The man sitting next to me on the F train was fidgeting with his iPhone, nervous sweat on his face.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
I don’t usually talk to strangers in the subway, but this man caught my attention. Well-dressed with shiny shoes, he had a charisma that built trust, like a Great Gatsby of the 21st Century.
“Read this,” he said, and pushed his iPhone into my hand.
It was a personal email to a woman friend of his, a girlfriend.
“My dearest Emily,” it started.
“I’m not sure I should be reading this,” I said.
“Please,” he replied, touching my shoulder. “Read this. For me.”
I understood his need for sharing, even with a complete stranger. Matters of the heart can consume the strongest warrior, bringing him to his knees, begging for mercy. This moment of intimacy closed the deal. I started reading the email again, drawn into the world of this mysterious stranger.
“My dearest Emily, our night together last week transported me to places I never knew. As we made love, your breasts against my chest, our mouths devouring the other, my manhood thrusting into your heavenly tunnel, a mixture of pleasure and pain that only the Gods of Olympus had ever attained, I knew you were the answers to all my prayers. Ever since the death of my wife three years ago, I saw a future of loneliness and despair, but now I know True Love. God has blessed us with tears of happiness. Before we met each other, we lived on dry land, uninhabitable. Now we have received the rain to grow our bounty, to make our petals open to the sun and our flowers bloom. I cannot go another day without your body next to mine, your whispers in my ear. Let’s get married! Meet me at the Fulton Street Station tonight at 8:00PM and we will toast our future together. I pray to God that your answer is YES.” Your one and only, Michael.”
I lowered the iPhone, not sure what to think. Sure, it was melodramatic and as clichéd as a pulp novel, but who can think clearly when love has engorged the heart and groin? During passion, a man’s blood cells rush from his brain as fast as commuters leaving midtown at rush hour. Back when I was an English major in college, I distrusted the famous poets who wrote well-constructed love poems. No one experiencing passion can convey it with cohesive sentences and grammar. Here on the F train, I found a man who was truly stung by Cupid’s burning arrow.
“What did you think?” he asked, seeing that I had finished reading the email.
“I thought it was powerful,” I said. “You make your point very forcefully.”
My new friend was sobbing. Now I touched his shoulder as a sign of camaraderie.
“Don’t cry,” I told him, consoling him like a brother. “I think a woman will eat this up. I guarantee that Emily will say yes. I’m sure she’s there waiting for you at the subway station right now.”
“Yes, but what about Melissa and Anna?”
“Who are Melissa and Anna?”
“They are the other two women I had sex with last week, and accidentally cc:-ed the same message.”
I was watching a documentary on Helen of Troy last night, and the narrator reminded the viewer that much of what we know about the famous beauty comes from Homer’s Illiad, even though he wrote it four hundred years after her death. By then, many of the details were forgotten, or changed with the morality of the time.
During the Bronze Age of the Trojan War, warriors fought in chariots, but by Homer’s era, it was considered unmanly. Hand to hand combat was the norm, so the heroes of the Illiad fight on foot. The famous vivid battles in Homer’s Illiad are from a Trojan War re-imagined for a later time, much like Hollywood dressed up Charlton Heston as a twentieth century Moses. We are always changing our visions of our heroes according to our needs. Look at the many portrayals of Jesus throughout the ages – from wordly to godly, from emaciated to a long-haired hippy, from a black man to a white one.
Our personal memories are our own stories, and like Homer, we are just as eager to revise, edit, and mythologize as we grow older. In order to live happy lives, we often emphasize the positive moments of our lives and forget the painful.
I recently found a box with some cassette tapes from my childhood. I had no idea they existed. One cassette tape was particularly intriguing. It is from my first year at sleepaway camp. I am about seven or eight. It is visiting day, halfway through the summer in the Catskills, and my over-the-top father is interviewing me on his cassette recorder, as if he is Edward R. Murrow interviewing Eisenhower on the field of battle.
The cassette tape is very surreal, so I won’t play it all for you, but there is one section that shook me up, and I’d like to share it with you.
First, some background.
A few months ago, I wrote a post on the TueNight site titled, “Hey, it’s Juice! How My Camp Nickname Gave Me Confidence.” It’s about how I received a camp nickname that lasted for many years. I always considered it a special part of my identity because it made me unique, and gave me confidence when I was young. I even thought it gave me some sort of superpower. The story of how I got my nickname “Juice” is one that I have told often throughout my life.
Here is the full post, originally published on TueNight on April 23, 2015.
When I was eight years old, I attended my first year of Camp Kinder-Ring, a sleepaway camp in upstate New York. Our first breakfast of the summer was served in a wood-framed dining room, where bunkmates sat together at large oval tables. The waiters, 16-year-old campers, served us soggy scrabbled eggs and individual boxes of Kellogg’s cereals, my favorite being Sugar Pops. In the center of each table was an aqua blue plastic pitcher which held the watered-down orange juice.
“Can you pass the juith?” I asked another bunk member.
“The juith?” he asked, and the rest of the table laughed at my slight lisp. “Do you mean the JUICE?”
Now I know some of you are already gripping your easy chair, preparing for an unsettling Lord of the Flies-type essay about mean boys and the bullying of the weak, but that is not the story here. I was lucky that the story veered off course into one of empowerment. Within a week of the incident, no one remembered WHY I was called Juice; it was just my nickname. When I returned the following summer, the lisp gone, I was still “Juice,” and for the next eight summers that I attended this camp, even when I finally became one of the waiters who served soggy scramble eggs to the other campers, the name remained.
The nickname gave me a special identity, despite its origins. It was my first experience of having an alias, much like Clark Kent had his Superman. During the winter, I was a goody-two-shoes, Citizen of the Month, grade-A student named Neil, but in the summer, I put on my shorts and tube socks, and became Juice. Yes, my mother still sewed my real name into a label attached to my underwear, but during the summer, I was only known by my camp name.
In many traditions, the naming of the child is an important statement, because tradition believes that it molds the child’s personality. My parents named me Neil. It was an OK name, but uninspiring. For every Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon, there was a Neil Sedaka or Neil Diamond singing sappy pop songs about love. To me, Neil was a nice Jewish boy who listens to his parents and teachers, and doesn’t smoke pot or drink beer.
But during the summer, I became Juice.
Juice, to me, meant energy, a spark, like currents of electricity. On paper, my personality didn’t change much from winter to summer. I was still a goody-two-shoes who was awful at sports, but my nickname transformed the perception of myself. Neil wouldn’t play football, go sailing, or build a tent, but Juice would. Neil wouldn’t take chances, but Juice might try pot or kiss a girl. Neil inhibited me, bounding me to responsibility of city life, while Juice freed me to be as wild as nature (within limits, of course). At school, I was invisible. At camp, everyone knew my name. Gradually, I learned to integrate some of this “Juice” into my “Neil” world, and learned that our personalities can be fluid. My nickname was my introduction into adulthood, and the complexities of identity.
I was lucky. My nickname, based on a lisp, transformed me in a positive way. Some children are not as lucky. A name like “Fatty” or “Freckles” can torment a person for a lifetime. Whether for good or bad, names ARE always powerful.
I use my full name “Neil Kramer” on my blog and in social media. I have friends who only use aliases, which helps them express their hidden personalities, away from their families and workmates. The anonymity of the internet is a problem culturally, because it tends to lead to abuse and bullying, but for many, an alias allows someone who is normally a Clark Kent to find their Superman.
Last summer, I traveled to upstate New York to attend a reunion of friends from my sleepaway camp. I was nervous while driving up the Taconic because I hadn’t seen some of these people in 30 years!
I rang the doorbell.
“Hey, it’s Juice!” said one of my long-lost bunkmates.
Neil is the name my parents gave me at birth, but ever since that breakfast in that camp dining room when I asked to “pass the juith,” I have also been Juice. I have two names, and I wouldn’t be the same today without both of them.
You can imagine my shock when, a few months after writing this post, I hear my father ask me about my new nickname. My mouth flew open. I was confronting my own personal history. The “Juice” story was coming alive. At the time of the recording, the nickname was brand new, and now here was my voice, reappearing — dozens of years later – – like a surprise witness at my own court case, about to corroborate the story I had just published!
But the truly shocking part is the sound of my voice. It wavers. It creaks. This is not a child who feels like a superhero, confident with a brash new nickname. He sounds like an insecure kid about to cry.
What happened to the story that I have been telling forever, where I was instantly energized by my new name? Was the nickname hurtful at first, and I never acknowledged it ?
In the retelling of my tale, why do I always distinguish my cool nickname from those like “Fatty” or “Four Eyes?” Yes, my camp nickname eventually became a positive one, but how long did it take? At what point did I rewrite my own narrative, erasing the discomfort of the beginning? And would I have gone to my last days believing every detail of this story if I didn’t stumble onto this cassette tape?
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” – Marcel Proust
Befriend the man who gives a hand, not shows his hand.
OK, I made that up. But it’s not terrible.
Welcome to my new blog template. At least for now. I suppose if enough people hate it, I will change it. I’m not married to it yet. This is my third blog template in eleven years.
Now for the bigger question — what to do with this blog? I’m human. I crave attention and validation. And I can get more interaction from most of you by posting on Facebook or Instagram. What makes this site special? A person might read one of my posts about kitchen sponges on Facebook because it is shoved at them on their newsfeed, but who in their right mind is going to click on a link to read the same material on my blog?
You will just say, “Talk to my Hand.”
Please do not take this as criticism of you, dear reader, but myself. A REAL writer will write whether there is an audience for his work or not.
“Then why not just submit your writing to other sites instead and make $ online?”
That’s a good question, internal voice! Which publication would be keen to publish articles about kitchen sponges?
It’s a decent gig playing guitar on Rector Street. Although the Wall Street guys downtown are born assholes, programmed to crush their competition, they tip well, especially when the NASDAQ is up. Music is universal, no matter your income. During two years of standing on this corner, music has covered my rent and helped me pay back some debt I incurred at Julliard. The street has also been good for my soul. The constant chaos of lower Manhattan has softened the pain of losing Gina’s soft skin next to another man at night. A year later, there was still a hole in my heart. I had loved her more than all the music in the world.
The market fell a hundred points today, so I started to pack it up early, at 6PM.
“Don’t leave yet,” he said, approaching me from around the corner. He was one of my regulars. I nicknamed him “GQ” because he was always dressed in an imported Italian suit, pressed shirt, and fine leather shoes. His eyes that were the color of thousand dollar bills.
“Play it for me,” he said to me. “Play me the song.”
“I’m already packing up,” I replied, not wanting to go through this game again.
“Play it for me. Like only you can.”
“I don’t think it is a good idea to…”
GQ opened his wallet, drew out several hundred bills, and shoved it into my hands. My body was repulsed, wanting to return it, but my mind reminded me of my financial need.
I grabbed my guitar and strummed the opening chords to Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.”
“Oh, her eyes, her eyes make the stars look like they’re not shining
Her hair, her hair falls perfectly without her trying
She’s so beautiful
And I tell her everyday.”
As I sang the song, I thought about GQ’s cruelty. “Just the Way You Are,” was OUR song. It was playing on the radio on the night I met Gina. And he knew that. Winning Gina wasn’t enough for him. He would pay me to sing to the victor, the ultimate humiliation, because on Wall Street, you are programmed to crush your competition.
“Help me to the window,” said the old man to his aide. “I want to show you something.”
The old man put his face to the window, like a kid looking into a candy store.
“You see those two buildings on Fifth Avenue. I own them. I own forty-seven properties in Manhattan, twenty properties in Brooklyn, and twelve properties in Queens. I practically own the city.”
“Your legacy is clear, sir. We will remember you as one of the greatest men the city has ever produced.”
The old man laughed.
“What do you know about Boss Tweed?”
“He ran the city in the late nineteenth century. Today, he is nothing more than an obscure answer on Jeopardy. No one will remember me.”
The crowd below had gathered in strength. This morning, even the scared New York Times had weakly endorsed the rabble-rousers of the Occupy Real Estate Movement. The angry mob marched down Fifth Avenue with their signs and banners and angry voices calling for an end to all private property. Ground Zero was the old man’s apartment tower, the third largest building in the city, where apartments started at $20 million dollars. Last week, the old man’s organization installed bulletproof windows in his penthouse, in case one of the armed protesters hijacked a helicopter.
“Where are you from?” the old man asked his aide. “For all the time you’ve been here, I’ve never asked you about your family.”
“I’m from Staten Island, sir.”
“I was born in the Bronx. Morris Avenue. It was a nice place back then. We used to play stickball in the street. I kissed my first girl on Morris Avenue. Mary Lapazza was her name. Of course, everyone I know from that time is dead by now. Including Mary Lapazza. “I’m going to make it big for you, Mary,” I once told her after she decided to go to the prom at Andrew Jackson High School prom with Arnie Weinstein instead of me. “I’m going to make it big, and then you’ll come calling on me!””
The old man jerked unsteady on his cane.
“Would you like to sit down, sir?” asked the aide.
“No. I’d like you to go buy whatever property is now on 145 Morris Street in the Bronx. I don’t care how much it costs. I want you to buy it today. And then when you buy it for me, I want you to drive me over there, because for the rest of my life, that is where I am going to live. And die.”
The hardest job in this motherhood gig is watching your son in pain, and knowing that only time will heal, not your motherly touch.
Brett was a boy on the cusp of being a man, and hugs from his mother were verboten. He had a hard year – problems in school, bad grades, bullying, his own romantic heartbreak, and, of course, my divorce with his father, which hit our family like a hurricane wave.
“Let’s go to Coney Island,” I said, trying to be cheery. “My grandmother used to take me there very summer. We can go to Nathan’s and have hot dogs.”
“I’m a vegetarian now,” he said.
“Right. I forgot. But who knows, maybe they now have Nathan’s veggie dogs.”
“I really doubt it.”
“Yeah, me too.”
We took the F train anyway, down to Stillwell Avenue, the last stop. The beach was empty. The Cyclone and Wonder Wheel still. The season had yet to begin.
We walked as far as the ocean, and my boy-man moped around the gray wet rocks at water’s edge. The rocks sprouted green colored moss like Chia pets.
I looked at Brett with a woman’s wonder. He was once a baby that grew inside my body. How could any mother be an atheist? She had witnessed a miracle.
My divorce had arrived suddenly, a winter break surprise. Andrew sat me down at our favorite Italian restaurant in Chelsea, and over veal marsala, told me that was he seeing another women, from our synagogue of all places.
“I’m not in love with you anymore,” he said. “I mean I love you as a person. As someone who was my wife. Who gave me a child. But not romantically anymore. You know how it’s been. We hardly touch each other. And I need touching.”
Don’t we all. Don’t we all.
My sister suggested I join Tinder, but I have not time for that. I am a mother first. And Brett needs me now.
“Brett, come here,” I said. “I want to give you a hug.”
“I’m fine, Mom. Leave me alone,” he said as he climbed to the top of the Coney Island rocks, as if he was effortlessly shedding his boyhood forever.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I know what I’m doing.” said Beth as she wheeled her older sister through the tiny kitchen and into the dinette, avoiding the tear in the faded yellow linoleum.
For breakfast, Beth made Ruthie scrambled eggs and an English muffin. Same as usual.
“After breakfast, I’ll go pick up your meds from Walgreen’s,” said Beth.
“Have you said hello to the new neighbors yet?” asked Ruthie.
“Why would I do that? They have no interest in us.”
“Make them some brownies. Be neighborly. After all, we live in the same apartment building.”
“Do we?” asked Beth, sarcasm cracking in her voice. “We don’t even take the same elevator!”
Last year, half of the building went co-op, and a separate entrance and elevator were installed for the new tenants. The McGovern sisters were listed as rent-controlled, still using the decrepit elevator where the button for the seventh floor was perpetually popped-out upside down.
“Buy a brownie mix at the supermarket and make them some brownies. It’s the neighborly thing to do. Besides, you don’t have a real job. What do you do anyway?”
“Take care of you,” Beth mumbled to herself and headed for the front door. It was dark in the apartment because the rent controlled apartments faced the blank side wall of the bank next-door.
Outside, the Brooklyn sun was shining brightly and Beth had to shield her eyes, like a vampire who just left the darkness of an enclosed coffin. As she made her way towards Walgreen’s and the supermarket, she passed the two new neighbors, a young couple in love, carrying a shopping bag from Whole Foods. They paid two million dollars to live in the building, which gave them the privilege of having a doorman and riding the silver elevator. They were God’s children with lives as glowing as the stars.
The couple walked past Beth as if she was invisible. Later that day, Beth made them brownies, which they never ate because of the gluten.
I was watching Murder She Wrote with my mother. Jessica Fletcher was helping an old friend, a golf professional, who was falsely accused of murder. The local police thought it an open and closed case, but Jessica Fletcher steadily poked holes into the evidence. After all, the victim was shot by a bullet that entered the right side of the body, which means the shooter would have to have been left-handed, and the main suspect, her dear friend, the golf pro, was right-handed, and unable to be the killer. The only other suspect capable of the crime was the owner of the pro-shop, who WAS left-handed, and had a motive – she was once jilted by the deceased on her wedding day, and she had vowed revenge. The owner of the pro-shop was cornered; she confessed.
“Eureka,” I cried out loud to my mother. “I don’t masturbate too often!”
Every male has one female friend who is the ONE WHERE IT NEVER HAPPENED. She could be a friend from college, from work, or a neighbor. She is the woman with whom the opportunity once arose to move to the physical, but for some reason, guilt, fear, shyness, or just common sense, the step is never taken. The moment of temptation usually happens on a night when there is drinking, and the light is just right, falling on her like a Rembrandt painting, and maybe an extra button is open on her blouse, and you look too long at the curve of her breasts, and the way her body breathes when she laughs drunk, and then she sets her gaze on you in a moment of lust and indecision thinking about whether she is making your cock hard, until the click-clack of a waiter clearing a martini glass breaks the connection, and all returns to normal, never to be mentioned again. But it never does go back to complete normal; the night is always there, just hidden, like a tattoo on the shoulder that was poorly removed. You remain friends, but an aggressiveness builds, mostly visible only in language, as words are the best way that humans suppress forever that unfortunate minute in time when you desired to fuck a platonic friend.
I didn’t fall. I didn’t bump into any blunt or sharp objects. The only medical explanation for the pain in my arm was my three months using Tinder. At night, despite to end my loneliness, I would lie in bed, holding my tablet up in the air with my left hand, and swipe right and left on the dating site with my thumb, the direction of the movement depending on whether the woman in the photograph passed my criteria. She must smile. She must have a bio. No bikini shots. No mountain-climbers. After three months, I began to notice a pain in my shoulder. I went to an orthopedist. I even came up with a medical term for my condition — Tinderitis. I thought I was uber-clever and shared my diagnosis with Facebook, hoping to get some LIKES.
“I wouldn’t tell everyone on Facebook that you injured your shoulder through Tinder,” she said, later that day.
She was the ONE WHERE IT NEVER HAPPENED.
“Because it’s ridiculous. No one believes that you injured yourself by swiping.”
“It makes sense. The pain happened three months after I started using Tinder.”
“Let me tell you what most people are REALLY thinking.”
“What are most people REALLY thinking?”
“That you injured your shoulder by masturbating too much.”
“What? No one is thinking that.”
“That’s what I thought when you first told me you hurt your shoulder.”
“What?! How much masturbating do you think I do?”
“Well, I don’t know. You’re looking at all those women on Tinder and maybe you get off on it?”
“Do you REALLY think I am masturbating to the women I see on Tinder? Most of them look crazy to me. They scare me!”
“That never stopped men before from masturbating.”
“I don’t think you really understand men.”
“Oh, I do.”
“If you understood men so much, why aren’t you dating anyone?
“I don’t date because I know men too well.”
“Eh, bullshit. You hate being alone.”
“I LOVE being alone. Why does everyone think a woman needs a MAN for her to be happy?”
The killer on Murder She Wrote was the left-handed owner of the pro-shop.
Jessica Fletcher had saved the day.
“Eureka,” I cried out loud to my mother. “I don’t masturbate too often!”
I called my friend to tell her the news. That I was right and she was wrong. My injury happened to my LEFT shoulder. I swipe on Tinder with my LEFT hand. But I only masturbate with my RIGHT.
The New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx is second in size worldwide only to Tokyo’s Tsukiji wholesale seafood market. The market handles millions of pounds of seafood daily and annual sales exceed one billion dollars. Thank you Open House New York for the opportunity to see this vibrant market up close.