"It is the poet's job to remember"
Gerald Stern

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Boardwalk Argument

(I'm back at the Coney Island boardwalk again with a memory and a smile. For everyone who knew our friend Steve, you'll appreciate how much he loved this and his laughter)

Late in the afternoon after one of the Mermaid Parades, we were walking on the boardwalk and found ourselves behind a woman with a little dog on a leash. It was hard not to notice her. She was statuesque, dark haired, and wearing loose gauzy white pants and a long top that caught the wind, alternately billowing out and then wrapping around her frame. The dog was a fluffy white little number in a red jeweled collar who kept disappearing into the legs of its mistresses’ pants when the wind blew in that direction.

The woman looked back and then strode faster ahead of us. A few moments later, a short, chubby man came abreast of us obviously trying to catch up with her. He stopped, dramatically put his hands out to his sides and leaned back, palms up as if he was ready to belt out an aria. "Sheila!.....Sheeeiiillllaaaaa!" She didn't stop. "Shheeeilllaaaa!" he bellowed again to her, to the heavens, and to the crowd. She walked faster.

We then learned that apparently his name was Dickhead. "Dickhead!" she yelled back at him over her shoulder without losing her long-legged pace. He ran faster. "Shheeeiillaa!," his arms still outstretched. "Dickhead!!" she screamed back. It continued back and forth between them with everyone watching the ambulating argument as it passed by. She'd stop. He'd stop. The dog would stop and try to lay down for a rest. He'd croon, "Sheeiilla?"and she'd tug the dog up and shout back over her shoulder, "Dickhead!" with her arms waving like white sails.

She stopped for lemonade. He got on line next to her and moaned, "Sheila." She took her paper cup and hissed "Dickhead." She took off again. He persisted, stamping his feet. "Sheila??" She walked backwards for a moment jabbing her lemonade in his direction and enunciating the two syllables screeching-ly succinct. “Dick..Head!" He dropped to one knee, his hand on his chest. She glared and turned her back. They were oblivious.

I can't tell you how long the Coney Island boardwalk is by yards, but we walked the length of it absorbed in this argument consisting of two names by two passionate characters in an unwitting performance. When they reached the steps to walk down to the street, he put his arms out once more. "Sheila?" She stopped. "Dickhead." Suddenly, it was over with no other words spoken. We watched them step down to the sidewalk and disappear around the corner, arm in arm, the dog trotting next to them.

For years afterward, and most importantly after Steve became so sick, I could always make him laugh by saying, "I wonder whatever happened to Sheila and Dickhead?" I hope they catch the good thoughts I send them now and then, thanking them for making the memory that enabled me to laugh with my friend just a few more times.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Water Rising

I'm watching the news coverage on upcoming tropical storms and thinking about my own experience a few years ago with hurricane Floyd. That morning I went to work in my office up in the mountains where the heavy downpour all day didn't seem threatening. It was my own fault that I stayed too long. We flood down here in the valley, and I know that the main highway (Rt. 22) gets impassable and shut down for much less than what Floyd was dumping. I was busy and loyal and foolish enough to want " finish just one more thing" before heading home.

Rt 22 had already been closed for hours and I had to take back roads. A mile or so later, my car stalled from water for the first time but I was able to get it started and switch over to a higher road. The higher roads ran out pretty soon, and each new attempt at finding another that was passable eventually brought me to a point where the water was too high to drive through. Five hours later…for what usually is a twenty minute drive...I got about three blocks from home. The entire time my cell phone would not work even though it was fully charged, and I couldn't call to let anyone know where I was or what was happening.

It is scary to see water rising in front of you, but truly terrifying to see it quickly blocking the path behind you and being trapped in between. The water was suddenly creeping up the sides, and then in what seemed like seconds, over the hood and heading towards the windshield. The pressure against the door made it impossible to push open from the inside, and the water rushed in from the little crack I managed to achieve. The car had electric windows that were all tightly shut and inoperable. I was trapped and the car was slowing filling.

Someone was watching out for me because I stalled right in front of some young men who were watching from higher ground. They ran over and were able to pull the door open and me out, and held onto me as we walked out of the waist deep water. None of the three spoke English, but it is easy to communicate concern for another human being. They insisted I use their cell phone (which worked) to call home, and even went over and floated my car out of the deepest water. I wound up on one side of the overflowing brook and a bridge that separated me from home. I was able to wade over the bridge and walk one street over where my family came to meet me and take me the remaining two blocks.

Later on people asked why I didn't just find some high ground and sit in the car and wait. Of course that would have been the reasonable thing to do. It is hard to explain the pull that makes you want to just get home when you are in such a precarious situation. I didn't care about losing the car, all I wanted was to see my house and the faces in it. I wanted my dry pajamas and slippers. I wanted a cup of coffee at my kitchen table. I thought I could find a way to get there.

When I watch the people who say they won't evacuate in the face of an oncoming storm, I can understand how home can trump water rising. I could have drowned had it not been for those men whose names I never learned. They waived my thanks away and watched to make sure I made it over the bridge. My family was worried sick for a few hours. It was a stupid thing on my part. But I look at the faces of those people who insist they are staying put and know that it is not about the structure or the possessions in it.

When you're scared you want to go home…and you want to stay there.