Friday, February 05, 2016

Michael Kennedy, Sonny Bono, and Me

“Pizza, pizza, pizza… pizza to stop” I thought and tried, but I wasn’t stopping. I kept going faster and faster down the slope while snow slapped like frozen cotton balls into my face and a large tree came closer and closer and the premature deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono within a week of each other flashed through my head.

I probably shouldn’t have tried skiing… I’m not athletic and racing down a snow-covered mountain at 80 miles per hour requires a certain level of physical ability. Besides, if I was going to try skiing I should have done it when I was younger and didn’t have a family… along with me… on the top of a snow blanketed Rocky. But there I was, 42, six foot three, 225 pounds, more likely to cause an avalanche then perform a downhill, wrapped in wicking underwear, two layers of sweaters, ski pants and a ten-pound ski parka. I had the full mobility of Hannibal Lector strapped to a hand truck.

Oddly, I wasn’t scared. Okay, I was pretty scared.

I probably shouldn’t have tried skiing but at the time I was making good money and skiing is one of those expensive things that people who make good money do.  Luckily I’m no longer doing that well and am much less inclined to do it again.

Anyway, having never skied before I was aware that this could be the only time I ever did. I decided I would do it right and that meant Colorado. That way when friends talked about their ski vacations I could join in and not be some kind of Big-Bear Bunny-Run failure. I’d be able say, “I’ve skied Colorado,” carrying the gravitas of Bogart’s “We’ll always have Paris,” which was so much more romantic than “We’ll always have San Bernardino.” And right now, standing here, I can say that I’ve skied Colorado and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, that’s not all there is. It never is. There were winds and deep snow and steep mountains and frigid air and trees. There were trees.

We were scheduled to fly out early on the morning of December 26. The night before, after a long Jewish Christmas, we cleaned up the house, threw away the wrappings and boxes, and dragged the tree out to our front yard where it would be picked up by a tree service. When you’re doing well you pay for weird things like having your old Christmas tree picked up by a service.

My wife lit some candles on our ersatz fireplace mantle. My daughter read to herself from a picture book and my son played with a brand new hand-held video game arcade he’d been given.  I lay awake in bed the way one does when one knows he is waking early, marking away the passing of each hour by convincing myself that I’d be fine with four decent hours of sleep, that I’d be fine with a solid three hours of sleep, that I’d be fine with a power two hours of sleep.  Luckily I was still awake when it was time to leave for LAX.

I booked us into a hotel in downtown Denver. I figured we’d spend a day on the slopes and the rest exploring a great American city that none of us had ever seen before. Denver’s the capital of Colorado and we could see the capitol dome from our hotel room. As I was looking at the dome my wife asked me, “Did you blow out the candles on the mantle?” I had no memory of doing so and neither did she.

While we had cell phones, this was in the days of the flip phone when you didn’t have an entire Rolodex on your phone like you do now. In fact you still knew what a Rolodex was. A panicked call to information followed with an even more panicked message being left on our landlord’s answering machine. About thirty minutes later, our landlord called to say she was in our living room and the candles had not only been blown out, but also had apparently been put away too. She wanted to know why we’d left our Christmas tree in the front yard. “We went skiing,” my wife explained.

“In Colorado,” I added.

The next morning we had Denver omelets for breakfast; when in Rome right? I looked at my two cherubs and imagined that they would shine on the slopes having inherited some previously undiscovered athletic ability from my wife’s side. As we went to our room to get our stuff for the day, my son tripped over my daughter’s foot and smashed his one-day old hand-held video arcade into the wall, shattering it.

“Did I break it?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” I lied, wanting him to believe he owned it for more than a day. I hid it in my suitcase with a plan to buy an exact replacement when were back in LA, a plan that never came to fruition.

Soon we set out to explore Denver. My Santa-Monica-raised children had never experienced sub-freezing weather, let alone the single- digit day Denver was having. They began to sob, causing us to buy additional gloves, scarves and knitted hats to get us back to the hotel, where we watched Nickelodeon, ate snacks, and looked through the window at the capitol dome.

One day I would still like to see Denver.

The next morning we got up at five to have breakfast, put together our ski outfits, and get to the railroad station. We had reservations on the seven AM ski train to Winter Park. It was colder and darker than the day before and the wind felt like an ice-covered sledgehammer. Still, bundled in our ski clothes, it wasn’t that bad.

The train however was heated to what felt like 100 degrees and we had to peel and peel and peel. I got down to jeans and long underwear just not to collapse.

As the sun rose the train began our trek. Industrial Denver rushed by the windows only to turn into the slope of the Rockies. We climbed above the city. We were cocooned in the train’s dizzying heat as winds and flurries danced over the barren ground around us.

My son danced too so I asked if he needed the bathroom. He looked at me like this was the most brilliant suggestion anyone had ever made ever and nodded furiously. I pointed it out to him and watched him head down the aisle. I realized he had never used a bathroom on a train before, which had me a bit nervous, but I figured, he’s a smart kid, he’ll figure it out. He came back much calmer and happier. He explained that it was hard to pee in the toilet with the train rocking.

I went off to the bathroom myself only to discover the floor soaked with my child’s urine, sloshing to perfect rhythm with the song of the steels wheels on the steel rails.

We neared Moffatt Tunnel, which we were told is the longest railroad tunnel in North America, spanning the Continental Divide. The conductor announced that vestibules had to be sealed to keep the train from filling with diesel exhaust. I was starting to question the whole idea of a Colorado ski trip when the assistant conductor came on the PA and told everyone that we had to have all our ski clothes on and all of our personal property packed because the moment we came out of the tunnel we would detrain very rapidly.

It seems that the train had to stop on the mainline and there were monster coal trains waiting to get through so we were only allowed a few moments. Okay, I can do this, I thought, dressing my son while my wife dressed my daughter. We were all bundled, Jews in bubble wrap, ready to go, when the conductor came back and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, put the long underwear on if you have it. It’s ten degrees with a wind-chill factor of negative five.”

It was ten degrees out with wind chill factor of negative five and there was a colossal coal train waiting to use the tracks so we all had to scamper like vermin facing a can of Raid?

The words that ran through my brain at that moment were, “I’ve killed my family.”

Somehow we detrained, got into the lodge, rented skis, put on the skis, and found our way to the ski teacher. “This is going to be a good story to tell,” my wife said. Little did she realize that was the only reason I was doing it. “Yeah, I’ve skied Colorado. How’s the rock shrimp and endive salad?”

The ski teacher was an Australian Olympian (at least he seemed like one). I’m sure Jim Lampley interviewed him once on Wide World of Sports. He had zero body fat, a Crocodile Dundee accent, and the kind of charisma that only a good-looking foreigner in an expensive ski parka can have. I felt very important and wealthy having an Australian ski teacher.

He took us to something called the magic carpet, which was basically a moving walkway like you see at the airport, only shorter, running up a very gentle hill. Think of a front lawn in New Jersey, in a nice neighborhood with hills, add some snow and the moving walkway from the airport and you get the idea of where we were most of our ski day. I flew my family to Colorado to ski on a hill that I could probably have pushed a stalled Cadillac up… by myself.

The four of us rode the magic carpet up the gentle hill while our wallaby shusser skied up. As a kraken-sized coal train trundled below us, we were taught that you point your skis like French fries to go and like pizza to stop. He taught us how to get up from a fall with skis on, which I felt was sort of like the driving teacher teaching you how to install a new airbag after a crash.

Over the next hour or so each of us skied five feet here, seven feet there, monumental runs that thrilled us and had us all dehydrated and desperate for cup after cup of the icy cold water from a cooler perched near the top of the magic carpet.

It’s amazing how willing one is to move in sub-zero weather and with the equivalent of a couple steel-belted truck tires’ worth of clothing around them for a cup of water. I cross country skied my way back to the magic carpet, carefully placing each ski on it with all the agility of a moose… that was wearing skis. Once on top, I sucked a cup of water down the way one does in the desert and then made my next run down the mountain, which was more like the slope of a dog’s back… not when it’s sitting, but when it’s standing on all four legs. French fry was effective. Pizza on the other hand, not so much.

Soon my five-year old was done for the day and my wife took her into the ski lodge while my seven-year old, our astonishingly patient and kind Aussie ski instructor, and I shared a ski-lift seat up the mountain to take what we learned and perform a downhill run.

Did I mention this was in the days before smart phones? Because I think of all the times in my life that I didn’t have a camera, besides the first time I got naked with a girlfriend, there are few others I regret not having at camera with me anything like riding up the ski lift in Winter Park, Colorado, over the pure-white slope with thousands of hundred-foot-tall pine trees all around us, each holding foot-high layers of snowy powder upon each and every branch, extending as far as I could see.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, ranking just below, once again, the first time I ever got naked with a girlfriend.

I turned to my Vegemite-loving teacher and asked him if this was a smart thing for us to do. He assured me that we were just taking the easy hill.  Besides, I was doing well and would be okay going down the mountain myself. He added that this was why people came to Colorado.

I was doing well. I had a sudden boost of confidence, very similar to the time I got an “A” in Geometry despite having had no idea whatsoever what the teacher had been talking about all semester.

As the ski lift reached its zenith our instructor told us how to jump off and come up standing. I fell on my face. But he reminded me how to get up with skis on and I got up and brushed myself off and I followed him to the course. Meanwhile, on what seemed a couple miles lower than us another coal train decimated everything in its path, while on what seemed a couples miles higher than us, skiers raced down an absolute vertical, shussing through the trees like they were negative magnets and the trees were positives.

Then, with a flick of the poles, my son and our instructor began the run. I followed, trying to go as slowly as I possibly could, but it was really just a few seconds before I was out of control. I crashed into a pile of snow to stop. I took a deep breath and discovered that standing with skis on wasn’t quite as simple without instruction. I looked down the run and saw the kangaroo man and my son gently French frying and pizza-ing while faster skiers passed them. I was happy to have given my son a Rocky Mountain high.

I took a deep breath and tried again. I was going well… too well… I was up to what I estimate to be 80 miles an hour within five seconds, which is pretty good when you consider a Porsche needs about seven seconds to reach that speed.

This was the easy hill.

I passed my son and our ski instructor. I’d like to say I saw a look of concern on their faces, but I’m going to be honest, I was passing at too high a rate of speed for light to catch up with me, so I probably was looking at what their faces had been seconds earlier.

“Pizza, pizza, pizza… pizza to stop” I thought and tried, but I wasn’t stopping. I kept going faster and faster down the slope while snow slapped like frozen cotton balls into my face and a large tree came closer and closer and the premature deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono within a week of each other flashed through my head.

I hit the side of the tree, hard enough that it hurt, but not hard enough to break anything. I fell into a mound of snow and rocks and twigs however that did hurt. I lay there for a bit, delighted beyond delight to no longer be moving. Man being stationary felt great. But I also realized I was only about a quarter of the way down. My son and the teacher pizzad perfectly to where I was. He told me once again how to get up with skis on and all three of us made our way back to the run.

The only additional instruction I heard was, “lean back.”

By this point snow had gotten into my son’s boot and he began to wail in pain. Our instructor was now left with the job of getting both of us off the mountain. He warmed my son’s foot with his bare hand, which stopped the crying. Then he picked my son up, skis and all, and put him on his back. He skied gently and slowly right by my side, speaking Australian, as a leaned back and pizzad the entire way down. All I could think was, “it’s so cold, I’m so thirsty, there’s so much more mountain left.”

When we finally reached the bottom I knew that this man had saved both my and my son’s lives (all right I’m being a bit of a drama queen, but seriously, if not for him, we’d both still be on that mountain trying to figure out how we were getting down). I reached into my wallet and pulled out a few bills. They weren’t ones or fives. I tipped him a happy-ending level gratuity, not that I have any idea what a happy ending tip should be, but rather… honestly, I’m just guessing here.

As we found my wife and daughter and all shared hot chocolate, as one does when one skies in Colorado, I felt good… and not just because I’d taken my ski boots off, which is possibly the greatest non-erotic orgasm known to man. I was proud of myself. I had skied… not just that, but I had skied Colorado.


And now, I could say that and would never have to do it again.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Roof Was Torn Away

As my father took his last mortal breath, I ate dinner with a girl who had been in the The Waltons. Unaware that my father was exiting his life, I said to her, “I know it’s strange, but in school, I was jealous of the kids who lost a parent. They got special attention. Everyone was nice to them.” It was a revelation of something I’d long been embarrassed of to someone I wanted to kiss.

I had fettuccine Alfredo, which was brave on a date. Well, I’m not certain if it was a date or not. She’d been giving me mixed signals for a year of meals and movies, but we were still going out, be it as a pre-physical or a non-physical couple not yet determined. I didn't know at that moment that she would be the last girl I went out who would meet my father.

A few months earlier we had flown east together on my Continental frequent flyer miles, on a red-eye, changing planes in Denver in the middle of the night and landing in Newark at six in the morning, where my father picked us up before work.

I’d called him a couple days before and asked,

“Dad, when you pick us up, can you come in Mom’s Skylark? The Regal is in pretty bad shape.”

“Okay,” he said in a resigned voice.

“And would you clean it first?” I requested to impress the girl from The Waltons, to impress the girl who I may or may not be taking on a cross country date to New Jersey. He didn't push back. He understood. He understood that his car was rusted and filthy. He understood that I was scared of the girl I was flying with. He understood his role in my social theater.

I am in some ways like my father. If you gave me one adjective to describe him it would be afraid. If I got another, I’d add responsible. Some more that come to mind are smart, teaser, loving, joker, and uncomfortable. 

On second thought, maybe uncomfortable should be first.

I don’t know if he bought his shirts with too short an arm length on purpose or not, but seeing him in a dress shirt with the sleeve buttoned up tight against his arm two inches or more above his wrist was as uncomfortable to witness as it must have been to wear.

I couldn’t see his shirtsleeves when he met us at the airport. He wore a sports coat and tie despite the fact that he didn’t normally wear them to work. He drove us from the airport to his office in the Academy Building, playing tour guide on the trip through the blackened brick husks of mill buildings and factories, telling my maybe date how all the patent leather in the world had once come from right here in Newark, New Jersey.

His voice was subdued – low, maybe out of shyness, maybe just a lack of breath. I interrupted him to get him to stop boring the girl. I pointed out that we could see the skyline of New York if we looked to the right, beyond the black Pulaski Skyway viaduct.

“Don’t forget, your mom needs her car back by noon,” my father said, revealing unintentionally that this was our family’s ‘good’ car, that we had much to hide, and that we weren’t very good at hiding.

We dropped him at his stained white office, the Academy Building near Broad and Raymond.  I quickly steered the Skylark out of Newark, into the Holland Tunnel, and to the City, to the Village, where I deposited my travelling companion at her friend’s apartment, not seeing her again until we met in Midtown a week later for our ride back to the airport.

At the time, I was having dreams that my father had passed. Every dream was different, but in every one he was there, then he wasn't and I knew he was dead. Only I’d wake up and realize that he was alive and everything was okay.

The dreams started on a trip to Berkeley with another girl who I was seeing but not dating. We’d met up with my parents to visit my brother at Cal. As my father, my mother, my non-girlfriend, and I began walking one of Berkeley’s steeper sidewalks, my father stopped and whispered, “I have trouble with hills.  Let’s take the bus.”

He said this matter-of-factly, as if saying, “it’s raining, let’s take the bus,” but he was telling me that the sidewalk was too steep for him. There were dozens of other people of all ages walking up the hill at the time. My father was fifty. He may as well have said to me, “Take me to a doctor,” but he didn’t, or I didn’t listen, and I let him die.

I was writing a play about my father’s death before he died. It was the story of a middle-aged Christian Scientist who took his last breath at home suddenly. I was halfway through the first draft when fiction became reality.

I am 53-years old as I write these words; the age my father was when I had fettuccine Alfredo with the girl who was in The Waltons. I live in an apartment that I share with my wife and two teenagers. Our stove is an old Wedgewood range that we have been told once belonged to Mary Pickford the actress and, like my father, the Christian Scientist.

For years the stove would conk out, sometimes at inappropriate times, as if cooking was too steep a hill. Despite our not having it fixed, it would start again. We didn’t have the stove repaired until one day it died. A repairman came to the house, looked at it for ten minutes, got a new part from his truck, and fixed it. In the seven years since the stove has never conked out again. 

In the years between 1985 and 1989 my father conked out and perked up a lot. There’d be days he couldn’t climb a hill and then there would be days that he was fine. He was a human claxon with an unfortunate mute button.

The night after my fettuccine Alfredo date with the girl, who I may have been seeing or may have not been seeing, I had another dream about my father. In this one, he was alive, in bed across the hall from my childhood room. I was also in bed, kicking the wall like I used to when I was ten.

In real life he would yell at me, “Chuck, stop kicking the wall and go to sleep.”

In my dream he changed it to, “Chuck, wake up so I can go to sleep.”

At that moment that I understood what he was asking of me the phone rang and woke me. I got my wish to be special, to have everyone be nice to me.

Weeks later, one friend, being nice to me, got me a meeting with the Broadway director Ulu Grossbard. I sat in his office in shock that I was meeting someone of his stature. He said, “I am sorry for your loss. I hear you wrote a play about it?”

“It’s not finished,” I explained.

“But you were writing about it before?”

I nodded yes.

“I want to read it when it’s done,” he said.

I never sent it to him. I was afraid. I was uncomfortable.

I still dream of my father. Whenever he appears in a dream, alive and well, I ask anyone else in the dream not to tell my father that he is dead, because if they do he will disappear. Still someone, often me, lets it slip and he vanishes. While he is still there, I’m always inside a safe place (the house I grew up in, my grandmother’s apartment, or somewhere else I feel sheltered) but once he disappears I am outside.

There is no roof. There is just sky, the world and me.


The roof has been torn away.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Man and Woman at the Train Station

It was a big white Toyota pickup truck, a beefy looking and tall Tundra. It missed the entrance to the main parking lot and swung around the auxiliary one to get back to the drop-off area.

A man and a woman, both blonde, both lost somewhere in that crevice between youth and middle age, alit. She was in a hurry, tense; frumpy and sexy in a black dress. He was slow, with the gait of a former high school football player who had gone on to a career in gutter repair. She bought a ticket at the Metrolink machine while he pulled her bags from the truck bed: four pieces of cheap luggage, enough for a long trip, or all of someone’s personal belongings.

“There are no trains on Sunday,” I told them.

“What?” she asked, as if she had understood what I said but hadn’t been able to process its implication. At the same time, he looked at me with the gaze of a dim-witted dog wondering if it was going to get a scratch behind the ears.

“Where can I get a train?”

“Downtown Los Angeles,” I said. "Where do you want to go?"

“I don’t care. I just don’t want to be here anymore,” she said.

Neither of them was crying. Neither of them was sad. He stared lazily. She looked around as if maybe something on the platform would give her different information than I had.

“You can get a train anywhere from downtown,” I assured her while pointing to where Los Angeles was via the tracks.

Frantic and yet calm, she looked back at the vacant man and the big truck, then turned to me and asked, “What about a bus? Does the bus stop here on Sundays? Doesn’t matter where it goes.”

“There’s no bus,” I explained.

One by one the bags went back into the truck, softly – without malice. The man got behind the steering wheel as if it was any other day. The woman climbed into the passenger seat as if she had not expected to ever sit there again.

The truck took off in the direction that I had pointed. They were quickly too far for me to tell them that wasn't how to get to Los Angeles. I had no way to explain that road they were speeding down was just a very long dead end.


But then again, I’m not certain it would have mattered.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dishwasher Reading

Despite the fact that I wrote this entire story in about 30 minutes it remains one of the favorites of my readers. I have been asked to perform this piece at half a dozen locations and I have gotten more comments on it than any other.



Here is a reading of it back in 2005 in Hollywood CA.





Thursday, January 02, 2014

An Incident at Madam Wu's - Podcast

Click here and then click on the show title itself to listen to my reading at I Love A Good Story. Podcast

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Word Salad Reading - July 20, 2103

Had the distinct pleasure of perofrming at the multi-talented and fabulous Lora Cain's Word Salad back in July. Here's a wondeful compeltation of some of the talent there that night.