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The Triple Zoom

Winter term of my freshman year, the drinking age was eighteen and several of the guys in my dorm and I decided to hit fraternity row. It’s a bucolic little street with maybe a half-dozen fraternities lined up on each side. It’s anchored on one end by Baker Library and on the other by the President’s home (neither of which did much to dispel the revelry one enjoyed there).

Late that night, Chuck, Lefty, Hilliard and I found ourselves in the basement of Beta. There was a crowd but nothing specific going on – no band or cocktail party – just beers on a Friday night. We were standing near the back of the basement where four guys were playing a game of “Zoom, Schwartz.”

Zoom, Schwartz is a drinking game. While the rules are simple, the game itself is difficult to play – especially if you’ve been drinking. It’s a verbal game of tag where players stand in a circle and bark out one of four commands to tag another player – who then has to use one of the four commands to tag someone else. If you speak out of turn or fail to respond quickly enough when you are tagged, the game stops and you are required to drink. You are only allowed four drinks to a cup of beer and if you get tagged three times in a row, you chug.

The four commands are, “Zoom” – which designates the player at whom you are looking. “Schwartz” – which designates the last person who spoke. “Budeman” – which designates the person to your left. “Perfigliano” signifies the person to your right. On this last, the shortened “Figliano” is considered an acceptable contraction due to the speed of the game.

So much for the rules. Back to the basement of Beta.

“You guys want to play?”

It took us a nanosecond to say yes. Freshmen aren’t always welcomed into upper class sanctuaries, let alone invited to join in their fun. I had an older brother who belonged to Bones Gate (another fraternity) where they played a similar game called Wales Tails (‘nounce pronounce the prince and four, regular Wales Tales, the prince calls on…) So, I thought we could hang.

I was wrong.

They were so fast! “Zoom, Zoom, Shwartz, Budeman, Figliano, Boom.”

“Boom? BOOM? Drink ‘shmen!”

We couldn’t follow them. It was like watching a professional team play against a high school. They owned us. And we were too embarrassed to quit. Once they realized that we couldn’t keep up, they started to single each one of us out, ganging up to force three mistakes in a row. We were chugging left and right. It was a nightmare. The drunker we became the worse we played. Finally, one of us booted and they kicked us out. We returned to our dorm in shame.

The next morning we met up at Thayer Dining Hall.

“Unacceptable.” Hilliard said, shoving his plate away.

“They fucked us.” Lefty was so made he could spit.

Chuck drummed his fingers on the table. “We can’t go back there…not unless we get better.”

I lifted up my head. “So, let’s get better.”

We chipped up a keg, I called Mo’s and within an hour we were set to go in the common area of our dorm. We circled around a trashcan and made a vow that none of us could leave the game until we booted.   We nicknamed the game “Boot, Shwartz.”

We played all day. We stumbled through the first hours, but as time moved on, we began to feel the rhythm of the game.

“Zoom, Shwartz, Figliano, Budeman, Budeman, Schwartz, Zoom.” We became supercritical of each other. “That was a roving Zoom. Drink!” “Too slow. Drink!”

Eventually, we all booted into the can and had to stop.

Sunday morning the keg was still there. So was the boot bucket. Each of us took our places and again we began.   One beer in and we were back up to speed. We started using headfakes, double Zooms. We got so good, if felt like we could read each other minds.

“Zoom-Zoom, Budeman, Figliano, Figliano, Shwartz, Shwartz, Zoom, Schartz…the sequences got longer and longer…it took a minor miracle for someone to make a mistake. No one booted on Sunday.

We were ready. The next Friday night, we met outside Beta, our faces solemn.

“We got this.” We high-fived each other and went inside.

Same basement. Same guys. They seemed surprised that we had returned. We got a beer and talked amongst ourselves, waiting…hoping to get the invite. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Beta boys discussing it amongst themselves.  They were laughing, remembering how poorly we had played last week. Finally, one of them shrugged and they all nodded.

“You guys want to play again?”

“Yeah, if that’s okay with you guys.”

“Your funeral.”

Lefty started. We double-zoomed them and although they were surprised, they were quick enough to return fire. We began to use head fakes. We anticipated each other’s moves. The Beta boys started to falter. After ten minutes, they were drinking as much as we were. We adopted their tactics, imitated their moves. They started to get angry.

Now the alcohol was working against them. Their faces grew serious. Ours, on the other hand, were exuberant. We knew we were winning. They tried to gang up on one of us, but we diverted the attack. After a really good head fake, one of them spoke out of turn. He drank. When he started the game again and we pegged him with another head fake. Same result.

“Fuck.” He knew we were coming for him. His buddies tried to deflect our assault, but we were faster. We were pounding him with commands, but despite all our pressure, he remained resilient. We had all of his attention now and could see the determination on his face. He wasn’t backing down and we couldn’t seem to catch him. He was playing at a higher level – until the triple-zoom.

You have to be really good to pull off a triple zoom. We had practiced it enough, but too often, the second or third player would speak too quickly, disrupting the order of commands. Speaking out of turn was a drinking offense, so the ploy backfired as much as it worked.

Hilliard set it up. He was grinning an evil grin and looking at my ear on each command, so I knew he wanted to try it. I looked at Lefty and he had seen it too. With a smirk, he nodded. We played along, waiting for Hilliard to get called. At long last he caught a Budeman. He took a deep breath. I looked at Lefty’s ear. Lefty looked at the Beta boy.

“Zoom-Zoom-Zoom.” We spoke almost in unison. The call bounced from Hilliard to me, from me to Lefty, and from Lefty to the Beta boy in under a second. By the time he realized it was aimed at him, it was too late. He had taken to long to respond.

“Fuck!” He was furious.

We were laughing.

“Get the Fuck out of here!” His face had turned crimson.

“You have to chug first.”

“Get the fuck out of here!” The room had quieted. We suddenly were in unfriendly waters. Guys were lining up behind Beta boy.

“Time to go,” Hilliard whispered. And go we did.

I never got invited to join Beta. Neither did Lefty, or Hilliard, or Chuck. But, I’ll never forget the look on that guy’s face after the triple zoom. It was worth it.

It was so worth it.

The Scent of a Woman

During my freshman year at Dartmouth, I had a Winter Carnival date with Kim Carr.   To this date, when I say that, no one believes me. That’s because Kim was a brilliant young woman with a beautiful smile – and way above my dating pay grade.

To be honest, it wasn’t an official date. I had tickets to the Winter Carnival musical (I think it was Where’s Charlie) and when my on-and-off-again girlfriend from home couldn’t make it, I offered the tickets to Kim and her boyfriend Eric.

“Eric isn’t coming to Carnival. But, I’ll go with you.”

Time seemed to slow down a bit then. I don’t remember exactly what I said in return, but I’m sure it was something witty like, “Okay.” (At that point in my life I hadn’t had a whole lot of dating experience and the experiences I did have, did little to build up my confidence).

I was nothing short of euphoric. It was like winning the Winter Carnival lottery. (There is no such thing, but if there were, it would have been like winning it). And although in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t really a date, I thought maybe it could be. Maybe we’d hit it off. Maybe it would lead to another date. Maybe…

It was cold that year, made all the more so by the fact that the country was going through an energy crisis. The president had rolled back all the highway speeding limits to 55 mph and the school had voluntarily done its part by shortening the winter term from ten weeks to eight and dialing back the thermostats on campus buildings to a body-numbing 55 degrees.

The date was for Friday night of Carnival but on Tuesday I noticed a little soreness in my throat. By Wednesday it had gotten worse and brought a fever with it. By Thursday it was a real problem. I kept thinking, “Get through the date and then deal with it.”

Thursday night, I was in bad shape. My temperature spiked; I sweat through the sheets on my bed and several doses of aspirin did little to stop the onslaught. Determined to make my date, I stumbled my way to Thayer Hall Friday morning and tried to eat breakfast. I couldn’t even swallow.

I knew I had to go to Dick’s House. Dick’s House was the college infirmary, located just off campus and – at the time – next to Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital.   Weak, bleary-eyed, and light-headed, I left my tray on the table and headed outside. Immediately the cold air froze the sweat on my body. As I stumbled my way down the street, I realized I was in trouble. Although Dick’s House was less than a mile away, I wasn’t sure I could make it.

“You look like, shit, Joey.” I don’t know who said that, but I was sure it was true.

“Dick’s House,” I mumbled and kept walking.

It was tortuous. I reached Sanford House. I made it to the corner of the Kiewit Center and threw up. I looked in all directions, praying for a friendly face or a campus police car. There was nobody. I was so cold.

I put one foot forward. Then another.  And, after an eternity, I made it to Dick’s House. I stumbled up the steps and sat down to wait my turn, trying hard not to pass out in the waiting room.

“Joe?” It was Mary, the attending nurse. She was a friendly soul who liked to chat up her patients. “Bad timing to be here!” She led me back to the examination room and popped a thermometer under by tongue. “You don’t want to miss all the fun.”

She took out the thermometer and frowned. “Must not have shaken it out.” With a few snaps of the wrist she tried again. She put her left palm onto my forehead. “You’ve got a temp.”

This time, when she pulled out the thermometer, her eyes widened and her face grew pale. She leaned out the door and yelled. “DOCTOR!”

In seconds I strapped to a gurney with ice packs placed on top of me.

I woke up on the second floor of Dick’s House. It looked much like the large dormitory in Cider House Rules. (Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England). There were ten beds on each side of the room with little standing curtains to give patients a pretense of privacy. I was the only student there.

The doctor told me I had a severe case of strep throat and that my temperature had spiked to over 105 degrees. “You’re lucky we caught it there. At 106 degrees you start to die.”

A couple visitors came by during the day. I don’t know how they knew where I was. Kim showed up. I apologized for ruining the evening. I remember the Doctor asked her if she was the reason I had waited so long to come in.

On Saturday night I was alone. It was my first Winter Carnival and I was spending it in an infirmary feeling sorry for myself.

Until I heard a tap on the window. At first, I ignored it, but it came again. I climbed out of bed and went to the fire escape window and there were two of my buddies from the freshman football team: Rick Angulo and Wayne Watanuki.

“What are you guys doing here?” I whispered.

“We heard you were all alone so we thought we’d come by and cheer you up.” Rick pushed past me into the room. Wayne was right behind him.

They sat on the bed, beer in hand and we chatted about all the parties they had been to and how many girls were on campus. They heard a noise in the hallway and both of them hid behind the aforementioned curtains.

A nurse poked her head into the room and looked around. Seeing that I was awake, she said, “Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you.”

After she left, they came out of hiding and we laughed quiet laughs. We talked for a few more minutes and then they stood up. “We gotta go,” Wayne said. “It is, after all, Carnival.”

“Thanks guys.”

As they left by the fire escape, Rick leaned over and pressed one of the call buttons. A light came on in the hallway. And then, Rick blew me a kiss, and they disappeared into the night.

After a minute the nurse came back in.

“Did you need something?”

“No.” (That, right there, was my big mistake).

“You didn’t turn on the light?”

“No.”

She frowned and went back down the hall. A little while later I fell asleep.

I woke up with the beam of a flashlight in my face.   It was a Hanover policeman with two of the night nurses behind him. To say that he was angry is an understatement.   He was furious and within an inch of my face.

“If you know something about what’s going on, you better own up to it. We’ve got patients here, elderly patients down the hall from the hospital who are frightened out of their minds. Someone’s been in here stealing drugs. If you know anything about that, now would be a good time to tell me.”

“What?” I sat up. “Stop. No one is stealing drugs. I’ll tell you what happened. A couple of my friends came up the fire escape to see me. I let them in. They didn’t take anything. All they did was turn on that call button on their way out.”

“What are their names?”

“I told you, they didn’t do anything.”

“If you could see the elderly patients down the hall, you wouldn’t say that.”

“I don’t know who frightened those patients, but it wasn’t us.”

“I want their names.”

I shook my head.

“You think this is funny? You are going to be held accountable for this. I’m going to file a report and submit it to your dean. I doubt you’ll be attending this school much longer.” He and the nurses stormed out of the room. I didn’t dare touch the call button again.

They released me on Sunday, just in time to hear about how much fun everyone else had over the weekend.

On Monday, I went back to class. I was taking Calculus 101. Unfortunately, I was hopelessly lost. I couldn’t even understand what Professor Slesnick was saying. I had struggled before my bout with strep, but now, with all the missed classes and the shortened term, I knew I would be hard-pressed to catch up. I needed a tutor and the only way to get one was to visit the dean’s office.

That was my next stop.   At the time, Ralph Manuel was the freshman dean. I had met him several times on campus and he seemed like a good guy. Unfortunately, his office was packed. Fortunately, I only had to wait a minute. I stepped into his office and he waved me to a seat in front of his desk. He wasn’t smiling.

“I’m told that I need to talk to you about getting a tutor.”

His eyebrows shot up. “A tutor? Young man, you don’t need a tutor. You need a lawyer.” He handed me the police report from Saturday night. It made us sound like we were cavorting through the hospital and wheeling panicked senior citizens down the halls against their will.

“None of this is true.” And it wasn’t. It was way beyond embellishment.

“Well, I’m putting this before the College Committee on Standards and Conduct and I expect they will sever you from the school.”

“But, it isn’t true.”

“You can tell that to the committee. They meet on Friday.”

I was furious and panic stricken all at the same time. Thrown out of college? Getting into Dartmouth was the only major goal I had ever had. This was a mistake. And I said so.

“There’s only one thing you can do to avoid it. You give me the names of the two boys who came in through the fire escape and I’ll recommend to the CCSC that you get a reprimand.”

“And my friends will get kicked out.”

“Yes. It’s either you or them.”

I left. I had two brothers on campus. They offered conflicting advice. One said, “Give up the names. It’s your whole future at stake.”

The other said, “Fuck them. They can’t just throw you out without cause. If they do, sue ‘em. They can’t prove anything.”

I went to my two buddies. Both Rick and Wayne stood up to turn themselves in, but I held up my hand. “There’s no guarantee that the committee will grant me the reprimand. I may get kicked out anyway. This way only one of us goes. If you turn yourselves in, it might be all three of us.”

I didn’t tell my folks. I couldn’t come up with a way to start the conversation. But as much as I was panicked about the situation, I was angry. I was angry that the truth had been so twisted, so the nurses could save face. I was angry that no one even listened to my side of the story. And I was furious that I was being asked to turn in friends – who’s only crime was taking pity on me for being left out of Winter Carnival.

Friday came and I was ushered before the CCSC. The room was set up to intimidate.  Two long tables had been arranged in the shape of a “T” with representatives of the faculty, the administration and the student body sitting around it. I sat facing them at the base of the T.

They read the police report aloud. One by one, the faculty raged against “drunken behavior” and “vandalism” on campus. They condemned the flaunting of authority and the recklessness of our actions.   The students on the committee were less judgmental and wanted to know more facts about the case.   None of the administrators spoke until Dean Manuel repeated his demand that I give up the names of my “co-conspirators.”

“I won’t do that.”

Silence took the room. One of the faculty members spoke. “You realize that if you don’t give us those names that we will hold you accountable?”

I nodded. Every face that looked back at me was grim.

“Do you have anything to say to the committee?” the faculty member asked. It sounded like a death sentence.

“Yes. I do. If this police report were true, I would agree with you that we should be thrown out of the college. Having fun at the expense of hospital patients is unconscionable. But that isn’t what happened. Yes, I let two of my friends in through the window at Dick’s house to visit me on Saturday night. They felt sorry for me because I was missing out on Carnival. All we did was talk. They didn’t take anything. They didn’t break anything. And they left. We never saw any other patients from the hospital and never spoke above a whisper. The nurses weren’t there. The policeman wasn’t there. I don’t know why they upset the patients down the hall.

“All I did was open a window. If that is enough for you to throw me out of college, then there is nothing more to say.”

They deliberated for an hour and then let me off with a reprimand. I sent a letter of apology to the head of Dick’s House for inadvertently setting off a scare. I never divulged the names of my two “co-conspirators” although Ralph Manuel for years has pestered me about who they are.

I also never had a date with Kim Carr. That moment, apparently, had passed, never to come again.

About ten years after we graduated, my buddy, Rick Angulo died of leukemia. It was hard to think of someone that full of life taken so young. For a time, he had been our president and it hit our class particularly hard. In a gesture of our grief, we donated the funds to plant a tree in his name on campus, so he’d always have a place of his own there.

When I got the notice about the tree, however, I started to laugh. And in my heart I knew that Rick was laughing too. It wasn’t about the type of tree they chose. It was about where they decided to plant it.

It stands, to this day, on the lawn of Dick’s House.

Bucky F#@king Dent

Say the name, “Bucky Dent” aloud in Boston and you will stop any conversation cold. No one ever says, “Bucky Dent” in Boston. They say, “Bucky Fucking Dent.”

Some might think it odd that the name of a New York Yankee short stop would be so universally recognized in Beantown, but to almost any Bostonian Dent’s name symbolizes eighty-four years of anger and frustration at the Red Sox’s inability to win a World Series.

It was in Boston, October 2, 1978; the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in a tie-breaking playoff game for the American League East Championship. Dent, who was not known for his hitting, batted ninth and had very few homeruns to his name. Yet that night, Dent hit a three-run homer over the Green Monster to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead. They went on to win the game and afterwards the World Series. It was yet another close call with no reward in a city desperate for satisfaction. Worse it was a loss to their perennial rivals from New York.

In Boston, they hate New York. After that night, they hated Bucky Dent.

And, I was there.

Not at the baseball game – I was in town with my older brother Goose. Despite the fact that we are both from New York, we had come for the Harvard v. Dartmouth football game that Saturday and were staying at our fraternity’s headquarters on Bay State Road, commonly known as “The Grand Lodge.”

We had met up with a bunch of Dartmouth guys for the night and ended up in the wee hours at Kenmore Square, only about six blocks from the Grand Lodge. The place was packed with a sea of people, almost all of who were drunk and hungry for an early morning hoagie. There were maybe ten of us, striving to make our way through the crush of bodies to the counter. There were so many people, like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, you couldn’t move anywhere in a straight line. You had to move with the ebb and flow of the crowd’s tide to make your way.

I was about ten yards into the fray when I heard shouting behind me.

“New York sucks! New York SUCKS!” Clearly, the post play-off game fury had set in and some of the folks by the door were taking it personally.

I turned around just in time to see my brother sucker punched in the face by a guy with a buzz cut. Fists started flying and I realized Goose was grossly outnumbered. I looked for my Dartmouth friends to call for help, but they were too far away. I shouted, but they didn’t hear me and I knew if I tried to reach them it would be too late to help Goose.

I headed back. By the time I got to him, a cop had arrived. He was African American. There were about six or seven guys from Boston on one side of him and Goose on the other. I stood next to Goose.

“What’s going on here?” The cop demanded.

“That guy,” shouted Buzz Cut, “shit on Boston.”

“All I said was, “I’m from New York.” Goose wiped his nose to see if there was blood.

Someone in the crowd started taunting the cop, using the N-word.

“Are you going to let him shit on Boston?” Buzz Cut asked.

The cop looked worried. He, like Goose, was outnumbered and the crowd was turning ugly. Again, I heard the N-word.

“I want all of you out of here!” The cop waved his Billy club. “If you aren’t off this street corner in ten seconds, you’ll be arrested.”

I looked at the guys from Boston. They were itching for a fight.

“I’m out.” Goose walked away.

I knew they would follow.

“Wait. Goose! Let’s get arrested.”

“What? No. We’re done here. It’s over.”

“Please, Goose. Stay here. It won’t be so bad.”

I watched him walk away. The Boston guys were laughing. The cop was gone and Goose was heading back towards Bay State Road. I didn’t have a choice. I went with him.

“You know they’re coming.”

“Nah. It’s over.”

But, I could see them in the shadows behind us. I reached into my pocket. I had a lot of loose change. I shook the coins into my hand to give my fist weight and prayed I wouldn’t need it.

We walked the two blocks to Bay State Road and turned left. There was a streetlight on the corner and a party across the street in one of the row houses. People had spilled out of the front door into the yard.

They were still behind us. Four blocks to go. Three. I saw some movement across the street. It looked like a couple of them were running ahead of us.

“Hey, New York.” It was Buzz Cut.

“It’s over.” We kept walking.

“Hey, New York! Talk to me.” They were right behind us.

We turned. “Look –

Both Goose and I got hit from behind.

Now, I don’t know why I didn’t go down. The guy who tried to tackle me hit high and I instinctively bent at the waist. His momentum flipped him over me and he landed on the ground in front of me. I punched him in the face.

Goose had gone down, but I had other worries. I was surrounded.

Now, I’m not going to lie; I was scared. I felt my bowels start to give. (That’s right, I almost literally shit my pants). It was a “fight or flee moment” and it looked like I was going to fight.

They were taunting me. “Fuck you, New York.”

“We are going beat the shit out of you.”

I struggled to control my fear. There was a fence nearby and I figured if I could get my back to it, at least I would see the attacks coming. Unfortunately, one of them stood in my way. I hit him in the face and ran past him to the fence. I turned back – and realized my mistake. Now, I had nowhere to run. They stood in a semi-circle around me.

“How brave. Seven against one.”

Buzz Cut smiled. “That’s right. But, we’re going to kick the shit out of you.”

It was then I remembered the house party down the street. Maybe if I could fight my way there, someone would help. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan. I sized up the guys on that side of the semi-circle and picked the smallest one. I ran right at him and punched him in the face. To my surprise, he went right down and I sprinted past him.

They were on my heels. I got to the sidewalk and felt someone grab my shoulder. I turned. It was Buzz Cut. We threw a flurry of punches, none of which seemed to land, but it gave me some space. I back-pedaled. Another flurry and I ran to the corner. They followed, The streetlight was one block up. It was Buzz Cut doing all the fighting. He chased as I back-pedaled. We’d exchange blows and I’d keep moving. One more block to go. I got about halfway down the street when Buzz Cut picked up a garbage can and threw it at my head. I lifted a hand to block it and Buzz Cut tackled me. As I went down, the others descended on me and started kicking. I covered up my head and hoped someone from the party would see us.

They did.

“Hey! What the fuck?! What are you doing to that guy?”

After a few moments the kicking stopped and a hand pulled me up. It was Goose.

“You all right?”

“Yeah.” The guys from the party had Buzz Cut, both arms behind his back and none of his friends in sight. He was younger than I expected. And, it was clear he was scared, expecting me to hit him.

“Get the fuck out of here.”

They let him go and he disappeared into the night. I turned back to Goose.

“What happened to you?” He looked untouched.

“The guy who tackled me, hit me in the head. I think he broke his hand. When I got up, he ran away. I followed you down here.”

And that was it. Other than a cut on my cheek and some bruised ribs, I was okay. Our buddies caught up with us later. They wanted to chase down the Boston guys, but I knew they were long gone.

After that, I never had any sympathy for Boston’s losing streak.   Although I have friends from Boston, I didn’t cheer for them in 2004 when they finally won the Series.

If asked where I stood on the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees, I would pause and smile and then say I was with Bucky Dent…Bucky Fucking Dent.

That always ended the conversation.

Pre-existing Condition Part II. Fear and Loathing in the Nation’s Capitol

Merging your company with another can be a nightmare. And I was living one.

Sure, on paper it made sense. After downsizing our office to put us back in the black, it was easier to reclaim our standing in the marketplace through acquisition than trusting a slow, incremental-growth strategy. But, a merger-gone-wrong had been what started our troubles in the beginning, so I had little enthusiasm for another. I advocated for going it alone.

But it wasn’t my company and there were few other jobs out in the marketplace, so I acquiesced to our New York patrons and chose to make it work. My office was folded into a new firm, which was to operate as a separate stand-alone company. Given that our newly acquired partners were on an earn-out, I would no longer be in charge.

It wasn’t the best of circumstances but I had lived through worse. I made only one stipulation; due to my experience with another small, independent company, I insisted that the folks in our office have the option to keep their retirement and health insurance with the parent company in New York. They agreed and with the stroke of pen, I had a new boss and worked for a new company. We packed up our desks, moved into their space and began the process of integrating our business.

To make a long story short, it didn’t work. We had different business models, different management styles and different approaches to the marketplace. And, as happens in these types of cases, the internal politics grew uglier as the situation deteriorated.

Unfortunately, I was the guy caught in the middle. The management of the new venture treated me as an outsider – potentially, even a spy for the parent company – while the folks in New York were suspicious of my up-front opposition and worried about my commitment to the project. It was a no-win situation.

It didn’t take me long to realize just how vulnerable I was. I was a convenient foil for everyone to blame as the merger struggled forward. It was like I had the word “scapegoat” stamped on my forehead. One misstep and I was out of a job.

And I could not afford to lose it. I had a wife, three kids, a dog and a mortgage. I had to work. In truth, I wanted the merger to succeed. It had to succeed.

Then I found out I had Rheumatoid Arthritis.

I had gone out for a run around the block with my oldest son to work off some of my extra weight. As a former athlete, I was shocked when I couldn’t keep up with him. I pushed it, trying to chase him down, but nothing I could do would close the gap. I came home stunned. My son was only ten years old.

Other problems surfaced. After my ninety-minute, morning commute into town, I had trouble getting out of my car and walking to the elevator. On a business trip, I couldn’t lift my suit bag out of the trunk of my car. I thought I had slipped a disk. That summer, I couldn’t push myself out of a beach chair. It was as if I had turned ninety over night.

For those who don’t know it, RA is a horrible, painful, autoimmune disease that slowly disfigures and cripples those it afflicts. RA sends the immune system into overdrive until it attacks and destroys the joints of the body itself. There is no cure.

I found a doctor who told me what was wrong and was given the standard treatment for the disease: a regular dose of methotrexate (a cancer drug) and an anti-inflammatory in an effort to slow the progress of the disease.

It didn’t work. My body ignored the benefits of most of the drugs they gave me (and we ran through a number). My doctor said I should contact a patient group and perhaps get some counseling. My body felt like it was rusting. My movements started to slow. I had trouble with simple things like turning a doorknob, climbing the stairs and even walking across a room.

I was thirty-eight, felt ninety and was scared out of my mind. How much longer would I be able to work? How would I pay for my kids’ education? How would I pay the mortgage, the medical bills, our day-to-day expenses?

But, for the moment, I couldn’t focus on the bigger questions.  I had more immediate concerns.  I had to keep this job. I knew what a pre-existing condition meant and was suddenly stuck with the knowledge I would always have one.

I chose to keep the illness a secret.  I refused to tell anyone at work. I didn’t dare trust them. It would be too easy to isolate me – leave me out of new business meetings, or take away my direct reports – all in the name of being “compassionate about my suffering.”

It wasn’t being paranoid. It was being realistic. I couldn’t afford a gap in coverage. If I lost my job I would be uninsurable unless I found an employer large enough to wave the restriction – and one magnanimous enough ignore the implications of my disease.

I was stuck. So, I suffered in silence, steeled myself against the pain every time I shook someone’s hand or opened a heavy door. I made an art out of “sauntering” to disguise the slowness of my walk.

As to the merger, I had to find a way to de-escalate my vulnerability. There is an old business saying, “Keep your head down and let the elephants fight.” It became my mantra for the next two years. I took myself out of the role of middleman by suggesting that the folks in New York deal directly with our new partners. I kept away from the firm politics, kept my clients happy and kept the business coming in.

It took two years, but my luck finally turned. The five-year earn out was up and the folks in New York had come to see the merger for what it was. They jettisoned the acquisition of their own accord and asked me to retake the lead of the Washington office.

I had outlived the merger. And because I had kept my health insurance with the parent company, I did not have to reapply for coverage after the acquisition failed.

I was also fortunate that new medicines were discovered to treat and manage RA. Wonderful drugs like Enbrel and Humira gave me a new lease on life. I was like the Tin Man after Dorothy applied the oil. It was a miracle of modern medicine, albeit an expensive one as it cost an additional $1,500/month. But compared to a wheel chair it was not much of a choice at all.

I worked for the same company for twenty-five years. Now, there are several reasons for such loyalty. I was challenged often and made pretty steady progress up the corporate ladder (the above situation excepted). I liked the people I worked with and trusted their skills. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being afraid of losing my insurance. As long as I was employed where I was employed, I’d be safe.

Many years after the merger, I left the company and struck out on my own with a couple of clients. I was able to skirt the pre-existing condition issue by keeping my company’s insurance through COBRA. And due to a change in the law under the Clinton Administration, I was able to keep my COBRA past its one-year limitation – as long as I agreed to pay both the company’s share of the bill and mine. It was incredibly expensive, but with a family still dependent on me, it was the only option I had.

After nearly a quarter century with a pre-existing condition hanging over my head, the issue became moot under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). I finally was able to purchase insurance in the open market. It was a huge relief – a stunning relief.   Free at last!

When I let go of my COBRA-created insurance plan, I received a notice advising me that that once the plan ended, it was gone; I wouldn’t be able to get it back. But, I was confident that Congress wouldn’t take back a program they had extended to all Americans, especially, since it is so much like the benefit they receive under their federal employee health insurance.

Now, of course, I’m beginning to have some doubts. Will I be able to continue my coverage if Congress and the President repeal the ACA as promised?  It hasn’t gone unnoticed that I have to “reapply” for my insurance every year in the open market.

They have vowed to replace ACA with a better plan. The question I have is, “Better for whom?” Believe me. It’s not a paranoid question; it’s a realistic one.

Pre-existing Condition – Part I

In October of 1982 I was all of twenty-seven years old and living a good life. I was two years into my marriage; my wife was six months pregnant; I had a good job with an up and coming public affairs firm in town and we had just bought a townhouse in the suburbs where we lived with a one-year-old puppy named Sophie.

My wife worked on Capitol Hill. Her boss, unfortunately, had just lost his reelection bid in a tough Republican primary, but since my wife had expressed a desire to be a stay-at-home mom, we took his loss as a sign and redid our budget using just my salary. We had enough – just enough – for us to make ends meet.

My wife’s pregnancy had been a bit challenging due to an undiagnosed bout with gestational diabetes. But thanks to the help of a specialist from NIH and a competent nutritionist, she was able to severely restrict her diet and get her sugar levels under control. Her health rebounded. All was good and the future looked bright.

That is, until November.

It started one day with a dunning notice from my wife’s doctor saying that our health insurance company had rejected his invoice. I assured him it was a misunderstanding and that I would take care of it. My firm had great health insurance coverage; it was one of the bigger perks used to recruit new employees. When I called the insurance company, however, I was told my company had failed to maintain its insurance premiums for the past several months and had been dropped from coverage.

There had to be some mistake. I called upstairs to the CFO and was told he would have to check it out. The next morning, I was summoned to an emergency meeting of our senior managers and told that the firm was going out of business. There would be no year-end bonus, no severance and no further salary distribution. Our doors were closing and the bank had frozen all the company’s assets. We were asked to continue to work for our clients in the hopes that a white knight investor might buy up the company’s debt and save all our jobs.

That, of course, didn’t happen.

So, let me recap. My wife and I had both just lost our jobs. She was seven months into a difficult pregnancy and we were no longer covered by our health insurance. Oh, and on top of that, we were likely just months away from losing our home.

That’s when I first learned the term, “pre-existing condition.” I called every insurance agent in town begging to find coverage. Although every one of them seemed reasonable they all gave me the same answer. Regardless of whose fault it was, my wife’s pregnancy was now uninsurable. Even if I were to get a new job, the pregnancy itself was “pre-existing” and wouldn’t be covered under the new policy.

I started to panic. We had enough saved to cover the cost of the delivery, but if there was a problem – if she needed a C-section or there was a complication with the baby – we had no means to cover the additional cost. We were – to put it mildly – screwed. I told my wife I would figure something out, but I knew in my heart there was little I could do.

I started using one credit card to pay as many bills as I could in an effort to horde cash. I kept the second one clear so I could pay off the first one when its bill came due at the end of the month.   I figured I could rinse and repeat for one more month, but only had two months to find another job.

And it takes time to find a job. I updated my resume and set up lunches with anyone who could help me. News hadn’t yet gotten out about the firm’s closing and I knew enough not to share how financially vulnerable I was. Employers can smell desperation in a job interview. I would have to bluff my way through this crisis.

And then, an amazing thing happened. I got a call from my wife’s chief of staff.

It turns out that Members of Congress hold their jobs until the new congress is seated. My wife’s boss – and therefore my wife – had a job through January 4th of the New Year. And because Members of Congress and their staff participate in the Federal Employee Health Care Program, she was eligible for coverage during the up-coming “open season.”

“How does that help?” I asked. “She has a pre-existing condition.”

I was told that the pool of federal employees is so large, the health insurance companies wave the pre-existing condition clause as a means to compete for customers.

So, even though my wife would be employed for only four days in the New Year, she was eligible for coverage under the federal employees’ open season. The coverage would only last a month, but all the plans offered a month-long grace period. Our baby was due at the end of January. Even if we delivered late, we would be covered.

As it turns out, my oldest was born by C-section on January 25th after a grueling and difficult delivery. Although exhausted, the mother and baby were fine. I too, counted myself lucky in that I found a job in January. Although saddled with three months worth of debt, I was happy to keep the roof over our heads.

In the years that followed, the U.S. health care system would be fiercely debated on Capitol Hill by both the left and the right. Hyperbole was rampant as each side tried to position itself as “holier than thou” alternately calling for universal coverage and keeping the government from stepping between patients and their doctors.

In all these debates, I was frustrated by the fact that Members of Congress never had a true picture of what our health care was like. They never had to worry about their health care coverage. For them it was always an abstract problem not a personal one. They had great coverage under a great plan. I didn’t begrudge them for that; I envied them.

But, for me, my problems with pre-existing conditions were only just beginning.

Next up: Pre-existing Condition – Part II.