I’ve suffered from panic attacks most of my life, some self-induced and some not.  It was Regina’s 35th birthday party. We drove up with our neighbors Maria and Kevin to Phoenicia, New York, a little town upstate, two and a half hours from the city and home to the Esopus River and the Town Tinker inner tube rental company. It’s not far from Peekamoose Campground, where we pitched our tents. We were well prepared: a portable Weber grill, chicken, steaks, potatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, hash brownies, pot, and enough beer to drown an army.

The next morning, we were up at 7 a.m., boiling coffee on a small gas stove. Maria and Kevin, Regina and I sat in a circle on folding beach chairs in the woods, drinking coffee and tearing into our hash brownies.

We stood in the ticket line at the Town Tinker tube rental, moving forward single file like new army recruits. After signing a disclaimer that we were responsible for our own death, drowning, or dismemberment, we received our battle gear: a giant rubber tube from a tractor or school bus and, of course, our faded orange life vests, just like the ones that are stuffed under every seat on the Staten Island Ferry. Then we waited for the bus that would take us up river. It was a, clear, calm Catskill morning.

“I think I’m feeling the brownies,” Maria smiled.

We all looked at each other and grinned while riding in an old school bus up a mountain road. We got off the bus and dragged our big tubes down a rocky path to the calm Esopus River. We pulled our tubes into the water. I tied a cooler of beer to my tube, and inside the cooler was a plastic bag with a joint, some matches, and cigarettes. We said goodbye to the shoreline and floated happily down the Esopus Creek.


I was 19 years old, down and out in Brigg, Switzerland. It was 1981 and I was hitchhiking to France where I hoped I could get work as a migrant farm hand picking grapes. I was down to about eight dollars; France couldn’t come soon enough. She had crazy red hair down to her ass in front of some small bakery. She gave me a big smile. I asked her for a match, and she struck a wooden match that lit my last cigarette. An hour later, I was having dinner with her and her boyfriend. We drank every beer and every drop of liquor in that apartment. It turned out she was an artist and a big fan of Mozart. She played an old record and explained. At first, the river is calm: flutes, violins. Then the river gets rougher—flutes, violins, horns—then the white water appears. More instruments, then crashing cymbals, and then calm water, flutes, and violins.

The sky just went dark—it was weird—and then came rain and lightning. I hadn’t finished my first beer when the cooler I was towing behind my tube snapped free and was sucked away along with the joint, matches, and cigarettes.

The calm water had turned rough. My vast experience in music appreciation taught me I was fucked. More horns, drums; fuck the violins, the cymbals were coming. Regina and I got separated from everyone else. Then I lost sight of her. Her last words were, “I’m 35 and still alive!” The lightning crackled overhead. The river made a sharp turn and I saw a waterfall ahead. It was cymbal-crashing time. I was tripping my brains out without the beer to take the edge off the THC that was poking at the paranoid part of my brain. I was fucked and I was fucked, stoned fucked. Fuck, why me, was my last thought as the lightning cracked, cymbals smashing. I went over the waterfall backwards without the tube. It was as though I was trapped in a washing machine with giant boulders inches from my face. There were men on the edge of the river throwing me safety lines, but I couldn’t grab any. I was gonna drown tripping my fucking brains out. Where the fuck was Regina? Turn this Mozart shit off, please. Suddenly, an orange line landed in the water. I grabbed it hard and pulled myself straight up against the sheer boulders of the river’s edge.

“I got you, kid. Don’t worry.”

It was a skinny guy with a beard and a peg leg. Not a cheap-ass pirate wooden peg leg, but a high-tech graphite plastic thing he had jammed in a crack of the two rocks.

“You’re almost there kid, hang on.”

He saved my life. I shook his hand.

“You got a cigarette?” I asked.

“I don’t smoke.”

Fuck, why me. I start walking through the woods still wearing my faded orange life preserver. I made it to the road, and thank God there was a cop. I started walking towards him. The cymbals stopped crashing, the lightning stopped cracking, the sun was out. It was violins and flutes. I wanted to run up to him and scream, “Help me officer. I’ve lost my wife. I’m tripping and there’s a classical music soundtrack that won’t stop playing in my head. Please help me!” I eye the gun and the flashing lights of his squad car. Abort, abort, my brain is screaming. I walk past the cop and up to the first tattooed guy I see.

“Got a smoke?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, and he handed me a Marlboro Light. I broke off the filter. I never liked “light” cigarettes. What’s the fucking point?

“Can I have a light?,” I asked.

There’s a long flute solo; he lights the cigarette. I walked for two miles down the road in my orange life vest until I finally found Regina. She was shaking, white and pale. I pulled her out of the river.


A couple years later, it was 5:15 a.m. I was hungover. I was going to work on the A train. I started hearing the flutes, then the violins, the horns pipe in, and I knew the cymbals were coming. I started clearing my throat, shifting nervously. Trying to read the paper. The words wouldn’t stay still. The words were like notes in that fucking Mozart song. Cymbals started crashing, I couldn’t breathe, I was cracking up. The old nurse sitting across from me knew it; so did the Indian guy next to me. I was surrounded by white water. Fucking subway, no way out. I tried thinking of scenes from porno films in my head to distract me. It didn’t work. I was choking, I was gagging, I was having a heart attack, maybe a fucking stroke, I was cracking up. Then suddenly, the instruments got softer, slower, and there were less of them. The river was flowing slower; it was the flutes and violins again. The subway doors opened. I walked up the stairs to Columbus Circle and lit a cigarette. It was a clear, calm Manhattan morning.