Travel through time and space

Savannah Morning News

May 28, 2017

By the time I pulled out of Pittsburgh on Amtrak’s Philadelphian, I had mastered the Keurig coffee maker (even though no one told me you had to jiggle the water first), driven a car without a key in the ignition (without knowing you had to depress the brake and the on button at the SAME time), remembered how hilly this city is (can you say sore calves?), returned to the Giant Eagle supermarket (pronounced “iggle” by locals) and peered into an old-fashioned vintage private railcar festooned with mahogany paneling and cushy seating owned by a man named Bennett Levin. Our train into Pittsburgh from Philadelphia pulled this special, tricked out car, the same car this philanthropic native of Philadelphia offered to carry Bobby Kenney’s body to Washington for burial.

“But why would someone have their own railcar?” I asked the affable conductor walking up and down the aisles, clearly impressed by Levin.

“Why would someone own their own plane?” he answered. “Because the man loves trains.”

So do I but I might love his car more. He probably didn’t have to wonder whether he should reach across the aisle and turn off his neighbor’s tablet, which was “broadcasting” a portion of the Bible. Nothing against the Bible but it was a little loud and it kept repeating itself and the woman was asleep, nodding to the beat of the train when all I wanted to do was feel the trees hugging the tracks, read my book club selection, “The Green Road,” and eat my quinoa salad, a new selection from the café car.

Baltimore, an earlier stop, kind of knocked my socks off starting with the gender-bending 51- foot burnished aluminum statue of two twisted figures facing the front doors of Penn Station, another beaux art beauty. Sculptor Jonathan Borofsky calls it “Male/Female.”

Baltimore (pronounced “Balmore” by locals), Maryland (“Merland”), is the home of bearded irises, John Waters, Ann Tyler, columnist nonpareil Rafael Alvarez, artist extraordinaire Christine Sajecki, The Wire, Edgar Allen Poe’s grave, light rail, row houses, stone houses, ginormous crab cakes from The Dizz, the yellow VW bus from ”Little Miss Sunshine” (a prize from a film festival that sits on Falls Road) and Camden Yards, where we stopped to peer into the iconic ballfield and watch four men lug around a hose to water an infield that is artificial grass.

Baltimore beckons. But I was on a mission – to keep an old friend company following hip replacement surgery. We hadn’t seen one another for nine years; she’s one of those friends for whom time means nothing. She stocked the freezer with Klondike bars and borrowed some fans to combat the heat (clearly she forgot where I was coming from). Five minutes into a walk toward the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland I got the iconic Pittsburgh signal – someone turning his headlights on and off saying, “Go ahead. You can cross the street.” Love Pittsburgh.

Although Baltimore is called Charm City Pittsburgh has its own charm. From my friend’s high rise on Bigelow Avenue we look out onto pitched and pointed roofs that could have come out of a Dickens novel, especially in the winter when covered with snow. More bearded irises, more stories between friends who have known one another for nearly 50 years.

“Now: how did you get to Chicago?” she asked, which is where we met – at WTTW public television. I was a baby; she had four kids. When time races by sometimes you need these refresher moments. At 4 in the morning, in between pain pills, we had time: to tell stories, to reach back, to review. No way I could top her memory of Society of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic boarding school outside Chicago better known as “The Madames.” She and her classmates went to mass and communion every day, wore white gloves for special assemblies and curtsied when passing a nun or an older person no matter what or where. “We got really good at the flying curtsy when we were late for class,” she said. Her mother, her father’s sisters, her grandmother and her great-grandmother all went to The Madams. Her brother, destined for Notre Dame (their father’s school), not so keen on the experience, drank black shoe polish to get out of it.

Every week she and her classmates got medals for their behavior. Because it was a French school the medals were designated rien (nothing), bien (good), assez bien (good enough) or tres bien (very good). She said she got so many medals she looked like a South American general.

She went home every weekend and returned on the Sunday night train where she got sad “looking at people in their kitchens listening to their radios, probably Jack Benny.” After dinner the girls would assemble with their knitting – “lots of long straight scarves” – and listen to the nuns read to them, “classics, like ‘Little Women’ and ‘Great Expectations,’ read with just the right dramatic effect. We loved it.”

For their graduation gift to the school she and her classmates contributed leather coverings to the kneeling pads. “By the seventh grade we had washer woman knees.”

We spent hours trying to pin down the dates of when we did stuff together – and the names of people we knew. Then came the final question, about my dog:

“Is Charlie still with us?”

“Yep. She’s 16, deaf as a post, nearly blind, barely continent, still a cutie.”

Good times. Good friends clicking, again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Staring down 73

Savannah Morning News

May 7, 2017

 

A few weeks ago the odometer on my truck up and quit. And the speedometer. Bummer, I thought, since the old girl was approaching 195,000 miles. That’s something to be proud of. Those are bragging rights. Must be the cable, said Mickey the Mechanic. Simple fix. Bring it in. But maybe it was a sign. Everything’s a sign when your birthday’s approaching and that’s all you’re thinking about. Maybe someone out there is trying to tell you something. Maybe it’s time to stop counting the miles, time to start shaving off a few years from your professed age. Who would know? Time to leave the numbers where they are – either that or start telling people you’re 86 and stand back and glow when they tell you how great you look, “for 86”.

Birthdays can be tense, all those expectations. They didn’t used to be that way. There used to be an inner glow, all day. There was this secret bubbling up inside your head that only you and your old friends knew about. Now there’s a lot of pressure to enjoy your birthday. Now you have to live up to its reputation of being a special day. “What are you doing for your birthday?” my friend Billy writes. “Hope you have a great birthday,” someone else says, followed by, “It’s your birthday week.” It wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t this internal measuring stick (and 10,000 “friends” on Facebook) constantly calibrating your happiness level. Am I having fun yet? Is this fun?

“Be yourself,” one card reads. “Everyone else is taken.”

By this time, you’d think we would know that self, would like that self (not “like” as in social media but “like”: as in enjoy, appreciate, admire that self), but there are those moments – we all have them – when either we’re out of touch with that self or we’re not so happy with that self. (PS covering mirrors helps, looking at old photographs does not help). The good news is we know that everything changes so what might feel true today won’t feel true tomorrow.

There are some benefits to birthdays: a box of homemade brownies from the original recipe created by Katherine Hepburn, who, born in 1907, died at 96; a tray of homemade baklava, made from the hand of a Greek; a massage; a manicure; a dinner or two with friends, and maybe in the next few days a brownie or three for breakfast.

But there are the questions, nagging questions. Is this what you’re supposed to look like at 73? Is this what you’re supposed to be doing at 73? And finally, could that number really be right? Time to put pencil to paper or get a calculator. Note to self:  yep, the math is right.

How does this happen?

Some things get easier. No. 1: we get more forgiving.  As my friend Janice’s Yiddisha mama used to say, “No one sees the hump on his own back.” I see my humps (such a vivid word, such a vivid language). I see the things people are dealing with. I know none of it is easy.

Some things get harder. Oy, my knee – it just doesn’t bend the way it used to. My arm, I complain at night in bed when it can’t get comfortable. Or is it the bicep tendon? Whatever. It hurts. Then there’s reflux. Everyone seems to be getting it. Is this reflux? I ask someone who thinks she has it. With every bit of discomfort, I say, “I think I have reflux.” What did we do before we had names for things?

Some things get scarier. These days when I can’t remember someone’s name I take out my phone, start at the “A’s” and go through every contact – sometimes it even works – sort of like that character Julianne Moore plays in the movie “Still Alice.” She’s a linguistic professor who can’t seem to find the words – or keys or book she’s reading. I’m starting to call people Buddy or Mama or I might say, “How’s your bride/groom?”

This is what I know for sure. We all get shorter. Gray hair doesn’t curl up as well as brown hair. Handwritten thank-you notes go a long way. The cost of duplicating car keys is insane. People in Congress are insane (and selfish) and until they offer us the same health care benefits they enjoy I’ll never believe one thing they say. No storage unit needs to be the size of our Civic Center.  Dogs can indeed bite people despite what their owners say.

For my birthday I’m planting horseradish so next Passover I’ll know where to secure some for the Seder table.  With any luck the root – and I – will grow and prosper and I’ll remember where I planted it.