Sunday, November 29, 2015

Light in the Tunnel

My sister and I were leaving the Fairway in Red Hook with our Thanksgiving turkey Wednesday night when we overhead one of the employees explaining the facts of life to a co-worker.

“Everybody’s got problems, baby girl,” she declared.

I was barely listening as I had all sorts of holiday-related worries preying on my mind.

But those words are coming back to me now that the long weekend is almost over, the turkey carcass has been reduced to bare bones, and my stomach is relentlessly pushing against my belt.

This is a time of the year when we’re supposed to be grateful for all we have, and I really am so thankful for all the great people in my life.

And yet I’m thinking of this slip-up I experienced just a few days before Thanksgiving.

I was riding the subway and reading a book to pass the time while the R train crawled its way through the rush hour congestion. Or at least I was trying to read, but the lights kept switching off every time I focused on the page.

I looked down the length of the car and saw that all the other lights were working perfectly. The only defective lights were the ones over my head.

I started getting annoyed; my dark self complaining, yeah, of course, the lights would go out on my part of the train. I had half-convinced myself that the fates were deliberately futzing around with the lights just to disrupt my reading.

Insane, of course, but that’s what happens when fatigue sets in and I let my mind off the leash.

It’s All Gravy

The man directly across me wasn’t complaining about the lights. He was sitting on the train with no shoes—completely barefoot—with the temperature falling, winter just around the corner, and the holiday season underway.

He clutched a heavy walking stick and wore a set of headphones, though I didn’t see any I-Pod on his hip to provide the music. Maybe the tunes were playing in his head.

Periodically he’d pound his walking stick on the floor and glare at the other passengers as if he were about to make some great pronouncement. But he never said a word.

So here was a man with no shoes on his feet, and God only knows if he had a place to live, or anyone to share Thanksgiving with—just a few feet away from me, but I chose to feel sorry for myself and get all twisted about some blinking lights.

It’s the subway, for God’s sake, it’s a minor miracle the lights work at all.

Such a strange holiday, where we’re supposed to give thanks for all we have by eating ourselves into a stupor.

If we really wanted to show our gratitude, perhaps we should go hungry for a day, get together with our loved ones and skip the huge meal in honor of those who have no food, no homes and no shoes to wear in the winter.

Your gratitude for things increases dramatically when they're taken away from you—even for a little while.

Yes, baby girl, everybody’s got problems. But for many of us our biggest problem is choosing to stay in the dark, refusing to see how lucky we are and why we should give thanks every single day of the year.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tarzan of the Narrows

I stood at the bus stop on Shore Road one dark night last week with a fistful of lottery tickets and my eyes peeled for the X27.

I wouldn’t have much time to do this. When the express bus pulled in I had just a few seconds to hop on board, meet up with Mary Ellen, this wonderful lady who had called me earlier in the day, and make a most important exchange.

I was psyched, a little nervous, and quite grateful that this business was hopefully going to be settled in a few minutes.

It all started in the afternoon when I received a voice mail from a number I didn’t recognize.

“Hello, my name is Mary Ellen and I have your company ID card,” the message began. “It was wedged between the cushions of a seat on the X27.”

I was stunned. I hadn’t even noticed that my ID card was missing. I always keep it securely clipped to my belt; there’s no way it could fall off.

When I come home every night I put my phone, wallet, house keys and ID card all on in one place on the kitchen table so I can make a quick departure from my house the following morning. Clearly something had gone wrong the previous night.

I quickly called Mary back and she told me that she had tracked me down on Facebook. It was a nice bit of detective work in addition to being an act of supreme kindness.

“I didn’t want to turn it over to the bus company,” she said, “because you’d never see it again.”

Now that’s the truth with a vengeance. With all the stuff that gets hauled into the lost and found in one day, I doubt if a plastic card with my kisser on it would attract much notice.

Hey, You Never Know

I’m still amazed at Mary’s courtesy, persistence and kindness. She could’ve easily ignored my ID card or tossed it over her shoulder. Instead she made this extra effort to help out a stranger.

There really are good people in the world. It’s just that all too often their good deeds are overshadowed by the losers, the schmucks, and the hatemongers.

My horoscope had me prepared for good things. Rob Brezsny, the genius behind Free Will Astrology, said my role models in the coming weeks should be Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, and, appropriately enough, Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimming champion who went on to play Tarzan in several movies.

Brezsny explained that Burroughs had failed in his attempt as a pencil sharpener salesman and took up novel writing as a way to pay the bills. Weissmuller suffered from polio as a child and rebuilt his strength by swimming.

“It's a favorable time for you to turn defeat into victory,” Brezsny wrote.

Okay then, so here’s my chance.

Mary Ellen, who works in midtown, texted me when her bus was coming up Bay Ridge Avenue and I ran out to 72nd Street to meet her. A friend had suggested that I give her lottery tickets as a small token of my appreciation and I think that was a brilliant idea.

The bus slowed down, the doors opened up, and after one passenger got off, I climbed aboard, asked the driver to wait a second, and made the exchange with Mary Ellen.

I was back out on the street seconds later, my ID card safely in my hand. I felt really cool, like I had just gotten away with something vaguely illegal. Mary Ellen had the lottery tickets, but I was the big winner here, thanks to her.

I walked quickly back to my apartment, barely able to fight the urge to swing from the trees and howl up to the sky.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

City of Dark

Last year I was speaking with my aunt about some horrific terrorist attack, and how it had sparked a nearly equally insane demand for revenge.

“Somewhere the Devil is smiling,” she said.

Oh, he sure was. And if Satan was smiling then he was must be laughing his horned head off right now at the slaughter in Paris and the wave of bloodthirsty ignorance that has followed in its wake.

The right wing propaganda machine didn’t even wait for the bodies in Paris to get cold before launching attacks on President Obama, fuming about gun rights, and repeating their cries for war, war, and more war.

Now as an eyewitness to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, I know full well the terror of radical Muslim fundamentalism.

I didn’t watch the carnage on Fox “News”, I didn’t need Rush Limbaugh to explain the situation to me, I was there, so I don’t want any flag-waving fuckhead telling me how things are supposed to work.

I hate those terrorist mother fuckers with a passion that could fuel a Saturn Five rocket. If I could destroy them all with a wave of my hand they’d be one big pile of dust. They live to kill and, believe me, I’m all in favor of their immediate and instant eradication.

However, I also know the destructive power of misguided and deceptive retaliation.

I remember how a certain Texas asshole exploited the September 11 massacre into an excuse for that disastrous war in Iraq, a quagmire that killed or maimed thousands of American soldiers, slaughtered God knows how many more innocent Iraqis, and eventually spawned ISIS, who ripped the heart out of Paris on Friday night.

Nothing happens in a vacuum and when you resort to drastic actions, you’d better be prepared for a drastic response.

Say Cheese

Do you remember that jackass Bush prancing around an aircraft carrier in a flight suit and the stupid “Mission Accomplished” banner flapping behind him? Do you remember the insurgency killing our soldiers every day of the goddamn week?

The mission wasn’t accomplished, and that’s because the mission was a stupid, ill-conceived blundering misstep into one of those most volatile locations on earth that only help to further destabilize the region.

So I get a little uneasy and rather pissed off when I hear these imbeciles demanding that we start dropping bombs and putting boots on the ground. We tried that bullshit before and it didn’t work.

The only way I’d sign off on any military action would be if we draft all the loud mouths who supported the war in Iraq, give them guns, and ship them off to the latest hotspot.

You’re so hot for war, dipshit, you can give it a try.

I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t know what we should do about these psychotic fucks who mercilessly gun down and blow up innocent people.

But I do know that starting unwinnable wars that make defense contractors rich and give cowards an excuse to pretend they’re tough guys from the safety of their homes and radio studios is exactly what we should not being doing.

The people who are pulling these attacks aren’t afraid of death. They’re suicide attackers, for fuck’s sake, so the threats and John Wayne macho man posturing don’t mean a goddamn thing to them.

That’s what makes combatting them so difficult: they’re looking forward to death, not running away from it.

The attacks will continue and we’ll probably continue dropping bombs and sending drones that will kill innocent civilians, thus helping to create even more terrorists.

And the whole time the Devil will be grinning from ear to ear.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Rap On, Brother

It was no time to talk about politics.

I get up hideously early two days a week to lift weights and lurch my way through a 7AM boxing class at the New York Sports Club’s City Hall gym and the greeting from the young lady behind the desk--we’ll call her Kathy—is one of the few bright spots of my pre-dawn morning.

She’s quite pretty, with dyed blond hair, belly button ring, and cool little glasses that makes her look both nerdy and sexy at same time—just the right ingredients to make a geezer like yours truly get all hot and bothered.

I like to kid around with her when I sign in, and though she’s always polite, I’m getting a vibe that says something along the lines of here’s your towel, gramps, now go punch yourself in the head and have a nice day. But I might be wrong.

On Tuesday Kathy caught me off guard by diverting from the usual pleasantries.

“It’s election day,” she said.

“Oh, that’s right,” I replied, having completely forgotten. “Vote for me and I’ll set you free!”

Kathy burst out laughing upon hearing this and I could tell by the volume and enthusiasm of her reaction that she thought I had come up with this line on the spot, which I definitely had not.

I hesitated for just a half-second, savoring her joyful admiration, before confessing the truth like a good like Catholic neurotic.

“That’s not mine,” I blabbed. “That’s a line from an old song by the Temptations called ‘Ball of Confusion.’ Check YouTube.”

Kathy gave some kind of vague response and I highly doubt that she’ll research this Motown hit, but the song started playing in my head and it kept going all day long.

Written in 1970, “Ball of Confusion” was a musical commentary of the world at the time, railing about segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation, humiliation, and obligation to our nation.

The Temptations warned us that we could run, run, but we sure couldn’t hide, and how right they were.

And the Band Played On…

I don’t think it’s one of their best songs, but at the time it came out I thought it painted a depressingly accurate description of this poor planet’s condition.

Little did I know that someday I would like back fondly on the Seventies and consider that period an age of enlightened thinking in comparison with the modern medieval morass we are currently suffering through.

Fanatics didn’t crash jetliners into buildings back then. You could still count the number of mass shootings in America on one hand, the polar bears didn’t have to worry about drowning in the Artic, and people weren’t getting killed trying to take selfies.

We didn’t even have selfies back then…or cell phones…or the Internet. There was no Twitter, no Instagram or Facebook, and no blogging, so people like me had to keep journals or inflict our views upon the world one victim at a time.
Back in those days millionaires bought politicians; they didn’t become politicians. And we didn’t give tax cuts to the rich or roll back regulations for Wall Street robber barons, or at least not as much as today.

People didn’t fabricate stories about the pyramids being storage containers for grain, those who didn’t believe in evolution were rightfully regulated to the sidelines, and elected "leaders" at least tried to work together.

Upon reflection, the Seventies look pretty tame—if you just overlook Vietnam, Kent State, Richard Nixon and all that graffiti on the subways.

Old timers like to blather on about the good old days, but what bothers me is that I thought we had reached rock bottom back then, only to see now that we still had a long way to drop. I don’t want to think about what’s coming next.

I’m glad I didn’t take credit for the Temptations’ work. It was nice giving Kathy a laugh without adding plagiarism to my list of offenses.

And it so was good of her to remind me about my civic duty, because Election Day is one of the few opportunities we get to try and bring some order to this ball of confusion.

But it’s just occurred to me that I forgot to vote on Tuesday.

Great Googamooga…

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Not Responding

One of the worst things about a temper tantrum is that it feels so good when you’re middle of it.

Logic and good sense bounce off your brain like bullets hitting Superman’s chest, as you wrap yourself up in a cloak of self-righteous anger.

You are the injured party here, damn it, and you're entitled to shout, curse, and pound the desk with your shoe like Nikita Khrushchev at the UN.

It’s only when the anger wears off, when the Incredible Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner, that you realize you look rather stupid.

I had this point driven painfully home to me at work when I had a 20-megaton conniption fit over my abominably sluggish computer.

I wasn’t feeling particularly well that day, either physically or emotionally. And to be perfectly honest, my work computer is old and in chronic need of an overhaul.

It seems that no matter what command you give the damn thing, it’s first reply is to light up the message “Not Responding” at the top of screen. Eventually it’ll do what you ask, but first it has to go through its little surrender monkey dance.

Most days I can put up with this grief, but on this day I believe I was actually searching for a reason to be angry. And I found it.

It started when I tried to open up Outlook to check my morning emails and got the old “Not Responding” routine. I foolishly kept clicking on the icon, which only helped to slow things down even more.

I started cursing, under my breath at first, but then louder as the wait went on.

“This is the 21-Fucking-Century,” I grumbled, “and I still can’t get my goddamn email.”

Instead of counting to ten, going for a walk, or looking at the newspaper, I angrily attempted to launch Google Chrome and got another “Not Responding” for my trouble.

The Psycho Next Door

I fumed and swore until smoke came out of my ears. In some small distant part of my mind I could hear a voice telling me to tone it down, there are people around who can hear you. But my brain was not responding.

Good, I angrily declared, I don’t feel well, I hate this computer and anyone who doesn’t like it can drop dead.

Eventually the computer calmed down and so did I. Yes, it’s an old machine, but strangely enough freaking out didn’t make it work any better.

I was all set to put the ugly incident behind me and get on with my day when I heard two women on the other side of my cubicle having a conversation.

I could hear every word they said, which meant that they must’ve heard every foul thing I had been saying for the last five minutes.

I kept telling myself to let it go and pretend that nothing had happened. But I couldn’t. I knew something had happened—and I had been the cause of it.

I knew what I had to do, but it took me a while for me to admit it to myself. Finally, after nearly an hour, I got up, walked around to the other side of the cubicle and faced my two coworkers.

“I’m very sorry about all the noise and foul language,” I told them, feeling like a first class loser.
One of the women laughed and waved her hand.

“You sound just like my husband when he has trouble with our computer,” she said.

Oh, really, I thought, so you’re married to a lunatic like me? Poor lady…

I realized that I had never formally introduced myself to these women so if nothing else, my asinine actions had actually expanded my world a little bit and now I greet these ladies every time I see them in the office.

And it felt good to apologize, to acknowledge mistake and at least try to make amends.

I keep telling myself that I lost my temper because I wasn’t feeling well, but that’s just an excuse that will likely leave me in a rut.

I want to use my energy to change, not waste it on looking for reasons to be the same old loon.

This is the 21st-Fucking-Century, it’s high time I upgraded my mental software so that the next time I reach out to coworkers I’ll be doing it to make new friends and not to atone for my sins.

I know I’m making progress. It’s just that every now and then I’ve got this urge to pound my shoe on the desk.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Just A Kind Word

In the 1987 gangster epic, The Untouchables, the infamous bootlegger Al Capone, brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro, tries to downplay his well-deserved reputation for violence.

“I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” Capone tells a group of reporters. “And we used to say ‘you can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.’”

We already know the on-going horror show that guns have inflicted upon this country, but lately I’ve been amazed at the healing power of a just a kind word.

I was in the PATH station in Hoboken one recent morning adding money to my Metrocard when one of the station employees, this very pleasant African-American lady, approached me to see if I needed any help with the machine.

“No, thanks,” I said, appreciating her concern. “I’ve got this.”

She walked away while I slipped my card into the appropriate slot and waited. And waited. And waited. The Metrocard machine made all kinds of clicks and squeaks but refused to return my card. Oy…

I looked around for the station agent and waved to her.

“It turns out I really do need your help,” I said, rather lamely.

She headed in my direction and as soon as she arrived, my card popped out of the slot.

“You bring me luck!” I said

I hadn’t given any thought to these words; I just kind of said them. But this lady made a very pronounced sigh as if she were deeply touched.

I don’t envy her having to work in that train station and, knowing New York-area commuters the way I do, I seriously doubt she hears many kind words in the course of a day. So if felt really good to cheer her up even for a brief moment.

Hell, I thought, that was pretty easy.

In fact, it’s so easy that I’ve decided to look for every opportunity to say something nice to people.

And then a few weeks ago I was on the receiving end of a much-needed kind word.

I was stumbling onto the X-27 bus with a laptop on my shoulder, a knapsack on my hip and the New York Times falling through my hands.

Aisle Be There

I was tired, worried about my job, and pretty much fed up with life in general.

As I walked down the aisle in search of a seat, what seem like several tons on advertising flyers slipped out of the paper and littered the floor.

Great. Now I’ve got to try and pick that crap up while holding onto to all the other junk I’m carrying.

“I’ll get it,” said this middle-aged man in a nearby seat.

“It’s okay,” I said, gathering up the debris in my arms like I was carrying an infant. “I’ve got it.”

“Hang in there, buddy,” my fellow passenger said with refreshing sincerity.

That was it. That was the sum total of our interaction. But something about it really touched me.

No one else on that bus offered to help me; no one even acknowledged my presence, opting instead for the Big City Stare, where you steadfastly refuse to look at any unpleasant occurrence even if it’s happening right on top of you.

I’ve resorted to this urban blindness myself on many occasions, so I am certainly not passing judgment.

I’m just so grateful to that man who chose to actually see me and offered to help.

I looked for the man when I pulled into my stop so I could wish him a good day, but he had already gotten off.

But I’ve been replaying his line in my head whenever I feel pressured and it’s been quite effective in helping me calm down.

Hang in there, buddy.

I’ve looked at kind words from both sides now and I must say there’s nothing like giving or receiving a verbal thumbs-up.

It's nice to think that these two incidents are related, that what goes around really does come around, and I was being rewarded for my minor act of kindness. But you shouldn't expect a reward for being nice to people.

To paraphrase another gangster flick, The Godfather, I would advice people to leave the gun and take the kind words. You’ll be surprised how far you get.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Eyes Have It

It took much longer than it should have, but I finally broke down and ordered my first pair of reading glasses yesterday.

I have been putting this off for years, as I fought a losing battle with small print by squinting, using a magnifying glass, or just flat out giving up and hoping to hell I hadn’t missed anything important.

I actually “lost” the prescription and had to request a duplicate from my doctor before finally parking my keister in front of the computer and making it happen.

It wasn’t easy. I’ve always had good vision, bonehead typos notwithstanding, and I was so proud of how I had staved off failing eyesight for so long.

But even I have to admit that things were getting bad. I’m holding newspapers up to my honker and cranking up the zoom on my computer until it looks like skywriting.

My eye doctor put it simply.

“You’re 58!” he declared, a little too loudly for my taste.

That said it all. Stop lying to yourself, cut the crap and get the goddamn specs. You’re old, grandpa, you’re old.

I probably wouldn’t have gone to the doctor had it not been for an annoying eye infection that wouldn’t go away and, naturally he checked out the state of my peepers and found them to be lacking.

My eye guy recently relocated to a building on Third Avenue that was once the home of a weekly newspaper where I had worked for two…hmm, what’s the word? Oh, yeah…miserable years nearly 30 decades ago.

It wasn’t a happy time for me and, of course I did my best to make it worse, bouncing from despair to resentment and anger to near self-destruction.

Vision Quest

But I had been struggling for a direction and I found something close to it when I started working at this place. And I got to do some fun stories, like riding around with cops in Sunset Park and meeting some nice people, so it wasn’t a complete nightmare.

When I reached my doctor’s office I did a double take at the street sign. I saw that the block had been named in honor of the paper’s late publisher and my aging eyes nearly popped out of my head. They named a street after that guy? I fumed. What the hell did he ever do?

I knew I had vision problems but was I suffering from hallucinations, too? I suppose I could’ve raged on for the rest of the morning, but I did have a doctor’s appointment.

The place looked completely different on the inside, of course, seeing as it was now a doctor’s office. There was no trace of the crumbling dump where I literally punched a clock every day.

“This place was a mess when we got here,” the nurse told me. “We had to clean it all out.”

I’m not surprised. The Army Corps of Engineers would’ve probably needed a month to get through that hovel.

My doctor gave me a prescription for antibiotics to get rid of the eye infection and wrote up an order for reading glasses.

I felt relieved by the time I left. I was getting treatment for the infection and, more importantly, I had finally stopped lying to myself and admitted I needed glasses.

And I was feeling more charitable toward my past. If they wanted to name the street after my old publisher, so what? An additional sign on the lamppost wasn’t going to hurt anyone.

The old job is behind me; the place literally didn’t exist anymore, at least not at this location. It was time to do some cleaning of my own, flush out all that old grief and look forward.

I haven't gotten my glasses yet, but I think my vision is getting better already.