Albert “Big Al” Neirendorfer, Musician

Since the heart attack, Big Al hasn’t been the same. He’s had two other heart attacks, just minor ones, a couple of years back. They took him off the road. No more hitting one club after another for months at a time. But he could still play and he was able to work local a couple of nights a week. There were more than a few folks who thought he was the best clarinet player around. And he could always sub in on saxophone if he was needed. But the last heart attack was no fun at all. He couldn’t walk without a cane and had trouble catching his breath. And finally, after a life in the back seat of cars, on buses, and on trains, he was home for good. His wife was not too happy at first. Al had no idea what was going on when he was away. But Sandra wasn’t sitting around the house being lonely, not since the kids were out on their own. And what was going on while Al was on the road was plenty. But by the time he had his heart attack, she had enough of what she thought of as “wild nights.” At first, it wasn’t too bad. He was a week in the hospital. And when he came home, she had to be a fulltime caregiver for him. Al couldn’t do much himself except stagger to the bathroom. And he wasn’t used to being at home anyway. He just assumed meals got cooked by someone, like when he was on the road. And laundry somehow got done. And never mind cleaning up. All he knew how to do was make music, get paid, and send money home. His band got booked by some creep in New York. The travel arrangements got taken care of. He made music. That was it. No one expected more of him than that. And he was happy. He’d get home every couple of months, spend time with Sandy and the kids. Visit with a few old friends. And then, he’d be off again, sort of like a stray cat that stops by every now and then for a bowl of milk. When he was on the road, he’d do as he pleased. A woman here. A woman there. Sleep half the day, until it was time to play. Drink too much. Smoke weed. Have a few laughs. If he sat down and thought about it, he’d agree in two seconds, this was not a good way to live. But when he was on stage in a noisy room, playing like there was nothing else in the whole world – that made it all worth it. But after he got out of the hospital, sitting at home in a chair, unable to do much, he thought about killing himself. They told him he’d get better. “You just have to take it a bit easier. You’ll be out and about before you know it.” That’s what the rehab guy said. Al wasn’t buying it. He sat around feeling sorry for himself until Sandy told him to get off his ass and start living again. This was a couple of months after he landed in the hospital. She sent the caregiver away and told Al he was well enough and had to start taking care of himself. She had a life to live and he did too. Al learned how to do things around the house. And he started taking walks. Not far at first. Shambling along with a cane. He probably didn’t need the cane but he liked the idea of walking with it and using it as a prop. Not as good as a clarinet. But good for laughs he figured. He’d step out in the street and drivers seeing this old fool with a cane would jam on the brakes. He’d wave it around if he had a conversation with someone. Or use it to point out things. Then, he picked up a few gigs and the cane became part of the act. He had this funny, old hat he wore too. And after a while, he was back to his old life, if a less strenuous version of it. Which is how he started fooling around with this little gal who took a shine to him. And that is how Sandy, when she found out, said she had enough and told him to get out. She was bluffing but it scared the hell out of him. He begged her to take him back. She did. But with certain stipulations. So, in his old age, Big Al stopped the crap and became what he called “a gooder person.” In saying that, he usually added, “It’s them damn stipulations what’s done it.”

Sandrine Norcross, heiress

Back then, it would have been really easy to say, “I hate my life.” But given how rich my parents were, it would have been not just ungrateful but obnoxious. And I was obnoxious enough as it was. When my parents were alive, I was the cliché of the little rich kid: bratty, imperious, just plain nasty, but also lonely and emotionally needy. I was and still am pretty sure I was the result of a drunken accident. Not wanted. An inconvenience. My parents were terrible at being parents. I had nannies, tutors, and companions until they shipped me off to school.  And once that happened, I’d only see my parents when they flew me to wherever they were having fun, having flings, drinking much too much. Daddy was really smart, made piles of money in real estate and in finance. Mommy was an ornament. If they weren’t killed in that car crash, they surely would have divorced. I grew up with almost no one I could feel close. I had no sense of direction. When I got to the very prestigious boarding school they dumped me in, I was disobedient, disruptive in class, and nasty, convinced the school was a dumping ground for unwanted children or a prison. I was not popular. But after a while, things got better. what saved me from being a total slug was the brains I inherited from Daddy. Despite myself, I began reading everything I got my hands on, loved math, wrote poetry, and found myself in one advanced class after another. I graduated high school at 16 and went on to what can only be described as an exceptional college career. I graduated magna cum laude and was supposed to started on an advanced degree. But right after I graduated college – the very next week, in fact – Mommy and Daddy had their car accident. And things got very weird very fast. I needed to grow up fast. Daddy had named me not only as his sole heir but also head of all the businesses he owned, companies I knew nothing about. Most of the people involved in those companies – almost all overbearing men with loud voices – were lying bastards out to steal what they could from me. To them, I was this dumb, naïve kid, a nuisance who stood in the way of their getting whatever they wanted. In a few cases, “whatever they wanted” was me in bed with them.  Some seemed fatherly, supportive, and helpful. They were the worst. My graduate school plans went out the window. And my personal life, what little there was of it, went to hell. No big deal. Men found me attractive enough; both my parent had been very good looking. But most of the boys I was in school with saw me as standoffish, stuck-up, and intimidating. I had better grades than any of them. And I pushed buttons too. Like it wasn’t smart of me to think I could attract boys by driving around in a Mercedes sports car. And I was a smarty pants who was a pretty good tennis player. So, I tended to end up with jerks conceited enough to think they were hot stuff. Some were pretty good looking and amusing but that was it. I dated one or another of them from time to time. Nothing serious. And that all stopped when I had to get my head around the situation my father left me in and make sure everything was as it should be. It all took longer than I ever expected. I had to learn stuff quickly and I did. But the business world wasn’t for me. Too many misogynists. Too much dumb stuff. I did not like being so tough. And I had to be a tough SOB from time to time. I turned everything into investments so I could do what I really wanted. And suddenly, there I was. I went back to school, got a Ph.D., got a job in a research company, met a guy at a conference and married him and started my own foundation. There’s a kid coming and I’m hoping we’ll be a better parent than the ones I had. Of course, it never hurts to have roughly one hundred million in the bank.

Randy Rudzewicz, Sculptor

“Flash-in-the-pan.”

Randy is doing a lot better in life than he ever expected. He has a job he loves and pays well enough. He’s got a very nice family: a very nice and helpful wife. Two good little kids, two boys. Even a dog that never barks except when there is a problem. Like the time someone tried to break in. He’s a sculptor and he’s in some of the best galleries he could want. But despite all that, somethings always eating him. He has this sneaky feeling it is all going to collapse and he’ll end up on the street. His thinking is there is no reason he should be doing so well other than dumb luck. And easy come, easy go. His family growing up was poor and pretty much uneducated, at least about the art world. They still think what he does isn’t really real. “A flash-in-the-pan” is how his mother put it when the local newspaper did a full page on Randy and his work. “Don’t go getting some big ideas. When those fancy artsy types catch on, they’ll drop you like a hot brick.”  Randy’s wife keeps telling him to ignore that kind of stuff. Still, it always got to him. He went to a shrink for a while. But the shrink didn’t get it.  He told Randy to have faith in himself and, anyway, he had plenty of money in the bank and, if he needed to, he could always get a job teaching. Randy started doing a lot of staring out the window and making a lot of small, tortured sculptures. And for a while, Randy started staying away from his studio. He was on a road trip with his pal, Franky, when he got news about a new show. In Paris. A big deal. Just six months away. Half the pieces would be from inventory, Randy’s London gallery had already presold all but two of them. But four or five new major pieces would be needed. Suddenly, Randy was back in the saddle, making stuff; in the studio working away almost around the clock. He denies it but his wife swears he was singing and dancing when, one day, she came by with sandwiches for lunch. When someone said, “Sounds like fun afternoon,” she blushed, chuckled to herself, and agreed.

Laquilla Wickham, High School Enlish teacher

“Dn’t come back to visit me. Move on.”

“I’ve taught every damn grade from kindergarten – even pr­e­-K – through twelve. And most of the kids I’ve taught end up being my friend. For the last ten years, I’ve taught senior year English. It’s more a writing course than anything else. I have a reading list but that’s just to make sure they’ve got their noses into something decent to read. They watch a lot of junk on the internet. And they get ideas from video games. That won’t do for me. And I make them write a story every week. Not more than say 500 words. I’ve had parents tell me that’s too hard for their kid. I tell them, ’Crap. It doesn’t have to be great literature or something. Just a story. About anything.’ I’ve had a kid write a story about a bug. A bug! Can you believe it. It gets swatted at the end. I loved it. If course there are some kids who just ain’t going to anything no matter what. That’s when I tell them about my life and all the crap I went through to survive. And what I know about jail. And about getting shot. And what happens when the cops get pissed off for some dumb thing you did. And they get the feeling I know what I’m talking about. And maybe I know a thing or two. But no matter what I say, some kids just don’t give a crap and ain’t going to listen. Funny, these are the ones who come back to visit year after year. They talk about being in Mrs. Wickham’s class. I always tell my students they should never come back after they finish my course. Most – especially to ones who put out the work and wanted to learn – I don’t ever see again. They know better. I want them to move on. But some of them still stay in touch, one way or another. They send me things or send me notes. Sometimes I get amazing things, like news about a prize or a scholarship they’ve won. A couple have sent me books they’ve written. You have no idea what that does to me.”

106. Arno Lipkin, Brain Surgeon

“I’d be a whole lot happier if I were an auto mechanic.” Arno tells that to anyone after he’s had a bit of Bourbon. He invariably goes into all the reasons why. “What I do is a high wire act and the wire breaks more often than I like. There’s a lot of stress. And a lot of times when there are people coming to me with something bad and I can’t do a thing for them. I don’t know what’s worse, a patient dying on me – either on the table or after I’ve worked on them – or when I have to tell them, I can’t help them. A car, you junk it and get a new one if you can’t fix it.” But, in the end, that’s all a bunch of crap. Arno loves being a high wire act. He loves the danger. The idea almost no one else can do what he does. The gratitude he gets when he performs what some would call a miracle. Just think about what he does for fun. There’s the sky diving and the flying a stunt plane. And sailing across the Atlantic by himself on a 30-foot sailboat. And when he’s not complaining about not being an auto mechanic, he can be more that a bit of a pompous ass. When he gets a chance to go at a captive audience, like at a dinner party. Or when having a drink with his operating room crew, he loves to go on about a subject he thinks he knows a lot about. Some battle in the 100 years war. French painting in the mid-19th century. Is he impressed with himself? You bet. Was that why his third wife – and the two before her – left him? Could have been a bunch of reasons but that was probably one of them. We don’t know for sure. Arno is pretty mum about his private life when he wants to be. Every now and then, though, something surfaces. It usually involves a very bright, very intense, athletic woman, at least 20 or 25 years younger than Arno, someone who could almost be his daughter. Once it was someone his daughter’s age, her college roommate. These adventures usually end in a fiasco. As bright and clever as Arno is, he can be a jerk about this sort of stuff. It’s got him into trouble at work too. In the old days, even five years ago, he could get away with it. Even his wives usually looked the other way. The thinking was: this guy is so good at saving lives, we will have to forgive him his stupidities. Not anymore. He’s been warned and, lately, he seems to be settling on an older woman who may just terrify him. Not that she’s big and muscular. She keeps herself slim and trim but dresses fairly modestly. But she’s smarter than him and he knows it. She calls him an idiot when he behaves badly, tells him to knock it off when he starts pontificating, and otherwise sets him straight, when necessary, while telling him it is for his own good. And he knows that’s true. He also knows that if he were to be fired for some dumb behavior, he would be emotionally devastated, likely clinically depressed, even suicidal. “After all, how many years of practice do I have left? At my age, a ten-hour surgery almost kills me. It is physically a killer. And it just drains you. So, for the next couple of years, I better listen and do what I’m told. But it still pisses me off.”

105. Joan Delly, Hostess

“When I tell people I’m a hostess, they always give me the fish eye. I know what they’re thinking. And sometimes, I’ve got to admit, they just might be right. When it comes right down to it, I am a people person. It’s what I tell people. And that can mean anything. Who am I to deny it? Mostly though, it is not what you might think. I get hired a lot to see that things go smoothly. I happen to be a great manager. That’s what a good hostess is. We greet people, make them feel welcome, show them where they are supposed to go. You’d be amazed. People walk into a social situation with other people and they can turn into idiots. They need to be shown who to say hello to, where the bar is, where the bathroom is. You need to do this while putting them at ease. I’m pretty good at thinking on my feet. In my job, you have to be if you are going to make a go of it. People who put on events or parties hire me a lot. There are what I’d call ‘corporate functions,’ and weddings. Stuff like that. There’s some show business to it. I love doing the weddings and family stuff. But mostly I do stuff you might call ‘diplomatic,’ for large institutions and companies. Usually small cocktail parties. Sometimes dinners. Training sessions. Company meetings. They can be very awkward for a lot of folks. They are a bit out of their usual element. And they can do and say things or do things they might not normally say or do. That’s where things can get a little tricky. For them. And sometimes for me too. There are men and, once in a while, a woman or two who are used to getting their way who want a little what I’d call ‘extra attention.’ Sometimes they get it. But for the most part, it’s nothing more than a conversation they try to steer me to “personal matters.” They start off by asking what I do for fun. Or about how it must be hard to fit a personal life into my line of work. They may touch my arm. Nothing too overt is the usual. But it’s all the same thing. What they really want to know is if they can get it on with me. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it. I can get them on another subject without them hardly noticing. But sometimes, when I want – and only when I want – they may just score.  It’s always my call. I like being in charge. Fact is, I work very hard at being in charge. Things were different once and I’m not ever going back to that kind of crap. So, what goes on? Do I need to explain? We’re grown-ups. Say what you want, a girl has her needs. There’s always someone around for me. Never for too long. I might go out with someone maybe two or three times. We have a good time, enjoy one another, and, after a while, things move on. Usually, they spoil the whole thing by getting too involved or by telling me what to do with my life. That’s not why I’m there. That said, there have been one or two ‘steadies’ over the years. Right now, there’s someone I’ve been seeing occasionally, maybe a couple of times a year for the last few years. We have a good time. Casual. Good sex. Nothing wild but good. And he gives me good ideas about investing. I think he’s married but he doesn’t ask too many questions so I don’t either. I like him but it ain’t love. It’s never going to be.  But there’s been a couple of times with other men when things got a bit hot and heavy on my part. Anytime I start having feelings, I run like hell. That way, I can do my job, live the way I want, and drive my car when and where I want, if you know what I mean. Do I ever get lonely? I won’t lie. I do sometimes. Maybe I should buy a cat.

104. Lenny Magliore, Trucker

“I am a special kind of trucker. Maybe you’re thinking I’m just a bozo behind a wheel but driving a tractor and trailer is not what you think. Especially the way I do it. I’m a long-haul trucker. I specialize in dangerous loads or very special loads. Corrosive and poisonous chemicals amount for about half my loads. Special mechanical equipment is another big chunk. Most are very heavy and very special. Rocket engines. Turbines. Machines for bending and shaping metals. And finally, there’s the tech stuff. Very delicate. And I own my own rig, including my own tank and a highly specialized flat bed. I am really good at what might look like a fairly low talent job, but, like a lot of stuff, it requires a special touch and years of experience. So, I have customers who will wait until I am available before moving their stuff. They could have real trouble if something went wrong with their load. Lawsuits. Places could be contaminated for years. People could die. They need not just a trucker. They need a trucking artist. So, they call me. I go by “Lenny.” Or “Len.” Actually, no fooling, it’s Leonardo. My folks named me after the artist. Oh, sure, you might think: that name, ‘Magliore.’ ‘Leonardo Magliore.’ This guy’s folks or maybe his grandparents are maybe right off the boat. Nope. My pop’s a dentist. His father, my grandfather, was a dentist too. Everyone thought I was going to be a dentist. But it wasn’t for me. I gave it a shot. Started college. Took the pre-dent courses. My grades were good. But my interest in dentistry – not so good. I couldn’t see it.  So, I dropped out of school. My pop said, ‘If you’re not in school, you need a job because I’m charging you rent.’ So, I started driving for a lumber yard. Local deliveries. Plumbing supplies. Lumber. Cement. I liked it. And I was good at it. But it was no way to make a living. I went in the service and got to be a tank driver. That was a lot of fun. I was one crazy tank driver. The best they had. And I did my best to break those things. You can’t. I re-enlisted twice. But I had a couple of bad experiences in combat. So, I got out and went to trucking school, started out driving a six-wheeler on construction deliveries, moved up to tractors and then to specialized loads. There’s a lot more to this business than driving. It’s a whole world that goes on around most people without their having any idea. I love it and I am as good at it as it gets. I ain’t a millionaire but I make a nice living. We have a nice home, two great kids, and when I am home, my wife and I have a great time. Since I am away so much, I make sure I take two months off every year and as much as possible, get home for a few days at least twice a month when I am driving.

So, anyway, last year, I go to a high school reunion just for fun. I thought it would be great to see a bunch of old buddies. We talk about what we did after graduation and what we do now. Just like you expect, most of them looked at me like some kind of loser. They all have fancy jobs. “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a vice president in a bank.” “I am a big frigging deal.” So, when it was my turn, I just said, “Well, I’m not nothing special. I drive a truck. What’s it to you.” I have to say, the looks on their faces pissed me off. But, you know, my wife – who happens to have one of those fancy jobs herself – just laughed. And a day after we got back, I was on the road again. Relaxed. Happy. Right on schedule.

103, Paula Lazinger, Jazz Singer and song writer

Paula’s father kicked her out when she was sixteen. That’s when he found out she was sleeping with a Black piano player ten years her senior. When Paula called her mother, her mother was made it even clearer. She said, “You are dead to me, you whore.”

Paula moved in with the piano player and lived with him for two years or so. He taught her to be a jazz singer while she worked as a cashier in a supermarket to earn her keep. The piano player said she was a natural and he was right.

Paula never learned to read music. Didn’t have to. As soon as she heard a song, she knew it and started to put her own style on it. The first time Paula made up her own song, she was just a couple of months over her seventeenth birthday. The piano player wrote it down, went to an agent, and sold it as his own. He did this a few times, until Paula figured out what was up, tracked down the agent, and complained. The agent took one look at this punk-ass teenage kid and kicked her out. The piano player threatened to beat her up.

“You shut up, you little bitch or I’ll beat the shit out of you. And get busy writing more music or I take a coat hanger to your ass.”

Paula didn’t say anything. She got up, smiled and, then, punched the piano player in the mouth. Then, she took off. She went straight to her cousin, Seymour, who happened to be a cop. Even though they were just cousins and Paula’s father had banned everyone in the family from having anything to do with Paula, that didn’t apply to Seymour. He had always seen Paula as his little sister. So, he took her in and went to see the agent who was buying Paula’s songs. At first the agent wasn’t having any of the story. But when Seymour took out his detective’s badge, the agent got a lot more helpful, especially when Seymour started talking about “exploitation of a minor.” And when Seymour said there might be a few more of Paula’s songs ready to go, the agent got even more helpful.

The first thing agent did was get on the phone. He knew just who to call. There was a music director, a studio for auditions, someone to transcribe Paula’s music, some other folks in the business, He made one other call – to this big guy named Jackson. Jackson is a bouncer by trade and, when he can get an assignment, he’ll work as a bodyguard. When the piano player Paula had been living with showed up at the agent’s office, he met Jackson. Jackson suggested he leave by the fastest means possible. No one’s seen that particular piano player since.

And from that time onward, everyone who was anyone in the music business knows Paula and her music.

That was all a long time ago. Paula’s been talking about retiring. But she can’t help doing a weekly set at a local club and, last year, she wrote the music and some of the lyrics for a movie. She’s been married to the same guy since she was 25 and they have three great kids. Her family, Seymour aside, is another story. When asked about them, Paula says, “They’re all dead a long time ago.”

But she lives in the same town she grew up in. And every now and then, Paula tells her driver to go by the house where she spent her childhood.

Ernie Bisford, Mechanic

“I’m just a guy who fixes cars” is how Ernie describes himself. On the surface, it’s a pretty accurate description. He started working on cars sometime in junior high with his older brother and cousin. They were pretty good at rebuilding engines and developed a reputation for making cars go a lot faster than they were supposed to go. But then, Ernie’s brother went into the Navy, got trained on nuclear power plants, and got a college degree in engineering. His cousin got into drugs and died of an overdose. When Ernie got out of high school, he took a job at a car dealership doing menial stuff like prepping new cars, oil changes, and, after a while, an occasional major repair. “I started out knowing crap. They were supposed to teach us stuff in high school. I took what they called the ‘commercial curriculum’ which included a lot of shop.  It was a lot of nothing. Most of the kids in class with me were hopeless, stuffed in the ‘dummy’ part of the school because they couldn’t cut it anywhere else. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t so good at schoolwork myself. I ain’t dumb but I ain’t all that bright either. But unlike most of the other kids in class with me, I like working with my hands. And I have a head for figuring out how things work.”

He’s right about that. What Ernie knew about cars and fixing them, he learned on the job or from his brothers. One of the dealerships he worked for took an interest in him and sent him to a training school but he didn’t he got much out of it. But something must have stuck because he always got involved in some of the toughest problems. He just seemed to know what would work and what wouldn’t.

So, he began to make a few bucks, enough to get himself a half decent apartment and to take care of his mother in the last couple of years before she died. He was a good son as well as a good mechanic. And, unlike his father, he stayed away from the booze.

By the time he was in his mid-thirties though, he had the feeling he wasn’t getting anywhere. He had a steady income. To make a few extra bucks, he moonlighted and took repair jobs on the side. All for cash, money he used for dates and for a little gambling. But he had no life. Or so he felt.

That’s when he got involved with one of the sales managers at a car dealership. There was sex. But there was also something more: ideas about how to get ahead in the world. An appreciation of some talents Ernie never imagined he had. How to act in business and in private. Even clothes to wear. And it changed his life.

The relationship was intense while it lasted. But it didn’t last all that long. A couple of years. Ernie still can’t figure out why it started. Or why it ended. But one day it did and its ending left him both devastated and open to more than just fixing more cars.

He had a few more relationships, none but the last one amounted to anything. They’ve been a couple for five years now. In business together as well as in love. And doing quite nicely.