Friday, March 28, 2008

Come Here Often?

Year 1994
Place Atlanta, GA

I was working as a freelance television promotions writer/producer for a large cable network. The work was steady enough that I was given my own cubicle. It was like being full time, but without the insurance benefits.

For some odd reason, whenever I went to the men’s room to urinate, John, the head of marketing, would be standing at the stall next to me. His presence didn’t bother me, but mine really bugged the shit out of him. He would glare at me and fidget. I couldn’t help it if our bladders were mysteriously synchronized. I came to pee, not to see him.

I was not unsympathetic to John’s discomfort. Men’s rooms can be very uncomfortable places to begin with. We have to stand side by side like pigs at a trough. Why society decided that men don’t require the same amount of privacy as women, I’ll never know.

So every day when I went to pee, I would amble up to the first empty stall and every time, John would already be at the stall next to it. I never noticed him going into the men's room or else I might have waited until he left before going in myself.

Finally, one day, John had had enough.

“I feel like you’re stalking me,” John said.

“You call it stalking,” I said, “I call it networking.”

John laughed so hard, he almost peed on his shoes.

My joke erased John’s discomfort. From then on, our bladders remained mysteriously synchronized, but John and I got along just fine. We spent the time standing side by side to discuss how each other’s day was going, the latest gossip, whatever. Afterwards, we washed our hands and went back to work.

(The photo above is from a men's room in a Las Vegas casino. I can't remember which casino it was, they tend to all blend in together. Each urinal had a photo of a woman with a different expression. Some of the women were delighted and some were disappointed.)

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Time: 1977
Place: Camp Montvale, TN

My first week as a camp counselor at an overnight camp, I was put in charge of a cabin of eight and nine year old boys. They had endless energy and needed constant supervision. Every night, I went to bed exhausted. However, I never got a good night’s sleep that week.

Billy was the reason that I didn’t sleep well. His screaming always woke me up.

Billy was one of my campers. During the day, he was a typical eight-year-old boy. He played well with others, got into occasional mischief, and did his best to avoid contacting cooties from girls. During the night, he became a horror victim.

The first night was the worst. I was jolted out of a deep sleep by desperate screams. My first thought was that a bear had gotten into the cabin and was eating one of the campers. I fumbled for my flashlight. My bunk was at one end of the cabin and the boys’ bunks were lined up on the other so that I could face them. I trailed the flashlight’s beam across the boys expecting to find a bear with blood smeared over his snout. Instead, I found Billy trying to climb the cabin wall.

Billy was trying to dig his fingers into the wood planks so that he could climb away from whatever nightmare demon was after him.

“Billy!” I said. “Wake up!”

The second Billy heard my voice; he stopped scratching the wall. His arms went limp at his sides and he fell back on his bed. His eyes were closed the entire time. I went over to his bunk to check on him. He was sleeping peacefully.

I went back to my bunk. I was almost asleep when Billy started screaming and climbing the wall again. I pointed my flashlight at him and called his name, which had the same effect as the last time. His arms went limp and he fell back on his pillow. A long time passed before I was able to fall back asleep, because I was sure the screaming would start again any second.

In the morning, I stopped Billy from joining the other campers on their way to the mess hall.

“That was some nightmare you had last night,” I said.

“Nightmare?” Billy said. “I didn’t have a nightmare.”

“Then what was with the screaming and climbing the wall?”

“Who was screaming?”

“You were.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

“Are you sure it was me? I know Chris peed in his bed.”

“Never mind. Go on to breakfast.”

Every night for the rest of the week, Billy woke me up two to three times a night screaming and climbing the wall. I got into a routine where the moment he started screaming, I would shine my flashlight at him and order him to go back to sleep. Each time, the second Billy heard my voice; he fell back down into his bunk. Despite the repetition, his screams always unnerved me.

At the end of the week, the campers’ parents arrived to take this group away and make way for the next week’s group of campers. Part of my job was to tell each camper’s parents how delightful their child was. After telling Billy’s parents what a good camper he had been, I asked them what I had been wondering for days.

“How long has Billy been having nightmares?” I asked.

“Billy doesn’t have nightmares,” Billy’s father said.

“He never has nightmares,” Billy’s mother said.

“He had plenty of nightmares this past week,” I said. “He woke me up two or three times a night, screaming like he was being eaten alive and literally climbing the cabin wall.”

“Well, at home,” Billy’s father said, “Billy’s room is on the other side of the house, so even if he were screaming, we wouldn’t be able to hear him.”

“Really?” I asked. “He’s somewhere where you can’t hear him. So, he could have been having nightmares for awhile.”

“If Billy was having nightmares, he would have told us,” Billy’s mother said.

Billy’s parents gave me that smug smile that said I only spent a week with Billy, so how could I possibly know him better than them? That was true. I didn’t know Billy very well, but unlike his parents, I could hear him at night.

I wondered what sort of parents put their child far away from them so that he doesn’t disturb their sleep? What if the child needed them? He could be sick. He could be attacked by a bear. He could be having a terrible nightmare and not even know it.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Left Behind

Time: 1964
Place: Chattanooga, TN

Somebody must have given Mom a damn good reason to take a carload of kids to the State Fair. She didn’t like taking her own children anywhere. This was years before Mom discovered she was going blind. She was a nervous driver under any conditions. She had a bad habit of slamming on the brakes at the slightest provocation. In 1964, we never wore rear seat belts, so each time Mom slammed on the brakes, any child sitting behind her tumbled to the floor. My siblings and I were used to it, but the other kids giggled and rolled their eyes.

Along for the ride to the State Fair that day were two Cohen boys, two Stein boys and three Dubrow kids; my brother, my sister and me. Seven children between the ages of ten and seven, my brother, David, being the oldest. and me being the youngest, crammed into one station wagon.

We all lived on the same sleepy suburban cul-de-sac. Every house on our street was home to a Jewish family. It was our own self-imposed middle class ghetto. No matter what city you lived in, Jewish neighborhoods like ours were always nicknamed “Little Israel” by both the people living there and by the people who came to visit.

The station wagon Mom drove that day was a metallic blue Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with a raised roof and tinted glass side panels. It had three rows of seats. The last seat was smaller and faced backwards. The seat was too small and narrow for adults, but perfect for children. I guess the car designers figured the kids who sat in that last back seat would have more to look at if they faced the back window. My siblings and I liked it because our parents in the front seat couldn’t see the obscene gestures we made at the cars following us.

Mom took seven children to the State Fair on a perfect August day. The hottest days were behind us and school was still a month away. I don’t remember much about the fair. I have vague images of the sun shining brightly, eating cotton candy, avoiding the scary rides, and Mom reminding us to stay close together so we didn’t get lost.

On the way home, Mom stopped at an Eckerd’s Drug Store. She probably had an errand to do and figured it was foolish to waste the entire day on chauffeuring children without getting something constructive done. She went into the store and seven kids piled out of the station wagon after her. I knew this drug store. I made a beeline for the comic book spinner rack.

The closer I got to the comic books, the further the rest of the world receded. I searched through the rows, past teenage romance comics, horror comics, and Archie comics until I found a Super Hero comic book. Taking the comic book out of the rack and opening the pages was like entering a bubble where nothing else existed.

I dimly remember one of the Cohen boys poking his head inside my bubble to tell me to put the comic book down because we were about to leave. I shrugged and went back into comic book world. I wasn’t worried because I knew Mom would never leave without me. When it came truly, positively, this is the last time I’m telling you, time to leave, she would come find me and drag me out of the store.

I read three comic books from cover to cover before I realized that the six other kids, Mom, and the Vista Cruiser were gone.

I had been left behind. Stranded at the Eckerd’s Drug Store.

I ran out of the store and searched the parking lot. I searched the road in hopes that they hadn’t gotten too far away. Maybe they had only made it to the traffic light and I could still catch up. I looked all around, but they weren’t just gone; they were long gone.

How could they have left me? Didn’t anybody notice that I wasn’t in the car? How could Mom leave me behind? Didn’t her maternal instincts tell her that something was missing from the back seat? What about my brother and sister? Didn’t they notice? Actually, that wasn’t fair. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if they were missing.

Someone in that car did know I was missing and said nothing. The Cohen boy who warned me that they were leaving knew I had been left behind.

I sat on the sidewalk in front of the store and sobbed. I had been abandoned. I was never going to see my family again. I was going to have to live in the Eckerd’s Drug Store. I didn’t want to live in the Eckerd’s Drug Store. I knew the people who worked there didn’t like me. I saw how they glared at me for reading their comic books without buying any. I was doomed.

I don’t know how long I had been huddled on the curb before a woman came out of the store and noticed me crying. I wasn’t crying loudly, just a steady blubber with occasional hiccups. The woman had a kind face framed by white hair. She was overdressed for the weather. She wore a skirt and jacket with a matching hat. Even though at the time all adults towered over me, I could tell she was a small woman.

“Why are you crying, little boy?” she asked.

“My mom left me,” I explained.

The nice woman asked me my name. She knew my father and called his office. She told him where to find me. She told me not to worry, I would be home in no time, and then she went on her way.

I was still sitting on the curb when Dad arrived. Here was where I began to get some inkling of how the perspective of a seven-year-old was different from an adult’s. I got in the car with Dad. He drove for two blocks, turned left into a parking lot and there was his dentist’s office. I thought I had been at some remote location and I was only two blocks from my Dad’s office. Once inside, Dad called Mom.

“Dot, where’s Mickey?” Dad asked Mom.

“Oh, he’s outside playing,” she said.

“No,” Dad said, “he’s not. He’s here with me.”

Dad didn’t take me home right away. He had more work to do before he could call it a day. I sat in his waiting room until he was ready to go.

Dad was a children’s dentist so he had beat up comic books and old Highlights in his waiting room. I tried to read the comic books, but too many pages were missing. I didn’t care much for the Highlights because they was so predictable. No matter what, Goofus lost and the ass-kissing Gallant was the hero.

Dad and I got home just after the sun had gone down. I was worn out. I’d had an emotional day. When I walked in the door, Mom smiled mischievously and said, “Oh there you are. I’ve been calling you to come in for hours.”

Everybody had a good laugh, except me. I went to my room, sat at my desk and drew. I used the same small polished wood desk with three drawers on the side and a sheet of clear glass over the top that my older brother used before me and that my little brother would use after me. I spent hours at that desk, filling reams of blue-line notebook paper and stacks of writing tablets with the adventures of super heroes that I had invented.

I created teams of characters who fought side-by-side against darkness and evil. There were the Night Searchers, all of whom wore black and operated under the cover of night. There was the Desert Patrol, a multi-ethnic group of men who traveled the Earth saving people in trouble. There was Maxwell and his Gang. I’m not sure what they did. Maybe they rode around in a van and solved mysteries.

I never wrote down their adventures. Instead, I would draw a fight scene or the group posing together, ready for action, and then I would tell their stories to myself.

My super heroes always watched each other’s backs. They were willing to die for each other. No matter how dangerous the situation, they would have never in a million years have left a member of their team behind.