Wednesday, August 5, 2015
A SUGARLESS BAR MITZVAH & OTHER SWEETS--FROM, CHAPTER 3, CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Labor Day redux. Jerry hit his first million for “his kids” and Mark Twain Jr. High School loomed ahead. No longer did I slide easily into situations; change meant danger, and change permeated every facet of my life. I began the eighth grade tentatively. Diabetes was confidential, exposed just on a “need- to-know basis.” Pills insured rigidity which promoted silence. I was afraid that everybody would react like my parents, scared and apprehensive; like my father, they wouldn’t want to get too close to me. This fissure was something I could not understand. When young, I could remember Sunday mornings of wrestling, limbs twisted and entwined around each other, laughing. After diabetes, it was like my father would have to put on surgical gloves before he’d touch me. The hugging stopped. And the kissing stopped. Warmth was shut off. It would take years of pain and alienation before I learned not to be embarrassed by masculine displays of emotion toward other men. So, as I began attending my new school, I was extremely quiet and unobtrusive.
I was smart, a reader, though every report card in junior and senior high school would summarize me thus: “Not living up to his potential.” Perhaps, if I hadn’t been uprooted from my home on Kings Highway where I was comfortable with friends who were smart, studious and athletic, and transported to a different world, where I knew no one “my potential” would have been easier to realize, whatever the hell “potential” means in the first place. However, without realizing it, I began to search for and seek out more forgiving places, places that would allow me entree with no questions asked.
I continued studying creative writing in eighth grade. Ms. Edelman, our homeroom, English and creative writing teacher, transcended the classroom and lifted me into the heavenly reaches of torch songs and singers. She was young, attractive--almost beautiful--warm, sensitive, and had a body that would make a priest wonder who he’d vowed what to. I knew she was the kind of woman who eclipsed the ages, who would understand anything, and laying your head on her more than ample breasts would and could make the world go away.
My sepia-toned Bar Mitzvah is far from my most compelling memory. Since I hated going to Bar Mitzvah lessons after school the rabbi made a record of my prayer for me. He sounded like a frog with hemorrhoids. I caught a break. And quietly and unobtrusively I became a Jewish man. Since my Bar Mitzvah coincided with two other kids’, I didn’t have to memorize more than a paragraph. And that’s about what this celebration of Jewish manhood amounted to--a paragraph. I think I’m about the only Jewish kid alive who had a Bar Mitzvah with no photographs, save the few that were taken with an old Polaroid camera. That was the second break I caught. At the celebration, I remember feeling quite dwarfed and sad. It was held in an old hotel somewhere on Far Rockaway. None of my friends were even thought of to invite from my old neighborhood, and being new to Seagate there was no one there I was close enough with to invite. My family invited Eddie Alvatroni, my old hospital roommate. My smile, if I had one, was thin lipped. I knew I couldn’t eat from the trays of food, cake and ice cream that were laid out at this smorgasbord affair, without fear--(I had to make a piss delivery in the morning.)
Perhaps the most significant thing in my life happened shortly after my scintillating Bar Mitzvah. I started taking insulin.
At six feet and less then a hundred pounds, I was emaciated, and frightened. Through unknown sources, my father learned of a famous doctor in New York City who treated diabetics, Dr. Henry Dolger.
His office, located in the expensive Upper East Side, was bright and spacious. There was a quietness about it that juxtaposed what I was used to seeing in Brooklyn: dingy, cramped, and machinelike. The pace in Brooklyn was frenetic. Here it was orderly. Dolger even had his own nurses in uniforms who guided and helped you, as opposed to doctors’ wives who placated you with, “Ah, just a little longer.”
When the nurse escorted me from the waiting room to the inside chambers, I was ready for the worst, the “getting to know you” blood test. I steeled myself for the difficulty she’d have finding one of my rolling veins. We sat down facing each other. She smiled, and said, “Give me your finger.”
“Huh,” I replied.
“Your finger sweetheart, give me your finger; it’s just a little blood test, c’mon dear.”
“Huh?” I said dumbfounded as I extended my hand, palm up, to her. “Blood test?” I muttered.
“Yes blood test. I’m just going to take a little drop of blood, a little stick is all.”
I couldn’t believe it. A drop of blood from my fingertip. Amazing. Right that second I knew this new doctor was for me. Also, words like “sophistication,” “class,” “technology,” “comfort,” and a phrase “class distinction” began to link themselves with “money” and “prestige” in certain ways that I couldn’t figure out at the time.
She took my blood, wiped off my finger with an alcohol swipe, and escorted me to an examination room to wait for Dolger. The room had the typical assortment of basic medical gadgetry which, after being hospitalized, took on new meaning. I propped myself on the examining table and waited. In certain situations, I deal with my nervousness by studying my surroundings, looking for potential danger, exits, and trying to conjure up what the person or persons look like who own all this.
Dr. Dolger came in a few minutes later. He was a distinguished looking man in his late 50’s or early 60’s, his hair was practically all white. He wore a gray suit that made you want to touch it, and a tie and pocket square that complimented it. But his most prominent feature were his hands, large, soft and very warm. He checked my vital signs and asked, “How’re you doing?”
“Fine.” I learned much later in life that the word “fine” really meant: fearful, insecure, nervous, and emotionally unstable.
“I didn’t ask how you are feeling, I asked how you are doing,” he said in a quiet, sincere voice.
There’s something about words that are said in a voice that insinuates itself inside and begins an internal thawing process. First a little fissure, then wholesale cracks.
“I don’t know, not too good...I mean my sugar’s good, if that’s what you mean.”
“So what if your sugar’s good? You look terrible, son. Do you know what’s happening to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“In another few months you could hide behind a twig. It’s time we put some meat on those bones.”
I was way too thin. But every time I looked into a mirror, I saw fat. I imagine anorexics see their bodies the same way.
I began liking this man. He must have seen the sadness, this resignation that hung on my bones, and a rigidity that comes from rigorous surveillance from within and without. For the first time in over two years, someone who was a doctor, and an authority on diabetes (the man wrote a goddamn book!) was telling me it’s time to eat. Damn.
Dolger, my friend, my ally, walked me into his office where my folks waited. They looked at us apprehensively. I felt stronger, more confident then I had in a long time. I sat down on his couch, adjacent to my parents who sat in the two chairs across from his desk. There was a picture of Carol Burnett next to me, inscribed to Dolger. Hmm, famous people had this disease too. I looked around, saw his medical degrees and pictures of other people who I just knew had to be celebrities as well. I didn’t know their names but I was no longer alone.
“Well, it’s time we fatten your son up a little, don’t you think?” Dolger began. My parents didn’t know what to think. As I said before, they were not thinkers.
“Is that what you think?...I...” my mother rambled when on foreign ground.
“I do know,” Dolger said, his voice growing deeper, more persuasive. He must have sensed what he was up against--fear and confusion. It was the right moment to push on.
“The other doctor...” they weakly countered.
“The other doctor, the other doctor quite frankly (not at all bashful in calling one of his own incompetent), doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. That’s why you’re here. This kid needs to eat, to enjoy himself, to have some fun. Look at him.”
They looked. They saw a slouched, nearly six foot, barely a hundred pound, adolescent who had no reason to smile. Inwardly, I was praying that my parents wouldn’t grab my hand and take me out of there. I remembered going with them to look for a home, a car or clothing to buy, and they’d say to the salesman, “We’ll think about it” but never go back. It’s easier never to go back. Something in their gut told them that what Dolger said was true. They looked at each other and turned to Dolger, “What do we have to do?” each word heavier then the one before it.
“You don’t have to do anything except make sure you feed him. I’ll help him do the rest.” He knew that we were emotional matadors; we didn’t own the disease it owned us and he was trying to buck-up my backbone.
My parents lightened up a little. My father said, “No problem with that, Doc. He’ll get plenty of food, that’s for sure.”
Dolger paused for a second, trying to digest the last remark. He continued, “I’m going to increase his Oranese dosage and supplement that with D.B.I. pills. If Norman can eat and handle it, fine but I doubt he’ll be able to. In all likelihood he’ll have to go on insulin.” Dolger knew when to pause. INSULIN, NEEDLES, SHOTS, shooting into our heads like missiles.
“Are you sure this is the best way?” my mom pleadingly asked.
Dolger knew when not to soften. “I’m not sure of too much in this life, but of this I am sure. Unless we want him to waste away, die of malnutrition, and be miserable on top of that then insulin it is.”
“No, no of course we don’t. What do we have to do?”
“You don’t have to do too much. It’s Norman who’s going to have to do.” He faced me now. “Norman, in the likely event that you’re going to go on insulin, there’s a lot to do, a lot to watch out for, and a lot to learn.”
I enjoyed that independent rope tossed out, and was scared of its implications, but for the first time in a long time I felt I was getting my body back.
That night I puked up my dinner--which was considerable. We called up Dolger. He said that he knew the increased amount of pills would nauseate me, given the circumstances, tomorrow, he said, we should begin giving Norman insulin. No one on the other end of the receiver really knew what that would mean, least of all me.
After my father cursed about driving into the city (the fucking traffic!), the people (look at that fucking cocksucker blocking the whole fucking street!), and parking (not a fuckin’ parking space in this whole fucking city!), he put the car in a garage (can you believe the fucking nerve these bastards charge for a fucking hour?), we walked to his office.
I was no stranger to insulin injections; the first week in the hospital acquainted me with that. But getting one and giving yourself one are completely different stories. Dolger, at first, spent time orienting us to what insulin is, does, and what it doesn’t do--like it doesn’t replace the pancreas. He explained the importance of taking your shot at nearly the same time every morning (lest you run the risk of overlapping dosages or times when there is an absence of insulin in your body); eating on time, which means three meals plus a snack in the afternoon and before bed; the necessity of taking sugar or foods containing sugars before various activities which require more energy than usual; and the watchful signs of hypoglycemia, which is low blood sugar, as opposed to hyperglycemia, which is high blood sugar. Of course, this was in the early 1960’s when there was no such thing as blood glucose self-monitoring systems, multiple injections using a variety of different insulin (some short acting, some longer acting), insulin pumps, and different kinds of carbohydrate based diets that are currently in use today. Compared with the advances today, the 60’s was the age of the dinosaurs.
Diabetes--a circulatory disease affecting the entire body--is a motherfucker. The third leading cause of death in the United States is somehow not regarded as frightening as heart disease or cancer, numbers one and two for death’s throne. Seems like a bad public relations job to me. However, my folks, especially my mom, never let me forget: I have never missed an insulin shot in 50 odd years; late, yes; forgot, no. In fact as crazy as I was, and crazier to come, there was absolutely no “adolescent rebellion,” no “blessed forgetfulness” in regard to my insulin shot. The words: “Time,” “Sugar” and “Death” were chiseled in stone inside my eyelids, forehead, and conscience lest I forget when I slept. There was never a time in those early years that I could eat what I wanted whenever I wanted just because I goddamn felt like it, without paying a price both physically and emotionally.
Let me try to explain what diabetes is, and the ramifications of both high and low blood sugars at least as I understood it back then. Diabetes, very simply put, is the body’s inability to store glucose or blood sugar in the cells for energy. The pancreas (or Isles of Langerhands), a gland located near the stomach secretes insulin, the hormone that helps the sugar get from the blood into the cells. And insulin is the only hormone that can open those doors. Without insulin, or sufficient quantities of insulin, sugar cannot be used by the cells for energy. Instead, the sugar builds up in the blood and leaves the body in the urine. Hence, the name “diabetes mellitus”--honey urine. Everything in your body is slowed. Your blood, moving like molasses, is sloshing through your system which is playing at 33 1/3. And piss, man o man, do you piss. Years later my folks and other geniuses would tell me I was pissing my life away. You feel so goddamn guilty by then you believe any goddamn thing. “We are the sum of all our moments,” Thomas Wolfe said...and I believe him. Nothing is wasted. At least on the writer it isn’t. We eat our moments, and shit our words. Anyway, these other symptoms appear: insatiable thirst, increased appetite...but loss of weight (you’re pissing it out), itchiness, tiredness, headaches, nervousness, irritability and, if the disease is allowed to go unchecked for too long, ketoacidosis which is a build up of toxins in your system that poisons your organs. Anything can happen after that. The complications for diabetes, since it is a cardiovascular and circulatory disease, are virtually unlimited: heart attacks, strokes, blindness, infections, which can quickly turn gangrenous (blood doesn’t flow to wounds--especially the extremities--quickly enough to heal them) and finally, amputations. That’s some of what hyperglycemia is; it’s fun and hearty times...for those who have prayed for your demise.
Hypoglycemia is the opposite, low blood sugar. Although low blood sugar lacks the most severe complications of long-term high blood sugar, it offers its own set of unpleasant side effects: dizziness, sweating (clamminess), fatigue, nervousness, irritability, blurred vision, faintness, disorientation, a smell of alcohol on your breath and finally, if left untreated, unconsciousness. However, once knowing the initial signs of insulin shock or hypoglycemia, a diabetic (or non-diabetic who has hypoglycemia) can counteract this condition by ingesting a certain amount of sugar: soda, orange juice, milk, (quick acting sugars) to bring the level of blood sugar up to an acceptable level. Most people who don’t have either diabetes or hypoglycemia will have blood sugar readings in the 80 to 120 (some physicians believe 150) range. To give you some idea of the swings in blood sugar readings that I’ve had, when I initially went into the hospital, my blood sugar was roughly 800; the lowest I’ve tested has been in the high 20’s. I was described as a “brittle” diabetic, meaning I could quickly go from low to high blood sugar and any range in-between.
A normally functioning pancreas secretes enough insulin to provide for the body’s metabolic functions, and sends out additional insulin when there is food--eventually broken down into glucose--to digest and store; it performs this miracle automatically. A diabetic does not have that luxury, sans miracle. He or she injects a certain amount of insulin or takes oral medication every day to deal with the pancreas’ job. In the dark ages, before glucometers--a small instrument by which a person places a drop of blood on a reagent strip and is given a blood glucose reading--and different long and short acting insulin, multiple injections, insulin pumps, etc.--a person usually took one injection of long-acting insulin. Which meant that diabetics had to be more vigilant and exact about the time of his injection; and because the insulin had “peak” periods when it was the strongest, what and when they ate and how and when they exercised; and still they could never really be sure what their bodies were doing. Because, usually, they’d see their physician once every three months, a blood sugar taken, the results returned in a week and, if there were no overt symptoms or complications, that doctor would not see them again for another three months. Pretty scientific, huh? It was like “A Shot in the Dark.” But more about glucometers, multiple injections, and diet in a later chapter. It gets much darker before the dawn.
I used a long-acting insulin. How much I ate was crucial since my insulin was geared to my food consumption. I couldn’t skip meals, skimp or eat late, for then I’d have insulin in my body with nothing to work on--resulting in insulin shock, low blood sugar, hypoglycemia. I couldn’t overeat or casually throw in some desert. That would result in drinking and pissing and drinking and pissing and scratching--hyperglycemia.
Athletics required certain precautions. Since sustained activity involves burning off calories (sugar), I had to fortify myself before and during sports, depending upon the intensity and duration of the activity. Not only did baseball, football and basketball mean planning but sex did as well. How many fourteen year olds getting laid for the first time would think about eating a Milky Way first? Your stomach is flipping, your balls are humming, feet flying, mind racing and you’re looking for a candy store. It fucks with the music, the fantasy. At the beginning of my foray into the mysteries of differences, I’d be in the midst of my most fevered self, persuasion embedded in dialectic, or confused or, more often then not, not a fuckin’ thought in my head except sex at any price and I’d have that dizzy, sweaty feeling that was totally unconnected to the passion that a person has for another but rather that sickening sense of betrayal, a betrayal of body and mumble, “ah...a...ah excuse me, gotta go, be right back.” After looking the first few times into the incredulous eyes of the girl who was waiting for the same illicit thrill or worse, the older hooker who knew what the hell this was all about but hadn’t a clue what the hell I was doing, I’d avert my eyes, ask if she had a coke or juice and went up to get it...or the Lifesavers I carried in my pocket for the occasion. It was bad enough not feeling like a whole man; it was worse not being able to perform as one and having to admit it.
I need to mention one other thing here before it gets away from me: emotions. I will say that I was and, to a large extent, still am, a moody cocksucker. How much genetics plays, diabetes plays, or the sun, the moon, the stars, or my grandmother’s flabby tits play in this drama is anyone’s guess. And everyone guesses. Make no mistake, everyone can, who wants to, take a shot. Yet this I do know: Diabetes and its highs and lows play a significant part in ones moods. I wanted, like all preteens and teenagers, to carve my own imprint on this world. In short, I wanted to separate from my family and make my mark. But my disease gave my mother, hovering at best and suffocating at worst, a legitimate reason to swoop over and into me, her talons firming gripping the part that wanted to take a swipe at this thing we call life, and make our bodies one in the same again. At a time when I had just begun to build my sexual and masculine sand castles, she symbolized this ever present tsunami trying to wash away the delicate construct I’d labored over and make the land and the sea one and the same again. I never considered she was so smothering just because she wanted to keep me alive. What I felt and heard instead was a constant stream of criticism. She tenaciously believed that I could alter my moods, let alone behavior, anytime I wanted, and I believed her. By the time I was 14, I began telling my mother the lies that she wanted to hear. I acted in front of her how she wanted to see me. If a child grows up believing the lie of the truth, he will eventually believe the truth of that lie which will lead to self-hating and self-abnegating behavior. It’s simple: high blood sugar causes disturbances in mood; low blood sugar causes disturbances in mood; adolescence causes major disturbances in mood. Stir. Stew. Simmer. Watch out.
Dolger’s nurse administered my first insulin shot for my “new” lifestyle and showed me how to practice on an orange. After playing “darts” with the orange for a few minutes, she showed me the locations where I could administer the injection: upper arms, thighs, abdomen and ass; every place I looked was fraught with awkwardness and danger. Perhaps an automatic injector, she advised, would help to bridge the initial lack of comfort until I could fly on my own. I went into Dolger’s office, where he and my parents were waiting for me.
“How’d it go,” Dolger asked. “Did she explain what you need to do?”
“Yeah, I think so,” I replied, but I didn’t look convinced.
“Just take it easy,” he cautioned. “It will get easier as you go along. But right now I’d like you to go out and have some lunch--maybe a hamburger and malted if you like--whatever you’ve missed eating, eat.”
My eyes widened, bugged-out; my ears did somersaults. “Yeah, I’d like.”
“Well go on get out of here; do it, but don’t overdo it. Keep testing your urine, call me if you see a particularly high level of sugar or if you have any questions; if not, I’ll see you next week. Enjoy yourself.”
“I’m gonna try. Thanks.”
We walked out into what was now heaven to me. Music and light did a crazy two-step inside my head and body. However, my parents were grim faced; they looked determined...to have a good time. The only thing I could think about was the waiting hamburger and malted. Two feelings insinuated themselves inside me that hadn’t been there for a long time: a sense of excitement and at the same time one of feeling soothed. Holy shit.
No place, no matter how dark, warm, seductive, stimulating, or full of empirical excitement was any match for my parents craziness. Not hearing what they wanted--or expected--they dripped with confusion, fear and the galvanizing force, anger. Cheap anger is the easy way around anything.
“What does he mean, ‘leave him alone’?” my mother said.
“I told you I wanted to go back to Brooklyn first. We coulda eaten in Brooklyn, Jesus Christ. Now we’re gonna hit rush hour.”
“All right, all right, let him eat first. He has to eat first, then we’ll go.”
I couldn’t understand why they weren’t sharing the same excitement as I was. A twinge of anger crept up my throat. Quickly that was replaced with a sense of guilt that I was forcing them to do something they didn’t want to do.
I tried not to hear anything. I tried to concentrate on what I was going to order; I’d gone almost two years without a malted, without a whole hamburger, a BLT, ice cream, hot fudge, an ice cream soda, was there any limit to what I could have?
I watched the counterman make my hamburger; the thick meat cooked, the blood with marbled fat dripped and hissed and sizzled on the grill. He then turned his attention to my chocolate malted; he put a few big scoops of Breyers chocolate inside the silver canister, added malt, then syrup and finally milk. Before he attached the canister to the Hamilton Beach malted machine, I asked him to put an egg in there for me. I needed to gain weight I explained with a shrug. He laughed and cracked an egg open, and with one hand let it fall.
And fall we did. After we ate we trudged to the car for the trip back to Brooklyn. It was that moment, between the old and new, that fear set in. Who would do what? How to cope? And cope with what? No one, least of all me, had in any way prepared for life with diabetes, even after almost two years of living with the disease. We stopped at a local pharmacy to fill the prescriptions Dolger had given us. I went in with my mother. My father sat in the car. He smoked and waited. The year was 1962; diabetics used a glass syringe kept in a cigar like metal tube with alcohol. This kept the syringe and needle sterile for about a week when we boiled it and replaced the needle if it began feeling dull. This, of course, was before disposable syringes, needles, and alcohol swabs. There’s a correlation with the value placed on human life and the “disposability” that our Kleenex culture has now achieved: “Use once, then throw away.”
My family were sugar fiends. They always had their home stocked with goodies I could never eat. And they thought nothing of eating whatever they wanted in front of me. If I rarely asked for a taste, I was admonished; if I made a motion to partake of the pleasure it was facially rebuked. Until I began to take insulin and in time, became more brazen, I never opened food cabinets or looked in the refrigerator or freezer. Why should I? I knew what was in there. I thought I’d die, literally die, if I dared to veer off course. “Veer” what a wonderfully crooked word that forges straight ahead. Captain Vere. Billy Budd; “Billy should not have died, he should have “veered” away.” Later, and not too much later at that, I ate with a controlled recklessness; pursuing in and out, around and through life’s restrictions with what I and so many adolescents think they have: impunity and immunity.
“Cheater,” Mom screamed.
“Sonofabitch,” Pop bellowed.
“Bastard,” they chorused.
The coda: “My luck we should have a son like you.” I was furious at them for bringing truckloads of sweets into the house that I simply could not eat. They hosted a never-ending party I was forbidden to attend. Afraid to show anger that would further alienate me from them and the rest of the world, I bored underground, into the part of myself that offered quiet refuge. I was beginning on the journey that many of us take in our search for some kind of meaning into inchoate feelings and realities. I now know that my parents were emotional cripples, using food and, to a lesser extent, medications in the same way I later came to use alcohol, drugs and sex. My father gorged on food; my mother, on anxiety, recriminations, and later tranquilizers. It fucked with me that they knew diet was intrinsic to my staying alive and then they’d bring sweet death into the house. I’ve learned though, in dealing with addiction (my own and others) that nothing is as important to the active addict as his drug of choice...be it food, wine, women, men, junk, coke, gambling or whatever fills that insatiable void of existence. A mere person will always come in second...and out of the money in the addict’s betting scheme. No matter how much he claims it isn’t so, it very simply is, and he claims it isn’t only in order to use you for food, money, clothing and/or shelter. Check your pockets or your heart. In as long as it takes to read this, one or the other or both will be gone. And, the less you try to fight it or have battles about it, the better... for you. That kind of unresolved conflict just leads to an abundance of stress; and stress, brother, will kill you the fuck too. Quick.
But now I had insulin! Insulin would allow me to eat! Drink a malted! Eat a candy bar! Eat ice cream! I could be normal again! Insulin would allow me to be normal, to be happy again. But I wasn’t happy.
I wasn’t real happy before I got diabetes and certainly wasn’t overjoyed after diabetes entered my life. And unbeknownst to me, I had stepped into the hormonal high wire act of adolescence. The great Wallenda was once known to say, “Walking the wire is living, the rest is just waiting.” I can dig that...now. Celine, who also walked a high wire, though in a different way, said, “Most people don’t die till the very last moment, but some start to die twenty years before their time, and sometimes earlier. They are the unhappy ones of this world.” I straddled the divide between pushing the edge and wallowing in melancholy.
And now I was diabetic. At the age of 14, I’d had to take urine testing strips to school, eat at specified times, snack when other kids did not, and worry about the onset of insulin shock when engaged in sports. I had to let teachers and worse, friends know. I could no longer conceal my disease. I was embarrassed.
My nighttime and sleep world, like that of most young male adolescents, were laced with dreams and possibilities, drives and aggressions, fantastic desires, labyrinths and taboos; the nature of our beings acted out and performed by the charged symbols of the id. When I awoke, however, the very first thing I saw was the diabetic paraphernalia on a tray table right next to my bed put there by mom.
That my “split” had occurred long before I moved to Seagate or got diabetes never dawned on me. In a way diabetes, like addiction to drugs, simplified my life: I needed a shot or I’d die. These crazy and imploding battles that were roaring underneath my adolescent skin would find more dramatic ways to breathe. My insulin injection became the object used for my daily conduit between my rigid but simplified worlds of “good” and “bad” and how to navigate between the two, struggling to find some kind of truce.
I became a real time example of failed diplomacy; an illustration of the fractured “I” in literature. Ich is German for “I” and also the word Freud used for “ego.” But Strachy, Freud’s translator, because of his desire to have Freud sound more scientific than he was, limited Freud’s intent; it had much more warmth, humanity and fluidity than Strachy’s translations would allow. Which in turn means it had much more subjectivity. The prism of the mind radiates many different states depending on the stimuli generated. And only part of that struggle remains conscious. It’s all the stuff we have access to, should we want to think about it. And part of it goes to the bottom of the well, the dynamic unconscious or id. What the fuck is in there? It’s all the shit that the ego cannot tolerate consciously; it’s too hot, too dangerous, too intense, too explicit, and hence, forbidden. Verboten, baby. The id tries to escape any which way it can; the superego tries to keep it down there and the ego tries to modulate between the two. “Integrate” is the key word here. Just think of the struggle to desegregate the south, or South Africa, or Hitler’s Germany. Imagine your mind and body waging that kind of war against yourself. Who would you give the guns to, how would you organize resistance and in what overt or covert actions would you take, and, if you had a choice, who or what would you be willing to sacrifice?
I practiced taking an insulin shot with my automatic injector on an orange. It was hard to manipulate. So, instead of immediately giving my own insulin shot, I asked my father to give it to me. Perhaps what I was really looking for was to reestablish the bond that was broken when I got sick; I was unable to verbalize any of those feelings, and so, they took the form of “signs” or “flags” for touch, contact, love. I’d get up hours before I had to, just so he could inject me before leaving for work. Before actually feeling the pin prick of the needle I’d prepare the shot, then go into the bathroom where he was almost finished with his morning’s ablutions. Our bathroom was a large rectangular room with mirrors running along the width of one wall. The light was never bright; it was yellowish. And I’d watch in the yellowish light, in the mirror, as my naked father awkwardly fingered the syringe, turning it slowly in his large fingers, trying to get a proper grip, trying to feel comfortable with something that you never get comfortable with. I watched every morning my disease in the bathroom, smelling of powder and cologne and shaving cream and shit. I watched my father pinch my flesh, and I tried, but couldn’t, to avert my eyes before the needle penetrated me. I felt and saw a thin, but cloudy, spermy milk go into my upper arm. He tried to do it quickly, perhaps to cause me less pain or perhaps to get it over with, but he never could; he fumbled with it. I never knew what he felt or thought, but I felt shamed and humiliated. We hardly exchanged a word, ever. He’d hand back the syringe, and leave for work. Straining, as I was, and as most males do at that age for an identity with “the father,” I could not help feeling more than just a little bit “feminized.” If this was our new way of making contact with each other, I wanted no part of it.
Soon I was taking my own injections. I opened my eyes, and reached for the metal tube containing the syringe. I took off the rubber stopper, slid the syringe out, drew up the insulin, pinched a portion of my inner thigh, injected myself, put the syringe and needle (if the needle was still sharp enough) back into the tube, and then went to the bathroom to take a leak. I did it as quickly as I could and tried, when in the bathroom, to avoid the wall of mirrors.
However, “the shot” bracketed practically every waking moment of my life thereafter. I became unconcerned about my future in the larger sense; I was too busy noticing the inner dictates of my body, such as anticipating and warding off high or low blood sugars, and overly vigilant about the hours when I’d “have” to eat or deal with my sickness in other ways.
At the age of 14, I began with a small amount of NPH-U80 (which cost $2.39 and is no longer produced--a vial of insulin today costs roughly 10 times that). I injected 10 or 15 units. Soon, my dosage increased to 20, 25, 30, 40 and finally to a high of 65 units a day. Later, I learned that the amount matters less than the control. Nobody told me about rotating injection sites, in order to avoid calloused skin. Within two years the insides of my thighs were no longer usable. They looked con caved. I could not pinch together enough flesh to inject the needle through. I began giving myself injections in my arms and abdomen.
Anybody here wanna go through adolescence again? Yeah, fuck, I’ll raise my hand. Even though it was torture, it was miraculous torture. Redlining emotions. Endless possibilities. Fantasies taking on colors and rising temperatures. If this is what happens before, during and after you get hard, well then, let’s just push down on the accelerator. Often, just as, during, or immediately following, my mind running away like wild horses over the hills, my mom’s voice, penetrating, “Didya take your shot? You know you have to test? Didya? Didya? You’re gonna put me in an early grave.” Relief came, late at night, coming into a white woolen sock. My mind and body wanted a feast, not this chicken-boned reality.
I knew there was no chance negotiating a truce with my mother. Her hawk eyes and chalk-screeching-against-a blackboard voice would arouse the temper of my father. I didn’t want to but couldn’t help alienating him further. Consequently, my anger, finding it almost impossible to surface toward him, found an easier route with her.
Home was becoming more and more like a way-station for meals and sleep. I began settling in to my new junior high school and playing ball at night at our neighborhood center. I thought that I could slip more easily out of the disease jacket outside of my home and that was what really mattered to me.
Mark Twain Junior High School, was roughly a mile from my home in Seagate. There was a city bus, discontinued now, that used to circle Seagate; I got on that bus on my corner and got off on Surf Avenue, walked outside of Seagate up to Mermaid Avenue, where I caught another bus the twenty blocks to where Mark Twain awaited me. As countrified as Seagate looked, Coney Island was Brooklyn in the 50’s and early 60’s: candy stores and bars, tailor shops and drug stores, open fruit stands, banks, liquor stores, two story homes with wrought iron balustrades straddling concrete steps and old weather beaten front doors, apartment buildings that smelled of chicken soup and garlic with old tile floors showing signs of decay. Stained and broken, there were tenements toward the subway at Stillwell that housed the broken black subsection of what was to become the urban sprawl that all major cities and boroughs eventually became a scant decade later. And across from Stillwell Avenue or Nortons Point, the end of the line for most of Manhattan’s trains, sat The Terminal Hotel, a red curtained place of transients, drug addicts, prostitutes and other people whose lives I began peeking into at a very early age.
Humor, the Jewish and black elixir, served me well. Jews who are nomads, travelers, outsiders with religion tucked in suitcases, squatted and took up space inside of me for which I will be endlessly grateful. This “humor” was not lost on two kids with whom I grew close: Jack and Steve. Jack was a strong, smart, big-boned, good-looking kid who seriously wanted to be a writer, and Steve was a tall, thin, “devilishly” handsome kid of verve and sexual prowess, who had the young chicks whispering, pointing, drooling...and plotting. Jack lived right outside Seagate in a housing project on Neptune Avenue. Steve lived in Beach Haven, which was middle-class apartment buildings adjacent to the elevated trains on an avenue that Neptune curled into, McDonald. The first time we noticed each other, they were staring at my lunch. The brown bag was stained with oil from the tuna fish sandwich inside, which threatened to drop from the soaked and soggy bottom. I could never grip the bag from the top but instead, had to hold it on the bottom for fear it would break on the bus.
“Some fuckin’ sandwich, huh? She just caught the fuckin’ thing this morning. That’s why it’s a little wet.”
Sometimes she’d cut one huge lump of salami, smear the bread with mustard, throw in an apple that was dark with rot and expect me to eat it...and like it. Finally, I said, “Mom, how about 50 cents or a buck for a lunch? All my friends eat at Gitlers or Johnnys or the Huba-Huba. I wanna too.” She had a hard time understanding that pot roast and gravy doesn’t hold up on white bread. Even the tough kids stopped chasing me: “Hey, that’s Norman, leave that fuckin’ lunch by itself, man.”
Gitlers was a superette that made hero sandwiches...for a quarter. It wasn’t what you would call loaded with meat but it sustained; they put one slice of salami, bologna, or ham on hero bread, with lettuce and mustard, ketchup, or mayo, Hellman’s. A sour pickle out of the big pickle barrel was a nickel. Sodas were a quarter. Johnnys was a pizza joint a block away; a square slice was a dime.
Jack, Steve, and I would hear and sometimes have to contend with some Coney Island toughs like Bruno and Johnny, who had no business being in school in the first place. Their tiny, hairy math teacher whom was called Mighty Joe Rothman made the mistake of lodging a slight protest against them for selling comic books in his class and Bruno and Johnny literally picked him up and, using the back of his sport jacket as a hook, hung him in the clothes closet. He never complained again.
Steve had been telling us about this girl he knew who had let him go “all the way” with her. He arranged to get her to lay me and Jack on separate days. I don’t know about Jack but I was scared shit, though both of us were more than willing. The girl, who was our age and supposedly insatiable (a cruel judgment to salve our consciences, I’m sure), would do anything for Steve, and so pleasing his friends was a natural extension of pleasing him. It made infinite sense to us.
It was an overcast and rainy Saturday. Steve’s parents were not home, but Steve and the girl were. I was coming over to “do it.” I got off the train and with weighted legs, thumping heart, tight chest, and butterflies zigzagging in my veins, I walked to his building. Steve came to the door and smiled at me. I could see her behind his shoulder sitting on the couch, waiting. We walked over to her and he said, “Susan, this is my friend Norman that I told you about; I gotta go do somethin’ for a coupla minutes. See you later.” And he left.
I was frozen. What the hell do I do now? She knew. She made a place for me next to her on the couch. I sat and made an awkward and finally aborted attempt to put my arm around her shoulder.
She turned and faced me. “All right, let’s just do this, O.K.?”
She got up and started to get out of her pants but not her shirt.
“How about your shirt?” I asked.
“No, I don’t take off my top, just my pants. Take yours off,” she instructed.
By the time I did, she had already gotten out of her panties and laid back on the couch. I took off my underwear and laid on top of her. She guided me in. I came after three strokes, and she knew it.
“Ah...a, eh..I eh think...”
“You did. Get off. Go and tell Steve.” Which I did.
“How was it?” he asked smiling broadly.
“It was great, terrific,” I replied grinning as wide as I could. “Thanks man, I’ll seeya later, I gotta go.”
Walking to the train station I tried to figure out why I felt so disoriented. The more time went by, the less I was able to think clearly. I climbed the steep stairs to the elevated platform and there, on this gloomy dark afternoon, I felt the sweat begin to pour from my body. I was nervous, irritable, shaky; a thin, tight elastic band was closing around my forehead. I knew then, I was having an insulin reaction, going into insulin shock. I was frightened and quickly walked back down to the street where I found a candy store and bought Milky Ways and a Coke and just kept eating and drinking until the feelings subsided; it took roughly 20 minutes.
I returned to the train platform thinking of my “doing it” for the first time, diabetes, and manhood, none of which I understood. The insulin reaction could have been brought on by the activity of sex, the excitement or stress it generated, what I had for breakfast or lunch or who knows what? I knew in my adolescent way of thinking that I had not fortified myself with enough sugar to carry me through getting laid. Subsequently, every time I was about to sleep with a woman, I’d worried whether or not I had eaten enough to see me and my cock through; sometimes yes, sometimes no. Getting laid like that was less than rewarding. I could never articulate it at the time, except to say to myself that it wasn’t that much of a big deal, but the gun was notched, a milestone achieved. Beyond that I wasn’t quite sure.
Basketball was simpler. Besides, I knew I was good at it. There’s a great freedom in sports. There’s a focus that almost negates thinking. And a beautiful fluidity that at times defies gravity. Also, I was too frightened not to play sports, and once playing, too threatened not to be good at what I played. I enjoyed that male camaraderie that took place on the court or playing field. The only thing I didn’t like was going into the locker room and showering in front of other guys, secretly looking at their cocks and hoping they weren’t looking at mine.
Speaking of cocks, my father, the largest cock of all, was now involving himself with the activities that occurred at the Sea Gate Center where I played basketball in the evening. He’d sometimes come with other fathers, but usually alone, to watch the action. He loved sports. In fact, he had played basketball himself in high school in Pennsylvania, and soon immersed himself in volunteering to coach. I was inwardly split about this. I felt reunited with him in a sense, but I also felt he was devoting too much of his energy with other kids, and loving it. Also, he was imposing himself in what I wanted to be my own world, to do with what I wanted. Privacy, which was impossible at home, was now compromised away from home. Besides, I wanted and needed to screw up in whatever way I did without my parents knowing about it. Just closing the door to my room was not enough.
To illustrate: after playing basketball one night, my friends and I went to the candy store located outside Seagate on Mermaid Avenue for an ice cream soda. I had a friend a few years older who was smoking cigarettes, Marlboros. I wanted to smoke, too. My folks were big smokers, Chesterfield regulars, and I, of course, was more than curious. It was masculine and forbidden, the daily double. I had been smoking for awhile already. My father had somehow found out about this and surprised me at the candy store. I was having an ice cream soda. I froze when I saw him enter knowing he would not be here except for whatever I had done. My cheeks flushed; you could read guilt all over my face.
“Whatareyadoin’ drinkin’ an ice cream soda?” he asked in a tone more accusatory than inquisitive or concerned.
“I’m havin’ an insulin reaction,” I stammered.
“You are huh? Insulin reaction, huh?--you’re fulla shit.” Then he turned to my friend and I’ll never forget his words. He leaned in closely and menacingly to my friend and said, “I can be the nicest guy in the world or I can be the meanest cocksucker. If I find out you’ve been giving my son cigarettes or even a drag of your cigarette, I’ll pull a fuckin’ leg outa your ass. You understand what I’m sayin’ to you?”
“Yes, Mr. Savage, I understand, perfectly.”
My father turned to me. “And you, you little bastard, get off that fuckin’ stool now and get in the car. I’ll pay for your sonsofbitches sodas.”
I slid off the stool and walked out of the store and into his Cadillac, praying I wouldn’t catch a slap, or a real beating. The only thing I caught was silence, which was worse.
He thought he could bully and/or manipulate me, and mom tried to scream and/or “guilt” me, into behaving. I was beyond that. I didn’t stop smoking. And my friend didn’t stop giving me smokes; we just hid it better.
I was not only “feeling my oats,” I was eating them as well. I began doing things I’d never done before, like cutting classes and entire days from school. One time the Assistant Principal, Mr. Fuchs, called my mother to have a conference with me about this new and unacceptable behavior. I forgot what day it was and never showed up. Needless to say, he did not have to prove his point. Shortly after, I plagiarized two Coleridge poems for Miss Edelman. I was in love with her. She epitomized romance and romanticism. I dug the poems out of an old musty book I found in the library. Who the hell will ever remember these, I reasoned. She did, and summoned my mother. My mother seemed to be in school more than I was. All my mother could see was her own embarrassment, not that I was acting out because of my struggle. I come from a really pragmatic family. Abstractions or signs, especially of need, were never acknowledged let alone discussed in my family. It was so much easier and less complicated to accuse and point fingers.
I gave up trying to please. I concentrated on not going to school. I’d eat red lozenges to simulate a sore throat, put soap in my eyes and tell my mother there was a pinkeye epidemic at school; I’d drop my report card in sewer water or just brazenly change the grades. I began developing an incredible ability to manipulate and maneuver my environment. Hit and split and above all else, hide. I was getting quicker, smarter and more reckless. Good. Let them catch me.
Sometime during that year, I’m not exactly sure when, my father came home one day and told me that I was going to see another doctor.
“What’s wrong with Dr. Dolger?” I asked, a bit shaken up.
“Nothing’s wrong with Dr. Dolger, but this one is terrific. He’s supposed to be the best in Brooklyn, a real pro.”
Is it a Jewish trait that has somehow been handed down from generations that ones doctor, lawyer, accountant, and haberdasher are the best, that everyone and everything is top notch like the cut of belly lox, or center whitefish, or steak, brisket, corned beef and pastrami?
“Nobody’s better than Dr. Dolger. He wrote a book. Did you see the pictures of those actors and actresses in his office?”
“There’s nothing to talk about; you’re going to see this guy. And I’m tellin’ you, he’s just as good as Dolger.”
Why exactly the switch at that time, I can’t say. I do know that parking spaces are easier to come by in Brooklyn.
Dr. Zarawitz was probably a good diabetologist, but to me he was a fucked-up, nervous, neo-Nazi. A scumbag. He went by the book, and I, at this time, was beginning to challenge boundaries. Zarawitz was slight of build, young--though nearly bald--a map of veins underneath smooth luminescent skin, piercing blue eyes, and short-tempered. He tolerated nothing less than absolute obedience. He’d get visibly upset at me anytime I strayed or wanted to do something that deviated from his idea of good diabetic control, discipline, or regimen. He’d also do the unpardonable: tell my mother.
“Cheating again, I knew it, I knew it; and just to aggravate me. Wait ‘til your father hears about this, just wait. You think you can fool me, but you can’t.” And on and on and on and on.
I did what any intelligent person would do who could not control any aspect of their life or lifestyle--I lied.
I would need to measure a certain amount of piss to a particular amount of water placed in a small test-tube, drop in a tablet and watch the liquid change colors, indicating the glucose content, if any. Either I would say I’m testing my urine when I wasn’t or I’d put in more water than I should have in order to illicit a blue hue, indicating a negative glucose amount. I’d come out of bathroom to proudly show my negative test. When I knew I’d be seeing Dr. Z., I’d be on my best food behavior a few days before, trying to insure a normal blood sugar level. Then, after the examination, I’d treat myself to a Milky Way, my favorite, on the way to the train station, satiating my anger and soothing myself. And make no mistake: foods, especially sweets, soothe. Fuck them; fuck alla them. I would try to do whatever I could to have peace and tranquility at home, an impossible feat in retrospect. However, at the time I had to try and be cool or normal. In fact, we could have knock down, drag out screaming arguments at home; we’d curse, yell, scream, shout, and sometimes a few fists would be thrown in, or belts would come whipping and whistling through pant loops, BUT if the phone would ring, or there was a knock at the door, then STOP and, like nothing happened, my mom would pick up the phone and, in a voice that can only be described as other worldly, say, “h.e.l.l.o” so cool and friendly and gentle you might think she was auditioning to be a greeter at AA meetings.
Almost 10 years after seeing Dr. Z., after the booze and drugs and cigarettes and nights and days and nerves had unnerved me and he found out I was using heroin, after almost 10 years of treating me, he screamed, “Out. You’re not my patient anymore.” The blood drained from his face. His veins beat.
“Calm down,” I said. At that point in my life I had already taken enough, certainly from him. “You shoulda been a plumber,” I told him. “Human beings ain’t your thing.” Years later, I learned that Dr. Z. had had a nervous breakdown and had to give up medicine. I can’t say I was surprised...or sorry.
Sam Beckett stated, “We are all born mad. Some of us remain so.” That’s true. Brasz, a buddy of mine, maintains that since you have more brain cells than the entire universe has stars, chemically, electrically interacting with each other at incredible speeds and infinite combinations, who the hell can get a handle on anything. That’s true. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka wrote, “Whatever you think/the opposite can also be./ And any wavelength in between.” That’s true. I believe all of that. I also believe that everybody’s ass is up for grabs, including my own; and so, with no thought of exonerating anyone or anything, I’ll continue.
Let me turn the coin over. My parents could be kind and generous people. Yeah, you heard me right. As nuts as they were, as emotionally blind and stunted as I’ve portrayed them, as intellectually removed from all ideas of complexity or nuance, they could demonstrate a generosity unlike most of the adults with whom I had come into contact. I mean adults were adult; my father was still a guy who wanted to hang out with “the boys”; whether this meant “boys” as in other “disappointed gangsters” or real wise-guys, it still meant guys who wanted to hang with other guys. Also, he could hang with guys half his age playing and/or watching adolescents playing ball. And my mom, on the outside, was a “typical Jewish mother” of her times living in Brooklyn. Like all children, I learned and stood on the shoulders of both of them. Whatever she did, or didn’t or couldn’t do, she imbued in me manners, cleanliness, a mania for perfection which helped keep me alive, and a kind of gentility that was a polar opposite from my father and his side of the family. But it was my father, innately smarter and infinitely more manipulative, who I wanted to emulate most, and, in my own way, one up him. His “passion” for Sinatra, led me into music of all kinds; his love of Cadillacs led me to Porsches; his penchant for clothes, paved the way to Paul Stuart; and his limited curiosity in regard to reading opened broad avenues of inquiry for me. He and my mom both had a desire to involve themselves in the lives of their sons, almost totally. I hardly saw them go out on their own alone without me or my brother or another friend or couple. To the best of my recollection, they did not have a private life with just each other that they cultivated. If they weren’t doing something with friends or us, they stayed home and watched television.
I saw that the parents of my friends who were friendly and generous to a point were always removed, almost disinterested in what we were doing...or going to do. They allowed privacy. I often interpreted that as coldness...but I was wrong. They had their own lives. My folks were with us: they played ball with us, cards with us, traveled with us, invited us to travel with them, paid for us, laughed with us, made us laugh, and helped with those problems that other parents could not or would not want to address. They have always spoken inside of me, in place of the “me” who I was struggling with and have struggled to know. Their ghosts, whether alive or dead, demanded my attention more than I did. Now, past the age of sixty, I’m learning to turn my ghosts into ancestors.
One thing I do know: I swallowed my mother whole, and probably my father as well, “hook, line, and sinker.” Food is not supposed to be eaten that way. First we put it in our mouths, let our saliva work on it, chew it, break it down further, swallow and let the enzymes get a crack at it, then, in our stomachs our bile works it over to make it available to the blood stream, and finally cells which convert it into energy. You digest parts of your parents at various ages and stages which you assimilate and then you progress to the next stage. If you swallow that shit whole, you get emotionally stuck. Yeah, you might look your age and maybe physically feel your age, but acting your age? well, that’s a whole other ball game. We now know, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, some digestive illnesses seem to be psychosomatic in nature. I do know, that I’ve never fully “digested” my parents. I found it impossible as I grew-up to accept their faults and foibles, their humanness, bury the bad with their bones, mourn, keep the good and go on. Consequently, I couldn’t adequately “dispel” them either. Like sticky adhesive, they clung to my lungs and heart, my liver and colon. If they never really went anywhere, I couldn’t ever be alone or miss them.
Our home was headquarters. My friends would come over, and my mom would open three pounds of bacon and put it in a pan. She would slice three or four tomatoes, take a head of lettuce and a loaf of bread, a jar of Hellman’s Mayonnaise and make six, eight, ten BLT sandwiches with glasses of milk, or coffee, or whatever we wanted. It could have been chicken or veal cutlets, steaks, French fries, five to ten pounds of roast beef or corned beef, or egg or tuna salads or lox or whitefish, evening mornings afternoons, on Sunday, or Saturday, maybe Friday poker or casino or pinochle. And then there were the problems: maybe a friend was in jail, or a brother of a friend with a low number was about to get drafted; maybe a young girl with whom I went to school needed an abortion, but couldn’t go to her family and didn’t have any money; maybe someone needed to impress a girl with tickets to a show or a ball game or the playoffs or championships where money and/or influence had to be applied. My friends and their family could be in dire need or just in need of entertainment. My parents could be counted on to answer that bell.
I had my share of good times and the laughs but I tripped and fell over my emotions. I could not articulate them; there were no boundaries. My parents never did know how to approach me; they stumbled and stuttered and usually avoided any feeling or situation that could not easily be answered...or be answered with money. My parents, like so many other families of the baby boomers, had no clue about raising kids. When they weren’t stumbling and stuttering, they used bluster, trying to bully their way. It was usually like a hot grid: approach--avoidance. That is why, I believe, having other people around was so important. They acted as buffers. With other people in the house, we were more hesitant to kill one another.
When alone, our kitchen was the battlefield. Imagine the kitchen of a supermarket owner who loved to eat, needed to eat...constantly. We had a pretty big house, but not a particularly large kitchen, which was behind the dining room where we hardly ever dined except when company came over. The kitchen had a huge refrigerator/freezer (we had another one downstairs). If you opened the outer door to both, you could not see the back because of the density of food and condiments, an oven, stove, dishwasher and cabinets loaded with food, and food stuffs. We had a walk-in pantry downstairs stocked three deep with canned foods and cabinets containing pots and pans. The kitchen table sat four. We’d meet there for supper which more often than not would turn into a hair-pulling, teeth-grinding, bloodletting rite, administered with a butter knife.
Words carved the spitter’s mouth on the chest of the intended recipient. It could stem from an innocent action, my brother spilling a glass of soda (which he did constantly and which became a self-fulfilling prophecy once my father hit him), or my mother’s desire to inform my father of the news of the day, which was a thinly veiled attempt at retribution and respect: Norman did this, Bobby did that. I would answer, “She’s crazy,” or “She’s nuts, I didn’t do that.” And that would do it. She could not tolerate either of those monickers: “crazy” or “nuts.” There was something I didn’t know then, but know today, contained in the meaning she attached to those words that struck her core, her fear, her belief. Secretly, she felt she had a tenuous grasp on her own sanity.
The horses were out of the starting gate. “Liar,” she’d scream. When no one responded, she’d look at us, heads down, eating, trying to avoid incendiary eye contact and escalating engagement. Her eyes were fiery and burning with an unquenchable desire to make my father choose sides. She’d say, “Oh, you’re all against me; I could just drop dead on this floor and you’d all go on eating and walk over me when you finished. I’m just a slave to cook, to clean, to shit on. You’re all against me.”
“Ah, let it alone, willya? Just sit down already and eat,” my father would say. He would be sitting in his jockey shorts, belly hanging out of them, his mouth full of food, trying to get his words to spill out between the mashed potatoes and steak. “Goddamnit, I didn’t come home for this. Sit down willya?”
And she would.
In truth, my old man worked his ass off. Supermarkets are a grind, and supermarkets in heavily populated and trafficked Jewish areas were even more of a grind. Jewish women of that era were ball-busting specialists. Just ask their husbands...if they’re alive. For many years I worked in my father’s stores both full and part-time, and I’ve seen first hand the carnage these women can inflict. They would bring back an empty container of milk and claim it was spoiled; they’d return the pit of a peach they said was rotten. Items on sale, limited two to a customer, would erupt into battles as they’d bring up ten, twelve and say it was for a friend, a sister, brother, the deceased. I can remember working a fourteen hour days and seeing a woman smell a cased chicken for hours and not want to leave the store even though we were closing. “Do you want to marry that chicken or buy it?” my father would ask. That would not distract her. She sniffed away and would not want to leave.
And so, when he came home, he didn’t want to hear shit. If I fucked up that day, in whatever way, I’d be petrified for hours, hearing my mother rant, “I’m gonna tell Daddy; just wait ‘til he gets home. You’re gonna get a good lickin’. That’s what you deserve, a good lickin’.”
For a good part of my youth, I was terrified until I began to see that he really did not want to deal with the craziness. And what made it more nuts was that when he did hit me, my mother would intervene, after he lost control, shouting, “Not the head; don’t hit him in the head...Enough, that’s enough.” And indeed it was.
At the end of the school year, we sat in my homeroom class, Steve, Jack and I listening to Miss Edelman expound on the virtues of what her eighth grade creative writing class accomplished. We finished Conrad’s Lord Jim, a maddeningly complex tale of cowardice and heroism told through the prism of “voices” that were difficult at best to follow. We wrote poems and short stories which we published in our literary magazine and had a challenging and satisfying year. She asked a final question: “What would you like to come back as?” This kid sitting in front of me, Nicholson I think his name was, said he’d like to come back as a butterfly. The three of us looked at each other. We knew he was bullshitting her, but she ran over and changed the cocksucker’s grade from a 75 to an 85. I felt like hitting him in the back of the head. When it came my turn, I said I’d like to come back as a 300 game. She thought I was being funny. She didn’t know I had discovered bowling, and bowling alleys.
pgs 16-30 From: JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Greenwich Village, 2015