Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Good Fella

“You mean, let me understand this…cuz I…maybe it’s me, maybe I’m a little f---‘d up maybe. I’m funny how? I mean funny, like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to f----in’ amuse you? Whattya you mean funny? Funny how? How am I funny?” Tommy DeVito, Goodfellas

A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?” I tell this joke all the time. It’s the only one I remember, it’s usually not offensive, no cussing or crudeness involved, and I like horses. And quite frankly, it makes me laugh. Not because it’s so funny, though I think it is, but the person whom first delivered it to me was a very funny man, and pretty much any joke or story he told was funny no matter how bad the joke. So when I tell it, because it’s the only joke I know, I always think of him and chuckle because I picture him telling it, with everyone laughing because he’s funny.

Mr. T was a funny man. He was also a good fella. I didn’t know him all that well but I knew him well enough. He was a good family friend and all us kids grew up together, the adults led the way. Now we are all grown with our own families and kids.

Mr. T built a sandwich shop franchise and, while he may not have realized it, was a local celebrity. Everyone from the area knew of him and his sandwiches. He even had a United States president stop in for a sandwich!

He worked all hours, day and night, every day of the week. And with all his hard work and earnings, he was very generous and humble man who always made everyone feel welcome. A quiet man but the headliner of the show. He always had a funny story to tell, such a natural in his delivery, yet so humble he never seemed to want to take credit for being such a great story teller.

The adults spent many nights around the kitchen island countertop of the T's home snacking and sipping cocktails. Heading into the wee hours of the morning, jokes and stories were told with Mr. T the headliner of the show. The room filled with comraderies of families forged throughout the decades, laughter the enduring fabric.

The old saying goes "the show must go on" but it also says "all good things come to an end." Mr. T was diagnosed with cancer. Hard to put a funny spin on that story. This was a very unfunny diagnosis for a man whose life blood seemed to infuse humor into the veins of everyone around him. Fortunately, he was told, his diagnosis was not an immediate death sentence. Medicine would prolong the inevitable for years. So while this horrible black cloud hung over him and his family and all who loved him, there was time enough for plenty of acts. 

Until after only a year of treatment an emergency trip to the ER proved otherwise. The medicine was failing him. After a week or two in the hospital he was stabilized enough to go home. He was acutely aware though that his trip home would be just a visit and a final goodbye. He was terminal. There would be no second act.

He would not go silently into that good night. He had one more punch line for the crowd. On the final leg of his tour, he shared a room with another terminal patient. The roommate, surrounded by family, brought in a reiki therapist. The reiki therapist proceeded to perform reiki therapy as perhaps a last rite sort of ritual. Incense burning, music droning, the therapist proceeded to utter sentences of abstraction and unsoundness, “I release you, continue on your journey, your soul is free like a bird, you are releasing like a butterfly from your cocoon, fly, fly, fly. Lift yourself up. Hum, hum, hum.” Incense burning, smoke drifting. “Your darkest hours upon you, your mind and body but a vehicle, free your soul, free yourself, rise above, feel my energy as I touch you and lift you, release, release, release…”

Mr. T lay in the bed next to his roommate listening to this bizarre affair. With a puzzled glance, he listened and watched this strange performance. When it was over, the reiki therapist grabbed her incense and exited the room. There was silence. Then in true Mr. T fashion, with his wife at his bedside who later recounted the story, he turned to her, paused for a moment, and in a calm and serious voice, a hint of annoyance and expression of confusion, a grimace under his breath, steady and with perfect delivery said, “What the fuck was that all about?”

In a time of immense sorrow and finality, Mr. T put on a brave face and told the crowd that the show must still go on. During even the hardest and saddest of times, he made us laugh and continues to make me laugh. He was a good soul. He was funny.

Mr. T left me, just a little family friend, with a joke about a horse and a story that I would tell to another great headliner, my mother in law. Less than a day after Mr. T passed, she too would pass unexpectedly from cancer.

They say the last of our senses to go before we leave this earth is our hearing. As my mother in law lay in hospice, body swollen, breathing labored, I told her Mr. T's story. I chuckled as I delivered Mr. T's punch line, and I know she did too. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Up on the Roof

“I don’t know if we have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” Forest Gump

I used to ride the New York subway. I believe it was the blue “E” or the orange “F” train if memory and color recollection serve me. My route was from Forest Hills, Queens to Rockefeller Center, NYC. Sounds like swanky real estate for those familiar with the city. And in many ways if I had to be a city girl, unable to afford city rent, which I couldn’t, it was as swank as I was going to get.

However, I really don't think there's anything swanky about the subway. And for a young twenty something, naïve girl from the burbs moving to the big city, uneducated and inexperienced at the time to political correctness and city hustling and crowds, homesickness for my boring, small commuter town grew all the more. But there I was.

Most people start their day off with a good cup of Joe. Subway riders wake up their senses to urine aromatherapy mixed with the distinct scent of oily soot, followed by a game of “Don’t Step on the Mother Roach” and “I Spy a Giant Rat!” played in a dark, dank cave deep underground where sunlight was an anomaly.

After spotting the rat it was time to enter the race, fighting for an inch on the train. Then a little role play of acting like a sardine in a can of stinky olive oil, just to claim an ounce of territory for the commute. Cussing from strangers for space invasion or happy nappy time on the shoulders of a stuck passenger pigeon holed into another were common occurrences. I often chuckled and cringed at those who played their Walkman cassettes or CD’s, either air singing and dancing, or flat out shouting the tune because the music blared so loudly in their ears. They looked so silly.

I often witnessed courteous acts of train sacrifice which reminded me on the bleak ride that humanity wasn’t extinct; those who’d give up their rare seat to the pregnant or elderly. People watching was pretty good. My eyes wandered around the car analyzing each individual, creating stories in my head about their history or being. Sometimes a rider would give the dark lord stare like they wanted to kill for reasons unbeknownst to me. Perhaps they didn't want to be included in my people watching game.

Acclimation took hold and I was soon part of the daily subway grind. I became oblivious to those around me even though our bodies were pressed up against one another. I honed my Walkman CD and spent the summer closing myself out from those around me. I too became the silly fool that sang out loud.

I learned to ride the subway and I even learned to like it. It became a comforting cocoon in my daily ritual of a world I wasn’t sure how I had arrived, if I even had arrived or perhaps I was just a passenger on the train waiting for my stop.

Overnight I became a city girl living in a cockroach infested apartment, stone’s throw from the incessant noise of JFK airport, no air conditioning on a humid city's summer’s day, away from home with a new set of characters. And I rode the subway.

One day, on my usual route home, I hopped on my usual train line. The car was empty, which was so unusual but welcome. I had the whole car to myself. I had whatever seat I wanted. Just the sounds of the ball bearings screeching as the car jumbled over tracks and turns. Then suddenly an interruption to my peace and blissful serenity, as a homeless man that reminded me of Mr. Bo Jangles, straggly, scrawny and disheveled came passing my way.

My new city instincts took over as I did not let my glance meet his. I kept to myself, my guard at high, bracing myself until he’d move onto the next car. Did he want money, was he a drunk or druggie, a lunatic, a rapist? I didn’t know of his purpose or direction but I was alone with this strange man.

He swung from pole to pole like Jimmy Stewart in "Singing in the Rain" and began to sing to me. He serenaded me with The Drifter’s tune “Up on the Roof." I lifted my head and gave him my full attention, released my tensed brace and embraced his fluid and melodic voice, immersing myself in the lyrics:

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me

Let me tell you now

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up the roof (up on the roof)

At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me

I keep a-tellin’ you

Right smack dab in the middle of town
I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof (up on the roof)
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two

Up on the roof…Everything is all right (up on the roof)

He was a stranger who seemed to appear out of nowhere. He appeared to have nothing but a song. He put an unexpected smile on my face that awakened my spirit to the everyday drudgery of a lone subway ride. I thought to myself that no matter our lot or place in time we can shut out all the ugliness and escape in our minds until we are ready to move to the next car. We are free; the rest is just a distraction. We may not know our destiny and we may be drifting along like a feather in a breeze floating aimlessly in a strange land but we have purpose and a destiny. Until then, there’s room enough up on the roof.

It was an odd encounter.
How could a stranger, a drifter, a wandering figure, etch such a memory in my mind and heart decades later? He sang for me as he floated along. He asked for nothing, no money, nothing. Maybe he was crazy, mentally ill, maybe he was lost? Maybe he just felt like riding the subway and signing a song to any who would listen. And I did listen. To this day whenever I hear the song either on the radio or in my head, I think of that moment, am thankful for it, and I smile.