Ode to Stolichnaya

by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling


Oh, tovarich, shining one,
you share my evening journey
to kitchen, table, TV…
Your chilly clarity, imported from abroad,
charms me.


My handsome father, born in Kiev,
preferred Bourbon,
But I choose your brilliance,
those crystals cascading down my throat,
the smile in the green company
of  olives that enriches the flow…
Ah, Stoli, comrade, precious diamond;
I praise you



Harriet Sohmers Zwerling is an ex-expatriate, explorer, educator, experimenter; author of two books: Notes of a Nude Model and Abroad, an Expatriate’s Diaries.  Also a grandmother, awfully aware of the waning of time.

Car Stories From the Writing Workshop, Spring 2016

Road Trip

by Lisa Cristal

I had finally convinced my husband, Bruce, that we were responsible adults.  We could stop inheriting old clunker cars and buy one that we could take care of for many years.

The black shiny Toyota Avalon was a sensible, highly rated car that would accommodate our growing children. We splurged and added a sunroof. We loved that car.

A week after purchase it was time for our first road trip. Our two small children fidgeted and fought most of the drive while Bruce accustomed himself to the nuances of a new car.  We were on the last part of the highway, within 10 minutes of our destination, when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a brown blur shoot out of the woods and charge toward the driver’s side of the car.   The impact pushed us off the road.  Looking up through the sunroof I saw the deer catapult over the car. Bruce tightly steered the car and righted us onto the road.

Our daughter asked where Bambi went.  “To find his mother,” I replied. Unfortunately, her older brother said that he saw the deer fly over the roof of the car. “Yes, “I said, covering, “but I saw him scamper away.”

Actually, Bruce had seen the deer twitching by the side of the road.  We stopped at a general store to report the accident. Bruce got out to inspect the damage.  The entire front of the car was smashed in and covered in blood and hair. Our son asked why daddy was kicking the pole of the payphone and yelling. “Stay in the car,” I ordered. “He is just trying to kick off the mud on his shoes.”

We fixed the car but it was never the same. We hated that car.

I spent my  entire career writing non-fiction and decided to go outside my comfort zone and take Writing Gymnastics. The support and provided by class members has allowed me to discover the great pleasure  of writing fiction.



by Elaine Greene Weisburg

Our first car, bought for $200 soon after we were married, was a used pre-war English Standard—a right-hand drive, two-seater, rag-top convertible. My husband named her after a current English movie character and we pronounced it English style: BED-ul. It was a source of entertainment as well as transportation. Even the kids in the street where we parked enjoyed it. We could tell that they played in the car at night and we assumed they used it as a stage set for pretend games, but they never harmed it. Anyway, we couldn’t lock them out because the two windows were Isenglass, set into a canvas surround that snapped into the snazzy low-cut doors.

I suspect some alarmed phone calls took place between our two sets of parents but neither set offered us a real car, so we enjoyed Beryl for a few years till we were expecting a baby. Then we sold her for the price we had paid. By that time the transmission was shot and we had to get the neighborhood boys to push us down the hill for the engine to start.

I still remember an encounter one rainy summer night on Sag Harbor’s Main Street. My husband was at the wheel and Dave, his former roommate, was sitting next to him. I was folded up on a narrow back ledge meant for luggage—your cricket bats and such—when a police officer stopped us about a sputtering tail light. He approached the left side and Dave obligingly snapped open the window. The officer asked to see Dave’s driver’s license. Dave respectfully replied, “But Sir, I am not driving.” Nobody laughed, the officer looked over at my husband and mumbled “Have it fixed” and quickly left us. Then we cracked up.

Elaine Greene Weisburg (under her first two names) worked as an editor at Seventeen, Esquire, House & Garden, and House Beautiful, spending two decades each at the latter two publication. Voices helps her keep her hand in.


Rainbow of Cars

by Sara Pettit

I’m the least knowledgeable person about cars you can find. Being a born New Yorker my family never owned a car but we all got Driver’s Licenses so we could have ID’s to cash checks. My inability to tell one car from another made it impossible for guys to impress me with their wheels when I went on dates..

When I finally did get a car it was a Dodge Omni. The only car on the market at the time worse than the Omni was the Yugo. I would drive the car around East Hampton where the Honda of East Hampton was a De Lorean or a Porsche. I had a nifty little bumper sticker on the back that said, “My Other Car is a Piece of Shit also!” You can see I like to irritate the Hamptonites.

About 5 years ago I took a trip to Cuba and being a visual person I was overcome by the beauty of the Cuban cars. Most cars were from 1960 or earlier and they were in a rainbow of colors that rivaled any floral bouquet I’ve ever seen.

For two weeks I stood at stop lights all over Cuba and photographed cars. When I got back to New York I showed them to a gallerist who invited me to have a one person show and I was invited to become a member of the gallery on the basis of my Cuban car photographs.

These cars were a tribute to the ingenuity of the Cuban people who kept them running and in perfect condition. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be fascinated by cars and that they would give me entrée into the New York City art world..

I spent most of my life as a textile designer and artist. It is through the IRP that I discovered my interest in writing. I look forward to my writing classes and the challenges they set for me.



by Charles Troob

My Grandpa had a boxy two-tone Oldsmobile 88. It seemed weightier than Dad’s series of Buicks–but maybe this was just the secure feeling given by Grandpa’s methodical driving, along with the comfortable odor from years of loving use. He would take a grandson or two out to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, to watch the coming and going at the LIRR trainyard. With Grandma we would go to Jones Beach in the off season to take in the salt air. My first Sunday school was in Kew Gardens. Grandpa would proudly drive me there, then pick me up and take me to their house in Jamaica for the afternoon.

In time the house was sold and my grandparents moved to an apartment not far from us in Forest Hills. Grandpa would regularly drive over to bring us Grandma’s chicken soup or borscht, her brownies or cupcakes–or just to say hello. Sometimes they would drop in together after an hour with family and friends at the cemetery off the Interboro Parkway.

In 1970 I left graduate school and moved back home. That summer Grandpa admitted to feeling poorly and was rushed to the hospital. A few agonizing weeks later he was dead of cancer. The ancient Oldsmobile was passed on to me. In September I started a day job at a public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant and an adjunct college position in the west Bronx. I tooled around the outer boroughs, enveloped by Grandpa’s kind spirit, ignoring the worsening tailpipe fumes.

On my way into Manhattan one evening I was stopped at a tollbooth and told that the car was not welcome in the Midtown Tunnel. The next day, at a junkyard near Shea Stadium, Dad and I sadly said goodbye to Grandpa a second time.

I am grateful to the IRP for making me write something each week — and for providing a receptive  audience.


Car Ride, 1945

by Lorna Porter

Nestled in a drowsy state, I hear the purr of motor and feel my sister’s leg stretched along mine. We have a wool blanket sprawled over us.

She lies on her side with her head at the other end of the back seat from me. I am propped with a pillow against the arm-rest on the door. Lights flash rhythmically through the dark car, yet I am drifting softly.

Kate is seven and I am six, on a long drive that has lasted all day from Connecticut to Pennsylvania. In front, my mother may be asleep, and surely my two-year-old sister, Emily, is asleep on her lap. My father drives silently against the night air.  Briefly, my mind sees me as a bunny down a snug hole with my bunny family.

There is no greater safety in life than having our entire family held close in this humming embrace. No one else in the world exists and no one in our family will ever be apart or alone. The heavy metal of our sturdy Packard is a tank like the soldiers have and we are a little  army headed for home. Dad will get us there.

I enjoy the weekly writing exercises and critiques that the IRP writing workshop has provided for many years now.



by Tom Ashley

One of the great perks when I was elevated into a management position was a new car when I became the head of sales at Turner Broadcasting. I had owned some great cars in the past. After all, I was from Detroit. But the idea of having a nice new car with gas, insurance and repairs fully covered was a big-time bonus.

I was provided with a list of several dealerships with whom we were doing business and took the weekend to shop. Turner didn’t care what it was, but it had to be fairly large for taking clients to lunch, dinner and sporting events. I settled on the biggest Pontiac Grand Prix ever made, jet black and equipped with the largest engine on the market. It was fully loaded with every imaginable option: air conditioning, tape deck, sun roof and it even had a device to listen to, not watch, all of the local television stations. That baby could fly. Other than flooring the accelerator, I took great care of that machine. It was washed every week and it glistened to the point that I could comb my hair in its hood reflection.

About nine months into my job I pulled into my regular spot next to Turner’s. His red Ferarri was nowhere in sight. In its place was a Toyota. I figured Ted was out of town and Vera, his long-suffering secretary, had parked in his space. Wrong.

He must have seen me entering the building as he screeched, “[author, author], come on in here.” In I went. “[author], those A-rabs have us by the balls and are starting to squeeze hard.” He rambled on about an oil embargo, then, cutting to the bottom line, I was told to head over to Voyles’ Toyota, turn in the Grand Prix and pick up my new car. I don’t know if you recall those early Toyotas, but this was not my happiest moment. I was pissed as I drove off Voyles’ lot in a pea-green, stick-shift, AM-radioed, roll-up-windowed deathtrap. My lawnmower had a larger motor.

A few months later I arrived at the office simultaneously with Turner who was driving a new Lincoln Continental. After my, “What’s this, Ted?” he informed me, “[author], I got to thinking how valuable my life is and how my children should not be put at risk. Driving around in that Toyota was far too dangerous…for me.”

“Are you telling me your life and your kids are more important than my life and my children?”

A week later I had a new Grand Prix.

Taking many study groups and writing over the years at the IRP has been a growing and stimulating process. In college I dreaded my writing courses. I LOVE them now.


Cuba and Cars

by Carmen Mason

I was going to Cuba in 2009. I had a list of items we could take to its struggling people, mainly pencils, notebooks, candies. I’d learned from friends these would be immediately sold for a quick profit so I packed a lot, but then I also decided on some baseballs and half a suitcase of professional pliers, hammers, Allen wrenches, screw drivers, tweezers and packets of nails, screws, nuts, bolts, coils of wire, crazy glue, work gloves and flashlight visors.

Once in Cuba, we drove to a small house in a run-down barrio. The grandmother of the family — living under one low and metal-patched roof –- was boiling strong tangy coffee in a battered pot. The kitchen cabinets were makeshift; the beds and sparse tables and chairs like ones resting in the decaying lots of the South Bronx.

The Castillo family was shy but smiling. Senior Castillo shook our hands and lead us from room to room, then out into his dusty, struggling garden. And there it was: a bright green Chevy Bel Air parked next to a table of taped-up hammers and awls, plastic scraps and broken parts.

On our way to the Castillos we’d cheered, even shouted ‘holas out the bus windows to the proud drivers of a Ford Mustang Dodge Challenger, two Daytonas, and a Plymouth Superbird – all 50’s or 60’s models. Now we were close-up to Senor Castillo’s 1957 four door sedan. He opened the hood lovingly. Inside were the intricate connections of tubes and wires and obviously jerry-built substitute parts body-fillered in place.

Before we all said goodbye I took out my heavy pack of tools and parts and gave it to him. He opened it hesitantly. Then he fell to his knees and started to weep. His wife rushed to his side, then turned to me and laughed like a young girl.

I was an English teacher of literature for 35 years andI have been writing forever and published here and there through the years. Editing for VOICES has been an added challenge and I am thrilled that I could help our VOICES come into its own.

My Father’s Pillow

by Lorne Taichman                   


Most nights my father slept on an oversized down pillow. It must have been about 3 or 4 times the size of a regular pillow. I think the it helped to alleviate a chronic backache.  What made that pillow so memorable was its smell: a warm, comfortable, all-embracing smell that originated from the use of Vitalis.  Vitalis was a pale-yellow, greaseless hair tonic for men. It was supposed to keep hair in place all day.  It came in a small, clear glass bottle that had a tiny opening at the top so that the bottle could be inverted and the tonic sprinkled on the top of the head without dousing the user. My father applied it every day.  He didn’t have a big bush of hair, rather, he had brown, straight hair of medium length, and after he splashed on Vitalis he would work the tonic in with a comb.  Before creating the part he would comb his hair forward, straight out in front of him, forming a flying wedge, a pointed prow, a bridge to nowhere. Cantilevered out there it held its shape, defying gravity. When he wasn’t around we kids would sprinkle Vitalis on our heads and try to create that same effect, but we had inherited our mother’s frizzy hair gene making our hair incapable of matching that proud beak.

The smell is difficult to describe. It wasn’t the odor of Vitalis, that clear, pungent, crisp, antiseptic smell; it had the essence of Vitalis at its base, but the scent had been transformed and reformulated by years of sweat, skin oil, body warmth mixed with whatever magic the feather down brought to the brew. It was a smell you didn’t whiff; you buried your head deep into the down, drew in a full breath and allowed the personality to totally envelop you. It was a smell that meant security, safety, continuity, comfort and well-being.

The alternate hair product for men, for those who wanted something more substantial, was Byrlcreem, a greasy, white cream you removed from a wide mouth jar with two or three fingers and rubbed deeply into your head. Again, the purpose was to keep hair in place all day.  We kids used Brylcreem – Vitalis was too old fashioned.  It took a bit of rubbing to work it evenly into your hair, but once in place it held your hair, no loose ends, guaranteed.  Brylcreem was first advertised on television with the jingle “Brylcreem – A little dab’ll do ya! You’ll look so debonair. Brylcreem- the gals’ll all pursue ya, they’ll love to run their fingers through your hair.” Ronald Reagan used Brylcreem. I think we teenagers stuck to Brylcreem because it gave a bit of sheen to our mops, and it felt manly to rub it vigorously into our heads.

Brylcreem had a mild soft odor and although we used it every day, our pillows never acquired a distinctive, friendly Brylcreem-based aroma. In fact, years of Brylcreem led to no pillow odor at all.  If you wanted comfort you went to the big pillow.

When we divvied up the contents of my parents’ home, one of the items I took was the big pillow. It rests in a large, green, plastic bag in an upstairs, out-of-the-way closet.  That size bag is usually used for tossing out large items of junk, though it fits the big pillow well.  However, the smell is gone. As hard as I try, as hard as I pull air through that down into my nostrils, I cannot find that familiar smell.  I am filled with deep sadness every time I try. Something so personal, dear and so intimate, is gone forever.


I was an academic medical researcher for several decades at Stony Brook University. I joined the IRP three years ago and have coordinated two courses — Cancer Therapy and A Broken Heart with Bob Braff.

The Guest

by Ivy Berchuck


I’m holding the remote in my hand with a finger on the volume button.  Even on PBS there are commercial breaks, and theirs upset me the most.  They consist of testimonials from hospitals profiling people whose lives have been saved by physicians at places like Presbyterian and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.  I can’t listen to their stories, focused generally on cancer survivals.  Along with the promising statistics conveyed in the press about cancer survival rates, they fail to provide me with anything to grab onto.  I’m different. You’ll never see testimonials or statistics for my pancreatic cancer, because there is no such thing as a remission or recovery.  Only 6% of patients live for five years.  It is a one-way street and I’ve been prodding my way down it for almost two years.

There has been chemo and radiation, loss of hair, fatigue and constant concern about what the next CT scan will show.  The key word is containment.  Keep the monster at bay for as long as possible, but apparently never long enough to appear on those lists of statistics.  So far my tumor has been confined to the pancreas.  That is some comfort, but it certainly puts living in the moment to the test.  Take it day by day.  Some of the days are wonderful, but don’t think about tomorrow which could be quite the opposite.

I’ve been an optimist and problem solver for most of my adult life.  Even if the survival rate were small, I’d be thinking, if someone is going to make it, let it be me.  Even if it were not to work I’d feel some semblance of control.  I often joked with my oncologist and said he should make me his break-through patient and I’d throw him a party when he walked off with the Nobel Prize in medicine. He likes me and the effort I’m putting into this, but he did not laugh at my joke.

I love and enjoy life so much so I am trying hard, really hard to look well, feel well and act well. One day I remembered something. When I was an exhausted new mother, I hated it when I left the dishes in the sink at night and didn’t have the energy to even pick up old newspapers from the floor.  Facing the mess depressed me, so I decided the early morning hours would have to be the time for getting things in order.  I gave the baby her 5 a.m. bottle and threw some cold water on my face.  Energized, I knew I wouldn’t hear from her until 8 or 9, so I scurried around cleaning and puffing pillows.  I picked fresh flowers from the garden and placed them all around the rooms.  I showered and dressed, put up a fresh pot of coffee so Bob and I could share a few moments before he left for the commuter train to Chicago.  “I don’t know how you manage it,” he said adoringly. “This place looks great.” And it did.

After he left I’d sit with a book, some Mozart and a cup of coffee. There was nothing I had to do until the baby woke up. I looked across my lovely room, exhilarated, and thought, “Hey, this is wonderful. I’m a guest in my own house.”

And that’s how I’m approaching this period in my life. I’ve swept away the casual and unimportant. I am cleaning things up. Only real friends, beloved children and grandchildren, good books, some plays and classes and more good days than bad. I’m a guest again. This time I’m a guest in my own life for as long as it lasts.



Before her retirement, Ivy Schiff Berchuck was the director of  Gifted Education for District 28 of the N.Y.C. Board of Education.  A long-time member of the IRP, she died in 2016.



by Ivy Berchuck


“You’ll never find such soft, elegant material if you don’t shop now.  Come on, be nosier. You won’t be sorry.”

I’m stretched out on a mesh lounge chair in the courtyard of my daughter’s Manhattan apartment. Sunlight plays through the trees, defying the urban noise. The proud looking bird gives me the once over but doesn’t move closer.

“You won’t be sorry,” I cajole. “I know that summer isn’t the season for avian interior decorating, but consider what your nest will look and feel like next spring when the new chicks arrive.”

Years of Audubon magazines have convinced me that wife and hubby will return after the winter break to make home improvements to the very same nest. We humans would call this proactive, thinking ahead, but I don’t know how it works in the bird world.

I continue, unconcerned about the people reading around me. I coax some more: “You’ll never find such soft, elegant nesting material if you don’t shop now.”

I am five weeks into bad news. A cancer diagnosis and a regimen of chemotherapy have me in an unbelieving stupor. I hang onto some words–early, few malignant cells, shrinkage hoped for.  I’ve had few bad reactions to the chemo, mostly fatigue, which is bitter for an active person.  Now this new side effect has clicked in.  I reach under my gigantic sun hat and gently pull at my curls.  Out comes a handful of hair.  If I roll it around it becomes a ball, like something an owl would regurgitate.  If I separate the strands some float away in the breeze, others land in spots near my chair.  These are the strands I’m advertising to the robin.

I sprinkle some of my biscotti crumbs as incentive.  They attract her but not the soft blond hair.  The pulling is like nail biting.  I can’t stop, but unlike the robin I am proactive.

Last week, with my hair still intact, I visited a fancy wig shoppe.  I brought along some photos of how I look when I have my hair blown out to celebrate an event. I asked for advice. “What do you recommend, curls or straight?”

“I say we stick with your own color and go for the straight look. You’ll never have a bad hair day.”

We try on a numbers of styles. She’s right about the curly one.  I look like Harpo Marx and that makes me laugh, but the ones I do select look just like me, only better.  Wow, I think, a silly silver lining to this awful summer.  I buy two frames to stand the wigs on but draw the line at spending twenty dollars for the wig hairbrush.


The time for a test run arrives.  I’m off to spend the weekend with my youngest daughter and her family at their beach house in Greenport.  The wig is a big hit with the grandkids.  I love that the humidity doesn’t transform the straightness into corkscrew curls.  Elizabeth is packing to go back to MIT for her junior year.  I tell her about my wig shopping and the outrageous hairbrush price.

“Gram,” she exclaims. “I can help.”  At this she starts to hurl things from her closet. A bikini top and a soccer ball swish across the floor.  My protests are ignored.  Finally she reaches what she’s looking for. She pulls out a disheveled looking American Girl Doll with stringy, knotted hair. Taped to the doll’s arm is a four inch hairbrush emblazoned with American Doll across it.

“I never really liked her that much,” says Elizabeth “and I never took care of her hair. But you’ll take care of yours Grandma, and you’ll always look perfect.”  I’m probably the only chemo-wig-wearing grandmother using an American Girl Doll hair brush.


The effects of the chemo have become worse. I remain optimistic and do feel that I’ll get over this. I want to make the most of the days I feel good, and at some point I’ll relive this year the way it should have been. But on that city afternoon it would’ve made me happy if mother robin had cushioned her nest with my hair. I kept floating out strands while she pecked around for more biscotti crumbs. I know that I’m impatient. I want to exercise control when so much control has been taken away from me.

A writer friend sent me a card I read every day. Her note ended with this: “I hope you’re keeping up and looking forward to your lovely curly locks coming back with benevolent vengeance.”

Benevolent vengeance.  Don’t you just love it?  That is what I feel.  That is what is going to happen.


Before her retirement, Ivy Schiff Berchuck was the director of  Gifted Education for District 28 of the N.Y.C. Board of Education.  A long-time member of the IRP, she died in 2016.

Brief Encounter

by Ron Russo


In 1978 my friend Annie and I planned our first trip together.  There was no question where we’d go—San Francisco.  I don’t remember what caused Annie’s fascination with the city by the bay but mine was based largely on sex.  I’d come out less than a year before, and San Francisco was the capital of “gay” at the time.

We went on June 2. I’d moved into a new apartment the day before and left behind the pandemonium of unpacked boxes and unplaced furniture.  Plenty of time to get things in order afterward.  All I could think of was heading to Castro Street and seeing all those mustachioed, muscled men I’d stared at in magazines.  Maybe even nab one for myself.

We arrived on a Friday and idly roamed the Union Square neighborhood where we were staying.   At breakfast on Saturday we planned our day.  The waitress heard us discussing how cold it was and asked, “First time here, kids?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“Everyone who comes for the first time is surprised at how cold it gets.”

“Well, we figured we were coming to California in June, and it would be much hotter than in New York,” Annie said.

“Hon, you see that Macy’s the other side of Union Square?” the waitress asked.  “Go on over when you finish eating and buy sweatshirts.  San Francisco is always chilly, especially in the morning and after sunset.  God, if I made a commission on every sweatshirt I sold for Macy’s I could retire a rich woman,” she laughed.

The waitress got a generous tip, and we did exactly as she advised.  Warmer, laughing at our naiveté we walked the city, marveling at everything.  Over an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista we discussed what we’d do that evening.

“Let’s go to the Dignity meeting,” I suggested.  “I’d like to get an idea of what it’s like over here.”  Dignity was a gay Catholic group I’d joined in New York the year before.  A friend, originally from California, told me about the San Francisco branch and gave me their number.

“Okay,” said Annie.  “If the map is right it’s near the Mexican restaurant Noreen told me about.  We can go there for dinner afterwards.”

I called to verify the time and location of the meeting and we arrived a bit late.  There was a talk going on, so we slipped in quietly and found seats.  The speaker was a man who appeared to be in his forties.  He had strong presence, a terrific sense of humor, and a way of engaging the audience that kept everyone rapt.  He was also good-looking, just my type: dark hair, rugged facial features and a body that looked buff even under his button-down shirt and jeans.  Normally I hated listening to speakers and couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes.  But this guy mesmerized me for nearly an hour, speaking of gay lib and the need to come out.  As he was wrapping up his talk he said, “As many of you know, I’m originally from New York,” and at this both Annie and I clapped.  He noticed us and continued, “San Francisco is my home now and this is where we’re going to make it happen.”

There was great applause as his talk ended.  We were all invited into the adjoining room for a social with wine and snacks.

“That guy was terrific,” Annie said.  “Handsome, too.”

“Yeah, for an older guy he’s pretty hot,” I said.  I was twenty-seven at the time.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.  I turned around to see the speaker smiling broadly.

“Fellow New Yorkers?” he asked, addressing both of us.

“Yes. Brooklynites.”

“Aah.  Long Island here.  Been in San Francisco a couple of years now, though.  You live here, or visiting?”

“On vacation, second day here,” Annie answered.

“Well then you need to see the town and there’s lots to see.  Been to the bars yet?” he asked me.

“Not yet.  I’ll be going tomorrow night though.  Any recommendations?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I recommend that you meet me at the Twin Peaks around ten tonight.  I’ll show you around.”

“Well, I don’t know what we’re doing after dinner.  Where is this place?”

“Boy, you are green,” he chuckled.  “Probably the most famous bar in San Francisco.  On Castro, right off Market.  What’s your name?  I’m Harvey Milk,” he said, extending a hand.

“I’m Ronnie Russo, and this is my friend Annie.”  Annie threw me a sly glance as she shook Harvey’s hand and said, “I’m going to use the ladies room.  Be back in a few minutes.”

“So, Ronnie, what brings you to a Dignity meeting?  How come you’re not roaming Castro Street?  All the boys will be after you.”  Though I didn’t know it at the time, I look back on pictures and realize I was good looking, with big brown eyes and a slim toned body.  Harvey’s eyes remained focused on mine and his grin was suggestive.

“Well, as I said, I’m planning to go out tomorrow night.  I don’t want to leave my friend alone too much.”

“She’ll do fine, she’s a fox.  Send her to Perry’s on Union Street.  In fact, tell her to go to any place on Union, that’s where all the straights cruise.  It’s Saturday night, you’ve got to see Castro.”

“Believe me, I’m dying to get there.  But Annie and I agreed that Sunday would be our split up night.”

“Stay together on Sunday, split up tonight.  I can show you around like no one else can.  I live on Castro too,” said this man with the unflinching stare of his seductive eyes.

“Talk to her and work it out.  I’ll be waiting for you.  Twin Peaks at ten. Got it?”

“Got it.  Hope to see you later but if not, nice meeting you.”

“Same here,” Harvey said.  Leaning forward, he gave me a quick peck on the lips while his hand found my butt and gave it a firm squeeze.  “You won’t be sorry,” he said, then turned and walked away.  In an instant he was surrounded by a group of people.

Annie returned a moment later. She’d been watching from afar.  “My, you work fast,” she said.

I work fast?  I’d say he was the fast worker, missy.”

“So, you going to meet him then?” she asked..  I could sense Annie was looking forward to our night on the town.

“Nah.  We said we’d have dinner and hang out together.  It’s our only Saturday night here.  We’ll find a place to go dancing.  Tomorrow I’ll hit the bars, and I bet I’ll find him then.”

We spent the evening as planned.  But the next night, at precisely ten o’clock, I was sitting alone on a bar stool at Twin Peaks. No Harvey. I was well into my second beer when I felt a tap on the shoulder.  My heart raced.  I turned to see not Harvey but a sandy haired, blue eyed guy replete with mustache and muscular chest.  “I’m John Hirsch,” he said.  And with that simple introduction, the rest of the evening and most of the following day were spoken for. Two more times that week I roamed the bars, two more times I sat hopefully in the Twin Peaks.  But Harvey Milk was never was there.

When I returned to New York I started hearing more about him, how he was the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., an outspoken advocate for gay rights, a confidant of the mayor of San Francisco, and an all-around guy.  I increasingly regretted not having connected with him.  I was dreaming of moving to San Francisco as most first-time visitors do, and he somehow entered the fantasy as the built-in lover who’d be waiting to take me in.  I couldn’t shake his image in the media or in my imagination.

When I heard of his assassination that November I felt more than sad. I felt a disproportionate sense of loss—for gays, for America, for myself.  Whenever I think of Harvey Milk I still feel it.  Would we have had a sexual liaison?  I’m rather certain.  Would anything more have come of it?  Something tells me yes.  Of course this is the stuff that dreams are made of and the whole meeting was, in a certain way, a fantasy. I learned something from our very brief encounter—to be more proactive in seizing a propitious moment. I’ve tried to do so ever since.


Ron Russo has been writing fiction and memoir for twenty five years. Of late, he has been particularly inspired by the wonderful writing workshops given at the IRP.




Remembering Jack

by Tom Ashley


Most of us remember John Ford, Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg whose works  brought magic to the movies and continue to captivate audiences.

Fortunately, The New York Times obituaries sometimes show great respect and admiration for people long forgotten by the general public, but whose accomplishments, if only for a single blip on history’s radar screen, are worthy of commemoration. These obituaries often manage to capture that defining instant. And so it was with the recently published and  surprisingly long obituary of Jack Hofsiss.

Jack Hofsiss you say? His obituary was published this summer, along with  a photograph of Jack taken outside of a Broadway theatre accompanied by the English actor Carole Shelley. They each had won a Tony that week in 1979 for the same play when Jack was only twenty-eight and the youngest director to have ever received that distinction. The play was The Elephant Man.  Memories of this image from 37 years ago came rushing back to me.  Jack was beautiful. Jack was charming, talented, polite, elegant and nice. Jack had it all. He was going to have a great ride and as his friend, I had a front row seat.

Jack’s brother-in-law, John Andariese, and I were best friends and business partners.  Jack had graduated from my alma mater, Georgetown University. John and I had been observing this budding genius since high school.His career was  moving forward like a launch from Cape Canaveral. Major film and television projects were coming his way non-stop. He was working with Henry Fonda, Jill Clayburgh and Kevin Bacon. Whenever a movie screening, a new play or a television premiere was held in New York, Jack invited us to join him along with all the Hal Princes, the William Paleys, the Richard Rodgerses and the usual hangers on. Jack knew how to cut the bullshit and put his family and friends first, giving us a wink when he was being dragged by his publicist through a group of “must meet” people. Demands on Jack’s time became huge yet, he did his best to stay connected with family and friends.

It all changed in an instant.

In 1982, when he was just 32, Jack suffered  a life-altering accident. He broke three vertebrae in a swimming pool accident, leaving him a quadriplegic and a prisoner confined to a wheelchair for the remaining thirty one years of his life.

Oh, Jack worked now and then. He’d get the occasional play, the teaching position at the HB Studio. It may have looked important to some, but to his friends and colleagues and to Jack himself it was minor league stuff. The beautiful Jack began to waste away in that chair. He gained weight, he was always tired and his patience was in short supply. After seeing him we’d leave speechless ,in recognition of the tragedy of unfulfilled promise.The obituaries referenced how Jack had given serious thought to suicide off and on. It was understandable. For Jack it was all gone. I too often wondered what he had to live for.  But Jack soldiered on. Eventually an infection ended his life..

I made my way for Jack’s wake at a modest funeral home on the West Side of Manhattan.  I was stopped in my tracks upon entering. I’m never prepared for wakes and funerals. Who is? I saw an open casket just thirty feet from the door. So much raced through my mind.  At first I thought Jack’s funeral would or should have been at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home on Madison and 81st Street where the famous and the infamous made their last stop. But then I realized that this humble funeral home was just right for Jack. Gone were all of the press agents, the sycophants. It was so un-Hollywood. It was simple and sparse and deeply touching to see Jack in his plain pine casket. Those who remembered his kindness and brilliance showed up along with high school and neighborhood buddies. Beyond his family and some old friends I didn’t recognize anyone.

I thought that within a few years of his passing Jack would be forgotten. But his good friends and family would always remember him.  The New York Times obituary and his simple funeral reminded me of what the world had lost —- not only his many gifts but most of all the character that accompanied his talents.


Taking many study groups over the years at the IRP has been a growing and stimulating process.  In college, I dreaded my writing courses.  I LOVE them now.


A Tale of Two Turkeys

by Mary Houts


A couple of turkeys – birds, not people – were key players at the start of the relationship between  my husband, Peter and me. The first turkey was responsible for the fact that we met each other at all, the second one helped me to realize how well suited we were to each  other although  it came within a hair’s breadth of ruining our nascent relationship. Since then, during the course of our long marriage, turkeys have not played a role of any significance.

During my first semester of graduate school, in the fall of 1958, I lived in a rooming house and ate my dinners at  a student cooperative where we all  did kitchen or dining room chores as  partial payment for our meals. At first, in spite of the fact that the co-op was run by a group of happy-go-lucky undergraduates, all went well.  Jobs were carried out with enthusiasm if not finesse.  Dinners were edible. Kitchen and eating areas were kept relatively clean and tidy.  As the semester went on however, things started to go downhill.  Table tops became noticeably sticky. The floor went unswept. Dishes piled up in the sink.  Foods overlooked in the back of the refrigerator began to dry out or became fur-bearing with mold.

It was at this co-op that the first turkey came onto the scene about a week before semester finals.  The cooks had roasted it for Sunday dinner.  After they took the meat off the bones they left the carcass in a pot on the back of the stove. Their plan was to make soup. I was away for a few days after that, but when I got back a highly unpleasant smell was emanating from the kitchen.  Everyone had forgotten about making soup and the turkey carcass had been quietly deteriorating in the pot.  No one seemed to notice. This was the last straw for me.  I decided that it was time to make other eating arrangements. Thus it came to pass that the sorry remains of a turkey catapulted me into the path of my future husband.

I was able to join a different co-op with some redeeming features right away.  It was located in the Friends meeting house which was close to my rooming house and to campus.  It provided both lunch and supper and was run by graduate students who would hopefully be more mature than my former co-op associates.  A bonus which I discovered soon after I joined  the new co-op was that Peter, one of the members, turned out to be an interesting person to talk to, and he was helpful, too.  He usually hung around after lunch on Tuesdays while I was doing lunch clean-up and he was waiting for his ride to his work-study job. On my first Tuesday I couldn’t get the multiple straps of a voluminous apron fastened correctly, so I asked him if he would help me.  He mistakenly thought I was asking him to help me take the apron off and he said, “Sure, I’m always happy to help undress a lady.”  I was surprised.  In the mid-west in the 1950’s that was quite a risqué remark to make to someone you hardly knew. Now he began to intrigue me.  After a few weeks it dawned on me that he was always the person sitting next to me at meals, and our friendship began to grow.

It was on a Sunday some months later that turkey number two showed up and my now burgeoning relationship with Peter almost foundered.  Sunday dinner clean-up was another of my weekly assignments at the Friends Co-op.  It was the most elaborate meal of the week so there was always an extra amount of work to be done.  Peter was one of the Sunday dinner cooks and not a particularly efficient or tidy one.  But that Sunday, when he and his fellow cook prepared a turkey dinner with all the fixings, things really got out of hand. Chaos greeted my clean-up partner and me when we went into the kitchen.  There were dirty bowls, measuring cups, and pots and pans all over the tables and counters. Spilled ingredients decorated the floor.  But what really topped off the scene was the sight of a large patch of greasy turkey juice that had somehow spattered onto the ceiling and was dripping down one of the walls. It turned out that when Peter had taken the turkey out of the oven and started to carve it, the piping hot juices that had built up under its skin had burst out and upwards. He and the other cook thought the whole thing was hilarious. What’s more they didn’t stick around to help clean up.

Memory plays funny tricks. Neither Peter nor I remember if he apologized for the extra work he had caused, but I do remember I was not amused.  As I worked with my partner to clean up the ungodly mess, I remember thinking briefly of never speaking to Peter again.  But I also remember thinking that having to scrub turkey juice off a wall and ceiling was insignificant compared to the friendship of a person whose company I enjoyed so much. I also remember deciding that if we ever got married it would be a good idea for me to do the cooking and for Peter to do the clean-up – and that’s exactly what happened.


Before moving to Brooklyn, Mary and Peter Houts lived on a farm where, in addition to their day jobs, they raised children, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, bees and a cow, but not turkeys.

Notes of a Retired Scientist


 by Lorne Taichman


The seed that led to my becoming a scientist rather than remaining a physician was planted in a most unexpected fashion. I was in my third year of medical school and fully enjoying the study of medicine. I was learning everything there was to know about the human body. The information I was absorbing had been tested and proven true by years of practice. My task was to acquire that knowledge and let it guide me in dealing with patients. I was secure and confident, that is until I encountered the clinical pathological conferences or CPCs lead by Dr. Jan Steiner.

Dr. Steiner, a Czech émigré, a combat soldier in the British army, a physician and a scientist, led the CPC sessions. We would be given the history, physical findings and laboratory results for a recently deceased patient. In fact, the patient was so recently deceased that his or her organs were displayed before us on stainless steel trays. Our task was to determine the cause of death. What was so remarkable about these sessions was Dr. Steiner’s irreverent tutelage. In most cases he succeeded in convincing us that had the patient not listened to the physician and had the patient stayed clear of the hospital that poor soul would have been outside that very morning basking in the sunshine on University Avenue. I was shocked. How could Dr. Steiner question so openly and so brazenly medical wisdom and standard medical practice? How could he so easily turn our certainty into doubt? I was intrigued by this enigmatic professor. So when Dr. Steiner agreed to let me work on a summer research project with him I was delighted. I was going to get an opportunity to work alongside this renegade. I would learn his secret.

On my first day at work Dr. Steiner briefly explained what he wanted me to do, and on the second day he disappeared for the summer. In the few moments we had had together I learned that my task was to make casts or molds of the blood vessels of the liver in experimental rats. The idea was to learn if gross changes took place in liver blood vessels when the rats were given a drug known to induce liver tumors. In a way the concept of vascular changes and cancer formation was way ahead of its time, a concept that Judah Folkman in Boston painstakingly and successfully developed into a new cancer therapy some 40 years later. But I am digressing. For an eager medical student set adrift I had two immediate problems – I had to figure out how to make the molds, and second, I had to not disappoint Dr. Steiner.

Making molds of the vascular tree was relatively simple. There was a liquid plastic that when injected into blood vessels would work its way into all the small branches and then harden solid. The trick then was to remove the liver tissue without harming the plastic moud.  That also turned out to be relatively simple. Immerse the liver in sulfuric acid and allow the acid to digest away the tissue. The plastic was resistant to the acid. Simple.

Somehow I managed to secure working space in a basement office with a small, casement window opening onto an alleyway on eastern side of the institute.  I got all the equipment I needed and ordered rats from a licensed supplier and had them housed in the institute. How excited I was to be working on my own project. Perhaps I would really discover something of importance.

In retrospect a kind angel must have been watching over me because, by all rights, I should have been blown sky high, or failing that, I should have been thrown out for destroying institute property. The explosion would have come from my reckless use of ether in an enclosed room a short distance from a lighted Bunsen burner. The ether was used to anesthetize and euthanize these poor creatures. The proper way would have been to work in a special hood that sucked the explosive fumes from the workspace and blew them to the outside. The lighted flame should have been nowhere near the can of ether. Why I did not blow the room and me apart is still a mystery to me.

My second offense was to ruin an exterior wall of the institute. It happened this way. After injecting the livers and allowing the plastic to harden I would remove the livers from the dead animals and place them in a large beaker filled with sulfuric acid. To avoid having the acid fumes linger in the small office I placed the beaker outside on the window ledge. The next morning I would retrieve the beaker, pour out the acid and gently rinse the plastic cast with water. Voilà! I had a delicate and detailed cast of the vascular tree of the liver. The fine branching structure was lovely to behold.

One morning, towards the end of the summer, coming into work I noticed a sizeable group gathered outside the eastern wall of the institute. I muscled my way to the front and there for all to see was an enormous blackened area. The surface of the building stone had been charred a ferocious black color. In the center of the damaged area was my casement window. I knew instantly what had happened. In the stagnant warm summer air the sulfuric acid fumes had wafted upwards along the face of the building and reacted with whatever happens when acid and stone make contact. I slowly backed away, kept very quiet and made no mention of the incident to anyone. That guiding angel once again saved me — no one ever connected my plastic casts with the remodeling job on the east wall of the institute.

In spite of the self-made hazards and property destruction, work on preparing molds proceeded nicely. One day, having several extra animals and not wanting to “waste them” I injected plastic into the bile ducts rather than the blood vessels. I was going to make casts of the biliary tree of the liver but it was the end of the day and I had no more beakers for liver digestion. Rather than euthanizing the animals I sewed up their abdomens and returned them, a little groggy, to recover in their cages. I promptly forgot about them.

As to my great discovery into the cause of cancer, unfortunately there was no difference that I could see between the cast of normal livers and those taken from livers in the early stages of cancer formation. Well, it wasn’t what I had hoped for but at least I had an answer.

A few days before the end of the summer job Dr. Steiner reappeared. When he asked to see what I had done, I showed him the vascular casts. We both agreed the experiment worked as planned but we could see no differences. I then remembered my forgotten mice, the ones whose bile ducts had been injected with plastic. I found the poor creatures, which by now had a severe case of jaundice and were deep yellow in color. I had no idea what had happened to make them so jaundiced. I brought them with some trepidation to Dr. Steiner. When we autopsied the animals and looked inside their abdomen, Dr. Steiner froze for a second and then shouted in his accented voice, “what have you done?” If I could have disappeared down a deep hole I would have gladly leaped. “Quick, make a slide of this liver and let’s look at it under the microscope.” I ran to obey, fully expecting to be ridiculed for something akin to scientific idiocy. I watched as his large hands focused the microscope on the tissue. “Look at what you have done. You have created a model for biliary cirrhosis. This is tremendous. I have been looking for this for years.”

I departed Dr. Steiner’s lab a few days later to start medical school. I hadn’t learned Dr. Steiner’s secret but I had discovered the sheer joy of discovery. I had, in my own blundering way, worked through a problem, used my own devices, tinkered and explored and come forth with an answer. I had created something that, although not monumental, was nevertheless, of my own making. What stuck with me most was that I had created it. There had been no guidelines to follow, no textbooks and no standards to lead the way. I was on my own.

It’s been 52 years since that summer and for 40 of those years, until my retirement, I was a happy scientist. I have never regretted a moment spent in asking the wrong questions, in looking behind the established wisdom and being the first to learn something new about living cells. Do I regret not practicing medicine? Yes, of course I do. It would have been a fulfilling pursuit, but I was seduced by the opportunity to venture into unknown territory and strike out on paths where it was possible to deface other institutional walls.


Lorne Taichman was an academic medical researcher for several decades at Stony Brook University. He joined the IRP three years ago and has coordinated two courses — Cancer Therapy and A Broken Heart (with Bob Braff).


Bad Sister

by James Avitabile


I was an only child until I was eight. I was OK with that. I was the youngest of five cousins and I was spoiled rotten. If I wanted a special toy and my mother said “No,” I’d go to my grandmother or to my aunt and plead for whatever it was and bingo, I got it!

Then in August of 1950, I was no longer an only child. I had competition. My 110-pound mother gave birth to an 11 pound seven ounce baby girl. They named her Bernadette.  “What’s her name I grumbled, Burn to Death? I had lost my status as next in line to the throne. All the attention I once had now fell to her. Overnight I went from the head of the class to standing in the corner in the back of the room. They treated her as if she were a delicate demitasse cup.

“Be careful Juny, don’t hurt your baby sister. Mommy had to go through so much to give you her.”

My inner voice cried out, Give ME her? Who said that I wanted her? It was YOU not ME who wanted her.

I publicly sulked no matter how many Charlotte Russes my grandmother or my Aunt Grace bought me.  I remember when the intruder was christened, I wouldn’t take any photos with her unless the guests came with two gifts, one for her and one for me. Then overnight my attitude quickly changed. I had to survive. My mother had everything to do with that.

“If you don’t want to accept your sister, I’m going to put you into a home.” That did it. I didn’t know what that was, but it didn’t sound good. It sounded like she would give me up if I didn’t change. And sadly, I yielded.

I began to wonder if my sister and I had been switched in my mother’s womb. They say that little girls are sugar and spice and everything nice. That was me! It wasn’t my sister. At the age of six she was knuckles and scraped knees and spit and dirt. She was a tomboy looking for her next fight. She was tough. The only thing that made her look like a girl was her Shirley Temple locks. Every night my mother would wash her hair, then use stove pipe cleaners and meticulously roll up sections of her hair. ”Ouch! You’re hurting me Mommy!” she’d bark. I’d gloat when I heard her.  By morning my mother would unwind her locks and her dark brown hair would bounce up and down like Shirley’s did on the Good Ship Lollypop.  She hated the name ‘Bernadette.’ “Bernadette is a sissy name. Call me Jean.” I wished I’d had her name instead of ‘Juny.’

Whenever I had the opportunity of pointing out the bad sister to my mother I would do it.

She’d pick up smoldering cigarettes off the street and puff on them.

“Look Ma, she’s smoking a cigarette.” My mother wouldn’t even stir. Her precious little girl couldn’t do anything wrong. My mother would warn me, “Don’t make trouble.” I watched and waited and hoped that maybe one day my mother would see for herself the bad sister her precious daughter really was.

My mother had an expression, God will get you for that. She thought I was the bad one God was going to get even with when I hadn’t doing anything wrong. But many times I had and He didn’t get me. Once my mother told me to watch my sister while she ran out to the butcher. My sister had just come home from the hospital and was sleeping in her bassinet. I thought she might want to read, so I took a small lamp that was plugged nearby and put it close to her bundled up feet. Just then my mother came back. She screamed, “What are you doing? You could have burned your sister.”

“I just thought she wanted to read, Mommy!”


There was a summer day when my Mom, my sister with her springing hair, and I walked down Castleton Avenue to Woolworth’s  5 & 10 Cent Store. My sister was about four. My mother needed some ribbon. When we got into the store, my mother bent down and told both of us.

“You each have ten cents to spend on anything you want. That’s all I have. No more! You understand?”

“Yes Mommy,” I answered.

My sister’s locks bobbed ‘yes.’ I looked around and saw a box of colored pencils. They were fifteen cents. I had an extra nickel in my pocket. My sister pointed to a puppet. It cost more than a dollar. My mother told her, “I told you, you  have ten cents to spend!” My sister began to cry loudly and cause a scene. Her hair was bobbing all over her face. My mother got all nervous and began to try to quiet her down by pulling at her locks. Now my sister was stomping and causing more of a scene and some of the customers were watching. My mother pulled her hair harder, as she talked nervously to the saleswoman. Her calm façade was quickly crumbling. Now the screams seemed to be coming from two sources. Was my sister crying in two different octaves? My mother wasn’t pulling my sister’s hair! She was pulling the hair of a little girl that was standing next to her.

“Lady, why are you pulling my daughter’s hair? I should call the cops.”

“Oh, please excuse me. I thought it was my daughter’s hair I was pulling. I’m so sorry”. Then she turned to my sister and snarled,“Wait till I get you home, I’m going to pull out every hair on your head.”

While the crowd of onlookers dispersed and no one was watching, I leered at my sister and whispered, “When we get home, Mommy’s going to make you bald.”


Telling my story has been a happy/sad experience. It took me awhile before I found my voice. But once I did,  I couldn’t stop talking.