Yes, sometimes, a cheeseburger is paradise

First, the numbing Lidocaine hydrochloride mouthwash. Then, eight ounces of vanilla Ensure nutrition shake.  The morning’s pills in a Dixie cup on the side. Enough water to try to get them down.

And, ah! The must-have. The desserts in that shiny foil wrapper. The one bright spot on those bleak mornings: soft, untoasted, Frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts. 

So sweet. Dry. Flaky like the crust of a homemade pie. No acidic juices to burn into the lesions in mouth, on my tongue, boring into my cheeks. Nothing too crispy to scrape against the crater eroding the right side of my throat.

Sure, the breakfast treats also caused pain. They went down hard like anything and everything I tried to swallow back then. But pain, I’ve learned, is oh-so relative.

“What is it? On a scale of 1 to 10?” I asked myself the same question that nurses and doctors had asked me for months, sometimes 10 times a day during those weeks in the hospital.

Pop-Tarts? Oh, about a 4 or a 5.

Bad, you say? Not when everything else, even water, is an 8 or 9.

Besides, the treats helped me swallow the pills. And I needed them, especially the Oxycodone, to fog up the morning, to numb the mind and body, even if just for a couple hours.

After that, lunch — more Ensure, maybe a full can of Campbell’s Chicken Wonton Soup, with those soft tiny pillows that ease down the throat like wet leaves through a downspout.

I dreamed of real food then. I vowed that, once I got better, if I got better, I would chew slowly and enjoy every bite. I vowed to not take food for granted. I would relish, well, even relish.

During those Pop-Tart mornings, I took solace in at least being in my own home, where I could try to feed myself. Or, my beleaguered wife would try to come up with something I could swallow that was more appetizing than Ensure.

In the hospital, eating, or trying to eat, was worse, much worse. Not that the staff didn’t try to help. The kitchen workers at one point molded some sort of protein mush into the shape of a pork chop, hoping that would be more appetizing.

They were trying to help me fool my mind. But I couldn’t fool those ulcers.

I had to have a feeding tube through the nose at one point. That, or get a hole in my side, a procedure called a gastrostomy. Lyrical sounding maybe, but … 

The thought of being cut, not only through the skin but through the muscle and stomach, too, and leaving the opening for days, maybe weeks, made me nauseous. And I had nothing in my stomach to make me nauseous.

Hold that thought, I thought. It’ll help you get through the pain of the placement of the other kind of tube, the feeding tube. No surgery at least. Through the nose, scraping those ulcers, down the throat, arghhh!

 As two nurses worked, I meditated on the mental picture of the hole being cut in my side. I breathed deeply, following the instructions of the nurse trying to snake the tube through my nose. She talked to me calmly, coached me to suppress my gag reflex, told me to think of the plastic as food, to swallow deeply to send the tube down the right path.

Afterward, the thing has to be taped to your face to stay in place.

I had expected something more sophisticated.

OK Dave, feeding time. We will hold the food bag above your head, open a clamp and let gravity work. Here comes dinner!

I awoke one night to that damp feeling near your crotch that you never want to have, especially in a strange bed. A valve or clamp had opened up during my 3 a.m. feeding and I ended up with something wet all over my lap. The nurse who tended to me in the middle of the night said she hadn’t seen it happen and I was too drugged to realize it til morning.

It was still dark when I realized I was soaked. I couldn’t see the liquid, so my pessimistic brain immediately went to blood. Whew, OK, at least not that.

Everything’s relative, remember?

Still, rubbing that chalky liquid between my thumb and forefinger while buzzing the call button for help and wondering if they would let me shower made me start to reconsider that hole-in-the-side idea.



Eventually, I got better at home. I didn’t overdose on breakfast treats. Or the Oxy.

With steroids and time, I healed enough to eat real food again. Many weeks after that hospital stay, with great pleasure and with my wife as an elated, smiling witness, I chewed my first cheeseburger.

How was it, you ask? On a scale of 1 to 10?

OK, I’ll bite. It was definitely a solid 9.

But, you might wonder, why not a 10?

Well, to this day, I save my highest score for, you guessed it, breakfast treats.

Yes, Pop-Tarts. Untoasted. Strawberry and with frosting — of course.



Where there’s smoke, there’s Trump. A note from a native Pittsburgher.

Thank you President Trump. You did it.

Despite worldwide pressure, you stuck up for USA towns like Pittsburgh, where I was born, spent my early years and still have many relatives and friends.

You gave a finger as big as the Eiffel Tower (who said you have small digits?) to that uppity French city that also begins with a “P.” You said c’ya later to all those rules and regs about what we can burn and when, and how.

You gave many big-picture reasons but you also did me a big favor. You gave me incentive to finally get back to the city of my birth.

I wanna return to those dreamlike  days of soot in the snoot and phlegm in the throat.

I wanna go home and start burning the garbage again!

Man, in those days we were really free!  You did what you wanted in our backyard. Forget those expensive garbage bills. All you needed was a backyard burn barrel. Me and my little brother, neither of us much taller than that barrel, were nonetheless entrusted with the waste incineration. The girls didn’t have much interest, and we feigned dislike at first, but it was reverse psychology.

 Once we got out there, out on that little flat before the yard’s last hill, we had free reign, and lots of Ohio Blue Tip matches.

It was something to see, for sure. Our little round white faces lit up by flames six, seven, eight feet high some times.  Us, hypnotized by volcano-like honeycombs in the corrugated cardboard … that glow of a puddle of plastic … exploding cans of hair spray and spray paint!

There is simply no sight on this warm earth like a flaming Clorox bottle on a stick, dripping purple,  blowtorch-blue and hot orange into the fresh snow. And that sound! Like Satan himself playing a melting oboe, each sizzling plop a microcosm of a falling star.

We burned everything. There were pyres of polystyrene, polyester, aromatic hydrocarbons and, man, that mysterious, zany family of “enes.” Benzene. Toluene. Xylene.

Did you ever see a half-empty, punctured can of VO5 spinning like a fiery pinwheel on a wooden Pepsi crate? No? Ha! You haven’t lived.

Trump’s given you another shot, though.

By announcing the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris accord, our Conflagrator in Chief has opened the door to the return of all that warm and fuzzy fun from Pittsburgh’s past. The “Smoky City” is back!

Pittsburgh at noon around 1906
Pittsburgh Then and Now, University of Pittsburgh Press

I’m going to start researching real estate prices — maybe my wife and I can buy back the old Iseman homestead that we all had to abandon after our neighborhood never really recovered  from the recession of the early ’80s.

When I was young in the ‘Burgh, you couldn’t see the rivers through the bustling, bulky steel mills. But, factors like foreign competition, a failure to innovate with technology and labor unrest eventually caused most of those giant steel plants to close.

Gone was that beautiful dragon breath that massaged the Monongahela River. Gone was the red sulfur dust on the cars in the morning. Gone was the warm hazy glow that hung over the South Side way past dark.

And, you guessed it,  gone was the garbage burning.

Outlawed by those environmental do-gooders.

They had gotten all hot under the collar in part because the media in our area made a big deal about the oily Cuyahoga River in Cleveland repeatedly catching fire.

 Yeah, sure it was burning river. But talk about a freak-out. The last time it happened, the flames were doused in about half an hour.

But, the damage was done. Everyone worried about pollution. The water was monitored. The air was monitored. Even the garbage had to be buried just right.

Instead of my brother and I rushing with excitement out to the burn barrel, we had to pack up the cardboard, tie up the newspapers and wash out the plastic. That’s like telling kids they have to go to the library instead of the fireworks show.

Sure, the neighborhood eventually smelled more like grass than gas, and asthmatic Amy from the neighborhood didn’t have to stop for breath as often walking up Holzer Hill. But look at what we lost?

The freedom to burn.

The freedom to wait for just the right wind off the back slope to whip those black clouds of burning plastic toward that hated neighbor’s house. The freedom to breathe the fumes from the melting nylon and polyester pile of the old bathroom carpet that finally got replaced. 

The freedom to make ourselves sick if we wanted to. No matter if we had the means to pay the hospital bill.

Our new president. He’ll take care of that, too.

Like everyone’s saying now: He’s a man of his word.

No matter if Pittsburgh’s mayor isn’t buying Trump’s latest move on the climate front. The prez is still a hero to many in the Steel City.

I say they bring him in to throw out the first pitch on opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates next season. Sure he might be busy answering subpoenas or hobnobbing with some sheikh, but no worry. The Pirates can just pretend it’s him.

Chances are, no one will be able to tell through the smoke.