Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Existing in New York City: "Sorry, pal, but you've got the Big C" Part 2

Foto by tgw, New York City, January 2014
Say Goodbye to: Alice Babs...so sorry to read that Alice Babs died and of so mean a disease as Alzheimer's.  One of the great unknown jazz singers, especially with Duke and especially with Duke's Sacred Music. Alice Babs, 90, Swedish singer and actress, Alzheimer's disease.
Alice singing "Heaven" with Duke/Johnny Hodges: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eC2icU-L3U4
Say Goodbye to: The Mighty Hannibal, whose haunting anti-Vietnam "Hymn #5" was banned from radio play back during the good ol' days of the Vietnam War.  The Mighty Hannibal, 74, American R&B, soul and funk singer, songwriter and record producer.
Say Goodbye to: Pete Seeger who died Monday, January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.  Pete was one of the truly great Americans who believed that the masses could eventually (a spoonful of sand at a time, as he used to say) overcome the oppression of the Masters (the men of wealth and power; the Power Elite).  We shall overcome one day.
Cancer Returns
With my uncle's death when I was a young boy in the early 50s until I moved to New York City, cancer didn't cross my path again in terms of family or friends.

My next involvement with it came when my second wife's father, a twin, suddenly decided he had stomach cancer after his twin brother died of this cancer in the 1970s.  This tough old Baptist preacher had the symptoms.  Pains in his stomach.  Why he even began coughing up blood.  But after a thorough examination, it was determined his "cancer" was of the empathetic kind, the reflection of a twin's death manifesting itself in the remaining twin's psyche.

After my second wife divorced me in 1974, and after an adventure I had in Haiti, I came back to New York City and went to work for Time-Life Films.  In the Time and Life Building (in Rockefeller Center), there was a very popular Mexican restaurant called Cinco de Mayo.  Since these were the days of long lunches (the 3-martini lunches), I spent my lunch breaks at the Cinco de Mayo bar. Then come 5 o'clock, zoom, I was back there for after-work hair-down frivolities.

It was at the Cinco de Mayo bar that I one afternoon laid eyes on one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen in my relatively short life.  She was one of the first Black people hired by the once Luce-dictated racist administration at Time-Life.  She was hired as a personal secretary to the woman who eventually started the Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions that became so popular with pimple-faced teenage boys and masturbating high school and college athletes and a source of poon for rock stars in the early '80s.  [It is amazing to me how many of those Sports Illustrated swimsuit models went on to fame and fortune, two of them, Cindy Crawford and Kathy Ireland now respected furniture designers of all things.]

I began dating this magnificent Black woman and hanging with her in-crowd.  One day, on meeting her at the Cinco de Mayo bar, she brought along a Sports Illustrated photographer friend who happened to also live in her apartment building.

What a man this dude was.  He was one of the best-looking men I've ever known.  I mean not only movie-star handsome but he also dressed to the nines exclusively wearing only the finest of Brooks Brothers clothes.  He was a top-notch teacher of photography, a poet, but also an angry young man. He was a very bitter Black man who kept his bitterness locked up inside his fervid soul. How in the hell we became the best of friends is beyond comprehension, but we did.  Soon we were together all the time, but especially at lunch and after work when as a salt and pepper pair we toured the NYC nightspots in search of love, which in those days was spelled S-E-X.

This man was a babe magnet.  Women flocked to him when we would appear in the clubs, women of all races, but especially models.  He attracted models like flies are attracted to flypaper.  I, as a recently divorced man (he, too, had recently divorced his first wife), didn't mind picking up his throw-away women, several with whom I had short but wonderful affairs.

That we drank a lot during these bar and club escapades is a given, me daiquiris and he Beefeater martinis.   What he did that I didn't do was smoke cigarettes.  His brand was Kools, a popular brand with Black men in those days.  These were the days when "cool" was in and "hot" was relegated to the many foxes we trolled among the bars and clubs to hit on and hopefully score with.

Our friendship lasted for several wild years until 1976, when I met and started dating my eventual third wife and he met and eventual married his second wife.  Being married, however, didn't interfere with our lunches at the Cinco de Mayo bar and after it closed down at another Rockefeller Center bar called Dawson's Pub.  One day while he was gulping down his Beefeater Martinis, the Dawson's bartender (we had met him when he worked at Cinco de Mayo), asked my friend if he knew how much he was drinking in terms of Beefeaters.  That day my friend was on his fifth Beefeaters martini, so this bartender took an empty fifth bottle and filled it with water and then took a martini glass and filled it 5 times.  At the end of the 5th glass, the fifth bottle was empty.  My friend was drinking a fifth of gin just at lunch.  And, as was natural, with each drink, he smoked at least two or three Kools, which meant he was smoking a pack of Kools at just at lunch.

One day my friend told me he had a bad backache, which he considered might be liver trouble.  He also about the same time began clearing his throat constantly, which he referred to as "post-nasal drip."  He went to the Time-Life doctor (yes, big companies had medical staffs in those days) and the doctor warned him he'd better stop drinking Beefeater martinis or he was surely going to develop a case of cirrhosis of the liver.  He and I both started drinking Heinekens instead of hard liquor.

After about ten years of both of us being involved in domestic tranquility, my friend met a very beautiful lady and started having an affair with her.  Once again, he started drinking Beefeater martinis.  Due to his marriage crushing him, he also began to get sometimes violently angry, like slamming his fist into a brick wall and breaking his hand or getting bombed to the point he thought men were hitting on his woman.  He confessed to me early one morning when we were high up on the 59th Street Bridge and he was photographing the sun's full-spectrum arising's effect on the surface of the East River that he was not only drinking Beefeater martinis again but also several beers on getting ready for work in the mornings.  Plus, he was back to smoking several packs of Kools a day.

With his marriage stalemated and his mistress bugging him to get a divorce, we once again got to meeting at lunch and after work.  His clearing his throat got worse and worse and then one day the pains in his lower back returned and he once again saw a doctor and was again told he had to stop drinking because of damage to his liver.  He immediately again switched to Heineken beers and even stopped smoking.

One day at lunch he told me the night before he had coughed up blood and that there was also blood in his stool.  He was afraid but he went to see his doctor and was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.  His doctor told him that he would have to undergo chemo and radiation treatments at Sloane-Kettering Hospital and that he had a 90-something percent chance of beating the cancer.

He checked into Sloane-Kettering in 1989 and began his treatment.  He was 41 years old.

In Sloane-Kettering, his doctor suddenly told him that on further tests they had discovered his cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and due to its spreading rapidly they had decided to put him under the knife before he began chemo/radiation.  The result of the surgery was butchery.  They cut out his lymph nodes; they pulled half of his teeth; then they found the cancer eating away his jaw bone and cut half of it out.  After the surgery, I visited him in Sloane-Kettering and found him still strong but hacked up to the point he said he was physically and mentally depressed.  He was bitter and cursed his doctor as a deceitful son of a bitch.  He was to begin chemo immediately and though he kept up a good front, I could tell he was frightened.

Later I visited him while he was undergoing the chemo and there he was hooked up to the chemo drip and, I swear, looking blue and I mean in terms of his skin color and not a mental attitude.  He joked about feeling like Con-Edison had run a power line through his bloodstream.  He said it felt like his whole being was on fire.

For awhile, he was released from Sloane-Kettering and got to go home and I saw him on several occasions.  He could still talk but he couldn't eat solid foods and had had a tracheotomy and over the hole in his throat he wore a scarf to hide it from view (he didn't want to scare the kiddies, as he put it).  We had long conversations at this time about life and death with him swearing he wasn't afraid of death, though I knew down deep he was.  He had never been a religious man; in fact, like me, he was an Anti-theist (we were not Atheists, we called ourselves Anti-theists to separate us from believing in any kind of theisms).  What we both really were were Realists with a large dose of Existentialism flavoring our antithetical arguments.  He often said he didn't see how any Black person could ever believe in the White man's God.

It wasn't long before I got word he was back in Sloane-Kettering undergoing further surgery. Then one day, I got a call from his wife who said he was being transferred to Mt. Calvary Hospital in the East Bronx.  She said he was being transferred there to recover.  For a brief time I was ecstatic.  My friend was in recovery!  In a state of great joy, I went out to this Mt. Calvary Hospital to see my friend.  Oh, how fucking disappointed I was when I got there.  My dear old friend lay coiled in a fetal position on the bed, his body stiff in a tense knot and his fists clinched as though in readiness to punch out the world.  By then he could no longer talk but he was able to gesture and write and between the two I learned why he was so tense and god-damn angry.  Once again the medical profession had deceived him by telling him he was going to this hospital to recover.  The truth was, this hospital was an end-of-the-road hospice-type hospital run by an order of Catholic nuns.  My friend had learned this while watching television one night when a Mt. Calvary commercial came on that blatantly said the hospital was a final resting place for the terminally hopeless as they lay dying.  Before I left him that day, I bent down and kissed his forehead and told him I loved him.

That was the last time I saw my closest friend for nearly 20 years.  I wanted to go back and visit him but I just couldn't do it.  I couldn't stand to see this once strong and vibrantly alive man now reduced to an almost vegetable state as he waited for the cancer that cut him down to finally eat away all his life.

My friend lived on several more months in this state.  I learned later from his daughter (my Goddaughter), that she and her mother's family (he liked one of his wife's sisters a lot) had spent a lot of time with him and played him his favorite music (he loved Anita Baker) and sat by his bedside telling him stories and showing him his daughter's artwork.  And then one day in March of 1991, 3 years after the original diagnosis, my old friend died.  He was 43 years old.

I by then hated funerals and I swore after my parents' funeral (they were killed together in a car wreck) that I would never again in my life attend one and I stuck to my guns regarding my old friend's funeral.  I did not attend his funeral but instead held my own personal memorial service for him, remembering all the good times we had shared.  Today, hanging on my walls are several photographs he took of me, especially one of me playing the piano at a recording session, one of his best ever photographs I'm proud to say.

[To be continued....]

for The Daily Growler  

Friday, January 17, 2014

Existing in New York City: "Sorry, pal, but you've got the Big C."

Foto by tgw, New York City, January 2014
The Dreaded Diagnosis
The first person with cancer I encountered was an old man from my original hometown who came to stay with my family in Dallas while he underwent treatment at the infamous Hoxsey Clinic.  He had lung cancer.  He had been a 4-pack-a-day cigarette smoker all his life and I can remember hearing his coughing spells late into the nights he stayed with us.  Hacking coughs; yet, I also remember him sitting eating breakfast and drinking coffee while smoking his first cigarette of the day before he went off for his daily treatments at this notorious Dallas clinic.  Harry Hoxsey, an ex-insurance salesman, had a grandfather who noticed a huge tumor on one of his horses one day.  He turned the horse out into a pasture of wild grasses and plants and one day he noticed the tumor had disappeared.  So old Grandpappy Hoxsey gathered up some of these wild grasses and plants and concocted a paste which he began hustling as a cure for cancer.  Harry Hoxsey opened his first clinic in Illinois but was soon run out of Illinois and he took his voodoo paste to Iowa where once again he was driven out as a quack.

But Harry Hoxsey found a home in Dallas, Texas, arriving there in the 1930s and being able to exist there into the 1960s when his Dallas clinic was moved by one of his nurses to Tijuana, Mexico.  Hoxsey ironically developed prostrate cancer in 1967 but when his treatment didn't cure him he subjected himself to surgery and standard medical treatment for the disease and lived another 7 years before dying in 1974.

The gentleman with cancer who stayed with my family underwent the Hoxsey cure for several weeks before returning to his home where he died soon afterward.

I was just a kid when this gentleman stayed with us but I clearly remember how my mother and dad believed cancer was contagious and how after this gentleman left us, mother destroyed the dishes and cups and glasses he had used and also the sheets and pillow cases on which he had slept.

It wasn't long after this gentlemen died that the next cancerous episode entered my young life.  My mother's brother was a great man of the world to me who owned and operated a chain of movie theaters around Texas and who when he was younger had as an early aviator opened the first airport in my West Texas hometown.  A man of stubborn pride, he loved good clothes, drove only Packards (luxury cars of the 30s and 40s), and smoked at least 4 packs of Pall Mall cigarettes a day.  He truly believed Pall Mall cigarettes were not detrimental to his health.  As a man who sometimes managed one of his big theaters by himself, he was also his own projectionist and spent many a late night hours in a projection booth breathing in the carbon that was exhausted from the carbon lamps on the big movie projectors in those days.

So one day, this favorite uncle of mine happened to take advantage of one of the X-ray vans that would come to your neighborhood after World War II and that offered free chest X-rays the results of which were then mailed to you several weeks later.  His results showed that he had lung cancer.  Not only did he have it but he had it bad.  He checked into the Veteran's Hospital in McKinney, Texas, and there one day on a family visit, I saw this great man of the world as I'd never seen him before.  Due to the vicious spreading of his lung cancer, it had galloped out of his lungs and had invaded his brain.  In those days the standard treatment of cancer if caught early was surgery (it included removing huge chunks of your lungs if you had lung cancer like my uncle); but if, like my uncle, your cancer had already spread throughout your body, the treatment consisted of shooting you full of morphine and just letting you slowly die.

Seeing my uncle that day made such a god-damn horrible impression on me that I decided right then and there that I'd never smoke cigarettes...EVER.  My uncle had been isolated in a makeshift room out back of the main hospital area.  Our visit was in the dead of summer and summers in that part of Texas can be brutal in terms of heat with temperatures hovering steadily in the 90s and going over 100 on the hottest of days.  This makeshift room, it had been a porch room that they had walled in, had no air-conditioning of any kind.  It had windows and they were open but still the room was stifling.  My uncle was lying on an old army cot in his underwear with no cover.

This once mighty independent man was nailed to the cross of a surplus army cot and suffering, I would assume, much more than Jesus, a martyr to the saint of cigarette smoking.  Screaming forth, and that was what he was doing, screaming forth vindictive denunciation against "this God and his fabulous son Jesus" that my grandmother and my father were trying to get my uncle to obey and fall on his knees in begging forgiveness for his many sins.  "What kind of a god-damn God is letting me suffer like this..." and then he would claw at his face with his pale hands..."fuck all of you...fuck every god-damn one of you...the whole lot of you."

The doctor told us the cancer had spread from my uncle's lungs up into his brain.  The pain was excruciating.  The morphine didn't help; in fact, due to its dream-inducing power, it made the pain and that form of dying worse.

The last thing I remember my uncle saying (to his mother and my father) was, "If you really loved me you'd take a pistol and blow my brains out...," and soon he was ordering us to "Get the hell out of my sight...fuck all of you...get out...leave me alone."  And we did. And going back to Dallas the conversation between my parents and my grandmother had to do with whether "Brother," as his sister and mother called him, was going to go to Heaven or not.

My next personal contact with cancer would happen many years later here in NYC.

[This little gleaning from my past will be continued...In the meantime, I continue to read Proudhon.]

for The Daily Growler