A man almost died outside my kitchen window this evening. I opened the blinds and looked out the second I heard the awful, familiar squeal of the tires and the thuds of vehicles hitting each other. A motorcyclist, helmet still on, lay on the ground, his bike tipped over after he had been hit at the intersection. It’s a dangerous corner. There is an accident at least once a day, most minor, but I have seen people hit walking in the cross walk. I’ve seen cars take out stop signs and cars drive into the corners of buildings. But I digress, this isn’t a story about some awful accident that happened on my street today. Well, it kind of is, I guess.
I was making dinner when the accident occurred. Immediately I saw that the motorcyclist was up and walking, and the men in the vehicles did not appear injured at all. Two passersby came to the motorcyclist and asked if he was okay, he appeared to be.
The next time I looked, the motorcyclist had taken off his helmet. He was standing and talking to one of the young men in the other cars. He was older than I expected. Midwestern, probably in his 60s, grey hair. Stealthy for his age, clearly he had injured his leg, but still he stood. Tough guy in brown dad jeans.
He busied himself taking pictures of the accident and his leg with his phone and soon, two firetrucks, an ambulance and a police car arrived. He was talking to someone on the phone as the firemen and paramedics walked over to him. From his body language I deduced that he was a little angry that he’d been hit and was worried about the extent of his leg’s injuries.
Suddenly, there was something in his demeanor that made me think of my Father. From 100 feet away, he could have been mistaken for my Dad 15 years ago. At this point, I had finished making dinner and Eric and I were eating it in the living room. Every time I would return to the kitchen to refill my water or get more pasta Bolognese, I would look out, I would stare.
He was going to be okay, I could tell. The ambulance did not even take him to the hospital. I hoped that someone would maybe take him to the ER to have that leg looked at. I kind of chuckled thinking about how my Dad wouldn’t have been caught dead on a motorcycle, at rush hour in Los Angeles no less. Not at 30, and certainly not at 65. Then again, my Dad at 30 was more of a wild one than the man who raised me, so who knows, maybe. Don’t we ride motorcycles to feel young and invincible?
After awhile, it seemed like all of the ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars had driven off to their next emergency. He was just an old man with a beat up leg and a broken bike sitting on the curb of the sidewalk. Was anyone going to come get him? Did he have a wife that was rushing to Hollywood from Northridge or South Pasadena?
That was the moment it hit me, one of the Dad moments I have from time to time now. It wasn’t my Dad proxy’s physical pain that worried me, but I could sense, or at least I thought I could sense, his sadness over his broken bike. Also, an hour had passed since the accident and no loved one had come to rescue him. No wife, no daughter or son or nephew. Alone.
There was this part of me that wanted to run down the steps of my building and join him on the curb and ask if he was okay. And to sit with him until help came.
If it had been my Dad I could have run down there and given him a hug and said, “I love you Dad, I’m so happy you’re alright.” I would have held him a million times longer than I ever did when he was alive. When he was alive, maybe it was a guy thing, maybe it was a midwestern small town thing, but I always wanted to err on the side of brevity when hugging my Dad. Hugs weren’t our favorite, probably.
And now I think things like, I will never hug my Dad again. And there is an ache that comes with that recognition. I’m not rare. Anyone who ever lost anyone that they loved has had the same thought.
Like the time I was driving back to LA from Kansas a few days after my Dad’s funeral. I stopped at a convenience store in New Mexico to use the restroom and as I was leaving, a young father and mother and ten-year old son were walking out into the cold at the same time. The boy started jumping and moaning about the temperature and the Dad teased good naturally, “See, I told you to wear your coat!” And he looked at his shivering wife and said, “Both of you. Neither one of you listen to me.” The three of them laughed and the boy, whined, “Dad!” And the young family, they made their way to their car as I followed watchful, envious.
I felt like Our Town’s Emily. I wanted to shake the young boy and the young parents too and cry, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” But I did not do that and really, it would have been ridiculous if I had. (Not that I oppose being ridiculous.)
But the hope for every child, for every family, for every Mom and Dad, is that there are so many simple, beautiful memories that you just can’t register all of them. That they are a blur and then something happens, you hear a song, or see a road sign, or find yourself on a street you had not been on for 40 years, or see a person that looks like your loved one from a distance and a memory arrives. A memory returns. Maybe your memory is not 100% accurate, maybe the memory is even somewhat bittersweet.
But maybe, for just a minute, that solitary elderly man outside your building is your Father and for a blink, he is there and you are there. And he looks up and waves and mouths, “I’m okay.” And the two of us, we share a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.
In March, I wrote a piece about one of my dogs, Millie. It was in the days after our vet told us that she had cancer and he predicted she would not be long for this world. I wrote of my sadness concerning the prospect of losing my beloved father and beloved dog in such close succession. At the time of the writing, Millie’s stamina and spirits appeared to be on an upswing. The piece was a prayer of sorts to and for my father and Millie and Eric and our other dog Ricky too. I closed the blog saying that whenever her end came, we would say that we had longer together than we feared, but not as much time as we hoped.
I have hesitated writing about Millie because, I am as nervous on the page as I am in real life. I won’t, can’t, say this without knocking on wood, but Millie is as Millie as ever. Whatever is going on inside her body has not slowed her down much, if at all. Her appetite is unfazed, her brother-sister wrestling matches have not waned. There is one notable change, and I don’t hate it, I hope it goes on forever and only becomes more pronounced: she is even more spoiled than before. There is always roast chicken in the refrigerator. When she sits on the couch, she paws Eric or me to demand that someone pet her. If she could have someone at home 24/7 to adhere to her petting needs, she would not say no. And for all of this good, we acknowledge, we give thanks. But also with each other or to ourselves, Eric and I are always looking for a wood surface to tap our knuckles against and say again, “Knock wood.”
Two weeks ago, because she was doing so well, we brought her in to see the vet and to get a sense of how she was doing. He felt the same areas of her stomach/abdomen/organs. With hope, he said, “I don’t feel the mass at all, this is great.” We weren’t shocked by the news, simply because she seems so healthy these days. He suggested an ultrasound to see what they might find. “Maybe Millie is a wonder dog,” he offered to us. We scheduled it for the next day and for 24 hours, Eric and I went about our days with a cautious optimism.
A few hours after the ultrasound, the doctor told Eric that Millie was ready to be picked up and that the mass was actually still there, in fact, had grown a bit more. Eric called to tell me and I hurried him off the phone. I rushed to pick her up from the vet’s office and I brought her home. She was unfazed by all of it, but I was heartbroken. I went home and poured myself an early afternoon cocktail. (Mint vodka limeade, if you must know.) And I sat on the couch, my drink in my hand, the dogs flanking me and I called my Mom. I started to tell her about Millie’s vet visit and the hope offered and then the second diagnosis, that the mass was still there.
I started to cry and then I cried harder and my Mom listened. At one point, Millie jumped off the couch and ran into the bedroom to her secret spot under the bed. A dam had burst and my tears could not stop, in fact, they needed to flow. My Mom, listened and quietly assured me, “I know, I know.” And I wailed, not just about Millie but for my Dad too, how I felt that the last doctors Dad saw all, in their way, let him down. They led him to believe that he was getting better while he felt worse every day. They stopped looking him in the eye, taking him in. They did not compassionately say, “Your time is winding down, what are the things you want or need to do or say in these last weeks or months?” And my Mom and I, we cried to each other on the phone, not only that Dad was gone, but that he did not get to go in a less painful, less distressing, more life affirming way. (And let me say, I suspect that life affirming deaths might be a rarity.)
The vodka had started to act as both salve and fuel. For 20 minutes we cried into our phones. Not only about the sad parts of his death, but the happy parts of his life, how he beat cancer three times before. That he was truly surrounded by people who loved him at the end, and he knew, I hope, how much we loved him too.
Those last twelve hours, they stay with me. My Mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, and my Dad’s best friend, we all sat in our living room looking at each other, wondering what we could possibly do to calm his spirit and ease his pain. We begged the hospice nurses for help, but help did not come until around 10:00 am Wednesday morning. The nurse gave us new pills for him. We crushed them and, diluted with water, poured the solutiuon into his feeding tube. By 10:20 he was gone. Almost immediately, the pained countenance left his body, but for the rest of us, it remained, and while I expect it will ebb and flow, the memory of those hours will never completely go away.
I am ashamed to admit that among the bounty of emotions I felt on that day and in the days after, woven into the sadness and the anxiety and anger and vulnerabilty, there was also a relief. And then a little guilt.
I might be taking a risk to share that, but I have a feeling that relief and guilt are a part of it for many of us.
But getting back to that Monday a couple of weeks ago, when I cried those mint vodka lemonade tears and my Mom soothed my broken spirit with her own grieving heart. When it was over, I think we both felt better. I had cried like her baby boy that I will always be. And she was there for me, she made it better. We each needed what we gave to and took from each other that day.
So now, like so many nights before, my Millie is sleeping on our bed, buried under blankets. In the spot on my side where my feet would go. After I finish these last couple sentences, and tumble into bed, I will have to crawl into a fetal position. I will do it happily, one baby making a place for another baby.
Before I drift into slumber, I will pray that tomorrow will be another good day for both Millie and Ricky, full of treats and massages and walks and chicken and naps and cuddles and love. And then I’ll tap the headboard two times. Knock wood.
Among the photos and postcards in the box that I brought back to LA from Kansas, there was a picture taken on my Kodak of the restaurant where I worked in the early 90s. Popover Cafe.
The restaurant, located on Amsterdam Ave between 86th and 87th Street was known primarily for their crispy on the outside, fluffy and eggy on the inside, Popovers. Served with house made strawberry butter and preserves. Sometimes you might switch it up and eat your Popover with apple butter or plain honey. Or slice it in half and make a smoked chicken, mozzarella and roasted pepper sandwich. Or pop open the pastry, fill it with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge for a Popover Sundae.
I was a midwestern hayseed when I arrived at the Pop and sophisticated food was not in my oeuvre. But Popovers, I understood. Popovers, I could sell. Popovers, I could love. And I did.
Everything I learned about working in restaurants, I learned at Popover. Sure I’d worked that one summer at Pizza Hut in Kansas, but this was the big time. Or at least, a bigger time. Sure, my first celebrity sighting was a dull, if polite, Andre Gregory. But my second celebrity was Kevin Nealon, with his family. And in the three years I worked there, I waited on Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Uma Thurman, Lee Grant, Dody Goodman, Boyd Gaines (wearing a pretentious long wool scarf), Katie Couric (oversalting her cheese grits), Kate Nelligan with a frail, gaunt gentleman who clearly meant very much to her. Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger at Sunday brunch looking like they’d just come from someplace much sexier than Mass. Maddie Corman, overhearing a gaggle of actor waiters wondering how young we looked for casting purposes, told us to relax, that she’d been playing teenagers for 20 years. Barbra Streisand came out of the ladies room on a quiet Friday night to ask the manager on duty if she would be willing to retrieve her eyeglasses from the toilet. The manager, a 23 year old recent graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) was only too happy to comply.
I wasn’t the best waiter. In fact, they put me in the worst, smallest section every day. I actually liked it: smaller section, less things for me to get wrong.
It seemed that everyone I worked with offered me some kind of test. They asked me questions about church and my faith. They asked me questions that weren’t questions. “You do know you’re gay, right?” “No, I’m straight.” “Oh Honey.”
After hiding and editing myself for 23 years I was now playing to a different audience. These theater/artsy/waiter types didn’t want me to be some judgmental, boring Christian who said things like, “God is so rad.” But you know, once they found out I loved both Truman Capote and Kathie Lee Gifford, my secret did not stay secret for long.
So Popover is where I came out, not just as a gay man, but also as an upper west side member of society. It’s where I was given lists of books I needed to read, movies I needed to see, foods I needed to try. It was someone at Popover who said to me, “You simply must rent Grey Gardens. You’ll love it.” (I did.)
My first crushes on guys who were actually out gay guys were at Popover. The dreams I had that X would break up with his boyfriend Y and we would be together forever because I was the Charlene Frazier to his Suzanne Sugarbaker.
In 1994, I moved to Los Angeles and for 20 more years, each time I visited New York, I visited Popover Cafe. Often, it was my first stop on the island.
A few years ago, I brought Eric and he loved the place as much as I did. We would meet friends, and hide out in cushioned paisley seats, still surrounded by stuffed bears, and we’d eat popovers and drink hot chocolate or steamed apple cider and reminisce about some of our favorite days.
A few years ago, Popover closed, presumably, forever. It had a great run, with credit due to owner Carol Baer and longtime employees like Bill and Joan.
I took some satisfaction in the years when the building stood empty. Frozen. As if the universe knew what we knew, something as special as Popover Cafe could never be replaced.
Finally, a new restaurant has opened. I’m sure it’s fine. My heart of course, will only be true to one occupant of 551 Amsterdam.
So many stories, epic highs and devastating lows: falling in love, weddings, divorces, love affairs, breaking up marriages, deaths, exploring art, being too hungover to work on your art, starting a family, losing a parent, giving up on your art.
Popover Cafe is gone. And yet, for some of us, it is never faraway. Especially for formerly young men and women like me who walked through those double doors at the most impressionable and hungry time of their life. I’m so glad I didn’t end up at Sarabeth’s. Although I’m sure those folks have their own stories too. We all do.
I have not been writing much since my father passed away. This confession would probably sadden him a bit. Once, when he and I were driving to Kansas City last summer, the day we went to watch the Royals play, he told me that he thought I had a book in me. I laughed it off, saying that I didn’t feel like I could write a book. What I did not tell him, something he already knew, is that I wanted to write a book but was afraid of failing.
A few months ago, while my dad was alive, my mom pulled out a box of photos and cards that had been tucked away in some closet. Some pictures were familiar and others, new to me. The cards and postcards were mostly tourist notes from family and friends’ visits to New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and San Francisco, placed I grew up dreaming about and except for Chicago, went on to live in for a while. The notes on the back could all have been written by John Cheever or Evan S. Connell characters, simple observations from a new city. “The wedding was beautiful!” “This church is the view from our hotel room.” “Tell everyone at Newberry’s I miss them.”
My Dad’s work trip to the Bahamas in the 70s looms large in my youthful memory. It sounded so much more far away and foreign than Tan-Tar-A or Colorado. After a week, when he came home, he brought gifts for all of us. He brought my Mom a straw beach bag with the word Nassau embroidered into it. (She still has it.) He brought giant coconuts that we had to crack open with a hammer. And Bahamian coins and dollar bills for my brothers and me. (I still have mine.) He told us stories about his time there, not that I remember any of it. I was a little kid, just happy to have him home.
Apparently, he sent my Mom at least one postcard from his travels because we found it a few months ago. The image above is the front and the following image is the message he wrote to her.
This is where we eat at about every night, (sic) the water. We went downtown last night to see a show that they have on the street. Everything is high here. This is Sat and we just got back from golfing. We went out at 9:30 am and we got back at 4:30 pm. Everything they do here is slow. We are all having a good time. I wished you were all here to see everything with me. Will see you Wed.
And then at the top of the postcard, written in ink, he wrote, “This looks just like it.”
The postmark, I believe says July 14, 1975. I would have just turned seven.
43 years later, I reread every sentence. I try to imagine him sitting down to write the postcard in his room or maybe the lobby bar. Was he drinking Cutty Sark and water while he penned this? Maybe smoking a cigar?
Did he really wish his family was there with him or was he glad to just be unencumbered for a few days? No negotiating with his wife over whether each decision was something the family of 5 could afford. No disagreement among 3 very different boys as to how an afternoon should be spent. I don’t really know what thoughts passed his mind, but I can ponder. A mystery. I study his penmanship and admire its attention to detail, its politeness. I compare it to the writing in the notebooks he kept to communicate in the last few weeks of his life, when most of us had a hard time understanding his words. His pain medication made writing difficult for him too. There are pages where he wrote most of a sentence and then he would scratch it out. Fearful that he could not communicate the things he was trying to say.
So many times, I’ve thought about something I wanted to say, about my Dad, or my Mom or my family or this new place I’ve found myself in life. Something will cross my mind while I’m swimming or reading a book or driving home from work, but by the time I sit down with my notebook, I don’t know what it is I want to say. I start a sentence then scratch it out.
I don’t think my Dad thought I was an especially great writer. (Not that he thought I was a bad one, I hope.) But on that day, almost a year ago now, as we drove to Kansas City, I think he knew two things. He knew he was dying and he knew how much I would need to write to get through the days once he was gone. Certainly, I need writing more than it needs me.
So, here I have shared a postcard from 1975. A message from a midwestern husband and father to his family back home. It can be taken at face value, or it can be studied like a mysterious code. Unlock the mystery of your father and you’ll unlock the mystery of yourself. Maybe.
Yesterday, on a picture of my grade school, Washington Elementary, that I had posted to Facebook, my friend Julie commented that she had a picture of me that had been taken years ago on the playground of that school. I’d love to see it, I told her and a few minutes later, she posted the picture, this picture, in the comment section. I had not known exactly what to expect and yet, I was not completely prepared for what I saw. A t-shirt that clung to my chubby stomach and love handles, oversized glasses, Sears “husky” jeans, shaggy haircut and an extremely effeminate pose.
What was I thinking, I wondered. Did I think I was Kelly Garrett or Kris Monroe?
I looked at this little guy and thought, well, I can’t let Eric see this. In fact, I can’t let anyone see this.
Julie told me that written on the back of the photo was, “Ray Louis Barnhart Jr, 6th, 1980.” I would have been 11.
And while I was afraid for people to see this picture, I couldn’t stop looking at it myself. I found myself awash in memories of those years. Like the time I told Julie and another friend Jennifer that I wanted to lose 10 pounds in a weekend and Julie gave me a list of the foods I was allowed to eat. The only item from the list I remember was pickles and now, to this day, I think of Julie every time I eat a pickle. Also, I remembered attempting a fast and shamefully breaking that fast with a cold roast beef sandwich and a sleeve of Thin Mints.
In my mind, I remember those grade school years as a time when I was anxious or depressed about any number of things: my weight, being called names, feeling like I didn’t have a lot of friends, feeling different, being unskilled at sports.
And yet, this picture is proof that I must have had some good days, happy days, gleeful days. I’ve tried to remember what was going through my head on this day when I posed, and I do mean POSED, for this picture, but I just don’t know.
Our memories, they are sometimes so complicated when we take them out of envelopes in our chest of drawers and scan them to our computers and then zoom in on the details of afternoons from decades ago.
If this was a picture of a boy from the eighties that I did not know, that maybe I’d stumbled on it in a bin of old photos that antique stores and flea markets sometimes have with a sign that says, “25 cents or 5/$1.00”, if I had just randomly come upon a perfect stranger, I could have loved this kid without reservation. I could have looked in those eyes and seen enough of myself to root for him and wonder how things turned out, hoping “it got better.”
At 11, I did not have the skills to take a dishonest picture. As I got older, I learned to butch it up in photos, to affect a manlier pose. My high school and college years, I have so many memories of modulating my walk or my speech in a way to come across as straight and masculine. (Perhaps you knew me then and are thinking, well, you weren’t as successful as you thought. And if that’s the case, that’s okay, too.)
Perhaps I have never taken a picture that reveals the me that is most me than this. This guy loves chocolate cake. He loves his hometown (orange and black t-shirt). He loves playing with girls at recess. His favorite part of the Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog is the Barbie section. He dances and sings to Shaun Cassidy’s “Hey Deanie” and Leif Garrett’s “Surfin’ USA” in his bedroom. He loves being silly. He knows he is not like everyone else and he revels in his uniqueness.
It breaks my heart a little to think that my first thought when I saw this picture yesterday was shame, that I needed to hide this. That I had to take a minute and step away to realize how great this young man is.
Over three hundred years ago, William Wordsworth wrote a poem called My Heart Leaps up about his love of rainbows and realizing he’s always loved rainbows even since he was a small child. That who we are when we are young sets the stage for the person we will be our entire lives.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is the father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
I could not escape this kid if I tried, and I did try, and sometimes, I still do try. I mean, I went to Bible college in an attempt to make myself straight, that’s how desperately I wanted to be someone else. It’s been a long road to self acceptance and it frustrates me that at almost 50, STILL, some days are better than others. But I have to be honest, this guy, this spirited young fellow, he is my hero. When I really think about it, I realize he is everything I aspire to be. So, despite some hesitation, I am sharing him with all of you. I hope you love him as much as I do.
A few days ago, while waiting to catch my plane back to Los Angeles at Kansas City International Airport, I noticed a young man in a bright red polo shirt as I walked to the restroom. He must have been around twenty, thick glasses not unlike mine. Skinny and walking around in his stocking feet and carrying brand new sneakers. It took me a minute to realize he had just come through his security screening. He looked lost and I wondered if maybe this was his first plane trip.
With some confusion, he looked out the windows to the part of the terminal where family waits for and bids farewell to their loved ones. Finally his eyes landed on something or someone and he immediately smiled and waved. His mother and father were outside waving back, his mom jumping up and down a bit. So lucky to be so loved, I thought.
When I came out of the bathroom, the kid with the red polo was nowhere to be seen. I hoped he’d finally put his shoes back on. I walked back to the chairs where Eric and I had been sitting, waiting for our flight.
This had been Eric’s first trip to Kansas. And Missouri. And Oklahoma. I had been excited to show my partner the world that raised me. The discussion of moving to the midwest has come up occasionally this year as my parents and I and Eric navigate the place where they are in their lives. While they are able to live alone, it just seems they have hit a stretch where they need a bit more help. I know they have family and friends who help them in many ways, and I’m grateful, but so many times, a situation arises and I think, I should be the person to do this for you. And in the last few months, by taking time off work to be with them in Kansas, I have been able to do some of that.
A not completely unrelated sidenote: they loved Eric in Kansas. And Eric had a great time, too. Enchanted by the Nelson-Atkins, admiring of the Christmas lights on the Country Club Plaza, awestruck by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower. He met friends of mine from several points in my life and it seemed to me, they all really loved him. On Sunday morning, we walked around the periphery of my now boarded up grade school. The classrooms were so tiny in contrast to the rooms of my 40 year memory. I gazed into Miss Boner’s third grade class and could not stop thinking about how the idea of growing up and falling in love and building a life with another guy would have seemed so foreign and impossible to the 9-year-old me. But here I was, showing my hometown to my love. Like any other couple.
My parents call Eric their family. In seven years, their relationships have developed. They know foods and hobbies the other likes, the things they don’t. What makes them laugh. Monday morning, as Eric and I said our goodbyes to my parents before we drove our rental car back to Kansas City, all four of us, we took turns hugging goodbye. As long as I can remember, my ritual has been one hug to Mom, then one to Dad, and then a followup to Mom. But this time, I hugged both my parents at least twice. When Eric released my Mom from their hug, there were tears in each of their eyes. “No crying,” I joked. I looked at my Dad and we kind of laughed. Everyone in the family knows how much I cry.
My Dad, he cries too. A few weeks ago, his voice broke when he told me that a young mother that he’d been a youth group leader for when she was a teenager is naming her son after him. Solomon Ray. Wise King.
At MCI, as my plane took off and steered its way west, I couldn’t stop thinking of the boy in the red polo shirt. The kind of lost, kind of sad look on his face. I remembered my first night in my college dorm, anxious for my parents to leave and go home, then heart-ached the second they’d left and I was alone in a dingy, institutional dorm room, knowing no one. Afraid that I would not be able to make friends in a new place.
Every time I’ve gone a little too far from home, I’ve felt that ache. New York, Los Angeles, summer camp.
The good news about being a little bit lost, is that whether you realize it or not, you’re also a little bit found. The young man, off on his adventure, had a family cheering and bolstering him just beyond the glass. And when his plane was in the air and the parents were driving back to St. Joseph or Harrisonville, or Fort Scott, they were still cheering and waving and loving the kid.
Clearly, I was that skinny four-eyed kid once upon a time. And my Mom would shed many tears when we said goodbye at airports. And my Dad would hold my Mom and the two of them would wave until one of was out of sight. Even now, I can still see them waving, “We love you, Son. Call us when your plane lands, even if it’s late.”
Still, a little lost, but also, found.