Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer 1986 - I am the Buddha

In the summer of 1986 my friend Shauvik convinced me that taking The Princeton Review would be a fun way to spend a few evenings a week and weekends.  Never mind that we were only entering our Sophomore year of high school, we started to take the 1 hour trip down to Princeton University three days a week.  For the first class orientation we convinced Shauvik's brother to drive us down which was way better than having our parents with us like the rest of the students.  While walking around the room meeting classmates I overhead a parent talking to one of the instructors, "My son scored a 780."  I carelessly injected myself into the conversation, "Oh, which part, verbal or math?"  With annoyance she replied, "Combined."  Hmmm.... sorry about that, I'll just be leaving now.

So two evenings a week and all day Saturday we honed our SAT skills and learned about Joe Bloggs, fueled by these huge brown bags full of bagels which I think were included in the course fee.  One of our instructors was Bob Chang, a Princeton University Junior who was both funny and an excellent instructor.  He shared with us what it was like attending Princeton, his experience of taking French with Brooke Shields, and a paper he had written called "The Buddah and I -or- These Walls."  We learned of his childhood growing up in Ohio.  We learned of his path to finding the Buddha within himself.  I shared this paper with so many of my friends, but with my best friend Erin, it resonated in the same way that Atlas Shrugged did for us so many years later.  When something happens that is so meaningful that you are still talking about it 25 years later, it is worth sharing.

Last week Bob and I reconnected and he was kind enough to allow me to republish his paper here.  Bob's contact information is at the end of this message.  Enjoy.

The Buddha and I


These Walls

  The Buddha and I, we go way back.  He's been with me all of my life, but I didn't always know it.  I only discovered it quite recently, within the last month or two.  i was brushing my teeth one morning and when I looked up into the mirror, I saw the Buddha, grinning at me.  I couldn't help but grin back.  Now it's a morning ritual.  I look into the mirror and say, "Hi Buddha," and he says, "Hi," back.  What a great way to start the day.
Things weren't always this wonderful, though.  There were times when I was pissed off at the world.  I felt trapped, as if I lived my life in a room.  And the room kept getting smaller and smaller.  The walls crept in slowly, waiting to crush the life out of me in the same way that it was already crushing my spirit.  And I blamed the world for these walls, not realizing that these walls were mine.  Mine to build and mine to destroy.

I grew up in a small New England college town that had the misfortune of being located in the Midwest, in the middle of Ohio, surrounded by farms and farmers and more farms.  But Granville was above all that.  This little town spent much of its time insisting that we were better than everyone else.  Things like an 0-10 football record didn't bother my small public high school because our SAT scores were above the national averages and light-years ahead of the other schools in our football conference.  And everybody knows that classics and calculus are more important than combines and harvesters.  Why, if everyone in the world would just read classics and do calculus, there wouldn't be any problems.  That there wouldn't be any food was a point overlooked in our argument.  We also had a nifty cheer we shouted after football games.  It went like this: "That's all right!  That's okay!  You're gonna work for us someday!"  And we believed.

Those of us who grew up there were naive, protected by our beliefs.  I think that's why my parents chose to live there, because it was a place where I would be shielded from reality.  So I proceeded through early life, happily overachieving.

My family was the first Oriental family to move into that sleepy town.  Anxious to prove their educatedness, open-mindedness, and generosity, the members of the community watched as we joined the First Presbyterian Church and decided we were respectable, and soon we were all great friends.  And I believed.

Then the bubble burst.  I was in sixth grade and my whole class, trying to enter adolescence all at once, were finding that the door only admitted a few at at time.  We became more aware of ourselves, more self-conscious.  And I began to wonder about things.  Like why I always had this great tan, even in winter when all my friends became pale ghosts, and why there were so many Jones and Smiths but only one Chang.  And the more I became aware of these differences, the more others seemed to notice them.  In Sunday school at church, I learned that pride goeth before a fall.  I was proud.  And I fell.

You see, I was the best.  At everything.  I was always at the top of my class, and if that were the only thing, it would've been okay.  But it wasn't.  I had to be good at everything.  I was the best pitcher, the best soccer player, the best tennis player.  The other kids couldn't handle this "slant-eyed foreigner" being so good at everything.  They began calling me names, things like "chink" and "rice-ball."  At first I responded with anger and struck out.  But 20 to 1 doesn't give very good odds.  So being the pious little boy that I was, I "turned the other cheek" and ignored them.  They didn't know what to do. 

And then it all fell apart.  That day at school, somebody said to me, "Get out of my way, nigger."  I didn't even know who or what a nigger was-- I don't think my antagonist knew either-- but I could feel the hate dripping off his words.   His words bit into me and their poison spread like wildfire through my blood, bringing with it a chilling numbness. I began crying, for part of me had died.

What I saw that day was a bit of the reality my parents had done their best to hide fro me.  Sort of like what had happened to the Buddha, when he first saw a sick man, and then an old man, and finally a dead man.  What a shock for one who had only known health, youth and life.  And what a shock for me, who had never known racism. 

People often ask me about my interest in Buddhism. They ask, "Who is the Buddha?"  I always smile and say, "I am  the Buddha."  Then they look at me strangely and ask the question again.  So I sigh, and tell them about the historical Buddha.  I say, "There was this man named Siddhartha Gautama who lived a long time ago in India.  He was born a prince but gave it all up to discover the meaning of life.  His father had shielded him from the harsh reality of suffering in the world and had surrounded him with dancing girls and other material pleasures.  But one day, Siddhartha went for a walk and he saw a sick man.  On two other trips, he saw an old man and a dead man.  This was too much for his sheltered mind to handle so he left his pleasure palace to find out what was really going on out there."  By this time, the person I'm talking to is bored, so we move onto another subject.  He would have been happier and would have learned more if he had let me talk about my being the Buddha.

My father picked me up from school on that day in sixth grade.  He was at a loss what to say to me, for this was exactly what he had hoped to avoid.  Something like this could not happen in Granville, the friendly town with a heart and a bleeding conscious.  But it had and it was time to pick up the pieces.

I asked him, "Why do they hate the things that are good?"

He thought for a while and then answered, "Those who lack talent cannot rise to your level.  So what they do is they bring you down to their level, by riding on your back.  They shake your hand and pat you on the back and when you are not looking, the place obstacles in your way.  You are in a foreign land, so you have to be that much better than everyone else.  And in a way, this brings out the best in you, because you can do it.  You can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, and that is a great thing to be able to do.  That is why we left Korea, because there, you would not be what you will be here."

So I aspired to be great.  At fourteen, I played violin with adults in the Licking County Symphony Orchestra.  And the tennis and baseball trophies became too numerous to keep in my room.  My success was working.  It seemed that I had won people's acceptance. I didn't realize then that selling excellence for acceptance wasn't a fair trade.  It's like playing poker where you are betting yourself against the few tarnished pennies that your opponents feel obliged to throw your way.  I was living and working for them, and when I realized this, the long string of my accomplishments crumbled into dust before my eyes, taken by these people.  I didn't understand that then that I was the one who gave them permission to take it.  And I was angry because I felt these walls around me for the first time.

     I decided to fool them.  I wouldn't play their game any more.  This was my renunciation.  I wouldn't play their game any more.  In the same way the Buddha turned his back on things that he knew, I turned away from the familiar world of accomplishments.  Around this time, I left home for college.  There are some differences between the Buddha's life and mine.  He left home to purify himself. I left to pollute myself.  I was sure that the way to safety and happiness was not to have anything that they could take away from me.  So I worked at mediocrity.  It was hard at first, but it came to be a little game, not going to classes for weeks and then going in and taking an exam and getting a B and laughing at the people who worked for their A's, and laughing even more at all the people who worked so hard for their C minuses.  It was all a big joke that I was playing on the world. 

     With no classes to go to, every day became a Saturday, and a group of us would stumble home every night bleary-eyed and not wake up until the next afternoon.  And then I began breathing pot into lungs that had once been able to last whole soccer games without a break.  Nothing seemed to matter, and I became unhinged in time and space for a while.  

    I came back to earth one day, and I was sure glad to get there.  The world is not something that can be ignored.  It refuses to take a back seat, but the trick to being happy is to be the driver.  Don't let it drive you. This was my second renunciation: taking the world back, but on my terms.  I had completed the circle and had come back to the world.  It's sort of like Zen, in a way.  They say that before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain and a tree is a tree.  During your study, they teach you that a mountain is no longer a mountain and a tree is no longer a tree.  When you complete your study, a mountain is once again a mountain, a tree, a tree.  And I was at peace.

   People tell me that I haven't done anything.  That nothing has changed.  That the world is still the crummy place it always was, where if you steal a little they throw you in jail and if you steal a lot, they make you king.  I smile when they tell me this, but it is a sad smile, because I think of the serenity and joy I feel when I look in the mirror and see the Buddha, and then I think of these people, running away from their own reflections, scared of the man in the mirror.

     I had once been afraid of that man in the mirror.  So afraid that I tried to hide myself.  I became furtive with my talent, hiding it as if it were something to be ashamed of, afraid that someone would notice it and take it away from me.  

     Siddhartha, back int he old days, went through something similar.  His father had protected him from the bad things in the world and had not let him see the suffering that people went through.  But he could not keep him in the dark forever, because light has a way of reaching into the darkest and deepest of caves.  And so, Siddhartha discovered sickness, old age, and death.  He renounced his world and entered the world of suffering, seeking to purify himself by suffering more than anyone else in the world.  He almost succeeded in purifying himself to death.  Then that wonderful brain of his that had almost stopped working because of malnutrition suddenly came to a realization: this was not the way.  And he went on to teach people his way.

     My realization came one morning after I stumbled home from a party.  I looked in a mirror, and I saw, not the happy face of someone who had spent a fun night, but the face of a very tired and confused person.  And the man in the mirror asked me, "Is this the way?"  And I answered, "No."

     The people who ask me about Buddhism say, "Isn't Buddhism a form of nihilism?  Don't you believe that the world is one of suffering?"  I smile and tell them the story of this very learned professor who went and asked a Zen master about Buddhism.  The Zen master poured the professor a cup of tea, and kept pouring even after the cup spilled over.  Finally, the professor yelled for him to stop this nonsense, that the cup was full and could take no more.  The Zen master smiled and said, "You are like this cup.  How can I tell you anything when your head is already full of its own ideas."  People like this story and pay more attention to what I say after I tell them this.

     When I answered, "No," that this was not the way, something really strange happened.  These walls that had once stood so strong and tall melted away, leaving me bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.  Seeing this light, I wondered why people hid in the shadows.  And I realized that they hid in shadows for the same reasons that they ran away from the man in the mirror.  In this golden light, people are naked.  In this light, people are.  It is a time before words when people were what they were, before they began hiding themselves in the tangled skein of excuses, explanations for what they were and why they were, as if their existence had to be justified.  What I found was being, arriving at a point before the Original Sin that this Western culture believes in so strongly.  I began to hate the story of Adam and Eve, as the thing bringing humanity down.  They, at the very beginning, started the trendy fashion of being ashamed of what they were.  From that time, people began to hide themselves, first physically behind fig leaves, and then behind words.  People stopped being.  Instead they were worked to let others know what they were.  If they could lift big rocks, they told others that they were strong.  If they could chase game, they told others that they were swift hunters.  Soon words began to replace deeds, where if you told people that you were a great hunter, then you were, being became discredited, by the people who weren't but pretended to be.  People became afraid of truth, of the man in the mirror, because they had become so caught up in their own lies that they were afraid to see themselves for what they actually were.  They built up walls around themselves, shelter from the rarefied, pure atmosphere of being.  The courage to be, traded for security.  It wasn't a fair trade. 

     If this were all they did, it wouldn't be so bad.  But they encouraged others to build walls, and they gathered followers, until soon, it became strange not to have walls.  You became an outcast if you had the courage to be.  Many of those with the courage to be succumbed to these pressures.  They gave in and built up walls, because they thought it was the way. But they wouldn't accept credit for their wall.  They would proclaim loudly to any who would listen that these walls around them were built by society, the man down the road, anybody but himself.  And when they refused responsibility, they surrendered their courage to be and became like the others.

     Sitting under the fig tree, Siddhartha became enlightened.  He became the Buddha.  He came to understand the workings of the world, and how to be happy in the midst of all the suffering that he saw.  He created a formula for others to pursue in their search for enlightenment.  It is my turn to say what I have learned.  Siddhartha, in his teachings, talked about Nirvana that was the final goal.  People understood Nirvana to be a different place of existence from the earth.  I say that Nirvana is the earth.  Nirvana is this world.  Only you don't know it, and that's the problem.  this world is Nirvana for the people with the courage to be, for those without walls around themselves.  For those who aren't afraid to stand in the golden sunlight for all to see them for what they are, and for those who themselves aren't afraid to shine.  To shine in the glory of their own pursuit of excellence.  Excellence in anything and everything they do.  That is Nirvana -- the courage to be.  Take a look in the mirror some time.  Take a look at the Buddha.

To contact Bob:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Aug 2011/ Spring 1995 - Give me the damn Tic Tacs

Every time I come to the Los Angeles area I have dinner with my old friend Oliver, so for this trip I booked a hotel room in Marina Del Rey so we could go out.  Unfortunately he had to cancel due to work commitments so I did some research and found a sushi place in LA called Sushi Zo.  The reviews were fantastic, describing this amazing culinary experience that included some very strict rules about how you actually ate the sushi and rules about mobile phones.  One review even noted that a woman was told to sit down and eat the piece of sushi in front of her before going to the bathroom.  Sounds like my kind of place.

After a quick drink with Kendall and Maria @ the Marina Del Ray Marriott I headed over to Sushi Zo, parking in the strip mall lot.  Walking past Papa John's, a Chinese Take-out place and then Starbucks I stepped up to the entrance, walked in and was greeted by one of the waitresses.  

"May I help you?"

"One for sushi please."  

"Sir, this is Omakase restaurant."

"Yes!  I read the reviews online.  This place is the best!"

She offers me a seat at the sushi bar or a table.  I should have sat at the bar, next time.  After washing my hands with the washcloth, my beer arrived and the sushi dishes started to flow, one at a time.

"Sir, Oyster with special sauce.  No soy sauce please"


"Sir, Yellowfin Tuna with scallion and wasabi.  No soy sauce please."

The plate had 4 rectangular pieces of melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail.  With every dish came a description of what it was and instructions on how to eat it, whether or not I was allowed to use soy sauce.  There were two or three dishes where it was a little ball of rice topped with some fish I had never heard of and sprinkled on top was a truffle salt.  This had to be the closest I would ever come to experiencing what it is like to dine at El Bulli, the now closed restaurant in Spain which once hosted a Dom PĂ©rignon sponsored 47-course dinner for guests helicoptered in for the affair at a cost of 125K.

My three favorite dishes were the Monkfish Liver, Uni and Ikura.  The quality of the fish was even better than what I've had in Tokyo, and that sushi is pretty much out of this world.  The whole experience was about an hour long and left me feeling satiated, elated, happy.  One of the top five meals ever.  My only regret was there was no one with me to share in this experience.

So this morning I'm talking to my old friend Scott while driving up the PCH to Oxnard.  Scott and I met while working for a computer telephony start-up back in 1994.  He and I would often do side work to make some extra money and one of our clients was through another old friend of mine Pamela.  Pamela worked for a lobbyist in DC and as a result of her job ended up with tickets to all sorts of DC events.  Scott and I were down doing some work in the Spring of 1995 and Pamela's boss gave her 4 tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof so she invited Scott and I to join her and her now husband.  

We shower up, get dressed and it's about 6:30, the show is at 8:00.  At 24 years old I wasn't much of a fine food connoisseur yet so when we walked into The Capital Grille on Pennsylvania Avenue on a Friday night without reservations the hostess sort of laughed at us.  She then told us that she had a table, but it was in this private room and that there was a party of 50 coming in at 8:00 so we had to be out of there before then.  I promised her that we would be gone by then as we had to make it to the play.

She walks us through the restaurant and into this room, completely encased in floor-to-ceiling windows which looked like french doors.  We sat down and it was a surreal experience to have this whole room to ourselves, separated from the rest of the patrons who were staring in to figure out who were these kids getting the special treatment.  The waiter shows up a few minutes later and asks us if we are friends of Senator D'Amato.  Confused we answer no and he tells us that we are sitting at his table.  Scott and I enjoyed this amazing meal, a very guy meal, fried calamari with the hot cherry peppers, two beautiful steaks and some creamed spinach and baked potatoes.  We ate, drank some nice red wine and scooted out of there at 7:50 with just enough time to make it to the theatre for a great performance of Fiddler.  

Scott and I made many trips to DC in 94/95/96 and usually when we did work for Pamela she would take us out to dinner.  This is where the Tic Tacs come into play.  One night the three of us are waiting outside the now closed California Pizza Kitchen on Connecticut Avenue when this maybe homeless guy comes up to us and asks for $5.  Now I'm not going to just give him $5 and we have a lot of time to kill until the buzzer goes off for our table so I start a conversation with him.  

"I'll give you $5 later.  What's your name?"


"I'm Chris, this is Scott and that is Pamela."  

"Can I have $5?" 

"Later.  Are you from around here?"

Ashad wasn't at all annoyed, just a little flustered trying to figure out should he hang around for the $5 or should he take cut his losses and just move on.  He decided to do both.  While we were talking and I was finding out about how he plays saxophone in a band he would periodically turn away to ask the people walking by for money.  Another person walks by ignoring his request for money and Ashad turns to us and says: 

"After dinner go to this club on X street (I forget the location), knock on the back door and tell the guy who answers that Ashad sent you.  He'll take care of you.  Can I have my $5 now?"

I counter with, "Ashad, where did you grow up?"

Another person walks by, Ashad asks for money and another person says no.  I pull out of my pocket some Tic Tacs and offer them to Ashad.  

"I don't want your Tic Tacs."  

"But Ashad, maybe you have bad breath.  Maybe the Tic Tacs will help."

Ashad ignores me and we talk a little bit about his childhood in DC, learning how to play the saxophone, and hearing in his voice the passion he has for music.  About 25 minutes have passed and we keep going back and forth about the Tic Tac's after each person passing by either ignores him or flat out says no.  Finally Ashad reaches his breaking point as he grabs the Tic Tacs out of my hand and yells:

"Fine!  Give me the damn Tic Tacs."  

He pops a few in his mouth and up the street comes this 40-something guy walking alone.  Ashad says, "Can I have $5?"  The guy stops, opens his wallet and hands him $5.  Scott, Pamela and I are completely shocked.  Ashad looks at us as the guy is walking away and says, "Well, how about that." And the four of us start laughing.  

Our buzzer buzzes and it's time for us to have dinner.  I shook Ashad's hand and gave him $20.  

"Hey, can I have $5 more?"

Friday, July 22, 2011

Winter 1996 - Will you please stay with me?

The light drizzle in the dark evening made the cold of winter all the more miserable.  Working the night shift I was lucky to be paired with P, an experienced EMT who also taught martial arts and as best I can recall had a young son at the time.  The first couple jobs that night included a young woman having contractions at a movie theatre, a guy with chest pain and the usual assortment of asthmatics and non-specific complainers in search of a ride across the city.  

Approaching midnight we get called to this high-rise near 280 for a domestic.  We roll up and outside the building are a couple of firetrucks, two other ambulances that beat us there and three NPD cruisers.  We grab our bags and carefully walk across the slick open area between the street and the building.  The lobby is huge with tall glass windows on all four sides.  As we enter our attention is drawn to the right where one cop is questioning a clearly agitated guy while the other cops form a semi-circle to cut off all escape paths.  I for one appreciate their effort to protect us from crazy guy.  

In the corner we see a young girl, around 6 years old being tended to by two of the firefighters.  One of the cops breaks away and tell us how this guy beat the crap out of his wife while she was trying to protect her daughter from him.  She's upstairs in the apartment, apparently unconscious and being worked on by the other two EMS crews.  The firefighters seemed really concerned and this girl looked shaken, understandable given the situation.  Well P hears this and sort of goes off, ready to kick this guys ass.  So as the firefighters now work to calm P down the cops finally decide to take the handcuffed guy out removing the distraction.  

Now to put this in perspective, I was 25 at the time and had no experience with kids.  They terrified me.  P is still a little too worked up to deal with the girl so I do a quick assessment, take her by the hand and walk her out to the ambulance.  P drives, lights and sirens off.  I can't remember if I said much to her on the way to the hospital.  I only remember holding her hand and trying to understand how one little girl could handle this.  What do you do if your dad beats your mom unconscious in front of you?  What do you do when the one person who was always there to protect you is not?  And then what if that person is really gone, and your dad is arrested by the cops and you don't have any other family?  

We brought her to the pediatric ER at UMDNJ.  The triage nurse saw her for a second and gave me the room number to bring her to.  As I'm walking her down the hall, holding her hand, she starts to cry.  The hallway is dim and quiet.  No one else is there and the silence is just too big a metaphor for the moment.  She hugs me, holds on to me and whispers, "Will you please stay with me?"

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Summer 2011 - Are you from around here?

My father and I share a compulsion, one that seems to both annoy and entertain the people with us at any given moment.  We talk to people we don't know.  Here is a quick recap of the people I have met the past few days in NYC:

Outside the Murray Hill Diner (3rd & 33rd) - 7/15 @ 12:30pm
A old jewish women commented on my 5 well behaved kids.  Nice opener on her part.  She grew up on the upper west side but has been living in Murray Hill for 50 years.  She tells me how the neighborhood has changed in that way that older people love to remember the past.  I shared with her how I worked around the corner (Madison & 25th) in the early 90's, that my favorite deli is now closed (roast beef and slaw sandwiches for lunch) and that indeed the neighborhood has changed, as neighborhoods do.  We talked about Leiby Kletzky, the boy in Brooklyn who was murdered and how sad it is that he was killed in one of the safest neighborhoods in NY and how he was his parents only son (he had 5 sisters).  I don't think we would have been less sad had it been a girl who was killed, yet the cultural focus on sons is one we won't have around for much longer.  She asked me if I sent my kids to private school in Manhattan.  Her son pays $900 a week for a nanny plus the private school tuition.  

Cab ride to Jekyl and Hyde - 7/15 @ 5:15pm
There are 5 of us for the cab ride to dinner so I sit in front with the young driver.  He is from Bangladesh and moved here 3 years ago by himself.  No family or friends waiting for him.  He's been driving a taxi for the past two years and lives in Queens.  We talked about the Tamil Tigers and the military leader I met in Paris 2 years ago who talked about defeating the Tamil Tigers with unmanned systems.  I was hoping he knew my friend Razab who I worked with at BBN in the mid-90's.  Razab and his wife were kind enough to invite Jenn and I to their wedding and the cab driver seemed to enjoy my knowledge of Bangladeshi weddings and family customs.  

Ess-a-Bagel (3rd & 51st) - 7/16 @ 8:45am
Guy in line behind me drew up in Merrick Long Island and has lived in NJ (near the Meadowlands), in Scarsdale (just outside NYC) and retired to Sudbury, Massachusetts (not too far from where we live).  He always comes to Ess-a-Bagel for 2 dozen bagels to bring home.  I love Ess-a-Bagel for their bagel with cream cheese and lox where the lox is piled high and perfectly matched with the right amount of cream cheese.  I know I enjoy food more than I should.  

Hershey Store (Times Square) - 7/16 @ 12:00pm
Kids are off playing with some machine that fills up buckets with candy that you can buy for like $20 a pound or something.  Samantha is grinding out her day.  I ask her if this is her full time gig and she laughs at me like I've said something hilarious.  I think she said she was a student working there part time, but between the kids bothering me about the candy I don't remember her exact details.  She's never been to Hershey Park but is thinking of taking her nephew there this summer.  Eric and I recommend she take him to Sesame Place along the way as it is very good for kids his age.  Eric also recommends the zoo at Hershey Park.  She could have at least given us a free chocolate.

Cab ride to South Street Seaport - 7/16 @ 4:00pm
Back in the front seat again we are cruising down the FDR with my new friend from India who looked like the father from Bend it Like Beckham.  He is Pashtun and has been living in NY since the 1990's.  He was working for a technology placement firm until 9/11 and the tech industry crashed.  He started driving a cab shortly thereafter.  The schools in Brooklyn where he was living weren't very good so he moved his family to Carteret NJ a few years ago.  We spoke about the 20 different dialects of Indian he can speak and how people of different dialects end up sharing common words and phrases that allow them to communicate.  I found it funny how when he gets home from work in the middle of the night he quietly puts the TV on to watch some cricket before falling asleep.

Crazy big-hair guy from SuperDry Store - 7/16 @ 4:30pm
I had not been in a Superdry Store before.  It's a UK brand that makes you think they are Japanese.  As we walked in the store these four teenage girls were taking a picture with one of the guys who worked there.  His hair was just crazy - like a massive afro - and he was model good looking.  After the girls left I asked him how much he charged them for the picture.  Turns out he used to work at the nearby Gap and when SuperDry opened he moved there.  Trying to launch himself into a career in fashion, he and talked about the fashion experience in Tokyo and how the styles make their way between asia, europe and then finally the US.  He said he would love to go to Tokyo but was really interested in getting into the UK modeling scene.  I should have taken a picture with him too.

Cab ride back to the Marriott - 7/16 @ 9:30pm
We walked back to West Broadway with Jenn's cousin so she could catch the A train.  We grabbed a cab pretty easily and as we made our way back up the FDR I learned that our new cab driver was also from India, living in Brooklyn and working the late shift.  In 7 years of driving a cab he has only had three people not pay their fare.  That's a pretty remarkable number.  The first one was a drunk man who gave him an address in the Bronx and once there couldn't remember where he lived.  The guy drove him around for 30 minutes and finally dropped him off at the local police station.  Another intoxicated male had him drive a few blocks away to a building near Central park before he said, "I have no money" get out of the taxi and walk into an apartment building.  The last time he was cheated out of a fare a group of 20-somethings purposely gave him an address near a wall and fence that they sprinted and jumped over as soon as the cab arrived.  Not too bad for 7 years in the business.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer 1996 - How Melissa Etheridge scored me a lap dance

I moved from New Jersey back to Boston in the Spring of 1996.  By summer I had a steady stream of friends coming up to hang with me and tour Beantown.  That summer Melissa Etheridge was touring the US on her Your Little Secret tour and playing in Boston and then NJ on consecutive weeks.  I became a fan of Melissa in 1993 when her Yes I Am album was released and included so many of her songs in my workout mix tapes.  Bring Me Some Water from her debut album, with its fierce intensity was perfect for working through sets of dumbbell chest presses and squats.  A friend of mine from NJ was a mega-fan following Melissa around the country from city to city, so she got us tickets for the Boston and NJ shows.

AH and another friend of ours (whose name escapes me right now, but I remember that her husband had a pierced nipple) drove up from NJ and after changing at my place we headed into the newly opened Fleet Center for the show.  AH netted us amazing floor seats, I think row 8 or 9.  So not only was it awesome to be seeing one of my favorite artists, I'm with two of my favorite girlfriends and am pretty sure was one of only 20 guys in the place that night.  After a quick dinner we head into the arena, the place is pulsing with excitement.  The lights were dim and as we approach show time I look down the aisle to see a familiar face.

One of the things I suck at in life is recognizing people.  Just two weeks ago on a flight home from Germany I sat next to someone I had an hour long conversation with a few months ago, but didn't recognize him until about 5 hours into the flight.  Two years ago I ran into a guy coming out of the airline bathroom, someone I have known for 10 years, but I didn't recognize him until after we had landed in Boston.  Maybe I just suck at recognizing people on airplanes.

So I look down the row and I think I see my cousin.  I hadn't seen her for a long time since no families members had died and our paths didn't cross while visiting my grandmother at the nursing home.  She was with two other women including her most awesome partner who I've been so happy to get to know over the years.  Of course I keep looking down the row and she keeps looking at me and we both say nothing.  The concert starts, the awkwardness continues and then the three of them take off for the crush at the front of the stage and that's the last I see of her until my grandmother's funeral a year or two later.

The Boston concert was a great mix of her current album and past hits.  Since I knew buying a Melissa Etheridge shirt would really be nothing more than another reason for my friends to lovingly tool on me, I opted for a nice white baseball cap with this cool purple Melissa Etheridge logo.  After the concert we went to Club Cafe on Columbus which I think was called something else back then, because we heard that Melissa might be coming there to party after the show.  We met up with some other people from the show, had some more drinks and waited for her to show up.  At one point a stretch limo pulled up outside and sat there for 20 minutes but no one ever got out.  AH went to the restroom and came back with this huge smile on her face telling us about the extra special after-party in the restroom with many women making out amongst other things.  Not much else happened that night, we headed back to my place and the next day or the day after they took off for NJ.

The following Friday I drove down to Secaucus for the NJ show.  AH and I went alone (I think) and the show was just as good.  At one point Melissa gets into it with her guitarist John Shanks on this platform that extended out into the crowd.  They are jamming away, two guitarists rocking out and she grabs this bandana out of his back pocket, uses it to wipe away her sweat and throws it back to him, just hot show theatrics.  I only tell you this because it becomes important in a few minutes.

So the next day my friend Steve invites me out to this new club he just joined, Hott 22 in Union NJ.  I had been making my way around the strip club circuit in Northern NJ for years mostly with my EMS buds going for legs and eggs after our night shifts or an afternoon burger at Uncle Charlie's II.  Hott 22 required you to pay a membership fee which just seemed silly to me, I mean who pays a cover to get into a strip club in NJ?  We show up around 8 and I survey the place.  Most clubs in NJ are pretty much what you see on the Soprano's when they show you the Bada Bing, girls dancing on a big stage separated from the bar area by a walkway where the bartenders and managers work.  This club was different in that the stage was much lower to the floor and all of the seats were right around the stage, making it possible to directly interact with the dancers.

Steve and I are relaxing when this girl comes up to me, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt.  She sees my hat and asks me, "Did you go to the Melissa Etheridge show last night?"  I'm like, yeah, I was there, were you?  And we have this long conversation about the show last night and I told her about the Boston concert and she starts to share with me about how Melissa grabbed John Shanks bandana and we have this moment bonding over what had happened.  It was nice to meet someone else who was not only at the concert but also a huge Etheridge fan.  She told me she had to go but would probably see me later.

The other thing to know about NJ strip clubs are that the girls generally work in shifts.  Girls start on the stage and after their 2/3/4 song sets they start working the bar or room while the next set of girls take the stage.  So Steve and I are a few sets in and the DJ is about to announce the next set of girls coming out onto the stage.  I recognize Bring Me Some Water pumping through the sound system and I hear the DJ say, ".... now coming onto the main stage, Britney, Amber and Tiffany who requested this song for her new friend Chris sitting in the front row."

Looking over at the stage entrance across the club I see Britney and Amber walk up onto the stage followed by Tiffany in this oversized Melissa Etheridge concert t-shirt.  She starts swinging around the pole closest to me before ripping off her t-shirt and revealing her very nice stripper attire, high heels and what is appropriate for a BYOB club in NJ (you can look that one up yourself).  After the first chorus she hopped off the stage and finished the rest of the song dancing on my lap.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fall 1995 - Feeling like a Minority and the Black Jamaican

My orientation week for Newark EMS included classes and time riding as third to make sure I wasn't so stupid that I would get myself or someone else killed.  My first night shift (7p-7a) was in October of 1995.  My partner, a Physicians Assistant student who grew up in Newark was late, leaving me to memorize where all the equipment and supplies were kept in the ambulance.  The Chiefs would always pair the newbies with a veteran to keep us out of trouble and show us around.

My partner blew through the door apologizing for being late, then physically took my arm and hustled me out to the bus (regional slang for ambulance).  The days of sitting around a nice station house watching cable TV while waiting for a call were out the window, running ~14 jobs a night and upwards of ~20 during the day in 12 hour shifts, you don't have much time to sit around.  She had her own orientation planned for me which started with a rundown of the different ethnic groups and their characteristics.

"The blacks are dumb and lazy.  The Hispanics will act like their leg is cut off when it is only a scrape.  The Portuguese Down Neck are loud and..."

She had no bullshit pretense to her and I guess when you are from the city and a member of one of the groups you are stereotyping you get a pass from the PC police.  What it felt like was after you have been in a place (school, company, city, ...) for so long that you start to see from within all the similarities, how the place flows.  The stereotypes tend to be narrowly applied but widely accepted if only for their comedic value in the moment.  I was clearly in her capable hands that night.

At the time the only other countries I had traveled to were the UK and France.  Hardly places where a white American will feel like they are part of any minority group.  The prep school I attended was mostly white and asian with a handful of black students.  I didn't attend Howard or Morehouse colleges so you can guess that my university years were about the same.  I always wondered what did it feel like to be one of the two black students in my high school class of ~120?  To be in a situation where you look around and you are not in the racial majority.  It's impossible to really know what it feels like until you are surrounded by the situation, by the moment, else you can at best be sympathetic.

"104. Ambulance 104.  Respond to Essex County College for a girl having an asthmatic attack.  Meet your escort on University Ave. near Market Street."

I don't remember if that was our first job of the night, but off we went, not too far across town from where we were.  Meeting up with our escort they led us to the back entrance of the school near the auditorium where a rap concert was being held.  Rappers from all over the state had shown up to compete on two stages.  The escort was either a local cop or security guard from the college and he told us that the crowds at the front door became worked up waiting to get through the metal detectors and started to surge forward crushing a few people in the process.  We had 4 girls waiting for us to check out.

Walking down the hall the music was pounding through the walls.  We walked past the auditorium and in a moment I could see the act on stage, the crowd chanting and singing along, it felt so powerful and uncontrollable.  And it was at that moment that the feeling overtook me, the feeling of what it was truly like to be a racial minority, to be locked in a place with pulsing energy, outnumbered 1000 to 1.  So this is what it feels like?  Except it isn't what it feels like because I'm not black and my experience lasted about 10 seconds only because I put myself into the moment.

We arrived at the room and by the time we got there two of the four girls had left to go back to the concert.  My partner started with the physical assessment of each girl as I wrote up the call sheets.  They had been caught in the surge and were more anxious than anything else.  After a few puffs of her inhaler she and her friend were ready to go back to the concert when our next problem presented itself.

"So we can take you to the hospital or release you here.  How old are you?"


"Okay, so I didn't hear you correctly.  You know that if you are under 18 we can't release you, that we have to take you to the hospital and call your parents.  How old are you again?"

"Oh, 18. We are both 18."

"Excellent, so you both need to sign this form that states you are refusing additional medical care and releasing us from, blah, blah, blah."

In reality I think it took my partner a few minutes to get the girls to finally say they were 18 because they couldn't quite understand our lack of hearing at first.  The girls were fine and my partner schooled me on the art of triage which in a city is critical to keeping the system (emergency room's) unclogged.  We left, sans-patient, and called back into service.  The rest of our night was pretty anti-climatic.  A few more jobs until the midnight lull.  An espresso at a mob-run coffee shop on Bloomfield Avenue.  The bars let out and we handle a little more craziness until the early morning quiet settles in.

At about 6:45am we were heading back to base.  My partner was taking a left off of Central Ave when this crappy little Nissan or Mazda comes flying over the hill and just rams into us, striking the back of our truck and spinning us about a quarter way around.  The guy who hits us, jams his car into reverse and then speeds off.  We radio in that we've been hit but are fine and before we clear the scene a woman comes running up to the ambulance from down the street and before catching her breath tells us:

"I saw who hit you, I saw who hit you!  It was a black Jamaican.  It was a black Jamaican."

We burst out laughing as my partner kindly thanks the woman for her help and asks her, "Have you ever seen a white Jamaican?"  She gives us this quizzical look and just walks away.  I guess you really shouldn't tool on people who are trying to help you.  We drove back to base, handed off to the next crew and my first official shift on Newark EMS was done.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer 1990 - Fried Chicken

I am old. My interns are less than half my age and it doesn't seem like 20 years since my extended summer between my freshman year at Northeastern and my sophomore year at Rutgers.  A friend of mine got me a job at a local ambulance company and by early summer I started taking  shifts on a neo-natal transport unit to make some extra coin.  My job was to drive nurses, doctors, ... in this massive ambulance from Newark Beth Israel hospital to small hospitals in Jersey to pick up premature and sick babies and bring them back for treatment.  We saw a lot of tiny babies and some super deformed ones where the mom thought it was a good idea to drink Drano as a way of aborting her baby, only to produce an infant with an arm growing out its chest and encephalitis.

At 17 I was young, naive and had absolutely no game, completely ripe to be screwed with by my co-workers.  And screw with me they did.  At the hospital the neonatal unit admin on the weekends was this massively fat black women who I would hang with while waiting on the transport crew who would often take an hour or two to get ready.  She was loud and funny, a 70's TV cross between Shirley from What's Happening and Nell Carter.  She would always greet me with a big hug and I'm pretty sure spent her evenings at home scheming on ways to make me squirm in her presence.  

So one hot evening I am waiting for the transport team and her boyfriend shows up with a fried chicken dinner from down the street.  One of the beauties of Newark is that there is a pretty good chance that fried chicken place is named after a dead president or US state.  Go ahead, on your next family vacation through the Garden State check it out.  Her boyfriend was thin and quiet, the perfect counterpoint in their relationship.  As they dive into their chickens and biscuits she says to me, "This is some good chicken Christopher, so so good."  Of course this is really just a lead in, she's totally setting me up.

"It looks really good.  I'll probably have some later."

"You know what women love after they eat fried chicken?"  She looks over to her boyfriend smiling back at her.

My eyes are rapidly moving between the two of them.  "Hmmm... no."

"Baby, women love to have their pussy licked.  On a hot summer night like this, after some dinner, there's nothin' better than a hot tongue on my hot pussy."

Now I'm avoiding eye contact completely.  Where's the door?  Where's the team?  Isn't it time to go? 

"Yeah, my baby loves me to take care of her."  The boyfriend is now joining in on the fun.  "I can't wait until we get home tonight.  You want to join us after you get back with the baby?" 

Jackpot!  My teenage fantasies would finally become realized.  Some boys fantasize about the cheerleader, the lab partner, hell even the young hot teacher.  No, my fantasy is being invited for a threesome after some tasty chicken.

She started fanning herself with a piece of paper in one hand while still working on a half-eaten leg in the other.  Clearly their fun with me is done for the night as they both burst out laughing.  She rolls her chair over towards me, hugging me and proclaiming, "we're just fucking with you."

Hot nights in Newark.  What a wonderful woman. 

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location: Newark, NJ