20/20 Hindsight

There are moments in our lives that change them forever: Marriages, the birth of children, unexpected deaths, serious accidents or illnesses, getting fired, aha moments, a world event. We all experience them.

I’ve been thinking about those moments in my life, those events that impacted all the days that followed. These are the twenty events or moments that, I believe, formed who I am today. I know I am exposing much of my inner-self here. But it has been cathartic. If, however, you see it as self-indulgent. it isn’t. It would be had I included twenty-one.

  1. Just prior to my sixth or seventh Hanukkah, I discovered a sled in the darkest corner of the basement. It was, I realized, my BIG Hanukkah present. The second-hand sled had been freshly-painted burgundy and a pinkish off-white, colors I would not have selected. Mom was very proud and excited when she unveiled the gift days later and pointed out how difficult it had been to paint. I, too, was excited. . . until the first snowfall when I discovered I could not steer the sled because the sticky, thick coat of paint had gotten under the steering bar rendering it useless. Disappointed, I wondered why I hadn’t received a new sled. I knew we were not rich, but certainly not so poor we could not afford a new one, one that worked. I was hurt. What that incident taught me was, in my mother’s eyes, I was not worthy a new sled. I did not deserve it. I could, and should, always accept second best. I should settle. Because Mom had not asked me what my favorite colors were as she prepared to paint the winter toy, I also learned my input and opinion did not matter. She painted the sled burgundy, her favorite color. Imagine the impact those lessons had on my psyche, self-confidence, and future.
  2. It was the late 1950s. I was eight or nine, maybe ten. I was introduced to Top 40 radio and pop music by a schoolmate who had a family friend who was a disc jockey on one of Seattle’s top radio stations. My love for pop music was born. Certainly, I would have discovered pop music eventually under other circumstances, but Bill and the deejay were the ones that steered me toward pop music and away from the classical music to which my parents listened.
  3. About the same time, Top 40 radio entered my life, I discovered my affinity for writing, a talent I likely inherited from my father. I had been selected by my fifth-grade teacher to write a summary of our class’s activities for the monthly PTA Newsletter and I took this duty very seriously. I felt great pride when I saw my work in print. That assignment marked the birth of Tom Nussbaum, Writer.
  4. I was ten or eleven when I first saw late ‘50s-early ‘60s teen idol Fabian Forte on “American Bandstand.” He stirred feelings in me I neither understood nor could explain. Or share. They, of course, were my first pings of same-sex attraction. When, at the peak of his popularity, Fabian appeared on “Person to Person,” Edward R. Murrow’s Friday night celebrity interview program, Fabian looked tired. He was slumped on his couch, valiantly trying to maintain a smile. The sixteen-year old began the interview with an apology. “Ed,” he said, “I just got home from a long tour and I’m really tired.” I heard a plea. Internally, I became Fabian’s agent or parent; my inner-voice screamed, “This interview is over. Can’t you see Fabian needs to go to bed?” Because I was a pre-pubescent child, my intent was not sexual. My motive was more protective. I wanted to take care of him. Later feelings were more sexual. However, as a result, throughout my life, I have joked that Fabian brought me out of the closet.
  5. November 22, 1963: The assassination of John F. Kennedy. Anyone who was alive then knows how that tragedy impacted the world, the USA, and the future. Like Pearl Harbor a generation earlier or 9-11-2001 nearly four decades later, this was a date that influenced all the days after it. It was the first time I was disappointed in the world around me, the world beyond my home and family. It wasn’t the last.
  6. My post high school plans were to attend Shoreline Community College, an established and reputable two-year school, for a year and then transfer to the University of Washington. However, I missed the deadline to apply to Shoreline and I had no Plan B. I was panicked, freaked-out. A school counselor, suggested I attend fledgling Seattle Community College in its first year, pointing out that there still was time to apply. I was not thrilled with this option as the quality of the school had not yet been established. But I went. When classes began, I was contacted by the school’s journalism teacher and school newspaper advisor offering me, based on my experience as a high school newspaper editor, the founding editorship of the school newspaper. I took the offer. Good fortune then came my way. Not only was I part of history, but my tuition and books were covered for the year. And through that connection with the instructor/advisor, I landed a summer job at The Seattle Times, which I parlayed into a longer lasting, more appropriate position at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. My college major, journalism, was written in ink. But more important, I became a believer in fate and destiny, a philosophy I still believe in today.
  7. I was a University of Washington frat boy in November 1969 when I suffered my first herniated disc, a moment that changed everything. On the positive side, that moment saved me from being drafted and going to Vietnam; it provided me with a life-saving out. The trade-off, of course, was a lifetime of back problems culminating in five hours of surgery more than forty-five years later during which three other herniated discs were verified.
  8. Although I had recognized and explored my homosexuality earlier, it was not until I graduated from college in 1970 that I “came out.” If there were an official moment when that happened, it would have been when I met George at Madison Beach, Seattle’s perennial gay summer playground. Although he was a year younger than me, he became my mentor and conduit to a new life and social world. He introduced me to my first circle of gay friends.
  9. I met Ray Woods in 1971. He brought me to a gym. I didn’t leave until 2016. As a result of my workouts, generally 3-4 times a week, I transformed myself from an insecure soft blob to an insecure buff dude. Because I met many interesting and wonderful people through gyms, it became as much a part of my social life as a physical regimen. Ray, who had been one of the founders of the UW’s Gay Student Union, also introduced me to political activism. Obviously, meeting Ray was life-changing. It was because of him, I, shirtless, rode a floral float in the Portland Rose Parade. It was because of him I represented Seattle in a beef-cake competition at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and got ogled by Andy Warhol. It was because of him I was featured in a Gay Pride report on local TV news. And it also was because of Ray I laughed through the ’70’s.
  10. We can all chuckle about this. But disco music and discos were very important to me. I know. Silly. Shallow. The truth, nevertheless. My first disco experience took place at San Francisco’s The City where I heard, for the first time, its overpowering speaker system. As I recall, I was mesmerized by The Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” Everyday People’s “I Like What I Like (Because I Like It),” and Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love’s Theme,” which segued into “Under the Influence of Love.” I had never heard music like that, lyrics that touched me like that, and rhythms that stirred my soul so. Discos, with time, became a safe-zone, its music an audio comfort food. It was the soundtrack of the most exciting time in my life. To this day, disco gives me joy, lifts me when feeling low, and makes me feel young. I know not everyone loves disco, and they are entitled to their opinion. Nevertheless, I believe disco-haters and detractors should be banished to Siberia and forced to listen to Ethel Merman’s disco version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and the holiday classic “The Little Drummer Boy” a la disco. On an endless loop.
  11. In my “coming out” process, I had chosen to keep my sexual orientation a secret from my parents as they, I felt, had experienced enough disappointment and hardship because of Adolph Hitler. They had lost family members, left their homelands, and made numerous other sacrifices. But as time passed, the burden of this secret became heavier and more complicated and, finally, after seven years of being “out” socially, I told them. It was difficult and it had its bumps, but it was an unloading of a crippling weight. I did feel a freedom I had never felt before.
  12. The fight for gay rights became personal in 1978. After defeat in public votes in Florida’s Dade County, Wichita, St. Paul, and Eugene, the issue of equal rights for the LGBT community came to Seattle. Well, surprise-surprise, we won. The No on 13 victory was the first of its kind in the US. And it wasn’t even close. The celebration that November night gave me one of the happiest moments in my life and a heart full of hope that lasted about 25 years. But, alas, that feeling did not last forever.
  13. Because I had never lived anywhere but Seattle, I moved to Portland in 1985 to prove to myself I could live somewhere else and start anew. I immediately met Larry, with whom I was involved for about a year and a half. He was not my first “boyfriend,” but it was through him that I discovered why my relationships had not worked and understood my role in those failures. I realized that the societal ideal that everyone must be married or partnered to be happy did not apply to me; I was happier, freer, more content, alone. When Larry and I broke up, I decided I would no longer seek Mr. Right. I rearranged priorities in my life and began to understand and accept myself on an entirely deeper level.
  14. When tests were first approved to determine if one had HIV or AIDS in the mid-1980s, gay men were advised to avoid them. “The results,” community activists warned,” will be shared with employers, landlords, insurance companies, and families.” Therefore, it was not until 1988 or 1989, after we all had lost countless friends, and acquaintances, that we felt safe being tested. I was certain I would be found to be HIV positive. I had been, after all, rather promiscuous in previous years. But as fate would have it, I tested negative. I was stunned. Once I recovered from my shock, I determined that God, fate, the zodiac, or whatever, had plans for me, a mission. There was a reason I was spared. But I did not understand what that purpose was. Yet.
  15. I returned to Seattle in 1990 and held two unsatisfying jobs over two years. I was unhappy and frustrated. But during those years, I had a brief friendship with a neighbor, a middle-school special education teacher. He often mentioned his assistant and her duties. I could do that, I thought. Then I realized that that was my calling, the purpose of my HIV negative status.  Because I had often served as a trusted advisor, “big brother,” or “uncle” to younger gay men, I thought, I’m supposed to work in high schools, using those skills and my experience.  Special education is my entrée. I applied to the Seattle School District and was hired. I spent twenty-one of the next twenty-two years working in high schools. When I retired, I knew I had helped many special needs students and influenced countless other teenagers as the advisor of gay support groups, gay-straight alliances, AIDS awareness clubs, and the Men’s Forum, where boys discussed sensitive issues concerning them. I also forged relationships with numerous young men, friendships that some outsiders looked at as “suspicious,” but weren’t. They were innocent and appropriate, but they were needed, by both the student and myself. Conversations, images, and memories from those days are part of my DNA now. I had found my purpose.
  16. It was a few days before school started in September 1993, my second year in special ed. I had been transferred with a certified teacher to a different high school to start a new program. We entered the office and introduced ourselves. I, in typical Tom-fashion, said something humorous and smart-assy. I heard a snicker behind me. I turned. A young man, sitting at a table, looked at me with an expression that mixed a smile with disbelief. I thought he was a college student, perhaps an alum hoping to see a favorite teacher or a teaching intern waiting to meet his new mentor. He was, however, the student body president. Years later, David told me, because of that irreverent comment, he knew immediately that I was to play a major role in his life. It was providential, he explained. He became my unofficial son, I his “other” dad. We learned from each other. We impacted each other. I witnessed his graduation, departure for Marine bootcamp as part of ROTC, college graduation, and wedding. I was elated by the birth of his son. I worried when he was sent to participate in 2003’s Iraq War. David is a lawyer today, my lawyer.
  17. I will be the first to admit that I had an unorthodox way of doing things as a high school staff member. As I said earlier, I forged relationships with students that from the outside may have appeared odd, even suspicious. None, however, were inappropriate. None were sexual. My concern at all times was in the student’s best interest. I mentored, looked out for, and protected them as best I could. Nevertheless, I, after years of advising gay support groups and then gay-straight alliances, was removed from my position by the school district administrator overseeing these groups. Her reason? My unorthodox style might, if exposed to the public, rankle homophobes. The irony here is that this administrator was a lesbian and was acting out of homophobia-phobia. But, I believe, she also was driven by a general distrust of men, including gay men, and saw them all as potential predators. I was informed of my removal days before summer break and that decision ruined my vacation. Being distrusted by someone who should have supported me and being thought of as a perv sent me in a tailspin. My vacation was spent with suicidal thoughts, crippling depression, and growing anxiety about returning to school. But, because I began taking ant-depressants as the summer ended, I did return and survived. I still take the medication, albeit at the lowest dosage. To say that woman changed my life would be an understatement.
  18. I attended Vancouver’s Gay Pride in 2004, the summer George W. Bush campaigned for reelection, the year Republicans in eleven states put same-sex marriage on the ballot to lure conservatives who had not recently voted to the polls. This divisive tactic worked. The Battle for Equal Rights was defeated in all eleven states. But more important, that sense of hope I acquired in 1978 died. Bush’s reelection became the straw that broke the camel’s back, the point at which I had had enough of rationalizing and tolerating US politics and its countless hypocrisies. While in Vancouver, I had an epiphany: I did not have to remain in the US forever. I could, and would, leave upon retirement ten years later. And I did.
  19. With a few years remaining before retirement, I conceded it was time to seek counselling. Psychiatrists and sociologists were people I had avoided my entire live, for reasons too involved to explain here. But a situation had arisen at work that I could not remedy and it was affecting my mental health. I could no longer avoid “the couch.” Within a few sessions, Gary connected the specific school situation to my mother, something I had never considered. Suddenly, my entire life flashed by and I understood why I had made many of the decisions I had, why I reacted to people and conditions in my life as I had, and why I saw myself as I did. In a flash, I understood why I was unable to maintain a long-term romantic relationship. I had been right; that ideal wasn’t for me. But after two plus decades, I understood why. Gary was a godsend. He steered me into my future.
  20. My second stop in the search for my post-retirement home as an ex-pat was Ajijic. It was 2009, five years after I had made the decision to leave the crumbling US. I knew within hours it was the place for me. Five years later, I left Seattle for Lakeside. Once settled, I watched, from a distance, as Seattle continued to change and became too big for its britches, and I witnessed the downfall of US democracy. I never looked back. I have no regrets.
  21. Now it is your turn. What choices or events changed your life? A marriage? A divorce? The birth of children? Disease? A job change? An election? Or reading my list?

Flight Risk

Some passengers say it is people who take off their shoes on the airplane. Others say it is loud, drunk passengers. Many flyers complain about plus-size people who spill over onto neighboring seats, invading their space. There are those who become enraged at people who take care of personal grooming, like nose-hair trimming or toenail clipping, while in flight. And countless travelers say their primary pet-peeve when flying is talkative, overly-friendly neighbors who ask a hundred personal questions and tell them the unsolicited story of their boring life. But these behaviors can be controlled or corrected.

For me, however, the most irritating aspect of airline travel involves a group of people with a condition that makes controlling their behavior difficult. Granted, they cannot help who they are and their condition is the product of nature, God’s plan. But, while these people are just being themselves and although many people can tolerate and accept them as they are, I can’t.

That is why I say airlines should ban children under five. Or, if their travels are absolutely necessary, they should be stowed in an overhead compartment. After being sedated. Now, don’t remind me of that incident in which a flight attendant placed a dog in an overhead where it died, and how the attendant and airline were criticized and reprimanded. Toddlers are not dogs. It’s not the same. For one thing, toddlers do not lift their leg to pee. Or sniff other toddlers’ butts. Apples. Oranges.

It is my opinion that if God had intended for small children to fly, they would have exited the womb on a Boeing-747.

Don’t get me wrong. I like young children. When they are asleep. Or stuffed in an overhead compartment. Of course, placing children in the spaces intended for carry-ons creates a logistics problem: where would those small suitcases and backpacks go? I suggest they be placed on the child’s parent’s lap. For the entire flight. As punishment for forcing other people to endure behavior considered normal and acceptable on terra firma, but not on flights between Peoria and Pretoria.

Once these pint-size passengers reach five years of age, banning them from air travel seems a bit extreme; they are, after all, more mature at that age and have better communication skills. At five, they also would be too large for overhead banishment during emergency travels, like to a relative’s funeral or a taxidermist. But if their behavior warrants it, they wouldn’t be too large for exile to the cargo hold in the bowels of the plane. There, if the sedation wears off, their childish outbursts and behavior would only irritate suitcases and casketed passengers, not living ones trimming nose hair or clipping toe nails.

When they reach their teens, though, young passengers, I believe, become our equals. They could fly with adults, provided, of course, they show proof of their bar or bat mitzvah or graduation from the seventh grade, and have letters of recommendation from at least three of the South Korean boy band BTS or the two Kardashians who know how to write.

I bring this up now because I recently flew from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, a normally thirty-five to fifty minutes flight. This one, however, took an excruciating fifty-four and a half minutes, during which I endured a four-year-old sitting behind me, continuously kicking my cramped center seat and singing “Baby Shark,” the number one song on the Pre-K Hit Parade since 2017.

A boy, perhaps fifteen, sat next to me on the aisle. Before he sat down, he had stashed a skateboard in the overhead, space that could have housed that four-year-old. The teenager reeked of Axe, Clearasil, and Under Armour labels and began playing with his Game Boy. His presence did not initially irritate me. He wasn’t, after all, kicking my seat or babbling shark nonsense. But when I asked him a few personal questions—OK, perhaps a hundred—and began to tell him the unsolicited story of my exciting life as a retiree, he popped in his earbuds and ignored me. It was then I realized this kid was a rude punk. So, I removed my hand from his upper leg and refrained from interacting with him.

But as the flight approached Guadalajara and the garbage-bag toting flight attendant neared our seats, I had to communicate with the kid once more. I was polite and non-intrusive. Therefore, I am baffled why that snotty twerp got all bent out of shape when I asked him to throw away my nose-hair trimmings and toenail clippings. You’d think I’d asked him to help me change my just-soiled adult diaper.

You know, now that I think about it, five isn’t the right age. Perhaps, all children under sixteen should be banned from airlines, so pleasant passengers like me can enjoy the flight.

The T-Shirt in the Closet

To be on TV or not to be on TV, that was the question. And I chose to be on TV.

I look back at that decision, and I am thankful, because, were it not for my presence at that early Gay Pride event, I may have remained behind an ajar closet door for more than an already eternal seven years. But it was that picnic and a KOMO-TV news crew that kicked that door from ajar to wide open.

I came out in the summer of 1970. But it was a limited “coming out.” Close friends from high school and college were informed why my social life veered away from them and began to revolve around gay people, parties, events, and gay bars. But I did not come out to my family.

There were many reasons for my familial secretiveness, reasons too complicated to go into here. It was not until 1977, therefore, that I came out to them. I had to.

My parents were in Europe that late-June. Seattle’s Saturday Gay Pride March, and it was a political march then, not a celebratory parade, had meandered through downtown Seattle, ending up, I believe, in Pioneer Square. A picnic was held the next day at Seward Park. I attended, wearing a t-shirt announcing “A Day Without Human Rights is Like a Day Without Sunshine;” it mocked the Florida Orange Commission’s “A Day Without Orange Juice is Like a Day Without Sunshine” campaign featuring homophobic entertainer Anita Bryant.

KOMO’s reporter Ken Schram noticed my shirt and approached. “May we photograph your shirt?” he asked.

“Sure,” I answered without hesitation.

“May we pan up to your face?”

In an instant, Gay Liberation and “coming out” became personal, real, and risky. And I knew I had to say yes or I would be a hypocrite and chicken-shit activist. Therefore, my shirt and my face, although not my name, aired throughout Western Washington on that evening’s local news and I knew I had to inform my parents as soon as they returned home, before someone else did.

At the time, I worked with my father, a man who spent the early hours of every Saturday morning at the office catching up without being interrupted. Nevertheless, I interrupted him there, on his first post-Europe Saturday. His response to my announcement was calm, accepting, and true to his progressive, tolerant political philosophies.

“I’m telling Mom next,” I told him as I stepped to the door.

“Oy vey,” he moaned.

I drove to the family home and was greeted by my mother. “I have something to tell you,” I announced. “Sit.”

“Oh, no,” was her typically negative response. I explained that I had been on the local news and why.

Was she supportive? Was she calm? Hardly.

“Where will I move to? was her self-involved response to my being gay. She said this in her thick German accent. “They will be whistling from the rooftops.” Her shocked, muddled mind reverted to a German idiom for gossiping and translated it to English.

“Who will?” I asked.

“My friends. They all will be whistling from the rooftops. I will have to move. Where will I move to?”

Suddenly, my coming out was about my mother. She was the victim, the inconvenienced one. “Why would you have to move?” I asked.

“Because they will talk behind my back. They will abandon me.”

“Well, if that is the case, Mom,” I said, “you have a bigger issue to deal with than a gay son. You’ve picked crappy friends.” She gazed down, at her lap.

“Yah. That is easy for you to say,” she replied, minimizing the challenges and difficulty I may have endured prior to coming out. “I can’t look at any of them.” Her eyes shot up. “Oh, now I understand what Betty meant.”

“Betty?”

“Yah,” Mom continued. “I talked with her on the phone Thursday. She said she saw you on the news at a picnic. ’What picnic?’ I asked. But she did not answer. She changed the subject.”

“So, Betty saw it,” I said. I wonder how many others saw it, I thought. I never found out; no one else ever said anything to Mom. No one ever said anything to me about the picnic, my t-shirt, or my being gay.

In the end, Mom did not move, nor did her friends abandon her. And I no longer had to play closet games with my family. It only had taken me seven years since I began living as an “avowed homosexual.”

And I proudly thank Gay Pride and KOMO-TV News for that.

He Made Me Feel Uncomfortable

“He made me feel uncomfortable,” she said and, I, as a longtime feminist, should have understood better and supported her more. But I didn’t.

“She,” Lucy Flores, the 2014 Democrat nominee for Nevada’s lieutenant governor, was speaking on CNN in Spring 2019. “He” was Joe Biden, the former vice-president and then undeclared, but front-running, candidate for the Democrat nomination for president. Flores was discussing a recently-published article she wrote in which she recalled, while campaigning, Biden touching her, smelling her hair, and gently kissing the back of her head. “As I was preparing myself to make my case,” Flores penned, “I felt two hands on my shoulders. I froze. ‘Why is the vice-president of the United States touching me?’”

I immediately became suspicious. The timing for telling this five-year-old tale seemed odd. Why now? We knew Biden was a touchy-feely guy; we had seen the film clips and photographs. We knew he hugged and patted people, often touching their faces. He also was known to make inappropriate comments. That was his style. That was why he became known as “America’s Favorite Uncle.” Flores should have known that. Or at least been warned by her staff.

But when I learned Flores supports and has contributed to the campaigns of several Democrats seeking the presidency, candidates more progressive, more left-leaning than Biden, her motives became clearer; she wanted to cast doubt on him and diminish his early lead.

OK, I thought, that’s politics. But when she said that while his actions were not threatening or sexually motivated, “He made me feel uncomfortable.” I became angry. No, Ms. Flores, his behavior did not make you feel uncomfortable; you chose to feel uncomfortable. You are responsible for your reaction.

We all are responsible for our actions and reactions. Flores was responsible for her feelings, not Biden. He is only responsible for his actions. Other people might have been flattered, comforted, or sexually aroused. Flores chose to feel uncomfortable.

Flores stated that she was “preparing herself” to make a speech. Biden was behind her on the dais. He, perhaps, observed nervousness or tension, and may have wanted to offer support and, with countless witnesses, placed his hands on her shoulders. Her reaction was to freeze, to react negatively to a kind gesture. “Why?” I ask. Do you, Ms. Flores, have experiences from the past that have conditioned you to respond as you did? That would be understandable. I don’t need to be a woman to understand that. But that is no reason to smear Biden. Unless you had ulterior motives.

I am certain we all have, at times, overstepped personal space or misinterpreted boundaries in relationships. Have you never been introduced to a Robert or Susan and called them Bobby or Suzie only to be sternly corrected? Have you never greeted someone at a social gathering, an individual you haven’t seen in a long time, and warmly hugged them only to realize they were resisting your embrace? Awkwardly, you retreat and wonder why that person doesn’t hold you in the same esteem you hold them. Have you never had someone you know so casually you are not certain of their name greet you with a kiss on the cheek and wonder why (s)he felt it appropriate? I know I have.

Therefore, I am Joe Biden. And you are, too.

I believe all Joe Biden meant to do when he touched Flores was to communicate care, support, camaraderie, and his desire to connect. Yes, his style may have been aggressive or insensitive but it was well-meaning. It also, to his detriment, contradicts the American cultural norm of over-emphasizing personal space, a norm I do not see here in Mexico.

While I may be defending Biden here, do not assume I am touting him for the presidency. I am not. He is not even in my Top 3 of the 3,467 declared and undeclared Democratic candidates being considered for the nomination. Chances are I am much more in line with Ms. Perez’s choices than I am with the ex-vice-president.

And do not assume I have abandoned my fight for women’s equality or my support for the Me Too Movement. I have not. Claims by women, or men, that they were sexually abused or assaulted should be listened to and believed. Claims that one’s personal space was violated or that they were made to feel uncomfortable, should not be taken as seriously.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s . . .

“Man, am I glad to see you,” Jake greeted his friend. “I was afraid I was in front of the wrong McDonald’s. There’s like a million on Manhattan.”

“Well, I said the one across from Starbucks,” Matt panted as he rushed to Jake’s side. He looked at his friend. “I can’t believe it’s been thirteen years. Thirteen years since college,” Matt pulled Jake into an embrace. “Look at you. You haven’t changed.”

“Of course, I’ve changed. I’ve got two kids and a dental practice giving me ulcers. And,” he added with pride, “I’ve overcome my shyness. I’ve developed my social skills. If it hadn’t been for you in school, Matt, I wouldn’t have had a social life. You knew everybody.”

“I didn’t know everybody,” Matt protested. “But you were my sensible rock. You were disciplined. You were stable. I should have learned from you. I have no stability in my life. I’m ending another marriage and am at my fourth TV station,” Matt said with defeat. “I thought I’d be more settled by now. No longer a reporter, but an anchor. And in a bigger market than Rochester. I thought I’d be a recognizable television journalist. A star.”

“But you are, Matt. In upstate New York.”

“Whoopie,” the newsman snorted with sarcasm.

“Let’s walk,“ Jake suggested, “until we find something better than Micky D’s.”

“Fine with me.” The friends started walking. “So, you and Emily are on Long Island and both your kids are in school.” Matt paused. “Instagram sure is a godsend. I wouldn’t have found you without it. I had no idea you were in New York State.”

The duo reached the corner. A red light glared at them. Traffic flitted by, roaring obscenities. Jake gazed across the intersection. “Hey, isn’t that the mayor over there? Bill Di Blasio?” Two men, apparent bodyguards, boxed the mayor in as they waited for the light to change. “Who’s he waving to?”

“Me, I think,” Matt said.

“You? Why?”

“I interviewed him at length a few nights ago.”

The signal turned green. The mayor and his entourage neared Matt and Jake. “Good to see you, Matt,” Di Blasio greeted as they passed.

“You know the mayor of New York City?”

“Yeah,” Matt answered matter-of-factly.

They reached the end of the block and turned. A limousine pulled into a loading zone ahead of them. Two security men stepped from the vehicle. One opened a curbside door. A man stepped out.

“Oh, that’s the governor,” a startled Matt sputtered. “Andy. Andy!”

“Jeez,” Jake gasped. “I’m looking at Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York State.”

“Matty,” the man called in their direction. “How’s it going, my friend?”

Matt signaled a thumbs up to the governor.

“You know the governor of New York State?” Jake asked with disbelief.

“Through work.”

“Wow.” Jake thought a moment. “It’s like you still know everyone. Everyone. Important people.” He tilted his head. “But they’re all locally important. Do you know anyone of national importance? Do you know Trump?”

“No. Does anyone?” Matt smiled. “But I do know Barack Obama.”

“No way, Matt.”

“I play golf with him.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Matt pulled his cell phone from a coat pocket. “Well, I’ll show you,” he said, accepting the unstated dare. He dialed. A moment passed. His eyes widened. “Hi, Mr. President. It’s Matt. Listen, I’ve got an old college friend here, Jake, and he doesn’t believe I know you. Could you say hi to him?”

Jake could hear muffled laughter as Matt reached the phone toward him. He took it with trepidation, placed it to his ear, and said “Hello?” He listened and nodded. “Yes, sir. This is Jake.” He swallowed. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—” Jake returned the phone to Matt with a snap. “He’s eating his lunch. I interrupted his fucking lunch!”

Matt laughed, took the phone, and replaced it in his pocket.

“Well,” Jake exhaled, “you know everybody. But that has to be as high as it goes, the top of the line. I’m impressed.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I know people, too, you know. The West Islip Rotary Club president and I are very close,” he said with exaggerated sarcasm.

Matt smirked. “I can go higher than Obama.”

“Who’s higher than the president of the US? Jake stopped and glared at his old friend. “Don’t tell me you’ve gone all religious on me and that you know God.”

“No. But I do know the pope.”

“No, you don’t,” Jake challenged. He started walking again. “You report from Rochester, not Rome.”

A beat passed before Matt responded. “Care to make this interesting? I’ll make you a bet.” He eyed Jake as his friend stared with skepticism. “We fly to the Vatican. If I know Pope Frederic, you pay for the trip. If I don’t know him, I’ll spring for it.”

Jake assessed the proposal. “You’re not even Catholic. You’re Lutheran and never go to church. There is no way you know the pope. Deal.”

Two Sundays later, as Jake and Matt stood in St. Peter’s Square, amid thousands of pilgrims, they gazed at the small porch from which Pope Frederic would give his blessing. Matt looked at his watch. “It’ll be at least twenty minutes, more like thirty before he appears. I’m gonna run to the bathroom.” Matt disappeared in the crowd.

Several minutes later, a dark-haired boy, perhaps nine, sidled next to Jake. He stood on tiptoes and craned his neck to see the balcony. He peeked at his watch, then back to the small perch. The boy glanced at Jake and, realizing he was American, used the opportunity to practice his English. “You come see important man?” he asked. “I want see him too.”

Perhaps ten minutes later, Pope Frederic stepped from the Vatican onto the balcony. A man was with him. It was Matt. Jake stared slack-jawed. The pope raised his arms to bless the crowd. The thousands roared.

The young boy tugged at Jake’s sleeve. “Who,” he asked, “is man with Matt?”

Roger Daltrey, The Who, and Me

The Who claimed, in 1967, they could see for miles and miles. It might have been the hallucinogenic drugs. I also can see for miles and miles. But for me, it is the result of my recent cataract surgery.

I didn’t—no pun intended—see it coming. The need crept up on me like a mugger in the night, tiptoeing closer, then robbing me blind. My distant vision, I was shocked to learn, had diminished by about forty percent. I should have had clues when, while watching TV, I could no longer read bottom-of-the-screen crawlers during newscasts and sporting events. Then I realized I couldn’t decipher the state names on the sashes of the Miss Silicone Breasts contestants. When watching “Wheel of Fortune,” I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between Pat Sajak and Vanna White. Hell, I couldn’t even see the program’s wall-size puzzles.

The improvement was immediate after the first surgery. With just one eye repaired, I saw details in the room I hadn’t observed prior to the procedure. The staff had faces, with masks over their mouths.  I had thought they all had Cheshire Cat grins. I looked toward the far wall and discovered a Starbuck’s, law office, and bus stop. And then I realized I was looking out a window I had not noticed before. When the surgeon, who had been merely a soothing and reassuring voice before, spoke, she now was a beautiful woman. Had I known that, I thought, I would have shaved, brushed my teeth, and worn deodorant.

I donned sunglasses and walked outside. Sunlight was no longer seen through a gauze filter like Lucille Ball’s face in Mame. Shapes had sharp details. I peeked over the top of the dark lenses. Colors popped. Mexican flags had three colored sections, none of which was gray. McDonald’s had golden arches.

But it wasn’t until the next morning that I truly grasped the improvement in my vision. I awoke and looked through my bedroom doorway into the living room. I actually saw it, the living room.  My paintings had colors. My recliner, that I thought was charcoal when I bought it, was green, forest green. I got up and looked out the window. The wall of eggplant-colored bougainvillea across the way was really psychedelic purple. I noticed for the first time a neighbor’s pink patio umbrella. A nearby tree had orange spots in it. “Oh, my god,” I gasped. “Those are oranges?” I had thought they were bird nests.

I again put on my sunglasses and climbed to my rooftop mirador. I looked to the north, toward Alaska. I could see Sarah Palin. She was gazing at Russia from her porch. I followed her eyes and saw suburban Vladivostok. I spotted a darling little brick house with three windows. I peered inside one and saw wooden Russian nested matryoska dolls lined up on an oak credenza; the tiniest one had a slight nick.

I turned and surveyed the northeast horizon until I saw Mar-a-Lago and I saw Melania’s stripper pole. Then I noticed a double-wide bathroom door and a Just For Men hair-dye box on the counter. It was #45-F, Pumpkin.

Looking further north, I spotted Washington, D.C. and details new to me. I could see Elizabeth Warren. “Hell!” I yelled so loud, a startled vacationing gringo in Puerto Vallarta spilled his 8 a.m. margarita. “She’s not Native American!” All this time I had thought she looked like Marlon Brando’s Oscar-surrogate Sacheen Littlefeather. “Warren looks more like Sacheen Littleliar,” I chuckled.

My gaze landed on Bernie Sanders. He was talking with a severely-acned senate page whose nametag read “Aaron.” “Holy shit!” I exclaimed, and then bit my normally PC tongue. Damn, I thought, Bernie’s old! Who knew? His voice always sounds so soft, soothing, and youthful.

I pivoted slightly and saw Mitch McConnell. I got queasy. “Oh, horrors. He’s even uglier than I thought,” I mumbled. Then I threw up over the railing onto an ant with a back tattoo of ’80s rocker Adam Ant. OK. Maybe it was a T-shirt; I couldn’t tell. My eyesight isn’t that good.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone waving at me. I turned toward Boston. It was Tom Brady in his MAGA cap. They’re red? I thought. Tom had five of his Super Bowl rings on his hands. A sixth was—How shall I say this tactfully?—lower. And it fit. Yes. I could see that. Because he was wearing skinny jeans. Commando. Then, with his right hand, Tom threw a football in my direction—not an official one marked NFL, but one with a picture of #45-F, Pumpkin and the initials DJT on it. It, however, was intercepted at the border by an ICE agent and sent back to China where it had been made.

After I recovered from the shock of all I had seen, I looked due north again. I could see a wall at the US-Mexico border. That cracked red, white, and blue wall seemed to have no purpose other than to divide America. I saw no one climbing the wall or digging under it on the south side, nor anyone calmly talking about the barrier with others on the north side. Instead, I watched politicians tag the wall with preaching-to-the-choir graffiti. But the writing wasn’t in English or Spanish. It was in Russian.

Two days later, I had the surgery on my other eye. I won’t even start to tell you what I could see after that.

Recycled Tears

He was fifteen and crying. No. He was sobbing. And I couldn’t help.

The frustration of that situation has haunted me for a decade. The images and sounds of that pained boy have flickered and echoed through my soul since I stumbled upon him. Those visions and sounds, however, became clearer and louder, recently, as I imagined a scene in a novel I am writing. In the scene, a teenage boy, drowning in difficult decisions, has an emotional breakdown. My fictional character’s path through his traumatic journey is inspired by that real boy.

It was at the beginning of fifth period, just after lunch, at the high school at which I served as a special education assistant. The teacher with whom I worked and I had taken our class to collect recyclables from the school’s classrooms and offices. As we stepped into Senior Hall with our wheeled plastic garbage cans, I discovered a boy sitting on the floor, slumped against a locker. He was crying. A girl was crouched next to him, trying to comfort him. Neither looked to be seniors. They were freshmen, sophomores at best.

I recognized that although they should have been in class, that boy, for whatever reason, could not, in that condition, concentrate on classwork. As I passed the duo, I leaned in and whispered, “Do you want me to get help?”

“No,” the girl said without looking at me.

“Do you want me to tell your teachers what’s going on so they won’t think your cutting?”

“They know,” the girl snapped.

“OK,” I replied, unconvinced, and rejoined my group.

The recycling crew finished its first-floor loop perhaps forty minutes later and was headed to the Dumpster, when we found the distressed couple where we had left them. Only now, the boy was standing, facing the lockers, his arms forming a pillow for his face, and sobbing so hard, I could see his shoulders bob. When we returned from tossing our recycling, the girl was holding the boy who had buried his face into the crook of her neck.

I said nothing. But I wondered why this young man was so distraught. Had a grandparent just died? Had he been fired from an after-school job? Was his family moving, separating him from his girlfriend? Had poor grades disqualified him from participating in a sport? Had he been bullied or bashed during lunch?

The couple was gone when we returned from the second-floor recyclables. But that boy did not leave my thoughts. Days, perhaps weeks passed before I saw him again. He was exiting a classroom. I rushed in and asked the teacher who the boy was.

“That’s Mo.” She smiled with pride. “He’s an incredible soccer player. Like the star of the team. And he’s only a sophomore,” the teacher told me.  “Why?”

“Just curious,” was my evasive answer. I was conflicted about the boy’s need for help versus his right to privacy. “I’ve seen him around and he seems like a nice kid,” I lied and left. But I continued to wonder about the boy’s emotional well-being.

Sometime later, as my teaching partner and I jogged with our students on the school’s track, we noticed a woman briskly walking on the oval. We saw her on subsequent walks, too. Eventually, we began acknowledging each other’s presence, nodding, smiling, even saying hi. Then, one Saturday while the teacher, who lived near the school, walked his dog on the track, the woman appeared and instigated a conversation.

“It was obvious,” my teaching partner told me, “she was taking advantage of our being alone and was flirting with me. She made it clear she was recently separated and was getting a divorce. I faked interest in her story, but kept thinking, ‘Lady, do you not see my wedding ring?’ And then she mentioned that her son, who attended our school, was struggling with the situation.” The teacher asked her son’s name, although he was certain he would not know him since we, as special ed staff, were often unfamiliar with most mainstream students.

“Mo,” the woman answered.

The synapses in my brain crackled. “Mo is the kid we saw crying in the hall,” I yelled. We realized in an instant why Mo had been so upset that day. He had just been told his parents were divorcing, that his family, and life as he knew it, was being torn apart.

I saw Mo many times between that day in his sophomore year and his graduation. He never acknowledged me, but instead made a point to avoid eye-contact. His actions made it clear that I could not ask the question aching in my heart, “Dude, are you OK?”

Mo probably has long forgotten me. But he, his pain, and my helplessness, have stayed with me through all these years. And now a piece of Mo has found its way into a novel I am writing, a book he likely never will read or know about. But maybe, through my fictional character, I finally will be able to let go of that haunting painful memory.