Elegance in a Shuttered Room

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I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Mrs. Kurtz?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

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Talkin’ Texas and Cincinnati Chili Blues

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In a few weeks my company will be having a chili cookoff. I’m looking forward to it for two reasons: first, I love good chili; second, I’m curious to see the ratio of Texas versus Cincinnati-style chili.

I live on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, and around here if you mention “chili,” people think of a plate of spaghetti draped with a sweet and tangy meat-based sauce, and crowned by a heaping mound of shredded cheddar cheese. This is Cincinnati chili. It’s an acquired taste; not bad once you get accustomed to it, although I don’t recommend anyone making it a regular part of their diet.

Cincinnati chili originated in the 1920s after an immigrant Greek family opened a restaurant here. The key ingredient in their signature recipe was a liquid meat sauce that had a mild cinnamon flavor.

This Greek-style chili became very popular. Success, of course, breeds imitators, and soon other chili parlors sprang up. Currently, there are two big chains of Cincinnati chili, Skyline and Gold Star, although there are many smaller chains and independent chili restaurants (many locals swear that Camp Washington Chili is the best, though to me they’re all very similar).

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Cincinnati Chili

Like I said, the sauce is spooned over a pile of pasta, then topped with cheese. You have the option of adding red beans or onions, but the base ingredients are just spaghetti, meat sauce, and cheese. The combination is referred to as a “three-way.”

(Considering that Cincinnati is about as socially conservative as the hometown of Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, I’ve always gotten a kick out of the natives here casually referring to “three-ways”).

The chili is always served with a side order of oyster crackers. An alternative to the pasta concoction is the “coney,” which features the same sauce and cheese, but is accompanied by a pale, pathetic-looking hot dog, all stuffed inside a small bun. I’ve never understood the appeal of these coneys. Before moving to Cincinnati I lived in Chicago and had the opportunity to indulge in Maxwell Street Polishes. Going from a Maxwell Street Polish to a Cincinnati coney was like going from the Sphinx to a pink flamingo.

Regardless, I really do like the chili here in Cincinnati. It’s a guilty pleasure… like playing cornhole, or watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

But I much prefer the Texas variety of chili, known down in the Lone Star State as a “bowl o’ red.” As everyone knows, Texans love to brag ad nauseam about their peculiar state. But the one thing they have a right to brag about is their chili.

Instead of slimy pasta, the base ingredient in Texas chili is MEAT; either beef or pork, or possibly armadillo or rattlesnake. Instead of cinnamon, Texas-style chili uses cumin and hot chile peppers or powder, such as red cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, or habanero (see header photo).

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Texas Chili

Tomato and beans are frowned on for Texas chili. Both are more Mexican than Texan. But I’m a Yankee, so I’ll risk getting hogtied and tossed in the Rio Grande and proclaim that I like pinto beans in my chili.

(Note that I said pinto beans. I wouldn’t think of polluting my chili with kidney beans, which so many cafeterias and cheap diners have been doing since before Lyndon Johnson began soiling his diapers).

Meat, chile peppers, and seasoning: those are the core ingredients of Texas chili. Like 12-bar blues music, there are endless variations that can evolve from this basic formula. I’ve improvised and come up with a couple of my own recipes. One is slightly Texan, the other is somewhere north (or south) of the border. Both are simple and easy to fix. Here are the ingredients for both:

Durango Dead Buzzard Chili: contains ground beef, pinto beans (uh-oh), chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce (here comes the rope), French’s chili seasoning (don’t laugh, it adheres to the meat and tastes great), chopped onions, red cayenne pepper, and beer (optional).

Yuma Snake Venom Chili (derived from a recipe received from my aunt in Tucson, who got it from some chef in Yuma, and which I’ve “doctored” over the years): contains ground pork or pork sausage, chopped tomatoes (uh-oh), chopped onion, diced jalapeno or habanero chiles, ground cumin, red cayenne pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, salt, and tequila (mandatory).

I’ll add that Texas chili tastes best after it’s been refrigerated then reheated. For a beverage, I prefer a cold beer, though not too dark or heavy. As a side dish, I like either cornbread or corn tortilla chips. To aid digestion, I recommend the music of ZZ Top, or any Chicago-style blues.

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Some of you may be wondering if I’ll be entering my chili in the company cookoff. I don’t think so. Many years ago I submitted a sample of my Yuma Snake Venom Chili to one of the fishwraps in suburban Cincinnati, which was sponsoring a contest. I think my chili may have been the only one that didn’t include pasta, cheese, or cinnamon. I never learned the results of the cookoff, and I never heard from the newspaper.

I’m guessing my submission lacked one or more ingredients. Or, maybe the combination of tequila, cayenne, and habaneros proved too lethal for delicate Mason, Ohio. But I wish I’d have been at the tasting, if only to see the look on the judges’ faces.

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The Night Watchman

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To the islanders, he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.

(Author Herman Melville, writing about meeting Essex whaleship captain George Pollard, who ended his days as a night watchman on the island of Nantucket)

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As a teenager, I attended a boys’ boarding school for three years. It was a unique experience, as if 19th-century England had been transplanted to western Pennsylvania, and I could probably fill a book with all the craziness that went down there. But since I only have a small space here, I’ll share just one memorable episode that occurred my junior year.

Like every school, there were a bunch of auxiliary personnel that made the place function: maintenance, administration, food service, etc. For example, during my sophomore year in Clark Hall, there was a maintenance man named “Putt.” He was Native-American, and all the students loved him. I think he got his name because he was always “puttering around.” I remember he had an ongoing feud with the dorm master of Clark, Mr. Stokes. Putt called him “Stoke.” We never found out what the feud was about, but you couldn’t talk with Putt without him eventually bringing up “That damn Stoke.”

There were also the fieldhouse towel guys, Lyle and Howard. I’m sure they had other duties, but it seemed like their only role was to hand out clean athletic towels. Howard must’ve been in his 60s. He had a real soft voice, and he was one of these folks who can’t let go of a conversation. He’d go on and on, and you had to literally start walking away saying “Well, Howard, it’s been nice talking to you.” And he’d still be droning on when you were ten feet away.

But there was one person at that school that I don’t think anybody knew about other than me: the night watchman.

During my junior year, I had a bout of insomnia (it may have had to do with chemistry class). I remember lying awake one night, staring at the wood-paneled wall at 3 a.m., and hearing the downstairs door close. Then listening to footsteps on the stairs, and along the creaky hallway outside my door. Then up the opposite stairs to the third floor, then down, then out the door.

As far as I knew, everybody else was asleep. And this mysterious, nocturnal interloper somehow riveted me. Who the heck was he?

On the following night, at 3 a.m. precisely, I again heard the sounds. This time, I got up, opened the door a crack, peeked into the dimly lit hallway, and waited. As the steps became louder, I saw a yellow glow bouncing around the hallway walls, and heard a jangling sound. Eventually, strolling slowly down the middle of the hall, a man came into view. He looked like an oversized troll. He was short, bowlegged, mustached, and he wore a gigantic ring of keys on his waist and carried a monstrous flashlight. He looked somewhat like that Super Mario cartoon character, except he also wore glasses with really thick lenses.

I pulled my head back so he wouldn’t see me. Then I listened to the fading steps, and the door shutting as he left the dorm. I eventually fell asleep. But the following day, I saw the headmaster’s son and asked him about this strange apparition:moon_flashlight

“Oh yeah, that’s ____. He’s the night watchman.”

I asked him where ____ lived.

“He lives on the edge of the golf course. But nobody ever sees him. The school cuts him a paycheck every few weeks, and he picks it up on his nightly rounds.”

This fascinated me. Particularly when I realized there were no houses on the edge of the golf course. It was nothing but woods.

Later that day – instead of studying chemistry – I headed over to the golf course. I walked all along the line where the fairway hugged the woods. No houses… nothing. Then I saw a pathway that I’d never noticed before. It headed into the shadowy woods. Curious, I followed it.

After about a quarter-mile or so, I came to a building. I can’t really call it a “house.” It looked like it was made of cinder blocks, with a flat roof, and it had dark green moss and vines growing all over it. All the windows had closed drapes. No sign of life, and no sounds, other than a few birds chirping. Feeling a little creeped out, alone in the woods near this spooky building, I left.

Wow. This guy was Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins rolled into one! As is typical with me, my mind started doing cartwheels. “Maybe I should visit him some time, as he’s probably really lonely.” Then a couple seconds later, “Better not, he could be a serial killer. I don’t wanna end up buried under his vegetable garden.” Those kind of thoughts.

I decided to compromise. So, during my next night of insomnia, I left him an unsolicited token. After everyone else was asleep, I placed a Three Musketeers candy bar on the edge of the hallway (I figured a white wrapper would help my new friend notice it better). Then I waited.

At 3 a.m. sharp, I heard the door, the steps, then saw the flashlight beam. Then he came into view. As I peeked through the door crack, I watched in anticipation as he approached the candy bar. When his flashlight beam landed on the bar, he stopped. Probably for a full ten seconds. Although I’m no mind reader, I can guess what he was thinking:

“Should I pick it up? No, I’m a night watchman, not a trash collector. But it sure looks tasty! No, I’d better move on.” And he kept walking, as I pulled my head back from the door.

I was crestfallen. How could he not accept my gift?? It never occurred to me to step into the hallway and offer him the treat.

The foolishness of youth.

Well, it was the last time I did something like that, because later on during that sleepless night, I had a terrifying, and typically insomniac thought: what if he discovers I’m playing games like this and reports me to the headmaster? I couldn’t bear the idea of a confrontation:

“Peter, we’ve had some reports about you.”

“S-s-s-sorry, God.”

Not long after that night, my insomnia faded. And for the rest of my time in that school, I never heard nor saw my hermit friend again.

***

Like so many other things (such as chucking apples at cars… see previous post), I have regrets. Instead of playing games with candy bars, I should’ve just stepped into the hallway and introduced myself:

“Hi, my name’s Pete. I know you probably don’t get a lot of recognition, but we students really appreciate the work you’re doing, keeping us safe and all.”

And it’s quite possible he wasn’t the lonely hermit my imagination made him out to be. He may have led a very rich life, with family, friends, places he visited, and hobbies he enjoyed. Maybe it was just me who was lonely.

Wilson Hall

We Glorious Bastards

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We turn into our neighborhood and make a right onto our street.  On the left side of the street is a large black Chevy.

“What’s that on the driver’s window?” I ask my wife.  “It’s too big for a bird dropping.”

Even before we pull into our garage, she’s already visited the Wethersfield Neighborhood page on Facebook.  The hot Facebook conversation concerns the Masked Egg Marauders who struck on Saturday night.  Seems while we were out of town, a bunch of juveniles decided to decorate all the cars on driveways and streets with smashed eggs.

I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” she said.  “I think it’s just terrible.  If I did something like that, and my father found out, I’d be grounded for six weeks.”

I kept silent.  Although she knows a smattering of my criminal past, she doesn’t know the half of it (unless she reads this).

***

When I was a boy, we didn’t have cable television, video games, internet or I-Phones.  If we wanted to have fun, we made it up ourselves.  We played neighborhood sports, had water balloon and dirt clod fights, played with G.I. Joe dolls, built go-carts, or ran naked in the woods imitating Tarzan.  Boys being boys, though, we occasionally ventured to The Dark Side.

I remember my first brush with delinquency.  It occurred one winter day while walking home from grammar school.  We lived in back of a high school, and some of the teenagers liked to rev their hot rods down our street after the afternoon bell rang.  One day, tired of throwing snowballs at trees, I decided to try a moving object.

Akermitlthough no Luis Tiant (he pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the mid-1960s), my first throw smashed into the side of this one high schooler’s car.  I was also no Lou Brock (he was a great baserunner for the St. Louis Cardinals), because the teen caught me before I ever reached the shelter of the woods.
I think my fear melted his anger, because he let me off with a warning (and I remember him grinning when he let go of my jacket).  Although coming dangerously close to being pummeled, I received such an adrenaline rush from this snowball incident, it was a matter of time before my criminal behavior escalated.  The stage was set.

In 1968, we moved from Ohio to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  Downtown Detroit had just undergone a series of civil rights riots.  We kids in the ‘burbs had our own version of rioting, called Devil’s Night, which occurred annually the night before Halloween.  Before I get to the infamous “Night of the Parks House,” however, allow me to touch on a couple other crimes:

Rubber Band Lunacy: It was much later when I took up the game of golf, but at 10 years old, I possessed intimate knowledge of the interiors of golf balls.  Some golf balls, just inside the hard outer shell, had yards and yards of thin rubber band wrapped around a hard, core rubber ball.  When unraveled, this rubber band had enough length to be stretched across a street and tied around two trees.  The band was virtually invisible… until you were right on top of it.golfball

Long story short, a lot of car brakes were slammed on Westbourne Drive during the summer of ’68.  This stunt lasted until, one day, a motorcycle came along.  Tucked inside my hiding place in the juniper bushes, I watched in horror as a leather-clad member of the local Heaven’s Devils gang “lay down” his bike after confronting my rubber band barrier, which he probably mistook to be a long, thin wire.  To this day, I don’t know if he saw me pop out from the bushes and skedaddle 15 blocks until I collapsed from exhaustion, since I never looked behind.  But this incident ended my rubber band period.  Instead, I shifted to less risky delinquency…

Bloody Bicycles: One day, at the end of a long session of “What do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?,” Bill, Dan and I hatched a plan that involved our kid brothers.  We took their bicycles and placed them on their sides alongside the curb, their wheels skewed at different angles.  Then we positioned our brothers on the pavement near the bikes.  We used Heinz ketchup to resemble blood.

I think it was the fifth or sixth car before one finally stopped.  She was an elderly lady who got out and frantically inquired “Are you hurt??  Are you alright??”  It was probably the smell of ketchup, or maybe my brother Steve’s bad acting that assured her, yes, Steve was alright.  Although enjoyable, this foray into Hollywood lacked the despicable element that we so craved.  On Devil’s Night, 1968, however, we received our Master’s degrees in delinquency…ketchup

Night of the Parks House: Wally Parks and his wife had no children.  They were about 40 years old and lived in a ranch house directly across from ours.  I remember that Mrs. Parks had blonde hair, usually tied in a bun.  Wally was tall and athletic-looking, and according to my friend Bill, had a propensity for alcohol.  Very nice people, but very private.  And once in a while, they argued.  Loudly.  Bill, Dan and I used to sneak up to their bushes and listen to them fight.  One time, Wally angrily flew out the front door with his tie flapping, and he hopped in his car and zoomed down the street.  “Probably headed to the bar,” said Bill.

It wasn’t my idea to target their house.  But one day, after my monthly allergy shot, I rang Dan’s doorbell, and he led me down to his basement.  Bill was there.  They were cutting up piles of old newspaper, and they were totally absorbed in the task.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“We’re making confetti,” said Bill, as he clipped away.  “We’re gonna get Parks’s house on Devil’s Night.”

***

(End of Part One.  If you want to find out what happened on Devil’s Night, please check back in a couple weeks.  And like my blogging buddy Neil says, if you like what you read here, don’t be shy about clicking “Like” or “Follow”)

Waiting for Dr. Godot

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I received the phone call at work. It was a notification from my mom’s Life Alert system. She was at the hospital. I later learned she’d experienced a sudden and intense tightening in her chest. The EMTs had whisked her to the hospital emergency room.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a heart attack. It was “aortic stenosis,” and Mom needed a TAVR (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement). She’s now safe at home, on the path to recovery. But her ordeal brought me face to face with two 21st century medical phenomenons. First, doctors and hospitals these days are “fantastic.” And second – like the mysterious title character in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” – your doctor may not even exist.

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When Mom arrived at Med-Central, she met with Dr. Ahmed. He explained that she probably had aortic stenosis, a narrowing of her aortic valve. But before he could replace the valve, he needed to verify by doing a cardiac catheterization.

infusionWe looked up Dr. Ahmed on the internet. Wow… fantastic reviews! And even better, Betsy Babcock, Mom’s bridge partner who “knows everything,” verified that Ahmed was, indeed, “fantastic.” Nothing to worry about.

So it was a shock when I learned that the catheterization was done by Dr. Evans.

“Dr. Evans is on the same team as Ahmed,” explained Mom. I looked up Evans on the internet. Wow… no reviews.

But the catheterization did show that Mom had aortic stenosis, and a TAVR was scheduled. “They’re going to do the TAVR at Rivercliff Hospital in Columbus, not Med-Central,” she said. “Dr. Evans said that the surgeon will be Dr. Rabokov.” I asked her why Dr. Evans wasn’t going to do it at Med-Central, but she didn’t know.

Betsy Babcock lit up when we mentioned Dr. Rabokov’s name. “Oh, he’s fantastic! His team did Bob’s TAVR!” This made me feel a lot better.

Then my wife, an Ohio State graduate, offered her two cents. “It’s a shame she can’t have it done at Ohio State Med Center. They did fantastic things for my dad.”

I hesitatingly looked up Rivercliff Hospital on the internet. Wow, fantastic reviews!

“Look at this, Buckeye nut,” I countered. “Fantastic reviews for Rivercliff.”rod and snake

“That’s fantastic!” said my wife. “Yeah, they’re probably just as good as Ohio State.”

We arrived at Rivercliff for testing and initial consultation. We looked forward to meeting with Dr. Rabokov afterwards.

But the nurse said that Rabokov was in surgery. Instead, Dr. Wilson would be meeting with us.

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s on the same team as Dr. Rabokov,” she explained. “Don’t worry, though, he’s fantastic!”

After the testing was finished, Dr. Wilson met us in the waiting room. He seemed very knowledgeable. Mom later asked Betsy Babcock about Wilson.

“Don’t know him,” she said. Uh-oh.

I didn’t look up Dr. Wilson on the internet. I figured since he was on the same team as the “fantastic” Rabokov, then he was fantastic, too.

When surgery time approached, my brother drove Mom to her preliminaries and blood work. Dr. Rabokov was in surgery all day, so they met with the Rivercliff nurses instead. Mom has nothing to worry about, they said. Rabokov’s team is the best there is for TAVRs.

The operation itself lasted just a couple hours (it’s hard to believe how far we’ve progressed with cardiac surgery. They’re becoming so smooth, and routine, it’s unbelievable).

doctorAlso unbelievable was the guy who came out to meet us in the post-surgery consultation room. It wasn’t Rabokov. It was a Dr. Vasquez. And he looked like he was 17 years old. He was so young-looking, a couple times I almost called him “dude.”

Dr. Vasquez said the surgery went fine. I wanted to ask him if Dr. Rabokov was guiding his training. But I held off.

While Mom was in recovery, I noticed a line of portraits on the wall. They were all Rivercliff cardiac doctors. Wilson was front and center. His academic and training credentials were boldly displayed. There was no portrait of Rabokov.  I didn’t see Vasquez, either, but I assumed he was still in medical school when the photos were taken. Or perhaps grammar school.

The nurses said that Dr. Rabokov would be making rounds the next morning, and I could then ask questions about things like pacemakers and day of release. But the following morning, when I asked how soon Rabokov would arrive, the RN said “Who? Ahh. Well, Dr. Rabokov’s in surgery. Dr. Vasquez will be here, though.”

I finally realized that there is no Dr. Rabokov. Like the Wizard of Oz, he’s a mythical creature, a chimera composed of pieces of all the cardiac M.D.s associated with the hospital, and intended to dazzle us plebeians with his brilliance.

I figured that Messrs. Ahmed, Evans, Wilson, and Vasquez had cooked up Rabokov over a few martinis at the country club. The periodic intercom announcements of “Dr. Rabokov to recovery, Dr. Rabokov to recovery” were designed to keep the patients in suspense, and to provide entertainment for the overworked nursing staff.

Rabokov was also a convenient foil. If anything went wrong during surgery, the staff could always blame fictitious Rabokov.

Yep, Dr. Rabokov was, indeed, “fantastic.”

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NOTE: the names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent, and also to protect me.

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Crossing the Finish Line: Nick Greco, 1940-2014

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Once in a while you cross paths with someone who makes you wish you’d known them better. This happened to me with Nick Greco.

I met Nick last June while doing some yard work for a friend. I was poking around in a bed of ornamentals, and I suddenly felt somebody near me. Looking up, I saw a tanned, wiry man looking down at me. He had a bright smile.

“Hi, I’m Nick,” he said.

“Hello. I’m Pete.”

“I live over there,” he said, pointing to the house next door. “Do you do small landscape jobs?”

I followed him to his house, a tidy-looking ranch with a very nice landscape. He introduced me to his attractive wife, Judie. He then showed me a cluster of overgrown knockout roses that had evidently suffered from severe winter kill. I told him I’d be happy to clean them up a little, and we made arrangements for me to stop by the following week.

Later on, I learned a little bit about Nick from my friend. She said that, like me, Nick was an avid runner (and being in his ‘70s, he certainly had the lean look of a distance runner). She also said he’d had a bout with prostate cancer. His marathon running and struggle with cancer had caught the attention of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who offered him the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch through Cincinnati, Ohio. Which he did, in 2001.

Then I recalled the license plate on his sports car. It said “Torch 1.”

Although Nick had beaten the prostate cancer, his fight wasn’t over yet. He was now battling another foe: lung cancer. His doctors claimed the two were unrelated. Talk about lousy luck.

Well, I spent about two hours pruning Nick’s roses. Later, he told me he liked my work, and asked if I could trim up the rest of his shrubs. I agreed, and stopped by a few days later. It was a gorgeous sunny day. A few wispy clouds floated in the sky, and some mallards were skimming across the pond in his backyard. Then I caught a familiar odor. A local “lawn doctor” was treating the public spaces in Nick’s neighborhood, and the smell of 2, 4-D weed killer filled the air. The unnatural, clinical odor was a dark cloud that ruined an otherwise beautiful day. I hopped in my truck, rolled up the windows, and left.

But I returned later, and Nick and I got to know each other. I told him I liked the Mediterranean ring of his name, and that my son was also named Nick. He said he was originally from the East Coast and his running had taken him as far as the granddaddy of all races, the Boston Marathon, which he ran an impressive five times. He’d also run the New York Marathon twice. This was after he’d made a decision to change his lifestyle. Before his first New York race, he’d quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and lost over 50 pounds.

rosesNick also invited me into his home (something that doesn’t often happen to dirty, clammy-skinned landscapers). He showed me some running photos, as well as his marathon finisher’s medals. I also noticed a boxed set of Rolling Stones CDs in the den.

“Nick, looks like you and I have a few things in common!” I gushed. He flashed a smile.

Over the next few weeks I made several visits to Nick’s home to putter around his yard. He always came out to meet and talk with me, and a couple times he opened up about his sickness. He showed me the medicine patch on his chest, which he said helped reduce the pain. Occasionally, the pain in his back was so bad that it forced him back inside his house.

We also talked about running. When I drove to Duluth, Minnesota in June to run Grandma’s Marathon, he promised to follow my running progress on the race website. I thought this was really nice of him, and I occasionally thought about this while I was up in Duluth. It was nice to know that someone from back home was keeping tabs on me. When I returned home, I gave him my souvenir race t-shirt in appreciation of his support… though I’m sure yet another marathon shirt was the last thing he needed.

In August, my friend told me that Nick wasn’t doing so well. The cancer had spread throughout his body. I saw Nick one more time after that. He was leaning against the side of the garage. He was waiting for Judie to help him into the car to take him to the hospital. I walked over and put my hand on his frail shoulder.

I didn’t know what to say, other than the lame “Hang in there.” His own voice was but a whisper. All I could make out was “Pete, I’m in a bad way.”

He died just a few weeks later. His family was at his side. At his funeral, his friends wore running shoes in tribute to him.

***

Yes, Nick and I shared a few of the same interests. But even if we hadn’t, he impressed me with his charm and friendliness. He’s another one of those people who, though I didn’t know very long, I wish I’d have known better. His passing was another dark cloud on an otherwise beautiful day.

I’m not real religious. But I’m sure one day we’ll see each other at some marathon finish line somewhere. We’ll talk about our latest race. Maybe we can listen to one of those Rolling Stones CDs from that boxed set in the den. That’ll be cool.

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A Best Friend’s Unconditional Love

July_7_08

(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died.  Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)

 

I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor.  I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack.  Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain.  By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.

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While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend.  He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy.  Happy because I’d finally returned.

Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.

One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.

Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.

We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash.  But this time he didn’t prance in front of me.  The leash suddenly became taut.  I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk.  Something was wrong.  “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn.  “I don’t think he feels good.”  As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?”  I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision.  Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway.  While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.

So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come.  But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.

I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards.  Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.

Canine Madonna