Adventures in Loss

She was the first artist I knew. She was a painter. She made her living oil painting over the portraits my grandfather, a photographer, took in his Brooklyn studio. Their business was called Vega Photography.

She was the first chef I knew. When I was a child, her visits were hotly anticipated. She arrived bearing the gooiest and most delectable rocky road fudge you could ever imagine. Frankly, you couldn’t imagine it. Human imagination could never grasp such godly, culinary ecstasy. The fact that she made rocky road seems apropos. She always found sweetness in and around hardships.

Janet was born in Harlem. Her birthday was my half birthday. My half birthday was her birthday.

She played basketball in high school. Baller. FullSizeRender

She began dating Robert, my grandfather-to-be, when she was 18 years old. He was a photographer in the Army. They met at a dance. He drove her home. When he leaned in to kiss her, she slapped him.

Shortly thereafter, they started dating.

Shortly thereafter, Pearl Harbor was hit.

Robert was to be sent overseas, except a funny thing happened on the way to war. At the end of his final medical check-up, the doctor hesitantly asked, “Robert, I’m not supposed to ask things like this, but are you by any chance dating a girl named Janet Axelrad over in Bensonhurst?”

“I am,” Robert said. “I’m gonna marry her, and we’re gonna start a family too. As soon as I get back from the war.”

The doctor subsequently diagnosed Robert with flat feet. Accurately, I might add. Robert was never sent overseas. Instead, he remained stationed stateside, first in Colorado Springs, then in Oklahoma City, then in Kansas City. The doctor ensured that Robert could stay with Janet, which he did, marry her, which he did, and raise a family with her, which he did.

The doctor turned out to be Janet’s cousin.

As for the ship Robert was meant to deploy on?

It was torpedoed in the South Pacific and sank.

Janet married Robert at age 20, and had my father, Lee, at age 22. Four years later, she had my uncle, Cliff.

She was a first generation American, the daughter of Polish immigrants Harry and Gussie Axelrad. Harry opened and operated Cathedral Bar & Grill on Christopher Street. It is now an Italian restaurant called Gaetana’s. The floor tiles Harry laid down a century ago remain. I often wonder if he imagined his great-grandson would one day stand on those very tiles.

Harry spoke Polish, German, English, and Yiddish. The usage of Yiddish would decrease with each passing generation, though my parents never failed to tuck me in without a Schluff Gezunt. “Sleep well.”

Janet was a Modern-Orthodox Jew. She kept a Kosher kitchen. As a kid, I could never comprehend why she had so many plates.

Janet and Robert left Brooklyn for West Palm Beach in 1983, shortly before I was born.

A few years ago, I visited Robert’s sister Annette, who was still living in the Brooklyn home where Robert grew up. In the basement, I stumbled upon my grandfather’s dark room, still intact from the 1950’s. I took pieces of paper off the walls with handwritten quotes, as well as hundreds of paper scraps that I later spent a year piecing together, forming both a 19th century Dutch shipping calendar, which I kept for myself, and an early 20th century map of Brooklyn, which I had framed and gave to my father on his 70th birthday. Annette passed away and the house was demolished shortly after my visit.

My grandfather called Janet “Red.” Her big red mane was unmistakable and unavoidable. I was a perpetual disappointment to her strictly because my own red hair became increasingly brown with every passing year. FullSizeRender_1

“Where’s your red?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“Are you dyeing your hair?”

“No, Grandma.”

“Why is your hair getting so dark?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“You know you really should stop dyeing it. It makes you special. Let your red come out to play.”

She never called me Michael. She called me, “My Michael.” I never knew exactly why. But I always liked the fact that she claimed some kind of ownership over me. I was in good hands.

I remember celebrating Janet and Robert’s 50th Wedding Anniversary at my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Robert died shortly before my Bar Mitzvah.

Unable to find a conservative temple in her area, Janet founded one herself. This is where she met her second husband, Harry Wolovitz. They were together for 5 years before he passed.

In 2010, due to declining health, Janet moved to California to be closer to my Dad. She lived in an assisted living home called Alma Via, a few doors down from the grandfathers of my friends Marissa and Jena. In her final days, she had dementia, one leg, and a tumor on her face. But she never complained. She continued to laugh. I loved her laugh. Her eyes would squint and her voice would crack and it was the cutest darn thing you ever did see.

The thing I’ll remember most about Janet is how we would look at each other from across a room. In the afternoons at Alma Via, Janet would park her wheel chair in the common area. Clusters of people in wheelchairs would surround her. While their eyes would glue to the TV screen, Janet’s eyes would gaze out the windows at the flowers and the sunshine.

Whenever I would visit her at Alma Via, I’d peek my head around the corner of the common area and stare at her until her eyes found mine. Sometimes it would take a few minutes, but it was always worth it. She would discover me, then stare at me blankly for a few moments. Then a smile would slowly creep across her face. Her eyes would twinkle. And we’d stay there for a few minutes, just smiling at each other from across a room.

The last time I saw her, we stared at each other for what felt like 50 years. Eventually I approached her.

“My Michael,” she said, slowly. “Where’s your red?”

I tapped my heart and smiled.

Then she tapped her heart and smiled.

Schluff Gezunt, Red.

____________________

Janet Axelrad Schwartz

1923-2017

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Adventures In Meeting Your Childhood Heroes

I lost two of my childhood heroes in the last year:

Robin Williams and Gene Wilder.

I met Robin Williams when I was 10 years old.

Robin Williams was the The Pied Piper of my hometown, Marin County.

He was my fellow Redwood Giant.

I used to memorize his stand-up routines in high school and perform them for friends.

He tried teaching me to do a wheelie once on the set of “Jack” down the street from my house. I failed miserably.

He picked me back up and smiled and wheelied away with a cackle, sending me a photo and a note in the mail a few weeks later.

He was always so generous and so kind.

I met Gene Wilder about 5 years ago.

I was the bartender in the Presidential Suite at the US Open. (Never mind that at the time, I had never made a drink in my life – for myself let alone celebrities and international heads of state. But still, with a bit of mischief, I said sure, I can do that.)

It was a loud, boisterous scene. Mr. Wilder, one of my top five childhood idols, approached me. Quietly. Slowly. He walked with a cane, but no surprise tumbles were to come.

I want to say he ordered a soda water.

He kept his eyes on me as I made him his drink. Quietly. Intently. I’m no good at making conversation with my heroes, so I responded in the same manner. Quietly. Intently.

Images flashed across my mind. 7 year old me on stage, playing Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka. 9 year old me at home, wearing out VHS tapes of Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.

I handed him his beverage. He promptly took his wallet out of his pocket.

I said, “Oh no, sir. That won’t be necessary.” Tips were prohibited.

He paused to smile at me. A Mona Lisa smile. It felt as if he was studying me, discovering me. Or maybe he was letting me discover him.

He slowly turned his wallet upside down, holding it high above the bar. Then, he opened it wide. A few singles fell like feathers. Silence. He paused and smiled a little wider. He maintained eye contact with me. I was locked in his gaze.

Then, a few coins dropped out. Plop, Plop. Plop….Plop.

It was like a clown routine. Grace and perfect timing never eluded him.

He put his wallet back in his pocket, took my hand, then held it in his own.

“Sir, that won’t be necessary,” I repeated.

He glanced down for a moment, but only to look at my name tag. He looked back up.

“Michael. It’s very necessary.”

I could barely breathe. In his hands I felt play, vitality, honor, mischief. Great, lovely, wonderful mischief.

He released my hand, pushed $4.63 across the bar, nodded his head, then walked away.

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Thank you, Mr. Wilder.
We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.
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Thank you, Mr. Williams.
All my love to you, poppet.

Adventures In Sitting Silently And Enjoying The Music With Grandma

I approached my Grandmother and sat beside her.
It had been too long since I had seen her last.
She was slowly eating her lunch while a woman played a waltz at the piano nearby.
My grandmother stared at me blankly for a good 20 seconds.
Then she began to cry.
Then I began to cry.
Then through our tears, we had a brief exchange:
Hello.
Hello.
(Pause.)
Do you know who I am?
No.
Do you know my name?
No.
Michael.
Michael? Michael, Michael, Michael.
I’m named after your mother, Mamie.
Mamie? Mamie, Mamie, Mamie.
I’m your grandson. You know Madeline?
Yes.
That’s my mother. You’re my grandmother.
Yes.
It’s so good to see you.
Thank you. Thank you, Thank you.
You look so beautiful.
Thank you. That makes me feel good.
Good.
(Pause.)
I’m worried.
About what?
I don’t want to get lost.
(Pause.)
I’m right here with you.
Thank you.
I know you can smile.
I hope I still can.
Here. I’ll smile with you.
(Pause. Smiles.)
Thank you for talking to me for these few minutes.
My pleasure.
(Pause.)
I don’t know what to say.
You don’t need to say anything. We can just sit here together for a few minutes and enjoy the music.
(And so we did.)

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Adventures In Physical Activity

I played sports my entire childhood.

Up until age 9, that is. Because at age 10, I became a man.

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My older brother and me. Please note that I’M the one wearing a soccer shirt, THANK YOU.

At age 10, I discovered tap dancing.

While my brothers continued to play point guard in basketball and goalie in soccer, I continued to play center with my triple winged time step and power forward with my flap ball change. They watched Gene Banks. I studied Gene Kelly. They worshiped DeJuan Blair. I bowed to Fred Astaire.

My brothers would tease me. They’d say I’d never get in shape if I didn’t take up a real sport. But I so strongly remember one time, in the 7th grade, when my friends and I sat around my bedroom drinking Smirnoff Ice, and we all went around the circle and verbally acknowledged everyone’s best feature – “Adam, you have such beautiful eyes”, “Sam, you have such gorgeous hair” – that after a mild Pinter pause, everyone agreed, “Michael…you have such great…calves. Yea, like, your calf muscles…are really defined.”

Nevermind that I never wore shorts because I was so self conscious about my thigh eczema. Clearly all the better, because my triceps surae were so impressive that they indented my baggy Pacific Sun jeans. And how do you think I got them holy calf muscles? TAP DANCING.

By the 8th grade, I got so cocky about my amazing calf muscles that I signed up for the school’s 50 yard dash competition to place in the county track meet. Nailed it. First place. Sprinting away from my Dad and his giant wooden spoon every time I put my pet rats on the sleeping babysitter’s face was really paying off.

Unfortunately our PE teacher signed me up for the wrong race in the county meet. He placed me in competition for the 600 meter. See I was only a sprinter, an unusually tall boy with a large stride and the immediate burst of energy needed to leap through 50 yards in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t do long distance! I saw Sleepless in Seattle! It almost never works out! And since my dismissal of team sports occurred a few years prior, I didn’t own a pair of athletic shoes that made it through my growth spurt.

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Trick # 1 To Not Showing Your Belly When All The Other Guys Are Shirtless: “Hey man, I’m just gonna keep this life preserver on. It’s so cozy!”

So I rolled up to the county wide track meet in my Capezio Capri’s and Stussy slip-ons and went boldly for the gold, my jock brothers finally cheering me on from the sidelines. Sure enough, for the first 20 seconds, I took the lead. Then one by one, each runner passed me by, until 40 meters from the finish line, Petey, the mentally handicapped boy from my class, skipped past me, glanced back, and shouted, “Sucka”.

I crawled my way past the finish line and fell to my knees panting, my life-long vertigo induced to skyrocketing levels. I looked over at the stands. My brothers were gone. As the rain clouds crept in, canceling the rest of the day’s competitions, I sat under the bleachers alone, the soles of my skater shoes withered to shreds, eating the biggest basket of Nachos you’ve ever seen, all the while lamenting my poor, fat existence. But please don’t feel too sorry for me. The nachos had cheese from the can. THE BEST KIND.

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Trick # 2 To Not Showing Your Belly When All The Other Guys Are Shirtless: “Hey man, I’m just gonna keep this heavy, soaking shirt on in 100 degree weather because isn’t this color just awesome?”

Despite that early bout of foolishness, I learned to know my limits and trust my gut. Well, except for that one time on my Jewish confirmation trip to Israel when the other boys convinced me that 60 seconds of hyperventilation followed by strict breath holding as they charged my chest would help me produce better abdominal muscles. Suffice to say, I came to on the floor surrounded by hyena like laughter. I was merely a pawn in the Israeli scam version of the Slendertone Vibrating Ab Belt.

I did have the last laugh one time. River kayaking was a summer staple for my family. A few years after being crowned the Great Patsy of Israel, I hiked out of the Grand Canyon following a week-long tumble down the Colorado River. I beat my father and my older brother out of the canyon by nearly two hours, in 105 degree heat with 40 pounds on my back no less. When my brother finally reached the top and spotted me sipping a Piña Colada in the gift shop, he exclaimed, “I can still kick your ass, fattie.”

He was right. By the end of high school, I had put on a few pounds. I used to blame the decade’s use of Zoloft that I was prescribed, ever since my Mom diagnosed me with childhood depression in the womb, but I knew it was really the incessant consumption of ice cream while watching Melrose Place marathons that led to my inflation.

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Trick # 3 To Not Showing Your Belly When All The Other Guys Are Shirtless: “Hey man, I’m just gonna hide behind you in the shadows because my body needs to cool off like woah.”

I started dancing more. I started dancing hard. So hard, that I broke my wrists freshman year of college at USC. When I called up my brother from the hospital, he asked if I had finally tried out for the football team. I regretfully had to inform him that I in fact broke my wrists doing leap frogs over my director while rehearsing “Kansas City” from Oklahoma. The orthopedist said he had never heard a manlier cause of fracture in the history of medicine.

Dancing did me good, though. By senior year of college, I lost 65 pounds. No conscious change of diet or activity. I simply continued to dance, because I loved it, and it made me happy. My parent’s didn’t buy it though. On numerous occasions, they sat me down to tell me to lay off the cocaine. I reassured them that I had never done drugs in my life. My father the doctor told me he did a lot of cocaine research in New York City in the 60’s. He knew the signs. I air quoted “cocaine research” right back at him. He said, “No, no, you have to believe me.” And I said, “Right. You have to believe me. I’m just dancing. And be thankful that I’m not air quoting “dancing” too.”

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Can you spot me? Better yet, CAN YOU SPOT THE CAST ON MY HAND?

I did have one misstep in college, however. Senior year, I played the alcoholic Harry in the school musical, Company, while taking all advanced level classes, choreographing for the school dance company, directing and producing the play The Shape Of Things, editing my thesis film, and assisting the Development Exec of a major Hollywood studio. Even Noah himself would have said from the ark, “Hey kid, take a break.”

So an hour before opening night, bleary eyed from final exams prep, I drank a Red Bull. Or two. Rather quickly, my vertigo reached Hitchcockian heights. I couldn’t see straight. I didn’t know which way was up. And I was just about to go on stage in front of a packed house of family, friends, teachers, and industry professionals. Now if you don’t know the show, Harry is on stage for the first 30 minutes, singing in the opening number, downing brownies and alcohol, then doing kung fu and back flips before singing an emotional ballad called, “Sorry/Grateful”.

On opening night, I was only sorry. Thankfully, I did not throw up all over the orchestra as anticipated. So I was certainly grateful for that. I made it through, tears streaming down my face be damned. One friend said to me after the show, “Were you really drunk up there tonight? God you’re SO method.” I then approached the director, my college mentor, with profuse embarrassment and shame. He told me I was fine. Barely anyone noticed. Don’t make such a big deal. Move on.

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The track suit that mocked me.

I remember feeling angry with him for a moment. Where was the consolation, the ounce of sympathy? But he was right. Despite all the physical and emotional turmoil I had that night, I made it through. I did the flips. I ate the brownies. I sang on key, for the most part. Obstacles are merely there to be overcome. That’s how we grow. That’s how we survive. I learned my lesson.

Well, until my last birthday, when I had a Vodka Red Bull with lasagna at dinner, then proceeded to spend four hours dry heaving in the corner of the handicapped women’s bathroom stall at the Maritime Hotel in New York City, while fifty friends waited awkwardly outside. Fun Fact: Women’s handicapped stalls are the biggest stalls imaginable. So spacious. I was just about ready to pay rent. So, Ok, fine. Push forward. Own your choices. Do your best.

Just don’t drink Red Bull.

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