Let the hate mail begin!
It’s Monday morning and I’m in the bathroom performing my daily ablutions. After taking a hot shower with lots of soap, shampoo and conditioner, I towel off and go to the sink to shave. Not my favorite thing.
Today, however, I’m trying something different. After lathering up my face, I open my medicine cabinet and take out my new beard removal device – an old-fashioned double-edged safety razor. Annie and I went to Central Park yesterday and, after stopping inside the Time Warner Center to use what I consider the finest public toilet in New York, I popped into the Art of Shaving store and bought this little do-hickey for fifty bucks. Heavy, chrome plated and made of stainless steel; this razor is a throwback to a time when shaving took some skill. If I was real macho, I’d have bought a straight razor – but I’m not crazy.
Holding it by the very end, I take the razor, move the handle parallel to the floor, and then lower the blade to a thirty-degree angle to my face. Not applying pressure, I start moving down, following the grain of my beard and letting the weight of the razor do all the work.
After five minutes I manage not to Sweeny Todd myself and re-lather so I can work on the parts of my face that need a second pass. I like mastering a new skill and I’m enjoying the challenge. After I rinse off the razor in hot water I look into the mirror – only to find a face that’s not mine staring back at me.
“Do you speak English?” it asks.
Startled, I nick myself and blood starts turning the lather on my face pink. The man in the mirror vanishes, replaced by the reflection I’ve seen grow and change for forty-four years. Of course, there was never a strange man in the mirror; just the projection of a troubled mind.
After Ann I finished our sojourn in the park we ate Thai food and then started back to the Port Authority and our bus home. To complement the walk I light up a ten-dollar cigar I bought at Davidoff. Then around Fifty-Third Street, a thin guy wearing nursing scrubs comes up to us and asks me if I speak English.
“Yes,” I say, suddenly feeling uneasy.
“Listen,” the man says. “I’m not begging, I’m not a drug addict. My wife left her purse in a cab and I have no money. I need to get some infant formula for our baby.”
“Where’s the baby?” Ann asks.
“With my wife,” the man says quickly. “Listen, I know it sounds like a scam, but you can buy the formula for me. I don’t want any money. There’s a store right over there.”
I’ve given money to all sorts of beggars over the years, usually with the full knowledge they’d use it to buy drugs or booze. But this not wanting cash up front thing throws me.
“Please, sir,” the man says. “It’s only a couple of dollars.”
Part of me wants to run in the store and buy the baby formula. But another part of me, an almost unconscious part, is running my bullshit scanner full blast. The guy is wearing scrubs, but only the shirt. The lower half of his body is clad in jeans and ratty sneakers. When street people are admitted to psych wards and ERs their clothes are often ruined or they don’t have any at all. So the staff give these unfortunates whatever cast off clothes are laying around. And very often the shirt they get is the top half of a pair of cheap, disposable operating room scrubs. There’s also an odor coming off the man that I’ve smelled many times over the years – the scent of a ruined soul.
“Sorry, man,” I say. “I don’t have any money.”
A look of rage sweeps across the man’s face and I feel my feet and hips automatically shift my body into a balanced stand. Years of dealing with psych patients have given me decent radar for violent behavior. But the man just turns on his heel and storms off.
As Ann and I walk away I feel cheap and guilty. When you add up the razor, dinner and the stogie, I had treated myself handsomely to the tune of a hundred bucks.
“I feel bad now,” I say to Ann.
“Why?” she asks.
“It’s possible his story was true.”
“I doubt it.”
“He didn’t want money. What harm can there be in getting him some baby formula?”
“He’ll probably sell it for drugs.” I don’t reply
Ann knows me very well. She slips a five out of her purse and presses it into my palm. “Here’s your bum money,” she says.
We turn around and head back towards where we encountered the man, but he’s not there. So we walk a few more blocks, scanning the crowds enjoying the summer night. No dice. The beggar is lost in a sea of faces.
“He’s long gone,” I say, shaking my head.
“You tried,” Ann says.
“Son of a bitch,” I say angrily, realizing I had almost been scammed. “People like that just ruin it for the rest of us. What if you or I needed a stranger’s help?”
“We would never be in that position.”
Wrong. One day long ago I was walking the streets of Manhattan – drunk, my money gone and no way to get home. I thought about asking strangers if they could buy me a bus ticket, but I didn’t. After a begrudgingly accepted collect call, a friend of mine came to get me – five hours later.
When we get to the Port Authority I suddenly have to take a wicked piss, so I head to the restroom and Ann gets the tickets.
“Guess what?” Ann says when I rejoin her near the Cinnabon stand.
“When I was buying the tickets a kid in a white hoodie asked me for a dollar and twenty cents. He didn’t have enough money to get home.”
“You give it to him?”
“Yep,” she says. “But here’s the best part. He’s on the same bus as us.”
Sure enough, when we get on the bus, the kid in the white hoodie boards and marches to the back. Not so much as a thank you.
“There,” Ann says, squeezing my hand. “I fixed your Mitzvah.”
Back in my bathroom I realize I’ve been staring at my reflection for five minutes, catatonic as I played back the night’s events in my head. As I recommence shaving, I remember why I didn’t beg for money twenty years ago, I didn’t want to feel the cold shoulder of an unforgiving world. I didn’t want the story of the Good Samaritan to become just another piece of bullshit.
Clean-shaven and baby faced, I rub on some after-shave lotion. Last night I knew when to withhold and Ann knew when to give. Moral judgments like that are difficult for the best of us – and we often get it wrong.
Still troubled, I hold my new razor; admiring its heft as the morning sun slides along the chrome plated steel. As I place it in my medicine cabinet I remember a quote from the Upshanids Somerset Maugham used in one of his books. “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
My razor nick starts bleeding again so I put a piece of toilet paper on it. Ouch. Maugham wasn’t kidding.
I need to refill my Lipitor prescription so I walk into the local Rite Aid with Ann in tow.
“I’ll check my blood pressure while you’re waiting,” Ann says.
Ann’s blood pressure is perfect, but she has a strange fetish. She likes the crushing feeling of a blood pressure cuff on her arm. She also like Indian burns. In case you’re wondering, she’s exhibited no other masochist tendencies – at least not yet.
Ann settles in to the blood pressure machine with a big smile – like a little kid getting into one of those crappy rides you find in supermarkets. Luckily for me, there’s no line at the pharmacist’s counter. I hate waiting in line behind people with obvious rashes and hocking up bio-hazardous phlegm from their lungs.
“Have fun, honey,” I call to Ann. “This will just take a minute.”
The clerk behind the counter is a very pretty, dark haired young woman in her mid twenties. I smile at her. She smiles back, enthusiastically.
“Hi,” I say. “The name’s Dublanica. You’re holding a prescription for me.”
“Yes, sir,” she says, her eyes never leaving mine. They’re very pretty eyes. “Let me get that for you.”
The girl goes over to the pharmacist and mumbles something. The pharmacist, also attractive and in her early thirties, looks over at me and stares. When she realizes I’m watching her, she too breaks into a big smile. “You still got it, Steve,” I say to myself. “You’ve still got it.”
I’m pleased as punch. It’s been a while since young women have looked at me admiringly. But I can’t help but wonder why I’m getting all this extra attention. I haven’t really changed much since the last time I was here. Maybe it’s because I lost five pounds. It could also be the grey coming in nicely at my temples or the two days worth of facial hair making me look all edgy and rugged. Maybe it’s the shorts I’m wearing. Every woman I’ve ever dated has told me I have nice legs. Sure, a potbelly is perched on top of them, but hey; flaunt what you’ve got.
“How’s it going honey?” I call over to Ann.
“Oh” she says, squirming delightedly in her seat. “It feels wonderful.”
“You’re a strange chick.”
The clerk returns with a plastic bottle and a sheaf of paperwork. Again, she looks at me with a look that I interpret as lust.
“Here you are, sir,” she says. “How would you like to pay?”
I give the girl my card and, as she’s running it, I look over at the pharmacist, catching her eye. She blushes. I am a sex machine.
Ann comes over to me, rubbing her arm. “How’d you do?” I ask.
“110 over 70,” she says. “Perfect.”
“Good,” I say. Mine’s higher, but not by much.”
“You need to exercise more.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Oh my God!” the pretty dark haired girl says, covering her mouth.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says. “I’m so embarrassed.”
“When you came over here I thought you were talking to yourself. I didn’t see your girlfriend over there.”
I look at the blood pressure apparatus. The workers can’t see it from behind the counter. Oh dear.
“So I told the pharmacist,” the girl continues. “I’m so sorry. We thought you were odd.” In back of me I can hear Ann chuckling.
I feel my ego deflate. These pretty women weren’t looking at me because they thought I was attractive. They were looking at me because they thought I was nuts.
“Well,” I say, trying to mask my disappointment. “When I was a kid, if you saw someone talking to themselves they were crazy. These days they’re just probably talking on the phone. Hard to tell now.”
“I’m so sorry, sir,” the girl says, handing me my receipt.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say. But I want to scream. “Why the hell didn’t you keep all this to yourself?”
Clutching my bottle of cholesterol lowering meds, Ann and I walk out to her car. I’m very quiet.
“What’s the matter Steve?” she asks. “You look sad.”
Now this is a sticky wicket. How do you tell the woman you’re going to marry that you’re upset that two attractive young women didn’t want to jump your bones?
“It’s nothing,” I say, shaking my head.
“No,” Ann says. “Something’s bothering you.”
I know the cornerstone of all relationships is honest communication, but I could end up on the couch for this. But Ann is very persistent so, against my better judgment, I tell her what happened.
“I understand,” she says. “No matter how old you are, you want to be thought of as attractive.”
“It’s just depressing,” I say. “Young women act like I don’t exist.”
“I think you’re being too hard on yourself. I’m going out with you, right?”
“You’re eight years younger than me,” I say. “But I’m talking about 25 year olds. I’m not saying I’d act on it, but it’d still be nice to be wanted by that group.”
“And what would you do with a twenty-five year old?”
There are a couple of answers to that question, but the truest one works it’s way past my more piggish visions. “Nothing,” I say. “I wouldn’t know what to say to them.”
“There you go.”
“But if I was George Clooney or Bruce Willis…that would change things. “
“You think those guys are happy?” Ann snorts. Uh oh. Banishment to the living room is imminent.
“Maybe not,” I say, knowing they’re probably ecstatic.
“Well, I think you’re sexy,” Ann says, patting my butt.
As we walk out of the pharmacy I see my reflection in the sliding door. My face is flushed from the summer’s heat and the sight of my stomach makes me feel like a beached whale. There’s grey in my beard to boot. I feel old. Maybe I should go back inside and get some Just for Men. What I should do is get my ass to the gym. What Ann sees in me, I’ll never know. But as Hemingway once said, “You never understand anybody that loves you.”
We get in the car and start driving back home. But I’m still shaken.
“But they thought I was nuts,” I whimper. “Do I come off as crazy?”
“If you were crazy,” Ann says. “You’d be cute crazy.”
“That’s not helping.”
Ann pats my thigh. “Hush, dear. Hush.”
It’s Tuesday night and I’m walking through the Meadowland’s State Fair with my girlfriend, Ann. The weather is cool and breezy and attendance is sparse. That’s good because I won’t have to wait to get on a ride. And man, I love amusement park rides.
“So what ride do you want to go on first?” Ann asks, as we leave the petting zoo. I petted dirty llamas and miniature ponies as a favor to her. I don’t like seeing animals cooped up.
“Why don’t we start off easy?” I suggest. ‘”How about the Rock & Roll over there?” Ann can get sick reading on a plane.
The Rock & Roll whips you around on an undulating circular platform which makes you feel like the resulting centrifugal force will throw you out of the car which, if everything is up to specs, it won’t. Because of the forces involved, the heaviest passenger has to sit on the left side. If you reverse that order the smaller person would get squished.
We clamber into the car and I, an amusement park pro, lower the safety bar and lock it myself. That doesn’t stop the operator from checking it anyway. When all the other passengers get on board the operator flips a switch and, within a few revolutions, the ride’a going full speed.
Ann lets out such a bloodcurdling scream that I’m afraid the operator will stop the ride. The carnies, leathery looking guys who’ve logged thousands of hours operating these rides, are trained to watch the passengers for signs of distress. But I guess they’re familiar with every type of scream and, seeing no danger, they let the ride spin away. A big smile spreads across my face. Suddenly I’m ten years old again. The operator encourages up to throw up our hands, so I do. And that’s when the trouble starts.
Beads of sweat form on my brow and something starts tickling my stomach. This has occasionally happened to me before so I focus on the head of the girl in front and my equilibrium issues sort themselves out. The ride ends after two minutes and I climb surefooted out of the car. “Ah,” I say to myself. “You just needed to get acclimated.”
The Crazy Mouse is next on our list. It’s just a roller coaster where the car spins. When we get in Ann tells the couple sitting next to her not to mind the screams. Thirty seconds into the ups, downs and revolutions, that funny feeling returns and I focus on my feet to combat the swimming in my head. Getting off the ride I’m still steady and bound down the stairs. I realize now I was just kidding myself.
“Let’s go on the Gravitron!” Annie says, surprisingly looking none the worse for wear. “That’s my favorite ride.”
“No,” I say emphatically. We’ve all been on some version of the Gravitron. That’s the ride where you stand in a large spinning cylinder and the G-forces pin you to the wall. I don’t like it because your body says you’re moving but, because the ride’s completely enclosed, you can’t see that you’re moving. It’s the one ride I can’t stand.
“I’ll go on the Space Roller if you go on this one,” Ann says. The Space Roller is my favorite ride. Ann hates it.
“Okay,” I say, getting on line. “But you better not wimp out on me.”
The ride is exactly as I remember it. When the cylinder gets up to full speed and I’m sticking to the wall, I turn my head to look at Ann. This cause my inner ear to scream, “What the hell are you doing?’” and I feel my stomach muscles ripple. I close my eyes as a defense and just wait for the everything to stop spinning.
When we exit the ride we are greeted by a huge splatter of vomit just outside the entrance. “Somebody didn’t make it,” I laugh, pointing the puke out to Ann. “Looks like someone had roasted corn,” she replies.
“Now for the Space Roller,” I say, ignoring the “Cut this shit out!” signals my body is sending me.
The Space Roller is, aw screw it, I’m tired of describing rides. Just sample the video. It’s a doozy.
The ride starts and suddenly we’re spinning and tumbling upside down. Now I am definitely not having any fun. Bile starts rising up my throat and a clammy sweat covers my body from head to toe. I’m going to puke. Instead of trying to focus on something, I just close my eyes and start breathing deeply. “Don’t hurl,” I chant to myself. “Don’t hurl.”
The ride comes to a stop. “Oh thank God,” I say to Ann. “I don’t think I can take any more of this.”
“We’re not done,” she says. “Now we go backwards.” Oh shit.
Somehow I manage to keep the contents of my stomach from going airborne and when the ride stops I stumble off the ride like a man who’s had five boilermakers in half an hour. Then I remember something I watched on Modern Family a few weeks ago.
During the episode Phil, a father of three, gets woozy after going on a roller coaster with his son at Disneyland. Around my age and a self-avowed roller coaster junkie, when he gets off the ride he stumbles around in circles, not understanding what’s happened to him.
“You look like hell,” Jay, his father-in-law says.
“I think that ride did something to me,” Phil replies.
“Fluid in you inner ear is thickening,” Jay says. “That’s what happens when you get old.”
“Yeah, you can’t take the motion. I gotta to pop a Dramamine to get in my swivel chair.”
In full nausea mode, I walk over to a picnic table and sit down. Putting my head in my hands, a realization washes over me.
“It’s official,” I say to Ann. “I’m becoming an old man.”
“Why do you say that?” she says. I remind her about Phil.
Ann laughs. “You’re not old. We just shouldn’t have done so many rides in a row.”
“Last year I didn’t have a problem,” I say. “Now I do. What if we have kids? What am I going to do? I’ll be in my fifties by then. What? I can’t go on the rides with them?”
Annie and I are getting married and the thought of children, whether we have them or not, has been on my mind a great deal lately. But if we do, I’m going to be an “old dad.” By the time my potential children graduate from grade school I’ll be mistaken for their grandfather. And the thought that I won’t be able to do fun things with them saddens me.
“Time to call it quits,” I say, thoroughly depressed “Let’s go home.”
As we start walking out of the park I see men almost half my age carrying their sleeping toddlers and I’m suddenly envious of their youth. Maybe I should have married long ago and had my kids when I was in my twenties. We have only so much time on this earth. Maybe I’ve squandered a good part of it.
“Let’s go on the Ferris wheel before we go,” Ann says. “You can handle that, right?”
As the Ferris wheel takes us skyward something a female friend told me echoes in my ear. “Don’t have kids,” she said. “You’re too old. Trust me, you won’t have the energy to keep up with them.” When she told me that I also realized I could die when my kids are still young.
After giving Ann the obligatory kiss, I sit in silence. Something at a fair always makes me sad. Sometimes it’s seeing the animals in cages, entitled people cutting in line or some crazy person having a meltdown because they didn’t win a teddy bear. This year it’s the realization of my own mortality.
Yet, looking at the New York skyline sparking in the distance, I remember what a wise man in his seventies also told me. “There’s a benefit to having kids when you’re older,” he said. “When you’re young you’re hustling to make a buck and into all that ‘Gotta be a success’ bullshit. Because your mental energy is tied up with that, you often don’t give your kids as much attention as you’d like. But when you’re older, you know all that stuff isn’t that important. So the time you spend with your children can be of higher quality, even if they don’t have you around as long.”
“Maybe,” I replied, not quite believing him.
“You’ll be a good father Steve,” he said gently. “Don’t worry.”
Despite a churning stomach, either from the rides or the fact my life will soon change in a big way, a smile spreads across my face. When I was in my twenties I was a mess. If I had kids then it would have been a disaster. Besides, I never would have met Ann – and that would have been an epic loss. I did the right thing waiting. I found the right one. And late is always better than never.
Slipping my arm around Ann I let out a satisfied and slightly puke flavored sigh. Whatever happens will happen. I can still ride this ride.
And if I have kids and take them to an amusement park, I’ll just pop a Dramamine.
This is last minute, but I’ll be on Headline News at 5:40 today. I’m talking about automatic gratuities. Some restaurant called the cops on some people who wouldn’t pay! Should be fun.