Archive for the 'Aging' Category

I nearly died

I nearly died.

I woke at 5 am, having been summoned by the alarm on Jackie’s iPhone. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Although I could sleep a bit longer, the too-early awakening lets me inhale the remains of last night’s memories before she leaves. If I’m lucky, I get a kiss before I brush my teeth.

A working girl, Jackie easily exits the warm bed, performs some rudimentary magic on her cute body and then heads into the darkness and drives to the athletic club. This inviolate routine brings her there precisely two minutes prior to its 5:30 am opening. She selects a parking space that might as well be reserved for her and assumes the prime position at the club’s front door. First in the gym is a badge of honor that she covets.

I, on the other hand, have not worked in twenty-one years and believe it is my right to sleep late. Not willing to flaunt or take advantage of my enviable position, I arise at 5:45am, toss the warm covers and immediately feel the stabbing chill of a house that has been deprived of fossil fuels for the last eight hours.

We have a treadmill, an elliptical, a stationary bike and a weight machine. Our third bedroom is devoted to these devices and, with its cool rubber flooring, looks like a display at a fitness store. A creature of habit, I disdain these home-bound devices and drive five minutes to the club where I socialize with others who habituate the establishment. I occasionally cross paths with Jackie, and proudly give her a kiss for all to see. I wish her well as she heads to her Pilates session, squeezes in an hour of hot yoga with twenty other female masochists, drives thirty miles to Camarillo and manages to get to work looking refreshed and radiant. I tire merely thinking about it and consider a nap.

I have a key-less locker at the gym that sets me back twelve dollars a month. An extravagance that could be avoided if I were willing to use an unassigned keyed locker. But that would require handing over my car keys to ensure that I return the locker key. It also means playing locker roulette since I would have a different, though indistinguishable, locker each day of the week. An exhausting thought.

My locker alienates me. It’s just a bit too small and, often without warning, regurgitates some of what I have put in it. Especially prone to this phenomenon is my shaving kit which seems intent on painfully landing on the toes of my left foot as it cascades to the floor.

I often prematurely lock it, requiring re-entry of the combination; something that I shall surely forget as I age. I have visions of marching bare-assed to the front desk to beg Erin for the now forgotten three numbers that will admit me to the locker and its assortment of clothing that will mask my embarrassment.

It accumulates unwanted items including a spare pair of ugly, baggy gym shorts, weight-lifting gloves that have their own sewn-in pain inducers and an orphaned metal shaving mirror that Jackie gave me two years ago. I dread discarding it for fear that she may one day ask about it.

As I put on my gym stuff, I banged my left index finger on the sharp edge of the locker door. Thinking nothing of it, I proudly walked without the aid of the railing, up the stairs to the treadmills. As I began my one-hour routine I noticed a drop of blood on my locker bitten finger. And then another drop. Was I going to bleed to death? I staunched the flow with an old used tissue that had resided peacefully in my shorts pocket. Gradually, thoughts of life’s passing cascaded through my mind.

Should I stop my routine and get some antiseptic from the front desk? Maybe a band-aid. Was this hole in my finger the easiest route for the Corona virus? Would I be the first in the county to be diagnosed with it? An eighty-year-old man close to death in the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. The club shut down tightly until everyone is screened. The media will have a field day. All that treadmilling, twice a week work outs with Robert, and healthy, tasteless food. All for naught.

Admit it. You’re a hypochondriac. The older we get, the more we see death in everyday events. The grim reaper standing ready to announce our demise without prior notice. Home in a two-bed window-less room, our last earthly habitat. Caregivers, friends and relatives tending to an almost lifeless body.

An insatiable desire for candy portends diabetes. A nagging cough, a symptom of tuberculosis. A momentary stab in the belly, stage four pancreatic cancer. A pink tint to your stool, hemorrhoids, colitis or worse. Feeling not quite right, kidney disease run amok. A headache, a debilitating stroke. Momentary tremor, Parkinson’s. A spot on the nose, malignant melanoma. My god, it’s a wonder we have time for anything else.

I gutted out the last forty-five minutes on the treadmill and thought about all the things that I had yet to accomplish. A promising life snuffed out by a locker door. Failure to take it seriously enough to seek emergency medical treatment. I could have asked Erin for a second opinion but was too proud to admit that I had ignored impending doom until it was too late.

I took a longer than usual shower. Shaved before the water could warm to conserve whatever time I had left on this earth. But then, dressing slowly, I figured why rush? It’s a done deal. The virus had already embedded itself. Whatever will be, will be. Take it like a man. Suck it up. Handle it with your usual grace and self-confidence. Nobody lives forever.

Then again, who says so?

Dinner and Beanies

Jackie had just put on her pajamas and covered herself with the old lumberjack smock that her mother had worn. No matter, she cannot hide her beauty and sexuality under frumpy clothing. But that’s a story for another day.

Settling down for a vegetable laden dinner, its preparation was interrupted by the phone. Sheila, who lives five walking minutes away, announced that her turkey meatloaf was about done, and would we like to come over to share it with her and Sid.

Sid was recovering from a confrontation with a chain link fence. No longer able to drive a car, he had adopted an electric scooter complete with a ten-foot high flag that announced his presence to those who shared the road with him. Ever the competitor, Sid roamed the streets of Ojai with little regard for his own safety. At ninety-one he was invincible and ready to take on those who might challenge him.

Unfortunately, Sid’s injuries were not caused by man. His attention had been diverted upon entering the Soule Park driveway. He had sideswiped the unyielding metal fence that lined the driveway and had been rewarded with cuts on both hands, requiring twenty-three stitches to staunch the bleeding.

Sheila is a habitual hostess. When Jackie responded to her turkey dinner invitation by suggesting they come to our house, I could visualize the somewhat bewildered expression on Sheila’s face. Taking a few moments to absorb this surprising change of plans, Sheila agreed to do the unexpected and promised to arrive around six, with the turkey and Sid.

Chilly evenings are the norm. We compensate by burning politically incorrect fossil fuel, and by donning multiple layers of the aforementioned frumpy garments. Sid has an insatiable appetite for heat and often wears those ubiquitous checkerboard nylon jackets that in some secret way contain body heat without any readily discernable goose down, wool or polyester. I have two, just in case.

Wearing tonight’s checkerboard jacket du jour, Sid’s arrival was punctuated by his announcement of “It’s cold in here, can we have some heat?” I dutifully added a degree or two by burning more than my daily allotment of fossil fuel. Sid found a comfy warm spot under a ceiling vent and looked as though he planned to remain there the rest of the evening. Fortunately, the heating system, having complied with the extra demands made of it, shut down leaving Sid with the job of discovering other places where heat might still be available.

Dinner went well. The turkey meat loaf exceeded expectations. Deigning the turkey, Jackie had her usual two cubic feet of salad. We all shared spaghetti squash, and Sheila and I polished off a very nice bottle of red wine whose gender and proper name is lost to me.

Sid was still cold when I noticed that his head was bare. Both of us are bald. Sid tends to cherish his remaining follicles while I mow them down without mercy. I learned at an early age that an uncovered bald head is the quickest way to chill the body. Maybe that’s why I have a gaggle of hats intended to limit the amount of heat that escapes me. Much of the hall closet is home to warm hats, especially those comfy wool knit beanies that can be found littering the Amazon website.

These are not your grandfather’s beanies. Ralph Lauren Polo, North Face and Lacoste have jumped into the market. Ranging in price from nine dollars to thirty-nine dollars, there’s a beanie for everyone’s head. My favorite brand is Carhartt because of its working man’s label and its generous helping of wool that allows me to pull my cap nearly down to my buttocks.

“Sid, why don’t you wear a hat.” I asked.

“I don’t like hats.” He responded.

I excused myself from the table and went to the hall closet. Kicking aside the beanie overflow that littered the floor, I selected one of my favorite Carhartts, a black beauty with Sid’s name written all over it.

Unwilling to take no for an answer, I stealthily approached Sid from the rear.  I quickly placed the beanie on Sid’s head, pulled it over the top quarter of his ears and adjusted its rakish angle to suit his face shape. He looked ten years younger and a lot cuter. The hat remained perched on Sid’s head for the rest of the evening and I quietly bumped the thermostat down two degrees.

I gifted the beanie to Sid, and he wore it home. Uncertain about its continued placement on my friend’s head, I wondered if this was just a one-off event.

Morning came and it was bright and chilly. I backed my car out of the garage and proceeded to the stop sign at the corner of Andrew and Daly. I looked left. I saw someone on a scooter heading up Daly Road. He had the right-of-way and I waited for him to pass. It was Sid with his ten-foot high flag.

And something else. A black Carhartt beanie perched rakishly on his head. It was going to be a warm day.

Man’s best friend

Is it really man’s best friend?

I’ve been driving the Help of Ojai bus ever since we moved to Ojai twenty years ago, except for a couple of years when Ila was ill. My usual shift starts at eight on Friday mornings and ends a little after noon.

My clients are generally older and have given up driving. Being homebound is all too often a sad result. I pick them up at home and deliver them to physician offices, the grocery, hairdressers and other destinations which might otherwise be unreachable. For some folks, the bus is the only way they can get out of the house.

During my rewarding career as a bus driver, I’ve had my share of mishaps including varying degrees of bodily injury; to me, not to my clients. One that stands out vividly occurred several years ago.

Many of my riders are mildly incapacitated; some use a walker. Walkers come in various shapes, colors and sturdiness. Some are festooned with saddlebags and other accouterments. Some are simple in design while others require a degree from MIT to fold them flat in order to load them onto the bus. All of the beasts sadistically defy me as I try to lift them up the steps of the bus and through the narrow entry door.  I put them in a place that varies with my mood, so long as they can be safely stowed without the risk of them hurtling through the confines of the nine-passenger metal behemoth with which I deftly negotiate the streets of Ojai.

The walker folding process requires a certain degree of dexterity. The two sets of legs are folded using a scissors like movement that involves paying close attention to the location of one’s fingers, lest they become painfully pinched in the process. And that’s what happened to me.

My client that morning required the use of a walker as well as the lift. Being relatively non-communicative added to the challenge. Seating her went without a hitch, and I then began to flatten the walker. The scissor-like motion reached its high point when the tip of my little finger lodged securely between the two legs. Ignoring the searing pain for the moment, I attempted to open the scissors and free my finger. Alas, two hands are required to open the legs.

My client, comfortably seated and ignorant of the drama unfolding behind her, was of no use. Being the proud owner of two feet, I stood unsteadily on one of them and used the other as a wedge shoved between the walker’s legs. After what seemed like a fortnight of acrobatics, I was able to extract my pinky from the jaws of the monster. Profuse bleeding was the next cause for alarm. It was staunched with a box of Kleenex and the on-board first aid kit stocked for such mindless mishaps. Driving with one hand became de rigueur for the rest of the morning.  I can show you my scar if something like that excites you.

This Friday started out normally. Go to the gym at 6am. Treadmill for an hour while watching season two of the Kominsky Method on Netflix, shower and then head over to Help of Ojai. Have a quarter section, or two, of a yummy turkey sandwich made by Glenda, some surprisingly good coffee prepared by Meagan and then check out the bus for unwelcome critters, discover a nearly empty gas tank and a windshield that could only be cleaned with a Brillo pad.

Check out the manifest. The usuals…Melvia, Karen, Rosie, George, Betty…and one new name, Joyce. Going to the doctor, Joyce was to be picked up at 9:30 for her ten o’clock appointment. The early morning crowd delivered safely to their chosen locations, I headed over to Joyce’s mobile home park.

I arrived two minutes early, opened her gate and rapped on the door. A small, furry dog exited through the doggy door and took up a position close to my left leg. A cute little guy with a reassuringly mild disposition, he just begged to be stroked. And so I did, while waiting for Joyce to emerge.

I could hear Joyce calling for Charlie to come back in the house. Having none of that, Charlie sprinted away from me, ran through the gate that I had obligingly left open, and disappeared down the driveway. Joyce arrived and I pointed in Charlie’s general direction. Joyce called out. And, after what seemed like an eternity, he reappeared at the foot of the driveway. We beseeched him to come closer. He did but stopped short of the gate as though pondering his alternatives.

He moved slightly forward. I detected some misgivings in his tiny brown eyes. Seizing the fleeting opportunity, I reached down and gently cradled his ten-pound body in my two hands. What had once been a small, cuddly friend of man, became an enraged bull mastiff. He opened his jaws and clamped them on the root end of my thumb which had, prior to this event, been minding its own business. The pain took me back to my years’ ago adventure with the iron walker.

Charlie was intent on becoming a permanent part of my right hand. Perhaps he had second thoughts. Perhaps he felt that he had inflicted enough punishment commensurate with my indiscretion. He loosened his vice-like grip and bounded happily over to Joyce who said one or two “bad dogs” and without any further ado, deposited a newly cherubic Charlie in the place from whence he came.

Bleeding was becoming a habit of mine deserving of a Purple Heart. Charlie’s teeth had produced two punctures that appeared quite similar to those that might have been inflicted by a king cobra. My customary use of Kleenex seemed to only aggravate the flow. Thankfully, Joyce produced a large band-aid from her purse, and wrapped securely, I was able to deliver her to her appointment, drive one-handed back to Help and apply a vat of antiseptic ointment to calm my distress.

I had forgotten to ask Joyce if Charlie was up to date with his shots. Scary thoughts about rabies proliferated in my frontal cortex. Magnifying the possible implications of a frothing-at-the-mouth dog, followed by equally terrifying rabies shots, occupied my time until we were able to confirm that neither I nor Charlie would be appearing in a re-run of The Wolfman.

Walkers and dogs are often thought of as man’s best friends. But sometimes it might be better to remain more platonic.

I’m a Townie

The ride up the Dennison Grade last Thursday was interminable.

I had made that trip, sometimes twice a day, for nearly twenty years. More than seven thousand round trips. I start by driving one mile down Sulphur Mountain Road, carefully avoiding collisions on the all too narrow road. I turn left on Highway 150 after assuring myself that speeding cars are not lurking in the shadows of the ancient oaks that line the road. I cruise by the seasonal yellow mustard fields on the Black Mountain Ranch. I wind down the seemingly endless Dennison Grade, ticking off the twenty-three turns. I reach the bottom of the hill where Boccali’s restaurant gives me the first evidence of a civilization set apart from the Upper Ojai. Not yet finished, I drive another two miles into the middle of town. A one-way total of eight miles. Consuming thirty-six minutes of my life during each round trip.

And I had loved nearly every minute of it. Until last Thursday.

Two weeks earlier, I had sold my house on Sulphur Mountain Road and had moved into town. I traded those thirty-six driving minutes for the freedom to walk to restaurants, stores and community events. In those two weeks I thought that my car’s fuel gauge had malfunctioned; it didn’t seem to move. I walked to a friend’s house for dinner last Tuesday and thought “In twenty years I’ve never gone out to dinner without first getting into my car.”

I had lived those many years in the Sulphur Mountain house. My sweetheart and I built it. She died in it. With her death and my inevitable aging, it became clear that I needed to move from the mountain to the town. With her passing, the house seemed to have doubled in size. It had become too silent. Even the birds seemed to visit less frequently. The olive groves, once a delightful diversion, now seemed a burden. The mountain vistas lingered, but the inevitable night abruptly shut them down.

Jackie loved the spaciousness of the mountain house during her too infrequent visits. Spoiled by the advantages of town living, her zeal for dragging that very cute fanny up and down the Dennison Grade waned. Night driving on the darkened roads proved too much of a burden. She never said, “You should move.” But my feelings for her helped push me off the mountain and into “Townie” living.

It took fifteen months to sell the mountain home, and one day to buy the home in town. Escrow on both homes closed the same day; think of it as a whirlwind love affair. The town home is about half the size of the mountain home and its diminished storage capacity was a challenge. Twenty years of accumulated detritus required a hardened heart as I waded through it. And in every room, closet, drawer and cabinet I was confronted by memories. Photographs seemed to emerge from everywhere. Birthday and anniversary cards numbered in the hundreds. Like buried land mines, Ila had stowed them in dark recesses that hid them from prying eyes.

Letters between two lovers had been placed in the backs of her dresser drawers; I could not bear reading them. And in every instance a decision was needed. Toss or keep. At first, I kept nearly everything. As I realized the futility of it, I began to toss more. Would the children be deprived of some legacy if I tossed rather than kept? Probably not, I lied to myself. So I tossed more and more. Without ceremony. Without a proper burial. Like junk, the cards, letters and photos were deposited in king-sized black plastic garbage bags. Lugged to the garage, they awaited a trip to the dumpster. There were times I wanted to run after them. But didn’t.

Packing boxes soon littered the house. My god, I thought, who needs seven frying pans. A fish poacher that had been used once with disappointing results. Twelve different fruit extracts, only one of which had ever crossed our palates. What were we thinking when we saved scores of empty plastic containers with mismatched lids? Silverware that hadn’t seen the light of day more than twice in twenty years. Ten flower vases that had once held the precious flowers I sent her.

The movers arrived with the cast from Spartacus. Brawny guys, lean and mean guys and one that looked like he needed a good meal. They wrapped artwork, hung clothes in garment boxes and dragged everything onto two trucks. “It’ll never fit in the new house” I thought. But it did. All sixty-five boxes, a rowing machine and Jackie’s treadmill in a pinch.

Oliver and I unpacked. As we did so, I felt the urge to toss some more. And I did, setting aside items that might find their way into more needy hands. We filled cabinets. We stuffed clothes in bedroom dressers and filled every square inch of kitchen space with only three frying pans and a blessedly diminished horde of other items. It was sort of like running a video of the packing phase, only backwards. Empty boxes and discarded wrapping paper were enough to start an Ojai version of the Chicago Fire.

I’m settling in. I can hear cars go by. They make a whooshing sound, just like the surf rolling in off the Pacific. People are as close as a hundred feet away. Their faces visible. They stop, we chat, just like neighbors are supposed to do. There are two youngsters next door at Danni’s and James’ house. My doorbell rang last Sunday, and Danni’s brother was there asking me if it was alright to come into my yard to retrieve a ball the kids had tossed. “Sure,” I said. “Please do, and then do it some more.”

I always wanted a porch. And now I have one. It’s an overstuffed chair that cost $5 at a garage sale. It sits in my garage. I open the overhead door, grab a sandwich and sit in that chair. I can see some of the Topa Topa mountains. But more importantly, I can see and hear the sounds of life.

I drove up to the mountain house last Thursday to check my old mailbox. The ride was interminable. I’m glad I’m a Townie.

What did you say?

What did you say?

I’d been doing more of that lately. Sitting in restaurants and trying to have a conversation was a challenge. I might as well have been talking to myself.

Casual conversation, even when there were only two of us, was hit or miss. I would have been better off with the kind of signal flags they used to wave at incoming F-14s on an aircraft carrier.

Turning up the volume, either through shouting or groping the TV remote, did as much good as farting in a windstorm.

Volume wasn’t the problem. I heard loud and not-so-loud things but I still couldn’t decipher what was being said. I spent most of my allotted time saying “Pardon me, what did you say?” Or “Come again, I didn’t hear you.” Or I’d pretend I could hear and stupidly say yes, no or maybe so. Turned out it didn’t matter much which expression I picked so long as the question didn’t include religion, politics or my sexual habits.

When any of those sensitive topics was at the core of the conversation, I’d use a different approach. I’d simply nod knowingly. Not up or down as in yes or no. It was more of a shoulder shrug coupled with a slight oblique shift either left or right that seemed to satisfy the listener’s needs. God knows what I had agreed to in the many years I had used this method that I had dubbed the Nodge.

Jackie seemed to tire easily as our evenings together wore on. Our conversations were heavily punctuated with what, huh, and come again? In no uncertain terms, she eventually said “You need a hearing aid.” Unable to resist such an eloquently worded request, I promised to call for an appointment—right away.

In a vain attempt to slow down the inevitable, I decided to do some research. Googling hearing aids produced as many hits as the search term, porn, might have. My initial reaction to scanning the hearing sites that Google had kindly delivered was one of sticker shock. My next reaction was one of bewilderment. Unable to discern obvious differences between various manufacturers and models, I turned from the saturated world of the Internet to my friends.

“You should go directly to Costco. They’re cheaper than anyone”, said Ralph. “And you can spend your wait time cruising the aisles eating the free samples.”

Mike demurred. “Sure they’re cheaper, but they just take a really good hearing aid and dumb it down. Besides, you probably need to buy a dozen of them.  All wrapped in bullet proof plastic that defies you to open them.”

Like a voyeur, I began looking behind people’s ears. Men were easy marks. Women, with their long hair, were a mystery, just like everything else about them. Since much of my time is spent with old people, it seemed as though everyone had hearing aids. The aid-less seemed to be an exception. I began to stop and talk to strangers who seemed quite willing to discuss their march from “What did you say?” to “You don’t need to shout. I can hear you quite well.”

When no one was looking, I’d stand in front of the mirror at the athletic club and stare at my not inconsequential, Dumbo sized ears and wonder what I’d look like with a canoe positioned in what would never again be just a space between my ear and my skull. Being a handsome, debonair bald men, I could not depend on shaggy hair to mask my otolaryngology disability.

Further research seemed useless and Jackie was getting wise to my game. So I decided to end things quickly by offering myself up to our local hearing aid provider. A kind young man in an austere setting took me under his wing. Wanting to justify the upcoming sale of the latest in hearing aid technology, Wayne administered a hearing test.

Feeling much like the Alexandre Dumas character Edmund Dantes in the Chateau d’If prison, I was herded into a not-so-quiet padded cell. Wayne placed a set of headphones long rejected by iPhone users on my head and left the cell. What followed was a series of beeps, some spoken words and a vain attempt on my part to cheat and pass the test. I later learned that no one passes the test.

Never once saying “You need a hearing aid”, Wayne proceeded to dissect the elements of my hearing test. Ten minutes of gazing at graph lines proved that I had lost about half of my high-end hearing capability. Big surprise. The little cilia sensory cells had departed my inner ear and, much like fingers and toes, would not return.

Wayne offered me a selection of devices whose price differences seemed indecipherable. They all looked the same and all seemed capable of Blue-Toothing their way through the world of audio connectivity. With the latest technology, I was but an iPhone app away from nirvana.

Available in various hues of black and white, I selected one that would come closest to my skin color. Like it would fool anyone with half a brain. Special order, of course. Thoughts of running away during that waiting period flitted through my mind. Bending to the inevitable, four days later I returned to Wayne’s place of business where the devices were installed in my receptive ears.

Later that day, I visited my attorney in Ventura. We were alone in his conference room when I heard a phone ring. He seemed to ignore it so suggested he answer it. “Answer what?” he said. It took me awhile to realize that it was my iPhone ringing through my hearing aids. How cool.

Last Sunday twenty of us went to the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. We sat in the nosebleed seats and listened to the LA Philharmonic play Gershwin and Ravel. From ten thousand feet, I could hear the piccolo, a small chime and the clicking of a stick on a block of rosewood. It was so magnificent that I teared up and felt like I did years ago at the opera

All twenty of us went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was family style and we passed simple but delicious platters of food around, drank inexpensive red wine and talked freely about the day’s events. I listened and heard the words. I neither nodded nor shrugged.

We got home at nine and Jackie, seeming less tired than usual, said “Thank you for hearing. I love you.”

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

The Deli Man

This is to remind you that the Yahrzeit of Morris Rothenberg will be observed on March 22, 2019.

The letter startled me as I had forgotten that my father had died in March. The letter went on to say that the annual Yahrzeit commemorates his death and commands me to say the Kaddish prayer, light a twenty-four-hour candle, and make a contribution to a worthy cause.

The Yiddish word Yahrzeit, of German origin, literally means anniversary time. I have no trouble pinpointing the year of my father’s death since it was in the same year that the Chicago Bears last won the Super Bowl. Perhaps their hapless attempts and failures since then are merely god’s little joke that perpetuates my ability to remember his passing. The Bears will, I’m sure, graciously continue their incompetent streak until I’m gone from this earth. Something to root for.

My father escaped the pogroms of the Soviet Union, fled to the promised land and worked hard to provide for his family. Never well-to-do, he did what was needed without complaint. He savored the little pleasures that were to him miraculous, given what he had known back in his Ukrainian shtetl.

His first job in Chicago was as a “puller.” Barely knowing any English, he would stand outside a men’s Maxwell Street clothing store and shout at passersby, “Hey, come in, good deal.” His attempts at “pulling” men into the store were sometimes accompanied by the removal of the unsuspecting man’s hat and tossing it through the open door into the store. My dad was small, and I’m surprised he survived that affront without at least a black eye. I guess he did whatever was needed to make a buck.

By the time I arrived in our crowded Albany Park apartment, Morris was in the deli business. First as a counter man at the Purity Delicatessen on Chicago’s Lawrence Avenue. The Purity was anything but. His stories about its cleanliness and treatment of customers would not survive today’s health department inspections. My favorite anecdotes involved clever ways of freeing up tables from those who had overstayed their welcome. A rat’s demise caused by a fall into the deep fat fryer was no reason to change the already overburdened oil.

By the time I was five or six, he had partnered with two other deli-tested guys, Ben and Morrie. They bought Oberman’s Delicatessen on Howard Street near the “L” and sold corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw and potato salad prepared by my mother, and other Jewish delights that make a deli a deli. They had no employees, regularly enlisted their wives’ help, and worked long hours.

Each of the three partners had one day off every week and every third Sunday. For as long as I can remember, Wednesday was my dad’s day off. Since I was in school on Wednesdays, my only extended time with him occurred every third Sunday. Much of that valuable time was spent lying next to my dad on a day bed in the dining room listening to Sunday afternoon radio programs.

We listened to Nick Carter, Master Detective. Then on to The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and created by Dashiell Hammett for the Maltese Falcon. And, my favorite, The Shadow with its chill provoking opening lines spoken by Frank Readick, Jr. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow may have known many things, but I remember little, other than the warmth of my father’s body and his hand on my shoulder. It was enough to permanently etch the memory of Sunday afternoons in my mind.

Gifts were not big on our agenda. Birthdays often passed with little notice. An exception occurred in my ninth year. My father came home on the first day of Chanukah with a large cardboard box. In it was a potpourri of toys, all used. An electric train took center stage, even though it had but one car and only enough tracks to complete a small circle. I watched the train circumnavigate the circle a thousand times. There were also two toy telegraph sending units that did nothing but click when you depressed the key. Because it had the Morse Code imprinted on the housing, I learned how to send an SOS. No one came to my rescue; but I didn’t need rescuing from anything, especially from my father.

Not schooled in any formal way, he wrote beautifully. He added up columns of numbers with lightning speed on the brown paper bags that Oberman’s customers took home laden with their corned beef, rye bread and dill pickles. He was an accomplished card player who fancied four-handed pinochle and ten-cent poker. He wasn’t a pushover. He never spanked me, and I never heard him fight with my mother who he loved dearly for nearly sixty years. I owe my own generosity, honesty and work ethic to him. Not because of what he said but because of what he did.

He suffered the ravages of old age including macular degeneration. I’d watch him sit sideways at the TV, viewing his beloved White Sox through the corner of his eye. Baseball was the only sport played slowly enough to allow him to reasonably focus on the images on the screen.

I missed my flight back to Los Angeles that day in 1986 when I overstayed my time in his hospital room. I kissed him good-bye. It was the last time I saw him.

I will celebrate his Yahrzeit next week by remembering what he did for me and for others. And by remembering how much I loved him. He was truly a mensch for all ages.


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