Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: September 2005 (page 1 of 3)

A Walk Around the Block

Today was our last morning of sitting shiva.  In the Jewish tradition, at the end of the shiva, we are supposed to leave the house and walk once around the block.  None of us knew the reason for this tradition, so yesterday, we asked a few of our visitors.  We received many different "answers," including:

1)  to get some exercise after sitting all week.

2)  to show the rest of the neighborhood that you’re done sitting shiva.

3)  to take all your tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) and get rid of it by throwing it on the first neighbor you meet!
 
Then Sophia looked it up online and found the most convincing answer:

Walking around the block is a symbol of the beginning of a return to normalcy.  Also, there is a belief that the soul of the departed hovers around during the shiva, when everyone is talking about the person that died.  In the old country, the cemetery was located at the edge of the shtetl (a village).  At the end of sitting shiva, the bereaved would "escort the soul" to its final resting place.

So many friends and neighbors came this week and said so many beautiful things about my father.  At times, my mother and I gave each other little glances when the praise for my father went over the top.  It’s hard to think of your father or husband in "saintly" terms.  As kind a person as he was, he also had his quirks, and I’d like to remember those as well as his good deeds.  My father did plenty of things that drove me crazy.  He was a neatnik, a hoarder, an obsessive scheduler, and the slowest dresser that ever existed.   But that’s what made him my father.   I want to remember everything about him, good and bad.

I’m not much of a spiritual person, but even I felt my father’s presence as we prepared to take our post-shiva "walk around the block."  When we stepped outside, it was a little windy, so Sophia asked me to go upstairs and get her a jacket.  As I turned back, a wind blew and the front door of the apartment building flew wide-open.  I didn’t think much of it until I went upstairs and found that we had left our front door unlocked from when we were sitting shiva and the wind from the opening elevator made it fly open, too!  It was a little eerie.  But just in case it was my father’s spirit, I said hello to his photo in the living room, and then returned downstairs with a jacket for Sophia.

We took our walk around the block.  It was very emotional.  But as we took each step, things began to feel a little more normal, as we were moving from a state of bereavement back to a regular life.  As we came around the corner, we approached Shoshana, an orthodox Jewish woman who lives in my parents’ building.  Even though she was wearing an ugly skirt, I said to myself, "She has a really nice ass."  I guess I was feeling a little bit more normal.  The wind blew.  I’d like to think that it was my father, agreeing with me about Shoshana’s ass.

A Shanda (Yiddish for Shame)

When I was a kid, Jewish mothers used to compete with each other over their sons’ professions.  Back then, the big battle was between "my son the doctor" and "my son the lawyer." 

No more.

Today while sitting shiva, three middle-aged Jewish Mothers from the apartment building came to visit:

Jewish Mother #1:  So, Neil, are you still in California?

Neil:  Yes, Los Angeles.

Jewish Mother #1:  My son lives in Encino.   He has his dermatology practice there.

Jewish Mother #2:  My son used to live in California.  Then he became a partner at a law firm in Fort Lauderdale.  He loves it there.

Jewish Mother #3:  My son was an ER doctor in Atlantic City.  Then he was fired for gambling during work hours.

Jewish Mother #1:  Molly, what a shanda!

Jewish Mother #2:  This is terrible!

Jewish Mother #3:    Oh, no.  It was the best thing that ever happened to him.  Now he’s a professional poker player and he’s always on that Texas Hold ’em show on the TV.   He’s won three gold bracelets and a few hundred thousand dollars last year.  He even says he’s good friends with Ben Affleck.

All the other mothers went ooh and ahh over "my son, the professional gambler."

Modern Talmudic Question

If a rabbi comes to make a shiva call and there are no available parking spaces outside so he parks "illegally" in the parking-lot of the next-door supermarket, is he required to buy something from the store or is it considered stealing?

Sitting Shiva

My friend, Barry, explained to me how the Catholic wake works:  the family sits facing the open casket for a couple of days.  In the beginning, everyone is all reverent being in the presence of the deceased.  By the end, the family is talking about the Yankees while the body is still there.  After the funeral, the family finds it easier to return to their normal life.  It’s a system that seems to work.

Jews have their own system, which is done the opposite way.  It is called "sitting shiva."  After a death, the burial occurs as fast as possible.  Then there are seven days of sitting shiva.  The family sits in the house and is visited by family, friends, and neighbors.  It is a bit of an odd system, since you end up retelling the story of "what happened" dozens of times, as new people show up.  But since it is a Jewish event, there is always a lot of food involved.  In fact, you are supposed to bring food for the family so they don’t have to cook.  In reality, it doesn’t exactly work out this way.  You are put in the position of being a host to large groups of people at the exact point when you are most exhausted from the funeral.   At least Jews do thing differently.

It is considered a "mitzvah" (a good deed) to "pay a shiva call" so many neighbors come, even those that aren’t close to the family.  A few times, my mother and I didn’t know the names of the people.  Sophia came up with a plan where we would look over at her, signaling  that it was time for action.  Sophia then would stand up and say:

"Hello, I’m Sophia.  Thanks so much for coming.  What’s your name?"

As crazy a system as this is, it is nice to meet all of my father’s friends and co-workers.  We heard some funny stories about my father.  My uncle Edward had the best story, which is about how my father became a physical therapist. 

It seems that during the Korean War, my father was assigned to be an MP (Military Policeman).  This is hard to believe because my father was a scrawny Jewish guy with Woody Allen glasses.  He was assigned to transport North Korean prisoners.  He was issued a large rifle and told to do three things if there was any trouble:

1)   Yell, "Stop."
2)   Yell, "Halt, or I’ll shoot."
3)   Shoot.

One day, my father was transporting a North Korean prisoner, when the prisoner broke free and began to escape.   My father followed the rules: 

1)   He yelled, "Stop," but the prisoner kept on running.
2)   He yelled, "Halt, or I’ll shoot," but the prisoner didn’t listen.
3)   My father lifted up the heavy gun, pulled the trigger, and the gun fell on the floor, shooting into the air.  My father got scared and ran the other way.

Later, that day, my father was brought into the captain’s office.   My father was told that he was going to be court martialed.  The captain took one look at my father and realized that he was the worst possible choice for being a military policeman. 

The captain spoke to my father:

"I made you an MP.  Let’s see if I can do better the second time around.  I’m going to send you to a military hospital in Hawaii to learn to be a physical therapist."

At that point my father would have agreed to anything.  This is how he became a physcial therapist, a job he had for 50 years.

Thanks

At my father’s service, I made a little speech where I talked about my father’s different "families" — his relatives, his co-workers, his friends, etc.  I wonder if at the funerals of the future, people will also be talking about the "family of fellow bloggers and readers."

Who would think I would get such comfort from all your kind comments and emails?  Last night, after the extended family and the shiva visitors left, Sophia and I sat with my mother as she read the comments on my laptop.  She was extremely touched.

I was also surprised about how eager I was to write to you with updates about my life.   When I didn’t have a laptop at the hospital, I wrote some comments on the back of a package of gauze.    I really felt like you were a new kind of family.

I haven’t read any of your blogs, so I have no idea what is going on it your lives (or minds).  Soon, I’ll be back to normal — writing stupid comments on your blogs.

Thank you, my blogging "family."

The Funeral

Today was my father’s funeral.  The last two days were very emotional and I still find it too difficult to write about it.

As the limo took us home, I said:

"The rabbi had it easy.  He said such beautiful things about a genuinely beautiful person.  What does the rabbi do if the guy is a real jerk?"

Sophia said this reminded her of a joke:

A  famous Jewish mobster dies, a man well-known as an embezzler, a crook — someone who loved scamming old retired Florida ladies out of their savings. 

The mobster’s brother, himself a mobster, asks the local rabbi to do the service.

"I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars if you say something nice about my brother."

The rabbi is a serious, religious man.

"I really can’t do that.  Your brother was a crook."

"Listen, rabbi.  I’ll give you a hundred thousand if you say something nice about my brother."

"I’m sorry.   A rabbi can’t lie."

"OK, here’s my final deal.  I’ll give you a quarter of a million dollars to say something nice about my brother."

The rabbi thinks about all the repairs that need to be done to the temple roof and the new Sunday school that he’s been dreaming about.   He agrees to the offer.

On the day of the funeral, the rabbi steps up to the podium and says:

"This man was a crook, a liar, a thief and a terrible human being.  But compared to his brother, he was a saint."

We all laughed and felt a little better.  My father would have loved this joke. 

Queens General

TUESDAY MORNING

The doctor said his movements were just reflexes.  But the Jamaican nurse said my father could hear if you talked to him.  So, I did.   I held his hand.   I made some small talk.  When I mentioned that we flew in from Los Angeles on American Airlines, his favorite airline, I thought I saw my father’s head move slightly in approval.

Sitting here in my father’s hospital room feels like a scene in a movie — the scene where loved ones gather around someone who is unable to talk or breathe by himself.  Movie scenes are the only real experience I have of these things. 

It’s not looking too good.  It’s still not clear if it was a heart attack or not.  Whatever the reason, my father, Arthur Kramer, collapsed in the living room.   He is over seventy and not in great health, so it was shocking, but not entirely unexpected.  No, I’m lying — it’s always unexpected.

I’m not sure I’m ready yet to talk about my feelings.  My head is spinning with confusion.  My mother is much stronger than I am.

I would like to bring up my usual favorite subject — Sophia — and say how heroic she’s been.  I was with Sophia when we got the frazzled phone call from my mother.   Sophia and I  were in midst of the most mundane moment possible — we were examining some fake Tupperware in the 99 cents only store to see if it would be a good container to hold some nuts.   When the phone call came, I became  a zombie.  Sophia picked up the slack and called up NY, to talk to the paramedics working on my father.  One paramedic said that it was hopeless and they were going to pronounce him dead.  Sophia insisted that they keep on trying, and after a few minutes, they actually did revive him!  It was like a miracle.  Even if my father doesn’t make it through this, it has been wonderful to have this added time to be together and say goodbye.

While we were still in Los Angeles, we lost contact with my mother.  My long-time friend, Rob, called around and found out that my father was admitted to Queens General Hospital.  This was ironic since my father has worked at Queens General as a physical therapist for forty years.    When we called the hospital for information, no one would give us any.  Sophia called again and again and found Marina, a Russian-speaking clerk.   This wonderful clerk said she would get the information for Sophia.  Not only that, she said that since couldn’t use the hospital phones to call Los Angeles, she would buy a calling card at the gift shop to call back, if Sophia couldn’t reach her.  What a terrific person! 

We arrived in NYC in the morning.   My father was in the emergency room, but doctors were not to be found.  When a doctor finally showed up, he came with 7 interns in tow.  Sophia thought that he was spending more time teaching his students than caring for my father, and spoke up, something my mother or I didn’t have the nerve to do.  The doctor huffed and puffed, but Sophia was right.  He apologized and promised to come back to give a personal consultation. 

It’s really important to be proactive in a sterile hospital setting.   It was amazing to have Sophia to talk to the medical staff and it was amazing to see how it changed things for the better.   When she saw that my mother and I were scared to touch my father without a doctor’s permission, she showed us that we could talk to him and hold his hand.  She’s still the only one who is not afraid to wipe his brow, massage his neck and put his head in a better position.  She was so knowledgeable about things that some of the doctors assumed that she was a doctor herself.

Eventually, the nurses realized who my father was — someone who worked at the hospital for years.  Many didn’t recognize him without his large black "Woody Allen" type glasses.  When they knew he was "one of their own," they all promised to give him the best attention.

Things are not looking good for my father.  But I’m glad to have people around who are loving and collected.  Like Sophia.  Like my long-time friend Rob, who came visiting today.  And that Russian clerk.  I remember during the Katrina disaster wondering to myself why some just stayed in town, doing nothing.  But very few  of us are ready for a disaster or tragedy in our life.  It just comes, sometimes even when you’re in the middle of examining fake Tupperware at the 99 cents only store.

TUESDAY NIGHT

Sophia and I went for dinner across the street — at the Hilltop Diner, which ironically, I wrote about a few days ago.  My Dad likes this place because it is close to the hospital.  After the cat scan, the doctors told us that the prognosis was "very grim."  There was severe damage to the brain and kidneys.  We had our first big cry.

Despite it all, things haven’t been totally depressing.  My father wouldn’t want it that way, and it is not my mother’s personality.   We snuck in some food from the Hilltop Diner and ate in my father’s room.  We told him that he would have liked the pot roast. 

Afterwards, my mother and Sophia  went home to rest.  I decided to spend the night near my father. 

I haven’t read any of your messages yet, but I know you have written.  One of my mother’s friends called my mother, asking about my  father.  "How did you know?" asked my mother.  "It’s all over Neill’s blog," she answered..  "And so many people  wrote such beautiful things." 

So, thanks.

And by the way, my mother doesn’t call my blog a "bolo" anymore.  Now she calls it a "blodge."

Like, I said before, my  father was a pretty happy and friendly guy.  He wouldn’t want gloominess, even with the grim outlook.  If anyone wanted to do something to make him happy, it would be to watch one of his four favorite movies:

1)  The Guns of Navarone
2)  Gunga Din
3)  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
4)  Lawrence of Arabia

WEDNESDAY MORNING

Finally, read your comments.  Thanks again… everyone.  It was so touching. 

My mother spoke with a rabbi about the inevitable.  My uncles are coming to town.  Moore stress!  

As I type this, I am eating pizza — the hospital cafeteria is a pizzeria!  How New York is that?!

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON

This afternoon was extremely emotional.  Word got around the hospital that Arthur was in ICU.  One after another, doctors, nurses, and staff came to visit my father.  They called him a "sensitive person,"  "dedicated to the hospital," "always there to help everyone who asked and everyone who didn’t,"  "a godsend to his patients," "funny," "a man who was the president of the Jewish doctors and nurses organization AND was the yearly Santa Claus," and "someone who flirted with all the nurses. (that one sounds familiar!)"  I actually didn’t realize how loved he was by people at his work, almost as if he had another family apart from us.  I didn’t know that he was so involved with the hospital auxiliary that provided funds for things the hospital couldn’t afford .  I was also surprised that everyone seemed to know me because I was apparently the only thing he talked about (other than the flirting).

WEDNESDAY NIGHT

The neurologist spoke with the family.  The hospital did more tests and the doctor said that the damage to the brain was even more extensive than they thought.  All the other doctors agreed.  There was no chance of him ever regaining consciousness or any awareness of things around him.  We said that we knew that my father would never want to live this way.  We had to sign all sorts of papers to allow them to disconnect the support tomorrow.

Afterwards, my uncle, his wife, my mother, Sophia, and I went out for dinner at one of Dad’s favorite diners and we shared funny stories about his life.  

Tomorrow morning, we’re going to say our goodbyes to a kind and generous man, Arthur Kramer, my father.

From Sophia

Thank you all for your support and good wishes.   We’ve been alternating at the hospital and Neil is there right now.  The situation is quite grim.  Neil’s father has not regained consciousness and is on a respirator. 

Again, thank you.  Neil will be very touched when he reads your comments.

Bad News

I got a call from my mother tonight that my father had a heart attack and was not breathing for twenty minutes. The emergency workers were able to revive him but he is still unconscious and in the hospital.  Sophia and I are taking a flight tonight to Kennedy.

Ode to the Coffee Shop

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(photo by Ronald C Saari)

I was driving down La Cienega Blvd. when I noticed that they finally took down the "Ships Coffee Shop" sign.  Of course, Ships closed years ago, but they kept the sign up even after they threw down the restaurant to build a used car lot.   I figured they were going to always keep the sign up as a historic marker, much like they left up a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Ships holds a special place for me because when I moved to LA, I had my first Thanksgiving in Los Angeles there.  I sat by myself, along with some other lonely guys eating their "Thanksgiving Day Specials."   The waitress that night wasn’t especially friendly, but she was our "Mom" for the night.  Although I don’t remember her smiling, she did bring me an extra dish of cranberry sauce.

I’ve had a lifelong attraction to coffee shops (or diners on the East Coast), but Ships was unique for one big reason:  there was a toaster on every table.  You toasted your own bread!   When I saw that, I thought it was the cleverest gimmick I had ever seen.  I used to come in just for coffee and toast, just for the pleasure of making my own toast!   My toast always came out burnt, but hey, making it was exciting!  

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Ships was a prime example of the "Googie" 50’s-60’s style of architecture.  Designed by Martin Stern Jr., Ships was famous for its Coffee Shop Modern style, from the restaurant itself to the spellbinding "space-age" marquee in front.  There may be pseudo-50’s diners popping up all over the place nowadays, like Mel’s Diner, but they are nothing like the real thing.  Sadly, there are only a few authentic ones left, including Pann’s near LAX.  I bring my parents there whenever they fly in from NY.  It’s one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, especially on a Sunday when people show up after church.

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I’m not sure why I like coffee shops and diners so much.  Maybe because they are simple places where the rich and poor, black and white, sit right next to each other.   My father is a big coffee drinker and I started drinking coffee at an early age, despite my mother telling me that it would "stunt my growth."

In high school, I wasn’t much of a drinker or party guy.  I actually never enjoyed the taste of beer.  My typical Saturday night would be going to the movies with a friend or friends, and then heading for either the Hilltop Diner or the Palace Diner near Queens College.  For the price of some fries and a coffee, you could sit there for three hours bullshitting about nothing, much like I do today with my blog.  This is my new diner, only now I drink instant coffee.

Do kids today still hang out at diners?  I know they go to Starbucks and coffee bars, but it just ain’t the same experience, especially if everyone at your Starbucks is the same age as you.  It’s good education to rub shoulders with families, cops, workers, and drunkards, all sitting booth to booth.  And half the fun of eating out is messing around with the waitress.  Does anyone remember the unscrewing the top of the salt trick?  Flipping off the Starbucks "barrista" just doesn’t give you the same thrill.

In college, I wrote half of my term papers at Tom’s Diner, made famous by Suzanne Vega and as a backdrop for Seinfeld’s diner (although the real place wasn’t half as interesting). 

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I would hang out there with friends, just like I did in Queens.  The conversation may have been more cultural — arguing about Plato’s Republic, for instance, but basically it was the same bullshitting as it was in high school.

I added a whole new vocabulary when I came to Los Angeles:  Norm’s, Du-par’s, Jan’s, and Canter’s (although that is technically a deli).  Once I started dating, my coffee-shop outings lessened.   What woman wants to be taken out to Norm’s?   A couple of "hip" coffee shops opened in town, like "Swingers" on Beverly,  but the hip concept sort of ruined it for me.  You don’t really go to a coffee shop to be "seen."

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When I was little, I used to love going with my mother to work because her office was in Union Square — right next door to Jason’s Coffee Shop, a really cool old-fashioned place. 

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In the late 80’s, as the area got more trendy, they gutted the place and renamed it "Coffee Shop."  The waitresses were all model types.  The customers were all twenty-three years old and my mother didn’t feel comfortable going there anymore.   It may have been a cool place for awhile, but it never had the spirit of a real "coffee shop" — even if they did keep the old sign. 

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LadyMathematician recently sent me a NY Times article about life in the trendy Lower West Side, where some coffee shops are getting so hip that they are employing bouncers and using velvet ropes.

Debbie Harry frequents the Empire Diner, a Deco-era stalwart on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, said Donovan Low, the night manager there, while Mike Tyson was a regular at Chelsea Square. The Star on 18 Diner Café, on 10th Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets, draws a young crowd of mixed gay and straight groups; Cafeteria, Pop Burger, and Diner 24, on Eighth Avenue and 15th Street, attract a more self-consciously stylish crowd.

Sophia wasn’t a big fan of many coffee shops.  She much preferred the Coffee Bean and classier joints or ethnic hole-in-the-walls.  But now that I’m sort of a single man, I’ve started revisiting some of my old haunts.  There’s no better place for a single guy to go for a cheap meal and friendly smile from a waitress.

Oh, by the way, I’m writing this at IHOP.

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