ACCIDENTS, RANDOM MISHAPS, PERSONAL PROBLEMS
It was a good day to fall off a swingset: deep blue skies, puffy white clouds, temperature just right.
The swingset lived in my backyard on the south shore of Long Island, New York, a sprawling, population-intensive swath of 'burbs, with neighborhoods spanning the entire spectrum of the middle-class universe. Our enclave lurked near the lower end of that range and the swingset reflected that: compact, utilitarian, not at all flashy. A modest, two-swing/one glider affair, and a hangout for many of the neighborhood's most devoted young swingers.
For the hard-core swinger, the point of the activity went far beyond repetitive motion. The swinging was just a means to reach the elevation and velocity needed to launch a screaming, frantically-thrashing little body into space. With the right combination of timing, momentum and body english, a takeoff could propel a young thrill-seeker halfway across the yard. Further if conditions were right -- wind direction, body weight, all that. We're not talking about much of a yard, but that's not really the point. For a young daredevil, this was a peak experience, a transcendent attempt at flight, freedom and suicide all at the same time.
A second big objective: getting the frame of the swingset bucking. Two kids swinging good and hard could get the apparatus rocking severely enough that everyone on the equipment would have to bail out, giggling wildly at the prospect of the entire thing tipping over and taking someone out.
That was fun, but my focus remained on flight, the overarching goal being to sail over the backyard fence. Not very likely, really, and not terribly bright, especially considering the garage planted right on the other side of the property line. On the remote chance I ever actually managed to fly over the fence, pudgy body would slam into garage wall, flattening out and sliding to Earth like a teeny, furless Wile E. Coyote.
Big squares of slate speckled the grass beneath the swingset, making it a more unforgiving, less user-friendly landing area than the lawn. You really had to botch a jump to hit slate. I was four when I went down, so my fine motor functions were maybe not up to the level they should have been. Could be my timing was off, could be I got tangled up in the swing at the moment of takeoff, could be it was just one of those days -- whatever the reason, I went straight down, landing on face, driving top front teeth through tongue. Not much fun, and not the ride I'd signed up for.
Stunned, half-blind with pain and outraged surprise, I ran squalling into the house, where my mother grabbed me and carted me off to the family sawbones.
Dr. Salzer separated teeth and tongue, stanched bleeding, stitched up damaged tissue, then grabbed a syringe as big as my arm and nailed me with a tetanus shot. And that, he said, was all he could do. The rest would be up to my body and its recuperative powers. Me, I would have appreciated a painkiller or two, but they weren't forthcoming, leaving me to deal without pharmaceutical assistance. That particular injury may have been a blessing in disguise for my mother, cutting down on my verbal outflow in a serious way for a while. But I offset that by working on my whining skills.
My first two-wheeler bike arrived during my kindergarten year, a mean little ebony and silver ride called the Black Knight. Its design: a marriage of the ‘50s futuristic look and some quasi-King-Arthur-type styling, the strip of metal that extended from seat to handlebars sporting a painting of a nasty-looking medieval warrior in full battle gear. Black body armor, black helmet, visor closed, face concealed. Wielding a broadsword, ready for trouble. A badass, clearly. That bike became my first real love, taking me everywhere around the neighborhood -- up and down curbs, in and out of potholes, taking a beating on a daily basis and always ready for more.
So. I'm cruising down Crocus Avenue one noontime. Five years old, riding my machine (easily the most bitchen hog in the 'hood, the envy of all my homeys) on my home turf. Kindergarten was over for the day, a beautiful afternoon stretched out ahead. Life seemed wide open, and maybe I'd become complacent. Or maybe I was just absorbed in the five-year-old experience, not paying the kind of attention one should to the mechanics of bicycle propulsion. Who knows? But the Black Knight had recently shed its training wheels and I wasn't maintaining the necessary focus. A tire hit something, I lost my balance, my wheels went down. My hog and I pitched over, slamming against hard pavement so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that I burst into tears from surprise alone, before any injuries had a chance to register with my nervous system. I cut loose with a hair-raising wail, mouth wide open, lungs and voicebox collaborating at top efficiency. Immediately, the front door of every house at that end of the street burst open and mothers came charging out. Mothers sprinted toward me from every direction, focused on the source of all that noise, converging on the wounded child sprawled on the pavement in a pile of bellowing flesh and dented metal. They clustered around me and picked me up and made maternal noises and checked me for injuries. They held me against comforting, maternal breasts and took me home.
Talk about making an impression. As if the maternal instinct had come ferociously to life, enveloping me, rescuing my sorry ass.
Thirty years later, springtime. Me riding up Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a downpour, in the middle of preparations for a costume party. Not your usual costume party, this one, but a big, extended acting exercise for a scene-study class in the guise of a costume party. The instructor had this affair annually, making all her students get together and BE a character for an hour and a half, interacting with other characters in a bizarre, high-energy social event. At the 90-minute mark the lights would go out, we'd get a minute of silence to compose ourselves, then everyone would sit down and we would PROCESS the EXPERIENCE.
In other years, I had gone as a desperately derelict homeless guy and as a sleazy, coke-sniffing Hollywood burnout. I'd decided to go to this particular bash as an attorney, and a lawyer I knew generously loaned me a three-piece suit that reeked of gravitas, along with an equally serious attache case.
I'd just picked that outfit up, was lugging it all home in the rain, trying to navigate my sodden, two-wheeled way up rush-hour Mass. Ave. No rain gear, no bicycle helmet. Hanging on to attache case with my brake hand, it smacking against front tire, the bike wavering slightly with each impact. Rain coming down, every passing car spraying me with water, my feet slipping off the pedals. Pure joy, is what I'm saying.
In a brief moment of lucidity, I wondered if I should stop and walk my little bike the quarter mile home. Then clarity faded and I dismissed the sane option. Walking, I reasoned, would take so much longer. I'd get so much wetter. And I was a man, dammit. A New England Man. I wore flannel shirts and workboots, and I knew a real New England Man would laugh a manly laugh at rainy adversity and go the distance -- tough, stoic, unstoppable.
I made it up Mass. Ave. without getting killed, maimed, spindled or folded, scooted across traffic and down the slope of a side street toward the basement entrance of my apartment building, where my bike lived. And I found myself picking up speed. And picking up speed. And picking up more speed, my rain-soaked brakes useless. Jamming feet against pavement might have done something if it had been a lovely, sunny day and I'd had the legs of a six-foot-nine basketball player. On this day, in this weather, they just caused further comedy. Finally, brilliantly, I stopped by jumping the curb and running into the building. The good news: it worked. The bad news: bricks cause damage when run into. In this case, minor scrapes for bike and attache case, a significantly larger scrape to forehead. And by 'scrape' I mean 'deep two-inch gash.'
Head injuries, as you may know, have a tendency to bleed like a garden hose at full throttle. So that as I leaned against the building, dazed and soaking wet, blood streamed down my face and body, staining clothes and sidewalk in impressive fashion. Or at least it seemed impressive to me. People walking by seemed absolutely unfazed, paid no attention at all. Which led me to reason that if this were such a minor deal that not a single passerby showed alarm at my vascular fireworks maybe I should pull myself together and get cleaned up. Which I did, hauling myself up three flights of stairs -- changing clothes, grabbing a towel -- then hauling myself back down to catch a taxi to a walk-in clinic, holding towel to aching head. The cabbie who picked me up said nothing during the drive, just watched in the rear-view mirror to see how badly I was going to bloody up his back seat.
At the clinic, they gave me a teeny examination room of my very own to wait and bleed in. I waited. I bled. A businesslike nurse materialized, ignored me for a few minutes to take care of some housecleaning, then finally breezed over, saying, "Now let's take a look at this." She took my towel, put it aside, turned my head in businesslike fashion, took a look at the injury. Then -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- gave a loud, surprised squawk, her face showing two reactions no injured patient wants to see: horror, disgust.
Before I could stammer out any terrified questions, a doctor showed up and took charge. She examined, evaluated, administered local anesthetic, got to work with needle and thread. And as she sewed me up she warned me that I might have sustained a concussion. If, she went on, that turned out to be the case, it raised the possibility that I might not be able to wake up after falling asleep. Her advice: try to have someone nearby that night, someone reliable, someone to watch over me to make sure I didn't sleep myself to death.
Later, at home, my then-sweetheart dropped by. She held my hand, listened to my story, said her evening was booked and she wouldn't be able to help out, then took off.
I passed half that night with the bedroom light on, staring at the ceiling, too anxious to close my eyes. I debated taping a note to my apartment door asking neighbors to please, please come in and wake me in the morning. But it seemed, er, unseemly, dramatic, so I remained prostrate, eventually edging off to lonely, nervous sleep.
When my eyes opened early the next morning, they saw sunlight streaming in through dirty windows. They saw my little squalid, rent-controlled apartment. And it was all beautiful. I leaped out of bed thinking I'm alive! Hello, apartment! Hello, Mr. Sun! I'm alive! I pulled on clothes and rushed out of the bedroom into my tiny, squalid kitchen alcove. Hello, cockroaches! I thought. I'm alive! I considered tossing them a few crumbs of food, then killed a couple instead. When I left for work, I had a smile for everyone. It's a beautiful life, I thought. And it is. Every once in a while I just need to be reminded.
* * * * *
Some months before my nosedive on the Black Knight, my parents took a stab at acquiring their piece of paradise, buying some land north of Albany, New York. Two or three acres of mosquito-infested woods surrounded by more of the same, right on the Hudson River in the small rural town of Half Moon. We built a teeny four-bunk cabin, and when I say "we," I mean my father and two older brothers. My parents slept in the cabin, we boys slept in tents until a boathouse was built, then I slept there.
Extremely rustic. No electricity, cooking happened on a kerosene stove or open fire, drinking water came from a hand pump, and our toilet was an oversized wooden seat covered on three sides by old shower curtains, straddling a long trench we had to dig every summer. And when I say "we," I mean me and my two older brothers. Nothing promotes irregularity like the knowledge that every time you settle down to commune with nature, spiders and mosquitoes lurking beneath the toilet set-up will see your backside as an open-air restaurant.
Traditionally, that kind of toilet thingy would have been called the John. Since my father's name was John, it got called the Larry. (Apologies to Larrys everywhere.)
Describing the whole deal like this, it sounds so nice, so pastoral and woodsy. But I didn't want to be a pioneer. Far as I was concerned, my life was down on Long Island where my social circle remained, such as it was. I endured the interminable school year knowing that summer vacation waited at the end of all those months of boredom and suffering, when I could spend long hours with friends -- bored, possibly suffering, but at least not in school. And then when classes finally ended for the year and I'd gotten totally psyched in anticipation of the coming illusion of freedom, I'd suddenly find myself stranded in the woods with my family for 11 weeks. For most of those summers I only had Jeff to hang around with, a pudgy kid four years younger than me. I suppose I could have fraternized with Donna, a girl near my age who lived up the two-lane from our place, but every single time I saw her she flirted in the coyest, goopiest way I'd ever seen and I just couldn't deal.
In junior high, I got to know a local Half Moon kid who lived about a half mile down the road in a sprawling farm house. Greg and I had music interests in common and hung out in his basement listening to rock and roll on a cheapass record player. Suddenly the summer months had possibilities.
When I went back to see him the following June, his mother told me he'd been killed in a car accident during the winter. I was completely unprepared for that, could not absorb the information, stood staring speechlessly at the woman before me.
The closest situation I had for comparison was the time my closest kindergarten friend vanished. One morning at school he didn't show up, his seat remained empty, nobody said anything about him. I figured he must be sick until our teacher announced that he had moved to Brooklyn. Which to my teeny mind was the same as if he had moved to Borneo. I gaped at her the same way I did at Greg's mother. Of all the kids I knew at that time, Henry was the only one who felt like a close friend, like he enjoyed my company, cared about me, genuinely paid attention to me. He never said a thing about moving, and everything about that abrupt disappearance shook me -- the sudden gap in my life where he had been, their empty house, the lack of warning and information.
My grandmother lived in Brooklyn, in a cramped apartment on Coney Island Avenue with her sister, both of them ancient. My parents dragged me there on a regular basis, and Brooklyn seemed just as alien to me as an island of headhunters out in the middle of the Pacific might. Seriously, seriously urban -- bricks, concrete and no plant life that I remember at all. Nothing like our suburban haven, which seemed like an overpopulated garden of Eden next to Coney Island Avenue.
I did some serious snooping around Grandma's neighborhood one visit -- more of a listless wandering in and out of different buildings than real exploring, but still -- and spotted Henry's last name on a mailbox in the front entranceway of one building. No first names, just that family tag, printed out on a label and taped to the beat-up door of a mailbox. Not a common name, not a name belonging to anyone I'd ever met, apart from Henry and his family. So it seemed possible that I'd stumbled upon his hiding place: a small, working-class hideyhole on the second floor of an old, rundown building on Coney Island Avenue.
I climbed the stairs to the second floor and crept along the hallway until I found the right door. Whoever lived there was not spending a quiet Sunday afternoon. People talked loudly back and forth, pots clanged, water ran in a sink. I heard the scrape and clatter of chairs moving, things being dropped, bodies moving about. It sounded like the kitchen of a busy Italian restaurant. I had the feeling that if the door opened steam would come billowing out, maybe someone would launch into a number from Pagliacci. Henry came from a well-mannered family, quiet, genteel. I'd never experienced anything remotely like this racket the few times I'd visited their home. I considered knocking, but could not get up the nerve and stood there instead, listening, wondering. For whatever reasons, I could not face those loud strangers or their possible laughter at my question. I finally turned tail, descended the stairs, slunk out of the building. And never told a soul about any of it.
During my elementary school years, my ancient aunt fell and broke her hip, an injury she never really recovered from, leaving her confined to the bed in her tiny Coney Island Avenue bedroom. My parents talked about the injury at home, but I didn't really get the picture until they dragged me to Brooklyn with them one weekend.
Evening had fallen, my parents sat around the kitchen table talking with my grandmother. Desperately bored, I wandered around the little flat, finding nothing to hold my attention, finally creeping quietly into my aunt's room. A curtain served as her bedroom door, I pushed past it into darkness. No lights were on, the only illumination was what followed me in from the other room. As my eyes adjusted, I made out a figure lying in the bed. My aunt had seriously declined in the wake of the injury, to the point where she was clearly several bricks shy of a full load. She stared at me with a spooky vacant smile, her hand snaking out to take my arm and pull me close. Speaking in a whisper, she asked if I wanted to see her scar. I stared, my mouth producing no sounds, she pulled the blankets aside and hitched up her bedclothes before I could stammer out a horrified no-thank-you. And there it was, the scar, big and livid even in the dim light, like a section of railroad track branded into the pale, sagging skin of hip and thigh. I backed away and out of the room, saying nothing to anyone about what had just happened, certain I'd get in massive trouble if the grown-ups found out what I'd just seen.
You'd think after events like that I'd be grateful to my parents for dragging me up to the relative peace and safety of the country. But I wasn't, and I mostly passed the summers in Half Moon waiting to go back to the 'burbs where I knew humans my age. Every once in a while -- so every once in a while as to almost be never -- one of those humans actually made the trek up to Half Moon. It was, believe me, a genuine event.
A classmate of mine named Glenn came up one summer. He and I and another classmate each had tropical fish at home, which prompted us to form a club called the T.F.C, an acronym that stood for both Tropical Fish Club and Tough Fuck, Chuck. Saying the second one out loud provoked immediate fits of choking, snorting laughter. Obscenities and hysterical laughter -- these were my kind of guys.
So Glenn made the trip north, we did our best to entertain him, dragging him to local hot spots. The Erie Canal. The Saratoga Battlefield. The nearby town of Mechanicville. Big excitement, as you can imagine. Though not as exciting as the entertainment my brother Terry provided.
Terry was six years older than me, old enough that he could easily vent his being-trapped-in-the-woods-all-summer-long frustration at me. And he did. The chosen mode of torment: instilling fear. Example: I'm in the boathouse, laying on my cot, reading by candlelight. The boathouse doors swing open, big brother enters like the Frankenstein monster. Slow monster walk, arms extended, guttural sounds. Advancing on me until his hands are around my neck, not stopping until I get rattled enough to show fear.
Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The point is, him jerking me around whenever he felt like it was part of the natural order of things.
On an otherwise uneventful day during Glenn's visit, Terry managed to tie one end of a rope around a branch of a tree near the boathouse, started shinnying up. Partway along, the rope broke, he fell. Glenn and I happened by, found Terry on the ground. Writhing around, moaning, eyes open and rolling all over the place as if he'd been possessed by some heavily-caffeinated spirits, fixing on nothing in particular except for one brief second when they looked into mine before skidding away. If this had been anyone else I would have been alarmed. But this was the king of scam jobs, staging one more phony scene to get me lathered up, one more attempt to jerk my chain. This time around, though, with a witness, with a friend there to see what was going on, I refused to buy in. I refused to be his fall guy. And in that delicious moment of rare triumph, I broke out in euphoric laughter. Glenn joined in, we stood there having a ball, laughing and pointing at Terry as he rolled around in the dirt. Until I looked up and spotted my mother sprinting toward us at a speed I've never seen her reach before or since, clearly in emergency mode. She raised a cloud of dust as she ran, and something about the sight of that hanging in the air behind her sobered me up, brought an end to the revelry.
That may have been the high point of Glenn's visit. He seemed glad to go when he boarded the bus for civilization.
* * * * *
I was a chubby kid. Through much of elementary school, Mitchell Goldstein and I were in a dead heat for the title of heaviest kid in the class. Which did great things for my already superb self-image. "You'll be okay," my oldest brother's sweetheart of that era told me, "if you can just get rid of that spare tire." As if I'd asked for her thoughts on my pudge. As if I weren't already keenly aware of my embarrassing physical state.
I carried extra tonnage for years, through elementary school into junior high. Until the summer of my thirteenth year, when my bod went through unplanned changes.
I had gone with my mother to visit her relatives, country folk spread all over the landscape near Oswego, New York. Near the end of the trip, Mom arranged for me to spend a day with my Cousin Franklin on his farm, her only day free of me during the entire haul. When she dropped me off, she stood by the car watching me, the strangest expression on her face. Feeling a little relieved, maybe, to be letting her butterball son off for a day on the farm. And a bit sad. Maybe she saw that the years were slipping away, that I was leaving behind childhood, moving into a far stranger, far more turbulent, more hormonal time. Or maybe she saw that I truly was a butterball, in sad, not very attractive physical condition. I can't say, I only remember her standing in summer sunlight, her eyes on me, that melancholy expression.
So I'm out in the country with Cousin Franklin, a lanky guy with about 20 years on me. Being put to work, forced to be a farmhand for the day, a beautiful summer day out in the middle of nowhere, not far from Lake Oswego in upstate New York. The main task facing us: taking in the hay. Moving through fields, piling big bales of cut hay onto a wagon that Franklin pulled with a tractor, loading them from the wagon onto a conveyer, sending them up into the hay mow in the barn's top floor. Then clambering up the conveyer ourselves, up into the hay mow to drag the bales toward the walls, building big, tippy piles. Me, out on the farm with my country cousin. Two hot, sweaty males, doing what males do: working together in manly companionship until we were tired and dirty and fragrant as only males get fragrant.
There I was, out in God's country with my big, genial cousin, filling my lungs with clean air, experiencing the man's life. Burning off calories, flabby little muscles getting some exercise. School was weeks away, life felt pretty good. I stepped forward to pick up another bale, my foot went through a section of the floor -- a trap door, covered with straw, now completely rotted away. My leg followed my foot, the rest of my body followed my leg, until I found myself falling, arms stretched out above my head, the walls of a straight, vertical chute streaking by in a dark blur. It all happened so fast that I didn't really get what had happened and before I could contemplate the direction reality had taken, I shot out the bottom.
The bottom of that chute -- the one my cousin forgot to warn me about -- dumped me into the ground floor of the barn, where the cows lived. (For some reason, at the moment I sailed out the bottom of the chute, it appeared to me that I was coming up out of the floor feet first.) The cows had been spending a leisurely afternoon at home, minding their own business, chewing cud in leisurely fashion. And then I intruded. A couple of cows jumped in surprise when I appeared -- someone, after all, had just fallen through the ceiling of their living room -- and then I slammed into the concrete floor, falling over.
This all happened in seconds -- two, three seconds tops. So fast, with such a radical shift in the day's agenda, that I really hadn't been able to absorb it. I hadn't really taken in the fact of it all yet. So I hopped up as if nothing were wrong, as if I fell twenty-five, thirty feet every day of my life. I jumped up, and as I got vertical I noticed my left leg didn't seem to want to support me. It seemed to give way every time I tried to put weight on it. A glance down showed foot dangling from leg, just hanging there sad and limp, like a little Raggedy-Andy appendage. I stared at my unhappy foot, went a little faint, fell over again. Not very manly but not a bad choice as it turned out, since it got my chubby bod out of the way of some bales of hay that came flying out of the chute after me.
Everything quiets down. I'm lounging, sprawled out on the concrete floor. Two or three hay bales lie in a heap next to me. The cows had recovered from their initial surprise and were glancing around, wondering what came next. And for a moment, a deep peace descended. I saw tiny fibers of hay drifting around in the upstate New York sunshine that filtered through the barn windows.
It was then that Franklin's voice came floating down the shaft from the hay mow, panic audible in his country twang: "Cousin R.," he called. "Where ARE ya, Cousin R.?" I yelled back something appropriately pithy, experiencing a strange divide between the edge of panic and shock I heard in my voice and a strangely numb, detached me that watched things unfolding. I heard sounds of Franklin clambering down the conveyer, a moment later he came running into the cow's living room, for some reason looking touchingly to me right then like L'il Abner. He took in the scene, his hand to his head, his face twisted into an expression of astonishment and confusion, then he spun around and tore back out of the barn to call for help.
In the time it took help to get there, I discovered God. The big divinity had never played a very much of a role in my life, despite (or maybe because of) my Irish Catholic upbringing. I simply didn't buy the image of the sour, repressive, disapproving deity of suffering I'd been taught about. But I suddenly found myself with time on my hands, and some quick entreaties for help didn't seem like a bad idea, just in case anyone with a vaguely sympathetic attitude might be listening.
I was reeling off prayers at a pretty good clip when help finally arrived. Two men entered the barn with a stretcher. They slipped a sheet under me, lifting my battered, chubby little carcass up from the concrete. Franklin and his wife, Irene, stood nearby, watching, like a young American Gothic, and as I swung through the air on that sheet -- in pain and shock, dignity pretty much wiped out -- Irene giggled. I wanted to die. Or kill her. Either would have worked for me right then.
Keep in mind where this all happened: Mexico, New York. A small rural community out in the middle of nowhere. Not wealthy. Poor, in fact. Not a lot of extra cash to toss at luxuries like emergency medical services. So that as the ambulance attendants carried me out of the barn into the sunlight, I saw the hearse that had come to get me. And as I saw my death approaching, it seemed pretty clear that prayer simply wasn't doing the job, at least not the way I was going about it. The only thing I could think to do was pray faster, and by the time the hearse pulled up at a hospital instead of the expected funeral home, I had rattled off enough prayers to cover me well into my next two or three lifetimes.
The ambulance dudes left me on a gurney in a hallway, waiting for attention. By this time, my ankle felt like the last reel of a Sam Peckinpah film. Someone eventually realized I was nearly incontinent with pain, they wrapped my leg in a pillow and knocked me out.
I spent the next four days drifting in and out of consciousness, surfacing now and then to gaze around blearily. I know I spent some time in a large ward with fifteen or twenty other kids, a place resembling hospital photos I'd seen from the early 1900s. At one point, I woke up and saw my cousin Doris coming in to visit, then I drifted back to sleep and didn't see her again for about twenty-one years. My ankle went under the knife three different times at that hospital, all three operations unsuccessful. During one of them, I came to and watched the procedure until the surgeon noticed me observing and ordered a nurse to put me under again.
My ankle, it turned out, had been pulverized, my mother ultimately had to drive me halfway across New York State to a hospital in Troy, just a few miles from our outpost in Half Moon, where a surgeon managed to reconstruct the ankle before packing it in a toe-to-crotch-length cast to ferment for five or six months.
Given that the first hospital couldn't do the job in three different attempts, it's a real possibility the surgeon in Troy may have saved my foot. As it is, the ankle still has three pins in it and bears a long distinctive scar, guaranteed to break the ice at parties. The foot, though, has never been quite as happy as it once was. It's now a size shorter than my other, still happy, foot, and a little misshapen, a little off kilter from the months spent in a cast in the position those medical pranksters forced it into. Because of that, the way I stand and the distribution of my body's weight is a bit skewed, in a way that might have had a hand in later injuries. But I get ahead of myself.
I spent ten days in the hospital after the final operation, and the high point had to be the couple of days a kid named Ray was my roommate. I don't know why Ray was there. He didn't seem to have any problems, at least physically. A good child psychologist, on the other hand, might have had a field day with him. Or someone armed with mace and a cattle prod. Whatever was going on with Ray, he couldn't seem to sit still. He was just a bundle of obnoxious energy that didn't know what to do with itself. He ran around the room and chattered a lot, stream of consciousness stuff. He bounced up and down on his bed. And then someone made the mistake of giving him a walkie-talkie. I had rented a TV to pass the time. Ray's walkie-talkie pretty much put an end to that. Any time he felt like disrupting my life, he'd start up with the walkie-tee, wiping out television reception (though Ray's voice came through with diabolical clarity). He's jumping up and down on the bed, jamming the TV, calling me an "idjit," so that I'm hearing it both from him and from the idiot box, kind of a primitive, sociopathic stereo set-up. "You're an idjit!" he's yelling. "You're an idjit, ya idjit!" It took a big, burly nurse to get him under control.
Upon my release from the hospital, I found out that my brother Terry had brought his future wife to our squat in Half Moon to meet the family. My father carted me down to the cabin from the car, the first time my sister-in-law-to-be encountered me, she met a pudgy, dazed kid bouncing around in an wheelbarrow, one leg adorned with a cast the size of a Volkswagen.
For the rest of that summer, I remained trapped in the cabin with nothing to do but read and listen to top-40 music on a tiny transistor AM radio. Hot, bored, no privacy, no escape, and the nerves in my foot began throwing a nasty, wildass party. The ankle, as I've said, had been pulverized by the impact of hitting the concrete floor, and in the weeks after the fall, as nerves began slowly mending, they celebrated by sending out random signals -- pain, itching, phantom movement. Especially at night, when most good ankles are asleep. It drove me into foaming frenzies. I had no distractions, couldn't get at the affected area because of the cast, became frantic. Between that and the August heat, I hardly slept and sank into a long depression. My appetite waned, I stopped eating, and when I returned to school in September I not only had a cast and a fine set of crutches, I was thin. Which startled everyone, me most of all.
It was a long time before I could see myself as thin when I looked into a mirror. For years, the face that peered back at me remained plump and unappealing to my jaundiced eyes.
* * * * *
In the wake of that last big adventure, I began to realize that you never really know what life might throw your way, something that was brought home to me every time I went for a progress check-up on my ankle. Each time, the doctor cut a small square in the plaster directly over the incision, a small, white window, and from one check-up to the next there was no telling what it would show. I always hoped to see my normal ankle, the ankle I'd known and loved. Instead I saw an unfamiliar, distressed patch of anatomy that changed colors with each viewing -- deep blues, reds and violets; wild, bilious greens and yellows; and occasionally a psychedelic montage of hues that inspired flat-out amazement, coming as it did from my very own ankle. Between the injury and puberty, my body was changing right before my eyes, and over time something about that gave rise to a detached sense of fascination with it all that I'd never experienced before.
During that period I became tight with a schoolmate named John. When the cast finally came off and I was free to range around again, I became a regular at John's house. It was there, in the summer of 1966, that I first heard the Doors. I'd been listening to music with a fair degree of obsessiveness since I was four or five, but I'd never heard anything quite like them before. Dark. Driving. Decadent. (Heavy on the decadent.) Their music told me that there were things out there beyond what I knew -- seductive, dangerous things. And it was not only okay to be attracted by them, it was good to be attracted by them. And then at the very end, after songs about crystal ships and lighting fires and backdoor men, came the final cut, the deepest cut (if you will): The End. Mysterious, strange, hypnotic. Long. Eleven minutes of cryptic, mystical decadence, building to the climactic passage where Morrison sings about killing his father and violating his mother.
Well. I could hardly believe my ears. It was a Freudian extravaganza, my horizons were broadening by the minute.
So. John and I were deep into puberty, both of us seething with hormones and the drive to experience new things. John's family, by this time, had moved closer in to New York City, to a godawful section of Queens. Once in a while John would come back out to the Island on a weekend, we'd maybe go to a dance where we'd listen to music and investigate women (mostly from a distance).
It was the beginning of the psychedelic era. New music seemed to be everywhere and people were doing strange things -- dressing bizarrely, getting high, talking about expanded consciousness, talking about sexual freedom. Great stuff, no getting around it, with the promise of fine adventures, but we couldn't figure out how to become part of it without getting into trouble with parental units and/or the law. Until late one night at my house, long after the 'rents had gone to sleep.
We were fooling around down in the basement in the throes of post-dance unrest, practically vibrating with unused energy, when we came across a gallon bottle of rotgut wine my oldest brother had stored away on a shelf. Between the two of us, we plowed through maybe a quarter of the gallon, waiting to see what would happen, and when the stuff hit we went berserk: running up and down the stairs, laughing wildly, hitting each other, throwing things around, humping furniture, humping each other. To this day, I don't understand how my parents made it through the night without bursting out of their bedrooms, tying us up and neutering us.
When we finally collapsed and went to sleep, John passed out on the couch in the living room. Sometime during the wee hours he came to and commenced throwing up. Vertically, with tremendous force, like a low-Ph geyser. He'd eaten beets at supper the previous evening so that between beets and wine everything at that end of the living room wound up stained a virulent purple, like an unnerving work of unwholesome conceptual art. I learned about all this when I got up the next morning and found my mother still fuming from having to clean up the mess.
Yes, indeed -- the age of partying had commenced. The missing element was a drivers license, and when it finally arrived one afternoon in high school, I could feel life mutating around me, becoming more potent, with more possibilities for adventure and trouble.
I knew there was no time to waste. I put my new drivers license into my pocket, climbed into the VW bug my parents were letting me use and drove back to school where I rounded up three or four friends. The academic day had ended a couple of hours earlier, and the parking lot -- covered in a thick, armorlike sheet of ice -- had emptied out. After packing my buddies into the car, I jammed the VW into first and hit the gas so that we flew careening around the lot in crazed, skidding circles. I remember glancing behind me where centrifugal force had mashed the guys together at one end of the back seat. We had probably reached 3 or 4 G's by that time, and Andy Schwartz's face had been pushed over to the side, helpless laughter leaking out the side of his mouth. Surprisingly, that particular ride went without mishap. In fact, high school turned out to be a fairly sedate time, as least as far as physical damage goes, almost as if the Universe had taken a short time out. Normal activity recommenced immediately after graduation when I brilliantly rear-ended a Long Island Lighting Company truck while gawking at a beautiful woman. Nothing happened to the truck, of course, though the front of the VW looked distinctly accordionesque.
During my first two drug-addled years at college, I blew the engine in the VW going 95 on the interstate between Binghamton and Ithaca, New York; began a monthly routine of locking the keys in the car; and found my way into three collisions and one near-miss. I can't explain the near miss. My reflexes must have been off.
It was a messy, chaotic time, and the mess extending well beyond the hours spent in my car.
Late December, early January, my first year of college. A skating rink in South Merrick. My parents had moved from Long Island to Half Moon when I graduated high school, I spent part of that Christmas vacation staying with friends on the Island. This night a few of us went skating. My first time up on skates since I was teeny when my parents only allowed me out on the ice wearing those little three-blade jobs (ice skates with training wheels, essentially).
It was a weekend night, the facility was crowded with people out for an evening on the ice. And I found myself managing much more handily than I thought I would. So handily, in fact, that I began cruising around the rink as if I belonged there, as if I had some idea of what I was doing. So well that at one point I began racing with someone, sprinting along the ice, probably going faster than a prudent, well-behaved skater should. We streaked down one side of the rink, me in the outside position, next to the railing. Halfway along, a rink attendant leaned over the rail and grabbed my arm as I zipped past, holding on just long enough for my feet to fly up from the ice. Causing me to land on the base of my spine, getting tangled up with the other guy so that he came down on top of me. The rink attendant barked out "Slow down! No racing!", we got to our feet and limped off the ice.
I spent that night on a cot in the basement of a friend's house, the next morning I couldn't get out of bed, couldn't even sit upright. I tried, but my body simply wouldn't cooperate. After a lot of work, I managed to roll off the cot, crawl slowly up the stairs and lever myself into my car to get some medical attention. My coccyx, they told me, had been fractured. Sounds pretty bad until you find out it means you've busted a tiny vestigial tailbone. Then it doesn't sound so bad until you have to live with it. They gave me a prescription for six weeks worth of codeine and told me to take it easy, recommending that I avoid horseback riding until I feel better.
Surprisingly, the codeine -- not to mention my various nonprescription anesthetics -- did not really do the job. I had to deal with pain that slowly diminished with the passing days. Weeks dragged by, school resumed, and months later I discovered that I'd (a) developed a marked curve to my spine and (b) lost half an inch of height, a development with no apparent cause apart from this injury.
A few months later, I broke then re-broke the big toe of my unhappy left foot, fracturing it two weeks apart to the day, the second time by dropping a cinderblock on it. (Never wear sandals while carrying heavy objects.)
At this point, even I could see that more attention needed to be paid to the way I conducted my life, and I resolved to bring an end to my plague of idiot mishaps. For a while, then, existence calmed down, at least as far as physical damage goes.
In 1976, I moved to Seattle. A lovely woman named Mical lived there, someone with whom I'd had a long-distance liaison in my first semester of college, one of those romantic, infatuated commuting-back-and-forth-every-weekend-to-roll-around-in-bed-and-take-drugs things. She relocated to Seattle after graduating and told me it was a beautiful city, with a growing theatre scene and a thriving arts community. My life needed some shaking up, I was looking for some big-time change. I wanted to experience a different part of the world, somewhere far away from from New York state, and the city she described sounded like a good place to start. I bought a VW bus, stuffed my belongings into it, bolted cross-country.
Within a year of arriving I acquired a house, followed soon after by a motorcycle. The house: a small, one-story affair on the east side of Capitol Hill, one of its best features being a big basement that I immediately filled with piles of junk.
The motorcycle: a little Suzuki 250. A toy, really -- a fact that didn't matter to me at all, motorcycle virgin that I was. Just the idea that it was mine, with all the freedom it represented, gave me a silly, oversized feeling of adventure and daring. Plus, it was small enough that I could keep it in the basement of my house -- important since I had no garage. A guy I knew brought the motorcycle over strapped into the back of his monster pick-up truck, and when I wheeled it into the basement it was clear I'd taken a serious step up in manliness. I was going to mount that thing and drive it all over the goddamn city. I knew the engine vibration might shake my kidneys into pudding, but I didn't care. Nothing would stand in my way because I was a man, I was a Pacific Northwest man with a motorcycle.
At that time, I was acting in a production of ENDGAME in a small theater deep in downtown Seattle, where a guy named Bill handled the technical side of things. Bill had a motorcycle -- a real one, a 650 or 750 that he drove up and down western Washington state. He'd stride into the theater in boots and a leather jacket, holding his helmet -- in no time at all he became my role model. And now that I had my own set of wheels, I was going to emulate him.
I didn't have a motorcycle license and hadn't yet gotten much instruction in the art of driving a motorcycle, so I made a stab at sanity -- I stashed the Suzuki in the basement and resisted taking it out onto the road, intending to hold off until I'd properly prepared myself for life on two wheels. That's what I intended. After a couple of days, though with it RIGHT THERE IN THE HOUSE, the desire to drag the bugger out to the street, crank it up, take off in whatever direction I fancied -- out in the elements, a man and his machine -- began nibbling away at my resolve. And once the first bits of my resolve crumbled away, the rest pretty much disintegrated in no time flat. Before I realized what was happening, there I was: up on my mighty 250, riding it to the theater. And I actually did okay. I didn't stall out or fall over or get picked up for going too fast or get flattened by a truck. I had it all under control. I was a natural man.
I locked the bike up by the theater and walked inside swinging my helmet around, waiting for someone to notice it. And they did and I was just as happy as could be.
And then Bill came in. And he saw my helmet by my things in the dressing room, and he said, "Say, is that your motorcycle locked up out front?" And I answered with a casual, "Why, yes. Yes, it is." And we talked motorcycle talk.
I was a pig in shit. I was aglow with manly fulfillment.
Now, somewhere around that time I'd come to the vague realization that despite owning a home and a motorcycle and having a part in a Beckett play, my life was still a mess, and I resolved once again to stop trying to destroy myself, at least as blatantly as I had been. I quit using drugs, drank very little, and on this particular night I took special care to abstain from tossing down beers with the rest of the cast after the show. I wanted to make sure I didn't hurt my new pride and joy or wind up in the cooler for driving while intoxicated (not to mention without a license). I got on my machine and started toward home, for some reason not quite as secure with the controls as I had been earlier. I sailed jerkily up Capital Hill, feeling a bit nervous from all the cop cars that suddenly seemed to be everywhere, and having some trouble shifting gears. But it was okay -- I was still upright, I was still moving.
I made it all the way to my neighborhood, having more and more trouble shifting gears, things not going at all as smoothly as they had on the trip to the theater. So much less smoothly that it occurred to me that maybe -- this being my very first motorcycle, my inaugural hog -- I should have had someone spend a little time helping me get familiar with my new vehicle. Maybe I should listened to that quiet inner voice of reason that counseled holding off, listened with a bit more attention. Maybe I should have learned to drive the goddamn thing before I got up on it and took my life in my hands. A realization that might have been helpful if it had happened earlier, before death or massive injury looked to be a very possible part of my future.
I sped toward my street and couldn't get out of gear. I couldn't even get into neutral. And as my driveway approached, dread and panic took hold. I was either going to have to find a way to stop or drive around until I ran out of gas. Right then, with neighbors' houses flashing past, the prospect of circling the block all night seemed much more humiliating than risking death or crippling injury in my driveway, and I turned in, feverishly trying to coax the cycle to a stop as I veered off the drive and across the front lawn. In classic cinematic fashion time slowed down then, moving at a kind of frame-by-frame speed. I glided across the grass past the front porch, everything slow and vivid, the beam from the headlight sliding across the front of the house like an image from a 1940's detective film -- my own personal, badly written B-movie.
I dumped the cycle over onto the lawn just before I crashed into the shrubbery, and as the engine began screaming I turned the ignition off and lay there while things quieted down, listening to the motor tick as it cooled down, praying no one had observed my triumphant return, wondering why I hadn't simply used the clutch and brakes together to stop and turn the engine off.
A curtain moved in a window next door as someone peeked out. I turned my head to look at them, the face disappeared.
When I first arrived in Seattle, my friend Mical and her sweetheart, Chuck took me in while I searched for a place of my own. Chuck was a kind, intelligent, shy 41-year-old guy -- tall, thin, bespectacled, with red, frizzy hair. The three of us spent evenings in their living room having long conversations, listening to jazz, and as Chuck sipped wine and loosened up he would stand in the corner near the stereo dancing to the music as we talked, a quiet, unobtrusive shuffle.
They moved to a different apartment that autumn, bequeathing me their old sofa in the process. Late in the afternoon of moving day, we loaded the sofa into my VW bus and Chuck came along to help me get it into my flat, a generous act considering he'd just spent the day hauling his own belongings around. My squat was on the third floor of an elevator-deficient building, without Chuck's assistance I would have had to lay out a wad of cash to hire sherpas, so maybe he felt unable to abandon me.
Whatever the reason, we made it to my building, hauled the sofa out of the VW and commenced dragging it upstairs. Chuck, not a muscular type, stumbled along holding on to the sofa's bottom end, breath whistling in and out, eyes bulging with exertion. Suffering, clearly -- but he was a stalwart specimen and wouldn't hear of stopping. That sofa was going to make it up those stairs if we had to set up a base camp and bring along oxygen.
When we finally staggered onto the third-floor landing we set the sofa down in the hallway, me suggesting a break before trying to jam the damn thing through my doorway. Chuck wheezed agreement, I went into my place in search of cold liquids. As I walked toward the kitchen, I heard a strange sound behind me and turned to find Chuck clowning around, leaning against the side of the doorway in an exaggerated display of bone-tired, dead-on-his-feet knackeredness.
I've always had a soft spot for silly physical humor. In high school, my group of friends were constantly doing our own crude version of the Ministry of Silly Walks or twisting our clothes up and carrying on like grotesquely crippled mental defectives. That kind of sophisticated, high-brow slapstick made us scream with laughter, and now here was Chuck, usually a bit shy and tentative, suddenly opening up and showing some real potential.
Then I noticed that his glasses had fallen to the floor, that one of the lenses had come loose and rolled a short distance away. Chuck would never have risked his glasses just to get a laugh, and as I looked back up at him, he collapsed, sliding down the doorframe to the floor. I didn't know what was going on but it didn't look good, I grabbed the phone and called an ambulance. Then I rang Mical and told her to come over.
This happened before CPR became widely known -- I'd never seen it done, had no training in it. All I could do for the next few minutes was watch Chuck not breathe. I learned the true meaning of the phrase "deafening silence" when I noticed that the hush in the room around me was in fact an ongoing roaring in my ears. Chuck's mouth opened once or twice, his body attempting to get oxygen, and as sirens became audible in the distance he began to turn blue and I could feel my scalp crawling.
An ambulance careened to a halt in front of the building, three big paramedics came running up the stairs. My apartment exploded into violent motion, the medics shoving furniture aside, yelling at Chuck before commencing CPR. They tore his shirt open and applied electric paddles to his chest, his body arching with the shock. A slender gay man who lived across the hall opened his door, wearing heavy eye make-up. His eyelids fluttered in surprise at the chaos, he quickly shut the door. Mical appeared at the head of the stairs, eyes wide with terror, and we huddled together in the hallway as the paramedics strapped Chuck onto a stretcher and took him down to the street. Mical followed the ambulance to the hospital, when they were all gone I stood in the doorway to my apartment gazing around, dazed. The place looked like a tornado had just sliced through, leaving Chuck's glasses and right shoe behind, still and lifeless without their owner.
I felt stunningly guilty, responsible in a deep and unnerving way, and when I went to the hospital I couldn't talk very much. It was all I could do to show up and confront what had happened. Chuck, it turned out, had suffered a massive cardiac arrest, leaving his brain deprived of oxygen long enough that his personality had cashed in its chips, leaving only the body behind, comatose. At least the medical personnel said it was a coma. I'd always thought that would mean a quiet, motionless state, distant and meditative, as if the personality were off somewhere while the body rested, deeply sleep. Chuck's body didn't follow those rules. It rocked back and forth in bed, eyes open, arms waving around in a complicated pattern -- no one home, just blind, continuous, repetitive motor impulses. The eyes would occasionally meet mine, but there was no recognition, no sign that anything they saw registered.
Chuck's parents flew up from Kentucky, the doctors told them the best that could be done was to keep Chuck's body alive in a vegetative state for a few years. Not an option they wanted for their son, so it was collectively decided to withhold food and water until the body gave up and died. It only took two or three days, and I remember a nurse from another floor of the hospital entering the room at one point, yelling that we were all murderers. Another nurse ushered her out of there, we heard nothing more about it.
No one told me when Chuck actually died. I went to the hospital one afternoon and found his room vacant -- bed made up, everyone gone, all traces of him cleared away. No evidence of any kind that he'd ever been there. I stared at the empty space for a while, then left and wandered around Seattle.
In the aftermath of Chuck's departure I swore I would never be unprepared for a situation like that again. I located a CPR class, got educated and began considering the idea of work that might be of service to my fellow human beings -- a process that later led to becoming an Emergency Medical Technician.
I'd moved back east, was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wanted to find a calling that would contribute to the common good. I intended to redeem my miserable, hedonistic existence. I would help in times of medical crisis. I'd ride the streets of the Boston and Cambridge like a scruffy angel of mercy. And if that worked out, maybe I'd become a paramedic or even go to med. school. Immerse myself in studies, become a doctor, do noble work in an emergency room and spend the rest of my life paying off school loans and outrageous medical malpractice insurance bills.
Several months later, I passed my certification test and began working with an ambulance company. In short order, reality set in. I'd had visions of high intensity emergency work, making a difference when lives were endangered. Most of the time we were just a glorified taxi service. We'd tote people to dialysis treatment, maybe hang around, maybe take someone else back home. We'd take clients to radiation treatment, bring them back. Carting people here and there -- nothing glorious for the most part, nothing romantic. Drone work. Muscular chimps could have done it.
Every once in a while, though, we'd suddenly find ourselves earning our miserable wages the way were meant to. Or trying to.
One morning, I was dispatched with another EMT to pick up an elderly woman at a nursing home and take her to second nursing home maybe fifteen, twenty minutes away. Routine. No big deal. Snore.
Let's call this client Agnes. We pick Agnes up, she turns out to be quiet, not very communicative. Which is fine. We load her into the ambulance. The other EMT drives, leaving me in the back with our passenger. We get out on the highway, we're tooling along, scenery is rolling by. At some point, Agnes grows restless, becomes increasingly fidgety, until it becomes apparent that she's slipped into a medical episode of some sort. In fact, she's having -- AN EMERGENCY!!
My job: figure out what's wrong, give her what care I can. I try to be a good EMT and start with the basics:
Q: How does she look?
A: Not good. Kind of bad, really.
Q: Okay then -- take her vital signs. Go ahead.
Focused, getting down to business, I try to get pulse and blood pressure readings. Agnes pulls away, struggles against my attempts to soothe, becomes violent. And no matter what I do or say, no matter how I try to calm her, no matter what tack I take, she will not calm down.
So we're flying down the highway, me trying to pacify a woman I'm coming to suspect has a background in professional wrestling, when Agnes suddenly shifts from wrestling to boxing and begins slugging me. She's throwing punches and it seemed as if she somehow sprouted extra arms, so that numerous fists were zipping past my face, every second or third one connecting. My head's ringing. I'm trying to pacify a gray-haired octopus. I'm thinking this is NOT worth $5.75 an hour. And in the middle of it all, I catch the driver watching me in the rear-view mirror, enjoying the show, laughing happily. Good thing for him I was occupied.
We eventually arrived at the nursing home where we got the Fists of Death out of the ambulance and left her to injure some other medical personnel.
Emergency medicine: Pure glamour.
* * * * *
There are those who believe that life is a sacred dance choreographed by a Higher Power, that we stumble our way through it according to some great, wacky plan. Others believe that life is just a long, complex chain of random events; no logic, no big blueprint, no meaning apart from what we impose. For myself, all I will say is that from one moment to the next we can't be sure what's coming around the corner, and if we're not paying attention we can miss great scenery or big opportunities. Or we can get completely blindsided.
An evening in early March, a few minutes past the hour of 7. I'm driving through an area of Cambridge, Massachusetts that is essentially a large industrial office park, on my way to a department store. Snow began coming down as I traveled, big fat flakes appearing in my headlights and landing on my windshield, falling heavier and heavier, the kind of snowfall that looks great and doesn't last long. And it was beautiful. So beautiful that I found myself relaxing, breathing more deeply, more easily than I had been. A drive that started as a chore became a genuine pleasure, a jaunt through a pretty evening in the first car I'd ever bought brand spanking new, a little white Nissan Sentra, less than a year old. And then another driver ran a stop sign.
That area of town didn't see much traffic after business hours, and the stretch of road I drove along had not been exceptionally well-lit by the local municipal bigshots. The other driver approached from a street to my left, a corner where some genius had built a brick wall so that advancing headlights could not be seen by either driver, at least not in a snowfall of any heaviosity.
One moment I cruised along in late-winter splendor, the next moment the other car appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, moving in a fast intercept course. It happened so quickly that I couldn't do anything but hang on. I can't remember whether time slowed down or sped up or what. I only have blurred impressions of the impact as the other car plowed into the front left side of my car, directly in front of me, then spun and hit the rear passenger door right behind me. I remember gripping the steering wheel and feeling my head strike the window next to me, and I remember the noise, the slamming and grinding of metal on metal, unbelievably loud. Then both cars came to a stop several feet apart.
I released my seatbelt, pushed the door open and got out, trying to clear my head. I saw the other driver stagger out of his car, almost falling over before he steadied himself. We each made stunned attempts to see if the other was all right, then stared around at the wreckage, stupefied. It turned out the other driver had just rented his car and was passing through an unfamiliar neighborhood. Between snow and less-than-excellent streetlighting, he didn't see the stop sign so that when he hit me he was moving at full speed (however fast that was -- I never found out).
I went to phone the police. When I returned, a young woman stopped to see if I or the other guy needed help and decided to stay with us until the police arrived. For a few moments, then, we all stood together beneath the cold night sky, silent.
My little Nissan had been completely destroyed. It looked like a wax model of an automobile that someone had left out under an angry summer sun, then hurled against a wall. "My car," I said, stunned dismay clear in my tone. And the woman turned to me, her eyes fastening on mine. "Listen to me," she said, "it's just a car."
Something about her voice caught my attention and I studied her face. It might have been shock, it might been an overactive imagination, but at that moment something else seemed to be gazing out at me from that woman's eyes, something far older, far greater, with perspective extending far beyond the limited range of my experience and outlook. I felt the hair on the back of my neck prickle. "Do you understand?" she continued. "It's just a car." Her eyes held mine for a moment, then looked away. I glanced back at the wreckage and I realized she was right. It was just a car, just a thing. I was all right. And at that moment, it dawned on me how lucky I'd been, coming through that holocaust intact, no broken bones, no spilled blood.
It's an amazing life, I thought. And it is. Every once in a while I just need to be reminded.
The original version of this piece was performed as a monologue and featured a different final passage. That ending passage is included here, as follows:
My detour into the medical world was, well, a detour. I worked as an actor for several years after school spit me out, stopping when I left New York for a brief stay in Los Angeles. I put serious thought into pursuing other avenues of work, became certified in massage, then in hypnosis therapy, and finally in emergency medical tech., where it all hit the wall. I tossed myself back into acting when a friend asked me to be in something he was directing, a commedia dell'arte thingie called BLUE MONSTER. That production, for reasons unknown, marked the beginning of a series of productions in which the gods and goddesses of theatre had a hilarious time tormenting us theatre types.
For example, just in terms of physical mishaps (ignoring behavioral/emotional chaos):
In BLUE MONSTER, a woman injured herself running down a table, striking her head on a section of ceiling that jutted down. A month or two later, during rehearsals for a production of THE MISANTHROPE, one of the female leads fractured an ankle and I broke the big toe of my right foot.
And then I was cast in a production of an original script in a Boston-area outdoor theater.
The story: an executive of a large American cola company (me) is on a business trip in a Central American country. He makes a surreptitious foray to a spot outside the city to meet up with his secretary/mistress for a bit of hanky-panky. His suspicious wife, along for the trip, follows him from the hotel, catches him en flagrante, and they're all captured by guerrillas. These are not, however, your garden variety guerrillas -- they're a band of feminist freedom fighters, posing as males, intent on capturing the American Vice President, who'll be passing by in a motorcade on a nearby highway.
Rehearsals began, it quickly became clear that we were in a for an excessively interesting ride.
The guerrillas were played by four women. Of those four, three were lesbians. Of those three, two had been in a romantic relationship sometime prior to this show, and this production was their first time working together since that relationship went down. The third, a spunky, charismatic woman, was the object of intense interest by most of the other women in the production, regardless of their sexual orientation. The cast included one other male besides myself. Half the time I wondered what the hell he and I were doing there -- the air was damp with estrogen.
The theater that staged the show operated out of a natural amphitheater in a park -- the Bowl. The sides of the Bowl were generously covered with bushes and trees, its floor consisted of dirt, stones, scrubby grass. Since it was out in the open, rain meant a performance got canceled. Hard rain meant the Bowl flooded, a performance got canceled. Extended periods of no rain meant the dirt dried out, movement around the Bowl raised a cloud of dust that hung in the air, leaving a fine film on grit on everything. Scenery and lights had to be set up before every rehearsal and performance, then packed up and locked away at the end of each evening to keep nocturnal marauders from trashing everything.
The script required that my character, his wife, his mistress and an FBI agent -- the other male -- spent most of their time onstage tied up. Making us easy pickings for the clouds of mosquitoes that rose up from the bushes at twilight and turned the process of getting offstage at intermission and curtain call into big comedy.
An adviser named Kip was brought in to the train the guerrillas. Kip was into it. He was beyond being into it. He was a gung-ho dude and went at the work with feverish intensity. (We considered him to be dangerous.) He wanted conditions and behavior to be realistic, so had the guerrillas crawling in the dirt and through the bushes. He taught them good knots and wanted us bound tightly enough to simulate the real experience of being captives. The director explained that we weren't actually in a military sitch. We weren't going to try and escape and didn't need to be tied up tightly enough to cut off circulation. Kip absorbed that disappointment and settled for teaching the guerrillas knots that couldn't be undone without machetes.
As it turned out, by the third week of rehearsals more than one of us considered trying to escape.
A local actor had written the script. His wife was nine months pregnant, they were moving into a new home. So he wasn't around much. The script needed work but there was nothing to be done. Relations between the director and the producer were breaking down. One of the guerrillas had stopped cooperating with the director, it came to yelling. The woman who played my character's mistress was having trouble in her love life, was having difficulty with her role, relations between her and the director became strained. The FBI agent decided the director didn't know poop and began doing what he wanted, which meant turning his character into as twisted a version of John Wayne as he could get away with. As the weeks wore on, rehearsals began to feel like a war zone.
Shortly before July 4th, kids with fireworks showed up at the park. During one evening's rehearsal, we heard explosions followed by a hissing sound. A moment later, a rocket shot down through the bushes at us, flying past the ear of one of the guerrillas, hitting my mistress in the ribs. Shortly after that, two cars belonging to production people got broken into, parked right up at the top of the Bowl. A few nights later, just as rehearsal was getting out, someone torched a car across a field from the Bowl. A huge sound, flames shooting up into the darkness, the fire casting an eerie, flickering light over everything. As we all watched I looked at the people around me, wondering what the hell would happen next.
Before we could pull together good reasons to quit the show, opening night was upon us. The play's first scene consisted of the tryst between me and my mistress, me trying to get her in the mood to strip down and make whoopa-whoopa. At one point, I had to snuggle up behind her, reach around and fondle her boobs. The lights went up on the first performance -- as I fondled, I saw the coven of pasty-faced misfits who passed at that time as the local theatre critics about ten feet away from us, lounging in lawn chairs, clearly already hating us, and the whole experience seemed to cross over from this dimension into a realm I can only call surreal. At the end of the performance, when we were all supposed to disappear into the bushes during the blackout to wait for curtain call, I couldn't get the rope around my ankle untied. (Damn you, Kip!) The lights came up on me hopping offstage into the bushes, then hopping back out to join the rest of the cast.
We made it through the first week of performance with no major mishaps (apart from hideous reviews). The first show of the second week got cranking amid heat, humidity and over-abundant mosquitoes. Partway through the first act, as I sat tied up next to my mistress, she stopped delivering lines. I looked around, saw her bent over, limp, not moving. I leaned against her and asked her in a whisper if she was all right -- she looked up at me in response, mouth slack, eyes glassy, tears streaming down her cheeks. The show stopped at intermission, we took to her a hospital where for reasons unknown they gave her an AIDS test. (It was negative.)
That night I crawled into bed around 3:30. Around 5:30, I woke to the sound of slow, heavy pounding. A glance out the window showed three cop cars down below in the street, two policemen using sledgehammers on the door to one of my building's tiny basement flats.
Next night, the evening my mistress was out, the biggest crowd of the run to that point showed up. The woman who played the fourth guerrilla was going to walk through my mistress' part using a script. My job: feel up a female I barely knew as she read aloud. She was married to a local playwright -- when the moment arrived to place my hands over her boobs, there was her husband sitting out in front of us, face radiating clear anxiety. My mouth went dry, my heart began skipping beats, my testicles felt like they were trying to disappear into my body. I still don't know if I actually managed to do the boob-grabbing thing or if my fingers just massaged the air in front of her chest.
To everyone's relief, my mistress returned the following night. It was a beautiful evening, the last show of the week. We made it through the first scene, breasts got groped, guerrillas burst out from bushes, my mistress and I jerked around in surprise. With that motion, a sharp line of pain shot across my lower back, so intense I could hardly breathe. I could barely stay on my feet. As the scene progressed, my character had to be knocked down, tied up, then had to get up and hop over to where he would remain bound for the rest of soiree. I got through it all, making hilarious noises of suffering with every movement. At the end of the evening, the show's producer -- an ex-nurse -- checked me out. It turned that she had very good hands. I proposed marriage, she ignored me.
The upshot: I'd pulled a ligament that extended from the high part of my right bum cheek up into the small of my back. I was ordered to stay in bed until they could see how well it healed. I had to obey: I could hardly move. The best I could manage was shuffling around pathetically, clutching at furniture to stay semi-upright. After several days of rest, I managed to stumble through the show's final week.
During all this, and at times since, I've wondered why I act. I've thought and pondered, and I may have begun to put it into perspective. I suspect it all has to do with needs acquired early in life during my Irish Catholic upbringing. Needs that are an intricate combination of approval and rejection, sensuality and abuse, pleasure and punishment. Theatre is a perfect solution, a complex marriage of gratification and torture.
Or it could all be one massive example of random happenstance. I can't really say.
© 1996, 2009 by runswithscissors