We few….we band of brothers…and sisters….

We’re dying. When I say we, I mean those of us who worked EMS in NYC during the time of 9/11. That doesn’t include me, as I had already moved out of NYC two years earlier. That I also happened to be down in NYC that day, due to being at a former paramedic partner’s wedding a few days earlier is inconsequential. However, on that day, and in the years hence, our numbers have been thinned precipitously, mainly in those years hence. The horrors of that day keep taking and taking. All many of us can simply do now is wait and watch to see who will be next, as it seems as though weekly – at some times daily – comes the news that another one of us has died of a 9/11 related illness.

On September 1st, a few weeks before the time of this writing, it claimed one of my best friends, Ray Thielke.

I was sitting in my dialysis chair when I found out. It was as though I had a knife driven through me. Ray had been admitted into the hospital here in Syracuse about a week or so earlier with symptoms he had before, related in part to the leukemia and COPD he developed from working on the pile.*  It was complicated by his cardiac issues from a long ago battle with Hodgkin’s Disease, that he beat, but whose radiation treatments did damage to his heart. I thought that he’d simply get through it like he did numerous times in the past. Then, his wife told me he was in kidney failure, and was getting emergency dialysis. Somewhere deep inside, I knew he was in a lot of trouble as this had never happened before. I still held out hope. It was dashed faster than I could have thought.

Ray and I struggled through our respective illnesses, doctor visits, and hospitalizations. We had a system set up, so that when one of us went into the hospital, we’d text the other one with, “Tag, you’re it!” It got to a point when were we were in so much, we called ourselves “The HMO Twins.” We’d laugh at it. It was our ability to laugh at some of the absurdities of our situations that got us through it. Now, learning that he died, all I could do was cry.

Ray was beloved not only by his NYC EMS family, but by his local EMS and law enforcement family here in central NY state. He was well known as both a provider, and instructor, and from his time with the NY State Department of Health’s EMS bureau. The outpouring of grief from both communities was palpable. He was lain out in his local EMS uniform at his wake. I put in the white NYC paramedic patch we both wore in his casket, taken from one of my old uniforms.

No more than a week later, another 9/11 death came across the Facebook EMS boards. In an article a few weeks prior, it was noted that the total number of post 9/11 deaths would surpass the actual number of those killed that day. This includes those who were first responders, and those who were simply in or near the Trade Center that day.

There is no telling who will be claimed next. We try not to think about it. Just a week before I wrote this, there was a huge reunion of those who worked EMS prior to the FDNY merger in 1996. It was held on the grounds of the EMS Academy in Queens, at Ft. Totten. It was in part organized so that we who remain could gather at a happy occasion instead of seeing each other at funerals. I drove down from Syracuse, and both my brother and I attended. It was an incredible, uplifting experience. The joy at seeing old friends, colleagues, and instructors was highly satisfying.

9/11 was our St. David’s Day. Even for those who weren’t there, we are still part of that band of brothers and sisters who fought, and who continue on the job, from now will be remembered.

*(For those who are not aware, “the pile” is the term used by those who were actually working at the Trade Center. Not Ground Zero, but, the pile.)

Advertisements

Table for one…

I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. He didn’t know me. Yet, I loved his work. He was a breath of fresh air in a seemingly vapid television landscape that was only filled with pretenders. Bourdain was the real deal. He was honest to a fault. He could cut through all that nonsense of others and get straight to the heart of a subject. He adopted a “bad boy” persona, which was true because he didn’t try to be something else for the camera. it reflected on screen what he had written about in his books.

I became acquainted with him quite by accident. I had never heard of his book, “Kitchen Confidential,” but stumbled on to his show “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel one day, and I was hooked from the beginning. Here was a different kind of cooking show. He didn’t simply stand around a stove or prep table and show you how to do things. No, to simply call it a cooking show was a misnomer. This was a show about how food, life, and culture intersect. Here was this brash NYC chef, bringing to perhaps a largely uninformed American public how other cultures are more like us than we think. We all eat, sit around a table, and discuss events. That’s when I think he was at his best, when he would go into people’s homes in different countries and simply talk around the table with families.

He was a risk taker. Beirut, Iran, Istanbul. Places that were not always friendly to Americans, he would go to try and open up the lens on them. He would never try to impose his views on the people there. He merely asked questions, often very pointed, direct, but never with any kind of superiority behind them.

His show, “Parts Unknown” is a staple of my TV week. I look forward to every Sunday, and even will occasionally binge on previous episodes on Netflix. His friendship with fellow chef Eric Ripert provides some of the best in both entertainment and knowledge. He loved to terrorize Ripert with spicy foods. Just watch the episode where they travel to Sichuan province in China.

I have Bourdain’s cookbook, “Appetites.” I had been thumbing through over the last few weeks to try to select a recipe that I could make (and that Patti would eat), and settled on the bluefish recipe. I’ve yet to tackle it, but feel compelled to do so now. It’s just hard to fathom that Bourdain won’t be around for me to at least send him a tweet on how it turned out, even if he never might have acknowledged it.

Bourdain was candid about his personal demons, including being a heroin user, and having depression. Given his success, one might have thought that he had them conquered. His suicide shows that perhaps, the demons never really leave you. They lurk in the background, whispering in your ear all the time. For Bourdain it would seem, for whatever the reasons, he chose not to ignore them this time.

We are all the worse for not having him here anymore to keep us honest. As my friend Dan Ryan noted, he was truly an example of American exceptionalism, especially when there’s so true little of it around.

Yes…questions…

There are surprises, and then there are some surprises that stop you dead in your tracks, and make your hair stand on end. I had one of those a few nights ago, after opening a package from Amazon, of the new edition of the book Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner, by author Paul M. Sammon.

I’m a very big fan of Blade Runner, have been since I first saw it on its release back in 1982. I saw it in a theatre in Manhattan, on a NYC late spring, early summer night, when it was rainy and a bit foggy. The movie itself, while not well received on its release (mixed reviews, some outright hostile), has since been recognized as a sci-fi masterpiece, and rightly so. The imagery, and dark nature of it has been likened to film noir. Like many of Ridley Scott’s films, it is highly layered visually. It created a dystopian society so intense, and has influenced so many other films that came after it (think The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Ghost In The Shell), and helped to spawn the sub-genre of science fiction known as “cyberpunk.” In short, Blade Runner set the standard for just about anything you see in science fiction today.

Upon first viewing, like many other people I was left shell shocked. What did I just see? I was trying to make sense of it, and then I stepped into the that hot Manhattan night and looked around. NYC at that time was not a fun place. The city was in a financial mess. it was incredibly dirty, run down and outright dangerous. Between the rain, fog, and pollution that hung over Manhattan, the realization hit me that I didn’t just watch a movie about a dystopian society: I was living it in many respects. With the exception of the flying cars (“Spinners,” as they were called), and the humanoid “replicant” robots, the environment was eerily similar.

It would take a couple of more viewings, and even then, not until it was released on video did its themes begin to really click into place for me. The overriding one I always thought was the main question it was asking: What does it mean to be human?

Flash forward about a decade or so. The internet has taken off, the web makes its grand appearance, and the world changes. I got into the home computer game late, but once being thrown into the deep end of the pool, I learned to swim in it pretty quickly. Before MySpace, before Facebook, there was Usenet. It was a subset of the internet, and part of it was dedicated to so-called, “newsgroups,” which were places where people with like minded interests could commiserate, share stories, ideas, even computer files. And yes, there were arguments, insults, and all the same things that you can find today. One group caught my interest almost immediately, “alt.fan.blade-runner.”

It was a very active group, and the conversations ranged from discussing the themes of the movie, to the imagery, to the props involved. How the movie was made, and the task that was undertaken for it was a major discussion point. Also, the one recurring discussion was, “Was Deckard (Harrison Ford’s main character) a replicant or not?” Believe it or not, it’s an argument that continues to this day (The sequel coming out next month is supposed to settle that question..yeah, right!). The group eventually migrated over to Facebook, pretty much intact from its Usenet iteration.

I met many good people from literally all over the world in that group, several of whom I’m still friends with today, though many I’ve never met face-to-face. One of the founders of the group was a gentleman by the name of Lukas Mariman, from Belgium. Sadly, we lost Lukas last year at the all too young age of 43. He died just about two weeks after I came home from the hospital following my liver transplant. His death hit us all like a hammer.

Among the people in the group was/is Paul M. Sammon. Paul is a writer, whose contributions were found in several film magazines, many dedicated to science fiction and film in general. He’s also a script writer, director, and film aficionado. His seminal work however is the book mention at the beginning of this post, Future Noir. It is considered the “bible of Blade Runner,” and is a firsthand account of the making of the movie. Paul was on set throughout the entire film shoot, chronicling the dynamics of what was considered, and this is putting it mildly, a very difficult shoot. It was also the start of an almost four decades long obsession (by Paul’s own admission) with this film.

The first printing of the book was released in 1996, with one update after that, and now, the most recent update  which was released last week. Many of us in the group got to know Paul, mostly through group conversations, though some were fortunate enough to meet him face-to-face. I’m hoping to be able to do that some day.

I’ve been a fairly regular contributor to the group, and Paul was very kind and supportive to me during my own battle with illness, and transplant. What I simply didn’t expect was what I read when I opened the new edition Future Noir (FN for short). There towards  the beginning of the book in the Acknowledgements section, in addition to the big names associated with the movie (Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, among others),  were some of us from the newsgroup. My name was among them.

I couldn’t believe it. In the grand scheme of this big book, it was a small thing, but I have to be honest that I felt a rush of pride. I never in a million years expected that I made any sort of contribution that would have merited even a small mention like this, but there it was. I immediately posted a huge thank you to Paul in the group, as did others whose names were featured in the same section. I also suggested to Paul (privately) if he could send a signed copy of the book to Lukas’ parents, as they are still in great grief over the loss of their son. They have come to realize how much their son had an impact on so many over the world, and Paul agreed with me, and is sending them a special copy of the book.

So yes, I am encouraging others with any interest in the movie, or in filmmaking in general to buy this book. It’s on Amazon, for a very reasonable price.

“Fiery the angels fell. Deep thunder rolled around their shoulders, burning with the fires of Orc….Yes…questions.”

 

All gave some….

It’s hard to fathom that it’s been 16 years since that awful Tuesday morning, when the world came to a screeching halt. On this day, like the 15 previous ones, we stop to remember those who perished in three acts of terrorism, in NYC, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. We talk of the victims, and of the heroes. The heroes who gave their lives trying to save others, those who lived to tell the tales, and those who have perished since, who were taken by the lingering effects of the toxins that floated through the air for weeks afterward.

There are however, other heroes from that day that get left behind. In New York, they were the ones that, kept the remainder of the city safe, while all was going to hell in a hand basket in lower Manhattan. Since I was in EMS for so many years, I’ll stick with them, though they weren’t the only ones.

New York City is a big place. While that might seem painfully obvious, many people don’t realize that it is more than simply Manhattan. There are four other boroughs that make up the patchwork of the largest city in the U.S. All of it is covered by FDNY-EMS, with help from contracted hospitals that turn out EMS units to fill the voids in the system.

Even in other parts of Manhattan, people were still getting sick. Car accidents still occurred in Queens. Cardiac arrests still happened. People still called 9-1-1, on 9/11 for all the usual things that are called for the other 364 days of the year. And EMS still responded to them. In the midst of an unspeakable nightmare, others took up the duty. My brother Philip, was one of them. This was prior to him being promoted to the rank of Lt., when he was a paramedic in the South Bronx. He had just gotten off of his overnight shift, when he was called back in to his station. He was kept in the Bronx – much to the relief of our family – and was one of those who kept the rest of the city safe. They all deserve our thanks. They are all equally heroes, though if you ask them, they were just doing what needed to be done.

Life eventually returned to normal, though it wasn’t quite the same normal. We continue to bury colleagues all these years later. Others have retired. Many still deal with the nightmares that haunt them to this day. And then there are those that are still out there, helping those in need who call 9-1-1, and hear “What’s your emergency?”

 

Joy and thunder.

Carl was a man to admire. It was not his physical stature, nor any great and noble deed that he performed. The admiration that came to him from his friends and others was in how he lived his life, at full throttle. Carl had both physical and health challenges that would have stopped a lesser person in their tracks. At just maybe 5’0″, one still always looked up to Carl. On stage or on film, he was a giant of a man. His was a presence to be reckoned with, and while I never knew him as well as others did, I respected his talent. I never had the opportunity to act with him, and that is something I regret.

Two days ago, it was the first anniversary of his death. At 37 years-old, he was taken far too young.

Carl faced health challenges his whole life. Cardiac issues from the time of his birth. Last year, time caught up with him, but with the same fierceness he brought to his acting, he fought against what would eventually claim his life right up to the moment of his death. I saw him a little over a week prior, in the Neuro ICU at Strong Hospital in Rochester. He had suffered a stroke, a brain bleed. I ran into Katharine, his closest friend, and also met his mother and some other family members.

Walking into his room, he was dozing some. He woke up, recognized me, and in a halting, slightly warbling voice, said hello. It was obvious that there had been some deficit that was affecting his speech, but he also still managed a smile. Then, of all things, he asked me how I was doing, and told me I looked well. He had been very supportive of me during my own health crisis, offering words of encouragement. Now it was my turn. I kept my stay brief, as I knew all too well what an effort it was for him to even just speak. I told him that if I could beat what had tried to take me, he could do the same. Deep inside however, my instincts from being a paramedic, and having faced the possibility of my own death were gnawing at me. I somehow knew he wasn’t going to be able to beat this thing.

I so wish I had been wrong.

His death triggered an outpouring of grief in the Rochester theatre community. Being of both French Canadian and Mexican heritage, he was often lovingly called “the Frexican,” by some of his closest friends. I suspect it was a moniker he wore proudly. Here, on the first anniversary of his death, it again triggered an outpouring of both grief, and wonderful memories.

Just about two days prior to the anniversary of his death, or maybe even a little less, another acting cohort, and a friend of Carl’s, would receive something he had been waiting a long time for; Getting his life back.

Like Carl, Andy has also faced his share of physical and health challenges. Like Carl, he is short in stature, but large in presence on stage. He also has faced whatever life has thrown at him, and pushed through the barriers that might have stopped others.

Saddled with a form of chronic kidney disease, he has been tied to a dialysis machine multiple times a week for at least the last 8 years, while he waited on a list for a new kidney that could allow him to resume something of a normal life. I’ve acted with Andy in the past, and and also like Carl, he throws himself into his roles.

Then, it finally happened: just before the first anniversary of Carl’s death, Andy got “the call.” A kidney had been found for him. Two days after his surgery, I went to see him at Strong, on the transplant unit, where I spent so much of my own life over the past two years. We talked about Carl, about life in general, and I gave him some tips on what to expect now, especially since many of the transplant medications he will take will be identical to mine.

You could see in his eyes that he was ready to get back to living as soon as he could. He was already up and walking, a very good sign indeed.

One life taken, another returned. If Carl were here, I know he would be rejoicing in Andy’s good fortune, as many of us in the theatre community in Rochester are doing for Andy now. Both men, lived and living their lives full out, not letting the small things get in the way of who and what they chose to be.

“It’s these little things, they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and thunder”
– R.E.M.

Mom…

You make me crazy, you love me unconditionally, and you have sacrificed so much in your life for myself and my brother, Philip. You have endured the death of two husbands, the loss of a child, and watched me struggle for my life on multiple occasions. You also were our biggest boosters, came to our defense, taught me not to let my physical shortcomings (my partial blindness, and partial deafness) be an impediment to achieve anything I wanted to. You accepted the women I have loved in my life irrespective of what religion they practiced.

You taught both of us how to appreciate music, even if we didn’t quite appreciate it when we were very young. You took me to your singing lessons as a young boy. You encouraged our artistic pursuits as we got older, Philip with music, me with acting.

You have become a doting grandmother, and yes, if you look up the definition of a Jewish mother in the dictionary, your picture is probably there.

Recently, you have taught me the meaning of courage, having broken your leg, enduring surgery, learning to walk again, and pushing through the pain that accompanied it. It mirrored my own struggles with my illness and transplant, and recovery, as I needed to learn to walk again. If I inherited anything from you, it was perseverance in the face of the odds. You came to see me in the hospital in Rochester, twice, walker and all, and all of your 83 years.

We love you very, very much…even if you do drive us crazy from time-to-time.

…and something continues.

While that was being taken care of, a CT scan, MRI and ultrasound found that there was a small narrowing in my portal vein, one of the two main vessels in the liver. It wasn’t impeding blood flow, or causing a problem with the liver function, but my surgeon felt it would be good to place a stent in it to ward off any future complications. They didn’t know if it was something that happened as a result of the surgery, or something that was an anatomical abnormality. In either case, a week after my discharge, I headed back to Rochester to have the stent put in.

I was told that I would be there for 24 hours, which turned into 72 hours. There were some small blood clots around the stent (actually two stents), and they started me on a regimen of Coumadin, a “blood thinner.” So, now I’m home, and dealing with the side effects of this medication, of which tiredness is one of them. It reminds me too much of the fatigue I experienced from my liver disease, though I’m told that it will pass. I hope so, as it’s a little unnerving, to say the least.