Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where Have I Been?

My usual busy day was interrupted Tuesday afternoon by a doctor's appointment, in which I explained a few minor symptoms to my sympathetic physician. When I came to symptom #3 he bounded from the chair he was sitting in and rushed me to the examination room. The cause for his immediate concern was that I told him that I had experience a mysterious swelling on the right side of my face on three occasions recently and once on the left.

I admit that the first thing I noticed when the swelling happened was a little heaviness in the face, and then I thought, "This is beginning to feel as if it's swollen," and then I looked in the mirror and it looked as if I'd had a rather large shot of Novacaine that extended up to the eye and down as far as the upper lip. It lasted a couple of hours and then disappeared--until it returned a week later and once much less, on the left side. It happened again Tuesday morning, too, and there was a little left of the swelling when I arrived at the doctor's office at 1 P.M. At no time did it feel numb or tingly. Just somewhat uncomfortably swollen, but not what you could call painful.

The doctor said, "I'm going to tell you something you won't like..." and I interrupted with a quip. He continued, "I'm going to say you have to go to the Emergency Room of the hospital immediately. I'll put you in a cab." Which he did, and I did; I was admitted to the hospital for tests at 2 P.M. Tuesday and stayed, being tested for every conceivable malady of the heart, blood, and brain until I was checked out yesterday at 3 P.M.

Being in the hospital was a surreal experience, having been thrust there so unexpectedly. While realizing the gravity of the situation I had to apply extreme concentration to hold onto the hope such a situation requires. The atmosphere at Hoboken Medical Center was by turns chaotic, noisy and awesomely efficient. I had an EKG, a CAT Scan, a couple of sonograms which sounded like video games but revealed to the experts the workings of my heartbeats and the clarity of my carotid arteries. I had blood taken at least four times. I had a drip of blood thinner attached to my right wrist. I wore a heart monitor dangling around my neck and attached to various spots on my frontal facade. I had an elderly roommate who made hilarious comments about the staff between her bouts of frightening coughs. I met nice, bright nurses and extremely helpful aides who called me "Mami." The neurogolist on duty examined the results of all my tests and talked to me quite a while, asking me to make faces and hitting me with mallets, ultimately coming to the conclusion that nothing really pointed to a stroke. The cardiologist said my heart was functioning perfectly.

All that had to be done last night was the one test I have dreaded ever since I saw a picture of the machine for the first time some 30 years ago: The MRI.

I have dealt with a slight case of claustrophobia since my early 40s, coupled with a tendency toward panic attacks on bridges and in high places. Tunnels and subways became extremely difficult for me. But in the early 1980s when I saw that picture of an MRI machine I thought, "If I ever have to go in one of those, it's all over, finito."

Over time, most of the phobias have faded. I can do the subway with no fear of the heart-stopping anxiety of the past. I can talk my way over a bridge and through a tunnel, knowing I'm going to come out the other side.

I asked the nurse how long they keep you in the MRI. "I don't know exactly," she said. "Maybe 15 minutes." "Oh, that's better," thinks I. "Fifteen minutes I could do. Just relax, get ready. I'm sure I can take it for 15 minutes."

When they wheeled me down, the MRI operator couldn't have been gentler or more solicitous. He made me feel protected from the big bad machine. He was so nice I thought of him as Tender Mercies, or T.M. Nevertheless there the MRI machine stood, big and sealed-in feeling, and I was scared. T.M. said it sometimes scared people because it makes a lot of noises--well, that's better, I thought. Noises I can deal with.

I asked how long the procedure would take.

"Oh, not long," said T.M. "About 40 minutes."

There was no way I was prepared for that. My time had come. There was nothing for it but just to take a deep breath and try to fill my mind with relaxing thoughts for 40 minutes while not being allowed to move a muscle, much less try to bolt upright and make a run for it. T.M. put a black bulb in my hand and said if I had a panic attack in the machine and wanted out, I could squeeze it at any time. I held onto that bulb for dear life, knowing I would not allow myself to squeeze it, but knowing that I wanted to squeeze it more than anything on earth.

I won't go into the experience of the MRI any more, except to say I could write a book about it. I came away aware I had been through my worst nightmare, and was able to face down my fears. My face was as red as if I'd run the Boston Marathon when I got out, and my first thought was, "I could use a drink about now." They don't serve booze in hospitals, but I promised myself I'd ask for a mild sleeping medication that night, which I did and it was heaven.

I made it--and the upshot was that the test came out negative for any signs of brain malfunction, blood clot, or anything out of the ordinary.

The experience in the hospital was on balance a good one. Now I've learned a little of the routine of a hospital from the inside, which is that everything takes a long time to happen, but the miracles of medicine are impressive and promise only get better and more awesome in coming years. I felt I had my grandmother, whom I never met because she died of a stroke in her early 50s, with me, and I was showing her things she never could have dreamed of--futuristic medicine that might have saved her life. She was a sturdy woman who probably would not have flinched at the MRI machine, as many (maybe most) people just sail through the procedure with little stress.

It was a profound couple of days. I kept thinking I could get some interesting blog posts out of it. The results did not reveal any immediate danger. In fact, if they revealed anything, it was minor and technical and my many new doctors didn't tell me. I've had an adventure or two, and in more ways than one, I can say for sure that I'm finding myself in Hoboken.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Good-Bye To All That

Packing brings up all kinds of conflicts. How much do I really have to have for the rest of my life? How little can I live with? What am I keeping out of affection, and what out of obligation, and what will I miss if I put it in the recycling, the garbage, or give away to a good home? One of my passions in life is cooking and over the years I've built up quite a stash of dishes, bowls, cups, glasses, gadgets, implements, appliances, and just plain junk that relates to food preparation and entertaining. Such items tend to take on a sentimental value that is not easy to explain.

I got rid of tons of this stuff when I relocated from Alabama to New Jersey in the fall of 2007. I had yard sales, sold my car to friends, gave clothes to Goodwill, pared down to the bone and still had two pods to be unloaded into an apartment half the size of my house. Then I moved again in Hoboken, to a smaller apartment, and packed every inch with cartons of clothes and kitchen stuff.

The time has come to prepare for another move. I've getting ready for the closing on a condo down on Madison Street (da ole downtown, as it's known in Hoboken). I'll miss the gentle elegance of the shabby row houses cheek by jowl with groomed brownstones, the yuppie bars on every corner neighboring with a pizza place that's been there over 40 years. Certain delis and watering holes will notice my less frequent visits. But, hell, I'll only be a few blocks away, even though in some ways it feels like another town, almost.

In getting ready (fixin' to start, we say in the South), I am again looking one by one at every object I own and deciding to discard what I'm sure I'll never miss. In one of my heavy boxes of kitchen items I came across the meat grinder pictured above. It's a nice old thing that I know I've had for at least 35 years. I never used it much and I said to myself, "When was the last time you actually used that?" I knew right away, I bought it for a recipe for parties, grinding together raw bacon and cheddar cheese to spread on bread and toast for a delicious, cholesterol-laden appetizer. And when was the last time I served such a heart-stopper to guests? I think it was 1981, when I was living in Geneva and giving a lot of greasy parties. When I had that lightning bolt I realized I'd never serve that particular dish again and kill my friends.

So I picked up the meat grinder to carry it to the curb. I couldn't see putting it in a garbage can. I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but lo and behold, there was a gate sale at the building next door. I waved the meat grinder at them and the young lady sitting on her stoop said "I want that!"

She and the man with her, who was helping with the sale, argued about who would buy it. I'm not clear who prevailed but I came away with $5 for it. She's planning another sale in the future, and I'm going to put some stuff out of it--very nice, good shape, just too much for my new life. It may be next weekend. If you're in the neighborhood, you may just find something you want. And I'll be there to say hello as well. I'll post details here if and when it happens. Goodbye to the old and hello to the new!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Perfect Night for St. Ann

The weather couldn't have been nicer on the 22nd of July. Showers had been predicted but there wasn't a cloud in sight. And yes, that is a French crepe stand on the right. Well, why not? My friends from Old Hoboken might be horrified, but that was then, and this is now.Nice and calm before the crowds ambush the place, cooks work on sausage, peppers and onions, which will go into sandwiches for the roving throngs.There was a line for zeppolis by 7 P.M., before the real crowds got there. There was a line all night--at least til the end of the feast. They may still be out there!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Gates of Glory

Usually a gate is just a door in a fence. In Hoboken, a gate means the whole front yard, small as it is, and, even though the garbage cans are always nearby, a lot of effort is expended in making "the gate" pretty and welcoming.Some gates are simple, with a few boxes of coleus or other colorful, leafy, low maintenance plants. The house speaks for itself, but the gate is like a cheery smile. Sometimes we find a handsome cover for the garbage cans.But usually we don't. What will I do with my gate? Come back to the blog in a few months and I'll show you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Passing Muster and Moving In

That's the front of the building, just few doors up from Hoboken's favorite clam house. It's been painted, the interiors renovated, and this morning I met with the inspector to get approval on the condo on the first floor.
A neighbor told me that my apartment used to be occupied by a sweet old couple, who had outdoor furniture out here where they could sit every evening and greet neighbors passing by. It wouldn't take much to put a few plants, cover the garbage cans, put a chair or two or a bench, and set up shop as the neighborhood chatterbox, keeping an eye on the comings and goings.

I'm not moved in yet. But I confess that the kitchen was what won me over to the tiny, 625-sq.-ft. apartment. It may have once been a commercial venture, a little mom-and-pop storefront, but whoever did the renovation knew just what would appeal to me. The whole place centers on that kitchen, not overdone but brought completely up to date, with enough workspace, storage, and all the appliances I could use except maybe for a wine fridge and one of those spiffy new coffeemakers, both of which I can gift to myself as a moving-in present. I admit I've never been a fan of granite countertops, particularly the multicolored, mottled, and always dirty-looking kind, but these are black, and let's face it, you can whack meat with your meat mallet, open jars by slamming them top down (I once broke a jar that way, but never mind), and there are other uses for granite. I can get used to it. I can put a couple of stools at that counter and visitors will have a place to watch me at work.
It's a pleasant little place, with lots of natural light and access to a space in the back yard. Here we're looking out the front way, from the bedroom. The building inspector gave it high marks, so if all goes well I'll close before the end of next month and move in. Wait til you see it with my furniture in it!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Word for Hoboken

In Eat, Pray Love, her fraught, funny, moving memoir of a woman's search for herself in specific geographical areas, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a discovery with the help of a couple in Rome. The husband, a native of the city, tells her that every location can be summed up in one word. This one word defines the identity of the city itself, it motivates its people; it pinpoints the essence of the people and their commerce. In Rome, he says, the word is sex.

Gilbert loves Rome, and she sees what he means. In Rome, lives seem to be designed for sex, to look sexy, to feel sexy, to experience all the sex they can as they go through the other motions of their lives. Every other pastime is secondary; sex is what it's all about.

In the discussion, of course, the talk turns to Paris. No question, the word for Paris is "love." If you've ever walked the streets of Paris, strolled its bridges and looked down by the Seine, you expect to see Gene Kelly dancing his halting love-dance with the lissome young Leslie Caron. You don't, but you see lovers canoodling on benches, nuzzling against cobblestone walls, groping in every darkened corner. Eating a meal in any restaurant in Paris, you see lovers in deep conversation and intimate eye-locks over their bisteacks and red wine. Love is the ultimate Paris experience.

She turns the conversation to New York. Undoubtably there is one word for New York. ACHIEVE. The city has so much to offer, so much to take, so much to savor, but it begs its people to achieve. It's in the atmosphere. You almost feel guilty if you're not achieving, but something in air of the city makes you feel you are anyway.

I decided to choose the word for cities I knew. New Orleans, even after Katrina, has its word: Enjoy. It's hard to do anything else in New Orleans, and that's okay. Fun is the business and the currency of the city.

When I got to Hoboken, I was stumped for a while. What one activity pervades my newly adopted burg? What cuts through all classes, all personalities, all ages, styles and occupations of its citizens? What gets us all up in the morning? There must be one word.

It took some thinking, observing the discarded cartons in front of brownstones and bars alike. There was an unmistakable fragrance of tomato, cheese and garlic. There was a theme, a raison d'etre shared by the yuppies, old folks on their stoops and middle-aged smartass newbies like me. In that moment I realized the word for Hoboken. Pizza.

If you have any other suggestions, please make a comment.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Economy: Me To the Rescue

It may not look like much from the outside, but with a little help from me, the condo on the first floor of this 1900 row house in Hoboken's old "downtown" neighborhood, is about to do its part in rescuing the sagging U.S. economy. Come on, America, we've all got to do our part.

In recent days I heard it said that the stimulus money sent to taxpayers a few months ago wasn't being spent fast enough to help. Then I remembered the $250 that had been transferred to my bank account in the name of reversing the recession. I hadn't spent mine. I had planned to do it all at once; to go out the week I got it and buy $250 worth of American products from a little mom-and-pop American shop. Hoboken is full of them, and I knew the proprietors would enjoy my enthusiasm. But instead the money went to my bank and stayed there.

Now is the time I'm gonna react. The recovery has slowed down and I'm about to stimulate it on my own. I'm getting a mortgage and I'm going to pay some movers, and I'm going to have to buy all kinds of big ticket items (including that new thing, a washer-dryer all in one) to make myself comfortable. I'm going to spend a heck of a lot more than the $250.

You see in the picture above the exterior of the little building. It's four floors and I have nabbed the apartment on the ground level with the picture window. This also offers easy access to the shared back yard. I'll be in the Homeowners' Association, in this case being about three other people, where I'll try to effect some renovations, landscaping, and maybe removal of the aluminum siding that covers the place now (to sell it, the current owners have already painted over the red with an off-white accented in tan. I assume there are bricks beneath that). A gorgeous new door and removal of the awning would be an improvement. Hope my fellow condo-owners can be persuaded to go along with me.

My condo is move-in ready, but I may invest in a few customizing touches, and will definitely have to buy some storage-type furniture. Wait til you see pictures of my apartment--first empty (BEFORE) and later AFTER, meaning after I've filled it up!

I will admit that my main purpose in this move is not that I'll stimulate the economy. It was time to get out of a fourth-floor walkup and explore a new neighborhood in my new found town. Down on lower Madison Street--just around the corner from the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and a score of other second-generation Italian-Americans--I'll put down roots and become a native. Almost. I know a lot of stories about that part of town and expect to learn many more. There is an elderly lady who runs a garage sale every weekend out of the building next door; I understand she has connections to a prominent family, including a former mayor.

If I play my cards right, maybe I can get her to help me unload some of my excess stuff and stimulate the economy at the same time.