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Monday, November 17, 2014

Cells


by Marcia Butler

One day in the early 1970s, a friend and I played hooky from conservatory classes at The Mannes College of Music. Diligent, disciplined and hopeful about our future careers in music—mid-semester blues had nonetheless descended upon us. We’d had just about enough of music theory and solfeggio classes for the morning. So on a lark, we left the comfort of the upper-east-side and ventured down to the vast construction site where the Twin Towers were being erected. Somehow we were able to slip into an elevator in the South Tower, punch a very high number and ride up to one of the top floors still under construction. A few workmen were milling about, but no one stopped us or paid any attention to our wide-eyed shenanigans. The site was surprisingly deserted, at least on the floor we happened upon.
Walking out into the yet-to-be-constructed offices, we felt simultaneously inside and outside. The wind was whipping through the open space, because the windows, all stacked up against those now famous thick interior columns, had not yet been installed. Curious and brave, we walked towards those huge gaping cavities, and for a moment we really did feel on top of the world. Hand in hand, we ventured right to the brim, without fear or hard hats. We felt giddy as the building swayed, and we gripped each other more tightly.
The Trade Towers had been controversial, considered potential eyesores in the Wall Street area. No one wanted the towers to be built, just as years later, no one wanted the Time Warner towers to be built at Columbus Circle. But these behemoths ultimately do get built, and eventually everyone gets used to them. We forget about the resistance and drama surrounding new construction in our city and the worries of how it will impact our beloved skyline, which is always changing like cumulus clouds. The New York City skyline is imbedded in our consciousness and yet, it slowly undulates with the gradual and inevitable new construction that is the hallmark of progress.
Through the years, I developed a curious sense of personal ownership of the towers, remembering them as the enormous lumbering babies I met when I snuck into that elevator and walked to the very hilt, looking out onto my vast city. I saw a view that few had yet seen. That view was just for my friend, the construction guys and me. As we looked out of the wide-open holes in the walls, we were inured to the height and the expanse and the potential danger of the tower’s verticality.
Out and about in the city, I found myself looking southward often, and feeling comforted; there they were, just as they should be, a solid visual homing beacon. At times, thick moisture laden clouds obscured the tops, and I imaged them as chunky steel legs connected to a robot-like body overlooking the city—protecting its territory. The skies always cleared to reveal spires soaring upward to points unknown.
The Twin Towers were my towers. I loved them so. No matter the weather or my particular day’s coordinates, they grounded me. They were just there, looming over the Woolworth Building and 40 Wall Street, dwarfing those eschewed edifices of the past by dozens of floors.
On the day they fell, imploding a bit too perfectly into themselves, I hunkered down in front of the tube, feeling ghoulish and selfish, watching the horror unfold less than a mile away from my house in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. I’d endured a yearlong battle with dive-bombing personal terrorists in the form of cancer cells, and was furious that the balm of normalcy through music and those ever-present towers had been ruptured. I had just begun jogging again. My skull was sprouting what would become a fantastic plume of gray hair. The demand of upcoming concert schedules had returned to my life. But with a white hot prick of awareness and then the dulled iron clad concession to fate, all hope of a normal day of rehearsals for upcoming concerts evaporated. All I wanted to do that day was play the oboe—play music.
I’d lobbed a few grenades of my own just a few months before. The target: my oncologist—in charge of pouring toxic chemicals into my body under the guise of saving my life. The treatment felt nonsensical, uncalled for and surely sadistic. Railing into him during one office visit, he took my attack with a grim, knowing smile. He’d heard this rant of “re-transition” before. The next week I sheepishly apologized and accepted the red chemo like a soldier suffering from battle fatigue but willing to follow orders for my greater good.
Anger and grief, for the city and myself, folded onto each other like cake batter and I was once again brought to my knees for my off-target emotions. A grim and selfish thought began to surface at the edge of my chemo-brain. On 9/11/01, what was really on my mind was the appointment scheduled at my radiologist’s office for 9/12/01. At 9 AM I was scheduled to have my brand new baseline x-rays, which would tell the new story of my now non-cancerous breasts. My rehearsals never transpired; all concerts were called off. What if my appointment was cancelled due to the Twin Towers collapsing?
Of course, no one was in the doctor’s office to answer my repeated calls. The phone service all over New York City was sketchy at best. I felt sheepish and embarrassed to even bother with this detail in my small life. My gigantic baby towers were gone and my breasts needed to be photographed. The Towers and The Breasts: like the title of a bad soap opera, just cancelled by the networks.
As the wind shifted into the evening, my house began to fill with the smell of smoke and minute detritus of God knows what. I went to bed that night with the windows closed, trying to ward off that odor of death and pulverized computers, the particles of vaporized documents and other ephemera of life that made up the Trade Towers and everything and everyone trapped inside. The very concrete that I may have stepped on as I emerged from the elevator that day over 40 years ago might have been crossing the East River and seeping into my house in Queens on the night of 9/11/01. As I tried to sleep, I inhaled my baby towers—an odor that I imagined contained my own young and ancient footsteps.
On the morning of the 12th at 6:30 AM, the call came from my doctor: they would see a few patients who needed crucial scans and I was one. "Come on in, if you can."
Walking to the subway, I sensed a tentative calm in the air, not yet to be trusted. The streets and stores were empty, save for a few stalwart Korean delis. Most people had undoubtedly been glued to the TV all night and were still watching, or were drifting off to sleep into an unwanted day off. Miraculously, the 7 trains were running and I boarded the Manhattan-bound subway with a few others, our eyes meeting, but mostly behaving as if we were going into work as usual.
I sat on the side of the train that faced north. As the elevated subway went into its big turn just after the Queensboro Plaza station, it suddenly occurred to me to turn around and look south. The gesture was an instinct. My southward view had just cleared the Citigroup Building. With this building in the foreground, the Twin Towers would have emerged. But they were gone. What appeared in their stead was the most beautifully sculpted double billow of thick smoke imaginable. They were solidly planted where the towers had been, almost as if they were new structures, and not going anywhere. Casper-like billows: ghostly. Monumental bulbous balloons of grey steely smoke, the wind unable to dissipate their sheer density. The towers had been rearranged into a softer effect; not the huge phallic-like structures that everyone griped about in the 70’s when I was a music student. No, these might be kind and gentle and forgiving towers, because they were now not only made of concrete and steel, but also of lives lost. Mixed up in the chaos of these gentle smoke stacks were countless bodies, pulverized into a massive, vertical sandy compost heap. Is that what I inhaled the night before? This thought roiled in my guts and I bent down to retch onto the floor of the train. My fellow commuters looked away.
The radiologist’s office was on Madison Avenue, a building of solid steel, concrete, granite and glass. The elevator let me out into an intact hallway. Doors to the offices were wide open; a few bald comrades sat, waiting. Angels disguised as doctors in white coats had flocked to this solid building to quell my fears and complete my treatment, taking the pictures that would become my breast’s new baby pictures, to gaze at and refer to in subsequent years.
9/12/01 was the end of my cancer journey. On that day, I began my final stage of healing. I heard the somber music of death knells throughout the city. The killing of my cancer was complete, and my beloved baby Twin Towers had died too.



Marcia Butler’s life has been driven by creativity. For 25 years she performed throughout the world as a professional oboist. She was hailed by the New York Times as “a first rate artist” and performed with such luminaries as pianist Andre Watts, soprano Dawn Upshaw and jazz great Keith Jarrett. In 2002 Marcia switched careers and began her interior design firm, Marcia Butler Interior Design. She has served well over 100 clients in twelve years and her design work has been published in shelter magazines. She resigned from the music business in 2008. The personal essay “Cells” is part of a memoir Marcia is currently writing, whose working title is My Isolde. She lives in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Guy and the Doll

by Donald Dewey

        Louie Sad was born in Lebanon as the Maronite Christian Elias Saad. Brought to Brooklyn Heights as a child, he was transformed by neighbors and school companions (and later by others who had once gone to school) into the Syrian Moslem Louie Sad who must have had an ethnic in with Ali Baba, Omar Sharif, and the swarthy brothers who supplied the beer kegs for the annual Arab street festival on Atlantic Avenue. Louie seldom disabused people of their preconceptions and misconceptions. A shy man waiting to hear something funny and with a raspy, hyena-like laugh at the ready to reward it, he often conveyed a sense of being on their territory, with their ignorance about nationalities and religions part of a small but necessary admission tax. Even on the corruption of his name, he smiled to me once and for good that “Elias sounds Greek and I’m no Greek.”
        Which was one of the few things Louie wasn’t at one time or another. When he wasn’t whatever burnoused camel driver lived in the minds of others, he was qualifying for all the jobs listed in the Daily News want ads. There were several years in a ticket office where he came to appreciate which theatrical producers had discovered the magic formula for a hit and which ones left him trying to hustle twofers before the final curtain dropped. There was another period when he did something on Wall Street, though he always kept it vague about whether he was running Merrill Lynch or an elevator car in the Merrill Lynch building. What stood out for me was his job in a factory that made those big wheel pretzels that eliminated the need for any other meal on the day. Louie’s task at the plant was monitoring the infinitesimal dosage of lye dropped into every pretzel for preservation purposes. His tales of other monitors who got into distracting arguments about a previous night’s ballgame and had to be switched to other responsibilities because they had allowed too much salted acid to proceed down conveyor belts and out to street carts always provoked hilarity—and resolutions to stick to hot dogs from sidewalk peddlers.
        When he wasn’t working or looking for work, Louie was satisfying his addiction to show business. There was the show business of the downtown Brooklyn movies he checked out as rigorously as the theater bookers, the show business of the television programs he asterisked in TV Guide for appointments, and the show business of the Broadway producers whose tickets he sold and (when it was twofer time) whose productions he personally reviewed in the spirit of attending a wake for someone he hadn’t known in life. But as much as in the celebrities he watched from a distance or read about when they were marrying, divorcing, or slugging photographers, he was also immersed in the closer show business of some neighborhood actor who had just played a corpse in a New York movie or of an electrician who was working backstage on the latest Shubert Alley musical. For Louie these tenants across the hall or fellow bar patrons were equal to famous actors and singers in their place in the glittery commotion he savored as a daily high. He could be as gratified by gossip about E.G. Marshall as about Barbra Streisand, and behaved as circumspectly as a CIA agent when he passed it along to another party.
        Well into his fifties, Louie squeaked one of his hyena laughs at the idea of a show business career of his own, never having hatched grandiose ambitions from selling his theater tickets or from singing along late at night in piano bars. That too was their turf. But then Lorna came along. Lorna was a tall, stately brunette 15 years younger than Louie and with thick makeup bent on making it look 25. She might not have been royalty, but she never sat down without fanning her skirt to mark a wide boundary from her subjects, the way the queens played by Deborah Kerr in MGM movies once did. During the day Lorna worked as a secretary in the rectory of a Catholic church; afterwards and on weekends she took the voice lessons she had been taking since a teenager, clinging to the thought of being discovered one day by an agent or producer who would launch her professional career. Her only conspicuous public performing over the years had been with her church choir on Sundays, when parishioners never had to raise their eyes to know Lorna was in the loft. Once she released her educated soprano, not only the other choir members, but the priest on the altar knew better than to intrude upon a star turn. The rituals could be observed any time; as the filled pews (and substantial basket collections) demonstrated every week, Lorna reduced the sermons to a bill filler. Mahalia Jackson would have understood.
        Having all but converted to Roman Catholicism to hear Lorna, Louie needed little incentive to talk up her talents with anyone who had ever ridden in the same subway car with an agent or producer. Since I had been in a couple of those subway cars, my wife and I were invited fairly regularly to go out with Louie and keep up Lorna’s spirits about eventually finding the maestro who would take her career in hand. In fact, Lorna didn’t need me or anyone else to keep up her spirits. She had already completed a thorough analysis of her hopes and requirements, concluding that she still had reason to get out of bed every morning with bigger dreams than alerting a priest to a telephone plea for the last rites.
        In the hope category, there was Lorna’s endless list of singers, actors, composers, comedians, painters, and sculptors who hadn’t achieved their breakthrough until they were older than Louie. Anyone who had met Lorna and didn’t come away knowing that Giuseppe Verdi had composed Falstaff when he was 79 or that Richard Strauss had waited until his 80s to write his most beautiful Lieder hadn’t been paying attention. What did any of that have to do with the actual singing of Verdi or Strauss? Lorna was amazed you had to ask. What she was even more baffled by, though, was questioning the one and only restriction she had put on her eventual stardom—that she could not stay away from Brooklyn Heights for any length of time, leaving her widowed mother to fend for herself. When had her father died? Twenty years ago. Was her mother ill? No, she smoked too much but was in the best of health and still worked for Con Edison. So what was the problem? See, that was why the question puzzled her. The problem should have been obvious.
        Louie tried his best to pretend it was, too—and then to move on to the less obvious as fast as he could. If Lorna had a warehouse of stories about artists breaking through at 75, he had another deposit of them about mothers who blunted the yearnings of their children, mothers who had always wanted their children to succeed in show business, and mothers who didn’t like being used as excuses for the behavior of their children. He was particularly careful holding forth on this last group, of course, voicing his own bewilderment when Lorna suspected he was referring to her. Nothing of the kind, he reassured her, then went on to entangle himself in a Louie Sad Rule about the map miles that would amount to abandoning a parent and the distance that fell short of that crime. More than once, this prompted debates about whether, say, a one-week engagement in Philadelphia was practically farther from Brooklyn than, say, a two-night stand in St. Louis. Mostly, these discussions wound down to two important points of agreement: that it depended on whether a train, plane, or automobile was moving Lorna back and forth and that it wasn’t worth getting upset about anyway until she received an invitation to go to either place.
        Off by himself, however, Louie was getting upset with these futile calculations, and confided to me that he had taken a step toward acting as Lorna’s agent. Instead of grabbing a sandwich on his lunch hours at the pretzel factory, he began canvassing nearby community halls and theaters to see what it would cost to mount an evening of Lorna and her songs. The numbers that came back to him were not encouraging, they were certainly nothing he could afford, and that was without even approaching a performing palace like BAM to get an estimate. “There’s more involved than the rental of the space,” he moaned. “You’d have to pay at least a piano player. Then there’s the lighting guy and the sound guy and probably a couple of ushers. And you can’t do a thing like this without a program. You know how much these printers want for just a single piece of paper? It doesn‘t have to be colored paper, either. Just the plain white.”
        There was good and bad in Lorna finding out about Louie’s lunch hour soundings. The good was in their relationship, which advanced to her hanging on to his arm and pecking his cheek in public, announcing that she believed in him as much as he did in her, whatever the calendar or her makeup said. The bad was in her nudges about why he hadn’t tried this or that place for her recital—an admission she had been going through the Yellow Pages on her own and a veiled accusation of negligence he sought to correct as soon as another lunch hour bell rang. Somewhere in the middle was the reluctant decision to look for a hall further afield than Brooklyn Heights, all the way out to Park Slope and Sunset Park, if necessary. And when you came right down to it, wasn’t even Bay Ridge at the far end of Brooklyn closer than both Philadelphia and St. Louis?
        Louie soldiered on in his search until it seemed everyone in Brooklyn knew that finding a recital hall for Lorna had become as improbable as talking the Dodgers back from Los Angeles. Then one evening, while waiting at a restaurant bar for Lorna, he ran into an actor who had been hired as a ringer for one of the Lighthouse for the Blind’s occasional presentations of popular musicals. Although the Lighthouse prided itself on giving leads to blind actors, singers, and dancers (the raison d‘etre for the undertaking), it also dropped in a sighted ringer or two—usually as members of the chorus or walk-ons who had some barking dialogue moment—to serve as guides for intricate stage movements. But in the case of the Guys and Dolls then in rehearsal, the actor informed Louie, the whole production was in jeopardy because the blind singer cast for the role of Adelaide had been forced to quit and no replacement could be found. Against Lighthouse intentions, the director was desperate enough to take on a singer-actress who could see.
        Louie told the actor not to worry and to alert the director his new Adelaide would be giving him a call in the morning. He had a harder time persuading Lorna not to worry. Yes, she was familiar with the Guys and Dolls score, and yes, she considered herself capable of learning dance steps, and God knew, she had memorized enough opera roles to handle lines. But she had never planned on performing with a cast of blind people. To Louie’s objection that few people ever had, Lorna retreated to the more worn excuses of her schedule at the rectory, the awkwardness of replacing somebody in the middle of rehearsals, and her preference for bel canto to popular musicals. As Louie would insist later, it was Lorna’s own acute ear that finally heard all these evasive notes and led her to agreeing to see the director.
        Lorna’s reverberating audition rendition of “Adelaide’s Lament” swept away any lingering reservations by the director about taking on a sighted person. As soon as that was settled, the elated Louie started rounding up more commitments for attendance than he ever had for Rogers and Hammerstein from his ticket office. His joke was that he was twisting more arms at his factory than his co-workers were twisting pretzels. As for Lorna, she developed new worries—not about performing with blind co-stars, but about what she detected as the waning strength of her voice during rehearsals because of trying to keep up with the firm baritone of the actor playing Nathan Detroit. It took a concerted effort by Louie and growingly irritated parish priests to convince her she would worry a lot less if she didn’t spend just about every minute of every day—at home, at work, in restaurants—singing “Adelaide’s Lament” to whatever walls were around her.
        There might have been bigger opening nights for a Lighthouse show, but nobody remembered when. When Louie wasn’t glowing over the numerous familiar faces he greeted at the entrance, he was beaming over the scores of arrivals who hadn’t required his personal urging to spend their evening with Lorna. His enthusiasm dipped only when Bessie, Lorna’s mother, swaggered up. Most of Bessie’s long, straight gray hair draped down to cover her face; the rest of it made for a fa├žade of bangs copied from beauty parlor photos; all of it was endangered by her tic of constantly tugging at the ends with a Lucky Strike between her yellowed fingers. Bessie might not have actually sipped anything stronger than tea for decades, but she carried herself as if shaking off a leg cramp after rising from a bar stool. “This your idea?” She greeted Louie with a Lucky Strike voice that made his rasp sound like a trill. “You break my Lorna’s heart, I’ll break something of yours.”
        Louie tried to think that was funny, and kept his eyes on her as she negotiated the front door with a final siss at having to toss away her half-smoked cigarette. “She doesn’t like me much,” he said.
        By the time the imposing-sized orchestra from local schools went into the overture, a couple of hundred people had filled the folding chairs rowed before a high stage. The fact that most of them were relatives and friends of the performers didn’t dilute the objectivity of their attention so much as strengthen the formality of what was being presented to them from the elaborate sets. Whatever the professional or physical limitations of the players, the traditional gulf between entertainers and audience was quickly in place. Halfway into the first scene, there was little patronizing of the blind in the air. The songs and dances were succeeding or failing only on their execution, and the script didn’t call for any pratfalls.
        Bessie didn’t hear any of the sour notes or flubbed lines because she had made sure to plant herself on an aisle seat from which she could get outside for a cigarette break whenever Lorna went offstage. She seemed to have committed the score to memory as scrupulously as any cast member because she timed her returns perfectly to Lorna’s entrances. When a house manager standing in the back suggested she stop coming and going and disturbing the rest of the audience, Bessie separated herself from the play’s Salvation Army characters with her gravelly roar to “go screw yourself.”
        But the main reason Bessie didn’t hear any of the sour notes was that Lorna, for one, didn’t hit any. Just as in the choir loft every Sunday, she swooped down on the golden oldies and shook them with such vibrant force that they didn’t dare not gleam again. When she told Nathan Detroit to “Take Back Your Mink,” he had to be forgiven for thinking it was an order to reanimate the animals that had gone into the coat. The one juncture at which the peculiar sponsor of the evening came to the fore was during a dance when Lorna was outfitted in more beads than solid cloth and she flaunted long legs that had no need of makeup. Behind the smile that had been on his face since her opening number, Louie cast suspicious glances around to reassure himself much of the audience couldn’t see what he wasn’t all that eager about anyone besides himself seeing. He might have been more certain of it if her drum-aided bumps and wiggles didn’t bring loud, hoarse laughter from Bessie at the end of his row.
        The repeated surges of applause at the end of the show only confirmed what had been evident for a couple of hours: Nobody had missed anything by not spending the evening across the river in some Times Square theater. Back to his shepherding role, Louie led more than a dozen people to a restaurant where he had reserved three tables. The one touch too much was in having transparently indifferent but rehearsed waiters clap as Lorna entered, but it didn’t bother her and she immediately kissed her agent-producer for his part in her triumph. Only Bessie blew smoke on the moment as she peered out from her hair in wonder that she hadn’t been brought to a better place.
        The food and wine went on for hours. Lorna volunteered a couple of choruses for nearby diners who wanted to know what was being celebrated, Bessie volunteered a couple of hacking coughs when the pretzel salter next to her asked if she was related to Lorna. Louie didn’t have to wait for somebody to say something funny to laugh since just about everyone did. And then, over the sixth or seventh toast, Lorna stood up to thank everyone for being part of “the happiest night I’ll ever have singing.” Louie jumped up to top her, to predict there would be many more such evenings, but she cut him off with a long kiss, this time on the lips. He didn’t know if he was more flummoxed by the kiss or the tears in her eyes. “Sit down, Louie,” Bessie croaked from across the table. “You’re rockin’ the boat.”
        Bessie liked herself for the reference to another of the show’s tunes, and several people at the table laughed with her. Louie turned pale as Lorna sat down away from him. He knew he was rocking the boat, too. It still wasn’t his turf.


Donald Dewey has published 37 books of fiction, nonfiction, and drama for such houses as Little, Brown, HarperCollins, and St. Martin's Press. His latest books, both published in 2014, are the biography Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor and the novel The Bolivian Sailor.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hacker

by Paul Perilli

“You take a job you become the job,” Wizard said in Martin Scorcese’s cult classic Taxi Driver.
I felt much like Wizard the summer I was twenty and drove a taxi for Red Cab, a Waltham, MA company owned by my older cousin, Joey. Joey was a wise-cracking, street smart, tough guy, who at the same time was incredibly generous and also ambitious. At an early age he turned an interest in cars and a job as a gas station grease monkey into a business that would grow from owning a few cabs to having a fleet of them and eventually include school buses as well as vans for people with special needs and senior citizens, making make him millions of dollars.
Of course, I made a bit less than that working for him those months, an amount that fluctuated depending on how many hours I was willing to put in. And that was a lot. I was hired to drive weekdays but if there was a no-show or someone was late or quit, and that happened often enough, I’d volunteer to stay on. I could drive long hours, 12 or 16 of them with only a few breaks: a to-go breakfast from Wilson’s Diner, a couple of takeout slices from Piece o’ Pizza, a large afternoon coffee from Tony’s Spa. I liked the money and it was there to make if I wanted it, and there were times I’d be home with my family or shooting hoop with friends thinking I could, and probably should, be on the road making some cash instead. I took the job. I became the job.
It wasn’t more than a few days after I started that my friends began calling me Hacker, as in “Hey, Hacker, you coming out with us tonight?” It was a moniker I couldn’t dissuade them from using. The identifier, I was sure, would turn off the girls we ran into at parties or bars or the beach and would doom me to a long dry summer. But, to my surprise, it actually turned out to be a good conversation starter, and I recall more than a few wide-eyed female faces exclaim, “Wow, are you really doing that?” My answer in the affirmative would lead to the usual follow-up questions. “Is it interesting?” “It can be.” “Are the people weird?” “Mostly.” “Do they give you great tips?” “Not especially.”
In truth, I picked up the whole gamut of local humanity and folks passing through Waltham for whatever reason. I transported executives to and from the technology companies out on Fourth Ave, Bear Hill Road, and Winter Street to the airport. I took bossy old ladies who gave me ten cent tips to Super Market to do their grocery shopping. An hour later I might pick them up again and for another ten cents carry half a dozen bags to their door and maybe even respond to a command issued with the authority of a drill sergeant: “Don’t just leave them there, take them inside.” I drove men to their jobs in the morning and picked up others outside bars in the evening and at night, and who, shitfaced and disoriented, might be overcome with a swell of generosity that could yield a 50 percent tip I’d have no problem pocketing. I took people of all ages to Waltham Hospital for tests or admission or to visit an ill spouse or child. Some would go into great detail about their plight, and the fear I heard resonating in their voices might depress me until my next pickup occupied the back seat and a new conversation started up. There were times, once a day maybe, when I’d turn the meter off early to keep the fare low for an elderly person I thought might be down to his or her last few dollars. In a few instances one of them might look so sad and destitute I’d open the back door and say the ride was on me and end up eating the cost myself for a few kind words in return.
My car was a Checker, one of those big, extra-roomy four door vehicles manufactured in Michigan. The model that, three years later, Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle was seen driving in Taxi Driver. Not long after the movie came out I sat in an old, worn seat in Harvard Square Cinema awed at the skill and imagination of Bickle’s creator. He, Scorcese, was talking to me and I assumed lots of other buzzed-up drivers spending long, lonely nights taking strange folks to places they might not feel comfortable being in very long. To this day I still feel an unreasonable identification with Bickle (“You make the move. It’s your move.”) and wonder whatever happened to the draft of the story about a cab driver titled “Time and Distance” I’d written around then?
Time and distance. Those were the two settings on the old meters with the iron flag that was dropped at the start of each new fare: set to distance it ticked off the ten or so cents for each eighth mile traveled; set to time it ticked off a similar amount for each minute that went by as you were stalled in traffic or waiting for your fare to run an errand. Setting the meter to time and distance while the taxi was moving was illegal, though unscrupulous drivers might take advantage of unsuspecting riders. I admit I did it often as I could, though never to someone I was sure was on a fixed income or that I knew or knew of. I did have a penchant to stiff demanding out-of-town businessmen I assumed were on company expense accounts and in a hurry to get to the commuter rail station or back to their hotel up along Route 128 or in downtown Boston. I did it to others whom I decided deserved it or I just didn’t like. Only a few times did someone mention they knew I was overcharging them. Only once did someone call the office to report me to Chuck, the dispatcher.
Presumably because I was the owner’s cousin, a cousin he liked and favored, you would think that might have guaranteed me one or two extra better paying fares a day. Nah uh. Not while Chuck was taking the calls and doling them out.
A grouchy ex high school offensive lineman, Chuck had worked for Joey for years, maybe even from the start, and no way he was going to give the summer help, not even Joey’s blood relative, special treatment. Not when there were men riding the streets with families to support (and at that time all of Red Cab’s drivers were men). Not when Big Mike, a feared and uncommunicative man who’d been driving a taxi since he was old enough to have a license, might be out there waiting for his number to be called.
Big Mike was on the streets twelve hours a day six days a week. I don’t know what kind of life he had outside of that, and it’s likely I never let my imagination wander too deeply into it, but his stature at Red Cab was such that he wasn’t afraid to key the mic and snap something at Chuck if he felt he was getting slighted in the distribution of good-paying fares. Big Mike always looked like he was getting slighted and that made him a little scary to be around. I don’t think I had a single conversation with him. In fact, I don’t think we ever exchanged any words at all, not even hellos at the garage where we picked up and dropped off our cabs.
The taxi business attracted a lot of those types, loners, social misfits, those in transition from job to job or place to place or life to life, people like me who needed some quick money, or those others who, for whatever reasons, thought spending a good chunk of the day alone in a car and sitting in stalled traffic and waiting for lights to change would be an all right job. (“All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go,” was how Bickle put it.) While the seeming freedom of being your own boss and making your own hours, as many or few as you wanted, of hearing the meter click and imagining a steady flow of greenbacks coming your way, might be seductive, its reality was anything but freedom and riches. The constant hustle to make decent cash, the meager tips, whiney people and empty, frustrating downtime, wasn’t for everyone. Joey had a core group of steady drivers, but otherwise the turnover rate was quite high, and he was constantly looking for people he thought might stay with him a while.
84 was my handle, the number Chuck used to communicate with me over the two-way radio, as in “84 there’s a pickup waiting on the corner of Crescent and Moody.” Everyone had a number (Big Mike’s was 1) but Chuck never used it to address them as he did me when I was in the office or on those occasions I went out with them for beers and some pool playing. It was as if I didn’t have a first or last name or that we’d entered a time when the use of birth names was unnecessary. Truth was, I think he was intimidated by a college kid. Sports and women were the two dominant topics among the drivers, and ones I wasn’t averse to delving into great detail about, but books, academic knowledge, those were for the Brandesians, as we townies referred to the Brandeis University students who lived up on the hill on South Street and had long hair and went to protests and who also, we were certain, screwed each other like bunnies on amphetamines. Chuck knew I read books during those dead zones in the mid-mornings and mid-afternoons when business was slow. I’d locate a shady spot to park my Checker and take out the volume I’d brought along, and when Chuck was in a joking mood, or a frustrated one, and there were plenty more of those, he might tell me to put it down and head to such and such a number on Upland Road or Weston Street or over to the main entrance of Polaroid: “I hate to interrupt study period 84, but you need to get right on that.” I’d finish the paragraph I was on and key the mic and repeat the address for him. In the office at end of one day I remember Chuck looking at the big, thick book in my hand and wondering just why the fuck would I (I as 84) want to read something that was titled Cancer Ward?
I still don’t think it’s an unreasonable question.



Paul Perilli's writing has appeared in The EuropeanBaltimore MagazineNew Observations MagazinePoets & Writers MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail and others. "Hacker" is from a group of non-fiction pieces titled Tracking Back.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Just Interesting

by Jonathan Mack

Tokyo, 2013

It sounds odd to call Taro my student since he was eighty-seven when he died and already over eighty when he started attending my English class. He was old enough to have been a soldier in World War Two—a very young, near-sighted, and perhaps slightly eccentric one.

I can report that although Taro’s English was slow and halting, he didn’t make many mistakes and he could say what he wanted to say. He did not, however, participate in discussions. While the other students related their ailments, holidays and grandchildren, Taro sat still as a statue, without seeming to move even his eyes, so becalmed you could be excused for thinking that he’d maybe gone a little soft in the head.

Each week, when the discussion had slowed a little, or when I saw that class would soon be over, I’d turn to Taro and ask, “So, Taro, any news?”

If it sounds like I wasn’t a very good English teacher, that’s the truth. I was lazy. I was too tired and too busy, like everyone else in the city of Tokyo. On the plus side, I was not very important in the lives of my students. A focused and energetic English lesson would only have gotten in the way. I was just an excuse. I was an excuse and I knew it. Just as the English language was an excuse.

Tokyo is the number one loneliest city in the world: I will arm-wrestle anyone who says otherwise. But these old people, sitting in a community center beside Akagi Shrine in the elegant district of Kagurazaka, were not lonely. They were having a good time and, if their grown grandchildren sometimes laughed because grandma was taking English lessons, and maybe had been taking English lessons since the Occupation though her English never improved much and she continued to say “I go to shopping” despite being corrected three times every Wednesday, still, I’m telling you, these old people were clever: they knew a thing or two about living.

Just because some people remain immune to wisdom all their lives does not mean that wisdom can be ruled out. Some people do become wise in their old age and some of those people, it turns out, go to English class, even when they are eighty-five years old.

Whenever I called on Taro, his magnified eyes would blink behind the heavy lenses of his glasses and he would rub his lips together to moisten them. Then he would open his spiral notebook and cough to clear his throat. Using his notes to assist him—there were always a few words he’d needed to look up—he would tell the class a story.

In my life so far, Taro is my favorite storyteller. If I tell you one of his stories, you will be disappointed and you will think that I am not a good writer. That is the truth—but I know, too, that I am not important and knowing such counts as a skill nowadays.

Taro’s stories proceeded as slow as tortoises. A sentence was a creative endeavor and, as such, deserved its full allotment of time and space. Each sentence ought to be allotted its own page, as in the storybook of a young child.

For example, when Taro traveled to Paris with his wife. They went to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

“Wonderful, Taro! How romantic! What did you and your wife do in Paris?”

Taro explained that it was raining in Paris. They did not feel energetic. The chambermaid was a single mother raising two children on her own. She taught Taro and his wife to count to ten in French.

“That’s great, Taro! And what did you do in Paris!”

At that point Taro nodded to the other students. They all smiled broadly to each other. I think it actually pleased them that their American teacher understood nothing whatsoever about life.

It was a long time before I understood that . . . nothing special needed to happen. Taro and his wife went to Paris to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary. It was raining and they didn’t feel well. They stayed in the hotel and the friendly chambermaid taught them to count to ten in French. That was it. And that was enough.

Or the time Taro found a dead cat on his roof. A cat corpse saturated in cooking oil. Taro’s wife thought she smelled something. Taro got on his ladder and, sure enough, there was a large dead. oil-soaked cat on the roof. There were a lot of restaurants around where he lived. They poured used cooking oil into a barrel, but they didn’t always put a lid over it. The cat must have been lured by the smell and fallen in, then been overwhelmed when it tried to clean itself.

“Oh, Taro! I am so sorry! That’s terrible! That’s disgusting!”

For that matter, what the hell was an eighty-five year old man doing on a ladder?

Again, Taro looked to his classmates. Again, the knowing smiles and nods. Like I said, I think they really appreciated the fact that I could be relied upon to be dumb and insensitive.

The point was not that the cat was disgusting—it was all just interesting. Whether it was a dead cat on the roof or learning to count to ten in French, here was reality, and Taro attended to it.

Nothing bad ever happened to Taro. I was his teacher for years and I can attest to the fact. Nothing good happened either. Everything was just interesting. Whatever it was, he took care of it and wrote an account in his notebook, always with a few new words which he forgot almost as soon as he looked up from the page.

What a very interesting world it was. For example, it was interesting that he was constantly being arrested by the police. As a young man he’d never been arrested, not even once. Now he got arrested all the time.

This was because of his bicycle. He liked his bicycle very much, although it was just the ordinary heavy kind of bicycle which the Japanese use to get back and forth from the grocery store. He had built it himself, from the parts of many different discarded bicycles, and it was several different colors.

In Tokyo, when something breaks, you get a new one. Even if just one small part is broken, you get a new one. It is not usual to fix something, much less to make something from what others have discarded.

The police took one look at Taro’s multi-colored bicycle and assumed that he had stolen it, part by part. They put him in the squad car, drove him to the station, and accused him of being a bicycle thief. It took him a long time to convince him that he was just a person who liked to fix things.

This happened multiple times. It happened so often that the police chief, the moment he saw Taro, would rush over and start apologizing. The chief would apologize profusely, then lay into the patrol cop for having nothing better to do than accuse an octogenarian of stealing a bicycle.

The truth was Taro didn’t mind. He didn’t mind being arrested any more than he minded finding a dead cat on the roof or traveling to Paris. He was not at all displeased. He was not neutral either and certainly he was not unfeeling.

Taro lived to be 87. He was a painter and a teacher of art. For half a century he participated in annual exhibitions. His canvases were abstract and enormous and people who saw them invariably said that they seemed like the work of a much younger man.

As often happens in Japan, his final illness was hardly discussed. He retired from English class, then returned to it. Death, he said, would come when it was time -- it was not necessary to wait for it at home.

Taro lived several years longer than the doctors expected. Despite long friendship, no one in the English class was told he when he took turn for a worse, nor was anyone notified when he died. Someone heard of his death from a neighbor, a few weeks or a month later. This was neither unexpected nor rude—it is how death is done in Tokyo. It is considered polite to just slip out and not make such a fuss about it.

If there was a memorial service, none of us heard about it. It is not known, either, what has become of his paintings: they were so sprawling and ambitious that almost nowhere in Tokyo could a space be found to display them.


Jonathan Mack was raised on a family farm in New Hampshire, but has spent most of his adult life in India and Japan. Stories and essays have appeared in Green Mountains Review, Quarter After Eight, Eleven Eleven, Gargoyle, Epiphany, Zymbol, Hippocampus, Mary, Jonathan, Quick Fiction, The Tokyo Advocate, Japanzine and elsewhere. His blog is Guttersnipe Das.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

New Book by Writer Featured in bioStories

We are very pleased to share that a writer we featured in our first year at bioStories, Loukia Borrell, has a new novel out. DELICATE SECRETS is part of Borrell's Aphrodite's Anthology series. To learn more about the book or to order it, follow the link on the title. You can follow Borrell on Twitter @LoukiaBorrell.

More Than One Soul Mate

by Ruth M. Hunt

            My fingers dig into the faux-leather steering wheel as I point my right foot to the ground and the engine roars with exertion. One thought goes through my mind, “What the heck am I going to do with this kid?!” The windshield wipers’ squeaky objection snaps me out of my trance and I slap my hand up quickly, turning the wipers off. The rain has finally stopped. The word, “rain,” gives more credit than this annoying drizzle has earned. We moved to Washington from Texas three months ago and the constant mist is as annoying as gnats in your face when you’re trying to enjoy a picnic. At least in the dry Texas heat my hair didn’t frizz. Of course, I haven’t had my hair down much here where it can frizz. I’ve been working long hours preparing for this deployment and being in the uniform means my hair is up in a tight, strict bun.
            Again I’m jarred out of my ranging thoughts as I make a quick right turn and my truck fish-tails into the empty left lane. “Oh, crap,” escapes my lips as I’m barely able to keep from spinning out. I release my foot from the accelerator. I remind myself I still need to learn how to drive on these slick roads. I try to calm my anger and anxiety and take slow, deep breaths. The full scent of the lush greenery is calming in its backwoods way. The beauty of this unfamiliar state is undeniable as I admire the silent giants lining each side of the road the whole way home.
I make the last turn into my neighborhood and take time to back slowly into my driveway. This is a last ditch effort to provide time to calm down. I walk to the door and hesitate at the lock. I have my key out, but if it’s unlocked, then that means my theory was right and he’s inside.
A slow turn of the handle, and yes, the door opens easily. All the calming efforts from the drive are left outside with the persistent mist. I stomp my boots loudly on the new welcome mat and slam the door behind me.
I yell into the dark, open space, “Jaden! I know you’re here! You better not make me look for you!”
His reluctant steps are magnified in the silent house as he trudges slowly down the stairs. Our little dog trails silently behind him as if she’s in trouble too. I stand in the entry-way, jaw grinding, and watch as he slides his hand down the rail and takes the last step onto the wood floor in front of me.
In a whisper accompanied by a fluttering glance, he looks up at me and says, “Hi, Mommy.”
I quickly switch into drill sergeant mode. “Don’t you ‘Hi, Mommy’ me! Why are you not at school? Why is your principal calling me again? We just talked about this last week! This is the third time this month! What is going on with you?!”
He stares at the floor and shrugs. He’s still wearing his school uniform and he pulls his collared, baby blue shirt down in a nervous motion. His khaki pants have a doodle drawn on the left knee in pen that I think will take me forever to wash out.
I sigh and tell him to go sit on the couch. I take my uniform top off and hook it over the stair railing. With my dog tags clinking under my tan t-shirt, I follow behind him and sit on the couch.
“Jaden, you have to tell me what’s going on,” I say as patiently as I can manage.
He sits all the way back on the couch, his white-socked feet barely touching the ground as he slouches and folds his arms over his chest.
He shrugs again and whispers, “Nothing.”
I feel the irritation rising with the growl in my throat.
I lash out, “Jaden, there has to be something going on!”
When I yell at him his head jerks up as if I’ve slapped him and his dirty-blond hair bounces off his forehead.
His soft-brown eyes are wide as he stares at me and says, “I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I just didn’t want to be at school today so when the bell rang after lunch I just walked out and came home.”
I press forward with the interrogation. “Are you having problems with another kid? Are you skipping to meet up with some other kids? Are you having problems with one of your classes? What is it?”
Again, he says it’s nothing. He apologizes and says it won’t happen again.
Suddenly I’m exhausted and I rub my hands over my face as if I can just wipe away the fatigue.
With my eyes closed and covered by my fingertips, I mutter through my palms, “Just go start working on your chores and we’ll talk about this when Daddy comes home.”
He walks off slowly and I head upstairs to my room.
As I sit on the padded, wooden bench at the end of my bed, I call the principal to let him know Jaden is home. I apologize and thank him for informing me of his absence. I sigh as I hang up the phone and start untying my boots. Leaned over, fingers tugging on laces, I notice a shadow cross slowly in front of me. I sit up and Jaden is standing silently in the doorway.
His shoulders are hanging heavy and his head is down. He looks up slowly and his eyes are full of unshed tears. He looks so weighed down with a burden he hasn’t shared with me that I’m immediately concerned.
I gently prod, “What’s wrong?”
It’s like a wave crashing over him as he releases his held sob and the tears flow freely down his lightly freckled cheeks.
His voice breaks and he says, “I don’t want you to go.”
This one sentence, spoken from this eleven year old boy, hits me so hard I feel my heart shattering under the pressure.

Jaden was exactly one year old when I met him. He was sitting on his grandmother’s kitchen table in Kentucky, playing with his aunt and grandmother when I walked into the house with his dad that first time.
I walked in slowly, just to the edge of the table, and shyly said, “Hi.”
This was the first time meeting my boyfriend’s family and I didn’t have much experience with kids. I barely liked them from a distance.
Jaden was an adorable butterball wearing just a diaper and a small, blue onesie. His eyes fixed in wonder at this new person in his home and he turned back to his grandmother for guidance.
In a peppy, excited voice, his grandmother asked him, “Hey, Jaybird, who’s that?”
Jaden turned to me with a huge, unabashed smile. Then, to my horror, he launched himself into a sprinted-crawl and, giggling wildly as if at a joke only he heard, crawled as fast as his fat fists and knees could carry him towards the end of the table; right where I stood. Without any warning or hesitation, he threw himself into my arms. I was truly terrified. I was twenty years old and had no idea what to do with a kid. Now I had one literally throwing himself at me!
I thought of what could’ve happened if I hadn’t gone on instinct and just caught him. He’s put his life in my hands more than once. Ever since I caught him that first day, I’ve never let him go.
When I married his father, Jaden was eighteen months old. He was adorable in his little tuxedo as he walked unsteadily down the aisle, carrying our wedding bands on a tiny pillow.
When he was four he was bitten by a Brown Recluse spider in our home in Oklahoma. I stood in that emergency room, bawling my eyes out and yet trying to sooth him. Trapped in a memory I wish I could forget, I remember looking into his terrified, confused eyes and holding him down while he screamed so the nurses could clean out the wound.
When he was six his biological mother stopped visiting him and after two years without even a phone call, he asked me why she didn’t love him. I fought back tears to reassure him that she loved him and she was just dealing with other things in her life right now. He’s never received another phone call and he’s never asked about her since.
When he was eight my entire family threw him a birthday party at Peter Piper Pizza. His wish that year was, “I wish I could keep this family forever.” It’s horrible to think that at eight he was still expecting the rug to be pulled out from underneath him, as he wondered if this family was temporary.
One day he came to me and asked if I would adopt him. I told him, “Of course!” We finalized the adoption when he was ten and we celebrate his adoption day annually like another birthday. He doesn’t get presents, but he gets to choose where we eat dinner and, of course, gets dessert.
I never thought I wanted kids. When I met Jaden, he changed all that.
Now I look at him standing before me. He’s already gone through so much in his short life. It seems so unfair that now he is standing here, in the shadow of the doorway, looking so defeated, carrying a burden no child should really ever have to carry as he says, “I don’t want you to go,” and I feel the familiar burn in my eyes as tears immediately rush in.
I stretch my arms out and, like he did that first time, he folds his whole self into me, and just trusts.
He’s much taller now. His baby fat long since stretched to fit his lean build. His feet easily touch the ground as he sits in my lap and I hold him close and rock him.
The salt of his tears taste of raw truth as I kiss his cheeks and tell him, “I’m sorry. I have to go.”
He cries, “But what if something happens to you?”
I tell him I’ll be fine. I remind him of how fiery I get and I can take care of myself. He says that sometimes stuff can happen anyway. I remind him that even if something does happen I’ll be fine.
“Why will I be fine no matter what?” I ask him.
He whimpers, “Because God is taking care of you.” I tell him he’s exactly right. I tell him even if God says it’s time for me to go, I’ll still be fine.
The tears continue to roll and he says, “But I will miss you.”
“I will miss you too. You are a part of me,” I whisper against his hair. My body still rocks him instinctively.
He quietly mutters, “Really? I’m a part of you?”
I tell him, “Yes, Jaden. Of course you are a part of me. I think people have more than one soul mate. You have many pieces of your heart that are spread out all over the world and you know when you find one of those people who were meant to be a part of you. You are a part of me. I will always love you and watch over you.”
He sniffles and looks up at me.
“Now you’re crying,” he says with a slight lift in his voice.
I poke him in the belly and jokingly say, “It’s your fault, you made me do it.”  
He laughs and says, “I’m sorry.”
He pauses for a few minutes and then continues, “I feel better now.”
“Why, because now I’m crying instead of you,” I laugh past the tears.
He gives me a big hug as my tears are rolling freely now. He gets up off my lap and stares down at me. I wipe my tears away with my hands as he does the same.
Now I see a sly smile spread across his face.
“I’m one of your soul mates,” he says, as if teasing a girl he’s just found out has a crush on him.
“Yes, you are,” I reassure him.
He stands there, looking at me like he has more to say.
His smile slowly shrinks away and he says, “I didn’t want to cry at school. That’s why I left. I won’t do it again.”
All the anger is long gone now and I have to force my voice to be firm when I tell him, “You better not.”
He hugs me again and bounces out of the room, no longer carrying the weight of his burden.
I sit and think about this child who entered my life so unexpectedly. This child who has taught me so much about myself. I sit alone and let it sink in that every word I said to him was true and realize he needed to hear it as much as I needed to say it.

Ruth M. Hunt is a Veterinary Technician and a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Army. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English through UMUC. After retirement from the military, she plans to focus on building her next career as a writer. She credits her unabashed dreams to the reassurances and encouragement received from her parents, Rudy and Rosemarie Martinez. She also receives endless support from her siblings, Mercy, Rebecca, and Rudy Martinez as well as constant inspiration from her husband,