The Sap’s Confession

I got panhandled, if that’s what it was, during my very last minutes in Manhattan yesterday.

I was waiting to take my four-and-half-hour bus ride home, standing outside the Hilton when a frail woman came up to me with a look of woe on her face. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it and walking beside a girl of about 14, who she said was the baby’s mother.

“We need money. We have no thing to eat all this day,” she said in heavily accented English.

“Have you come far?” I asked, putting one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. I couldn’t help it. She just looked so lost and woeful.

“Yes,” she said, nodding sadly. “Today we have come all the way from the Bronx looking for the food.”

That stopped me for a second. The Bronx?  “But another country? You’re not from another country?” I asked, because she did have a serious accent.

“No, she said. “No other country.”

I gave her a ten because that’s the bill my hand folded around first when I felt in my pocket.

She thanked me, the three of them moved on down the sidewalk and I returned to my place in line just in time to hear the man standing next to me in a pair of soft wool slacks.  “Con artists!” he muttered, with an angry look on his face.

“Hey what can I do? It’s my church’s teaching!” I said, trying to keep it light.

 But I couldn’t just leave it at that.  “Con artists?” I asked in a tentative voice. Because to me they just seemed like three uncomfortable-looking people fighting a wind so harsh the little green sword-blades of the Hilton’s daffodils were leaning dangerously over in their boxy concrete planters.

“Gypsies.  Thieves.” he said. What had we, wandered into that old Cher song from the early 1970s? “Roma,” he added, as if that explained everything.

“Oh the ROMA! You mean the people who were shot on sight by Nazi soldiers and maybe those were the lucky ones because all the others were stripped of their citizenship, brought to concentration camps and gassed, even the old men and the pregnant women and the little children? I‘ve  heard it said that Hitler caused between 200,000 and 800,000 Roma to be killed in the name of the ‘racial purity’ he saw as being so central to his plan for world domination.”

But I didn’t say any of that really.

I just said “What does that MEAN though? Where are the Roma FROM? I mean is it a country or just a region in Europe?’”

“Romania. Parts of Bulgaria. Other places,” he said. “They’re gypsies,” he said again. “Con artists,” he repeated.  “And you are the worse sort of sap,” he all but added.

 “You’re lucky you didn’t just get your pocket picked” he said. But how that frail woman was going to pick my pocket when I had one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm I don’t know. Her 14-year-old stood dejectedly on the other side of the stroller with her hands down at her sides the whole time and the baby – well the baby was a baby.

Then the man looked at me full in the face for the first time. “What church do you belong to?” he asked, going back a couple of sentences.

“Oh I’m just a Congregationalist. Just the United Church of Christ,” I said.

“Ah the Congregational Church, that rock-ribbed New England institution!” he said.

“Yup,” I said, leaving out about six other things I could have told him about all the ways we’re about as far from ‘rock-ribbed’ as a denomination can be. I love my church. Love, love, love it for all the ways it has helped me to join any day’s ‘party’ with an open heart, leaving all judgment and suspiciousness at the door.  But that’s not the church I meant, really.  

I think the church I really meant is the one I ‘joined’ the very first time I read Walt Whitman’s first Preface to The Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in 1855 and which I read the winter I turned 19: 

“This is what you shall do,” it goes. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, AND YOUR VERY FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM AND HAVE THE RICHEST FLUENCY, NOT ONLY IN WORDS BUT IN THE SILENT LINES OF ITS LIPS AND FACE AND BETWEEN THE LASHES OF YOUR EYES AND IN EVERY LAST JOINT AND MOTION OF YOUR BODY.” 

The caps here are my doing but you tell me, all you have ever waited for a bus in a stinging wind in a city of many strangers: Are these ideas not every bit as moving and revolutionary as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount?  To me they are.

Anyway the bus came eventually and I found a great seat for myself in Row Four just in front of the man with the beautiful pants. I put all my stuff down, then on an impulse as sudden as it was sure, picked it all up again, went to the back of the bus and rode my four and a half hours home from there.  




A Blessing, Papal or Otherwise

This morning I was hanging around Grand Central Station again where the tourists all seemed to think the Pope had already come and I could see why in a way: There were a good 20 police cruisers lined up on both sides of the street with lights flashing and the tourists, who are all from other countries and are absolutely everywhere in New York these days what with the dollar being in such PITIFUL shape, were snapping pictures like crazy and muttering to each other in excited voices.

I wondered myself what was up – and so picked out the most native-looking guy I could find and asked what the deal was with the cop cars.

“Oh they’ve just been doing this, ever since 9/11 really. It’s supposed to be like a show of force or something,” he said and added that realy the cops were just hanging out – which would explain why so many of them were strolling between cars like teens at the drive-in, leaning into each other’s windows with their ample fannies pointing streetward.

Still, I felt safe when I saw them. But then I always feel safe when I come to New York: all those people reading in the park, some sound asleep with their mouths open; all that yummy food to be had in a zillion little restaurants and that’s not even counting what you can get from the pushcarts…

In the Grand Central Market you can get fish so freshly pink and moist it looks like somebody photo-shopped it.  The meats look like an Anatomy lesson (in the best possible sense of course.) They have awesome breads, cheeses of every description, fresh flowers so fat and happy you think you died and went to Heaven, and behind every counter people of every age, shape and size ready to take your order.

I was standing at the produce counter at one point when a couple moved past me, the man sexily compact in that Paul Simon way and the woman taller and softly pretty. They had a baby about six months old in a stroller and that baby looked at me and his face just said it all: “Is this great or what?” And you know I have to agree becasue what a blessing really: Morning in a safe city and here we are at the market, with kindly grownups all around us.

So God bless us all, the tourists and the babies and the cheesemakers too. And God bless this poor new Pope and I hope he kisses the ground like the last one. And mostly God bless the cops who do the hard work and deserve every break that they get.   




Grand Central Hoedown

Today when I came to New York for a conference I experienced the rare joy of early check-in, meaning it was 1:30 when they let me into my hotel room instead of 4:00.  I’m writing this from my bed here in the Grand Hyatt hotel which is actually attached to Grand Central Station so that right at eye level out my window I can see the classical statues that hover over the great clock on the building’s exterior. 

That’s the messenger Mercury standing up there in his underpants, trying to look like the boss. The literature I found down in the station says he’s supposed to represent COMMERCE, since this is America and all, and those two figures flanking him are one, Hercules, meant to suggest Commerce’s big-boy helpmate Physical Might and two, Minerva, designed to convey the idea of Wisdom in All That We Do but who I think you’ll agree looks a little depressed and pre-menstrual.  

It’s pretty great to be so close to actual deities like this and I’m thinking to myself “Fan-CEE!” right? As in “I am in some fancy hotel!” But an older couple just entered the room next to mine and I can hear not just the television they snapped on but every SINGLE word they are saying and all I can think of is the time two years ago when a person was attempting to cough herself to death in the room next to mine in a Dayton Ohio hotel and I was seriously close to breaking down the door between us to get that pillow over her face in such a way as to cure that cough for keeps. 

So there’s the outrage of being able to hear two people burping and flushing the toilet and asking each other where the toothpaste is, and then there’s the fact that there is NO COFFEE MAKER in the room and how can that be when even the most modest $49-a-night places supply these as a matter of course?   

I’m worried about what I will do in the morning. Someone told me lately that millions of Americans leave their homes every day for the morning coffee and these must be the people you see in the loose-fitting flowery pants that really do look a lot like pajama bottoms come to think of it. They’re all heading for the coffee shop to get their daily fix and so MAYBE MAYBE I can do this too. MAYBE I can wake up at 6:00 and make my way downstairs to find a Starbucks but it seems mighty hard to me right now as someone who has just in the last year had to move her coffee maker up from the kitchen to a second-floor bathroom so she can get at it immediately on waking. Hell, some nights I bring it right into the bedroom and set it up 20 feet from where I sleep. Pretty soon I’ll be begging my nurse friend Mary to run a line for caffeine into one arm, using a timer to get the drip to start some 20 minutes say before my alarm clock goes off. 

I’m feeling pretty crotchety about all this anyway – or at least I WAS, until just now when I heaved myself up off the bed and moved over to the chair here by the window. I opened the window (and God bless the Hyatt for having windows that open!) and up, up from the street came the roar of the city like a punch in the nose but I like it, sort of. And now here’s Mercury so close I can practically touch him and I sure do wish I had my camera so you could see him as I see him here, so cute and sort of Club Med in his little toga-slash undies, with the two seriously more powerful figures beside him letting him have the spotlight.

 Even if he DOES think it’s his party I can tell that he really wants us to have fun at it.  “So do that!” I tell myself. “Enough kvetching! Put on your high heel sneakers and go meet that boy of yours who’s coming in from East Harlem to have dinner with his momma. “And so I will. And so I will.  And come home early enough to tap on the wall and tell my next-door neighbors all about it.






Koko For President

the writer at work The Writer at Work

Koko is the gorilla who came as a baby to this special lab in California and now gets by pretty well by signing to make herself understood. I wrote about her in my syndicated newspaper column which anyone at all can see by going here or Googling my name with, say, the phrase “Brad Pitt recently spotted driving around Toontown in Roger Rabbit’s car.” (Never doubt that I am a serious person!)

Stanford-based Dr. Francine “Penny” Paterson is the one who’s done all the heavy lifting to make this happen. She wanted to see if she could be made to understand simple signing and all these years later it looks like the answer is yes.

All I know is I could look at pictures of this gorilla all day long, as of course you can also do by visiting her home page. But I think my favorite place to go is the link where you can read the talk she once had online where an audience writes in questions which Penny then puts then to Koko. Koko signed back and somebody types Penny’s description of what she is saying.

In this interview somebody asks her if she’d like to have a baby. “Pink!” she replies. “They’d been talking about colors earlier;” Penny starts to say but then Koko signs “Listen Koko loves eat.” In other words never mind some baby that isn’t even around yet. Somebody then asks what her favorite food is and she says “I like Drinks” (Smart girl!) Somebody asks what the name of her cat is and she says “Foot.” Penny says “Foot isn’t the name of your kitty” and we already know that because we know that “Foot” is what she calls all male humans. She calls female human “Lips,” which I find really cute. “Hey lips honey! Get that foot-slave over there to bring us some drinks!”

Somebody asks her if she likes people and she says “Fine Nipple,” which Penny tried to gloss over by saying that the word “people” sounds a lot like “nipple” but the truth is she was brought up on sexual harassment charges some time ago. Seems she was always trying to touch the female lab worker’s breasts and get them to show her their nipples. (Doubt me do you? Go to her page on Wikipedia and see for yourself.

“She wants a little refreshment. She just gave a little vocalization,” Penny then says and Koko says “Lips hurry good give me.” She’s got a toy alligator. “She’s playing with her alligator and her lady doll” Penny says, again narrating the action, but then “Oh My!” she exclaims, “She may be doing a little acting out here!“ Then Koko picks up a scrunchie and puts it on her head. “Fake hat that,” she signs.

Someone asks her how she feels about a worker named Michael and she says “Foot foot good.” The she says “Nipple!” again, then she somebody asks her about her ape pal Ndume and she says “Toilet!” “That’s her word for bad,” Penny explains. She is evidently mad at her pal today. “He did something that was obnoxious but I didn’t see what happened,” Penny explains.

There’s a little talk about the 70-acre preserve in Maui that the Foundation hopes to establish for Koko and Ndume and then Koko says “Fake!” again, which Penny says means it’s not happening now; it’s hypothetical; pie in the sky in other words. Then Koko has her alligator bite the lady doll and the whole thing fades to black.

I love her. And I note she’s pushing 40 now and I’m going to try to get invited to the party. Because I believe ALL us older gals ought to hang out more, just for the fun of the drinks, and the trashing of the men, and the Fake-Hat-That wigs alone.

It’s All About the O-Rings

“You should come to the gasket convention in Orlando the first week in April,” said my husband David a few months back. 

“Gaskets! What are gaskets anyway?” 

“O-rings. You know, GASKETS, things used to make a joint water- or air- or particle-tight.” 

“Come on there are no gaskets anymore, only microchips,” I said back, just to get him going. He’s in manufacturing, an industry which here America is diminishing like a cookie-tin-full of Shrinky-Dinks in a hot oven.  

“Hey don’t kid yourself, you couldn’t live without O-rings,” and if that wasn’t the language of courtship I don’t know what was, and so Yes, I said yes, I said yes, I will go with you. 

And thus do I write this in sunny central Florida, where over the heads of a cool 1,000 conventioneers, families and staff, clouds of infinitesimal bugs hover like wee guardian angels. 

This morning I spent a few hours at the kiddy pool, which I chose for the democracy of the place, the lack of all display except for the simplest display.  

“Dis is my bellybutton,” a three-year-old said to his new friend and I felt I was in Heaven itself, just being alone and looking around. There was no preening by the young and unlined, nobody worriedly studying the backside of anyone else, just me reading a story in which the main character finds herself touring Ireland as a passenger in the car her mother has to rent because the mother could drive stick. Every day she sits on what should be the driver’s side but without the steering wheel until she begins to feel like a child again and thinks, “I’m back.” 

That’s how I felt: I was back, a little kid again with just these small splashing strangers and the solitude. 

I’d had solitude at breakfast too and there swooned so deep inside myself that when afterward I stopped at a little table to dig out the apple and the yogurt that I’d tossed into my tote bag I almost tripped over my very own husband sitting and sitting having coffee with his co-worker Moe. 

“Brian didn’t come in til 1:30,” Moe was saying of a third compatriot. 

“Wait, does he make you share a room?” I asked, mostly to tease Dave a little as the president of this company they all work for. 

“Nah,” said Moe. “I couldn’t share a room with anyone anyway. Even when I got married I said to my wife, ‘Maybe we should just live together like three nights a week.’” 

“I get that. David and I are second babies; both our moms said we loved just playing alone in our cribs. I just feel safe when I’m alone. I can’t even sit with my back to a door. It’s like I was in the Mob in a former life.” 

He was looking now at my food items. “A little something for later, eh? You should’ve seen my mother in a restaurant. When she got up from the table that table was BARE. Rolls, cole slaw even: right into her bag. I do it too, a little.” 

“Sure. I’m on the road a lot myself. Take today: here’s this giant breakfast buffet and all I had of it was an egg and some toast and coffee for my $15.95.“   

“And you never know when the next service plaza is.”  

“I’ve often thought with adult diapers in my life and I could keep on driving forever. I’m grateful for good muscle control though.” 

“I’ve said it before,” my husband piped up. “We’d all be sunk without the O-Rings.”  




Shine a Light

I heard about the new Scorsese documentary on the Rolling Stones from Bryan who was my student in the 70s when I taught high school English. We’ve stayed in touch through good times and bad and now both find ourselves washed up on the same far shore where hair grows grey and waistlines expand.

Anyway he wrote me an email last week about this sensational Stones movie, saying he was going to see it at an IMAX Saturday night and he’d bought all these tickets and why didn’t David and I come see “Shine a Light” too? I knew Dave and I couldn’t go that night but like a good girl I dropped everything, looked up the film and watched the trailer which you will see here in a sec; then in my answering email told him how it affected me. I found myself strangely moved I said and he wrote right back in an email that reached me on my Blackberry while I was standing by the Conventional Broccoli section at the food store. “You’re such an English Teacher! It said “’I felt strangely moved.’ You don’t feel strangely moved by the Rolling Stones! You feel adrenaline, you get goose bumps, you feel horny, you filled with anticipation, you’re not ‘strangely moved’!

Then to add insult to injury a few minutes later he texted to say he bet I didn’t even know that Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” was directed to Mick Jagger.

“I bet I do,” I texted right back, thinking that’s givin’ it to him right between the eyes, and then when I got home and read Outlook’s copy of that first mocking email, I hit ‘Reply’ and said a little more: “Hey, my reaction is my reaction and please note I am 60, or almost 60. The Stones’ ravaged faces, the passage of time, the energy they put out despite how tired they must be… That’s all very moving to me. I don’t speak to how they affected me at 23! And also let me just note that I don’t have testosterone.”

“So you never got high and danced to the Stones?” he wrote back.

“Of course not, I was a teacher! And even before I became a teacher I was a serious person.” Heck by the time I was old enough to drink I was married. Plus we were always broke. Or always reading our books or working on lesson plans or studying or in David’s case blowing bubbles so he didn’t have to clean the closets.


Ah but I did love the Stones. My brother- in-law Toby and his partner Rusty would have these parties in their Cambridge apartment and this one night they invited the whole family, David and me and the other Marotta brothers and even their mom and we ate some sort of chicken-backs in peanut butter sauce and danced to Sympathy for the Devil. I remember that like it was yesterday. I even went and dug out this blurry picture of us from that night and emailed it as an attachment it to Bryan.


And when he opened it this darn kid who has mocked me for over 30 years and indeed even in a subtle way when he sat in the fist seat of the row that was one row in from the windows wrote back once more: “Wow is that you? I had never seen you before you had a mature, sort of professional demeanor. I guess I forget that before you were Mrs. Marotta the English teacher, you were just Terry Sheehy, a regular young girl.”

I felt grateful to him for saying that; for seeing me or trying to see me as I was and I studied the picture more myself as I am studying it again now. I see that I had heavier eyebrows then. And God I remember that dress which I bought at Filenes’ Basement for $7. That’s Rusty peeking over the counter and David’s brother Skip with the mandatory 70s-era mustache and their youngest brother Jeff with the Twelve Apostles hair. Toby must have been taking the picture and I remember that their mum was surely there that night it must be that she and David must have been off in one corner talking.

I look at it now and I go back to the top to look again at this picture of Bryan, still a hopeful boy sitting with his old car in his old back yard. I look again at me with my daring dress and my Janis Joplin hair. I look at the photos of the Stones and think how little Bryan, or I, or the Stones themselves knew what was ahead for them in the way of joy or suffering. Then I go back to the trailer for Shine a Light and I watch it again and again and again and believe me when I say that I can’t WAIT to go see this movie which I will do with Old Dave and his insane-Stones-fan Len and Len’s wife Mary the very first day it comes out. And David and I are going there directly from the airport even though we’ve been away all week and the cats are so fed up they’re rigging the place up with booby traps. Because we might be old but we’re sure enough still dancing – just a little more slowly…


And now let’s watch that trailer!

Crooked Little House

I went back to my old friend the chiropractor this week because my main doctor practically screamed when she walked around to my back to have a listen to my lungs. I had a johnnie on of course so the little keyboard of my spinal column was exposed.

“Oh! Your scoliosis is SO much WORSE!” she gasped.

See I didn’t KNOW I had scoliosis until a year or two ago. I took an exercise class in a room full of mirrors where it became clear that though what we were doing looked like Yoga’s Child’s Pose on everyone ELSE, on me it looked like a mound of ice cream slowly melting down to the left.

The good thing is nobody seems to care very much if you have scoliosis when you’re old. They do screen for it when you’re young though because it can be serious then, compressing internal organs and so on. The screening process is a mere eyeball test: the school nurse has you bend at the waist and hang your arms down toward the floor. The rib cages of straight-backed people look symmetrical side to side. The rest of us well, it’s another thing.


A website I looked at just now says a person with scoliosis might also have OTHER UNDERLYING diseases, signaled by such things as “colored markings, a hairy patch on the skin or a deformity of the foot.”

Well I HAVE colored marking on the skin but it’s because I draw on myself by mistake. My underwear too is covered with multi-colored inks. I take no notice. And hmmm, looking down at my feet here I see nothing amiss; just the vestiges of my first and only pedicure obtained on an island off the coast of Charleston SC sometime last summer but since the girl used a pearly white polish I just let it stay there, growing out as my toenails grow. Because my feet are just so far away, you know? (Hello feet! How was your Christmas? Did you do your taxes yet? )

As for the hairy patch of skin well I have to surprise that PCP with SOMETHING the next time I see her or she’ll be all out of gasps . I’m thinkin’ now a little Rogaine applied to sole of one foot. Or maybe my chin. Or how about my beautiful girlish CHEST Doc?

I’m not worried generally. I know a good tailor for the twisty clothes. And my chiropractor himself was very sweet. I just have to see him once a week for the rest of my life.