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The deep end

On old Jews in pools, baseball, and death

Barry Friedman (right) and his father Jack Friedman at Margaritaville Casino & Restaurant at River Spirit Casino

Greg Bollinger

The woman, mid 70s, if I had to guess, came up to me in the Charles Schusterman Jewish Community Center pool. I was in the swim lane, not swimming (I’ll get to that in a moment) and wearing a white SPF swim shirt—don’t ask—and with it clinging to my 6’4”, 255-pound frame, I looked like a cumulonimbus cloud.

Still, she was all smiles.

“We’ve been watching you,” she said, “my group, and we think you’d be perfect for it.” I looked over and there were half a dozen senior citizens in a water aerobics class, hopping, dancing, and squatting to “ABC,” which was playing on the overhead speaker. I’d be perfect for this? Old, wet Jews listening and splashing to The Jackson Five—you had to be there. Or maybe it’s better that you weren’t. I was in the swimming lane, in case you’re still wondering (though I was hoping you’d forget) walking—yes, walking—because I have a bad knee and, clearly, no pride. I looked over and noticed the men in the class: three of the five were also wearing SPF-protected sun shirts.

I was so depressed, I nearly took off my water shoes.

My father, who’s 90 but keeps saying he’s 91 for reasons that defy understanding, fell in his apartment a few weeks back, slipped, he said, on the “shiny floor” when he got up to find the remote. He’s been watching a lot of “Grey’s Anatomy” on Netflix lately and thinks George is an “idiot” and Izzie is a terrible doctor. A neighbor in an apartment immediately below his place heard the thud—a terrible noise, she wrote me on Facebook—and came up to check on him. After she put him on the sofa, turned on the air conditioner, and helped find his glasses, he told her about the Purple Heart he received in the Philippines in World War II, which he probably stole. The story goes that his unit, the First Cavalry, was putting up a bridge when the Japanese started shelling. The sergeant yelled, “Drop the bridge and run,” which my father swears was followed by the sergeant screaming at him: “‘You’re running the wrong way.’ Ka-Boom!” (Yes, my father does the ka-boom when telling the story.) To hear him tell it, he woke up in a hospital a week later, went to the bathroom, and when he came back there was a Purple Heart on the edge of his bed.

Thing is, there’s no record he was ever awarded one and, perhaps most damning and certainly most hysterically, he admitted to me once: “Tell you the truth, Ba, when I came back from the bathroom, I couldn’t remember which bed was mine. I assumed the medal was for me.”

“You assumed?”

“What do you want me to tell you?”

“You may have stolen someone’s Purple Heart, Dad.”

“Let it go,” he said, as if I was going to report him, as if there’s a 90-year-old man in America who’s been irked about this theft for the past 70 years. Someone stole by damn Purple Heart. It was that Friedman guy, I know it.

I called his doctor, who came over to check on him.

Read that again: he came over.

“Dad, how wonderful, huh? He made a house call.”

“Wonder what that’s gonna cost me!”

Summer Rhythms

I heard them described once as “God’s Lawn chairs,” Adirondack chairs. Their long, straight, broad backs and gently sloped seats are comfortable, but don’t coddle—like the best of religions, in that respect. The wood makes for a tough, but solid love. First designed in 1903, they, of late, have been made with hard plastics and polymers, which coincides (actually precipitated) the decline of Western civilization. In summer, it’s the perfect chair. During the other seasons, they remind you of summer.

If I were God, I’d buy two.

Brightly colored orange and yellow Adirondacks are on the casino floor at the River Spirit Margaritaville. They’re not perfect, these chairs, laminated and with photos of flamingos and sharks and Margaritaville logos—more for the lesser Gods. Classic Adirondacks look natural, stained or painted in muted tones, without plumage or advertisements plastered on the seat and back. But they’ll do. When my father and I gamble here—he can’t remember what it’s called, and so calls it River Cross or River Styx, we come two, three times a week to the Margaritaville side. I sit in one of the Adirondacks outside Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Restaurant, near Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville gift store, beyond the Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville slot machines, and hear Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” playing on a loop. And why isn’t there a Buffett buffet? This song, by the way, which was always fun and ridiculous, is now just ridiculous. Buffett in concert changes the lyrics, and has taken to chanting, “salt, salt, salt,” after the “lost shaker of salt” line—think Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and the obnoxious “so good, so good, so good” interjection after “good times never seemed so good.”

The place looks like the commercials but the people don’t—true of most casinos. There are tattoos and girth and people in cutoffs and tank tops, walking through and holding towels and sandals, and others in motorized chairs and towing oxygen tanks who are gambling on preposterously themed machines.

“They’d never allow this in Vegas,” Dad says of the 50-cent vig taken on each hand of blackjack. “It burns me so.”

“So why do you keep gambling?” I ask.

“What are you gonna do?”

We also go to the Hard Rock Casino—he calls it Hot Rod—which has a 2-for-1 buffet on Tuesdays, which we revere like Lourdes.

It’s stifling at ONEOK Field, “Africa hot,” as Neil Simon once put it. Even the cockamamie promotions between innings are done in by the heat and humidity. The mascot appliances race—hell, they don’t even look like appliances anymore—is pathetic. Last year, there was verisimilitude—they had knobs. There was pushing, shoving. I’m here with two friends, both bearded, Chris and Doug. Chris co-owns Mondo’s and has a great laugh and is wearing salmon pink shorts; Doug, my dear friend for more than 40 years, is maddeningly conservative, but he also plays piano and loves baseball and would throw himself in front of a truck for me, as I would for him. We agree on very little, almost nothing, except tonight, between the third and fourth inning: we’ve both have about had it with service dogs.

We can build on that.

Somebody won—it was 6–6 when we left—but the greatest thing about baseball in the Texas League (where no team in the Texas League North Division is actually from Texas) is that nothing really matters. There, home-stands are long and tonight’s opponent, the Frisco RoughRiders, will be in town through the end of August, I think.

Tulsa is beautiful from behind home plate, 15 rows up, on a summer night like this, even if the breeze never gets here and they ran out of waffle cones.

Death, Part 1

My friend Claudette died after a battle with cancer. No, that’s not right—it wasn’t a battle, it was a terrorist attack on a woman with snark and heart and great hair. She never had a chance. My girlfriend, Melissa, took one of Claudette’s cats—Jaspar, not the feral one, Stewie. You scream, you want to scream, you do scream, as John Donne did, “Death Be Not Proud,” but death is proud, in fact it laughs at you and your tirades and feeble essays and poetry against it.

Death, Part 2

“You get me back to your mother,” my father has told me.

She’s buried in a family circle cemetery in Long Island between a woman name Betty Koralchek, who nobody remembers being in the family, and an empty plot, reserved for my father.

“You get me back there. There’s a spot reserved.”

“I know. I’ll get you back there.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?”

“You can trust me.”


“You have hot summers here in Oklahoma?” he asks without segue.

He’s been here three years.

When my father comes to the cemetery, he walks up and down the family circle plot, stopping at stones, muttering, “When did he die?” and “When did she die?”

Normie, a cousin, who was blind the last 20 years of his life and who died in 2014, still doesn’t have a stone because his son hasn’t sprung for one yet. There’s a spot reserved for me, too, somewhere, but not for Melissa because she’s not Jewish. Ida, the family circle macha and keeper of the family circle schema, runs a tight ship.

The dues are $8 per year, which ensures me a plot.

“You know what these go for?” my father asks.

I’m 60. He’s paid the dues every year.

Every. Year.

My mother in water

A million years ago, before my mother died of a cancer that lurked in her body for 28 years after remission, I found her out back, mid-summer, on a raft in our pool at our home in Greenlawn, New York, singing to herself, at peace, a rarity for my mother, for she was a woman who waged a constant battle with disappointment and demons and everyday life. She could battle the world to a draw and then lose her mind over a broken dryer. The crepe myrtles were blooming on either side of the pool, my parents were back together—their 18-month separation a failure—and there she was, my mother, Florence Friedman, in oversized sunglasses and
a drink in a plastic cup (she liked apricot sours) floating aimlessly in the deep end.

“You’re singing?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Wrong,” she laughed. “Why would you say that? A fire on you! I’m happy. What, I can’t be happy?”

“No, you can be happy, it just concerns me that you are, that’s all. What’s up?”

“I was just thinking, Ba,” she started paddling around, “I could have more, but I couldn’t have better.”

For more from Barry, read his article on the race to replace Congressman Jim Bridenstine.

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