I’m not sure what her maiden name was but it sure as hell wasn’t Wheeler. She was as Hungarian as Hungarians came but she married a guy by the name of Wheeler. He was an airplane mechanic for a huge airline and he made good money so they had a very comfortable house in Queens where they boarded me.
I was clearly a source of revenue for them but overall they did not treat me poorly. I was like an associate family member and went wherever they went; shopping, visiting relatives, fishing…whatever. She was a good cook and that combined with the fact that she believed I was too skinny led me to become more filled out.
And so food was never a problem. I got anything I wanted. And plenty of it. Goulash, chicken paprika, spaghetti and meatballs, devil dogs and black cherry soda.
She had asthma, had gained weight and so the image and rough coughing voice was not pleasant, especially when she wanted me to bring her a cup of tea or cigarettes up to her headquarters on the main level.
This was during an important part of my life. 5th grade, well you go through a lot. I had to transfer schools to live with her and the new school was better but the teacher sucked. More on her in another story. I had to leave behind a girl named Claudia…maybe a blooming first love and my best friend Ricky to go where I knew no one. But there were decent kids in the neighborhood, and her sons took me under their wings and taught me about their music scene…Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition, The Cream, all kinds of psychedelic shit. Her wanting to fatten me up with her cooking was an act of caring. Overall they were okay, and it may have fueled a life long affinity for things Hungarian.
I held her hand tightly, because I could. It’s what she wanted. It was sure as hell what I wanted.
She was visiting me from out of state and I was showing off the city. We had been wandering around Manhattan all day and now long into the evening. It was New Years Eve and we had taken the train in from the Island to watch the ball drop. That would be later. For now we were just looking for things to do that didn’t involve being out in the cold.
So we lingered, here on the top of this tallest of buildings. Seeing the city spread out before us…the warm orange glow of sodium vapor lights stretching out in all directions…as far as the eye could see. It was pretty, interspersed with the dark tendrils of rivers and the blotches of bays and inlets. To the east it came to an abrupt end where the mainland gave way to the dark Atlantic.
Somewhere near, in relative terms, stood a twin. Just as high but you never thought about the other tower when you were up here. You were too awed by the panorama and the engineering marvel you stood on top of. The observation deck was dark and combined with the glow outside it had an intimacy. I was no fool…that is why we came here.
It was always quiet at night. For some reason no one spoke. Or at least they spoke in whispers. At the Narrows I could see the lights of the Verazanno Narrows Bridge. My grandfather, a union electrician had worked on that illumination; as he had done with the building we currently stood in. I never thought about it at the time. He had been involved in so many of the iconic public works around our city.
Now…now that place where Jenny and I stood is no more. Pulverized into dust. The soaring steel arches melted down to make warships and toaster ovens. We stood atop a massive structure that turned out to be as fragile as the egos of the men that built it. I’ve lost that memory of Jenny. But more importantly, those men, those zealots that flew airplanes full of people into the spot where Jenny and I stood, those men, took away the legacy of my grandfather. They took a little piece of me I cannot get back. Like so many New Yorkers, we lost a family member. An in-law of a cousin, a fireman trapped when the towers came down. I never met him so the grief did not touch me directly. My only loss was of memories and legacies and while those hurt, they can be gotten over.
Still, Lower Manhattan will never look the same to me. The imposing view from the Staten Island Ferry. The sweet memories of my Grandfather, and the night with Jenny live on, but they are tinged with melancholy. I miss the buildings. I miss Jenny. I miss my Grandfather.
I’ve had the opportunities to make friends and acquaintances from all over the world. From different faiths, political beliefs, and personality types.
I at one time had Christian friends from Lebanon and shortly after that a Muslim roommate from Lebanon. I lived in a graduate dormitory with people from literally every continent and worked for a multinational which allowed me to travel the world. I went to church with Egyptians for a time (try being a squirmy kid sitting through an entire church service in Arabic when you don’t speak the language), and spent summers at Catholic, Protestant and Jewish summer camps. Growing up, all of my friends came from somewhere else…that is the melting pot that is NYC.
Some of the people I have had the good fortune to meet have been unhappy, but many, perhaps most, have been happy people. Here is what I have observed.
They define success by the strength of their relationships.
Everybody has their own measure of success and that is a good thing. But the happiest people I have met always lead with people. Whether it is family, friends or just interesting people with whom they have shared an experience. Volume is neither a good or bad thing. One good friend, a million good friends, it doesn’t matter. Relationships come first.
They know what’s important.
Sorry…but it’s probably not that big project you’re leading at work. Not that they won’t work hard with great enthusiasm; perspective is key. They tend to reserve their emotional energy for family, friends, or other things that are important to THEM. This drives great inner strength because smaller things are less likely to derail them. Bonus: when your project crisis hits they’re not gonna be freaking out.
They value experiences over material objects.
Maybe they drive a beater. Maybe they have a limited wardrobe and a 10 year old phone. They eschew bling and other trappings of material success. They are full of stories of interesting experiences. You wanna hike the Appalachian Trail? Jump out of a plane? Spend an afternoon enjoying a Picasso exhibit? They’re in. Will you remember that cool new mobile phone 10 years from now? Will you remember the time you went backpacking in Colorado? You tell me.
They don’t let goals rule their lives.
Don’t get me wrong. Goals are generally a good thing but not everyone’s brain works that way. It’s a nice story when we hear someone had a single-minded goal to cure some disease, start their own company etc. But what did they sacrifice to get there? Rigid goals can also stop you from seeing the real opportunity that is staring you in the face.
Happy people sometimes set goals but aren’t afraid to pivot when they see a better opportunity. Some of the most laid back, happiest people I know don’t set many goals at all. “I’ll know it when I see it” is a common refrain.
They are highly adaptable.
Life happens. You are going to get derailed or your plans will have to change. It will happen. Learn to live with the unexpected and when it occurs lean into it or move towards something that works better for you. The opera wasn’t quite what you expected? There is always another opera. Career not working out the way you planned? Maybe there is a better plan that suits you better.
Happy people aren’t necessarily hyper-positive thinkers. But when a setback happens or life has to change they can roll with it.
They are profoundly grateful.
Scratch a happy person and you will find a grateful person underneath. They can be a CEO, a truck driver, a scientist, a janitor. I guarantee you they are grateful for something and even more likely someone. These are the “well, it could be worse” people.
They consider themselves lucky.
No one get there alone. Talk to a happy person and you are talking to a person that considers themselves lucky. Ask them how they achieved something and the first thing out of their mouths is gong to be all the help they had along the way.
Did they work hard? Probably. Are they gonna lead with that? Definitely not.
They don’t take themselves seriously.
They can laugh at themselves. Nothing amuses them more than when they stick their foot into something. You will find them laughing the loudest of anyone in the room. They tend to be self-deprecating which some people mistake for a lack of confidence. But it’s just the opposite. Confident people aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves or admit when they’ve screwed up.
They listen to other points of view.
You know those people with the fixed views you cannot change? Don’t wanna listen to it, love living in their echo chamber? Yeah. They’re not happy. Happy people surround themselves with a variety of opinions and learn from all of them. They may have friends they disagree with but they don’t let it affect their friendship.
They Have a Sense of Perspective.
They’re not rattled by little setbacks or challenges. This enables them to respond in ways that are proportionate to the challenge at hand. We’ve all been in situations where someone loses it over something everyone thinks is minor. These people make everyone around them miserable.
And Finally, They Don’t Compare Themselves to Others.
Hey, there is nothing wrong with having mentors, heroines or people you look up to. A little competition or having a yardstick to measure yourself by can be a good thing…in moderation. But there is a slippery slope from there and it leads to envy, and envy is toxic.
Happy people don’t worry about where they are in relation to others. It’s not that there are some people ahead and some people behind…they don’t think that way. They are mostly focused on where they are…because its the only thing thing they have any control over.
Sam woke up with a start. Where am I? He was slightly panicked. He had never been in a room this dark before. Not a hint of light. Then he remembered, he was at his Aunt’s house and had never stayed in this room before. But man, this was seriously dark. He pushed down that feeling of disorientation and fumbled around, looking for some source of light near the bed. He knew there was a night stand and a lamp. He knocked something off the night stand and there was a sickening sound of broken china. Damn. It was the cup of water he had left there.
He took a few seconds to calm down. One, two three…he counted. It was a trick his father had taught him. If you are ever angry, scared, whatever. Anytime an emotion was threatening to outstrip reason, start counting. Mainly it was a backcountry survival skill, but he used it frequently. He had a bit of a temper and it kept him out of trouble.
Calmer, he reached over and found the lamp right away and with a little feeling around found the switch and flicked it on. Blinded, his eyes took a second to adjust to the sudden onslaught of photons he’d unleased. He blinked his eyes…the photons were bouncing off his cousin’s friend, Amy. She was standing just beyond the foot of his bed, her robe fastened, but not quite. She had been teasing him all evening. Now he realized, belatedly than it had been less teasing and more flirting. His blood was rushing to parts it shouldn’t be rushing to.
“Amy…I don’t think you should be here?” Dammit! He thought. How had that come out as a question?
She toyed with the belt on her robe…it remained fastened but a little less so. She pouted “are you saying I should leave?”
He struggled for words. The answer was obvious, yes go, you shouldn’t be in here. But then they were both old enough and so it really wasn’t so obvious. “You’re my cousin’s friend. Seriously you had better go.” He realized how unconvincing he sounded.
Amy apparently realized it as well which made her move closer. She was now right at the foot of his bed. The robe was hanging on for dear life. He saw part of a shoulder. He couldn’t find any words.
“I. Don’t. Think. You. Want. Me. To. Leave.” She teased. “Because if I do leave, you won’t get the surprise I have for you.” She moved closer.
“Hmmm hmmm, Close your eyes.”
The cold water hit him in the face like a ton of bricks. It soaked his pajamas, and all of the bedding. Amy ran laughing and giggling from the room leaving him sitting there embarrassed for being taken in.
It’s dark out. It always is. These conversations only happen at night. Daytime shines a light too bright. You need darkness, lit only by the glow of the dashboard lights so that you can reveal only what you want; keeping the rest in shadow. The car is your cocoon wrapped in the darkness. They are confessions. They are delicate questions. They are endings and they are beginnings and they are things that will never happen. The intimacy is palpable.
Even with the windows cracked, sometimes they fog. An hour; two hours of conversation overwhelms the flow of fresh air. You hardly notice; the conversation is too intense. It rises and falls between hushed talk and long silences. The silence is for thinking…letting what was just said sink in. You break it only to give comfort or to seek to understand.
A friend tells you he is gay and is in love with another friend. He needs someone to talk to. Revealing himself would destroy the facade he’s built and nurtured. His chosen career would be out of the question. He is living in pain but it’s more comfortable to him than the alternative. You cannot help him; he cannot help himself. He is lost.
The tall striking girl, overcome by drug addiction wants you to stay. You kiss her because who wouldn’t. Later you cry because you want to love her but know you can’t. She is a lost soul…you leave her adrift, lest you drown together.
Astrid is crying on your shoulder. She is crying for what she can’t get back. Distraught, rejected, she terminated her pregnancy. She is blaming herself, but it is no use talking her out of it. She needs the guilt..it’s the only emotion she can grab ahold of. She is vulnerable, but you let it go. She loves you for that.
You know you go together. She knows you go together. But you can’t hold her. It was only for a couple days. She was in charge of the guestbook. She was the prettiest girl in the room. You don’t even know if she has a boyfriend but you know the electricity and so does she. But she can’t stay. She won’t stay. She tells you to write…but. you know she won’t write back.
You’re not saying anything. Not for two hours. You just sit there, in the back seat while someone else drives. You’re not alone but you might as well be. The people in the front seat whisper to each other, they are in a separate world, being careful not to intrude on yours. Protective, the driver looks in the back seat once, decides you’re just enjoying being together. She doesn’t turn around again. The girl has has her head in your lap, you are gently playing with her curls. You don’t know what she wants. She doesn’t know what you want. All you know is this time is rich and intimate and fleeting. You run into her again a few weeks later. Neither of you speaks of it…like it’s delicate and easily broken.
You and a buddy from work are coming back from an out of town party. He is driving with the moonroof open. There are few cars on this lonely stretch of interstate. Your seat is reclined and you’re watching the stars through the open roof. The radio is off and the only sound is the slipstream made by the car. Neither of you says anything; not for the entire drive. There are no women to distract you. No need to manufacture conversations…you’ve been through a lot together, you are comfortable in the silence, lost each in your own thoughts. He drops you at your apartment and says “good talk”. He is not being ironic.
A thousand conversations start with “Dad”. There are too many to recall. I want to change my major. I want to try fencing. I want to switch from skiing to snowboarding. Do you think I would be good at such and such? What do I do about so and so. I can’t start these conversations…which makes them so precious when they occur. They are always at night. On the Powhite in Richmond, or on I64 on the way back from skiing. No matter where, it’s always dark.
“MOM!!!! I swear we were going to be here on time. Early evening!”
Shelly’s mother stared a hole in her.
“Look, I know it’s hard to believe but I swear it’s true. It’s not fair! We left the movie early and everything. I missed the ending just to make you happy and now I’m gonna get grounded.”
“I wish I could prove it but how do you prove something like that? It’s not like we can interview him.”
Her mother reached for the phone.
“Yes. Call him! You will see. Our story will be exactly the same.”
While her mother spoke to Johnny’s father, she glared at her little sister who was watching from the kitchen, giggling and clearly enjoying the show. “You shut up or I’ll pop you good once mom is gone.” Her sister stuck out her tongue.
“Oh nothing momma. I was just speaking to Tammy.” Tammy snorted from the kitchen. More glaring.
Her mother hung up the phone.
“See! Our stories are exactly the same right? What? How can you not believe us if we had the same story? I swear it was a racoon!” Tammy was howling in the kitchen. “I’ll knock your block off I swear to god!”
“No…Not you momma! It’s Tammy she’s being a little jerk.”
Her mother pointed to her room and held out her hand for her car keys…a sure sign of a long grounding.
“It’s not fair…wait! What do you mean he said it was a skunk? That IDIOT it was supposed to be a rac…oops.” Tammy was making raspberry noises from the kitchen now.
She started up the stairs…defeated, to a chorus of ‘liar liar pants on fire’ from Tammy. “You’re gonna get it.” she hissed at her sister.
Just read an article about the 75 things successful people do every morning. Where do they find the time? Do they have nannies or personal assistants? Probably they are nannies. What? You think they’re too busy watching your kids? I got news for you: Disney + and a bag of chocolate sandwich cream cookies will get you an hour right there. Besides, who decides who’s successful? Shouldn’t we hold judgement till they’re dead? I mean, they may be doing alright now but there’s still time. A 25 year old lover or a bad Gummy Bear habit can send you off the rails at any age.
Most of us can get up to around 10 or 12 things if we count all the times we hit snooze or look for a missing sock. But apparently these people don’t wear socks so let’s break down what’s really going on here.
One of my favorites is meditation. I think I read a book once or heard about it in a bar. Anyways as I recall you need at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted quiet time to do this. So unless you’re a software tycoon or a drug kingpin this means sitting on the toilet while you listen to the dog pee on the tile outside the door. I just watched a movie featuring Joan Crawford on TV. She was reminding everyone that she needed her 15 minutes of quiet time every morning. She just had her household staff keep everyone out of her private drawing room. Easy peasy.
Note to self: what is a drawing room. Do people actually draw in them?
Cooking a nutritious breakfast and then packing the kiddos off to school with a healthy macro-balanced lunch is also popular. Your experience may be different but this usually involves yelling for them to get up about 40 times until you finally lose your shit and send them out the door with a pack of pop tarts and a prepackaged lunch of processed meat and cheese food along with a cookie and a sugar infused drink in a pouch. It doesn’t matter; they will trade whatever you give them for something they like anyway. A junior high lunchroom has a trading system like a prison yard.
Let’s not forgot bonding with your teenage daughter and talking about her upcoming day and her plans for the future. This is a wonderful time to discuss college plans and any bumps in the road she may be experiencing at school. This is the point at which her father has usually slunk out to go to work or is huddling in the corner like Switzerland while you have a screaming match over what she is going to wear to school. All for naught I might add because she is going to wear whatever the hell she damned well pleases.
On a related note, there is the “get to the office while it’s quiet” types. They’ll claim productivity boosts while they go through the email and get the day sorted out without interruptions. Here’s a fun experiment: send them an email right before you turn in for the night then see if they actually read it in the morning. Make it something they’ll have to respond to like a lunch meeting where you’re buying. Don’t worry. You won’t have to buy because they’re not gonna read it before lunch. How is this related to teenage daughters? I met the one guy who was willing to be honest about his “butt crack of dawn” work habits: he wanted out of the house before his wife and twin daughters started fighting.
“Reading the news before starting the day.” That’s another good one. I once saw a post from one of those “influencer” types on LinkedIn. Someone asked her what she reads in the morning. “I look at my Facebook timeline because I’m addicted.” was her refreshingly honest answer. Some people read devotionals or inspirational stories each morning. I’ve not met any of these people but I’m sure they’re fun at parties.
Journaling? Commenting on airport vehicle races on YouTube and doom scrolling until you find something that pisses you off enough to comment on doesn’t count as journaling. This is a double winner though because now you get to go through the whole day pissed off over the original post and disappointed in yourself for getting sucked in. The only way to get past this is to find something else to get pissed off about which is why most people head to work about this time.
As for me? I just read some advice about wearing the same grey T-Shirt every day. Supposedly it simplifies things for people who can’t handle too many decisions. Just wondering if it should be grey grey or more of a blue grey.
“It’s Christmas time in Hollis Queens Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese And Santa put gifts under Christmas trees”
The song came from what seems like a different world, different culture, but those were my streets. I can feel what they’re singing about, I can see the snow on the ground, and I can smell the cooking.
In the 1970’s New York City was full of perverts and predators. Boy or girl you were on your guard and knew how to back out of a situation. All of my friends did. Sure, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Penn Station, these were places to stay away from. But these were places I had to go…on my own. No matter; you could hear an adult offer to suck your dick just a few doors down from our apartment too. We were borderline kids in a borderline neighborhood and we were all on a borderline trajectory. We threw rocks at the Long Island Rail Road trains, snowballs in the open doors of city buses and bottles against anything solid. We were big into throwing stuff.
It wasn’t all bad…there were tidy little houses with well kept lawns. There were mom and pop pizza shops and hardware stores and grocery stores. We walked to school and joined the cub scouts and went to Holy Trinity Lutheran church. There were hard working parents that lived in those houses and ran the Cub Scout packs and worried about crime “on the avenue”. We lived on the avenue.
On the avenue we flipped off cops and dared them to chase us, let air out of tires and engaged in petty theft. Meanwhile the drug dealers were moving in around us and the perverts and muggers right with them. My mom tapped her brothers and sisters and my grandparents for a few dollars to send me off to school. Mostly though it was a man she was dating. He was a good guy and probably the only reason I didn’t wind up in front of a judge. He died one day while I was away at school and my mom claimed it was natural. I cried because he was the closest thing to a dad I had. I was sure it was a mob hit, he was a union president. This was Hollis. Donald Trump grew up in the next neighborhood, Jamaica Estates. It might as well have been in another universe. You don’t know Jamaica Estates, but you know Hollis, because you know Run DMC and LL Cool J and Ja Rule and “Christmas in Hollis”.
I had uncles and aunts that lived in better places with perfect lawns and cozy houses. I spent time with them and with my grandparents on the water on Broad Channel. Those were great places…but always I came home. Home to the avenue. To the little apartment over the union hall and down the street from what used to be a candy store and now was something we steered clear of. It’s better now probably…crime in NYC is not near as bad these days. And the people are still working hard and wanting the best for their children.
Most of us got out of Queens…or moved to a better neighborhood at least. Some of us wound up at Augusta Military Academy in Virginia. These were good kids that just needed a shot. They had names like Miguel, and Tony, and Raul and like my mother, their parents did what they could to send them to this, the most stripped down of all boarding schools. None of our parents had money but they worked multiple jobs or found an angel or caught a break from the soft hearts that ran the school.
I delivered papers to rich people in Holliswood and Jamaica Estates and my mother house sat for a few of them. Always I was touching nicer, more serene worlds. It made me dream…there could have been worse things to dream about. Some people turn up their noses at the upper middle classes…too much materialism and focus on making money. Those people were never poor…you crave what you don’t have…security and safety and a nice place to call home.
I’ve left Hollis…but it’s still there. Just below the surface. It colors everything I do.
It was windy and rainy but he had somewhere to go. It never even occurred to him that he might want to put it off. The weather was awful, he didn’t have a car and so weather was something he just dealt with. Of course he could have postponed and stayed dry.
But he had promised her a loaf of that great baguette from his favorite bakery and he’d be damned if he’d pass up a chance to spend a few minutes with her. He took an umbrella, but mainly to protect his hair…he wanted to set up a good image. It was useless, the rain blew sideways making it a moot point. Besides the rain itself he had also to contend with trucks and buses kicking up fountains of water as they went past. A few times he almost lost it on the slippery cobbles but he kept going. Love imparts its’s own logic and motivations.
Of course he didn’t know how she felt about him yet. The loaf was sort of an offering. A bauble presented by a suitor hoping to impress and lure the object of his affection into further entanglement. He had seen glimmers of hope but to be honest he was hardly desperate. He was sociable and not bad looking. Often he would dally for a day, or a week, or even a few months with one of the much younger women that frequented the downtown cafes. But she was different…closer to his age; just the right blend of looks and brains. Desperate? No, but he desperately wanted her approval.
He reached her building, walked the bike inside and shook off the best he could, trying to get himself organized without a mirror. He gave up. He was so thoroughly soaked that there was not much point. He rang her flat. She buzzed him into the hallway and he went up a flight of stairs. Before he could knock she opened the door “Oh my! Look at you!”
He held out the loaf for her to take “well, I promised I’d bring it over”.
“You brought that for me in the pouring rain!” She threw her arms around him, clearly touched and planted a wet kiss on his cheek. “Now come on in, get dried off and lets try that bread.”
That was the first time she’d kissed him. Some romances have a cycle: the chase, ignition, the climb, the peak, the long slow descent;and then it’s over. This one never got to the peak; they just kept climbing for the rest of their lives. All because he made sure he brought her that loaf of bread…on his bike…in the pouring rain.