Not So Fast Times at Forest Hills High

FH shirtWhen I entered my sophomore year of high school, my brainiac brother Jeffrey convinced me that it would be a good idea to take both chemistry and biology concurrently. Doing so would eliminate the need to take a science course in my senior year and enable me to get out of school just an hour after I arrived. It sounded like a brilliant idea at the time,  but once the semester started and I realized just how in- over-my- head I was, I began to think otherwise.

Biology was somewhat manageable, since to some extent the material could be memorized, but chemistry required both logic and math skills, two competencies that had ceased to be part of my being after fourth grade. To make matters worse, chemistry required a weekly lab period which was slotted into my already crammed schedule at “zero” period, which if my memory serves me correct, took place several hours before sunrise. During labs, we would work with bunsen burners and chemicals I hadn’t seen since the day’s when my brother was allowed to make bombs in the house. We would make observations and hypotheses (total random guesses) as to how the chemicals would react under various conditions. Immediately after “ain’t no sunshine” zero period, we would head to chemistry class where we would receive a lesson that probably had some correlation to the lab experiments, but I, for the life of me, could never figure out what that was. Our teacher would try to quiet the class for the lesson using her signature (and only) attempt at humor, saying  “Quiet, you’re disturbing the moles” (yes, I had to Wikipedia that term too and it still isn’t funny).

I learned so little in chemistry, that my father assigned Jeffrey the task of tutoring me for the Chemistry Regents exam that I was about to fail. (Note to readers under 25 who have attended dozens of Kaplan prep classes: no parent was willing to pay for tutoring back then; siblings’ sole purpose was to teach each other stuff they didn’t know and agree to play Monopoly in place of their parents). After several frustrating attempts to learn the material from Jeffrey and buckets of tears, dad brought in the reinforcements (my brother Stuart) who was actually the more patient of the two teachers. I passed the exam, took a deep breath of O2 and a swig of H2O and moved on.

By the time I got to my junior year and was expected to take physics, I created a new hypothesis that if I begged hard enough to my physics teacher, he would let me out of the class and my science credits for high school would be completed. Finally, one of my theories was proven correct.

Math that year was no better. We were learning geometry and by what must have been an egregious administrative error, I was placed in honors math, alongside the best and brightest students in the school. Just seconds after a geometry problem was written on the board and before I could even draw the triangle or parallelogram, some future doctor, scientist or Nobel Prize winner was raising their hand with the answer. On occasions when we worked on a series of problems on our own, our male teacher would walk the room, usually ending up behind the girl with the biggest boobs in the class (which for once wasn’t me!) and massage her shoulders or do something else inappropriate. At the time we all just referred to him as a creepy pervert because we didn’t know fancy words yet like pedophile or sexual predator and no one could Google him back then to see how many states he was wanted in. By my junior year, I was outed as a sub-par math student, booted out of honors math and placed in a more academically appropriate class where I didn’t do much better, but never had to worry FH 2about some old guy’s hands near my bra strap.

One of my favorite subjects in high school was history and during my junior year I got to take a college-level class in American history. It wasn’t that I was so enamored with the subject matter but  part of the course material was a book about Thomas Jefferson that detailed his numerous  sexual relations with his slaves. I’d never read a history book like this before and I’d hardly had any exposure to the topic of sex since my brother explained the F-word to me years before, so this book was a welcome addition to all the dry readings about the other boring presidents who seemed to do a better job of keeping it in their pants.

I did well in English class, but looking back on the books we were assigned in high school, most were torturous reads with little relevance to my life at the time. Just a few of the books I suffered through included The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter and A Tale of Two Cities. You know a book is bad when you read page 64 five times before turning the page and don’t even realize it and this is when I discovered my  favorite book series…CliffsNotes.

Outside of academic pursuits, high school offered several extracurricular activities Students at my high school were basically attracted to one of four areas: sports, SING!, Beacon and drugs. Categories one and four are fairly self-explanatory. I didn’t really fall into either of these categories because as for sports, I was still having trouble running the five laps around the school’s non-regulation size track sans sports bra and on the drug front, I had basically just learned how to swallow a pill whole the year before, so I wasn’t quite ready to run with the quaalude crowd.

SING! is an annual student-run musical production competition by grade put on by some high schools in New York City. At least that’s how Wikipedia describes it. A more accurate description might be “a temporary state of insanity which commences in late September and doesn’t resolve until mid-January.” SING! productions required students to write original scripts, rewrite lyrics to popular songs, design original sets using only a huge burlap schmatta and paint as a backdrop, create dance routines, design costumes, recruit a grade-level musical ensemble and cast and put on an hour show in about 3 months. Great friendships were built (and demolished) during SING! and there was often more drama offstage than on. Grades tried to keep their shows a secret from each other for as long as possible for fear of any intellectual property being stolen. There was some amazing talent among the grades and some of the alums have gone on to earn some coin as singers and musicians. I participated in two SING! events, in more behind-the-scenes roles like the ensemble and script writing because I was way too shy to audition (especially with such fierce competition),  but I created some amazing friendships with some great people, many who impressively still remember all the SING! 1979 revised lyrics to Earth Wind & Fire’s Fantasy.

FH 4The Beacon was the school newspaper and it was here that I discovered I liked to write. We learned how to report in a newspaper style and write and edit longer-form content as well. This was where I also discovered the best book ever; the Thesaurus; a nifty tool for making me sound much more literate than I actually was. My favorite “go-to” word for anything I wrote about was “juxtaposition” and I started overusing it in articles and daily life as well saying things like, “Is it ok if I sit juxtaposed to you at lunch today?” and “Hmm, when I juxtapose my score on the math test next to yours, I realize I’ve failed.” Several members of Beacon went on to become paid journalists and writers. I ended up with this self deprecating blog and  five followers.

By my senior year, the extracurricular activities played a bigger role in my daily life than the academic coursework and we began to turn our attention to other senior activities such as prom and graduation. Some member of the administration thought that it would be a good idea to include an overnight, barely supervised trip in the prom festivities and so hundreds of seniors got to go on a trip that had the potential to turn into a 1980 version of Burning Man. The event would be held at the Concord Hotel in The Catskills which was considered posh in the 60’s, somewhat tacky in the 70’s and has since devolved into this. The evening would begin with dinner, followed by a pool party and then the prom at midnight. I thought I’d be clever and kill two birds with one stone. In 1980, Danskin, the manufacturer of the famed children’s equivalent of polyester leisure suits in 1974, had come out with a new look; a one-piece bathing suit collection that had matching Lycra skirts. (Note to all corsage-wearing girls in long formal wear: disco was still king; this was considered formal wear back then, at least for a girl from Queens). For the pool party, I wore the bathing suit. Then I ran back to my room, semi-dried the suit, put on the skirt and heels and bam! Prom-ready.

Meanwhile, the boys had other ideas about what to pack in their suitcases, mainly vodka and orange juice. We managed to end up in a room next door to the Assistant Principal, a man named Milton Sirota, who had to endure a full year of kids chanting his name to the tune of The Knack’s My Sharona which someone cleverly changed to Mi-Mi-Mi Mil Sarota. My my my i yi woo!!! But despite his proximity, the boys (and some girls) managed to Ch-Ch-Ch Chug the vodka. The next day there were a lot of hung over kids but I don’t remember any admonishments from the faculty. Perhaps they were hung over themselves, or maybe they just remembered what it was like to be young.



I’ll Take Two Great Brothers for $300, Alex

stuart, jeff me 4One of the great things about being one of three kids in the family was that there was usually someone to play with. With the exception of chess, a game my brothers felt I could never play well enough to command any reasonable level of competition, my brothers were usually willing to play some type of board or card game with me. My brother Stuart was always up for a good game of Scrabble. At age 12 he had the vocabulary of a Pulitzer prize winning author. He could find an open “a” on the board and come up with a word like “ka” which we would immediately challenge but unfortunately quickly realize was a real word referencing a Predynastic pharaoh of Upper Egypt. The “k” would undoubtedly be placed on a triple-letter square that was also a triple-word square or something equally ridiculous, and he would end up with 5,000 points at the end of round one. Today lots of people have heard of the word ka, but they know it as another Cirque de Soleil show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and I think using it in this manner goes against the official rules of Scrabble. I would generally follow up on my turn with a word like “it” garnering two points.

Stuart was so smart, that had my parents thought more about how to exploit this, they could have gotten him on Jeopardy and the prize money could have been used to send their less intelligent daughter to private school. No category would have been too demanding for Stuart. I could see him selecting “18th Century Russian novelists with speech impediments for $200” or “Unusual stamps of the 19th Century Depicting the Industrial Revolution for $500” without missing a beat and nailing the answer every time.

After being sufficiently humiliated with games requiring a command of the English language, my brothers would give me a reprieve and we would engage in games requiring less brain power. When my brother Jeffrey was about ten, he was able to request a copy of an original Star Trek script from NBC. I was no Trekkie, but didn’t want to be left out, so when Jeffrey decided to stage a production of “The Trouble With Tribbles” in our home, I was all over it. Jeffrey played Kirk, Stuart was fittingly Spock and I was Ohura and whatever female characters were fawning all over William Shatner that day. I can’t remember who played Scotty or the Tribbles for that matter, but it was a lot of fun.

Following this, we would move on to a board game, often Monopoly. I think Monopoly was invented for families with a lot of kids, because kids are the only people who will suffer through the three-plus hours it takes to complete this game. I usually ended up with my hotels taken over by my brothers, hocked property and many more tears than could fill my thimble playing piece, but I always came back for more. Luckily, we would find Risk a few years later and Jeffrey would always manage to place all his armies in the tip of South America and conquer the world within 20 minutes.

One of my favorite games was one I played with Jeffrey before Scrabble or Monopoly were even an option. In my bedroom, the room with all the unwanted furniture, there was a rotisserie that was only wheeled out once a year on Thanksgiving. It sat under a plastic cover, the kind you see old people place over their toasters, but this one was industrial size. We weren’t supposed to mess with the rotisserie, but we did anyway because it had a timer on it that was fun to play with. We would set the timer, lay on the bed, and when the timer went off we would roll onto the floor and pretend we had been transported into another time, where there were dinosaurs or knights on horses or astronauts in outer space.

As my brothers got older they stopped playing as many games with me and turned their attention to other pursuits. When Jeffrey was about 12, he invited a bunch of his friends over to the house. They made a huge tent in my brothers’ room, by placing blankets across the two beds and using World Book Encyclopedia’s to hold their makeshift canopy in place. They told me I couldn’t come in. I managed to quietly open the door and slither my way into the room on my stomach so they wouldn’t see me. I peered under the bed near the entrance of the room to see what they were doing. They were playing cards…poker…strip poker. After seeing more than I cared to of one of my brother’s best friends, I realized my days playing simple games with my brothers were numbered.

How a Nice Jewish Girl Got a Job as a Copy Boy

Copy Boy 2Following my sophomore year of college, when I finally turned 18, I was able to get a summer job that was better than the summer’s previous crappy cashier job where I was selling one hundred condoms to men for 99 cents.

My dad was able to get me a job as a “copy boy” at NBC News where he worked in the accounting department. Each summer, the news department needed fill-in help for regular staff members who were taking summer vacation and the copy boy role was only given to relatives of NBC employees. It was then that I added another fancy new word to my vocabulary that was even better than fondue or fuchsia; nepotism. Another great thing about this job was that it paid $6.50 an hour which was double minimum wage at the time, which made the revelation that I no longer had to sell condoms by the bushel all the more exciting.

Prior to the introduction of computers into the news room, there were teleprinter machines which were electromechanical typewriters that were used to send news stories from wire services like Associated Press directly to the newsroom. Dozens of these machines were housed in a special room, and the job of the copy boy was to regularly tear the print copy off the machines and distribute them in the mailboxes for assignment editors, producers, directors and news anchors. If a series of bells went off on the machines, it meant there was a breaking story, and you had to hand-deliver the wire copy directly to each person’s desk which required waiter-like grace and precision since it was easy to trip over the long layers of paper as you moved swiftly across the newsroom.

I learned quickly that news veterans, generally older men who lived on cigarettes, take-out food, and whiskey, preferred the female copy boys to the male ones and were prone to comment on the swiftness of your delivery  and how your ass looked as you whizzed away to the next recipient. While I’d learned what nepotism meant, the term sexual harassment was still years away, and so I did what most women in the 80’s did under these circumstances which was nothing.

Perhaps the job task that required the most trouble shooting was the paper jam. If you spotted a jammed machine (which occurred like every 30 minutes) you had to fix the jam as quickly as possible so no key news stories would be lost. Paper jams always resulted in mangled copy that was illegible and you had to decide which person in the newsroom would get the crappy copy. Bad copy generally went to the person who appeared to be the most junior staff member, the person who was least likely to yell at you, and in many cases simply the person you deemed the biggest asshole in the newsroom.

The newsroom was filled with all sorts of the latest technology, namely the fax machine. In 1982, this was cutting edge stuff and one copy boy each day had to fax important multi-page news reports to all of the bureaus; a task that ONLY took an hour and a half to complete. Amazing!

Each day, one of the evening copy boys was designated as Nightly News runner. This person had to take the scripts that were written for the anchor of NBC Nightly News and run them to the studio. This job was generally reserved for the boys, but I was designated as runner at one point and got to keep this role for several months. Running the scripts entailed taking scripts that were typed on color coded sheets with carbon paper inserted in between each sheet to generate the desired number of copies (note to readers born after 1990: carbon paper is nothing like mimeograph paper! If you try to smell carbon paper you will streak your forehead and people will be asking you if today is Ash Wednesday.)

With scripts in hand, the runner had to run from the fifth floor newsroom to the third floor studio. A special elevator was reserved for the copy boy with a special elevator operator just for this job alone. Once you got to the third floor you were immediately greeted by the janitor who was waxing the floors that led to the studio, making the task all the more treacherous. Upon arrival in the studio you had to distribute scripts to directors, producers and lastly to anchor Tom Brokaw and get your ass out of there before the show went live. If breaking news occurred during the broadcast, you had to repeat the task of running from floor five to floor three using the special elevator,  maintain your balance on freshly waxed floors and then wait for the cameraman to signal it was ok for you to give the anchor the next round of scripts. My last day on the job, I was a runner and I had to bring new scripts down during the show. After I placed Tom Brokaw’s revised script on his desk, I spun around to quickly leave before he was back on camera and created a gust of wind that blew his script off the desk. I heard him yell, “hey!” but it was too late to return and I kept on running.

There was a great deal of down time in this job since many times you were simply waiting around for the realms of news copy  to touch the floor and be ready to be ripped. There were lots of copy boys and almost all of the summer help were kids between 18 and 22, so the wire room looked more like the lounge of a college dorm than a place of business. By the end of my time there I ended up with new friends and two boyfriends, which basically represents one-third of all my boyfriends ever.

The people who worked as copy boys full-time were an interesting cast of characters. One was rumored to be a pimp because he would receive an endless stream of calls from women with names like Candy and Cookie throughout the day (note to readers born after 1990: there were no cell phones then, so we knew everyone’s business). There was a guy who managed all the copy boys who would interview people for positions and scribble important notes on their resumes like “blonde” and “nice legs.” There was another man who worked the midnight to 7 am shift who some said lived in his car. There was a man who always seemed to be going to the supply room for more post-its, which is where we learned he kept a bottle of gin.

But despite all the oddities of the job, it was in some ways the most important job I ever had. It was my first corporate job and it forced me to come to terms with my extreme shyness and interact with adults regularly on a professional level. I got to be in a newsroom during some pretty big moments in history and meet news icons like John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw. I kept this job each winter and summer vacation and then got hired full-time when I graduated from college. But just six months later, the newsroom was automated and everyone  got a computer on their desk, virtually eliminating the need for copy boys. There’s no longer a need to rip wire copy, create multiple scripts with carbon paper, run scripts to a studio or have a special elevator operator on standby. The only guy left is the janitor, still waxing those floors and I certainly wish him well.

*Photo credit

Music for Coming of Age and Music That Reminds Me I’ve Aged

recordI’ve always loved music and I spent a good amount of time as a kid listening to records on the phonograph in my room. (Note to readers born after 1990; this was the equivalent of your iPod, but we shuffled songs by carelessly moving a  needle past the songs we didn’t like, usually scratching and ruining the record in the process).

My brother loved music too and he invented what he called bouncing, an activity I quickly copied, which involves sitting on the floor or in a chair and rocking back and forth fervently while singing to the music. As he grew, his bouncing activities were partially responsible for the furniture problems we experienced in the 70’s, because as his legs got longer, each bounce resulted in the  pounding of his feet on the carpet, which eventually wore it out. There was no way I could ever be blamed for this since my feet still don’t touch the ground when I am seated in most chairs. Years later I replaced bouncing with running, but those close to me know that I still bounce from time to time, particularly during snowstorms or other occasions when I am cooped up in the house for long periods of time.

There are so many artists and albums that have been part of my youth and early adulthood, but a few in particular stand out.

  1. Burl Ives – Big Rock Candy Mountain. This is my earliest memory of listening to music. I loved Burl Ives’ voice and he reminded me of Santa Claus, another person I admired until I was five and was forced to celebrate Hanukkah.
  2. Dr. Funhouse. This was a six-album collection of children’s classics and some new tunes as well. I could spend hours alone in my room listening to these records, only emerging for food, water and an occasional bathroom break. It’s funny to think how non-portable music was back then and what lengths I would go to in order to listen to my favorite songs over and over again.
  3. Alvin and the Chipmunks. I was mezmerized by the high-pitched voices of these talented cartoon characters until I realized I could make any artist sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks simply by placing a 33 1/3 LP on speed 78. (Note to those same readers born after 1990…oh never mind, I have no modern day equivalent to describe this).
  4. Up to Date – The Partridge Family. This was an exciting release because the album cover showed the birthdays of each  Partridge. This was considered exceptionally proprietary information back then. Fast forward to 2014 and I can view Danny Bonaduce’s Facebook page, complete with his full birthday and a link to his wikipedia page with a synopsis of his dysfunctional family and upbringing in excruciating detail.
  5. Love Will Keep Us Together – Captain & Tennille. I still can’t get this song out of my head or come to terms with the fact that love kept them together for 40 years and then the shit hit the fan. Read more about that here.
  6. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John. I remember singing Bennie and the Jets and All the Young Girls Love Alice while my mother vacuumed the house. I’m still not sure if she chose to ignore the lyrics her ten-year old was singing or she just couldn’t hear them over the vacuum cleaner.
  7.  Captain Fantastic – Elton John. I waited weeks for the release, purchased the album from Alexander’s department store for $3.99, cherished the album cover and liner notes and managed to choreograph the Hustle to Gotta Get a Meal Ticket from side two of the album.
  8. Rock of the Westies – Worst Elton John album ever. Plus, I owned it on an 8-track tape, and well, we all know what happened to that. The album forced me to move on to new artists.
  9. The Stranger – Billy Joel. I converted kicking and screaming, but in the mid-70’s  Billy Joel became Elton John’s temporary replacement. I eventually found my way back to Elton, which is a good thing since he manages to show up for concerts with much greater regularity than Billy Joel.
  10. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – Greatest Hits. My dad played this instrumental album often and the songs always make me smile.
  11. Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits. When my dad first brought this album home, he said mom would love it. She listened to it once and said, “I hate it.” Dad said, “Give it time.” He was right. She has been a Neil Diamond groupie for close to four decades.
  12. A Night at the Opera – Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody still blows me away and I still have no clue what it is about.
  13. Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees. Oh please…you listened to it too.
  14. Fragile – Yes. Brings back fond memories of listening to my tone deaf brother Jeffrey trying to sing the tunes with a pseudo British accent.
  15. Best of Emerson Lake & Palmer. See number 14.
  16. Seconds Out-Genesis. For me, my high school anthem. Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Rush (especially Rush) be damned.
  17. Duke-Genesis. This album was a huge departure for Genesis and a foray into pop. It sucked, but the summer of 80 when it came out rocked so I have to keep it on the list.
  18. The River-Bruce Springsteen. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but to reveal this publicly at my large state college in upstate New York with thousands of drunken fans sucking down chicken wings and “pop” would have resulted in an early death, so I went along with the ruse for four years (sorry guys).
  19. Tainted Love-Soft Cell. This one only has relevance to a certain someone who left me stranded in a club at 288 Lark Street in Albany 30 years ago; but of course I’m not bitter.
  20. Speaking in Tongues-Talking Heads. This was my favorite album in 1984 and a great part of my life my senior year of college when for just a few minutes we could stop listening to Bruce Springsteen.
  21. Soundtrack to Dirty Dancing. I found this on a first date in the CD collection of the person who later fathered my children; getting rid of it was a requirement for a second date.
  22. Diva- Annie Lenox-. Walking on Broken Glass was playing on the radio the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital. Reminded me of what a fragile little package I was holding.
  23. Blame it on the Rain-Milli Vanilli. Ok so the lip-synching thing wasn’t a shock, but it did change the way people thought about music, no?
  24. Jagged Little Pill-Alanis Morissette. This is the uber-rock anthem for pissed off women.
  25. So Called Chaos. This was the album Alanis made when she calmed down and stopped being so pissed off. She later went on to release Flavors of Entanglement, an album she created when she was in a “happy place.” Personally, I like pissed-off Alanis better.

What albums, CDs or iTunes define your life?