Friday, May 30, 2008


There are 22 employees in this office, including myself. Some are friends; most are not.
We know each other only through soundbites, nothing more. Our perceptions of each other are based on the unreality of working in a human warehouse. We spew generalities and platitudes as we pass each other in the aisles. Occasionally a commonality will bring us together. A birth. A Death. Life events beyond our cubes. Only then are we human. Most times, not so much.
We talk amongst ourselves; at least those who in close proximity to one another do so. Others drift in and out of both the conversations and consciousness. If we are not actively engaged with each other then we don't exist. We subsist only as silhouettes who lurk at the edge of vision, both needing to be acknowledged and yet not caring if we are.
Here we each chase a shallow pursuit made superficially meaningful because of need. The corporation feeds off the worker who feeds himself with monetary reward given in exchange for pieces of their life. It is a parasitical relationship that is only bearable if it is left behind, locked away at the end of the workday; only to be reopened again the next day. Whatever this is, it is not living.
Work is non-existence; it is a limbo to which we are all consigned.
Here we are all shades.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Camels and Coffee

The bell chimes as the door opens. After placing my jacket on a hook I claim an empty seat nearby. Scanning the magazines, I choose today's edition of the Boston Herald. Channel 7 news blares from the tiny color TV that sits in front of the window. Three men are working their chairs while three customers wait for their turn in each. The first is a high school senior who is attending his prom tonight. The second is an Asian man who does not speak English easily. I am the third.
I quietly look around the shop. Old photos are everywhere. American flags are, too. There are news clippings, banners and police department patches from around the country. There are old posters, new advertisements and stale memories. The lighting is harsh and it is reflected in the mirror that runs the length of the three chairs. I smile to myself as I open the Herald. The scent of talcum powder fills my nose. I read absentmindedly; my mind is elsewhere.
Specifically, Paul's Barber Shop.
This shop was located two doors down from the M&R Food store, located in a dilapidated building in Bryantville Center. Next door was a diner (when it was open, which was sporadic at best) and thirty yards from that was the Bryantville Post Office and Lang's Liquor Store.
This is where Paul Gilmartin gave me my first (of many, many) haircut. It was a small store, with tan walls and a white ceiling. As you walked in the front door a black and white 13" television was mounted on a corner shelf diagonally from where you entered and at the far end of the shop. Next to the TV was a duck pin that Paul had acquired, although I have long since forgotten how or when. On the back wall Paul had black wooden silhouettes of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Snoopy. Lucy was yelling at Charlie Brown while gesturing towards Snoopy, who sat quietly behind her. On the right wall of the shop there was a row of red vinyl chairs where patrons would wait patiently for their turn in the chair. Paul always had a good collection of comic books to read so I was never bored while I waited here. There were two barber chairs across from this row of waiting men. Paul worked in only one chair. He had a partner once but soon in my young life he had moved onto another shop. Paul was the lone barber in Bryantville. Everyone came here and he knew everyone.
Paul himself was a tall, very thin man, who seemingly lived on unfiltered camels and coffee (cream and one sugar). His black hair was always combed back off his forehead, he had an easy smile and a very genteel way about him. He always smelled good; like he used his own products when he got ready for work. He was a jack of all conversations. He knew when to ask a question and just sit back and listen to the response. I loved going to Paul's.
When I was eleven or so Paul moved to another shopped across the street. I hate change. Yet, the new shop was now located next to Billy Kidd's Sub Shop - my favorite sandwich place in the whole world. It was a bit smaller, but the walls were painted white to make it seem bigger. The front door was located to the left of the store front; to the right of the door was a huge picture window. In the right corner was the same black and white 13" television and next to it was to bowling pin. On the left wall as you entered were 5 chairs (3 up the wall, 2 along the 45 degree angle) with a mirror over these. The Peanuts gang were mounted on the right wall that ran to the back of the shop. The more things change... However, Paul was still here. That made it okay.
Sometimes, when I was a kid, Paul would give me a quarter if I would run next door to get him coffee and cigarettes. When I hit my tweens Paul offered me a job as his permanent gopher. For 75 cents a week (to start) I would walk to his shop every day after school to get him coffee and cigarettes. Some days I would also go to the post office to get his mail from the postmaster, Everett G. Reed. Some days, when the shop was quiet, Paul and I would just sit and talk. We did that a lot. On Saturday's I would come up in the morning, get his coffee and cigarettes, and do any odd jobs that Paul needed done. Windexing the front windows or sweeping the front sidewalk were popular choices. Paul was closed on Sunday's and Monday's but I was there every other day, schedule permitting. This kept up until I started to work at Stop & Shop in 1982 and my real job kept me from being a gopher. Finally, I had no more free time. My last week's pay from Paul was $1.50. Not much compared to my pay at the supermarket but worth so much more to me.
Every chance I got, I would still walk up to Paul's Barber Shop, fetch him a coffee and cigarettes and just sit back and enjoy his company.
I got my hair cut at Paul's right up until I went to my first hairstylist at 19 years old. My new hairstyle got me immediate attention from my female co-workers and for the next 23 years I went to many different stylists - never a barber.
Today was the day that I decided that I pay stupid money to go to a stylist for a haircut that has stayed nearly the same for the last decade. Yet I am sitting in a Barber shop that is not Paul's. He retired years ago, not long after he was diagnosed with emphysema. Stupid Camels. Yet, as I sit among these men, I am wholly reminded of a simpler time:
When 75 cents a week bought me two comic books and a candy bar.
When getting the mail for Paul included a thirty minute chat with Mr. Reed.
When all a man needed was his camels, a coffee and good conversation to help him make a living.
When the smell of talcum powder meant a haircut at Paul's.
A simpler time, indeed.
My reverie is broken. A short, stocky man with a shock of thick gray hair gestures to me. Its my turn. I thank him and get into his barber's chair. As Siggy starts to cut, the familiar clack-clack of long scissors fills my ears. The smell of his aftershave wafts through the air as he deftly moves around the chair. He starts to make small talk. Soon, we're talking easily.
And I remember Paul the Barber.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Lazy Friday Afternoon

The swift breeze cooled the air as I put my book aside, and returned my glasses to their case. I leaned back in the Adirondack chair and closed my eyes. Arms folded across my midsection I listened to the wind dance through the nearby wind chime. Soon, my thoughts were racing through the still of the afternoon.
A car drives by, unnoticed.
Below me on the sidewalk a dog travels on a leash. The owner is unknown as he or she makes no discernible sound. The dog's tags are the only evidence of their passing.
The wind picks up speed and the chimes move spasmodically in its grasp. I furrow my brow. Suddenly a jolt. A start. What was that? Shifting position slightly I hear dogs barking in the far off distance of my living room.
Eyes still closed...thoughts drifting slower and farther away.
Eyes open. Disoriented.
One of the neighbor's young friends has arrived and blown the universal cry for "Get out here" now. A door opens and closes. Car acceleration, the turnaround at the street's end and the return drive by.
The scent of lilac blooms fill my nose. Many flowers have bloomed. No sneezing. My allergies are abated thanks to drugs.
Eyes closed.
Breathing steady.
Noise disappears.
Only the wind is heard through the chimes.
I'm drifting...
I am alone.
Thoughts jumbled...incomplete...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Celebrazione di Compleanno

In 2002 we were staying in Borgo Il Lago (above) located within the little town of Dicomano, 36 kilometres from Florence, Italy. It is a beautiful town. Special. To me, anyway.
Dave and I were given the task of ordering a birthday cake for Marj. We knew that there was a bakery next to the Wolf and Grape, a restaurant that had become our favorite dining place. Armed with good intentions, Dave and I entered the shop. As always, he is our cake expert and I let him place the order. In slow, clear English Dave explained that he wanted a birthday cake that read "Happy Birthday Marj".
In slow, clear Italian the shopkeeper let us know that she did not speak English.
So, through pantomime, determination, the written word and a will to make a sale, our intrepid shopkeeper took our order. She told us that the cake would be ready at 5PM. Dave gave her his name and said that he would be back at that time. He thanked her profusely (Grazie! Grazie!) and we turned to leave. Suddenly, the shopkeeper asked, "David?"
"Si," he replied.
"David," she said again.
"Si," Dave replied.
"Ah, bene," she finished with satisfaction.
At 5PM, when we arrived to pick up the cake, we were thrilled at the yummy confection that boldy proclaimed: "Buon Compleanno David".
To this day, this is our birthday greeting to anyone who was with us in Dicomano on that day.
In honor of Katie's forty-something-ish birthday today:
"Buon Compleanno David".

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


"What book are you reading now," he would ask.
No matter what my answer was, he was interested. My reading tastes range all over the spectrum and still, he was interested. Because he was a voracious reader, too.
He recommended books to me; among them Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit and A Confederacy of Dunces. I've read the former, not the latter - yet. I recommended books to him, too. He enjoyed them, although for the life of me I can't remember any of them right now. No matter what we read, we always discussed it afterwards. What we liked; what we didn't like. You know, the usual. He was younger than I am and seemingly more naturally intelligent. Our conversations were usually long and often insightful. His comments were never without forethought and I was often their sole beneficiary.
"Hey, do you like this band?" he would ask.
We often listened to music - his music. His ipod was queued into his radio so at any time during the day we might be listening to Radiohead, Dave Brubeck, the Beatles, Trey Anastasio, the Grateful Dead, whatever. He knew so much more about music than I did. Often, he would tell me where a band was when they wrote a song, or where he was when he first heard it. He knew all the liner notes on a CD cover and musical minutia was a specialty. Always, there was the soul of an artist who, while not making his own works, appreciated and understood the creative works of others. And he shared this appreciation with me - or anyone within earshot. Our conversations were not exclusive. We were cube-mates and were grouped together solely by fortune. My good fortune.
In the time he worked with me I found him to be insanely intelligent, creative, bilingual, dirty-minded and charming. His laugh was infectious. We laughed together. A lot.
"Did you hear that _____ died a couple of days ago?"
This was the ending of his final chapter. Yesterday I was informed that he died over the weekend. All evidence points to an accidental drug overdose. The overdose that too many of us predicted would kill him.
The drugs came late in my relationship with him. But they became his everything.
He had so many chances. He threw them all away.
No more discussions. No more music. No more laughter.
This is such a waste.
And I am so fucking angry about it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Coffee Mates

The rain lightly fell against the plate glass windows that were on my left. Settled comfortably into a wing-back chair I was finishing "Captain Alatriste" by Arturo Pérez-Reverte while sitting in Starbucks last Friday afternoon. I was waiting for Jenna to arrive at South Station. I chose to use the time to my advantage - with my nose buried in a good book.
When I had first arrived the only available seat that was not a hardback chair at a table was this chair with a low coffee table in front of it. A half empty mug of coffee lay dormant right in the middle of the table. Opposite the empty chair was its twin. This chair was occupied with an attractive woman and her laptop. I glanced around. I didn't see anyone else that the coffee cup could belong to. I could sit in an uncomfortable wooden chair or I could possibly intrude on this woman's space.
"Excuse me," I began quietly. She looked up at me. "If no one is sitting here do you mind if I...?"
She smiled. "No, not at all. Please do."
"Thank you very much," I replied as I sat down and placed my grande red eye on the table. That done, I retrieved my book and my glasses from my courier bag. I settled back into the chair - the nice, comfy wing back chair, and located my bookmark. Page located, I sipped from my coffee, crossed my left leg over my right and re-entered the world of Madrid in 1623.
At the table across the aisle a salesman from out of town has made himself comfortable. In his mid-fifties, he still annoyingly uses the word "Dude" to punctuate his remarks that are made (too) loudly into his constantly-in-use cellphone. Soon he is joined by two other businessmen and they begin to discuss locations around the city and their upcoming weekend flight itineraries. While the loud conversation is a bit distracting I reconcile myself to the fact that A) I am in a public space and B) that I am impatient by nature.
I rejoin the story, reading about the venomous poetry of Francisco de Quevedo, a famous, talented and ironic poet of the period, and friend of Captain Alatriste. Francisco offers to fight at the captain's side, if needed. Even venomous, ironic poets have honor...
Occasionally I could hear my table partner typing. From her lightly issued sighs I believed that she was frustrated with her work. No matter. I was stalking the back alleyways with the captain.
Awhile later she was packing up and making ready to go. I glanced up at the minor disruption.
"Have a great night," she said as she left.
"You, too - thanks."
Back to Madrid.
Not long afterwards someone new claimed the empty wing back. A disheveled man in his mid-fifties sat down. We exchanged pleasantries. He grabbed an abandoned Herald while I rejoined the captain. We both sat, sipping coffees and enjoying our chosen printed word.
Time passes.
Now, Alatriste was about to be ambushed by an Italian mercenary and two other sell-swords outside of the church where he was being questioned by members of the Inquisition. Suddenly, a voice rings out:
"Aw, man, there's no way the Celtics are going to win tonight's game."
I glanced up from my book and look over my reading glasses at my new coffee mate.
Is he talking to me?
Jenna and Katie hate this look. Not this man.
He can't be talking to me. My nose is so far into this book its coming out through the binding.
Now that eye contact was made, I realized that he looked familiar but I can't place where I know him from. He started talking about the Celtics.
Really? I'm reading here. It's my "alone" time.
In one minute I learned that he was fifty-six years old, that he is a huge basketball fan and that he certainly knows his history of the game. At one point I stated, "I really have never been a huge basketball fan..." but to no avail. My eyes glazed over a bit as he continued on about Larry Bird and the early eighties under Red Auerbach. I remember those times. It was the only time I ever really followed the Celtics.
Still looking over my reading glasses I was ready to ask him to let me get back to my book. Suddenly I realized where I knew him from. He was the homeless man I saw standing in front of Wendy's as I walked over here from Back Bay.
I looked him over more carefully. Everything he's wearing is "worn". His clothes were layered and not Spring appropriate. His umbrella looks like mine; on the smallish side. Yet, his hair is soaking wet. He is unshaven but not unkempt. He is clearly enjoying the taste of his coffee, the warmth of the store, and his choice of topic. His conversation is very animated.
Even though he lost me somewhere around Wilt Chamberlain I heard myself say, "If the Celtics win tonight it will be an upset simply because no one expects them to do it tonight."
"Amen, brother," he replies.
I close my book as we continue this conversation. From my right and across the narrow aisle cellphone businessman joins the fray. "Don't count Danny Ainge out just yet, my friends."
I laugh. "I won't count him out as long as he's suited up and on the floor. Other than that, their record on the road sucks right now."
Homeless laughs. "If Ainge was going to do anything about this series then tonight's the night."
Businessman replies, "That is so true. You boys have a good team up here, though. Really good."
"Yeah, we do. And its about time, too," Homeless said. "But don't you think that Pierce has to..."
I didn't hear the rest of his sentence because my alarm had gone off. I needed to get to South Station to meet the train. As I pack up my book and clear my table I watch these two men - these basketball fans - continue their conversation.
"I'm sorry; I have to go. I have to meet my daughter at South Station."
"Lucky guy," my table partner replies."Nice to talk with you."
"Yeah, you too." I threw my bag over my shoulder and nodded to both. "Have a good night."
"Goodnight!" - from the businessman.
"Goodnight, sir," from the panhandler, who then turned back to the conversation with businessman.
As I stepped out into the rain I realized that it was a good night. It could have been a selfish "me" night at Starbucks, but it wasn't.
Because, sometimes, its not always about me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Night Terrors

Jenna read "Night" by Elie Wiesel in school some months ago and had highly recommended it to me.
The novel is based on Wiesel's experience, as a young Orthodox Jew, of the German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during World War II. Wiesel was 16 years old when Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945. Having lost his faith in both God and humanity, he vowed not to speak of his experiences for ten years, at the end of which he wrote his story in Yiddish, which was published in Buenos Aires in 1955. It was later published in French and, finally, in English.
I looked for it in various used bookstores to no avail. Finally the book slipped my mind. On Saturday, at Jenna's urging (with a healthy dose of prompting by Bridget) I purchased "Night" at Pazzo Books in Roslindale.
Last night, book in hand, I settled down to begin reading around 8:15.
I put the book down - finished - at 10:05.
I want to describe this experience. I want to tell you how I felt when I turned the last page.
There is no possible way to review this book.
It is not a book.
It is a story.
It is the same as listening to someone describe a painful, horrific and personal experience in their own words and at their own pace. The memory may be faulty and the details may be blurred. Scenes may change abruptly as the train of thought has brought the storyteller to another place in their history. But the feeling is real; the horror inescapable. The unthinkable as the reality.
No, that's wrong. "Night" is not a book or a story.
It is memory.
It is a memory of nightmare and horror.
To review or critique this book would be the same as criticizing the word choices made by a storyteller when he is describing a nightmare that they experienced.
When reading "Night" it is important to listen to what is being said by Wiesel.
"Night" is memories - his memories - of the atrocious. It is memories of Hell and it is full of the damned. The victims. Their tormentors. All damned.
Wiesel has told us a story.
We should listen to him.
And remember what we heard.

Friday, May 09, 2008


I was fourteen years old. I had just been sent to my room.
I don't remember what the argument was about. Mom was stubborn. I was stubborn. Together, with the right set of circumstances, we were the tempest in the teapot.
And the teapot had just exploded.
Fine. Send me to my room. Who cares?
Being sent to my room is no big deal. Everything I own is there.
So I stormed up the stairs, stomping hard with every accentuated step.
Bedside lamp on. Television on. I lay down on my bed to drown out my anger by watching glorious programming in black & white . This goes on for a few moments when Mom bellows from the bottom of the stairs. "I sent you to your room to be punished - not to have a good time! Turn that TV off NOW!"
With calm, assured steps I got off my bed and walked out of my room to stop at the top of the stairs. There she stood at the bottom of the stairs; imperious and angry.
In direct contrast to her barely contained rage I calmly stated, "This is my TV. You gave it to me for Christmas. It's mine; not yours. And I'll watch it when I want to."
Her eyes blazed; her nostrils flared. Ignoring her with a smug satisfaction I walked back into my room. I lay down on the bed and continued to watch television.
After five minutes, suddenly and without warning, the light and the TV blinked into nothingness. The room was dark. What the hell...
However, light was still on at the bottom of the stairs. The TV was still on in the living room, where Mom had been watching it. I heard the cellar door close in the kitchen and Mom's own heavy footsteps parading across the first floor back towards the living room.
I get off of my bed and run to the top of the stairs. "Hey!" I yell. "What's going on?"
Mom appeared at the bottom of the staircase.
"It's MY electricity - not yours - and it goes where I want it to go."

Thursday, May 08, 2008

"Play Ball!"

"Would you be willing to call the game, Mr. Peterson?"
Dad and I were leaning against the front of my car which was parked on an embankment at the edge of the ball field. It was 71 degrees and the sun was out. But I had my Red Sox cap on and so I was well-prepared. We were well-prepared snack-wise, too. Dad and I had just eaten a Slim Jim apiece and we were devouring a bag of cheesy potato sticks. We watched the team practice for awhile. Jenna, in sunglasses, was warming up with the catcher. The game began and my daughter, his granddaughter, was on the mound. This was shaping up to be a perfect afternoon.
Suddenly, the game was interrupted as a player from a nearby field came over and spoke first to Ms. Bird (Jenna's coach and Spanish teacher) and then to the umpire. The ump spoke a few words to the player, Ms. Bird and the opposing coach. With apologies, he followed the invading player off the field to the other game. The kids reacted quickly:
"Is it a medical emergency?"
"But they had two umps already!"
"This sucks."
"What do we do now?"
"But they had two umps already!"
Dad and I watched the drama unfold. The two coaches conferred. It looked like the Marshfield coach agreed that the two coaches would take turns behind the plate.
"It looks like the game is going on after all," Dad said as Ms. Bird walked back to her team bench. Then past her bench. Then up the embankment.
"Would you be willing to call the game, Mr. Peterson?"
And she was looking at me.
A thousand thoughts went through my head. Most of them revolving around the fact that I am probably not qualified to do this.
"It'll be easy. Just call the game. Jenna tells me you practice her pitching with her each weekend."
"Yeah, we do."
"And she says that you know a strike zone."
"I think I do."
"You'll be great."
"Sure. I'll be glad to."
"That's great. Thank you so much."
"See you later, Dad," I said as I walked over the railing and down the embankment to the field. Both coaches walked with me.
"My Dad's gonna ump?" Jenna yells across the field.
"It looks that way," I reply, smiling.
"Cool", she said quietly as she grouped together with her teammates.
"The strike zone is from here," the Marshfield coach said while gesturing to his gut, "And here," said while gesturing to his knees." I nodded. "We give the kids some latitude on either side of the plate."
"Just be consistent and you'll do fine," Ms. Bird said supportively.
We had a discussion about whether or not to wear a chest protector and a helmet. At first it seemed like the choice was mine. A few words of caution from the coaches made my decision. "Protection" was the word of the day. I used the equipment for the catcher whose team was at-bat. dad had joined me behind the plate while I suited up. As the Marshfield coach walked back Dad piped up with, "Maybe the pitcher could throw a few so he gets to see a few in play from behind the plate?"
The coach and I just looked at him. "Dad, it'll be fine," I said handing him my baseball hat.
"Okay," Dad replied. "Good luck, son." And he walked back up the embankment to the car, smiling.
As we got into position both teams yelled out "Thank you!". I waved to both.
"Play ball!"
I won't bore you with the gory details of the game. But I will say this - the Marshfield pitcher can rifle a ball over home plate at at least 50 MPH. And only once did she catch me in the left shin. The crack of my bone was as the crack of the bat - loud. Collective gasps came from both benches. I spun a little, away from the pitch. I put my foot down to make sure I could stand on it. There will be one hell of a bruise tomorrow.
"Ow! that hurt from here!"
"Is he okay?"
"Omigod, are you all right?"
"Ball 1!" I called out. Everyone laughed. The game resumed.
I iced it later on that evening.
During the third inning Marshfield started to score. Jenna seemed a bit flustered. Between innings I asked Ms Bird "Do you think my presence at the plate could be throwing her off? Because, if it is, I'd rather not do this." She assured me it wasn't. Then she went to the mound. Jenna emphatically shook her head "no" and Ms. Bird walked off the field, giving me a "thumbs up" sign.
Every once in a while I would like up and watch my Dad who was beaming with pride. Hopefully for Jenna but I think some was for me, too. Dad took a picture of me behind the plate. A memento.
Later on during the game the sideline was filled with spectators. Many adults and a lot of kids. No one gave me a hard time.
Marshfield ended up winning the game. Jenna was on the mound the entire time. I had fun.
No one disputed any calls and, according to Jenna (post-game) I had a consistent strike zone. I didn't embarrass her with her friends.
Most importantly, while I didn't get to spend the time just chatting with the old man and watching Jenna play ball from the sidelines I got so much more instead. I had the rare opportunity to watch my daughter pitch a game from behind home plate.
"Would you be willing to call the game, Mr. Peterson?"
Yes I would.
This was a perfect afternoon.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Cool - On the Rocks

Turner Classic Movies. This past Sunday night. 8PM.
A dark car with blazing headlights comes toward the camera as a jazz riff begins. Slowly the car passes by the camera, stopping underneath a streetlight that illuminates a nearby alley. Instruments blare as the shot moves twenty feet directly above and looking down on the car. A man disembarks from the car and walks toward the alley. His elongated shadow menacingly walks before him. The shadow meets the door before the man, who callously opens the door and walks through it. The scene changes. Now the man - still in shadow - walks through a cavernous studio, depositing his fedora on a nearby short stool as he passes the empty orchestra section. He takes his place on a tall stool in front of a huge microphone. A cutaway. The camera is now on the man on the stool. Behind him sits the Gordon Jenkins/Nelson Riddle orchestra who kick into overdrive as Frank Sinatra belts out a slamming rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin".
So started "Sinatra - A Man and His Music".
For the next 50 minutes or so, Frank Sinatra was live and on TV, just like my parents had seen him when this special first broadcast live on November 24, 1965.
I had chills, and not just from holding my rusty nail on the rocks for too long.
Instead, it was because while I was watching this I was overcome with just how powerful a presence Frank Sinatra was during his lifetime. In 1965 he was 50 years old. He acknowledged all that he was with all that he still hoped to be in every song. Every gesture was powerful. He joked about his age while he sang about youth. He put nuance into "It was a Very Good Year" where none would have been before. Sinatra roared like a lion; taming the budding age of sixties rock for a few years more.
Sinatra could make any lyric work. Katie and I joked that he could sing "'C' is for Cookie" and make it rock. I think he could.
For me, the highlight of the evening was hearing a song that I had never heard before. It was "Last Night When We Were Young." Sung with both verve and melancholy, this song moved me.

Last night when we were young
Love was a star, a song unsung
Life was so new, so real so right
Ages ago last night

Today the world is old
You flew away and time grew cold
Where is that star that shone so bright
Ages ago last night?

To think that spring had depended
On merely this: a look, a kiss
To think that something so splendid
Could slip away in one little daybreak

So now, let's reminisce
And recollect the sighs and the kisses
The arms that clung

When we were young last night

This song must have held so many meanings for Sinatra at this moment in his life. All I know is that, when the last note faded away, I was left speechless.
Five minutes into the concert I had said, out loud, "God help me, the man gives me chills." And he did. Throughout the whole show.
There have been many voices since Frank that have tried to "be" Frank. Harry Connick Jr comes to mind. He's got a great voice. I'd even say he's a helluva crooner. But Sinatra...Sinatra was more than a voice. He was a man, a personality, a presence. During this show, at 50 years-old, he was still larger than life yet somehow more grounded. More vulnerable. He was made more powerful by acknowledging his mortality.
There are singers. And there are crooners. And there is Frank Sinatra. All others stand in his shadow and pale in comparison.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Friends & Promises

Standing in front of the restaurant, I waited. Soon I spied a person walking towards me from the parking garage. After thirty-three years, I'd know that walk anywhere. We hugged, grateful to see each other after too much time had passed.
"You look great!" I said.
"So, do you, Andrew. So do you."
"Why is it that you always look better and I always look older?"
"Its that gray on your chin," she replied, laughing. "I'll give you the name of my colorist."
"Does she do chins?"
"Honey, she does it all."
And so it goes.
We were seated and greeted by two waitresses. one experienced, the other not so much. Both were kind and attentive. We waited ten minutes before we ordered drinks. I let Cheryl order first. I would base my drink selection on the tone she set. "I'll have an apple martini."
"Excellent, I'll have a rusty nail."
Drink details were given twice (to avoid a bad mix of scotch and Drambuie) and we settled in for an evening of conversation and catching up.
Cheryl first moved into our neighborhood when I was nine years old. Until this time the only other girl living on the street (besides my sister) was Tammy. Now there was a girl living here who was everything that Tammy was not. Cheryl was a tomboy; Tammy was a flirt. Cheryl dressed in jeans; Tammy dressed in skirts. Tammy was the first girl I ever kissed; Cheryl was the first girl I ever loved.
At least, as much as a twelve year-old boy can love his first crush.
My father has jokingly said that Cheryl was my first crush because she "had big boobs" (his exact words - 25 years ago). To me it was never about that. Nope. Maybe. Cheryl was tall, with light brown hair. She was opinionated, passionate and outspoken. She was different. You never had to guess where you stood with Cheryl.
Unless you were me.
Our love/hate relationship was legendary on our street. One day we were best friends; the next day I couldn't stand her. Or she couldn't stand me.
She's the only girl I ever punched.
I am not proud of this fact. It is simply a matter of fact.
We were fighting about something stupid. I don't remember what. A good, long "in your face" argument. Finally, she had enough and she punched me right across the jaw. I was flabbergasted. My father's voice rang through my head. "Don't ever hit girls!" So I told her to knock it off. She hit me again. Finally, I said, "I've been taught not to hit a girl but I'm going to make an exception if you don't knock it off!"
She raised her hand again. I flattened her. Right across the jaw. She ran for home.
Shaken, not stirred, I walked up to the house across from hers to talk to my friend Billy. While doing so, Cheryl (and her MOM!) stormed out of her house. Cheryl screaming at me to get off my bike because "We're going to fight!"
Calmly I replied, "We already fought. You lost. Go back in the house."
She repeated her challenge.
I asked her Mom to make her knock it off. Finally, her mom said, "You should probably just go home."
So I did.
This was the talk of the neighborhood for a week. By week's end, we were friends again.
There are so many memories. I remember giving her cards, and drawings, and cartoons. Teenage wooing, at least as I defined it. I remember sitting with her while she was sunbathing on her front lawn. Trying not to stare at her and failing miserably. I remember buying her a necklace for Valentine's Day. I remember the kiss (on the cheek) she gave me for it. I remember wanting to date her but having no idea how. We were too young to drive and too old for Spin the Bottle. We went to different schools so our social lives didn't intersect.
Finally, there was a major falling out and we didn't speak for years. This is probably due to our shared stubbornness and my hurt ego; I knew that she didn't feel the same way about me that I did about her. We never actually spoke about it. But I knew it.
Two years passed. She was suddenly at our house for a Christmas get-together. I was so glad to see her. We hugged then like we hug now. Grateful for this friendship.
Cheryl went to BU and I drifted into Massasoit. We lost touch. We'd see each other in passing on weekends and holidays but we never connected anywhere but on our street, in our neighborhood.
She was there for me when my mother died.
Fifteen years later I was there for her when her Dad died.
Between these events, Cheryl had been hit by a car while she was walking her dog. She nearly died. She was in a coma for two days. I went to see her in the hospital. Her head shaved, she was barely conscious. But I touched her hand, held it, and said "Hi Cheryl." I squeezed her hand as I fought back tears. she looked at me and through me in the same instant. But she squeezed my hand and tried to smile. Then she closed her eyes was quiet; just holding my hand. I promised never to lose touch with her ever again.
Later, when she was back on her feet (mostly a full recovery), I visited her at her house in Bryantville. Cheryl later admitted that, on that particular day, it was the first time that she ever really considered dating me. We were both single and she said that "For the first time I realized how handsome you are; how funny and smart. I thought that maybe we should go out and see what happens."
"Well, we clearly never did go out so what happened?"
"I realized that I have so few friends, and even fewer good friends. You're one of my best friends. And I couldn't bear to lose you."
She hasn't. And she never will. Because we're friends.
Cheryl and I chat by e-mail most often and get-together sporadically for dinner. Now that our lives are more settled we plan on meeting more frequently. I think that our age has something to do with this. While neither of us is suffering from a mid-life crisis we realize that we're at a turning point. We are the people that we're going to be and yet we still want to be more. While we search for who we want to be it is so special to stay connected with someone who remembers who we were. Cheryl and I chat easily. We remind each other of funny stories that happened in our past while we learn new things about each other in our present and question each other about the future. No pretense. No awkward silences. No judgement. Because we're friends. Good friends.
During our evening she worries about being old and alone. I promise her that as long as I'm around she will never be alone. She stares at me for a moment and accepts my promise.
Appetizers came and went. So did our grilled mahi-mahi. Nearly three hours have passed. It may as well have been thirty minutes. Laughing our way to the parking lot, we plan to get-together again next month. I know we will, too. We thank each other for "being here"; neither one of us means at dinner. We mean "in our lives". I look at my old friend. I marvel at the beautiful woman that she is now while I remember the beautiful, annoying, smart, irritating, sexy, opinionated girl from my childhood. The girl who was my first love.
We hug as we say goodbye. Grateful for this friendship.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Object of Envy

"Which book is that?"
"Uh, Post-Captain."
"And you've just started to read the series?"
"I envy you."
"It's amazing, isn't it?"
"I've read the whole series."
"Wow, All 20 books? Including the incomplete 21st novel?"
"Yes I have."
"And you know what? I'm going to re-read the whole series again very soon."
"It's just so amazing."
"I totally agree. The level of detail is mindboggling."
"You know, not many people know this, but there are three reference books out there to go along with the series. There is a lexicon, one about the geography and there's even a cookbook."
"I have them right here in my bag. All but the cookbook."
"Really? Wow. You ARE a fan."
"I am now. I've learned to use the lexicon book because there are just so many words and details that I am unfamiliar with."
"Yes. Totally true."
"But I had to learn not to use "Harbors & High Seas" because each section is broken down by book title and it gives away plot points right there in the text."
"Oh, right. That wouldn't be good at all."
"It isn't. But the lexicon is invaluable. These were a gift to me from a good friend of mine. She got the books for myself, her father and her husband, another friend of mine."
"All of you are reading the series?"
"Did you start with Master & Commander?"
"I read it a few years ago. Reading for school took me away from it for awhile, unfortunately. My friend and his father-in-law just read it, though."
"That's great. New converts?"
"Oh, yeah. I had two copies of Master & Commander laying around so I gave one to Jim - my friend's dad - and once to Vic, my other friend. Both of them have already finished Post-Captain."
"So they're enjoying it."
"Yes, they are. And what I enjoy the most is being able to recommend a series to someone that embraces it as much as I have."
"My neighbor got into the series and loved it so much that he would walk over to my house, return the four books he had recently borrowed and take the next four with him."
"Yup, that guy's a fan."
"Did you see the movie?"
"I did. I enjoyed it."
"Yeah, me too. It's okay but it doesn't compare to the novels. The characters in the movie barely touch the surface of who they are in the book."
"I agree. Russell Crowe was great as 'Aubrey' and Betteny was even better as 'Maturin' but you're right; the books are so much better. They always are, really."
"There's so much history to be learned in these pages."
"I'm glad I like history or this would be greek to me."
"Did you know that the real-life model for Aubrey was Admiral Thomas Cochrane, who served during the Napoleonic Wars?"
"I did know that, actually. It's amazing that someone actually lived this type of life."
"I read the biography of Cochrane; I have it at home. In fact, most of Aubrey's exploits are based directly on actions taken by Cochrane. When you read Aubrey you're reading about Cochrane."
"So, did Cochrane escape France into Spain dressed in a bear suit?"
"No, but he probably could have."
More laughter.
"It's a shame that O'Brian never acknowledged that Cochrane was his source of inspiration for Aubrey before he died?"
"He didn't?"
"Wow, that's surprising. Did YOU know that Cochrane was also the source of inspiration for C.S. Forester when he created Horatio Hornblower?"
"Really? No, I didn't know that."
"Yeah, I've been reading the Hornblower series, too and they're quite good."
"I've never read them."
"Really? That surprises me."
"My boys have read them but I never got around to it. I think O'Brian ruined it for me."
"He could have. The Hornblower novels are fantastic but they are nowhere near as detailed as the Aubrey/Maturin series. At least from what I've read so far."
"Yeah, and you're only on the second novel."
"And they just get better and better. It's amazing how much detail O'Brian put into these novels."
"He really did."
"O'Brian wrote a sequence that's just amazing. I don't remember which novel it was..."
"Was it good?"
"Aubrey is sailing around the Cape - Cape Horn - and he's run into some rough weather. This scene is played out over the next forty some-odd pages and when I was done with it I realized that I was tense; really tense. White knuckles and all."
"Wow. So Aubrey makes it down to the Cape, huh?"
"Actually, Aubrey ends up sailing all over the world."
"How so?"
"Well, the Napoleonic Wars only lasted so long. So we see Aubrey during the War of 1812 where he actually sees the USS Constitution, for example."
"Omigod, that's so cool."
"It is. It really is. In another story he sails to Australia. I don't want to tell you why..."
"Yeah, don't. I'd rather read it for myself. Seeing the Constitution sounds great, though."
"It was."
"What amazes me is the level of detail. Was O'Brian a historian? I figure he must have many doctorates in history or the Napoleonic Age,you know..."
"I think he was either a translator or a linguist..."
Like Tolkien?
"Really? I can't even imagine how long he took to research these novels."
"I've read that he spent his life in the National Archives, reading the actual logs of naval captains."
"Can you imagine?"
"His wife must have loved that..."
"I believe he was actually estranged from his wife; his children."
"Jeez, I can't imagine why. This depth of detail must be a singularly, solitary pursuit."
"I would say so."
"But it was worth it?"
"Yes it was. Every single book was worth it."
"I can't wait to read them."
"You're going to love it." A deep sigh. "I envy you. "


I reach over and turn the alarm clock off at 2 minutes before 5AM. I usually do. Shaking off a night's sleep is made easier as Callie stirs, approaches and kisses my face. I rub her ears as a silent good morning. I throw the covers back and get out of bed. Covers back in place, I cross the bedroom to my dresser and snatch up the clothes I laid out the night before. Five steps later I am in the master bathroom, lights on, with the door closed behind me. I turn on the shower radio, and after relieving myself, I put my clothes in a pile on top of the toilet and add my towel to the pile. While the water warms up, I take my vitamin pill and rinse my mouth out with mouthwash. Silently, but to the strains of Bon Jovi, I enter the shower and slide the curtain shut behind me as hot water washes over me.
Seven minutes later the shower curtain slides open. I reach out, grab the towel and dry myself off. Having done so, I put the wet towel up and over the shower rod so it can dry. I turn around and begin to fill the sink with hot water while I use the hand towel to wipe away the fog on the mirror. As the sink fills I open the door to allow Doyle in. Doyle is our cat. He's been waiting for me since he heard the shower stop. He walks in and jumps up on the vanity. I remove the shaving cream can from the linen closet, put a golf ball-sized amount of foam in my hand and put the can back. I lather my face while Doyle watches.
I'm still getting used to Doyle's place in my morning rituals. This honor used to belong to India. Since her passing, Doyle has slowly but surely been integrating himself into India's routines. I love having Doyle there with me. But sometimes it makes me melancholy.
As I shave I listen to the same commercials that cycle each morning at this time on MIX 98.5. Two minutes later and I am wiping shaving cream remnants from my face and neck. Doyle watches in mute fascination as the water in the sink goes down the drain.
His head turns quickly as I open the drawer with my deodorant in it. I close it quickly so his lightning-fast claws can't grab anything shiny or interesting from it. I do the same when I put the deodorant back.
Now, as I get dressed, Doyle reaches out with his front claws to try and grab some part - any part - of my clothes that moves by him. If its a button down shirt then sleeves are the threat. If its a pullover then the collar is fair game. Most times he misses. Sometimes he doesn't and I have to untangle a claw or two from the threads. He thinks this is fun. Me? Not so much.
Once dressed, I'm back in the linen closet getting some hair gel. I run it through my hair and quickly decide whether to brush, comb, or just style it with my hand. Brush. A quick look in the mirror. Done. I turn off the radio, grab my underclothes off the floor and open the door. Doyle exits before me and runs into Callie, who has been sleeping in the hall for the last five minutes or so. They regard each other while I put on the hall light, I go back into the bedroom and put my clothes into the hamper. I look at the clock. It's 5:18AM.
Shoes on first, which is followed by my drawer of essentials. Keys in front left pocket. Kleenex and cellphone in the right. Wallet in my back right pocket, watch on my left wrist. A single dab of cologne cinches the deal. Hall light off, Callie follows me downstairs. Doyle has already beat us there.
At the bottom of the stairs I look out the windows at the front door. The sun is just beginning to rise in the east and the sky behind Billy's house is alive with color. I smile inwardly. Down the main hall into the kitchen and I turn on the main set of lights. Doyle is waiting to taunt Callie before I get their food ready. I move around them and walk over to the far counter to the right of the sink. I plug in the coffee maker and hit the "ON" switch. The smell of morning goodness begins to fill the kitchen as I go into the lower cabinets and get a can of cat food. Today's choice - salmon. On the other side of the counter (on the left side of the sink) I prepare Doyle's food (read: use pull tab and dump it into the dish) while he waits anxiously for it up on the "L" shaped part of the counter, to the right of the coffee maker. As he starts eating I reach over Doyle's head and remove the box of Murphy's Oatmeal, the box of brown sugar, a cereal bowl and the measuring cup. Back between the sink and the stove I measure and mix the oatmeal and sugar into the bowl. Then I grab Malcolm's food bowl.
Malcolm has already, quietly, come downstairs and waited near the kitchen table. Callie is laying down nearby. her energy level is wildly inconsistent. One minute Callie is chasing Doyle around the kitchen; the next she is resting while I prepare food. For Malcolm there is no resting. If food is being touched by human hands then he is there, wide-awake and ready for action. Drop something! Look at me! I'm right here! Drop something!
I fill Malcolm's bowl and place it on the small counter to the left of the fridge. Over the fridge is the cabinet that holds the pet pills, among other things. I place one pill (he has a thyroid condition) in Malcolm's bowl and walk it back over to his food stand. As I leave him to his breakfast Callie jumps up and playfully touches my right hand with her nose. Its her turn to eat and she knows it. Same routine, different pill ("puppy Prozac"), and I place her food in her food stand. She slides down to the floor and waits for me to give her the okay to eat. I do and she does.
While the pets eat I move my bowl over to the counter next to the fridge. I measure out the milk that goes into the bowl and place the measuring cup into the sink. Next I remove a juice glass from the cabinet and put 1/4 OJ and 3/4 cranberry juice into the glass. I stir the oatmeal with the spoon and then place both the spoon and the glass on the kitchen table near this week's TIME magazine. The breakfast bowl now goes into the microwave. The dogs are done eating.
I retrieve their leashes from hooks at the cellar stairs and get their attention. Malcolm is watching Doyle intently, hoping that the cat doesn't finish his meal. If he doesn't, then Malcolm gets the lion's share of the scraps and Callie can lick the bowl. I put their leashes on but before we go outside I program "2:30" on the microwave and hit start. We three head out the back door as the microwave irradiates my breakfast.
We walk down the backstairs, across the driveway and into the back yard through the iron gate. Callie gets right to business while Malcolm is a throw of the dice. If Malcolm hasn't done anything by the time Callie is done then too bad for him and in we go. I know that Katie will take him out after she gets up.
Back inside the house Malcolm looks eagerly at Doyle's space on the counter. With Doyle gone Malcolm is waiting to see what food, if any, has been left behind. He's in luck. There's a small bit left. I shake most of it into his bowl. He eats that while Callie gets to lick the cat's bowl.
While they snack I add ":30" to the microwave to finish my food prep. I use kitchen cleaner on the counters and completely wipe down all the areas that we have used thus far. The chime of the microwave tells me my own breakfast is finally done. I clean and rinse Doyle's food bowl and put it back until tomorrow. My own food bowl in hand, I cross the floor and sit down in my seat at the table.
I flip open TIME to where I left off reading yesterday. I absentmindedly stir my cereal together as I do so. I take a bite, I read a paragraph, I take a bite, I turn a page. And so on. Suddenly my bowl is empty. I drain the glass of juice in one long draught. I set TIME aside for tomorrow morning.
I stand up and see that Doyle is watching me from the side table, like always. The dogs have retreated back upstairs. Callie has gone to the guest room bed and Malcolm onto his soft bed at the foot of my own. I clean out the cereal bowl and place everything in the dishwasher. The coffee smells good but I'm not in the mood yet. I pull down a coffee mug and leave it out for Katie. I turn off the kitchen light as I head back upstairs.
At the top of our stairs I turn right, open the office door and restart the computer. Then morning light is coming right into the east-facing window in this room. Its a cozy spot. As the computer is warming up I head back into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Once done, I walk into the bedroom to get my glasses from off the bedside table. Back in the office, I sit down, glasses in place, and log in. Doyle has joined me. He's sitting on the sea chest looking out the window. It's 5:50AM.
E-mail gets checked first, then my usual litany of geek-sites. Ain't It Cool News, Wizards of the Coast, Star Trek sites, Whedonesque and finally When I've run the checklist I go to YAHOO! and play "Dynomite" until 6:25AM. At this time I switch user names to Katie's preferred address and close up the office.
I walk into the bedroom and give Katie a kiss on her forehead. She stirs. We talk for a few moments, usually about what the dogs did and what the weather will be. Soon afterwards I head downstairs, put my jacket on and throw my courier bag over my left shoulder. A quick shout goodbye up the stairs, a drowsy response back and I am out the door.
Face-first into the early morning sun.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


"I'll have the cheeseburger special, medium."
"I'll have the same but medium rare."
The waitress nodded, made a note on her pad and said, "That'll be out in a few minutes, guys."
Dad and I sat back in our booth at Phil's in Hanson. Phil's was a great, informal place for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was a diner but more so. They had cheap everything. Cheap carpeting, cheap furniture, cheap paneling, you name it. But we weren't there for the decor. No one was. We were there because what they had was excellent food. Truly yummy. And cheap. For me, Phil's was usually a place to eat with my friends. Today, sometime in the early 1990's, I was hanging with my Dad.
The noonday sun filtered in through the mostly closed blinds on my left; his right. We sat for a few moments and made conversation. "How's work?" followed by "How's things?" You know, small talk.
The waitress returned with our burgers and fries. I picked up the top of the greasy bun. Tomatoes, onions and lettuce were piled high underneath. I added mayonnaise to the roll and replaced it. I lifted it up and took a big bite. Burger juice dripped down my chin. Wiping my chin with an oversize napkin I then reached for the ketchup to put on the plate next to, but not on, the fries. Better for dipping. "They make a great lunch, don't they?" asked Dad.
"Yes they do," I said, gesturing toward him with the ketchup bottle. He accepted. Ketchup was only for his burger - not the fries. We ate in silence for a few minutes. Then, Dad started telling me how proud he was of me.
The next few moments of my stunned silence were full of Dad's compliments. He told me how he could always depend on me.
What is he doing?
He told me that I was a hard worker and a kind person.
Oh my God.
He told me that he liked my friends and he could see why they liked me. He summed it all up by saying that he was proud of the person that I had become.
Dad's dying.
When he was done I noticed that half my lunch had been eaten but I don't remember anything after the first bite.
"Thank you..." I replied quietly. "What's prompted all this?"
Because you never do this...
"Nothing. I just thought it needed to be said."
So he's not dying. That's good.
"Thanks, Dad."
His plate empty, Dad sat back in the booth and sipped his coffee. Coffee with a burger and fries - only my Dad.
"But," he started to say...
Oh, I KNEW it. There's a "but".
"There is one thing that surprises me, though..."
"Really? What's that?"
"You're not very patient with people."
"You think?" I said, munching on some fries.
"I do.
"You're right," I said matter-of-factly.
This shocked him.
"I am?"
"You absolutely are."
Dad shifted a bit in his chair. "I know that your Mom and I didn't raise you to be that way and I'm just curious why that is?"
"You really wanna know?" I said, not trusting that he actually did.
"Okay, Dad. The reason that I'm not as patient as you and Mom raised me to be is because I'm twenty-eight years old and after all the things that we have been through in the past nine years I've learned that life is short."
"Yes, it is," he replied.
I knew that we were both thinking of my Mom; dead (at the criminally young age of 46) these past nine years.
Life is short.
"And in these nine years I've come to the conclusion that life is too short to put up with ignorance or assholes."
He thought for a moment. "Well, yes...but..."
"There's no "but", Dad. If I meet someone, or get into a situation where that person is ignorant, or an asshole, or God help them both, then I have no time for that person."
"I see," he said. "And this works for you?"
"It has so far."
"Okay," he replied with a tone of finality. "I just wanted to know."
"I'm glad you asked."
Dad nodded silently.
The waitress came and cleared our table of our empty plates. "How was everything, guys?"
"Great, as always," I replied.
Dad made his usual joke about it being awful and that she should take it back to the kitchen. She laughed obligingly. "Anything else, guys?"
"Just the check," I say.
When the check came Dad started for his wallet. I waved him off. "I got this, Dad". I may not have had a pot to piss in during these years, but I always bought Dad's lunch. He had less than I did.
"Okay, me boy. Thank you kindly," he replied, smiling. I've always liked when he calls me that - "me boy".
I left the tab with tip on the table. We walked through the front part of the restaurant to get to the main exit. As we got into the car I wondered what I had done that prompted his question.
I didn't ask.
I still don't know.
But some things never change.
Ignorance and assholes still bother me.
And life is still short.