Sunday, April 20, 2014

Wind Walkers

I met Cathy on the B9 bus one Saturday night when I was coming home from Manhattan.

It was a cold, colder than it had any right to be, and I couldn’t wait to get back to my apartment. Cathy, an elderly lady with a shopping cart, was sitting across from me.

“Are you going to Shore Road?” she asked a teenaged girl sitting a few seats away.

The girl shook her head no and looked down to the floor, so I put my hand up.

“I am,” I said.

“Can you walk me to my door?”

“Yeah, sure.”

The teenager got off at the next stop so it was just Cathy and I riding to the end of the line. As she struggled to stand up, I saw that Cathy needed the shopping cart to help her walk.

“I fell down in my own house one time,” she told me.

She wanted me to walk with her because she was afraid of the winds that blew in off the Narrows.

Those winds can be fierce. Back in my jogging days, I used to run along the bike path that runs along the Narrows and on freezing winter mornings I could actually see the wind churning through the water as it headed straight for me.

It gave me a chance to brace myself before the freezing air sliced through my body. I had a beard for a while and I remember pulling chunks of ice from my whiskers when I got home.

And I could sympathize with Cathy. My mother had to use a walker toward the end of her life and we had to be very careful with her whenever we left the house.

The Leaves Hang Trembling

I’ve had so much grief with my back that walking became absolute torture and I bore no resemblance whatsoever to that fitness-obsessed lunatic running through frigid temperatures.

“My son is in Florida,” Cathy told me as we walked slowly-very slowly—across 71st Street. “He was married for almost 25 years, he has 12 kids, all adopted, some from Russia, some from America.”

Some of the children were handicapped, Cathy said, and her son’s wife had left him because of that.
“She said they’d have to take care of those kids forever,” Cathy said.

We walked for a little while longer and we both noticed the absence of any winds.

“It’s not so bad,” Cathy admitted. “I could’ve done this.”

No worries. It was on my way home anyhow and I enjoyed hearing her story. When we reached Cathy’s apartment she turned to look at me.

“God sent you here to help me,” she said.

Some people might roll their eyes at this—myself included at one time-but now I like the idea of a supreme being moving people to where they’re needed the way the wind blows ships across the sea.

“I grew up here,” Cathy continued. “I lived in this building all my life. I moved to another apartment. And then my husband and brother died.”

I lived in this area nearly all of my life, too. I always talked about going to faraway places, but it never happened. I was afraid of the wind, too, the wind of change that would’ve taken me away from the familiar and off to someplace new.

But having said all that, I do love my home near the water and I’m thankful I have it.

“Shore Road is a nice area,” I said.

“Except for the winds,” Cathy reminded me.

I wished Cathy well and walked home. The air was cold but the wind was quiet and the Narrows was as smooth as a pane of glass.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Other Side of Fear

Let the record reflect that I did my very best to make this thing happen.

I’m known the world over for hemming and hawing on any and all decisions.

Given the right conditions, figuring out what I want for lunch can turn into a veritable opera of torment and self-abuse.

So just imagine the torture I inflicted upon myself when I recently received an email from the School of Visual Arts announcing a two-week screenwriting course in Rome.

The class was expensive, more than I wanted to spend, honestly, but it sounded great. You get to see Rome, work with film instructors at an Italian university, write short scripts and then—best of all—hand your work over to actors who would then perform the scenes.

I’ve taken courses with the SVA before so I know they’re a good outfit. Two summers ago I took a director’s course there and then waaaay back in 1980, I went on a two-week trip to Trinity College in Dublin for a screenwriting class with Ernest Tidyman. I met one of my best friends during that trip and we keep in touch to this day.

Rome seemed perfect, especially since I’m half-Italian. Dublin took care of Dad’s side of the family; now it was time to pay to tribute to Mom’s.

And what’s more, we would be leaving on my birthday. Now is that a sign or what?

But, of course, I was conflicted up the wazoo. It was too much money, I should be traveling to L.A. for an agents’ conference instead, I should stay in town and shoot a short film, like I’ve been threatening to do for close to a decade.

I met with Sal Petrosino, the course's director, at his office on East 23rd Street. He gave me the rundown on the program and threw in some great advice.

“Life is meant to be lived,” he said.

But I was still struggling. My shrink had me do an exercise where I close my eyes and imagine someone I really trust coming to me to help me make my decision.

I did something very similar for qigong mediation class years ago and the person who came to me that time turned out to be my mother. And now she was making a return visit.

Mother Knows Best

“What does Mom say?” my shrink asked.

“She says go,” I replied without hesitation.

“There’s your answer,” my shrink said.

So I signed up. And the second I gave the bursar my credit card number, I instantly was besieged by a relentless barrage of “what ifs?”

What if I get sick? What if my back goes out again? What if I get kidnapped by the Red Brigade—assuming they’re still in business? I’d have to buy a laptop, but what if I bought the wrong laptop?

I was playing a mental game of whack-a-mole, bashing one worry only to have another pop up somewhere else in my mind.

But that’s the thing about fear—it can adapt to any situation.

I’m forever posting all sorts of spiritual sayings on Facebook and I came across one by Jack Canfield that seems to have been composed for my benefit.

Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

I tried to calm down and started making plans for the trip. Find a good computer, get down the suitcases, and try to be enthusiastic for Christ’s sake.

But the Comfort Zone Kid was still lingering inside me. When Sal said he was hoping to have enough people for the trip, the fearful part of my mind seized upon that sliver of doubt and fervently prayed that it wouldn’t happen.

I know—it’s insane. Who the hell dreads a trip to Rome? Anybody else would be hopping up and down at the thought of traveling to the Eternal City.

And then one day Sal called me and said the trip was being cancelled because not enough people signed up. Some of these geniuses completed the online application, but then balked when they actually to pay for the goddamn trip.

I’m ashamed to say that part of me felt relieved, grateful that I wouldn’t be breaking my precious routine. I blamed myself for the trip’s cancellation, as if my fretting had somehow spawned all varieties of bad karma.

See? It’s always my fault; even what it’s not my fault. Mamma mia!

The regret is settling in though. Every time I look at the syllabus I want to cry. This would’ve been a great experience for me.

But there’s no point in wallowing in “what ifs?” The SVA has other overseas courses and maybe one of those will work out for me. I’m determined to put the Comfort Zone Kid in a closet and make that leap to the other side of fear.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Short Stop

Oh, the humiliation.

Disaster struck early last week when I was unceremoniously booted off my beloved Express Bus.

I’m still stunned by this turn of events. I’ve pretty much made a second career out of praising the X27 and here I was being ejected from my favorite mode of transportation like a flasher at a church social.

Excuse me?

The debacle occurred after work one day when I was tired and anxious to get back to Bay Ridge for a chiropractor’s appointment.

I got out of my office and walked two blocks up Broadway to grab the X27. My timing was excellent. As soon as I took my place on line, I looked down the street and—thar she blows!—my bus was chugging down the street.

I took out my wallet, climbed aboard and ran my Metrocard through the appropriate slot. But instead a friendly little beep I got a mechanical gag from the register and a disapproving look from the driver.

“It’s no good,” he said.

“What’s no good?” I demanded.

“The card,” the driver repeated. “It’s no good.”

“That’s impossible,” I declared. “I just used it this morning!”

“It’s no good.”

“But I filled it yesterday!”

This was quite true. I had put an additional 40 bucks on my card the day before, bringing the total up to $70. And yet this dolt was telling me the card wasn’t working.

“Hey, look,” I said, as a line formed behind me. “I gotta get outta here!”

“Do you have another card?”

I did, but, of course, it didn’t have enough money on it. I had plenty of cash so I turned to look at my fellow passengers in hopes of buying a ride off of one of them.

“Can anyone help me out?” I asked.

This Way Out

Suddenly all of the people who had been watching me were looking in every other conceivable direction.

“I can’t,” the woman behind me muttered.

Yeah, I know the routine. Nobody wants to get involved. I confess I often do the same thing when people come hitting me up for money. But I had the dough, damn it. I was ready to do business.

I was feeling rather awkward. I had a bus driver cut me a break one time when my card was short a few bucks, but I could see this butthole wasn’t going to be anywhere near as helpful.

I finally stormed off the bus, embarrassed and infuriated. I hate being the center of attention and now I felt like I had a massive spotlight shining right through me.

I dashed to the train station at Cortland Street and told my sad story to the booth attendant. He checked the card and said there was some kind of malfunction and that there was nothing he could do about it.

I dropped an additional 40 bucks on my spare card, grabbed a refund form and dashed back to Broadway, determined to take my rightful place on the Express Bus.

On the way over I rescheduled my appointment with the chiropractor because I didn’t want to get any more twisted than I always was.

I had a Metrocard go south on me once before and I got a refund--eventually. More importantly, I learned from that experience to get a receipt every time I refilled my card.

I sent the latest refund request off in the mail on Thursday and I should get the check just in time for the return of Hailey’s Comet.

I’m still pissed at that bus driver and I’m more annoyed at myself. I was so worried about making a scene that I didn’t stand up for myself. I held up my end of the bargain. It was the damn card that wasn’t working.

Part of me thinks I should have taken a seat and let the driver try and toss me off. But I know that would have just inconvenienced a whole bunch of people and caused me a whole lot of grief if things had escalated. There's a difference between sticking to your guns and being an idiot.

I did the right thing for the wrong reason. I was motivated more by shame than by a desire to make the best of a rotten situation.

I’ve been riding the bus for the last week now without incident. I haven’t seen that driver yet, but I suppose he’ll show his ugly mug sooner or later.

Screw him and his extended family. I belong on the X27 and no one’s going to keep me off.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Massage From Above

I got rubbed the right way on Saturday and it didn’t cost me a dime.

For the last several months I have been treating myself to near-weekly massages at Heavenly Body Works on 73rd Street in Bay Ridge.

Last weekend I hit the magic number of 10, meaning I was entitled to a free massage. And I made sure to collect.

I started doing this after reading an article on how massages are actually good for the immune system, which puts them one notch above the shameless indulgence of the barbershop shave.

The hour-long treatments are a little pricy, but they’re relaxing as hell and if they’re going to prevent me from coming down with a case of the heebie-jeebies, then I think it’s money well spent on a bloody good cause.

A number of Chinese massage places have opened up in my neighborhood recently and a dozen of them were promptly shut down last year after the cops found out that the rubdowns were straying south of the border, if you know what I mean.

Picking the right place was important to me, as I’d rather not be hauled out to a paddy wagon in my underwear if at all possible.

So my sister and I did a quick net search and found a glowing review of Heavenly Body Works that even advised readers that “you don’t have to worry about being raided by police”—which was exactly what I was worried about.

The place is so quiet with the Asian version of Muzak playing softly in the background. The booths aren’t terribly fancy, but the first rate treatment more than makes up for the bland d├ęcor.

There's the Rub

You strip down to your skivvies, lay face down on the table and let the ladies do their magic all over your body.

I know I’m uptight, but I learning through massage just how constricted I really am. In addition to my bad back, I’ve also got grief going on in my left shoulder, thanks to years of crooking the phone under neck and typing on the computer.

I look back on all those years I did that as a reporter and wonder just what in the hell I was thinking. Did I seriously think there wouldn’t be a price to pay for such unhealthy behavior?

“So tight, so tight,” the masseuse whispers in response to my yelps.

But I know the pain is necessary if my twisted tissues are ever going to get untangled.

These ladies are quite strong and while they have provided me with incredible relief, I can see where they could really do a number on you if they were so inclined.

The masseuses rub and pull just about every part of my body, including my fingers and face. Then they apply hot stones to the back of my neck and place one in each hand.

The only awkward part of the whole experience is the butt rubdown, where the masseuse yanks down on my shorts and greases up my caboose. She then proceeds to rub my exposed derriere with such force it’s like she expects a genie to come flying out of my rectum and grant her three wishes.

This hasn’t happened, in case you were wondering. At least not yet.

I always throw the masseuse a tip on the way out, even though I believe that having the honor of laying hands upon my awesome physique is payment enough. (No snide remarks, please!)

The walk home is always so mellow I can barely recognize myself. For an all-too brief time, I’m not racing down the block with my arms pumping and my brain churning with all manner of useless chatter.

My shoulders aren’t scrunched up to ears and I even speak at a rate that humans can actually understand. If this is a waste of money, I’m ready to waste a hell of a lot more.

I got a new blank card to tally up my massages. I’ll be back next ready to climb that stairway to Heaven all over again.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Where Do They All Belong?

I paused in the lobby of an apartment building on Sixth Avenue in Bay Ridge and waited for a few seconds before pressing the buzzer.

This was in the Eighties, back when I was reporter for a local weekly newspaper, and on this particular day I was covering the suicide of a young woman who had thrown herself in front of a subway train.

I had gone to the dead woman’s building in hopes of talking to someone who knew her. I decided to start with the landlady so I rang her bell and waited.

She didn't buzz me into the building, choosing instead to talk to me over the intercom. It felt so strange leaning over to ask my questions into the speaker. I got a few static-filled responses, but the upshot was that the landlady knew virtually nothing about the dead woman.

As soon as she rang off, two teenage boys came into the lobby and when I told them that a woman from their building had killed herself, one of the exclaimed “Fresh!”

This was the Eighties after all.

Then a woman in her late thirties walked into the lobby. She was heavy, as I recall, with thick glasses and curly black hair.

I told her that one of her neighbors had committed suicide and though she didn’t know the woman, the conversation kept going. She started telling me about an incident in her life when she had an epileptic fit on a deserted subway platform.

She told me that a strange man had approached at this most critical moment when she was completely helpless.

“He could have raped me,” she said.

I told her to take care and went back to the newspaper with little to show for my efforts. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about that woman in the lobby.

I told one of my coworkers about what had happened and he was moved as well.

“All the lonely people,” he said, quoting the line from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”

A Sermon That No One Will Hear

That was the perfect analogy. The woman in the lobby had just wanted someone to talk to, someone with whom she could share this frightening experience. Someone to listen.

As someone who has experienced long stretches of loneliness, I can sympathize. If you spend enough time alone, you’re willing to share your thoughts with just about anyone.

When I first moved back to New York I was pretty much a stranger in my hometown. In a rare moment of intimacy, my father once expressed his concern about my lack of a social circle.

“Every time I see you go out by yourself,” he said, “my heart falls right down to my shoes.”

I was so touched by this. I’ve complained a lot about my father in my life, but here he was showing genuine concern for my well-being. And then I felt guilty for upsetting him.

Last autumn I went through a lengthy period when I was extremely sick. I got angry and depressed at being forced to sit home and look at TV on weekends instead of going out.

I called my aunt to complain about my troubles and she could hear the emotion in my voice just ready to crack.

“You better let it out,” she said gently.

And that’s just what I did, wailing into the phone uncontrollably.

“I’m always sick,” I cried, “and I’m lonely!”

I’m lonely. Even now it feels like I’m confessing to a crime.

By saying you’re lonely you’re essentially admitting that you have no friends, that you’re not popular, and that something must be wrong with you.

You can call yourself a loner because it sounds cool, but after a while “loner” can change morph into “loser.”

There’s been so many times when I've walk by a crowded bar, look at all the people, all the good friends, talking and laughing together, and wondered what I was doing wrong.

But I don't want this to be a "poor me" rant. There is a definite danger of getting comfortable being alone. Too many nights I actually look forward to coming home to sit in front of the TV and the computer.

I do enjoy being able to pick up and go anywhere I want anytime I want. The tough part comes when I actually get to where I’m going and I have no one to share it with. And socializing doesn't get any easier as you grow older.

I never did find out much about that woman who had jumped in front of the subway train all those years ago. But I wonder if things might have been different if there had been someone around to hear her story.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Everyday Happiness

I’m never one to turn down good advice--even if comes from spam email.

Take my friend Nicole, who wrote to me--and about 10,000 other guys—the other day.

Aloha, my friend, she writes. Tell me what are you looking for, may be you are looking for me?

Nothing personal, Nicole, but I’m looking for a pile of cash five stories high, a good deli, and an escape from this horrendous winter.

I am cheerful, open, sociable, family-oriented, light-hearted, well-balanced, active, liberal, honest and responsible.

That’s quite a resume. All Nicole needs is to be thrifty, clean and reverent and she can join the Boy Scouts.

Nicole also is “fond of sport,” which is good, seeing as she’s so well-balanced. I wonder what she’s responsible for—or do I want to know?

Besides “sport,” Nicole also enjoys “cooking, growing flowers, playing bowling and listening to music.”

Playing bowling. Nicole just doesn’t bowl; no, she plays it. I wonder if she cooks, grows flowers, and bowls at the same time. Hell, I’d married her in a family-oriented minute.

I like sea and animals. It will be a pleasure for me to cook a romantic dinner for my beloved one.

Sea and animals? Clearly, Nicole’s not one to nitpick. She’ll take anything Mother Nature has to offer and fry it up in a pan.

But I have to give Nicole credit--she did end her email with a line that has got me thinking.

Find some happiness everyday…

Finding happiness has not been one of my strong points. I’m great at finding misery, fear, anger, and all kinds of crap to complain about, but my happiness detector appears to be on the fritz.

It’s been especially tough lately, as I’ve battling health issues and my manic overreaction to those aforementioned issues.

Trouble is My Business

I decided to visit a new doctor in the neighborhood whom my shrink had recommended. I was extremely reluctant because I heard the wait times could be long and I really didn’t feel like hanging around a doctor’s office all day.

But I had Monday off, no place to go, and a desire to try something different. So I went to the guy and I’m very glad I did.

First of all, the wait wasn’t too bad. But more importantly, I was really impressed with this doctor. He told I wasn’t suffering from yet another cold, like I had thought, but allergies.

I instantly felt better upon hearing this news. And I wondered how many times in the past did I convince myself I was sick, when I was actually suffering from allergies.

“Forget about that,” my shrink rightly advised.
The doctor also asked about my eating habits, which to be honest, are terrible, especially for someone who claims to be interested in his health.

I don’t cook at all, electing instead to nuke pre-cooked turkey meatballs, chicken sausage, and similar stuff.

If only Nicole could come over to my house and cook a romantic dinner for her beloved one.

Worse yet, I guzzle diet ice tea and sodas, something that both my doctor and my nutritionist said must stop.

The doctor tells me artificial sweeteners disrupt the kidneys in their efforts to clean out the body.

Obviously I knew this crap was bad for me, but I just pretended I could go on drinking it and suffer no ill effects. And the definition of insanity is…

So I’m cutting down on the diet ice tea and getting back to the 6-8 glasses of water routine. And I’m slowly—very slowly—going to start cooking my meals.

I want to improve me health so I can be cheerful, open, sociable, family-oriented, light-hearted, well-balanced, active, liberal, honest and responsible. I want to enjoy the sea and the animals and play bowling.

And I want to find happiness every day.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Command Z

A man jumped to his death on Friday from a building two blocks from my office.

I initially dismissed the police cars and fire engines parked on Broadway as just another day in the big city. But when I saw the news trucks pulling up to the scene I knew something was going on.

A cameraman from the Spanish language station told me someone had jumped from the 12th floor and then he trained his lens on the building and began shooting footage.

The body had been removed by this time, but when I walked by the building I saw a pool of blood on the pavement and nearly puked.

If I were still a police reporter I would’ve covered this terrible incident, but I’m a business writer now so I have to find out the story behind the tragedy the way everybody else does.

I checked the news sites throughout the day until I got the story. The victim was a 45-year-old man who recently separated from his wife and had lost both of his parents.

The day wore on, I gradually stopped thinking about the man who had died some close to where I work, and by the time Saturday morning rolled around I was sick as a dog.

Yes, sick again, after giving up three weeks of my life to illness just last month. I thought I had earned some time off from illness, but I was wrong.

I went through the usual raging self-pity that does nothing but harm. I feel like God’s guinea pig, I whined. I’m a human lab rat!

Just this week I met with a nutritionist who came up with a new diet and vitamin routine for me. I thought that this might be a turning point, and it may be yet, since I haven’t actually started the program.

One More Time

But the ugly voices in my head are telling me that it’s a waste of time and money and that nothing is going to change for me.

Over the years I’ve tried vitamins, meditation, qigong, and a veritable chorus line of doctors. I wash my hands constantly, disinfect my phone and keyboard at work with alcohol pads, and nothing helps.

I am sick of soup, sick of tea, sick of resting and missing all the world has to offer. I’m tired of people asking how am I feeling, even though I know they mean well.

And I’m sick of being afraid of getting sick. It seems that I’m either sick, recuperating from being sick, or worrying about my next bout with illness.

My shrink tells me that in times of stress I should detach and observe. Stand outside my thoughts and look at them like a scientist taking notes on an experiment.

That is very difficult to do when you’re in the middle of a temper tantrum, but when I was finally able to detach, I didn’t like what I observed. It was like standing next to a cyclone of toxic waste.

I had signed up for a course in Final Cut Pro at the Downtown Community Television Center on Saturday and I had play tickets for Sunday, which meant rest was out of the question.

So I dragged myself through the class, which was actually pretty good. The teacher was very helpful and while I was having trouble understanding the finer points of the editing software, I did appreciate one important item.

In the event you make a mistake, you can always hit Command Z on your keyboard. That will undo whatever the hell you just did, erase it like it never happened, and give you a chance to try again.

It’s a shame that we don’t have a Command Z for the real world. We could all use another chance to get it right, to change our minds, and avoid a disastrous decision.

I’m feeling a little better today and fortunately I’m taking Monday off. I hope this latest illness is brief so that I can start making some changes in my physical health and my attitude.

However I feel though, at least I will have another day to try again. Which is more that can be said for the man who jumped out of the 12th floor window on Friday morning.