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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Exploding Stars and Other Fearsome Things

Jamie: Hi, Donald, it's Jamie. Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?

Donald: I had a very nice Thanksgiving. Very quiet and restful. How about you?

Jamie: I had a very good Thanksgiving except I'm having problems with my sister.

So began an intermittent online chat that has continued for six years with Jamie, the adult autistic son of very old and dear friends of mine. Every few weeks or so Jamie will send me a message on Facebook, often just to say hello or wish me the best for a holiday season.

Jamie: Hey, Donald. Happy New Year!

Donald: All the best to you in the next year. Jamie.

Jamie: Thanks!

I've known Jamie since he was a very young boy. He is now thirty years old but will never grow emotionally or intellectually beyond the confused and fragile state of a young teenager. His life and schedule is as structured as his parents can allow. The TV game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune are an absolute must-see every evening they are aired. If his schedule is changed or interrupted he will fly into uncontrollable bouts of anger and tears. His autism affects his life daily, how he processes information, how he perceives the world around him. He has extreme difficulty dealing with other people. He becomes anxious that he is doing or saying the wrong thing. Jamie can never live on his own. He must always be cared for.

Occasionally Jamie will ask to chat about current events.

Jamie: Hi, Donald.

Donald: Hi, Jamie. How are you?

Jamie: Not good today. I'm depressed.

Donald: Oh, no! Why?

Jamie: Whitney Houston went kaput.

Donald: That is very sad.

Jamie: Yeah. I was crying like crazy

Donald: Well, we still have her music, right? That means she'll never really die.

Jamie: Yeah! I never thought of that! Thanks!

And so our chats continued, tiny conversations scattered over the months and years that often brightened my day and my outlook on life.

One evening I received this message;

Jamie: Hey, Donald. Do you think North Korea is really gonna hurt our beloved country?

Donald: I don't think that will happen, Jamie. It's all a lot of bluster between military powers. I think we'll be fine.

Jamie: Okay. I'm sorry. I get scared so easily.

Donald: It's fine, really. These are scary times for all of us.

Jamie: Thanks, Donald!

I immediately messaged his mother, letting her know that Jamie seemed to be unduly worried about events he could neither control nor fully understand. She told me he had been watching the news and reading articles online and was becoming increasingly frightened by world events. I asked her how I could best handle his questions, if more were asked. She reminded me that he is really just a child in many ways and should be treated gently and calmly.

Jamie: Do you suppose Obamacare will still be around?

Donald: I hope something like it gets passed. To many people depend on it.

Jamie: Yeah. I hope so, too.

I now found myself to be an online conduit for my confused and frightened friend.

Jamie: Hey, Donald. Is it true that the stars up in the sky will actually explode in 2022?

Donald: My goodness, Jamie. Where ever did you hear that?

Jamie: YouTube.

Donald: I think the stars a gonna be around for a very long time, Jaime.

Jamie: I guess YouTube videos were making these things up.

I looked it up myself and discovered that two stars were, indeed, predicted to explode in 2022 but with no more consequence to us than a momentary flash of light in the sky. I told Jaime what I learned.

Jamie: Maybe bright enough for us to see something in the dark?

Donald: Yup, but it will not be the end of the world.

Jaime: I had a feeling you would say that. Thanks, Donald! I guess the end of the world is only a legend and a myth.

Donald: I hope so. I kinda like this old world.

Jamie: Me, too.

Except for a few more short greetings from Jamie the above is the most recent chat we've had.

I hope I'm serving this man well. I hope I'm allaying his fears a little bit. I hope, more than anything, that my words are true, that North Korea will not blast us off the face of the planet, that medical care in America will remain a constant. I hope Whitney Houston's music is forever played. I hope the exploding stars will give us a light show to remember.

I hope Jamie lives a long and happy life, full of music and game shows.








Monday, August 14, 2017

When I moved to Ohio back in 1994 I joined a bowling league at Lakewood Lanes on Detroit Avenue. Being new to the area I was placed on a team by the president of the league.

I met my new team mates the first night of the season. Lazlo was an Hungarian immigrant, a jolly sort of man who seemed to love nothing more than diet Coke and the sound of a good solid strike. When a nearby bowler left a five pin standing after the first roll he'd shout out, laughter tinging his thick accent, "Nobody meeses de five peen!" Of course, if the bowler did miss it he was subject to even more playful ribbing. The other two members of the team were a married couple, Heinz and Olga. Olga was a loud and somewhat caustic American with an almost pre-adolescent sense of humor. If a score of 69 was visible on any sheet she'd go into gales of cackling laughter, calling out in braying tones that "69 is my favorite number!" The joke was marginally funny on first hearing, considerably annoying after the twentieth. Olga's husband was a German transplant to America. He was quieter and more subdued than Lazlo and Olga, chuckling softly at the antics around him. He was also the better bowler than any of his team mates, carrying an impressive 215 average throughout the season.

I liked Heinz. His sober intelligence and dignified bearing drew me to him. We often found ourselves in conversations more suited to a quiet bar than a loud bowling alley. He told me he came to America from Germany when he was a young man with his first wife and infant son. He was a carpenter by trade and, according to Olga, was quite a skilled craftsman. When I mentioned my father's hobby as a furniture maker his eyes lit up and we talked about the beauty of a well made chair or table. "Dere is nothing better than creating a lovely object from raw wood." he said.

One night, very near the end of the season, we were talking about money, my lack of it, to be concise. I wasn't really complaining, just pointing out how hard it is to live on a meager salary. He drew himself up and looked me square in the eye. He said with a frown, "It's the Jews, you know." His accent made the word sound like "juice". I was startled by the pronouncement. "What do you mean by that?" I asked. He went on to elaborate, telling me that the Jews controlled all the money in America, that good and decent white people had no chance to thrive while the Jews were in charge. He must have noticed my discomfort at his words. He dropped his gaze and said, "Maybe this is not a good place to talk of these things." I shifted in my seat and said, "Heinz, I don't think there is any good place to talk of these things." He looked at me. "I see." he said. I drifted away from him. We spoke no more words together that night. We spoke no more words together the rest of the season.

Heinz disappointed me. He carried in his heart a hatred and fear that was foreign to me, a prejudice I found repugnant. The next season I asked to be transferred to another team. Heinz and I greeted one another politely each evening but we never spoke at length again.

Monday, August 7, 2017

I Forgotted My Wallet

There's a young man who rides the same bus I do every morning. He is mildly handicapped, a condition that exhibits itself in a series of facial ticks and a seeming inability to remain still for any length of time. I watch him as he paces up and down the length of the bus station, arms windmilling, mouth grimacing, all the while keening a shapeless tune in the piping voice of a child. He is a large, well muscled boy. He would appear threatening if he were not so obviously as harmless as a puppy. He owns a bicycle that he hoists to the holder at the front of the bus, tugging at the handle bars several times to make sure it's secure before he finally boards.
This morning I and my fellow riders had all taken our seats before he climbed aboard. I opened my book. Others fired up their cell phones or snapped open the morning paper. The young man stood before the driver, a nervous smile on his face. "I forgotted my wallet." he said. The driver peered at him. "So, you don't have any money?" The young man shuffled his feet nervously. "No, no money." he said. The driver waved a dismissive hand. "I can't let you ride if you can't pay the fare." The boy's smile faded and he backed off the bus. I was watching closely by this time and I could see his hands shaking as he began lifting his bike off the carrier. I looked around at the other passengers. Most were ignoring the situation, heads down, involved in their own reading or texting. One woman glanced my way and rolled her eyes so hard I'm surprised her neck didn't snap.
I got to my feet and strode to the front of the bus. "I'll pay for him." I said. The driver smirked and said, "He forgotted his wallet." I shoved five singles and two quarters into the machine and glared at him. "He deserves more consideration than you're giving him." I called to the young man. "Come on in. I'm buying you an all day pass." The boy fairly bounced back onto the bus. "Thank you!" he shouted.
I returned to my seat, keeping my open book in my lap. I was angry and sad; angry at the uncaring attitude of my fellow passengers, sad that this boy was merely a shadowy annoyance to a good part of the world.
At least today, I hope, the young man felt the tiniest bit of kindness.

Sally

When Jane was eight I bought her a hamster. She named it Sally. The little ball of fur had a cage with two levels, more tubes to crawl through than you'd find at Chuck-E-Cheese and, of course, the ubiquitous running wheel. Sally ate well and was well cared for and Jane loved her.
As is the case in all mortal life, be it human or rodent, Sally finally met her demise one cloudy September morning. Jane was not with me that day and I wrapped the stiffening little body in a soft cloth and placed it in a Disney gift box. I called Carrie and told her the news, which she relayed to Jane after picking her up from school. I called my ex-wife's live-in boyfriend and he agreed to dig a grave in the backyard.
I drove the short distance to the house with Sally resting on the passenger seat. Jane was in tears but smiled a little when she saw the colorful princess illustrated box. I handed the make-shift coffin to my daughter and she held it carefully as we moved to the freshly dug hole. Jane knelt and, with as much care and tenderness as the most seasoned mourner, she lay her furry friend in the ground. I suggested she may want to cover the box with earth herself. She nodded, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and picked up the shovel. She tossed one pile of dirt over the box, then another and then one more. She rose to her feet and fixed us with a glare of frustration. She jabbed the point of the shovel into the dirt and exclaimed, "Well, isn't anyone going to help me?!"
I knew then, as I finished covering the box with earth, that our daughter was going to be just fine.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Bus Fare Crime

Did you know that here in Ohio you can be sent to jail for thirty days for not paying the fare on a bus or a train? You didn't? Well, it's true.
Can you now imagine the first night in a holding cell for this infraction? You can't? Well, I can. Here's how I think it would go.


The room was dank from sweat and stale urine. The overhead lights shone harshly on the four men in the tiny cramped cell. One man, stick thin and poorly dressed, paced nervously back and forth, like an alley cat in a cage. He snapped his fingers in a series of sharp clicks and pops. Two of the men, one large and beefy, the other small and compact, engaged in animated conversation. The fourth man sat apart from the others, his hat covering his brow as he hunched his shoulders low.

"Yeah," said the large man in a loud booming voice, "I was nabbed on grand theft auto." He laughed. "I musta led them cops for one hundred miles before they caught up with me. Got up to hundred 'n' twenty miles an hour at one point." He slapped his knee in amusement. "Jesus! Took a couple of 'em down before they got the cuffs on me."

His companion chuckled in appreciation. "Grand theft auto, huh?" His voice was grating and harsh, like screeching metal. He leaned in close to the bigger man and said in a whisper, "Stabbed my landlord." He thrust his arm out and twisted his wrist. "In like butter. SOB wanted ta throw me out." He wheezed in laughter. "Wanted ta throw me out so I put him down."

The two men howled with laughter.

The thin pacing man stopped in his tracks and glared at them. "Why don't you two guys shut up." he said with a whine in his voice. "Not everybody wants to hear your damn stupid stories." He whipped around to face the silent hunched man. "You don't wanna hear this crap, do you?"

The man sat, not moving, as if he hadn't heard.

The thin man scurried to him. "Hey, I'm talkin' to you." Still no response. The thin man turned back to the others. "See? He don't wanna talk."

The large man hefted himself up from the metal folding chair and moved slowly to the quiet man. He bent as low as his round stomach would allow. "Hey? That true? You don't wanna talk?" The man sat, still hunched, still quiet. The beefy man looked to the others and shrugged his shoulders. "Don't wanna talk."

This seemed to agitate the thin man. He scurried to the seated man and grabbed his shoulder, clenching long bony fingers into his flesh. "You can at least say why you're here." He was almost pleading, as if this silent man was a affront to everything he held dear in his sad life.

The man moved, lifted his head and peered at the others. His eyes were a winter cold blue, empty and void of compassion. He stared at the man confronting him.

The thin man fell back, hand to mouth, and stumbled over his back peddling feet. "Jesus Christ," he said, "it's him."

A hush fell over the room. They had all seen the trial on the news, read of this man's crime and his sneering indifference to the courts and justices. They had seen the face of his lawyer, slashed from the cheek to his bottom lip after one motion failed.

The man lifted his chin and spoke. His voice was deep and low, almost a growling purr, measured and slow. "You want to know why I'm here?" He pulled his hat up and looked at the men. "One sunny afternoon. Got laundry to take care of. Problem is, I got the jack for the washer but not the bus. So, I figured I'd just sneak in the back door, you know? When the driver ain't lookin'. But he sees me, see? Yells out, 'Hey! You gotta pay the fare!' I got myself up to the front. 'Come on, give a guy a break.' I says. He says, 'No. You gotta pay like everybody else'. I sat down in the seat with my bag of clothes and I says, 'Make me, bus jockey'. Next thing I know some bus cops got me in cuffs. Drag me outa there. I can't even get my clothes." He  laughs, a short sharp sound that resembles a hound dog bark. "And I go to trial and the judge says, 'Guilty!' And now I'm here with you lugs."

The men are still, like statues. They stare in fear and repulsion at the man.

He leans back in his chair. "In thirty days I have an engagement." He lowers his hat over his eyes. "An engagement with a certain bus driver.

In the distance a train whistles, a low melancholy sound that sends chills up the spine of all who hear it.



Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Twist of TRIST

The year was 1977. I was two years out of high school and somewhat at loose ends in my life. I was working at a job that I disliked, just to pay the bills, you understand, and living with my sister in Cranston, Rhode Island. Just another young man looking for a purpose, some meaning to make the days seem fuller and less aimless.

I had, a few months before, acted the role of Conjur Man in a production of "Dark of the Moon" at a small community theater in East Greenwich. I had discovered my love of acting in high school under the tutelage of a forward thinking teacher and director and was anxious to continue in that vein. A friend suggested that I call Bob Colonna, the artistic director of what was once called The Young Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater, now with the word "young" dropped from the name and known popularly as TRIST. I hesitated at first. I had seen Mr. Colonna in a few productions at Trinity Rep, the nationally known theater in the center of Providence, and I was somewhat cowed by his reputation as an actor. My friend insisted, however, and I made the phone call.

Bob couldn't have been nicer and more welcoming. He suggested that I find my way to the CIC Building outside of the city proper to watch his latest production, a charming and youthful version of Shakespeare's Richard II. I was instructed to meet him backstage after the performance. When the applause faded and the audience filed out I hesitantly crossed the stage and peeked through the curtains that hid the dressing rooms from the spectator's eye. I saw a small group of young women, each in various stages of undress. When I retold this story many years later I gave myself more bravado than I actually felt at that moment, telling my listeners, "And, right then, seeing those half naked women, I knew I was home." If truth be told, I blushed and dropped my eyes, stammering, "I'm sorry. I'm supposed to meet Bob ... Bob Colonna?" One of the ladies was kind enough to lead me to the man himself.

Bob shook my hand and fixed me with a friendly grin. I returned his smile, almost instantly feeling a bond with this big bear of a man. We talked for several minutes, not an interview or an audition by any means, but an easy conversation that ended with him inviting me to a first read-through of his next offering, an outdoor production of  A Midsummer Night's Dream. I read Demetrius but was cast as Peter Quince.

And so began the next fifteen years of my life. I was cast in the next three productions; Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra and Epicure Mammon in The Alchemist. We traveled a bit with these shows, having lost the space in the CIC warehouse. The next summer we were invited by The Newport Historical Society to take up residence in an old carriage house behind  Swanhurst Mansion on Bellevue Avenue. We traveled, a somewhat motley but very excited crew of actors, from the mainland to Aquidneck Island.

We repeated our last season for a new audience, each of us very comfortable in our roles and becoming more and more comfortable in the tiny 83 seat theater as each week passed. We were invited to stay on past that first summer and the offer was accepted gladly. As the years passed our little troupe grew as more local actors joined us. We did about four shows each season, mostly Shakespeare but with the occasional anomaly thrown in; Shaw, Kaufman and Hart, Moliere. I was, quite honestly, in my true element. I got the chance, in my twenties and thirties, to play some of the greatest roles ever written for the stage; Cassius, Angelo, King John, Touchstone, Buckingham and others to numerous to mention. I made life long friendships, fell in and out of love many times, lost a few very close dear friends to  Shakespeare's  "undiscovered country" and, generally, led an artistic life most actors would envy.

We lost the lease to The Swanhurst eventually. In unintentional irony, the last scheduled production of our last season there was a musical version of  The Outcasts of Poker Flats. We continued to perform in any venue we could find, Romeo and Juliet in a local private school, Moliere's The Miser in the shell of The Friend's Meeting House. The die was cast, however, and The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater folded under the weight of no funds and no permanent home. I moved to Ohio and continued performing sporadically. It never felt the same, though. The pure comradeship and love that we shared was something I never found again.

It does please me to state that Bob Colonna, the same man I met and fell in love with back in 1977, has reformed his theater and it has risen, phoenix like, to delight the citizens of Providence in outdoor venues throughout the city. My only request of these new younger actors is this; respect the man who has given you this gift, respect the gift, respect the exciting history of the theater you are part of and respect the future entrusted unto you.

Music In The Summer Air

I took a little walk tonight, just to get out of the house and stretch some. While strolling along the main street near my home I heard a very familiar sound; the soft rhythmic slap, slap, slap of  baseball cards hitting the spokes of a bicycle. I turned around and, sure enough, there was a boy about ten years old on his bike, sturdy legs pumping the pedals, the cardboard cards hitting the spokes and making music in the summer air.

I was immediately transported to the summer of 1967 and I was the boy on his bike, riding hell bent for leather up and down Baker Street, followed closely by my friends. All of us had baseball cards on our bikes, all of us imagining we were on great loud motorcycles terrorizing the streets of Providence. The older folks sat out on their porches watching over us, perhaps dreaming of their own youth, their own gangs of kids, their own baseball cards slap, slap, slapping on the silver spokes, making music in the summer air.