That Day

I’ve been trying to unpack this day for years. I’ve never written about it. I’ve been too afraid, but here’s where I’m at today…

That day I awoke to a ringing phone, which I ignored. When my machine picked up I heard Tom’s voice. 

“Call me when you get this.”

God I hate cryptic messages. And right before my alarm was going to go off. I’ll never get those ten minutes back. My first day back from vacation and it’s already starting.

I laid there with my eyes open until 1010 WINS clicked on with my radio alarm.

“Suspected terrorist attack.”

I slapped the radio off, news about some crap in the middle east was not what I needed that morning. I needed coffee, so I could deal with going back to work after a ten day break. 

We got out of bed, I got some juice and Yves started the coffee. We’d been living together on West End Ave for a little over two years. The commute to Times Square was a breeze and my 11am start time made my job at the studio a 20-something’s dream. I could play gigs or hang out at clubs every night and still get to work on time (or close to it). It was perfect for a budding rock star.

I figured I’d better dial Tom to see what was up. I’d rather know now. There was probably a last minute session. He needed me to get milk or some shit.

He answered. “Good, you’re ok.”

It didn’t even register that he was concerned for my safety. “I’ll be in at 11, what do you need?”

“Did you just get up? Turn on the TV.”

I found the remote and turned on my TV, it automatically tuned in to NY1. 

That’s when I saw it for the first time. Both towers. Smoking. Burning. Horribly wounded. All I could think was, that’s going to be a bitch to fix. I was half listening to Tom explain what had happened and half listening to that guy with the hair that used to read us the paper on TV. Words were scrolling across the bottom of the screen where the image of the burning towers occupied one half and a replay of the planes flying into them played on the other. It was absolutely the most shocking thing I had ever seen and it was happening just a few miles down the road. 

I don’t remember the rest of my phone conversation, but when we hung up I said, “I’ll see you at work later.”

I stared at the television. I thought of the people in the planes. Things were taking forever to register in my brain. The fact that those buildings were full of people, there were people on the ground, there were people everywhere; it’s New York. It all came into my consciousness slowly as I took in the visual. 

The flight information got inside me somehow. Did someone tell me? Was it the news ticker? I don’t know. I heard “Logan Airport”. In my haze of disbelief and horror I remembered that my mother was supposed to fly to Boston for a meeting that day. She’d be on an early shuttle. Panic welled up in me. 

I think I called her then, I don’t know, but I found out she was ok. She had been at LaGuardia when the planes hit. Her boyfriend came to get her. She was on her way back to Long Island. She could see the buildings from the car. Burning.

Yves and I sat on the couch, watching the smoke rising from the towers. Voraciously consuming any information they would give. Flipping from channel to channel, as if NBC would know more than CBS or CNN or NY1. 

They all showed the same live feed. The billowing smoke highlighted by a clear bright blue sky. It was a perfect late summer morning. Things were falling from the windows. Papers, debris, human beings.

As we flipped, eager for answers, who, why, how, false reports of more attacks came in with the true reports from DC and Pennsylvania. We knew we were witnessing an unprecedented event, we knew we were under attack. We didn’t know what to expect. Were we safe in the city? And then…

The split screen in front of us filled with a single image. The south tower was crumbling. I was frozen, on my sofa, in my living room. All I could do was watch, horrified as a piece of the skyline collapsed. There hadn’t been enough time to get people out, had there? The people. There were real people in there. Trapped. And now they were gone. And all I could do was sit there. 

As the dust began to settle, what we knew we had just witnessed was reconfirmed. The tower was gone. I still couldn’t quite process it. Thinking, won’t it be weird, one twin left without the other. 

There wasn’t time to grasp what had just happened. Threats – imagined or otherwise – poured over the airwaves. Don’t take the subway. Leave Manhattan. Stay put. Bridges and tunnels closed to traffic. The event was so large, so dramatic, that the human factor didn’t resonate immediately. To this day, I feel that guilt. The guilt of forgetting them in the panic over our own safety. The guilt of thinking about material things, the buildings, my city, my home and my way of life. The guilt of having been asleep when they attacked.

We stayed glued to the television. Hoping for answers, or a miracle, until the north tower fell, leaving a whole in the skyline. It felt like hours, but it had all happened so fast. Had it been a normal day, I wouldn’t even have been at my desk yet.

I remember Mayor Guiliani. He was strong and comforting, like a father. Or a general. He made me feel safer, though I’m not sure how. In that moment he was a true leader. 

We had no idea how many people had perished. How many people work in those buildings? How many people were in the tunnels beneath them? How many in the mall? How many nameless, faceless New Yorkers had no one to come looking for them? 

Eventually, we turned the television off. 

We went for a walk in Riverside Park. Like zombies. Going nowhere. Just walking. The air carried with it the smell of the fires. There were people around. It’s New York, there are always people around, but it was almost as if none of us existed. Suspended. Confused. Shell shocked. 

I called my friend Wendy from the park. She was ok. We were sure there would be a war. 

We resolved to give blood first thing in the morning, but by that evening they were already turning people away from the blood banks and hospitals. They didn’t need blood. There was nobody to save.

I told Yves the story of the time I walked from NYU to the plaza at the foot of the towers with my friend Jay. We lay on the concrete benches, gazing up at the towers. They appeared to spin as the sky stood still behind them. We got dizzy and laughed at how small we were. We were probably high… or drunk.

The next day the studio stayed closed.

On Thursday, I was ready to get back to normal. That was what they told us to do. As good New Yorkers, we were supposed to go about our lives to show the terrorists they didn’t win. But right before I was about to leave I got a call from the studio. There were reports of a terror threat on the subway, so I’d better just stay put. I could make calls from home. 

The next week I went back to work. From midtown, the smell of the fires was stronger. They were still burning. A giant funeral pyre where there once was a landmark.

In the weeks after that day, news started trickle in from friends and family of who was lost. I knew some of them, but not well. A kid from high school was a paramedic downtown. He had been one of the first on the scene. 

My birthday came and went. I taught myself how to drink straight vodka. I started walking home from work. To avoid the train? I don’t know. I called it exercise. 

In early October, I went downtown to see it. Because somehow what happened wasn’t real enough. I had only seen it on TV. I thought it would help. It did not.

We all told stories of our WTC memories while we worked on our martini habit. Three or four a night. I gained twenty pounds. I felt completely powerless to help, to comfort. I had no control.

I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot about the last quarter of 2001. Martinis. Turkey. Anthrax. Christmas. Retaliation. The smell. Work vehicles heading south on West End. Sirens. Fear. Feeling like we had a bond, New Yorkers. Like we weren’t so cold.

I played my last original show in November… December? I don’t know. When I played my song, Chinatown, it took on new meaning. I later changed the lyrics. I covered Elvis Costello – Peace, Love and Understanding. I said goodnight. Then I quit. What could I possibly offer to people when nothing mattered anymore? How could anything hold meaning? What was true?

The path I’d been on on Septmeber 10th was completely obscured. In that moment my weakness was exposed to me. I more or less slept through the next few years. I tried to audition. I swore I was going to start writing again any day. In 2003, when we started the wedding band, it seemed like a good place to hide out. 

I didn’t understand – or begin to understand my own experience surrounding the events of that day until years later. I was fine, right? That’s what I told myself. My loved ones were safe. What right did I have to feel any sense of loss? I never knew I was so sensitive. I’d always thought I was a badass. 

At 24, my life was on a specific track. I was certain that track would lead to something extraordinary. I’m sure a lot of 24-year-olds feel that way, but I lost that feeling that day. That certainty hasn’t been revived. I’m too old for certainty now, and really what I mourn is the lost innocence. The trust. The belief. I wonder if I’ll ever get that back. Maybe it’s all just an excuse.

I haven’t been able to write about that day until now. And even this is incomplete. It’s as true as I can be at this point in time. It may be self indulgent, but sweeping it aside and pretending every year that the event is merely an historical pivot point, a day of memorial and reverence hasn’t worked. If you made it to the end, thank you for listening.

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That Roller Girl: Conclusion

I stood there on the sidewalk for a moment, gripping the metal of the signpost tightly in my fists, shrinking from the fear of what others might be thinking of me as they witnessed the scene. My ass was probably bruised, but not as badly as my ego was. I was sweating a little, likely from the stress as opposed to the physical activity. Choking down the lump forming in my throat, I tried to make myself small enough to fade away.

A mere eight blocks from salvation, I considered bailing out, putting my sneakers on and carrying my skates for the remainder of the journey. 

You fell down, so what? Suck it up and finish this! 

My mind flashed to Mom, crying on that upper east side kitchen floor. I wished I had someone to cry with, but I was on my own. I had gotten myself up off the cold ground, now I just needed to walk myself out the “door” and not let the city or the damn skates get the better of me.

I let go of the signpost and rolled slowly forward, remaining on the sidewalk until I reached the intersection of 18th and Broadway. I stood still on the corner until the light changed and then I stepped down off of the curb, slightly battered, but intent on completing my mission. For the next block, I was cautious as I stuck close to the east side of the street. 

The north end of Union Square Park was teeming with activity. From hacky-sackers bouncing their footie bean-bags and skateboarders wiping out on most of their tricks, to basket toting greenmarket browsers and acoustic guitar-thumping street performers, there were obstacles galore ahead of me. But that was the most direct route home, I decided I would take it slow.

I rolled into the park, inching ahead and leaning back into my brake the entire time. Occasionally, I actually felt it make contact with the pavers beneath me. Slowly and deliberately, I skated past the greenmarket vendors’ booths and around a ragtag little band of acoustic guitar, harmonica and bucket. They were playing something familiar, was it a Grateful Dead tune? Bob Dylan? It was nothing I had ever played, but it rang a bell.

At fifteen I officially became a part of Mom’s rehearsals. She had been playing with a local Long Island cover band that wanted to add another female singer. Mom suggested they give me a shot. “My daughter sings. We sing together all the time”, she told them.  

The band loved the idea of the mother/daughter act gimmick. My mom loved the idea of not having to compete with a new singer that she didn’t know. I was instantly accepted into the fold. I didn’t even have to audition. 

The band added me onto a gig they had in May of my Sophomore year of High School. I sang two songs, “I Will Survive” and “The Rose”. The rest of the time I stood on the stage, sang some background vocals, and mimicked my mother’s movements. At the end of the night the bandleader handed me eighty dollars. I knew then that show business was for me. 

Weekends became filled with gigs in lounges and bars that I wouldn’t have been allowed into had I not been in the band. I wore fancy sequined dresses and uncomfortable shoes and strapless bras. Mom and I always matched. We rehearsed once a week with the band and I learned an extensive repertoire. Eventually, my stepdad joined us on bass. 

Towards the end of senior year, I was hired by a band that played big events and expensive weddings in the city. I still played with my parents on Long Island through my early years at NYU, but I preferred my Manhattan gigs. I got to meet up with my friends at our local college bar, The Jolly Roger, after them. It was so much easier (and cooler) than commuting to Long Island. Sometimes I would show up at the bar still wearing my cocktail dress and heels, wielding my mic stand and small bag of gear. I was showing off and I don’t think anyone was fooled.

Skating past that little band in Union Square, I thought about how much better I was than those kids in the park, because I had real, paying gigs. That’s how professionalism had been defined to me, a paycheck. That determined one’s worth. I didn’t consider that the bucket band might be enjoying making music together without thinking about the reward. I had no respect for the hobbyist musician. 

As I made my way downtown towards the park’s southern border at 14th street  (one of the largest subway hubs and most popular meeting spots in New York) the crowd began, again, to thicken. I looked ahead. Not just a foot or two, but all the way, scanning the bustling section of Union Square for the perfect route. I charted my course. I calculated. It was like I plugged myself into the city in that moment. 

I took a deep breath and mustered my courage. I started slowly, but gained a bit of momentum when I realized I was successfully anticipating the movements of my fellow New Yorkers. The crowd seemed to be with me. They seemed to sense my every move, just as I was trying to divine theirs. It was like they wanted to see me get home unscathed. 

The walk signal at fourteenth clicked on at just the right time and I was out of the park and back on Broadway. I had four blocks to go and then I could take these godforsaken skates off. I could tell everyone I’d done it and I never had to do it again. But if I was going to be a success in this town I was going to have to deal with people. A lot of people. And they were probably going to be in my way.

The signals and the traffic seemed to be timed just for me. The city seemed to see me coming and opened for me like the automated door at the grocery. So I pressed forward and gained more speed. Hopping back up onto the sidewalk, I maneuvered around garbage bags and cut perfect curves passing antique-seeking shoppers. The iconic spires on Grace Church came into view on my left. The same spires I could see from my suite-mates’ window in our 10th floor rooms. I had made it!

I turned right onto 10th street and rolled through the smoke cloud from the cigarette-sneaking freshmen outside my dorm. I leaned back into my squat and applied gentle pressure to my right skate’s braking mechanism. I slowed and rolled into the foyer. Digging in deeper to the brake, I slowed down even more. This time to a perfect, controlled stop. I didn’t even grab onto the front desk to do it. 

Hector was on the door. It was shortly after shift change and he was just starting his day. Hector had been the overnight guard first semester, so he’d seen us at our worst. And by worst, I mean drunkest. 

My friend Liz, who I had met on the first day of classes, was fluent in Spanish and Italian from her time spent living overseas. (Her parents worked for the government, it was all very cloak and dagger). She was used to having a doorman, I was not. She made a point of befriending Hector early on. 

Whenever Liz ran to the deli she would ask Hector if he needed anything. The two of them used to carry on long conversations in Spanish when we were coming in from the bar. I would stand and smile and try to follow the conversation with only my eighth grade Spanish knowledge and the relaxed looseness of a good buzz to help. I was happy for Hector when they moved him to the earlier shift, but I’d miss our late night pow wows.

I paused in front of him to let my victory sink in. I was dying to share it. “I did it, Hector! I made it”, my exclamation a celebration of life. He wasn’t sure what to make of my revelry, so he offered me a resounding “Muy bien chica, you rock”! He had no idea what I was talking about, but Hector was a very positive guy, so whatever I did he was going to tell me I rocked. “Check you later”, I said with a smile as he buzzed me in. 

I was mentally patting myself on the back as I rolled through the unlocked door to the lobby and over to the elevator which was just opening to let some of my fellow students out. 

After rolling through the sliding door behind them, I immediately removed my skates. My feet instinctively relaxed into the floor of the elevator. Curling my toes into the industrial carpet lining the Otis-built box felt like returning to earth after an intergalactic exploration. I was back to whisper-singing by the time the door slid open again on my floor. Still in just my socks, I shuffled down the hall to the corner suite that housed my four roommates and me. 

The place was empty when I entered, a rare occasion in a five person suite, one that I usually relished. But today it meant that no one was there to receive the conquering hero. I was disappointed. On the elevator ride I’d already begun replaying my adventure in my mind, attempting to craft the perfect tale of my triumph over the mean streets of the inner city. It wouldn’t be the same after I’d had time to recover, to catch my breath. 

I put my rollerblades in the closet and stared at them for a long moment. They had not become the instant symbol of my independence I’d wanted them to. (I wouldn’t be ditching my Metrocard any time soon). They didn’t look as cool anymore or as promising as they had uptown and with no one in house to “ooh and ahh”, my own feeling of accomplishment receded just a bit. 

Sweat was still sticking to my skin, so I grabbed my towels and robe and headed to our suite’s shared bathroom, a place that had become my sanctuary. Besides my oversized closet, it was the only sliver of privacy I had.

As I waited for the water to heat up and the bathroom to fill with steam, I peeled off my sweaty clothes. Contorting my naked body, I tried to get a view of the bruise that might be forming, but the angle of the mirror wouldn’t allow me visual confirmation. 

I got into the shower and stood in the quiet safety of the hot water for a little too long reliving my odyssey. The pressure was steady and strong. I let it flow over my shoulders, down my back and over my sore right cheek. I arched my back and tilted my head into the shower’s stream to allow it to soak through my hair to my scalp. I let it run onto my face. 

I thought about the old man I’d hit and how I’d reacted to his verbal attack with a counter attack. Without fear. Shouldn’t I have been afraid? Should I have been more sorry? He was in my way, standing in the street, too slow to avoid my onslaught. How is that my fault? 

Still unsure of what my freedom ride had accomplished, I turned off the water and stepped out through the plastic curtain. I was never going to tell anyone, but I did feel guilty about screaming at an old man, so I pushed the guilt way down deep inside and told myself that exchanges like that were par for the course. 

I’m a New Yorker now and New York waits for no man. This city pushes aside what’s old to make room for what’s new. 

Even the building I was standing in had once been a grand hotel. Now it was a dorm that packed five students in a room. There were stories of the ghosts of those that used to frequent the penthouse speakeasy floating down the halls, but I never witnessed any apparitions. Maybe they were just quick enough to get out of my way, to make room for the future.

After toweling down and donning my robe, I flipped on the stereo and selected disc three in the five disc changer, Green Day’s “Dookie”. I skipped ahead to track 10. 

I heard you crying loud. All the way across town. 

I turned up the volume on our suite’s “get psyched” song, a must-play before any night out, usually on repeat.

You’ve been searching for that someone and it’s me out on the prowl as you sit around feeling sorry for yourself.

Singing along to the words I knew and mumbling over the ones I couldn’t decipher, I slid into my favorite pair of jeans and donned a simple white v-neck t-shirt. As a 90’s-era finishing touch, I tied an oversized and colorful cotton Aeropostal sweater around my waist. 

I squished a handful of gel into my hair, and went straight for my rich roommate’s closet where several pairs of Gucci sandals (in my size) resided. I slipped my feet into a hot pink pair. They felt divine!

No time to search the world around, ‘cause you know where I’ll be found. When I come around!

Coming back to life, I danced my way over to the mirror, swiped on just enough makeup to make me look like I wasn’t wearing any makeup and topped off my look with a dark lip color. 

As the song’s opening lick kicked in for the third time, I called Liz and suggested we meet in the lobby so I could relay the tale of my harrowing journey over whiskeys at the Jolly Roger. I swapped the Gucci’s for my own Doc Marten’s before heading out and letting the door slam shut behind me.

That Roller Girl: Part 2

If you haven’t already, check out That Roller Girl: Part 1. Part 2 might make more sense…

Asshole? 

Surely he meant dumb kid or stupid bitch or the unspeakable “C” word. Asshole was a masculine insult. I was Marlo Thomas in “That Girl”, all rainbows and spring time. I was Mary Tyler Moore for God’s sake! Taking on the big city, turning the world on with my smile.  

I mustered an ever-clever “fuck you” in retort and threw in a “you old bastard” for color. Then I dug in and pushed off with my right skate. Just a bit of hip movement and a few tight curves with my blade-clad feet and I’d built the momentum to continue on my way, shaken but undeterred. 

Gliding down the next couple of blocks, I got lost in thought trying to reconcile the fact that an old man just called me an asshole. Shouldn’t my youth and femininity have protected me from being considered just another asshole on skates? My granddad believed in chivalry, ladies first and all that. Clearly, that old man wasn’t a gentleman like Granddad. Maybe I’d been spoiled. Shielded from the reality of old curmudgeons left behind by time – probably in rent controlled apartments.

I was brought back to reality by a passing cab that blew by me so fast it nearly spun me around. Grabbing on to the next street sign I passed, I hopped up onto the sidewalk to let my life flash before my eyes. Even the song I’d had stuck in my head stopped, like the needle of a record being abruptly removed from the vinyl. Scrrraaatchhh!! 

Maybe I am an asshole. Maybe the whole city is just a bunch of assholes. Maybe it is dangerous here. 

That was what people thought when I was a kid and I would visit the family in the midwest. I’d tell them I was from New York and they’d look at me with sympathy and terror. “Oh my, what’s that like”, they would ask. The inquiry a thin veil for their assumptions that I dodged criminals on my way to school because all they knew of New York was what they saw on TV. To them, there was no distinction between the urban and the suburban. 

I saw the difference right away and I wasn’t afraid. My first glimpse of the Empire State Building as it came into view on the approach to the Midtown Tunnel was enthralling. Steve Perry cranked through the speakers of my mom’s Ford Fiesta as we made the trek in from Long Island. 

You should’ve been gone! Knowing how I made you feel. 

Perry delivered the opening lyrics a capella, his voice full of grit and longing. I adored that voice. It stirred something in me.

And I should’ve been gone, after all your words of steel. 

The big sound of that reverberating soulfulness defined the urban experience for me. I still picture the night skyline of 1984 Manhattan whenever I hear it.

That was around the time Mom was taking me to a lot of her band rehearsals. My favorite ones were in the city. I loved driving through the steely grey concrete landscape and perpetual dusk of the Manhattan streets to the different rehearsal spaces. 

One space was on the same block as the Empire State Building. Holding my mom’s hand as we walked from the parking garage, I would tilt my head as far back as I could. Gazing towards the top of the world, I felt small but important at the base of the iconic skyscraper. Just being there meant I was special, that I had something my friends didn’t.

Another space was particularly luxe. It was grey and everything was carpeted, the floors, the walls, everything. There was foam on the ceiling and on one side of the room there was a big glass window. A drum kit sat opposite the glass wall, on a stage that placed it slightly higher than the amps, which were immense.

I would sit in the corner, behind a giant stack of speakers singing along at the top of my lungs while the band filled the air with guitars and bass and very loud drums. I wanted to prove myself, to fit into that world but I realized early on that there’s no place for a thumb-sucking seven-year-old in rock and roll. 

Letting go of the sign, I stepped carefully off the curb. Officially, I was kind of scared, but I took a deep breath and whispered to myself “you’re ok, just start over”. 

I pushed off, shimmied up to speed and headed south again. The next few blocks were uneventful. I had passed 23rd street without incident, even managing to get a peek up at The Flatiron Building, my favorite in New York. I was making progress, building confidence.

At 20th street, the road narrowed. As I passed ABC Carpet & Home I was distracted by an awesome pendant lamp hanging in the window. I rubberized my neck as I checked out the oversized Moroccan-style stunner and daydreamed of the penthouse with the picture window that it might one day adorn. I was getting ahead of myself.

I still don’t know what I ran over. A stick? A knish? A dead rat? I have no clue. But it was my undoing. It tripped me up good. My biggest fear was about to be realized. I was going to fall. 

I tried to recover. I tried to brake, but my feet weren’t exactly on the ground. At least not at the same time. My arms flailed about in a reflexive attempt to regain my balance, but I knew that the pavement and I would soon meet. I was sorry I had deemed wrist and knee pads “totally lame” when deciding whether to purchase the full protection package with my blades.

Time slowed. For a split second I thought I’d righted myself, but then my skates got in front of me and my feet kept rolling right past my ass. In a flash, that ass was squarely on the pavement. 

You fucking failure! 

I looked around to see who was yelling at me before I realized it was, in fact, me. Sitting flat on the concrete in the street, legs stretched out ahead, my wheels were still spinning. The buildings around me cast shadows on an otherwise sunny day, chilling the pavement. I dropped my head into my hands and surveyed the scene through my slightly spread fingers.

Shaking with anger at myself, I felt a hot flush filling my face. People kept passing, an audience I was unprepared to entertain. I wanted to scream and cry, to sit there until someone came to help, but I knew I couldn’t stay where I was. Traffic was inevitable, so was the embarrassment of trying to get back up. 

Wearing rollerblades makes you about six inches taller than you naturally are, which shifts one’s center of gravity considerably making it near impossible to stand up with any amount of grace. I flopped around for a few seconds on the street before ultimately having to wiggle around onto all fours and crawl over to a street sign to pull myself back up. 

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s how the pros do it.

That Roller Girl: Part 1

In the ’90s, rollerblading was all the rage, and I was sure it was my “thing”…

It’ll be just like going to Christine’s. A straight shot, right down Broadway. You got this! 

I paused by the ticket machines to strap on my blades. I had made it from home to the station in Bellerose on wheels, no problem. How hard could it be to get myself from Penn Station to Brittany Hall? NYU wasn’t that far from the Long Island Rail Road, I would save money by skipping the subway and I’d be getting some exercise. 

Rollerblading is great for your buns and thighs. 

The trip was just a tad more than one mile. Feeling totally ready, I stowed my sneakers in my purple Jansport backpack and rolled to the escalator. 

Why didn’t I get myself upstairs before I put these things on? 

I was sure everyone looking at me was thinking “Dumb ass!”  

After reaching the top of the first escalator, I rolled my way to the next one. The long one that leads you to the street. I stood still on the mechanical stairway watching my fellow commuters climbing the stairs, beating me in my self-imposed race to the surface. I relished the feeling of finding the holes in any crowd and zig-zagging my way through it. As if I would get a prize for getting to point B before the others. 

At the mercy of the escalator, I pondered it’s origin. It must’ve been invented to speed things up, yet it seems, instead, to have slowed us down by appealing to our inherent laziness. 

When I finally emerged from the depths I rolled myself out of the way and stopped by a street sign. I held it for balance and assurance. This place near the taxi stand outside Penn Station was comfortable for me, familiar. It had served, for the past few years, as my entry point into Manhattan. Here, my high school friends and I would step out into the street after sneaking in on the train from Long Island, having told our parents we were taking the bus to the Roosevelt Field Mall. It was our meeting place before concerts or Broadway shows. It was the portal through which we stepped to leave our suburban selves behind. 

In this spot, a few years later, a cute young cop would help me hail a cab and give me his phone number, making me feel so Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City”. But today I went completely unnoticed, just another New Yorker getting around town. 

I  tightened the straps of my Jansport, securing my belongings and preparing myself for motion. It was a gorgeous day and I was taking advantage of it. This would be a leisurely ride through my new city. I belonged here. I could feel it. After a semester and a half, I was officially a Manhattanite and this little freedom ride would solidify that status once and for all. It was as though I’d been trying to reach this moment my whole life, all eighteen years.

When I was nine, my mother almost moved us to Manhattan. Her best friend, my Aunt Patti, lived on East 78th street between York and the FDR. Her apartment was in an old east side tenement building. The largest of its three rooms housed a pullman kitchen along one wall. The bedroom barely fit a dresser and a bed (which you had to crawl in and out of from one side because it was literally wedged between the walls) and the living room felt tiny even when I was a small child. My mother told me once that it was “rent controlled”. I wouldn’t come to understand that “rent control” meant “holy grail” in real estate speak until I was much older and once I did, I resented anyone who had such a deal. But there was a park across the street and a restaurant around the corner where I could fall asleep in a booth while my mom and Patti chatted up the bartender. Manhattan was alright by me.

Mom was on tour with a band when she met my dad. She gave up singing when they married, but after their divorce she started singing again to supplement her income and feed her passion. Having come from Indiana to Long Island to marry my father, Mom had spent the years since their divorce shanghai-ed on the island that exists in the shadow of the greatest city on earth. She was drawn to the city, so when an apartment became available downstairs from Patti, my mother was excited to make the move. 

The evening we went in to sign the lease and pick up the keys, I remember walking into the empty apartment. It was dark inside, even as the last glimmers of sunshine held on outside. Somehow, it seemed even smaller than Patti’s place.  

When we walked in, I went to gaze out the living room window at the swings and see-saw across the street. The playground was locked up behind a fence that rose high above our new window’s view. It looked less inviting than it had before, sinister somehow.

I went in search of Mom.

She was sitting on the kitchen floor, crying. I stroked her hair and asked, “what’s wrong, Mommy”? She reached up to hold my hand and cried some more. 

I was scared, I had no idea what to do. “It’ll be OK”, I told her. Though I had no clue what “it” was. “Don’t cry”. She just sniffled and held on tighter.

So, I sat down with her and I cried a little too. The old linoleum floor was cold. Sitting there, the room around us seemed to expand, like we were shrinking right there on that floor. It was as if she was determined to disappear and take me with her. Through the gated window to the fire escape outside, I gazed blankly at the rapidly darkening sky.

I felt responsible. Had I caused her tears? Was it my job to make them go away? I didn’t know. I just knew I needed to take care of her, to share the burden that my existence had placed on her. I often cried when my mother did, whether I understood it or not.

When Mom’s tears subsided, we stood slowly. I gripped her hand in mine as she steadied herself and then we walked hand in hand out of the apartment. We never went back. 

I had almost become a city kid, almost. I fantasized about what “might have been” a lot after that. How cool it would have been, how much time we’d have spent at that park, or hanging out with Aunt Patti and eating Egg Foo Young!

The experience gave the city a mystique. It became something to be feared, or conquered. I never questioned what made my mom change her mind, but when it came time to choose a college, NYU was at the top of the list. It was the list, and I’d made it in.

At the “walk” signal’s command, I rolled across Seventh avenue and started making my way down 32nd street to Broadway. It was just after 2pm and the streets were crowded. 

Sticking to the sidewalk and using the occasional street sign or mailbox as a crutch, I made slow but steady progress maneuvering through the late-lunching office workers carrying their boxes from Sbarro, and their bags of McDonald’s and Hale and Hearty Soup. By the time I made it to Broadway, I was emboldened by my accomplishment.

I paused on the corner. To the south, was NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. The institution on which I had pinned my hopes. To the north, was the part of town where Broadway became more than just an avenue. Where it was an art, an industry, and my dream. My acceptance to Tisch had been, to me, the first step towards my inevitable top billing on a glittering theater district marquee. 

Stepping down off of the curb and onto the famed thoroughfare, I turned right and headed south. The first few blocks went smoothly. All of the lights turned in my favor, so braking wasn’t an issue. Which was good, because I was still a novice when it came to that part of the sport. I was singing to myself a little bit, under my breath. I have a tendency to do that, I always have. All through sixth grade, Jared M. teased me mercilessly for singing “country music” when Patsy Cline songs inadvertently escaped my lips during group study. My mom had always nurtured this habit. 

She taught me about harmony at a young age. Lessons started one Christmas with “Silent Night”. She knew it in German too, I only knew the English. We were driving from the babysitter’s or the supermarket. Or maybe we’d gotten some ornaments at Cheap John’s. She turned off the radio and said we should sing carols to get in the spirit. 

We started in unison, Silent night, holy night . Then, she shifted her voice to the third above. All is calm, all is bright. 

In the beginning it was hard not to follow. My voice naturally wanted to match hers, to be hers. She was patient with me on this, not always with other things, but harmonizing was something she loved. She said, “just keep on the melody, concentrate on that. Don’t get distracted by what I do”. 

The first time I heard it happen it was thrilling. We had gone from singing carols on a shopping trip to making music. I sounded like her, like a real singer. Our voices created natural overtones. The vibrations that surrounded us inside the car were soothing, magical. 

Singing in the car became one of our favorite pastimes. I started helping her practice. If she had to learn a duet, I would be the boy. When the chorus came around we’d be in harmony and all I had to do was sing along. A mystery was unlocked. As our voices blended, they created the auditory illusion of more voices, more notes, more harmonies.

I was still absentmindedly singing to myself as I approached Chelsea.

You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser. You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger. You gotta…

My voice trailed off of Des’ree as the traffic and the crowd started to thicken and the terrain became rougher and steeper than I had anticipated. 

There are hills in the city? Who knew? This place never ceases to amaze! 

The streets I’d learned on back home were nearly empty during the day and pretty flat. There were traffic circles every few blocks that you could swing around leisurely a couple of times for practice. But now I was heading downhill and gaining speed, more speed than I wanted to gain. I tried applying the brake and got little result from my efforts, but the wind was whipping through my hair and I was feeling good. 

I could get used to going this fast. This is officially my new thing. I’m going to Rollerblade everywhere and I’m going to be so in shape and super hot just from getting myself around town! 

Suddenly, the driver’s side door of a parked car to my right flew open in front of me, cutting off my internal motivational speech. 

Shit! 

I swerved around it, but I had barely slowed down in the process. I was wobbling and having a hard time recovering. 

Meanwhile, about half a block ahead of me there was an old man standing on the corner. He peered up the block in my direction, watching the traffic intently. He was waiting to cross. I was faltering when I saw him step off the curb into the crosswalk. I had the light, but clearly this man was a veteran jaywalker and had no intention of waiting for the official “walk” signal. 

The traffic was zipping by and I had neither the stability nor the space necessary to swerve. Stopping was clearly not an option, but if I stayed the course we would surely collide. Shifting my weight forward and wishing I’d paid more attention to the braking lesson I’d gotten from Chrissy that time, I tried willing the old man out of my way. But I ultimately failed to get my telepathic message across.

Direct hit! Our shoulders got the brunt of it, my right, his left. The impact stopped me. With one hand on the nearest parked car I swiveled to face him. My first attempt at an apology came out as voiceless air and before I could gather the vocal courage to try again the old man was already screaming, “you asshole”!

His outburst left me mute. 

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.