Sunday, August 23, 2015


We all have mechanisms to get us through this marshmallow roast of a life: rationalizations, lies--white, pathological, or planned can lead to one’s walking away or picking up a machine gun. Guys, who have invested months and thousands of dollars to get into a chick’s pants, who have sworn that she is the “one,” the only “one,” now swears: “She really meant nothing to me,” or, “it’s her loss man, she wants to but can’t have me no more,” while he shackles himself to the phone.
I try to be, but am, no different. Thoughts kept running through my mind down Interstate 95. The car, churning up asphalt and trees, reflected my own landscape. No matter what I told myself, the reality was that, hat in hand, I was going home, and home was something I wanted to keep at bay. I pushed my hands up against the windshield when we approached The Tappenzee Bridge, kicked the floor boards when we hit The Major Deegen, cursed God over The Willis Avenue Bridge, hid in the glove compartment as we curved onto the F.D.R. Drive, found a flashlight going through The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and psyched myself up on The Belt Parkway. As we entered Seagate, I had developed a sense of moral and ethical indignation.
“I did what was right, that’s all I know,” I said to my folks.
“You must have done something,” my mother said. “They don’t fire someone for nothing.”
“What are you saying? Are you saying that I gave them a reason to fire me? What are you talking about?” I asked, my voice growing louder and more strident with each question.
“Nothing, I’m not talking about anything. Are you hungry? Let me make you something.”
“No, I’m not hungry,” I sighed.
“You must be hungry and...”
“Nah, I’m not.”
“You should have a snack before going to bed, you know that. When are you going to learn? When? It’s time you learn, already.”
“I’m tired, I’m going downstairs and going to bed. If I’m hungry I’ll come upstairs and make myself something, all right? That’s it. Seeya tomorrow. Have a goodnight.” And I was gone.
Walking downstairs, on my way to my room, I thought, if I wanted to hold on to what little remained of my sanity I would have to get a gig, quick, and get the fuck out of there. The few months alone, away from my family told me that my well-being depended upon it. Even though, when living on my own, the old tapes of criticisms and judgments kicked-up every so often, to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the day (sometime the hour), it still lacked the bite of present day confrontations which felt and looked, like blood on fresh fallen snow.
That night, in the early a.m. hours, I had a severe insulin reaction. Insulin reactions, or shock, were subjectively gauged by me as not bad, bad, oh shit, terrible, and, “you ain’t got no time to lose, so get your ass in the kitchen quick.” It was the last level when instinct took over, and I’d bolt from my bed and dash to the kitchen. I’d drain whatever contained sugar and pray that I could hold on long enough not to pass out. Those were bad enough, but never as bad as when my mother would awaken and surprise me in the kitchen as I tried to nurse myself back to stability. A person going through a bout of low blood sugar is irritable to begin with, but my mom’s presence was like throwing water on a burn victim days after his body had gotten through the numbness and all his nerves were raw and exposed.
“What are you doing?” she’d ask.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” I’d reply.
“Don’t get fresh with me. It’s not my fault that you can’t take care of yourself.”
“Ma, leave me alone, go back to sleep.”
“That’s all you can say,” she’d mimic, “leave me alone,leave me alone. Why don’t you leave me alone and take care of yourself already? You’re old enough, God, my God, when are you going to learn?”
I’d be battling her and my physical state. And my anger, so much more easily expressed toward women, would find its mark on her. “Shut up, already!” I’d scream, “Leave me the fuck alone!” She’d shuffle back to the bedroom, leaving me the residue of my existence. Inwardly, I’d curse her, me, my family, home, diabetes and God, not necessarily in that order.
Yet insulin reactions, especially in my parent’s home, had an even darker side for me, one that was not without rewards, and punishment. As I’ve said, insulin reactions would catch me during sleep. Like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, my back would arch up making the upper and lower half of my body look like a right angle. I’d usually be covered with cold and clammy sweat and, I’d be, just a bit panicky. If it wasn’t a severe reaction, I’d have time to “enjoy myself.” I’d tiptoe to the kitchen--if I woke up my mother, it would turn my plan into instant shit. I’d open the refrigerator door, grab a Coke, drain it, and sit down, conscious of the sweat drying on my body. Without the fear of passing out, I could summon the courage to wait fifteen minutes to allow the sugar to work and then go back and get another Coke. By this time, my body was finding the balance that allowed me to light a cigarette. My head would begin to level, and my panic diminish. “Now,” I’d say to myself, “what can I have that I’d really enjoy and take my time with?” What the Hell, I figured, my sugar was going to bounce (a diabetic’s blood glucose would usually go high after an insulin reaction because the liver, knowing the body needs sugar desperately, starts to empty it’s supply while you’ve ingested whatever you did to stem the shock you were experiencing), anyway. The question I asked myself was: “Why shouldn’t I eat what I was always forbidden to eat right now?” If the question had a trace of anger or self-pity, it was then not on my radar screen. I’d go rummaging around the kitchen and some hiding places in the living room, opening up cabinets and drawers to find what was in front of me, and what wasn’t. My family were notorious sugar fiends. Their picture should have been on the Domino bag. I’d find a Mr. Goodbar under place mats, Goldberg Chews in the back of the linen cabinet, M&M’s plain and with peanuts, Oreo’s, Chips Ahoy, Milky Ways, Hershey Kisses, Cadbury Bars, Dugan Donuts, Entemann’s Coconut Custard and Pound Cakes, Breyers Ice Cream, Carvel Flying Saucers, Baby Ruth, Clark Bars, Mounds, Almond Joy and, stashed among the packages, containing pasta and rice, were opened bags of caramels, light and dark. “Man, that was good,” I said to myself as I quietly crept back to my bedroom. I slept while my body did a roller coaster ride of its own. I was sugar saturated.
It was an old and comfortable way I had of “acting out.” I wasn’t using drugs to annihilate myself so, “sugar will do very nicely, thank you very much.”
Julio was sympathetic but aloof when I spoke with him the next morning. “Brother,” he began, “I wish you would have taken that “line” when I had it. There’s nothing going on now.” A “line” is a euphemism for a job that’s funded through a government grant and/or contract. “But keep in touch, call me back in a week. I’ll see what I can do.” Julio Martinez was pretty crafty. I knew he wanted me to work for him because I was white, college educated, smart, very articulate, came from an upper-middle class family, was a dope fiend and a graduate of his program. He’s giving me a little test, and a slap on the wrist that said, “You should have stayed among your own, stayed among people who know and care about you, and since you didn’t, you’re going to stay out in the cold for awhile.” Right or wrong, I had little choice. I’d have to wait out the week.

Depending on your position in life, or your position at any given time, people, family and close friends included, will usually extract a toll far greater than what they’re doing, or have done, for you. (Perhaps, one should consider themselves lucky to have anyone do anything for them at any time?) Usually, what they will do depends on how they’re approached. Remember, we’re animals of the worst sort: we kill our own. So, if you have to go to anybody for anything, you take great risks if you begin with: “I’m really broke,” “I’m hurting,” “My wife (lover, girlfriend, boyfriend, husband), just left me,” “Please help me, I’m desperate.” “Desperation” is an odor, a festering and open wound. Somehow, that smell intoxicates the animal who’s listening. His nostrils get wider, and he wants more. He’s a meat eater. Our position in the scheme of things is minuscule. Our territory is only as big as the place we occupy now. We’re frightened, and protective, and somewhat insecure. Hence, the “favor-doers” usually let the “favor-receivers” know their place, which is on a lower rung on the ladder of safety and shelter. Sometimes, they’re worse than loan sharks or banks, because they extract a “mental loan” which can never be repaid. The debt is never erased. Only a fracture or a complete severing from them or a frontal lobotomy can do that.

“I don’t care if you have to sit in his office all day,” my father said to me in a tone that signified more than just a helpful suggestion. It reflected what he thought of my chances for actual employment beyond that which he could supply, and that Martinez at one time had offered. If my father ever had to think about and plan on what direction he wanted his life to take, I never knew about it. For most of my life I took jobs, not because it was necessarily what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to do it with, but because they were offered. And I brought with me the emotional baggage from my past: take care of me, give me a home, make me feel safe. I did that then without knowing what I was doing or why I was doing it. Nevertheless, I set in motion a set of emotional paradigms that no human, and certainly no organization, could substitute for: good parenting by one’s biological parents.
Julio had suggested to me, during our last conversation, that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to meet with Carlos. I suspected that he wanted me to clear the air with him about the encounter we’d had had that precipitated my premature departure from the program. I made an appointment to meet with him on Saturday and, just as I was going to leave to meet him, the phone rang and I picked it up. It was Howard’s mother, Leslie. She told me that Howard had called her, bent out of shape, about my leaving and she was so sorry--blah, blah, blah,--and Howard was so,--blah, blah, blah,--and would I want to come over to her place for cocktails with her and Ron today? I told her as luck would have it I needed to be in the city today and would certainly make it over to their place by five, five-thirty. Who knows, I said to myself, this guy’s got more money then God. Maybe I could work myself into heaven.

Carlos was still a prick and noncommittal. I got the feeling he didn’t want me around. I figured out much later that he didn’t like me being close to Martinez. I was too naive to understand that kind of politics, let alone know how to be political. I was unlearned, and consequently unskilled, in how to make friends and survive in a working environment. Perhaps I was just plain spoiled. I grew up with my father owning businesses. Without ever having to do anything on my own to earn anybody’s respect or consideration, I was born with a certain status. Those who worked for my father also, de facto, worked for me. They held me separate from them, even when I encouraged the opposite response, not wanting that division. The point is, and the point was so often lost on me, I was able to choose. I didn’t as yet realize that there are fears, jealousies and paranoia about positions within certain, if not all, organizations. Those complex emotional states are coupled with getting next to, or further away from, the person or persons that hold power and are fraught with tension and battles out in the open or worse, in secret.
One of my biggest detriments in surviving in any and all work environments is getting over or pushing away any slights, arguments or strong negative feelings I might have towards a colleague or superior. In fact, the word “superior” is enough to ignite whatever “fuck you” mechanism lurks inside me. “Get over it and move on?” Hardly. Maybe, if that person suffers a miserable and ignoble death, maybe. So, in that regard, even the sight of Carlos was enough to ignite the basest feelings within me, and the fact that I had to hide them made it worse. We both held our tongues, feigned civility, but were leery of each other. I just didn’t like him, but he had a harder road to hoe: Julio told him to play nice. I spent an hour, thanked him for his time, and left.
From the circus of Times Square, I journeyed cross town to the quiet elegance of the East Side on Sutton Place. Ron and Leslie’s building, perched on the side of the F.D.R. Drive, overlooked the East River. There were three doormen, security cameras, and a call upstairs before I was allowed to proceed to the elevators, where a uniformed operator took me to their floor. Nothing here was left to chance.
Leslie, wearing a white cashmere turtleneck and slacks, the color of eggshells, met me at the door. I walked into a moderate sized alcove where, to the right, two paintings by Chagall and a Miro hung in the foyer, bracketing a wall of books leading into the living room straight ahead, or the kitchen on the left. Leslie led me into a huge sunken living room which looked outward on The East River, Queensborough Bridge, and the traffic below. The wall of windows, in thick rectangular panes, were uncovered and, although you could not hear the hum of cars below, you could see the white lights of headlamps zigzagging across the glass. There was a Steinway Grand Piano near the windows, a plush white couch with matching armchairs, a cocktail table with a basketful of porcelain eggs from A La Vielle Russe, pictures of various celebrities in the arts, and an old photograph of a famous black folk singer, which I thought curiously out of place. There was a small bar in the far left corner which displayed cut crystal brandy snifters and what looked to be a humidor.
“Make yourself comfortable,” Leslie said, “Ron will be out in a few minutes.”
“Thanks,” I replied and wandered over to the windows, never having enjoyed a view like this before.
“It’s just terrible, terrible. Ron and I were shocked, shocked and distressed about the whole thing.”
“Me too. It came as a complete surprise, never expected it...How’s Howard?”
“All fucked up,” Ron said, his voice booming, as he came into the living room from wherever he’d been. He wore the same thick gold chain and medallion that now sat on a gray cashmere v-neck sweater and charcoal slacks. He came over shook my hand and asked, “What are you drinking?”
“Chivas Regal, neat,” Leslie said, a smile stretching across Ron’s face and hers.
“Yeah, how’d you remember?”
“She don’t forget much, especially when she likes someone, and we took to you right away.”
“Well thanks,” I said, not really knowing what to do with that, or where it was going. Let it unfold, I thought.
We spent the next half hour talking about what had happened and why I thought it did. I sprinkled in some humorous anecdotes about their son, while I weaved my short, but interesting, tale of misfortune.
The bottle of Chivas, in the middle of the cocktail table, was slowly, but steadily, being consumed by the three of us. Also, with no signal that I could see, two women carrying two platters of hors d’oeuvres, came out of nowhere and quietly put them down on the table, picked up the ashtray and replaced it with a clean one and left. I could not help it as my eyes followed them. The last time I saw people carrying platters like that was at my brother’s Bar Mitzvah.
“What are your plans now?” Ron inquired.
“I thought you’d adopt me,” I said lightly, “if not, then I gotta figure out how a broke poet is going to make some money.”
Ron asked if I wrote, and I told him I did. Both he and Leslie were very interested in that and what I had to say about writing in general, and they told me that they both knew some very prominent people in the publishing profession but first would like to read some of what I’d written. I thanked them and also told them of my one job possibility. I hoped that they’d have some recommendations or know people whom I could contact should my job with Project Return not materialize. If they heard me, they chose not pick up that ball.
The hour was getting late, and I was thinking of the subway ride back to Coney Island, and reality. I said that my folks were expecting me back home for dinner with some old friends who were coming over to see me. Ron got up and went to a phone near the bar, dialed a number, talked briefly and returned to where we sat. “Tom, my chauffeur, will take you home.”
“Nah, that’s O.K.”
“I know it’s O.K. Tom will take you home,” he repeated. “I won’t take no for an answer, and call me in a week or so. I’m thinking of a few things, and I know that Leslie is. Something will happen. I’m sure of it.” And with that he got up, shook my hand again and left, disappearing into that part of the house that he’d originally come from.
“Ron means what he says, always,” Leslie said, and took my hand in hers. “Let me show you the way out.”
We both rose together and walked to the front door, past the books and the paintings and the kitchen which, I peered into and saw no one.
“Tom should be downstairs by this time. I’ll be speaking with you soon.” She put her hand behind my head and gently pulled my head down, as she elevated herself and kissed me on the cheek. She smelled expensive.
“Thanks,” I said and went out the door and to the elevators. I turned to see Leslie smiling at me as I waited. Her door closed as the elevator opened.
Outside, there was a silver Rolls Royce with a tall gentleman waiting. He approached me and asked if I were Norman. I smiled. The closest I’d ever been to a limousine was owning a pair of Converse sneakers, whose commercial at that time was: “Converse Sneakers: Limousines for the feet.” I told that to Tom, and also said to him, “Tom, drive slowly, very slowly.” I made him stop at Nathan’s once we hit Coney Island. Whatever my mom was serving couldn’t have been better than this.


Norman Savage
Greenwich Village, 2015

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