Squeaky Wheels and Swings

It looks like the vernal equinox may finally be settling in for the long haul here in Central Ohio.  Temperatures during the days since spring officially began have been so erratic that I have not delivered on my plan to ride the trike to and from work at least twice a week, but it looks like we’re finally turning the corner.

There are some things you never outgrow.  When Susie was a toddler, and finally too big for the “baby swings” on playgrounds, I was very glad that she loved the swings, because it gave me the excuse of swinging with her.  I restrained myself and never showed her the playground practice of “bailing out,” which I learned in elementary school, miraculously escaping any type of injury from it–even a skinned knee.

Susie retains her love of swinging.  Her favorite head-clearing, by-herself activity is swinging, which means that if I come home and she is not home, as long as it’s still light outside, I can rest assured that she is at the Maynard and Summit Park, the little pocket park less than a block from our place.  If I turn off all music and TV, and listen carefully, I can be doubly assured that she is there.

Entrance to Maynard and Summit Park.

I will never call 311, the City of Columbus Call Center, to ask them to oil the swings in the park.  However, I am the first to admit that their squeak is gratingly annoying.  It is very similar to fingernails down a blackboard.  (I remember seeing Jaws in a theater equipped with Dolby surround sound, and the scene where Robert Shaw drags his fingernails down the blackboard creeped me out more than any scene involving the Great White.)  But, I do not want the City to correct this, because if the house is quiet when I come home, or on a weekend or holiday where I’m sleeping in, if I hear the rhythmic squeak of the swing, I know that’s where Susie is.

Part of me hopes that my down-the-street neighbor in Somerville, Mass. reads this blog.  I don’t remember her name, and I doubt that she knows or remembers mine, but she would be quite pleased at my change in attitude about the sound of squeaking.  I sublet part of a house from some students at Tufts during the summer of 1983, since I was part of the skeleton crew at The Harvard Crimson putting out the newspaper (publishing twice weekly during the summer) and working on The Confidential Guide to Courses at Harvard-Radcliffe, 1983-1984.  It was a two-mile walk from The Crimson‘s headquarters on Plympton St., which was a godsend to me, since I frequently left work after public transit had stopped for the night.

There was a family with a young boy, a toddler, who lived on my street.  During the day, the street was almost deserted, because all the residents were either at school or work.  (I was one of the exceptions.  Since I worked a graveyard-shift job, the exact opposite was true for me.  I would be gone most of the night, and sleeping for much of the day.)  The little boy could easily spend all morning racing back and forth in the street on his tricycle.  Had he been my child, I would have required him to use the sidewalks.  This street was no turnpike, but there was still some vehicle traffic during the day, such as utility people, UPS delivery drivers, etc.

Usually, I was comatose much of the morning.  And I usually slept the sleep of the dead once I fell asleep.  However, the squeaking of the kid’s tricycle never failed to awaken me, whether he was pedaling toward or away from my place.  There was also no rhythm or pattern to it, so waiting for him to make the next lap was a lot like waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I tried waiting for the squeak’s Doppler effect as he went past the house, but it was futile.

One morning, I reached my limit.  I was both frustrated and exhausted (a very unpleasant combination with me!), and decided to be proactive.  I found an oil can in my basement, and when the kid pedaled by, I ran after him and oiled the wheels on his little tricycle.  Very silently, he pedaled away.

A few minutes later, his mother came marching up to my porch, where I was going through the mail.  She was not a happy woman.  This surprised me, because I thought the squeaking drove her out of her skull as well.

Quite the contrary.  The squeak was how she kept track of where he was.  He was restricted to going back and forth on the one-block stretch of our street, but she still wanted to know his exact location.  This was in the era before parents believed that pedophiles and rapists hid behind every car antenna and fire hydrant a child might pass, but she still wanted to have a bead on his whereabouts.

It took parenthood for me to realize the reason she was so unhappy with me.  When Susie was younger, and playing in the yard (or in the house) with kids in the neighborhood, I managed to bite my lip and refrain from chastising them about being too loud.  The only thing worse than a group of kids that are too loud, I realized, was a group of kids that was too quiet.

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A Farewell to a Friend: John D. Solomon (1963-2010)

To quote Archie Bunker in the episode “Stretch Cunningham, Goodbye,” “I ain’t never delivered a urology before.”  This is the first time I’ve ever tried, even though this is one that is for cyberspace and the blog world, not delivered to mourners in a house of worship.

My best friend from The Harvard Crimson, John David Solomon, Harvard Class of 1985, died the first of November.  He was 47 years old, six weeks younger than I am.  I learned he had leukemia two years ago, when he mentioned it–almost offhandedly–in his blog, In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.  Even knowing that leukemia is not the automatic death sentence that it used to be, I was quite worried.  Cancer is still cancer.
Yet he seemed to be making progress toward beating the disease.  He posted regularly to his blog, usually answered my emails promptly (the blog was how we reconnected in the last two or three years of his life), sent pictures of himself with his wife and young daughters, and reassured his readers the disease was in remission.  (The only time I ever directly addressed his leukemia, after learning of it, was to extol the virtues of the Arthur G. James Cancer Center on the Ohio State campus, telling him that if he needed treatment there, my door was always open to him.  I overlooked the fact that his native New York had some top-rated cancer facilities of its own!)
I met John the first time I worked the graveyard shift at The Harvard Crimson.  I had worked during the weekend, typesetting Harvard Business School’s weekly newspaper, The Harbus News, so I had yet to experience the high-pressure, crisis-ridden, anxiety-laden atmosphere that thrummed like an electric current in the pre-hours before “Cambridge’s Only Breakfast-Table Daily” rolled off the press and began appearing in the dormitories and the streets of Harvard Square.  I was trying to learn the intricacies of the CRTronic Linotype, and keep up with the endless flow of typewritten copy as it came down from the upstairs newsroom.  Additionally, I was down to (almost literally) my last dime, payday was still almost a week away.  I was learning to swim by immersion in a tank full of starved piranhas.
John was the proofreader that night.  I didn’t know that he was taking particular notice of me or my situation–although he had let me know he was technologically illiterate when it came to my computer.  My fellow typesetter that night knew the machine intimately, and was trying to keep ahead of her own workload, and did not have time to nursemaid me through learning the procedure.
The first gesture of friendship came when Pat Sorrento, the production supervisor and foreman who had been with the paper since the mid-1960s, asked for someone to make a run to Tommy’s Lunch, the diner on Mount Auburn Street by Mather House.  John seemed to pick up on the fact that I was not flush for a meal, and probably also was aware that I had barely eaten.  Without my asking him to, he said, “Go ahead and order something.  Don’t worry about it.”
Extended periods of working together either cement or destroy friendships.  He and I became close after he paid for that first meal from Tommy’s, and talked quite a bit during the slack hours when there was little work, or when I was in The Crimson‘s building to pick up mail or my paycheck.  The true test, however, came during the summer of 1983, when he and another editor were given the responsibility of editing and producing The Confidential Guide to Courses at Harvard-Radcliffe, Harvard’s annual course guide, known informally as The Confi Guide.  The Crimson itself only printed twice a week during the summer, so the Guide consumed most of the time and energy of everyone who was staying to work on the newspaper that summer.
Many a night, I would come to the building at 4 in the afternoon after a sandwich and lemonade at Elsie’s, and not leave for nearly 24 hours.  I had sublet living quarters on the edge of the Tufts campus, but I slept more nights at The Crimson than I ever did in my own bed.  If the paper ran that night, the finished product was barely out of the building (bound for hand delivery or the Cambridge post office for mailing), then it was time for typing Confi copy, usually with the radio or TV for company.  When we all came to a stopping point, John and I would creep up to The Crimson‘s top-floor lounge, The Sanctum, and collapse on couches.
On several other nights, John would creep off to his Oxford St. apartment (his summer HQ) and leave me a batch of copy.  I’d work on it for several hours, and once the Coca-Cola didn’t have any effect, and I was unable to get my fingers, brain, and eyes to work together, I’d slink up to The Sanctum for some much-needed shuteye.  I would leave a note on the bulletin board for John, saying, “Please wake me up at such-and-such a time.”  As soon as I saw a Sanctum couch, it would be like someone taking the switch that powered my body and throwing it to “off.”  And before I knew it, I would be awakened to a hideously nasal rendition of “Reveille,” and behold John standing over me, his hands cupped over his mouth like a bugle.

We even spoke of religious issues.  John was Jewish, but not particularly devout.  I had moved to Boston partly because it was the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association–it was the Unitarian equivalent of Vatican City or Jerusalem.  Except on the Sunday mornings when I was too exhausted to get out of bed, I regularly attended services at one of three U.U. churches.  Yet, during the Days of Awe 5744, he dragged me–one of the few Gentiles at The Crimson–to the Conservative Kol Nidre services.  It was the only time during the year he ever put in an appearance at services, and he seemed surprised when I asked him if he planned to go to the Ne’ila service that would conclude Yom Kippur.  (We didn’t.)

I’m sorry to say that I never saw him again after I left Boston in 1984 to start at Ohio University.  There were intermittent phone calls and letters, but we lost touch altogether until I Googled him and found his blog.  We stayed in touch by emails, and we favorited each other’s blogs, and when I hoped to bring Susie to New York to visit the American Girl store, I planned to reunite with John, whose girls were also American Girl fans.

There is a scene at the end of Stand by Me where the protagonist of the story, now an adult, is sitting at the keyboard of his word processor.  He has just written of the untimely death of his best friend.  He typed:

Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.

And so it is with me.  Although I hadn’t seen John in more than a quarter century, I will miss him forever.

This blog entry falls far short of honoring him properly, but since I once completely took over a story we were supposed to co-write (“Who Shot the President?”, for the special issue marking the 20th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination), it is appropriate.  I can’t deliver this from the bimah of a synagogue, so I want to honor John in the setting where we have both come to feel at home: the blog.

May he rest in peace.

John D. Solomon (1963-2010)