The WPA looking mural that seemed so current until I saw it was dated 2013. The part where the greenery around the trail stopped looking like bucolic nature and started to look like weeds on the back end of an industrial site, and I felt it best to turn around.blog fob path

 

On my way back, I passed a car service station and thought, I can retrace every step I took or I can go to the mechanic and ask if they had a device to break into my car. I chose the latter.

 

I saw a man working on a car and asked him where I could find the owner of the shop. He said the owner had just left but that his wife was in charge. I told her what had happened, and she walked out to the front desk with me to see which of her workers could leave the garage. She helped a man and his son who were standing at the counter, and as the two turned to leave, she remembered the man was a mechanic.

 

“Chuck, do you know how to get into a Subaru? This lady lost her fob when she was running, and she has a problem with a key,” the woman said.

 

I wasn’t sure why she worded it that way, but I figured in the language between mechanics, it probably made sense.blog fob stairs

 

“I don’t know how to do that. Sorry. I’m a GM guy,” he said, and he and his son walked out.

 

As I stood at the counter hoping she could spare an employee for a couple of minutes, the man walked back in.

 

“Were you asking if I knew how to use a lock out set? Because I do,” he said.

 

My heart leapt up.

 

“Great,” the woman said and handed him a lock-out set, and we were off.

 

I hopped into their truck, and the man said, “I wasn’t sure what she was asking me, but after we walked out, my son told me what he thought she was saying. That’s why I went back in.”

 

There is a God, I thought.

 

The man and his son drove me back to my car, and I watched as they wedged a black bag that looked like a little enema into a small gap between the top of my window and the door. They then inflated the bag with a hand held pump similar to the bulb one pumps to take someone’s blood pressure. Soon the small gap was large enough to fit a long wire rod through the window, and he used it to depress the button that unlocked the door.

 

The man opened my car door, gathered up his tools and headed back to his truck. I grabbed my car keys, which I’d hidden in the center console under a coffee cup.

 

“Thanks! I feel like buying you a six pack!” I said.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” the son said.

 

After they pulled out, I stood outside my car, perplexed. I wanted to know where my fob was. I was relieved I could now get into my car, but now I wanted my fob. I figured I’d already checked one of the four paths I’d run. I headed over to the bridge over the brown river. I thought maybe as I was running down the stairs to the bridge, the fob fell out. But I walked all the way down, crossed the length of the bridge, and walked all the way back up and saw no sign of it.blog fob 2

 

I decided to check the path that I initially thought went over the river but in fact went to the highway. Again, I replayed some of the thoughts I’d had an hour earlier when I ran in that spot, namely, how it felt remote and how the man coming toward me might kill me like a man killed that poor girl in Iowa who was out for a jog. The fob was nowhere to be found.

 

There was only one stretch of my route left, the one that ran along the outside of the zoo. I was starting to get hot and tired. I’d now been running and walking for almost two-and-a-half hours but there was so little path left to retrace. Surely my fob must have fallen out on that tilted sludgy path along the road around the zoo. But when I walked back there, I saw no fob.

 

The more ground I covered without finding the fob, the more my mind began to consider the worst case scenario: that somehow, I had dropped the fob into the bowl in the porta potty before I’d even left. It wasn’t impossible. I’ll sometimes be holding two things in my hand. and while I’ll mean to put the milk in the refrigerator and my phone on the counter, I’ll put both the milk and the phone in the fridge. Could I have been holding toilet paper in one hand and the fob in the other and mistakenly thrown both into the bowl?

 

When I returned to my car and saw the porta-potty, I considered looking in the bowl but decided I just couldn’t do it. And then I thought about all I’d walked that morning and how I’d retraced every step with no success. I didn’t want to leave this last stone unturned. I approached the door to the porta-potty, took a deep breath and opened the door. I quickly scanned the spots I might have put the fob down but saw nothing. I then lifted the cover of the toilet and looked down into the depths of hell, trying to see if my fob had fallen into the vortex. I couldn’t see anything, but who knows how many people had been in there in the last two hours. If my fob was in there, I wasn’t going to retrieve it anyway.blog fob inside porta potty

 

I closed the lid and exited the porta-potty and walked over to my car, feeling glad I could get into my car and drive off but sad at the thought that I’d put my mind to something, tried as hard as I could, and I still failed. It’s always disheartening when you realize giving something your all isn’t always enough. At least as I retraced my steps, I’d seen some things one doesn’t see when their eyes are focused straight ahead, like a fuzzy bright yellow caterpillar that moved unusually fast, or little artifacts from people’s lives, like the red gummy bear on the sidewalk, the discarded blue whippet canister on the grass, and the set of black earphones in the parking lot. But more than that, I experienced the kindness of strangers, a reminder that in these dark times, there are still little flickers of light.

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When we were in Yellowstone last summer, my son was the family photographer. It was for just a day, when we visited Mammoth Springs, a complex of hot springs that formed terraces of travertine that look like brown, orange, and green ice. There are countless photos of me and my  husband, on bridges, on stairs, in front of multi-colored waterways. He snapped a photo of me that was so flattering, I use it as my headshot for work.barbirusa_faces

My son seemed so honored with the job of family photographer that on a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo, I allowed him to use my phone to photograph our adventures there. I handed it to him as we stood over an area that housed the babirusa. The babirusa are pig-like animals that have strange tusks or canine teeth that grow right out through the skin in their snout and curve back toward their forehead, a feature that’s won them the moniker of “a wild pig with a dental problem.” My son was calling them warthogs and spent the first 20 minutes at the zoo saying, “I want to see the warthogs. Let’s go see the warthogs.”

The animals were housed in a large area covered with wood chips and saw dust and surrounded by walls of rock that created different sections like rooms in a house. The viewing area was on Treetop Way, which, as the name sounds, was about 15 feet above the ground. My son hadn’t even taken one photo when I heard, “Mom! Your phone!” And I looked down one story into the babirusa pit and saw my iPhone lying on the ground. Apparently, a large male babirusa saw it, too, because soon he was walking over to it and sniffing it. A layer of dust formed on the screen.IMG_5181

“I knew it,” I said. “God, I’m so stupid. I knew that was going to happen.”

I was about to say it a few more times, but I looked over at my son, who looked like he felt so badly about what he had done that he was starting to sink into a deep depressed state.

“My fault, dude,” I said. “I shouldn’t have given you the phone.”

My way of making him feel better was to assume culpability. It worked. Either that or he was just glad to hear my tone change.

Just then, my cousin, who had accompanied us to the zoo, arrived at the babirusa pit with her son, Sammy.

“Guess where my phone is?” I said.

“No,” she said and looked over the edge of the pit.

“Wait here while I go get someone from the zoo,” I said.

I ran down the spiral road, past the aviary, near the monkeys, not far from the penguins. I grabbed the nearest zoo employee I could find, a woman who wore a large tag that said, “San Diego Zoo Volunteer.” She called someone who could actually do something about my phone. Soon, Sarah arrived in an official brown zoo uniform. She told us she would have to go down into the pen and lure the male babirusa into a separate section before she could get the phone, as it had fallen not far from female babirusa and babies.

“How do you do that?” I asked.

“With food,” she said.

We watched from above as she entered thIMG_5161e pen with some food and dropped it on the ground. The whole family followed her, all of them walking right by my phone. One sniffed it. Another came so close, I thought it was going to step on it, or worse, urinate on it, but it did not.

When all of the animals were cordoned off in a separate area, she went into the section of the pen where my phone had dropped and retrieved it. As she handed it back to me, I said, “This must happen all the time, right?”

“People drop things down there sometimes, yes,” she said.

“But I mean a lot of people must drop their phones, right?”

“We sometimes get phones,” she said.

“Like, how often?”

“I don’t know, maybe a couple of times a year,” she said.

“A couple of times a year?” I said. “That’s not much.”

It made my poor decision making seem all the dumber.

Not wanting my son to feel badly about what he had done, I turned to him and said, “It happens all the time.” But he had already set his sights on finding the jaguar and leopard and a tiger-colored animal called a Serval, which looks like a large cat but scarier.

“Look, Mom, an Ibis!” my son said.

Clearly, whatever bad feeling he’d had about the phone debacle had already floated off like a dandelion seed. I took his lead and let him lead me out of the dark cave, where I tend to linger too long.

“Well, waddaya know,” I said.

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The Whole 30

I started the Whole 30 diet almost a month ago to lose the little pouch I’ve been growing under my navel ever since I turned 48. I don’t even want to wear t-shirts anymore for fear someone will ask me when I’m due. The Whole 30 diet doesn’t call itself a paleo diet, but when I finally went to the paleo restaurant by my house, I felt like I was coming home. Burgers with duck fat, sweet potatoes with duck fat and truffle oil, steak and eggs…with duck fat – all of which were allowed on my diet. Even the owner of the restaurant had done the Whole 30 diet, though he was a little underwhelmed.

“Yeah, I did the Whole 30. It didn’t do shit for me,” he said.

At other restaurants, it’s been a challenge to find things on the menu that I could eat. On the Whole 30, flour, sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, and sadly, alcohol, are prohibited. But the hard part hasn’t been refraining from eating those foods. It’s that I’m being forced to express my needs, to complete strangers, something to which I’m not accustomed. Every time my husband and I have gone out over the last month, I’ve had to ask the waitress a barrage of questions, many of which will send her back to the kitchen: “Is the fish pan fried or grilled?” “Is the steak topped with butter?” “Does the dressing have sugar?” I’m comfortable with one or two questions, but my strict diet usually requires me to ask four or five, and after awhile, I start to feel like a nuisance. It’s genetic. When my father was dying of cancer, he was less consumed with his imminent death than with feeling like a burden to his family.

My nature is to feel like I shouldn’t be privy to some of the basic things to which a person is entitled. As a reporter at a press conference, I don’t feel comfortable asking questions because I don’t want to waste people’s time with my ignorance. At conferences, I sit in the first row so if I want to speak, I forget there are other people in the room. During a recent home renovation, I didn’t want to go to the tile story anymore because the salesman would talk and talk, and I didn’t feel right telling him I had to go. I was late one day picking my son up from school and nearly missed the first part of a Seder this year on account of his endless prattling and my inability to stop it.

We went out to dinner for my brother-in-law’s birthday last weekend at a fancy restaurant on the Delaware River, with white tablecloths, wide pine plank floors and a menu included mignonette sauce and truffle oil. The waitress couldn’t be more than helpful, but I was once again in the uncomfortable position of having to state my dietary needs – this time, in front of my husband’s whole family. I’d already ordered the seared foie gras mousse for an appetizer but what was stumped on my choice of entrée. Did the duck dish contain butter? It did. The mashed potatoes? Yes. How about the chicken? Butter. Soon, the waitress brought over the owner, a skinny older woman with thinning straight hair and piercing eyes, the kind of woman I might meet at a party and complain to my husband afterward that she’d been mean to me in our conversation.

“Your best bet is the salmon,” she said. While she didn’t really want to play the, “Why don’t you try..” game with me like the waitress had, she was still in the business of making sure I had something to eat.

She then dispensed with my appetizer like smacking a piece of candy out of the hand of a fat girl.

“The foie gras has dairy,” she said. “If you ever see mousse on a menu, think dairy. It’s probably made with cream. How about a salad?”

“Well, my husband and I are splitting appetizers, and he’s already getting a salad.”

“How about the chowder?” she said.

“Is it good?”

“No, it’s bad. That’s why I put it on the menu,” she said.

I smiled, a little embarrassed. I guess it was a silly thing to ask the owner of a restaurant – though when people let you know of your indiscretion with a baseball bat when a tweezer would have sufficed, it doesn’t engender empathy.

“And the chowder is not made with cream?”

It was hard to imagine a “chowder” without cream.

“No,” she said.  “It’s fish, vegetables and broth.”

“Okay, then, I’ll try it.” I just wanted the conversation to be over.

Soon, the waitress brought out the soup, and she was right. It was delicious: lots of fish, vegetables, and a nice creamy broth. So creamy, in fact, I couldn’t believe it had no dairy.

“Are you sure this has no cream?” I asked the waitress.

“I’m sure,” she said and then paused. “One second.” And with that, she disappeared into the kitchen.

Moments later, she and the owner were back in a panic, sirens were blaring. “The soup has cream!” the waitress blurted out as I was taking my sixth spoonful.

The owner looked at the waitress and said, “Did you say ‘no dairy’ on the ticket?!”

I looked at the owner because I knew she was the one who moments earlier had suggested I order it, knowing full well I couldn’t eat dairy.

“It didn’t used to have dairy. The chef—“

“The chef just changed it,” the owner said.

In the last 10 minutes? But they looked so alarmed, I quickly said, “I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s a voluntary choice. I’m just on a special diet.”

Suddenly, the blaring sirens stopped, and the owner said, “Oh, ” and walked away. It was like a whole city had been erected overnight for my benefit, with tents, bonfires, a school, a hospital and a tent for discussing military strategy by flashlight, and in a second, the whole thing was disassembled and gone.

The waitress lingered to help me choose an alternative appetizer, though I could see her heart wasn’t in it. I said I was fine without.

I felt silly for having made everyone work so hard to the point of panicking that they’d made a life threatening error when in fact I was simply on a diet – so silly in fact that didn’t even see the waitress walk right by my husband – with whom I was splitting my appetizer – and hand the chowder to my husband’s brother, who in seeing all the fuss raised his hand quickly and said, “I’ll take it!”

As the meal went on, I didn’t even say anything when my fish came with quinoa, a grain I couldn’t eat, and when the waitress offered me plain berries for dessert and then didn’t bring them. I felt I’d made enough of a pest of myself for one evening. But like all programs meant to help you kick an addiction, I’m taking it one day at a time and know that if I keep on this path, I’ll one day be able to express my needs without guilt or hesitation. Oh, and I may lose some weight in the process.

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The Nashville Zoo

Our third day in Nashville, we went to the zoo. We took an Uber there for just $12, and I was once again thrilled for having discovered this car service on our trip. I could take 15 more trips at that rate, and I’d still be better off than having rented a car.

 

My son and I wound our way through the zoo, petting kangaroo, marveling at the bright salmon color of the flamingos, and brushing goats. There was a frog jumping up and down so persistently right in front of the glass case, I could swear he was asking us to help him get out. In a section called, “Expedition Peru: Trek of the Andean Bear,” there was a glass room from which you could watch the bears, and on the ledge, there was a rubber ball you could hold up against the glass and pretend to throw it, and one of the bears would walk up to the glass and try to take it from you. Freaky, really, that the only thing between you and a ferocious black bear – and something the bear really, really wanted — was a piece of glass.IMG_4014

 

We spent four or five hours at the zoo, long enough to have lunch, a snack, a whole bottle of water and then get parched again. As our time there was coming to a close, I saw I had just 16% left on my cell phone battery,  and I knew I wanted more than that so I could call Uber and have enough battery to await their return call when they’d arrived.

 

I tried to charge my phone at an outlet I saw near the turtle area. I plugged in my phone and then covered it with my knapsack, but the outlet was just outside the tortoise pen. I sat on one of the benches that surrounded the area as these beautiful reptiles kept circling, pressing up against my legs like a dog every time they moved under my bench. Their shells were strikingly hard and smooth, and the dark grey points, each surrounded by a series of beige and light grey concentric circles, looked like precious gems. As I watched their majesty, all I could think of was my knapsack and cell phone, charging on a pole outside the turtle pit. I was so preoccupied with my belongings, thinking someone would see my knapsack unattended and alert zoo personnel, who would come and seize it along with my cell phone, that I could barely enjoy the reptiles. It reminded me of a bit in a show I saw by the performance artist Spalding Gray, where he discussed how during the filming of “The Killing Fields,” in Phuket, Thailand, the actors went for a swim in the most beautiful, warm, blue-green water he’d ever seen. And as he lay floating in paradise, all he could think of was his wallet on his beach towel, and he envisioned it from above: a man lying afloat, in a blue green sea, with arrows coming out of his head and falling onto the wallet on the beach, another arrow coming out of his head and falling onto his wallet on the beach.IMG_4021

 

After about 10 minutes, we left the turtle area, and I grabbed my phone. To my disappointment, the charge bar said just 18%. Further down the road was a large playground, with tree houses to climb and large nets on which to hang. As my son traversed the landings and ladders, I orbited the playground looking for electrical outlets like a coke addict hopelessly looking under beds and tables for an unused vial.

 

Soon, the playground was shut down as the zoo was about to close. We marched toward the exit, and my son stopped at what was probably the last stuffed animal stand in the park and asked me to buy him yet another stuffie that he will love like a brother, for 10 minutes, before it’s relegated to being a dog toy. As he perused the cheaper $5 section of the stuffed animal kingdom, I asked the worker manning the booth if there was an outlet nearby. He pointed to one on the ground near a light post. I felt relief, like finding water in a desert. As I tried to jam my charger plug into it, he said, “I’m not sure if it works.”

 

I kneeled on the ground staring at the charge bar on the phone for a minute or two, but it didn’t budge. The outlet was a GFI plug so I started playing with the test/reset buttons in the middle of the it, thinking I was a big man because I know how to navigate complicated electronics But once I started pressing the buttons, I couldn’t tell which was the ‘test’ button and which was the ‘reset,’ button. One makes the outlet work. One does not. Since I didn’t have my readers with me, I couldn’t see which was the ‘reset’ button and which was the ‘test’ button so I just kept pressing both until I resigned myself to the fact that the outlet was broken. I paid for my son’s stuffie, and we left.IMG_3983

 

As we neared the exit of the zoo, I saw a proper, indoor gift shop. It was like the last exit before the toll bridge. My cell phone battery was down to 11%. I decided to call Uber now and leave the phone charging in the warm confines of a gift shop while my son and I waited for the car to arrive, so we’d have a nice plucky battery when the driver called to tell us he was waiting.  The Uber app said our driver was 11 minutes away.

 

“Do you have an outlet?” I asked a woman behind the counter.

 

She pointed to an outlet in the floor, under a metal flap. I left the phone there while I ran to the bathroom. When I returned, my son had made a mental list of all the things he wanted. No, no, and no, I told him. Just then, the phone rang. It was the Uber driver. I grabbed the phone from the floor outlet, and the driver said he was waiting for us at the Askewgi Building.

 

“The what?” I asked. “We’re at the zoo.”

 

“The zoo?!?” he said. “The pin didn’t drop there.”

 

I didn’t know anything about this pin dropping nonsense.

 

“Well, we’re at the zoo. Can you get us?” I asked.

 

“I’m really far from there,” he said.

 

“I’ll call another driver,” I said and hung up.IMG_3979

 

I requested a new driver and as soon as one seemed to pick up the request, I called him.

 

“I’m at the zoo. I’m in the giraffe lot. I don’t care what your pins say. That’s where we are. The zoo. Can you get us? And if you can’t reach us when you get here, it’s because my phone has died. Just know, we are waiting for you in the giraffe lot,” I said.

 

“I’ll be a few minutes. I’m a little ways a way,” he said. “It’ll be a white car.”

 

My son kept trying to tell me something as the man spoke. I finally said, “Shshsh! I’m talking!”

 

When I hung up, he said, “There are two giraffe lots.”

 

“No there’s not. The sign is right here, and there’s one more on the other side of this lot,” I said. “One lot. Two signs.”

 

“There’s another giraffe lot over there,” he said.

 

“No, there’s not. That doesn’t make sense,” I said, feeling like there are some things adults understand, by logic. You don’t have to see a sign to know you’re right.

 

My son and I sat in the lot, watching the last of the cars exiting the zoo. There were seven cars left in the whole parking lot, presumably employees. I counted as each one left. Now six. Now five. Four. A motorcycle and a golf cart drove in. After a few minutes, the motorcycle drove back out.

 

It was 6:15 p.m. The sky was still light, but darkness was less than an hour away.  I knew we couldn’t stand in a dark parking lot with no cell phone. If the driver didn’t arrive in 20 minutes, I was going to head to the main road and just start walking. Surely, I’d find a taxi or an outlet before we reached the city line.

 

After about 15 minutes, we spotted a white car entering the parking lot, about a quarter of a mile away.

 

“That’s him,” I told my son. “That’s him.”

 

I started waiving my arms. I feared for a moment how idiotic I would have looked if it weren’t him, but who else was it going to be? And surely, people stranded on a desert island waving at a distant boat out at sea don’t ever fear embarrassment for waving at the wrong boat.

 

As the driver got closer, he spotted me and drove over. As we got in the car, he said, “I was heading over there.” He pointed to a lot in the distance. “It said giraffe lot.”

 

My son looked at me.

 

We closed the car door, and as our driver exited the zoo parking lot and turned on to the main road back to Nashville, I could see the tall buildings of the city in the distance. I leaned back in the seat of the Uber and listened to my son chat away with the driver, and was glad for a few minutes to have someone else take charge.

 

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Walk the Line

When I was 10, I would read Teen Beat magazine and stare at the photos of David Cassidy and Robby Benson. One issue had a two page spread of Elvis Presley’s sweaty face. The photo was blown up so large, you could see his pores. I didn’t know who he was other than this man corrupting the pages of my magazine. I would intentionally turn to the page so I could look at his sweaty pores and shriek. I thought of that as I took my son through the Johnny Cash museum. Not even I liked Johnny Cash until I saw the movie “Walk the Line,” 13 years ago, and my crush wasn’t so much on him but on Joaquin Phoenix, the actor who played him. It’s only now at age 54 that I’ve come to appreciate Johnny Cash’s look, his sound, his baritone voice, his lyrics, his machismo.

My son was largely uninterested in the museum, though he enjoyed playing with an iPad that had cover versions of Cash songs by various artists. You could click on the artist and hear a snippet of the song. My son clicked on an artist and began saying repeatedly, in a very loud voice – he couldn’t hear how loud he was talking because he was wearing earphones — “I like this guy! I like this guy, mommy! I like this guy!” It was Snoop Dogg singing “I Walk the Line.”IMG_3866

My son also liked a movie that showed Johnny Cash’s film and television roles. In one black and white film, called “Five Minutes to Live,” Cash took the wife of a bank manager hostage so he could get ransom money, and when police arrive, he grabs her young boy, played by Ron Howard, runs outside and a cop begins shooting at him. A bullet appears to hit the boy, and an angry Cash rises up and tries to confront the cop but is then shot a few times. He stumbles to the ground, blood leaking out of his mouth, and dies.

“I liked when he was a bad guy,” my son said after we left.

We went to the museum after walking down Nashville’s honky tonk Broadway, a Bourbon Street-style promenade of live music, drunken tourists and bachelorette parties. Tucked in the middle of the bars was a store that sold Western boots. My son wanted a cowboy ‘costume,’ so I bought him a pair of black metal tipped boots with white stitching up the side, a belt with a big metallic buckle that said, ‘Rodeo Champion,” and a straw cowboy hat with a brim that he bent up and down so many times by the end of the day that it looked droopy.

When we got back to the hotel, we went to the Health and Fitness center. Under the guise of “showing my son the weight room,” I thought I could get in a quick jog on the treadmill. Working out is always hard when just one parent is on duty, but I’d recently read a story in The New York Times about a quickie workout where if you promise to run your very fastest for three 20-second spurts, you can get away with running for just 10 minutes. I got in a whole workout before my son could pinch his fingers in a weight machine.

We went to dinner at the restaurant under the hotel, a steak place in a beautiful wood-paneled room. I’d made a reservation for two, and they looked askance when I showed up for dinner with a seven-year-old companion. I had a martini, my son, a Shirley Temple with lots of crushed ice, and we ate fried tomatoes, macaroni and cheese and ribeye steak, though the steak was rippled with gristle and hard bits, and I kept surreptitiously removing them from my mouth and leaving them on my plate until I’d created a small mound. My son was the picture of civility for much of the meal, but by the end, tanked up on ginger ale, he kept getting out of his seat and running over to my side of the table, making sucking sounds with his straw, and playing with the crushed ice in his drink like it was a slushy. When the waiter came to collect our plates, my son said, “My mom likes to suck the juice out of the steak and leave it on her plate,” as he pointed to the pile of half-chewed discarded remnants.IMG_3881

The next day, we went on a tour bus around the city. It was a hop-on-hop-off circuit, though one only need do that kind of tour once to see the downside: once you hop off, you can wait up to half an hour for the next bus. We did hop off in The Gulch, an up and coming neighborhood where land is vacant one minute and has a 20-story condo glass condo on it the next. Three tour guides told us that 80 to 100 new people move to Nashville a day, and that Peter Frampton and Daryl Hall or John Oates – it was one or the other – had moved into the Gulch.

We hopped off in The Gulch because we’d heard there was a great view of the city from the roof bar of the trendy Thompson Hotel. While there, we had an Oreo ice cream sandwich and some high-end kettle corn and returned to the bus stop. After waiting about 25 minutes, my son had to pee. I didn’t want to leave the bus stop because I knew as soon as I did, the bus would come. I took a quick look around us, at the shops, restaurants and condos in the up and coming Gulch and wondered what would be the least terrible thing on which to urinate. There were now about 10 people waiting nearby for the same bus. The least offensive spot to pee was the parking garage behind us. The bus stop was at the top of the ramp. I told my son to walk down the ramp just until it curved, so he would be out of sight. And I would remain at the top of the ramp to stop cars from driving in. He walked down the ramp about five feet and urinated on the wall, well within view of our fellow bus passengers. It reminded me of a time when he was three, and we’d gone to a neighborhood playground outside of which a cop had parked to set up a speed trap. As the officer sat in her car, my son informed me that he had to go to the bathroom. I scanned the park and saw an unfortunate paradox: the farther from the cop I could send him to urinate, the closer he got to all the houses that surrounded the playground. I thought better to pee in front of people than police, so I sent him to the far end of the park by a tree. I stood between him and the cop, hoping to block him, and when I turned around, I saw him crouched under the tree, defecating. I ran over, diaper wipes in hand, scooped up the poop in one hand, my son in the other, and fled.IMG_3909

For dinner, we had BBQ. I ordered Texas brisket, St. Louis Ribs, and some pulled pork. I opted not to eat the corn bread in deference to my diet, though when I sent my husband a photo of our dinner, his only remark was, “Wow! That’s a lot of food!” Good thing I worked out for 10 minutes.

After dinner, we walked along the strip and would stop outside each bar to listen to a few minutes of live music. Yesterday, I couldn’t get a drink because I had forgotten my ID (I couldn’t even feel flattered as the bartender kept saying, “It’s Tennessee State Law. I need to check everyone”). Now, I couldn’t get a drink because at night, the bars don’t allow children. But in the middle of the live music venues was a karaoke bar. I love to sing (“Duke of Earl” is my song of choice), so I dragged my son into the bar. There was no bouncer to stop us. I bought a beer, and put my name on the list of singers. Of all my renditions of “Duke of Earl” over the years, that night was the worst. The key was too low, so I sang high – and not high enough. It was awful. I walked out embarrassed.IMG_3953

As we walked back to the hotel, my son said, “You were great!”

I bought him some rock candy.

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Welcome to Nashville

When your seat is in Row 6, and you’re not in first class, question the size of the airplane. Ours was small, about 20 rows of seats, a single seat on one side of the aisle, and then two seats on the other. That’s all right for a 15-minute ride to Nantucket, but a two-hour plane ride? Sounds like a long time to keep a small plane in the air. I wasn’t going to tell my son I was scared. I didn’t want to make him fearful. Turns out I didn’t have to. The young man sitting next to us in the airport waiting area did it for me.

“Is that really our plane? That small one?” the man said, pointing a trembling finger out the window.

I nodded, trying not to commiserate. But the man then needed help figuring out when to get up for boarding, where to leave his carry-on bag, and how to put the tag on his suitcase, making it easier for me to see his anxiety was excessive and perhaps I didn’t need to think that just because a plane is small , it will fall out of the sky.

rideshareThe flight attendant was coiffed but weathered, as they often are, and she had a slight Southern accent, which appealed to me. Apparently, my accent appealed to her, too. When she caught me with my seat belt off – I told her I needed to get something in the overhead bin – she said, “Well, now you owe me a glass of wine.” Trying to get into the Southern spirit, I said, “Wine! I’ll get you bourbon!” Halfway through the flight, she slipped a napkin into my hand in which was hidden a miniature bottle of Jack Daniels.

When we arrived in Nashville, we followed signs to Ground Transportation. I didn’t want to rent a car. I didn’t think we needed it, and I like public transportation. Once outside the terminal, I headed toward signs that said, “Ride Sharing,” figuring we could share a cab ride into town to defray the cost.

“Are you going downtown,” I asked a young woman waiting by the curb.

“I’m going to a friend’s house. Download Uber,” she said. She grabbed my phone, pulled up the app for me from the App Store and ran off to get the car waiting for her.

I figured I’d download it later. For now, I wanted to share a ride into town. I asked a woman approaching the ride share area if she was going downtown.

“I don’t know,” she said and rattled off some destination I hadn’t heard of.

A third woman scurried off before I could inquire.

I looked at my son. I’ve done enough traveling to know there’s always an adjustment period when you arrive in a new city. When my husband and I traveled around Europe, we would get into an argument every time we arrived in a new place, from the stress of finding somewhere to sleep and eat. My strongest memory of Berlin is walking a few steps ahead of him, my heavy backpack on my back, turning around and screaming something at him at the top of my lungs, giving him the finger and then stomping off. At this moment, I was with my seven-year-old son, who was looking at me for direction.

It was quickly becoming clear that “Ride Sharing” wasn’t a place to share a ride. It was a spot one waits for car services like Uber and Lyfts, services that as a 50-something suburbanite with a car, I have not had to use. Now, I wanted to finish downloading the app, but cell service was too spotty. I’d heard there was a shuttle that ran a circuit by all the downtown hotels and asked a police officer where I might find it, but it didn’t seem to exist. He walked me over to an information booth. All the while, my son followed close behind, trailing his wheeled suitcase like a dog on a leash.

The man in the information booth got me a WiFi connection and downloaded the app. I felt like an octogenarian who writes emails in ALL CAPS. He set me up with the app, a car came, my son and I got in, and we set off for the hotel, with me now firmly planted in the 21st century.IMG_3818

The hotel was beautiful. The lobby had 20-foot ceilings with stained glass panels, marble columns, brass railings, little palm trees in planters and a fireplace that was lit. A dozen hotel employees were scurrying about preparing the room for the Easter brunch the next morning – rolling up the rug, setting up the tables with silver chafing dishes and wood bunnies holding placards that said, “Happy Easter.”

Our room was equally opulent: Louis XIV-looking furniture, a sitting area with puffy chairs and an ottoman, a marble bathroom with a tub and shower. I saw a TV remote and channel guide on the sink and looked around for the television but saw none. I figured someone left the remote in the bathroom. Turns out the screen was in the mirror.

We dressed for dinner, which was a Seder at the home of a fellow writer whom I’d never met but had seen online for years in my various writer association forums. I looked her up when I knew we were going to Nashville. I called an Uber – I was now a pro — and as the car drove farther and farther from the downtown, I hoped I’d written the address down properly.IMG_3822

As I rang the bell, I saw two buckets of red water on the porch, and I feared it was for dying Easter eggs and that we were at the wrong house, but I later learned it represented the Red Sea parting, and we were supposed to walk between the two tubs.

The Seder table was set in front of a bank of large windows overlooking the Cumberland River. The Grand Ole Opry House was just on the other side. Soon, the guests arrived, and we began the service, with Jews from Boise, Idaho; San Antonio, Texas; and Long Island, all of whom now lived in Nashville. The book from which we all read, the Haggadah, was actually written by a woman I knew from New Jersey. As we went around the table reading the passages of the Seder I’ve known since childhood — the wise son, the simple son, the four questions, and Dayenu — the traffic across the river outside of the Grand Ole Opry began to build until it was just a line of headlights that weren’t moving. And it made me think that no matter where you are in the world, from the cliffs of California to the beaches on the Atlantic, one will find Jews – and traffic.

 

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