Sunday, September 13, 2020

Jiving Miss Daisy

Plaquemine is a city of roughly 7,100 people located in Iberville Parish, Louisiana.

I had never heard of the place until recently and I have since learned that the city, which is also the parish seat, hosts an annual International Arcadian Festival that draws people from all over the world.

Plaquemine is also known for a number of antebellum structures, and is the birthplace of the jazz pianist and composer Clarence Williams, who recorded such classics as “I Can’t Dance, I’ve Got Ants in My Pants,” and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You, Rascal, You.”

But I know of Plaquemine because it is apparently the home of Daisy Louise Tendergrass.

I recently connected with Miss Tendergrass while researching a story about a large company, which I will not name, that is in deep financial trouble due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I wanted to get into touch with a particular industry analyst but I had virtually nothing in the way of contact information except for his Twitter account.

I almost never use Twitter, despite its massive popularity.

It seems like every other week some celebrity or political figure will say something crass or stupid and then be forced to apologize, pull down the tweet, and usually shut down their account.

I’ve got enough aggravation with Facebook and Instagram—I should ask for more?

And now with this idiot in the White House, I have really come to dislike this particular platform.

However, on this day I was stuck, so I left a message on the analyst’s Twitter account asking to call me at his earliest convenience. And that was the end of that. Or so I thought.

My boss also said he would patch me in with other sources for the story. All I needed was one of two and we could nail down the story.

My phone rang about 15 minutes later and when I answered, this rather strange voice poured into my ear. I noticed Plaquemine, LA., as the caller’s hometown and wrongly, as it turned out, assumed my boss had referred her to me.

“Hey, Rob, how the hell are ya?”

Okay, not the usual greeting, but maybe this person is a bit of a free spirit. I pressed on.

“Could I have your name?”

“Miss Daisy Louise Tendergrass.”

I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, so I asked her to repeat name, noting that I have a hearing problem.

“OKAY, I’LL TRY TO SPEAK UP!”

That I heard. Pressing on, I asked her for affiliation, what company she worked for.

“I can’t legally disclose that information.”

“Well,” I said, “then I can’t quote you.”

“Why not?

“People will want to know who you are.”

“Exactly,” she said, “and that’ll cause investigative journalism to happen on your part, and you can unravel, who is Daisy Tendergrass.”

You know, interviewing can be a lot like dating. You really want to believe the person you’re speaking with is sane and helpful.

And sometimes you might ignore some early warning signs in hopes of getting that killer quote.

Get Me Rewrite!

But make no mistake. I was getting quite uncomfortable and it had nothing to do with ants in my pants. It was Daisy making me crazy.

“What is your title?”

“Phd.”

“Really…?”

“I would not lie to you, sir.”

Of course, you wouldn’t…

“Where do you work?”

“I work for the morgue.”

“As where dead people go?”


“Indeed.”

Now keep in mind, I still thought this person was an expert in her field and that my editor had given her my contact information.

“Sir, are you judging me right now?”

Me, judge you? Oh, gosh, no. That’s for the folks at the state mental ward to do.

“What do you think about this company?”

“I think it’s not very good

“Do you want to elaborate?”

“It’s not good.”

And then there comes that moment in both dating and interviewing when you have to pull the plug and send this carcass off to the morgue with a rousing chorus of “I’ll be Glad When You’re Dead, You, Rascal You.”

“Well, I really appreciate your time on this,” I said. “And we’ll talk to you soon.”

I hung up and shot off a message to my boss demanding to know who this lunatic was and why he had given her my number.

“She was stoned, for Christ’s sake!” I Slacked at the top of my voice.

“What are you talking about?!?” was his response.

Really? Then I remembered that message I left on the analyst’s Twitter account.

Apparently, this person had nothing else better to do than dial a random number she saw on Twitter and harass a total stranger.

Paranoia started to take over. If one nut called me, would there be others? Is there a field of daisies just waiting to crank call me into the next millennium?

I finally got in touch with the analyst and finished the story. I never heard from Miss Daisy again.

I’m looking forward to the day when the pandemic passes and we can travel again without fear.

I have a long list of places I want to visit, but I’m in no rush to visit Plaquemine any time soon.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Divided We Weep

My God, how we have failed these people.

Today is the 19th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, 19 years since I stood across the street from the World Trade Center and watched hijacked jetliners crash into the North and South Towers.

Every year since that nightmare I do my very best to return to the spot where I stood on Liberty Plaza in 2001, outside a now-shuttered Brooks Brothers store, and pray for the people we lost.

That was my father’s 80th birthday, a beautiful late summer day without a cloud in the sky.

I was working at Goldman Sachs and the plan was to go home, meet up with my sister and take our father to dinner.

And then the gates of Hell opened up.

I couldn’t get down there today because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is especially painful since my office is located in the financial district and under normal circumstances I would be within walking distance of the ceremonies.

I did listen to the reading of the victims’ names on television. I had to do that much and, as always it brings tears to my eyes when I think of the lives behind the names, the lost dreams, and the shattered families.

But even this most sacred event has been marred by controversy, when a decision to use pre-recorded voices this year due to the pandemic outraged a group of victims’ loved ones who held a separate event with a live reading of the names.

Dueling memorials? We can’t even mourn our dead without fighting.

Every year I hear the speeches about how the victims will never be forgotten, how we must learn a lesson from that terrible day, that we should love and respect each other.

And then every year humanity seems to take another step backward.

The 9/11 attacks were used as a reason to launch the disastrous war in Iraq and to justify everything from tax cuts for corporations to the repeal of environmental laws.

Today the country is more divided than it has ever been in my lifetime.

Worse than during the Vietnam War; worse than after George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” debacle.

We are a house divided and well on our way to becoming a house demolished.

The presidential election campaign is become more bitter, more hateful with every passing day, the economy is collapsing; and the response to the coronavirus, which, like 9/11, should bring us together, has been used as yet another political wedge to drive us further apart.

And I'm not excusing myself by any means. I still carry grudges, I still complain about all sorts of picayune crap when one of the most important lessons of 9/11 was to be grateful for every second of life.

White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci says we have to hunker down for the winter to beat Covid-19.

But we’ll never escape all this hatred, no matter where we hide.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Shoe Fly

“When the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the belt fits, the belly is forgotten; and when the heart is right, ‘for’ and ‘against’ are forgotten.” – Chaunt Tzu

When I was a child, my father used to take me to Marty’s Shoe store on Fifth Avenue each year for a new set of footwear.

I remember Marty and his employees as these kindly old guys—they looked old to me, anyway--who knew every single thing there was to know about shoes.

I’d sit down, get measured me up, do a brief walk up and down the store to make sure the shoes fit properly while my dad shot the breeze with Marty, and then we’d leave with a new pair of Stride Rites.

I’ll admit this is not the most exciting memory I could share, but these mundane recollections are becoming more important to me as the years go by and I realize how precious they really are.

I hadn’t thought about Marty until my favorite pair of walking shoes wore down to a Charley Chaplin level of disrepair and forced me out of my Covid-induced incarceration for a new pair of kicks and an important lesson in mindfulness.

I’ve tried to avoid brick-and-mortar shopping as much possible since the start of the coronavirus doomsday tour.

I limit my purchasing escapades to the essentials of food and clean laundry before racing back to my home for a round of manic hand-washing and the recital of a few thousand Hail Marys.

When my shoes started going south on me and my go-to response to any emergency—extreme denial—wasn’t helping any, I wasn’t sure what to do next.

I do not order shoes online. Maybe it’s the experience from Marty’s but I have to see, touch, and try out shoes in the real world before I shell out for them.

And I’m not about to get into a mail order hot potato contest with Amazon sending shoes back and forth until I get a pair that fits.

I wasn’t sure if any shoe stores were left in light of the wave of pandemic-sparked bankruptcies and store closings, but I managed to find one place on Fifth Avenue near my favorite vegetable store.

This corner hellhole was staffed by a strange little man who was talking to somebody on his cellphone in some language I didn’t understand while waving a pair of shockingly overpriced shoes under my nose.

Shoes for Industry

I don’t know what this fellow was saying to his friend, but I doubt that it had anything to do with customer service.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, lying through my facemask.

The next stop was a chain shoe store on 86th Street a few doors from the gym I have not seen since March.

If felt so strange being back here after 5 months and I didn’t try to count all the closed storefronts—I’m depressed enough already.

I could see the place was crowded, disturbing in these plague days, but I was stunned by the noise when I walked in.

The sound system was blasting to nightclub levels and I was tempted to remove my hearing aids to spare myself some agony.
Marty’s shoe store was as quiet as the library, for God’s sake, and we somehow managed to survive.

I was so miserable I wanted to run out the door screaming Marty’s name.

The music was blaring, people were shouting, thanks to the goddamn music, and no one seemed to give a rat’s ass if I ever got new shoes or not.

And then it happened.

I felt this sense of calm come over me as I just accepted the rotten situation. I didn’t force it, I didn’t order myself to calm down, which usually makes things worse; I just let it happen.

I’m sure this sudden clarity was a result of the meditation I’ve been doing each morning for years now.

It can quite challenging to focus on my breathing for 20 minutes, but I do experience these rare moments when my mind is clear, present and calm. And now it was happening under battlefield conditions.

I got my new shoes, bolted from the store, sat down on a bench and put them on. Oh, yes, these were just right.

I tossed my old shoes into the nearest trash can. It’s going to be tougher to throw out the old thought patterns but I taking a step in the right direction.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Power Shot

The lights went out last week, but I still got big jolt from my electric company.

I awoke early one morning and discovered I was in the middle of a blackout.

High winds had knocked out the power lines on my block and downed wires littered the streets.

I’m very fortunate to still have a job in the middle of the Covid-19 hell ride and while I can work from home, I do need electricity to make the magic happen.

Only there was none of be had.

The refrigerator came back on pretty quickly, which meant my food was safe, but the lights, cable, landline, and internet were all out of commission.

I was getting more anxious as it got closer to showtime, so I called ConEd on my smartphone. And that’s when I got a real shock.

“Hello, I’m Mr. Brown,” the customer service rep said. “How can I make your day better?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. This guy actually sounded human.

I’m so accustomed to hearing some soulless cyborg lip-synching a pile preprogrammed platitudes before pushing me off the line with a canned “have a nice day.”

What the hell is going on here? How could I have my temper tantrum when this fellow was being so goddamn nice?

Well, I couldn’t. Mr. Brown was so amiable and attentive that I didn't want to launch into my usual litany of corporate grievances. He had no business being this pleasant.

Now, I want to mention that I do my very best not to freak out all over the customer service people--though admittedly I don’t always succeed.

You can hate a company all you want, but it’s not right to abuse the first person who picks up the phone.

A good buddy of mine at work is a customer service rep for our company and I wouldn’t want anyone cursing or yelling at him.

Burning Bright

Mr. Brown very calmly explained that there wasn’t much he could tell me until the work crews who had descended upon my street like the First Armored Division had finished doing their thing.

“But please feel free to call us back at any time,” he added.

Damn it, he did it again—he was being nice and helpful. What is this country coming to?

The lights didn’t come back on to 4pm and by then the day was shot. Luckily my boss took it well and I got back on track the following day.

But Mr. Brown’s question is still rolling around my head.

How can I make your day better?

Yes, it's corny and probably straight out of the customer service rep's handbook, but I like it.

And I’m thinking that this is a question I could ask myself every morning when I get up or when I feel the anxiety creeping into my brain.

I can make my day better by being less fearful, more positive, and more productive.

I can drop the despair and the self-pity and focus on my various goals and projects instead of complaining all the time.

If I make my day better I can eventually make my life better.

And think that’s a good question ask to our friends and family members, and even people we meet outside our immediate circle.

How can I make your day better?

I don’t want to turn this into a eureka moment or an epiphany. Life is a journey and if you look for one flash of inspiration to define yourself, then you’re probably going to be disappointed.

But Mr. Brown did provide me with some good directions that would point me toward a higher path. And I’m very grateful for that.

And now I have to call the cable company about this monthly extortion racket they call a bill.

Mr. Brown, please pick up…

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Park Shadows

I was working out in Bliss Park one recent morning when I felt a presence behind me.

Oh, fabulous, I thought, a local loon is stalking me.

I had this problem before in June when I was shadowboxing in nearby Shore Road Park and a homeless woman sat down on a bench where I was doing my routine.

Bliss Park has a nice little plaza at the top of a hill that local theater companies have used to stage Shakespeare productions in the pre-Covid-19 days.

It’s also a great spot for a homemade workout—as long people leave you the hell alone.

I turned around and I saw an older Asian man, who was looking at me and gesturing at the ground.

“Clean up,” he was saying with some difficulty. “Clean up.”

Clean up what? We’re in the park, God’s sake, not the Vatican. Unless you work for the Parks Department, stop bugging me.

But then I recalled that I had overreacted when that homeless woman sat down on the bench.

I recalled the shame I had felt for being so thoughtless and I wanted to do better this time, so I subdued my inner crab and tried to communicate.

“You want to clean up?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I need five more minutes,” I said, checking the timer on my smartphone. “Then I’ll clear out.”

He nodded and while I worked out, I could see him out of the corner of my eye sweeping up the plaza with a large tree branch.

In this time of fear, sickness, and death, with the economy tanking, businesses going under, and thousands of people losing their jobs, this man was trying to preserve a little bit of sanity.

Branching Out

I’m sure no one told him to go out and clean up the park. And I’m certain he wasn’t getting any money for his efforts. He was just doing it because he cared.

We’re living in age now where seriously deluded people are refusing to wear masks because they think their rights are being violated.

Nearly every day there are stories in the news about screaming matches, brawls, and even a murder because people are being challenged for not wearing a mask or refusing to practice social distancing.

The country is being overrun by anti-government, libertarian goobers who view the slightest inconvenience, the simplest request, as some kind of federal overreach.


It doesn’t matter that the science has proven them wrong on the mask and social distancing issues. They’ve got their rights. And as long as they persist, the coronavirus will continue to spread.

The timer went off my smartphone and I gathered up my gear.

I don’t have access to a heavy bag since all the gyms are closed, so every now and then I like to take an old pair of boxing gloves and workout on one of the lampposts in the park.

Yes, I know this is insane, but we’re living in an insane time. I don’t hit the lamppost full blast, of course, but I want that feeling of contact that you don’t get from shadowboxing.

I looked up and saw Mr. Clean-Up approaching me with my face mask hanging from a stick. I had left it on the bench and he was very kindly returning it to me.

This is one my back-up masks, a cloth one I wear just to the park and back. I wouldn’t miss it, frankly, but I was grateful for his kindness.

When I was done abusing the lamppost, I gathered up my gear and walked through the plaza. It was spotless, with no sign of dirt, dry leaves or litter.

I looked over to my new friend and smiled beneath my mask.

“Great job,” I said, giving him a thumbs up.

I’m glad I kept my temper in check and let this man do his work. And I wish we had more like him.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Last Sunflower

I came around the corner of Ovington Avenue last week and saw another sign of these hideous times: “Store for Rent.”

Empty storefronts are popping up all over the neighborhood as the Covid-19 plague relentlessly marches on.

This one was personal, though, because the latest victim was the Sunflower Beauty Parlor where I used to go for these fabulous massages.

There was nothing better than bouncing in there to get an hour-long treatment.

The ladies who worked there were small, but quite strong and they used to wring me out like a dish rag.

I especially liked going there during the winter months—cold and flu season—because massages have been credited with boosting the immune system.

But they were forced to shut down, just like so many other businesses, as the pandemic continued to spread. Unlike bars and restaurants, though, they can’t reopen with limited service.

Their work involves close contact and touching other bodies, both of which are forbidden in this socially distant society.

What is going to happen to these people? What else can they do except give massages?

I feel like we’re all standing in the face of a relentless wind that is blowing away the world we know.

Apartment vacancies in Manhattan reached a record high last month as people bailed on the city and headed for cheaper places to live. I hate to see this, but, honestly, why put up with the city's prices and problems when you can't enjoy any of its riches?

‘Gotta Go to Mo’s’

Sunflowers are supposed to symbolize adoration, loyalty, and longevity, although “longevity” doesn’t seem to count for much nowadays. They’ve been described as the perfect gift to bring joy into someone’s day.

In that case, I’d like order a bunch for the entire planet.

Sunflowers were also one of my mother’s favorite flowers and since Saturday was her birthday, I try to draw strength from her memory and remember how loving and loyal she was to us.

Both she and my father lived through the Great Depression and it looks like we’re heading straight into another one. I hope I can face it with a fraction of their courage and determination.


Last week I learned that Modell’s Sporting Goods, a New York institution, had gone bankrupt and shuttered all its stores, including the one on 86th Street in Bay Ridge.

I didn’t go to that store often, but it was convenient and the thought of that massive store being empty, with all the workers losing their jobs, sickens me.

Morris Modell opened his first store in 1889 on Cortlandt Street in Manhattan, where I also used to shop, and now it’s gone.

The 86th Street store is on the site of the old RKO Dyker theater, where I used to go when I was a kid. I think I may have seen Gene Hackman in The Conversation there, but I’m not certain.

I remember the matrons would never let the kids sit in the balcony, apparently concerned we’d throw Goobers on the people down below.

I never got to the balcony area until I started going to Modell’s and rode the escalator up to the second floor.

The Dyker opened its doors on November 26, 1926 and it was equipped with a Marr & Colton 2 organ. The organ was long gone by the time I showed up and theater eventually closed down in March 1977.

The last film shown at the Dyker was another Gene Hackman movie rather disturbingly entitled The Domino Principle.

Let’s hope that title doesn’t become our epitaph.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Smiley's People

When I was in grammar school there was this one kid who always had such a happy look on his face that one of the teachers nicknamed him “Smiley.”

He was a nice guy, as I recall, but I haven’t seen, heard, nor thought of Smiley since we all graduated in 1971--until last week.

I’m writing a novel that takes place in the 70s and there are some scenes that take place in a Catholic grammar school not unlike the one I attended.

I have certain rules for my nightly writing sessions, the most important of which is stay off the goddamn internet.

That means no YouTube, Outlook, Facebook, Instagram or any other time-sucking distraction.

The rule has served me very well when I follow it, but all too often I’ll invent the flimsiest of excuses to head out on a wild Google chase and waste the entire evening.

Such was the case last week when Smiley’s smiling face came free floating into my mind and I just had to know right and there what this person I had not seen in 50 years was up to.

So, instead of writing, I set off on a wild Google search and I found that Smiley is now Dr. Smiley, a specialist at a large New York hospital.

It was strange seeing the man when all I had was the memory of the child, and, as I read about his accomplishments, I found something was eating away at me.

Look at this guy, my inner critic snarled as the smoke poured out of my ears. Look how successful he is. He’s a doctor for God’s sake. What are you?

What was I? I was envious as hell, that’s what I was.

But this excursion into self-abuse session wasn’t over yet. Oh, hell, no.

Grin and Bear It

My itchy google-finger immediately began searching for another grammar school classmate named Vince, whom I learned is now a lawyer with an investment company in California.

Now I was really feeling awful about myself, while that chapter I was supposed to be writing got washed away by a green tide of regret and self-recrimination.

The painful moments finally passed, which allowed me to look at the situation logically. Self-sabotage comes in many guises and this nostalgic nightmare was another excuse for my dysfunctional double to make feel me miserable.


Nothing had stopped me from going to medical school or law school back when I was young--except, of course that I had absolutely no interest or aptitude in either area.

I was telling myself that these guys probably had great houses and fancy cars--so in other words I was just interested in their possessions, not their professions.

Well, in that case, I might as well be envious of dictators, gangsters, and drug cartel leaders, who also have lots of great stuff, even though they just happen to kill people to acquire it all.

I reminded myself that I also have several childhood friends or classmates who have died, so maybe I could better spend my time being grateful for single every day of life.

I felt relieved that I was able to admit my envious feelings because that’s the first step in driving them out.

Despite what the Wizard of Oz says, you really must pay attention to the man behind the curtain because that’s probably your subconscious mind trying to trip you up.

Envy is a poison pen letter that you write to yourself and nail to your heart.

We’re all walking different paths, so comparing ourselves to others is such a painful waste of time. You should only look to another person’s success for inspiration, not suffocation.

Focus on your own dreams, convert that envious energy into positive power, and who knows? People might start calling you Smiley, too.