How You Do It

“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.   

“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said.  “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes.    What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me.   He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’  I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day.  That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.  

“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive.  Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain.  Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water.  It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”  

“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said.  “I like that.  A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer:   ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’  It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”    

“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.  

“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong.   I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said.  “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”

“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.  

“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul.  He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said.   “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”

“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat.  He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat.   He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.  

“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.  

“Yiss,” he said.  

“And he always kept a dog.”  We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.

“Yiss,” my brother said.


How It’s Done

Our cat is dying of kidney disease, it’s chronic and incurable.  The vet told us we could keep him around for a while by sticking a needle into the skin of his back every day, attached to a line and a bag of liquid, and pumping some hydration into him.  In his experience, he said, cats in The Baron’s condition usually live six months to two years.   The Baron has only one kidney, it was discovered recently, but he’s been doing pretty well on the cat dialysis. [1]  Once he starts losing weight, the vet told us, the end is approaching.   

He lost his appetite back in June, a month or so into his kidney treatments.  The vet prescribed a drug called Mirtazapine, developed as an anti-depressant for humans, that is a known appetite stimulant for dogs and cats.  The Baron will not be forced to take a pill, but a vet tech, after wrestling with the determined cat to give him a pill, told us this drug also comes in a transdermal form, you rub it into the skin.   The only place a cat has skin is the pinna, the furless area inside each ear.   Presumably the pads of the feet are also skin, but the cat or dog would lick it off and the drug would not have the desired effect. 

We ordered the transdermal Mirtazapine from a formulary in Arizona, and after a stressful week or two of hassles,  the cat listless and eating very little, spoke directly to the pharmacist, Ashley, who was great.  She contacted the cat’s vet and immediately formulated the proper dose for his age and weight.  It arrived shortly after, in a pen that dispenses a perfect dose of the goop.  I massaged a small gob into his pinna, and soon his old appetite was back.   He gets the drug every three days, and his appetite and weight have been consistent.  The hydration, the cat dialysis [1], has been working pretty well so far and his quality of life is pretty good.  If you didn’t know he had a punched one-way ticket on the death express you’d think he was fine.   

He still cuddles affectionately with his female slave, Sekhnet, once all the lights are out, and he still puckishly claws and bites the hand of his male slave, when it lingers too long after giving him some treats or for the intolerable crime of attempted petting.  I sometimes point out to him that he is literally biting the hand that feeds him, but he glares at me so there will be no mistake: there’s more bloodshed in my immediate future if I continue trying to talk irony with him.  I have the scrimshaw on my hands and forearms to prove I’m not making this up.  Sekhnet always gets a good laugh out of my squeal of shock every time I repeat this timeless ritual with the imperious [2], well-armed Baron and get slashed by a fishing hook claw or cobra fang tooth – an always amusing example of the unlearned lessons of history, I suppose. 

The Mirtazapine pen was marked “Days supply 180”.  60 doses, three days apart.  I keep a chart on the wall to keep track of how many doses we give him and we were up to dose 45.  But the pen was empty.  I emailed Ashley, succinctly stating the facts and what we needed, trying not to sound peevish, and she got right on it.  The drug was formulated and in the mail overnight.   

Naturally, there was no explanation or any hint of an apology.  This is standard operating procedure in our culture, so it was no surprise.  The important thing was that we had the drug the next day, overnighted for the regular shipping cost.  Skaynes got his dose, a day and a half late, but, sure enough, his appetite returned. 

Here’s the thing that tickled and irritated me, both.   The information on the label on the new pen was identical to the printing on the first.  Only one detail was gone.  “Days supply 180”.  No promise, no basis for complaint for broken promise.  Like the uncertain duration of life itself, there was now no promise made, once it was pointed out that the earlier promise had been as solid and unimpeachable as a tweet from our current commander-in-chief.

[1] Sekhnet who is “in the business of accuracy”, as she says, points out that this is not dialysis in any sense of the word.  The cat’s blood is not purified by the process, he is merely getting hydration that relieves some of the stress on his kidney.

[2]  I get a great kick out of dictionary definitions sometimes.  My favorite is the great definition of “squeamish” from the dictionary I had in high school.   “Exhibiting a prudish readiness to be nauseated.”   Fucking genius.   I can’t accurately quote a line of Shakespeare, even those I love the most, but, like many TV commercials heard as a kid that I can recite verbatim, I’ll never forget that great definition.

I looked up “imperious” just now, since I am also in the business of accuracy, and before a great series of synonyms describing the Baron’s attitude toward his staff, was this thought-provoking definition: 

assuming power or authority without justification; arrogant and domineering.

“his imperious demands”

synonyms:  peremptory, commanding, imperial, high-handed, overbearing, overweening, domineering, authoritarian, dictatorial, autocratic, authoritative, lordly, assertive, bossy, arrogant, haughty, presumptuous 

What I love is the “without justification”.   Isn’t human history a continuous bloody scroll of those who assume power and authority without justification?   

Kings ruled by Divine Right, God gave them their indisputable powers, no matter how they came to the throne, God himself justified their bossiness.  Likewise hereditary ruling pricks like Barons and Lords derived their power from long custom, backed by force of arms.  The power to kill you, or have you whipped, is a pretty convincing justification for assuming power and authority, I guess.  “The consent of the governed” is the current fiction in democracy, but as far as “justification” look no further than these universally despised, or at least supremely disappointing, folks we have out there exercising power and authority, torturing some folks in our name and deciding how many poor people will need to die early so the super-rich can be even richer.

On a Lighter Note

Our thirteen year-old cat, Skaynes, recently diagnosed with a fatal and irreversible disease, chronic renal failure, just hopped up on to his feeding post and looked at me expectantly.   His appetite has been spotty lately, but he still shakes us down for treats, even if he doesn’t always eat them.  I took a break from thoroughly cleaning his litter boxes to find out what he wanted as a snack.

I took down the box of his various treats, and, as I offered the first to him, he sunk his grey fangs into my wrist.  I pointed out to him that he was literally biting the hand that was trying to feed him, but he was unimpressed.  He bit my wrist again, by way of reply.  He bit it every time I tried to place his treat in front of him.  We often refer to him as The Baron.  This was certainly baronial behavior, it seems to me.  

Thinking of fucking barons, those born booted and spurred to ride and rape the rest of us, reminded me of this lighter note, such as it is.

Farmers used to love Thomas Jefferson, they saw him as a fellow farmer.  I heard a quote of old TJ’s yesterday, a wonderful quote by the old agrarian.  

“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.” [1]

I know it’s wrong, and I couldn’t help myself, but I started thinking of the rest of the quote, lost to posterity:  “and I should know, bitch, I own more than three hundred of them!”  

Just then his beautiful half-sister-in-law (his wife and her had the same white father) and long-time mistress Sally, a piece of his personal property, in both senses of the word, walked by.  

“Got to go now, bitches,” said the Author of Liberty with a wink, a man way, way ahead of his time.


[1]   It goes without saying (he said) that Jefferson held this truth to be as self-evident as the proposition that all men are created equal.

Death sneaks in again

It is sometimes tempting to call the workings of our corporate world evil.  A ninety year-old woman, until her recent broken hip fiercely independent, lives out her last days in a bare bones hospital ward where her needs are ignored, though she is kept miserably alive, her tab paid by Medicaid.   There may or may not be a government agency that can help her.  Sekhnet and I lack legal standing to advocate for her, though I got two numbers today that may allow Margaret to advocate for herself.    

The ACA, which right-wing zealots and “Birthers” are still bent on abolishing as an illegitimate “Negro” plan, mandates that low income citizens buy private insurance on their state’s health exchange.  New York State of Health Marketplace was designed by Kafka, during an LSD nightmare.  The agency is run by an unaccountable political appointee director (Donna Frescatore) who has made it her agency’s policy for no worker to divulge her name.   They have no effective method of correcting their many errors, the wait for an “appeal” is months’ long.  

A more vexing collection of useless, low-paid motherfuckers I have never encountered, and I am a veteran of Adult Protective Services, the New York Housing Authority and the Housing Court’s Guardian ad Litem program.  I have seen hideous bureaucracies.   The unaccountable agency entrusted with providing health care to low income citizens in New York State is by far the worst.  

Had a nice chat today with a guy from NYS of Health Marketplace Appeals, Patrick, very patient– though even he had his limits in that regard.   My appeal should be conducted over the phone in a month or two, after that, presumably, I should be allowed to pay only what the law requires and not twice what the law requires, as I have been paying since an erroneous denial in January.

While talking to a social worker at the Department for the Aging, who spoke on the QT since I lacked legal standing to have the conversation on behalf of a mere friend, I had a call from Sekhnet.   Sekhnet has been overwhelmed and tearful lately, in part due to the steroids she’s taking for her breathing troubles.   She has been worried about my potentially dangerous kidney disease, and the fact that virtually my entire vegetarian diet is composed of foods, I learned yesterday,  very bad for compromised kidneys.  She’s been crying because Skaynes, our beloved cat, had test results the other day that showed his one kidney is in trouble, this in addition to a flare up of pancreatitis.  

I broke away from the kind, long-winded social worker, put her on a brief hold, and took Sekhnet’s call.   She was sobbing.   “Liz is dead,” she told me.  I expressed my sorrow, told her who I was talking to and said I’d call her right back.

Liz was the long-time partner of Tony, a gregarious fellow we met while he stood smoking cigarettes in front of Sekhnet’s building.   It emerged that Tony lived on the second floor with a shy, agoraphobic woman named Liz, a lover of cats (they hosted two former strays, Sid and Gus), and that it would be great for us to get together some time.   Tony explained that he’d have to work on Liz, and his work seemed to be a success.  We had dinner, after researching what Liz, a diabetic, could safely eat.   I think it was garbanzo bean pasta we finally made.  (To be strictly accurate, this dinner occurred after we returned from our trip).

Shortly after we first chatted with Liz and Tony, Skaynes began vomiting frequently and rarely coming out of his bed.  We were scheduled to leave for a two week trip to Israel in a few days.   Liz, Tony and our old friends’ son Avram generously stepped in to take care of Skaynes.   They wrangled the cantankerous cat into his carrier and ferried him back and forth to the vet for treatments.   The treatments were daily for a week or more.  Skaynes recovered while we were in Israel, we got their medical updates by email.  Liz and Tony (and the indefatigable Avram) had saved his life, and enabled our long-planned trip to happen, and we felt very grateful.  

We got together with them another couple of times.  Then they were having troubles, Tony had resumed drinking, after years on the wagon and in AA.  Liz had a past that included drug addiction and she could not tolerate this relapse.  There was tension.  Tony moved out, moved back in, was on a job in New Jersey when he had a fatal heart attack.  

Liz affected an air of stoicism, but the tragedy made her no more zealous about checking her diabetes monitor.  She’d been found in a diabetic coma before.  Tony said the beeping of her monitor annoyed her and she’d often turn the machine off rather than do what the beeping was reminding her to do.

After Tony died, Liz lived alone with Sid and Gus, in the apartment owned by her mother.  Her mother lives in Florida and needs money, is in the process of selling Liz’s longtime home.  Packages sat outside Liz’s apartment door for days at a time.   I followed up with Sekhnet who contacted Liz.  She was reassured when Liz finally returned a call, sent her some adorable animal emails (Liz volunteered at a cat shelter) with a funny note and also inquired about Skaynes.     More packages outside her door the other day.  Sekhnet could get no answer from Liz lately.  She convinced a neighbor with the key to have a look today.

The neighbor discovered Liz’s dead body.  One of the cats was sitting next to her dead body.  The cats had not been fed for several days.  The last email from Liz, about a week ago, noted that a dog will sit sadly by their master’s dead body and starve, too depressed to eat.  A cat will do the same, until they get unbearably hungry and start eating the dead master’s face.   The neighbor fed the cats and called Sekhnet.  

When I got off the phone with the social worker I called Sekhnet back and did my best to soothe her, though there is not that much real soothing to be given under terrible circumstances like this.   The world can be a cold and cruel place and one must count oneself fortunate only to be fighting with corporate cocksuckers, while Death, smug and implacable, waits with the infinite patience of one who has never been denied, to snuff out your last breath.

Merry Christmas From New York

I was headed downtown to visit friends in from far away.  After a groggy start to Christmas Day, a day that generally fills me with despair,  I was running late, well after the time I’d told my friend I’d aim for.   I had a twenty minute or so southward train ride to get there, then a short walk west.  

As you approach the elevated Number One line at Dyckman Street you can see up the track almost to the next station north.   If you see the southbound train coming around that bend, experience teaches you can catch that train if you run into the station, Metrocard in hand, and make a smart dash straight up the steep steps.  

I went through the turnstile and made my dash smartly, but there was no train.  The one I’d seen, apparently a mirage.  There was no train on the horizon either.  I noticed how winded I was, I’ve run up these stairs many times– this was the most winded I’ve been.  I walked it off.  

At the end of the platform a man was talking on the phone with his back to me.  He had a baby carriage with him.  The baby was also turned away from me, but I noticed how solicitous the man was, walking the baby carriage in little circles to soothe the baby.  I watched them absently for a moment, thinking of the human parent’s instinct, if everything falls right, to comfort their child.  I recall feeling impressed with how this guy was taking care of his baby.

The train came.  The man turned the baby carriage slightly to move his child on to the train.  I could now see that the baby was a full grown beagle, sitting very patiently upright in the baby carriage.   I made a note to tell this story to my friends when I arrived, but as things happened I forgot about it.

We exchanged handshakes, hugs and pleasantries and then my friend said “I have a small gift for you,” as if remembering some trifle.  He went into the other room and returned with the best gift anybody has ever given me, possibly the best gift anyone has ever given anybody.  “It’s really nothing,” he said, handing me a hard-shell ukulele case with the imprint of a palm tree on its shell.

Over the years my friend has mentioned a dream image he has, of himself, sitting on a porch somewhere beautiful at sunset after his work day is done.  His work would be gently but firmly bending wood, plying it, smoothing it, skillfully using tools to turn beautiful wood into a beautiful musical instrument.  In another life, he’d have loved to have been a luthier.  

A few years ago he took a course from a master luthier and made a tenor ukulele, out of beautiful wood, over the course of several weeks.  He sent me photos of it at the time and mildly self-effacing comments about the instrument when it was done.   I opened the case and there was the hand-made ukulele, a very beautiful one.  Everyone I showed it to later could not help stroking it.  It is lovingly detailed, with several unique flourishes, and finished to the texture of perfect skin or something like that.  It is so silky that it’s hard not to pet it if you hold it in your hands.   Everyone who held it did.

It plays beautifully, with a rich tone I haven’t heard from most ukuleles.   He also somehow rigged the lowest string to be in a lower octave, as on a guitar, making this uke a much more useful instrument to play melodies on.  I smiled as I played a little Django ending that had been impossible to play on my other ukes.  Sekhnet could not stop commenting on its beautiful tone, just as I could not stop playing it in the car after we left our friends.  

“What an amazing gift!” Sekhnet said, “I hope you really thanked him.”  I assured her I did.  I think I did, I’m sure I did, I had to have.  Of course, now that I’ve played it for hours, and re-tuned it to concert pitch, I’ll sing its praises some more when I talk to him tomorrow.  He’d looked at the label inside, with his name and the year he made it, 2009, and told me, since he never played it (although he certainly could), that I should have it, since I would play it.  I certainly am playing it.

I played it happily for an hour or so in the background with Sekhet’s family.  Each of them had admiringly held and petted the beautiful instrument, a few even strummed the open chord it plays if you don’t finger the frets.  I then played it all the way back to the city.  When we got back I was concerned that the constantly sleep deprived Sekhnet get some sleep.  I left her and walked to the subway to head uptown.

Being Christmas, it was only natural that the train service would be fucked up.   The high-tech interactive electronic information signs on the subway platform gave random misinformation.   According to the fancy new sign the next A train was a Brooklyn-bound one scheduled to arrive in 46 minutes (average wait is supposed to be about twelve minutes).  There was no information about any uptown trains at all.   “We’re working harder to serve you better,” I said finally to two other sour-faced men waiting for information on the uptown train to take them home Christmas night.

A moment later there was an incomprehensible PA announcement and a Brooklyn-bound A train rumbled in on the downtown platform.   Another announcement began as the Brooklyn-bound train was departing, making a great racket across the station.

The MTA had decided, in its infinite puckishness, to have the crackling, irrelevant, over-driven announcement delivered by the employee with the heaviest and hardest to decipher foreign accent.   I don’t know where this guy was born, but I’m sure the last thing his parents ever dreamed of for him was delivering this incomprehensible message to disgusted New Yorkers over the public address system moments after the end of Christmas Day. I have no idea what he said, but I do recall sincerely muttering something about fucking retards that I do not now feel very proud about having muttered.  

A dirty, smelly beggar was striking out as he made his way toward me on the platform.  He’d start to speak and get waved off.  I saw this happen a few times, found I had a single dollar bill in my pocket and thought “what the fuck?”   When he came toward me I handed him the dollar, which he dropped.  

Before he picked it up, he looked me in the eyes and asked “could you please help me out with two or three more?”  I told him I didn’t have it.  It was true.  My other bills were twenties, and outside of that, I had two pennies.  He continued down the platform and I was reminded of my dislike of people who don’t have the grace to say thanks. 

On the uptown A, which finally arrived, a large man asked “may I sit next to you?”  This is not a question anybody phrases this way on the New York City Subway.  It was the only seat in the car, and I nodded, almost imperceptibly, and without looking up from my book, only because it was the right thing to do.  

Then, because you know what they say about unpunished good deeds, he began humming in a soulful way, and turned his head toward me as I tried to read, which made his humming suddenly way too loud.  He began to sing, in the same manner as his humming, turning his head like a slow moving leslie-speaker to heighten the effect.  

He did that African spiritual-inspired melisma, making every quavering note a long, stylized, if cliched, statement of his soul.   After a few minutes of this I wanted to do something to make him stop. I thought about my vow to remain mild and kept reading.  

A seat opened across the way, and I took it.  I couldn’t hear his fucking singing from over there, and it was a relief.  Suddenly, I smelled ass, dirty feet, filthy clothes.  The smell was coming from the seat behind me, turned out to be a homeless woman.  But the smell wasn’t that bad, it was better than the fucking soul singer.  

The singer got off a few stops later and I went back to where I’d been sitting.  I watched the poor homeless woman, who appeared to be very much insane.  I thought of the almost infinite varieties of suffering in this world, and of God and the mythical baby Jesus weeping over it all, less than an hour after Christmas.  I  took out the ukulele, played a bit of Django’s version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and put the lovely instrument into its protective case as the train pulled into Dyckman Street.

As I walked up the hill to my apartment, carrying the perfect tenor ukulele my old friend had made, I thought of the blessings of this life. Those blessings are not the physical things everyone is taught to covet, of course, but what lies behind them, what we might call their spiritual dimension– what they represent in terms of our souls.   If the physical manifestation is also a beautiful thing, that’s ideal.

I thought of my friend’s ancient mother, now well-past ninety and noticeably much older than the last time I saw her, not that long ago.  She made mention tonight of her approaching death.  I’d never heard her speak of death, but when I quickly broached the subject of Trump, during a moment when her son had gone back upstairs to fetch something she’d forgotten, she told me that the only good in it for her is that this would be a good time for her to die.  

I told her that my mother, at the end of her life, had begged me to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be the president.  I made the promise and I’m as sure as it is reasonable to be that Sarah Palin will never be the president of the United States.  There are things as unthinkable as President Sarah Palin, but that’s an imponderable story for another time.

When I put her son’s ukulele in her hands she immediately began stroking it.   She admired it for a long time, and mused about how many other hidden talents her talented son had (he was cooking a delicious smelling dinner at the time).  

Later, sitting around the coffee table, my friend’s mother smiled, and pointed at her son and her grandson, huddled over the young man’s cellphone, looking at photos of some of the grandson’s recent architectural projects, I assume.   To her daughter, with a big smile, she said “kvelling…” This is Yiddish for a parent’s pleasure in seeing their child do something that makes them kvell with pride.  The daughter looked at her blankly and asked “who?”   

“Me,” said the old woman happily, as she pointed to her chest with a gnarled hand.

Death, implacable motherfucker

Death, that implacable motherfucker, stalking Sekhnet’s farm, killing the helpless, the adorable, just for kicks.

“Once we give them a name, that’s the end of them,” said Sekhnet of Blue Eyes, who, like Dobby before him, no longer plays, eats and sleeps with his two sisters and older brother.   He hasn’t been seen in three days, meaning Death has made him an unwilling play thing.

The neighbor reports hearing a terrible scream in the middle of the night a few days ago.  He said he never heard anything like that sound.  It was the scream of a tiny frightened kitten, fighting for his life, with no chance in hell of winning.

Little Bro headshot



Before I was born my parents took in a local waif, a part spaniel mutt they named Patches, for her black and white patched looking coat.  Patches had lived on the street as a puppy and had acquired street smarts, as some creatures who have to live by their wits do.    My mother told me Patches had adopted them, rather than the other way around.  She was a very smart dog, I remember that.

“Yeah, she was very smart,” said the skeleton.  “And when you were little you used to try to ride her and pull her ears.  She wanted no part of that shit.  When you came into the room, Patches and Pop would immediately head to the other side of the room.   You used to sit on Pop’s lap and start pulling his nose.   They both quickly learned to avoid you.  It was funny as hell to observe: as soon as you’d toddle into the room they’d both get right up and move as far away from you as they could.”

Shortly after I was born my parents moved from the garden apartment in Arrowbrook to the house on the tree-lined street where my sister and I grew up.  Patches had the run of the new neighborhood.  She wore a collar with a vaccination tag and a tag with my parents’ name and address, but never a leash.  She didn’t need one.  My mother would let her out, if the weather was good, and Patches would make her rounds, the metal tags clinking as she went.

She used to visit the dumpster behind the bar where she would occasionally score part of a chicken carcass she’d drag home with her.  She found other delicacies from time to time, there was butcher shop nearby, and they liked her there.   She was a friendly, likable dog, like the Artful Dodger.  

On summer days, when the Good Humor truck came down our street, she’d run with the other kids at the sound of the Good Humor man’s bell.  As the kids ordered their ice cream the Good Humor man would set out a cup of vanilla ice cream on the side of the street for Patches.  As the dog lapped up the ice cream my mother would come out and give the Good Humor man a dime, or send my sister or me out to pay Patches’ tab.

She was a good dog and truly part of the family, rather than a pet. My father sometimes pointed out that she had been there first, before me, the first born.  Patches had been their trial run for raising a child.   As a street smart waif she was able to give them a lot of help in that sometimes tricky endeavor, whereas my sister and I were not so independent.

I have no idea what Patches said or did to Eli’s ferocious Boxer Taffy that ended her up with her entire head between the big dog’s jaws.  Eli leaped into action, grabbed Taffy by the neck, cuffed him with one of his hard hands and pulled Patches safely away.  I remember Patches was covered with slobber, and my mother was hysterical, but Patches was unhurt and did not seem overly concerned afterwards.