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A Boy Named Valentine
I have my father’s name, for a funny & fortunate reason. My parents planned my conception in hope of my being born on my father’s birthday. As my mom’s due date approached, my father went off on sea duty (he was on a destroyer at the time), and my mom went to Bethesda Naval Hospital to await my arrival. In my father’s absence, his mother came down to DC to help my mother.
On my father’s birthday, there was no sign of labor, so late in the afternoon, my grandmother decided to force the issue, in order to fulfill the shared-birthday plan. She got my mom out of bed, and took her for a long walk to exhaust her enough to induce labor. My mom didn’t argue, because she was only 15 years old.
My grandmother made her walk around the hospital grounds three times, and finally, labor started. Unfortunately, I wasn’t positioned head down, but breech, so it was a difficult birth. Ultimately, the Navy obstetrician had to use forceps to get my head out. Fun times.
After all this, when the staff asked my mom what would be my name, my grandmother answered, “Donald Taylor Davis, Jr.” This wasn’t what my parents wanted, but that didn’t slow my grandmother down; she was kind of a battleaxe. So that’s what really consolidated my destiny to be an echo of my father, but without any mistakes, rather as if God had stuttered. That part of the plan didn’t turn out so well in the end. More fun times.
Fifty years later, it was my father’s older sister who told me whence had come my father’s and my name. When my grandmother was young, carrying my father, her youngest brother was seeing a young woman named Donna Taylor. Donna was pretty and personable, everyone in my grandparents’ extended family loved her. So, when my father was born, my grandmother decided to name him Donald Taylor Davis.
By the way, Donna did have one flaw, cute as she was: she was kind of… married. That was inconvenient. As it happened, though, Donna’s husband soon died in a suspiciously convenient way: umm, it seemed that maybe he was poisoned. There wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, so it turned out OK for the lovebirds, though in the end, my young great-uncle married someone else.
To cap off the story, I should explain why I was lucky that it was my grandmother who named me. You see, growing up, my father’s favorite comic strip was “Prince Valiant,” an Arthurian romance of gallant knights and beautiful, demure princesses. As you might expect, my father’s favorite amongst the strip’s characters was young Prince Valiant himself, a strictly honorable prince through-and-through, strong, chivalrous, and brave.
So you might think my father intended to name me Valiant. That might have been cool. But no, that wasn’t my father’s plan. I was to have been Valentine. Imagine that. What could go wrong? As it was, being a sickly kid, I was bullied until my late teens, when I gained my height. If I’d been named Valentine in addition, I wouldn’t have been bullied, I’d have been a statistic before I reached third grade. So, yeah, thank you, Grandma, good call on that.
When my sister came along, she got the name Valerie.
My father kidnapped me from my mother, for eleven years. He’d started hitting me too much when I was a week old. When I got to be six, my mother divorced him, hoping to protect me.
Her effort didn’t work. On one of my father’s early custody visits, he picked me up in his car, to take me to see Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. I was excited when he picked me up, and so was he.
But, we never saw the movie, and I didn’t see my mom again, until I was 14. He took me to another state, and picked up where he had left off. He remarried, and my stepmother’s care for me was the one good thing about my childhood.
I got out of his house when I graduated from high school, and left for college, out of state. I rode a Continental Trailways bus for 24 hours, from Alabama to Boston. So, I was there for eleven years.
I forgave my father when I was around 30. My natural mother never forgave him, of course. My father and mother are both dead now, but I’m close with my stepmother.
What a mess, huh? I guess the reason I’m telling this story here, is to remind people who read this to forgive others’ wrongs. Forgiveness is hard, but it’s worth it.
Fifty years ago tonight, when I was 12 and had just started seventh grade, our town in Massachusetts had an unusually early snowstorm, 7″ in mid-November (17.5 cm). The snow came on a school day, so on my walk home after school, I stopped in the teachers’ parking lot to help them clear off their cars.
After 20 minutes of clearing cars, I decided to get on home, so I headed off, walking across the parking lot. The next thing I knew, I found myself looking up at a chromed car’s bumper with three round tail lights, wondering what was going on. I pretty quickly figured out that I was underneath a car, and that it was backing over me, so I started scooting out to the side.
I didn’t actually make it; the car’s right rear wheel went over my butt, and that hurt quite a bit. After the real wheel rolled off of me, I scooted some more between the wheels, and then the much heavier front wheel went over my left calf. That hurt a lot more, I guess. I remember gritting my teeth.
Once I was out from under the car, I stood up and walked around to the driver’s window, and knocked on it. The driver, a 30-ish man, was one of the teachers. He asked me, “Did I hit you?”
I said yes, so he hustled me into his front seat, and he had me wait while he went back into the school to call my parents. Then he slowly drove me into town, towards a small medical clinic there. I had a cut on my wrist, but I felt fine otherwise. While he drove, I explained about the bumper and the wheels. His face looked as white as the snow outside.
At the clinic, I had to tell the story a few times more: once for my stepmother, and again for every doctor or nurse who examined me. While a doctor was stiching up my cut wrist, I realized they figured I was confused, and that the car couldn’t possibly have driven over me; how could I have survived it?
But when they took my.pants off to examine me, there were tire tracks on the pants’ leg and seat, left by some mud in the tires’ zag-zag tread. Further, among the zag-zags, there were small holes in my pants’ fabric, torn by little metal pegs in the car’s snow tires. I remember a doctor asking the teacher, whether his car had studded tires. Those pants kinda told the tale, better than I could do.
Now, a 1967 Chevy Impala weighs about 3500–3600 lb. (1600 kg); I guess my share of that was 800 lb under the back wheel, on my pelvis, & 1000 lb under the front, on my leg. I don’t understand how I survived it; none of us understood it.
When my mom got me home from the clinic, she gave me some broken-up cornbread, mixed into a soup of cooked-down black-eyed peas. It tasted very good to me, because up to that point, I’d been raised in Virginia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. I think the doctors told her to give me soft, mild food, because everyone was worried about internal injuries. But I was fine.
I guess that night was when my stepmother sort of transitioned towards being my mom, in my mind. Her tenderness made the point.
A week later, my father took me to a specialist in Boston, to try to find out whether my fertility, which then was just getting started, had been harmed. It was hard to guess back then, of course.
But as I write this, my 20-yo daughter is binge-watching Friends downstairs, and my 17-yo son is in his room, finishing his AP US History homework. My eldest, a 30-yo daughter, is putting her 2-yo daughter to bed in upstate NY. I guess there’s something protective about black-eyed peas and cornbread mush.
When I was entering junior high school, my parents moved our family to a pretty nice, nearly-rural suburb, which had award-winning schools. At the time, in the late 1960s, academic tracking was the new thing, and this town’s schools practiced an odd variant: classroom-sized groups of us highly-capable kids were kept together, year after year, in all our classes, which were taught by clever, earnest, energetic teachers. So, all my classes, in every subject, had the same kids, for several years running. It was kinda cool.
In that group of very smart kids, a few of us stood out, and I guess I was one. But another was Pam, a very pretty red-haired girl, extremely smart and as outgoing as I was shy. Like my long-lost teenage mother, Pam had dense, all-over freckles and long, dark auburn hair, almost blood-red.
I had a hopeless crush on Pam, but had to be content to admire her enthusiasm, her intellect, and her humor, from across all the classrooms we shared. I remember one day, in answer to our English teacher’s question about “What’s the most boring thing you can imagine?”, Pam answered, “Raking leaves in the Gobi Desert.” I thought the “Gobi Desert” part was the most amazing, most hilarious flourish!
In the military way, after four years my parents up and moved us again, this time about 1300 miles south. I didn’t contact Pam until I came back north for college. I was going to MIT, but she was going to Yale. Freshman year, she invited me to Thanksgiving at her parents’ house. When I arrived, I gave Pam a small gift: a paperback copy of Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.
I was to sleep over in her family’s guest room. I had never visited her house when we were classmates. They lived in the tony middle-class end of town, three miles from the working-class area where my family had lived, and I learned that her father was a computer programmer, and her mother was a school principal. They were very polite to me.
During Pam’s family’s T-day dinner, they had another guest besides me, another math nerd from our high school class, sort of like me, except he was very confident, the sort who talks a lot, in a serious way. He was going to Harvard. I didn’t understand why he was there, but then, I didn’t understand why Pam had invited me, either. I did find out later on that night.
Our Harvard friend held forth at the table, while I stayed quiet, but afterwards, he went home to his parents. Then, to my surprise, Pam pleaded with her father to borrow his car, a VW beetle, so that she and I could go out to a movie together. We went to see American Graffiti, which was a lot of fun, as first dates go.
When we left the theater, we got in the car, but instead of driving me back to her parents’ house, Pam wandered, and drove to a quiet wooded road, quite isolated. She turned the engine off, and looked at me a bit expectantly. I had zero idea of what was going on, I couldn’t figure out why she’d stopped the car there.
I was a math nerd, math was all I knew, so I didn’t have any idea of what to do when my eight-year crush, the most beautiful human being I could imagine, all 18 years and hundred pounds of her, drove me to a lover’s lane and stopped the engine. I didn’t understand that the next move was mine, I couldn’t conceive that she just wanted a kiss, as even the prettiest girls do.
So we talked for a bit in the dark, maybe an hour, there in her father’s Beetle. Then we went back to her house, and as I was falling asleep in the guest room, I mostly figured it out.
In our junior year of college, Pam left Yale for a year in the Peace Corps, with a friend, a male friend, and I started to realize that I had lost my chance for good. Soon after she returned to school, she got married, and we fell out of touch.
Five years later, I fell in love with another smart red-haired girl, dark red, almost blood colored, with freckles all over her. I’m consistent that way.
Then, a couple years after that, I learned to my dismay that Pam, our beautiful, smart Pam, had died of glioblastoma, leaving two small children and a stricken husband. Our mutual friend from Harvard told me. She was barely 30.
It’s been another thirty years since then, and more, but Pam’s death still weighs on me. Not like my wife’s death; I pine for my wife every day and every night, it’s amazing how much that still hurts. But every few months, I think of Pam, sitting next to me in her dad’s tiny car on lover’s lane, and I pine for her, too.
My First 16-Hour Days
When I was 16, I was working 16 hour days at a gas station in Huntsville, Alabama: pumping gas, fixing flats, changing oil, picking up cigarette butts, and cutting weeds with a swingblade. I was just starting to firm up my plan / hope to go to MIT.
One hot night that summer, quite late, the mechanic and I were alone in the station, with nothing much happening, when we heard a loud crash from about a quarter-mile away, up the highway in the direction of the Tennessee border. The mechanic told me, “Stay here!”, and he ran off towards the accident. I could see flames rising from one of the cars, but it was too dark to see anything else.
Half an hour later, the mechanic came back to the station, and he had blood on his arms up to his elbows, from trying to get the injured people out of the cars. I think three people died in that accident. They were officials from a black college nearby, and their funeral was enormous.
It was in that year, pumping gas as a boy, that I formed the bad habit of working 16-hour days. I’ve stopped doing that only over the past year-and-a-half, these forty-five years later. My personal worst was the third week of October, 2013. I worked 119 hours that week, capping two months of 80–100 / week. It took a few more years for me to realize that I was ruining my health in that way. I’d achieved a lot in my career through overwork, but I ended up nearly getting heart failure from the stress and fatigue.
What’s worse, my kids now sometimes mention places they commonly visited with their mother during those years, and I have no memory of what they’re talking about. For a good 10 years, mid-zeroes until late 2013, I was so absorbed in my work as to be pretty much absent at home. What a mistake that was.
In late summer 1973, it came time for me to leave home to start college at MIT. My family’s standard of living had always wobbled between working class and lower-middle class, so financially, it made sense for me to travel from northern Alabama to Boston, by bus.
It would be a 24-hour trip, but that wasn’t the uncomfortable part. The first difficulty was that by the time the bus got to North Carolina, it had essentially turned into a local bus, stopping every 25 or 50 miles to drop off some passengers and pick up more.
Then, at one point in this trip, somewhere in the backwoods of the NC Piedmont, a young black mom got on with a toddler crying on her hip. Having been raised in the military, I stood up and gave her my seat, as I had occasionally done for elders, earlier in the trip.
Unfortunately for me, this left me standing in the bus for about six hours, in the August heat and humidity of a normal Dixie summer. By the time she got to where she was going with her child, I was pretty tired and miserable. But, I’d do it again.
When I got to Boston, and my aunt picked me up at South Station to take me to Cambridge, my trip’s discomfort seemed unimportant. I’d been dreaming of going to MIT for five years, starting when I was twelve, so getting off this bus that evening, I figured I’d finally arrived, and I guess I got that right.
Forty-odd years ago, when I was a junior at MIT, I decided one day to study in an unfamiliar library, far from my dorm. IIRC, it might’ve been in the Architecture Library, upstairs in Building 7, under the Little Dome. But too, it might’ve been upstairs in the Humanities library, closer to home, and right next to building 2, where all my Math classes were taught.
I was sitting at a table studying, minding my own business, but after a bit I noticed an intoxicating scent, like perfume but subtler, and alluringly feminine. The person closest to me was a tall slender girl with long blonde hair, a year or two younger than me, seated at another table. She looked very sweet and innocent, but still way outta my league.
I screwed up my courage anyway, crossed the aisle to her table, and quietly asked her what perfume she was wearing. She looked startled, and shyly said she wasn’t wearing perfume. I felt embarrassed, and went back to what I was supposed to be doing.
A few years later, the first research about human pheromones came out, and I realized that might’ve been what was happening that day. I’ve thought of her occasionally, ever since then. It’s been a long time. I dearly hope she’s had a good life so far.
Mostly, it wasn’t a struggle. I applied, I had good enough board scores & grades, plus good recommendation letters, and I got in.
The only struggle was at home. My father didn’t want me to go to MIT, so he didn’t want to fill out or sign any of the financial aid paperwork.
At the time, I thought it was only because he wanted me to join the military instead. Later in life, I realized that he was also wanting me not to abandon our working class culture and background. He knew that MIT would try to drum that out of me (and they did try), and he thought they would succeed (but they didn’t).
He ended up being proud of my doing it entirely on my own: I did the paperwork myself, and I worked during school to pay my own way. From his point of view, by doing it myself, I succeeded in middle-class terms, but I did it in a working-class way.
At a salaried job I had last year, my 35-yo manager was chatting with / at me one day, saying that he & his two siblings all went to MIT, his father teaches there, and his wife went there, too. He grew up in an upscale bedroom community just outside of Cambridge and Boston.
I replied, “Y’know, at our family reunions in Mississippi, there can be as many as eighty or a hundred people, just the descendants of our grandparents: my aunts & uncles, my cousins and their families, their grandkids, and a few cousins even have great-grandkids. Out of all those people, only three graduated from high school: my sister went to Vanderbilt, I went to MIT, and one cousin graduated high school, but after that she crashed and burned. Actually, our grandfather didn’t finish third grade.
My manager’s jaw dropped a bit, and his face went blank, with a “Wait, what just happened?” look on his face.
With my background, I’ve had to struggle for acceptance, ever since I got accepted at MIT. I’m OK with that.
Steak & Eggs
The other night, while I was driving my coworker P. from our office at Alewife Station to Coolidge Corner, we had a traffic moment that alarmed him. It was rush hour, we were at the back end of a long line waiting to approach a crossroad, and the start of the left-hand turning lane was several cars ahead of us. The turning lane itself was all but empty. I got most of my early driving experience as a taxi driver, so in normal taxi-driver fashion, I waited for the oncoming lane to clear, then I pulled out and drove in the oncoming lane past the people in front of me, so as to get into the left-turn lane. In doing so, I drove over a long stretch of yellow road paint, but c’mon, this is Boston, not St. Louis.
P. is Indian, from Bihar state near Nepal, so his capacity to go pale is limited, but he did his best. “Wait, isn’t what you just did illegal? There was yellow paint, you’re not supposed to drive over that, right?”
“Uhh, sure, P., but really, it’s OK. I used to be a cab driver, I know what I’m doing.”
“Did you do other stuff like this when you were a taxi driver? I heard about a taxicab race, did you do other things?” He was kind of affronted.
“Uhh, yeah, sure, I did other things.” I was like 21, 22 years old at the time. P. is only a bit older than that. “Like, once, during evening rush hour downtown, on Winter St., a guy in a white panel van cut me off kind of rudely, so I went around him and cut him off back. As we made the turn from Winter onto Tremont, he cut me off again, and he waved a claw hammer at me as he did it. Now, cutting people off is normal. But really, threatening me with a claw hammer? That’s bad form. I thought it was excessive. So I hit him from behind with my cab, deliberately.”
“What? Deliberately! I can’t believe that…”
“P., do you even know what a claw hammer is? Y’know, the things for pulling nails?”
“Yes, of course.” P.’s command of American idiom is astonishing, I think it somehow comes from the amount of pizza he eats.
“P., I couldn’t let him get away with that. After I hit his rear bumper, he looked back at me, and started to get out of the van. So, I just smiled at him, and he thought better of it; he closed his door, and stayed inside. I was pretty mad.”
“So then what happened?”
“Well, I had a fare in the cab, so I had to call another cab to take him where he was going.”
“Oh, when I hit that nitwit in the van, I broke my cab’s radiator, so I had to get it towed back to the garage, y’know. My cab owner was pretty mad at me. But it was totally worth it. That hammer crap was just goofy.”
“Oh, c’mon, P., lots of things… I escaped police chases a couple of times. Y’know, a cop turns on the blue lights behind you, you’re supposed to pull over, right? But a couple times, the cop was far enough behind me, I just made a turn, then turned off my lights, made a few more turns, parked in somebody’s driveway, and slouched down so nobody would see me. If I’d gotten caught, it woulda been bad, they would’ve beaten the crap out of me. But they never caught me. I mean, c’mon, P., I was a cab driver! Everybody dumps on cab drivers, so we got by as well as we could.”
P. asked, “What about the taxicab race? I didn’t hear the details.”
“Okay.” This was 40 years ago, it’s a pretty good story. “So, this was in the summer of ’77 or so, when discos were the big thing. There were three big discos in Kenmore Sq., and a few other discos across the city, and most of the night work that year was in driving people from one disco to another. There was always a lot of work at the end of the night, after the bars closed at 2am, y’know, driving people to Chinatown to eat, or driving them home to the suburbs. So we’d wait in lines of cabs at Kenmore, from midnight to the end of the shift at 4am, catching the last drunks to take them home.
“About 3am one night, it’s getting slow, so my buddies and I, we decided we’d stop and eat breakfast before we’d put up for the night. Usually, we’d eat at this big Greek restaurant right in the Square, Aegean Fare, it’s gone now. The food was pretty good, not too expensive, and the waitresses were cute.
“There were five of us together that night: Artie and Lance were late 20s or so, Italians, Vietnam vets from East Boston. Manny was this beefy Puerto Rican kid, not much older than me, a friend of Lance’s, I think. And George was about 35 or so, a small wiry guy, kinda keyed up. We all drove for the same cab company, and we all tended to end up in Kenmore most nights.
“We were talking about whether to eat breakfast at the Aegean, but somebody said, I dunno who, ‘How about we go to John’s?’ I didn’t know what they were talking about, but they explained John’s was a small breakfast place over near the Globe and the Herald-American printing plants, between the South End and Southie. It was right off of Albany St. & Harrison Ave, on a crossing street, well south of Chinatown, a bit south of my cab garage. Good steak and eggs.
“Somebody, probably Artie, said, ‘Lets race, huh?’ Sure, it’s 3 in the morning, why not? So we agreed: everybody plots his own route, let’s go, enough of the drunks, it’s time to eat.
“So, we all made the illegal U-turn from the westbound side of Comm Ave, around the bus station, to the eastbound side, and headed into Back Bay. I remember we were still all together on Boylston St as we headed into Copley Square, not too fast, only 55 or 60, running all the traffic lights. We got to Copley, and there was a tourist or a suburbanite sitting in a compact at the traffic light, waiting for the green, when we descended upon him, swirling around each other and him, cutting each other off, still doing maybe 55, and we plowed through that red light just like all the others. I expect he was bewildered.
“Soon after Copley Square, we parted ways. I think George must’ve turned south at Clarendon, I waited until Arlington St, so I went south past the Atheneum Library, a big, dark-granite building, looks like a castle. I suppose the others probably went through Park Sq, where the Playboy Club and the Hillbilly Ranch barroom used to be. I got down to the newspaper plants, just north of them, and turned east again, heading for where they’d told me John’s would be. I’m still doing 55-60, and I’m following along a median with a gappy fence, so’s I can barely see George’s cab through the fence, maybe 6 feet ahead of me. I figured he didn’t see me, and I was right.
“I sped up for the next intersection, so that I could swing right through the median, into George’s lane just ahead of him. I was careful to miss him by about two feet. It’s a normal cab-driver move at 10mph, but at 60, well not so much; George got alarmed and jammed on his brakes. When we got to John’s, the others were just parking, and George was mad at me, but I was unrepentant. It was a race, y’know? I didn’t really think until later about how unusual an experience it had been, to race illegally through the city streets at highway speed.
“After I parked, I realized that we had to go upstairs to get to John’s. It was in a 5-story brick factory building, on the 3rd floor, I think. Off the dark stair-landing, we opened a door that looked like an apartment door, and inside, the counter and stools filled a 10 by 18 foot room, no tables, mostly printers, typesetters, and truck drivers, I guess. My friends told me the place was open only from 11pm till 5am. John, the owner, was surly, as you might expect. My steak and eggs were great; it was the first time I ever ate steak and eggs.”
After this story, we were getting into Brookline, where P. actually lives. I let the hairy-driving stories die down, and I drove him past my favorite tree in Brookline (a very large American elm, 3 feet across at chest-height, on Winchester St, around the corner from where Isis and Thaïs were born). I dunno, I guess he thought that because I’m a cryptographer, that I’m sedate, like his college professors. Umm, maybe now, but not always.
I quit driving cab just a week before the Blizzard of ’78. The last I heard of Artie back then, he’d stolen a Cadillac from a Mafia guy’s wife, so Artie left town for a few years. Before he left, Artie told me Lance had gotten in a fight at a bar in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester. The other guy pulled a knife, but Lance took it away from him, stabbed him with it, and umm, maybe the guy died. So Lance left town, too. I never heard again of the others. Me, I got my first programming job in May of ’78.
So, that’s the long-promised taxicab race story. I’m sorry it ran kinda long, but y’know, lots to tell.
Forty-plus years ago, when I’d just dropped out of college, I drove cab for a year and a half, here in Boston. I drove nights, 4 PM to 4 AM, five days a week. This was during the Carter recession, and was before Boston developed its tourism industry, so driving cab wasn’t a great way to make a living. I was just getting by, just enough to pay my rent and groceries, feed my dog.
After I’d been driving a few months, I got to where I knew a few other cabbies my age. If we were waiting a long time on a cab stand, I’d go forward and sit to chat in a friend’s cab, while we waited for the line of cabs to move. There was one cab in particular in our company’s fleet, #256, for which I knew both drivers, the day driver and the night driver, though they sometimes swapped shifts. Both were hippies like me. The day guy was ex-MIT like me, and the night driver, Danny, was a calm, sweet-tempered kid, who kept a guitar and a Tupperware breadbox with reefer and rolling papers on his front seat, to pass the time on stands.
Late one night in August, after the 2 AM bar break, I was in line at the Holiday Inn cab stand near MGH, just sitting around, hoping for a flatrate fare to the suburbs from Sporter’s, the gay bar across Cambridge St. Those summers, we night drivers made a lot of our night’s pay by shuttling gay men between Sporter’s and two big gay discos near Fenway Park. Not many other people had money for cabs, at least not at night.
My cab’s radio was statick-y, but I usually could hear what was going on. I could hear only the dispatcher, though, so I had to infer what the drivers were saying.
“Top cab Bowdoin.”
“Cab 150, phone company, Doreen.”
“Cab 256, what do you need?”
“Say it again, 256?”
“Cab 256, where are you?”
“Cab 256, can you see a street sign, anything to tell me where you are?”
“Cab 256, can you make it to the Peter Bent?”
Back then, Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital was known as the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. Years later, during the hospital mergers of the 1980s and 90s, that hospital bought Boston Women’s Lying-In Hospital, a small obstetric hospital around the corner. So now, after more expansion, its name is “Brigham & Women’s Hospital,” but everyone calls this behemoth just “The Brigham.” Back then, we cabbies called it “the Peter Bent.”
“All cabs, I need you to stay quiet on the radio. I got a driver’s been shot. Cab 256, can you tell me where you are?”
My heart sank. I knew and liked both of the #256 drivers, but usually, it was Danny who drove it at night.
“Any cabs near Columbus Ave, T the Green, or the Crossing, I need you to look for cab 256. We gotta find him, get him to the hospital.”
Slade’s T the Green was a notorious ghetto barroom in the South End on Columbus Ave, almost to Roxbury Crossing, where Columbus Ave intersected Tremont St. Bad neighborhood, all of it, and picking up fares at T the Green was a well-known risk for getting robbed. But all of us drove the whole city, we just had to be very alert in Roxbury and Dorchester.
“Cab 256, what are you near?”
“Are you able to drive?”
“Can you get to Brigham Circle? I’ll get a cop to wait in the Circle for you, escort you in.”
“Cab 256, can you hear me?”
“Can any of you guys see his cab? I think he’s somewhere between Egleston and the Crossing.”
I was sad, knowing one of my friends was dying in a clapped-out taxi, somewhere in one of the worst parts of Boston. I wanted to help, but couldn’t. The night air was hot and muggy, and all I could do was to wait.
This was a bad scene. Cab drivers were at the bottom of the city’s totem pole. The fine for not paying a taxi driver was $20; the fine for stealing a newspaper from a bundle on the sidewalk was $400. Passengers would jump out without paying, or would rob us, or sometimes, shoot us. I heard some stories that were worse than that.
That night while I waited at the Holiday Inn, I got a fare, a walk-up, and driving across town, I kept listening to the radio. It took a half hour that night before the 256 driver got to the hospital. I learned the next day that it was indeed Danny. After the robber took his money, the guy shot him in the head, but didn’t manage to kill him.
After Danny got out of Intensive Care, I went to visit him. His head was held tight by screws in a metal brace that rested on his shoulders, so as to keep his neck from moving. The staff had buzz-cut his long, pale hair, and he told me the surgeon had put a plastic plate under his scalp, to replace part of his skull.
But Danny was able to carry on a conversation, albeit slowly. I asked him whether he’d go back to driving cab.
“I dunno, right now my parents want me, when I get out, to go home, stay with them for awhile. So I dunno.” His voice was slow, and a bit slurred.
I think I saw Danny just one more time after that, when he was about to leave the hospital. His blonde girlfriend, slender and pretty, was there with him. He didn’t go back to driving, and after the hospital, I never saw or heard from him again.
I myself got robbed the following summer, at knifepoint, next to a disused ball-field near Egleston Station. But I came to love driving cab. With our pariah status, and our poverty, came an anarchic freedom, rough-and-tumble, which I cherished.
Years later, after I’d reluctantly left driving cabs behind in favor of high-tech, I read a profile of a war photographer who had died on the job. The article said he’d once had to fill out an identity form at a war-zone checkpoint. On the form, there was a space for “Religion:”.
In that space, he wrote for his religion, “Taxi Driver.”
That’s how driving cab felt to me. Like a religion, a moral commitment to survive together in a hostile, violent world, where we were totally on our own.
35 years ago, before I met my wife, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a small three-story building in Allston, Boston’s student ghetto. I was in my late twenties.
Though it was a student neighborhood, we didn’t have many students in our building. My next-door neighbor was an 80-year-old retired lady, who had made her career working for an insurance company. Another neighbor on our floor was a woman in her late thirties who worked for the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
We did have a grad student on our floor, but grad students tended to behave well, so they weren’t much of a bother, and I felt that they didn’t even quite count as students, because they behaved better than the 19-year-old, overgrown rug rats whose presence dominated Allston at the time.
But immediately underneath my apartment, on the second floor, lived a couple, a thirtyish blonde American woman, with her Middle-Eastern husband. She was heavyset, depressed, and fearful; he was wiry, olive-skinned, smoked a lot, and seemed tense. And unfortunately, he would beat her.
Not every day, nor even every week, but when he did, it would go on for a half-hour or more. Our building was 80 years old, so it was solid and mostly very quiet. But sometimes I’d hear them start, his voice harsh and berating, hers pleading, until I’d hear her crying out in pain occasionally. I couldn’t hear his blows, just her cries when his blows landed.
But one day, i heard a lot of commotion down there, thuds and scrapes, irregular and loud, with more of her cries and wails, and I realized that he was throwing her against the walls and furniture. So, I finally, belatedly, decided to go downstairs.
I couldn’t be sure he’d answer my knock, so I needed a way to force their door open. I didn’t have a crowbar, but I did have a manhole hook, a crowbar-like heavy tool for lifting steel manhole lids out of the street. So, I took that with me. The guy was pissing me off.
When I got downstairs, I decided to try knocking first, but I didn’t knock in the usual way. I wanted to get his attention. I reared back and punched their apartment door as hard as I could, at about shoulder height. I’m pretty big, 6 feet tall (183 cm), so this caused the top half of their door to flex inward. Each time I hit the door, a slender wedge of air would open between the door and the doorjamb, big enough that I could briefy see a glimpse of their living room.
The sound echoed in the empty tiled hallway, so it sounded pretty good, like the drums of doom, I guess. The noise in the apartment stopped after my first big knock, but I kept banging, maybe three times.
So, Prince Charming came to the door, and opened it. I dunno, maybe he was curious. I gotta admit, I was being hard to ignore. I said, in a quiet, level tone of voice, “Stop hitting her.”
He was smaller than me, by about three or four inches, and by ten or fifteen pounds (10cm, 5kg). He looked at me, and at the manhole hook in my left hand. “What is that for?” Thick accent.
“I was gonna open the door with it, if you hadn’t opened it.” I bent down, laid the tool on the floor, and shoved it away, so it slid twelve feet down the hall on the linoleum. I stood back up, and glared at him, with my fists balled up, but at my sides. “I’m telling you, you gotta stop.” He wasn’t having a good day.
But actually, we were at an impasse. I wasn’t going to enter their apartment to beat him up, because I knew that trespassing would put me in the wrong, even more than my hitting him would do. At the same time, he wasn’t gonna come out to tangle with me.
His wife, his victim, appealed to me, through her tears, “Please, just go. Just go.” It was plain to me that she was afraid that if I hit him, he’d beat her up worse, as soon as that door closed. So after a few tense minutes of staredown I left, and he closed their door.
But amazingly, I never heard him hit her again. A few days later, I passed her a slip of paper with the names and phone numbers of a couple battered women’s shelters in Boston, but I don’t know whether she ever followed up. About six months later, they moved away. I hope she left him, but I dunno.
About five years ago, I gave my manhole hook to a drain repair guy whom I know. I never did have a use for it, except for threatening to pry open that door. Besides, my wife and I bought a house, 20 years ago, so I have a few proper crowbars and prybars now.
When I was not yet thirty, I dated a very beautiful girl for a summer. She looked very much like Sean Young’s character Rachel, in the original Bladerunner; in fact, I took her to see that movie, which was an odd experience in its own right. She was the best-looking woman I’d ever dated, up till that summer.
Emotionally and intellectually, she was calm and bland; a former girlfriend who knew her was surprised by my interest, saying she always had seemed to be a “cold fish,” which was very correct. But I was foolishly mesmerized by the girl’s looks.
One night that fall, after some dinner or movie, the beautiful girl invited me upstairs to her apartment, where she told me we were through. As one does, I asked “Why?”, and she said, “I have two older sisters. One married a doctor, the other married a lawyer. So I can’t marry you, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my sisters.” I was just a computer programmer, you see.
Of course, I’d dodged a bullet, though I didn’t realize it immediately at the time. It’s better to find out about such priorities after three months of dating, rather than after 10 years of marriage. Really, she did me a favor, in her back-handed way.
The following summer, I met my wife-to-be, who was pretty, curvy, affectionate, and very smart. Thanks to her, I have two daughters and a son; we used to marvel at how much better looking our kids are than we ourselves were. But I’ve taught the kids that there’s not much point in being pretty only on the outside.
A Night Without Stars
My wife received a wonderfully romantic compliment 35 years ago, but not from me, I’m sorry to say. She heard it from a stranger she met on the street.
One day, Betsy was waiting in the spring sunshine on a streetcar platform, on her way to class, when a small elderly man complimented her freckles, in accented English. She had thick, deep red hair, and had freckles all over; I used to joke that she even had freckles between her toes, and under her tongue.
She said to him, “Thank you, but I’ve always hated my freckles. When I was growing up in Brazil, everyone said that my freckles were ugly.”
He replied, “Oh, you are from Brazil? I myself came to America from Hungary, long ago in my youth.” He gave her a little bow, by way of introducing himself.
Then he continued, “But listen to me, my dear. I am old, and perhaps I understand these things better… I want you to know, that a woman without freckles, is like a night without stars.”
From 1982–87, I worked at a programming language / compiler shop in Cambridge, Mass. For the first half of my time there, I worked on a large compiler that my company was building for a big computer manufacturer.
One bright summer day, I got myself into a motorcycle accident, one which turned my left foot 270° like a doorknob, so that i needed to work at home for about three months.
During that time, we all were under a lot of schedule pressure to meet an important deadline for the compiler. I was very anxious not to be the late person who eould cause us all to miss the deadline, so I worked 80 to 100 hours per week for those three months.
If you don’t know, working that much makes one into a very boring person. There’s nothing else in one’s life, so there’s nothing to talk about, except whatever bug one is working on at the moment. The work itself becomes very tedious, and as a person, the over-worker becomes very tiresome.
After the end of the project, I decided I wanted to go back to school, to finish my last semester of math studies at MIT. I had dropped out in the middle of my senior year, so maybe now I was ready to go back.
My boss told me that he was willing to pay my tuition for me to finish my degree, one course at a time, and and that he would give me light duty at work, while I did the studying. Further, he would pay all this for me to finish my math degree, even though our company policy said that only work-related courses would get reimbursed.
Finally, my boss told me explicitly that he was offering this help to me because of my extreme effort during that peak schedule-pressure of the year before.
A funny thing happened after I finally graduated: I suddenly realized that I had spent the previous 8 years feeling like a dropout. I hadn’t noticed the feeling, throughout that time; only when the bad “dropout / failure” feeling stopped, did I realize that a big weight was off of my shoulders.
It was my boss’ kindness, as much as my own effort, that made that life-change possible for me. So, he was really a mensch.
Nearly thirty years ago, my wife and I were invited to her boss’ wedding. My wife worked for a city hospital, but in a medical clinic that specialized in treating only Portuguese-speaking immigrants. She was part of the clinic’s mental-health team, which was a close-knit bunch of psychotherapists and psychiatrists, almost all from Portugal, the Azores, and Brazil.
The mental-health team loved to have parties for their coworkers in their homes, and this was where I did some of my early Portuguese learning, while eating delicious pot-luck dinners and drinking beer with the therapists’ husbands.
My wife’s boss’ wedding reception was to be at her house in a small, dense, working-class suburb north of Boston. It was summer, and the party was to be outdoors, so I suggested to my wife that we might bring a tree as our wedding present. Not a potted tree, but a sapling with a wrapped-up root-ball. She thought I was crazy (not the first time), but she went along with it.
So I called a nursery to research the matter, and decided to buy a hybrid male green ash tree, because it would have colorful foliage in the fall, it wouldn’t be too sensitive to road-salt, and it wouldn’t drop seeds that would sprout as weeds in our friends’ yard. A 14-foot sapling (4.3 m)was as much as we could afford, and realistically, I wouldn’t have been able to plant a much bigger tree on my own, with hand tools.
So, on the day of the wedding, I lashed the tree to our car’s roof, and put a shovel and some work clothes in the trunk. Then we dressed for the wedding and headed out. I had transplanted small trees before, as a teenager, so I had some idea of what I was getting into.
At our friends’ house, I asked where they wanted the tree to go, then I changed clothes and got to work. Soon afterwards, my plan sorta hung a left, because next to their front porch, under the grass, about three inches down, I hit a two-inch layer of old asphalt paving. The tree’s root-ball was two feet across, and I’d brought a bag of good soil, so I really needed to dig a three-foot hole (1 m) through this paving, then go down to 18 inches deep (0.5 m). All without a pickaxe.
So, I got started. My wife brought me a plate of food and beer from the party tables in the back yard, and after I ate, I started chopping through the asphalt with the shovel. It was slow going, so the whole effort took me about three hours. Through it all, one guest or another would come out to the front yard with a fresh beer for me, and would chat with me a bit as I worked. In this way, I actually met more people, and had nicer conversations with them, than I would have if we had just brought a nicely-wrapped blender as our present.
After I was done, I put my shovel away and joined the party in my dirty clothes, but the hosts and guests didn’t mind. They were all charmed by the whole thing, as I’d expected. Even though it was an eccentric, hippy-dippy thing to do, it was a nice gift, after all. I was pretty sore the next day, from chopping through that pavement without a pickaxe.
Eventually, after a few years, dumb management changes led the close-knit work group to fracture and disperse, so the last time I saw the tree was about fifteen years ago. It was healthy and tall by then; the crown was higher than the two-story house’s roof, and the trunk was about eight inches (20 cm) across. It had become as I’d hoped, a daily reminder for our friends of their wedding day, growing in pace with their marriage.
My Daughter’s Helper
Thirty years ago, our first child, a daughter, was born at home. At that time, my wife & I lived in a third-floor apartment in Boston’s main student ghetto, halfway between Boston University and Boston College.
(The finding? Wait for it, it’s near the end of the story.)
Being hippies, we’d planned the home-birth pretty well, and had hired a very non-hippie midwife to oversee the pregnancy and childbirth. Of course, soon after we got our pink little daughter, my wife delivered the baby’s placenta, too, and we were shocked by its size. I mean, my daughter’s placenta was really big: laid flat, it was a disk about 10–12 inches across and one inch thick (25–30 cm x 2.5 cm).
So the next morning, after we all three had settled down and had gotten some rest, I took the placenta out of the refrigerator, and my wife and I faced the question, “What do we do with this enormous thing?” It seemed wrong to just throw it away, so I suggested that I might bury it, like we did with dead pets, and my wife agreed.
As with a cat, I sewed the placenta into a good-sized scrap of white cotton fabric. But where would I do the burial? Our apartment was in a neighborhood of three- & four-story apartment buildings, each with around fifteen apartments, and none of the buildings had yards or gardens. Indeed, almost all of the land around us was paved with sidewalks, alleys, parking lots, and driveways.
But, our kitchen window looked across an eight-foot gap to the building next door, and there were a half-dozen maple trees growing there, in between the buildings. So, I went outside to look at where the trees grew. They weren’t growing through gaps in a paved alley walkway, as I feared; rather, the space between the buildings was a leaf-strewn bit of ground, well-shaded by the tall maples, fenced off from the street by a chest-high chainlink fence. So, I walked back upstairs, with a plan in hand.
I wasn’t going to need to dig a big or deep hole, so I chose a big serving spoon from the kitchen drawer, went downstairs with it and the sewn-up placenta, and hopped the fence.
The area under the trees was dark & cool, and with the buildings to either side, and the tree-crowns high above, there wasn’t enough light for any weeds to grow. Just a light breeze rustled the leaves on the trees’ few lowest branches. It seemed like a nice spot in which our baby’s helper might rest. So I went to the tree that was closest to our kitchen window, and started to dig next to its roots.
As I scraped the dry leaves out of the way, I saw that the soil was very dark and moist, from decades of rotted leaves. It was a bit tough going, because the soil was cross-laced with inch-thick roots every few inches. Though the leaf litter on the ground didn’t show any trash, I did find some small junk as I dug: bits of bottle-glass, a jar lid, the sort of stuff that might occasionally fall out of the alley’s kitchen windows over the years.
Then, my big spoon turned up a golf-ball sized lump, with a bit of white showing amidst the black dirt. I rubbed to see what was underneath, and a chunk of soil fell off each side of a round pin-back button, one of those badges that you pin to your shirt, usually showing a joke or a political slogan. It was still too dirty to see what it said on the front, so I rubbed some more. Then, I was amazed to see that the pin showed a small black-&-white picture of Jesus’ face, maybe 1.5 inches across:
Why was it five inches down in the dirt, in this never-visited alley? Why should it come to me right then? Well, I finished rubbing the dirt off, put the button on the pocket of my blue jeans, and went back to my digging, because the hole wasn’t yet big enough. After I finished the placenta’s burial, I went upstairs and showed the button to my wife.
She agreed that finding this picture seemed like an omen of sorts.
Now, I guess some background is necessary, to explain why. You see, when we met, we’d both explicitly planned never to have kids, each for our own reasons. But when she got pregnant, we were in a dilemma. We were pro-abortion at the time, and by way of religion, we called ourselves Buddhists, as was common for some under-informed hippies back then. That is to say, we were pretty conventional, in our tie-dyed way. But still, ending the pregnancy seemed too much like a killing, so we found our political views challenged, and we were disquieted by our situation. We sucked on the news like a sore tooth, each of us pretty silent about it, and after three days I spoke up, while we were sitting in bed, drinking our coffee. I said, “I’ve been thinking about this…”
She asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, I feel like we’re listening to a very small knocking on the door, and… I don’t really want to say, ‘Go away.’”
So, that’s how our oldest child had made it into this world, and I guess, while we were getting used to our new new status as young parents, the memory was still fresh for us, of how we had decided to go through with it. So, that’s kind of why we saw the totally-coincidental appearance of this Jesus button as an omen; it seemed connected to the baby’s birth, and to our very deliberate change of mind about our plan for our lives. So, I put the button away in a keep-sake box, and now, these thirty years later, I’m pretty sure I could find that button in half an hour, down amongst the boxes in my basement.
The button’s story doesn’t stop there. Years later, when that daughter got to be four, four-&-a-half years old, she asked one day, “What’s God? What’s Jesus?” My wife and I were still card-carrying hippies, so we gave each other furtive, questioning looks, as if to say, “Where the hell is this coming from? I didn’t mention this to her, did you? What do we do now?” We acted as if she’d asked, “What’s bourbon?”
But, I knew a Christian, a friend of a friend, someone whose children played with ours, so I asked her, “Our daughter is asking about God. Could she go to church with you, just a couple times, so she can find out something about it? Maybe she could sit with you in front, and I’ll just sit in the back. I’ll be quiet there, I promise.” The Christian mom was agreeable, so that’s what we did. Umm, more or less. It turned out a bit different, actually.
It turned out that my friend’s friend’s church was a Russian Orthodox church, mostly attended by converts. They’d all been hippies in their youth, so they were very welcoming to me and my little girl. And then there was the fact that Orthodoxy smells in some ways like Buddhism, for real, and that attracted me just as it had all of these other hippie-converts before me. And, there was the beauty of the music. So, I bought in. It took a couple months before my wife was willing to go, and still longer before she changed her mind as I had, and bought in on her own behalf. I jokingly called that congregation, “Birkenstock Orthodox,” because many of us still dressed, thought, & acted like hippies, a lot of the time.
So, that was 25 years ago, and in that time, we had two more kids, whom we had baptized at birth, and we raised them in the church like our first. We moved across the river to our own house, so we changed to another Orthodox church, closer to our new home. A few years ago, after our first daughter had married and moved away, my wife got very sick and died, and now she’s buried in Boston’s main Orthodox cemetery, about thirty minutes away from our house. Her grave is right next to a big oak tree, well-shaded until sunset every day. It’s a beautiful spot.
Our daughter got pregnant while her mother was sick, and her baby daughter was born three months too late for my wife to see her. But, a few months later, my daughter and son-in-law agreed to have the baby baptized in the Orthodox faith. It was a big deal for me. Our priest dunked the baby three times, as we Orthodox do. He didn’t let on about the poignance of having buried the child’s grandmother so recently. I guess priests get used to that sort of thing, it must be part of the craft.
So, yeah, finding that Jesus button amongst the maple’s roots did turn out to be an omen; that little surprise marked a turning point in our lives. I’m really glad we changed our minds and had kids.
The Harvard Club
Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I joined an Orthodox church, after years of atheism, Buddhism, and whatnot. Socially, it was a big adjustment for us, even though the congregation was very welcoming, and even though the group was almost entirely ex-hippies like us. I found myself watching the people there a lot, trying to figure out the few cliques and factions, such as they were, and I paid particular attention to a few people who seemed not as socially-involved. I wanted to know the lay of the land, so to speak
There was one woman in particular whom I noticed, maybe 10 years older than me, so in her forties, I guess. She was very quiet, and very subdued in her appearance, even kind of mousy. She always wore a lightweight turtlenecked shirt & a drab cardigan over it, all above a calf-length skirt of denim or corduroy, with sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots on her feet, and she kept her dark hair in a very plain collar-length crop, wrapped in a simple bandanna. Overall, she looked like a precocious babushka: a Russian peasant grandmother, though she was actually American, and was too young as yet to make a proper babushka.
She was always busy in the church: setting up new candles and blowing out the stubs of old ones, straightening the icons, adjusting the drape of decorative cloths… Eventually, I learned that she was the church’s sacristan, and that tidying up like that was just part of her duties. During the long services, she was very intent in her worship: no chitchat in the pews, much less gossip. She knew the intricate prayers and hymns well, and was always, always on-task.
Occasionally, before or after a service, I’d try to draw her into a conversation, and she’d stop for a moment to hear what I wanted. She was friendly at those times, but still very serious. She’d answer my question straightforwardly, even earnestly, but without offering any more than the minimum reply necessary, then she’d resume her work. She seemed to have a mission in life of serving the Church in general and our community in particular, and she just didn’t have time to indulge distractions. I foolishly dismissed her as a bit of a nobody, because she seemed so isolated in her exaggerated focus on her work for the church. I asked my wife what she thought of this lady, and she agreed that she seemed to be kind of a lost soul who had finally found a place in which she fit.
But one Sunday night, after we finished our dinner, the lady called our house, asking for me, so my wife passed me the phone (This was before cellphones became so common). The lady said, “Seraphim, I have a favor to ask. Could you give me a ride downtown on Wednesday night?”
Now, I knew the lady was married, but I figured she had her reasons for asking me, so I said I’d be glad to help. Most likely the reason she asked me, was that she knew I had once been a cab driver in Boston, so she probably figured I’d be less flustered by the downtown traffic, than her husband would have been. I didn’t mind being asked, I saw it as an opportunity to get to know her a bit. I asked her where I’d be taking her, and she said, to my great surprise, “The Harvard Club.” Hmm, what the hell’s that about?
So come Wednesday night, I met her at our church in my old Saab Turbo, and got her belted in for the short trip. As we set out, I asked her, “Ummm, what’s up with the Harvard Club?”
She looked at me awkwardly, kind of embarrassed. “Well, there’s an awards ceremony there tonight. I didn’t want to go, but my father really wants me to go. You see, he want to Harvard, and my grandfather went to Harvard, so he wants me to go to this awards thing, you know…” Her voice trailed off, and her embarrassed expression returned.
“So, he’s getting an award, and he wants you to be there to see it?”
“Oh no, I’m getting the award. I tried to ignore it, but…”
“Wait, You’re getting the award? What for?”
Her hands were knotted in her lap, and she didn’t want to keep talking about it. I guess I was pushing her boundaries a bit. But now I was fascinated.
She sighed, and said, kind of all in a rush, “Well, when I was at Radcliffe, I was athletic, and in my senior year there, I won the NCAA title for my event, that year. So now, Harvard wants to induct me into their Hall of Fame. I didn’t want to go along with it, but my father really wants me to accept it. So I decided I’ll just accept it.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. I didn’t know you went to Harvard! And you won the national championship?”
“Well,… yes. But when I was there, Harvard and Radcliffe were still separate, they merged the schools about 10 years ago.”
I dropped her at the club’s door, and then found a parking space and settled in to wait an hour for her to come out. She’d gone on to explain that she’d been raised in an old-money patrician family, and had felt pressured to live that life. But, she always was chilled by the emotional style of her parents’ social class, and like many others in the Baby Boom, she decided to run away screaming. Instead of diving into sex & drugs and rock & roll like the rest of us, she decided to completely immerse herself in the church. Not because she didn’t have something better to do, but because she just didn’t accept the betterness of it; for her, her parents’ wealth and station were worse than she could bear.
Later, I eventually realized that she had become an inspiration to me. She embodied the cultivated humility that I’d learned about as a Buddhist; she knew already, and I learned it from her that night, that the higher calling had nothing to do with mainstream desiderata like old money, famous family, and large tracts of expensive real estate. She wanted Salvation with the big S, and she knew that kindness and humility would be prerequisites, so she stayed on-task, just as she had in her studies and in her sport at Radcliffe, back in the day.
Long before I’d come to that church and had met this woman, I’d read and loved Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge,” which told the story of an American WWI veteran who decides not to resume his prewar life, but instead begins a spiritual search that culminates in India, with mystical enlightenment. As fascinating as I found that book, how much more compelling it was to meet such a person, and to become, as I did, one of her friends. She never advised me about my worship in the church, but she didn’t have to. I just kept watching her.
This story is about the time I was a bodyguard for a bishop. You might think that bishops shouldn’t need bodyguards, and you’d be right. You might also think that if a bishop does need a bodyguard, his assistants ought to find someone better for the role than me. And you’d be right about that, too.
My family and I attended an Orthodox church in Boston, from 1992 to 2009. About 10 years ago, that church hosted a big conference for all of our Patriarchate’s parishes in the Americas & Australia. This archdiocesan conference was a big deal for our parish, in part because we were then finishing up a big renovation of our building. One day, a couple weeks in advance of the conference, I got a phone call from a friend, a Russian-American seminarian who was an assistant to our bishop in New York.
My friend opened with, “Hey, I need a favor from you.”
“Sure, What’s up?”
“Well, there’s a problem. One of our churches in Chicago has had a big dispute lately over a priest there, and one side has changed the locks on the building, to keep the other side out. So, there’ve been been some threats and other ugliness. We’ve told the other side that they shouldn’t come to the conference, but apparently, they’re going to come anyway, to press their case with the bishop. It’s a terrible situation.”
“Well, OK, but how can I help?”
“The representative who’s coming, one of the leaders of the locked-out faction, is kind of an erratic fellow. We’re not sure he won’t be violent. Can you come to the conference, to keep him away from the bishop?”
“Umm, you want me to be the bishop’s bodyguard?”
“OK, sure. I dunno, but I’ll do it.”
Well, this for me was a remarkable pickle to be in. I don’t have a handgun, and the only similar situation I’d ever been in was 40 years ago, when I was a cab driver. One night, over a 3AM breakfast, a mob-connected cabbie friend asked me to help break a guy’s legs on behalf of a loan shark. I’d turned that one down. This time, after my friend’s call, I talked to my wife about it, but I downplayed the danger, because I liked the bishop, I didn’t want anything to happen to him. I figured I could pull it off.
So, on the first day of the conference, I dressed in my church clothes (business casual, basically) and I drove over to the conference hotel. There was to be a big meeting of all the priests & parish chairpeople, and my seminarian friend said the erratic Chicago fellow would be there. I just had to sit near the front, between the Chicago group and the bishop, and keep an eye on things.
It wasn’t hard to pick the guy out of the crowd. He was tall and lean, well-dressed, but very jittery. When he stood, one of his legs always shook, and his eyes were all over the room constantly. Even his face twitched and shook. He very much looked the part of a dangerous nutjob. It didn’t take him long to pick me out, because I watched him steadily. The whole morning, whenever I saw him standing, he kept his right hand in his pocket, with his leg twitching, twitching. I had to wonder, what did he have in his pocket? So, naturally, I kept my right hand in my pocket, too, but I didn’t shake; I just watched him steadily. I didn’t care about the rudeness of staring at him.
The meeting itself was interminable, maybe two hours, and as boring as a bag full of rocks. One parish bigwig after another spoke at the podium, talking about congregation growth, Sunday school attendance, donation receipts, etc. I mean, I’m a religious person, I’m even interested in theology, but if weren’t for the job I was there for, I would have fallen asleep.
Finally, at the end of the podium speeches, the meeting broke and the bishop stood in the front corner of the conference room, to receive petitioners who wanted a private word with him. This was to be my moment. People were standing in small groups among the tables and chairs, saying “Hi” and making introductions. We knew the Chicago guy wanted to talk to the bishop, and I was to keep him from approaching the front of the room. He just stood alone near his chair, watching me and the bishop, with his leg trembling and his hand in his pocket. His face would twitch on one side, every few minutes. So, I just stood in front of the podium, between the two men, maybe ten feet from the bishop and twenty from the object of my affection.
The bishop was a small man, maybe 5’6” (1.65 m), very humble, gentle and sweet-tempered; That temperament is characteristic of each of the few bishops that I’ve met. He was very much worth protecting. There was a short line of people in the front of the room, waiting patiently to talk to him. Each petitioner spoke with him for 10-15 minutes, and as the short line cleared at the front, more people joined occasionally at the back.
The bishop’s conversations were very quiet, so I was able to stand close enough to him to be confident of keeping him safe, without eavesdropping, and without my presence being obtrusive to him. For me, it was a kinda subtle and complex social situation: I had to seem imposing and threatening in one direction, but very low-key in the other. Not my idea of fun, actually. But I kept my hand in my pocket, and my eye on Mr. Twitch. My hidden hand was the closest thing to a weapon that I had on me, but Chicago didn’t have to know that.
Finally, the last petitioner in the line had his say. The room was mostly empty, with only a couple pockets of people still chatting. Not many witnesses. I became hyper-alert, just waiting quietly for the guy to make his move. If it’s not obvious, I was quite scared, but I deadpanned, and didn’t let it show. Finally, the guy from Chicago gave me a questioning look, but didn’t speak. I held up my left forefinger, to gesture, “Wait”, then I pointed at his feet: “Stay there.” I kept my right hand in my pocket.
I went to the bishop, and asked briefly if Chicago could approach. The bishop looked over at him, with a kindly expression on his face. He nodded to me, so I turned, took a step towards the Chicago guy, and took my right hand out of my pocket, but only barely. I opened my hand flat, palm towards him, so as to welcome him to come over. I still carefully kept my hand next to my pocket. and I didn’t soften my stare.
The two men talked, and for this conversation, I watched, though from a short distance, to give them privacy. I watched for the guy to get excited, but he never did. He was respectful throughout. The bishop has a very calm manner, and I guess he says “No” as gracefully as he says everything else, maybe as gracefully as a prayer. After 10 minutes, the guy from Chicago bowed, kissed the bishop’s hand as we do, and left the conference room. I watched his every step, with my right hand again in my pocket.
I went home afterwards, and checked in with my wife. She didn’t know enough to be worried. I never told her how gnarly it seemed to me at the time.
The only reason I’m remembering this incident now, is that I was reminded of it a couple weeks ago when my kids & I watched the first Godfather movie on our big projection screen. There’s a scene when Michael Corleone goes to the hospital to visit his father, who is barely alive after being gunned down by a rival Mafia family. Michael is shocked to find his father’s room unguarded, so when the neighborhood baker arrives to bring flowers to the Don’s bedside, Michael drafts the baker into helping him stand guard at the hospital’s front door. Michael and the baker weren’t armed, but Michael told the the baker to pull his collar up and his hat brim down low, and to hold his hands in his pants pockets, just as I’d had to do. After the rivals drove by and left, the baker’s hands and knees were shaking. I’m glad to say that mine never did, but believe me, it cost me an effort.
So, after the movie finished, I told my son this story, and a few days later, he suggested I might write it up. This was one of the more remarkably odd experiences I’ve ever had.
I started offering web-research help to friends back in the late 90s, when we were attending our family’s old church in Boston. My wife and I were amongst the youngest couples in that congregation, and I was one of the church’s go-to guys for computer-related stuff. Somebody’d get sick with something serious, and I’d offer whatever web help they wanted: explanation of the diagnosis, finding second opinions, sussing out alternative therapies, as much or as little as they wanted. Back then, not everyone knew how to make Google sing to them. And then as now, most people weren’t really comfortable with sifting through intricate medical jargon, looking for the high points.
When our friend L got diagnosed in 2000, she accepted my offer of help, so I asked for the most precise eight-syllable diagnosis she could give me, and I asked how much material she wanted in return: 2 pages, or a quarter- inch of paper, or 3/4 inch, as much or as little as she wanted. Her hospital had told her she had multiple myeloma, so I asked her for copies of the lab work and their pathology report.
When I looked up her diagnostic details, and looked up multiple myeloma, the diagnosis didn’t add up. For example, MM is characterized by low red- cell & white-cell counts, while L’s labs showed greatly elevated whites. She did have through-the-roof immunoglobulin, which kind of resembles MM, but overall, her symptoms and labs didn’t match the MM diagnosis at all well. I double-checked a lot, because second-guessing a trained MD isn’t what I originally offered to L. But really, it was alarming. I finally told her, “Look, I’m sorry, I dunno what you have, but I’m pretty sure it’s not multiple myeloma. You really really need a second opinion.”
Now, L’s kids were 6 & 10 back then, so the idea of a misdiagnosis must have seemed to her about as welcome as her initial cancer diagnosis. But she didn’t say, as she might reasonably have said, “Thank you, Seraphim, but get lost.” Instead, she said, “I don’t know where to start, I don’t know how to find a better oncologist. Can you help me find an oncologist?”
So God help me, I said, “OK, I’ll try,” though I didn’t yet have a plan. Back then, hospitals didn’t yet have websites with doctor bios, anddidn’t exist, either. So for me, it was a high-risk moment. But here’s how I did it.
While reading up on L’s illness, I somehow stumbled upon a big decision-tree for blood cancers, a 100-page instructional document for oncologists. Using her symptoms, labs, and pathology report, I worked my way through the diagnostic criteria: “If platelet count is less than x, then go to page N,” etc. When I was done going through the decision-tree, I had two possible diagnoses, both being subtypes of non-Hodgkins lymphoma: Mantle cell lymphoma, or Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia (eleven syllables).
Soon after this, L did get a better diagnosis, confirming my Waldenstrom’s guess. This made sense to me. You see, in Waldenstrom’s the patient’s cancerous B-cells produce so much antibody that the blood becomes viscous, making it hard for the heart to force this thickened blood through the capillaries. Two overt symptoms of this difficulty are headaches, and a very characteristic rash of yellowish spots around the nose and forehead, both of which my dear friend L had at the time. So this new diagnosis was real progress, and I had some confidence that it might be right this time.
With this better diagnosis, I was able to proceed. On Google, I looked up “Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia”, together with “conference program.” I wanted to find conferences in which researchers had presented papers about L’s disease. This Google search gave me a half-dozen PDF documents, each describing all of the papers that had been presented at some recent medical conference. Now, I wasn’t particularly interested in the papers themselves, because it takes ten years to translate research results into new drugs. I just wanted to know who was working on L’s disease, and where were they doing the work. So, I tallied a list of researchers’ names, each with a hospital.
I knew that none of these researchers treats cancer patients. That wasn’t my game. Rather, I called up each doctor’s secretary, to ask for a call back. The first such call, I explained that I was hoping to ask the doctor for referrals to Boston doctors who treat patients with this disease. “Oh, so you’re looking for a referral consult?” “Why yes, that’s exactly what I’m hoping for, thank you.” Thereafter, I just asked each secretary for a referral consult.
Some of the doctors called back the same day, others took two weeks. Some gave me 15 minutes, others more like an hour. One guy was in France. In each call, I asked about preferred treatments, and what did the doctor think of the new drugs that were in clinical trial. And always, by the end of the call, I asked, “Who are three clinicians in Boston who treat patients with this disease?” I was running a little popularity contest: I knew I’d eventually start hearing the same names over again from these researchers. In the end, I had a list of four names that I’d heard more than once: two names that I had heard three times, and two that I’d heard twice. I sent this short list to L. It was kindof funny, to condense 80 hours of work into a list of four names.
At that time, in 2000, the median survival from diagnosis for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma was 11 years. That means, half of all NHL patients live longer than 11 years, half not. Unlike multiple myeloma, NHL wasn’t particularly treatable; NHL was then accepted to be a slow but implacable killer. But, as I told L at the time, the name of the game was to buy time: to stay alive until later research delivers a more-effective treatment.
From my list, L chose a doctor at Dana-Farber. He knocked the disease back for a few years, then when her blood work started looking bad again, he recommended an autologous bone-marrow transplant, which until recently was the state of the art for a B-cell cancer like L’s. I looked into the transplant, and I urged L to do it. But she was unwilling to undergo that much chemotherapy; she felt she’d had as much as she could bear, and by that time, her kids were older, so she felt she could accept death if necessary. So she refused the transplant. I was bummed.
But crucially, L had learned how to catch fish on her own. She found various alternative treatments on the web, some of which, amazingly, worked well enough. I remember her telling me something about a red yeast preparation, and a Japanese mushroom extract. She took a lot of Chinese herbs, too. In this way, L herself kept the cancer at bay for an extra eight or nine years. Two years ago, her IgG numbers were climbing again, seemingly inexorably. This was after my wife was diagnosed, but I was reluctant to tell L. I waited about six weeks, before I finally called her house. Not a fun phone call.
My breaking-the-news conversation with L ran to 90 minutes. Some of the time, we talked about my wife’s prospects, and of course, we talked about L’s dwindling prospects, too. But, y’know, L is religious, and so am I, so it wasn’t actually that grim. But she really brought me up short, early in the conversation, and again, just before we hung up, by telling me both times, with a lot of verve, “Seraphim, I want you to know, you saved my life. If you hadn’t found Dr. T for me, I’d be dead now.” I tried to demur, but she wasn’t having any of that. And I got off the phone, not really believing it. I mean, I’d like to believe it’s true, but objectively, there were other names on that list, and she might have ended up with one of those doctors anyway, without my help.
It was two winters ago, just after my wife’s metastasis showed up, that L started taking a very new drug, one of the same class of drugs that I was trying to get for my wife. L had found out about it on her own. And all this year, her new drug has been working. So my effort to buy L some time, maybe enough time, is still working, too. L’s kids are both tall and strong now, well-grown, and out on their own. I guess that kinda matters a lot in this story.
When My Ship Came In
I met my mentor in cryptography, Roger Needham, after he spoke favorably of a paper I had written, during a talk he gave here in the US. At the time, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was the head of the Computer Lab at Cambridge University in England, what we’d call the Computer Science Dept, here. Later on, he went on to become the founding head of Microsoft Research. He was famous in computing as the coauthor of the Needham-Schroeder protocol, which was a very early and seminal key-distribution protocol.
One day, in 1990 or so, when I was still working at MIT, some coworkers told me they’d been to a talk that Roger had given that day, in which he’d praised a paper I had recently written about an elegant crypto trick. So, I asked them to arrange an introduction if possible, before Roger should return to the UK. I met Roger a couple days later, and he was indeed very complimentary, though at the time I had no idea of what he was talking about. Roger claimed that my paper was a somewhat crucial theoretical completion of his own work, but this was for me kind of serendipitous and abstract; I’d thought I had solved a narrower problem.
When I went home that night to our apartment in Allston, I told my wife when I walked in, “Um, my ship just came in.” She asked what I was talking about, but as I explained, her eyes widened a bit. I knew, that day, that I would specialize thereafter in cryptography. Mind you, for a couple of years I’d been in a professional / emotional crisis, wondering whether I should leave high tech altogether. Roger cleared that idea out of the way for me.
I knew I had solved a problem that Roger had left unsolved, and it had cost me a lot of work, & literally, six weeks of nightly headaches. I’d done the work just to fix a problem my group needed fixed, in our work on MIT’s network. But it took awhile for Roger to explain why the problem and my solution were a much bigger deal than I’d thought. He urged me to write a second paper about it, emphasizing the big-theory aspect that he saw and I didn’t, and offered to have a couple of his postdoc researchers guide me through the writing.
It took me a few more weeks to write the second paper; my drafts grew from nine pages single-spaced to twelve, until one of the Cambridge U post-docs red-inked so much of it that I shook my head, threw it out entirely, and started over from memory. The final, published version is just four pages, and is one of my two clearest papers (clarity in crypto is hard & rare). Roger later told me it was essentially a doctoral thesis, without the diploma, unfortunately. Crypto and security has paid our bills ever since, as I predicted to my wife that night in 1990.
Recently, I told this story to a young colleague, another cryptographer who works with me in the security division at a major multinational bank. Besides telling him about Roger Needham, I mentioned the names of the two postdocs he assigned to help me, because those two went on to do important work themselves, in cryptographic network security.
When I was done with my story, my coworker said to me, “Wow, it’s like hearing someone talking about the old days in quantum physics, with anecdotes of working with Heisenberg, Schroedinger, and Pauli.”
I said, “Yeah, I guess, but at the time, we didn’t know this work would become famous or important. We were just trying to solve the problems that obstructed doing sensitive and valuable things with the Net.” Recently, another coworker told me she sometimes brags to others about working with me. But for me, all this is dizzying; you see, I grew up working class, so I’ve come a long way.
Three Jugs of Water
My wife and I bought our house twenty years ago. It needed a lot of work before we could move in, so I hired a contractor friend of mine to fix up the interior, de-lead some rooms, and paint the whole thing.
One day, a month or two into the work, my friend called me. “Don, a couple of my guys who’re painting your house, they’re homeless. Would it be OK if they sleep in your house until you move in?”
I asked my wife what she wanted, and she was fine with it, so I asked to meet the guys, before I’d say yes. They were both illegal, but were from different countries. The first, Bogdan, was from Eastern Europe, and looked like a college student: tall, slender, dark hair, good looks, quiet to the point of shyness. It turned out that he’d been a math major, like me, and was Eastern Orthodox, also like me, so that was an easy yes.
The other guy, Eduard, was from Central America: small, muscular, shaven head, friendly, with a quick, alert eye. I saw no reason in him to say no, so I said yes. We’re Orthodox Christians, generosity is part of the plan.
A couple weeks later, my friend asked me to come and see how the work was going, so I drove over from our old apartment. Our new house was starting to look livable. But down in the basement, under the basement stairs, I saw a tiny pallet to sleep on, just 30 inches by 40 (75×100 cm), maybe 3 inches thick (8 cm). I asked my friend about it, and he told me, “Yeah, that’s where Eduard sleeps.”
“How come? There’s six bedrooms, why not use one of them? He doesn’t need to sleep under the stairs, for Christ’s sake.”
“I dunno, I guess you oughtta ask Eduard.”
I did try asking him. His English wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty easy to understand. He gave me a big smile with a lot of gold-capped teeth, and said he was fine under the stairs, he liked it there, he was comfortable. Polite guy, but stubborn; I couldn’t get him to move upstairs.
After about six months of work, the house was set for us to move in. Bogdan had found a room elsewhere, but Eduard was still sleeping in the basement. By this time I knew Eduard better, so I talked to my wife, and we told him he could stay if he wanted, but he’d need to sleep in a bed. He agreed, so I bought a used bedroom set and some linens for him, and set it up in a finished room in the basement, so he’d have some privacy. He had a bathroom to himself, too, rent-free, not a bad setup.
He ate his meals with us, and kept working for my friend. Over the weeks, then months, then years that followed, we got to know him pretty well. He and my wife liked each other, and he doted on our young kids.
One day, Eduard and I were working together on refinishing an old table we’d found in the basement. We had the table out in the yard, and were taking turns with an electric sander, trying to remove a big triangular burn mark from a long-forgotten steam iron. It was sunny out, mild weather, and the trees were rustling overhead in a light summer breeze, the sawdust spinning in little spirals at our feet. During a break in the work, I asked Eduard why he had been so content to sleep in that tiny space under the stairs.
He said, “Y’know, I sleep like that when I come here from my country. I had to. I sleep in train.”
“You mean, in a boxcar? Was it that crowded?”
He smiled, lots of gold showing. He took a pull on his cigarette, and flicked the ash into the sawdust. “No. I sleep in the engine, tree days.”
“What do you mean, you slept in the engine?”
He was sitting on the porch step, and leant back a bit, where he sat, to tell the story. “When I leave my country, I hitchhike across Mexico, until I get Texas border.” He looked past me, into the traffic going by the house.
“I go to train place, where all the train, they wait cross the river, and I wait until nighttime. I have tree big water jug wit’ me, enough for tree day.” He held up three fingers to show me.
“Do you mean like big milk jugs, the plastic ones?”
“Si, them, but water, no milk.”
“Late night, like midnight, the guards come wit’ dogs, they search the train, but just the cars, they no search the engines.”
“They’re looking for stowaways? People who hide in the train cars?”
“Yeah. But they no look in the engines.”
“The locomotives? They don’t search the locomotives?”
Eduard smiled again, another draw on the butt. “After they leave, I go, I hide next to the motor, big motor, inside the engine. They never look there, so I go there, I hide inside. Very hot, very loud, very small place.” I remember he always said “bery” for “very.”
“Wait, you hid inside the engine compartment? How could you survive in there? It’s too hot!”
He smiled again. He was such a nice guy. He shrugged. “I have tree jug water, one each day. I stay inside for tree day. Every time train stop, they search train wit’ dogs, but they no find me. After tree day, train stop Missouri, no dogs, no more search. I get out, hitchhike Boston.” He took a last drag from his cigarette, dropped it on the walk, a crushed it with his foot. He smiled. “Not so bad.”
“Eduard, how many times gave you done this?” I knew he’d been deported a few times, and had just came back promptly.
“Two time. Other times, I come other way.”
A year and a half after we moved into the house, Eduard was painting a tenant’s bedroom, and caught the flu, bona fide influenza, from the tenant. My wife was pregnant, and was due any day to deliver, so I was anxious to keep her from catching the flu. You see, influenza preferentially kills old people and babies.
So, I kept Eduard in his bedroom, and took his meals, hot tea, and medicine to him. I told my wife and kids to stay away from the basement. I tried to avoid getting infected myself, but after a few days, as Eduard was starting to get better, I came down with the fever.
I didn’t waste any time; I called a nurse friend, who had gotten the flu vaccine, and asked her to come get me and take me to her house. Once there, I became very sick, and my friend tended me, as I had cared for Eduard. Then, after a few days, as I was just starting to improve, I learned that my wife and daughters were sick after all, but Eduard was well, and was taking care of tbem.
Fortunately, our son was born late, just a couple days after we all got well, so he missed the influenza party altogether. But I was always grateful to Eduard for taking care of my family for me, while I was sick at my friend’s house.
Later that year, in the summer, Eduard was on his way to work, riding in a friend’s car, when the friend got in a minor fender-bender. Unfortunately, a policeman was right there at the intersection, so he walked over to check the situation out.
So, Eduard and the car full of coworkers all got sent to jail, to await deportation. While Eduard was in the Boston county jail, I visited him every week. Then, after six months, he got transferred to a prison thirty miles away, so I visited less often. Finally, he got moved to a prison in Arizona, where he stayed until the following summer, then they sent him back to his home country.
The following year, he called me, to say he was in Denver, and could I wire him some money, for bus fare? I did it, and a few days later, I picked him up at the bus station. He was thin, sallow, and tired, very unlike him.
I asked what was wrong, what had happened? He said he’d hitchiked across Mexico again, but this time he went to Nogales, near the Arizona border. He got his three jugs of water, like the other times. But instead of hiding in a locomotive, he walked 70 miles north across the desert, three days to Tucson. He walked at night, and slept under the sun in the daytime, and he husbanded his water, so as not to die.
This was his other way to get here. This was two years after 14 Mexicans were found dead and dying in the same desert, trying to walk north. It’s all in the knowing how, I guess, and in bringing 25 pounds of water with you.
Eduard recovered his strength, slowly, and his smile, but eventually, he got deported again, and that time, he gave up and stayed in his hometown. He got a job as a baker, and restarted his life, yet again.
That table Eduard and I fixed, it turned out beautifully. Dark pecan wood on the top and side panels, thick tapered legs of white rock maple. For ten years, I used it as a desk in my home office. Now, I’m planning to put it in my kitchen, as counter space. That’s what the table was made for, a hundred years ago, before someone forgot a steam iron on it, and scarred it.
That morning, I woke up alone in my house, because my wife and three kids had left the night before for DC. In fact, their train was due to arrive there, just as I woke up.
As usual, I turned on the radio in our kitchen as I started to make my coffee. 15 minutes into the news broadcast, an urgent bulletin came on, about a small aircraft having hit one of the World Trade Towers. So I started paying closer attention to the news.
Then the news came on about a plane hitting the Pentagon. By that time, my family was likely on the subway, and I knew their subway route would take them through the Pentagon subway station, so I completely freaked out.
I started calling the hotel where my wife was to stay with her parents, but she hadn’t yet checked in. Eventually, I got through to my in-laws’ room, where my eldest child, 12 years old, picked up the phone. She was bored, because her sister was watching cartoons on the TV, and my wife was talking to her parents. They had no idea of the news, until I told them. So, my fears were unfounded, and I was able to calm down.
After the call, I got dressed and drove to work; I was working then at a startup in Cambridge. The office was mostly deserted, so I watched a bit more news on a conference-room TV, before I decided to go to my church.
When I got to the church, there was an impromptu liturgy in progress, so I stayed for the rest of that, then went home. I was really grateful that my family was OK.
I remember that on my way to work that day, I passed a construction site near my house, where an old house was getting demolished, in order to start a small condo building. So now I think of that fearful morning, every time I drive past the condo.
I have this weird thing I can do: sometimes, on meeting a stranger, I’ll know where they’re from, just on sight, without hearing the person speak. With Africans, I often can accurately guess their tribe.
For example, I once stopped to get a drink in a small convenience store, in a run-down neighborhood. The cashier looked Puerto Rican, or maybe Dominican, which would have been consistent with the store’s seeming much like a bodega. But, when I faced him, I decided to ask, “Excuse me, are you Nepalese?” His jaw dropped.
I was surprised, too. You see, there isn’t any characteristic Nepalese facial type. Some look like Indians from the north of India; some look somewhat like Tibetans; some look like Peruvian Indians, some look like Thais, and yesterday, I met a young Nepalese who looked much like a Cambodian. Nepalis who look like Latinos are kinda rare. But that day, “Nepalese” is what I decided to ask, for no reason I can name.
Once, while eating in an Indian restaurant with my wife, I asked our waiter, “Sir, are you from Andhra Pradesh?” Yup, it turned out. I get asked a lot when did I go to India, or Uganda, or other places. But I haven’t been there.
A couple years ago, I was getting prepped for a cardiac test by a young, pretty technician. Her name tag looked American, but I asked her, “Are you from near Goa?” She said yes, she was from Kerala state, just to the south of Goa.
Another day, in the summer, maybe 10 years ago, I was sitting on my front porch, when I saw a young man, very tall, very slender, and very dark-skinned, walking up the hill towards where I sat. He was dressed as a college student, with a polo shirt, chinos, nice loafers, and a small backpack. His hair was earlobe length, in small, neat braids that swayed as he walked.
When he got to hello-distance, I asked him, again I don’t know why, “Excuse me, are you a Dinka?”
He stopped abruptly, straightened to his full 6’5″, raised his chin, slitted his eyes, and in a bass voice with a hostile tone asked me, “How you know Dinka?”
I told him I didn’t know, it was just a guess. He relaxed, and we had a friendly chat before he continued on his way. Yes, he was a Dinka. They’re an East African tribe.
I dunno how I do it. My kids are used to it, but their friends find it spooky. My wife was used to it, when she was alive. All I know is, I can’t do it from a photo or from a video. I can guess, but I don’t feel the certainty that sometimes comes over me, when I’m face-to-face with someone from far away.
One final story: Once, when my wife was sick, I asked one of her many nurses, “Excuse me, did you do gymnastics when you were in high school?”
She didn’t reply, but snapped around to glare at me, and the scowl on her eyes and mouth said, loud and clear, “What are you doing inside my head? Get out!”
For 10 years, from late 2000 till mid 2010, I managed a Russian chorus. By “manage,” I don’t mean that I conducted the choir, or that I chose the music we’d sing. Rather, I built and maintained the singers’ email list and the phone list; I chose performance venues & paid the hall rent; I prepared and printed the concert programs; I picked up an occasional soloist at the airport, and paid the soloists at the end of the concerts.
In short, I did almost all of the non-pretty stuff, the crap that made beautiful performances possible. I didn’t have the art to plan the pretty stuff; I could barely keep up as a singer. So, I was just glad to be involved.
One year, probably in 2004 or so, we had a major concert at a prestigious concert hall. Our piece was just a part of the big concert program, but we were to be kind of the crescendo. We would sing a 100-year-old patriotic piece, which entailed our 35-person group performing with two other choirs, 90 singers in total, all led by our conductor, and accompanied by a 75-person orchestra.
I had to manage logistics only for the singers; the orchestra was someone else’s problem. I had to prepare and distribute accurate directions, from all of the suburbs where performers lived, to the rehearsals and to the performance hall, and for the performance itself, I had to line up a lot of cheap parking.
And then there were the bells. Early in the prep, my choir director told me, eagerly, that the piece called for a full rack of Russian church bells. “My priest has a set of bells he’ll let us use…”
“Yeah, Fr. R. is a a nice guy,” I said. Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Great, that means I won’t have to disassemble and move my church’s bell stand.”
She continued, “…They’re in a box in his basement.”
Ugh… that meant instead of moving our bell-stand, I’d have to design and build a new bell-stand, just for this concert.
When I went to Fr. R’s house to pick up the bells, I found there were eight bells, ranging from a 10 pounder the size of a child’s head, up to a 90 pound bell, roughly the size of a big, round office trash can, with a 5/4″ bronze wall thickness. In all, the total weight was about 300 pounds (140 kg).
So, my task was to design a portable bell-stand, one which could easily be put together and taken apart, so that I could get it to rehearsals and to the performance, without spending so much time that I’d lose my day-job. Yet it had to be strong enough for all this weight.
I ended up buying a 6′ stand of wire restaurant shelving, with four poles and big rubber wheels. Then I reinforced two of the shelves with 1″ plywood, in which I drilled holes, so that I could bolt the bells to the underside of each shelf.
It worked out pretty well. The two rehearsals were in a suburban high school’s gym, so I got to practice my setup and take-down a bit, before the performance. I could set the bells up in an hour and a half; to take them apart and load the pieces in my Jeep, took two and a half hours.
Come the night of the performance, I had other stuff to do, before I could set up the bells. The singers were in an upstairs practice room, and some of them needed last minute stuff they had forgotten: tissues, a hairbrush or hair-tie, batteries for a disc recorder, so I’d make a quick run to the drugstore. Once they were settled, I went back down to the hall.
I had already brought the bells, the shelving pieces, and my toolbag backstage, when I arrived that afternoon. While I assembled the bell-stand, taking my time, I watched and listened as three college-kid strings players, part of a Baroque sextet, tuned up and practiced, in their jeans and T-shirts.
The three kids were in the middle of the stage, and I was stage-right rear, just in front of the enormous choir stand, like a section of football grandstand seats, stretching across the back of the stage. The stage floor was sloped about 1 degree towards the audience, and my bell-stand was to be just behind the tympani, so I used some cedar-shake wedges to raise the front wheels of my stand just a bit. I wanted no danger that my 300 pounds of bronze might tip forward onto the tympanist. I had guessed at home that the stage floor might not be level, and I was right.
Now, here’s the sublime part: once I was done, I took a break, sitting on the stage floor next to the bells, and continued to listen to the strings players. They were very good, far better musicians than I. As they played, I looked around the tiers of empty audience seats, a thousand seats, with gilt railings in front of each balcony. The seats were dark, but I could see most of them, beyond the footlights.
I imagined the room filling up, I imagined the choir stand full with all 90 of us, and with the orchestra crammed into the space we left for them on the stage. I played our grand piece over in my head, that we’d practiced so much. Mostly, I imagined a thousand people, eleven hundred faces, filling the room, looking at us expectantly.
I was keenly aware right then, that that this hall was a very different thing for me; I had grown up kind of poor at times in Mississippi, I’d had to struggle to get my education and my career. Sitting on the stage, next to my bellstand, I felt happy that I had achieved something, to become part of something so beautiful. It was somewhat akin to how I had felt when my kids were born. Not quite as big emotionally, but still, pretty big in my heart.
One night about seven years ago, I heard a lot of yelling outside my house, so I went outside to see what was up. I live with my family across the street from our city’s high school, so we commonly hear kids being rowdy for various reasons. But, I keep an eye on the neighborhood, so I usually go outside to check things out.
This time, I saw Manny, a teenager who lives way up the street from my house, in a loud argument with five older guys. Manny was then about 17 or 18, but the others ranged from his age up into their early twenties, and three of them were burly, so Manny was way overmatched.
The five didn’t have Manny surrounded, but it didn’t look good. There was a lot of “N****r, you disrespected my man,…” and “N****r, I didn’t say that,” and so forth. A few of the five had their fists clenched, but Manny was waving his long, slender arms as he spoke, hands spread, trying to calm things down.
“N****r” is a stretch for Manny; he’s half Dominican and half Puerto Rican, very light skinned, and I never really thought of him as black. It seemed that he was trying to identify as black, just so as to help defuse the tension. But it wasn’t working.
I’d known Manny and his family for about five years. He was the captain of the high school’s soccer team, lanky and handsome, always showing an easy smile, and though he was much older than my son, Manny was always kind to my son about his little-kid soccer playing.
Manny’s older sister, a ballsy girl, would often stop to chat with me about her schooling, or her plans to join the Army. Their tiny younger sister would go out for walks witb her grandmother, and when they’d pass my house, the little girl, cute as hell, would stop to say hi, while her grandmother would smile at me, friendly but uncomprehending. In the winters, their father runs a snowblower, and like me, he clears his neighbors’ snow. So all in all, I really didn’t want to see Manny get hurt.
So I watched the argument proceed, and I waited. I figured sooner or later, someone would throw a punch, and then it would be five against one. I decided, while I watched and waited under the streetlight, that if that happened, I’d wade in and back Manny up. I was 55 years old, not in great shape, but I’ve been in street fights before, and I didn’t want to let Manny take a beating by himself, five against one.
Well, nothing really came of it. The argument just went on and on, rising and dropping in volume occasionally, so finally I went inside and called the police. As soon as the patrol car turned the corner, the five guys ran off, and only Manny got hassled by the cop, so I walked over to explain, and that was the end of it.
A few months later, I was chatting with Manny’s sister on the sidewalk, and I asked her about him. She told me he’d been busy with school and his job. I decided to tell her about the dangerous situation I’d seen, it seemed relevant at the time, I don’t remember why.
She asked me, “What? You were going to help him?”
I said, “Yeah, I didn’t like that five-to-one crap. I figured, five-to-two’d be better odds.”
Starting a month or two later, I found that the whole family was being a lot friendlier to me, so I eventually realized that Manny’s sister muat have told their father about it. Nothing overt was said to me, but I got even more smiles from them, in passing.
A month or two ago, a bit after Christmas, I was getting out of my car one night, and was crossing our little narrow side-street, when I saw a car speeding towards me, kind of too fast. So, I stopped still in the middle of the road, straightened up tall, and stood my ground, staring at the driver’s window, so as to make the driver slow down. I don’t like to see people speeding on my street, we have a lot of old people and little kids here.
The driver amazed me. Usually speeders will slow down a little, so as to squeeze by me, and yell at me through their window, but I don’t care, as long as they do slow down. But this guy slowed way down, almost stopping, and called ahead to me, out his window, “I’m sorry, sir! I’m sorry, I forgot!”
I suppose my jaw must have dropped, I was so surprised. I finished crossing the street towards my house, and the car pulled up next to me and stopped. I looked in the driver’s open window, and saw Manny, smiling up at me.
“Manny, how the hell’re you doing? I haven’t seen you in so long!”
“Hi, I’m sorry I was driving too fast, I forgot! I know you’re always lookin’ after the neighborhoid ’n shit, I just forgot, I wasn’t thinkin’…”
“Manny, I’m glad to see you. How’s your sister, is she still in the service?”
“Naw, man, she’s good, she got married, she lives in Maryland now, she’s got a baby.”
“How’re your parents? I haven’t seen your dad since the summer,”…
I went inside eventually. I was glad I’d decided to back Manny up, that summer night under the street lights. It would’ve sucked if it had gone south. But I couldn’t let Manny stand alone.
Between Me & the Reaper
Wednesday, May 20, 2015: Back in ’89, when Elisabeth & I got married, we had a Buddhist hippie wedding on a beach at Plum Island, so we made up our own vows. Elisabeth worked hard on her vows, and in the end, hers were 20-25 lines of flowery and poetic. My vows, well, not so much; two lines, maybe six or seven words, something to the effect of, “I’ll stay with you, no matter what.” At the time, some of the guests bugged me about going all terse like that; Elisabeth did, too. I replied, “What, you think I don’t mean it? Hmm, we’ll see…”
So tonight, after helping Elisabeth to, from, & in the bathroom, as I do a half-dozen times a day (sometimes I carry her there) , she thanked me yet again, somewhat abjectly. I reminded her how she had doubted my vows, so long ago. I said, “I think you didn’t entirely believe what I said then, but this was what I meant.”
She said, “But it wasn’t romantic.”
D: “I think this is romantic.”
E: “It’s a different kind of romantic.”
D: “Yeah, not butterflies-in-the-stomach romantic.”
Sunday, June 14, 2015: Yesterday, a senior palliative care NP told me that when her brain cancer patients stop eating, they tend to last only six weeks. So at this point, with Elisabeth not having had nutrition for 7.5 weeks, I’m getting kinda tense on the subject. On Friday, I told Elisabeth I was going to start browbeating her about protein drinks, because I’d realized that it’s only starvation, not cancer, that’s making her weak right now. Predictably, she pushed back:
ET: “No, I don’t want to do that, because I’ll have to go to the bathroom more often, and that’s too much work for you.” [ – because I (don) have to lift her out of bed to the toilet, and back into bed afterwards. – don]
DD: “Bets, that’s not a reason to just die; I don’t care about carrying you. You have to start eating again.”
ET: “No, I don’t want it…”
DD: “Look, Bets, you’re trying to set this up as a power struggle between me and you, but it’s not like that; Really, it’s a power struggle between me and the Reaper. Bets, c’mon, I need you to help.”
ET: “… OK.”
And since that conversation, she’s been good for it; no more push back. And yes, I really did say that to her.
BTW, you might be old enough to remember Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker who died in 1981. He lasted nine weeks without food, but he was 27 years old, half Elisabeth’s age, and he wasn’t sick when he stopped eating.
Update: Three weeks later, in early July, Elisabeth died peacefully and without pain, after 10.5 weeks without being able to eat.
Three and a half years ago, my wife came down with a rare kind of stomach cancer. Her disease’s normal survival period was to be about 11 months from diagnosis. We had two teenagers at home, we were looking at a big surgery and a lot of treatment, and overall, it was a pretty overwhelming situation.
Now, we had a lot of friends who wanted to help, in five groups:
- Her coworkers: My wife was a psychotherapist at a city hospital nearby, but she also worked closely with a lot of nurses and nurse practitioners;
- Old church friends, from a close-knit parish we attended for 17 years;
- New church friends, from a closer-by parish we’ve attended for 8 years since;
- Our neighbors, who greatly appreciate my clearing their snow every winter. I’m not talking about just my next-door neighbors to either side;. I clear 18–20 houses per storm: sidewalks, driveways, and on-street parking spaces. I clear these houses, because a lot of my neighbors are older than me (I’m 62).
- My son’s soccer team’s parents, who had a smoothly-operating system in place for such crises.
So, starting less than a month after my wife’s diagnosis, we were getting a lot of food, steadily. So many friends brought food that I had to set up a scheduling app for them, so as to avoid getting more food at one time, than our big refrigerator could hold. Even so, not everyone paid attention to the schedule, so I bought an extra freezer to store overflow deliveries, and kept a big beer cooler on our front porch, in case someone dropped food off unannounced, as often happened.
I thought at first that most of the help was coming from my wife’s many friends, but after a few months, i did a retrospective tally, and found that only about half the meals came from her friends at work, and the other half came from people I knew at church and around our immediate neighborhood. I say “meals,” but people generally brought three nights’ worth of food. In all, there were more than sixty people/families who brought food to us, and most of them brought food repeatedly.
Naturally, in the first few months after the initial shock, everyone alternated their deliveries quite closely, and any one contributor could wait six-to-eight weeks before bringing more food. Most of our benefactors would bring a big tray of casserole, lasagne, or maybe roast chicken with rice, and then a plastic tub of salad, and a nice loaf of bread. It was really nice to eat such variety, and it was doubly nice to feel the love and care behind it.
But, it may surprise you that this enormity isn’t actually the point of my story here. A few families stood out, even in this amazingly-supportive crowd. This story is about those people.
Within a couple months post-diagnosis, a Russian couple our age, from our old church, started bringing food, and they somehow didn’t make the same estimate about how much to bring. I’ve mentioned the beer cooler on our porch. It’s big enough to entirely hold a three big aluminum trays of whatever someone might make. But our Russian friends, every time they came, would fill the cooler tightly, then close the lid, and stack the rest of their delivery on top. A typical delivery from them was about 15 lb (7 kg) of meat, vegetables, salads, homemade soup, bread, cookies, candy, juice, sometimes wine or vodka.
So, OK, they’re very generous, so I thanked them profusely for their kindness, every time. But then, as some other contributions tapered off, our Russian friends started coming more often, and their adult daughter started bringing food too, just like her parents. About six months into my wife’s illness, during one of the daughter’s deliveries, I asked her why they were bringing so much to us.
“Well, you know, Seraphim, years ago, when we first came to the church, you introduced us to the priests and to everyone else, and we’ve always felt very grateful.“ (Seraphim is my Orthodox baptismal name).
Now, I remembered that introduction she spoke of, it’s just something I do. I was the unofficial greeter at that church, as I’ve become in our new parish, and I try to notice any newcomers, and to make them comfortable for their first few visits, until they make some friends. If they don’t mix easily, I stick with them, I want them to feel welcome.
When the Russian family first showed up, they’d been nearly fresh off the boat, parents and grandparents, with their then-teenaged daughter and her elementary-age brother. The parents and the daughter spoke English, the rest of them, not so much. So, I chatted with them as well as I could, I asked them about their experiences in the US so far, I compared notes about the few Russian phrases I knew, whatever it took to keep the conversation going… I was trying to make nice. But really, looking back at what I’d done to make them comfortable, it wasn’t enough to explain all… this… food. Her answer didn’t match the size of my question, so I kept wondering: “Why so much?”
Maybe four months later, another old church friend came by the house with food, and I mentioned my mystification to him, to see what he thought. He’s a very blunt guy, and we get along great, so he said to me, as if I were stupid, “Well, don’t you remember the time you talked their daughter out of marrying that guy?”
Oops, yes, in fact I had forgotten, and that answered my question handsomely. At first, I could only remember the moment when I realized I’d convinced her. It took me quite awhile to dredge the rest from my memory, but I did get it back.
Fifteen years earlier, when the daughter was in college, she had fallen in love with a much older widower in the congregation, for reasons noone could understand. The fellow was strikingly unpleasant to everyone else, consistently so, and her parents were frantic in their worry. They tried to talk her out of it, but She Loved Him. Their friends tried to talk to her too, but she wouldn’t listen to them, either.
I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I remember being shocked: “Him? Really? Wow…” At the time, the daughter and I both were volunteering at the church’s soup kitchen. She was much more thorough than our other college volunteers, so she always stayed late, after the others had gone home, to help me to finish cleaning the kitchen. One such night, while she and I were putting away forks, mopping the floor, and draining the dishwasher, she mentioned to me that her parents were upset about her beau.
I suddenly became uncharacteristically subtle and sensitive, I dunno what came over me. Rather than ask her, “What’s the matter with you?”, I said, “Lemme tell you a story…”
“Back when I was in high school, I ran out of math courses, so when I was a senior, I had to go to the state university campus to finish learning calculus. While I was studying there, a young assistant professor in the Math department took me under his wing, and we spent a lot of time together. The following summer, before I left for MIT, he and his wife invited me to spend a weekend at their summer cottage in the woods, about a hundred miles away. So he and I drove down to meet her there, in his VW microbus; he & she were separated, not yet divorced, and she lived and worked in a city not far from the cottage.
“One night that weekend, after we ate, his wife realized that she was out of cigarettes, so she asked me, ‘Do you want to ride with me in the Corvette, to get some cigarettes?’ Well, I was seventeen years old, so Hell yes, I wanted to ride in her Corvette.
“So, we’re winding through the mountain roads, kind of fast, and the car is just hugging those curves like the wheels are stuck to the road with Velcro. As she drove, she offered to me, unbidden, why she and my friend were separated. They’d gotten married at another college, where he’d been teaching and she was a student. They were about 12–15 years apart in age. She told me, when they’d gotten married, she was carefree, charming, spontaneous, and fun, and that was part of what he loved about her. After college, though, she wanted to settle down, start a career, and buy a house. But he regretted that; he didn’t want to say goodbye to her girlish side. She told me, it was just irreconcilable; it wasn’t anybody’s fault, it was just inherent in the situation.”
But that Monday night, next to the dishwasher in the church’s basement kitchen, my friend’s daughter had said, cautiously and a bit sadly, “Maybe you’re right.” Apparently, that was the end of her parents’ big worry for her.
A couple years later, I got a call from the daughter, out of the blue. “Seraphim, I have a favor to ask.” At the time, she was about to graduate from college, I guess.
“Sure, that’s fine, what do you need?”
“Can I come to dinner at your house?”
Now, this request amazed me. She and her whole family are very modest, unassuming, and unfailingly polite. To invite themselves to our house is just not their style. So of course, I said, “Sure! It’ll be nice, we’ll be glad to see you.” We settled on a day and time, and hung up, but she immediately called again, saying, “Oh! I forgot! May I bring a friend, too?”
Truly startling, and way out of character for her. “Of course, sweetheart.” So we had a plan.
When they arrived, my wife had roasted a chicken, it was her favorite dish. The friend was a nice young man who had recently graduated from one of the best colleges near Boston. Supposedly the reason they came was for him to meet me, because he’d heard of my work in his field. But really, she brought him here for me to meet him. Her parents had already approved, and I guess my approval was needed, too. So, yeah. I approved; he’s a great guy.
They have four kids now, and they live around the corner from her parents, my friends. I guess every time her mom has a grandbaby on her knee, she’s thinking, “It’s time to get some food to Seraphim’s house.” I guess that’s what’s going on. But for her, “some” means a lot of food.
My wife died of her disease, after about a year and a half. As such deaths go, hers was easy, because her type of stomach cancer is weird; it isn’t painful. Through it all, lots of our friends kept bringing us food, especially the Russians. But as most of the other deliveries gradually stopped, our Russian friends brought their deliveries more often, mother’s family and daughter’s family alternating. They continued bringing us food, every week or two, for nearly two years after my wife died. They finally stopped, only this past Easter. So now I take care of dinner myself, most of the time.
I once tried to repay their favor in a small way, but that was a mistake. A couple of Christmases ago, I bought a lot of high-end caviar and a bottle of cognac, for their Christmas meal. I thought what I was saying in this way, was clear enough. But at the next weekly delivery, after Russian Christmas (Jan. 7), the daughter brought a present for me, along with her 15 lb of food: it was a 1.75 L bottle of Grey Goose vodka. It was too big to fit in my freezer, and it was almost too good to drink. I was suitably chastened, I thought.
But then, after Easter that year, they invited me & my kids to their house for a Sunday dinner, and on the table sat the unopened caviar and cognac. So, I had to help them enjoy my gifts. Only then did I really figure it out. I’ll never owe them anything; it’s not allowed. They’ll always feel indebted to me. With a good son-in-law and four grandchildren in play, how could it not be so?
Well after my wife died, months later, my neighbor across the street told me something that really brought me up short. She’s a homeschooler, as my wife and I were, but she’s 20 years younger. In fact, when her oldest was a baby, she sought my advice about whether to homeschool (I told her it’s not for everyone, but I tried to be thorough about the plusses and minuses).
Now, homeschooling here in the city is a lot of work, at least the way she does it and the way my wife and I did it. Lots of kid activities outside the home: driving to managed playdates, homeschooler picnics, museum visits, learning center this & art class that. I guess you, the reader, probably aren’t a homeschooler, so you need to know this about a homeschooling family’s style of work, in order to understand the import of what my neighbor told me.
That fall day in 2015, my neighbor told me that she talked to her husband after my wife got sick, and they decided that since we were likely to need help with our kids during my wife’s treatment, they’d pull back from their two kids’ homeschooling activities for as long as it took, so as to be available to help us with our kids. They said nothing of this to me at the time.
But it happened so often during those 20 months, that I’d get stuck at the hospital, and I couldn’t come home in time to feed my kids, or to put them to bed. Or I’d have to sleep overnight on the Emergency-Room floor, next to my wife’s rolling bed, and so I’d need my neighbor to get my kids up for school. And I knew all those times, lots of times, not a few, that I didn’t have to worry, my neighbor was holding it together for us.
And I had no idea, until she told me, what she and her kids had given up for us. All just because I clear their snow in the wintertime. Actually, I cleared her snow throughout the winter my wife was dying: nine feet of snow, with no thaws. But still, it seems to me disproportionate. How can I ever repay her sacrifice? Umm, I can’t, that’s how. Not ever.
But I still clear her snow now, that’s for sure. If I’m sick, and I can’t clear all my dozen and a half houses, her house is still on my short list. I clear hers before I finish mine. I think often of my special debt to her.
My next-door neighbor lives six inches from me, because our houses are the two sides of a 140-year-old duplex. He and his wife have a four-year-old boy, and sometimes the little boy likes to help me shovel out our back alley’s snow. My neighbor, the boy’s father, still brings us food once every three or four weeks, even now, three and a half years after my wife’s treatment started, and two years after her death.
Tonight, my son and I will eat the last part of a lovely dinner that this neighbor brought us a couple days ago: roast chicken, my wife’s favorite.
Update (Aug 5, ‘17): A few readers have commented that my family is lucky to have such a supportive community. I replied at length that:
Actually, the point of my story is that such supportive communities don’t just happen here and there by accident. If you’re consistently generous without hope of compensation, people around you will imitate you, and will rise to your level. In the end, you and everyone else will receive more than you give. This is what I do. It works. It beats watching TV, I guess.
Some of my neighbors used to try to pay me for clearing their snow. I’ve always refused payment. There’s always a moment of “Wait, what? Is this guy for real?” But then, they figure it out. I clear the snow because I don’t want my elderly neighbors to fall on the ice, and I’m not going to skip the houses between my fellow oldsters’ houses.
I work at being even-handed about it. One winter, some drug-dealing teenagers were living three doors from my house. Their working in our neighborhood annoyed all of us neighbors. But during a storm, one of these kids got his big shiny Mercedes stuck in the snow, so I shovelled him out, and taught him how to get his car unstuck, just as I do with the young nurses who get their cars stuck on their way to work.
I also work (for free) as a cancer patient advocate, helping friends’ friends to find the best hospital & oncologist in their area for their disease, telling them what to expect, listening to their fears, reminding them of the most effective ways to deal with their medical staff. I started doing this 20 years ago, long before my wife got cancer. Some have offered me money for this, but I always refuse.
People remember my irrationally generous behavior, and maybe they’re the better for it. A few years ago, I was at my next-door neighbor’s house, drinking a beer, when a friend of his showed up. When we were introduced, the friend said, “Actually, we’ve met; you helped me change a flat on my car, two years ago.” I had to confess to him that I had very little memory of it.
But that’s my point: he remembered better than I, and perhaps it strengthened his generosity. I notice that people whom I help in these ways, and others who see me do this, seem to become more open wth each other, and pretty generous themselves. If you show people how this is done, most of them will figure it out. It ain’t rocket science. The thing is, most people want supportive community life, just as you & I want it. All you need to do, is to start behaving that way openly, without stint, and many others will reciprocate, to you and to each other.
Three years ago, I landed in the ER at Mass General, with what I thought was a simple case of influenza per se. I’d gone to my neighborhood doctor with a fever and chills, which led her office to call an ambulance.
At my age (60-ish), an ambulance ride seems always to end with getting admitted, which was particularly inconvenient in this case. That morning, my wife was due to get discharged from Mass General, and I had been looking forward to bringing her home. Now that I was in the hospital, she’d have to stay longer.
She had been in the hospital with a serious infection that came up during her cancer treatment. We still had a thin but dwindling hope that she might survive in the end. The infection was gone, so I wanted to get her home, for her to enjoy as much time with our kids as she could have. But here I was, screwing up her homecoming, by getting too sick to drive safely.
But then, once I got to the ER, the mother of all headaches started, and my neck got stiff. The headache felt like someone was scraping the tip of an ice-pick across the inside of my skull, makng me yell, “Ouch, dammit!” every once in a while. I knew the stiff neck meant this was starting to look like meningitis, before the staff brought it up. Not a great prospect; my wife’s dying, we have two teenagers at home, and now my brain is imploding.
In the evening, after six or seven hours in my ER bay, I was able to nap for a bit. I woke up to a kindly face peeking in around the privacy curtain. “Hi, my name is David, may I come in?”
“Uhh, sure, I guess. What’s your role?”
“I’m a doctor. I’d like to do a spinal tap, so we can check a fluid sample for bacteria.”
“OK, sure.” I rolled onto my side, and assumed the position, with my knees tucked up a bit.
“No, wait, I have to bring in some instruments first. Right now, I hope you don’t mind if I talk to you a bit. Can I ask you some questions?” The guy was just amazingly polite.
I said, “Sure, but before we start, is there any way I can get something to eat? I got here late morning, and I’m kind of hungry.”
“Lemme see… usually, the cafeteria brings in a few trays of food for the patients, but it’s almost 8:00, I don’t know whether any are left… Tell you what, though — if the caf food is all gone, I can go out and bring you a sandwich from around the corner.”
I was really touched by this kindness. I thanked him, but his offer dumbfounded me. Nowhere in the MGH employees’ handbook, does it say that doctors should go out to buy food for patients. But more was to come.
Before my lumbar puncture happened, my wife’s oncology social worker, Linda B, came in to see me, on her way home from work. She’d looked in on my wife before her discharge, so my wife had told Linda I was in the ER.
Linda asked me, “Is there anything you need?” People ask this a lot, when cancer’s afoot.
I said, “Actually… there is. When I went to my doctor this morning, I needed to pick up my daughter’s meds from the drugstore, on my way home. Can you pick up her prescription for me, and take it to our house? I’m really sorry to ask, but she’s out of her meds, so she really needs her nighttime dose.”
Linda said, “Sure; where’s the pharmacy, and what’s your address?” Just like that. Linda left, and awhile later, I got my spinal tap. I found it to be almost painless, which surprised the hell out of me.
What surprised me more was when Linda came back to the ER, to bring me my phone charger. She’d gotten to my house, but found it empty; my kids were eating dinner at my neighbor’s house. So Linda went in, left the meds on the dining table with a note, and searched the house’s outlets until she found a phone charger. Then she brought it back to me, before going home to eat dinner with her husband. WTF?
Late that night, my spinal culture came up clean, so I got moved to a room upstairs for observation. I had to wait until late the next morning to get discharged. It turned out I just had influenza, after all. But after 15 months of caring for my wife and my kids, I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring my own discomfort. I asked my nurse for a surgical mask to keep from infecting people, and headed off to my wife’s cancer floor, so I could take her home.
Eight months after my wife died, on a Friday morning in February, I was leaving the house to meet a friend for breakfast, when I saw a woman, standing at the curb on the other side of my street, hugging herself in the cold. I offered her a cup of coffee to warm her up, and brought her into the house. My kids were leaving for school, but didn’t show any surprise about seeing a stranger in the dining room at 7:30 AM. They know me & my ways pretty well.
The woman turned out to be lost and confused, and I realized later that she had been outside all night. She was in her early forties, but looked younger; trim, pretty, & gentle. Her clothes were more presentable than mine. She wasn’t depressed or agitated; she was mostly kind of absent-minded, maybe dreamy. She didn’t know her address, but she was able to tell me her parents’ phone number; they live out West.
I drove her to a Dunkin’ Donuts and gave her some money to buy breakfast, and while she was inside, I called her parents to tell them what was up. From her mom, I learned that the lost daughter actually lives next door to us. I offered to her father that if he wanted to come to Boston, I’d pick him up at the airport, and he could stay with us. He told me enough to confirm my suspicion that his daughter was having a mental health crisis, so after the call, I drove her to Cambridge Hospital. She didn’t want to be there, and the staff couldn’t manage to coax her inside, but I talked her into it. She got admitted, against her will, two hours after meeting me.
My wife had been a psychotherapist, but only then did I understand how sad she’d been, every time she had to commit a patient to a locked ward. It hit me particularly hard, because this lost woman’s sorrows and mental illness were so similar to my mother’s many troubles.
Four days later, the lost woman’s father flew in, so I picked him up. He and I had lunch at a burrito place before I dropped him at the hospital to see his daughter. Later, when I went back to get him, he wanted to take me & the kids to dinner, but I had to beg off. My kids still had homework to finish, and I was very tired, so I mainly just wanted to rest. I dunno, I said, maybe tomorrow night we can go.
I never did meet my friend for that breakfast. He was understanding about it. I know I did the right thing, despite her being scared and upset. On Thursday night, when she had stayed out, the temperature was 32 F (0 C). But Friday night, when she was safely in the hospital, it was colder, down in the teens (-5 C); I’ve had homeless friends who died outside, in weather like that. So it’s good that I got her inside. But, what a sad business.
After a couple weeks in the hospital, the lost woman had been improving for several days running; she was accepting medication every day, and she became more and more interested in her family again. I myself wasn’t visiting her, because the one time I did, soon after her admission, she was so skittish that I felt my bluntness was upsetting her. Her father visited her a few times every day, and in the evenings, as he & I planned our dinner with my kids, I would ask him about her. But something was a bit weird: when he’d call his wife, he’d refer to me sometimes as “Don Angel,” and occasionally, he would even address me directly that way : “Don Angel.” I wondered what the hell that was about, but I didn’t ask.
He and I expected that she might be released in a week or two, but he would have to get back to his job before then. We planned that when he’d eventually leave, I’d take up his tasks of taking food & drink to her, and of helping her teenaged kids to visit. When she’d get out of the hospital, her sister would come from Europe to Boston, so as to help the lost woman resume her former life. I’d try to help the sister, too, as I had helped the father. Maybe it’d all turn out OK, we thought.
Various friends of mine have remarked on my helping the lost woman & her family so much. I feel this question is kind of awkward. I know that when I tell these stories of my helping people, it looks like I’m posing a bit as a saint. But really, I did feel compelled to do these things; I just didn’t have a lot of choice about it. At that point, so soon after my wife’s death, such helping commitments had displaced my former hobbies and interests. To some extent, I think I tacitly & unconsciously undertook my wife’s drive to help, and I added it to my own. Maybe it’s a way to cope, and maybe that’s why it has become so consuming. But please don’t suppose that I think I’m a great person; trust me, I don’t think so. I worry a lot about my weaknesses and flaws, and about the harm that I too often do.
Now, having explained all this, there remains an intense curlicue to this story of the lost woman, that bears telling. I’m wary of writing here about it, because it seems to turn up the knob on this false saintliness issue. But I’ve told a few people about it, because it’s a good story and a true one, and the last friend I told, said I ought to write about it, so here’s the curlicue:
A week after I brought the lost woman into the house from the cold, her father & I were sitting in my dining room. We’d been discussing how he should get a resident’s parking permit for his lost daughter’s car, so as to cut down on her parking ticket expenses.
Then he mentioned her sister, who lives overseas with her husband and children. “My other daughter… .” He tried to continue, but he stopped, and couldn’t speak for a bit. I was wondering what was wrong, and then I saw he’d puddled up, so I waited. He’s a burly guy, older, my generation, and works in construction; he’s not much the sensitive poet type, and not the weepy sort, so I had no idea what was coming. It was odd, but what the hell, I’m odd sometimes too.
“My other daughter is very religious, we brought them up that way, and she kept it. But sometimes, she has these dreams, like meaningful dreams, y’know?
“And three weeks ago, she called us, and said about her sister, ‘I had a dream – I saw her standing on a street corner. But it’ll be OK, because God is going to send an angel to help.”
Now indeed, two weeks after this dream, I did find the poor lost woman on the street corner, and I did decide to help, so that part of the dream is uncanny. Emphatically, I’m not an angel, but this dream explained to me why he’d been calling me “Don Angel,” all week, as he had done. I’d thought it was odd, but I thought he was just trying to say he was grateful. Yet, apparently that wasn’t all of it. Believe me, this was for me an intense and unusual experience.
A couple days later, I came to understand the “angel” part of the sister’s premonition. I mentioned to him, again in the dining room, “Y’know, I’ve got something to tell you, I expect you’ll like it.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“When I converted to the Orthodox Church twenty years ago, the priest who baptized me, he gave me the baptismal name Seraphim. Everybody in my church knows me by that name, Seraphim.”
“Seraphim? What’s that?”
“Umm, it’s a kind of angel.”
I explained, as well as I could, about God’s fiery, singing angels, each with six wings and many eyes.
He smiled. “Well, there ya go.” Meaning, I guess, “You got that right.”
One summer recently, a doctor friend of mine called me up on a Friday evening. (Yes, this really is a quick-marriage story.)
“Don, you remember we were talking about that research help you do for cancer patients?”
“What about it?”
He hesitated. I waited. “A friend of mine just got a diagnosis. He’s been my best friend since college… They say he’s stage IV.”
“Do you want me to talk to him?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Does he want my help?”
“How long ago did he get the diagnosis?”
“An hour and a half ago.”
Yowza. It was a bit intense, more than with most patients I get. That night, while I waited for the new patient to call, I stayed up late, writing a long email message to him, a first installment of his personal version of “What to Expect When You’re Scared Shitless.”
Mostly, my first message to a patient covers just a few topics:
- How immunotherapy has progressed amazingly in just the past few years;
- To get the full benefit, get treated at a National Cancer Institute hospital (NCI);
- What the first bureaucratic steps will be.
It’s not boilerplate; I always write everything afresh for each new patient, with details that are particular to that person’s disease, city, and situation. They need someone who cares a lot, so I care a lot.
I’ve been doing this for twenty years, for friends originally, then for friends’ family members, now increasingly for friends of friends, as in this case. Eventually, my wife became the patient who mattered most for me. Some patients survived, some lived just a year or two longer than expected.
I was pretty anxious that night, because often, when a new patient comes along, I get dreamy and distracted, kind of upset, until I actually talk to them, and can learn enough to be helpful. That initial part isn’t fun.
Early the next afternoon, a Saturday, the new patient, my doctor friend’s best friend, finally called me. After I heard some medical background from him, and a bit about his life, I asked him where he’d gotten his diagnosis. It was a well known hospital in Manhattan.
I told him, “Look, the main NCI hospital in New York is Memorial Sloan Kettering, in the Upper East Side. You should get your treatment there, because cancer is the main thing they do. You’ll have your best chance of getting into one of these new immunotherapy trials, if you go there.”
“But will they take my insurance?”
“I dunno, whaddya got? Clinical trial treatments are mostly free, but you won’t be eligible for a trial until your first treatment fails. So what insurance is it?”
“I, I don’t make much money, I just have Medicaid.”
So, I did a quick search of the Sloan-Kettering website. “No, they don’t take Medicaid. Is there any way you can get better insurance?”
“Actually, my girlfriend has excellent insurance. We even have a marriage license already. We just never got around to getting married.”
I told him, “Um, y’all might want to change plan about that.”
They got married at City Hall at 8:30 on Monday morning. They sent me pictures, it was sweet.
I’d already told him to go to his old hospital, and to request a CD with his medical records, so as to hand-carry the disk to Sloan Kettering. So on Tuesday, he was able to get a Friday appointment with a new oncologist. During that week, I researched the latest drugs and trials for his disease, and I sent that stuff to him and his new wife; she helped research the drugs.
Then, I compiled a list of all of the hospital’s oncologists who specialize in his disease, sorted by experience, publications, and patients’ reviews. This list generally takes me about 3–6 hours to research and write. The doctor the hospital assigned him turned out to be #2 on my list; I liked her, because she was experienced enough, and was closely involved in Sloan Kettering’s clinical trials for his disease. I told him to keep that Friday appointment.
In the end, that doctor amazed me, by enrolling him in an unusual clinical trial of a new drug as a first-line treatment. I didn’t know such trials were possible. The drug is working handsomely for him, with minor side-effects. He texts me every month or so, to tell me his new numbers. They’re very small, and that’s a good thing.
He’s back at work, but a couple months ago, he told me he and his wife are concentrating now on having a baby. It’s nice news, from where I sit. Most of my cancer patients don’t get to worry about that.
My kids say I’m weird, as dads go. Today, my daughter Thaïs wore a pretty new dress to church, but while she was singing in the choir, I noticed that it was draping wrong, in an unflattering way. So, during a quiet moment in the service, I left my pew behind the choir, went up behind her, and gently bloused the dress a bit in back, above the belt, to fix the problem.
Afterwards, she said other dads might’ve noticed the problem, but wouldn’t have known what to do. Apparently, it’s weird for a straight guy to know what to do about women’s clothes.
My other daughter Isis (who’s been visiting, until today) agreed, and reminded me of how I taught her to tie the sashes on her dresses when she was little, so the bows would look pretty. The next week, she’d try to tie it herself, but when I saw it, I’d get exasperated, and just redo it myself. Isis finally learned to do it, and ties her daughter’s dress sashes my way, now.
Apparently, it’s no fun to watch movies with me that have a little science or math to ’em, because I interrupt the dialog to correct the stupid errors. Likewise with movies that feature old cars, like Driving Miss Daisy, because when a 1955 scene has a 1958 car in it, I can’t shut up about it, it just gets on my nerves.
When a recipe goes sideways, I know what to do. Really, is that weird?
The kids find it weird that when we’re in a restaurant, I’m liable to ask the waiter, “Excuse me, are you from Uganda?” … I dunno what the kids find embarassing: is it that I make bold to ask, or is it that I’m right, or is it that the Ugandan waiter doesn’t get mad, but is willing to chat about it?
Once, at the science museum, Isis, her husband, and I were looking at a 28-cylinder radial airplane engine, made during WWII. It was a grand thing, taller than me, but I noticed that some nitwit had somehow loosened a braided hose that went from one side of a topside cylinder head to the other; I suppose it must’ve carried lubricating oil. This dangling hose offended my mechanical sensibilities, so I found the oil port that didn’t have a braided hose, and tightened it back into place, finger-tight. I remember Isis & Dave found this weird. For me, it was like petting a hurt puppy, how could I not fix it?
A couple months ago, the kids and I were watching “The Accountant,” which has a prison scene in it, in which Ben Affleck studies money laundering at the hand of his mentor, an older prisoner. My son Tycho asked me, “Papai, is that scene realistic? Is prison like that?”
I said, “Well, it’s mostly right, but when I was in jail, it was louder. Y’see, all the prisoners just turned up their radios and TVs to top volume, competing with each other, so the whole cell block was really noisy, until lights-out at night.” That time I realized, yeah, I guess most other dads wouldn’t answer that question the same way.
Keeping the Fast
For the first ten years after my wife & I converted to Orthodoxy, we kept the long fasts: Great Lent in the spring, Peter & Paul fast in the summer, and Advent fast in autumn. Plus, we kept the shorter fasts that precede the.minor feasts. But we didn’t fast every Wednesday and Friday, as the super-observant do.
As our parish did it, we avoided meat, dairy, fish, alcohol, and cooking oil, plus sex. The parish was almost entirely converts, so we didn’t realize that this was a bit more strict than what’s doctrinally required. Technically, the rules say no olive oil and no wine, and that’s literally what’s intended.
Then, after a dispute in our parish, we lapsed in our fasting, though we continued in attendance. Truth be told, it wasn’t just the dispute. We had small kids, my wife’s health was deteriorating, and my professional workload had increased, so the extra fuss of keeping the fasts seemed like too much work.
I’m reminded now of the oncology nurse practitioner who helped treat my wife at MGH, five years ago. The first day we met her, it was Ash Wednesday, and the NP came into the exam room with ashes on her forehead. This wouldn’t have been remarkable, but the NP looked obviously Greek, and had a Greek first name and surname, so something was awry. You see, Ash Wednesday is done only by Catholics; We Orthodox start Lent in a more complicated way. Greek Catholics exist, but are kinda rare.
I asked her, “Wait, you’re Orthodox, right? Why are you wearing the ashes?”
She said, “Yes, I’m Orthodox, but someone was offering ashes today near the cafeteria, so I accepted. I decided years ago to keep both fasts. So every year I start my fast on Ash Wednesday, and I just continue until Pascha.”
That year, Western Easter and Pascha coincided, but on some years, Pascha is five weeks later. Keeping the Orthodox fast for twelve weeks is no joke, so my wife and I were sold, we knew we were gonna like this nurse, and we did, very much, throughout my wife’s eighteen months of treatment.
Nowadays, our youngest kids are commuter students at a local college, so I was surprised last month when my 22-yo daughter told me she wanted to keep the fast this year.
I was a bit suspicious, because I’ve been concerned for a while about her wanting to lose weight (she’s quite petite already). Then too, she was talking only about restricting her diet, with no mention of Orthodox Lent’s activities of extra services, spiritual reading, and more-intensive daily prayers. I suspected, maybe correctly, that with little experience of keeping the Orthodox fast, she might be thinking it would resemble the Catholic Lenten “fast” that she’d seen when she attended a Catholic middle school.
So, I cautioned her that Orthodox fasting is intended to support a two-month agenda of repentence and self-criticism, with an eye to improving one’s kindness and general piety. She said she still wants to do it. So I told her if she wanted to go to the nighttime Liturgies on Wednesdays and Fridays, I’d go with her. She said yes.
Then I suggested she might read C.S. Lewis‘ Mere Christianity, because I had already gotten a copy for my goddaughter, who is also my daughter’s best friend. To my surprise, my daughter said yes to that, so I went and bought her a copy, too. So here I am, starting the fast myself, being led back into it by my daughter.
I was at Trader Joe’s tonight, buying dried fruit and honey, to use in making kolivo for my wife’s four-year memorial service. But I made a sweep through the freezer aisle, looking for fast-appropriate foods that my daughter might enjoy.
I found some frozen felafel, and a bag of frozen shellfish paella (shellfish is always permitted during our fasts). I myself can live on rice and beans till Pascha, but my daughter’s not used to it. She likes variety in her food, so I’ll lead her into Lent more gently.
Let’s Make a Deal
My two younger children are a 19-yo son and a 22-yo daughter. It so happens that both children need unrelated surgeries, and until recently, both kids were reluctant to get cut. My daughter was afraid of permanent side effects of her surgery, and my son just wanted to avoid undergoing the pain and inconvenience of his proposed surgery. Since both kids are older than 18, the hospital will not weigh my opinion more heavily than theirs, so I was worried about whether I’d be able to get my kids the care that they need.
But, a few months ago, each kid told me separately that they were willing to go through with it. It was my son who told me what led them to change their minds. Each was concerned that the other should get the necessary surgery, so they made a pact: “If you’ll go along with your surgery, I’ll get mine.”
Now these two, being three years apart in age, had ferocious sibling rivalry from when they were small until recently, and it still crops up occasionally. Because their mother is dead, and I’m getting old, I frequently urge them to try to get along better. I tell them, “Look, I’m gonna be dead in 15 or 20 years, and when that happens, you three will have only each other; you really need to learn now to get along better, before it’s too late to learn it.” Yes, I’m a pretty blunt person.
But, with this surgery decision of theirs, I’m finally pretty confident my kids will do okay with each other, long-term.