Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Writing on the Wall

A framed sign on my friend’s bathroom wall says, “Sprinkle kindness like confetti,” so her kids see that reminder with every trip to the toilet, every reach for a toothbrush, every step into a warm tub.  I imagine “Be kind” is written in cheerful crayon colors at the top of the list of guidelines in almost every classroom in the country.  At least, I hope it is.

“Be Respectful” and “Think before you act” are usually on those lists as well, crucial guidelines for living, although they often blend too easily in a sulky child’s mind into the “blah, blah, blah” of adult-speak following an incident of shoving, mean words, tears, and bruised feelings.

There are plenty of axioms for behavior that we teach our kids, all embraced under the wise umbrella of “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” but the Biblical “unto’s” and clich├ęd familiarity of the phrase blur its significance.  How could it not after thousands of years of repetition? Still, it is worth remembering as we choose our words and actions.

This brutal election has assailed us all, children and parents, via one screen or another, lashing us with cruelty, intolerance, and vile language that not so long ago would have cost a child a paddling, loss of privileges, or at least a sit in the thinking chair with a well-soaped mouth.  And yet in this election, the primary perpetrator has been awarded the presidency.  What will be the ramifications in what we do unto each other?  And will children feel less compelled to act kindly toward others when they see the otherness of those “others” sneered, spewed, and shouted by grown-ups? 

How would I feel if someone called me a fat pig?  How would I feel if someone mocked and imitated the way I walk or move?  How would I feel if someone minimized, even slammed, my loss of a loved one?  How would I feel if someone demeaned or attacked me because of my gender, color, sexual orientation, or beliefs?  How would any of us, all of us “others,” feel?

If I were a child in school and such an exchange occurred, presumably a grown up would intervene.  Perhaps, putting an arm around my shoulders and that of my tormenter, the grown up would remind us of the school code, and ask the bully, “How would you feel if she did that to you?”

I have several friends who feel the president-elect “makes some good points.”  That he “promises much needed change.”  That he “tapped into deep rooted anger.”  Let’s grant him those three.  But he could have voiced his stand on immigration, defense, trade, and jobs without demeaning, defaming, and intimidating so many of us “others”- women, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, and gays - fomenting a fury that emboldened one southern sheriff to say, “Folks, it’s torches and pitchforks time.” 

Pause to regain breath.  In despair, my mind leaps to witch hunts and progroms and Japanese internment camps.  To all of the “others” who have suffered before in the tumbling, divisive, hate-fueled wake of blame and scape-goating. When I learned about those terrible episodes in history as a child, I was comforted by thinking they were in the past, that we’d learned from them, that they wouldn’t happen again.

“Folks, it’s torches and pitchforks time”???

As we lurch into four years with a president who appears to have crumpled and tossed his copy of the school code into a trashcan, it is important that we, the people, remember our own otherness, remember our children are watching, and speak up for others, as we would hope they would speak up for us.


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Man Down

“The 10:24 train leaves in five minutes,” said Brian.

“Omigod!  We barely have time to make it.  Where’s Dave?” 

“Where’s Dave?” is so often my refrain that friends smile automatically in hearing it, shaking heads in bemusement before launching into their own often-used lines. “Not sure," Brian replied.  "A minute ago he was looking for his keys…” or his phone, or his computer.  This time, it was his camera.  He’d been looking for his camera last time I saw him too, his face grim.

We were attending a “Brews, Boots, and Bling” benefit for Eagle Hill at a restaurant near the depot in Portchester.  Friends in cowboy hats, boots, and bandanas had scurried about searching for the camera for the past half hour. Since my view of mankind lately tends too quickly toward the dark, I assumed it was stolen, but Dave hunted on... and found it, confirming, once again, his faith in mankind over my doubt.

Still, he was nowhere to be seen and the minutes were passing.  Schedule-ruled as I am, I headed for the door, husband or not, hoping he would glance at his watch and turn up in time.  “We’d better hurry,” said Bullets as we pushed through the guests milling around the bar. 

I’ve known Bullets since the day she was born, even earlier if you count the times I laid a hand on her Mom’s swollen belly hoping to feel a kick.  Nicknames cling to toddlers and grandparents, and little Tracy, with her big blue eyes, long blonde hair, and flowing floral sundresses, looked no more like a Tracer-Bullet than the beautiful woman with long, shining blond hair striding beside me, yet she continues to carry the title "Bullets" with grace.

For the trip down, Brian and his wife Colleen had met us at the Fairfield station.  As the train stopped at Norwalk, Cos Cob, and Greenwich, additional colleagues from the school boarded the train to hoots of welcome and compliments on whatever western attire they had donned.  I was pleased to have an excuse to wear my theme-perfect fringed brown leather jacket purchased for another Eagle Hill event years ago.  

As Bullets and I bounded briskly in our cowboy boots through the dark, down the sidewalk, under the overpass, and up the stairs to the northbound platform for the return trip, I glanced over my shoulder hoping to spot my errant Dave.  Upon seeing Brian and Colleen, but no Dave, I strode on, fueled by annoyance, as my marching would prove pointless if he didn’t show up: our tickets were in his wallet.

The platform was well-lighted, casting the track in shadow.  One girl stood alone, her brunette hair caught up in a ponytail, a red windbreaker slung over her arm.  She was tapping at her phone and when our breathless crew arrived, she gestured toward the track.  No sign of the train, which was good as there was no sign of Dave either.

The girl waved again, persistent, but not insistent, so, casually, we looked toward the track again.  “Down,” she said, loudly, so we could hear her.  On the track.  I’ve already texted 911.”

911?

And this time we saw him, a man in jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt, lying on his back on the track below us.  Holy shit.  He was moving, so he was alive, but we could see the light of the oncoming train in the distance.

Truth is, that was significant more because of timing than the man’s safety.  Metal gangways stretched across the first track, where the man lay, to allow boarding when the train pulled in on the second track over.  The man was not in danger, but the next train was due close to midnight, so we did not want to miss this one.

The girl in the ponytail said she’d seen the guy staggering along the platform, apparently drunk, and she’d told him to be careful, to stay away from the yellow line, but he paid no attention.  Where were the police?  What was taking so long?  In fact, it had been only minutes.

Dave and several others appeared as the 10:24 pulled in, and a cluster of people had gathered on the platform above the man on the track.  Suddenly I noticed Dave among them, seated at the edge of the platform, his legs slung over the side, preparing to jump down. 

“Don’t do it, Honey!” I called.  “That girl called 911.  Someone who knows what to do will come soon.  You might injure him if you move him.”  Dave didn’t look at me; but he didn’t jump.  He leaned way over to talk to the man.

The train doors slid open, spilling a shaft of light.  A conductor burst from the opening, and clanged across the metal bridge to see what was happening.  Bullets, Brian, and Colleen hung over the bridge railing, watching the scene on the tracks, and I slipped onto the train, straddling the gap, keeping one foot on the bridge and one in the train.  The 10:24 was not leaving without us if I could help it. 

A portly bald guy with a striped polo shirt stretched over his stomach hurried from the front of the train to join the group above the fallen man.  “Was he down before we pulled in?” he asked anxiously.  A chorus of us affirmed that he was, and I realized with a start that this was the engineer.  No striped uniform, no visored cap, no red bandana knotted around his neck, just a guy in a polo shirt, worried sick that with a train, he might have hit a man.

“There’s a ladder onboard,” said the engineer.  “I’ll get it,” and he hurried off on his quest.

When I swung my gaze from the retreating engineer, I saw Dave lying on his stomach, stretched full out, his head hanging over the edge of the cement platform, listening. The fallen man in the sweatshirt raised his hand… and Dave reached down to clasp it.  And so they remained until four police officers crowded onto the platform and jumped down to the tracks. As the officers helped him to his feet, the man released Dave’s hand and said, “Thank you.”

Bullets turned to me with a look of wonder.  “So,” she said, “that makes it official.  Dave is the best human on the planet.”      



     




      

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fraught Flights Part II

With the wisdom of our “Anything but Delta” rule confirmed on our trip down to Sarasota, Dave and I sat at JetBlue’s Gate B5 waiting to board Flight 432 for our return to LaGuardia.  Throughout the early part of the day, as we’d sat on floury white sand and then relished fried oysters, grouper fingers, salad, and margaritas at the Daiquiri Deck on Lido Key, Dave had followed our flight’s status, so we knew it was running late.  Because of high winds and winter weather in New York, it was delayed two hours, so we’d taken our time before turning in Dave’s beloved black Mustang convertible and checking in at the airport.

Having pointedly left at least one empty seat between themselves and others, those we assumed would be our future fellow passengers sat in rigid green vinyl seats around us.  A sturdy woman with bushy hair and glasses.  A tall, artsy, dark-haired man in a “Tillamook” emblazoned black tee-shirt and navy sportcoat.  A girl, about thirty I'd guess, in a crotcheted yellow sweater.  A slender brunette with stylish shoulder-length hair and smoky-blue glass hoop earrings.  Her companion, a balding man in a cream colored linen suit.   A portly gent in a checked cotton shirt, his eyes sparkly, his hair, crewcut.   

But for the guy in the black Tillamook tee-shirt who was riveted by his book, most stared at their phones, thumbs flipping on screens as they scrolled.  Little eye contact.  Few smiles.  Everyone biding time. 

Periodic flight updates by a female announcer, her voice so drowsy she must have been recently shaken awake, competed with a chirpy robotic broadcaster who cautioned us not to leave bags unattended at the risk of impoundment.  Music played quietly in the background, Adele, of course, singing, “Hello.”         

Right on time, or on time for the most recently posted delayed time, flight 432 pulled up to the jetbridge.  At the counter, two airline representatives busied themselves at their monitors.  One was a handsome guy with tousled brown hair and the sleeve of his white oxford shirt pinned closed at the shoulder.  The other, a fortyish woman with short blond hair, wore a trim navy uniform and scarf.

The woman, Kris, we later discovered, turned on the microphone.  She was soft-spoken, so there was a ripple of motion as everyone leaned forward to listen.  “Your flight has arrived, and after the passengers de-plane, we’ll clean up the aircraft and get you off to LaGuardia as quickly as possible.  To expedite the boarding process, please remove everything you’ll need from the carry-ons you plan to store in the overhead bins to minimize blocking the aisles.  If any of you wish to check your roll-aboards, you may do so at the counter at this time.” 

Standard stuff.  We were an obedient crowd, and there was a general flurry as we rooted around in bags and backpacks for water bottles, snacks, and magazines. While we stood and stretched and looked around for our belongings, well-bundled passengers with wide smiles and expectant eyes trickled into the terminal as the plane from New York emptied and vacations commenced.    

I trotted off to the restroom, hoping to time it just right: late enough to hold me well into the flight and early enough to avoid last-minute anxiety.  While perched on tiptoes in my stall, a gold necklace spilled onto the floor by my feet.

“Is this yours?” I asked my unseen fellow percher as I held the necklace in my hand where she could see it beneath the dividing wall between us.

“Omigod, yes!  Thank you!”

As I returned to Dave, I smiled at the thought of this little exchange.  That good feeling was to pass shortly.

A hint of electric crackle, a pause, and perhaps even a sigh, heralded Kris’s announcement.  “Ladies and gentlemen.  Unfortunately, the pilot of flight 432 has reported a mechanical failure that must be assessed.  We are awaiting a technician who will run some tests.  We apologize for any inconvenience.”

But for the roll of a few eyes, most people settled back into their seats. Two, a snappy woman with flowing black hair and the portly guy with the crewcut, grabbed their belongings and headed up to the counter to begin negotiations.  Another JetBlue employee, Greta, a slender blond, had joined Matt and Kris.  Was this a good sign or bad?    

The microphone clicked on.  A brief silence of open air.  And Kris’s voice, slightly magnified, informed us, “The technician has arrived.  We will let you know as soon as we have his report.”

Dave texted our friend Len whom we’d just visited in Sarasota. I took a few notes, then called my mom for a chat. 

Again the metallic click, a bit of static, and an audible intake of breath before the one-armed rep, Matt, spoke.  “I’m afraid we have some bad news.  The plane did not pass the tests.  Repairs require a part which must be transported from Tampa.  The flight has not yet been cancelled, but this will be a significant delay.  We deeply apologize, and Kris, Greta, and I are here to do what we can to help you re-schedule if need be.”

You could almost hear the tap of fingers as discouraged passenger-hopefuls texted friends and family and checked on alternative plans.  Dave decided to fall in with those who had slumped dispiritedly into a straggly line at the counter.  I stayed put.  “My son’s an aeronautics engineer,” said the bushy-haired woman two seats down from me.  With her glasses low on her nose, she leaned in as if with confidential information.  “I just texted him, and he said JetBlue has good mechanics.  He advised we wait it out.”   

Good.  That’s what I wanted to hear.  The thought of shuffling flights and finding a place to stay held no appeal.  I wanted to hunker down at B5 and fly out whenever.  Bushy Hair and I chatted.  Her father had lived in Sarasota and passed away recently.  She’d made this trip many times.  I expressed my sympathies and showed her a video of my chuckling grandson.  What could be more comforting?

I heard Dave laugh and glanced toward the line to see him wide-eyed, hands gesturing, as he told a story to an appreciative, smiling circle, among them the woman with the smoky-blue earrings and her balding companion. The girl in the yellow sweater, too, nodded and rocked from foot to foot, her brunette hair bobbing in a loose knot on top of her head.

Along the line, pockets had formed with small groups of cheerful chatter. Periodically the squawk of a bike horn, the burble of bubbles, the soft trill of a whistle, or a fifties ring tone erupted as cell phones signaled calls from friends and family checking on our progress.  The guy in the Tillamook tee-shirt had joined the line, but never looked up from his book.  What the hell was he reading?

“Can you watch my bags?” I asked Bushy Hair.  Heaven forbid I leave them unattended.  I joined Dave and his group in their discussion of open space and agriculture.   The “where are you from?” game had already been played, and Easton’s abundance of natural resources was under discussion.   

Filtering from the glass gates that led into the main terminal, the swelling crescendo of an aria momentarily stilled the babble.  Opera at the airport?  “I’m going to check it out,” I said and fell into step with the sparkly-eyed crewcut guy as we marched toward the glass doors.

“So, you’re all set on a new flight?” I asked.

“Oh yeah.  I’ve got 14 patients prepping for colonoscopies.  I’ve got to show up!”

“My god, yes!  They’d never forgive you!”  I crowed as he disappeared through the glass doors.  By that time, the opera singer had silenced, so I returned to the line at B5 and sparked hoots of laughter in reporting the gastroenterologist’s mission. 

Meanwhile, the cleaning crew had arrived pushing heavy carts laden with buckets and squeegees.  Garbed in spotless white uniforms with American flags embossed on the sleeves, the workers taped yellow strips that read “Restroom Closed” across the bathroom doors.  I was not the only one to slip defiantly under those strips. 

By this time, the mood in the line was buoyant.  People were exchanging business cards and saying, “It was so good to meet you,” as if we’d be departing soon.  Kris, Greta, and one-armed Matt smiled vaguely when someone commented that we’d all go to their homes and sleep on pull-out couches. 

The tall Tillamook guy was lying on his stomach on the floor, holding his place in line, still reading the book, which he’d propped on his balled-up blazer.  Suddenly he threw the book down and rose, fuming.  With his hands clasped behind his back, eyes gazing toward the heavens, he stomped down to the next gate.  Whoa.  What was he reading?  I had to know, so I trailed him to ask.  West of Eden,” he replied.  “But it crossed the line and I had to take a breather.”    

At the shrill ring of the phone on the counter, all eyes turned. Kris picked up the receiver, listened, nodded, hung up, and whispered urgently to Greta and Matt.  Didn’t look good.  Greta was particularly pale and tight-lipped, and seemed to be bracing herself against the counter.  Kris lifted her head and surveyed our expectant faces before taking the microphone and flipping the switch.  “Ladies and gentlemen.  I’m sorry to tell you, but the flight has been cancelled. Matt, Greta and I will do our best to get you re-scheduled and situated.”

Yes, there were groans and more frenzied thumb calisthenics as folks scrolled and texted and phoned, but no one seemed angry; no one complained.

I was hungry, and the restaurants and snack bars around us had closed.  Luckily, Dave and I had brought provisions:  Wheat Thins, almonds, and  - bless the Lord – Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies. I was Miss Popularity, Miss Gate B5, as I walked the line offering those good-cheer-sustaining snacks.  Even those who initially turned me down weakened at the whiff of those Thin Mints when I waved the box  - too tempting! - under their noses.   

Up at the counter, Kris was calm, her face alight in the glow of her screen as she took information from whomever was next in line.  Greta and Matt whispered heatedly and then turned to Kris.  She took a deep breath, smiled at Greta, and said, “Go.”   What was happening?

Matt led Greta to one of the green vinyl seats and told her to sit.  He disappeared briefly and returned with a wheel chair.  Her bearing shaky, Greta maneuvered herself into the wheel chair with Matt’s help, and they started toward the glass doors.

The eyes of a full roster of cancelled-plane’s-passengers swiveled toward Kris who ran both hands through her hair and took a deep breath before taking up the microphone.  “Greta’s not feeling well, and Matt’s computer’s not working.  I’m on my own up here and I’ll do my best.”

There was quiet for a moment, then someone yelled, “You’ve been great, Kris!” Another voice chimed in, “You too, Greta and Matt!”  And we all burst into applause. 

With Kris’s help, Dave and I arrived at a nearby Staybridge Inn around 1:30 AM, took a one–hour cab to Tampa in the morning, and flew to New York around 1:00 PM, all on JetBlue.  “What a terrible way to end your vacation,” some have said, but Dave and I grin and say, “No.  It was the best way ever.”  






                    

  


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stung

The sun had cooled, veiled by haze, so I decided to go to the pool instead of the beach.  Dave was snoozing, his tan skin striking in contrast to the white sheets and pillow.  I scrawled a note on a paper napkin, placed it on the floor, and anchored it with a round black bottle of Captain Morgan’s Cannon Blast Rum.  He was sure to see it.

It was good to be on vacation.

I descended the echoing cinder block fire stairs of the Holiday Inn on Lido Key, and pushed open the heavy metal door.  Vaguely improved by a few listless palms and surrounded by cement knee walls that block the wind, the pool area is not our first choice, but a possibility on chillier days.

Swathed in yellow towels, my fellow vacationers, slick with sunscreen and squinting at phones, reclined on blue lounge chairs lined up against the wall.  A cluster of men in Hawaiian shirts sat on stools at the bar.  A little girl, sun-toasted and grinning, flipped her long braid over one shoulder and dove into the pool.

I glanced over the wall and across the boulevard to the beach with its white sand, soft as flour.  A smattering of sea birds, white bellied and gray of wing, with funky spiked crests and stoic expressions, faced into the wind and tried to ignore the children who ran among them with shrieks and flailing arms.  The green Gulf waters rolled and splashed frothy milk along the shore.

Chilly or not, having considered my options, I opened the gate, waited for a car to pass, and crossed the road. 



Jim was stretched out on a lounger under a red umbrella by his rentals stand, peeling a banana. 

“All right!  Stocking up on potassium, I see!” I said.  This was a topic of conversation continued from yesterday when Jim experienced a sinking spell.  He’d chugged one of his power drinks and wound up feeling woozy; so woozy it had been hard to lug umbrellas and loungers down the sand for those wishing to rent them.   Dave had filled in for a time to allow Jim a breather.

Jim is fifty-seven and his enthusiasm for the gym is apparent in his ruddy-skinned, well-muscled body.  He stands and walks as if lifting a barbell, with a heavy gait, massive shoulders bowed forward, and his arms slightly curved. He speaks with the twang of his home state of Alabama and his broad, ready smile reveals prominent teeth. 

“How’s your day been?”  I went on, referring more to his health than events. 

He shook his head and took a bite of banana.  Chewed.  Gazed out to sea a bit before turning to answer.  “You just missed it.  Almost got into a fight.”

What?  This guy is friendly.  He flirts, chatters on, and delivers a stream of wise-ass, inappropriate jokes.  A fight!  “No way!  What happened?”

“Well, this couple came onto the beach and dumped their stuff onto some empty chairs.  When I told ‘em they were welcome to ‘em, but they were rentals, ten dollars a chair, they wouldn’t pay.  Turned into this big thing… with me insistin’ and them arguin', and the woman, she told me to shut up!” 

“Whoa.  What a drag.” 

He hung his head, shook it thoughtfully, and said, “It got loud, I guess.  Some of my other customers told me they had my back if it got bad.”  He put his hand to his chest, over his heart, and continued, “Thing is, I’m going to hold onto this now.  It’s gonna bother me.  That couple’s gonna come back from their beach walk and either say something nasty, or walk right by, ignorin’ me.  But I’ve got to let it go.  This other lady who saw it all told me, ‘you don’t know what’s going on in their life, what happened earlier in their day.’  Helps me some to think of that.”  He jerked his head toward the shore.  “You want that empty chair down the beach?  It’s on me.”

“Thanks, but the towel’s fine.  I’ll only be here for a little while.  I’ll grab the chair and bring it in for you though.”

“Nah.  It’s my job.”

We walked toward the empty lounger together and he picked up one end, preparing to drag it back to his stand.  The haze had lifted and the sun shone, delightful with late-afternoon warmth. 

"There they are,” he whispered.

I turned to follow his gaze, but between the distance, my near-sightedness, and the tint of my sunglasses, I couldn’t see the couple well.  They looked to be about forty, moderate build, pale.  First day of vacation maybe.  Hadn’t relaxed enough to be polite.  They gathered up their yellow Holiday Inn towels and headed across the beach toward the hotel. 

“I get it that people get frustrated. Hell.  I get frustrated too.”  He chattered on, digging way back for examples at school, work, and with women, his gaze flickering periodically over my shoulder. 

He stole a look past me and exhaled in relief. “They’re gone.  I used you just now.  You know that?”

Actually, I did.    

“Yep.  Kept you here, jabberin’.  Used you.  Saved me havin’ to sit there while they stalked on by, starin’ straight ahead, or worse.”

“And we’re having this nice chat while they’re stuck with their poison,” I said. 

“Thanks for stayin'.  Helped to talk this out… to get it out.”   He inhaled deeply through his nose, blew a stream of air through loose lips, and leaned forward to drag the chair across the sand, leaving two narrow tracks in his wake as he trudged away. 

Who came up with that “Sticks and stones” ditty?  Maybe some kid in a show of playground bravado, but in life, it’s not true; words have power... for good or ill.  Jim’s a big guy.  He’s been around.  But he was hurt by that exchange.