Once upon a time, there existed a New York City economy where a young person fresh out of college could, with a straight face, think in terms of “building a career.”
Imagine such optimism. The notion of “career” seems so trite now, forty-plus years on, so immaterial, in this age of downsizing, outsourcing, off-shoring. But in 1975 there we were, my wife and I, products of the public schools and just a generation from the shtetl, in a one-bedroom Manhattan walk-up for under $300. Our salaries were less than $8,000 a year, but what does that matter, when you’re twenty-four and living in the Emerald City?
This was in the pre-High Line Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the very year when the Daily News’ October 30th headline screamed “Ford to City: Drop Dead!” Back then, the unctuous blood of slaughtered beasts formed in great pools on the cobblestoned streets of the Meat Packing District. The burned out Key Food supermarket on Eighth Avenue – where teenaged cashiers with chipped nail polish once screamed to their manager, “Melendez! We need quarters!” – remained a shell of cinders for years, papered with posters for the Queen of Latin Soul, La Lupe. The junkie in white patent leather shoes, who we nicknamed “Happy,” giggled mindlessly all day long on the same corner where our other neighbors drank nips of Miller High Life and played dominoes on a folding card table in front of the Bright Luncheonette.
My wife and I worked hard and played hard and steadily inched up the ladder of life. Once in awhile, our careers advanced in tandem but, mostly, when one career drifted, the other climbed higher.
The years passed and we ricocheted around the city. We bounced from mid-70s Chelsea, to Jackson Heights and its early 80s Columbian cocaine cowboys, to Park Slope in 1985, a time when our northern part of the nabe was redlined, still considered the big bad “Bed-Stuy” by insurance companies.
In 1987, our son was born and we were ecstatic. I remember how I rocked him back to sleep at two in the morning, the crack city serenade of sirens drowning out his tape of gentle nursery tunes.
Over time, our neighborhood became quite popular, prompting the appearance of spray painted signs over the area’s construction sites: “No Mas Yuppies!!!” After years of muggings, break-ins and car thefts, crime was on the wane and, as a result, gentrification engulfed Park Slope like cultural kudzu.
Our lives were flying high when, in the late 90s, I hit a career speed bump. My boss, the man who hired me, was forced out in a sharp-elbow political imbroglio and I found myself without his protection. The office seas roiled and yet, against my better judgment, we took a wonderful two-week vacation to Scotland. At that time, my wife and I firmly believed that family vacations were inviolate.
The last leg of our journey was Portree, a hamlet on the mystical Isle of Skye, a verdant jewel closer to Reykjavik than Rome.
Upon returning to our homey hotel after an afternoon exploring the miniature mountain range of Faerie Glen, the plump proprietress handed us a pink “While You Were Out” message.
She said something in her heavy Scottish accent, but we’d had trouble understanding the locals ever since we drove north of York. We smiled politely, shrugged and thanked her for the note.
Once inside our room, my wife’s face turned ashen. The note was from her boss. My wife was to call the office immediately. Her company had been acquired.
“Don’t worry,” her boss told her, unconvincingly. “Enjoy your vacation.” We limped through the last days of our now-torpedoed holiday. The unthinkable was happening. Both of us faced a serious career hit at the very same time.
In fact, a bulky FedX box blocked our front door upon arriving home after the flight back to JFK. I placed the package on the kitchen counter and vowed not to look at it until morning.
The very next day, a Saturday, my frantic wife got on the phone with her work friends, while I opened the FedX box. It contained memo after memo of things that my new boss said had gone wrong on my accounts in the less than two weeks we had been away. I braced myself for an epic Monday morning confrontation. Meanwhile, my wife learned from her buddies that the layoffs at her company would commence immediately.
Our American Dream lifestyle was built upon the faulty foundation of a two-income household. If one of our careers faltered, it would be a serious hit. If both of us flamed out, it would prove disastrous, financially and emotionally.
I’m not proud of my behavior over the weeks that followed. Both of us hit the panic button and sniped at each other constantly. We were furious at our fate and flailing, talking, but hardly hearing each other.
As a result, our anger escalated to screaming brawls with tears, recriminations, accusations and shoving.
And then my recurring nightmares started. The first one was simply that, approaching a red light, my car would not stop. I’d repeatedly jab at the brake pedal, drive it down to the floorboard, but nothing happened. Every night, I’d crash into the vehicle in front of me and, boom, the car would go up in flames and I’d wake up in a sweat.
But then there was the second nightmare: I’d pick up a pistol, aim it at my temple, pull the trigger and, improbably, miss, the bullet grazing the side of my head. I kept the dreams to myself until I admitted that suicide ideation was no joke.
I needed help. I put out the word to my friends: I needed to see a shrink.
I had never been to therapy before. To me, this was an admission of failure, for in the world in which I was raised, shrinks were for pussies. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong silent type – that was an American,” I remembered TV’s Tony Soprano saying to his therapist, Dr. Melfi. “He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.”
But, a friend of a friend did actually know someone. A woman shrink in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which – at the time – was largely working-class Hispanic. I spoke to her on the phone. She sounded caring, nice, with a soft and soothing voice. I decided to meet for a first session.
I drove my VW down to her office on Brooklyn’s 46th Street and parked on the corner of Fifth Avenue, across from a shack attached to a dollar store, where two guys sold bootlegged movies, cassettes and CDs. I was early for the appointment and remembered what my friends, all provincial puppies, told me about shrinks. That is, if you show up early, you looked over-eager. If you showed up on-time, you looked anal retentive. If you showed up late, you looked like you were in avoidance.
I decided upon a mid-course solution. I’d show up a little bit late, but not a lot. To kill time, I looked through the assortment of tapes the corner vendor had for sale, and found a great one by La Lupe, the Cuban salsera from the concert posters plastered throughout my old Chelsea neighborhood. La Lupe’s voice, equal parts Piaf and Garland – and more poignant than either – propelled her to popularity. Yet she died broke, crippled and alone in her South Bronx apartment, discarded by lovers, by fans, and ultimately by even the record label that discovered her. Her cri de coeur, which caromed from category five hurricane to rum-soaked rasp, was that of a sorceress, alchemist, temptress, and the emotional acid of her songs required no fluency in Spanish.
On this particular tape was one of her most powerful songs, “Puro Teatro.” La Lupe, deceived by the very one she trusted, wrenchingly succumbs to her anger – at both her lover and herself. In a searing acceptance of her condition, she calls out: “Lo tuyo es puro teatro.” That is to say, “Your whole bag is pure smoke and mirrors.”
It made for quite a non-traditional, pre-shrink session selection. I paid the two dollars for the tape, and quickly walked down the hill, checking building numbers all the way from Fifth and Fourth Avenues.
I couldn’t find the shrink’s address. I had written it down and double-checked it, so I figured – extending the logic of my friends – that I was subconsciously avoiding this meeting. I walked up and down the street twice, and now I was truly, officially late. And that was going to mean something, for sure, when I eventually did arrive.
Slowly, I walked back up the hill yet again and finally found it, a handsome brownstone. The house number was missing, and her name was barely legible, scratched onto a tiny little brass plate near the gate of her ground-floor entryway.
There was no buzzer, only an antique nautical bell and clapper that hung in the entry way. I certainly wasn’t going to clang on that for, in my mind, I was certain that the noise would send an alarm, near and far, that the good doctor had another nut at the door.
Instead, I reached through the wrought-iron gate, tapped upon the glass door insert, and discreetly whispered, “Hello? Hello?”
“Hello? Hello?” I shuffled my feet, an attempt to make my presence known.
Finally, I heard movement from within her ground floor office, muffled voices. A door opened. Out walked a tall young woman, crying, a Kleenex pressed to her nose.
Behind her was a kindly-looking, middle-aged woman with a Mona Lisa smile, who motioned for me to enter. The top of her head barely reached the middle of my chest. She was the world’s littlest shrink.
“Please come in,” she said, in that soft voice I heard on the phone.
I looked around the room cautiously, like a dog sniffing out new territory. Hers was a tasteful, wood-paneled space. Paintings and posters from Italy lined the Tuscan treated walls. A threadbare, red Persian carpet adorned the worn hardwood floor. As for seating, there was a Morris chair, a rolled arm leather couch and a plumply upholstered club chair. Wondering where to sit, I again recalled the sage advice of my provincial friends: if you sit close to the therapist, it is perceived as too in-your-face. If you sit too far away, it means you’re defensive. I opted for a mid-distanced choice, the club chair, and settled in.
She said nothing.
I said nothing.
She gave me the Mona Lisa smile again.
I looked down at my hands. And I thought, this could go on forever, and I’m paying, so I might as well start.
It was like shoveling snow. And it was a relief to unburden myself. It was never a matter of finding things to talk about. Rather, it was a more a matter of how fast I could shovel out the rot in my soul.
Every week I drove to Sunset Park, bought a cassette tape, and poured my poisoned heart out to the World’s Littlest Shrink. One week, I told her a story I’d long-forgotten. We were discussing my parents when a long-buried memory sprung to mind. It was as if a lead-lined, Kryptonite-proof Jack-In-the-Box had suddenly opened.
Startled, I stopped talking.
“Go on,” the World’s Littlest Shrink said.
I am four years old and on a family vacation in a small hotel in an upstate mountain village. I am tucked into bed by my parents. My infant sister is asleep in her crib.
I awaken, in the middle of the night, to see our hotel room ablaze.
“Mom? Dad?” I warble. Nothing. A bolt of fear grips my stomach. I scream: “MOM? DAD?” They are not here. The baby and I are alone, left to fend for ourselves, as flames lick lacey drapes, as acrid smoke billows, as we choke.
I look about the room. The baby cries. I see that the fire burns brightest by the light fixture above the dresser. Its incandescent bulb ignites a tattered towel. Groggy, I throw off the bed covers, get up, open the door, and leave. I wander down the hallway, in cowboy-print pajamas, and find the curved, carpeted stairway to the hotel lobby below. There, a man approaches.
“Little boy,” he says, bemused. “What’s the matter?”
I rub my burning eyes with grubby four-year old fists. I cough. I don’t understand what the man says.
“Little boy,” he repeats. “Why are you crying?
“My room is on fire,” I say, now blubbering.
“WHAT?” the man says, no longer smiling. “Is there anyone else in your room?”
“My sister,” I say. “She’s sleeping.”
“How old is she?” he asks.
“She’s a baby.” I shmear tears from my eyes and cough again.
“Hey, c’mon, c’mere!” he yells, as he signals to the staff for help.
Then, to me, he says, his hands upon my shoulders: “Remember: big boys don’t cry.”
I suppose the fire was extinguished. But I have no idea who put it out, or how. My sister was safe, our room was changed. I told the World’s Littlest Shrink that I surmised my parents had left us alone, as they’d done many a time while on vacation, and went out to the hotel’s club for an evening’s entertainment, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Before they left, they placed a towel upon the fixture, to better shade the light, and help us fall asleep. Chaos ensued.
“So, they did that frequently?” my therapist asked me.
“Yep, all the time.”
“Did you ever ask them about it?” she asked me.
The World’s Littlest Shrink sat there, mouth open, pen poised in mid-air. She said not a word.
The seasons changed, and my wife and I got our careers got back on track, more or less.
Eventually, I decided to tell my tiny therapist that I was fine and didn’t need to come any longer. I had several nifty rationalizations at the ready, but the reality – which I never expressed to my shrink – was that my opinion of “our work together” had, over time, re-set to its default, Gary Cooper, position.
“Are you sure,” she said. “We have a lot of work to…”
“I’m sure,” I said, smiling. “It’s time for me to move on.”
She smiled, and suggested we go forward to put a bow on things, for another few weeks. To this, I agreed.
That weekend, at the U.S. Open tennis finals, Hewitt clobbered Sampras. The next Tuesday, I had a morning like any other morning. I walked my boxer in Prospect Park. I came home, fed and brushed the dog, took a shower, had some coffee and prepared for work. Sirens screamed down Flatbush Avenue, nonstop, just like those horrific nights back in the mid-eighties. I figured that there was a big fire in downtown Brooklyn, maybe around DeKalb Avenue.
The telephone rang. It was my wife, already at work.
“Put on CNN right now!” she screamed. “It’s Bin Laden, I just know it.”
My wife and I had followed news reports involving al Qaeda since 1993, when two gentlemen loaded their 1,300-pound nitrate-hydrogen gas enhanced device, stuffed with cyanide, into a rented Ryder van, drove into lower Manhattan, entered the parking garage directly below the World Trade Center’s North Tower and blew their bomb, killing six and injuring more than one thousand.
We shuddered seven years later, when the USS Cole was attacked by al Qaeda suicide bombers while in port in Aden, Yemen, for refueling. Seventeen sailors were killed that day.
Here it was, less than one year after the Cole.
Oh, what now? I thought. I reached for the remote in the bedroom, and buttoned my shirt with the other hand. There, against the cloudless Colorado blue sky, the North Tower was once again on fire.
“A plane,” my wife screamed into the phone. I thought, what kind of asshole hits a building as big as the World Trade Center? I stood transfixed, half dressed, staring at the television and hearing my wife cry over the phone, until the unthinkable happened for the second time that morning.
I ran to pick up my son. There, in the lobby of his school, he and his pre-teen friends trembled, cried, hugged, knowing some dads were done.
He came running to me as I entered, and wrapped his hands around me in a big bear hug.
“Where’s mom?” he asked uncertainly.
“She’s fine,” I said. “She’ll be home soon.” In fact, she made it back only after an arduous walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge.
“Dad, let’s go. Please? Now?” he said, relieved that both his parents were safe.
As we approached our apartment building, my son and I met Eddie, our superintendent.
“Let’s go up to the Penthouse,” Eddie said. “We can see what’s happening and the bitch is at work, so she won’t be around.”
Wordlessly, the three of us whooshed up the freight elevator and walked onto the Penthouse Lady’s wraparound deck. We stared in disbelief at the sight before us, numb to the ongoing wail of sirens from the emergency vehicles still racing down Flatbush and over the bridge to Downtown Manhattan.
Minutes later, the top of the South Tower seemed to disappear, as if in a controlled demolition. We stood silent, shaking, as the colossal structure collapsed into itself in a mushroom cloud of debris. Tears rolled down our faces, as we held hands, our hearts and spirits broken.
This is my kid’s crucible, I thought. My grandparents witnessed Cossacks setting their town afire. They were thirteen. My dad white-knuckled his way through the Battle of the Bulge. He was nineteen. I was fire-branded early too, and not only by JFK’s assassination.
Now, here we were, my pre-teen son standing witness to this violent haze of atomized humanity. It was as if Aladdin’s Genie of the Lamp had swirled about the molten skyscrapers, and naughtily undid their zippers.
Two days later, I called to confirm my therapy appointment. She asked me how I was doing. Fine, I lied. She asked how my son and wife were. Fine, I lied again.
She suggested that maybe we should suspend our suspension of “our work together.”
“You know,” she said softly, “sometimes significant events such as this can churn up the chaos of the past. When that happens, it’s important to…”
“I’m fine,” I lied again. “See you soon.”
In fact, I was in a state of stupefaction, numbness, disbelief and disconnection from life, as if I was a World War One doughboy, stumbling blindly through a no-man’s land of emotion. I reeled through the hours, clinging blindly to some semblance of routine, the tolling of each passing hour a life saver thrown upon the roiling emotional waters of those deadliest days.
I sat in my usual chair later that Thursday. She said nothing. Neither did I. Instead, I looked out of the World’s Littlest Shrink’s office window. The Brooklyn air was yellow. It smelled like an acrid electrical fire, with top notes of crematorium.
Suddenly, I felt faint. My stomach cramped and blood rushed from my head.
I was four years old again, in a hotel room inferno. Big boys don’t cry, an inner voice chided.
I shifted uneasily in my seat, determined not to succumb.
She gave me the Mona Lisa smile.
“OK,” I said, finally, furiously fending off inner demons. “I’ll come for one more session. Just one. And I’ll prove to you that I’m alright.”
She nodded. “How will you prove that?” she asked.
“I’ll use music,” I said, the idea just popping into my head, as if from another Jack-In-the-Box. “I’ll make you a World Trade Center mix tape, in sections – for each of the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “I’ll make a mix tape with songs that reflect Denial and Isolation,” I said. “And Anger. Bargaining. Depression. And Acceptance. In that order.”
“Is that something you would like to do,” she said, twiddling her pencil between elfin fingers.
“It’s something I want to do, and something that should prove to you that I’m OK.”
She put the pencil down. “That sounds wonderful,” she said.
All that week, I worked on the tape. I painstakingly selected songs suitable for each of the five sections, mixing them onto a new Maxell metal bias cassette. Cassettes were nearly obsolete, but they offered the finest recording fidelity possible for me at the time. The floor of my living room was cluttered with CDs, albums and tapes from operas, rock, folk, even movie soundtracks.
Finally, it was finished. I held it aloft, un-played, convinced that it would provide incontrovertible proof that I was ready to be weaned off therapy.
That Thursday, I noticed that the cassette seller’s shack was locked shut, as I drove down 46th Street and parked my VW. I proudly rang the loud ship’s bell in front of the Littlest’s office. I heard her soft footsteps and the metallic click of her Medeco lock.
She opened her door and smiled wanly.
Before sitting down, I looked at each wall in the therapist’s office one last time, and admired her photos of Lake Como, Il Duomo di Firenze, the 1924 Alfa Romeo ad by René Magritte. I sat down and patted my shirt pocket.
“I got it,” I said. “Right here.”
She said nothing.
I took the cassette out, along with a folded sheet of loose leaf paper. “It’s all here.”
“Would you like to hear what’s on the tape, just some examples?” I asked.
“If you’d like to tell me, sure.”
I unfolded the paper. “OK, just for example…under Denial and Isolation, I have ‘E Lucevan Le Stelle’ – the Caruso version, with a segue to Suzanne Vega’s ‘Small Blue Thing.’”
That made her smile. “Tosca,” she said. “Nice.”
“Under Anger, I have Twisted Sister. ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ With a segue to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ off the ‘Apocalypse Now’ soundtrack.”
She nodded again.
“Under Bargaining, I have Buddy and Julie Miller doing ‘Broken Things.’ Under Depression, I have Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Flying Shoes’ into Elton John’s ‘Come Down in Time.’”
“That’s a nice one, too,” she said.
I stood up and walked to the window. A group of little kids walked home after school. They laughed, their banter a balm.
“What about Acceptance?” she asked.
I folded the paper, wrapped it around the cassette and put it back in my pocket.
“‘Puro Teatro,’ by La Lupe,” I said, still looking out the window.
“Very nice,” she said.
I turned to her. “I think I’m good to go,” I said, unconvincingly.
“Think about it,” she said. “No pressure.”
I walked out the door and down to my car. The residents of Sunset Park were coming home from work, wearily walking up the hill from the subway. I noticed that now, among the working class men and women, there was a sprinkling of yuppies. Cultural kudzu.
I opened the VW’s door, started the engine, took the tape from my pocket and took a deep breath. I carefully inserted it into the cassette player and steeled myself for its worldwide debut, coming at the conclusion of my time in therapy.
I pressed Play. There was a mechanical, whirring sound, but no music. Then, a horrible gnashing sound, as ribbons of my precious Kubler-Ross 9-11 tape crashed between rollers and heads, spewed from the stereo’s slot, slithered down the stick shift of my VW, and wound its way around my feet.
The machine had eaten my tape.
And I spontaneously convulsed in a torrent of tears, loud, uninhibited, as school kids passed, and must have stared, with the careless curiosity of youth, at the grief-stricken greybeard in the cocoon of his car, as his ancient audio tape spooled forth, inextricably entangling him in a terrible, five-stage tomb of tunes.