When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez

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I was thinking about travel songs because I’ve been thinking about travel and that one popped into my head—though if I understand it correctly it’s about an extremely ill-fated trip. It’s a great song, and I went through a phase somewhere around 2003 of listening to Bob Dylan’s and Nina Simone’s versions back to back, along with a somewhat random assortment of other songs that were part of my greatest hits collection during that stretch. Nick Cave’s “He Wants You”, Marlene Dietrich’s “I May Never Go Home Anymore”, Tom Waits’ “Old Shoes and Picture Postcards” were all on that soundtrack. Along with many others that will come to mind as soon as I hit “Publish.”

I got to travel a bit last weekend, a long weekend in Florida where we lay on the beach and floated in the gulf and it had been a while since I’d done either, particularly the latter. Sometimes, often, you don’t realize how much you need to get out of New York until you get out of New York. On the one hand, stepping outside of your life can help you to appreciate it; on the other hand, New York is a really effing hard place to be. It is also a really exciting and interesting place where the vast majority of my friends and family live. Now that dog care is no longer an issue—and you know I would trade the freedom for more time with Louie in a heartbeat—but given the confines of my reality, I am realistically fantasizing about leaving town for an extended period of time. Not six months—but a couple of weeks feels like just what the doctors have ordered.

I feel like New York has a way of deciding who you are and what your life will be like without your having as much say in the matter as you might elsewhere.

We sat in the exit row on the way down to Florida, and it occurred to me that I should be more vigilant about knowing who is in the exit row on future flights, for they have the power to hinder or expedite my slide to safety.

I’ll be traveling again the week after next, to Colorado, to see Tom. I don’t have any idea what this trip will be like but I am grateful that it will be, period. There was a time quite recently when early-May seemed an impossibly long way off.

At the office today, three people asked me how Louie was doing. I’d kind of assumed everybody there, and in my building, knew—but this was not the case. B and I have fantasies that Louie is hanging out with the Roosevelts; not sure where this came from, but it fits.

The photo above is from last summer, Louie’s last trip to Montauk with us. I don’t think his death had really hit me for the first couple of weeks—something about being present for it, maybe. Or about the enormity of his spirit. I’ve hung out with him many times in my dreams since he died. “He died” sounds so very strange, and was made much clearer a few hours after I landed in Florida, when I got a message from his vet’s office—his vet is wonderful and most of the people who work there are too, but this message came from one of the front desk people who is not the most delicate or empathic.

Picture (aurally) this in a New York accent:

Hi Laura, it’s xxxx calling from West Chelsea Veterinary Hospital. Just letting you know that Louie’s cremains are in, so if you want to pick them up we’re open from 8AM to 7PM. 

I guess this means he’s never really coming back except in “cremain” form. Cremain, criminy, craisin, Crimea … I miss that boy.

Much more to say, must go to sleep. If you knew Lou, look for him in your dreams. He’s around.

 

 

 

 

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Darlin’, you’re the best

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Alas, here it is, the post I knew I’d someday write and yet never really believed I’d have to.

My little guy has gone to the great dog park in the sky, where he will find all the tennis balls, cookies, and people-who-give-him-just-enough-but-not-too-much attention his heart desires.

Louie Louie Louie … my sweet little babushka boy, the spy who loved me. That was one of the songs I used to sing to him, that and “Girls” by the Beastie Boys.

I suppose I should tell the story of Lou and me. Here’s where you learn what a horrid, unethical, fake-animal-loving person I used to be … I got him at a pet store. I know, I know, but I didn’t know then, and I was 31 and grieving and of COURSE I would do things differently now, were I to acquire another animal, but I have zero regrets about how it went down because Lou and I were meant to hang out for 16 years. One-third of my life thus far.

Here’s what happened. I have to back track a little to June of 2002, when six of my girlfriends were pregnant at the same time—’twas the season—and while I had always feared the physicality of childbirth, I’d also always kind of assumed I’d be a mom someday because that’s what women do. So I’d started to research international adoption, which freaked my mom out a bit at the time, but as I explained then, it wasn’t as though I was going to make a rash decision about adopting a kid. I was merely researching. I mean, I pretty much knew how the getting pregnant and having a kid thing worked, so I figured it made sense to learn this method of motherhood as well.

And then the unthinkable happened. What was then the unthinkable, anyway, and is now clearly possible. My friend Laura died in childbirth. And though I’d suffered losses of loved ones before, I’d never experienced anything like that, hearing the message on my answering machine to call Diane back and knowing by the tone of her voice that something wasn’t right, deciding to shower first to stave off the bad information that was trying to find me (a borrowed quote from another tragedy), then crumpling to the ground in tears and shock and disbelief and all those myriad stages of grief that whirl around you like a swarm of gnats and sneak up on you when you think you’re thinking about something else. When you think you’re going to the corner store to buy milk or cigarettes or whatever you buy at the corner store and you wind up livid and in tears. Or when you dream a beautiful dream in which all is right in the world and you’re walking off into the sunset hand in hand with your true love and then you wake to have the anvil of reality plunge to your gut.

So that went on for a couple of months and as I’ve said before, I’m pretty sure I think about Laura on some level every day.

And then one day in mid-August we went out for brunch, a couple of us. I was living on Charles Street at the time, and as we walked down Christopher to meet our friends we passed Urban Pets. It’s no longer there. I glanced in the window and there was a jumble of puppies doing puppy things, all tails and teeth and oversized paws, and there, in the very front of the window, staring out, pleading to be rescued from the mundane mayhem of so many puppies, was this little black foxy thing that reminded me of my childhood German Shepard, Lovable. We went in and inquired about him and learned that he was that newfangled Japanese breed I’d been seeing all over town—which, in fact, is one of the oldest fangled dog breeds around, dating back to many thousand years B.C. and, since 1936, a “precious natural product” of Japan. I held him, all six or seven pounds of him, and asked questions. I still had no idea I was going to be getting a dog, I just knew that I liked holding puppies. I’d been doing a fair amount of that in the aftermath of my friend’s death. It was comforting.

We went to brunch, and on the way back stopped in again for more puppy-holding. The wheels started turning and the then-partner started panicking. Over the next 48 – 72 hours I phoned everyone I knew who had ever owned, walked, or looked at a dog. I wrote lists of pros and cons and realized that not being able to jet off to Tahiti on a moment’s notice had never been an issue, and that having to leave my house every day was a pro.

I lied—I wasn’t living on Charles Street at that point, I was living on 9th.

So I went back and visited him several times and eventually took him home. Before I did they gave me his papers; his parents’ names were Foxy Lady’s Nikki One Leg (dad) and T-Dallas Rebel’s Sungirl (mom). I commented on the names and the man at the shop said, “Well, he came from Nebraska. You know how they are in the south.”

I may have altered those names slightly – I will look at the papers later and edit.

I believe we took Louie home on a Monday, and by Friday he still didn’t have a name. There were several contenders including Hiroshi, which is Japanese for generous. And then one day I realized his name was Louie.

For the first week or two Louie stayed in the bathroom; he could not be coaxed out of his hiding place. I was afraid I’d made a terrible mistake, that this little thing I just wanted to love adamantly refused to let me do so. And then one evening we were watching TV and he came out, sat in the doorway, and stared at us. If you knew Louie, or any Shiba, really, you know that that is the mark of true affection. At long last, I’d earned his trust. And his love.

Louie and I spent almost sixteen years together. He screamed the first time he saw the sunrise, and was elated on his first visit to the sea. We spent a couple of summer vacations on a lake in Maine, and several summers on the beach in Montauk. He’s been to Philadelphia and Baltimore and Sea Isle City and had the opportunity to meet and mingle with the late, great John Barlow at a party in Soho. He loved tennis balls, food, and watching rain fall.

There is so much more to say about Lou, but if I were to say it all this post would never end. I will write more about him, I’m sure of that.

For now I say this: thank you to everyone who was part of Louie’s life, and thank you, sweet Lou, for being my bearcub and lovebug and faithful companion. Keep visiting me in my dreams, dear one.

 

Until we meet again

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I write this post with a heavy heart. My aunt Debby died on Thursday, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends.

I’ve known Debby—I called her Tanta—for about twenty years. She and my uncle Charles married in their 60s. We grew close and used to have lunch together on a somewhat regular basis. Gramercy Tavern, the Yale Club, and Sushi Yasuda were our mainstays.

Debby brought to our world a profound sense of the importance of family. Family came first for her in a way that, devoted as I am to my own, I hadn’t really experienced before. She broadened our definition of the word. To Debby, family included everyone in her close circle, blood relative or not, regardless of whether one’s official title had “step-” or “half,” “in-law” or “twice removed” in it.

When you’d talk to her she’d go through the list—asking how you were, and how your partner was, then your dog, and our mutual friends. Anyone you introduced to Debby became a mutual friend. That’s how she operated.

She asked about everyone not to make small talk, but because she genuinely cared.

She was warm and thoughtful, funny and kind, and one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. So devoted was she to my uncle Charles that she, a lifelong Yankees fan, switched to the Mets; in earlier days they’d go to Port Saint Lucie to watch spring training. She was an interior decorator for many years, worked on some of the high-end lounges that were part of NYC nightlife in the ’80s. She loved good food and nice things, her manicure was flawless until the end. She loved lions. She loved having people to her house for the Jewish holidays. And most of all, she loved the people in her life and always had the capacity to welcome more.

As you may know, I believe in some form of an after life. I understand how one might not, but I’ve had experiences too otherwise inexplicable for me not to believe. And that brings me comfort. That helps me through times like these, and I’ve had a fair amount of them.

I will miss you, Tanta. Until we meet again.

It’s been a long time without you, my friend

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Somebody asked me what I usually do on 9-11, and while I don’t really have any rituals, writing here has become a tradition of sorts. It helps me. It’s therapeutic and it’s important.

I believe that 9-11 enters my mind in some way most days—certainly more often than not. And while the visceral memories fade during the year, on the anniversary they return.

I remember so vividly that I could re-enact my experiences on that day in stunning detail. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I remember what I was doing, who I spoke with, what I saw, what I ate. I can picture myself in my little apartment on Charles Street, blowdrying my hair and watching the news. I’d turned it on just after the first plane hit. I remember the anchorman’s tone when the second one came, when we could no longer pretend it was an accident.

I remember the phone calls, first to my mom and then to my ex. Nothing registered – at least not the loss of life at that moment, nor the implications for the rest of mine. I think on some cellular level we all knew that nothing would ever be the same, that life would be divided into pre- and post- , but I’m not sure most of us could have understood  just how intractable the change would be.

It was a perfect day. It was sunny and crisp and blueskyed, where the night before had seen torrential downpours. The night before we’d attended a benefit party for Women in Need and then darted from awning to awning to have burgers at the Cedar Tavern.

I remember standing on 6th Avenue in a stunned crowd of people watching the towers burn. Wondering, briefly, if I should go back for my camera and deciding not to. Ron, the homeless man I knew in my neighborhood, called out to me as I crossed 10th Street. “Laura! They hit us!” I spoke with him briefly and told him to stay safe, not yet understanding that that was impossible.

I got on the subway and most people knew. Got off in mid-town and learned that the towers had fallen. Loss of life was beginning to register, but certainly not to the extent that it would.

My coworkers, gathered around a live news feed, one in tears because her husband had gone to the buildings for a meeting that morning. He would walk in hours later, stunned and alive.

The rumors about the planes heading to Los Angeles and Chicago, learning about Pennsylvania and the Pentagon. Phone calls coming in from friends and family all over the country. Emails from people abroad.

Erika and I walked to my parents’ place, where my mom made us lunch (tuna salad on toast and potato chips) and from their windows we could see the smoke and chaos consuming lower Manhattan.

Walking, more walking, visiting with my dad, heading west and meeting Michel, then going down to my apartment. We went to Gus’s for dinner that night, ate Greek food because that was our plan and what else could we do? The couple behind us, an older couple, sounded as though they were on a very early date.

We went to a bar after to meet up with friends, including one who had yet to hear from her mother. She would learn, at some point, that her mother had stayed home from her job in one of the towers.

The Missing posters all over my neighborhood, the trickling in of information about so-and-so’s friend or family member who had died. The smell, that acrid smell of death and chemicals that clung to the air for months afterward.

I’m not sure which day I found out about Jonathan, but I think it might have been two days later. I hadn’t seen him in a bit, hadn’t known he’d changed jobs, hadn’t even heard of Cantor Fitzgerald until it was demolished.

That Friday a group of us volunteered at the site, feeding the rescue workers. We wore hard hats and goggles. The piles of steel were still burning. The heat was palpable.

The next day I went up to the country, travelled up with Phil; he had a house not far from my parents’. My dad picked us up and I spent the weekend with them. I remember taking a walk down their road and fearing snipers hiding in the woods. I remember seeing the biggest f-ing caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

How many times did I watch the planes hit and the buildings fall? It was unavoidable and yet I didn’t resent the coverage. I needed to see it, it was part of the process. My process.

The dreams continued for months. Dreams of buildings exploding and airplanes falling from the sky.

I remember the Portraits of Grief. I saved Jonathan’s and one day, months or maybe years later, I reread it, turned it over and saw the Portrait of someone else I’d once known.

In a very weird way, and please hear me out on this, I miss the aftermath of 9-11. I miss the closeness and kindness and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness. I miss the burying of hatchets and the overlooking of petty differences. I miss the tacit empathy and comfort we provided one another. The feelings of pride in my city, of gratitude for what we were able to do together. The checking up on one another. The collective therapy.

I don’t miss the flyers that stayed up for far too long, and I don’t miss the smell, and I don’t miss the frantic barking of dogs.

I don’t know what I will do tomorrow, I’ve started my 9-11 ritual early this year. I will think about Jonathan and I will think about others and I will probably watch some of the reading of the names. I will try to be a very good person tomorrow.

I will wish that we would all be kinder to one another, that we could all have compassion and celebrate our differences, that we would always remember to tell people we love that we love them, and that we would never take another day for granted.

I think I post this every year, too, because I think it’s beautiful, a snippet of a poem by my supremely talented friend:

In the blinking of an eye
Soon everything will change
From a blue September sky
The brimstone falls like rain.
If true Love
Soars the heavens
Pretend and we can fly
Soon everything will change
My love
In the blinking of an eye.

Neil Thomas, September 2001

I may write again tomorrow. Then again, I may not.

 

Daddy never sleeps at ni-ight

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This title is, of course, from The Who’s “Squeeze Box,” but in my case, it happens to be true. Among the many wonderful things I’ve inherited from my dad is a proclivity for insomnia. I’ve also inherited a sense of humor that can err on the side of crass, an inherent friendliness, a love of duck (sorry vegans), a sentimental streak—as evidenced by the mounds of memorabilia I sorted through over the past several weeks—a talent for singing  both enthusiastically and free from the constraints of proper tune or lyrics, and much, much more.

I love you, d!

(mima, please let him know he got a “shout-out”, as he’d say)

I have the great fortune of seeing my dad on a regular basis. The photo above is from Bash Bish Falls, which I first visited many years ago when he took me (us?) hiking there.

I wish all of the fathers reading this a very happy Father’s Day.

Today I’m also reminded that I have many friends and cousins who’ve lost their dads, some many years ago and some quite recently. I imagine this day is incredibly difficult whether or not you celebrated it much growing up . The whole world  (the corporate one, anyway) just assumes you have a father—and that you have a good relationship with him. News programs devote entire segments to what to get dad for Father’s Day. Chalkboards outside restaurants invite you to bring  him in for brunch or dinner. Stores create elaborate displays of Father’s Day gifts. Reminders are everywhere.

So to my friends (and cousins) whose dads are no longer with us, I send you love and strength today and every day. If you’re in my life, your dad did a hell of a job. Your mom too, but we’ll talk about her some other time. Unless she (or you) is a single mom; happy day to all the badass women out there going it alone with strength and grace, however imperfect it may be at times. We are all imperfect.

This past week was the 14th anniversary of a very close friend’s passing, my sweet Laura. Though my grief over her is not nearly as raw as it once was, she is never far from my mind. I think about her in some context more days than not.

Such is the bittersweet truth of loving deeply and often. With love comes the risk of loss. Let that not be a deterrent, though, because life is much richer when shared.

 

I bought a ticket to the world

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On the advice of the wise and wonderful Ginger, I got myself a subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine. The first issue arrived and, despite the fact that it looks like it was delivered by bored, rabid ferrets who were building an addition to their nest, it’s exactly what I need right now. It’s all about the beginning … the first sentence, the first chapter, and so on. Since I’m pretty much reinventing the book, I have the opportunity to craft a stellar beginning. I liked my original one, but I absolutely understand why it was bogging this thing down.

In beginning my story on what was once page 129, I have the incredibly challenging task of incorporating back story — which was once, simply, “story” — into my new beginning, and there’s an article on that, too. The main takeaway from this article is that back story needn’t be spelled out as explicitly as one might think; it can be hinted at in the way characters behave in the present, in their motivations, wishes, fears, and so on.

I’ve written before about “killing your darlings” — and in this case, I’ve outright massacred mine. But this does not mean their lives were in vain: I needed to write out 129 pages of ponderous, stagnant back story in order to learn who my characters are and why they are that way.

Now my task is to tie it all together into something that bears vague resemblance to a book. With a plot. And an arc.

What have I gotten myself into?!

In addition to the print version, a subscription to WD includes access to a wealth of content on their website. One of today’s pieces was on fact in fiction, on how, if one is well-versed in a particular topic, and a fiction writer has not done his/her research, it can be hard to accept the rest of the world that he/she has created.

A lot of creative folk had a hard time writing/painting/sculpting/dancing/singing about 9-11. I read a fair amount of contemporary literature in the years after it happened, and it was quite a while before I read a book that referenced it. The first one I did was The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, which came out five years after the fact.

I loved the way she touched on 9-11 … nothing gratuitous, nothing repetitive to those who lived through it. She wrote elegantly of the mood in NY in the hours and days after the planes, and I appreciated the way she handled it.

However … there was one “fact” she ignored, and I hesitate to say that because there is no wrong in fiction. But it struck me then and has stayed with me.

The night of 9-10-01, one of her characters goes on a helicopter ride around Manhattan and sees the lights and the city and I don’t recall what else. Anyone who lived here then will recall that on the night of 9-10 we had a torrential downpour. A deluge, the kind that upends umbrellas and ruins shoes and is enchanting to those of us who love rain, no matter how inconvenient. And so it was especially stunning how perfect the next morning felt, how crisp and clear and bright the skies. And then, they did their thing and you know the rest.

So add to the myriad reasons it takes me so long to get through a paragraph in this book I’m trying to write the fact that I do not want to take such a liberty. I’m already doing so by making the summer of 1999 a particularly rainy one and throwing a massive power outage in for good measure. (and to further the plot). But where very tangible specifics are concerned, I’m getting in my own fiction-writing way.

Any excuse to keep from churning out another draft from which to create the final one.

My bestest friend and I are writing a tv pilot loosely based on our awkward, misfit selves in the 80s. This is a breath of fresh air from the book. It’s work, it’s challenging, it requires letting go of ego and perfectionism and impatience and indulging in the process. And we’re doing it together, which is the best part. There’s strength in numbers.

Book-writing’s a lonely business. Bear with me while I figure it all out.

 

 

Pack up all my care and woe…

IMG_7771The title of this post is from Bye Bye Blackbird, which was the favorite song of someone I knew who died from Alzheimer’s — or as my young niece calls it, Old Timer’s. I had a brush with early stages of the disease today in a chance encounter on the street.

It was not unbearably freezing today, and so I decided to walk home from my appointment on 36th and Park. As I walked down Ninth Avenue I saw an elderly man a few paces ahead of me who was standing on the sidewalk looking around. I made eye contact with him and he stopped me and asked if I live in the neighborhood. I said yes, and asked if he was lost. He was – I asked what he was looking for and he said, “My home. I can’t remember where it is.” He was visibly shaken by this. My first thought was to call the authorities, but I didn’t really know which authorities to call. He had his keys in his hand and on his key ring was a CVS customer card. I suggested we might go to the nearest CVS and see if they could scan it and find his address.

Then I asked if he perhaps had id in his wallet; he did – he had a Christmas-themed return address label stuck on the inside. I read the address to him; it was about half a block away, but a long block, and it took us a while to get close to the building. He kept saying how ridiculous it was that he could just forget where he lives, that he’s lived there for years. I asked if he lived with anyone or had family here and he mentioned a daughter, whose name he couldn’t recall. I asked to see his wallet again, and in it found a piece of paper with three names and phone numbers – “Son” and “Daughter” were clearly marked – one with a New Jersey number and one in Brooklyn, he told me. The third name, Stella, was 212. He told me she was his girlfriend so I asked if I could phone her.

Stella was very concerned to hear what was going on and explained that she’d been sick and couldn’t come over to his house – his name is Michael, by the way. She asked if I’d bring him to her, and gave me the address. She lives in the housing projects a few blocks from me that I pass every day and have never been inside.

On the long, slow walk to Stella’s, we passed a friend of mine who lives in the East Village and whom I haven’t seen in years – she was on the phone and we greeted each other and agreed to talk later.

I asked Michael more questions. He estimates he was born in 1925, and clearly recalled that he moved to New York from Naples, Italy, in 1940; shortly after he joined the army and fought with the 69th Infantry Division. He couldn’t understand how he could remember that, but not where he’s been living for the past many decades. I said something about how curious memory is, how sometimes we recall things from childhood but not what we had for breakfast that morning. I asked if he’d eaten anything today and he said no.

I held his arm when we crossed the streets and told him that I was afraid of slipping on the ice myself – and he laughed. But in general he was sad and confused. I said, “This must be very frustrating for you,” and he said, “It’s very frustrating. I just don’t understand.” We talked about the fact that he should probably pay a visit to a doctor – he doesn’t think he’s been to the doctor in quite some time.

We reached Stella’s building and she buzzed us in, though the lock on the main door appeared to be broken. Michael pushed “7” in the elevator – and Stella waited for us with her apartment door opened. They cried on seeing each other – she gave him a big hug and asked what was going on and he said he didn’t understand.

She invited me in – actually, it was more insistence – and we helped him off with his jacket. She asked where his keys were and I said probably in his pocket, so she went through his pockets and pulled out his keys, wallet, a bunch of napkins, and his teeth.

While she made him a cup of tea I called his daughter – who started to cry and told me that this has been going on for a while and has gotten worse and worse and that she’s asked him to come stay with her in Brooklyn but that he’s stubborn. She said she’d call Stella in a few minutes, and I gave her my number and explained that I live in the neighborhood, should they need anything.

While we were in the kitchen Stella said to me, “We’ve known each other for 37 years. This is going to be so hard for me – I am all alone.”

I said whatever I could – tried to be comforting. I told Stella I’d check in with her, and Michael’s daughter said she’d keep me posted. I said my goodbyes and left.

So much to say about all of this but I’m still processing it. My neighborhood – this whole city – is full of elderly people who live on their own. I recently had a conversation with a friend – one whose own elderly mother was in a physical rehabilitation center with apparently deplorable conditions – about the fact that our society has a lot of work to do in terms of how we value and care for our elderly. Michael and Stella have lived in my neighborhood since long before it was filled with new condos and art galleries and night clubs and expensive restaurants – since long before the vast majority of the people who live in my building were born. This is their neighborhood.

I am grateful that I made eye contact with him and that I stopped, because in the wrong hands, things could have turned out much differently. Not only was he confused, he had money and credit cards in his wallet. Mine are far from the only right hands – I know that everyone reading these words would have done the same thing I did. I also know that moments before I saw him I’d been looking at my phone to see if I’d heard back about tomorrow night’s dinner plans, or about what time my Pilates lesson was. Of course we all spend far too much time looking down these days – and once more I’m reminded of the value of looking up. Looking around. From now on I will pay more attention to the many elderly people I see walking around my neighborhood by themselves.

The other takeaway here – and this is important for ALL of us – is to carry ID and a list of contacts. I don’t know if that ICE program is still relevant, but if it is it’s a good one – emergency responders are taught to look through cellphone contacts for anyone marked ICE – “in case of emergency”.

This city is a big and busy place and not everybody is kind; but like the day I had my accident a few years back (I fainted in the street) – today proved that sometimes the kindness of strangers is what separates trauma from tragedy.

Be well, my friends, and look after your loved ones.