Thursday, July 19, 2018

First House*

First House
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Yesterday had been eventful. It was a big day. In just one day, Sarah and I had put down a payment on our first house. We signed the preliminary papers allowing “them” to check out our credit and general honesty.  That had gone well. It was routine for the bankers but it was not routine for us.  It thrilled Sarah and me.

We giggled in our Ford Pinto as we drove back through the snowy streets of Ann Arbor.
“Each of the girls will have their own room.”
I can’t wait to show it to them. 
I love the big basement. Those stairs near the kitchen seem scary. We can keep the laundry down there and eventually fix it up as a playroom.  We can dump all the toys down there.
“It even has a built-in dishwasher. Can you believe that?”

I dropped Sarah off at the University. She waded through a snowdrift.  She had chained her ancient bike to a No Parking Sign.  She wore a parka and boots. I had on the same outfit.   This was Michigan in the winter.  We didn’t care: We were buying our first house.

Idrove back to work. Although still in graduate school, I worked for a small consulting firm.  These kinds of businesses grow around major universities like parasites.  Or were they like barnacles that attach to the big graduate schools?  I was working on my Ph.D. and the company was busy harvesting federal money.  It was all efficient.

Mary and Bill ran the company, two young Ph.D.’s who had created their own business: OASIS (Organization for Applied Science In Society).  Despite the big name, it only employedabout five people.

OASIS was on the second floor above a retail business in Ann Arbor. I walked in stamping the snow from my boots.  I chatted with Mary in an empty conference room.

“Mary, how do you set the price for something like this project?  We don’t know how many hours it will take.”

Don’t worry we will just double the estimate.  Remember, they call these contracts COST Plus.  

“How does that work?”I asked.  “It seems weird, I know you told me, but…” The contract language confused me.

Well, we put in our invoice each month and then we may tack on a 25% mark-up. That is the plus partof cost-plus.  So the more we work and the higher our costs, the more money we make. Cool? They guarantee us profit.

It still didn’t seem right to me.

I was a young graduate student with a wife and two kids.  I was about to buy a house. This contract was a very goodthing!

Mary invited her business partner, Bill, to join us in the conference room.  He shut the door.  “OhOh.,I thought.

“Mike, we know you are buying a house, but we can’t give any more salary until you get your Ph.D.”
“What!”  “But your other partners only have BAs. Why do I have to finish?”  I was getting wound up. 
“So do you give me less work or less responsibility without my degree?” 
“No,”they both replied in unison. “We expect the same from you.”
“We are doing this for you, Mike.” “Trust us.” If you earn too much, you might never finish.

My face flushed with anger.  I felt righteous.

Graduate school folklore indicatedthat the more you earn before you finish schoolthe less likely you were to finish. But I was angry. I thought: “To hell with folklore.  These two are cheating me.” 

“This is not fair,” I said aloud.  
I stood up and left the room slamming the door. I rushed to my office gathering my coat and a few belongings.
I stumbled back into the conference room. 
“OK, if my work is inferior because I don’t have a Ph.D., then I quit.” 
Mary said, “Oh come on Mike. You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do” and with that I walked out of the building.

I believe it was the poet William Bendix who said: “What a revoltinsituation this is.”

In one day, I had signed to buy a house, and the same day, I quit my job.


Sarah and I were living in a rented house. It was inferior to our potential new home.  It had only 2bedrooms and a special feature. It was tilted. If you set your child’s ball down on the living room floor, it would roll of its own volition.  The whole place tilted.
We sat on the high end of the room in our thrift store couch and tried to figure out what to do.

We sat quietly.
“Jesus, what are wegoing to do?”
“They will want to do an employment verification.”
Sarah said, “My job won’t be enough.”
We sat silently, worrying together.

It was the very next morning I sought solace at the cafe with my grilled cheese.

Gloria,who I casually knew came in and sat down next to me. I was clutching my coffee mug.  I pressed the warm cup against my face.  I did that when feeling anxious.  I was worrying intensely about money and the new house. I was off in anxiety-land when Gloria turned her stool toward me.

“Hey, Mike, do you know anyone who is looking for a job?”
If there had been a soundtrack orchestra, they would have played a great crescendo. Or perhaps two trumpets could have sounded.

“Well, yes, in fact I’m looking for a job.”

“Well, you know Saul Cooperwho runs the mental health center. They are on the top floor of this building. Why don’t you just go up and apply? You are more than qualified. I think he likes you.”

I dropped my sandwich, threw some money down and walked to the bank of elevators.  I shot up to the 8thfloor and asked to speak with Saul. 

As fate had ordained, we set the girls up in their own rooms. We filled the basement with all the stuffed animals.  The stairs to the basement were still scary. The stairwell light was poor. But we could fix all that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018




I worked with a great group of friends at the mental health center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We worked very hard at our jobs.  In 1972, I was a data analyst with a very early computer system.  I was in graduate school at the University. My friends and coworkers were doctors, nurses, social workers and a melange of administrative types in finance, accounting and human resources.  Every Friday afternoon someone would yell out:

“We will have the happy hour at Jimmies.”

This was not news. They always went out for drinks on Fridays. None-the-less whoever announced this non-news got an enthusiastic:

“I’m in.” “I’m In,” “Do you need a ride?” “Meet you there.” “Be careful it is snowing.”

I was 30 years old and different from most of my Co-workers. I was  marriedman with two daughters. The others were mostly single. So, with family duties, I rarely joined these mini-events on Friday.  But today, I did.

About 20 of us sat at the long table in the dimly lit bar.  The room was smoky. It was a loud scene.  I stamped my feet to shake off the snow as I walked in and took off my giant fur hooded blue Air Force parka. I sat down and wedged in between two pretty women.

I don’t know quite how it happened.  I’ve replayed this scene many times.  In the rhythm of such things, I ordered one drink after another.  As a parent, I felt a constant pressure to go home to my family, but this was so much fun.  We laughed. We argued and gossiped. We flirted.  

The pay phone in the corner seemed to be always busy. I watched the phone for a while, but as the evening wore on, I stopped worrying about checking in with my wife, Sarah.  

In only an hour, I was, by my standards, drunk. It was 5PM.  Normally, by this hour I would be home helping with the kids and dinner.  I felt guilty. Finallyyielded to guilt and abruptly stood up from the table.

“I’ve got to go home. It's late for me.”

“Oh, you can stay more, Mike
Others chorused “Stay!” “Sit down!”

No, I didn’t responsibly wait around and become less drunk. No, I stood and went straight back to my car.

Once outside, I thought the blast of the cold winter air would help me.  Now snow was falling giving everything that special white glow. I stood at the edge of my car and scooped up some icy slush and rubbed my face. 

When I started the car, the radio blasted a cassette tape I already had in the car. It the music was The Dark Side of the Moon.
I rolled down the windows. The evening commute had begun.

“Ah good.”
“A wet face and the blast of air will work.”,  I mumbled to myself.

I edged out of the slippery parking lot and drove to our home on newly plowed streets. Streams of cars crawled along. Headlights glared through the frosty windows.  The road showed only by the tire tracks amidst white newly fallen snow.  I followed the tail lights carefully. 

I made it home safely because everyone was driving so slowly.

I didn’t see the note waiting for me until I pulled open the ice-covered storm door.  

The note hung on a nail. It flipped frantically in the wind. The hand-written   note  read:

Call Emma—Sarah has taken Suzanne to the hospital.”

I didn’t go into the house. I jumped back in my car, now pumped with adrenaline.  Emma lived a block away, and she came to her door quickly and told me to go straight to the emergency room. 

She said only: “Your daughter, Suzanne, fell down your stairs. Go to the ER.”

I didn’t say more. I turned and returned to my car.

As I headed to the ER, my headlights showed the blackened drifts of snow and the partially blocked residential streets. I kept the windows down and could hear the crunching of car tires around me. It was early evening and everyone was driving home.  I turned off the radio.

I talked to myself.  I spoke in a loud clear voice.

“OK, you must calm down.”
“You have been drinking and you have to get to the hospital.”

The icy wind burned my face and numbed my hands.

“Calm down. Calm down.”
“Get there.”
“I should be there.”
“I should have been home.”
I thought, What has happened? I knew I had to suppress my fear.

I knew nothing. I only knew that my wife Sarah had taken daughter Suzanne to the hospital.

We had only moved into our house a few weeks ago.  As the saying went, “we were still in boxes.” This was our first real home. We had moved from an apartment to a house with three bedrooms. Each of our daughters, Suzanne 4 and Laura 6, were ecstatic to have their own bedroom.  We put all of their toys and games in the unfinished but dry basement. 

I arrived at the University of Michigan hospital.  I parked oddly near the emergency room entrance.  I worried about my parking as I went through the automatic doors. 

Still in my parka, I seized the edge of the ER nursing station and asked for Suzanne.  I could see her name on the big whiteboard behind the reception desk.

“Your daughter, Suzanne is in pediatric intensive care on the 8th floor.” “Take the blue elevator, then follow the red line.”

At the intensive care unit, Sarah came to my side, and we went to a small waiting area.

Parents and family crowded the room with pain and grief.  Someone had vainly tried to make the room home-like with couches and floor lamps. The light was low. Several people were smoking. The smoke made the room seem more oppressive.

Everyone in the room was waiting for the next word about their ill or injured children. Over several days, I would hear each story.  Some children would die.

Sarah and I sat on a vinyl couch together.  It hissed and sagged as it tumbled us into the middle. We could whisper. Sarah began the retelling:

“I was reading in the living room while Suzanne played on the floor.”
“I noticed Suzanne was not within sight and called out.”
“Suzanne, where are you?”  “Where are you, baby.”
“Suzanne, come here!”
“Suzanne?  Suzanne?”
“The house was silent except for the thumping of the dryer in the basement.”  

“I ran upstairs to check Suzanne’s room. I called Suzanne, Suzanne! 

Sarah paused her narration and began to sob quietly. Despite our whispers, others in the room were listening to her every word.

Sarah continued,
“Finally, I went to the basement stairs. I didn’t see her from the top of the stairs.”  There was no light in the stairwell. I yelled:
“Suzanna Bannana, you come here. Don’t hide from me!”

“I went down the stairs steadying myself on the stair-well wall. You know there was no railing.  When I was about halfway down the stairs, I looked over the edge and could see Suzanne curled up on the cement floor.”

“I picked her up and could feel something soft on the side of her head. She was unconscious.”
“She was limp and like a doll.”

Sarah told me she ran barefoot as she carried Suzanne along the icy streets to the home of our friend Emma. Her husband, Ernesto was a physician. By good fortune, Ernesto was at home at four in the afternoon. 

He came to the door. He briefly looked at Suzanne on the porch. He touched the soft spot on her head: Ernesto spoke to his wife Emma:
“Here are the keys, drive Sarah and Suzanne to the emergency room right now.”

He grabbed a blanket from inside the house, urging Emma and Sarah towards the car.

Sarah spoke with that strange politeness we all have drilled into our heads: “Oh, I can drive myself over.” “I hate to bother you. 

“NO!” Ernesto said loudly.  Sarah understood.  As Emma drove, she agreed to pick up our other daughter Laura and put a note for me on our front door.

I was somewhere, but no one knew where I was.  There was no way to reach me.

In the ICU, Sarah explained to me she had not been there long before I arrived and she (now we) waited to hear from Suzanne’s physician.

A nurse appeared with the doctor. They had some paperwork.  The doctor told us that Suzanne had a fractured skull and that they might need to do surgery. We had to sign authorizations, and we did.
I said to Sarah, “We have to sign it.”

I later learned from friends that this physician was in the last week of a three-year neurosurgery residency.  He had learned a lot. We were fortunate. 

The doctor told us Suzanne had had a major seizure and that the trauma caused her brain to swell. He explained that he might need to do surgery. He wanted to wait to see if they could reduce the swelling with only medications.

Over the next seven days, we waited.  Our daughter, Laura, went to stay with good friends and Sarah and I stood vigil in the hospital.  We went to the waiting room and joined the parents of the Pediatric ICU.  We drank coffee. We shared food brought by friends.  We overhead each other’s news.  Sometimes parents disappeared without explanation. Other times, folks made joyous farewells as they took their child home.

In a few days, as the swelling in her brain subsided, we tried to talk with Suzanne. Whenever we approached her, she would scream and have what we might call a fit.

In any other setting, a 4-year-old having fit meant very little. 
“I want the yellow cup.”
“I want a hot dog not grilled cheese. 
“I want candy.”

But Suzanne screamed at the sight of us, Sarah and Mike, her parents.

Was this some kind of brain damage? We could barely voice our fears to each other.

A nurse approached us:

“You may want to just let us care for Suzanne for a few days.”
“Do you see she is calm until you come near her?”
She continued to explain:
“Remember, she was home and happy and then suddenly woke up in this scary place. She has pain.  In her world, you two are responsible for everything. She is angry at you!  This will pass. We see it all the time. It will be ok.”

We were both reassured by the nurse. Indeed, wesaw that the nursing staff could pick up Suzanne, play with her and care for her without incident.  For the moment, we were triggering the “fits. ”

While the hospital days continued, I went home to look at the scene of the accident.

It was a gray two story home with drifts of snow piled near the temporarily abandoned front steps. Inside, the stairs to the basement were dark and there was no handrail. Worse still about halfway down, lacking a railing, you could fall over the side. This is exactly what Suzanne had done. She fell about ten feet down to a cement floor.

I was not a skilled builder, but I was determined to make sure Suzanne would not return home to this dangerous place.

I bought timber, wallboard, stair treads, a railing system, lights and began fanatically working late into the night. In only a day, I completed the project.  Although I was forever after afraid of those stairs, they were now more safe.

Suzanne came home after a week.  Immediately, she wanted to go downstairs where her piles of stuffed animals lived.  We both went with her.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Hazel Newton*

Woodrow Wilson High School had four Grecian columns at the entrance. Someone wrote four important words over the columns.  I am sure they were good words.   I did not feel inspired.  I walked 2.5 miles from home to school and back every day.  I could have taken a bus, but the bus always contained the usual assortment of teen age bullies who made me feel even worse about myself. Climbing up the steps to the bus with my pile of textbooks made me nauseous. Like a passenger boarding a plane, you would see rows of kids.  Unlike airplane passengers preoccupied with their pending trip, the kids were actively looking to see who was boarding the bus.  They were not my friends. There were no shouted greetings.

I was 16 years old. I was 6 ft. 2inches and chubby.  I never felt tall, but I felt chubby.  I hated to look at myself in the windows of the stores on 2nd street as I walked to school.  I had a few friends from the outcast intelligentsia. The word nerd was still unborn.  Andy, Nick and Don would meet me along the way as we walked and climbed a slight hill to“Wilson.”

The school was a closed campus. This meant that large gates would be closed once all the student inmates had arrived.

My teacher was Hazel Newton. Her name is a giveaway isn’t it?  She wore braided hair, tied up atop her head. Somehow her horn-rimmed eyeglasses were stern.  She spoke with a very pronounced Southern accent.  The class was Junior year English.  Mrs. Newton taught the organic outline that dictated the structure of ourwriting assignments.
First start with an introductory paragraph-
Tell what you will say.
Next, there should be a body of text that marched straight to the concluding paragraph.
She taught us the word “recapitulation” to describe the conclusion paragraph.
“It must never… ever… have any new ideas.  It is your ending. It is Your Conclusion.”

As teenagers, my fellow students mercilessly ridiculed Hazel Newton for her schoolmarm demeanor. Plus, the class just loved to sneer at her accent.  In Long Beach, California a drawl was an unusual sound.  To my fellow students, her way of speaking was hilarious.

Almost any utterance could send the class from quiet tittering to full out uncontrolled contagious laughter. Did I mention they were vulgar?  I knew some of my classmates from that bus I no longer used for travel.

The key moment for me involved a rather long poem written in chalk all across two blackboards.  When we arrived, Mrs. Newton asked us to read the poem quietly to ourselves. Briefly, the class hushed and read silently.  And then:
A pile of books collapsed; Laughter.
Large boys in small desks twisted about on the wood floor.
Girls rummaged through their bags and slipped notes about.
Whispers, snorts and loud coughs amongst the boys in the back row.
A cacophony of clattering tapping pencils, notebooks snapping open a closing with a bang, feet twisting, papers shuffling, plus general chattering began to rise louder and louder.
Mrs. Newton clapped her hands as she moved to the front of the room.
She stood in the exact center of the blackboard.
“All right. You’ve all read it. What do you think about it!”  She spoke loudly above the din.

The first to speak was Jim. He wore his letterman jacket over a white t-shirt although the room was warm.  Mrs. Newton required that we stand when we speak.  Jim brought his huge body up and began to speak without looking up.
“It’s about mice.”
“Oh, it’s about mice,
“Yes, they are running all over, digging holes burrowing into the mounds of dirt. It’s about mice.”
“Yes,” “Yes,” the class chorused.  “Mice! Mice!” “It’s about mice.”
Mary raised her hand.
“Mary?” Mrs. Newton asked.
Mary stood by her desk, gripping the back of her chair.  She spoke softly, but we could all hear her. “I think it is about a family of mice. The little ones are digging and playing and the bigger mice must be the parents.”
Murmurs of agreement: “Yes, yes, mice, mice”

Bob the comedian shouted out without standing.
“This poem needs a cat!” “This would be better if a big Sylvester cat was chasing the mice.”

Bob was not all funny. The poem had begun to borethe class.  They laughed to break up the routine of analyzing a “mouse poem.”  A boy began a gasping tiny but loud squeak.  A girl did a mock shriek. She clasped her hands in a classic melodrama pose.

Mrs. Newton suddenly whirled around and pointed at me.
“What do you think, Mr. Gorodezky?”  “Yes, I’m pointing at you.” “What do YOU think.”

“Uh,…uh I struggled up from my tiny desk in the middle of the classroom.  Everyone turned to look at me. “I think it is about soldiers and war.”

Mrs. Newton raised her eyebrows, smiling, tilting her head up and looking around the entire classroom.
“Oh, you think it is about soldiers and war do you!!?” She now sneered at me.

“Are you sure about that?  REALLY! What do you others in class think?  Is he right?” She waved her hands then put them on her hips in a defiant pose?  Her sarcasm shocked me.

Now the class was getting out of control with laughter.
“It’s bout Mice dummy. The title is Mice.  It’s not about…”
“Mice, Mice, Mice” they rhythmically chorused..

Mrs. Newton silenced the class with another clap.   “Actually, Mr. Gorodezky is right and all of you are wrong. The poem is about men in trench warfare during World War I.”

The class became silent.

I felt unlike all the other students.   I felt empowered to think.

Mrs. Newton smiled.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018


1955 - 

The public health nurse came to our living room and sat on the green couch.  One cushion had a black hole where mom had dropped a cigarette.  We moved the ashtrays and the big silver lighter from the coffee table. The nurse brought a big folder. As she opened it,  forms  and color brochures tumbled out.

Mom sat down on the edge of the couch, but my sister Elaine and I stood. The nurse got right to business:
“Your father has tuberculosis and that means he can not come home. In California, it is against the law for him to be here with children in the home.”

I knew dad was in the hospital, but I didn’t really know quite why. I was 13 years old. The Nurse was delivering the news to me.  

Just a few days earlier, I came home from school.  It seemed normal. I walked from Will Rodgers Jr. High School. I dragged my pile of books and binders up the stairs to our apartment. On the way home, I  stopped with friends for our usual 25-cent taco. We hung around the dairy queen. Finally, around 4:30 in the afternoon, I went home. It was a normal day.

I used my key at the front door and walked through the house. I did not  expect anyone to be home and indeed it was dark and empty.  I began to rummage around in the kitchen.  I cranked open the windows to get some ocean breeze. At night we could hear the ocean, 2 blocks away. In the afternoon we got a nice cooling breeze from the sea.

“I wonder why nobody is home? It’s kind of late”.

I put some water in a pot and boiled two hot dogs.  I made a little sandwich and sat in the dining room.  Wonder bread, yellow mustard and hot dogs. “Yumm!”

Finally, at 8:00 pm, my sister came home.

She looked worried. She said, “Mikey, dad is sick. He is in the hospital.”

That was it. I didn’t know why.  I didn’t ask why.  It seemed odd.  I don’t recall dad ever being sick.  I thought, “Was he ever sick?”

Dad went to work every day. He would shave and put on his Mennen’s after-shave. Sometimes he would slap my face with that bright green sweet smelling lotion. I loved the smell.  When dad was done, he would rinse out the sink with Isopropyl alcohol.  Didn’t everyone do that? It made things clean. That alcohol gave off a clean smell. Didn’t everyone have a bottle by the sink?

The nurse in our living room had come to tell us all to get tested for TB.

 I asked her:
“What is TB?  Can you catch it?”
The nurse patiently explained the disease.  She told us:
“You should never tell anyone your dad has TB.  You should always lie.” She raised her voice and looked at us.
“You must always lie. You should say, if pressed, that your dad has a bad lung infection.  That is the truth, but not the whole truth.”

The nurse continued: “People are afraid of TB.  If you tell them about your dad, they may be afraid of you.  So just never tell.”

Through some kind of family social networking, dad was  admitted to the City of Hope hospital in Duarte, California.  The alternative was something called a sanatorium. Dad was there for 1 year.  It was 38 miles from our home.

My mother and father had bought a small delicatessen in Long Beach. They worked 16 hours a day, almost every day.  Now, mom was alone in “the store” as we called it.  She would bring in others to help. In time, I would help.

Mom, already exhausted, became still more besieged as she began to make the weekly drive through Los Angeles to The City of Hope. There was no fast highway. We crawled along in heavy traffic. Our car would often over-heat and break down.  My job was to ride along. When we stalled, I would jump out and raise the hot hood.  The chrome trim on our Chevrolet burned as I tried to pry the hood open.  Smoke and steam would blast into my face. The air was choked with 1955 LA Smog.  It was so very hot.  I hated the drive.

When we arrived at the hospital, it seemed an oasis. The road to dad’s ward was lined with blooming flowers. Mom and I sat at a picnic table in a tall grove of eucalyptus trees. By the time we arrived, it was late afternoon and beginning to cool. The aroma of the trees was soothing.  I was not allowed inside the hospital, but dad could meet us outside.  

Dad always seemed tired. He was pale. He always wore a seersucker blue robe. Normally he would hug and kiss me on the cheek.  He called me “Mikey Boy”.  Now, there was no touching.  My parents talked about the store.  They probably talked about money.  I was oblivious. I was imagining the grinding drive back to Long Beach.  It was always just as bad as the drive-in to the hospital. On the return drive, we had the added benefit of the setting sun as blasted through the smog and straight into our eyes.

At home, I began to have, what I now know to be:  anxiety attacks.  I would often not want to go to school. I would throw up.  I was “worried.”  That was the word I used to describe my feeling of fear.  It was “the worry” that would crawl through my limbs and fill my body. It accompanied me to school and throughout each day.

Mom seemed always at work, but at times, at night, we would sit on the edge of her bed and talk.
“Did you know dad was sick?”
“Yes, dad has had TB before, but he got well. He’ll get well again”
“Why didn’t you or Elaine ever tell me?” “Why didn’t I know?”
Mom didn’t answer. She sighed.

The little bedside chats always made me feel better.  I would pour out my daily 13 year-old Jr. High travails.  At school, when the anxiety grew, I would think about going home and “talking to Mom.”  Just the thought of our talk helped me get through the day. 

Despite  my worry, I did go to school.  Each morning, I would consider staying home, claiming illness. But I got dressed and walked the 2 miles to school. That seemed to be my duty.
One day, in class, a student entered our room and walked to the teacher with a note.
The teacher announced loudly.  “MIKE GORODEZKY go to the office.” The student who had brought the note walked down the hall with me.  Alone in the hall he said: 
“I see you are going to see the shrink.”
I flushed with embarrassment.  “The Shrink!” I knew what that meant. It meant some one thought something was wrong with me.

I was ushered into a tiny office to meet alone with a small, soft spoken man. He began by telling me that he was the school psychologist and that my mom was worried about me.

“Can you tell me what is going on, Michael?”
I immediately began to sob. Could my humiliation become still worse?
I was seeing a shrink and now I was crying.
 “Its ok Michael.  Do you use Michael or Mike”
“Mike I gasped through my tears and running nose.”
“Here, Mike.”  He handed me a tissue.
“My Dad is in the hospital. He’s been gone a long time.”

We spent an hour together. I walked back to class alone. I had finally told someone the big secret.  I felt better. I felt calmer. Talking helped me.

At home, mom said:
“I just didn’t know what to do, honey, so I called the school.”  She seemed to be apologizing to me.
“I just didn’t know what to do.”

Slowly some of our family rituals began make sense to me.
My father would take leftover food from my plate at dinner.  I was never allowed to have any of his remaining food.
No one in the family shared food.  We did not kiss on the lips. In fact, we thought it was creepy when anyone tried to kiss us on the lips.
At school, when someone wanted a bite of food from me, I would simply give them the entire ice cream cone or the coke or whatever they wanted to eat or drink from me.  If anyone called “bites” and took a nibble, I could not continue to eat it, even my favorite cookie. It was ruined.

In my family germ phobia was the absolute norm.

It all began to make sense. There had been a family secret. 


Some months before Dad went into the hospital I had begun to study for my bar mitzvah.  Each Wednesday, I took a bus to a nearby temple. I met with a very young rabbi who taught me the sections of the Torah that I would be expected to read.  The date of my big day was coming very soon. I was actually doing something like dress-rehearsals. I would chant a bit of a prayer, then I would take a silver pointer as a  guide  as I read the Hebrew words from the scrolls of the Torah.

As I approached the temple, I noticed my name was posted outside announcing my own bar mitzvah. This was real.

Rabbi Kaplan met me at the door. He was not my regular teacher. He was dressed very formally in a suit.  I wore my standard blue jeans and a white t-shirt. 
He  took me into his book lined office with leather furniture. It was very quiet. He pointed me to a big leather chair across from his desk.  A large clock ticked.  The sound seemed loud. I looked around the office, trying to figure out why I was in this different, elegant room.

The rabbi asked me to tell him what was going on at home. I took a breath. My Jr. Hi counselor had taught me that breathing could help me relax.
I described the situation with my father. 
“I know Milton.  I am so sorry he is ill, but you know Michael, he will be getting well.”
“I can see how worried you are, Michael.”
“Yes, I don’t know when he will come home.”
“Michael, he will come home.” I felt the tears coming. I wanted to be a man.  I took deep breaths to keep control. Men do not cry.

Rabbi Kaplan continued, “I want to ask you something.” There was a long pause.
“Michael, I know your Bar Mitzvah is this coming Saturday, but would you like to postpone it?   We could reschedule it when you father is home.”

The image of the outdoor sign outside flashed in my mind.  Everyone knew this was happening. Invitations had been sent. My grandmother from Kansas City, my religious grandmother, was coming.  How could I postpone it?


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Loma Prieta

 5:10 PM Tuesday, October 17, 1989

When I got out to the street, it was almost dark.  There were many sirens, yet on the street it was quiet as well dressed men and women pushed out of the brass trimmed office doors on to New Montgomery Street. A few emergency lights were burning.  The street was oddly sparkling. I knelt down to try to see what was there. 

“Excuse me! Watch it buddy”, someone shoved me from behind.
I was crouching down in the middle of the street.  It touched it. It was broken glass. The street was covered with broken chards of glass. My steps made an ominous crunching sound as I carefully stepped back to the sidewalk.

The sirens began to become louder and continuous.  As one siren passed another would begin. Where were they headed? Was there a fire?

I felt my jacket pockets. I had my wallet.  I had my little transistor radio. I knew I was wearing some threadbare canvas shoes. I was afraid of stepping on the glass. Near me a woman had taken off her high heels. She was bleeding. 

I looked around for fire, but didn’t see any. All I could smell was tobacco smoke.  The early evening fog was turning to a heavy mist. It felt like rain.  I pulled up the hood on my jacket.

 Behind me, the drug store windows were caved in and people were reaching in and climbing in through windows.

They have batteries.”

I was in a canyon of buildings at the edge of the San Francisco financial district.

5 minutes earlier, I had been sitting at my desk 8 floors above the street.  It was the end of the workday.  I was getting ready to go home. Many people had already left. The World Series was about to begin at Giants Stadium.

When the earthquake started, I heard the familiar rattle of window glass. I had been through many smaller quakes and I knew the sound.  I chortled to myself. My mom would be calling.

“Its ok Mom, it was just a little one”, I would say.

But this quake was not stopping.  I tried to stand up, but could not. My desk chair was wildly rolling about on my linoleum office floor. I kept trying but I could not stand up.
I fell to the floor and crawled and rolled over to a window.  I watched the conjoined brick buildings across the street begin to sway. I could see daylight as the two red brick buildings swayed apart.  That sight from my window triggered the fear.

I saw my own death. In my brief thought, I saw the floor open as I fell, descending 8 stories into a pile of debris.  My mind played that little dramatic film.  I stopped the movie in my mind.  I realized  I had never imagined dying.
When the lights first went out, the emergency lights did not come on.  As I continued to look out the window, I heard my co-workers begin to leave.
“Lets get out! Come on! Lets go.”
“Why is it dark?”

I pulled myself along a wall towards the door. We all wanted to get out. We wanted to get to the stairs, to the dark stairwell, to the street.
“Where is Carol?”  “Where is Jimmy?”
“They are at the baseball game.”
“Watch out on the stairs.” “I can’t see!”  “Doesn’t anybody have a flashlight?”

The stairwell was littered with ceiling tiles and covered with white plaster dust.  No one had a flashlight. There was no yelling. There was no  crying.  There were 8 floors to descend.

No  cell phones.
No pay phones. 
The trains under the bay had all halted. 
When people hit the street they all began to talk about it.  

“There are no buses. I guess I’ll walk home”
“The trollies have stopped.
“I came in on the BART train. How will I get home? They will not be running under the bay.”

I overhead a stranger, “Let’s run over to the bus terminal. Maybe we can get a ride across the bay to Berkeley.”
I began to jog the 10 blocks to the bus terminal.  To my surprise and delight there were busses running.  Long lines snaked out of the building and the busses were quickly loading up.  I jumped on.

My Berkeley bound bus left the terminal and began to slowly move through traffic as it climbed up to the Bay Bridge. We drove up a ramp and onto the bridge and into the bus lane. The bus stopped dead.  As we idled in a mass of vehicles, several passengers closed the bus windows to stop the diesel smoke and noise.  We sat in our orderly rows awaiting movement forward.

I had a seat, many others were standing.

I turned on my little FM transistor radio.  I listened for news with my earphones .  The whole city was dark, but we passengers could see a fierce red glow coming from the Marina District. That was the fire..  The fog over the Marina turned red.  The towering buildings were black. Instead of a setting sun, the Marina glowed. We starred like tourists. Everyone was silent.

My radio spoke. 
“In the East Bay e a portion of the Nimitz free has collapsed. Many cars have been crushed.”

I tried to reassure myself, my calm self said: “I’m on a bus and I’ll be home eventually.”
Suddenly the radio announcer interrupted the disaster litany to say:
“A span of the Bay Bridge has collapsed. Drivers are injured and trapped. ” 

I stood up at my seat and spoke loudly to the strangers on the quiet bus.
“Part of the bridge has collapsed.”
At that moment, we were all sitting far above the city on the Bay Bridge.. Beneath us was water.

A stranger turned to look at me. His face was twisted with disdain.
“Oh you are so stupid!  This bridge would never fall!”
Others muttered their agreement.
Stupid asshole! Shut up!

I sat down, confused.  Was that just a rumor? It sounded real to me.

Suddenly, the driver opened the bus door. The driver got off. We all looked ahead through the driver’s window and saw hundreds of people abandoning their cars and running straight for us and down the on-ramp to get off of the bridge.
I thought, “This is just like a science fiction movie. Everyone is fleeing the monster.”

I left the bus with all of the passengers. I walked along the Embarcadero which borders the San Francisco Bay.  I had been to the ATM that day and had some cash in my pocket. I thought, “maybe I can catch a boat across the bay. I want to go home.”

I walked and ran along to bay to the fisherman’s wharf area. As it turned out, the city had a well functioning evacuation scheme working with multiple ferryboats taking loads of people across the bay. Within 15 minutes, I was on board and headed to Oakland. 

Thousands of people were waiting for the boats.  Grateful to be a big tall man, I moved my way to the front of the confused crowd.  I was bigger than most people. 
“Excuse me.”
Excuse me”
It worked. There was no queuing just polite, huge group. I shuffled my big body through to the boat.

Like tourists, we crowded the stern as the ferry pulled away toward Oakland.
It was now night.
A few lights were on the mostly darkened buildings.  Typically we would all look at the Golden Gate Bridge, but tonight we focused on the fire in the Marina. 

A television inside the Ferry told us what had happened to us:
The TV reports looped continuously

Monday, October 13, 2014
On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 PM a 6.9 magnitude earthquake ripped through the Bay Area. It was 15 chilling seconds …

It was Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. The pre-game show had just begun. When suddenly, something went wrong.

The Bay Area shook for 15 seconds. But it was hours before we realized the huge extent of the damage. Power and phone service was cut for much of the Bay Area. Radio and TV stations were knocked off the air.

On the television, a film clip was played over and over:
"That is the Cypress section of the Nimitz Freeway and you can see, oh my God, look at that, the freeway has just completely collapsed."

“The natural gas lines have ruptured and that is what's caused that fire. The water lines have ruptured. There is no water coming out of the hydrants."

But wait! My wife Sarah would be coming home on the Nimitz. She had to drive through the Cypress section that had just collapsed.  My mind raced.  I had no way to know where she was.  I looked at the TV.   I moved back inside the ferry to see the picture.  I got as close to the TV monitor as I could.  There were now horrible images of flattened cars with trapped motorists being rescued.  I tried to calm my breath.  I had to stay calm. Where was Sarah?

We all stared and watched the television as the ferry made the 45 minute trip across the bay. The images repeated over and over.  My own images repeated over and over. Where was Sarah?

In time, we docked and I walked down the gangplank.  Oakland like San Francisco had lost power.  I knew that the 6-mile walk from the Oakland harbor to our home in Berkeley was a long way.  I also knew that I would be walking through some rough neighborhoods. I was determined to get home to Sarah and the kids. There was no question. I would walk.

I knew the way. It was a straight road home. I again pulled up my hood as if it gave me some special security.  I began to walk as quickly as I could. Police barriers immediately blocked my path. Generators powered huge floodlights. The light showed the steel shell of a 12-story building under construction.  The girders had twisted by the earthquake. The building tilted menacingly over the road. 

I stopped at a pay phone to try and check on my family. Not even a dial tone. It was dead.

I detoured around the barriers and moved back onto the dark streets. I kept heading home. After a few miles, I left the downtown area. I noticed some busses began to pass me. I did not stop to wait. Sitting at a bus stop was not smart. The streetlights flickered but remained out.  Several blocks of run down buildings and bars were part of my gauntlet home.  Just as I had worried, and as if on queue, 3 men came out of a bar.
“Hey you!” “Watcha doin here.”
“Hey come over here.” “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
I said nothing, walked faster.
They laughed.  What fun they were having. They had frightened me.

I marched forward. Minutes later a brightly lit bus pulled up and stopped. I had not even waved at it. The driver opened the doors and commanded me, “Get in the Bus! Right now!”
I did. I was so grateful to be in a warm, safe, city bus.  It was like a great rescue ship.

I had nearly reached home.  I still did not know if everyone was safe.