The Whitest Man in America

Author ca. 1953

I see him every day. He stares back at me with those blue eyes of his and pure Northern European complexion. Even his hair is now silvery, though it used to be blond. Could he be any more white? For over seventy years I have put up with his boring Baltic paleness and I guess I’m stuck with him.

No, I don’t wish to be black or any other color, for that matter. Still, whenever I hear the words “a person of color,” I feel myself strangely incomplete and slightly envious. I see all the things I am not and never got the chance to know. What if my identity had been forged in strife rather than immunity? Imagine if my genes could express all the colors I lack. Would that my heart could feel what it’s like to be ignored, beaten, raped, jailed or excluded simply because I’m not of the lighter race. If I could share, only for a moment, the bittersweet mysteries of my brothers and sisters.

As a kid, I would play cowboy, with six-guns blazing at imaginary Indians, but when I watched westerns at the movies, I rooted for the Indians. The more I learned the history of our deplorable treatment of this country’s original inhabitants—which continues to this day—the more ashamed I grew of my American white boy identity. But it wasn’t just the outrageous immorality of it. For me, Native Americans also seemed to have the more interesting story, so different from mine. And despite being vastly outnumbered and ruthlessly hunted and corralled into reservations, they courageously fought back. For sheer bravery, cunning, and audacity, I’ll take Cochise and Crazy Horse over the palefaces any day. Even famed Indian fighter George Crook grew to appreciate the noble dignity of his opponents in their doomed battle with white America.

It’s the story of our country. First, take the land from the natives, and kill those who resist. Then trade some sugar and rum for slaves from Africa to do your dirty work. Breed them like cattle. Grow your economy. Then wage a fake war and steal some more real estate from the brown-skinned Mexicans. Spin your myths of the others’ inferiority and brutality to justify your inhumanity. Split the country apart and spill its young men’s blood till it’s all over, or so you think. But it’s not over, for the myths are too strong and our minds too set.

David Brooks, in an editorial for the NY Times, recently observed that “three-quarters of American whites have no close nonwhite friends.” As for the average black person, 83% of his closest friends would be black. It would seem, he notes, that our country has entered “a phase of trepidation, or even passive segregation,” and asks if there are “enough efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines.”

I do hope we get there sooner than later, but I am not optimistic that I’ll live to see it. And how exactly do you create such bonds? Intimate bonds do not come easy.

I grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, a small city nine miles east of Hartford. During the 1950s, it was one of those racially homogeneous suburbs to which whites fled as blacks and other minorities migrated to bigger cities like Hartford in search of jobs and a better life.  Census figures for 1950 show it had a population of 34,116 whites and 88 non-whites. By 1960, these figures had grown to 42,102 and 152, respectively. Hardly a demographic transition.

Even in 2000, 82.77% of the residents were still white, though blacks, Native Americans, Asians, Latinos and others had all made significant inroads in this mostly white “City of Village Charm.”

Compare this to Queens, NY, which when Donald Trump grew up there in 1950 was 96.54% white. Of course, he lived in Jamaica Estates, a far whiter and more exclusive place—his fortress against “invading” minorities, who would one day change the face of the neighborhood and the country.

The Beaver

My native Manchester of 1950, on the other hand, had far fewer non-whites than Queens. In fact, it was 99.9974% pure white. So as a kid, I really didn’t have much of a chance to even meet a person of another race, much less establish a close friendship. I remember a couple of black teachers at the schools I attended, but that was pretty much it. It was white-bread city. I use the slang “white-bread” here not just in its racial sense but in its larger meaning as well, with all of my city’s middle class striving, material values, preoccupation with outward appearances and lawn care, and sandwiches made with Wonder Bread. We were all too readily defined by the popular TV series Leave it to Beaver. I hated the Beaver—a whitey, goodie-two shoes twerp who was so sickeningly sweet he made me retch.

Not that there’s anything wrong with middle class striving. It’s OK to want to succeed, but not at the expense of other values. As a young man, I soon began to hate this suburb of my birth and all that it stood for. I found it too limited in its outlook, and far too parochial. I especially hated lawns!

I remember frequent trips with my dad to nearby Hartford, New Haven, and New York and was drawn by the fact that they were filled with people who did not look like me. Of course, I still had no clue how to make contact with them. I was given the usual advice from my parents, who as far as I can tell were not racists—at least not outwardly so—about avoiding certain neighborhoods where more of these others lived. I don’t recall my parents ever sharing any racist views with us.

So I was spared the parental indoctrination of racial hatred and fear that so many kids grow up with. (As to what Donald Trump learned from his father, I can only wonder, like did he ever learn just what exactly Fred was doing at a Ku Klux Klan rally, back in 1927, when he was arrested?) I imagine that if I ever had managed to have a black friend or—gasp—a black girl friend, I might have heard some less than complimentary comments and perhaps even be dissuaded from pursuing the relationship. But I will never know. It just wasn’t an issue we had to deal with.

After college, I briefly became a public-school teacher in my hometown, and by that time class makeup had become a little less homogeneous. I fondly remember one seventh grade black girl in my class, who got my number before I knew what was happening. She knew my sweet spot was humor and would endlessly make wisecracks at my expense. But she was so funny! Now some might call this reverse racism, for I probably never would have let any white student get away with this. But I never let it get out of hand, and neither would she. An air of discipline was maintained, while the two of us found something in the other to share, if only for a moment.

During our back to the land phase in the 70s, my wife and I purchased an old schoolhouse and 100 acres of land in the town of Landaff, NH, which at less than 400 residents arguably had more cows than people and may still have today. Not exactly a place to experience racial diversity. If I thought life in Manchester was unstimulating, this place had it beat. But then, Manchester didn’t have bears, moose, and wild lonely mountains to explore.

Six years later, however, we tired of small town life and eventually moved to Providence, RI, which while not a teeming metropolis did at least have way more people than cows. And more people who didn’t look like us.

Shel Silverstein

And because it was more racially diverse than the rest of Rhode Island, it was surrounded by white flight cities and towns. I remember an incident at a predominately white school in nearby Cranston, where courtesy of a grant from the state arts council, I had acquired a monthlong writer-in-residency. I was reading a poem from a book by Shel Silverstein, and the teacher suddenly asked me not to hold the book up, especially the back cover which displayed a photograph of the author. “I don’t want them to see what he looks like,” she said. I didn’t say anything at the time—a fact which I regret to this day—and briefly gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking perhaps that she simply wanted the poems to speak for themselves and for her students not to get hung up with how the poet looked.

That night, however, I went home and took a hard look at the photo on the back cover, which showed Shel’s bald head and dark beard staring back in a way that could be construed as slightly sinister. True, he did have a dark complexion, so much so that I had to wonder. But it wasn’t until years later that I Googled “Is Shel Silverstein black?” and discovered I was not alone in asking this question. Turns out, however, he was Jewish. Jesus would have had the same complexion, no doubt. But the mere fact that he didn’t quite match this teacher’s expectation of what a proper white person should look like really freaked her out.

My wife and I had begun to frequent the downtown blues clubs in Providence, where we got to see a number of great black musicians while mingling with a more diverse crowd. Music knows no colors or boundaries—a place where we can put aside our distrust and fear of the other for a time, if only temporarily.

Our love of blues eventually led us one night down unfamiliar dark streets to Wabash Street in downtown Chicago, to seek out Buddy Guy’s Legends, which bills itself as “the premiere blues club in the world.”  We stuck our heads in the door and gazed around us. It was a Monday night, but the bar was filled with patrons, most of whom appeared to be black, waiting for the show to begin. Have to confess, I felt out of place and more than a little apprehensive. What were we doing here? But then as the music started and we all began to sway in unison, the club became more like a church, filled with true believers who had come to hear the sweet soulful music.

That night happened to be an open blues jam, during which the host band plays for about an hour and then invites other local musicians on stage.

At the end of the jam, we were approached by a black musician, the late great Lefty Dizz, a Chicago blues guitarist and singer. At the time, we didn’t know anything about him, other than the fact that we had enjoyed his band Shock Treatment and his wild man performance that night, laced with manic virtuoso guitar playing and raunchy jokes. Later we learned that he had released eight albums and had played with such legendary blues men as Junior Wells and Hound Dog Taylor, and had once recorded at the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago with Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones. 

He strode across the room directly toward me with a grim look on his face. Then he stopped and pointed at my Rolling Stones T-shirt. “I got some business with them Stones,” he said. “They stole our songs!”

Not knowing what to do, I just shrugged and smiled nervously, suddenly questioning the wisdom of my wearing a Stones T-shirt to a Chicago blues club. Then Lefty broke into a toothy grin. “Hey, you wanna buy one of my CD’s?” Which I did. We swapped jokes and jive for a time, then he continued working the room. It was one of the best nights of my life.

We eventually moved west to Arizona, in search of sunshine and new adventures. There we built a cozy cabin on five acres in the high-country foothills of Chino Valley, a small ranching and farming community just north of Prescott in Yavapai County, demographically the whitest county in Arizona. We had hoped it would be our retirement home, not thinking about the fact that we were again moving in the wrong direction toward less diversity and a homogeneous neighborhood of people who looked like us. It was no accident that our rapidly growing county was predominately white, filled with Caucasian retirees and migrants from other cities and states who had fled from people of color moving in next to them, threatening their perceived dominance as the master race.

One day, one of my good neighbors perfectly crystallized the prevailing attitudes of our community. “What’s so good about diversity?” she asked me. The question left me temporarily dumbfounded. Before I could launch my defense, she cut me off, expounding at length on her previous experiences and grievances with Asians in her former California neighborhood, extrapolating these to Asians everywhere. I listened and tried to present an alternative narrative, but the conversation did not go well. “I hate diversity,” was her parting comment.

After a few years of this, I got so desperate to see persons with a nonwhite face that, whenever I would see them in the supermarket or post office, I had to fight the urge to go up and hug them. Not exactly the best way to make new friends. Once again, my chances of doing that were severely limited. I felt as if I were regressing into childhood, surrounded by the same kind of white folks I grew up with.

One problem with moving to the country is the tradeoff you make. Sure, it’s nice to be surrounded by nature and clean air, with plenty of room to do your own thing. But that increased natural diversity comes at the cost of cultural diversity. The older I got, the more I realized how much I missed all the little interactions with others that go with living in an urban environment, all the hustle and bustle, jostling and rubbing elbows through the crowd as you go about your daily life. All the polite conversations and even the occasionally hostile ones that remind you of what being a social animal is all about. And I knew I needed these connections more than anything.

Tucked away in our little cabin in the high country, I was not making the friends I had hoped for. Sure, there were plenty of neighbors and acquaintances. But I’m talking friends here, close friends like the kind David Brooks was talking about. And the odds for me ever finding them there were not good.

I found myself increasingly thinking about friends. What does that mean, a close friend? Doesn’t everyone have them?  Give me a dozen and I’ll be happy.

I guess it means having someone who’s always got your back, who will listen and tell it to you like it is, who will put up with your endless shit and still be your friend. Someone with whom you can let down your guard and be vulnerable. And someone with whom you can be a complete asshole, from time to time.

On that score, I was not doing very well. I could count my close friends on one hand. I’m not counting my wife here, though perhaps I should. Married now for forty-two years, we were friends before we became lovers. And our friendship has grown deeper and closer, even when I’m sometimes an asshole. OK, enough of this mushy stuff. What about my other close friends?

Well, there’s Dan, or was that is. Daily I mourn his passing. Another old white guy, same age as me, he was as close a friend as any man could ask for. It was he who gave me my most treasured nickname—fuckhead, which always made me laugh whenever he said it. Sometimes we would sign birthday cards with FH1 and FH2, though we both knew who number one was. For a brief time, he had a promising career as a keyboardist in a Boston rock band, but confessed he had to get out of the music business for fear he would succumb to the crazy, drug-fueled lifestyle. So he landed a management job in a nearby textile factory and settled into a life of crazy, semi-normalcy.

We first met at our old schoolhouse in Landaff, NH. My wife and I had just founded a local nature center offering free programs to the local community on our 100 acres. A recent membership drive had netted us some new members, including one coveted life membership for what then seemed like the princely sum of $100. As people began to arrive for one of our first weekend programs, I eyed a man, with medium length gray hair and neatly trimmed beard, get out of his car and stroll across the lawn toward the schoolhouse. I went out to greet him, and he told me his name. “So you’re our life member,” I said, shaking his hand. Then as I looked into his merry eyes, there was an instant flash of recognition between us. Why, you’re as big an asshole as I am!  Now, I am not the kind who believes in love at first sight or other romantic notions. Love, like friendship, is something you have to work at. But I knew instantly, as surely as I’ve ever known anything, that he and I were to be lifetime buddies.

With Dan, there was a certain chemistry between us, that intimate bond that David Brooks describes. While we did share a love of rock music and the outdoors, these were incidental to what we shared, a vital honest interest in what the other was thinking or feeling, fueled at times by copious drinking and raucous humor.

Dan could bring me out of myself in ways that no one else ever has. If he knew I held something to be sacred, he would push that button relentlessly with mischievous glee. He would delight in getting me into trouble. We would go into a bar and he would strike up a conversation with a gorilla-sized guy next to us wearing a Hell’s Angels jacket and then point at me and casually tell him, “He doesn’t like your boots.”

He was a born comedian, always pushing the envelope of good taste. One time, we and our wives were in a crowded bar. In the middle of the room was a perfect couch for the four of us, though partially occupied at the time by two young women. Before any of us could stop him, he sat down next to them and proceeded to cough and clear his throat most disgustingly, and in no time at all the women moved. Smiling wickedly, he motioned for us to come claim our couch. For a brief moment, I felt both guilty and sad for the two women, who didn’t stand a chance against Dan’s protean power. I suspect they knew they had been conned out of their couch by a master and would later laugh at the episode as we did.

My other close friends were formed on the basis of shared experience rather than love at first sight. There’s my friend Steve, whom I’ve known since kindergarten and who still lives in Connecticut. Despite a few temporary gaps when we briefly lost touch with each other, we have managed to cultivate our friendship across the miles. Like anything worth doing, it requires an investment of time and energy. But all it takes is a phone call or email, and the memories come flooding back. We grew up science nerds, with chemistry sets in the basement and slide rules on our belts, gazing at stars through small telescopes, launching homemade rockets, and setting off bombs in the neighborhood. Eventually, he made a career out of his nerdiness, becoming a chemical engineer, while I remained more a science generalist.

We are different in so many ways. He’s always been the precise, logical, and level-headed one, while I tend to be more emotional, wild, and unpredictable. Maybe that’s what makes our friendship tick. I admired his calm rationality—a quality I’ve tried to cultivate over the years that was sorely missing during my early years—while he envied perhaps my ability to tap and express the intense feelings that came naturally to me. He’s always been the gentle Mr. Spock of Star Trek to my raging Dr. McCoy.

Whenever we do manage to get together, we immediately start conversing on whatever topic happens to emerge. We don’t always agree, but we listen respectfully to the other and talk nonstop until one of our wives sticks her head out of the bedroom and tells us both to shut up and go to sleep.

This ability to see some quality of otherness in a person, something perhaps missing from your own life, is crucial to forming close friends. I think of my friend Jeff, whom I first met at our nature center in New Hampshire, back in the early 1980s. He worked at the time for a large state conservation group, so he and I decided to join forces in planning some joint programs for our two organizations. We both shared a passion for nature and protecting the environment, as well as for the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. These days, I am more of an armchair naturalist and environmentalist, while he, on the other hand, refined and cultivated his passion into a lifetime career with the National Park Service. He is currently a ranger/naturalist at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ. As things worked out, Tucson is also where my wife and I eventually settled, so now I have at least one close friend who is neither dead nor living on the other side of the country.

We get together as often as we can, enjoying lively discussions about politics, culture, and of course nature. And sometimes we take road trips, usually to some nearby natural area. But close as I feel to Jeff, with all the shared memories, there is a gulf I cannot bridge. A true nature purist, he has read the entire Journal of Henry David Thoreau several times. Indeed, he lives and breathes the life of his hero. He is an intensely private man who, like Thoreau, has never married. There is a certain loneliness and ascetism about him, a firm determination to hear a different drummer and lead a more authentic life in a world which grows ever less amenable to thoughtful experiments in living. I see him on a road I will never travel and treasure that part of us we are able to share.

Now that I live in downtown Tucson—which while not exactly New York or Chicago is more racially diverse than any place I’ve so far inhabited—my chances of making new friends have improved considerably. And who knows, maybe I’ll eventually bond with a friend who’s not white.

Of course, despite David Brooks’ call for more “efforts to create intimate bonds across racial lines,” you can’t force such things. And so what if my friends are white or black? Why this continuing preoccupation with the myth of race?

We speak of race as if it had some real biological significance. Over a century ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois warned that this crude term was being used to account for differences that are more social and cultural than biological. When we start pigeonholing people into white and black groups or whatever groups, using these arbitrary classifications to justify our prejudices, we ignore the full depth and richness of human diversity. As modern genetics has borne out, again and again, race is nothing but a social construct.

Perhaps we should call it racial identity instead, how we see and define ourselves in relation to others while we hide from a truth some of us would rather deny—that we are all African, all descended from those first human ancestors who evolved on that continent, millions of years ago, to eventually spread into every habitable corner of the earth. We are each a medley of gene configurations and colors, though some of us, like me, are less colorful than others. I wish the feds would add a box to the new census form, so instead of “Caucasian” I could check off the box marked “all of the above.”

I have made many new friends since we moved to Tucson, and who knows, maybe some will one day become close. It would be nice if one of them turns out to be a person of color, if only for the chance to know and share a background most likely different from mine.

And what of Donald Trump, now that he’s moved out of Queens? If you Google him, you’ll see that he has a lot of friends. There’s Rudy Giuliani, of course, and ever loyal security man Keith Schiller, along with fellow developers Thomas Barrack and Richard LeFrak. Some sources even list a few black friends, such as Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, and Russell Simmons, though lately those friendships appear to have gone south. Calling them friends is like my calling the black woman I occasionally high-five at the gym a friend.

As Washington Post reporters Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish wrote in their recent investigative biography Trump Revealed, Trump “never really had close friends.” Trump says as much when he confessed to reporters that his friends are mostly business related or people he sees socially. “But they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time,” he said.

What does he see when he looks in the mirror? Trump’s words to a biographer are telling: “When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same.” He is still that frightened little kid hiding behind the gated walls of the childhood home he has never really left, safe and secure against the tide of minorities threatening his world.

If I looked into the mirror and saw the same clueless white boy who grew up in a safe, Connecticut suburb, it would scare me shitless. It would be like living in some Twilight Zone episode, where you’re doomed to forever act out the past. I believe I’ve grown some since those days. Despite the wrinkles, white hair and wattles, I see a face I can live with, still open to possibilities.

Donald Trump and I are roughly the same age. I’d like to think there’s still time for both of us to forge some new intimate bonds with friends who will not only put up with our shit but tell us when we’re full of it. Friends who can help us get over and out of ourselves. And if some of them turn out to be friends of color, teach us both how to be less white and to leave behind our childhood homes.

Intimacy and Dental Floss

Until you take a bad fall, you don’t know how good life can be when all limbs work properly and you’re not dependent upon someone to wipe your ass.

When my life partner Josie took a freak fall one evening, while walking home from dinner, the words from our marriage vow “for better or worse” took on a whole new meaning. One moment, she was fine, the next she was flat on her face in the street. Fortunately, having broken the fall with both arms, she had escaped with only a few bruises to her face and her head uninjured. Unfortunately, she had managed to completely shatter her right elbow and break her left wrist. As the doctor in the emergency room described the extent of her injuries, I tried to stay calm as I processed the information internally, weighing each word. I could see the neurons flashing a fortune cookie message in my brain: Your life will be filled with new adventures.

Whenever I heard about such stuff happening to other people, I would try to imagine how I might deal with it. Would I be up to the task when, these days, getting out of bed is challenging enough? I mean, how does one deal with your spouse developing Alzheimer’s? Or terminal cancer? Would I be able to face the fact that I was now a 24-7 caregiver for an indeterminate future stretching into a life unknown? What if I ended up having to do everything for my spouse and, like most of us, couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it? My mind reeled with the daily realities. Dressing. Feeding. Bathing. Hair brushing and tooth brushing. Walking, including to and from the bathroom, followed by ass wiping. That last part gave me pause. I have enough problems wiping my own ass, but to think I might have to do this for my spouse and also have to deal with how she might feel about it was not something I wanted to think about.

Our situation was only temporary, but I knew that, for months ahead, the carefree retired life we had enjoyed was about to go on hold.

Luckily for me, Josie’s mind was still sharp as ever. It meant that I would not have to face this test alone. More than ever, we were a team, devising new strategies to meet daily challenges. Of course, with both arms incapacitated, she was forced to play a more passive role and could only advise me on what to do, gently informing me when I screwed up, and cheering me on when I got it right.

First, we had to establish a base camp for sleeping. We live in a townhouse apartment, and going up and down the stairs to our bedroom was just not an option. Fortunately, we have a guest bedroom with two single beds on the first floor. This meant that Josie could have her own bed without the danger of my rolling over and crushing her arms during the night. Also, I could be in the same room to help her to the adjoining bathroom.

Having secured safe sleeping quarters, I began to reevaluate all those little daily tasks I perform automatically for myself and to consider how best to perform them for another person. Take bathing, for example. You just jump in the shower and start cleaning yourself without so much as a game plan. You don’t think about the most efficient way to apply the soap and rinse, or whether you are getting yourself clean enough. But it’s different when you’re cleaning someone else, especially someone who’s wearing bandages that can’t get wet. The problem was resolved with a trip to the drugstore where I purchased plastic sleeves to fit over each arm, and a sturdy bathtub seat. Then it was on to Lowe’s to pick up a handy shower attachment so I didn’t end up flooding the bathroom every time I bathed Josie. But it took us both several weeks of splashing, thrashing, and cursing to figure these things out.

Eating was fun. Not only was Josie totally unable to pick up a fork, but she was still suffering from a recent flareup of orofacial nerve pain as a result of a botched root canal procedure a few years back, and her fall did not exactly help matters. So we took it slow. I would cut up her meal into bite-size portions and wait until the pain subsided enough for her to eat. We had always enjoyed our dinners together, enlivened by wine and intelligent conversation, but it was painful to watch her struggle now to get a bite down, made even more so by the look on her face from the realization that I had to feed her like an infant. Meals took twice as long. We eventually worked out a routine in which I would alternately feed her a few bites, then take a few bites myself. After a while, she started experimenting with two unbandaged fingers on one hand, and was soon able to pick up small pieces of food herself, though she still could not pick up anything as heavy as a glass in order to drink. Thank goodness for straws.

Funny how you adjust to things and find new insights. After the first week or so, as we settled into a new reality, we started enjoying our much-extended dinner times. No longer would she have to remind me not to wolf my meal. We learned to savor each bite and our time together, made more precious by the knowledge that we had survived this setback and were both still alive and kicking. And if takes us an hour and a half to eat our dinner, hey, so what?

We’re both very active people, and Josie knew she had to get moving again. The first few days, she would take walks around the first floor of our apartment, with her trusty guide at her side. The fear of falling was very much on our minds. We were still the same people who had fearlessly tackled rugged trails in the wilderness together. But now that one of us had taken a bad fall, it reminded us how vulnerable our increasingly brittle and fragile bodies can be. I hate that! And I hate writing that line. Reality sucks.

Before leaving the hospital, the physical therapist had given us a broad nylon belt, which could be buckled around Josie’s waist while leaving just enough room for my hand to be slipped behind it, giving me a way to hold her firmly in the event of another fall. Such a simple thing, yet an invaluable tool in getting us walking again and conquering our fears. It was a little awkward getting used to, at first, but with me holding on tightly behind her it gave me a way to get us safely down the concrete stairs leading to our apartment and to resume our walks in the neighborhood.

It did feel kind of weird. With my hand planted behind her back and both her arms extended uselessly forward, I felt in complete control, directing her every movement. By turning my hand ever so slightly and applying gentle pressure, I found I could make her turn in the direction I thought we should go to avoid obstacles or rough surfaces as we attempted to walk in unison with some degree of dignity. It was a totally different kind of walking for both of us, and for a brief time I was in charge, whether I liked it or not.

Gradually our walks extended further afield in the neighborhood, as we gained confidence. Walking had always been a vital part of our life and now, more than ever, it was essential to get back into the routine.

One thing I noticed. I seemed to tire more quickly. At first, I thought it was just stress. After a couple of weeks had passed and I was able to leave Josie alone for a short time to visit the nearby gym, the normally ten-minute walk now took twice as long and I had to cut my workout sessions short. I always came home exhausted. What was happening to me? Suddenly I felt ninety years old. Then it dawned on me. The older you get, the more time you must devote to the seemingly endless series of routine tasks just to care for oneself each day. Only now, I was doing them for two. Not only did I have to put on clean underwear, but I had to put hers on as well. I had to go to the bathroom, and take her there next, followed by grooming, feeding, drinking, toothbrushing, walking, and whatever else I did for myself. A tiny epiphany, but it gave me both a sense of relief that I was not facing total decrepitude, and a sense of awe at the work that full-time caregivers do.

Not that there weren’t compensations. After a few weeks had passed, we settled into a manageable and at times even pleasant routine. We took each day at a slower pace, trying to find some new insight or small pleasure we had overlooked. I began to see things I had never noticed before. As I tried my best to comb Josie’s hair, according to her instructions, at first I felt hopelessly lost. It dawned on me, then, that I really didn’t have a clue as to how my life partner of over forty years wore her hair, except for the fact that it was short. How she combed her front bang down slightly to cover her high forehead. How she brushed the hair behind her ears and shaped the back into a point. Had it not been for her fall, I would never have known these things. After a while, I got pretty good with the hairdryer. I imagined myself as some handsome and suave hairdresser—just call me Ramone—getting her hair to fluff up just right. My flight of fancy lasted but two weeks, at which point she decided she could manage her hair without me. Guess I wasn’t really cut out for hairdressing.

Bathing presented even more opportunities for new insights and intimacies. Once the basic problem of how to get Josie’s body clean efficiently without stressing us both out and flooding the bathroom floor was solved, we gradually settled into a smooth rhythm. I now new the drill and could devote myself more fully to the appreciation of my spouse’s lovely body. Not that I hadn’t appreciated it before. But this was different. I was performing a necessary basic task which I had initially viewed as somewhat onerous, but it had taken on a wholly new dimension. Like that first time we had made love, I was clumsy in the beginning, but as my hand glided over her body with a soapy washcloth, I began to see and discover it anew. You do not really know your lover’s body until you have washed every inch of her and gently patted her dry. It was a different kind of sexual pleasure, an arousal more of spirit than of body. We both grew to enjoy this gentle touching, as I explored parts of her body never really noticed before in simple lovemaking. And while I am glad that I don’t have to wash her anymore, I will remember it always.

Wiping my lover’s ass, however, is hardly a memory to cherish. Damned if I could find any compensations there. The only thing I can say looking back on it now is that it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I had imagined, aided considerably by the use of latex gloves, but largely by the fact that my spouse has a cute ass. But don’t take my word for it. During our first year of marriage, I found I needed a new dentist. So I made an appointment with Josie’s dentist, who I was quick to discover was a lecherous old man with a wicked sense of humor. As I sat agape in his chair, his instruments probing my teeth, out of nowhere he suddenly exclaimed, “You know, your wife has a great ass!” I almost choked, as I mumbled some unintelligible reply, then reluctantly nodded. How could I disagree?  I had always especially treasured that part of her anatomy. But now that I had to keep it clean each day, I learned to approach the task as a sacred honored duty. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her, but once again Josie came through with calm, clear instructions on what needed to be done and where, and got me through it. Hard to believe that such a simple basic thing as wiping my lover’s ass could bring us closer and make me feel more needed and worthy than ever.

But for real intimacy, nothing beats dental hygiene. I thought I knew all the hidden mysteries and intricacies of Josie’s body, after all these years, but I still knew nothing of the world inside her mouth. Now Josie is a real stickler for proper brushing, flossing, and rinsing, dutifully spending over half an hour each night in front of the mirror while cursing its relentless monotony. And here I was, stepping up to the plate, in hopes of performing this duty at least passably and getting it done before midnight.

The first few nights were a struggle, compounded by the fact that Josie has extremely sensitive teeth. In brushing your own teeth, of course, you can just bend over the sink and spit, but in Josie’s case this was impossible. Not only was she unable to rest her hands on the sink, but there was no way for me to see inside her mouth while standing at the sink next to her. So I sat her on the toilet and covered her torso with a bib, as I played at being dental hygienist. Then I used our electric toothbrush, with one hand gently brushing from tooth to tooth and the other hand holding a small plastic spittoon beneath her mouth to catch the overflow and allow her to occasionally spit. It was not a pretty picture. Often I would have to slow down to let her catch her breath or go back to reach a tooth missed.

The real challenge came in flossing. It’s difficult enough to floss my own teeth properly, holding a long strand of floss between two hands and then manipulating it in my mouth, rhythmically rubbing up and down against each tooth a half dozen times. When done correctly, it’s a painfully boring task, but vital to tooth and gum health. But trying to get my two big paws and that strand of floss inside Josie’s mouth proved awkward and frustrating for both of us. Fortunately, I discovered a handy little plastic tool called a dental flosser, which holds an inch or so of floss taut, so I didn’t have to put both my hands in her mouth and risk choking my dear wife. Disposable plastics to the rescue, again.

Having previously experienced periodontal disease during my wasted youth, I am also a stickler for dental health and pretty much knew the drill. But the only teeth I knew were mine, and I had to fast learn about a whole new set of teeth and gums. Indeed, I can say that I know them now almost as well as my own.

Coming at the end of the day, and taking even longer than Josie’s usual half hour, it was probably the most tedious task for both of us. But together we learned how to better navigate around her mouth, and gradually it became less strenuous. And when the job was finished, she would look up at me and flash a grin with her now sparkling teeth and I felt a communion with her that transcended all that had gone before. We were more than lovers and friends, we were comrades of tooth and gum forever.

After two months, the bandages came off and slowly our life returned to normalcy. Josie began to resume her daily routine, taking pride in again performing her own daily maintenance and freeing me up to go back to doing all those things I had put on hold, which in retrospect seemed less urgent. She embraced weekly sessions of physical therapy with a fierce determination to regain all her strength and ability. She had always been a strong woman, but I now watched in amazement at my new wonder woman surpassing herself each day with daily feats of recovery. And evildoers better beware of that sharp right elbow, newly reinforced with metal brace.

Our experience left us more aware of not only the possibility, but the probability of falling as well as our ability to survive it. Not that we dwell on it. But I’ve noticed a certain tendency to nag, whenever one of us goes up or down the stairs without grabbing the handrail or makes too sudden a turn. According to government statistics, one out of four Americans aged 65 or over falls each year, and every 19 minutes one of us will die as a result. Those are not good odds. Makes you almost afraid to go out the front door. Not what we seniors need to hear, especially when we’re also told to not sit so much and to keep on moving. So what’s an old fuck to do?

For one thing, I’m going to make damned sure I don’t fall. At heart I am a coward when it comes to being a care recipient. I can’t begin to imagine someone having to feed, wash, and dress me each day, let alone—horrors—wipe my ass. I am sadly deficient in all the social skills my life partner possesses in spades—patience, grace, good sense, and fortitude. I know full well that, in the event I did fall, my loving spouse would be there to take care of me. All I can say is, good luck with that, Josie. I would not wish that monstrous fate on anyone.



Lot O. Jobs

Even when you’re writing about something you think is completely different, in the end you’re always writing about yourself. Each of us has a unique take on life, and elements of this will invariably creep into your work, no matter how rigorously objective you try to be. In my middle grade fantasy novel The Family That Wasn’t, for instance, I created a character with the pen name Lot O. Jobs. He was the author of an autobiography Travels of a Mixed-Up Man, in which he described the hundreds of different jobs he had held, each with its own special flavor. The character didn’t just pop out of my head. He’s me, of course.

Not that I’ve had hundreds of jobs. Let’s just say I’ve had my share. And yes, I’m still mixed-up.

I remember my first job as paperboy for the Hartford Courant, in Connecticut, supposedly the oldest continually published newspaper in the U.S. I should explain here, particularly for younger readers, that a newspaper is a multi-paged object composed of wood pulp, filled with news of local and world events, that is published daily or weekly and requires you to hold it up at arm’s length to read while you flip through the pages and grimace before using them to line your parakeet’s cage.

Since it is a morning paper, I was required to rise at 5 am, which for a school kid is inhuman. Fortunately, my dad, being a mailman, was used to getting up early. He would wake me, then put on some strong coffee. I forced myself to drink it because it was the only way to stay awake and get moving.

Then I had to walk two blocks to where half a dozen bundles of newspapers awaited me. In those days, if you took on a newspaper route you didn’t get to cancel delivery on account of weather. Just like my dad’s mail, newspapers were to be delivered through rain, snow, sleet, flood, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or nuclear war, the latter being very much a possibility in my early youth. So if we had a big snowstorm, and all the schools had snow days, you were still expected to trudge through two feet of snow and deliver your damn papers. Often it would take me hours to finish delivering my route, while my buddies were out sledding.

Delivery was bad enough, but then came the hard part—collecting each week from my cruel, miserly customers. This was before the days of credit card subscriptions. Each Friday evening—and the following Saturday morning if that didn’t work—I was expected to ring doorbells and politely ask people to pay up. You wouldn’t believe the lengths some people will go to to avoid paying what they owe. They would simply hide and not answer the doorbell. In some cases, I could plainly see them scurrying around inside like trapped roaches. Other times, they would let out their big ugly dogs in the yard, timed just before I showed up. Or they would purposely avoid being home, for weeks on end, then when I did finally catch them home would question my accounting and try to convince me that they couldn’t possibly owe for two months. I did have my little pay stubs to prove otherwise, but they would then accuse me of forgetting to hand them out when they had obviously already paid. And forget getting any tips. How dare I accuse them of not paying? I suspect many of them secretly enjoyed this game of screwing the paperboy. I think this is when I first became deeply cynical about human nature.

During high school, I was a page at our local library, which for a bookworm like me was a dream come true, though the wages sucked. The job involved mostly re-shelving returned books. I simply wheeled my cart of books through the aisles where, for a brief time, I diligently placed the books in their proper locations. After a short time, however, I learned how to find a quiet, secluded section of the stacks, preferably upstairs and out of sight of the main desk. This was where the benefits came in. As long as I stood in front of my still full cart, I could make it look as if I were working while reading to my heart’s content. That is, until the hatchet lady head librarian invariably found me, chewing me out so badly I didn’t dare do it again until next day. I think back on her fondly and can still see the poor woman chasing us pages through the stacks, shaking her long, bony finger in stern chastisement.

There was one other aspect of the job I should mention. It involved taking reference room calls to retrieve past issues of magazines and newspapers from the basement, where such materials were stored. I would be issued slips of paper, with names of the items and dates published. In those ancient days, you couldn’t simply Google something on your smartphone or computer and find a hundred online articles on the subject. There were no personal computers and no digital information. Repeat, no digital information. Let that sink in for a moment. Any information you needed could be found only on the printed page. So there I was, lifting up piles of musty magazines, searching for some obscure issue, only to discover that it had been lost or misplaced. It was sort of like the great lost Library of Alexandria, where all the world’s knowledge at the time was stored on scrolls. Being a page back then was probably a lot harder.

In my senior year of college, I briefly had the best job a lonely, testosterone-fueled young male could ask for. It was only part-time, in the evening, but the benefits were priceless. I was the designated male host—sort of a bodyguard—in a women’s residence hall. All I had to do was sit behind a front desk and check male visitors in and then escort each of them off the premises at a set time, defined by each dorm. A word of explanation here. I went to college during the late 1960s when many colleges and universities had what were referred to as parietal hours, limited times when men were allowed to visit and mingle with women in the female dormitories. Dorms would often insist that doors be kept open and couples instructed to keep “three feet on the floor.” Talk about thwarting your sex life.

Of course, creative women would always find ways around restrictions to get their men inside. Meanwhile, as I sat at the desk—studying, of course—young ladies wearing slinky nightgowns or pajamas would come downstairs and greet me, offering cookies and snacks. I was treated like a god. Even the kindly old dorm matron liked me. I admit, it was quite possible that some diversionary tactic was in play here, with dozens of guys sneaking past me as the women plied me with cookies. But what did I care? Life was good.

My other part-time job in college was as freshman counselor during my senior year. In exchange for a free room in my dormitory, I was expected to offer information and advice to incoming freshman. You can imagine what a perfect fit this was, wise old senior that I was, enjoying my own first year on campus after commuting three years. In the midst of cramming as much drinking and carousing with women as humanly possible into just two semesters, I did manage to fit in some actual counseling. Not that I had much advice to offer. Mostly I just listened. And sometimes I would break up unruly dorm parties at 2 am, for which at the end of the year I was ceremoniously awarded a carved wooden wand in the shape of a penis with the words “King Prick,” signed by my grateful freshmen.

Fresh out of college, and not finding any suitable positions based on my considerable experience drinking and guarding co-eds, I took a job as science teacher at a small residential private school for emotionally disturbed kids. As part of my forestry major, I had taken some basic science courses, and that was good enough. The fact that I had no educational certification or training, and even more important, no psychological or counselor training, did not matter in the least. I was a warm body who knew how to dress for an interview and to give the right answers. And they were desperate for someone who knew at least a little about science and would be willing to work for slave wages.

My first experience with one of my new charges gave me a clue of the challenges ahead. As part of my duties, I sat behind a desk after class in the administration building, as a faculty member on call to assist students with their homework. One of my female students—an attractive, shapely, and much too mature looking sixteen-year-old—approached my desk. Then, looking over her shoulder at her friends in the corner, who seemed to be daring her to do it, promptly sat upon my lap.

Dazed at first, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was happening and what to do. (There was no mention of such things in the employee handbook.) Normally I am not at all averse to attractive young women suddenly deciding to sit in my lap. But this was way different. I could hear a little voice in my head ask, What’s wrong with this picture? Then, seconds later, the voice started screaming, “Stand up, stand up, you fool! I jumped from my chair, nearly dumping the girl on the floor as I mouthed some indignant protest. She just smiled and walked away.

As someone with no teaching experience, suddenly thrown into a classroom filled with unruly teenagers, I fared no worse than most first year teachers, many of whom leave after only one year, vowing never to return to that infernal snake pit. Fortunately for me, the class sizes were small, and the kids were too emotionally messed up to notice what I was trying to teach anyway. I’m talking real heavy emotional issues. Kids hooked on drugs or suffering from various traumas. Kids who had been verbally and physically abused, often by their parents or other relatives. Many had even been sexually abused. They were shunted off to this school because their parents and their former schools could no longer deal with their problems. If this didn’t work, the next stop was military school or an institution.

So there I was, a 22-year-old guy, still screwed up in far too many ways, surrounded daily by a bunch of emotionally bleeding kids. Forget about the lesson plan. All they wanted was for me to listen. So I did.

In the process, I quickly realized that I was in no way equipped to handle this. I became too emotionally involved with these kids, talking with them frankly while trying to teach them a little science, but not having a clue how to help them.

I made it through the academic year and decided to leave, when the school offered me a limited, temporary contract due to financial uncertainties. Shortly thereafter, the school closed, though my decision probably had nothing to do with it.

After my ill-fated experience with teaching, I decided to try something else. A local pet shop was looking for a full-time sales associate (Don’t you love the way stores add that little word at the end to make the job sound more important?). This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pet shop, but an exotic pet shop. In addition to the usual puppies, birds, and tropical fish, they also sold critters like lizards, tarantulas, and snakes—my kind of animals. They liked the fact that I was a college boy and promised me that, if I worked really hard for two years and brownnosed the boss and didn’t mind taking orders from his wife, who arrived each morning wearing more makeup than Alice Cooper, I would be promoted to assistant manager.

What I really wanted, however, was my first python, at full employee discount. He arrived at the shop one cold winter evening. A beautiful baby African rock python, he was only 18 inches long and perfectly gentle. I put him under my coat and brought him home to my parents’ house and placed him in his cage, where he thrived and grew … and grew.

The problem with pythons as pets is that, with proper care, they can quickly begin to approach adult size, which in the case of a full grown African rock python can be over 20 feet long, with a thick, muscular body used to constrict its prey.

Not only did my darling little pet quickly outgrow his cage, but he was now six feet long and quite a handful. Though still gentle as ever, there was always the danger in handling such a powerfully muscular snake that he might suddenly grow frightened of falling and wrap his coils around your neck for support, which is not conducive to breathing. In fact, that is exactly how they constrict and kill their prey. So sadly, I found him a new home and bid both him and the pet shop goodbye.

After that came a stint as a computer operator for an insurance company in Hartford. At the time, I knew nothing about computers—and still don’t—but the job’s hours seemed ideal. All I had to do was work three consecutive 12-hour shifts from 7pm to 7am, and I had the rest of the week off. And for full-time pay and benefits. How tough could it be?

Basically, the job involved running large, room-sized computers called mainframes, which were series of various processing and communication units all hitched together and operated in batch mode. I was expected to keep them going, feeding them punch cards and magnetic tapes to run them at near full capacity while they spat out tests, insurance policies, statements, and payroll. I would then collect the continuous printed copy that came out. Scattered throughout the room were interactive terminals where you could push a button and make the computers pause in their operation.

One night, I was told by my shift supervisor to go hit a certain button. Now I knew perfectly well which button to push, having been instructed numerous times in proper button pushing. Turns out there was another button, way on the other side of the terminal console, which I think read “System Stop” and which was never, never to be pushed unless absolutely necessary. This button, you see, didn’t just pause whatever operation was being run but shut down the whole system. Meaning that whatever programs had been running at the time had to be completely restarted, at considerable cost.

To this day, I still can’t figure out why I pushed the wrong button. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was wrong. Perhaps the subversion of my circadian rhythm and the cumulative lack of sleep had something to do with it. I remember a lot of yelling throughout the department, with people running around, looking for someone to blame, followed by the sound of laughter from my colleagues.

I was due for my annual performance review, the very next week. My boss, a kindly man whom I really liked, told me that I was doing great, overall, with top marks in all categories. Then he looked me straight in the face and shook his head. All he said was, “Why?”

Shortly after, I decided to pursue more normal work as a public-school teacher, normal only in the sense that I was able to work during daylight hours. Despite the fact that my private school teaching had pretty much left me as much of an emotional wreck as the students I tried to teach, maybe I wasn’t as bad a teacher as I thought. I took a few more college courses to get certified and to show I was serious. I was ready, or so I thought.

As it happened, there was an opening for a science teacher at the very same junior high school I had attended. I desperately needed a job and didn’t give a second thought to any potential weirdness of going to work with my former teachers, including my much-feared, former Phys. Ed instructor, who had treated us worse than Marine recruits in boot camp.

The interview was a snap. The vice-principal and science department chairman briefly glanced at my Forestry degree transcript, with a minor in philosophy. It was not especially heavy in hard science courses. However, they remembered that I had been an A-student and science nerd and hired me on the spot.

I was to teach Earth Science, which included geology, meteorology, and astronomy, to ninth grade students. As a kid, I had loved to collect rocks and gaze at the stars with my small telescope, so I was sure I could transmit that enthusiasm to my grateful, attentive students. Trouble was, I didn’t know the first thing about either ninth-grade students or class control, which as I learned the hard way is just as important as knowledge of subject matter.

I shall not dwell here on the ugly details that still haunt my dreams. The kids were rude, disruptive, sneaky, and downright mean, constantly inventing new ways to torment and subvert me. In other words, they were perfectly normal, ninth-grade students. They ate me alive. A couple of times, the department chair who had hired me, upon hearing all the yelling and commotion coming from my classroom across the hall, came running into my room, as if someone were being murdered. As soon as he entered, of course, the kids would all be sitting at attention, perfectly quiet. He would give me a disdainful look, then shake his head as he walked away muttering.

Bad as things were, at least I didn’t have to worry about mass shooters. The worst event to happen was when one of my troubled students pulled a knife on a jock, right outside my classroom. We all ran out, and I momentarily froze. Then I herded my students to slowly back away. The issue was quickly resolved, as the jock yelled and threatened the student enough for him to drop his knife and run out the door. Show’s over. No heroes, no deaths, that day.

I was a terrible teacher, but I made it through my first year. That was the main thing, the principal told me upon renewing my contract. “You survived.” I had passed the test, and he expected me to carry on.

I worked there five more years, becoming a reasonably competent teacher, able to control the classroom while providing my students with a creative learning environment. I was now teaching seventh-grade life science and was given an expanded new science lab, which I lined with tropical plants and cages filled with snakes (including two boa constrictors), tarantulas, hissing roaches, and other exotic creatures. On Parents’ Night, the principal would always show off my lab as a model classroom.

I did not delude myself into thinking I was a great teacher, however. During that time, I came to know some truly extraordinary teachers, fully attuned to their students and learning outcomes. But that would never be me. I had fallen into teaching because it offered a regular paycheck while aligning with my social and intellectual ideals, but my mind was elsewhere. And that’s always a dangerous thing.

One day, one of the boys in my class called me out, openly challenging my authority. Something inside me snapped, and I suddenly shoved him up against the wall and shouted in his face. I watched myself, as if in slow motion, acting out this scene, and knew right then and there that I had to get out. (Can you imagine a teacher doing that in a public-school classroom today?)

There were many other jobs on the journey. None lasted more than five or six years. Yet, much like my character Lot O. Jobs, I saw each job as having its own flavor, providing new insights on life. I never wanted a big house or family, and fortunately neither did my wife, who found her niche early, pursuing a long career in education. So that left me free to follow my dreams, whatever the hell they happened to be at the time.

Some of the jobs, like groundskeeper and landscaper, involved down-and-dirty grunt work, even menial tasks, such as picking up trash. Others, like teaching and bookselling, required me to use my brain more than my back. Most of the jobs paid so little that, had it not been for my wife’s job, I would have qualified for food stamps. What they lacked in remuneration, however, they repaid in new experiences and discoveries. It may sound corny, but through them, I found dignity in a day’s labor and the simple joy of performing a job well. Mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went, though the last job I filled—Instructional Specialist at the University of Arizona—made it sound as if I knew something. And when I left there, after working the usual five years, I actually did.

Through it all, writing remained the one constant thread. It was the one thing I really cared about.  Since my twenties, I had dreamed of making a living from my creative writing, something that very few writers achieve. I did manage to find jobs as columnist, feature writer and editor at small local newspapers, and scored occasional sales of my stories, essays, and poems to magazines and newspapers—always the sweetest dollars earned—as I continued to feed the writing madness.

Maybe someday, I kept telling myself, if I do this long enough, I will make some real money from my writing. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, I think back to all the jobs along the way, a rich tapestry which has given me enough raw material to last a lifetime—or at least to fill these pages—and to make a life from my writing. First published in Work Literary Magazine. 3-19-2018