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Bill Mushnick walked out to the kitchen, grabbed a Rheingold from the ice box, punched a hole in the top with a can opener, stopped and got cigarettes from the box in the living room and returned to the bedroom. Pop would never notice a few of his beers or smokes missing. He pulled up a chair next to the window, opened the turntable and set up a stack of 45s. He had picked out a collection of heartbreak singles for this hooky day.

The Shirelles: “Foolish Little Girl”
The Guess Who: “These Eyes”
Classics IV: “Traces”
Baby Washington: “That’s How Heartaches Are Made”
Gary Puckett And The Union Gap: “Over You”
The Buckinghams: “Kind Of A Drag”
Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Goin’ Out Of My Head”
Little Anthony & The Imperials: “Hurt So Bad”
The Association: “Cherish”
Dionne Warwick: “Walk On By”

Sometimes it felt like all he had was rock ‘n roll. Bill found salvation in the sound, comfort in the message. He would snap on his transistor after lights-out and devour his favorite deejays: Murray the K on WINS and Cousin Brucie on WABC. The jockeys and the bands all became his friends, and he wasn’t so lonely anymore. It meant everything to Bill to hear a song like “Cherish” and to know that he wasn’t the only one aching for a girl, or to hear a song like “Nowhere Man” and to know that he wasn’t the only one who didn’t fit in. He collected 45s and LPs like other kids collected comic books, and he listened to the radio like other kids breathed.

From his sixth-floor window in the endless brick monolith of Peter Cooper Village, Bill could see 1st Ave, Gramercy Park and Kips Bay and, looming above it all, the old Met Life tower and the Empire State Building. And he could see his classmates heading for another day at M475, Stuyvesant High, on 15th.

And there was Annie, the girl who destroyed him, talking and laughing at the corner of 1st and 22nd with Mark Ingram, his greatest tormentor.

Bill was tall and awkward, with greasy hair and bad skin. Mark called him “Geoffrey Giraffe” after the Toys “R” Us mascot, and “Lava Face.” Mark’s favorite tricks included shoving Bill into his locker, slapping his books out of his hands and holding a lighter under Bill’s chair to make him jump in class. It was relentless torment, and after holding it in all day, Bill cried himself to sleep every weeknight.

And there was Mark, right below his window, with the girl that broke his heart.

Bill thought of yesterday, when he finally worked up the nerve to approach Annie and ask if she wanted to go out with him for a Coke and a movie. He thought of how nervous he was, and how he mispronounced “my treat” as “my sheet.” He thought of her expression and saw it change from confusion to hysterics in slow motion all over again. He thought of her laughing, loud enough for traffic to stop in the hall, and yelling, “with YOU?!? And your sheet?!? Shall I bring my pillow?!?”

Bill thought of his face, blazing red with embarrassment. He thought of how he went through the rest of the day with the eyes of all his classmates boring in on him and the whispered “…did you hear about…” following him from class to class like a snake. He thought of the life he dreamed of having with her crumbling and how he would have to start over.

Sixteen and he already had to start all over again.

He got another beer, pulled the needle off the turntable and snapped on the radio to see what was playing. Dion & The Belmonts: “Teenager In Love.” Perfect.

Then Simon & Garfunkle: “I Am A Rock.”

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.

“Yeah, except for Annie,” Bill thought.

If I never loved I never would have cried…

“Hmmm…”

Then Gerry & The Pacemakers: “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.”

But don’t forget that love’s a game, and it will always come again…

Then The Byrds: “My Back Pages.”

Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…

And then The Beatles: “Getting Better.”

Getting so much better all the time…

Bill Mushnick rested his chin on the air conditioner unit in the window and stared at the spot where Mark and Annie had been before they headed south on 1st together. The morning was young, the day was new. He was sixteen and starting over, and he had a stack of 45s and a transistor and his best friends with him on the dial. And with that he wasn’t the only one. And he wasn’t alone.

Getting so much better all the time…

Image Sources
Turntable: Retro Wonders http://www.retrowonders.com/45_record_players.htm
Murray the K: Bruce Morrow (a.k.a. Cousin Brucie!) https://www.facebook.com/pages/Bruce-Morrow/109739985719925
Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvesant Town: Wired New York http://www.wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=20403

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Chop Suey
Image Source: The Daily

“I am FINISHED with this! Do NOT call on me again!”

Hilda Beauregard’s words exploded through the slop house as she stormed away from the table, leaving Harvey Navin alone and mortified. He could feel her words clench and pierce his heart, like a vice grip with talons. He could feel every damn eye in the joint boring in on him, and he could hear the snickers and titters, and the fumbling of silverware and plates as some diners relished the scene like a bullfight and others wished they could be somewhere – ANYwhere – else, away from such an embarrassing moment.

Harvey felt himself turn a blazing red, desperate to say something – ANYthing – to defend himself and deflect the bore of a room full of eyes penetrating his broken soul. But all he could do was sputter, “she had to catch a jet airplane!” and cackle like a witch. He knew that this awful line just made it worse, so he immediately clapped his hands and yelled, “Waiter! A menu, please!” Never mind that there were two plates of half-eaten Chop Suey on the table. A waiter brought a menu over, and Harvey buried his face in it.

So this is it. Dumped like a hot anvil in a lousy dime-store Chinatown slop house. Nice going, chump!

Harvey stirred the noodles around on his plate. He fought like hell to hold back, but a tear escaped his welled-up eye and ran slowly down his cheek, like a rivulet of rain through a sand dune.

Well, old pal, you haven’t amounted to much, have you? You weren’t much of a student. You weren’t much of a soldier. You aren’t much of a salesman. And now you’ve gone and spooked off your best gal. A fine job you’ve done! And look at you, sobbing in front of the world like a coward! No wonder you’re such a bum!”

Harvey made a mountain of Chop Suey with the fork in his right hand while he fingered the bead in his left hand.

He was an average student at best in high school, always shy and awkward, and he welcomed the chance to drop out. At 17, in May, 1943, Harvey lied about his age and enlisted. He was shipped off to boot camp, and soon found out that his new world wasn’t much better than his old world.

Harvey Navin was never going to be an All-American at anything. He played no sports in school, and he often struggled in boot camp, wilting under the barking commands of his drill sergeant. His fellow enlistees never let him forget it when his clumsiness cost them extra laps. Harvey was part of a battalion that helped capture the Reichstag, but that glory paled in comparison to all the death and dismemberment he had seen. He was never able to put the carnage of war behind him.

After he came home from the war, Harvey flopped around for a bit, finally landing a job as a salesman for an appliance company. But the war stayed with him, and he never really got his confidence back, not that he had any confidence anyway. Harvey tried to be positive in every meeting, but he often found himself distracted, suddenly remembering a past embarrassment: the time he mispronounced a word in class; the time he tripped on a log while running an obstacle course; the time he almost fell off the deck of his ship halfway across the Atlantic. Sometimes he remembered the war: the stench of death; the shrapnel-mangled bodies lying in the mud; the spray of blood as a battalion-mate’s head exploded from artillery fire right before his eyes.

Once the embarrassing memory came, Harvey felt all the eyes in the world pierce his broken soul and heard the snickers and titters all over again. Once the war memory came, he felt his heartbeat race and his breathing get heavy. Once the memory came, it was all over: Harvey started stammering and sweating, and his sales pitch fell apart. He felt the pressure and half expected every day at the office to be his last. His boss, Mr. Greenberg, gave as many chances as he could, but Harvey could feel his time running out.

Harvey was surprised to find that he was fingering the bead as he sat at the table, and even more surprised that it was out of its ampoule. The bead. That’s what his battalion called the cyanide pills given to German soldiers in case of capture and torture. One bite and it was all over. Himmler and Göring both went out on a one-course cyanide dinner, in fact. Harvey’s battalion killed several high-level German soldiers, all of whom had the pills on their person, and they all pocketed the beads. It was their little souvenir from the Fall of the Third Reich.

Harvey sat at the table, fingering the bead in his trembling left hand, thinking of all he had been through in his short life and thinking of the way Hilda had just destroyed him.

Gee-whiz, I was just trying to be sweet. Who knew she would get so sore like that? Boy, a fella gets a little nervous and says a few things not quite right and…

“Daddy, you MISSED it! She said she was FINISHED with this an’ told him not to call on her again! An’ then she WALKED OUT!”

The boy was pointing right at Harvey, and the father swatted his hand down. “Son, it’s not polite to point and say things like that” he said.

But it was too late. Once again, every damn eye in that stinking slop house was boring in on the broken soul of Harvey Navin. Once again, he heard all the snickers and titters. Once again he felt every embarrassment he ever felt in his whole goddamn short life, and once again he felt all the horrors of the war, fresh and vivid like a never-ending nightmare.

Jesus…JESUS! GodDAMNit all, you lousy BUM!

Harvey sat at the table, feeling the tears pour, feeling his heartbeat race, struggling to breathe. Trembling and sweating, he tried to take sip of ice water, but the water spilled all over his chin and shirtfront and lap.

GodDAMNit!

He scanned the restaurant and caught a woman look at him, then quickly turn away.

She thinks you’re a bum too!

He heard someone say, “gee, glad I’m not him.”

Yeah, and he thinks you’re a bum too!

The father of the boy who called him out quickly gathered his family and rushed them out.

And THEY all think you’re a bum! ALL OF THEM!!!

Harvey Navin sat alone at a corner table of a Chinatown slop house, crying, trembling uncontrollably, covered in ice water, broken. He thought of all he had been through in his short life: all the horror and death and humiliation; all the snickers and titters, like the soundtrack of his life; all the eyes of the world boring in on his broken soul. He saw it all play before his eyes, like a newsreel before the pictures.

And suddenly there was calm.

Suddenly Harvey felt calm and content. Suddenly a wave of tranquility washed over his soul and he went with it. For the first time in his whole goddamn short life Harvey felt confident. Finally happy. Just for a moment, but it was just enough. He managed to place the bead on his mountain of Chop Suey and took a bite, finally at peace now that the war was, at long last, over.

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Image Source: Boston Real Estate Observer

Late afternoon summer sun fights through the gray, the beams landing on the garbage bags that hold my possessions and clothes on the floor. Clouds of nicotine float across the room, desperate to waft out of the open screen and into the courtyard. The landlord is in her basement apartment, and she has no idea that I’m home: if she did, there would be trouble, since I bounced my last $300 rent check for the sublet.

I’m 24 and living in Apartment 3, 39 Rutland Square, Boston. My roommate is a Swede studying in Malmö for the summer, so the place is mine. Mine alone.

It’s a typical Saturday. I’ve called in “sick” at the call center (“food poisoning”: better be careful and stick to that story if I call in on Monday), and am in bed working on a 12-Pack of Rolling Rock and two packs of Marlboro Mediums. Depression is taking a major toll, on finances and general quality of life. But at age 24, I don’t know its depression, and I have no idea what kind of resources might exist, if any. All I can do is sit around and wonder what is wrong with me.

I stare blankly at a Sox game on the tube. The sun pours in and diminishes, and the Sox game gives way to COPS reruns. I fade out, nap for a bit. The twilight slides into dark. I wake up, recover my bearings, crack another beer, light another smoke.

I know that I’m looking at another all-nighter of coffee, cigarettes, writing and trying to get my life in order. This is my life. I’m 24, and I have no idea what is wrong with me or how to fix it.

All I can do is write in my journal and tell myself that it will get better…

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Image Source: Fred Herzog

She never showed. Said she’d meet me at the White Lunch Cafeteria at 5:30, Arlene said, and she never showed. So I spent an hour and a half huddled under the marquee of the Capitol waiting for nothing in the pouring rain. And now I’m back in my room at the Empire working on a fifth of Crown.

Should’ve known…should’ve known. Girl like her would never give a guy like me a break. Don’t know what I was even thinking asking her out. I was so scared, thinking she might say no. I almost wish she had said no. At least that way I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

Like said before, I just don’t understand this world, and I don’t get along so well with so many other people. I try, but I just seem to screw the deal every time. I think it’s easier to keep to myself. Keep the circle small, don’t let anyone in. Much less maintenance that way. Less hurt.

Cold night. Cold and wet. It’s nice to look out at it, now that I don’t have to worry about being stood up anymore. Now that I know it’s just me, in service of the Crown tonight. Now that I know that I’m alone again.

Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’ll never see anyone else again…

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Image Source: Neil Perkin

The line went dead, and the wind and soul exploded out of Bill’s stomach. He stood in the booth, listening to the dial tone, not believing. Not accepting. She couldn’t have just done that.

Couldn’t have.

He dropped another coin in the slot and dialed her number again.

daah-daah-daaaaahh – The number you have dialed, five five five one two one two, has been disconnected. No further information is available about five fiv…

SLAM! GodDAMNitall!

She couldn’t mean it, though. She’ll call back and apologize. In a day or two, after she gets her head back. NO she won’t She’ll feel bad…maybe not bad enough to take me back hah!…but bad enough to apologize for her tone…her words… WRONG Maybe after she calls back we can be friends again…NOT going to happen, and after we’re friends again…

Outside the booth, a man in a hat and overcoat darkened by rain tapped his watch. Bill slowly became aware of the lines of people waiting for phones. The foot traffic of the station ebbed and flowed past, smoothing the staccato beep of a phone off the cradle.

He stared at the receiver in his hand, listening to the sound of the disconnect getting louder and louder.
That beep – the sound of heartbreak – would stay with him through the days and weeks of delusions and mental bargaining to come. He slammed the receiver back on the cradle, flung open the doors of the booth and headed toward the tracks, unrequited, lost and alone.

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Subway

8:29 PM
April 11

Gee, you get so damn lonesome in this town sometimes. New York is no place to be if you’re alone. It’s no picnic if you’ve got somebody either, but if you’re alone, and kind of shy and awkward, and maybe a little homely, being here makes it that much worse. Your loneliness is on full display every day. The streets laugh at you. The guy with the beautiful girl, he looks down on you. And that feeling of being all alone, it follows you everywhere. Late at night on a subway car, early in the morning on a bus crossing Central Park, walking through the tunnels of skyscraper shadows, in a corner booth in a bar…you’re alone everywhere, and New York never lets you forget it. It’s hard. Boy is it hard. Sometimes I walk down these stairs to the station and I feel like I’ll never stop climbing down. I’ll just keep going, by myself, and I’ll never have a friend or anyone that cares about me. And everybody else in the city will pass me by, and they’ll all have somebody and they’ll all look back and laugh at little old lonely me and I’ll just keep climbing down, all alone, never reaching the station, never finding anyone that cares about little old lonely me. No one will ever notice, and no one will ever know how much it hurts sometimes. How hard it is to be alone in this town. Little old lonely me.

Nobody cares.
Nobody notices.
Nobody would notice,
if I weren’t around…

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The song is blue.

Blue Moon of Kentucky shining from My Blue Heaven. Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover and Blue Bayou. Blue Skies, Blue Bossa. Blue in Green, Blue on Blue. Pink Turns to Blue and Crystal Blue Persuasion. Blue Velvet on a Blue Christmas. Blue Monk, Blue Trane, Blue Rondo a la Turk. Why so blue? The song is you.

There is so much more blue than green in life. So much more losing than winning. Blue is sorrow, lament, regret. Blue is also camaraderie in sorrow, lament and regret, and the optimism of dawn. It’s always darkest before the dawn.


Image Source: Seattle Times

Blue is the narrative thread of Old Blue Eyes. Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours may be the most perfect nod to blue noir in the zeitgeist. The cover is a striking blue. Track two, after the title, is Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Then “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “Last Night When We Were Young,” and “I’ll Never Be the Same.” The mood is black and blue; a guy down and out and feeling blue about it. Melancholy blue. If ever a record were a color, In the Wee Small Hours is blue.


Image Source: Jazz Music Archives

Same year, 1955, Mel Torme captured the light blue. Where In the Wee Small Hours is the darkest blue, It’s a Blue World is buoyant blue. The record is lush: large strings, major tonalities and, front and center, the pipes of the man known as The Velvet Fog. The opening track is “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” but Mel sounds like he doesn’t have his heart in these blues. Too much joie de vivre. Later tracks include “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten Cent Store),” further lightening the shade of blue of this world.

But both albums are blue, and so are we. Let’s put them on the hi-fi. Set up a round, and maybe another. Talk to me. Tell me about the one that was and the one that got away. Let’s embrace the blue. Let’s stay up until the wee small hours and swap stories about our blue worlds. Without the blue, we would be without a song.

Let’s Listen…

In the Wee Small Hours

It’s a Blue World

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Image Source: EListMania

September, 1986: I was freshly fourteen, freshly home in Maine after four years of Florida exile and ready to start eighth grade. I missed Maine like crazy, but I got used to the life of a pre-teen Florida beach bum/skate rat. Every day in Jacksonville was like a Cameron Crowe film, and I was straight out of central casting, bedecked with a devil-lock (nicely highlighted by fourteen bottles of Sun-in), surf and skate tees, Jimmy-Z’s skate shorts and violet Chuck Taylors.

My new Maine chums were, to put it mildly, a little taken aback by me. Walking into Sugg Middle School, Lisbon Falls, Maine, circa 1986, was like walking into a documentary about the Nixon years. I decided to dress up in a Cosby sweater for that first day. My classmates were all bowl cuts and bangs and jean jackets. I was listening to and skating to The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Ramones and Agent Orange. Transportation for the rest of the class revolved around the most extreme engines on two or four wheels, and the Maine airwaves were filled with Grace Slick and John Kay and Steppenwolf on the dinosaur station.

And there were only two feet clad in violet Chucks for many miles around.

It was September, 1986. Reagan and Gorbachev were staring each other down. The Red Sox were cruising in the American League East. The Beastie Boys, Robert Palmer and Don Johnson (sic) ruled the charts, and Who’s The Boss?, Growing Pains and ALF were must see TV.

I was fourteen and finally back home after four years of dreaming. And I was about to become a middle school pariah; a purple-wearing faggot.

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3rd Ave. EL
Image Source: Olde New York

It’s funny how two lives can intersect.

I met Dolores at the Christmas party. She had recently moved from Arizona, and had been working in the office for a few months. I was unattached, and we gravitated toward each other and stayed together the whole party.

As it turns out, she was soon moving back to Arizona on her way to Los Angeles. There wasn’t much time. We met a few times after that, each time better and more, shall we say, cozy. We had so much in common! We liked the same pictures and orchestras and radio shows…everything. She even liked the Dodgers! She was perfect.

I thought about her all the time, and told everyone about our relationship. I called and called. We talked for hours, but the calls gradually grew shorter. One time she said she didn’t think we should get cozy anymore, since she was moving. I agreed, but kept calling.

Eventually her room mate started picking up and saying Dolores wasn’t around. I thought that was a little strange, but I kept trying, and eventually got her. I’d had a few Rheingolds, like usual, and I was feeling really good about us and what we had, even as it was ending. We made a date to meet at the Automat on 3rd Ave at 42nd the next day and I went to bed.

And Delores never showed. And I never saw her again, and I never heard from her again. Dolores’s room mate told someone that Dolores thought I was a creep because of all the phone calls and especially the last one.

I guess I can see that. I just couldn’t believe I had met someone so perfect. And she was leaving me! Like everyone I ever fell for, leaving me alone and mortified and wondering. Maybe I did get carried away, but you would too, right? Anyway, I didn’t mean to…

Two people come together, and it’s like two rivers flowing south and coming together. Sometimes they cross and keep going separately, and all you can do is wonder where they would have ended up if they had stayed together…

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Spring/Summer 1997

I occupy one bedroom of Apt. 3 at 39 Rutland Square in the South End, overlooking the courtyard in between buildings. I own nothing but a 13” TV and a coffeemaker. All of my possessions – mostly books – are in garbage bags on the floor at the foot of the bed. From my bed I can only see the building on the other side, but from the little table in the kitchen the Hancock Tower and the Berkeley Building with her weather beacon are right there.

Rutland Square is the street of my dreams: low, three-story brownstones with high stoops, landscaping and wrought iron in the middle. My roommate is a Swede studying abroad for the summer, so the place is mine. It’s perfect.

Except that I’m paralyzed with undiagnosed depression and can barely get out of bed, let alone handle a four-hour shift schlepping credit cards. Most of my days are spent napping, reading in a cloud of nicotine or walking around town aimlessly.

But I always come back to my roof. To get there I have to enter the open apartment upstairs. In their bathroom, next to their tub, is a wooden step-ladder. I climb up, push open a corrugated glass window and shimmy through a suspect, splinter-ridden wood frame.

And then all of Boston is there for me, and the empty shell of my day-to-day existence erodes…

Winter/Spring 1998

I’m subletting a basement room from a nutcase in Brookline and working at a call center in Quincy. It’s ten miles from Quincy to Brookline, and six miles from Quincy to South Station. Every night, no matter the weather, I get off the Red Line at either South Station or Park Street, grab a bite and walk the final four miles back to my room. This is how desperate I am to not be “home.”

I usually make it just before curfew. Yes, I’m 25 and my roommate has imposed a curfew. Her paranoia is such that I have to make my sofa bed, hide all my possessions and pull the transom shades every morning before leaving, lest the superintendent see me and snitch her out to management. Never mind that she placed her rental ad in the not-exactly-covert Boston Phoenix, and never mind that the super knows I’m there and that we’ve swapped shots of Old Grand Dad and stories about what a nutcase she is.

This is my life. This is why I prefer walking four miles in a downpour or a blizzard or an arctic gale to being home in my room.

My walks are solitary and free of terms and conditions. From South Station I walk up Summer St. to Park St. and the Boston Common, so named because the sheep paths that became the streets of Boston originated from this common grazing ground. I walk through the Common and across Charles St. to the Public Garden, where spring flowers will soon bloom. I walk Commonwealth Ave through Parisian Back Bay, enraptured by the brownstones, the park in the middle of the Ave, the old gas lamps.

In Kenmore Square I arrive under the flashing Citgo sign. I head upstairs to the fantastic Planet Records and buy a grab bag of CDs. I buy some Tremont Ale at the basement Kenmore Liquors and wrap the bottles in my backpack. I examine the menu at the Chinese Pizza place and think better of it.

I continue on Comm, past the stately Buckminster Hotel and on to Boston University territory, where the Green Line trolley emerges from the underground of Kenmore Square Station in the middle of the avenue. Past school buildings and dorms and the Paradise Rock Club, where I dream of someday playing. Past the site of what was once Braves Field, where the Boston Braves hosted Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and more of my idols. I dream of crowds in pearls and fedoras and streets clogged with Packards and De Sotos.

I continue past the reverent Temple Israel and to Coolidge Corner. Almost there. I buy some pistachios at Trader Joe’s on Harvard Ave, then slink downstairs to retire for the evening. I flick on my desk lamp, crack open a Tremont and read and write and drink in dark solitude, like a WWII blackout.

I’m home.

Summer 2000

364.4 Smoots Plus 1 Ear. This is the length of the Mass Ave Bridge. The bridge is also known as the Harvard Bridge, and it leads directly to MIT. The story goes that one night a group of MIT yuksters decided to measure the bridge with the handiest tool possible: a classmate named Smoot. They laid Mr. Smoot down on the sidewalk and started measuring. The Smoot markers are still there, freshly painted every year.

In the middle of the bridge, possibly where Houdini performed his act once, the sidewalk reads HALFWAY TO HELL. This is where I stop and stand, arms on the railing, taking in the sweep of Boston before me and wondering what would it be like? I would never do it, but the thought crosses my mind every time. Just a lean too far…maybe a slight pitching…my stomach flying into my throat as gravity takes over…Would it be as peaceful as I had read? Would I struggle or accept? Would it silence the demons and the pain? Would anyone but my family notice?

I can never do it, because of my family, and ultimately because I know that all of this is transitory and I’m meant for better things. I pick up my pace and continue my walk over the Charles to Cambridge, looking ahead, always looking ahead…

Image Sources:

Boston Real Estate

heatingoil.com

MIT

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