Sunday, June 18, 2017

Who Goes There?

World War II stories aren’t the same anymore.

I’ve been reading novels and watching films about the Second World War for decades, but lately I find them to be more upsetting than I once did.

They remind me of my father, who was a WWII veteran himself, and just how awful the war must have been for him.

He told me some incredible stories about his time in the army, and I loved hearing them, of course, even when he repeated them over and over. I couldn’t get enough.

But I’m starting to see the darker side of his stories, the things he didn’t tell me.

He’s been gone for several years and I’m only now getting some idea of how much he must have suffered during those terrible days, when he was just a young man in his twenties.

He must’ve been in constant fear, dodging bullets, scrambling for shelter during artillery attacks and witnessing his friends getting killed. That fear—and a lot of good luck—probably kept him alive.

My father was part of the generation that was supposed to put down the rifle, pick up the briefcase, and return to civilian life as if they had all been away on a camping trip.

This is absurd, of course. How could you possibly go through these horrible experiences and emerge unscathed?

That’s just a fantasy that politicians and civilians like to tell themselves so they don’t have to think about the damaged people walking among them. And it makes it easier to sell the next war.

On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of a story my father told me many years ago while we were driving down the BQE one night.

He and his platoon had gone out on a night patrol somewhere in France, I believe.

Friend or Foe?

As they walked through the dark woods, they saw the silhouette of a soldier up ahead of them. They weren’t sure who the guy was and then he asked them what time it was—in German.

Realizing the enemy was just a short distance away, one of dad’s buddies who could speak German responded in the soldier’s native language.

“He thought we were Germans,” my father said, “and he walked right up to us.”

My dad paused at this moment and when he spoke again, his voice was somewhat subdued.

“Yeah,” he said, “they cut his throat.”

Did you catch that? My father had shifted from the first to the third person, from “we” to “they” as if distancing himself from this gruesome killing.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that these GIs had no choice. If that soldier had yelled, the whole German army could’ve come charging in after him.

I guess that’s why wars suck so much for the people actually have to fight them. Decent people are forced to become savages just to stay alive.

My father was ready to do his job. He had a particular hatred for snipers, whom he considered to be cowards who would kill a few soldiers to slow down an advance and then do the old “I surrender” routine.

But I think this incident was different. This really wasn’t combat, where you’re trying to kill somebody who’s trying to do the same thing to you.

This poor bastard just got careless and it cost him his life. That could happen to anyone at any time in any war.

I wish I could’ve talked with my father more openly about his experiences during the war, but I doubt if he would’ve responded. He wanted to look strong to his family, which is perfectly understandable, but so terribly unnecessary.

Perhaps we would’ve gotten along better if I had a better sense of what it was like for him. But it’s too late for that, so now I’ll say what I always say at this most important time of the year.

Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Junk in the Trunk

There’s a void in my life and I’m loving every inch of it.

For the last eight months, I have been sharing my living room with the lifeless carcasses of my old TV, DVD player, and printer.

I got a new TV and DVD player in October and a new printer before that, but instead of junking the junk appliances, I merely moved the deceased devices a few inches over to the right and…just left them there.

You may be wondering why I did this? I know I sure as hell am.

Why in God’s holy name did I elect to keep this zombie pile of tubes, circuits, and wires prominently displayed in my home for nearly a year as if it were a Warhol original?

Well, I’m sorry to say the answer is similar to the same excuse I offered when I took so long to buy a new TV in the first goddamn place. I was afraid to make a decision.

I couldn’t carry that monstrous TV down three flights of stairs because of my bad back and the sanitation crew wouldn’t take it even if I could because of the restrictions on tossing out old electronics.

Which meant I would have to hire someone to do it and risk—dramatic pause—making the wrong decision.

Now how the hell anyone could pick the wrong junk man I don’t honestly know, but this irrational fear caused my brain to overload and drove me to do what I do best—which is nothing.

Every morning I’d get up, walk out to the living room to meditate and stretch and that crap heap would be one of the first things I’d see.

Things deteriorated to a point where I unknowingly accepted this unacceptable situation, subconsciously deciding that this flotsam and jetsam was a permanent part of stately Robbo manor.

Haul, Yeah!

This is a seriously corrupt state of mind and it can extend far beyond holding onto garbage. If you’re not careful you can find yourself unwittingly agreeing to all sorts of unpleasant situations, thoughts, and people.

Last week I finally got fed up. I was sick of telling myself, “oh, yeah, you’ve got to find someone to haul this crap” and set about to actually find someone to haul that crap.

And I soon learned that it was pretty easy. I jumped on Craigslist and got two quotes that I thought were a little pricy at $200 and $225 respectively.

A third outfit offered to take the stuff for fifty bucks and I regret not owning a gavel so I crack it down upon my old TV like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and shout “sold!”

The young fellow who agreed to take my junk took most of Thursday to get here, constantly texting me that he was close by but never showing up.


I started going through my “wrong decision” routine, but I couldn’t see any potential confab in blowing off the appointment. Unless you’re working an internet scam, you pretty much have to show up before you can rip off.

The dude finally arrived after dinner, apparently coming to Bay Ridge by way of Montreal, tossed that big old TV in a battered pickup and revved up the engine.

I was going to tip him five bucks, but after he claimed to be light on smaller denominations, I handed over three twenties and wished him Godspeed. If that was a scam, it was pretty mild.

I was stunned when I went back upstairs and looked down upon that beautiful blank space next to the TV table.

I felt 50 pounds lighter and much happier now that the honored dead had finally been shuffled off to Buffalo, Brazil, Bensonhurst or wherever the hell that guy took it.

And I have big plans for my newly created gap. I’m going to install…nothing, zilch, nada, niente, and ugatz. (Do you sense a theme here?)

I want to enjoy the wide-open space in all its primal beauty and so I will not put a single thing in that newly liberated zone.

Sorry, Andy.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Home Again, Home Again

I frantically dug my phone out of my pocket, dialed my sister’s number, and began my meltdown.

“Joan!” I wailed as the tears started to flow, “I stopped by the house on Senator Street and it was a bad idea!”

I had returned to my family’s home for the first time in nearly three years last week and I didn’t handle it very well.

The morning had started off with a visit to the Good Fortune Supermarket, the site of the old Fortway Theater on Fort Hamilton Avenue to research a book project I’m working on.

On the way there, I stopped by McKinley Park, which I had not visited in years. My sister tells me that our mother used to take us there when we were children, but I’m sorry to say I have no memory of that.

After revisiting the Good Fortune, I walked through nearby Leif Ericson Park, which was filled parents, kids, and elderly people, most of whom were Chinese, much like the rest of the neighborhood.

From there, I walked down to Sixth Avenue, where I spotted the Sixth Avenue Electrical Supply Corp., formerly Karl Droge Ice Cream, my second home on sweltering summer nights when I was growing up.

This is where I used to go with my friends—and everybody else in the neighborhood—for fabulous Italian ices that could drain the heat right out of any August evening. There’s a church right across the street, but back then Karl Droge was the real holy place.

The building was just two blocks from my family’s home and I figured, oh, hell, I’ve come this far, why not stroll up Senator Street?

Time Machine

Big mistake.

I thought I could deal with this. I’ve driven down this block many times with my sister and I didn’t think it would be a problem.

However, as I got closer to the house, when I saw these beautiful flowers in the garden, where my mother used to do her planting, when I saw the new fence and the ceiling fan in the upstairs apartment, when I saw a car in the driveway, when I realized that people, honest to God people were living here now, I started to fall apart.

A nighttime drive-by is one thing, but a slow walk on a sunny Saturday afternoon is quite different.

I hung around the house for a few minutes, shocked at how quickly the years had gone by.

Then a man walked down the driveway and entered the house and I wanted to speak with him, tell him that I grew up here and that I had so many memories, but nothing came out of my mouth.

I regret it now, but at the time I felt foolish. What does he care about who used to live here?

I started to walk down the driveway to look at the back garden when I reminded myself that I was about to walk on to somebody else's property.

My sister wasn’t home when I called, as she had gone hiking where she could enjoy the here and now, instead of blundering around the past.

I finally walked up the block and headed for home. I guess it was a mistake to visit the old house, but I don’t regret it. I wanted to see.

I would like to go back to Senator Street again someday and maybe even speak with the new owners.

But I’m going to need some time.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Moving Story

With all this talk of books and authors lately, I’m reminded of a certain subway ride I took many years ago and one of the most exciting reading experiences I’ve ever had.

This was in the early Eighties and the book in question was Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby.

My interest in the novel was stirred by a theatrical production which came to Broadway from London in 1981.

The show made headlines because it was nearly nine hours long—theatergoers had a choice of attending two nights or seeing the whole show in one setting—and because tickets were going for the then-unheard of price of $100 each.

Today, of course, one hundred bucks is pretty much the going rate for a show on the Great White Way.

We didn’t have that kind of money back then, but my family had a fabulous time watching a televised version of the London production that was simulcast on the local public television and radio channels.

The late Roger Rees played the title role and he was supported by an incredible cast of talented actors.

The show ran for three or four consecutive nights and each evening we’d switch on the TV, tune in this beautiful old German radio we kept in the living room, and travel to this wonderful world filled with these incredible characters.

And each morning at breakfast we’d talk about what had happened the night before. It was such an enjoyable time that I just had to read the book.

So that’s how I happened to be one the N train one night coming home from work when I got to the scene where our hero Nicholas squared off against the most horrible schoolmaster on earth, Wackford Squeers.

Raise the Devil

Squeers is a corrupt lowlife who runs Dotheboys Hall, a hellhole of a boarding school where the kids are beaten with savage regularity.

As I read the book, I was just dying for Nicholas to pound this hump right through the floorboards.

Dickens takes his time, though, slowly building up to a rousing confrontation where Squeers is beating the hapless cripple Smike.

The N train was just pulling out of Union Square when I got to the part where Nicholas orders Squeers to cease and desist.

“This must not go on!” he declares, and I gripped the strap handle. This loser's going down!

Squeers, of course, has not intention of stopping and he threatens Nicholas with a beating if he gets in the way.

“Have a care,” Nicholas warns him, “for if you do raise the devil within me, the consequences shall fall heavily upon your own head!”

Hit him, Nicholas, I roared inside my head, hit the son-of-a-bitch!

And that’s when Squeers cracks Nicholas across the face with the whip and our hero proceeds to beat the ever-loving shit out of the sadistic warthog.

I completely forgot that I was in the middle of a packed subway car because through the power of Dickens’s writing I had been transported through time and space to that 19th Century Yorkshire school.

Kill him! I silently shouted. Kill that one-eyed scumbag!

No one on that train could have guessed the emotions I was going through at that moment. From the outside, I was just another commuter. In my mind, though, I was the one clobbering Squeers into a coma.

And I think it's important to point out that I had enjoyed this rewarding experience without any of today's technology--no iPhone, no iPad; it was just my eyeballs.

Somehow, I managed to get home without missing my stop or scaring the other passengers. And thanks to Charles Dickens I had taken an incredible journey--without ever leaving the N train.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Zero to Sixty

“The only way to deal with the future is to function efficiently in the Now.” – Gita Bellin

I can’t believe I said “yes.”

Accepting a simple dinner invitation may not sound like a daring leap into the unknown but it felt like a milestone for me.

I’ll explain in a minute, but, first let’s get right to the big news:

As of today I am 60 years old.

Yes, that’s right, we’re talking six decades here, people. I am amazed, stunned, somewhat frightened, and, above all, thankful that I am still walking the earth and not residing under it.

I’m doing my best not to freak out at that sizeable digit, but it hasn't been easy. I mean, how in the four-alarm hell did this happen?

How in God’s name did that adorable little kid attending classes at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School morph into a hairless crank with creaking bones who hears voices and receives flyers from both senior citizen homes and burial plot salesmen in the same day’s mail? (One at a time, boys, please.)

I would demand a recount but I’m afraid I might actually be older.

Arthur, one of my writing class friends, calmed my nerves when I expressed dismay about my age.

“The sixties was a good decade for me,” he said. “You know what you want. You’re more sure of yourself.”

It felt so good to hear this. I still have lots of questions tumbling around my head, but I do feel a bit more confident than I have in the past. And I’m also caring less and less about what people think of me.

Without Further Ado...

I decided I’d give myself the gift of peace today, liberating yours truly, at least for one day, from the fear, the self-loathing, the regret, the anger, and all those other toxic emotions I inflict upon my poor soul on a daily basis.

I started celebrating early, going out on Saturday with my beloved sister and auntie for a stroll around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and then on to Wing Hing, my favorite Chinese restaurant for a fabulous feast.

On Tuesday, I had the distinct pleasure of introducing and interviewing the writer Neville Frankel, who read from his latest novel On the Sickle’s Edge at the Bookmark Shoppe in Bay Ridge, where I had my own reading.


Louise Crawford, the publicist for my book, Born Speaking Lies, had asked me to help out and I’m so glad she did.

The evening was pure magic. Neville is a fabulous writer and a captivating speaker.

I learned so much during our discussion, particularly about historical fiction, a genre that both fascinates and intimidates me.

I was all set to go home when Louise invited me to join her, Neville, and a bunch of other folks for dinner.

And I said “yes.”

I’ve gotten so accustomed to turning down or avoiding invitations in favor of heading home to my empty apartment that I actually surprised myself by answering in the affirmative for once.

Of course, I have things to do. I want to finish the first draft of my next book by year’s end; I want to pitch my screenplays to agents, and I have to revise a short story I recently completed. And don't even get me started about that short film I want to shoot.

But I knew in my heart that I couldn’t miss out on a dinner with such talented, gracious people.

The years go by so quickly it makes no sense to miss out on good times and good people.

Yes. I like the sound of that.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Friends in Need

“All this time the man who killed me will not die.” – Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

I recently discovered the work of Marlon James.

This didn’t happen by way of a book review, or media buzz, internet message boards, or even the old time word of mouth routine.

I became aware of his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings while walking home from the store one morning when I looked down and saw a single page from the book on the street.

It was page 585 and 586 of the 704-page novel about postcolonial Jamaica that Entertainment Weekly called “nothing short of awe-inspiring.”

I probably should’ve kept walking, as I’ve got enough paper, books, and other assorted crap in my house already.

But as a reader and someone who has published his own book, I felt badly that an author’s work had been abused like this.

Published by Riverhead Press, A Brief History of Seven Killings is James’ third won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, a first for a Jamaican-born author.

And here was this single page from a prize-winning book blowing around the gutter.

It would be a shame if someone deliberately destroyed the book, but not at all surprising in this age of intolerance. I just have no way of knowing.

The wind can blow very strongly off the Narrows, so this single page might’ve traveled a long way before it came into my line of sight.

I don’t begin to compare myself to Marlon James, of course, but I do understand how difficult it is to write a book. Doubts pile up as you struggle to find just the right words that will bring your story to life.

You end up throwing out a lot of your work—at least I sure as hell do—as you write, rewrite, and rewrite so more.

Given all that grief, writers can’t be faulted for wanting their work to live forever, as unlikely as that sounds, rather than being ripped up into confetti.

Page-Turner

My parents always stressed the importance of reading and my mother liked to say “books are our friends.”



Books have been such an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, starting with Dr. Seuss, to the Hardy Boys, and going on to Ken Kesey, whose Sometimes A Great Notion changed my life—seriously.

I frankly don’t a read enough now, especially since I don’t commute to an office anymore.

I’ve read so many books while riding the subways and buses in this town. It’s the best way to deal with the crowds and the delays and the lunatics—as long as the lights stay on.

So I’ve decided I’m going to make an effort to read more every day.

I didn’t like my seventh-grade teacher worth a damn, but I do respect for him for the time he urged us all to read by telling us “with books you can go anywhere.”

It’s vital for children to develop reading skills, especially now that we have all these distractions. Curling up with good book has never been more important.

Books as I knew them appear to be an endangered species as more and more people choose eBooks over the real thing. I have no interest in reading eBooks, but then I haven’t really tried them yet, so I suppose I shouldn’t judge.

When I was in the fifth grade, Mrs. Toomey, my Cub Scout den mother, encouraged us all to find a damaged book and repair it.

I actually carried out that assignment, but don’t ask me what particular book I salvaged or whatever become of it. I’m just happy I did it.

It’s a shame that I can’t repair A Brief History of Seven Killings, but I’ve decided I going to get a copy of the book and read the other 700-odd pages.

And I’ll take good care of it, too, because you can never have too many friends.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Wherever I Wander

That was one very active my bear.

I was digging through my junk box the other day in an underwhelming attempt to clean up and organize when I came across a Mother’s Day card I had given to my mom nearly 30 years ago.

I have so many cards and notes that I’ve given or received from my parents over the years and I just can’t part with them.

This particular card was the one I had given to my mom on Mother’s Day 1988 when I was moving out of my home in Brooklyn to take a job at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

I was so worried about starting a new job and relocating to a new town that I had unthinkingly agreed to take the position without realizing that I was leaving for my new home was the very day that we’re supposed honor our mothers.

So, in addition to worry, fear, and creeping terror, I added an unhealthy serving of guilt a la mode that pretty much squashed any remaining traces of sanity that I had left.

But it’s not like I was moving to New Zealand. I was heading up the Poconos, which was only about 90 minutes away. Some people actually commute to New York every day, for God’s sake.

Going to the card store was a grim affair as I alternated between anguish about the new job—which I was convinced I couldn’t handle—and shame for deserting my mother on this most special holiday.

I stumbled around the aisles trying to find something suitable—and that’s what I came upon the traveling bear

The card has the image of a young bear riding on the back of an elephant and standing on sail boat as he travels the world.

Paws Button

To Mom, with Love,” the copy reads, “Wherever I wander...wherever I roam…

Upon opening the card, the young bear is approaching his family home and ready to step in to loving arms of his mother.

“…wherever my mother is will always be home,” the card concludes.


I cried the first time I saw this card and I’m in pretty rough shape right now. My mom has been gone for 15 years, but Mother’s Day can be a real trial.

During my junk box search I also rediscovered a couple of my mother’s old notebooks, including one with a portrait of William Shakespeare on the cover that I had bought for her during a vacation in London circa 1990.

Most of the pages are blank, but there are some notes in her handwriting, listing books, stores, and films and other items of interest.

How to Become Financially Successful by Owning Your Own Business, is the title of one of the books my mother wanted to buy, showing how she was always looking for ways to get ahead.

My mother also wrote down the name of a Columbia University film professor who had founded an independent film company.

Given my interest in filmmaking, I’m convinced my mother wrote this down for my benefit. She probably told me about it, too, but, dope that I am, I doubt if I followed up on it.

We eventually got through that Mother’s Day, and I lived in Pennsylvania for five years before moving to Connecticut and finally back to New York in 1998.

I didn’t wander like that greeting card bear, but I’m so grateful I had a mother who always made me feel at home.