MAKE IT RAIN

Becoming a stripper wasn’t my life’s ambition, rather a steppingstone while I figured out what to do with myself.

I was attending classes at NYU during the day and working at a dive bar in New Jersey at night. It was a grueling job with very little pay, lousy tips, sticky floors and lots of pervs hitting on me. After much thought, I decided to take a break from school and look for more desirable employment. I was a class act – clean, pretty and always dressed to the nines. I deserved better than a sleazy Jersey joint.    

While looking through the classifieds, I came across an ad that read “High-end cocktail lounge seeking hostesses”. No name was listed but the address was well-known – Billionaires’ Row, the wealthiest and most exclusive section of Manhattan. I called the number in the ad; it turned out to be “The Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club”, the most elite lounge in Manhattan. I went for an interview the next day and started working that night.

Everyone from the kitchen staff to Luca, the manager, treated all the girls with dignity and respect – a far cry from the dumpster in Jersey. The clientele was equally gracious. I’d been watching the dancers here interact with the guests. The Sapphire was a one-way contact club; the girls could touch the customers, sit in their laps, etc. but the men could not touch the girls.

After a few nights Luca asked if I was interested in dancing. I knew I could make a lot of money so I agreed. When he told me I’d need a stage name, I chose Blaine, my hometown in Ohio. “I like it!” Luca said. “How’s this for a catchphrase: ‘Come make it rain for Blaine!’?”

My first night on stage was thrilling. The house lights dimmed and Luca announced me. When the spotlight hit me, I was standing with my back to the room; I wore stiletto heels, a sparkling G-string and nothing else. A hush fell over the room. As Journey’s song “Lovin’, Touchin,’ Squeezin” began to pulsate, I grabbed the pole and peeked provocatively over my shoulder at the crowd, my long auburn hair cascading down my back. I danced with total abandon and money rained down.

Luca told me a prominent customer requested I join him at his private table in the darkened balcony. I froze; this was not what I bargained for. Luca was quick to calm my fears saying everything would be alright and a bodyguard would be discreetly positioned two feet away.

Julius, one of the bodyguards, escorted me upstairs. I was surprised to see an elderly man at the table; he looked and talked liked an older version of Mr. Rogers. I whispered “Hello” not sure what to do next. I resisted the temptation to call him “Fred”.

He looked at me and smiled. “Blaine, lovely to meet you.” He stood up, removed his suit jacket and wrapped it around my naked body. “My name is Walter Ashcroft. Please join me”.  

A waitress appeared with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. I declined saying it was against company policy to drink while working. “Oh, I don’t think Luca would object” Walter said. “After all, I own this establishment. In fact, I own every building on this street.”  

I glanced up at Julius who simply nodded once in agreement.

“What do you want me to do, Mr. Ashcroft?” I questioned, curious as to what would happen next.

“My dear, I realize I’m old enough to be your grandfather but please call me ‘Walter’. All I want is someone to talk to. Tell me about yourself. You are an enchanting entertainer but I don’t think this is all you want to do. Tell me, Blaine. What are your goals in life?”

I found myself telling Walter about my life in Ohio, college, New Jersey, my dream to someday own my own business. I even divulged my real name: Doris Freeman. He listened attentively, encouraging me to continue talking. After about an hour he announced it was time for him to leave. I returned his jacket and he took both my hands in his. After Walter left I looked down; there were five $100 bills nestled in my hands!

This went on for one week. I found my talks with Walter to be the highlight of my night and it wasn’t because of the money; I genuinely liked him. He spoke very little and hung on my every word. He was the epitome of the perfect gentleman.

Finally one evening Walter asked me a question: “So, tell me, Blaine. What is this business you’ve been dreaming about?”

“You know the Russian Tea Room, right? An important man like you, of course you know it! Someday I want to own a place just like that – a haven of fine cuisine and decadent desserts, especially elegant afternoon tea for ladies of high society. Crazy, isn’t it?”

“Not at all. There’s nothing crazy about dreaming big. How do you think I got here?”

That was the last time I saw Walter; he suddenly just stopped coming into the club. When I questioned Luca, he sadly informed me that Walter had passed away. It sounds ridiculous but I cried like a baby. I had become quite attached to that man, strange as it may seem. And I know he genuinely cared for me. As the days went by I tried not to think about Walter but I just couldn’t forget him.

Things just weren’t the same after that and even though I still enjoyed my job, something was missing. I’d find myself glancing up at the darkened balcony hoping to see Walter, knowing that was an impossibility. Several weeks went by and I was still in a funk. Why could I not forget that man?! I seriously considered quitting the club and going back to school. I had some money saved up so I knew I’d be okay until something came along. The last thing I wanted was to become a career dancer. Did I really want to do this for another fifteen years only to be replaced by younger girls when my looks started to fade? Or should I take Walter’s advice to dream big?

One night Luca approached me and said a messenger had dropped something off for me. He handed me a little flat leather box which contained a business card for Hamilton Barrow, Esq. On the back was written very neatly “Dream big, Blaine. Hamilton is expecting your call. Affectionately, Walter.” I’m not embarrassed to admit seeing Walter’s name felt like a warm hug from an angel.

That afternoon I called Hamilton Barrow; he was very British and quite proper. “Ah, yes. Miss Freeman. It appears that Walter Ashcroft named you as a beneficiary in his will.”

“That’s incredible! Walter was such a sweet old guy but I don’t understand why he’d name me.”

“Well, Miss Freeman, it’s not our place to wonder why. In any event, I believe what I’m trying to say is that ‘sweet old guy’ made it rain. Can you come to my office this afternoon?”

Bewildered, I agreed. When I arrived at Mr. Barrow’s office, he handed me a thin grey linen envelope. Inside was a check made out to me. I nearly fainted looking at the number of zeros.

“There must be some mistake” I mumbled.

“I assure you there is no mistake, Miss Freeman. Walter Ashcroft did not make mistakes. He left you a considerable amount of money, a fortune some might say, with the instructions to ‘Dream Big’.”

This was my chance to see my life’s ambition come true. “God bless you, dear Walter. I won’t let you down. And no matter how successful I become I will never forget you.”

“Good luck, Miss Freeman” Mr. Barrow declared.

“Thank you, Mr. Barrow. Tell me: how does the name ‘Ashcroft’s’ sound to you?”

Quite appropriate, Miss Freeman. Quite appropriate.” I even detected a slight twinkle in his eye.

And for the first time in weeks I felt truly happy.

NAR © 2022

 

MISTY

It was one of those stormy evenings, the kind of weather that could make people think twice about going out. But “The Divine One”, the legendary Sarah Vaugan, was set to perform at the Blue Note.

Founder and owner Danny Bensusan’s policy was well known: if he brought big acts into a comfortable environment with great food, he could pack the house night after night. He managed to do exactly that and the place soon became the city’s premier jazz club..

I’d been working as a coat check girl at the Blue Note for a couple of months when I was “discovered”, if one could even call it that. The crew was cleaning up after the final show, me in the “Lost and Found” cubicle of the coat room. It always amazed me how people could leave behind such things as mink coats and diamond-studded cigarette lighters! Were they that drunk or was money no object for the elite slumming it on West 3rd Street in “The Village”?

Well, there I was, stashing a forgotten très chic cashmere scarf in the bin, absentmindedly singing ‘Misty’, when I heard a familiar voice behind me.

Hey, you been holding out on me, kid? You got a great set of pipes!” It was Danny. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked.

Michelle” I replied, tapping my name tag with long red fingernails. “Michelle Grant.”

Pointing his index finger and winking, Danny clicked his tongue as if in cahoots with me over some kind of secret and walked off.

About two weeks later I got called into Danny’s office – something that never happened. I thought for sure I was gonna get canned but that wasn’t the case. Danny offered me a singing gig as part of the group that performed with the house band. It was nothing special – just singing ballads while the patrons dined and danced – but it got me out of the coat check room and in front of people. I also got a nice little increase in my paycheck and the clientele started recognizing me as one of the singers. Plus I got to hang out with some pretty big names back then: Lionel Hampton, Carmen McRae, Oscar Peterson and the one-and-only Ray Charles who Danny booked for a full week every year.

So there we were, ears glued to the weather report on the radio, hoping people would still come out in this September nor’easter. We were not disappointed. Slowly but surely the house filled up with fans eager to hear Sarah Vaughan. Danny was beaming, grinning from ear to ear. This was going to be a night to remember. There was just one little hiccup: Sarah Vaughan was nowhere in sight.

Danny kept pacing back and forth, checking his watch every fifteen seconds. I could see him starting to sweat. Then the call came in: “The Divine One” and her crew were stranded on the flooded FDR Drive. They’d get there “as soon as they could” but who knew when that would be?

By now the natives were getting restless and calling out for the show to begin. Danny grabbed me by the elbow and said “It’s up to you, kid. Stall ’em as long as you can. Just get out there and smile and act like everything’s fine.” Before I could object, Danny shoved me onto the stage; hundreds of eyes stared at me like “Who the hell is this chick?”

I stared back like a deer in headlights. You could hear a pin drop. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Danny gesturing for me to get the show started.

I walked up to the mike with feigned confidence and in a hushed tone said “Good evening and welcome to the Blue Note. I’m Michelle Grant and this is ‘Misty’.”

The audience gasped in unison; that was Sarah Vaughan’s signature song. Even Danny and the piano man, Erwin “Sweetness” Brown, looked up in stunned disbelief. I sang the all-too-familiar first three words, “Look at me”, a cappella and “Sweetness” joined in just like it had been planned.

I sang like my life depended on it. When I was done the place was silent, then all hell broke loose, everyone standing on their feet cheering and applauding. I was floored, thrilled that they liked me that much! I twirled around in delight and as I spun I saw “The Divine One” standing behind me. That’s when reality slapped me in the face – the crowd wasn’t applauding for me; the people were cheering the arrival of Sarah Vaughan.

I wanted to disappear. Sarah took my hands in hers and whispered in my ear “Nice job, honey – but you do know ‘Misty’ is MY song, don’t you? And you ain’t ever singing again, ‘cept maybe in the shower!”

I nodded mutely and started walking of the stage but she stopped me and said to the audience “How about a round of applause for my protégé, Michelle Grant?”

And this time they were clapping for me!

NAR © 2021

ALL ABOARD!

Cattle, not people! That’s what it felt like to me when I was riding the subways of New York City. Just when you think another person can’t possibly fit, at least a dozen manage to squeeze their way in. It’s kind of like the clown car at the circus, only not the least bit amusing.

The first half of my morning commute from New Rochelle in Westchester County into “the city” was quite pleasant. I’d buy a muffin and a freshly brewed cup of coffee at Britain and McCain’s, then hop on the Metro North New Haven line. At the time I worked on Church Street in the financial district of lower Manhattan. The 7:18 AM train was brightly lit, clean, perfectly climate-controlled and the seats were nicely spread out making for a comfortable and relaxing ride. I’d always see the same friendly faces, fellow suburbanites with their briefcases and newspaper tucked under an arm. A nod or a wave was all that was necessary; no need for casual conversation as everyone was looking forward to a peaceful trek to work. It was all quite civilized. It took 40 minutes to get to Grand Central Terminal where I’d then hustle to catch the subway to Church Street.

Grand Central – an awe-inspiring wonder of architecture and one of the busiest terminals in the world – has always been a whirling hub of activity with harried commuters scurrying about like so many little ants rushing to catch their train. Finding a seat on one of the countless subway trains was a continuous battle. Any shred of human decency was discarded at the terminal doors as people trampled each other in the hopes of securing a place to sit or, at the very least, a spot against a wall on which to lean. If you were unable to find neither seat nor wall, you’d have no choice but to position yourself in the aisles where you could hang onto the hand straps suspended from the ceiling or stand shoulder-to-shoulder like disgruntled sheep crammed in a stall with no place to go. And if anyone should stumble and fall, God help them because no one else would! Livestock on the road to the slaughterhouse; is it any wonder so many people were frustrated and disillusioned by their daily commute and in turn hated their jobs?

Most days there were unexplained delays and the 20-minute ride to Church Street took much longer than that. The unvoiced question dangled in the stifling air: how long will we be stuck this time? People would hang their heads in defeat and heave a sigh of resignation knowing they were at the mercy of the subway puppeteers. I stared at this sign for so many mindless hours I can still recite the entire message in both English and Spanish:

For people with claustrophobia, just being underground is a nightmare; similarly being jammed on a subway is a hellish experience, especially in the heat of summer. The worst part was when the train would stall in the tunnel and all the power would go out – no lights, no air conditioning, no nothing – just the overwhelming conglomeration of the stench of body odor, bad breath, urine and other bodily secretions along with the complaining gripes and groans, pisses and moans of those stuck in the train. And as if that weren’t bad enough, you’d suddenly become aware of the alarming feel of creepy, unwelcome hands fondling your ass or some horny pervert rubbing against you – and you were incapable of moving an inch. I recall being frozen in place praying for the lights to quickly come back on and the train to start up. For any normal person, being groped regardless the situation is a humiliating and despicable ordeal; having it happen while trapped in a dark, crowded, sweaty, smelly subway car is indescribably terrifying – enough to put anyone over the brink. I came close to losing it more times than I care to remember. Crying out “Get your filthy hands off me!” would generally elicit snickering, laughing or the occasional tsk of commiseration and disapproval.

That was the typical morning subway expedition; by the time I arrived at the office I felt like I needed a shower. When the workday was done at 5:00 PM, the mass exodus would begin and the subway horror show would start again. It didn’t take me too long to realize I couldn’t endure these conditions indefinitely and I discovered an unusual survival strategy; I started taking the train four stations deeper into the bowels of Manhattan from Church Street to Canal Street, a 10-minute subway ride in the opposite direction from Grand Central Station and further away from the comfort and serenity of the New Haven Line. My reasoning behind this backwards maneuver was really quite simple: Canal Street was the originating point for the trip to Grand Central and I would always find a seat. If I waited to get on at Church Street the train would already be full. I’d head straight for the somewhat secluded two-seater in the corner. I didn’t care how long the trip took, how crowded the train became or how many times we got stuck; as long as I was sitting in the corner I felt safe. I could close my eyes and pretend to be asleep or hide my nose in a book; I finished quite a few chapters on that 30-minute ride while tucked away in those coveted corner seats.

For some reason, though, I would inevitably attract the undesirables. Many a ponderous man would wedge himself into the seat next to me, breathing heavily and reeking of garlic. Why, when there were plenty of empty seats, would I end up with Jabba the Hutt plopping down next to me? I would stay put and do my best to cope with a most unpleasant situation. There was also the occasional sicko (although one is more than enough) who would position himself directly in front of me, his manhood at full attention mere inches from my face. Those were the times I prayed for death. If I could have hung myself from one of the ceiling hand straps I gladly would have done so, drifting off into unconsciousness while visions of Lorena Bobbitt danced in my head. Instead I would prop my briefcase vertically on my lap and hide behind it. By some source of divine intervention the lights never went out during one of those close encounters of the worst kind.

It’s been more than 40 years since I worked in Manhattan; I loved my job and the people I worked with but after seven years I’d had enough of the commute. Kudos to those who travel the trains for twenty or more years; I have no idea how they do it! I don’t miss riding the subway one bit and if I have to go into Manhattan these days, I drive. I’ll gladly take on any maniac behind the wheel of a taxi or a truck rather than deal with the neanderthal subway passengers. I’m just thankful my days of riding the New York City cattle cars ended while I still had my dignity and sanity intact.

NAR © 2020

JUST DESSERTS

Death comes suddenly to some; for others it takes a lifetime.

It was Good Friday of 1946; Kathleen O’Brien walked through a narrow cobblestone passage way to St. Brigid’s Church. She hated walking by Sully’s Bar with its overpowering stench of booze and abundance of seedy characters hanging around but she was late for services (a terrible habit) and this was a convenient shortcut. She was twenty-two years old – no longer a kid – yet she’d rather die than admit to her mother that she missed the Veneration of the Cross. It was bad enough she was late for everything.

Seeing an unfamiliar man drinking a beer and leaning against the wall outside Sully’s, Kathleen quickened her pace. She heard him chuckle and say “What’s ya hurry, toots?” She walked even faster, opening the side door of the church; it creaked loudly. The elderly priest paused in mid-sentence and made a grand gesture of looking in Kathleen’s direction; he stared at her over his glasses, giving her a withering scowl. Embarrassed, she quickly found a seat at the end of a pew next to Mrs. Callahan who huffed at having to make room for this rude latecomer.

As is the tradition on Good Friday, everyone remained after services for a period of silent prayer. It was a time to reflect and meditate, one of Kathleen’s favorite parts of Holy Week. When the ushers opened the church doors the sense of peacefulness and solemnity was instantly shattered by the loud music and drunken laughter emanating from Sully’s Bar. “Some people have no respect” thought Kathleen angrily. “An Irish pub shouldn’t even be open on Good Friday!

As she began her walk home Kathleen noticed the same man from the bar standing at the corner. Had he been waiting for her or was this just a coincidence? Warily Kathleen took a step when suddenly the man started walking right toward her. She was taken aback as he stood in her path and extended his hand. “Name’s Harry Selkin and you’re one fine lookin’ dame. Ya need somebody like me to walk ya home. It can be dangerous for a good Catholic girl like yourself to be alone in this neck of the woods.”

Where do you get off saying something like that to me?” Kathleen snapped. “And how do you know I’m a good Catholic girl anyway?”

Well, I ain’t no Einstein but I seen ya practically runnin’ to St. Brigid’s like ya pants was on fire and I’m guessinya ain’t no altar boy – not with them gorgeous legs.” Harry replied in a very ‘Bogey’ sort of way. He smiled and his tough guy persona became surprisingly charming. Kathleen found it hard not to laugh just a little at this roguish stranger and she shocked herself by allowing him to walk her home.

Harry and Kathleen were as different as a gorilla and a swan but there was an undeniable chemistry between them and they started falling in love. No one was more surprised than Kathleen; Harry was like no man she had ever met. Sure, he was rough around the edges but she loved how his face lit up like a kid whenever he ate dessert, especially his favorite – homemade apple pie. Kathleen was known for her baking skills and would make a pie for Harry every couple of days.

They had a whirlwind courtship and Harry popped the question, much to Kathleen’s delight – and her parent’s chagrin. At first they tolerated the relationship thinking it would blow over, but the more serious it got the more concerned they became. There was a major obstacle her parents couldn’t overlook – the fact that Harry was Jewish. Kathleen’s father was dead set against Harry, calling him names like ‘Christ killer’ and ‘kike’. He was enraged when Kathleen announced that she and Harry were going to get married with or without his blessing. Her mother was crushed. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Can’t you see he’s no good for you? I don’t trust him at all, Katy girl, not at all!” she warned, crying into her apron. Kathleen hated defying her parents but would not be dissuaded; she was in love! Her father said she was a blind fool and if she married “that good-for-nothing bum” she was dead to him. With a heavy heart Kathleen closed the door of her childhood home behind her and never looked back.

Harry and Kathleen got married in city hall, the judge and his clerk their only guests and witnesses. After a weekend honeymoon in Niagara Falls the couple settled into Harry’s tiny apartment – a walk-up on the fifth floor and almost within arm’s reach of the elevated train. Kathleen was startled by the scream of the locomotive but Harry said she’d get used to it.

The dilapidated condition of the apartment shocked Kathleen but she was determined to turn it into a lovely home for them. She sewed curtains and towels for the kitchen and bought bed coverings from the thrift store. She also bought sacks of apples from the fruit stand to make Harry’s beloved apple pies. She read in her cookbook that it was alright to freeze apples until you were ready to use them – a handy tip Kathleen didn’t know.

Harry worked the graveyard shift as a printer at the local newspaper, seven days a week from midnight till 8:00 AM. His fingers were permanently stained with black ink. The first morning he came home from work and saw the newly decorated apartment, he got angry at Kathleen for spending his hard-earned money on unnecessary things. Uncaring, he left ink stains on the bedspread when he sat down to remove his shoes. However his mood lightened considerably when he eyed the sacks of apples and Kathleen forgave his angry outburst when she saw that boyish grin.

While Harry slept during the day Kathleen cleaned, shopped and cooked. She wanted a vacuum cleaner but Harry said it was too expensive and the noise would keep him awake so she settled for a carpet sweeper. Their only chance to be together was at breakfast and dinner time – and of course for coffee and dessert. Kathleen suggested a few times that it would be nice if Harry worked during the day so they could be like a normal couple and spend more time together but her words fell on deaf ears.

She also longed for a baby. Each time she thought she was pregnant it turned out to be a false alarm. She saw a doctor who wasn’t very encouraging; he shrugged his shoulders, gave her ambiguous explanations and performed a couple of routine tests. He told her it was just one of those things; not all couples could get pregnant. When Kathleen finally got up the nerve to mention to Harry what the doctor said, he laughed and said it wasn’t his fault she couldn’t get pregnant; “Just ask that sweet little Frenchie I knocked up during the war” was his mean-spirited reply. Kathleen felt like she’d been kicked in the gut. When she cried that she needed something else to fill her lonely days Harry yelled to “go get a job and start earnin’ ya keep around here! Who needs another mouth to feed anyways?” Kathleen was reeling; how could he say such hurtful things? Heartbroken, she eventually gave up on having a baby and found a job as a presser in a shirt factory. The work was exhausting and she still had to maintain the apartment and cook for Harry.

What happened to the guy she married? Harry was constantly annoyed about something or other and drank more now than usual. He got mean when he drank and and Kathleen bore the brunt of his anger. When he demanded sex every night before going to work, she kept her mouth shut but she was silently screaming. This was no way to exist, like a piece of property and not a person. She’d lie awake at night remembering her mother’s warning words. The only thing in her God-forsaken life that she truly enjoyed was baking and she did it all for Harry. She would fantasize about how lovely it would be to have her own little bake shop; she’d make lots of delicious cakes and pies for her large following of loyal customers – not just for her selfish husband. She knew she could do it if she only had the chance.

A few weeks after Kathleen began working she started complaining about backaches and being very tired – probably from constantly lifting the heavy pressing machines at work. Harry, as usual, was unsympathetic and said she better toughen up because no way was she giving up that job.

One morning Kathleen asked Harry if he could bring down the mixing bowl she kept on top of the fridge so she could make an apple pie. He was tired from working all night and wanted to get to sleep but he obliged her at the prospect of dessert. Harry put down his bottle of beer and got the step-stool out of the closet. As he started to climb, Kathleen hoisted a five pound sack of frozen apples, wincing at the pain in her back, and bashed Harry as hard as she could on the back of his head. He fell backwards onto the kitchen floor, his lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling.

Kathleen hurriedly tore open the sack of apples and dumped them into a pot on the stove. She shoved the empty apple sack into the garbage bag, bunched it all up and threw it down the incinerator chute outside their apartment door. Placing a new bag in the garbage can, she looked at Harry’s body and felt sick to her stomach, vomiting in the sink. She washed her hands and face, then placed a call to the police.

HELP!” Kathleen screamed into the phone. “My husband fell! I think he’s dead!” Then she calmly sat at the kitchen table and waited, crying over misspent years. The police and ambulance arrived quickly; after examining Harry, he was officially declared dead. Blunt force trauma, they said, obviously from smashing his head on the kitchen floor. Everyone was very conciliatory and sympathetic and they respectfully removed Harry’s body. “If there’s anything we can do, Mrs. Selkin, please let us know” the officers said as they left Kathleen alone in the quiet apartment.

Kathleen cleaned up the kitchen and called her boss at the shirt factory to say she wouldn’t be able to work that day. Her boss barked that if she didn’t come in to work she shouldn’t bother coming back at all. Kathleen simply said “Goodbye”. She put the pot of apples in the fridge and after changing her clothes she went to the funeral parlor to make arrangements for Harry.

When she got home she received a phone call from her doctor. “Mrs. Selkin, I’m calling because your test results came back; you and Mr. Selkin will be thrilled to know you’re pregnant. Congratulations, Mrs. Selkin!” Kathleen swayed in stunned disbelief and grabbed onto the edge of the table. She managed a weak “Thank you” and hung up the phone. “Pregnant” she whispered in awe and her slight smile slowly grew into a broad grin. She gently touched her belly, truly happy for the first time in years.

The next morning Kathleen baked a large apple pie with the same apples she used to bash in Harry’s head. When the pie was done and still warm, she placed it in a box and delivered it to the nice policemen. On the way home she stopped in the little bakery near her apartment and inquired about a job. It was a start, a new beginning for her and her baby.

NAR © 2020

NEW YORK STATE OF TERROR

Death was on Julia Rubino’s mind a lot during 1976.

Automatic nagative thoughts (or ANTS as she called them) started entering her brain months go when she first heard about the mysterious murders in New York City.

The killer openly taunted the police. Seeking misplaced attention and public veneration, he wrote rambling and ambiguous letters to journalist Jimmy Breslin who printed them in his column in The Daily News. In his letters the murderer sometimes referenced a cult, hinting that the killings were a rite of passage. Other times he claimed a demonic dog owned by his neighbor Sam spoke to him demanding the blood of pretty young girls.

All the victims were females with long dark hair; as a college student with shoulder-length brunette curls, Julia felt particularly vulnerable. When she told her parents she wanted to cut her hair and dye it blonde they said she was over-reacting. Julia’s boyfriend Steve told her she was being ridiculous, that there was nothing to worry about. He said they were safe in their little town of New Rochelle. Violent crimes like that only happened in dangerous urban locations, not quiet Westchester County.

At night Julia and Steve often drove to the Glen Island Beach parking lot in New Rochelle; it was a popular make-out place and the police very rarely patrolled the area. When Julia told Steve she didn’t want to go parking any more, he got pissed off. Tearfully she reminded him that the killings always involved two victims – young women and their boyfriends parked in cars. She couldn’t shake the idea that something terrible was going to happen to them. Steve argued that they had no other choice if they wanted to be alone. They had no privacy living at home with their parents and Julia felt going to a motel was sleazy. Frustrated, Steve yelled at her to calm down and get a grip. Afraid of losing him, Julia begrudgingly chose to give in.

On July 29 things took an unexpected and shocking turn; the first murders in Westchester County occurred. This time the killer’s MO was different and left the police wondering if the shootings were done by the same individual or a copy-cat killer. The victims were two girls sitting in a car in a well-lit area – not a girl and her boyfriend in a darkened parking lot. The two women were nurses Jody Valenti and Donna Lauria. They had been sitting in Jody’s double-parked Oldsmobile outside Donna’s house talking about their night at a New Rochelle disco. When Donna opened the car door to leave a man suddenly approached. Pulling out a gun, he crouched down and opened fire. Donna was killed instantly but Jody survived. The attack happened quickly however Jody was able to give a description of the assailant; it matched that of the shooter of the previous killings.

Westchester County residents were panic-stricken, especially Julia. Police urged everyone to stay vigilant and refrain from sitting in parked cars. Julia considered dropping out of college and hiding in her house until the murderous madman was caught; her parents convinced her it was irrational to completely cut oneself off from the world.

For more than a year the killer held the citizens of New York captive but on the night of August 10, 1977 the state of terror finally ended. After a tense shootout the murderer was apprehended at his Yonkers apartment – ironically within earshot of Westchester Community College where Julia was a student.

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of that historic arrest. The notorious killer was David Berkowitz, known around the world as Son of Sam.

Exactly ten years ago to the day. Berkowitz pled guilty to all the shootings and is currently serving six life sentences in Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Ulster County, New York.

Authors note: With the exception of Julia Rubino, her boyfriend Steve and her parents, everyone and everything in this story is factual.

NAR © 2020

LOCK IT UP

Finding himself suddenly unemployed, Omar anguished over supporting his family – not just his wife and kids but his parents in Somalia. One would think having a biomedical engineering degree would open many doors for him but the job search proved more difficult than Omar imagined. His wife Waris was trained as a midwife and she was willing to go back to work but Omar was too proud to allow her to be the only breadwinner in the family. He would find work if it was the last thing he did. Waris encouraged him to look outside his comfort zone; it was then that he saw the ad in Craig’s List:

Drive With Uber – Be Your Own Boss.
For information call 888-555-BOSS

Omar called the number; a man with a strange accent anwered. “UberBoss” was all he said.

Um, yes” replied Omar haltingly. “I’m calling about the ad.”

Email your phone number and driver’s license to uberboss@hotmail.com. We’ll be in touch.”

That’s it? Don’t I need to take a test or something?” Omar asked.

Look, buddy. You want the job or do you want to play 20 questions?” the man replied sarcastically.

Yes, I’m interested, but what is the pay, please?” inquired Omar.

The man sighed impatiently. “$25 an hour; UberBoss gets 20% commission plus 25% booking fee.”

Omar was stunned. “That seems a bit exorbitant!”

That’s the going rate, buddy. Work six days, clear $100. Take it or leave it” was the gruff response.

Considering he currently had no income, Omar accepted.

Ok, buddy. Someone will call you.” Click. Within the hour Omar received his first assignment.

+ + + + + + + +

A woman was waiting for Omar; she wore a burka and only her eyes were visible. She signaled Omar to roll down the window, handed him a thick envelope and quickly walked away without saying a word. Taped to the envelope was a key and instructions which read: “100 Hester Street, Locker #57. Unlock padlock, remove backpack, leave envelope and key, snap padlock shut.”

The destination was a YMCA. Upon entering the building Omar spotted a hallway with a row of lockers. He found #57, opened the padlock, removed the backpack, placed the envelope and key inside the locker and snapped the lock shut. The pack had a tag with an address, locker number and key attached; this had to be his next destination. It turned out to be a bus depot and the locker contained a thick envelope just like the one the woman had given him earlier. Omar determined he had to remove the envelope and replace it with the backpack from the previous locker. He tossed in the key and secured the lock.

This routine continued for six hours at which point Omar received a text from UberBoss requesting his PayPal address. He was advised that his work was finished for the day and he would get a new assignment in the morning. Omar complied and shortly after he received another text, this time from PayPal informing him that $100 had been deposited in his account.

The days were tiring and monotonous. Omar’s ass was sore from driving all around town and he didn’t speak to a single person all day. Being an uber driver was not what he thought it would be; he was just some tool in a game of hide and seek. But he’d been at it for three weeks and had accumulated $2100 in his PayPal account – more money than he had in a long time.

Omar was getting very curious about the contents of the envelopes and backpacks but they were tightly sealed – except for today. Noticing a small tear in the envelope, Omar used his pocket knife to finesse the opening just a bit. Peeking inside he saw stacks of neatly bound $100 bills and the hooded eyes of Benjamin Franklin staring back at him.

Omar considered his next move for about five seconds. He drove to the address on the envelope, ripped off the key and shoved the envelope under the front seat of his car. Driving to his destination he located the locker, grabbed the backpack and snapped the lock. Whatever was in these packs had to be very valuable.

As he sped home Omar knew he was taking a huge risk but it was worth it for Waris and his family. He laughed excitedly at the prospect of financial freedom and the more he laughed the faster he drove. The sound of screaming sirens brought Omar back to reality; a police car was chasing him. He was forced off the road and commanded to step out of the car. While looking through the car the police found the envelope full of money. They also found a backpack crammed with bricks of cocaine.

Omar’s world came crashing down around him and he desperately proclaimed his innocence, to no avail. He was handcuffed and hauled away on the spot. Omar never saw the text that came from UberBoss: “Big mistake, Buddy! Say bye bye.”

At the same moment back at Omar’s house a frantic Waris was tearfully staring down the barrel of the UberBoss’s gun.

NAR © 2020

THE DATING GAME

Rachel and Paul had been together for six years. They assumed one day they would marry, have kids – the whole nine yards – but life has a funny way of taking twists and turns. Their romance and dreams just fizzled out but they remained very close and relied on each other for guidance – from the job scene to the dating game.

One night Rachel texted Paul: “Hey, babe. Ella & Sam set us up with blind dates for Fri. U in?”

Paul: “Y not? No plans anyway!”

Rachel: “Great! Emilio’s @ 7. Glad U R my back-up!”

Paul: “Ditto, babe! C U there.”

Both kicked themselves for calling the other “babe”. Old habits die hard.

Friday night the foursome met at Emilio’s. Paul and Rachel exchanged looks; her eyes were screaming “WTF!” Dinner was quick.

As soon as Paul got home he called Rachel: “What just happened?!”

Rachel howled: “A TOTAL FREAK SHOW!! Your date was downright scary! She looked like Vampira and I swear her eyes were red! She wore a black cape – with a hood, for Christ’s sake and her steak was so rare it was practically throbbing!”

And what about YOUR date?!” Paul exclaimed. “Wrist-to-neck tattoos, facial piercings, boots with spikes and a ‘Carcass’ t-shirt! He downed a bottle of beer in two gulps and belched like a bloody Viking!”

I’ll never let Sam and Ella play matchmakers again. I’m sure they thought it was hysterical” Rachel quipped. “So … my mother set me up with her friend’s son, ‘The Doctor’, for next Saturday. If you get a date maybe we can try this again.”

Sure. Nothing could be as bad as tonight” Paul replied. “I’ll call ya.”

A few days later Paul called to say he had a date for Saturday – a friend of his cousin. “But she said ‘drinks only’ and she’ll take a taxi.”

Fine” Rachel agreed. “If it’s another debacle we can all go our separate ways.”

Arrangements were made to meet at ‘The Aviary’ in Central Park. Rachel’s date was Wesley, a gynecologist/obstetrician. He was handsome, tan and suave. Paul’s date was Ginger, a salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret with modeling/acting ambitions. She was a vivacious redhead with mischievous green eyes.

The hostess seated them at a semi-circular booth; Ginger smoothly slid in between Wesley and Paul. With each sip of her martini Ginger inched closer to Wesley, asking risqué questions about his practice; he was more than happy to oblige. Before long they were blatantly flirting, leaving Paul and Rachel dumbfounded. Giggling, Ginger excused herself to use “the little girl’s room”. The trio sat in awkward silence until Wesley’s pager beeped. He announced he had an emergency at the hospital, apologized and left.

Well, there’s no point in me hanging around” Rachel said glumly. “Ginger should be back any second.”

As Rachel got up to leave she glanced out the window and saw Wesley and Ginger getting into his car. “What the hell, Paul! We’ve been dumped!”

Arm in arm Paul and Rachel started the slow walk of rejection through Central Park.

Do you think we’ll ever be as happy as when we were together?” Paul asked quietly.

I don’t think that’s even remotely possible” Rachel sighed.

In the loneliness of the park they held each other tightly, sharing a warm familiar kiss in the moonlight.

Why the hell did we ever break up, Paul?”

I have no idea” he replied wonderingly.

Take me home, babe” Rachel whispered. “I miss us.”

Fingers entwined, they climbed the stairs and went inside, locking the door and the world behind them.

NAR © 2020

IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY

Originally the Chelsea Piers evening boat tour was scheduled to depart at 6:00 but was cancelled due to dense fog. Disappointed, Emma consulted her tour guidebook for something else to do. She read:

The Vortex. Not your father’s watering hole. Located at 15 Christopher Street in the heart of Chelsea. Smoking prohibited in accordance with the New York Clean Indoor Air Act. Other than that, anything goes! 

“Hmm. Now that’s intriguing” Emma thought “and it’s nearby.” 

After a brief stroll Emma arrived at The Vortex, a secluded and rather alluring place. Finding a seat at the bar she ordered a dirty martini. Reflected in the mirror behind the bar was the image of a retro-looking poster. Sliding off her barstool she casually walked up to the poster for a better look. She snapped a photo and returned to the bar.

More people were in the place now – gays, heteros, bisexuals, interracials. Emma found it all so exciting and very New York! When the bartender brought her drink, Emma commented on how electric the atmosphere was and asked “Can you tell me something about that poster?”

“Sure! It’s a beauty, isn’t it?” he replied. “The Vortex is a play written by the literary giant, Noël Coward. It premiered in London in 1924 garnering Coward great critical and financial success. It’s a story about a nymphomaniac socialite and her cocaine-addicted son. Many thought the drug was a cover for homosexuality. As you can imagine it was considered pretty shocking back then. Rumor has it that Princess Margaret owned the original poster for a while. She was a free spirit and loved a good lampoon, especially those directed at the upper classes and British aristocracy.”

“That’s fascinating!” Emma exclaimed. “Something tells me there’s more to the story.”

“Oh, there is” the barkeep agreed. “During the run of The Vortex, Coward met an American director and producer named Jack Wilson. They ran with the same crowd where drugs, booze and homosexuality were prevalent. Wilson became Coward’s business manager and lover. We thought The Vortex was a cool name for the bar. My mother recently brought me that poster; there’s a showing of the play this week.”

“Your mother!” Emma remarked with surprise. “Sounds like you might have a personal connection to this story.”

“Yeah, in a circuitous way I do. My great-great-grandmother was once a chorus girl and she got on famously with Jack Wilson – so much so that she and her husband named their first baby Jack Wilson Morrow and asked Jack to be his godfather. The tradition continued through the years; lots of my relatives were named Jack Wilson so-and-so. In fact, my name is Jack Wilson Connors.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jack Wilson Connors” Emma laughed as she extended her hand. “I’m Emma Louise Kennedy and you have officially blown my mind!”

“I like you, Emma Louise Kennedy! Always nice making new friends. How about another drink – on the house?”

Emma blushed a little and said “Yes, I’d love one.” 

While Jack was preparing Emma’s drink all sorts of thoughts were running through her head … he’s cute, friendly, great personality, no wedding ring. I wonder ­– should I?

“For my new friend, Emma. One perfect dirty martini” Jack said with a flourish.

Trying to sound nonchalant, Emma said “You know, Jack. There’s a performance of The Vortex tomorrow night. How about we make it a date?” 

“I’d really love to, Emma, but I’m married and I don’t think my husband would approve.”

“Oh my God, Jack! I’m sorry! I didn’t realize………”

“No worries, Emma. It runs in the family.”

NAR © 2020

A LITTLE RAY OF LIGHT

It was a blazing hot day in August of 1971. Sweaty air conditioners were working overtime, filling the streets of Manhattan with an unrelenting drone. I was in the elevator of my apartment building having just returned from physical therapy. There were four other people in the elevator – an exterminator, a mid-twenties hippie chick I knew only as “Rain”, elderly and bitter Abe Samuelson and a very pregnant Asian woman I didn’t know. Abe made a point of moving away from the Asian woman, spitting out the words “savage gooks!” Abe usually wisecracked about my missing arm but today his vitriol was directed elsewhere. Ignorant man. 

The doors closed and we began our slow ascent. Old buildings, temperamental elevators and a heatwave – a bad combination. Somewhere between floors 3 and 4 the elevator jolted to a stop. Before Abe could utter a curse word the elevator churned back to life, coughed a bit and stopped again with an ominous screech. Except for a few groans no one said anything. I pushed the alarm button and reached for the elevator’s emergency phone. Halfway through my call the electricity went out, the AC shut off and my phone connection died. Blackness engulfed us and it started getting uncomfortably warm. 

Abe started cursing and banging the walls, all the while ranting “goddamn fucking dinks – I hate them!” The exterminator was praying in what sounded like Haitian Creole and Rain softly hummed “Let It Be”. I tried unsuccessfully to pry open the doors and reminded everyone that at least part of our emergency call went through so help had to be coming. It was then that I became aware of low guttural moans coming from the Asian woman and in Vietnamese she gasped that the baby was coming. 

I asked exterminator man if he had a flashlight, which he did. Turning it on he handed it to me and everyone calmed down a bit. Amazing what a little ray of light can do. The pregnant woman eased herself onto the floor; I told her I understood Vietnamese from my days as a medic in Nam. I said my name was Jack; her name was Thanh. We talked softly as Abe carried on about his son who died in Vietnam – “And for what?? This trash??” he screamed. The exterminator became more agitated and Rain sat by him holding his hand. 

Thanh told me she married an American soldier in early November 1970 and he brought her back to live in the U.S. with his parents. After two weeks he returned to Vietnam; he was killed November 21st in Operation Ivory Coast. Thanh soon learned she was pregnant. Relations with her in-laws became strained and she moved in here with her cousin. As we sat quietly I thought of that November day. I remembered a soldier flung himself on me as I worked in the MASH unit. He was blown to bits while I only lost my arm. Could that have been Thanh’s husband? 

Suddenly Abe stood up and screamed racial slurs at Thanh. The exterminator sobbed while Rain sang to calm him. I yelled for everyone to “shut up!” And that’s when we heard faint voices. 

“Anyone in there?” 

“Roger that! We’re down here!” I shouted and was rewarded with a resounding “HUA!” 

Haltingly the doors were pried open and a rescue ladder was lowered into the elevator.

“The pregnant lady first.”

Gingerly Thanh made her way up the ladder and was rushed to the hospital. The rest of us climbed to safety.

Call it crazy intuition but I had to get to Tranh

NAR © 2020

TI VOGLIO TANTO BENE

There are five boroughs in the city of New York – Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island – each with a unique character and charm of its own. That was true back in the 1930s and it’s still true today.

Every family has a story and mine was no different as I’ve been told numerous times. My parents were both from Manhattan. They met in 1937, got married two years later, moving into the family’s triplex apartment in Manhattan with my mother’s immediate relatives – 19 aunts, uncles and cousins plus her parents and grandparents.

World War II had begun and countless men were being drafted – but only men without children. My mother’s uncles all had several kids making them exempt from the draft. My father was also safe for my mother had a baby just ten months after getting married – a breathtakingly beautiful boy with rosy cheeks and auburn curls. He was named Gaetano after my paternal grandfather. Then the unspeakable happened. My parent’s world came crashing down just two short years later when they endured the devastating loss of their beloved baby Gaetano on New Year’s Eve. “Nephritis” the doctors said. “There’s no cure.”

Given no time to grieve, the army snatched my childless father and shipped him off to Europe to battle the enemy, leaving my mother with no husband and no baby. My father returned home in July of 1945 and somehow they managed to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and begin again. Their daughter Francesca was born in 1947; I followed four years later, born on Francesca’s birthday. I was named Sophia. Francesca still hasn’t forgiven me for ruining her birthday party!

When I was six months old my parents decided the city was no place to raise a family and started looking for houses in The Bronx. In 1951 The Bronx was a lot different than it is now; it was like a village in the countryside with farms where people raised sheep, goats and chickens and grew fresh vegetables. They got milk from the animals and made their own cream, butter and cheese. It was a far cry from Manhattan and it was idyllic.

My parents bought a nice two family house just big enough for the four of us and my grandparents. There was also a large backyard perfect for my grandfather’s grapevines and fig trees and my mother’s vegetable garden. My grandmother was always sickly. I recall my mother telling us how much my grandmother loved being away from Manhattan. She relished sitting in the backyard watching my grandfather picking grapes and feeling the warmth of the sun on her frail body.

On a beautiful warm day I was taking a nap in my baby carriage in the backyard while my grandmother sat in a chair gently rocking the carriage. I started to stir and opened my eyes. I saw my grandmother’s smiling face looking down at me, her doe-like eyes twinkling as she sweetly sang an Italian folk song, “Ti Voglio Tanto Bene” (“I Love You So Much”):

I love you so much and I’ll be here for you. You will feel in your heart a love that is true. I love you so much and I’ll cherish you with my voice sweetly singing only to you.”

At 11 months of age my earliest memory was seeing my grandmother’s adoring face smiling at me. It was her twinkling brown eyes and sweet voice that calmed me. She passed away three years later but the special bond we shared would never die.

Ti voglio tanto bene, nonna.”

NAR © 2019

THE MISSING PIECE

Born on the same day at the same time in Mercy Hospital were two beautiful baby boys. Both had gossamer flaxen hair and skin the color of translucent Easter lilies. The nurses marveled at their incredible likeness, remarking in their sing-song Irish accents “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, would ya look at that! These babes could be twins!” 

One baby was born to the sovereigns of high society, Carlton and Evelyn Winslow of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The couple were like bookends – fair skin, blond hair and bright blue eyes. 

The other baby was the illegitimate son of Rosa Guarinos, an impoverished cleaning lady from the slums of East Harlem. Her complexion was creamy, hair light brown and eyes green like her ancestors from ancient Persia.

It was fate that brought these two women from such divergent stations in life to the same hospital on the same night.

Evelyn’s luxurious penthouse was located across the street from Mercy Hospital; she had reserved an entire suite in the maternity ward of the hospital where she was currently in labor under the watchful care of a team of doctors and nurses.

Rosa was sweeping the floors of Ken’s Tailoring; the little shop where she worked was adjacent to the hospital. It was there that she also went into laborHer kindly boss Ken Siegel gently and attentively escorted Rosa to Mercy Hospital; she was brought to the public maternity ward where she labored with other women of her lowly station, alone and frightened.

Five days later the new mothers were discharged from the hospital. Evelyn and Carlton Winslow brought Maxwell home to their posh apartment where his elaborately decorated nursery awaited him. A specially trained nanny took care of Maxwell’s every need. 

Ken drove Rosa and her baby Victor to her basement apartment in Harlem. Ken offered his help getting Rosa and Victor settled but she declined saying he had already done so much for them. In the corner of the basement Rosa found some canvas tents and set them up to create the illusion of separate rooms. One tent was their bedroom; Rosa slept on a cot and Victor in an old borrowed cradle. Another tent became a makeshift washroom, enclosing the toilet, sink and wash basin. Yet another tent became a work area where Rosa could iron clothes and prepare meals while Victor slept in the ‘bedroom’.

The identical babies grew into identical toddlers. The Winslows celebrated Maxwell’s first birthday with a spectacular party at Tavern on the Green attended by their many acquaintances. Rosa and Victor marked his first birthday with a simple cake, Ken and a handful of trusted friends. 

When Victor was two years old Ken proposed marriage to Rosa; he had always been in love with her and Rosa knew he was a kind and decent man and she cared deeply for him. She believed in time she would grow to love him. They got married and the family moved uptown where Ken had expanded his small tailoring shop into a successful men’s clothing business. Their lives improved significantly and they were very content. 

The years went by; Maxwell and Victor were now teenagers, entirely unaware of each other’s existence even though they lived just two miles apart. They attended different schools and their paths never crossed. They were both happy, well-adjusted boys yet sometimes Maxwell felt an inexplicable void in his life – something he couldn’t understand or dismiss. 

One day Carlton brought Maxwell to Ken Siegel’s shop for a new suit. “We’re closing early today – it’s a family matter. I’m sorry but you must come back tomorrow.” Ken stated nervously. 

Oh, come on, Ken. You always make time for me.” replied Carlton. “I brought my son Maxwell in for a suit. Are you trying to get rid of us?” 

“Please, I really must close now!” Ken insisted. 

But it was too late for just then Victor and Rosa emerged from the storeroom. Maxwell and Victor stopped short, staring at each other in amused bewilderment, unable to deny or explain their identical appearance. 

Upon seeing each other after so many years, Rosa became faint and Carlton gasped in shock. Rushing to Rosa’s side Ken whispered “I’m sorry, my darling. I tried to keep them away. I never wanted him to see you or Victor and I failed you.” Rosa reached up and tenderly caressed her husband’s face, now wet with tears. “Oh, my darling Ken. This day was inevitable and you are not to blame.” Rose whispered.

Composing himself, Ken stood up proudly and addressed Carlton. “Mr. Winslow, as you know seventeen years ago I ran a small tailoring shop. After Victor was born, I was able to acquire this lovely store where you have been a regular customer. Rosa has worked as my assistant, sewing and ironing in the back rooms since day one. We fell in love and have been married for fifteen years. Sir, Victor is my adopted son and he’s very precious to me. I love Victor and Rosa dearly but even someone as self-centered and obtuse as you would know at first glance Victor is your biological son.” 

Carlton stammered “Rosa, why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant? I loved you!” 

“Because you were married and you never would have accepted us as family” Rosa cried.“

“But you deprived me of a son and Victor of a father! I could have provided for him.” Carlton argued.

“Victor is MY son. I lovingly and happily provided for him and Rosa!” shouted Ken. “I don’t believe you would have done so even if you knew about Victor. You and your kind always take the easy way out. Now I must insist that you leave!”

Victor” Carlton said haltingly, “I didn’t know. I hope some day you can forgive me.” Victor simply stared impassively at Carlton and said nothing.

Maxwell” said Carlton. “It’s best we leave here, son. Let’s go home.”  

“No, dad. I don’ want want to but you can go” Maxwell said. “I just found the missing piece of my life. I’d like to stay and talk to my brother, if that’s ok with Mr. and Mrs. Siegel.

Rosa, Ken and Victor looked at each other and nodded in agreement. “You’re always welcome here, Maxwell” said Ken.

Carlton made no further attempt to reach out to his son Victor or embrace this new-found family. Instead, he left the store and walked home, wondering how he could ever explain all this to Evelyn. It wasn’t going to be easy but he’d figure something out. He always did.

NAR © 2019

SUBWAY SIDESHOW

Every morning I take the New York underground transit system (affectionately know as ‘the subway’) from Far Rockaway to my job in Manhattan and back home each evening – a total of three hours round trip. That’s a long time to stare at the weirdos on the train. 

Riding the subway for as long as I do, it’s easy to become familiar with my fellow passenger’s quirks and foibles – even assigning them made up names to go with their peccadilloes. And let me tell you – people are strange! 

Far Rockaway is where the commute originates so I’m always guaranteed a seat. A couple I call Marge and Homer get on the same train. I have determined from their heated conversations that they have been engaged for about six years. Marge is ready to get married; Homer’s not. She talks about her biological clock; he talks about nothing but his possible promotion at work. Then Marge reminds Homer he’s been saying the same thing for five years now and their discussion becomes more heated with every chug of the subway.

First stop: enter Malodorous Man. This guy is always guaranteed a seat in the corner all by himself. The fact that he desperately needs a shower would be enough to keep people away but he also brings his breakfast on the train – a raw onion which he peels and eats with gusto as one would an apple. 

At our next stop Mr. Obsessive gets on and immediately takes out a can of disinfectant and sprays it in the direction of Malodorous Man who indignantly shouts “Hey, I’m eatin’ here!”. 

Mr. Obsessive goes to HIS seat (which no one sits on because everyone knows it’s HIS), cleans it and begins his routine. First he unties his shoe laces making sure they are of equal length. Satisfied that they are, he reties his laces, then adjusts his socks so they reach the exact same height on both legs. He smooths his trousers, unbuttons and re-buttons his jacket, aligns the amount of shirt cuff visible from his jacket sleeves, straightens his tie and adjusts his hat repeatedly. Finally all is well in OCD Land

At stop number three Malodorous Man departs and the Tattoo Twins get on, a teenage boy and girl covered from the neck down with multicolored tattoos. They lean against the door and start making out while MrObsessive huffs in disapproval. 

Totally out of character Marge suddenly declares that she’s “had enough” and moves to another seat next to Bob the Builder, a good-looking construction worker. Homers not happy about this; perhaps he’s noticed the same thing I have: whenever Bob the Builder enters the train he winks at Marge and pats his impressive tool belt. Bob and Marge begin a quiet conversation while Homer fumes. 

Next stop and Mr. Obsessive fearfully walks past the Tattoo Twins who reach out and knock his perfect hat right off his head. Shocked by this unnecessary assault, Mr. Obsessive stares at the now unwearable hat and scurries off the train. 

Impulsively, a jilted Homer jumps up and punches Tattoo Boy in the nose who retaliates by shoving Homer backwards on his ass. A few passengers give Homer a thumbs up. Somewhat embarrassed yet proud of himself, Homer glances over at Marge for her approval. She, however, is too involved with Bob the Builder to notice. Homer tells Marge “it’s our stop” but she shakes her head and snuggles closer to BobHomer huffs off and looks back just as Marge fondles the tip of Bob’s hammer. 

Welcome to the daily subway sideshow where everyone’s a weirdo except me – or am I? 

NAR © 2019

#FOWCtransit

DUTY-BOUND

NEW YORK CITY, 1920

“Manga il cibo sul tuo piatto, Sophia, o lo mangerai dal pavimento.”

(“Eat the food on your dish, Sophia, or you will eat it off the floor.”)  

Without changing her expression or taking her huge brown eyes off her father Vincenzo’s face, three year old Sophia picked up a meatball, extended her arm over the side of her high chair and very calmly let it drop to the floor. 

Silence. Everyone sat in suspended animation as Vincenzo deliberately put down his knife and fork and removed the napkin which was tucked into the neck of his shirt. Slowly he stood up, went behind Sophia’s chair and grabbed the back of her dress. He lifted her up and holding her feet with his other hand, lowered her face to the floor. Sophia’s mouth touched the meatball and she turned her face away, but Vincenzo pushed her face into the food, forcing her to take it into her mouth. Satisfied, he sat her back in her chair, returned to his seat and resumed eating. Sophia languidly chewed the meatball. 

Hesitantly everyone resumed eating except Sophia’s mother Francesca who sat watching her daughter. At the end of the meal as the women cleared the table, Francesca placed a napkin over her daughter’s mouth so she could dispose of the uneaten meatball. “Mai più, Sophia. Fai il tuo dovere!” Francesca said. (“Never again, Sophia. Do your duty!”)

Francesca was a frail woman and as Sophia grew she helped her while Vincenzo worked 12 hours a day on construction. When Sophia was 11, Francesca came down with a terrible case of scarlet fever which affected her heart and kidneys and left her housebound. Early every morning Sophia would cook breakfast for the family and pack lunch for her father before she left for school. At lunchtime she would come home to check on Francesca and make something for them to eat before going back to school. After school she would stop at the pharmacy to buy Francesca’s medicine. Sometimes she would surprise her mother with a piece of her favorite candy. First she would care for her mother, then cook dinner before her father came home from work. When dinner was finished she would do her homework and get ready for bed. Since Francesca was sick, Vincenzo slept in Sophia’s room while she slept on the small sofa. It was the right thing to do – her duty – because her father worked so hard and needed his rest. 

Eventually the family began struggling financially. Vincenzo decided that it would be best if Sophia left school and took a job in a sewing factory. Sophia would have preferred to stay in school, but she knew it was her duty to help the family. Francesca’s sisters would take turns checking on her while Sophia was at work. Occasionally they would bring food but they all had large families and were struggling themselves. Sophia still woke up very early to make breakfast and prepare lunch for herself, Vincenzo and Francesca. She worked from 8:00 until 6:00, then came home to cook dinner, clean up and care for her mother. It was a hard life but Sophia knew it was her duty. 

Sophia was an excellent seamstress and her work was always done quickly and perfectly. In the time it took the others to sew one blouse, she completed four. And because her work was beyond compare, she earned more money. She was promoted to making dresses and suits and the other girls were jealous, calling her “your majesty” and “princess”. One girl was so envious of Sophia she began working hurriedly and carelessly, accidentally cutting off most her pinky with the large shears. It was not Sophia’s fault but everyone treated her like it was. 

One Sunday after Mass Sophia’s cousin Gaetano introduced her to his friend Paolo Rossi. By now Sophia was 20 and had never been on a date. She was too busy doing her duty. The young couple were immediately attracted to each other, began dating and married in 1940, just after the start of the war. One year later their first baby was born and fortunately men with children were not being drafted so Paolo was able to remain at home. Tragically, the baby developed nephritis and died at the age of two – and a grieving father, now childless, was drafted. 

Sophia was devastated; no husband, no baby. She devoted all her time to caring for Francesca. The days were grim but thankfully Paolo returned home safely and two more babies followed – healthy girls. The young family, Francesca and Vincenzo moved to a house in the Bronx and Paolo found work in a mechanic’s shop while Sophia stayed at home with the girls and her mother.  Five years later Francesca died and Vincenzo became ill. Of course the ever-dutiful Sophia  cared for him until his death. 

In 1970 Paolo suffered his first heart attack. Three more followed over the years. He developed aortic and abdominal aneurysms and struggled with emphysema and bronchitis until his death in 1996. Sophia cared for him as a dutiful wife for all those years.  

Dear readers, in case you haven’t realized by now I was one of those little baby girls born to Sophia and Paolo. Throughout my childhood and youth, my mother was constantly busy cleaning, cooking, sewing. She was a dutiful mother and took very good care of us, but I never felt a true mother’s love. 

The first time I met my boyfriend’s mother, she was ironing. She immediately stopped her work, brewed a pot of coffee and placed a crumb cake on the table. We sat and talked for hours. That was an afternoon of fun and laughter and I felt the love in that room. I married that boy whose mother did everything out of love, not out of a sense of duty. 

Sophia died in 2010. On her headstone was intricately carved her life-long creed: “FAI IL TUO DOVERE”.

NAR © 2019

THE IMMIGRANTS

Francesco Amato glanced down from his perch 60 stories above the streets of New York City. As he ate lunch, he talked casually to his friend, Giuseppe, who sat across from him about four feet away. Francesco lit a Camel cigarette, tossed the box of matches to Giuseppe and both men lounged on their beds of steel. Keeping his eyes open to maintain his balance on the 18 inch wide metal plank, Francesco took a long drag on his cigarette. Then the whistle blew; lunchtime was over. 

Giuseppe pitched the matches back to Francesco. They rose to their feet, now old pros at this daily death-defying balancing act. Just then a gust of wind came out of nowhere, scooped up the wrappings from lunch and swirled them about before they slowly drifted out of sight. Both men held on to a nearby vertical beam until the wind stilled.

Looking below at the large wind flag, the men saw that it was still white .. safe conditions. Yellow meant proceed with caution while red indicated dangerous work environments. The crew worked throughout the year, but if a red flag was up, no one climbed the beams. 

There were no harnesses to prevent a deadly fall, no safety nets should someone slip ..  nothing to protect them, save them. All they had to help them scale the beams were ropes dangling from above, good balance and guts. 

Calmness restored, the men strapped on their tool belts containing welder’s gloves, hammers and tongs. A rudimentary pulley system was used to hoist the beams and buckets filled with iron rivets in white hot coals. Using their tongs, the men removed rivets from the coals, inserted them into pre-drilled holes in the beams and hammered them into place. After every hole was filled, the men climbed up to the next level and repeated the process. 

When the end-of-work whistle blew, Giuseppe stretched for the rope to begin the long, slow descent to solid ground. Suddenly he lost his footing and slid off the beam. Francesco yelled out in horror “No, Giuseppe, no!!” as he tried in vain to grab his friend’s arm. The crew watched in stunned disbelief as Giuseppe tumbled down, his screams echoing throughout the beams. 

Francesco sat slumped over, unable to move, silently crying as a single mournful thought invaded his mind: he didn’t even know Giuseppe’s last name. 

NAR © 2018