Sunday, September 16, 2018

Counting all the Stars

I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan, but not this past weekend.

In fact, I had a series of fabulous encounters that had me absolutely reeling with joy.

It started on Friday when I was bouncing out of the Barnes & Noble at Union Square and spotted a gaggle of smartphones raised high in the air.

The store routinely hosts authors of every sort and I reckoned these people were jockeying to get a photo of some cable news blowhard or the latest celebrity chef, whose overpriced cook book would probably end up in the dollar bin by Thanksgiving.

Oh, get a load of these star-struck twits, I mentally sneered. They’re so pathetic.

I was due to meet a friend for lunch on 28th Street and the only reason I was in the store in the first place was to use the facilities, as the old kidneys ain’t what they used to be.

But I figured, what the hell? Let me at least find out which D-lister I’m snubbing.

“Say,” I asked a nearby employee. “What’s all the excitement about?”

“That’s Tony Bennett,” he said.

What? You mean Tony Bennett—as in “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Once Upon A Time” and God knows how many incredible hits?

You mean Tony Bennett, the man, the legend, the freaking deity?

Well, yes, actually. He was making an appearance to promote his latest album with Diana Krall and he was no more than 10 feet away from me.

I quickly whipped out my smartphone and joined the small crowd of intelligent, sophisticated people—how dare you call them twits?—and began clicking like a Western Union telegraph operator on Mother’s Day.

“I’m gonna die,” I wailed, “I’m gonna die!”

Juliet is the Sun

I didn’t die, but I came awfully close to keeling over. This man is an incredible 92 years old and he had this aura around him that you could almost touch.

As I was shooting my brains out, the beloved singer stepped up and hugged some lucky woman.

“Hey,” I whispered, “I need a hug from Tony Bennett, too!”

I hung around as long as I could before rolling uptown to meet my friend for lunch. But my star-gazing had only begun.

On Saturday my sister and I went into town again to attend the Irish Repertory Theatre’s annual block party. We’ve seen many of this company's productions and the block party is always fun.

Once again, I made a pitstop at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square. (Gosh, maybe someday I’ll actually buy something there.)

The place was celebrity-free on this day, which is good because I was perilously close to giving new meaning to the word “Riverdance.”

We were enjoying the music and speeches at the Irish Rep when we happened to look up and saw Bill Irwin, famed actor, clown, and comedian, whose lengthy resume includes appearing in the video for “Don’t Worry Be Happy” with Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin.

Mr. Irwin will be doing a show at the Irish Rep called “Exploring the Works of Samuel Beckett,” and he performed a selection from that program.

“This is your second celebrity sighting,” my sister said.

Yes, but little did we know that we had one more to go.

This time, though, we saw a celebrity in the making in the form of Juliet, a beautiful six-year-girl who swept us off our collective feet with her fabulous dancing.

I thought I had left my heart in Barnes & Noble, but Juliet scooped it right up like a loose football and ran straight for the end zone.

Her dancing was flawless. She kept time with the music, created her own steps, and did not show the slightest bit of shyness. When one of the singers struck up a slow, bluesy number, Juliet effortlessly shifted to her own interpretive moves.

She appeared to be a natural performer. Her folks weren’t pushing her to entertain people, she wasn’t desperate for attention and I’m convinced she would have danced with the same exuberance if she’d been alone in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

My sister and I approached Juliet and her parents to let them know just how much we enjoyed her impromptu performance. And I’m going to keep an eye out for this kid because I’m sure we’re going to hear from her again.

I’ve decided I’m going to take this excellent weekend as a good omen. There’s no logic behind this, but I’m in transition right now and I need all the good news I can get.

I’m going to be positive, creative, and productive and I’m going to go forward and look all the good things in life.

As long as there’s a bathroom nearby, I’ll be fine.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Where There is Darkness...

We need to be more like Kelsie.

Kelsie is a comfort dog I had the great fortune of meeting today during a 9/11 memorial service at St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton Street.

Her handler, a very nice woman from the Tri-State Canine Response Team, told me that she and her canine colleagues respond to all kinds of emergencies, including the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

And they were at Ground Zero today, where they most definitely needed, even after all this time.

It’s been 17 years since I stood outside the Brook Brothers store across the street from the World Trade Center and watched smoke pouring out of the North Tower; 17 years since the second plane slammed into the South Tower moments later and we all ran, while the towers and the world as we knew it came crashing to the ground.

I think about the people I met on that day, like the elderly lady I helped to her feet after she collapsed in shock when the attack began.

I think about the Japanese businessman who spoke virtually no English and who was so stunned by what he had seen that I had to lead him around by the hand like a child.

I’m thinking about three young men who came into the basement of a nursing home on Water Street where I and many others had gone to escape the massive clouds of debris from the fallen towers that rolled through the streets—clouds that are still killing people to this very day.

One of the young men had been blinded by the dust and he had a hand on his friends’ shoulder, while holding his shirt over his damaged eyes. Where are those three companions today?

It is in Giving that We Receive

My father marked his 80th birthday on that terrible day. He left this world in 2007 but I’m thinking more and more about him lately and I’m happy to say that the good memories are outnumbering the bad ones.

I haven’t been in Manhattan on 9/11 for a few years now and while I can’t say it felt good to back, it did feel right and proper that I returned to this location instead of watching the memorial ceremony on television.

I got in the city early to take my boxing class and I took a few minutes to walk around the neighborhood while it was still dark and relatively free of people.

I found myself getting angrier and angrier as I thought about how we had learned nothing from the September 11 attacks.

I don’t like saying that, but when you look at how we have become so divided, so hateful toward one another since that day, it’s pretty hard to find any beams of light in all the darkness.

After class, I went back to the Brooks Brothers store to pray and give thanks and then I headed over to St. Paul’s for the ceremony.

We recited the Prayer of Saint Francis, where we asked the Lord to make us instruments of His peace, and then the reverend rang the Bell of Hope, a gift from London, at 8:46AM to mark the moment the first plane struck.

I consider the Prayer of St. Francis an oath, a sacred promise to God that we will put aside hatred and respond with love. And meeting Kelsie reinforced that belief.

I started getting teary-eyed while patting Kelsie’s head as she radiated a kind of goodness that puts humanity to shame.

We have to be more like Kelsie and the other comfort dogs, who give us so much and ask for so little in return. Maybe if we behaved more like them, we’d be less inclined to start wars, imprison children, and crash airplanes into office buildings.

Maybe these dogs should be teaching us old humans some new tricks.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Shift Change

Shift, shift, shift!

I went back to boxing class last week for the first time since my accident in December and it was special kind of magic.

I was thrilled to see Abby, my instructor and all my friends in the class, whom I haven’t seen in 9 months.

But it also felt weird being back in the gym after such a long absence, like I was an imposter or a trespasser.

Of course, the original prognosis said I’d be out of commission for 18 months, so I’m certainly grateful for that. And if I had fallen on my head, I wouldn’t be here at all.

I had gotten used to sleeping later on Tuesdays and Thursdays, instead of getting up before sunrise and slogging into the city.

I was worried I wouldn’t be able to roll out of bed that early or that I’d keel over halfway through the warmup or that I’d reinjure myself and wind up flat on my back again.

For the last few months I’d been going for long walks in my neighborhood, lifting weights, hitting the bag at the gym and working out on the Stairmaster.

I was also going to weekly physical therapy sessions at NYU Langone’s facility on Shore Road. I was working with an excellent trainer and when we had our last session at the end of August I knew it was time to get back to boxing.

It was rough. After all that time off, my cardio had just about disappeared and this became excruciatingly apparent during my one-on-one mitt session with Abby.

Better, stronger, faster

I dreaded this portion of the class because I feel like everyone in the room is watching me.

The reality is that people are far too busy working out and worrying about their own time with Abby to give a rat’s ass about me, but I still felt like I was in the spotlight.

Of course, this being Abby, he had to break my chops while putting me through all kinds of misery.

“We can rebuild him,” he said, mimicking the opening of The Six Million Dollar Man. "It’s Bionic Rob…I’m gonna call you Steve Austin.”

I could tell he was taking it easy on me, but even so, he used the time wisely, forcing me to work on my boxing technique and getting the basics down so that I have them branded into my DNA.

“Extend your arm,” he said during the round. “Put your shoulder into it. Shift your weight—shift, shift, shift!”

Shifting was pretty hard, as my battered knees are still kind of creaky. But I really appreciated his insights. Abby is a former amateur champion, and the nephew of a one-time light-heavyweight world champion, so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

And “shift” seems to be the operative word in my life right now. My professional life is currently in flux, people and places that have been a part of my life for years have suddenly disappeared.

It’s a scary time, but it’s also exciting. I’m looking to shake up my life—in a positive way, of course. Maybe these sudden shifts are God’s way of telling me to break out the routine and go confidently in the direction of my dreams, as Henry David Thoreau advised.

Steve Austin took some nasty hits and came back to be a hero. Bionic Rob is going to do the same.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Out of Wok

Now I’ll have to get my wonton soup someplace else.

My local Chinese restaurant, the Hot Wok, went out of business last week and yet I still have this urge to swing by and pick up an order.

The Hot Wok was my go-to place on many a Friday night, when I gave into the call of the comfort zone, got a vat on wonton soup and a mound of fortune cookies, before scurrying on home to watch the latest offering from Netflix. (Exciting life I lead, no?)

The Hot Wok is—was—located at 69th Street off Narrows Avenue, the middle store in a trio of businesses that I like to call “Bachelor’s Row,” starting with the pizzeria on the corner, the Wok, and then the deli, all lined up and waiting for the man who doesn’t feel like cooking.

I had noticed their gate was down and I prayed that they were just on vacation, but when I called them, I got the “number is no longer in service” message. A few days ago, one of the customers at the deli confirmed the awful truth: the Hot Wok was no more.

I’m still bummed about this, and not about just the food. The people were great and they were very nice to me. After my accident the owner—I’m sorry I never got her name—greeted me so warmly when I started walking around the neighborhood again.

And her daughter Vicky liked to break my chops whenever I came in. One night she put me through a spirited version of the why game, where she greeted all my responses to her questions with a “why?”

“What is your name?” she began.


“Why is your name Rob?”

“My parents liked the name.”

“Why did your parents like the name?”

That went on for 10 solid minutes of hilarious torture. By the time I got my order, Vicky was doubled over laughing at her own schtick, while I grabbed my soup and ran like hell.

Too Damn High

Vicky would often stick her tongue at me when I walked by, but I’d just take out my phone to get her picture and she’d quickly cease and desist.

And now the whole family is gone as if they never existed. They made no announcement and left no forwarding address.

The place served good food and it was always hopping on a Friday night. The phone would ring nonstop and the owner would take my order while handling the customer on the line.

I suspect the Hot Wok was done in by high rents, an on-going nightmare in New York that’s driving small business out of existence and filling this town with scores of empty storefronts.

Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio suggested slapping blood-sucking landlords with a vacancy tax if they keep their stores empty in hopes of scoring top dollar rents.

If something isn’t done, the city will lose its mom and pop stores and funky little businesses and all we’ll have left will be banks, chain stores, and fast food joints.

And speaking of rents, my great blogging buddy Ron had to pull the plug on his dream to move back to New York from Philadelphia because he can’t afford to live here.

I’m sure there are plenty of people scrubbing their plans to move here while long-tine residents are moving to places with cheaper rents.

The thing is we need local businesses like the Hot Wok and we need people like Ron to give this city character and color. We don’t need any more hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons, or Russian oligarchs buying up every inch of available space in New York.

And adding to all this confusion is the fact that my own situation is up in the air now and I’m looking a new direction. The Summer of 2018 is certainly ending on harsh note.

Last night I went to the Panda on Third Avenue to get an order of wonton soup. The people are very nice and the soup isn’t bad, but it’s a longer walk from my home and there’s no Vicky to tease me.

I’m just hoping these people can stay in business.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Peace with Goodwill

I wonder what Klaatu would think of us now.

I pulled up a beach chair in my local park Friday night and treated myself to a screening of the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I’d made certain earlier in the day that the folks at the Narrows Botanical Gardens were screening the 1951 original starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal and not the 2008 atrocity with Keanu Reeves.

This was the last night of the summer movie festival and I was feeling kind of low. I hate winter with a passion and in my mind once we clear Labor Day, it’s a screaming hell-plunge into freezing days, 16-hour nights, and no outdoor anything.

So, this seemed like a fine way to start the summer send-off: a beautiful night, a great film, and a five-minute walk home.

Of course, you have to deal with traffic noise, winds ruffling the movie screen, and noisy kids running around and shrieking at each other, but the price was right, as my father used to say, meaning it was free.

Based on a short story “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, The Day the Earth Stood Still tells the tale of Klaatu, an alien who visits earth from another world on a mission of peace and is shot by panicky soldiers shortly after he steps out of his flying saucer.

Klaatu has come a long way to warn humanity to clean up its psychotic act or face annihilation. He’s accompanied by Gort, a monstrous robot that is capable of nuking entire planets. And Gort comes awfully close to wiping out the earth until Patricia Neal issues the famous command Klaatu barada nikto!

“I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason,” Klaatu states at one point.

The Decision Rests with You

Substituting fear for reason? I can only imagine what Klaatu would think if he could see the current political situation. The world was a pretty crazy place in 1951, no doubt, but since then we have amped up fear dramatically while flushing reason straight down the crapper.

“I'm impatient with stupidity,” he declares.

Oy…we’re in worse shape than I thought.

The film has numerous messiah references. Our hero uses the alias Carpenter; he is killed and resurrected, and eventually ascends into the sky.

Interestingly, The Day the Earth Stood still came out in the same year as another one of my science fiction favorites, The Thing from Another World, which views aliens as bloodthirsty invaders to be destroyed, not as superior beings.

Before he leaves Klaatu advises humans to lay down its sword and shield.

“For our policemen, we created a race of robots,” he says. “Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us.”

Initially I thought it was bizarre that people would hand law enforcement duties over to machines, but then you look around and see so many people with their noses stuck in a smart phone.

Autonomous vehicles will be driving on our roads sooner than later and sex robots are apparently a thing. How long before we entrust robots with police work as well?

It sounds creepy, but it’s hard to believe that machines could do a worse job of maintaining order than we have. Whatever we do, we’d better get on it soon before Gort makes a return engagement.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

52 Minutes

Okay, I probably could’ve handled that a little better.

Last week I got the bill for the double knee surgery I had back in December and since I had switched insurance companies in the interim, I figured I should touch base with the old outfit to see what was going on.

The price tag is sizeable to say the least and I wanted to know what was going on before bill collecting commandos kicked my door its hinges.

So, I called my old insurance company and what followed was a nearly hour-long waking nightmare that would’ve scared the screaming Jesus out of Rod Serling himself.

The experience left me shaken, exhausted, barely able to speak, and perilously close to insanity.

And I’m not exaggerating about the time: my cell phone clearly showed that 52 holy-shit-on-a-shingle minutes had burned up during the course of this telephonic fiasco.

This was the same week I reconnected on Facebook with a novelty song from 1966 called “They’re Coming to Take Me Away,” which turned out to be the perfect soundtrack for this horrible experience.

I knew I’d be bounced around a little bit at the outset and, sure enough, the first lady I spoke with once I got through the robo-voice said she had to switch me to another department—and promptly hung up me.

I angrily hit the redial button and then the torture began in earnest. I was shuffled, shoved and shunted from one incompetent imbecile to another.

At one point the horror show veered off into Stephen King country when one of these losers apparently had her headphones switched off.

“Is anyone there?” she asked repeatedly.

“I’m here!” I shrieked at my smartphone. “I’m here!

I couldn’t bear the thought of being cut off again, of having to redo the whole hideous process, and I wailed into my palm like a champion hog caller.

Where Life is Beautiful All the Time

Finally, this genius got her phone to work and promptly told me to stop shouting.

Ah, but the shouting was just beginning. This woman had mastered neither her job nor the English language and after a few minutes I started to wonder if waterboarding could be all that bad.

Now I’m not some xenophobic knuckle-dragger with a slobbering hatred for foreigners. These people were hired because corporations want to save money by not hiring American workers—savings, by the way, that we consumers never see.

But if you are going to take the road to Bali with your customer service department, the least you could do is staff it with people who can speak and understand English.

“I can’t understand you,” I told this woman. “Please put your supervisor on the phone.”

I was convinced she was going to hang up on me, but moments later a man—an American man—picked up the phone and proceeded to help me out.

He was courteous, helpful, and knowledgeable—the exact opposite of everyone else I had spoken with that day.

I was relieved, but also angry. Where the hell had he been for the last 50-odd minutes? It seems like they kept him in a glass case and broke it open only when lunatics like me called up and lost their shit.

I felt like some medieval invader fighting my way into a castle only to learn that the dude standing next to me had the key to the front door the whole time. Gadzooks and go fuck yourself, my liege.

But the biggest problem here was yours truly. Once again, I let the anger and rage take over; once again I wasted my time, energy, and health trying to berserk my way through a problem that required patience and intelligence.

I keep saying I’m going to change my evil ways and yet here I am writing another post about my latest implosion.

Of course, many alcoholics and addicts slide back into their destructive behavior and they do what they can to get back on solid ground. I’m going to treat this like a temporary setback and resume my anger management routines.

I have to do something constructive or one of these days someone will be coming to take me away.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Flying High

You think I would’ve learned my lesson with John Ford.

Several years ago, I rented "How Green Was My Valley" from Netflix because I thought it was time I finally caught up with Ford’s 1941 classic about a family of Welsh miners in the early 20th Century.

I had seen so much of Ford’s work that it seemed wrong to have this one slip by for so long.

But I confess that I wasn’t feeling terribly excited. Yes, it was supposed to be a great movie, but I thought it might be stuffy and dated. And what the hell did I know from Welsh coal miners anyway?

I was responding to this film with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist.

Well, when I finally sat down to watch the thing, I was sobbing so hard that I was nearly dehydrated by the time the credits rolled. The setting may have nothing to do with my life, but the characters and the emotions grabbed hold of me like few films ever have in my life.

I strongly suspect this is the reason why it’s called a classic.

Now I’ve had a Russian film called “The Cranes are Flying” on my Netflix hit list for ages.

Again, I had heard great things about it, but I thought it might be dreary and depressing and I allowed myself to get sidelined by the latest hot movie or TV series, while the cranes kept flying further south down the list.

Finally, I decided I needed to watch something with some gray matter. I had been burned too many times by positively-reviewed action crapfests that offered nothing beyond mindless violence and deafening special effects.

The people responsible for these atrocities weren’t even trying to make sense. They were just throwing junk on the screen and hoping audiences lapped it up.

Hidden Tears

Enough, already, I declared, let me sink my eyeballs into a real film. So, I moved Mikhail Kalatozov’s World War II saga up to the Number One spot and five minutes in, I knew I had struck gold.

Made in 1957—the year I was born—“The Cranes Are Flying” tells the story of Veronika and Boris, a pair of young Russian lovers whose lives are torn apart by Germany’s surprise invasion in 1941.

Kalatozov is a visual genius, composing beautiful deep-focus shots that take us right into the story.

“The Cranes Are Flying” is among the “"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die," and it’s also a favorite of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola—and it’s easy to see why.

Be warned there are no superheroes, wookies, droids, or CGI. There is only a powerful story told with bold, unforgettable images.

According to, the film caused quite a stir in the Soviet Union because of its depiction of such issues as draft dodging and war profiteering—a sharp contrast to the propaganda bilge that people had been accustomed to watching.

“The Cranes Are Flying” has also renewed my interest in making my own film. I’ve running my yap since the Middle Ages about how I want to make my own film.

Perhaps this experience will be what I need to get me up off my ass and out into the world.

And I’m also wondering what other classics I’ve got buried on my Netflix list.