We’ve lived in our current house for 18 years and had the same phone number for that period. But about two years ago, we began to receive frequent (a few a month) phone calls asking for “Nicole Berman.”

We don’t know anyone by that name. And I’ve told the callers that.

But apparently, Nicole may owe some money to creditors. A variety of them, too, based on the calls, which have come from rent-to-owns, credit card companies and other unidentified 1-877 numbers.

Maybe Nicole once had our phone number. Maybe she accidentally transposed a few digits on an application and it’s subsequently been picked up by other companies desperately seeking Nicole. You would think, though, that if just a digit had been transposed, there would still be someone by her name living in my area code, but there does not seem to be. I’ve checked. I mean, I did want to pass these messages along to her . . .

There are other, more nefarious explanations, I guess. I prefer not to think about those.

So I’m resigned to answering calls for Nicole Berman. They interrupt housecleaning or naps on the occasional day off. They take me away from cooking or laundry, pull me out of the shower too soon, bring me in from weeding, or just make me get up from a good book. At the risk it might actually be someone I want to talk to, I generally answer.

I don’t like getting her calls. But what I really don’t like is when the caller does not believe that he or she has the incorrect phone number for his/her prey.

“Well, do you know Nicole?” last week’s caller asked me, after I’d patiently explained there was no one by that name at our residence, never had been, and that we’d had this phone number for nearly 20 years.

“Are you sure you’re not Nicole Berman and trying to avoid talking to Acme credit?” bullied another. “That never works, you should know.”

Sometimes it’s a tinny electronic voice in our voice mail: “Wee r trying to reach Neecole-eh Berrrrman.”

“If you hear from Nicole,” another creditor sighed, “please give her our message.” Alrigghtty then.

I saw an ad recently for how to deal with creditors that bully and harass. I just don’t know if it applies to you when you’re not actually the debtor . . .

I don’t know Nicole. Really and truly. But I wish she’d pay her damned bills. Or get her credit report data up to date. And if I ever do come across her, she may get a bill from me for administrative costs. My secretarial skills do not come cheaply.

Now, about Ron Smith. We got four — count ’em, FOUR! — calls for him yesterday from Citicard . . . .


When you hope it’s a joke — but it’s not . . .

First read the story of Bongo last week, and I thought it had to be a joke. After all, it was the New York Post, so . . .
But today’s Post reported “a monkey miracle — Bongo has been found!”
No surprise, an “Upper East Side couple” was reported to be “grieving over the loss of a stuffed toy monkey they’ve raised like a son the past decade . . . “
How do you raise a friggin’ stuffed animal? Do you teach it values? Teach it to talk and walk and read? Feed it, change it, bathe it, walk the floor with it night after night? Hug it when it’s both bad and good? Love it no matter what it does? Cry with it when the other stuffed monkeys are mean in the schoolyard?
47-year-old head case Bonni Marcus said she “prayed” for the toy’s return. She and her 58-year-old beau lost the Beanie Baby while they were en route to dinner (at the asylum, one hopes) on Aug. 1. An unemployed man in Brooklyn found it on top of a parking meter and reunited Bongo with his  “parents” (even the Post used quote marks, thank heaven) after they posted fliers and offered a reward. The Post called the reunion “emotional.”

Bongo and his 'mommy'

When you think it can’t really get worse, the story wraps up with the wacko couple and the monkey “headed back to Manhattan to bar hop before returning home so Bongo could again sleep in the bed it shares with them. Bongo will also be reunited with his identical Beanie Baby brothers — named Doe, Ray and Me — who Marcus said, ‘were also suffering.'”
Any parent who has done the real work of parenting should be incensed at this story and the attention the mainstream media (well, ok, the Post) gave it when there are living, human children being abused every minute, going hungry to bed every night, and sleeping in cars, rather than a bed, being dragged up by a biological sperm and/or egg donor. There are living animals put to sleep every  minute of the day because a family could no longer afford to feed them or pay the vet bills, or because an elderly owner died.
Bonni could have helped a couple of breathing mutts or kitties draw a few more breaths with that $500; she could have fed a homeless family for nearly a month on it. Yes, it’s her money to throw away. And there are idiots out there who paid that much and more for Beanie Babies when they were a collector craze.
But you don’t get to say you “raised” it, “prayed” for it and had stuffed animals who “suffered.” That’s just wrong.

A goddess, I’m not.

First, the qualifier: I like LEGOs a lot. I should own stock in the company given all of the sets and loose figs we’ve purchased for our two kids in the past 20 years. On his 16th birthday this year, youngest child looked over his mature gifts and said, “No LEGOs?” So you don’t need to sell me on their popularity, their educational value, etc.

Having said that, the news that NASA today is launching the Mission Juno satellite with LEGO figures as part of its payload made me think, “WTF?”

Mission Juno will spend five-years traveling 400 million miles to Jupiter. The usual scientific reasons for the voyage are cited. I won’t bore you with the details. But whether it’s in the name of whimsy or science, the satellite is carrying “a crew” of three LEGO figurines. The 1.5 inch tall figures depict Galileo, the Roman god Jupiter, and his wife, Juno. (Galileo was credited with making discoveries about the planet of Jupiter, including finding four of its moons, and the little Galileo figure holds a telescope. Juno has a magnifying glass and Jupiter a lightning bolt.)

News stories report that LEGO is partnering with NASA to promote children’s interest in science, math, engineering and technology. I like that. My kids aren’t strong in those subjects, and I’m not sure LEGO could have changed that, but still. It’s nice to know SOMEONE, even if it’s a foreign toy company, is thinking about the math and science skills of American kids.

But my worry is this. Let’s say there’s some kind of life on Jupiter. The satellite crashes and the aliens open the wreckage to find this. Exactly. Anyone else think that even aliens would say, “WTF?”?

Not that Juno’s not a stunner of a LEGO, but do I want the aliens of Jupiter to envision Earth creatures this way? I think not. This is what we decided to tell them about earthlings?

We shoulda sent the Muppets.

Thinking about that quilt of many colors

For reasons I can’t really fathom, I’ve been thinking about AIDS lately, and the fact that my kids have grown up  hearing about it as a disease that’s manageable, for the most part. They don’t have a sense of the death-sentence and leprosy-like stigma it carried just 25 year ago.

I realize AIDS is still a crisis in other parts of the world, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia, but the incidence of new cases here has dropped dramatically, and many persons have now lived several decades with the disease.

Fear spread like wildfire in the early 1980s when AIDS first reared its very ugly head. In 1981 my father was a patient for about 5 months at NYU Medical Center, the same year that the first case of the as-yet-unnamed or -understood disease appeared. We heard a number of fearful conversations in hallways about precautions among medical personnel — in New York, it was fast to hit the radar screen.

It became evident quickly that the primary sufferers of this new disease were gay men and intravenous drug users, and there was a lot of trash talk about God wreaking revenge on sinners. I heard it in my own neighborhood, workplace and from a few family  members and friends. Looking back, I want to believe that panic and fear made people more unkind. 

I remember reading somewhere at the time that sexuality had changed for my generation. Now, when you slept with someone,  you were indeed sleeping with everyone they’d ever slept with. I found that a very sobering concept; I didn’t like most of my boyfriends’ exes to begin with . . .

We found ourselves eying people on the subway and buses, in restaurants and bars. Was that mark on a man’s neck Karposi’s sarcoma, the ugly lesions we’d seen photos of on AIDS patients? Friends and co-workers who lost weight rapidly were discussed with suspicion. It sounds like a crazy time, but it was. We knew so little, and it took a long time for fear-mongering to dissipate.

A few friends from high school and college who had come out in the late 1970s and 1980s were often on my mind at the time, as I wondered if and how they were affected.

But my first up-close-and-personal encounter with AIDS came in 1985. My beloved godfather, an eminent banker in his 50s, long married, best friend to my father, began to lose weight at an alarming pace. He became withdrawn, quiet, distant. It was clear he was ill, but he would speak to no one about it. And no one wanted to invade his privacy. He entered the hospital in December and died in early January. Heart failure due to complications from HIV was listed as cause of death.

I visited him several times in the hospital. No one was saying he wouldn’t come home. No one mentioned “AIDS.” But we were asked to don gowns and masks before we entered his room, something I did not want to do and sometimes just would not. He scolded me weakly once when I leaned down to kiss him goodbye on his forehead. Hospital staff sometimes refused to enter his room, leaving food trays and other deliveries outside his door. My parents and I suspected what no one was saying aloud.

At his wake, some of his longtime banking executive friends were scarce. The rumors had gone around the office. There was hushed, gossipy chatter in corners about what had killed this once-vibrant man, an athlete and sophisticated world traveler. And no one who might have known how the disease was contracted came forward with information. Even his doctors remained in the dark. Our family recalled that a prominent Park Avenue dentist he had visited for dental work had died of AIDS; it had been reported in the newspapers. But why my godfather never came forward to discuss his illness with even his wife or best friend remains a mystery.

It didn’t matter. We mourned him the same, no matter the cause. In the years since I have so often paused to wish he was still with us to see me married, to know my children, to invite me to go skiing or sit at out Thanksgiving table again. He was the first man who ever sent me a dozen roses, when I was 15. (A girl never forgets those things). I can still smell his Old Spice Lime and hear his hearty “Hello, love!” when he hugged me. And I still weep from time to time.

In the years that followed, there would be more deaths. A co-worker. A priest I knew. My favorite bartender at my favorite Italian restaurant. Two high school chums.

Jim Ryan, two years my senior, had always been kind, something of a high school mentor. When he came out to me in 1978,  it didn’t affect our friendship. But a few years later, high on his increasingly visible role as the head of Georgetown University’s gay and lesbian student group, he disparaged my heterosexual lifestyle, and that was it for me. Acceptance works both ways.

In a 1980 lawsuit against Georgetown, Jim blamed the university for contributing to an atmosphere of physical and verbal abuse against gays. He was one of two plaintiffs in the landmark case, an 8-year-battle that the university ultimately lost and which cost it dearly in alumni dollars and in legitimacy as a Catholic institution.

Jim lived just three years past that legal victory. I know almost nothing about his last years and his death from AIDS. An item in our alumni newsletter and a couple of obits noting his role in the Georgetown case marked his death.

Another high school buddy and former crush, Peter, left a more visible legacy. A Philadelphia medical clinic was rededicated in his honor, and each year Albert Einstein School of Medicine makes an award to a student in his name. That student is cited for his or her compassion, one of Peter’s hallmarks. 

Peter was everyone’s friend in high school. He loved to dance, and I can still recall being twirled through the cafeteria as we practiced the latest disco moves learned the previous weekend. He was chief resident at Einstein, popular with patients and staff. But what he saw as the needs of the gay community called out to him. Today, the Mazzoni Center offers healthcare, drug and alcohol counseling and referral, housing assistance and mental health care for the gay population of Philadelphia. Peter died of AIDS in 1990, but many of his friends and co-workers still recall his humanity, kindness and sense of humor. I miss his sweetness above all.

My mother used to ask me if Peter was a romantic candidate for me — she adored him. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I suspected well back in our high school days that I wasn’t the right gender. Years later, after his death, I did tell her he’d died of AIDS. Her shock was pretty minimal. After my godfather’s death, all of our preconceived ideas about who died from AIDS went out the window.

I was working for the church throughout many of these years, and I was sometimes called upon by my gay friends and family members to defend the church’s position on homosexuality. I never tried to do so. I’m not a theologian. But I did, and still do sometimes, tell the story of Cardinal John O’Connor, who was called out by the gay community on many occasions for what was labeled  “intolerance and bigotry.” 

Some of us who worked for him knew about the following, but it didn’t become common knowledge until after his death in 2000. Back in the heyday of the AIDS epidemic, the Catholic Church in NYC really led the way in care and treatment for AIDS patients. St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village was an acknowledged and lauded treatment center, and several hospices sprang up specifically for AIDS patients that were run by the church.

Very early on Sunday mornings, Cardinal O’Connor would often rise, don black pants and a cardigan, leave his Roman collar and episcopal cross and chain at his residence, and walk six or seven blocks across 50th Street to an area west of Times Square where one such hospice was located. He would move from room to room, feeding breakfast to residents, emptying bedpans, helping some of the men bathe and dress. It’s my understanding that very few of the patients knew who he was. He was just a caring volunteer.

He would return in time to dress for the big 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The morning’s activities got him into the right frame of mind to celebrate Mass, he told friends and family.

I won’t talk or argue the church’s positions on homosexuality with anyone. I respect the teaching. I have lots of feelings and opinions, but they’re mine. Cardinal O’Connor taught the doctrine, but he also lived the faith. He loved the human being, no matter if he saw them as a sinner or not.

AIDS taught me a lot about perceptions and about judging others. There is so much judgment in today’s world — maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about AIDS lately and all the good people lost to it. We need less judgment and more Christian charity in every arena.