You are browsing the archive for 2009 June.

Hark! Plugs!

June 28, 2009 in writing

Just a reminder, there are two days left in the Blognet contest to vote for I Eat My Pigeon in the Best Diarist category. Click here to boost my ego. If you want to, that is. No pressure. It was seriously a huge honor just to be nominated.

Q: Why should you vote for me?

A: Because I make punny blog post titles like the one above. “Hark! Plugs!” It sounds like “spark plugs”! Get it?!

Pardon me. I always get punny when I’m hungry. But that’s why they make crabs, gator tail, and u-peel-um shrimp – something about the Omega 3s curbs poorly wrought wit.

Her Stripes are Black. I Want My Baby Back.

June 21, 2009 in Ex-Patriate Games, spazarific

I’m here in Tampa, visiting my parent for 2 weeks. American Airlines now charges $15 per checked bag and $7.95 for wifi in the terminals. No more peanuts. No more earphones. Snacks available for a small fee, payable only by cash or debit. No movies or TV – just 2.5 hours of delay on the tarmac.

I arrived at night, which meant dinner. My mother announced at the airport that she’d been cooking all day: risotto ai frutti di mare and a prune crostata for dessert. Mamma mia, indeed. We are going to St. Petersburg Beach today for Father’s Day; my first Father’s Day with my dad since I moved out of the house 11 years ago. When I dressed this morning, I picked through the summery clothing I bought in Thailand and Viet Nam. New York is still rainy and cold but Florida is, well, Florida so bring on the sunscreen. I chose a fitted black cotton halter top embroidered with roses and realized that I – a city girl – had no beach bag. In a pinch, my turquoise silk scarf from Hoi An doubles as a furoshiki. There’s your multicultural craftiness for you.

In Florida, I’m with Heifer – the beloved cat I tearfully left with my parents when I moved to Japan. For a good six months, I debated not even moving abroad because I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving her behind and when I finally made the decision, the plan was to stay for only a year before settling back in New York for good. I don’t blame her for being angry – I’d be furious. But I had somewhat hoped that at the first whiff of me, she’d remember what we meant to each other. Alas.

Heifer pretends not to see me, but I can’t stop looking at her. She is my beautiful Little Miss Tigerstripes, after all. With her little white feet, big ol’ ears and big green eyes. Because she now eats the other cat’s food and has developed a nervous licking tic, she has become fat like a croissant and bald-assed like a baboon.

“Heifer,” I call as she waddles past without so much as sniffing my leg. “Don’t you remember? You used to jump into my bed as soon as I turned out the lights. You’d burrow underneath the blanket and purr until morning.”

“Heifer!” I say as she chooses the furthest chair from me. “Don’t you remember? You used to steal the potatoes out of my leftover chicken vindaloo. And then you’d sprawl across my computer when I was trying to work. Me. That was me. You used to meow in response every time I talked to you.”

When I look into her big green eyes, rimmed in rings of black and white, I could swear she does remember and is trying to torture me for it. Like Darin last week, she seems to say: “You stayed away longer than you said you were going to.” It’s not enough that I’ve felt consumed with guilt for the past 2 and a half years. She has to twist the knife.

“This is just like you, Heifer,” I tell her. “You always did like punishing me.”

Heifer tucks her little white feet under herself, just like a roosting chicken.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t know how many times I can tell you I’m sorry.”

She stands, stretches – her black stripes standing to attention – and quietly pads out of the room. Her hairless bottom seems to mock me.

Sweet, Sweet Marie’s

June 19, 2009 in "Teaching" English, Ex-Patriate Games, I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Japanese Mix, Looking, New York, spazarific, The Odd Siblings, True Fairy Tales of New York

A few years back, I pitched a profile of a West Village piano bar to a local events magazine. An former client had told me about the place years before and I’d always wanted an excuse to go. “It’s a singalong place,” my client had said. “A dark bar. A piano. Drunk gay men everywhere. The men sing the men’s parts, the women sing the women’s parts. They do practically any Broadway song you can think of.”  He might as well have said, You know. The kind of place you’d live in if you could, because “Broadway Hag” is your middle name.

After my pitch was greenlighted, I haunted the place for weeks; skulking in the corner with a series of vodka tonics, scrawling paragraphs – “Tonight’s pianist whacks his head against the wall to keep time with the music” – and whispering the words to the showtunes. My former client had been right; I adored the place. I wanted so badly to sing like the other patrons, who swarmed the piano underneath the low wooden ceiling, strung with twinkling Christmas lights. There were caterwaulers who couldn’t hold a note to save their lives and then there were real singers who could hush a room with awe. If only I, too, could get up the nerve to sing. Song after song, everyone seemed to know the words. I visited often enough to witness the rotation of pianists and Darin quickly became my favorite. It was his easy charm that finally made me feel comfortable enough to sidle up to the piano, even if I was still too shy to open my mouth. During the day, I put the longing behind me and trolled official records to focus on researching the history of the building – built in the 1700s and home to the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine. The steel mural of ghostly soldiers behind the bar? Created by the WPA, designed to depict the French and American Revolutionary wars. The rafters in the ceiling? Ship’s beams. The panels on the wall? Also rescued from an old ship. The name? A blending of the original bar’s owner’s and a nod to The Crisis.

My love letter article came out at the end of October, 2005. I returned to Marie’s with trepidation – would the staff and clientele like what I had said? Would they have put two and two together and figured out that the chatty girl in the corner with the notebook was the one who had reported the goings on of a recent birthday party held at the bar? Would I still be welcome in what had rapidly become my favorite place? I tiptoed down the steps through the thundering notes and whoops, slinking my way to my usual cove behind the empty fireplace – my guilty footsteps falling in time with the bouncy opening notes of, “All That Jazz.”

Jim was playing that evening, and his sharp eye caught my angsty movements.

“You!” he shouted. “You’re the one!” I hung my head, ready for the men around the piano to hurl the sample packets of Viagra – given to Jim as a tip – at my head.

No Viagra. Just a drink on the house. My favorite place was safe.

I became a regular – ecstatic to trip down the stairs and drink in the atmosphere of liquor, happiness, music and history. I always avoided weekends and favored the middle of the week, when Darin played. One night, I began to sing and since then, I was never afraid again. My last night at the bar was several days before I moved to Japan. I returned – lured as if by a spell – each time I visited for the holidays and each time, Darin was nowhere to be found.

“You’ve missed him,” said the waitresses. “He’s here on Wednesdays/Fridays/Tuesdays now.” Each time I returned to the bar it was as if I was stepping into a time capsule. Same old drunks, Christmas lights, and Cabaret. But never Darin.

When I moved back to New York last month, I celebrated my acceptance to “Christminster” by treating myself to a few drinks at the bar. Once again, no Darin. There was a man I didn’t recognize, who read his music from a Kindle-like device. None of the faces at the bar seemed familiar, but the music always was. My mood was electric; I still couldn’t quite understand that I’d really, truly, been accepted to “Christminster” and was going to get my Master’s of Philosophy in Creative Writing. In my glee, I gulped vodka tonic after vodka tonic and soon I was giggling into my chest.

“Thank god for you, Catherine,” I yapped to the woman next to me. “You’re a real singer. You keep us all in key. Thank god for you. You keep us honest.”

I had my notebook on my lap and began scrawling in time to the music:



In the past, my drunken turns at the bar had been of the angry, heartbroken variety – ending with my stumbling home, muttering to myself. This drunkenness was of the celebratory variety, but I didn’t know how truly drunk I was until I stood to dance. My vodka tonic-a-thon ended with my cabbing it to Diego’s and hunching over his toilet for half an hour.

The next morning, Diego found me sprawled out on his bed and surrounded by plastic bags.

“Just tell me where you threw up,” he said, grim faced. “Tell me all of those bags aren’t full.”

None of them were. I had dragged them into bed with me in case I was too tired to get up again but left them untouched out of drunken paranoia that I’d suffocate while holding them around my mouth.


I visited the bar again last night. After 2 and a half years of searching for Darin to no avail, I didn’t have high hopes for actually finding him. But yet, last night? There he was – cameoed in the red-paned windows.

My happiness making me instantly shy, I slipped past the piano and crept to my old hiding spot near the fireplace. There was a group of screeching college-aged tourists sprawled on the piano; woo-ing and dancing with each other. I watched them – first, with interest and then with disdain. They were exceedingly loud and, to be honest, quite annoying. They blocked my view and overrode Darin’s playing with their drunken warbles. I tried to remember that they had every right to have as much fun as they wanted; after all, I’d certainly had my share here. I asked the waitress for a glass of white wine and listened to Darin play.

He noticed me during one of the last choruses of “Cabaret” and his face lit up the same way mine had when I saw him.

“You!” he said. “You stayed away longer than you said you were going to!”

“What can I say?” I asked. “I fell in love.”

He played Fame. He played Little Shop. The girls at the piano screamed and hollered. I sipped my wine blissfully. And next to me, a Japanese woman glowed on her bar stool. My face instantly began to burn, so strong was the desire to speak to her.

As luck would have it, she spoke to me first.

“This is like karaoke,” she said. She was speaking to me because everyone speaks to everyone at the piano bar. “But this is better than karaoke.”

“How do we ask him to play Sinatra?” asked her friend, sneaking up behind me. “By the way, I’m Ted. I’m from Kansas. This is Mio – she’s from Japan.”

“矢っ張り,” I said – the Japanese rushing forth in a relieved gush like a yoga breath before I had time to wonder if it was rude to say, “I thought so.”

“ええ ええ!” cried the woman – probably before she had time to wonder if it was rude to display shock that a non-Japanese person might speak some Japanese. “日本語を喋るの?”

” はい . 喋るよ,” I lied, spurred by drunken happiness. I had seen Darin again for the first time in 2 and a half years, he was happy to see me, he was playing “Grease” and if I wasn’t mistaken, I was feeling the dawn of a Good Japanese Night so why not? Maybe tonight I did really speak Japanese.

“本当?” she asked happily. Really?

本真 や.” I replied. Really, y’all!

“ええ ええ!” she cried. “大阪に住んでいました,  ね?”

Cat was out of the bag – she guessed I’d lived in Osaka. Could it have been something I said?!

… a word about my now-compulsive use of Osaka dialect. Like almost all people who study Japanese, I learned standard Tokyo-ben and was introduced to tenengo verb endings, not plain forms. Two years of dealing with schoolchildren in Osaka have hammered plain forms and Osaka-ben into my brain so now, even when I meet someone new, my brain reaches for the casual comedians’ speech as opposed to the polite speech. My cheeks burned again – this time in embarrassment.

But, you know, the embarrassment melts, somehow, when singing is involved.

Darin played. We sang. Mio asked me if I knew any Japanese songs and when I mentioned that I love Iruka, her “ええ ええ!” threatened to knock me off of my bar stool. Then we sang a few bars of なごり雪, clasping hands like old friends. And it wasn’t strange, this singing and speaking of Japanese in my beloved Marie’s Crisis, listening to my favorite pianist play. It was different, yet all the same. I’m different – obviously, if I’m chatting to random strangers in Japanese – but still the same. You can come home again … even if you’ve changed a little.

Someone toasted us. The Christmas lights twinkled and illuminated the WPA mural behind the bar. The college girls were gone and in their place, a group of men itching to sing Hernando’s Hideaway. I pressed my feet against the back of the old wooden piano, remembering how many times I’d done so to feel the notes vibrating against my feet when I was an angry, lost 25 year-old – so sure that, somehow, literally feeling the music in my body would lead me to an epiphany as beautiful as the songs I sang until 4 in the morning.

// Listen to a Lesson about 矢っ張り

Shades of Gray’s

June 16, 2009 in True Fairy Tales of New York

In my teens, I saw a movie called “Fools Rush In.” It involved Matthew Perry trying to convince Salma Hayek that they should live in New York. A hot dog stand called “Gray’s Papaya” was his main bargaining chip. He said they made the most delicious franks in the entire world.

I loved Matthew Perry and I loved hot dogs – thus, I loved the idea of Gray’s Papaya. When I moved to New York City in 1998, I discovered, to my delight, that the famous Gray’s was located just a few blocks from my college dorm. It wasn’t a stand after all, but instead a corner shop; decorated in red, yellow, and white with a long line of metal counters opposite the grill and vats of fruit juice. The grill is always piled with tasty roasting franks and buns. The glass doors on both ends of the shop are always open. Signs inside and out boast: “The best damn frank you’ll ever eat!” and “Our franks are better than filet mignon.” They’re not kidding.


From my 1998 diary:

Wilcox and I tried out the hot dogs last night and I was much pleased – enjoying the sauerkraut placed on the frankfurter, even happier that (with a pineapple fruit juice) the entire meal came out to $1.20. Very satisfying. I could certainly go for another juice but will hold off on the hot dog since I don’t want to become addicted.

Talk about your retrograde irony. Nothing could be more addictive to a broke 18 year-old than the prospect of having a delicious snack for $1.20, or a full-on “Recession Special” dinner of 2 hot dogs and a medium drink for $1.75.

The obsession was fast and furious. Gray’s was open 24 hours and having a hot dog at 3 in the morning always made perfect sense. We’d scrape our change from our wallets, cracks in the floorboard, and from under the bunk bed. Within minutes, we’d toast paper cups of Gray’s fruit juice. I always had the Pina Colada. Momo always had the Coconut Champagne.

My fascination with Gray’s has gone far beyond my days as a college Freshman. It’s still my go-to for a quick pick me up, even if the Recession Special now costs $4.50. That’s a little more irony for you.

Momo remains one of my main partners in crime for Gray’s runs, even after all these years. I was with her on the night of The Hot Dog Jacking.

It was late at night. It was before I moved to Japan. We had our Recession Specials. She had her Coconut Champagne; I had my Pina Colada. We happily set our meals down on the shiny metal bar, helping ourselves to a stack of paper napkins. The perfume of the franks and onions was luscious. We might have paused to comment on whichever song was playing on the radio – Gray’s always cranks it to something that pleases our retro music sensibilities – when Momo looked down and noticed that her untouched hot dogs had vanished. We looked around in shock – just past the always open glass doors, a homeless man was lurching away, holding her hot dogs in his hot little hands.

What to do? Cry – “Stop, thief!” while shaking our fists? How dare he – Momo’s hot dogs! Should we have chased him down the street, just for the principle of the thing? Or was it right that we just let him be? He was hungrier than us.

We let it be. What to do but laugh – even if in other circumstances stolen Gray’s hot dogs could be a cause for tears? And who could blame him for stealing her hot dogs, really? They were from Gray’s.

Mad About the Dog

June 13, 2009 in I'm Learning Japanese ... I Really Think So, Kawaii, Looking, spazarific

I’ve got to admit; this weird little Mogwai-faced animal is growing on me.

A dog. A smelly, attention-hungry, untrustworthy not-a-cat dog.

But he whines. He slathers me with disgusting, hot doggy licks. He eyes my new shoes with curious intent. He insists on a ceaseless game of fetch while I’m trying to work. Slobber, slobber, slobber. Drool, drool, drool.

And darned if he isn’t simply adorable.

Lest you think I’m just swayed by a so-ugly-it’s-cute face, there’s an academic side to my new relationship with Zac; he helps me practice my Japanese.

For the record, the camera adds twenty decibles of “annoying” to one’s voice. I’ve also been asked to do this on my own time, because it drives Diego nuts.

Kid Sick

June 12, 2009 in "Teaching" English, Ex-Patriate Games, Kawaii, spazarific, The Children, Things I Will Miss About Japan

So sometimes, just every once in a while, I find myself missing the children. It goes without saying that each Friday morning I indulge a private whimper when I think of some other teacher playing with my exquisite 3 year olds, but every so often I even miss the older, not-as-cute ones. To wit, the loud ones. The ridiculous ones. The lazy ones. The rude ones. Heck, sometimes I even miss the molestation – it made me feel appreciated, even wanted.

Kids like this:


P7180040And this:






Let me be clear about one thing: I do not miss teaching. Though I will be eternally grateful for the lessons I learned while playing the role of an ESL teacher, teaching was not a good fit for my skill set or my temperament. I don’t miss the teaching, the lesson planning, the discipline doling or trying to command attention, nor do I miss the frustration of turning up for work each day and wearing a hat that didn’t belong to me. What I miss is the children themselves – their energy, their silliness, their grins, their pert little outfits. Had I not been paid to constantly force them do something they hated, I know we would have gotten along wonderfully. I wouldn’t have left the classroom with my veins throbbing out of my neck and my mascara smeared across my cheeks. I wouldn’t have horrified myself by screaming in my mother’s voice. When you’re not in charge, an “active” kid like Daisuke who screeches “うんち!!!” at the top of his lungs every five seconds isn’t asking for a sound lashing; he’s asking for a high five.

I used to think about how much fun we could have if their parents didn’t expect them to come out of the classroom parroting “I like hot dogs.” It would be like my time at the summer camp – pure play, and teaching by example.

(Perhaps my one contribution to Japanese culture)

They’d ask if I know who Mario and Luigi are and scream, “ええええ!” when I said, “Of course.” They’d share their candy with me. They’d ask where I was going after class. They’d criticize my hair or my clothes and I wouldn’t care because it’d somehow seem less disrespectful when I wasn’t in a position of authority. I could get away with teasing them back. They’d sit in my lap. They’d teach me new Japanese words in exchange for English ones. We’d be delighted when we’d realize we could sing some of the same songs.

So, obviously, I’m looking at pictures and videos of my ex-kids. I’m feeling Japan and Kid Sick all at once. I’m spooning Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream into my mouth. Oh my god. I could seriously eat the whole thing.

It’s that kind of day.

Like a Prayer

June 9, 2009 in Looking, New York

Walking to the 6 train, I pass a falafel cart and notice that its owner is face down on the sidewalk. At first, I think he’s looking for something – maybe loose change that rolled underneath the cart – or that he’s sick. Then I see that he’s shoeless and crouched prostrate on a flattened garbage bag. It’s just past 5 o’clock and he’s praying; ignoring onlookers and customers and responding to the call of his own personal azaan.

It made me think of my visit to Malaysia, when I kept an ear perked for what would have been my first exposure to a muezzin’s cry. I’d read about the azaan in novels and articles and so was very curious to experience it for myself. What would it sound like? Would it ring through the streets the way a Catholic Angelus echoes throughout a monastery? The English language newspaper listed prayer times and I wondered if I’d hear the azaan several times a day. I was confused and disappointed when I was in Malaysia for nearly two weeks and never heard the call.  But home in New York, seeing the falafel man hunched over in the middle of the street in a city that might be far from his own home, I see that the muezzin’s call to prayer can actually be internal. That strikes me as beautiful.


Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

June 9, 2009 in spazarific, writing

Breaking my new rule not to write past 5 p.m. – I can’t help myself right now. It’s been a nice month for me, ego flattery-wise. First and foremost, I was accepted to “Christminster” University to do my M. Phil in Creative Writing. Then, I sold a bit of writing to a travel website. And just this week, my blog was both written up in Brett Lyfield’s blog in a post about J-Bloggers far from Japan and nominated for a BlogNet award - not by myself! In both cases, the write ups were extremely flattering. It means so much that people believe in me this much. Thank you Brett, thank you Pepper, thank you travel editors, and thank you graduate panel at “Christminster.” You’ve done a girl good.

P.S. I’ve been struggling with myself for about 10 minutes but I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Click here if you’d like to vote for I Eat My Pigeon. And click here if you want to learn how to make soft tacos. ‘Cause that’s what I’m up to tonight.

The Dog Zac

June 6, 2009 in Kawaii, New York, spazarific, The Odd Siblings

Yesterday, I left the house for the evening and when I returned, I found myself staring into a pert black and white dog’s face; a Harlequin’s smile painted below its bulging brown eyes. It was Zac – the Boston Terrier Diego and his girlfriend, Joy, are dog sitting for Joy’s sister. They’ve decided to keep the dog here at Diego’s place and, since they both work hectic schedules and I work from home, I will be the dog Zac’s primary caretaker during the day for the next two weeks.

I’m not much of a dog person – I like them, but I’ve always been a little afraid of them. Cat language is what I speak; I’ve never mastered the sense of knowing whether a dog is about to eat me or mount me. Regardless, the dog Zac and I are already friends. This is probably because he is much cuter than I expected. He’s small, shiny and fit, with large wolf-like ears. He adores his tennis ball, which he has bathed in his saliva and enjoys dropping on my naked feet to entice me into a game of fetch. He leaves his spittle-drenched toys on the leather couch and on my brother’s white rug. Diego, who hasn’t had a dog in his home for years, clenches his jaw to see the dog scratching his nails on the wooden floors.

“Are you kidding me, Zac?” he asks, barely masking his rage when the dog jumps onto a dark-colored chair. “Are you kidding me?”

I have been informed, by the way, that if this dog is to destroy anything, it is my fault.

The dog is supposed to sleep in its crate in the room where I sleep. I discovered last night that Zac snores and, this morning, that for the first few hours of daylight, Zac insists on a ceaseless game of fetch. He nudges his soggy tennis ball into my face and balances his weight on my sleeping stomach. At least it’s better than where he balances his weight while climbing onto Diego’s lap. Hint: it rhymes with the dog’s name.

But he really is a beautiful, sweet animal. And slobber or no, it will be nice to have an “office” mate for the next couple of weeks.


All Out of Joint: The Original True Fairy Tale of New York

June 3, 2009 in True Fairy Tales of New York

It was the fall of 1998 and I was brand new. My parents and brother, who’d helped me settle into my college dorm at NYU, had left that afternoon to head back to Florida, where I’d lived most of my life. Only one of my new roommates had arrived and she’d gone out with friends. I was finally alone in my new home.

Some girls fresh from Bumble Fork might have felt intimidated – not me. But I wasn’t quite giddy yet, either. Instead, I felt despondent. My whole life, I’d dreamed of coming to New York City and now that I was here, what next?  I’d never thought beyond the day I’d burst onto the scene, and now I was facing college, which meant embarking on a career path. Suddenly, my childhood dreams of becoming a writer seemed ridiculous. But if I couldn’t be a writer, what could I possibly do? What was I even fit for? The answer seemed clear: nothing.

I had to be calm, had to focus on the wonderful part of being here in New York City at last: in two days, I already felt more at home than I ever had in my home town. There was ivy creeping over the brick walls of the buildings on Washington Square here, and it excited me in a way Highway 19 never had. At every corner, I spied something new and interesting – a 19th century pharmacy here, a street corner sculptor there. There really were hot dog and pretzel carts on what seemed like every corner. The buildings really were crammed together like paintings I’d seen of Amsterdam and to be in a city so old thrilled me. Everywhere, too, the leaves were stiffening and blushing. I’d never seen fall colors before and couldn’t stop staring at the foliage fireworks on display. And there were people here; so many people. I imagined that each of the windows in all of the buildings represented a story. I wondered how many I would learn.

But first, I had to explore.  There was a beautiful park across the street from my dorm, flanked on its north side by a massive marble arch and on its south side by the sepulchural red university library. That, I had learned, was Washington Square Park. I tiptoed in from the West, my eyes huge with the sight of smiling dogs in the dog run, chess players, a small jazz band playing under the Garibaldi statue, and a giant marble fountain in the center of it all. This park was a circus of sights, an orchestra of sounds. I decided to sit on one of the dark green park benches for my first ever session of New York City people watching. I chose a seat next to an elderly man who appeared to doze. That seemed safe. It also seemed safe to keep my bag clutched to my breast so tightly that my knuckles blanched.

When you come from a small town, people will tell you you’re crazy to want to live in a city like New York. Like me, my friends wanted out of Bumble Fork, too, but New York was too far out. They supported me, though, and their support meant everything. My parents couldn’t say much about my hopes, because New York City had been their goal, too, when they were newlyweds hunting the American dream. My parents’ friends, on the other hand, told me cautionary tales of winters that were so cold, they could kill a homeless man (homeless people lived on every street). They’d known people who were mugged (muggings happened every day on every street!). They’d known people who’d known people who’d known people who were raped (rapes happened every day on every street! Rain or shine! Just like the mail!). Teachers asked, “If you want to live in a big city, why don’t you move to Ocala?” My Freshman year biology teacher laughed at my idea of attending NYU and said the best school I could hope to attend was “Bumble Fork Tech.” Other classmates thought I was stuck up for wanting something different. Some talked behind my back: I would definitely be mugged, raped, and killed – and, of course, come crawling home. In my final days in Bumble Fork, the woman who developed our film threw in her two cents, too: “New York City. Whaddre yew gonna git there thatcha cain’t git here?”

I never believed them. I couldn’t believe them. Well, maybe I did believe them a little bit about the non-stop muggings and raping free for alls. I was so very green at 18 – purposely and staunchly green. You see, somewhere along the way, I’d picked up the idea that one had to be perfect in order to go to a university in New York City. Perfect meant building a well-rounded high school resume and striving to keep my GPA impeccable. That meant avoiding parties … had I been invited to any. That meant suffering mild strokes each time my grades dipped below a 94 (probably why I was never invited to any).  That also meant no pranks, no drinking, no drugs and no dates. Nothing could spoil my chances of making it to 18 in one piece. I kept myself so naive, I thought “dope” and “pot” were different recreational drugs.

Which is why, that second day of my new life in New York City, I assumed the man sitting next to me was offering me a homemade mini cigarette.

Now, of course, I didn’t smoke. I didn’t really talk to strangers, either. And if I had to be perfectly honest, it looked as though his DIY efforts were shaky. What had he done – watched a 1920s silent film the night before and decided to imitate a speakeasy villain with a home-rolled nicotine stick? And why had he made it so small – were they out of regular-sized cigarette paper at the smoke shop(pe)? And he hadn’t done a very good job smoothing it out, either. The whole thing was quite lumpy. It was nice of him to offer me – a complete stranger – a smoke, but wasn’t he a bit embarrassed to offer something so poorly made? It didn’t even really look like a cigarette; more like a …

(DUH!! A JOINT!!!)

… kid’s Play Dough sculpture of a cigarette, fashioned in an attempt to imitate Mommy and Daddy so the whole family could sit around the porch, swatting no-see-ums and smoking Kools together.

“No, thanks,” I told him, and the instant the words left my mouth, I was dazzled by my own courage. Here I was! In New York City! Sitting on a park bench! Talking to a total and complete stranger!

“You’re not into it. That’s cool,” said the elderly man. He paused to take a puff of his sad little DIY cigarette. He was wearing a paddy cap and a leather jacket.

“You know,” he said. “The smoke is what killed my career.”

He paused. I was clearly meant to respond.

Surely it wouldn’t be courting danger if I were to just talk to him for a little bit. He seemed like such a nice old man. And he’d charmed me with his clumsy efforts to recreate cigarettes of yore.

I took a breath. “Really?”

And then he told me about his days as a jazz musician. Saxophone was his bag, baby. He’d played all over the Northeast, and Chicago, too. He’d played back in the 60′s, when he wasn’t allowed to come in the front entrance with the white musicians. He had to go in through the back. He wore sunglasses at every performance no matter how dark it was in the club because he didn’t need to see the keys. He just felt the music. And as he spoke, I felt lulled – his words a melody in my ears. Above us, the crunchy red and yellow leaves crackled. There was a delicious breeze that ruffled my hair. The jazz band under the Garibaldi statue provided the perfect sound track for his story and I could imagine him, maybe as young as I was, sipping bourbon and blowing into his reed until it cracked.

“Could have made it to New Orleans,” he said. “Coulda made it to St. Louis, too. Except for that darned smoke. The smoke got me into trouble and now, it’s all I got.”

I pondered this. It made sense to me that smoking too much would damage a person’s lungs. Didn’t a sax player need all the wind he could muster? And no one knew in the 60′s that nicotine could cause lung damage. Poor guy.

We parted ways at 6 o’clock – time for dinner at my dorm’s cafeteria.

“You take care, now,” he said. “And if you ever want some of what I got, you know where to find me. You just need a dime, baby. Just a dime.”

Why would anyone charge just a dime for a good story? Something was a bit wrong with both his grasp of economics and his self-esteem.

I must have walked through Washington Square Park tens of thousands of times in my years at NYU, and then when I lived in the rent-stabilized apartment on University Place. I also saw more joints in those 8 years than I could count. But, of course, I never saw him again. The 19th Century Costume guy, I’ve seen a handful of times but never the Ex-Jazz Musician.

I sometimes wonder if I’d even recognize him. I doubt I would. That saddens me. He was, after all, my introduction to life outside of the glass fortress I’d built for myself growing up. He was also my very first Five-Minute Friend in New York City.