Sunday, January 27, 2013

Of Pitbull, Presley, and Pascal’s Wager

"I'm not trying to pick you up," she began, and from long experience I knew what was coming next. It was an older woman, so she was going to comment on my hair.

"But you have very nice hair." I looked up and smiled. "And eyes."

Three hours later I staggered out of Starbucks, the weight of seven decades piggybacking me out onto the snowdrifted sidewalk. Jackson Heights shone bright after a marathon session in the dim cafe, and my head resounded with tales of earthquakes, murder and Mick Jagger.

Ellen was from a Greek island, one of the Ionians—the "Seven Islands," she called them, though there are many more than seven. Aristotle Onassis had owned one of them, Skorpios, in Greece's better days, though by the time he and Jackie O had tied their knot Ellen was long gone, riding the trade winds (and a convenient family marriage) to the States.

Her family had owned a beautiful house in Greece—her eyes glinted with memories as she described it to me—which they'd abandoned after an earthquake, Ellen claimed, had split the earth open as she watched.

She recalled the foreshocks, her mother collecting Ellen and her siblings and herding them outside.

"The neighbors said 'You're crazy,'" she said, smirking at the recollection. She sat back in her chair, staring back in time and across the Atlantic. Her mother was justified: in the orchard where they took refuge, they were free from the cascading dangers of that family manse.

There was a definite nostalgia to her Greek memories, but she hasn't returned since 1995. "I don't have any family anymore. I don't know anybody"—and besides, the country isn't exactly the most appealing destination at the moment. Greece's recent economic troubles have dried up the tourist faucet and her professorial sister, who takes a group of students for a month in Greece every January, faced an empty signup sheet this year.

There weren't any terrorists. Greece wasn't a dangerous place. But to the well-heeled traveler a poor place, like a poor person, is usually suspect.

It was a long, twisted tale, her life in Greece and the United States, but as soon as I heard her entree into my consciousness I knew I'd better strap in. My hair—which my kids in the Philippines mocked as bastos, rude, for its frizzled unruliness—has been the impetus for more conversations with women than any other aspect of my life, be it physical, professional or dispositional. Granted, the women are always at least twice my age—with no upper limit.

"My hair used to be down to here," I told her, tapping my shoulder. "College."

She shook her head disapprovingly at that. "You're too young to be of the 60s."

Even so, she appreciated that I lacked a shorn head, and she insisted that there were more bald men today than in her youth. She glanced around the cafe, probably making sure there were no bald men in the vicinity, and told me that she had her own suspicions as to why male baldness was so prevalent in our modern age.

I leaned in closer.


I raised my eyebrows.

She nodded to herself. Hats.

Her own hair was a fine red ochre, transitioning to grey near the roots. Medium length in the back, shorter in front, providing a clear stage for the very definition of a hooked nose. She told me she was probably the same age as Mick Jagger who, I discovered later, turns 70 this year. I counted backwards from Ellen’s earthquake story. She was exactly right.

A brief discourse on Mick Jagger.

Ellen preferred Elvis Presley to the rockers of the 60s. She shook her head in rapturous wonder at the thought of his voice, his swinging hips, and his peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

("You know about those?" she asked me, and cackled when I nodded Yes. She was tickled when I revealed that I was from Mississippi.

"Where Elvis was born! In—"

"Tupelo," I finished for her. Our friendship was cemented at that moment.)

Even so, she told me about watching the big guns of the past few decades belt out their tunes at Sandy relief concerts, marveling that Paul McCartney ‘s voice had hardly changed and that old Mick was still such a showman with his tight pants, stringy hair and finger-in-a-wall-socket dance moves.

Speaking of electroshocks—but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ellen also had a soft spot for doo-wop, and as she named her favorite singers—none of whom I recognized—I could hear the strains of long-gone voices harmonizing. She struggled to remember one name: he sang this, looked like this, what was his name...?

"Frankie Lymon," asserted the man sitting to my right, who had been stuffing envelopes with what looked to be a homemade basketball newsletter, Something Something Roundball, and had spread his laptop, paper-phernalia and various foods and drinks across most of our shared table and the two northernmost thirds of the sofa.

"Frankie Lymon!" Ellen pointed a gnarled finger at the roundball man, gleefully gathering him into our conversation.

Later we became a foursome with the addition of Judy, a Jackson Heights contemporary of Ellen's. The two women shared a distaste for rap ("black music"), but there was one rapper Ellen liked. It was one of those quirks of aesthetic taste that I will never understand but which undoubtedly make the world a richer and weirder place.

Her favorite rapper is Pitbull.

On to Judy, who had a long history with Ellen that started, like most friendships, with an amalgamation of meats.

"Wait'll I tell you about the hotdog cart!" Ellen told me after Judy had sat down with us. At this point I finally stopped saving my place in the book I was reading and settled back for the long haul.

Judy had owned a hotdog cart back in the 80s. It was a heavy contraption that she stored in a nearby garage—not hers—and lugged out to a street corner to feed the good people of Woodside. (This was pre-Jackson Heights; she and Ellen had both lived in Woodside at this point.) Or rather, she didn't lug it out—it was too heavy for her—so she'd paid Ellen's son to do the lugging. The wage was two dollars.

I expected more to the story, but that was pretty much it. The hotdog tale was not as riveting as I'd hoped it would be. In retrospect, having any kind of hopes for a story about hotdogs, hotdog carts or hotdog cart storage seems to be setting oneself up for disappointment.

Anyway, they'd struck up a faint acquaintanceship through Ellen's son, but had lost all contact after first one and then the other left Woodside and settled separately in the westerly lands of Jackson Heights.

(Following the move, Ellen had witnessed—as much as anyone had witnessed—the infamous murder of Julio Rivera in 1990. From her apartment window “I saw a young man dressed in white—white shirt, white pants—crossing himself like a Catholic.” He’d turned a corner, and from out of eyeshot she heard a scream. The murder weapons, she told me, were a screwdriver and a hammer. On this point, she and the New York Times differ.)

Many years into their lives in the Heights, Ellen and Judy had met again in this very Starbucks. Ellen was holding court from my corner of the couch ("If he gets up you'll see my name on the seat,” she told the room at large) and recognized Judy, who didn't reciprocate and needed to have their history recounted before her memory was sufficiently jogged.

Throughout our conversation Ellen had referenced her pictorial long-term memory more than once, and I believed her: aside from the Frankie Lymon slip, she'd reeled off dates and places and names at an impressive pace.

"But my short-term..." she said, trailing off, opening a hand as if to let a flock of memories fly off to other worlds. Was she going to tell me why? Of course she was.

"Do you know how many shock treatments I had?" she asked. Having no idea what number was polite to guess—it felt like predicting somebody's weight—I stayed silent. "Forty-seven. Forty-seven shock treatments. And you know what, my whole time in the hospital is a blank. I don't remember any of it."

She'd suffered from depression in the mid-90s, when first her father and then her mother passed away within a year of each other. "There were other things too," she said, waving those other things away, clearly not comfortable talking about them.

So now she had a small vacuum in her prodigious recall.

Judy mentioned, rather smugly I thought, a friend of hers who had benefited from shock therapy. Ellen wasn't interested in arguing the point. Even with the blank page in her history, she still remembered the minutiae of her life, from that Ionian earthquake to her husband's death just a few years ago.

He'd been hospital-bound, undone by the asbestos he'd inhaled as a floorer. (Mesothelioma. Inoperable.)

Her sons were adults then, sibling opposites. Mark, the sensitive one, had a business operating payphones in New York, and as his father languished, his business was also dying. (Cellphones. Convenient.) One night he prepared to head for his office from the hospital. The physician had told him his father would die the next day.

Ellen shrugged. "How did they know? The doctor just told us, 'We know.'"

Mark hit the button for the elevator, heard the beep from a text message on his cellphone, and rushed back to his unconscious father's side. The message read "Go see your father." It was from the father. He died within minutes.

"He'd probably sent that message dozens of times before—'Go see your father.' But it wasn't saved in Mark’s phone then. It just popped up that night." Ellen said, "I'm not religious, but you just don't know."

"That's why it's better to believe than not," Judy told us. Judy was something of a know-it-all. "If you believe in God and He's not real, you don't lose anything. But if you don't believe and there is a God, you could lose everything."

From Pitbull to Pascal's Wager, all within one slow coffee.

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