Blackout: Conclusion

A version of this post was originally posted on September 19, 2016 as part of the “T Minus 40” project.

When I finally made it to Hudson and 11th, I stood in front of the White Horse Tavern and looked up to see the edge of my friend Kevin’s roof deck. I was certain they would be up on the roof. It was the best place to beat the heat. Kevin and his girlfriend, Alexis had tricked out the roof deck earlier that summer with lights, chairs, a table and a cooler. Everything necessary for maximum summertime enjoyment.

Kevin didn’t have a doorbell. He would often leave the downstairs door unlocked and rely on his intimidating brindle pit bull, Athena, to alert him to the presence of visitors with her substantial bark. There was only one other apartment in the building, on the floor below. I approached the building’s main door, it was locked. I knocked loudly. I didn’t hear Athena. I knew it, they’re on the roof! 

I pulled out my useless cell phone and dialed Yves to no avail. All circuits were still busy.  I crossed the street so I could get a better view of the roof. I saw movement. I shouted at the top of my lungs, Kevin! I got nothing, so I tried again Kevin! Kevin Brennan! Yves! 

People on the street thought I was nuts. Someone sitting at an outdoor table in front of the tavern yelled at me, shut the hell up! 

I don’t know if I was actually annoying him or if he was just playing the part of “pissy New Yorker”.

Just give me a minute, I spat back. I know they’re up there. KEVIN…YVES!! I tried again as loud as I could (which was really loud).

About 2 seconds later I saw their faces appear over the ledge. They were all smiles and shouted down to tell me they would let me in. I turned to the beer drinking “shut up” guy and said, I told you they were up there! That wasn’t so hard now, was it?

He looked shocked that my old-school ‘hood-girl doorbell had actually worked. We both sort of chuckled. The moment had trumped the feud.

I re-approached Kevin’s door just as Yves was flinging it open. We embraced. He said, I was just about to leave to come to you.

I beat you to it, I said. I didn’t want to hang out with the neighbors so I figured I’d come find you guys.

He said he’d been trying to call me, but the cell phones were dead. 

No shit, I thought.

Did you walk here? he was curious.

I sure did. I’ll tell you all about it once we get upstairs.

We headed up through Kevin’s place to the roof. There was a cooler of beer and a bottle or two of whiskey. Alexis was there and Alfredo, the percussionist from Kevin’s band. They’d been working on overdubbing some percussion tracks when the power failed. Alfredo’s wife Ava had come over when the lights went out as well, she only lived a few blocks away.

We had a party brewing.

I regaled them with tales of my journey southward and was rewarded with Jameson and Yuengling. By nightfall, we were all pretty well lubricated. Someone brought out Kevin’s acoustic guitar and Alfredo had exciting percussion toys for us to play with, soon we had a full fledged jam session going. Kevin and I were the main vocalists. We played some of his original songs and we covered The Band, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Billy Preston, you name it. We rocked it. Our drunken version of “Gimme Shelter” alone was worth the four mile walk.

Kevin’s block housed several small buildings that were adjacent to each other and plenty of other folks had had the idea to head up to their roof for relief from the sweltering heat. It didn’t take long for the party to grow. People popped over from other roofs to join the jam. More guitars arrived. Our little band was growing.

We had our own private club up there, the price of admission was a good attitude, an appreciation of music and a bottle of booze. What started as a “disaster” turned into an amazing night filled with friends (new and old), music and a sense of camaraderie that only comes from sharing a unique experience.

We expected the lights to come back on at any moment (although I think we would have been disappointed if they had). We passed the evening with that expectation right below the surface of our revelry. We rocked that roof party until about 3am, our collective subconscious all the while knowing that any minute now this will end.

Yves and I decided we should make our way back to the upper west side.

Fueled by alcohol and my positive experience on the trip south we walked out prepared to make the trek back north on foot. Once we left the shelter of Kevin’s roof though, that idea seemed daunting and scary. The streets were desolate. Things that seemed so cool earlier like the lack of traffic signals and street lights, were incredibly eerie in the morning’s wee hours. The moon had been full two days prior and so the celestial orb was still casting plenty of it’s reflected light onto the earth below. It lit our way, but also served to exacerbate the eeriness of the empty city streets that were now illuminated by only the occasional set of headlights and the moon’s spectral glow. I was, all at once, exhilarated and terrified.

A cab approached and we flagged him down. The cabbie wanted eighty dollars for a ride that usually cost twenty. I told him to forget it. I wasn’t that scared! I told myself that I’d walked here and I could suck it up and walk back. We headed north on foot for about 5 or 6 more blocks but I was really spooked, so Yves flagged down another taxi. This guy was more reasonable, fifty dollars. We agreed that was fair and got in.

The city was like a ghost town as our yellow chariot cautiously navigated the route to our building uptown. The few cars we passed on the trip had drivers who agreed on their own give and take method of crossing intersections. They had no choice but to be communicative in whatever way possible.

I had never seen the sidewalks so empty, even at that hour. It was like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller. We arrived at our building shortly before 4am and walked up the seven flights to our apartment on the top floor. Someone had lovingly maintained a row of supermarket Santeria candles that lit the path to the upper floors all night. The sun would be up soon enough though, rendering their efforts irrelevant.

We stepped into the apartment and found it only slightly cooler than when I had left it at 4:30pm the previous afternoon. I was exhausted and still sporting a pretty decent buzz, but I went around the apartment and lit every candle in my massive collection anyway. I didn’t want the experience to end. I was prepared to stay up until at least sunrise talking over the evening’s adventure, but after about ten minutes on the couch with Yves I was fast asleep. He blew out all of the candles and put me to bed.

When I awoke the next day the lights were back on. I was disappointed that the adventure had ended, but glad to see that most of my refrigerated goods had survived the blackout. I guess I just really hoped for another day of “roughing it” without the technology that had been dogging me the previous afternoon. Another day of creating radio ghosts with our voices and percussion and guitars that we had no means to capture. That was all left behind on Kevin’s roof though and maybe it was better that it stayed there.

I never finished recording “Crazy”, I never even checked to see if it had been auto-saved to disk before the power failure. From then on out I did my auditioning in person.

Blackout: Part 2

You can read “Blackout: Part 1” by clicking here

Once back inside my building I exchanged a few sentences with my Albanian doorman Marjan, whose brother was the super. These guys knew all the gossip. They were the word on the street. Marjan (who the building’s older residents called “Mike” for some reason) gave me the info he had on the blackout. The whole northeast is out, he said. He went on to tell me that there had been a problem at a power station in Ohio that caused the whole thing and that the authorities didn’t think it was done on purpose or by terrorists.

I thanked Marjan for clueing me in and ascended the seven flights of stairs to my apartment on the top floor and tried to call Yves. He was downtown working on a record he was producing for his friend and bandmate, Kevin. Kevin lived above the White Horse Tavern on Hudson and 11th Street and had a pretty sweet recording set up in his apartment. As far as I knew they were working on vocals and percussion overdubs that day.

My cell phone was useless. No call would connect. Our home phone was a digital cordless handset that relied on power from it’s base to function. There was no dial tone. I went to the hall closet and dug out my old corded, analog, plug-it-right-into-the-wall phone and gave it a shot. Yes! Dial tone! Too bad no one else had an old phone like that anymore. I’d only kept mine because of its late 80s kitschiness. The casing was made entirely of clear plastic, so you could see all of the gears and inner workings of the phone which had been assembled with vibrantly colored parts. It even lit up when it rang! Without a similar piece of antiquated technology on the other end of the line though, there was no connection to be made. The phone just rang and rang.

I stood around for a couple of minutes reviewing my options. It was unbelievably hot inside the apartment, so I certainly didn’t want to stay there. I thought about going back downstairs to hang out with my neighbors and Marjan, but they would just be standing around listening to talk radio and lamenting the loss of their refrigerated goods. Boring. I decided to opt for adventure and head down to the village to meet up with Yves. I grabbed a bottle of water, and packed my messenger bag with my useless cell phone, my wallet, a notebook and a pen. (In case I got any lyric ideas on my journey). I grabbed my pack of Camel lights and my trusty Zippo, threw on some $5 GAP flip flops and took to the streets.

It was a mere four and a half miles from 711 West End Ave to the White Horse Tavern, that was nothing. I’d be there in less than two hours. I was used to taking long city sojourns. Towards the end of my tenure at the studio I used to walk home from Times Square to the upper west side. It was great exercise and not only allowed me to listen to more music, but also to bank enough Weight Watchers points to drink wine when I got home. A win win, for sure.

I headed south on West End, I figured I would take it as far as I could and then cut over to Hudson St. at 14th. I opted to leave my earbuds out so I could hear what people were saying on the street. I wanted to gather as much information as I could about the blackout and people’s reactions and solutions. There might be information I needed for my journey too.

People were gathered in front of their buildings on West End all the way down to the 60s. Kids were playing on the sidewalks. Adults were trying to remain calm, but were definitely on guard. There was a palpable tension. We were living in the post 9/11 New York City, so that was always under the surface.

On my journey I learned that the technical failure at the energy company in Ohio was due to a faulty alarm system. An alarm failed to tell the workers to transfer power from an overloaded system and, zap! The whole Northeast was fried. I remember thinking that it was kind of weak that something so simple could throw so many people into darkness.

More and more people were heading south with me as I crossed out of my Upper West Side neighborhood and into the West 50s.

I met a woman who was walking because she lived downtown and was unwilling to fork over the outrageous fees she had been quoted by several midtown taxi drivers. We talked for a few blocks before she turned to head east.

I walked for about 10 blocks with a man who appeared to be in his late 40s or early 50s and worked in midtown but lived in New Jersey. His commute was usually an easy one, he told me, but today he wasn’t quite sure how he was going to get across the river. He had heard there was a shuttle set up at the Lincoln Tunnel to get folks back to Jersey, so he was headed that way. He told me he had a friend on the east side that he could stay with in a pinch, but would prefer to get home to his wife. We talked about our jobs and our families until we parted ways right before I passed the Javits Center. He told me to “take care” and I wished him luck getting home.

On my way east and in the last few blocks before 11th St. I walked by bars selling discounted beer and restaurants that had already come up with special deals to minimize their losses in the face of the massive cooler outage. By tomorrow they would be out thousands in spoiled food if they didn’t find a way to mitigate the situation. People were out in droves so there were plenty of takers on these deals. It was after work hours by that time anyway, although I’m not sure anyone would have stayed at their desk if given the option. It was like the greatest happy hour deal in the history of happy hours.

Everyone I encountered downtown was calm and orderly, even somewhat celebratory. There was an air of conviviality on the street, like we all sort of knew we were a part of history in this moment and we would deal with the melted ice cream tomorrow. We New Yorkers, as a group, had gotten good at dealing with disaster and it was a relief to know this one was simply electrical. There was still no foul play suspected.

Blackout: Part 1

A portion of “Blackout” was originally posted as part of T Minus 40, back in September. This is part one of the completed story…

For about 5 minutes, I thought I caused the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

I was sitting at my desk in our West End Avenue apartment working on recording a demo to send to the producers of an upcoming production of “Always, Patsy Cline”. It was August and it was hot as hell in our top floor apartment. I didn’t want to be sweating inside working, but I was trying out a new thing called self discipline and I really wanted to be good at it.

Earlier that year I had walked away from my position managing my stepfather’s recording studio in Times Square. After 6 years of dealing with major record labels, tending to the needs of artists, A&R and engineers and stroking all of the considerable egos at play I was really beginning to sour on the music business. I had all but abandoned my own original project which got me close to obtaining the kind of success and adoration I craved, but also held a mirror up to the sensitivity that would ultimately hold me back as a performer. I left partially because of the changing industry which was a victim of new technology, but also because I was 27 (no spring chicken in the entertainment biz) and I feared that my life’s work would become merely about building up others while I watched jealously from the sidelines in either management or A&R. I was not interested in being the woman behind the scenes, so I went back to my first love, acting. I had no family connections in that world and thought that if I struck out on my own it was inevitable that I would find my way. I could be the master of my own destiny instead of having to work how, when and with whom I was told. I had unknowingly abandoned one impossible situation for another.

I had never attempted to engineer my own recording session before. I grew up in the control room watching, but most of the buttons, knobs and faders were a mystery to me. They didn’t interest me. I wanted to be on the other side of the glass, in my mind that was where the real magic happened. I had always left recording to actual recording engineers, but because I had decided to create my own success, I longed for the self sufficiency that this technical knowledge would bring. Frustrated as I was, I was also determined. Yves, who has always been interested in both the technical and the artistic aspect of the recording game (I don’t think he believes there is a distinction) had given me a quick tutorial before he left the apartment that day, so the task seemed doable. I was going to submit an a capella version of “Crazy”, a song that had been in my repertoire since I first heard it in my grandparents Buick when I was 9 years old. As long as the tech part didn’t get the better of me I would be mailing the demo by morning.

At about 4pm I paused to use the bathroom in between takes. The job was taking longer than I would’ve liked. I had no choice but to get one complete take that I was happy with, since my morning ProTools lesson hadn’t included overdubbing and I wasn’t about to try to figure it out on my own. I was sitting on the toilet listening to play back from down the hall when the music suddenly stopped. The lights were off in the apartment already in an attempt to keep the place as cool as possible. We didn’t have the separation of sound necessary to run the AC and record vocals at the same time.

Uh oh, I screwed up the best take with my crap tech skills, was my first thought. Since my only clue to the power failure was the abrupt cut off of the music.

When I went back out to the living room and saw the the computer screen was dark I chastised myself, What did you do you, dumbass? 

Then I answered myself. Um, we did everything right, you were right there the whole time, don’t blame me.

I pressed the power button on the Mac. Nothing. No reassuring Mac start up bing.

I flipped the desk lamp on. Nothing happened. Huh? 

I turned to look around the room and noticed the clock on the cable box was out. Weird. Maybe I blew a circuit. Maybe I’ve got too many things plugged into the same outlet? I’m not really sure how all of this works.

I went to the circuit box in our hall closet. None of the circuits had been tripped. Huh, maybe it’s the building’s fault? 

I went to the front door of our apartment, opened it and peered out. There were no lights on in the hallway, but I couldn’t remember if they were supposed to be on yet or not, I’d never really paid attention to those things. I walked down the hall to the back elevator. There was no sound. No hum. Nothing. I concluded that the entire building was without power. Maybe too many people were running their AC. It was boiling hot that day.

I had no choice but to abandon my project, which came as somewhat of a relief. At least now I had an excuse to stop torturing myself with my novice digital recording skills. I’ve always had a hard time following through on things that don’t come naturally to me. Wearing the producer’s, engineer’s and artist’s hats was putting undo strain on my nerves. It was distracting me from the real task of performance. It felt terrible. I longed for the days when I had access to the studio and its eager young engineers during downtime and off hours. It was a privilege I was now kicking myself for taking for granted. I decided to head to Equinox, the gym I had joined when I decided to become a full time actor, for some air conditioning and a workout. I was sure they would have the power in my building up and running again by the time I sweated out some of my irritation.

I grabbed my purple Jansport and packed it with gym clothes. I headed down the seven flights to the lobby of our institutional 1950 apartment house which spanned the entire block between 94th and 95th streets. Several of my neighbors were gathered, but I was plugged into my first generation rio MP3 player, so I didn’t slow down to eavesdrop. The problem was likely minor and would be rectified by the time I completed the circuit at the gym.

Out on the street I noticed more people than usual milling about. Most of them were standing next to or sitting in their cars with the windows open. It was a little odd, since alternate side parking regulations had ended hours before. I didn’t think much of it though and headed up 94th to Broadway. When I arrived at the door to Equinox on Broadway at 92nd I noticed that their lights were out too. There was a handwritten sign on the door apologizing, but they were without power and so were closing for the afternoon until service was restored.

This is bigger than I thought. I took out my earbuds and headed back down the hill to West End.

On my walk back home I caught a bit of what was emanating from the car radios that were tuned in on the block. I caught a few phrases from the newscasters on 1010 WINS. Widespread outages. Entire Northeast. Michigan. Ohio. Do not suspect terrorism. 

Well, that’s good, I thought.

 

 

Chocolate Cream Pie: A Thanksgiving Story

I was 12 years old on Thanksgiving Day 1988. The one day of the year I could count on to provide me with my favorite holiday treat, chocolate cream pie. I had to have chocolate cream pie at Thanksgiving even though it was in no way traditional. I hated pumpkin pie. I would politely consume a sliver of it, but only to get to the chocolate cream deliciousness. And always with a huge amount of whipped cream.

On the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, I woke up sometime in the wee hours feeling sick to my stomach. I ran to the bathroom and threw up the pepperoni pizza I had consumed for dinner. I thought for a moment about waking my mother to let her know I was ill, but I had always been an independent child and had recently turned the ripe old age of 12, so I let her sleep. I reasoned that there was nothing she could do now and that I would probably feel better soon, since I had emptied the contents of my stomach. I went back to bed. No sense in troubling mom until morning. I was growing up. I could handle a little puke on my own.

When Mom came to wake me for school on Wednesday morning I told her of the previous night’s purge and that I didn’t think I should go to school that day. I was too sick.

My mother didn’t believe me.

Why didn’t you wake me up last night? Her question was totally reasonable.

I didn’t want to bother you. My response made perfect sense, if only I weren’t 12.

Mom wasn’t buying it. If I was sick enough to throw up in the middle of the night, surely I would have needed her comfort or counsel. In her defense, I was a notorious illness faker. I’ve never been a morning person. To this day I consider 8:30am to be the “crack of dawn”. My hatred of mornings led to many a faux sick day before I learned to get myself to school late with the excuse of an expertly forged note from “Mom”.

I pleaded my case. My mother argued that I only had to make it through one day of school before having four days off to do whatever I pleased. I told her again that I was too sick. She got the thermometer, it would prove one way or the other whether I was capable of attending that day’s edition of seventh grade. I had science on my side, it read 99.8. Not exactly a raging fever, but arguably enough to keep me at home. To ensure that my truancy would be less than pleasurable my mother assigned me a couple of low energy chores. I felt pretty rotten, but I figured I could handle folding the laundry and washing a few dishes. I had all day to do it.

My stepdad, Tom, had slept through the whole exchange. He had had a late session at his recording studio the night before and hadn’t gotten home until sometime after the hurling incident. I was doing the dishes when he came downstairs. I told him what had happened and that I had been assigned chores. But as we were speaking, the unmistakable feeling of rising vomit came over me and I ran to the bathroom to spew out the maple and brown sugar flavor instant oatmeal I’d made myself for breakfast.

Now I had a witness. I really was sick.

Although he and my mother had been together since I was four, Tom had only officially become my stepdad two months prior and was taking his parental responsibility seriously. He forgave my work debt. He had to go to the studio for a few hours and would take me with him because he was uncomfortable leaving a vomiting child home alone.

At the time, Tom’s studio was located in the retooled and refinished garage attached to his mother’s house. She was home that day and would look after me while he worked. Tom’s mother was the consummate grandma. Just being in her presence could put you at ease. She offered me saltines and ginger ale to settle my stomach. I gobbled up the innocuous treats, but I couldn’t keep the crackers down. We figured I had a stomach bug or had eaten something bad. I slept on the sofa until my mom came to get me a few hours later.

We went home and my mother set me up on the couch and made me some tea. She felt pretty bad now that it was clear I hadn’t been faking. (I still bring this up when I need to conjure some parental guilt on her part). She started preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. We were hosting the whole family the next day and there was a lot to do. There was chocolate cream pie to make!

On Thanksgiving morning I awakened to a dull, but severe ache in my abdomen and lower back. I needed Mom’s help to get downstairs to the couch. She brought me some juice and turned on the parade for me. She offered me cereal, but I had no interest and my fever had risen. When I couldn’t keep liquids down it became clear that this was more than a simple flu bug. I was in a lot of pain, but also bumming hard because I wasn’t able to eat. I was going to miss out on the turkey, the gravy, the mashed potatoes, but most importantly, the chocolate cream pie.

Tom called his mother, Bea, to relay this new list of symptoms. She would be here in a few hours anyway, but no one wanted to wait that long. Bea came from a big family and had raised six kids of her own. She knew a lot about sick kids. She wondered if my appendix might be inflamed. Get that child to a doctor, was her simple, logical directive.

Mom called the doctor’s office. She got the answering service. My doctor was away for the holiday weekend, but the doctor filling in called back immediately. She wanted to see me in the office right away, my symptoms concerned her. My mother left Tom in charge of the turkey. His sister Liz came over early to help complete the cooking. No one knew what to expect. I thought I’d be home later that day with a prescription and a restricted diet of some kind. Likely unable to partake of the pie I waited all year for. I was not happy.

The doctor’s office was a ghost town. There was no one at reception. There were no nurses. The doctor (we’ll call her Dr. Lady) arrived at about the same time we did and flipped on the lights in the exam room as my mother helped me onto the table. Dr. Lady was caring and gentle as she examined me and felt around my abdomen asking about my pain level. I still didn’t think the situation was all that dire. I’d seen on TV that when the problem is your appendix it hurts a lot in just one specific area of your stomach. My stomach hurt everywhere. Dr. Lady’s tone was calm and reassuring, she was very professional when she said, we can’t wait for the ambulance. I’ll help you get her into the car, then you drive her directly to the ER. I’ll be right behind you. OK, that kind of worried me.

I remember the ride. I remember bumping around as I lay across the backseat of my mom’s light blue Ford Escort. I remember the pain. It didn’t take long to get to North Shore, but by the time we did I could barely move. My mother parked and came around to the back to get me. I needed her help to walk. We made our way toward the entrance with her holding me up and me painfully trudging towards salvation one step at a time. We got about half way there. Then I collapsed.

I had passed out, but the ER staff came to our rescue. Dr. Lady had called ahead to let them know we were on the way and so they were ready with a gurney and expertly lifted me onto it.

The next thing I knew I was in an exam bed in the ER. The surgeon was there. An older man with grey hair and a calm demeanor. He was asking me a lot of questions. A nurse was sticking a needle in my arm. Dr. Lady was giving her assessment to the team. The surgeon examined me and pressed on my abdomen again. He asked me where it hurt. Everywhere, I said. He pressed on the spot I’d seen on TV and asked me if that hurt more. No. But when he let go of my gut my whole body convulsed. The pain was excruciating, unlike anything I’d ever felt. I was administered IV antibiotics. A drug called Keflex, which made me break out in hives. Apparently, I was allergic to Keflex. To counteract the allergic reaction, they pushed Benadryl into my IV which made me incredibly drowsy and pretty damn loopy.

As I crossed back and forth between consciousness and unconsciousness I heard the surgeon telling my mother that my appendix had ruptured. Most likely in the parking lot outside the emergency room, right before I passed out. They would need to remove it right away. I was too out of it to be scared. My mother must’ve been terrified. I could hear them talking about the seriousness of the situation. They wondered why we hadn’t gotten in sooner. I fell asleep again.

When I awoke I was on a gurney somewhere outside the OR, waiting. I remember laying there talking to my mom (I have no idea what about). I saw blood covered surgeons leaving the OR, which would have really freaked me out if I hadn’t been so whacked out on Benadryl. The nurse told us that there was someone having brain surgery, but we were next in line for the OR just as soon as they were done.

Some time later they came to wheel me into the operating room. My mom kissed my forehead and told me she loved me. She said she’d be waiting for me when I got out of surgery. I asked her to save me a piece of chocolate cream pie. And then they took me in.

I didn’t stay awake long enough to have to count backwards from 100 like I’d seen on St. Elsewhere and Trapper John. I have only the faintest memories of the inside of the operating room. The next thing I knew, a nurse was asking me what day it was. I thought it must be Friday, so much had happened. She told me it was Thanksgiving night. Great! There’s still a chance for pie.

Then my mom was by my side. It was over. I was in a room in the hospital that I would have to stay in for the next 10 days. There were tubes all over me. The nurse explained them. One provided oxygen and was tucked up under my nose above my lip, one went up my nose, down my throat and into my digestive tract to pump out the poison that had erupted from my inflamed appendix when it burst. There was a tube sticking right out of my belly through a hole on the right hand side of the hideous, half-closed incision that made me question whether I’d ever be able to wear a two piece bathing suit again. It was there to drain more toxic fluid from my abdominal cavity. I’ve often wondered if they let the newest intern stitch me up after the operation. A semi-decent seamstress would’ve left less of a scar, but it was a major holiday and the hospital staff was what it was. My mom told me that the surgeon said I would have died had we waited any longer. She was shaken up, but relieved. She looked exhausted. I was still in a lot of pain, but noted a conspicuous absence of pie by my bed.

I wasn’t allowed any solid food. For several days I subsisted on IV nutrients, ice chips and juice. I found myself having bizarre dreams about canned peaches and other cafeteria delights. And of course, that pie. I checked in with my mother about five days after the operation when it seemed like real food was in my near future. She had bad news.

Aunt Patti ate the last piece of chocolate cream pie. 

I was crushed. I had almost died and they couldn’t save me one measly slice of pie? My mom pointed out that the pie would have been nearly a week old at this point and wouldn’t have lasted forever. When I was ready, she told me, she would bring me some chocolate pudding from the hospital cafeteria.

Whatever, I said. It’s not the same.

T Minus 40: Birthday…

The events surrounding my birth have long been shrouded in mystery, mostly due to the fact that my mom was doped up beyond belief. I asked her to write the story as she remembers it through a forty year old looking glass of memory and the haze of pain killers that she was under when I was actually delivered. I give you, guest blogger… Mom!! Now I’m off to the spa. Peace out, yo.

The Night before the Blessed Event

It was Tuesday night, September 21, 1976. My husband and I were anxiously awaiting the birth of our first child. We didn’t know the gender, but I was secretly hoping and praying for a little girl; a little girl that I could dress up in frilly things and bond with as my “bestest” buddy. This was in contrast to the hopes and prayers of my Italian in-laws, who seemed to place a little more attention on first-born sons. Those same in-laws kept feeding me and telling me, “you’re eating for two” which may have been why, over the course of my pregnancy, I gained 88 pounds. Yep, that’s what I said, 88 pounds.

I had no clue that this might be a bad idea. My own mother was more than a thousand miles away, and when I asked questions like, “What is it gonna feel like?” I got answers like, “Pooping a watermelon.” You’ve got to love Midwestern colloquialisms.

My obstetrician (we’ll now refer to him as Old Doctor Quack) had no objections to my weight gain and assured me that I would drop at least 30 pounds at the hospital. That may be why, on the night of September 21, I felt free to eat half of a pan of baked ziti and a dozen cookies. When I went to bed that night feeling a little twinge in my tummy I chalked it up to baked ziti and cookies.

Labor Day

The next morning, September 22, 1976, I woke up feeling pretty good but when I stepped out of bed, I immediately felt a little puddle at my feet. “Oh no, my water is breaking! Bobby, it’s time.”

We were both so excited. The long awaited time was near. He immediately went into action, called Old Doctor Quack, and began making preparations for our sojourn to Smithtown General. That included a shower for him, hairdo and makeup for me, and dressing up in nice clothes. After all, when we met our little bundle of joy, we wanted to be presentable.

(editor’s note: I envision this moment looking a lot like the scene in Saturday Night Fever when Travolta gets ready to go to the club)

This was a far cry from my mother’s reaction to going into labor with me. They tell me that when she arrived at the hospital, she refused to get out of the car. She had changed her mind about the whole baby thing.

The pains continued and intensified. The whole “watermelon” thing was far away, but even still, I was thinking, “How does anybody do this?” By the time we got from Ronkonkoma to Smithtown, I was sure no one but me had ever endured such excruciating torment.

I started to focus my uncomfortable feelings on my poor husband. After all, it was he who opted out of going with me to Lamaze. (Truthfully, I wasn’t all that gung ho about it either.) He said to me, “Why would I want to see you in such pain?” Well, he was getting a front row seat now.

Once we were in the labor room, I could hear other soon-to-be-moms, screaming and yelling in vain at their husbands. Wow! That added to my concern.

The first setback was that my water had not completely broken. Oops, here comes a long stick-like wand to finish the job. Ouch!

Then, because of the massive amount of weight I had gained, my veins were extremely hard to find. Stick, stick, stick.

The pain kept getting increasingly intense. My husband didn’t want to leave (so much for the “I don’t want to see you in pain” thing). On top of all this, I was suffering from the revenge of last night’s ziti and cookies. The nurse said, “I’m sorry, I can’t give you anything for the pain as long as your husband is here.”

(editor’s note: you’ve gotta love the ’70s. Stingy with the drugs in the hospital, but at the disco…)

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I took matters into my own hands. I promptly leaned over toward him, and heaved up the aforementioned ziti. Like a real trooper, he caught the ziti vomit in the green hospital gown he had been given when we entered the labor room. He left the hospital to go home and get cleaned up, and I was able to get the much needed pain medication. Victory was mine!

Delivery

Always be careful what you wish for. The much awaited pain medication knocked me for a loop. I was not aware of anything. Where am I? Why am I here? I think I’m having a baby. As out of it as I was, the hours crept by. My husband not only went home, but he went to pick up his mom and took her to lunch before returning to the hospital.

Meanwhile, labor was progressing. I vaguely remember the nurse mentioning something about it being time or crowning or something similar. The next thing I knew, I was floating down a hallway, with bright, white orbs passing over head. I could feel myself being placed on another bed of some sort, and my legs being raised upward. Just as I was regaining a modicum of lucidity, I heard Old Doctor Quack’s voice, “Jeri, can you count backwards from 100 for me?” “100, 99, 98, 96, uh, 85, um, 60, zzzz.” I vaguely heard voices, but I couldn’t make out what they said.

When the fog started to lift I felt nothing, but was becoming aware of my surroundings. A kind female voice said, “Jeri, you have a beautiful little girl.” She was holding my baby close to my face. Through my haze, I saw this bloody, screaming little face. “Oh, she’s so beautiful!” I said through my tears.

My long wait was over and I had gotten my wish. This tiny little beauty was mine and I felt total amazement. Later, I learned from my husband that our beautiful little bundle of joy weighed in at 7 pounds, 12 ounces, and was 21 inches long. I could hardly wait to get her home. We had already picked out our preferred girl’s name, Amy Ann. My brother, who was a thirteen-year-old wise aleck at the time, thought we should name her Amy Sue; he thought Amy Sue Serrago would have a memorable monogram.

As soon as I could get a nurse to help me to the scale, I weighed myself. I was anxious to see that 30 pound reduction I’d been promised, but Old Doctor Quack had lied! I left the hospital having lost 8 pounds. 8!

There were other issues as well. My beautiful little girl had a large, cone-like bump on her head. Because of my position on the delivery table, her head had come in contact with my coccyx bone. The bone was broken, but due to my inexperience, I didn’t realize that my inability to stand without pushing off the floor was abnormal. In fact, I wouldn’t be aware of this until my mother came into town a few days later.

It really didn’t matter to me. I had my beautiful little girl and we spent countless hours dressing her up, being very careful to hide the bump under little pink bonnets. She was our precious jewel. My first and only baby (why mess with perfection) and the first grandchild on both sides.

Interesting Princess Factoids

(editors note: my mother has never actually referred to me as “princess”)

1. Amy is the oldest, of the oldest, of the oldest, of the oldest. Meaning, her great grandmother was the oldest child, her grandmother was the oldest child, her mother was the oldest child, and she is the oldest child.

2. Amy and I were both born in the Chinese year of the dragon (1976 and 1952, respectively).

3. Amy was born on the cusp between Virgo and Libra. Her daddy was a Virgo, and her mother a Libra.

4. Amy actually met her great-great grandmother (Mother Mable) and we have the pictures to prove it. One picture shows an inquisitive little Amy, face to face with blind Mother Mable. In another picture are the five generations, Amy, me, my mother Janet, her father Edwin (Papaw), and Mother Mable.

(editors note: our family takes terrible pictures, there I said it. Thank God they invented digital photography)

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5. Amy comes from a long line of musicians. Mother Mable graduated from DePauw University where she studied music. Then she attended the American Conservatory in Chicago. Amy’s great-great Uncle Cliff (her grandfather was named after him) was a trumpet player in big bands during the 40s and 50s.

6. Amy was born with a slight dusting of dark hair and dark blue eyes. The hair fell out and she was a baldy until about 2 and a half years. Her eyes became the most beautiful hazel we had ever seen.

7. Amy is the most precious gift I could have ever received. And now, through her marriage to a wonderful man, I feel like I also have a gift in him. Corny I know, but true!

T Minus 40: Daddy

I don’t have many stories of my dad and me. I’ve spent the last 37 days trying to come up with one that doesn’t make either one of us the villain. I want to change the narrative. I don’t want the “dad” story to be one of anger or sadness or loss, but those are the themes that enter into my consciousness when I brainstorm on Daddy.

A month ago I thought I would air all of my grievances. I thought I would finally confront my anger at him. I thought I would write about the times he let me down or left me feeling forgotten and unimportant, unloved. When I picked up my pen though, paralysis overtook my hand. The emotions are still present, but I’m losing interest in the theme.

I didn’t know my father very well as an adult. After a certain point, our lives took very different paths. I spent a lot of years being angry about that. I don’t know that I handled the anger all that well, but I did my best. I think maybe he was afraid of that, of me and my anger.

I was born three weeks after my dad’s 25th birthday and merely 10 months after he married my mother. He could not have foreseen the impending dissolution of that marriage, in fact his Catholic upbringing wouldn’t allow him to conceive of such a thing. I have to believe he did the best he could.

I have a picture on my desk that fascinates me. I found it while I was gathering material for this project. It’s from before I was born. My father’s face is just barely visible through the driver’s side window of a bright red 1974 (or 5) AMC Javelin. It’s a hot car. My mother told me it was his.

My dad looks like a kid behind the wheel, a proud kid. I keep staring at the picture imagining the life he had before I was born. I bet he was fun to hang out with. I bet he worked his ass off to buy that car and I bet he washed and polished it every weekend. I imagine what the birth of his baby daughter in late 1976 meant to that life. I’m sure he was doing what he thought he was supposed to do: work, get married, have kids, get old – in that order.

I was in my mid-teens when my dad returned from his first move to Florida which he undertook a few weeks before my 14th birthday. I remember being incredibly sad and disappointed that he would miss my big day, but not as devastated as I had been when, at age 19, I received his phone call from Florida telling me that he had relocated for good. This time without so much as a goodbye.

My dad’s cousin used to throw a July 4th block party with his neighbors on Long Island. I got to go to it a couple of times. One of them stands out as a great day I spent with Daddy. I was 15, old enough for the cousins to sneak me beer, but too old to play with the kids. I was stuck in between. I had been born too early. My stepmother, Cary was busy talking with the other moms who were sitting at a nearby table keeping an eye on their young children as they ran and played in the closed street. My half brothers Bobby and Jason were young, about 5 and 3 respectively and were busy with pre-schooler activities. I had my dad to myself for a while, which was rare.

I don’t remember what we talked about or even if we talked. If we did it was likely about surfacey stuff like weather or cars. We stood by a giant pot of boiling water as he drank a Bud Light and pretended not to notice that the plastic cup I was sipping on had contraband keg beer in it. Someone had gone crabbing that morning, and they were boiling the blue crabs in batches. I think it was my dad’s turn to stir the pot.

He taught me how to pick and eat crabs that day, although mostly he pulled the meat out for me as we stood and talked to the cousins and drank our warm domestic macrobrews. One of the cousins offered to teach me how to surf. I said I’d love to learn and was excited to return for a lesson later that summer. I never saw him again.

As night fell the cousins and the neighbors set up for their massive Grucci style fireworks display at the end of the block. They had stockpiled massive amounts of illegal fireworks gathered from several road trips to Florida. They must’ve known the local cops, because no one ever busted them and the last show I’d seen put Macy’s to shame. I remembered how thrilling it had been and couldn’t wait for the excitement to begin.

When the first of the loud “blockbusters” went off, Bobby burst into tears and had to be taken inside. He was terrified of the nearby explosions. I just stood next to my dad and watched the display, a bit incredulous at the amount of fire power these people were packing, but reveling in the simple ease of my near wordless father-daughter bonding day.

The only time I ever truly talked to my dad was several years after his second move to Florida. Cary had just lost her long battle with cancer and I flew down to visit Dad for a few days. I thought I could be of some help or comfort. I wanted him to need me. It was 2000 or 2001. Bobby and Jason were still young, too young to lose their mom. Amber, my newest half-sibling, was only 6 or 7.

It was already dark when my plane landed and the kids went to bed shorty after we got back from the airport, but my father and I stayed up and talked. It was the first time ever as two adults. We talked about memories of the past and times we had shared when I was little before the other kids were born. He shared stories of his side of the family that I had never heard. We drank beer. We smoked cigarettes. I told him stories of my life, my music and my college experience. We went through hundreds of pictures. Pictures I had never seen. He went to his bedroom and came back with a men’s gold necklace that held a gold cross charm. He told me Cary had given it to him and he wanted me to have it.

I accepted the cross knowing that my status as a full-fledged agnostic would keep me from ever wearing it, but I knew it meant something to him and so I was honored to receive it.

We talked into the early hours of the morning and at some point my father got quiet for a few seconds before saying, I guess I’ve been a shitty dad, huh? 

Yeah, but it’s OK. I don’t know if I meant it or not. In that moment, I probably did.

The last time I talked to my father he told me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I later found out that he had been diagnosed about 14 months prior to that conversation. My anger returned. Why didn’t he tell me sooner?

He promised that he would come see my house just as soon as he beat the cancer.

He asked me if I still smoked, and I told him I had quit. Good, he said. Don’t ever start again.

He asked me if I remembered the necklace and if I still had it.

Yes, I have it.

Could you send that to me?

…sure Dad, anything you want. I’ll do it today. I was angry though and I was hurt. It felt as though that was the only reason he called me, like he would’ve just died without me ever knowing. The same way he moved to Florida. The ultimate abandonment. Like the next year, one of my aunts or uncles would’ve jotted it down in a Christmas card. Merry Christmas Amy, your dad is dead.

Maybe death frightened him and he needed the necklace that his wife had given him for comfort. Maybe I was being selfish, but all I could see was that my dad had given me so little in life and then he asked for it back.

I went to my bedroom, dug out the necklace and handed it to Yves. Can you please send this to my dad? I never want to see it again.

Daddy died three months later.

T Minus 40: Blackout

For about 10 minutes, I thought I caused the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

The following is an excerpt from a larger story I’m working on detailing my adventures that day…

When I finally made it to Hudson and 11th, I stood in front of the White Horse Tavern and looked up to see the edge of my friend Kevin’s roof deck. I was certain they would be up on the roof. It was the best place to beat the heat. Kevin and his girlfriend, Alexis had tricked out the roof deck earlier that summer with lights, chairs, a table and a cooler. Everything necessary for maximum summertime enjoyment.

Kevin didn’t have a doorbell. He would often leave the downstairs door unlocked and rely on his intimidating brindle pit bull, Athena, to alert him to the presence of visitors with her substantial bark. There was only one other apartment in the building, on the floor below. I approached the building’s main door, it was locked. I knocked loudly. I didn’t hear Athena. I knew it, they’re on the roof! 

I pulled out my useless cell phone and dialed Yves to no avail. All circuits were still busy.  I crossed the street so I could get a better view of the roof. I saw movement. I shouted at the top of my lungs, Kevin! I got nothing, so I tried again Kevin! Kevin Brennan! Yves! 

People on the street thought I was nuts. Someone sitting at an outdoor table in front of the tavern yelled at me, shut the hell up! I don’t know if I was actually annoying him or if he was playing the part of pissy New Yorker.

Just give me a minute, I spat back. I know they’re up there. KEVIN…YVES!! I tried again as loud as I could (which was really loud).

About 2 seconds later I saw their faces appear over the ledge. They were all smiles and shouted down to tell me they would let me in. I turned to the beer drinking “shut up” guy and said, I told you they were up there! That wasn’t so hard now, was it? He looked shocked that my old-school ‘hood-girl doorbell had actually worked. We both sort of chuckled. The moment had trumped the feud.

I re-approached Kevin’s door just as Yves was flinging it open. We embraced. He said, I was just about to leave to come to you.

I beat you to it, I said. I didn’t want to hang out with the neighbors so I figured I’d come find you guys.

I’ve been trying to call you, but the cell phones are dead. Did you walk here?

I sure did.

We headed up through Kevin’s place to the roof. There was a cooler of beer and a bottle or two of whiskey. Alexis was there and Alfredo, the percussionist from Kevin’s band. They’d been working on overdubbing some percussion tracks when the power failed. Alfredo’s wife Ava had come over when the lights went out as well, she only lived a few blocks away. We had a party brewing.

I regaled them with tales of my journey southward and was rewarded with Jameson and Yuengling and by nightfall, we were all pretty well lubricated. Someone brought out Kevin’s acoustic guitar and Alfredo had exciting percussion toys for us to play with, soon we had a full fledged jam session going. Kevin and I were the main vocalists. We played some of his songs and we covered The Band, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Billy Preston, you name it. We rocked it.

The block housed several small buildings that were connected to each other and plenty of other folks had had the idea to head up to their roof for relief from the sweltering heat. It didn’t take long for the party to grow. People popped over from other roofs to join the jam. More guitars arrived. Our little band was growing.

We had our own private club up there, the price of admission was a good attitude, an appreciation of music and a bottle of booze. What started as a “disaster” turned into an amazing night filled with friends (new and old), music and a sense of camaraderie that only comes from sharing a unique experience.

We expected the lights to come back on at any moment (although I think we would have been disappointed if they had). We passed the evening with that expectation right below the surface of our revelry. We rocked that roof party until about 3am, our collective subconscious all the while knowing that any minute now this will end.

Yves and I decided we should make our way back to the upper west side.

Fueled by alcohol and my positive experience on the trip south we walked out prepared to make the trek back north on foot. Once we left the shelter of Kevin’s roof though, that idea seemed daunting and scary. The streets were desolate. Things that seemed so cool earlier like the lack of traffic signals and street lights, were incredibly eerie in the morning’s wee hours. The moon had been full two days prior and so the celestial orb was still casting plenty of it’s reflected light onto the earth below. It lit our way, but also served to exacerbate the eeriness of the empty city streets that were now illuminated by only the occasional set of headlights and the moon’s spectral glow. I was, all at once, exhilarated and terrified.

A cab approached and we flagged him down. The cabbie wanted eighty dollars for a ride that usually cost twenty. I told him to forget it. I wasn’t that scared! I told myself that I’d walked here and I could suck it up and walk back. We headed north on foot for about 5 or 6 more blocks but I was really spooked, so Yves flagged down another taxi. This guy was more reasonable, fifty dollars. We agreed that was fair and got in.

The city was like a ghost town as our yellow chariot cautiously navigated the route to our building uptown. The few cars we passed on the trip had drivers who agreed on their own give and take method of crossing intersections. They had no choice but to be communicative in whatever way possible.

I had never seen the sidewalks so empty. It was like a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller.

We arrived at our building shortly before 4am and walked up the seven flights to our apartment on the top floor. Someone had lovingly maintained a row of supermarket santeria candles that lit the path to the upper floors all night. The sun would be up soon enough though, rendering their efforts irrelevant.

We stepped into the apartment and found it only slightly cooler than when I had left it at 4:30pm the previous afternoon. I was exhausted and still sporting a pretty decent buzz, but I went around the apartment and lit every candle in my massive collection anyway. I didn’t want the experience to end. I was prepared to stay up until at least sunrise talking over the evening’s adventure, but after about ten minutes on the couch with Yves I was fast asleep. He blew out all of the candles and put me to bed.

T Minus 40: Bolero

Another upside of turning 40 is that you get to stop caring so much about what other people think, I hope…

The morning of my 13th birthday started out like any other morning. It was a school day, just a couple of weeks into 8th grade. My mom opened my bedroom door and shouted in that it was time to get up. She worked full time all throughout my childhood, but would often drive me to school before she headed off on her own commute. I knew she wouldn’t want me to make her late by oversleeping (this had happened before and it was not pretty) so I jumped right up and started getting myself ready. Besides, it was my birthday and I was excited for the day ahead.

It was a tradition in my school for friends to bring in mylar helium balloons for each other on their birthdays. You got to carry them around all day and then everyone knew it was your birthday and wished you well and was nice to you. It was cool. I always hoped for a respectable amount of balloons so I would look well-liked. I knew I wasn’t going to break any records as far as numbers, but too few would be embarrassing. I was looking forward to seeing how well my clique would represent.

I got dressed and tried my best to make my hair as small as possible. I didn’t yet understand my curly hair. I kept trying to deny it’s curliness. I knew nothing about products and was constantly cutting my hair too short and brushing it out. It was usually pretty huge and hard to tame. I understand my curls now, but I no longer care if my hair is crazy big and hard to tame. I own it now.

When I descended the stair case and made the right turn towards the kitchen I was immediately caught off guard. Our kitchen was decorated with “Happy Birthday” signs and streamers. There were balloons. There was confetti and in the middle of the table in our breakfast nook there was a present!

My birthday had never started like that before. My mom worked all day, five days a week. She never had time for these kinds of weekday morning birthday surprises, but this time she did. I’m not saying my mom didn’t make my birthdays special, just not like this. It was so unexpected, a wonderful surprise. We already had plans in place to celebrate, she just threw this in as a bonus.

My mom yelled surprise and told me to open my present. There were other presents for later she said, but she wanted me to have this one before school. I tore through the wrapping paper and opened the box to find the awesome gray acid wash denim bolero jacket (a lot of descriptors, I know) that I had seen in the store about a week prior. She had told me that it was too expensive then and that I couldn’t have it. I remember being bummed because it was so awesome (it was 1989, bolero jackets were awesome) but obviously she had planned to get it for me the whole time.

I hugged my mom and thanked her profusely. I decided I would wear it to school to show my appreciation. I put it on. Problem was when I got dressed earlier, I had anticipated a jacketless existence and chosen a bulky and long oversized sweatshirt and leggings as my school attire. The bolero didn’t really jive with my outfit choice, but the morning party had already put us a couple of minutes behind. There was no time to change, so I decided to embrace my quirky look. I didn’t want my mom to think I didn’t love my gift. I would be taking it off and stashing it in my locker when I got to school anyway.

The day went swimmingly. I got just enough balloons to look like I had plenty of friends, but not so many that they were a pain in the ass in the hallway. People wished me happy birthday all day. I showed my immediate friends my denim bolero and they agreed on it’s awesomeness.

It was a perfect day, until I got off of the afternoon bus in my neighborhood wearing my giant sweatshirt/tiny jacket combo. Some older girl (whose name I don’t even remember, so – suck it) made fun of my ensemble. She said my jacket looked stupid and my shirt was too long. She said I looked like an idiot. I pretended not to hear her and walked the few blocks home from the bus stop. Then I took off that jacket and hung it on the coat rack in our foyer and forgot about it. That girl had robbed all of my birthday bolero joy and squashed my big shirt small jacket creativity all at once, and I let her get away with it.

T Minus 40: Busted!

I received my one and only traffic ticket while I wasn’t even driving!

My friend Jen was the first of our gang to get her license, so she was our chauffeur for the better part of a year. Even after the rest of us started getting licensed, Jen’s car was still our go-to vehicle. It became our private club. We drove everywhere, but never went anywhere. We frequented fast food drive-thrus, particularly Taco Bell, that way we didn’t even have to get out. From Bellerose to Westbury, we owned Jericho Turnpike.

Cruising along in Jen’s Dodge Neon we honed our rapping skills, wrote scripts for still un-filmed masterpieces and even got guys’ phone numbers all without pulling over. When one of us was lucky enough to have a date the poor guy was expected to pile in and assimilate.

One night in August of 1993 I was out and about with Jen, Christine and Lisa (the usual crew) in our suburban ‘hood. For some reason, I got the idea to start asking people on the street to vote for me. A vote for Amy is a vote for you! I would shout from the passenger’s side of the Neon. We announced my candidacy all over town.

We decided that I was running for Comptroller, mostly because none of us was sure exactly what a Comptroller did. We named no particular town or district and as far as we knew there was no actual election taking place at that time. We thought it was hilarious, and for some reason so did other people. We owned it. We didn’t feel dorky or embarrassed. Even the “cool” kids would wave and cheer when we drove by.

One night we made signs before we went out. They were hand drawn and elaborate, with my tagline clearly visible on each oaktag creation. The Neon was my campaign car. In order to really get my message out there I took to sitting in the passenger’s window of the car “Dukes of Hazzard” style as we cruised our tiny hamlet of Floral Park. We had no idea why we were doing it, but hey, at least we weren’t getting drunk and doing drugs.

As our zest for the campaign waned, the thrill I got from sitting half in and half out of the Neon only grew. I greeted friends we passed on the street in this way constantly.

Just about a week before senior year was to start we were out one night in our four-wheeled sanctuary when I saw our friend John on the street. John had been my date for the junior prom and we made quite the couple due to his over-six-foot stature. So, he was totally recognizable to me standing by a car on the right side of the road.

I popped up onto the car window sill. We were going to pull over to see if John wanted to hang out with us, but I figured I would pull out all the stops with my greeting, so I yelled and waved to him from my perch. As we got closer Lisa reached forward and slapped me on the leg. I thought what the hell? I couldn’t hear the conversation (if there was any) from inside the Neon. Then the car that John was standing next to started to come into view. There was something on top of it. Shit. They were lights. It was a cop car. And crap. That’s not John, that’s a very tall cop!!

I had basically just asked the police officer to pull us over, loudly and demonstratively. I dropped back down into the seat as fast as I could, but it was too late. I had already drawn his attention to my dangerous and illegal activities. We slowed down. I heard him mutter something along the lines of, you’ve got to be kidding me, as he motioned for Jen to pull over. Lisa and Christine were cracking up in the back seat. Jen and I were scared. I knew I shouldn’t have been out on that window, but I wasn’t sure if there was an actual law against it.

The officer came into view as he approached Jen’s side of the Neon. I thought, how in the hell did I think that was John? This guy is so old, he’s like 40!

We were all silent as the officer gave us a stern lecture about safety and the responsibility that comes with having a license to operate a motor vehicle. He asked Jen for her license and registration, then he asked for my license (which I had received only a few months prior). I didn’t know you could be asked to show your license when you weren’t even driving. Once the officer walked back to his car and out of earshot, I ranted about the injustice of what had just occurred.

We waited for what seemed like an eternity for his return. There was a lot of conjecture on the law. We thought maybe he would let us go with a warning. What could he do anyway? I wasn’t driving and Jen didn’t do anything wrong. We had been driving well under the village speed limit, but when the officer returned we could see the tickets in his hand.

We were busted.

We were probably the least trouble making pre-seniors out partying that night and we were nabbed. I was issued a ticket for “clinging to a vehicle” and Jen was issued one for allowing me to cling to the vehicle. It was the worst thing I’d ever done. I was going down. I would have a police record now and never ever get into the right college, panic set in. I tried to play it cool though, I spent the rest of the night bitching to my friends about the cop and how unfair he was.

Clinging to the vehicle. What the fuck is that? I was sitting. My perch was completely stable. It’s not like I was up on the roof in a high-speed chase holding on for dear life! They make it sound like some Mel Gibson “Lethal Weapon” move AND I was just the passenger, what if I didn’t have a license? What would they do then? Huh? It was all so unfair!

Jen was pissed. None of us knew that the driver of a car is automatically held responsible for all the stupid shit her friends do in said car.

Shortly after the bust, we ran into our friend Steve who was a year older than us and had graduated the previous June. He had been in an auto accident during his senior year, so when we told him what happened I received my second safety lecture of the evening. He told me he was glad I got a ticket because now maybe I would stop being so careless. I had a huge crush on Steve, so I took his tirade to mean that he cared and therefore must be in love with me too. It was simple, perfect logic.

Jen and I chose to plead not guilty and a few weeks later we went to court. We were tried together. We walked into that court room terrified, but in the end it amounted to a routine traffic stop. We were kids with no prior tickets so the lawyer pleaded our offense down to “parking on pavement”. I thought, what a stupid ticket! Where else would you park? The whole street is pavement. I did not share my thoughts on that with the judge.

The incident ended up costing me fifty dollars and Jen, forty. Our parents decided that we had been justly punished and chose not to impose further discipline. We settled our debt with the court clerk. It was a fortune to us back then, but a small price to pay for the lesson we had learned.

Keep all of your limbs inside the vehicle at all times and for God’s sake, wear your damn glasses!

T Minus 40: Fire Safety

In fourth grade the school had a firefighter come to class and talk to us about fire safety and prevention. I guess they figured we were at prime playing-with-matches age. The program was intended to inform us and keep us from burning down our homes.

I sat through the presentation, which was a lot of stuff my mom had already taught me. We were also encouraged to go home and ask our parents about whether we had the proper number of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and how we would escape if our home was ablaze. It all made sense to me, safety is important. Got it.

When I saw my mom that evening I told her all about the days activities. I went to bed feeling fine about the whole thing, but in the middle of the night I was awakened by a terrifying dream.

I was outside in the courtyard of our apartment complex. It was dark and the air had that cool crisp feel of a perfect autumn evening. All of our friends and neighbors were gathered under the starless black sky, as if we were at some community event. Except, all the buildings were on fire. All of our homes were connected and so the inferno traveled easily between apartments (I knew this because the visiting firefighter had addressed it in his speech). The others were eerily calm, but I was petrified. There was fire everywhere and it was raging.

I awakened, startled. I ran to my mom’s room and told her of my nightmare. She got out of bed and walked me back down the hall of our apartment to my bedroom in the front of the unit. She did all the right mom things. She got me a glass of water. She tucked me in. She told me it was just a dream and everything was fine. She sat with me and stroked my hair until I fell asleep.

No sooner had I drifted off, but the visions of flames and destruction returned to plague my newly achieved REM cycle. There was fire shooting up out of the ground now. There was nowhere left that was safe to step. I stood very still in my dream, afraid that my movements would prompt a flare up.

I woke again. This time I screamed for my mom. I was too scared to leave the bed. She came to my side and repeated her previous efforts to calm me. Again, she succeeded in lulling me back to sleep.

Again, the conflagration was upon me in my dream. The fire spurts that had begun to shoot up from the ground below were worsening. I jumped to avoid them. I noticed that I remained aloft for longer than gravity should allow. I tried again. This time I really pushed off of the ground and used my arms like a champion breast-stroker to propel myself through the chilly night air and over the flames. I was flying. I had figured out how to survive.

I couldn’t stay airborne for long, but it was long enough to keep from getting singed. I called out to my friends and neighbors below. Just jump, I said. You can get away. Soon we were all floating over the destruction.

I was able to complete my night’s rest after that, but the dream plagued me for several nights. Each time I had to relearn my flight skills. Eventually I stopped dreaming of fire, but it took some time.

The next year fire safety day was off the curriculum. I think. Maybe my mom saw it on the calendar and let me skip that day.