Wednesday’s Child Part Two: Manhood

A: Training days


Bar Mitzvah: 1973

Saint Luke’s Hospital in New York City is a private voluntary not for profit institution located on the upper west side of Manhattan. It is also one of several satellite teaching hospitals belonging to the Columbia University Medical School, whose mother ship; The Presbyterian Hospital of Physicians and Surgeons (P & S) is located further uptown near the George Washington Bridge. Being nearly adjacent to the undergraduate campus of Columbia University to the northwest and separated from Harlem to the east by Morningside Park, the immediate surrounding neighborhoods consisted of a mixture of university students and faculty, hospital workers, the earliest vanguard of upwardly mobile yuppies as well as the dregs of slum dwelling humanity. The more impoverished elements consisted of Hispanics, mostly emigrated from Puerto Rico, and Blacks that had emigrated from the Southern plantations at the end of the Civil War. At this point in time neither Harlem nor Spanish Harlem were holding out any bright rays of hope or promise for these denizens of New York City’s populous infrastructure. The result was that the local indigent population marginally used the medical clinics for long term health care issues or more likely than not, only used the hospital when they were forced to because of emergencies, crises, critical illnesses or when they were in extremis. These crash-landing presentations usually fall into the vernacular medical designation known as “The Train Wreck,” often requiring an enormous dedication of resources and clinical acumen to reverse them and then get their victims properly back on track.

The hospital owned two rental apartment buildings that availed subsidized affordable housing to the Medical and Nursing staffs. Because both buildings were located directly across the street from the main building this made commuting to work or taking night call relatively easy. The commute was also safe, because before Rudi Giuliani took the handcuffs off the police and let them actually do their work; the city, under Mayors Beame, Dinkins and Koch was a denizen of thieves, muggers, pushers, pimps, prostitutes, junkies, drug dealers, professional street beggars and homeless people who squatted in and took over public areas such as sections of Pennsylvania Station, bus terminals or parks. Certain highly profitable street corners were actually for sale on the beggar’s underground commodities market, sometimes fetching prices as high as five thousand dollars. Conversely, any beggar who attempted to encroach on someone else’s established territory might risk a knife or a gunshot wound. Even an ordinary public citizen taking a casual or accidental stroll either through the Pennsylvania Station Homeless Homestead or the notorious Needle Park could risk buying a one-way ticket to the morgue or an admission to the St. Luke’s Hospital Intensive Care Unit.

This was when my brother’s advice rang true about how to survive on the streets of N.Y City―wear old clothes so you look poor, put on sneakers in case you have to run, keep your cash in the toe of your shoes and above all else do not ever make eye contact with anyone. I did learn to navigate the streets as well as how to anticipate and to avoid potential trouble. But after five years of street survival it took another five years of living in peaceful suburbs to stop continuously looking over my shoulder or jumping out of my skin if I heard someone running, jogging or walking briskly on the street behind me.

The teaching hierarchy of the hospital consisted of University appointed Attending Physicians who directly supervised everyone else who was in training as distributed in the following pecking order: Fellows, Chief Residents, Senior Residents, Junior Residents, Interns, and finally P & S Medical Students. The hospital’s forte was Internal Medicine and Surgery, in particular, vascular and cardiac surgery; with the open-heart program being headed up by one of the finest surgeons of the day, John Hutchinson, a light skinned black man who could easily have passed for white. In fact, everyone did think he was white; including the red neck Afro-American hating bigot from Easthampton who subsequently shit his pants when he found out that it was a black man who had literally held his heart in his hands when reattaching all the vascular plumbing necessary to keep his own dark soul alive.

For the most part the medical staff was required to take care of general ward patients, meaning those indigents admitted without private insurance that comprised the bulk of the hospital census. Required rotations consisted of general medicine, emergency medicine, intensive care, cardiac care and private ward medicine. Private patients, mostly from the white upper class, were segregated to another wing of the facility and taken care of by their own physicians, only some of whom had academic appointments, and others of whom did not  seem to have read anything current in medical advances since the day they left residency. Although this might at first glance seem to mean that indigent care was second rate, in fact the opposite was closer to the truth, as by default these people were being exposed to the latest and most current thinking that medicine had to offer; along with daily supervision of care by faculty appointed physicians. In counterpoint, for the few mandatory months we were required to rotate through the private wards, most of the house officers eschewed this responsibility because of having no control over case management, coupled with being looked upon by both the doctors and their patients as being lackeys and/or marginally competent nuisances.

  • Who are you?
  • I’m your intern.
  • I want a real doctor. Where’s my real doctor?
  • Probably sitting home watching TV and into his fourth Martini by now. Want me to call him in?

However as just alluded to, some of the private physician’s lack of skill and judgment was typified the day that my Junior Resident found the patient of a doddering old Internist to be in severe congestive heart failure and on the brink of death. He amended the Internist’s tersely inadequate handwritten chart note of an hour before from: “Patient is short of breath. Let him rest” to: “Patient is short of breath. Let him arrest” by scratching in the “ar” in front of the “rest.” What the patient really needed was an urgent transfer to the CCU while the sarcastic forgery was motivated only by the fact that the Resident had become completely fed up trying to salvage and then cover up other people’s less than handy work. In fact, the only thing this aging monument to cavalier medicine was good for, and the only time I ever heard him speak up was usually during some clinical conference. Without fail he would correct anyone who ever used the phrase mitigate against” by suddenly piping up to say “militate. The word is militating.” That solitary fact he had down pat.

His terse interruptions reminded me of one of my private patients, an author and retired English professor who proverbially corrected my mispronounced use of the term ”angina,” every time I used it in reviewing his symptoms. The same brief monologue was reiterated. He said:

  • The word is Latin, ergo the “i” is a hard “i” and not like the soft “i” in the alcohol ‘gin’ but rather like the letter itself; and ergo―an-geye-na. When referring to the female genitalia, you do not say va-gin-a, do you?
  • Only if I am shit faced drunk, sir. Then I call it pussy. Derived from the Old German puse vulva; meaning a pouch, a sack, a scabbard or to stuff something.
  • What you really mean to say is when you are irrevocably inebriated, yes? And pussy is not German. It is derived from the Old English meaning: warm, soft and furry. Ergo pussy cat. Referring to it otherwise is vulgar.
  • OK then. When I am irrevocably inebriated, I like to stuff the warm, soft, furry, pouch of a female Homo sapiens with my pendulous penis. Now let’s get back to talking about the immediate problem with your dolorous cor viscus.

Of course, since every other doctor on the planet mispronounces the word, whenever I subsequently said ‘an-geye-na’ my colleagues skeptically raised their eyebrows, sniggered and shunned me like a pariah. This type of vulgarity, in heralding the end of the classical Latin period in medicine was only the beginning of many more vulgarities to come occurring somewhat in parallel to the same demystification in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Per omnia secula, secula, seculorum. Amen.
  • Huh? What does that mean?
  • Forever and ever, Amen.
  • Then why didn’t you just say so? And by the way, what does “Amen” really mean?
  • Incontestable truth. No arguments.

Upon this backdrop, the arrival of my Medical Intern group in July of 1973 was as inauspicious as would be a personification of T.S. Eliot’s poetic line “not with a bang but a whimper.” It was like throwing a new cog onto a finely tuned gear that momentarily groaned and tried to reset itself without stopping to wait for the appropriate mechanical adjustment, but then went on relentlessly grinding, remolding and incorporating the offensive little kink. We were mutually introduced, given a cursory orientation, told what was expected of us, given our schedules, handed keys to our call rooms and then told to “go to work.” As joyous a day this was for the Interns ahead of us who were just now being promoted to Junior Residents, it was equally a sad anxiety provoking day for us neophytes. And even though the medical students who would be assigned to work under us were theoretically at the bottom of the totem pole, it was a false bottom because the real responsibilities resided with us. These duties would now include: admitting new patients, writing their orders, rounding on existing ones, coordinating care, ensuring complete and neat charts, collecting data, knowing all the pertinent data, drawing blood, starting IVs, staining slides, and worst of all, every third night having to be on call.

Being on call required staying on premises, sleeping in the building, carrying a pager; and for either twenty-four hours or, worse, for seventy-two hours straight through on weekends to be available for new admissions―while at night being responsible for problems on the entire ward. The Junior or Senior Residents provided backup, but it was conveyed rather sternly on day one that these individuals were only to be called for legitimate questions of management or if a person was too overwhelmed with work to be able to function. It was stated in no uncertain terms that all house officers prided themselves in being able to “suck it up” and that being “overwhelmed” was a relative term one should rarely if ever invoke; or if so, it had better be really and truly overwhelming; like a tsunami of critical illness. This was suddenly the real deal and very serious business. School was finally out for good but now it was going to be a litany of far more pencils, infinitely more books or journals and significantly more teacher’s dirty looks.

I never felt as inadequate as I did on that first day when the full realization hit home that I now had to be a real doctor with real responsibilities for other people’s lives. The closest second to that would come later when I finished training and went into private practice with the full realization that even though I had a bit more experience, I now had no one to back up any of my reasonably solid or sometimes meekly tenuous clinical decisions. I reported as required to one of the general medical wards as my first rotation and was met by a gleeful newly promoted Junior Resident who would be my immediate supervisor. He gave me a patient list that was headed up by an elderly black male who had already been admitted with pneumonia. Then in turning over the pager said:

  • I don’t know if you are Jewish or not―but think of me handing off this pager as being your real Bar Mitzvah―because today, my boy is the day that you truly do become a man. And by the way, it’s very bad form to let your first patient die. So, good luck, and welcome aboard.

Mazel tov

As it so happened my veritable bad luck was to draw the lot of being on call the first night I worked. In being paired with another Intern in charge of another floor, we found ourselves assigned as roommates to one of the call rooms. At about midnight when we had finished enough work to attempt sleep, we opened the call room door only to be met with a spate of truculent curses from the two new first day residents we had rudely awakened. Apparently, they had not been informed of being assigned to other rooms. Nicer rooms. Nicer and better Junior Resident’s rooms. But because actual physical possession of the bed is 10/10ths of the law, we were greeted not with a soft mattress and pillows but rather with hard and harsh castigations.

  • Get the fuck out of here.
  • But this is supposed to be our on-call room; and we have a key.
  • Get the fuck out of here. Sleep on the floor, anywhere. We don’t care. Just get the fuck out of here.

We did find a place to sleep. Not on the floor, but as a close second, in the hardback plastic chairs located in the patient lounge on my ward, leaning back and using a small table for a footrest hassock. That was after cleaning up the filthy ashtrays and food remnants that were pocketed in various spots about the room, then snarling a territorial warning at any wayward wandering patient who happened to come in to satisfy his nicotine fit. Needless to say, we did not get much sleep, or even if we did nod off, one of the two beepers would go off periodically either beckoning us to: retrieve a new admission from the ED, or to answer some nurse’s call for an IV insertion, or an order for a sleeping pill or a laxative. Or worse; for someone whose status had deteriorated and needed us to make a personal appearance, an appraisal, or medical stabilization that could easily take the rest of the night.

That was not bad enough, as by the next day the black man with pneumonia had died suddenly in his sleep, leaving me to wonder why I had ever chosen this profession at all and second-guessing what I had possibly done to cause this person to die. I had no self-esteem, had gotten no sleep, while now having to face another workday, starting it off totally exhausted and fully believing I was an inadequate involuntary murderer. But the Junior Resident was compassionate when I told him how I felt. He said it was just a joke about letting my first patient die, that the man had such an advanced illness he had very little chance of survival anyway and that all physicians lose patients throughout their career. He said that the best you can do in retrospect is to believe in yourself. He added that in always second guessing everything you do for someone you will always find peace or solace if you can honestly say you did absolutely everything you possibly could. He also said you must at all costs retain a sense of humor, because this was the kind of business that above all required a person to have to able to laugh, just to keep from crying.

  • That’s why we are training you and that is how we will train you. I can also tell you for sure; there was nothing else you could have done for that man. It was entirely up to God and the antibiotics we used; so in the end it was obvious that for him, neither one of them worked out too favorably.

About eight months later when I was assigned to the ICU and got a patient with multiple interacting; terminal co-morbidities, this same Resident ripped me a new asshole when I suggested we should just go ahead and let him die.

  • You don’t know enough yet to decide about life and death. You have no right to think like that at this stage of your career. Yes, this man has very little hope, but any hope is enough to give him every benefit of the doubt. And since he is in renal failure, tomorrow I want you to give the group a small dissertation on treating the medical complications of uremia as well as an explanation for the mechanism of renal tubular acidosis. We are going to use this patient as an example of pulling out all the stops in treating every medical complication he might have. This is a major teaching center, for God’s sake. Now in the future, I’ll inform you Mr. “Let Him Go” when I think you are experienced and smart enough to be able to make those judgments. So, while you’re studying tonight for your uremia presentation, think about whether or not you would say the same thing if that man happened to be your own father.

Even though the man did die several days later, the episode did serve to be humbling as well as educational, and from that day forward, every terminal illness served to teach me not only the natural history of numerous disease states, but also afforded me the opportunity to do everything in my power to abort or to favorably modify the end-game; Meet the Reaper.

Secondarily, it taught me better judgment and widened my perspectives. Taking care of someone in the downward irreversible spiral staircase leading to death is sometimes like holding back a flood by sticking your finger into a cracked dyke. These situations serve to occasionally allow for the earlier interception of a reversible clinical problem in someone else who might die the same way; if not for the physician’s personal experience, anticipation and diligence. As physicians, we never “let people go” unless they are terminally ill, or brain dead. As a rule, we exhaust all resources to save people. Then again, sometimes people simply die no matter what you do.

One exception to not letting someone go occurred during my training when I was a Senior Resident and finally let a twenty-eight-year-old man bleed to death. He was a hard-core alcoholic with cirrhotic liver failure that caused the portal hypertension resulting in massive recurrent bleeding from esophageal varices. His liver was dead, and the rest of his body was trying to catch up. It was also before technology advanced to the point of liver transplantation. My heart went out to him initially because had no family or friends and I fully believed his environment had conspired to provide such little hope in life that finding solace in booze was his only means of escape. The real problem was, as it is with most dangerous addictions, that the escape eventually does become permanent. But in taking a protracted course, as the ship slowly sinks; the addict also sucks too many other people or other valuable resources into the vortex along with it. That is of course unless the addict does everyone a big favor by inadvertently taking a lethal overdose. Being naively enthusiastic, I spent time with him, counseled him, got him briefly to go to AA, and arranged for social service support; but to no avail. He always coupled the vacant eyes of a lost hollow soul with the inadequate personality that had already put him beyond reasonable reach. There was simply no humanity left inside the thin remnant of his human shell. As with any addiction, I eventually came to recognize his look as the same predictive look of recidivism I would encounter repeatedly in clinical practice, especially when counseling against tobacco use. When you tell someone they must stop smoking, their eyes immediately glass over vacantly then either roll up or glance to side. Their facial expression suddenly becomes a blank mask. This lets you know immediately, simply because they do not want to, that there is no hope for that person to break the habit.

This man then, had multiple admissions due to relapses of the drinking habit that caused repeated massive bleeds. It finally culminated in a hospitalization that required 28 units of blood and depleted our blood bank. With every possible treatment option exhausted, the case went beyond even the gastroenterologist’s or surgeon’s ability to stop the crimson flood, such that even the best minds on the subspecialty medical staff capitulated and gave up. They unanimously pronounced that there was nothing else to do. If he kept bleeding; he would eventually die. His intern called me one night to tell me the patient was going into shock and should we “just let him go?” After I gave him the same lecture that I had received two years earlier, then telling him I would handle the rest, sent the Intern to bed. After he left, I pulled the curtain around the young man’s bed, sat holding his hand for the rest of the night, and let him peacefully die. He could not be saved, either in body or in soul, and we desperately needed the bed and the blood for people we could help. It was a judgment made in the context of reasonable experience as well as one sanctioned by the academic staff. It also let my intern entirely off the hook, in a situation where any plea I might have made for help had a pre-ordained denial by the powers that be. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.

Ironic, I thought, that this man with nothing at all going for himself had understandably fallen under the spell of evil spirits, but that the likes of the Grateful Dead’s Pigpen Mc Kernan, who had the world by the balls, died exactly the same way at the age of twenty-six. He chronically poisoned his own liver with a mixture of Strawberry Kool-Aid and Ripple wine. Believe me. At that young age this is very hard to do and, requires an enormous quantity of fermented grapes mixed with sugar water to accomplish the task. It was said by some eyewitnesses that Pigpen started drinking at breakfast; and that breakfast lasted pretty much all day. One of the most difficult problems to deal with as a physician is the addicted patient. The cure rate is only about thirty percent and after you do all that you can do, there is still only so much that you can really do. The rest is up to the patient. The only thing understandable about it all is the fact that each addiction is the indifferent demon that does not care at all: whom, what, where, when, how or why. Hollywood, the music industry and Mount Everest are littered with the corpses of dead addicts.

In the lobby of St. Luke’s hospital in Manhattan, there is a large statue of the hospital’s namesake, standing in front of his mascot, an ox. Saint Luke, a healer himself, is the patron Saint of physicians and surgeons, who was also a famed iconographer who specialized in portraits of The Virgin Mary. His own iconic mascot is usually considered to be imagery representing sacrifice, and possibly the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus. But don’t ever tell that to a Hindu. They believe the cow is sacred, but not necessarily its owner.

The first and last time I saw this statue was when presenting myself for duty. But for some strange reason, I never went in or out the front door after that day. This somehow created an inadvertent disconnect between my call to a supposedly high vocation and its necessary guiding light. From that point forward the hospital only became a generic base for my practical clinical education, as I never again thought of any associated spiritual implications or ramifications.

There were too many situations to come along in the future in which there was nothing fair about who lived or who died, about what age it happened, about who got what terrible disease and who did not, or about who really deserved to die and who did not. There was no logic to it, no discernable divine plan, and no last minute intercessions from some divine being or Saint for the many hapless people I saw who had fervently prayed but who then had their prayers go up with the same smoke of their cremated remains.

By the time I had survived my first day at St. Luke’s Hospital not only did I never believe I was going to make it as a physician, and in taking little solace from the good saint’s inspiring statuary and legacy, simply concluded by muttering to myself:

  • Holy Mary Mother of God, why did I do such a ridiculously insane to myself?

As expected, no one answered. And then my beeper went off again.

I then spent the next thirty years of my life sacrificing myself to night call; to the point that not only did it literally nearly kill me, but it also to eroded or destroyed most of my intimate interpersonal relationships. It then secondarily caused me to change my religious orientation as I began to direct all my subsequent prayers from Jesus, instead to Hypnos, the Greek god and patron saint of sleep. Keep the cow. I would rather take a Valium and a get a few extra REMs.    



To sleep: perchance to dream; ay there’s the rub.









The Monk, the Mick, and Me

The Monk, the Mick, and Me

I was a far better student than an athlete. But actually discovering that one does not have a great deal of athletic talent is not always so easy to admit.

Having grown up in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s New York Yankees, my love of the team caused me to equally love the sport. This was the era when the game was dominated by the likes of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. It was also a time when it seemed inconceivable for the team never to go all the way every season and ultimately to win the World Series.

A friend who lived up the street, Armand, shared the same enthusiasm for the both the game and the Yankees that I did. He was an overweight affable, good-natured blob known by the neighborhood kids as “Tons of Fun.”

We set up a pitcher’s mound and practiced frequently after school, giving each other mutually positive reinforcement by telling ourselves how great we both were.

What I did not realize was that Armand was fat, slow, not very athletic, that mutual ingratiation is never a substitute for actual talent, and that no matter how good you think you are, there is always someone else out there who is infinitely better.

Thus, when I eventually tried out for the Little League A-teams, I was hopelessly outclassed as a pitcher. I could not believe how hard some of the other boys could throw, had to give it up, and then rotated to second base. It a new problem arose. Since I had received no real formal baseball instruction I also failed at that position, and was told I should go down to the B teams where the disgraced second tier players did not even get uniforms; but only hats.

Life in the minor leagues was equally disappointing as I gave up 12 runs in one inning the first time I ever pitched, was again banished to second base, then yet again to right field, and only then as a bench substitute.

Being in abject fear of getting hit in the face, I was terrible at charging ground balls. I was also unable to judge fly balls because I had to wear glasses that were always bouncing on my nose, which caused distortions in the arc of the fly balls as I ran to catch them. It is difficult enough to follow something traveling through the sky in an arc as you run for it without it also zigzagging in an unfocused blur at the same time.

I lasted two seasons before I realized that I could not hit, pitch, field or catch, so with great sadness about my spastic lack of coordination, hung up my spikes for good.

My brother’s interpretation of how to stay on the A-team was quite more simplified. He maintained that as long as your father was a coach, you got to stay no matter how bad you were, or if nothing else you just sat at the end of the bench. But you still looked good because you had a uniform.

For us this would never be an issue, as our father did not even go to any of our games.

However, I still attended opening day at the A-Leagues, with its hoop-la parade always being very envious of the athletic skills exhibited by the other boys, how their parents were always so proud of them and especially how the girls seemed to gravitate to them with open armed bear hugs at the end of every game. Consigned to the sidelines, I had to be content with becoming expert on charting the scoring hieroglyphics on the inning sheets. Live balls were elusive, but the science and math of what they had already done, I could deal with.

As a young boy I was a baseball fanatic but never got to see the Yankees play at the Stadium because my father, being a New York Giants, fan took me instead to the Polo Grounds where we usually got cheap bleacher seat tickets.

All was not lost however because we always had a bird’s eye view of Willie Mays playing center field.

Except for that, trying to watch baseball action a mile away from the infield was a disappointing bore; including the fact that my own favorite team was not on the field. It was also boring for the pair of fellow bleacher rats sitting in front of us as these two Hispanic macho-men made mutual dollar bets on how long each one or the other could hold out while they tried to set the back of each others hands on fire with magnifying glasses.

My father told me stop watching them and to at look at Wille instead, but statistically speaking how much action during a game does a center fielder really get anyway? It was complete ennui except for Willie’s one-handed basket catches, which I was also told by my father not to try and emulate.

  • Willie can catch those because he’s a pro. Don’t do that in Little League.
  • Don’t worry dad. When all you do is sit on the bench it doesn’t count if you drop them.

This great disappointment however was allayed in a completely unanticipated and surprising way.

When Dan Topping owned the Yankees, he would sometimes bring the players out to the East End of Long Island in a gray twin-engine seaplane for a day of golf at the famous National or Shinnecock Golf Clubs. Shinnecock, being less than a mile away was within easy walking distance from our house.

The seaplane would touch down on Shinnecock Bay, and then come up the Fort Pond channel to finally sweep up onto a concrete landing ramp across the street from my father’s summer cottage. Every time it came in all the children on the street would race over to see who was getting out, then watch various celebrities being picked up to be whisked off in limousines.

One day the guests were Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.

For me it was a dream come true to actually see my baseball heroes as close as a stones throw away and not like tiny tin soldiers. However, we were always admonished by our parents not to harass the men by maintaining a respectful distance.

  • Those men are coming out here to relax. They don’t need a bunch of little boys pestering after them.

It was too bad for my financial future that I did not disobey my mother and get my baseball trading cards or a new baseball personally autographed by those three heroes. Then again it probably would have made little difference anyway, and a worse catastrophe if the cards or balls had actually been signed, because after I went to college my mother threw out the shoebox filled with a collection of 1950s and 1960s cards. I thought they would be safe if I left them hidden under my bed.

  • Hey, Mom. Where is my baseball card collection?
  • I cleaned up your bedroom and threw out that shoebox. It looked to me like a pile of cruddy cardboard junk.
  • Right then. Mickey, Whitey, Yogi and Willie were consigned to the same fate as Clarabelle’s little loaf of Wonder white bread?
  • What in the world are you talking about?

Much later in life I came to appreciate that throwing out a man’s sentimentally cherished “good stuff” is a phenomenon endemic to the female gender. It is an innately bad trait that can be ascribed not only to mothers, but also to wives.

  • Hey honey. Where’s my favorite Yankee’s World Series t-shirt from 1978?
  • In the Goodwill bin. It had a hole in the armpit. Yellow sweat stains in the armpits too. Yuck.

Another promising baseball adventure turned up when the family owning the summer cottage next door said they were personal friends with Bob Sheppard, the long enduring Yankee Stadium PA announcer, who had been invited to spend a weekend.

My excitement about this visit ended as another great disappointment when the man turned out to be an aloof arrogant snob, leaving me with the feeling that he thought of most children as being nothing more than intolerable annoying nuisances.

He was condescending, extremely full of himself and would not even give me an autograph, because he said he was “on vacation.” Having lost all respect for him, I harbored my own personal contrary opinion, when for the next few decades I would subsequently hear his name touted, lauded or praised on television broadcasts by the booth announcers.

Despite the numerous accolades, I told people that when I had met him as a child he was just an egotistical dick-head.

Much later in life, when I discovered that my father had a friend, “Monk” De Palo, who owned a bar in White Plains, appropriately known as De Palo’s Dugout, I then had the pleasure of at least a few vicarious baseball thrills.

Monk was about six feet tall, stocky; broad shouldered and sported one of those all too lengthy iron grip handshakes that could break your knuckles if you didn’t pull your hand out fast enough. He also spoke in gruff, gravel baritone intonations that highlighted his street talk jargon.

I have no clue where his nickname originated, because there was nothing at all religious about the man’s aura, or persona, or what he actually did for a living.

Even my father did not know the derivation of the name. He was plain, simply and always: The Monk.

When he was standing in front of someone wanting to make a point in a conversation, Monk had the peculiar habit of jabbing the person in the chest with his index finger as he prattled on. The jabs usually hit the same spot between the left second or third ribs, were somewhat painful, and always produced the desired effect of keeping one’s attention; if not to what he was saying then certainly always to force one to continuously back away while still having to face him.

A conversation with Monk could start in the kitchen only to end up on the porch on the far side of the house because of the constantly halting but necessary bruise saving retreat.

Monk would frequently entertain the Yankee players in his establishment, ergo the derivation of its name, and would sometimes even carouse with them when they went on their drinking sprees.

He loved to tell the story of going over to the bars in Northern New Jersey one night with Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Billy Martin, then staying out with them to four a.m. on a marathon drinking bender.

The Yankees had a one o’clock afternoon home game the next day after this foray and Monk had meandered his way into the Yankee locker room just before game time. He found Mickey mantle hunched over on the bench in front of his locker with his head in his hands trying to shake off the ravages of the colossal hangover he had procured the night before in the drinking orgy.

The Monk said to him:

  • So Mickey. How do you expect to play today? You can’t even stand up.

The Mick replied:

  • I don’t know Monk. But I have to play. I can’t let the fans or the team down. But I’m too wasted to be able to run the bases, so I guess I’ll just have to go out there and hit homers.
  • Yeah right. You can’t walk and you can’t even see straight.

The Monk walked away incredulously shaking his head, wondering how Mantle had even been able to show up, much less even play. He then went out to see the game, and proceeded to watch his friend go three for three.

Three hits. All of them home runs.

Another story that Monk liked to tell, occurred at a time that the Yankees became interested in foreign players and wanted to bring some Japanese ballplayers over to give them a look and a tryout. They asked Monk if he could put some of them up in his house, to which he readily agreed, but the head count was too high. Monk then called Billy Martin and asked him if he could house a couple of the players.

Billy said:

  • O.K. Monk, but if I take them in, don’t expect to see them at tryouts tomorrow.

When the Monk asked why, Billy told him:

  • Those are the bastards who started World War Two. They bombed Pearl Harbor, they killed our boys, and now you tell me they want to play baseball. Baseball is an American game, it’s a game only for Americans and it’s only a game for Americans to play. Yeah. I’ll put ‘em up in my bedrooms, but they won’t be coming down to breakfast, because while they’re asleep I’m going to stand in the door with a flame thrower and roast the little creeps just like they were in a foxhole.

Needless to say, the Oriental players had to put up with cramped quarters, but remained alive and well by staying with The Monk or anyone else other than Mr. Martin.

It’s just a good thing for Billy that he didn’t live long enough to see not only multi-million dollar contracts for Japanese players, but also the Red Sox playing opening day in 2008 in Tokyo. I wonder what he would have had to say about that.

Athletic talent is an elusive, largely innate trait much of which is based on eye-hand coordination and facile muscle memory.

Some individuals are born with these certain exceptional genetic gifts that others simply do not have or can never even cultivate. On the flip side, who knows how many more unidentified people live and die without ever having the chance to be “discovered”, although they too might possess this special gift?

Some fortunate athletes do not have to work at all, or certainly not very much, on their natural talents. The great American golf professional of the early 1900s, John Travis, first took up the sport at age thirty-five winning his first tournament only seven months later. By age thirty-eight he had won the U.S. Amateur Championship.

John McEnroe Senior was a club tennis player when he took is eight-year-old son there to see if he might enjoy playing. The first time John Junior picked up a racket he was able to contact the ball with ease, and within a few years the young lefty had beaten all the teenage players in the organization.

Other athletes such as the golfer Nick Faldo have to constantly work at developing or maintaining their mechanical skills, but nevertheless still have to graft all of that onto an innately gifted predisposition.

Some athletes like Tiger Woods do not know anything other than what they have always done. Tiger started playing golf when he was barely able to stand up. But he also had “the gift.”

The golfer, Bruce Leitzke, rarely practiced, played only half the PGA tour events, yet maintained a ranking as a top ten golfer. He stated in interviews that it was more important for him to spend time with his family than to trudge around on the Tour week after week. He also said that he hated to practice. Ergo, he did not.

Then there are the unfortunate individuals with great innate talent like John Daly, who seem to have little appreciation for their gift and waste it in the clutches of personal demons, addictions or proclivities, almost before they even make a great enduring name for themselves.

For the most part, the rest of us ordinary folk will never develop any talent no matter how hard we work at it, how much time we put into it, how many lessons we take, or how much money we dole out trying and buying the new equipment we believe will automatically make us great. Most hack amateurs and club players of any sport fall into this zone, as did my little league-pitching career.

The general public has a great affinity and admiration for that fractional percentage of individuals who can repeatedly do the marvelous things that the rest of can only dream about.

Subsequently, we pay out enormous amounts of cash for the privilege of actually seeing it so that we can participate at our own vicarious levels.

We make sports heroes into golden idols and then establish love-hate relationships with them.

This outlay of public cash, which has made professional sports a multi-billion-dollar machine as well as the corporate advertising that follows, then recycles this money as it both panders to and then subliminally redirects its consumer’s tastes. Recycling the cash has also made sports into a multi-billion-dollar perverted monster.

I am consistently amused by the “wanna-be” sports fan: The obese armchair couch-potato athlete who in becoming the know-it all critic, takes great delight in constantly castigating or second-guessing his heroes, eating and talking at the same time while beer and hot dog mustard dribbles down his chin.

This is the great irony of the less than capable price gouged ticket holder telling the overpaid ultra capable sports professional how to better perform his job.

  • Look at that play. He stinks. Even I could do better than that.

Fat chance. Literally, because this is the same corpulent guy who can’t even make it up two flights of stairs without requiring oxygen supplements.

Mickey Mantle was a natural born baseball player who although being plagued by the knee injuries that limited his speed and caused him considerable pain, was still able to overcome this obstacle to become one of the greatest who ever played the game.

Team mates like Billy Martin would say that Mantle was also the most powerful hitter to have ever played leaving many people to this day wondering what he could have accomplished if his knees had been healthy.

Today’s power hitters do it with steroids or testosterone supplements while Mantle did it with bad knees and hangovers

He was also the first professional baseball player to make an annual salary of $100,000, which in itself was an enormous milestone at the time, so much so that it made headlines in The New York Daily News.

Unlike today’s players, he was paid for past performance and not given a seven figure prospective contract that paid him simply for showing up at work.

At the same time, he was also one of the greatest examples of a high profile God gifted talent who simultaneously played the game of self-destructive behavior to perfection by batting 1.000 when it came to personally inflicted abuse.

He was able to maintain his performance levels over a long period of time, without having to work very hard at it, being able to quit at the top before the demons, the professional parasites, or the wanna-bes, that always seem to lurk at the fringes of professional sports were able to bring him down and to drag him away across the River Styx.

On May 13, 1955, Mickey Mantle hit three home runs in a single game.

On the night of May 12, 1955 he was out hitting the bars.


The Mick

If I knew I was going to live this long, I probably would have taken better care of myself.

(Mickey Mantle: While waiting for a liver transplant donor)

Photo source





Alter(ed) Boys 1950s-60s)

Alter(ed) Boys 

Circumcision aside, after a Catholic boy reaches the age of twelve, he is qualified to become an alter boy. Actually there are no other qualifications than to simply be a boy and to have passed First Holy Communion followed by Confirmation; when paradoxically enough, he officially becomes a man. Catholic girls, on the other hand are told to abstain from sex, become a servile Nun or if getting knocked up, to segue with it, raise the baby and then procreate until both their uterus and bladder prolapses This then becomes the preferred method of birth control as the husband can no longer successfully mate with inside-out genitals and then defaults to using his hands or his mistress.

When I grew up, no one even considered the possibility that a girl might ever even want to be an Alter Boy. It was simply another aspect of the male orientation, domination and control of Catholic hierarchy, which to this day continues to delight in demeaning and degrading women.

My three closest friends, Timmy, Eddy and Billy, lived in or near my neighborhood.

I was closest to Timmy whose middle name was Ignatius. Not so much to be remembered after the Patron Saint of Retreats, but only so that his initials would spell T.I.M., was something his parents pointed out to everyone they introduced him to. This usually happened in a split second after the introduction was made.

  • He’s Timothy Ignatious M—-. And that’s why we always call him TIM.
  • Oh, that is just so adorably precious. So where is the wet bar?

TIM came from a devout Irish Catholic family, but his parents, Ned and Eileen, did not get along very well, such that after years of contentious dissention, and deciding to divorce, they then proceeded to ask the Church for an annulment. However in the Catholic Church there is no such thing as divorce, so by default, their annulment request was denied.

For a Catholic, marriage can only be annulled for such extremely ridiculous reasons as non-consummation meaning that having sex with someone only once becomes tantamount to a life sentence. This would only end as a “He said, She said” no-contest argument. Katherine of Aragon used this feint when Henry VIII tried to divorce her, claiming that she never had sex with his dead brother; whom she married first. The case dragged on for decades.

Non-consummation is even more difficult to prove, especially if you happen to have one or more children, and does not hold much defense even if you never had sex with your bride and the father happens to be the milk-man. This is because the faith subscribes to only one holy solitary possible Virgin birth scenario; that will never be yours. The Pope will never hear the case; until and unless the Church ever comes to believe in the validity of DNA; the same Church that finally decided in the 1980s that Galileo was in fact correct in stating that planets did indeed, orbit the sun.

Drunkenness, beatings, verbal abuse, and infidelity do not count. Church doctrine basically states that if you come to hate your spouse, it is simply too bad, you should just suck it up and try to live with it, or to counsel your way through it, or somehow learn to ignore it. It becomes part of the many personal crosses one is required to bear as he or she slogs through the remainder of his or her tortured life. I firmly believe this to be the root cause for men taking up golf, and women taking up Mah-Jongg, knitting circles or playing Bridge.

Therefore, Timmy’s parents, having reached a point of such extreme interpersonal vituperation, decided that a separation was better than suffering the eternal damnation of the hell on earth: being forced to live forever with someone, who at one time in life you had passionately loved, just happened to breed with, but now who you equally dispassionately hate.

Because of financial constraints they decided to live in the same house, with him occupying the basement, her living upstairs, and the middle of the house becoming the demilitarized zone. They then communicated with each other non-verbally by writing day-to-day notes on a chalkboard in the kitchen. For example, when Eileen’s dog pooped in Ned’s downstairs den and he expected her to clean it up, he wrote a note, which said: “Dog shit in basement.” She came back later in the day, did a partial erasure and rewrote the note to say: “Shit-head in basement.”

It did not help matters that they both drank excessively. Seeing them occasionally stumble around the house screaming at each other became my first exposure to alcohol mediated domestic abuse.

Timmy was a second child who had a much older brother whom I met only once or twice because he had permanently moved out of the house when he had enlisted in the military. In fact the very first time I heard the word “Vietnam” was from Timmy. In 1962 he told me that his brother was a helicopter pilot in this far off Asian country, where we had a war going on. He said that he almost had his ass shot out from underneath him while on a flight mission, but then received some sort of medal for being wounded. The next day I had looked at map of the world to locate the place, thinking simultaneously how curious it was indeed that none of us in high school knew anything about it. I was in the tenth grade at the time and forgot about the whole thing, not thinking for a single moment that Vietnam was something that could possibly ever affect my life.

Timmy and I spent a lot of time together. He was one of those rare individuals who could excel at anything he tried without really working at it, which included such things as music and sports. Yet strangely enough he never participated in band or team athletics in high school. He taught himself to play the banjo simply because he liked its sound and could dribble a basketball as well as any contemporary point guard. But he was never discovered at high school as a talent as he never even tried out for the team. I don’t think he really cared, and beside that, the discipline of practice would have ruined the fun of it. Everything he did was for his own personal entertainment.

During high school however, one odd personality quirk emerged when he developed the bad habit of shoplifting. This soon to become obsession incubated the day he lifted cigarettes from the local Stationary Store, which we all then puffed out in the woods. The habit then escalated or germinated to pilfering bigger and better things from Macys Department Store. I think he simply considered it to be a challenge because he got so good at it, he never got caught. That made it into the proverbial positive feedback loop of “Risk versus Reward.”

Because I was the type of person who could never get away with anything, and would probably not only jinx him, but also end up being indicted as the major perpetrator, I eventually had to stop going with him on these forays. After the chewing gum incident when I was five years old, which then prompted a parental Christian Pulpit Fire and Brimstone Sermon, followed by the apology and subsequent payment to the storeowner, I never questioned nor ever again transgressed the Eighth Commandment.

Eddy lived down the street from me. He had an overprotective mother who was the type who made interminable excuses for him while blaming all the other children if there was ever any trouble he happened to be associated with. Even if Eddy was implicitly involved she never believed he could be culpable because someone else, of course, had made him do it.

Eddy’s friends were hardly ever allowed into his house where there was always a quiet pall over the place that was unsettling. The domicile was also too neat and too exceptionally clean; with nothing ever being out of the identical place it had ever been in the week, month or even the year before. His mother had plastic covered sofas to keep them from getting soiled, which was a paradox since no one ever came over to visit or to sit on them anyway.

Being obsessed with sex, Eddy talked about it incessantly, despite what little extent he knew or thought he knew about the subject. On the rare occasion we got into the house and had some privacy, his first action was to rummage through his older sister’s dresser drawers so that he could play with her underwear.

Another friend, Billy, lived across the street from Timmy. Billy was standoffish, enrolled in a Catholic school with a strange aloof personality that I could never seem to get close to. Despite the fact that he had an athletic build, he also had a beatific cherubic face, baby soft skin, and never seemed to be too interested in sports or girls.

In general, Eddy and Timmy never seemed to be interested at all in girls either, to the point that as we got older the subject of dating never seemed to come. They also never seemed to have any girlfriends.

Once when we were walking along the highway, Eddy and I found a pile of black and white photographs of a nude woman in various poses that someone had thrown out of a car window. They looked like home amateur photos, maybe discarded by a disaffected lover. After collecting them, we promptly started referring to them as our “naked lady pictures.” We wrapped them in cellophane, then with aluminum foil to keep them dry, and safely buried them in a secret spot in the woods. Then we would meet every day to dig them up for hours of ogling.

My mother thought something odd was going on relative to our suddenly intense interest in the woods across the street where she would watch us go from the living room bay-window. Her curiosity had been piqued by wanting to know why I needed aluminum foil for the woods and what was I going to do with it. The give away was the fact that I stammered over an inadequate answer. One day when curiosity got the better of her she raided our camp, found our photos, and in a fiery rage destroyed our treasure right on the spot by making us burn them in our campfire while she stood over us; up to and including the final ashes.

It was a sad day for sure when we had to roast our naked lady pictures, like they were no better than a few toasted marshmallows; thinking all the time that we should have put a few reserve photos in another secret spot.

Breasts and Buttocks 3

Shortly after this Eddy told Timmy and me that his father had decided to tell him the Facts of Life or as he said: “the-facks-a-life” and did we know what they were? We didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about; leading him to behave as though it was some mysteriously deep secret he could lord over us. We then became so curious that we begged and cajoled him enough to the point of him, with smug belated arrogance, finally divulging the information.

He then proudly proceeded to tell us that babies are made when a man puts his penis in a woman’s asshole and then pisses inside her. At least we did not have to pay him a monetary bribe for this information and although I am not sure what Eddy’s father really said or may have done to him, or how Eddy interpreted the information that put this notion in his head, never the less after the deposition, Eddy immediately proposed that we should try it out on each other for practice. 

Something about the entire thing did not seem intuitively correct and although Timmy and Eddy and Billy did try it out in my basement bathroom, I opted only to watch what turned out to be something of an eye-opener. Then I told them they should probably use their own houses if they wanted to do it again, as I knew my mother’s psychic radar would probably discover the activity. I was terrified of the parental firestorm predicted by the inevitable discovery of homosexual buggery that would make those associated with the discovery of the naked lady pictures pale in comparison. So I invoked a prayer to St. Ignatius, and retreated.  

Shortly after this Eddy, Billy and Timmy became alter boys.

Out of a sense of duty and wanting to be with my friends, I went for the tryouts too, but embraced this tedious concept of ritualization with as little enthusiasm as the priest seemed to embrace me. The chemistry between us was not good at all, resulting in a gut feeling that he knew in the core of my soul, I was probably a non-believer.  

Among other things, I had stage fright anyway and would have been terrified at being on the Alter having to perform the sacred rituals. I also hated the idea of the regular Sunday obligation or worse, the possibility of having to serve at more than one boring mass each week. Thus I never lost sleep over missing the cut. Just as with the Cub Scouts, I did not care for the alter boys’ ironed rigid starchy robes, the conformity, or even their infused incense fragrances. It also still seemed curiously strange to me that Eddy, Timmy, and Billy actually reveled in putting them on and performing their roles on stage. 

When the priest let them in and kept me out, perhaps it was because he had also sensed that little something “extra special” about them that I had witnessed by their exploratory basement experiments. Or perhaps I had just missed that part of the final tryouts in the privacy of the Rectory. In retrospect this inference would have never even remotely crossed my mind as a possibility except for an occurrence that happened to me later in the course of my religious Catechetical “instruction.” 

After being excluded from the Alter club, we all then went on to High School. The three of them then spent more and more time together without me, the friendships eventually became strained, and we failed to maintain lines of communication, such that very gradually we all drifted apart.

 Different drum

You and I travel to the beat of a different drum.

Ah, can’t you see by the way I run

Every time you make eyes at me. 


(Different Drum: Michael Nesmith)



 Drums: © Mich Pouliot Drum Gear/Graphic by Jim Wright