Friday, October 23, 2009

The white patch.

"I'm going to wear my old pair of scrubs." said the artistic director of my improv troupe. He was referring to the presentation that we were going to make to the transplant team of the money (that was raised through a special performance) for the patient's Special Needs fund by the improv troupe a little over a month prior. Being an improv troupe, we were thinking of doing something a little different rather than a straightforward, formal presentation of the $1,400 that was raised. We hit on the idea of presenting this donation in an organ transport box, which I was able to obtain from my old place of employment, the organ donor network here in Rochester. We were going to run in to their weekly meeting as if delivering an organ.

What he asked next however, was wholly unexpected.

"Do you still have your old paramedic uniform?"

I had not been asked that question in a long while, and I felt the blood drain from my face at the question.

"Yeah, I do." I knew where he was headed, and while I silently smirked at the thought, as it was rather funny, but it still scared me. "Great." he said. "I think you should wear that."

Every instinct inside of me was screaming "NO!" Somehow, the word "Okay" came out of my mouth. I don't know why it did, but it did. It has been 12 years since I wore that uniform, 12 years since I was part of a profession and a world that I never envisioned leaving, as I did 10 years ago. Why the number discrepancy? Well, for the better part of the last three years as a paramedic, I was in management, and wore a suit more often than a uniform, and didn't touch a patient.

I tried to convince myself that it was really nothing, that I would put in on, wear it for a couple of hours, and then take it off. It wouldn't mean anything. It was simply a costume for this purpose. I was going to be acting, and why should my old uniform be nothing other than any other stage device that I have used in the past.

The answer, of course, was far more complicated.

So, the morning came for me to prepare for the presentation. Going through the morning ritual of showering, brushing my teeth, taking my transplant medications, and all the other mundane tasks carried an air of tension. I then went down into the basement of my house, and found the box where I keep all my memories of my EMS life, and found my shield and collar bars. Shield #6241. Collar bars with my unit, 35V. The black shield holder and securing pin. I remember this being part of my mrning ritual for so many years.

I went upstairs and found the long sleeve uniform, as this had the perforations above the left breast pocket sewn into the fabric where the securing pin would pass through, pinning the shield to the shirt. The shield holder also had the small metal plaque with my name, and then below it, "PARAMEDIC."

The shirt has two patches. The left sleeve at the shoulder had my hospital's blue and white patch. The right had the one that has been earned by only a comparatively few, the one that said 'EMS-PARAMEDIC - CITY OF NEW YORK." White, with an orange border, orange and blue lettering, and the blue star of life in the middle, it was simply known to us that rode the ambulance as 'the white patch." It was coveted by anyone that worked in EMS, in any capacity, in NYC. There were, and still are, far more EMT's than paramedics. We were an elite group, and we knew it.

I attached the collar bars, pinned the badge on, and slipped the shirt on. As I buttoned it, I was first pleasantly surprised to find that it still fit, and like a glove too. I then went and looked in the mirror, and a wave of emotion overcame me.

I cried. I cried, and cried, and cried. It went on for about 10 minutes.

I missed it. I missed it all. The good, the bad, the silly, the insane, the danger, all of it. I missed my friends, my colleagues, the two partners I had that I worked so closely with for so long, that they became second and third spouses in a way. I was in grief. I was in grief for a life that I left behind so long ago, that I was never able to grieve for, and that I was never able to fully accept that I left behind. I think it was just then that I honestly faced that emotion, as I faced myself in the mirror, in that uniform.

I was grieving for myself.

After I stopped, wiped my tears, and pulled myself together, I went to the presentation. I went into character, and along with my artistic director, made everyone laugh. We presented the money, had some nosh, pressed the flesh with the transplant staff, and then left. I got home, took off the uniform, hung it in my closet, but left the shield and collar bars on. I have yet to remove them and put them away.

I went to my therapist earlier this week, and related this story to him. He just let me talk, not offering any advice, but rather smiling and nodding with each major point that I brought across. We're going to discuss it further next time around.

As I unburdened myself of this grief, I began to realize that this was one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, that has stood in my way all this time. While I was not living in the past, it was always close behind, and impeding my progress in life. I think now however, that I can move forward with more confidence.

The white patch will always be with me. It is part of who I am, a source of pride, and always the greatest title I will ever have, that of NYC Paramedic. From now on however, it won't stand in my way.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tis' grand...

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." - The opening to "Angela's Ashes."

When I read those opening passages to Angela's Ashes, I knew that I was in for something different. I had been desiring to read Frank McCourt's memoir of life growing up in Limerick for some time. I kept hearing as to how wonderful the book was, how haunting and yet how funny at the same time. I just never seemed to be able to find the time, or to remember to buy the book. Then, as these things happen, something came up that made me realize that I should go and read it.

Frank McCourt upped and died. The nerve he had.

Once that happened, I knew I had to get the book, and received it before I could go buy it as a 50th birthday present from Mrs. Nighttime. By the time I finished the first page, even then, I knew that this was a style of writing that I had never encountered before. His prose for the most part, in the first person, takes us through his journey first from the streets of Brooklyn, where he was born, to his eventual return to his parents homeland of Ireland.

As I got further and further into the story, I marveled at McCourt's ability to first of all, recall so many incidents in his childhood, especially from such a young age, as well as his ability to paint a picture of poverty that is unknown to many Americans, save for perhaps some segments of Appalachia. Even in the ghettos of Brooklyn where I worked, people were far better off then the horrific conditions that McCourt describes.

"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying school masters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years. Above all -- we were wet."

But, what was most telling, in that very Irish way, was his ability to weave in humor amongst the most tragic elements of his life. Even when there is so much vitriol lobbed against his relatives, his school teachers, the priests and the Catholic church in general, there are moments that simply make you cry out with laughter. It is the salve for the words that are like wounds.

"Grandma's next door neighbor, Mrs. Purcell has the only wireless in the lane. The government gave it to her because she's old and blind. I want a radio. My grandmother's old but she's not blind and what's the use of having a grandmother who won't go blind and get a government radio?"

There was, as one might expect, a backlash against McCourt's description of life during this time, which was from the 1930's, through the late 1940's. As bad as the depression was here in the U.S., it seems to have hit Ireland even harder. There are those however, that said McCourt's descriptions are far from the truth, and accused him of blatantly misrepresenting the Irish, and at worst, playing into the usual stereotypes of the drunken, slovenly, lazy Irish family, especially the husband/father type.

I would have to agree with those that go against those that doth protest too much. This is one man's account of life as he experienced it. It is not an autobiography, but a memoir. Most of the criticism I have read about were from those who were either not in Ireland at the time portrayed in the book, and were relying on second hand information from relatives, or from those who were from Ireland, but not alive at that time. McCourt has been accused of simply inventing or embellishing his story for the sake of money. McCourt was in his mid-60's when he wrote and published Angela's Ashes. If he wanted to make make his fortune, I would suspect he would have done it a lot earlier. As he has stated in interviews, it took him a long time to come to terms with his childhood, and perhaps this explains why it took him so many years to be able to express these things as he did.

I finished the book a few days ago, and have now started on the sequel, "Tis'." I cannot wait to see what wonders McCourt will paint with words in this follow-up.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Max Cherry makes good.

Ordell Robbie: This you and me talking, is this like a lawyer-client thing, and you can't repeat nothing I tell you?
Max Cherry: You're not my client until you get busted and I bond you out.
Ordell Robbie: Well, if we ain't got no - what's that shit called? - confidentiality, why should I tell you a thing?
Max Cherry: Because you want me to know what a slick guy you are. You got stewardesses bringing you fifty grand.
Ordell Robbie: Now why would a stewardess be bringing me fifty grand?
Max Cherry: Now you want me to speculate on what you do. My guess is you're in the drug business, except the money's moving the wrong way. Whatever you're into, you seem to be getting away with it, so more power to you.

Those of you that follow this blog with any regularity know that I often talk about the deep amount of artistic talent that is in Rochester. It still never ceases to amaze that for a city of about 210,00 people, it has as much to do artistically in proportion to its size as NYC does. We have a saying here that if you're bored, it's your own fault.

In addition to the great artistic groups, especially the theatre groups, the individual talent is striking. Many have gone on to very successful careers as actors, or in the technical theatre arena. Some have even hit the big time, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Taye Diggs, and Kristin Wigg.

Enter Robert Forster. Does the name ring a bell? If you're a fan of Quentin Tarantino, in particular of "Jackie Brown," then you'll know that Forster played bail bondsman Max Cherry, who runs afoul of Samuel L. Jackson while trying to help out Pam Grier. The role got Forster nominated for an Academy Award, and while he didn't win it, it revitalized his career. You may have seen him recently on "Heroes," in a recurring role as one of the main character's father.

Forster is also a Rochester native, and was back in town last week to help celebrate the 80th anniversary of The Little Theatre. Known locally as simply "the Little," it is the art house movie theatre here in Rochester, and known for getting many independent films prior to their distribution to the bigger movie conglomerates. It is also a place where Forster spent a lot of his time as a youth, when he wasn't acting on stage around town.

His first film role was with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, and if that wasn't enough, he was directed by John Huston, "Reflections In A Golden Eye." More on that later.

Forster received an award from The Little Theatre board of directors for his contributions to film and his support of the Little over the years. The Little also had a special screening of Jackie Brown one evening that was preceded with a talk by Forster, interviewed by noted movie critic Jack Garner.

Forster still has many old friends in the area, many of whom I am friendly with, and one of whom directed me in a play last year. He had breakfast with Forster the day before the Jackie Brown screening, and he mentioned that Blackfriars had built a new theatre, and Forster seemed very interested, as he had attended plays at Blackfriars, though he never acted with us. I began to wonder if he would like a tour of the new theatre, if he had time in his schedule.

I'm friendly with the head of the Little, and asked him if he could arrange an introduction to Forster, after explaining why. He said "Sure, no problem, I think Robert would like that!" I came to the Jackie Brown screening, early enough to catch the interview, and was introduced to Forster. He was, as I had heard about, the nicest guy you could imagine. For all his fame, he has retained a down to earth quality that some lose after gaining a lot of recognition.

He remembered Blackfriars well, and was excited to learn about the new theatre. He peppered me with questions about where we moved from, and what the current seating capacity of the new theatre is. He was pleased to learn that it was smaller, at 126 seats. This seems to be the trend in NYC and LA, to go smaller, not bigger. I asked him about a tour, and while he really wanted to do it, he didn't think he would have the time on this trip. I was expecting as much, as I kind of figured he would be booked up, but he then asked for my contact information so that he could arrange a visit next time he's in town. He comes back fairly often, as two of his daughters still reside here in Rochester, as well as his grandkids.

When the time came for the interview, he gave a great talk, and did a dead on impression of John Huston, recounting the story of his audition. He had never done a movie at that point, and it was his straightforward honesty with Huston that got him the role.

I'm looking forward to the possibility of showing Forster the new Blackfriars when he's in town next. Until then, I'll just remember Max's best line:

I'm 56 years old. I can't blame anybody else for something I did.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pulling back the curtain.

Phew! I can finally come up for air after spending the better part of the last month and a half being a construction worker, upholsterer, light rigging specialist, and media relations guru. All this as part of the effort to get our new theatre up and running. In the two weeks leading up to opening night, it got scary. Too many things still left to be done, and we had to delay the opening of the theatre by a week. When all was said and done however, it all came together, just like Stephen Sondheim says it does, bit by bit, putting it together.

At the end of the day, we needed to push off the opening day by one week. There were simply too many thigns that still needed to completed in order to get a COO - a Certificate Of Occupancy - which is required from the city of Rochester in order to open to the public. fortunately, those who bought tickets to the original opening night date understood, and we added on an extra weekend of performances to compensate.

The result has been nothing short of spectacular, with most shows so far, save one, being sold out. We had a gala opening on sept. 26th, with prominent film critic Jack Garner acting as master of ceremonies and official ribbon cutter. Garner, a critic for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, was also the chief movie critic for the Ganett News Service, of which the D&C is a part of. I only learned a few years ago that he is a big theatre goer as well, and was duly impressed with what we have created at Blackfriars. You can see the pics here:

But wait, there's more! (Construction, that is...)

Because of the time frame involved, the decision was made to forego completing construction on the second floor, which will house the dressing room and prop storage areas. it was not deemed vital to opening theatre, as there is a bacstage "quick change" dressing area that can serve as a dressing room temporarily while construction is completed. It also gives us some breathing room while we continue to campaign for more money to complete the project.

We've submitted prospectuses to several businesses in the area for naming rights to the actual performance area, to the tune of $700,000. This works out to $70,000 a year for 10 years - the duration of our lease - in order to not only complete construction but to initiate an endowment fund. This will help secure the theatre's financial future, but so far, we've had no takers.

Pretty disheartening for a theatre that is now it its 60th season. It seems as though the economy is still putting a damper on these things, but we keep prodding along.

Next entry: Max Cherry comes home, and I finally get to meet him. Stay tuned.