Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bloggo Longo in Transito

In transit. That’s where Dottore Gianni finds himself. In transit literally since 7 May, and figuratively a good bit longer than that. He’s more than ready to be out of it – out of transit, that is; settled, relaxed, retired. Forward progress is slowly being made, but it’s accompanied by a series of setbacks that I’ve identified as comedies of errors in general, but more specifically as a pattern of incidents, transactions, miscalculations and so on that prompted me to define a large portion of my time in transit as a sort of sorry dance – I’ve never been much of a dancer – “one small step forward, two giant steps backward.” It’s an interesting but exhausting and not often pleasant sort of foxtrot that seems to catch me up in its odd maneuverings regularly these days. Examples of the dance (sorry, no videos available) follow.

A little history/backstory is in order. You might say that my time in transit began a few years ago, when I realized that I should leave Ithaca College, for several reasons: the department was beginning to drive me crazy, I felt that I was falling slightly from the top of my game as a teacher (to quote Miss Jean Brodie, “Sandy, I think I’m past my prime...”), and I was getting tired of Ithaca itself – a city a bit too hip for its own good (or at least for my own good); and a city whose weather in the winter…well, let’s just say I was “over” driving/sliding in all that snow and ice. I stayed as long as I did only because of a deal: if I kept teaching until age 65 instead of retiring at age 62 I’d be rewarded at the end with a year at our excellent Ithaca College London Center to cap my teaching career.

 Of course this meant a time of transition whle still at the college which was not always happy or comfortable, but then there was LONDON!  Many of you who
Ithaca College London Ctr
read my blog will know what I did in that amazing city, so I don’t intend to re-hash it here, except to say that it was wonderful. While I’ve not researched it in a meticulous manner, I’m willing to bet that few people get, as a gift at the end of their career, a plush assignment teaching one morning a week, living in South Kensington, working with an excellent staff and director, traveling throughout the U.K. and Europe. My stay in the flat (I call it “the room at the top”) in 35 Harrington Gardens divided itself interestingly. My only fear during the first several months abroad was that I would spend too much money, and indeed I forced myself cut back on my fall break trip radically because it was just too expensive for my budget. But for the most part it was one of the most memorable few months of my life.

It wasn’t until the winter break between semesters that I felt a substantial change, beginning with a note from Bruce Halverson, my former chair and the man who hired me at IC, that there was an apartment complex in downtown Greenville where I was going to live and where Bruce lives now, just going up that was geared towards artists (!) and that was subsidized by the government to get artistic types into the center of town. I had planned to live in…well, where I’m living now, 
Entrance to my apartment building
a lovely complex also downtown, a mere five to twenty-five minute walk away from nearly anything I’d need and many things I’d want. However the price was right at the top (in fact somewhat over the top) of what I’d planned to spend on rent: a tiny studio for $1,080 a month. The subsidized apartments, on the other hand, were large units of two or three bedrooms each for less than $700 a month. I immediately went to work trying to get into the subsidized complex, but I was in Budapest when I got word from Bruce, just at the start of a ten-day trip in Central Europe, and I needed to put money down immediately to hold one of the units. They would not accept a credit card and I had not thought to bring my checkbook along on the trip, so, long story short, I missed the chance by days, after spending, immediately upon my return to London, £50 to overnight the check – and having that get lost in the mail! It depressed me deeply at the time, and while I’m very happy where I am now living I dread the monthly bills and the rise in costs when the first year’s lease is up. So that was a blow, and perhaps the first in the pattern of the “one small step forward, two giant steps backward” foxtrot. Cha-cha-cha!

By mid-January I could feel the difference palpably. Part of the reason for this was time. Simply put, I had less time still to go in London than I had already spent there. Also I began to feel a real money crunch, and I had to deal with Medicare and Social Security. Securing Medicare was easy, but securing Social Security (securing security?) was another matter entirely. I filled out the on-line form and received a message that within 5 business days I could check on line to see my status. But well after the five days, when I checked, and every time after when I checked, I received the message “We cannot process your package at this time, please call thus and such a number…” I did and got a person who was unable to answer any of my questions specifically, but was reasonably sure that things would work out, and that at some point I should get a letter from the agency. Great! This sort of nonsense went on and on, and I grew more and more nervous about getting checks from Social Security in a timely manner. One of the first calls I made from Newark Airport upon my return to the States was to the Social Security Agency, and I got another person who was also “fairly certain” that my checks would begin to arrive at the time I’d requested, in mid-July. In fact I didn’t get complete satisfaction until well after I arrived in Greenville in mid-May. They had been holding up my paperwork because I’d not been in the U.S., and would now begin the process. I finally received a letter about a week ago saying that my first check would be coming to me around 19 July.

As you’ve already seen in one case, concerning the subsidized apartment I lost, a major reason for my discomfort was mail. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will not forward mail to overseas addresses. Linda Ellis at our theatre department was heroic in weeding out what I’d probably want/need and sending mail regularly to me from my old address in Ithaca at Northwood apartments tome in London. But in order to get the mail to IC USPS needed to send it to this address:

Jack Hrkach
Department of Theatre Arts
226 Dillingham
Ithaca College
953 Danby Rd
Ithaca NY 14850

However, USPS felt the need to shorten the address to:

Jack Hrkach
953 Danby Rd
Ithaca NY 14850

Thank you very much USPS. This abbreviation, which had me living in very roomy accommodations (any of the dorms I might choose) with a library, athletic facilities, performing arts facilities etc at my disposal, understandably stymied the IC postal workers, and though they began to see the light at some point, I’m STILL not certain all the mail that was sent to me during my year abroad was actually received. In fact I’m convinced that a huge bonus check I deeply deserve is lost perpetually in the U.S. Mail (heh heh). But there you have it! Dancing again!

The literal part of my transit, beginning with my flight out of London on 7 May, was a helluva ride, although admittedly the flight itself was pretty smooth until we passed over the coast of Maine, after which turbulence ruled and the ride became very shaky. An evil omen? The shape of things to come? Not sure, but next there was the five-hour wait at Newark International Airport for my connecting flight to Ithaca. That was rough in a figurative manner and hardly the best way to be re-introduced to the U.S. of A. Finally the flight to Ithaca was mightily bumpy – that little turbo-prop hadn’t a chance against the winds – but we set down safely and even a bit early, thank the gods.

In the midst of all the mad dances , there were admittedly lovely interludes. I was met at the airport by the wonderful and kind Johnny Kontogiannis. He had kept my car for me the entire time I was in London, and was waiting for me outside the terminal. I rewarded him with, all he asked for, a very fine, certainly very powerful, single malt scotch! And we had a nice chat as he drove me back to his place.

I then got into the driver’s seat of my faithful Toyota Corolla for the first time in 10 months (should I get into how much I loathe driving these days? Probably not), and took a very tentative drive to my residence for the next five nights, the Hampton Inn on Route 13 in Ithaca, nice but overpriced. Why is it that I managed to find good hotels in Paris and other great European cities for less than it costs to spend a night in a Hampton Inn in Ithaca NY? Ah well and once again, another variation in my dance! After I checked in I made a quick run to the Hess Station nearby to pick up some beer and crisps – sorry, make that chips – which I consumed just before falling into a deep sleep.

There were several reasons that I spent a little time in Ithaca before making my way down into the American South. There were people I really wanted to see: my pal Claire Gleitman, the TenEycks, and some of my students and colleagues 
Max, Lucy, Gabby, Sarah Jane, Claire and Dottore Gianni at the Mahogany
(with all of these I had a great time, and I’d like to have seen even more. While I won’t miss Ithaca’s weather there are some people I will miss in Ithaca), but I also HAD to do several things in Ithaca in order to get to the next stop on the journey of my life. As you can guess from reading above, my car, with a trunk jam-packed full of my stuff, was located there. And Mary Scheidegger had kindly agreed to store several boxes and suitcases of mine that would be stuffed into the back seat of the increasingly crowded Corolla. I also had to meet with HR at IC, to pick up my mail from the theatre department, and to meet with the terrific Alicia Brady from TIAA-CREF, who took me through the mighty amount of paperwork needed to start my retirement checks from the college coming. Finally, I needed to see my doctors while I was still on my health insurance plan from work.

So, bright and early Tuesday morning I made my way to my ophthalmologist Dr Arleo’s office, where I received an unexpected medical shock – didn’t take long, did it? Arleo found that my left eye was in a good bit worse shape than it had been a year ago, and he insisted that I head up to Syracuse immediately to see a retina specialist. There was no way that I could do that, as I was completely booked with other Ithaca doctors during the short period of time I had allotted in Ithaca. So Arleo insisted that we find someone in South Carolina and that I should see that person immediately upon arrival in Greenville. He wanted me to get advice on the phone from the Syracuse specialists, but thanks to Google I found a group of doctors very similar to the upstate NY group right in Greenville. So Arleo made a referral and by my third day back in the U.S. and still very much in Ithaca, I found myself booked with a retina specialist in South Carolina! More on the upshot of that later.

The only good news about the visit to Dr Arleo was that he gave me the worst medical news I would receive that week in Ithaca. The same afternoon I saw my excellent dentist Dr Richards, who pronounced my teeth in good shape, so that was a relief! And the next morning I saw my fine GP Dr Darlow, who LOVES the theatre and knows quite a bit about it. In fact my only fear when visiting the good doctor Darlow was that he might spend too much time on what was going on in the theatre and not all that much on what was going on in Dottore Gianni’s body! Thursday was actually a doctor-free day (though it was the day I had to get to International Programs and HR, so it was a busy one), and then on Friday morning I saw Dr. Bael the oncologist, who also noted very little change in my condition, and who recommended a fine oncologist in Charlotte NC – seeing him in November. Finally on Friday afternoon I saw my urologist, Dr Vohra, who performed that awful but necessary procedure called a cystoscopy, but saw nothing of concern in my nether parts.

While I have had busy weeks with doctors in the past, I think I may have set a personal record those four days in May, but all in all you could describe it as a decent step forward in my transition dance.

Then I got in my car and, as Ithaca receded in my rearview mirror, headed south. 
Ithaca and Cayuga Lake in my rearview mirror
Not far south on Saturday, as I was stopping in Bethlehem PA to stay with my cousin Sandy and her husband Gene, and to see (at Sandy’s that evening) almost all the aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family. What a wonderful evening! They are all getting on, but most of them are getting on rather well, considering their years. We ate and talked and laughed a lot, and it was a grand reunion. How many times will we be able to meet again, I wonder?

Sunday was the big driving day, and I wanted to get an early start, so after a short chat with Gene and Sandy I hopped back into my packed Corolla and drove far, far into the south and past the point of no return into my transition. It was a good day for a long drive, if there is ever a good day for a long drive, as it was Mother’s Day and I came across surprisingly little traffic until well into the afternoon. I drove farther than I thought I would, so much so that I thought about making it all the way to Phil and Kara’s place just outside Greenville that day. But traffic picked up, I grew tired and began searching in earnest for a place to sleep.

I found it in another Hampton Inn in North Carolina, pricey but much less expensive than the one in Ithaca. As soon as I’d brought my bags into the room I went out again in search of food and drink, found different bits of it in several places – no alcohol as it was Sunday – got back into the room and settled in for the night.

I was in no great rush to leave the motel the next morning, as I had only a three-hour drive to my destination, but almost as soon as I began the final part of my drive I started to regret that I had not tried to finish the trip on Sunday. It had started to rain and continued to rain hard for two-thirds of the drive, stop-and-go-traffic in a near tropical downpour. What had been an easier drive than I expected on Sunday had become a nightmare on Monday. I hadn’t driven a car in ten months – bliss! But now I was reminded about just how much I loathed driving (don’t worry, I won’t harangue you with details), particularly in traffic, particularly on long trips, CERTAINLY in a deluge. It was not until Spartanburg, only an hour from Greenville, that the rain abated and the pressure eased for Dottore Gianni! A small step forward after two large steps back.

In this manner the good doctor arrived in Greenville, South Carolina, retrieved his keys from the office at McBee Station, surveyed his tiny new domain, and little by little emptied his overstuffed Corolla and filled up his new apartment. Off next to Phil and Kara’s place – for those of you who don’t know, Phil is my much younger brother. He and Kara had been urging me to Greenville for some time, and because of their persistence and sweetness, that’s where I landed -- for supper, good chat and rest.
My brother Phil, Kara his wife, and Cameron
The next morning, on his only day off for some time, Phil took me all over the area looking for furniture, and as planned I bought and ordered as much as possible on that same day – it wasn’t all that difficult to pick and choose, as there wasn’t much room in my tiny dwelling to put things. The very first purchase was a television and blu-ray player from best Buy, a stand for that from World Market, then a love seat (both sides reclining – lap of luxury time) and mattress from a furniture store, and also several items from Target, including a storage unit that needed to be built, a torchiere lamp and also an Eiffel Tower lamp. Phil helped me to unload it all into the apartment and back we went to his place.

In the course of the next several days I gradually moved in. Having arrived on a Monday I slept in my new place on Friday. Despite having ridiculous difficulties putting together several units, tables, and such (many steps backward, few steps forward) I had most of my apartment furnished in the first week and a half.  
Part of my walking route in
I also began what would become a routine – early morning walks, at least three, usually four, once five miles to begin each day except Saturday, when I took the five minute walk to Main Street and shopped at the farmers’ market. I also learned where important places were located and began to know the town.

The Saturday Farm Market in Greenville SC
Not so bad, yes? A change in the pattern of the dance, perhaps? Ah, but obstacles arose from many unexpected sources. The first was establishing a bank account. In fact I’d already done so, or so I thought, at the nearby SunTrust Bank, so I certainly wasn’t expecting this to be an obstacle. I’d applied on line from London, so that I’d just have to walk in, deposit the $5,000 bank check from HSBC in Ithaca and begin depositing and withdrawing funds in my new home. Imagine then my surprise, when on Wednesday of the first week I turned up at the bank, and was told by the teller that my account had been rejected. Rejected? REJECTED!?! I demanded to see the manager and found myself talking to an attractive middle-aged blonde who tried to explain to me, after searching around on line for a good bit, that I had seemed suspicious to one of the bank’s operatives, and had been investigated. Investigated? INVESTIG…well, you get how I began to feel. For what? For fraud. FRAUD!? It seems that when one attempts to start an account in a U.S. Bank (at least at SunTrust) from a foreign country, some sort of alarm goes off. Another goes off when “odd” amounts of money are deposited. The amount in question was $501. I had chosen this amount because I wanted a joint savings/checking account the minimum deposit for which was $500. As it grew clear to the manager that I was probably not an enemy foreign agent or a thief, she became less suspicious and told me that she’d look into all of this and get back to me early the next day.

She did not. Instead, late in the day, I called her and she finally returned my call, explaining that she had spoken to her supervisor, who needed the manager’s signature on a form that would OK my application for an account. She had done this and next morning would take it to her supervisor who would also sign and I’d be welcomed into the SunTrust family. But the next morning I heard nothing from her, called again in the early afternoon and was told that that supervisor would also need approval from a higher supervisor. This was becoming ridiculous so I began to search for a new bank and an exit strategy from SunTrust, which I now thoroughly despised. I went to a bank even closer to my apartment, the Bank of North Carolina (aka BNC -- yes friends, it has a few branches in its south-of-the-border sister state too). This little bank welcomed me with open arms! The woman at the front desk welcomed me. The head teller welcomed me. And the manager took me into her office immediately and my account was started. I was beginning to get more than a little trepidacious, following my encounter with SunTrust, that my credit rating had been slashed and hashed and that NO bank would ever have me. BNC did, however, happily, and the manager even gave me a cookie on the way out! I phoned the manager of SunTrust and broke all ties with them.

Success? Yes, finally, but the business of Dottore Gianni, aka Dr Jack, aka Jack Hrkach (aka several others depending on his/my mood), secret foreign agent, defrauder of (what? Not sure) and public enemy number 501 is just one example of the “one small step forward, two giant steps backward” syndrome that that continues to seem the rule during my time in transit.

DJ in his eye patch
The following Monday (precisely one eventful week after my arrival in Greenville) I saw Dr Peter Goodwin, the retina specialist referred by Dr Arleo just before I left Ithaca. I was hoping that Dr Goodwin would have a look at the left eye (the one that Arleo put in question), acknowledge problems, but remain in monitoring mode. And in fact he did! However, in the RIGHT eye he discovered a tear in the retina (that’s pronounced “tare” not “teer” and means a rip, not a droplet of liquid) which had to be treated immediately. And on Friday of my second week, accompanied by Phil (for I was to have a large patch on my right eye at the end of it and could not drive myself home), I was operated on – a simple operation really, performed by a laser in Goodwin’s office, sitting up, with the eye numbed. It was a success and a detached retina was avoided. Dr Goodwin (and the operation was a good win in my opinion) wanted to see me again to have a further look at the left eye in about ten days.

On that day he described to me the problem with the left eye and explained my choices: medicated drops, expensive but probably ineffective as the least intrusive form, a series of shots in my left eye which might take care of the problem though he was dubious, and an operation, more serious than my recent one in his office, which should provide some relief and maybe better sight in that eye. I thought the drops a waste of time and Goodwin administered the first shot in my eye that very day. I see him again on 13 July to determine if the shot did any good. If it seemed to be working, another shot would be administered, otherwise we would talk surgery. To be continued…but in this at least the dance goes on.

Meanwhile my ongoing struggle with the Social Security Administration continued. I made yet another call to a customer service person, who this time was much more helpful, explained that from what she could see. I was slated for a check in July, but that nothing had been done to expedite it yet. She thought it would be expedited soon but very helpfully gave me the number of the office that was doing the work on it. I thought I’d better call them to be sure, and sure enough they WERE waiting for me to call them! Why could not the very first person I spoke to in an expensive call from the U.K. give me that information, or at very least the second, that I spoke to on my first day back in the U.S.? It would have lessened my anxiety concerning that vital part of my retirement, and would have been a large step forward with no steps backward. I begin to have hopes that that part of the dance is winding down, but until I see the first check deposited I will still be engaged in the forward/backward foxtrot.

This is a long blog post, isn’t it, my readers? I know…and I can’t even offer many photos! But it’s nearly finished – the post, not the transit! However I must also give at least a short account of my dance with the DMV. This began as a not unpleasant series of steps and maneuvers, as once again I had prepared, filled out appropriate forms on line, and when I walked into the DMV for the first time I thought I might finally be heading in a forward trajectory. However, some of the instructions were not as explicit as they might have been, and left me thinking that it would be at the DMV that I would pay the tax on my Toyota in order to get the title changed to South Carolina, and that a letter from the Social Security Administration with my current. Local, SC address on it would suffice to prove I now lived in state– but as a song from Candide goes, “Ah! T’was not to be…” So my first trip was a wasted one, as I had to run to another office in another part of town to take care of the tax. And had to run to my new Bank (thank the gods I finally had one!) to get a letter proving my residency. Determined to be forward-looking I did all this in the same morning and was back at the DMV later in the day, when, rotten to relate, a huge crowd had formed. So Dottore Gianni waited…and waited,…and waited…and FINALLY, an hour and ten minutes later he was called to a window! Hallelujah! All papers were in order, the process began, the good doctor’s hope arose and then…he was pointed to a small machine at which I would take the eye test.

Understand, I have been through many eye tests recently, more than most of you have (at least I hope so, given the state of my eyes). Well the machine they use looks like an extended set of goggles. I have glasses with three different prescriptions in one lens, so there is not a large area in which to see for distance, or for reading, etc etc. I could not for the life of me to get my head cocked at the correct angle to read line 2 of the test. The woman who was dealing me kept repeating, robot-like, “line 2…line 2…line 2” and then I began to panic. Had I remained in NY State, little as I wanted to, at least I’d not have been pronounced unable to drive in it because of my eyes! I craned my neck in every direction imaginable, began sweating profusely and finally turned from the machine to the woman and told her that I could not see well enough to read any of the letters on line 2. Long pause. She then said, well the alternative is to get a letter from an ophthalmologist.  I said I thought I could do that, and she replies something to the effect of “Well, at least you know you have all the paperwork done.” I’m not sure that that was meant to help, but it didn’t much as I had only met Dr Goodwin twice. I WAS to see him three days from that fateful day at the DMV (one small step forward, to GIANT steps back) and left the DMV with a little hope, but with no sense of confidence.

The three days passed…slowly…painfully…with only a glimmer of hope…and finally I saw Dr Goodwin again and even before I did his assistant, to whom I gave the appropriate form, assured me that the machines at the DMV were awful, and that others had failed that test as well. When the doctor himself saw me and I re-explained what the issue was and that I was panicked that I’d not be able to get around he paused before he answered and finally said, “Well, there’s always Swamp Rabbit Trail.” Another pause and then a chuckle. Swamp Rabbit Trail is the lovely walking/biking path along which I trek every morning, along the river and woods, but it wouldn’t get me to Trader Joe’s or Target, or Phil’s or…well, you see what he was implying. But of course he was also joking. The form was signed on Friday afternoon and early Monday morning I took it and the rest of my paperwork to another dubious woman in the DMV who finally signed off on it all. My ordeal at the DMV was over, I had a new driver’s license, a temporary registration, and all I had to do was the ultra simple task of puttine my new license plate on my Corolla. Triumph!
The Liberty Bridge and Falls Park is a part of Swamp Rabbit Trail
EXCEPT that it wasn’t simple to get my old tags off my car and the new on. In fact it was a mighty embarrassing segment of the dance that was probably the most ridiculous of any step patterns yet! When I returned to my apartment, euphoric from my success, I decided I’d better change my license plate, so I went into the parking area and set to work. Except that I could not get either screw holding the rear plate on to budge. This was a potential problem as I was in a way schizophrenic – South Carolina driver’s license, but NY State tags on the car. If I’d been stopped by a cop I’m sure I could have explained the situation, but I felt uncomfortable, so really wanted to do whatever it took to get the tags changed. I went to a Sears looking for advice, and was going to buy WD-40, but the fellow there advised me to find an automotive store as he didn’t think WD-40 would do the trick.

So off I drove, came upon an AutoZone store, and asked the manager there what would do the trick. He recommended PB Blaster, so I bought some, took it out to the parking lot, applied lots of it to the appropriate area, waited the appropriate amount of time, and once again attempted to loosen the screws – not one iota of difference! They would not budge. Whether the next move I made was smart or not, I returned to the store and asked the guy what the next step was. He went on for a while in language completely foreign to the ears of Dottore Gianni, so I asked him that, for $20 would HE step outside a moment and try to loosen the screws. That apparently WAS the wrong move for he regarded me witheringly, perhaps suspecting that I had a screw loose myself, and said no.

However he did call one of his staff, a huge guy with popeye-like tattooed forearms who came out and had a look. This fellow proved very helpful, and after trying one or two solutions tool out a wrench and managed with difficulty to remove both screws. Of course by this time the screws themselves were stripped and useless, so he threw them away, politely refused my offer of some cash to get a beer at the end of the day, and went off. 

I was fine, because I had removed the front license tag easily on my own – in South Carolina the only license plate is placed on the rear of the vehicle, whereas in New York State plates are required on the front as well as the rear – and I had the screws from my front plates, so no problem, right?

No. Problem. The mounting on the front of my Corolla was different from the rear, and required larger screws than the back. So I tried and I tried but could barely get the screws in. I realized that there was a solution. Surely AutoZone sold replacement screws of the right size. But whether it was the withering stare of the store manager or just my embarrassment at my ineptitude, I was not about to return to that store! Instead I tightened the screws as much as possible, then crept at slow speed back to my apartment complex. It would have been quite the capper, wouldn’t it, if after all the trouble with the DMV I had to return to tell them that my license plate had dropped off my car while driving and I would need another.

Fortunately that did not happen, and the next morning I drove (slowly again) to a K-Mart, bought the right size screws and successfully installed my tags! But seriously, is there no end to the dance I’ve been doing? One small step forward, two giant steps back?

I’m writing this all from memory as I sit in my brother’s home in Florida. I return to Greenville on Wednesday unless the tropical storm that is currently churning around in the Gulf of Mexico takes a turn east, to move into a new phase of my transition. More about that, more about the good side of the transition, more about the inner turmoil that seems to be inevitable as I remain in transit.