Monday, June 3, 2013

Perfect Timing

by:  Joan Hitz
In November I traveled a northeasterly route to visit friends in Massachusetts for the first time. By placing “procrastination” at the top of my packing list, I was able to make the five-and-a-half hour drive with perfect timing to secure my arrival on dark country roads exactly as the sun clicked off.      
Five hours and twenty minutes into the trip, I exited a highway flooded with a glorious autumn sunset and propelled my ramshackle Subaru into the black of night.
Allow me to introduce my Subaru ...
A dark green adolescent of fourteen, my Subaru is the second in a short line of Subarus I’ve owned (the first was consumed with 42 other cars in a parking garage arson in the year 2000; yes, this is a fact). Purchased quickly under the duress of suddenly lacking my first Subaru, my second Subaru is a base model which doesn’t possess the moonroof and fancy electrical features of its ill-fated predecessor. 
This car, which I’ve grown to love for its simplicity (and, like all Subaru-lovers, for its fulfilled promise of longevity), is still equipped with one of those charming memories from my 1970s childhood: handles to roll down its windows. There is no moonroof, but, if you grab a handle and roll down a window, you can stick your head out and see ... the moon. 
(The first Subaru, as I recall, had a malfunction in its high-tech moonroof anyway. So to view the moon, there was always that standard side window ...). 
Under my dedicated automotive tutelage, my Subaru has acquired a character that is not too distinct from its owner. Easygoing: If you ride as my guest, you’re encouraged to tip your travel mug and baptize the carpet’s coffee stain archipelago with your own drips. Dependable: It pretty much shows up when it says it will. Quirky: (Those who know me may fill in the blanks.)
Back to the dark country road ...
On this November night in rural Massachusetts, I needed to make several turns onto long lanes to arrive at my friends’ “suburban” house in the woods. Although a bright white moon floated among the skeletal roadside trees, it was difficult to see inside my car. There was no density of suburbia - streetlights, 7-11s, parking lots - to access to look at my map. 
Yes - map. My Subaru and I do not believe in GPS. And being quirky, I (here it comes) do not carry ... a cell phone
Yes, fling the exclamation points skyward! Mutter “How can it be?!?” But, it is true. I do not use a cell. When I see friends and family (at dinners that I have somehow, inexplicably, found out about via my ... telephone), I occasionally promise to “someday look into getting one.” But I do not own a cell phone yet.
Which is why, on this journey through blackness, when I arrived at an unmarked country juncture where my car had to either head straight or turn left under an old stone bridge, I simply stopped the car, gazed at the moon, and, switched on my HPS (Hopeful Positioning System). In sixty seconds, hope arrived. A huge pickup, headlights blaring like a night game at a football stadium, emerged through the bridge. With my super-luxury crank handle, I rolled down my window, stuck out my arm, and beamed my space-age signal - I waved.
The guy inched forward, I called out my question, and he grinned and pointed. “Yes, ma’am - your street is that way, under the bridge.”
The kindness of strangers. No satellites necessary.
Minutes later, I rolled up to my friends’ house under a magnificence of towering pines. During my visit, the beautiful old-fashioned-and-up-to-date moon stayed full, and on Saturday, near midnight, we all went outside and howled at it. The pine trees cheered our gesture.
A few weeks later, at a well-lit intersection in my (very) suburban hometown, the front bumper of my Subaru made the acquaintance of the front bumper of another vehicle when its driver, suffering a medical condition, made an erroneous turn into oncoming traffic (me). It was at low speed, no one was hurt, and the truth (as seen from above, if you were, say, sitting astride a satellite, or the moon) is that my being positioned there, at that moment, most likely saved this man and others from a more severe high-speed collision on the busy roadway. 
In 2000, one week before I purchased this car, my niece, now 12, was born. I tell her Aunt Joan will arrive at her high school graduation in this very vehicle. I may even manage to pull it off for my younger niece, now nearly 10. 
That graduation would be in 2020.
Maybe I’ll own a cell phone by then. 


by: Joan Hitz
After my friends Ralph and June died within months of each other in 2003, a pair of cardinals appeared in my yard. Since they’d adored cardinals, and each Christmas sent cards depicting snowscapes lit by two tiny red birds, I named the ruby-feathered couple after them. Thereafter, the birds claimed a table at the finest outdoor restaurant in suburbia, and to this day, order the daily special: organic walnuts from Trader Joe’s. 
The human, June, first appeared in my life in 1973, as my sixth grade teacher, and two decades later, in 1994, as my cherished friend, when the Universe became a real estate broker, and placed me in an apartment right next door to her house.
For eight months, I luxuriated in June and her husband Ralph’s Sunday-morning door knocks, which led to spur-of-the-moment nature hikes and abductions to breakfast venues. The morning I moved away, June sent me off with a plate of delicate Finnish pancakes. 
I promised ongoing visits, and returned to their home for dinners, talks and bear hugs in their yellow-tiled foyer, year after year after year, for ten sweet years.
Now, June and Ralph, the birds (and there’ve been generations of them), are regulars in my yard. Morning and evening, these crimson puppeteers use radar, charm and invisible marionette strings to pull me from the walnuts on my countertop to the back porch railing. 
They “chip chip chip” outside my bedroom window at dawn, flutter near the kitchen window while I make coffee, and, when my car zips into the driveway, fly over the rooftop to wait out back for their nuts.
The original Ralph snatched his walnut from the railing while June hid in a nearby branch, awaiting his return from market. Sometimes he’d snack on the steps before flying back to feed June, beak to beak.
But once, and only once, in January 2006, the original June appeared calmly, right next to Ralph, on the steps. That was the afternoon I returned from the veterinarian after having to put my fifteen-year-old cat to sleep. When I leaned against the back door window to gaze into the yard, there they were, en pair, like a protective hug.
Back in 1974, at the conclusion of sixth grade, the class parents collected money for a present for Ralph and June. Knowing full well that these super-teachers would use a gift certificate to enrich their classrooms instead of themselves, the moms decided to give them something concrete, to keep. They chose a statue of a nature scene, its wooden base inscribed: “To the Laakkonens, for total dedication, from your outdoor learning classes, 1973 - 1974.”              
Ralph and June did keep that statue, front and center, in the bay window of their house. After they died, I passed by one day when the house was being shown to buyers. The real estate agent allowed me to step into the yellow-tiled foyer and walk through the house one last time. It was empty, except for a few items awaiting clean-up by their grown children. Still there: the statue.
Realizing it had no specific meaning to their kids, I called, asked, and was graciously given, after all those years, a gift I’d seen presented to beloved teachers when I was only just eleven.
It’s in my home, now, in a place of honor. A statue of a nature scene: a mother cardinal, feeding her babies, taking care of the young. The same thing that’s happening in my yard, year after year after year. 
By now, the original Ralph and June cardinals have passed on. Their children, today’s Ralphs and Junes, have become progressively more comfortable with the back door/railing arrangement. Even the females. 
A few days ago, a new June fluttered midair, near the center panel of the nine-paned door, just twelve inches from me. While I opened up to place a walnut on one rail, she watched from the other, and grabbed the nut before I’d even closed the door. 
I, like you, have suffered many losses. But I know (I do) that we really don’t leave each other. I believe that here, in life, we’re all out walking, on a great nature hike. The people who’ve died have “gone on ahead,” just a little further along up the trail. 
Of course, we’ll all get the chance, when the time is right, to “catch up.” While we’re here, though, our job (our joy) is to be who we really are, and to do what we really came to do. Like Ralph and June. 
And, on any good nature trail, while the people must travel it step after step, the birds are free to fly back and forth. 
And back again, for visits in time.


by: Joan Hitz

“The world is magic,” I said, one afternoon, to a kindergartner at my elementary school. 
“Really?” he asked. 
“Sure,” I told him. “And so are you. You are magical.”
I believe in truth-telling. And that the truth, essentially, is the pure one we’re all born with - the ability to see magic. Truth isn’t the time-weary, disappointment-distorted, bill-paying, “reality” version that manages to crash-land, in some form or other, like an exhausted bird in the laps of our chronological adulthoods. 
(Relative chronology ... that’s another story, for another time. Because most five-year-olds are pretty mature, when it comes to understanding about magic. And adults ... well, sometimes we need some remedial work ...)
So ... the truth: Magic is real. You only need to look for it.
Magic is what makes snow pretty, not a pain. It’s what makes summer seem long. 
The first day of August, I never hear a kid say: ”Well, this summer is gone!”
Huh? There’s half still to go. Some of the best things happen in that second half.  
When I was a kid (chronologically), August was something to look forward to, both for being August, and, for being my birthday month. August third - top of the month, beautiful shining number three. Pool party, friends, hot musical nights ... 
The cricket chorus began in August: scree ... scree ... scree ... the trill of these night singers like a secret musical brook, rolling unseen through the black velvet shadows in the garden.  
Trees were heavy with the darkest green leaves. The sun declared its utter victory over winter.
Ice pops. Beach fries. Blazing pavement. T.V.-watching till 3 a.m., because, there was no school tomorrow. Or the next day or the next or the next or ...  
A u g u s t ...
Unravelling like molasses flowing uphill, August went on and on - magical, deep, without a trace of an ending if you didn’t inject one. 
As children, we knew how to craft that stretched-out, yawning summer bliss: Stare only into the hour just before you. 
That’s children’s magic. And, it’s real. 
We can work this magic still. 
My neighbor, a dedicated teacher, prepares lessons and grades papers, weeknights, and each Sunday, from four p.m. into midnight. 
But she milks Saturdays and Sundays like no one I know, and often resets mine.
I love my work, but I also love the unscheduled freedom of weekends - lingering over coffee, letting life happen, not being bound by “to-do” lists. 
On Sunday mornings, while tending our gardens, I call to my neighbor over the fence. 
“It’s over,” I gripe. “The weekend’s overrrrrrrr.” The Thought of Monday churns my stomach. 
“I-don’t-want-to-heeeeaaaaar-it,” she singsongs back. “It-is-Sunnnnnnnnnnnnday!!!!”
It is ... NOT ... Monday. 
I turn again to my garden, peer down the long magical tunnel of the next-arriving minute. Sixty seconds glitter with what’s before me: a green plant, a spade sparkling with wet-jeweled mud. And suddenly (and it never wasn’t, except for the day-trip my mind just inflicted upon itself), it’s Sunday again. Sweet loooooooong Sunday.
Like August. An entire half a summer rests in this month - a month of magic. So wait, September. (The crickets beseech you.) 
Yes,” I said to that radiant boy at school that afternoon. “You are magical.
“Just think - once upon a time, you weren’t here. But then you were born and now, you are here. That’s magic.”  
(Is it NOT?)
“And,” I continued, “Just look at our world ...”  
We were in the hall where rectangles of sunlight fall through wide windows onto the floor, creating a golden pathway. The art teacher hangs giant, silver-swirled, origami suns here, to cast their shadows in the bright trail. 
Returning to class, the kids and I travel this sun-and-shadow path that both exists (magic) and does “not” exist (you can’t touch light and shadows).  
As we pass, I flick the suns so their cast shadows dance along the rectangles.   
See,” I said to that boy, “the world is full of lights and shadows. Flowers that aren’t there, but then they are. Ice cream trucks which show up five minutes into the future. New friends. Round balls that bounce, and birds, and cupcakes, and this school, and me, and you.  
“Before you began school, we didn’t know each other, and now we do. Magic - right?”
“Right!” he said, leaping from shadow to shadow. 
Later on, the sun went down, the floor was dark, the sun-and-shadow path was ... gone. 
Or was it? 
Magical paths, I believe, are always here, and (usually), invisible. And we’re invited to seek and walk them.
There’s a quote: Life is short, so we must move slowly. 
Just like August, a month restored, to its long, rightful self.

The Pyramids of Babylon

 by: Joan Hitz

During my newly-employed, post-collegiate twenties, and long-enduring, apartment-renting thirties, I managed to accumulate an undulating amoeboid mass of junk, which spent nearly thirteen years shifting from one random corner to the next in the rentals in which I dwelled. 
When I finally moved to my first house, I drove my station wagon while a moving van,  carrying the amoeba, followed. Box by box, in my new living room in Babylon, the amoeba took up residence, and, a new and permanent form. As a pyramid.
During my entire first year contending with the wonders of rookie homeownership (the mortgage and two jobs to support it), I managed this pyramid by ignoring it. Each morning, on my way to the kitchen for coffee, I side-stepped the pyramid, and again, out the door, to work. (The coffee pot was the first artifact I excavated from the heap.) 
For twelve months, while I labored sleeplessly, the pyramid endured, and annoyed, until one weekend, in a fury of desecration, I relocated this ageless Pile of Everything into the teeny back bedroom until such future decade when I could relocate its contents to more suitable repositories within the home. 
And so, during year two, as need arose - Making pancakes? Missing spatula? - I’d brave archeological expeditions to this backroom pyramid (which now more closely resembled the time-weary buttes of the Dakota Badlands) to find things.
I’d squeeze through the door and, with increasingly deft footwork, rise onto one big toe, curl up the other leg like a flamingo inspecting its undersole for barnacles, then insinuate myself over the tottering fishtank, around the sideways dish drainer, between the glass picture frame and frosted pink lampshade, and, finally, down onto the dollar-sized rectangle of floor very near to where I supposed the spatula to be hiding within a sealed cardboard box.
Then I’d rip open the box and discover ... a complete set of Little House on the Prairie books left over from age twelve. And no spatula. Reversing the flamingo, I’d snatch a prairie book and retreat to IHOP for breakfast.
One day, in my snake-like-flamingo-like position, while scouring for more historical remnants, my eyeball parked its vision on the rotted wooden ledge of the backroom windowsill. Just at its edge, a mysterious pyramid of its own had sprung up. 
Oh, I’d seen it before (and ignored it, conveniently assuming that windowsills routinely grew their own pyramids). But this time, the pyramid had a movable part. 
Remember grade school insectology?  Head, thorax, abdomen? Well, here, then, was a highly-polished jet black specimen of head-thorax-abdomen. A carpenter ant. On the sill. 
He must have misplaced his spatula and gone searching his pyramid, because at the moment he was methodically grasping with his jaws, and discarding, piece by piece, the particles of the miniature windowsill pyramid. With horrified fascination it occurred to me that this pyramid was, in fact, a dumping station for the ... um ... (no delicate way to put this) abdominal extrusions of the ant-burb (it dawned with further horror) which must dwell in high population within the window casing.
That’s what that pyramid meant.
Did I do anything immediately?  Well ... no. Of course not. As I was still scrambling for the mortgage, and swamped in bills, instead of using an expensive exterminator I used  denial. Seemed fitting, so close to pyramids ...
In that afternoon’s current realm of spatula-lacking, mortgage-scrambling reality, one little ant on one little windowsill did not qualify as an ant problem. I shut the door on Little Egypt until such time as denial overflowed its banks and the ants became a more visible part of the decor.
Uh huh.
The third spring, denial overflowed. Under the kitchen sink. In the room next to the pyramid room. Even a constituency in the living room. Living.
BIG ants. Lots of them. And little ones, too. 
“‘Pavement ants,’” said the exterminator.  “Squash ‘em and they smell like fruity coconut.”
He did indeed conduct a diagnostic smush test which gave a whole new meaning to “scratch and sniff.”  
$1200 later, like most Long Islanders, I still had an ant problem, albeit a greatly reduced one. And thanks to one philosopher, among the slew of exterminators making monthly control visits to my home, I also received a lesson in ant psychology.
“To an ant,” explained Ant(hony), “your house is nothing ... but a big wet log.”  
Ah. Really. My home was a wet log. If I’d have known it was that easy, I would’ve just set up camp in the woods and skipped the mortgage part.
But it was too late for that. I had the mortgage. I had the wet log. And so, I followed Anthony’s tips and began to dry it out.

April Fool

by: Joan Hitz

One morning in 1963, my mother, hearing a noise, became convinced a stranger had entered the house to steal her one-year-old from the playpen. She rushed to the living room to find that baby ... me ... whistling.
I am told that, as a baby, the production of noise was so valuable to me that I worked on perfecting this early whistle until such time as I could make real words.
Words have gotten me out of, and into, trouble, pretty much since becoming aware of them (at birth) and starting to use them (shortly thereafter).
Like viruses, bacteria, fleas, and other things that thrive on multiplicity, words - my words, anyway - demonstrate an ability to reproduce themselves at a compound rate that’d knock the argyle socks off Warren Buffet.
But here’s a story of only two words - two words which played a starring role, onstage, in my first flimsy attempt at remedial juvenile rebellion.
To explain: Having spent kindergarten through eighth grade as a non-cursing, rule-following, homework-doing handraiser, by ninth grade, fearful that I was somehow missing out on the good things in life by being so ... well ... good, I decided to wrap up junior high by learning how to be ... bad.
My rebellion made its debut one April evening during a meeting of the Brennan Junior High School PTA. This meeting featured a theatrical performance by the ninth-grade drama club.
The play: Nathan Hale, American Patriot. 
The role of “Nathan” was played by a lanky dark-haired boy who I was one day going to like. My role, “Zeb,” was Nate’s loyalist friend who was furious at Nate’s treason to the Crown. (For this male role, the director had me hide my long hair inside a high-collared jacket.)
In my scene, I was to storm into Nathan’s prison cell while shouting one simple phrase about his treasonous spying: “You fool!”
I enjoyed practicing this line. For weeks, I’d storm around my house, bursting in on family members, sputtering, “You fool!” (My family couldn’t wait for the actual performance, so Nathan could get hanged and have it over with.)
I couldn’t wait either. I had my line down pat, all ready to enter, stage right, and blast Nathan. “You fool!”  
And then ... enter M*A*S*H. Two nights before the play, with the fervor of an American patriot, I watched and memorized my favorite TV show. A language lover, I’d hear and look up lots of new words from that wonderfully written program. 
And that very week, Hawkeye spouted, “You ... impetuous ... fool!” 
Whoa ... Dictionary! 
Impetuous: impulsive, passionate ...
Hey! I could use that in the play ... 
Like a total criminal mastermind, I could commit my first shocking act of rebellion - not tell the director - and “ad lib” the word “impetuous” into the corny script of the PTA play.
Too cool! Thursday night, I’d trash my good girl image, yank open Nate’s cell door and shout, unscripted, “You ... impetuous ... fool!” 
So cool. So bad. (My ideas about rebellious behavior had far to go.)
So did my memorization skills. Thursday night, while three hundred parent and faculty eyeballs honed in on me, I stormed in under the hot white lights, honed in on Nathan and ... forgot my line.
(You fool.)
What was it? What WAS it?
(You fool, Prisoner Nathan mouthed.)
Ten silent seconds. Twenty. The words were gone. The original ones, the “ad lib.” Where was Hawkeye Pierce when you needed him?
And so, I, Zeb, British Crown loyalist, schoolgirl aspirant to the Kingdom of Bad, really did ad lib that night. Desperately. Into the blackened theater of three hundred waiting grown-up ears, I opened my mouth like the gaping maw of a Tory cannon, and fired two, really bad, expletives. 
Which expletives? How bad? Let us suggest, gracefully, that these particular expletives invoked the Lord’s damnation of the posterior exit point of Nathan Hale’s body. 
Oh, Zeb. You ... fool.
Exit, stage left.
Into the arms of my great friend, John, who, hugging me, smiled supportively while gleefully banking the memory, forever, of me, cursing, during the PTA play. John also endured a second barrage, into his chest, of every existing curse I knew (about twelve, at the time) as I exhaled the sum total of suppressed expletive matter from my conforming non-cursing past.  
At the after-theater snack reception, I slunk among parents, teachers and school board members, obscuring my face behind a large cookie, while an imaginary cartoon bubble hovered above me. It featured two words, and neither of them was “impetuous.”
No matter. Zeb lived, to turn fifteen, sixteen, then seventeen.
At the cast party following our senior play, “Zeb,” full of wine instead of cursewords, kissed “Nathan Hale.” And in that impetuous moment, all acts of treason were forgiven.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lucky Little Lindy Lad (and Lots of Ladies)

by: Joan Hitz

Ryan Rodriguez, third-born offspring, second grader, first (and only) son of Yvette and Ricky, knew he wasn’t going to Disney World this winter with his mother and sixteen-year-old sister, Amanda. 
Amanda is part of the Lindenhurst Varsity Cheerleading team, which this year, for the first time ever, qualified for the National High School Cheerleading Championship finals in Orlando. 
On the dark, cold morning of Friday, February 10, Yvette, Amanda, 22 other cheerleaders and their coaches would depart Lindenhurst at 4 a.m. by bus and cars, headed for a 7:05 a.m. flight from JFK to Florida.
For the next five dark, cold February days, Ryan, his dad, Ricky, who works the 3 a.m. - 1 p.m. shift for UPS, based in JFK, and sister, Stefanie, who attends college, would remain home and carry on. As usual.
While Yvette delivered Amanda to Disney World, Stefanie would roust Ryan from bed and deliver him to Alleghany Avenue School, where he is employed as a hand-raising constituent in the elementary classroom of Mrs. Jean Gallipani.
Though he adores school, and his teacher, Ryan tolerated this unsavory information - that 2/5 of his family would temporarily relocate to the Magic Kingdom without him - like any seven-year-old would. He whined.
“I’ll miss you, Mommy, I wannnnnnna go ...”
“Ryan, we’ll go this summer. You wouldn’t want to this time. You don’t want to be with a bunch of girls ...”
“Yes I dooooo! That doesn’t matter!”
Being a boy with three “mothers” (his sisters were 9 and 11 when he arrived), Ryan holds his own hanging with older women. 
And, lacking the keys, and license (and racecar), which could deliver him to numerous places of real import, such as toy stores and Slurpee-dispensing locales, Ryan instead spends much of his free time among ... girls. Cheerleaders. (Yvette totes him to Amanda’s practice each week.) 
Five days of hovering cheerleaders didn’t matter to him. What did matter was that he wasn’t going.
But Yvette had a secret up her sleeve (or, an extra airline ticket). The staff at Ryan’s school, where Yvette also works, knew. So did the cheerleading squad. 
The week before the trip, everyone took pleasure making Ryan-sightings in the hallway. It’s fun to watch a kid about to win the lottery. However, three days before departure, Ryan began to cough. There was some suspense, but at the pediatrician’s, when Yvette handed the doctor a note revealing Ryan’s future whereabouts, the medical man laughed, examined his throat, then pronounced, cryptically, that Ryan was fit to fly.
So on the dark, cold morning of February 10, a pre-sunrise caravan rolled out of Lindenhurst bearing 23 cheerleaders, 2 coaches, one sly mother and one groggy boy. Ryan thought that his dad, on shift at JFK, would drive him home later for school.
After a long wait, in hard airport chairs, came the moment for Ryan to say ‘good-bye.’ To the team. To his sister. 
And, to his mom. 
“We milked it till the last second,” says Yvette. “Then, the cheerleaders surrounded us with their video cameras running.”
Yvette handed Ryan a boarding pass. 
“Read this.”
“I can’t! Big words.”
“Just these two words ...”
There, at the top corner, his name.
An intake of breath. An exhale. “I’m ... going?”
And then ... “I’m GOOOOOOOOOING!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
“It got better and better and better,” says Yvette. “First, he’s treated to a quick look at the cockpit. Then, the pin with the wings. We sit in coach, a giant group, in Lindy green. As we’re approaching landing, the captain announces on the speaker that ‘Ryan Rodriguez in Seat 22E is completing his first flight ever.’ Ryan’s eyes get wider than the wingspan of the airplane, and the entire cabin erupts in ... cheers! He’s surrounded by cheerleaders.
“But the best part: As we’re debarking, the captain asks us to stay. He escorts Ryan into the cockpit and says, ‘Take a seat.’
“The photo I took of this hugely grinning boy in the pilot’s seat of a jumbo jetliner is better than ten trips to Disney World.”
Ryan spent the next five days with Yvette in a Disney dream. The Lindenhurst cheerleaders placed eleventh in the nation.
Ryan, too, honed his cheerleading skills. On the flight home, before returning his tray table to the upright position for landing, the veteran flier used the twistable craft sticks from his kid’s meal box to spell something out for his mother: Iyou. 
The cockpit photo is currently being enlarged - to dimensions as big as a little boy’s surprise trip - and being hung in the little boy’s bedroom. 
Three cheers for the Lindenhurst cheerleaders.
Three cheers for Ryan.
Three cheers for anyone who makes magic for anyone else.
Especially in the dark, cold month of February.

Monday, January 30, 2012

An Ed Lowe Story

by: Joan Hitz

Dear Readers,
From May through October of 2010, I was supremely fortunate to share an active e-mail correspondence with Ed Lowe. It meant (and still means) the world to me. When Ed died a little over a year ago, Long Island lost a great storyteller and legions of people lost a dear family member and friend. The South Bay’s Neighbor was the last publication to carry Ed’s work. I wrote this piece shortly after he died, and I share it here in honor of him. Joan Hitz
An Ed Lowe Story     
Ed Lowe. I wasn’t exactly hot on his trail, but I was on his trail. I wasn’t following him, but I followed him. I’d lived on his street, worked in his building, and he’d sat on my lap for thirty years in parking lots all over Long Island. Okay, that was a cheap shocker. I hope it provokes laughter behind the swinging doors of whatever cosmic bar room he’s in.
But it’s also true: for three decades, while indulging my habit of sitting in the car with the newspaper spread over my legs, I read Ed’s columns. And I often thought, “I really ought to know that guy.” Then I’d turn the page.  
Then one Saturday last May (2010), on a break from yardwork, I sat under a tree and read Ed’s column about ... letters unwritten. “I ought to know that guy,” I thought (italically)
So in a skip-the-yardwork trance, I entered the house, fixed a salad, and finally wrote to Ed. By the time I’d finished (a letter I deemed long enough to make up for thirty years), the salad was in wilt.  
I hit ‘send’ and went to my niece’s communion.
That night, when I logged back on to the computer, there was Ed Lowe in my inbox. 
He’d read my letter four times (six, he said, if he counted the interruptions, which he now called ‘godblessed’ instead of goddamned. Since his stroke, Ed counted everything, even interruptions, as events to savor.).
Ed also said he liked writing to someone who, like him, enjoyed going off on tangents. 
And then he stranded me on one.
My first e-mail from Ed Lowe ended unsigned, and with only half a sentence. He left me dangling with the pronoun “I.”
I ... what?  
Well, I thought, only half his body works (the other half affected by the stroke), so why not a partially-paralyzed e-mail too? The first half on time, the other limping in on a delayed schedule ... 
As this was Ed, I chose to wait. As this was Ed, my patience was a fake. 
All Sunday, between uninspired bouts of yardwork, I checked the computer for the words that should follow that “I.” For fourteen days, I waited for the AWOL verb of Ed Lowe. It never came, so finally I broke down and wrote again.
You left me dangling, I told him, for a fortnight in Tangentia. I ended my letter with wicked glee: I must conclude this follow-up e-mail by simply stating that I
Then for the second time ever, I hit ‘send’ to Ed Lowe.
All I wanted was the second half of my first half-a-letter. But this time he wrote me back a whole one.
A love letter. 
Now, hang on. It was the kind of love letter you write to someone you don’t know, offering up a universal sort of love: “I wish for you to fall in love,” the letter said, “with your book-in-progress, with another soul, with yourself ...” It was signed this time: Ed Lowe.
Well. Ought-to-know-that-guy became must-know. Like a shy stranger with a predestined appointment to see the king, I began to pace along the cyber-moat in front of the castle door (e-mail address) of Ed Lowe, throwing tiny pebbles, afraid to really knock. 
I couldn’t help it - all through June, I e-mailed him again and again, till finally, he actually asked me to: “Keep writing to me, for both our sakes.”
And that’s how, during Summer 2010, I sat in front of a computer and got to know that guy. Back and forth along an electronic cosmic footpath, I banged out letters and Ed zipped them back.  
All July and August we mingled at a word party, two writers romping through the funny, deep, and whimsical. We exchanged anecdotes. We sent stories. We brokered mutual encouragements too. 
Ed poured his benediction, “Holy (Unprintable)!” over a story I’d sent (I’ve memorized that e-mail), and I pleased him with a fabrication of a stroll he might one day take, talking shop with Mark Twain. 
And I began to realize something. I’d always been a writer but I’d never considered just where it might lead. Now, I knew. Writing with Ed Lowe revealed me to myself. Just like him, I wanted to do a column too. It called to me like nothing before.
And then ... his September column: The Liver.
When Ed wrote me about his cancer diagnosis, I was so crushed I told him I wasn’t going to sleep that night. Later that evening he wrote again to say: “If it wasn’t for these (post-stroke) 2 1/2 years, we would have never met. I’m tired,” he said. “You be tired too. 
With this through-the-screen shoulder squeeze, I knew that whatever happened, the going on of days was the thing. The going on of days.
Condensing the uncondensable, Ed had surgery, began chemo, and got too sick to write. I’d been ready for that - to enter a dark place of unknowing - and all November and December, I endured it. During long days of a quiet inbox, I prayed for him, hoped he’d rally and that we’d get to connect again. 
The end of this story is longer, but the crux of it is this: I still had something to say to Ed - the giant beautiful goodbye I’d never have sent when he was newly diagnosed and trying for a cure. 
Now, I wasn’t sure I’d get to do that. And that tore at me.
Then one day in late December, a series of events unrolled with a crystalline clockwork that convinces me the universe writes poems. Without any planning, everything proceeded like a well-wrought movie script.
Hit with the sudden sense that there wasn’t that much time, I wrote a letter to Ed’s daughter, Colleen. That summer, he’d sent me her e-mail address, though I’d never used it.
The letter I wrote to Colleen was the one I meant for Ed. Could she read it to him, please? She wrote back immediately to say that, remarkably, she was driving down from out of state to visit him the very next day.
Three days later, Colleen read my letter to Ed. In it, I revealed that the correspondence had been so much more than just that. I’d saved everything - printed out the entire cyber-exchange onto a thick stack of real, permanent paper. 
Dear Ed, my letter began, your heart is a star and you used it that way  ...
Colleen said he leaned back and listened, a “satisfied small smile on his face.” 
I can see that small smile. And “small” isn’t small at all. I’m honored. For thirty years, Ed Lowe wrote a “small” column. Limited by page space to approximately 1000 words, Ed had the incredible gift of tucking big-hearted stories about “small” people into a few “small” paragraphs. Very big indeed.
Ed knew what the really big stories were, and who the really big people were. Not the “super”heroes, “big” names and “super”stars; not the car accidents and fires and wars. 
Just ... us. Long Islanders with big lives lived on a small daily basis. In the small print.
So I’ll take that “small smile.” I’ll follow that unseen small smile into eternity.
Eleven days later, on January 15, 2011, Ed died.
And like the past-my-due-date procrastinator I was born to be, the day after his death, I got a stirring to return to Hamilton Street in Amityville, the place where he’d grown up and I’d once spent a year.
You see, I’d been following Ed, cold on his trail, for decades. When I was 22 years old, I spent a year living on Hamilton Street, but I’d never searched him out. And I now worked in the same school building where for two years in the 1960s, Ed taught English. 
So, in grief, and needing to do something, I decided to see his house, and where it was, in relation to the house I’d lived in. Were they close? How close?
I drove up the street to the cape I’d lived in - number 37. Surely, number 57, Ed’s house, would be much further up, very far away. But, as sometimes happens in strangely-house-numbered suburbia, the number gap didn’t reflect a space gap.
A roll of the tires and there it was - 57 - Ed’s childhood home. Same side of the street, three doors away. The lawn was covered in a thick blanket of clean untrodden snow. I gave my own small satisfied smile. I was now hot, but still cold, on his trail.
Across from my old house was an opening onto a canal. At 22, I’d stand there and gaze at the sky, searching for my future. Now, at 48, I simply gazed into today. 
Down the length of the canal stood rows of weathered pilings, free of boats for the winter. The water shifted with floating rectangles of light, and before me, the sun lit a tiny green sparkle in an oil slick. It winked at me ... and I spoke.
Into the ever-present, ever-receding sky, I lofted the name of the Long Island storyteller and man I’d ought to, and had come to, know. “Ed Lowe” ... I felt his name sail out and mingle with the air currents of the Great South Bay. I wanted the winds of Amityville to keep a part of him close, forever.
The last words Ed ever typed to me were ‘thank you,’ and the last word I ever typed to him was ‘peace.’  
Those words are universal, they are interchangeable, and they are prayers. I’m still saying those prayers. I’m still praying for Ed. I’m not planning to stop.
(first published on January 25, 2012, in South Bay's Neighbor News)