Touching the Past

I broke something the other day. I was rummaging through a box of memories (photos, tchotchkes). I was searching for a photo album in anticipation, or more accurately, dread, of a Zoom Reunion of a year abroad program on Kibbutz some 40 years ago. 

As I was pulling the album out of the box, something else was dislodged, fell out of the box, and broke on the concrete floor of the garage. It was a small bottle filled with colored sand.

Ten years after that program I returned to Israel (just after the Gulf War). I volunteered on a Kibbutz for a while, fell in with a boisterous bunch of hard drinking, mostly working class, Brits and Irish, and met a girl from England. We ended up traveling to Egypt together.


While we were hanging out near Nuweiba in the Sinai, we came across a hill, or a Wadi, I really don’t remember, of colored sand. For whatever reason we collected some of it in bottles. Maybe we were trying to make our own bottles of layered, colored, sand instead of buying them from someone. Well that was thirty years ago. 

When I returned to New York I ended up living on the Lower East Side in a loft with some friends. We organized some truly epic roof parties. A cop even paid us a visit once. Seems our neighbors didn’t like the live band.  (I had taken some Ecstacy so it’s a miracle I didn’t go up and hug him. We agreed to nix the band and the trip went on.) 

So, here I was, cultural light years from the Middle East, working as a stagehand and a bartender, drinking to passing out frequently, and dabbling in various powders and pills infrequently. (A bad acid trip on Halloween, 1991, put an end to my intensive use of drugs.) I ended up nearly being hospitalized for depression, but friends got me the help I needed. One friend even paid my rent. That bottle of sand was there for all of it.

When I felt stable enough I went to grad school outside Boston. It included a somewhat adventurous year in Guatemala. For all that effort I got a degree with a long, impressive sounding name, a prohibitive amount of student debt, and no career to provide me the means to pay it off. I was handed opportunity after opportunity during Grad School that probably would have put me on a career tract. My inability to see what was being offered was, in part, due to my malfunctioning brain. I barely made it through the grad student grind.

I returned to NYC but found myself under-employed and couch surfing. Although the burden was shared by many friends, it was my “sister” Illese Alexander, who eventually took me in. At the risk of sounding like someone from another century, Illese was a warm hearted, loud, tough broad with a Brooklyn accent that told you exactly where she came from. She had to be tough. There weren’t many female stage hands when she came up. She lived on Staten Island. She never asked for a dime.

Meanwhile, my bottle of sand found itself in the basement of Illese’s apartment. When she purchased a house (she was so proud of that place. She painted her living room with gold and black trim, an homage to her football team, the Saints), my bottle of sand had to move to South Philly where my parents lived at the time.

My Mother, Margalit (Margot) Jay née Beizer z”l passed away just before Passover in 2001 (thankfully before 9/11). I stuck around Philly to sell my parents row house and then overstayed my welcome. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. My bereaved father downsized to an apartment so my boxes had to go into storage. That bottle of sand spent almost two decades in a nondescript storage unit in West Philadelphia.

While I was staring at walls and roaming the streets of the City of Brotherly Love aimlessly, Illese was at the Richmond County Ballpark next to the ferry terminal helping in the aftermath of 9/11. I did make my way back to NYC. I’ll never forget walking near City Hall a few months after the towers fell. Ash was still falling from the sky. People were wearing masks. Although the World Trade Center was only a few blocks away, I couldn’t bring myself to go there. I stuck to Broadway and made my way down to South Ferry and back to Illese’s place.

In 2004 I pulled a location and headed west. I spent 10 years as a seasonal park ranger. (My sister in San Francisco had the burden of housing me between gigs.) I had left behind New York, I had left behind the drugs, but I couldn’t leave myself behind.  I stubbornly kept the alcohol and the cigarettes for a few more years. In 2008, while I was working the season at Glacier National Park in Montana, Illese died of a stroke. May her memory be for a blessing. It is for me. I went home to bury her. I have never managed to return to New York for more than a visit. I miss it.

Chronic, clinical depression is insidious. It is always there, waiting. Admitting you have it, and that it has screwed up your life, well, that took me until a few years ago to acknowledge. At the time I was, once again, drowning in a severe depression and finally realized this was a disease. I’m just coming out of it now. I probably have suffered from this ailment since the age of ten. If you don’t have this disease, or you aren’t related or intimate with someone who does, you probably dismiss it as nothing serious. If you’re a doubter, consider the life I’ve been leading.

I got sick of the unstable life of a seasonal park ranger, unable to make it into the permanent workforce having alienated some people with occasional manic behavior. I imposed myself on my sister again and after two years, and a miserable temp gig as a minimum wage convention worker when my unemployment ran out, I landed a real job.

It was my first and only job which came with benefits: health insurance, dental insurance, even life insurance! No more long waits at dental schools or driving around Vegas looking for a sleazy introductory offer from some random dental conglomerate. No more visits to understaffed medical clinics and overwhelmed public hospitals to receive whatever care they could provide the indigent. (How many hours were squandered, waiting, sometimes in pain, for help.)

The job didn’t last. I had a toxic, uncommunicative, sociopathic boss who seemed to take pleasure in making those he had power over guess his intentions and rush to meet his sometimes incomprehensible demands. Up until then I’d had mostly great supervisors who I was loyal to. I hadn’t encountered such a malignant individual since the long years of bullying I endured from fourth grade through High School. 

His cruelty and my mental health issues got me fired in all but name only. Officially, they eliminated my position.  Six months later my position magically reappeared. My successor was also dumped. The toxicity and torture eventually led to an unsuccessful stint trying to make it in LA, a deep dive into “ I can’t leave my room” depression, and long years recovering. 

Now, thanks to family, I have a place to live. It’s not ideal. It’s far from friends and family, but it has a roof, four walls, and a kitchen. It does lie right on the San Andreas Fault but I have a killer view of a mountain at least until the big one. My father’s getting on in years and wanted to get rid of the storage unit where my little bottle of sand resided. On a visit to Philly four or five years ago, my sister arranged for some boxes to be shipped to her house in San Francisco. My little bottle of sand crossed the Continent. Meanwhile I was either fired or about to be fired or was working my last park ranger gig at Mesa Verde in Colorado. Once I had a place to live and a place to store stuff, I drove to San Francisco and relieved my sister of the burden of my life.

That was 2018 when the bottle of sand and I were reunited. But I didn’t open the box where it laid until last week when it met its demise in a garage, in Desert Hot Springs, California, over 7,000 miles from its origin near the Gulf of Aqaba. I couldn’t decide what to do with it. I couldn’t face what it was to me. So I left it on the garage floor, a pile of broken glass and sand. Whenever I entered the garage I avoided looking at it. It took a week. But finally, I just did it.

I opened the garage door to let some light in. I looked at the sand. I contemplated its journey and my life. I touched it, carefully, reverently, for the first time in over thirty years. The last time I’d done so, I was in Egypt, I had a girlfriend, my life had been an interesting mess, but nearing thirty I still had a chance to make it right. Now I’m nearing sixty. My life is still a mess. But the chance to fix things has diminished with age.


I carefully collected the sand and the broken glass, and tossed it into the garbage.



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