“A chicken in every pot!’ Dad screamed out to no one in particular from his slightly reclined hospital bed. A young hospital volunteer battling a severe case of acne looked at him quizzically as she set down his dinner tray and then began to tip-toe out of the room, anticipating another outburst.
“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” he blurted out in a louder, more assertive voice. The teenage girl dressed in a red-and-white striped dress looking like a gangly barber pole paused a moment. She seemed obviously confused with my father’s ramblings and answered tentatively, “Well, enjoy your dinner,” as she left the room.
“Shut up Mr. President!” a gruff voice stated from behind the curtain of their shared semi-private room. “I’m trying to listen to the TV.”
“If my legs were not riddled with polio, my good man, I’d get out of this bed right now and kick your ass from here to Hyde Park!” said dad as he adjusted the invisible glasses in front of his cloudy and distant eyes.
It was hurtful to see what had become of my father. He had had a good build at one time, but now age and disease had taken their toll on him. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few months before by his doctor, who called his condition the most aggressive case he had ever seen. My father had gone from slight forgetfulness to drifting in and out of reality, and then deteriorated to the point where this life-long Republican now believed he was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
My dad’s name was Charles Lindbergh Hume. He was born on May 21, 1927, the same day “Lucky Lindy” touched down outside of Paris after completing the first-ever solo trans-Atlantic flight. His parents, convinced they were having a baby girl, never even considered a single boy’s name, so with the newspapers full of the exploits of Charles Lindbergh, my dad was given the heroic aviator’s name instead of the previously decided upon Peggy Lynn.
Years later while serving in the army, he had made the unfortunate mistake of telling this story to his army buddies, who, from that day on, always referred to him as Peggy Lynn. Sadly now, his name and the story that accompanied it had become a distant memory. His life memories had been lost.
As a seventeen year old, he had been sent to fight in Northern Africa and Europe during World War II, where he was among the liberating forces in Berlin in 1945. After the war, he returned to the states and attended the University of Minnesota on the GI bill. He remembered his university days as some of the happiest of his life. He used to say, “I was just happy to be someplace where they weren’t shootin’ at me.”
Dad met his future wife on a blind date during his sophomore year, but tragedy soon followed when he learned that both his parents had been killed in a car crash. His mother had fallen asleep at the wheel and steered their ’38 Ford into a pine tree, leaving dad to raise his four teenage siblings.
After dating for just six weeks, my parents were married in the St. Paul county recorder’s office by a justice of the peace. They dropped out of college and moved to North Carolina to rear their new instant family. After a few years of “flying by the seat of their pants,” and “pickin’ shit with the chickens,” as he used to say, Dad’s siblings were old enough to go out on their own. Mom and Dad then had two sets of twins ten years apart starting with Paul and Minnie, who were named after Minnesota’s twin cities, and then Mark and Karen, named after no cities at all. You’d think that raising two sets of twins a decade apart would be enough parenting for anyone, but years later they adopted me as the empty-nest syndrome set in.
“Time to check your blood pressure,” a Filipino nurse said, walking into the room like she owned the hospital.
“Never a moment’s peace!” Dad retorted. “This is a day which will live in infamy!”
“Is this your son, Mr. Hume? He’s good looking, just like you,” the nurse asked as she began to roll up the sleeve of his pajamas.
If he had been in control of all of his facilities he would have said something like, “It sure is. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree you know.” Instead, he introduced me as his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes.
All the years I knew him, he never told people that I was adopted, though it was obvious because we looked nothing alike. Dad was a short, stocky man with a full round face and deep-set eyes. His thick black eyebrows were so bushy they should have been named a national forest. He had olive-colored skin, a dimple in the middle of his chin that would have made Kirk Douglas envious, and always looked like he needed a shave even if he had just had one. I, on the other hand, am lanky with a fair complexion, sandy brown hair, and shave about once every two weeks whether I need to or not, just to stay in practice. But without a hint of physical similarities, I can’t remember ever hearing him explain to someone that I was adopted. He always introduced me either as “my boy” or his “number-three son.” It might not sound like much, but for somebody who was passed around with the regularity of a flu bug, it always seemed to give me a strong feeling of security and inclusion.
I only lived with Mom and Dad together for about three years before Mom died in a freak accident at the nut plant. Dad had been a very successful businessman, owning a nut-packing plant outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. One day, while counting the inventory, Mom slipped on a cat walk and fell into a large storage vat of Brazil nuts. Investigators said she must have landed in an air pocket and sunk below the surface level. The more she struggled to get out, the deeper she sank. By the time the fire rescue crew got there, she had fallen ten feet below the surface and died of asphyxiation.
This was another tragedy for a man who had suffered so many losses in his life. We all took her loss hard, but after forty-three years of marriage, Dad was devastated. He said he never wanted to see another Brazilian nut as long as he lived. He immediately ordered the plant manager to change the recipe of the mixed nuts to exclude Brazilian nuts and dispose of every Brazilian nut in the plant.
A couple years passed and he couldn’t shed the memories of my mother’s death, so he sold the plant and our house and we moved to Kensington, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. I was thirteen at the time we moved, in my last year of middle school, and starting over was tough. I only made a few friends that year and, due to the school district’s boundaries, I was assigned to a different high school than most of the other kids so the next year was like starting over again. The whole experience was reminiscent of my early years when I bounced around multiple foster homes, always starting over again and again.
A few years ago I asked about my birth parents and was told they were hippie-types who discovered that a love-child interfered with their “love-ins” and peace rallies, so they placed me in state care. Some adopted kids obsess about trying to establish contact with their birth parents and for them that’s fine, but I never had the yearning.
My last foster home happened to be next door to the Hume’s. My name is Jim, and as an eight year old I smelled their roast beef dinner cooking, knocked on the door, and basically invited myself to join the meal. I ate so much roast beef that night they started calling me Roastbeef. Over the years, the nickname stuck with me (what the heck, it beats Butch or Chip or Rusty). By the time I was ten years old, I was the newest and youngest member of the Hume family.
“I want to be cremated!” my father blurted out loud enough for it to echo all the way down the hospital corridor.
“Oh Dad, don’t talk like that. You’ll be okay. You just get some rest.”
“Listen,” my father said in a stern voice. “I want to be cremated and I want you to sprinkle my ashes in all forty-eight states of the country I loved and served so well.”
I tried to change the subject, but the president wouldn’t have it.
“When the President gives you an order, you say ‘Yes Mr. President.’ Now do you understand?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
He looked at me coldly with a snarl on his face.
“I mean, yes Mr. President,” I said formalizing my previous answer.
“I want you to promise me you’ll fulfill my wish.”
“Okay,” I said, followed by a half-hearted, “I promise. Now let’s talk about something else,” I said with disgust in my voice.
I bent down to hug him good-bye. He didn’t sit up so I couldn’t get my arms around him, but when I pulled myself in he pulled away. This was the saddest part of all. He would have never done that. He hugged everybody: family, friends, employees, even acquaintances in town. A hug to him was like a handshake to most people. Fighting back the tears, I told him I’d see him again tomorrow. As I was leaving the room, another nurse entered. I heard Dad say, “Ah, the First Lady. Eleanor you’ll be the belle of the ball.”
I visited Dad every day for two weeks, and he’d remind me of my promise. This man couldn’t remember his name or what he’d had for breakfast but he continued to remind me of my promise to sprinkle his ashes in each state. On one visit he said, “Don’t sprinkle too much of me in Vermont. In four elections I never carried that damn state.” I went home and looked up presidential elections in the almanac and found he was correct. FDR never carried Vermont, but how could Dad in his condition possibly know that? The Alzheimer’s disease had miraculously opened up something in his brain, making him some kind of FDR savant.
It was two weeks later in the middle of March and the East Coast was basking in an early spring warming trend. It was the second semester of my sophomore year of college. I had suffered through two sub-par semesters and was again struggling to get a C average to stay off of the dean’s shit list. Late one night I was reading Daisy Miller for an Introduction to Literature test the next day, but a friend had stopped by and the study session had quickly turned into beer drinking and Letterman watching.
The telephone rang at 1:15 AM with the inevitable news I had been dreading. The nurse started in with her death spiel that sounded like she was reading from a card. “It pains me very much that I should have to be the one to inform you that your father, Mr. Hume, passed away at 12:35 this morning. If you would like to come to the hospital, we have grief counselors that you can speak with.” She went on to give me condolences and blah, blah, blah. After a while it sounded like Charlie Brown’s parents.
I hung up the phone a bit stunned by the news. I knew the news was coming, but there’s something different in knowing that death is imminent and the cold, hard, smack-in-the-face reality of it. I sat quickly and sipped from my beer. My friend offered a bit of condolence.
“Sorry man,” he said. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. I just think I’d rather be alone.”
“That’s cool,” he said, grabbing the remainder of the twelve pack and carrying it out the door like a football under his left arm. “I know how it is, dude. When we put my dog to sleep, I didn’t want to talk to anyone for like a week.”
I sat idle for a moment unable to cry or feel much of any emotion. Everywhere I looked sparked memories of him. I went to the hall closet where our family kept our voluminous collection of photo albums. I grabbed a few and carried them back to the sofa, where I stayed up most of the night looking at pictures of family vacations, holidays, and parties and feeling a tremendous sense of loss not only of Dad, but that the times captured in those photographs were gone forever.
Around dawn, I fell asleep and woke up at noon. I hurried off to school for my one o’clock class. I knew I was ill-prepared for the test, but hoped somehow to weasel my way into a passing grade. While I should have been taking the test, through tear-filled eyes I began developing a plan to honor dad’s wishes by sprinkling his ashes in each state. As I worked on my travel plans, one-by-one the other students finished their tests, took them up to the professor’s desk and exited the classroom. Eventually I was the last student in the classroom and the professor asked me for my paper. I had drawn a picture of the United States and devised a plan to quickly and efficiently visit all of the contiguous 48 states. I figured how much it would cost me to make the trip, but hadn’t mentioned a word about ol’ Daisy Miller.
Things weren’t going any better in my accounting class, where I was crediting the debits and debiting the credits, quickly on the fast track to a career in the fast-food industry. My plan had been to wait until the end of the semester to take the trip, but due to my lackluster academic efforts, I decided to take withdrawals in all my classes (even the two I was somehow pulling passing grades in), and without further delay get on the road. The price tag of the cross-country ash-dropping trip was considerably larger than the available balance in my savings account. I decided I would scrimp here and there, sleep in the car as much as possible, and make it work.
My brothers and sisters flew in for the funeral, and we discovered that Dad had prearranged his cremation and funeral long before his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. It showed he either had great insight or that this former Eagle Scout continued to live by the Boy Scout oath. He had decided on everything: white gardenia flowers, a silver-plated urn that looked like a tea kettle without the spout, a mix of religious and patriotic music, and a buffet table set up with Krispy Kreme glazed donuts. He even left a handwritten note to the mortician saying, “Anyone caught crying at the funeral should be asked to leave.” He wanted a happy gathering of friends and family celebrating a life well lived.
Since dad had done all the arrangements for us, the five days between his death and the funeral were spent relaxing with family and thanking friends and neighbors for their support. We received dozens of sympathy cards from every genre: religious, nature scenes, and cartoon characters. It’s hard to believe people would send a cartoon character sympathy card, but we got several. My family had a good laugh at a crying Snoopy sitting atop his dog house mourning a fallen Woodstock.
We also received countless numbers of the worst-tasting casseroles imaginable. I now believe the only thing worse than the loss of a loved one is being one of the surviving relatives who has to eat all the sympathy tuna casseroles and three-bean salads. The tradition of making food for the grieving might have been appropriate years ago, but nowadays with restaurants on every corner, home pizza delivery, and convenience stores open twenty-four hours a day, this is a tradition that must also die; the mourners have suffered enough.
One day I mustered up enough courage to tell my brothers and sisters my plan of fulfilling dad’s wish. I knew that some, if not all of them, would think it was a stupid idea and was pleasantly surprised when two out of four liked the idea. Minnie and Mark thought dad’s ashes should be placed in Mom’s crypt at the mausoleum. Minnie tried to filibuster the whole discussion with a long emotional rant, and when I couldn’t change their minds with any of my high-school debate techniques, we agreed to split Dad’s ashes. Mark and Minnie’s share of the ashes would go to the mausoleum, and Paul, Karen, and my shares would go on the road.
The day before the funeral, Dad’s obituary appeared in the local section of The Washington Post. It was a bit disheartening to read that a man who had given so much to his country, community, friends, employees, and family was given only three lines of tiny print wedged in-between the obituaries of Gerald Hamsteil and Rodney Ivansauer and next to an ad for discounted mufflers. To add insult to injury, dad’s obituary contained a major typographical error.
Charles L. Hume, 68, a retarded nutpacker died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. He is survived by three sons, two daughters, and six grandchildren. Funeral services pending.
The people at the newspaper agreed to reprint Dad’s obituary stating that he was a “retired Chief Executive Officer of a nut-packing company,” but by the time it re-ran it seemed pointless. Dad was so unpretentious anyway that I think he probably would have gotten a kick out of being called a retarded nutpacker.
The day of the funeral was a perfect spring day. The air was cool and crisp with clear sunny skies. Occasionally a soft breeze would blow the faint sweet smell of cherry blossom trees blooming down the road in our nation’s capitol. People arrived and we brothers and sisters had to start lying about how much we loved their gruel-like casseroles. Dad’s long-time minister, Pastor Emory Haden, eulogized him and then opened up the floor to whomever cared to speak. Several people stood and told stories about what a good man he was. Others shared tales of jokes and pranks he had played on people over the years. The laughter would occasionally turn to tears, but no one was ejected. Terrance Tyler, an army buddy who dad called “T,” told the story of Dad’s experience during basic training in 1944.
“Peggy Lynn couldn’t remember to call his rifle a rifle. He was always calling it a gun. The drill instructor, a real S.O.B., got tired of correcting Peggy Lynn and made him march bare-ass naked around our barracks. He had his rifle in one hand and his penis in the other screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun. ‘Ol Peggy Lynn never called his rifle his gun no more.”
At the reception following the service, Mrs. Pringle, our neighbor whose breath always smelled like she’d just eaten a tuna fish sandwich, asked me where dad would be buried. I told her “The Plan,” which she thought was just awful. “Everybody needs a final resting place,” she said. “Being scattered around the country like garbage is not a proper burial for a lovely man like your father.” A few other people chimed in with their disapproval.
Nancy Jergen, Dad’s holy-rollin’ cousin from Macon, Georgia was horrified that the word penis had come up during the funeral service and gave me a severe tongue-lashing for “letting those filthy army men speak.” You can’t please everybody, and I remember in other situations Dad telling me to “go with your gut feeling.” My gut feeling was telling me to honor my father’s wish.
The night before I left on the trip, my high-school lacrosse buddies threw me a going away party. They bought a keg of beer and we played numerous drinking games on the kitchen table. Mildly hung-over the next morning, I loaded up the Hyundai that dad had purchased for me two years earlier in Washington at an embassy surplus sale. The car had previously been owned by the African nation of Chad and driven by their diplomat’s errand boy. The car still had diplomatic license plates that allowed me to park anywhere I damn well pleased. I strapped dad’s urn containing three-fifths of his remains into the front passenger seat and started the car. Before I pulled out of the driveway, I took a spoonful of the ashes and sprinkled them on the front lawn of the house I had shared with Dad for eight years.
“One down, forty-seven to go,” I said to myself, and got into the car and shaded in the state of Maryland on the map I carried to show the trip’s progress.
I got onto Interstate 95 heading north towards Baltimore and crossed my first state line into Delaware within the first two hours. Rolling along the Delaware Turnpike, I scooped up more of dad’s ashes and threw them out the window. The heavy wind coming through the window blew the ashes into the back seat. I pulled over and sprinkled another scoop of ashes under a road sign that gave the mileage chart to Wilmington, Philadelphia, and New York City.
A few miles up the highway, I steered the diplomatic Hyundai across a bridge that spanned the Delaware River and came down into the Garden State of New Jersey. Soon thereafter I noticed the turn-off for the Atlantic City Expressway. It took me a couple of hours to cross the green fields of south Jersey and arrive in the neglected slum neighborhoods of Atlantic City. I followed the street signs to the world-famous boardwalk, checking several times to make sure that my car’s doors and windows were locked. I parked the diplomatic Hyundai in the giant concrete monolith known as the Taj Mahal parking structure, noticing there were cars with license plates representing nearly every state in the union.
I thought about giving each driver a small clump of dad’s ashes and asking them to sprinkle them in their home state. It was just a passing thought, and I was growing tired of that half-assed, cut-every-corner attitude I had adopted during my college career. I decided right there that there would be no shortcuts on this trip.
I grabbed dad’s urn and carried it into the casino. I was instantly greeted by the incessant ringing, buzzing, and generally annoying presence of the endless rows of slot machines. I wondered how cocktail waitresses could tolerate eight hours a day in here schlepping watered-down booze to blue-haired old ladies and chain-smoking twirps from Philadelphia.
I exited the casino and walked on the boardwalk where I’d walked with dad several times before on summer vacations to the Jersey shore. An elderly woman carrying a plastic change bucket filled with nickels approached me on the boardwalk.
“Excuse me, where’d you get that change bucket?”
“What are you talking about?” I asked the woman, figuring she must be confused.
“Your silver-plated change bucket. Which casino did you get that in?”
“It’s my dad’s…” I began to answer with the truth, then figured, what’s the point? “I mean it’s my dad’s change bucket. He hit the jackpot at the Taj Mahal. In fact, Donald Trump gave him the bucket personally.”
“Really?” The old woman’s eyes sparkled through her bifocals.
“Sure,” I said, “The Donald is a helluva nice guy. He’s just giving money away down there.”
“Thanks kid,” she said. She turned and screamed “Myrtle! He got it at the Ta-a-a-j!” The woman’s friend, who had been sitting on a bench massaging her feet, quickly stood up. The two elderly women waddled down the boardwalk arm-in-arm towards the Taj Mahal casino to claim their own jackpot and silver-plated change bucket.
I took the stairs that led from the boardwalk down to the sandy beach. I walked to the shoreline, took off my shoes, and walked in the water. The beach was crowded with teenagers trying to look grown up. They were smoking and blasting their radios with no regard for the families sitting under large multi-colored umbrellas right next to them.
After a fifteen-minute walk, I stopped and sprinkled some of dad’s ashes on the wet sand in front of me. I sat and watched the boats anchored just off the shoreline bobbing up and down with the ocean’s current. Soon a jogger came by and his enormous foot made an imprint in the sand right where I had sprinkled the ashes. I wondered if Dad’s ashes had been smashed down into the sand or if they were now on the sole of the joggers’ feet? I briefly considered sprinkling more ashes of the sand. Instead I thought of the joggers’ feet as a free service spreading dad’s ashes all over the Jersey shoreline like a bee spreading pollen around a garden.
As I strolled the boardwalk back towards my car I was stopped by a Green Party volunteer who asked me to sign a petition to stop the growth of casinos along the boardwalk in order to help protect the marshland for some kind of sandpiper. I signed the petition with one of my alias names, Serge Vienna.
“Vote Green,” the guy said to me as I returned the clipboard. I just nodded and began looking for which hotel was offering the best all-you-can-eat buffet.
“$4.99 All-You-Can-Eat Lunch Buffet,” one sign would flash while the others on the boardwalk would tempt gamblers with other similar offers. I ate at Golden Nugget’s all-you-can-eat buffet. After stuffing myself on prime rib, I slipped a few apples and rolls into my pocket and left.
Returning to the Taj Mahal to get my parking ticket validated, I found a large mob of people huddled around a slot machine. As I peered through the crowd, I saw the very same lady I had talked to on the boardwalk having her picture taken with a large, cardboard, publicity-sized check for $4,500.
I pushed my way through the crowd saying the woman was my grandmother, a trick I had used successfully as a kid at Disney World to move through ride lines faster. When I got to the front I asked the elderly woman what happened. She immediately recognized me.
“Oh, you’re the young man from the boardwalk. I wouldn’t have won this if it hadn’t been for you.”
“What did you win?” I asked.
“I won $4,500 playing Quartermania!”
“Congratulations!” I said with enthusiasm.
“I’m going to give you a reward. You sent us down here to the Ta-a-a-j which made this all possible.”
“That’s okay, I’m just happy you won.”
“No, no, I won’t hear of it,” she said, reaching into her purse and ripping a ticket out of her coupon book. “Here, this is for a complimentary breakfast tomorrow morning.”
I worked up a half-smile, trying hard not to show my disappointment. “Does this include coffee?” I asked sarcastically.
“You betcha, the works.”
I took her coupon, shook the woman’s hand, thanked her, and made my way to the parking garage. On the boardwalk, I put the coupon into the open guitar case of a down-and-out street musician playing and singing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown.”
I drove north on the Garden State Parkway headed for the bright lights of the city so nice they named it twice. My greeting to Gotham, however, was delivered in stop-and-go traffic at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel by a swarthy man in the car next to mine. I didn’t let him cut in front of me, so he flipped me off and yelled, “Nice tin can, ass face.”
After my official NYC welcome, I drove through the tunnel crossing the New Jersey/New York state line halfway underneath the Hudson River. I emerged on the island of Manhattan near the thugs, riffraff, and hustlers around the Port Authority bus terminal. At red lights, my car was swarmed over by squeegee men and homeless guys selling The Street News.
I crisscrossed my way through honking horns and jaywalking pedestrians, heading towards my friend Jeff’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Jeff had moved to the city two years earlier to pursue his dream of writing, but so far all he had written was IOUs back to his parents.
Jeff was living in a five-story walk-up apartment building on the corner of 95th and Amsterdam over a convenience store and an Indian food restaurant that caused the whole area to smell of curry. I found the apartment building easily enough, but then spent the next hour and a half trying to find a parking space. I eventually parked ten blocks away on 106th and Broadway in front of a movie theater featuring current release movies dubbed into Spanish. I grabbed my bed roll, Dad’s urn, and my duffel bag.
The sidewalks were packed with pedestrians walking hurriedly in both directions, but they parted like the Red Sea as a lunatic wearing an unbuttoned long-sleeved plaid shirt and stained and tattered slacks approached performing the umpire duties for a baseball game he was apparently watching in his mind. He lifted his right arm, made a fist, and screamed, “You’re outta here!” When he passed me I turned to watch, like many other people. The man stopped and swiped at his knees with a cupped hand, “Clipping #42 on the receiving team. Ten yards from the sight of the infraction.”
“What a seamless transition between sports!” I muttered to myself.
I reached Jeff’s apartment building and spotted his name on the mailbox, but there was no doorman, no intercom, and no way of entering the building without a key. “Jeff!” I screamed from the middle of 95th street looking up at the open windows in the building. After I had screamed his name a dozen or more times, an elderly Hispanic woman came to her window, looked down at me angrily, and, without saying a word, shut her window.
I guess I should have brought his phone number with me, I thought. That was stupid. What was I thinking?
I decided to wait by the door until somebody came in or went out and sneak in this way. I quickly learned that New Yorkers know this trick, and don’t take kindly to people sneaking into their buildings. I walked a few feet up to the corner and began looking around, trying to spot a public phone. A young black woman walked up wearing a lime-green halter top that wasn’t nearly big enough to support her large breasts. She asked, “You lookin’ for a date?”
“No, not right now. Thank you,” I said politely and walked away from her. I was able to find a pay phone down the block and across the street. There was a small steel cable dangling several inches below the base of the phone with frayed ends where I assumed a phone book had once hung. I called the operator for assistance, but Jeff wasn’t listed.
I decided to try again to sneak into the building, but this time figured out a better scheme. I found an old pizza box in the trash and, pretending to be a pizza man, was able to finagle my way into the building. I climbed the stairs and found apartment 503W. Although it was nearly sunset, at 7:15 Jeff was just getting up.
“What’s up?” Jeff said answering the door still very sleepy. “I thought you were going to be here at six.”
“Yeah, it really looks like you’ve been waiting for me on pins and needles.”
“Well at least you’re here on a good night. A friend of a friend of a friend is having a party.”
“And you’re invited?” I asked.
“Sure, that’s the way things work around here. So, did you bring any beer with you?”
“No. I’m the guest. You should be buying the beer.”
“Man, I’m broke. My parents cut me off again.”
“Well, my travel budget is about twenty bucks a day, so don’t expect me to be buyin’ all night.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get by. I always do. Get some beer at the Red Apple while I grab a shower down the hall.”
“You don’t even have your own bathroom?” I asked with amazement.
“Welcome to New York City, my friend.”
I walked to the market and bought a twelve-pack of Black Label, the cheapest beer the store had. While standing in the checkout line, I noticed what looked to be a homeless man stuffing aluminum cans one by one into what looked like a vending machine in front of the store.
“You can only turn in ten,” the manager yelled at him. “And don’t come back here tomorrow.”
The homeless man took his money from the recycling machine, walked over to the beer cooler, pulled out one sixteen-ounce can of Colt 45 and got in line behind me.
“Colt 45, the beer of me and Billy D,” the man said. No one else said anything or even turned their head to acknowledge the man. It was as if no one else had heard the comment.
New Yorkers are good at ignoring weirdoes, I realized.
On the walk back to Jeff’s place I learned the importance of carrying beer in a paper bag.
“Hey man, can you spare one of them beers for a Vietnam vet?” a man sitting on an apartment building stoop asked.
Another man further up the block said, “How ‘bout me lightening your load by one can, my man?” I liked the rhyme, but I’m not the beer Santa of street beggars, so I kept on walking with the twelve pack intact.
I had brought Jeff’s key with me so I was able to open the front door without incident. I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor, which after two trips was already getting old, and wondered how the residents of the fifth floor could do this everyday. I arrived out of breath and saw Jeff looking out the slightly ajar bathroom door.
“I forgot my Goddamned towel, and you locked me out, you son of a bitch!” said Jeff in a playfully angry sort of way. I opened the apartment door and he scurried through the hallway looking like he’d been caught in a thunderstorm at a nudist colony.
While Jeff got dressed, we drank beers and listened to a scratchy vinyl record of Sam and Dave. Jeff was tall and skinny with dark brown hair and wore eyeglasses with circular frames. One day in high school he made the mistake of wearing a red-and-white striped shirt, and a few football players started calling him Waldo. The combination of his hatred for the nickname and his volatile personality led to several fist fights during his high-school years.
“So where’d you get this crazy idea about droppin’ acid in every state?” Jeff asked.
“Ashes,” I stated clearly. “I’m dropping my dad’s ashes in every state.”
“His ashes?! What’s up with that?”
“Hey, it was his dying wish, what can I say? You actually thought I was going to drop acid in every state?!”
“Oh yeah, my bad,” Jeff sneered. “Dropping acid, that’s really crazy. Dropping ashes…yeah, that’s real normal. Happens every day.”
We segued into a discussion of my travel plans and Jeff’s writing career, but since both were still in their infancy, we reverted to talk of high-school days. We finished the twelve pack and were comfortably numb enough to venture out into the Manhattan night by ten-thirty. Before we left, I put a spoonful of dad’s ashes into a plastic sandwich bag, and tucked it down into my pocket. We road the number nine subway train down to the Financial District and mistakenly got off the train one stop too soon at Rector Street. We walked east for a few blocks headed towards Wall Street. I had no preconceived ash-dropping locations for anywhere else on the trip, but I was adamant about dropping some of dad’s ashes on Wall Street. For decades he was a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal and read it religiously everyday. He used to say, “I only buy it for the pictures,” the way a Playboy reader says that they only buy the magazine for the articles. I thought an ash dropping on Wall Street would be a fitting tribute. Between the subway station and our walk to Wall Street we stopped at a small tavern called Clancy’s Pub. There was no room at the bar so we sat at a nearby table for two.
Since we were headed for Wall Street, I told Jeff the story of Dad’s reaction to Black Monday. On Tuesday morning, October 20, 1987, I came into the kitchen and he was reading The Wall Street Journal. I asked him how his stocks did in the crash yesterday. He looked up and said, “My stocks went so far into the toilet that I’d have to call a plumber to look at my portfolio.”
While gesturing at the end of the story, I accidentally knocked over the small globe candle and some of the hot wax spilled out onto the table. Once it cooled enough, I peeled the wax from the table and rolled it into a ball with the palms of my hands. We finished our beer and continued walking for a few more blocks until we came to the corner of Broadway and Wall Street. It was now past midnight and America’s financial Main Street was dark and forlorn. We walked down the street and saw a gigantic building with numerous support columns in front of it and the words New York Stock Exchange etched into the granite. In front of me was a large statue of George Washington. The plaque on the base of statue stated that George Washington had been inaugurated on this sight in 1789. I decided this would be a good place to sprinkle dad’s ashes. I asked Jeff to hold the marble-sized ball of wax I was still manipulating for no good reason so I could retrieve the small plastic bag of dad’s ashes from my pocket.
“I don’t want to hold this,” Jeff said, turning up his lip at the ball of wax. “It looks like a disgusting ball of snot. Just throw it away. Hey, better yet why don’t you stick it on ol’ George here.”
“Why not?” I thought. I began mixing some of dad’s ashes into the wax. With a boost from Jeff and a stabilizing hold on the leg of the father of our country, I was standing on the base of the statue. I only came up to Washington’s belt buckle. Jeff told me to make the wax into some crazy teeth or a stream of snot coming out of Washington’s nose. I told him to keep a lookout for anyone wandering by, mainly the police, and I settled on forming the wax and ash mix into a quarter-sized fingernail for the index finger of Washington’s right hand. The look and fit of the fingernail was so perfect that Madame Tussaud would have been impressed with my work. I jumped off the statue and we scurried off undetected.
We took the “R” subway train uptown towards Greenwich Village and got off at the Prince Street station. We walked around looking for the party Jeff claimed to know about, but nothing was going on. We ended up in Washington Square Park where college-aged kids were gathered in groups playing guitar and singing. Others were playing hacky-sack while a few drug dealers roamed the park attempting to generate business by whispering, “Coke, Speed, Cess” to people they passed.
The weather that night was humid and thunderclouds had begun rolling in. “We’ve got about five minutes `til it’s going to start pouring,” Jeff said. We began looking for a bar, coffee house, or somewhere to get out of the thunderstorm for a little while. We could no longer be picky as the sky opened up pouring down rain on us. Jeff ran up some stairs into the doorway of a business building. I ran a distant second due to a slip on the wet street, and was now pretty well soaked from head to toe.
We joined three black men in their thirties who were standing in the doorway waiting out the storm by passing around a forty-ounce bottle of Olde English 800 in a scrunched-up paper sack.
“Man, that was a nasty spill. You okay?” one man asked me.
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Here have a hit of the eight ball,” he said.
“No, that’s okay. Thanks anyway.”
“So what are you guys doin’ up here?” Jeff asked.
“Just drinkin’ and singin’ and keepin’ dry.”
“I hear that,” Jeff said, trying to fit in with their vernacular. “What were you singin’?”
“The Four Tops, The Temptations.”
“Cool, I love Motown!” Jeff said, then started singing the introduction music to “My Girl”: “I got sunshine on a cloudy day…” Everybody joined in.
When we finished the song, they passed the bottle and this time both of us drank with them. Our newly formed a cappella group sang about five songs, and when the weather started to clear and the beer bottle was nearing its end, one of the men said, “Hey, how `bout you fellas go buy us another bottle. We got lots more songs on the play list.”
“Okay,” Jeff said, “we’ll be right back.”
We walked like we were going to the store and then took off running down a street of Brownstones.
“I know a bar nearby that has late-night happy hour food,” Jeff said, because by then the munchies had set in. We walked into The Cadillac Bar, a bar and restaurant whose gimmick was allowing customers to write on their walls. The happy hour food turned out to be a basket of tortilla chips and a small cup of salsa. We quickly devoured their basket like we’d never seen food before, and then subtly swiped the basket of chips from the people sitting next to us at the bar.
“Hey,” the bartender screamed. “Those chips are supposed to be a snack, not your dinner!”
We finished our beers and went to catch a subway. By now it was pushing three o’clock and the trains were running very infrequently on a late-night schedule. I slept on the floor at Jeff’s apartment, but it felt as soft as a feather bed.
The next morning when I returned to my car, I found the back-seat side window on the driver’s side shattered, with tiny bits of broken glass in the street next to the car and scattered throughout the car’s inside. I looked inside; several multi-colored wires were hanging out of a hole in the dashboard where the car stereo had previously been mounted.
“Great, this is just great,” I said with disgust. I picked up my things and placed them in the car, then patched the window using a piece of cardboard and some duct tape. Just then I noticed two policeman strolling down the street. They had stopped in the middle of the block to peak inside a topless bar. I walked over.
“Excuse me, but my car has been broken into,” I said.
“What?” one of the officers said still peering around the long black velvet curtain that stood in the doorway.
“Someone stole the radio out of my car.”
“Did you see the person?”
“Did you have a ‘No Radio in Car’ sticker in your window?”
“Well then, what do you expect us to do about it?”
I just shook my head and walked back to the car.
It would be at a time like this that my mother would say, “This is wrong. Somebody needs to write a letter about this.”
Battered but not beaten by the Big Apple, the diplomatic Hyundai and I got back on the road.
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