Bricktop, International Cabaret Hostess & Performer

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I met Bricktop through Helene DeLys, who’d sung in her club in Rome. I looked forward to meeting this legendary figure, but I soon learned she took up all the air in the room. Everything she said was totally self-serving, justified in her mind by the dropping of a famous name. A sample monologue (which could run on for twenty minutes) would go like this: “Ernest Hemingway used to come in every night. ‘Brickie,’ he told me, ‘no-one can run a room the way you do. That’s why you’re such a success.’ And Mabel, well, Mabel Mercer used to tell me, ‘I won’t sing anywhere else, Brickie, because you make them listen’, well, that was true, if anyone so much as whispered I would give them a warning, just go stand by the table, you know, but they’d get the message, and in Paris, well, Cole Porter, he was in all the time,

        he wrote Miss Otis Regrets for me, you know, and he told me, ‘Brickie, you don’t have what anyone would call a voice, but I’d rather hear you sing my material than anyone else; did I tell you he wrote Miss Otis Regrets for me? Well, he did, he had a fight on the street with Scott Fitzgerald about it, and one night the Prince of Wales came in–” I will admit though, that as a performer she had something. I heard her sing Miss Otis Regrets (Hugh Shannon accompanied her) at the April in Paris ball. She was terrific. Her big number was called I’m a Little Blackbird, Looking for a Bluebird Now. She was great on the club floor, but God forbid you should draw her as a dinner companion. You’d never get a word in edgewise.

Deja Vu & the Firechief’s wife

She was the wife of a fire chief, she was introduced to me as Mrs. McQuayle. I don’t remember the occasion, but we were seated next to each other at some banquet dinner in Westhampton Beach. We didn’t have much in common, and conversation was a bit strained. At some point, recounting a story, I said, “—and I suddenly had a feeling of déjà vu.” “Excuse me,” she said, smiling, I don’t think I know that expression.” “Déjà vu,” I repeated, “like you’ve seen it before.” The smile bcame a frown. “What do you mean?” I tried to explain further: “Didn’t you ever have the feeling, for instance when you walk into a strange room, or turn the corner in a strange town, didn’t you ever have the feeling you’d been there before, that it felt somehow familiar, even though you know for certain you’ve never experienced it? Well, that’s déjà vu.” She blinked at me, as if trying to recall. “Doesn’t ring a bell,” she said.

The Power of Musigny

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My friend Les treated me to a fancy wine tasting in 1992, back when Drew Nieporent was running a restaurant called Montrachet in Tribeca. When I say fancy, I mean it, because admission to this event was $1,195.00 per head.

The evening was run by Daniel Johnnes, who had started as Drew’s sommelier and was now opening a wine importing business. Tonight he was pouring top-o’-the-line Burgundies, wines most of us would never have a chance to taste because bottles at this level were so horrifically expensive –not to mention rare. There were twenty of us, mostly men, seated at a long table in a secluded corner of the restaurant. Before each place had been set a dozen, sparkling glasses. The evening began with a white Chassagne-Montrachet from Niellon, a top producer, and you knew immediately you were traveling first class: the wine reached down your throat and embraced you, caressed you, as if your esophagus was being sexually stimulated by the delicious blend of honey and velvet. Two more whites followed, and then, about eight-thirty, we started on the reds: we moved through Morey-St.-Denis, Pommard, Clos Vougeot. “What do you think?” Les asked me, waving his glass, “Cherry or black plum?” I smiled. “Les, you’re always safe if you simply say, a mix of black and red fruit.” Les nodded slowly, sagely. We were into our second hour, and he was beginning to get a little snookered. Well, he could afford to, but I was determined to keep my wits about me and define every flavor, every nuance. I was keeping a legal pad on the table, making notes to share with my wife, Suzanne, when I got home. “Les,” I said to him, “it’s amazing how sloshed we’re getting, considering the tiny amount they pour us—now what’s this?” Mr. Johnnes had been announcing the line-up. Now he held up a magnum with a yellow-beige label: “Musigny, Vieille-vignes,” he told us. “Nineteen-sixty-nine. From the Comte de Vogue.” The waiters began circling the table, pouring perhaps two fingers-worth into each glass. As I tilted the glass to my mouth I shut my eyes, the better to concentrate. I tilted a small amount onto my tongue… …and suddenly the room dropped away and I was standing on a river- bank, under a moonlit sky. Across the river was a church with the squat onion-spire of a Russian cathedral, and I knew instinctively that this river was the Don. The air was cool and moist and the river made a quiet whoosh as it flowed majestically along, a few yards from where I stood. The grey clouds moved slowly above my head, and I was aware of a great feeling of peacefulness. It felt both foreign and comforting and at the same time it felt like dying. “What do you think, John?” Les’s voice broke into my fantasy. “Raspberries and black cherries?” I thudded back to reality with a jolt –there was the restaurant, the twenty men, Les to my left, looking at me quizzically. “Les, I…I…” It was actually difficult to speak. I had been yanked back from something immense and profound. And it was the wine, this Musigny, that had done it. I needed to tell Suzanne. However, when I got home, Suzanne kidded me about my experience (“You Winos, you’re on another planet.”) I explained the extraordinary vision I’d had, but she was skeptical. “You were drunk, that’s all.” This irritated me: “I was NOT drunk, I deliberately made sure to stay sober so I could record my impressions!” To avoid an argument, she finally acceded. I felt dissed. “Wait’ll it happens to you,” I chastised her. She was about forty years behind me in terms of tasting, so what did she know? To keep herself on an even level with me, she would, through the next two years, make a remark which bordered on the snide: “Oh, John here claims he can detect nutmeg and notes of underbrush in cream soda. Even when he’s drinking water, he swirls the glass.” My smile would grow tighter and I’d say to myself Just you wait, Henry Higgins, just you wait.

And then we got to Paris. We’d saved our pennies to blow on one extravagant meal, and we chose Taillevent.

The restaurant is housed in a mansion just off the Champs-Elysees. There’s a feeling of expansive graciousness that you don’t get in any U.S. restaurant. The waiter was perfect: a smiling formality that let you know you were in good hands, without being overly familiar. Then came the wine steward: they were pouring something special tonight as a bar wine, he said -an Auxey-duresses rouge from the Comte Armand; would we care to try a glass? Well, I knew the producer was one of the best in Burgundy, yet the vineyard location -the appellation- was an extremely minor one, about the third rung up on a hierarchy of ten. But, if good, it would be a value, and save us the expense of a bottle, which, in this place, would cost a lot. “D’accord,” I said, and a moment later two glasses were set on our table and the steward returned with the bottle, carefully displaying the label. He poured, and we each took a sip. Mmm. Very good. In fact surprisingly so. In fact, there seemed to be a lot to examine in this, ha, minor wine. I sipped again, and looked at Suzanne, just putting down her glass. She was staring fixedly at the tablecloth, seemingly lost in thought. “What is it, honey?” I asked her. She didn’t change her focus, she spread her hands in puzzlement. “I hear an orchestra,” she said, with an expression of wonder. “It sounds like Scarlatti; shh, please, I need to concentrate.” Well, I had to hide my smile behind my hand. So, finally, I thought. It’s happened to you. Now we can communicate about wine…and perhaps some other things as well.

 

Being on Jeopardy: Thrilling, Disappointing.

JeopardyYes, I starred on Jeopardy -but not in the way you might think. First off, you have to audition to get on the show, and this involves the kind of cramming you haven’t done since college: can you name the provinces of Canada? (Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec...any others? How about the Seven Dwarfs? Doc, Dopey, Sneezy…which President, aside from Lincoln and Kennedy, was assassinated?) Anyway, it took me three tries to pass the quiz, three trips in my Honda Civic through the Los Angeles haze to the studio.   I finally made the cut and was shepherded one Monday morning into a set of bleachers along with another twenty-five contestants. They tape five shows in one day and it’s your duty to sit there ’till your show is called. This means you’re watching two, three, four other sets of contestants go through their paces until you get on. In between the taping segments Alex Trebek comes over and chats. He’s as nice and personable as he can be. We watched show Number Two tape its three segments. As it happened, the final category on this show was Playwrights Who Are Also Actors -and the answer contained the names Sam Shepard, Jason Miller and Noel Coward. In the break, as they were setting up for show number three, Alex drifts over to keep us entertained and someone in the second row says, “I know who Sam Shepard is, but who’s Noel Coward?”  And Alex is right there with the definition: “He wrote comedies, the most famous is probably Private Lives -and he wrote songs. Does anyone know Mad Dogs and Englishmen?” Well, this pressed my button. Noel Coward has been an idol of mine since I was sixteen and discovered a volume of his plays in the school library. I can quote you Chapter and Verse. I stood up from the bleacher bench. “I do,” I said and launched into the verse:

In tropical climes there are certain times of day/When all the citizens retire to tear their clothes off and perspire./It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey/Because the sun is much too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray. The people around me were open-mouthed. These were all folks from Laguna and Boise, Idaho. Nobody had the slightest sympathy for obscure Brit lyrics: “The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts/Because they’re obviously, definitely NUTS! MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN GO OUT IN THE NOONDAY SUN/THE TOUGHEST BURMESE BANDIT/CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND IT  I realized I shouldn’t perform the whole number, standing there in the stands, it would take eight minutes, the song has four choruses! I also realized I was making a spectacle of myself. “I think that’s enough,” I said, sitting back down. Alex was kind enough to applaud, and my seat-mates followed suit, though only half-heartedly, I fear. They must have resented my raising my profile in such a garish fashion. Of course, after this display of ego, expectations were high for my performance as a contestant. But I’m afraid here I was a disappointment, most shamefacedly to myself -because I lost in my own category! Musical theater! The query was simple: this Irving Berlin musical gave Ethel Merman one of her biggest hits. The answer is simple, isn’t it? Annie Get Your GutObviously, it’s Annie Get Your Gun, and I was about to press the button (ahead of everyone, I may add) when it suddenly occurred to me that Merman had also had a giant success in Berlin’s Call Me Madam. God, which one?? And before I could ring in, my neighbor had beaten me to the punch. Shit! I’d nailed this! I’d been distracted by knowing too much!! Damn. In the unforgiving, relentless California sunlight I trudged back to the parking lot and my Honda. Defeated in my own field. I’ll never live it down -and I still haven’t. 

Algonquin Mem’ries, Pt. 1: Dorothy Loudon

Dorothy LoudonNow that the Algonquin is closing its cabaret room, the Oak Room, I’m prompted to recall my most memorable moments there. I’d always been crazy about Dorothy Loudon. She was so hip and funny. I’d always rooted for her while, for years, she hung around the edges of the business, playing the clubs that appreciated her unique and urbane blend of irony and slapstick, honing her talent until finally she burst upon Broadway with her screamingly funny portrait of Miss Hannigan in Annie. I didn’t realize that what made her acid characterization so viciously heartfelt was the accumulated frustration she’d had to endure year after year on the fringes of success. To deal with this, she had turned to alcohol.

Hollywood MusicalsIt was at a book party that Donald Smith organized for a volume of photos of Broadway musicals and their stars. Celeste Holm was there (Oklahoma, Bloomer Girl) and Jane Powell (Meet Me in St. Louis, the stage version) and Ann Miller (Sugar Babies). Don had engaged pianist Forrest Perrin to play the Oak Room’s Steinway. In his gracious, friendly, mild-mannered way Forrest accompanied several of the lesser-known performers who filled the spaces between the star turns, people like Karen Mason and Maureen McGovern. But there was a hush of anticipation as Dorothy climbed up on the small platform. Everyone in this very New York crowd knew Dorothy’s style: funny, hip, outrageous. “Let’s do Hard-Hearted Hannah,” she said to Forrest. “B Flat.” Forrest smiled at her apologetically. “I’m sorry, Dorothy, I don’t know that one.” he said. Dorothy rocked back on her heels in mock amazement. She grasped the edge of the open piano lid in a comic stagger. “What?” she inquired, “Did I hear you correctly?” The edge in her voice captured everyone’s attention. “You don’t know Hard-Hearted Hannah???” I saw Forrest blanche.“Did you, by any chance, bring the sheet?” he asked. Dorothy rolled her eyes in comic exaggeration. “C’mon, it’s a standard –you don’t need a sheet.” Forrest gave her a weak smile. He opened his hands helplessly. “Dorothy, I’m sorry.” Dorothy became aware everyone was watching. She turned to the crowd. “Can you believe this??” she asked them. “He doesn’t know Hard Hearted Hannah.” She called into the room: “Donald, what kind of pianna-player did you book for this party?” I suddenly realized Dorothy had been drinking, and was now wound up. “In all of New York, you searched and searched ‘till you found the ONE guy who doesn’t know Hard-Hearted Hannah. Well, congratulations.” she turned back to Forrest. “How long have you been doing this?” she asked. “I mean, NOT playing Hard-Hearted Hannah?” Poor Forrest looked like he wanted to crawl under the piano. He couldn’t answer, he was too humiliated. “Is there anyone in this room…” Dorothy had the microphone now. “…anyone in this room who can play this song?” Well, I could have done it –and in B Flat, too. But I wasn’t about to embarrass Forrest, who was a friend. Seventy five people were witness to the poor guy’s vicious treatment at the hands of this woman who, until now, in my mind, had been a shining light of intelligence, humor and brilliant iconoclasm in the world of entertainment. Well well, I thought, you live and learn. The charming, funny, young entertainer I’d known for years had -with her access to stardom- allowed herself to unleash this most unappealing side of herself. I’m sorry I had to see it.

Gene the Barber & Brad Pitt’s Offer

Hollywood

After the fancy stylists in Hollywood, It was a relief to come home to my regular barber, Eugene in New York. He had a comfy, unpretentious shop on Third Avenue in the twenties. “Hey, stranger,” he greeted me. “When’d you get back?” “Last week,” I said, as he drew the sheet over me. I was always struck by the care Gene took in arranging this sheet, almost as if he were setting the table for a banquet, smoothing it, snapping it neatly closed at the neck.  He made a point of treating his customers to his balletic repertoire of moves. I usually bypassed the shampoo, my custom being to soap my hair myself in the morning shower. I took off my glasses, and Gene misted me with moisture from the spray bottle. “Where were you again?” “Los Angeles. We were shooting a TV show. I brought you a coupla photos.” I’d come back from Hollywood with some fun shots, taken on the set at Universal. I always tried to bring Gene some provocative tidbit from my precarious freelance life.  What he enjoyed most was hearing about whatever movie names I’d encountered, the more famous the better. Gene cheerfully admitted he was a little star-struck: “Oh yeah, I read People Magazine, like everybody.” He was squinting at the picture.  “Who’s that?” he asked. “Looks like Al Capone.”

            “Believe it or not, that’s Lainie Kazan,” I said. “She’s made up to look like George Gershwin.” “You’re kiddin’ me.” “No, it’s a fantasy. Lainie KazanY’ever watch The Amazing Stories? It’s a supernatural type show, like The Twilight Zone.“Maybe. I think Danny might watch it.”  I could tell from his inflection that he’d never seen the series. “Well, in this show, George Gershwin comes back from the dead to deliver new tunes.”“So why is it Lainie Kazan?”      “She plays a psychic who channels his spirit. There’s a big thunderclap and suddenly she’s Gershwin.” There was a silence.  I felt the scissors snip-snip-snipping behind my head. “Who else did you meet?”  Gene wasn’t interested in the mechanics of plot; he wanted to hear about celebrities. “You know who Carrie Fisher is?” “She was in that George Lucas picture, right? Star Wars?”“Right. Princess Leia.”            

Carrie Fisher“What’s she like, attractive?” “Oh yeah, and a great sense of humor. Probably the funniest woman out there. She writes, too.”Gene let this go by. I could tell he wasn’t particularly impressed by the people I’d brought him so far.  “Didja meet anybody like Julia Roberts? Or Brad Pitt?” “Nah. Sorry to disappoint you.” A feeling of irritation was growing in me. This barber on lower Third Avenue was telling me I’d come up short? My names weren’t glamorous enough for Gene, the celebrity connoisseur? Apparently not. Gene wanted A-List, twenty-mill a picture, red-carpet stars, not this pallid, nothing B-list I’d supplied. Where was Tom Cruise? Lindsay Lohan?  Where was Drew Barrymore? His implied dismissal of my talented friends annoyed me.  Not good enough? Look, I felt like saying, Carrie Fisher is the female lead in a fantasy classic.

             I could sense my frustration leading me to a sudden, vengeful idea.“Listen, Gene: suppose Brad Pitt were to walk in here and sit down for a cut.” “Yeah…?”  “And suppose, when you finished, he said to you, ‘Hey, Man, I really like your work. How’d you like to come to South America with me for three months?  I’m shooting a picture in Rio, and I want you to do the hair. We start in May.’”

            There was another silence behind me; snip-snippety-snip. And then Gene said: “Would that be for the women as well?”“No, no no, the women have their own guy; just the men. And he’d offer you twenty thousand a week.” Snip, snip. snippety-snip. Snip.  I could almost hear the ka-ching ringing in Gene’s mind as he did the figuring. Three months (twelve weeks) at twenty thousand per. Two hundred and forty thousand dollars. To Gene, that was probably three years earnings.  College tuition for Danny.  Roof repair on his house in Montclair.  The operation his mom’s been postponing.“But who would I get for here?” “Ah, Gene, you must know somebody.” Behind me, I heard a sudden intake of breath and then, excitedly: “Angelo could do it!” “Sure, Gene, what about Angelo!” I had no idea who Angelo was, but Hey, I thought, we’re really putting this together. I couldn’t believe how easily Gene had swallowed my bait. “Would it have to be May?”“Why, what’s the difference?” “Danny’s graduating high school in June. I need to be there.” But he was thinking about it, I could tell, trying in his mind to make it work out.  He didn’t speak for perhaps ninety seconds.  Then he said,“Look, I, I’d like to, but I dunno.”  I said nothing, wondering what was triggering his hesitation.  “What would I do with my guys, my customers? These people depend on me. I grew intense. “Gene, wouldn’t they understand? Wouldn’t they be glad for you? It’d only be for three months. Angelo could cover it.” “They depend on me.” he repeated. “To be here.” Snip. Snippetysnip. “You know, I have one guy, Leslie, he’s got a steel plate in his head from a piece of shrapnel he caught in Vietnam, and the surgery made this little cranial dip, right in the back. You have to be very careful when you cut around that. Use the razor.” Snip.  “I’m not sure Angelo could handle one of those.” Snippetysnip. Pause. “Yeah, Leslie.  He’s comin’ in Thursday.” My heart was beginning to sink. I had no idea Gene would take this adolescent prank of mine so seriously.  Cranial dip, my God.  But nothing could make me pull out now; my malicious genie was in full swing.Brad Pitt “Well, Gene,” I said, “maybe you should think about it –because it could be a great opportunity, with the publicity you’d bring back, wow: men’s hair on the new Brad Pitt flick—boy, you could probably parlay that into a new location, maybe uptown, Madison Avenue. You know: Stylist to the Stars—“                  I couldn’t resist, I half-turned to look at him. I saw him smile, sweet, but with a touch of sheepishness in it, almost an apology.  The smile carried a certain resignation, it revealed the corpse of an ambition I sensed had once burned within him…an ambition that might have taken him higher. He was good; if he’d gone with his impulse he might easily have become a high-priced stylist, like Vidal Sassoon or Fredric Fekkai. But the ambition had been smothered by the necessity of providing for a wife and when Danny came along he’d had to give up his mobility. He put the down payment on the house in Montclair, signed the mortgage papers and that was it. Now he was anchored, his life was sealed, immobilized. His choices had hemmed him in. It was too late to go from Country Mouse to City Mouse. Too late to play at the Big Table. “These peole depend on me,” he repeated. He undraped my sheet and shook it out with a gentle wave. He was looking a little sheepish. But he smiled. “You had me goin’ there, you really did.”  I got out of the chair.  I was suddenly ashamed of my childishness, forcing this tease of a mind-game on him. “Well, okay, Gene, then I’m afraid Mr. Pitt must with-draw the offer.”   He almost blushed. “It was nice while it lasted.” he said, and now his smile was the warm, friendly smile I always got from Gene. I had an overwhelming impulse to give him a hug. If it hadn’t felt like an apology.

 

Anthony Quinn Has to Win -on Tour with Zorba

My friend Shadow Rincing was on tour with Anthony Quinn in Zorba –the Musical. I’m not using her real name, and you’ll see why. She wouldn’t like me to tell this tale out of school. This was a lo-o-ong haul, over a year, a bus-and-truck company, playing Civic auditoriums around the country: Atlanta, San Diego, Houston. The houses were always full, 4500 people. Quinn was a movie star, he had that elemental masculine quality that you get in some Continental actors like Raf Vallone and Serge Reggiani, heavy-bearded, gruff-voiced, in a sensual, animal way. Quinn was part Mexican. And he was good, but he was a petty tyrant: he frowned on intra-company romances, he was such an egotist that, in his mind, every girl in the cast “belonged” to him. Even if he didn’t choose to exercise his droit de seigneur, he was a dog in the manger. And he took huge liberties, he went way beyond the norm, actually massaging the anus of one of the dancers as she sat in his lap in Act Two.       I was shocked when Shadow told me this. “Can’t she object?” I wondered. “Go to the management?”  “One doesn’t object to Tony,” Shadow told me, “he’ll have you replaced on some pretext.” She shrugged. “He’s the star, they’re paying him fifty thousand a week.”

Shadow was stunningly attractive herself, and, hearing this, I kind of feared for her, but she was older, and Quinn’s tastes didn’t lean that way. When they hit Washington, Quinn had an exhibit of his paintings at the infamous Watergate complex. They were like third-rate Rouaults, great blocks, chunks of black and white, faces limned in broad charcoal strokes. He sold them for thousands. People paid his prices because he was who he was. A movie star.        

When the company hit Boston, I flew up from New York, and Shadow performed the act I’d written her –for her castmates, who went wild with enthusiasm. Quinn gave her grudging approval, “Very nice,” he said. He didn’t want anyone to be the star but him. The next night I watched Quinn onstage and something wasn’t right, he was off, somehow. Off in his timing, off-pitch on his vocals, and without the dynamic energy he always showed, even at seventy-three. “You know why,” Shadow said to me later. No, I didn’t. But it appeared that something had gone wrong with the nightly chess game: each night, ninety minutes before curtain, Quinn had one of the actors called to his dressing room to play him a game of chess. He claimed it relaxed him before a performance. Now the one guy in the company who knew chess was a sweet-natured character-man named Vonn. Now Vonn wasn’t particularly eager to be on call for a nightly bout with Quinn –but there seemed to be no way to refuse: it was a command performance. Of course, here was the tacit agreement –and Vonn understood immediately- he had to lose. It was the unspoken command.

Quinn never mentioned anything, but Vonn didn’t need his sixth sense to understand that Tony’s ego was simultaneously so raging and so fragile that –well, you get it. “I couldn’t help it,” Vonn told us, as the three of us sat with a beer after the show. “I couldn’t not take his queen –she was out there with her legs wide open. It would have been too obvious to let her escape.”

“Well,” Shadow responded, “you saw what happened to his performance. You better watch yourself –don’t do that again. If you want to stay in this company.”  And Vonn watched himself carefully…and made sure he never won another game.

Latino Kid, Life-Changer Subway Choice

New York PostManhattan subway platform, 103rd and Broadway. Two-thirty on a Thursday afternoon. I see a Latino father and his boy, the kid couldn’t be more than eleven years old. “Manuel,” I hear the man say to his son –his English carries a heavy Puerto Rican accent- “take these, get us a paper.” And he hands the kid three quarters. The news-stand’s in the middle of the platform. Kid crosses over, looks down, sees the array of newspapers laid out at his feet. But he doesn’t want El Diario, he wants the paper that speaks English. My immediate thought, observing this, was: Dad wants his boy to assimilate, to speak the language of the new country. The kid is pondering it. He’s got seventy-five cents. That’ll buy The Post -and The News is a quarter cheaper.NY Daily News If he bought the News, he could bring one of those quarters back to his father. So which one? The Post has a headline about Mayor Bloomberg and a possible fare hike.  The news has some gossip about Lindsay Lohan and her DUI arrest. Both papers scream Tabloid, Wuxtry, getcher Schlock Tabloid right here, only fifty cents. Watching this kid’s indecision as he hesitates over the choice, I feel something move me. Here’s a young mind, a blank canvas ready to receive impressions. What he learns now, at eleven, will color his whole life. Impulsively, I reach in my pocket, drag out a couple of singles, hand the dealer two-fifty. I pick up the New York Times. “New York TimesManuel,” I say to him, commandingly. Kid looks at me, wide-eyed, wary: I thrust the paper at him: “This is The Times, Manuel,” I tell him, “it’s the best paper in the country, maybe in the world. I’m giving it to you. But I won’t be here tomorrow, so it’s up to you to stick with this, all right? Every day. You won’t go wrong. Make it a habit, Okay?” The kid, astonished, takes the paper and runs back to his father. And the train comes and I get on a different car so they won’t see me crying.

Betty’s Dad, Doing the Incontinental

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Picture of Veteran Standing in front of Canandaigua VA. Good health for a lifetime. Veteran Ed Gates shares the story of turning his health around.

Betty’s mother Addie died pushing Herbert’s wheelchair up the ramp of the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. She simply keeled over. A man named Kormer grabbed the chair as it threatened to roll backward down the ramp. Herbert’s reaction was primal and childlike, as always: looking down at Addie’s thin, crumpled body, he sensed she was dead. “Who’s gonna do my laundry?” he whimpered. It was the same high-pitched, strangulated whimper his voice had become ever since he’d been gassed in the first World War. Mustard-gas. He’d been in that chair since 1936…with only half a mind, reduced to the level of a eleven-year -old.   Betty had to do something with him. He couldn’t manage by himself and there was no-one else. She sold the house and moved him into a new VA Hospital in Tarrytown, New York. She was on the East Coast now, trying to make it as a singer. “I’d like to go visit him,” she said to me one hot, broiling Saturday in July. “Just take him down by the riverbank, let him look at the Hudson. Could we?” That was the summer I had a brand-new Pontiac convertible –I’d won it on a quiz show.  So I took Betty up the Henry Hudson Parkway and waited in the VA parking lot until Betty came down with her father. It fell to me to lift the frail, eighty-nine year old Herbert from his chair into the passenger seat. I remember thinking, God, he’s just a bag of bones. He had a stainless-steel canister which he needed to press to his groin. They’d given it to him because he was incontinent, couldn’t control his urine. I remember thinking, Don’t piss on the seat, you old bastard. We set off, and I drove slowly so we wouldn’t jar that canister loose. Slowly, slowly, foot on the brake, inching down the hill to the river, the blazing sun nearly roasting us. Betty“They making you comfortable there, Daddy?” Betty asked him from the back-seat. I glanced sideways at his drawn, sunken face to hear his response. He had a three-day growth of white stubble and I wondered who shaved him, or if he could do it himself. “They put me with this other fellah,” Herb said. “He’s always in the bathroom when I have to go.” Betty had learned how to deal with these querulous complaints: don’t try to address them, simply go on to the next question. “How’s the food?” she continued now.  “The what?” I found that whimper of his, produced without breath from the front of his throat, almost comic, like the voice of a cartoon character. It was nearly impossible for me not to break into laughter each time he spoke.  I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. Jesus, it’s hot, I thought, must be in the nineties. I glanced surreptitiously at my watch. We’d been sitting there for over half an hour. “The food, Daddy,” Betty repeated, “when they give you dinner, what do you get? Soup? Meatloaf?”   In reply, Herbert made a sound of urgency: “Aanh.” “What is it, Daddy?” “Aaanh.” He pointed to his lap. He kept muttering Aanh. I saw his eyes begin to fill with tears –and then I sensed a wave of embarrassment emanating from him. He was jabbing his finger at his groin now, in a steady motion, Point, Point, Point -all the while crying Aanh, Aaanh. Something was painful, something he couldn’t -or wouldn’t- articulate. I put my hand on the canister, even as I realized the problem –Oww! The damn thing had heated in the sun, become too hot to touch, was even now searing the skin on Herbert’s groin! Christ, how bizarre! “Betty!” I cried, “get the Kleenex! In the glove compartment!” Herbert was squirming in agony. With a wad of Kleenex protecting my fingers from the sizzling can, I slapped it away from Herb’s lap. It bounced, leaking, to the floor. The harsh smell of urine wafted into my nostrils as, wrinkling my nose in distaste, I placed the Kleenex under his genitals. I put the car in gear, shaking my head in disbelief, and headed back up the hill, faster now. In the drive-way, a VA attendant lifted Herb back into his wheelchair. I pointed to the canister on the floor. “And take that with you,” I said, keeping my voice under control. I headed back towards the Parkway. We rode in silence for ten minutes and then Betty said: “You were planning to sell this car, weren’t you?” I gave Betty a twisted smile. “Mm hmm.” She started laughing. “I think my Dad may have depreciated it –by about ten thousand dollars.”

I’ll have more to tell about Betty in future posts. She was an amazing character.

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