Sunday, July 15, 2018

Stray Cat Strut

“A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.”—Groucho Marx

Okay, so what the hell is happening on 93rd Street?

Ever since I was liberated from my post-surgery leg braces, I’ve been walking about two miles nearly every day.

In the last few weeks I’ve been slowly getting back to the gym with 30-minute cardio workouts and some basic weight training exercises, but the long walks around my neighborhood in Bay Ridge are still a major part of my recovery.

On Saturdays I sometimes deviate from my usual route to cut over a few blocks to a local fruit and vegetable store to pick up my weekly supply of healthy stuff.

Now for the last two weeks I’ve been walking up Oliver Street off Shore Road and heading up 93rd Street.

And that’s where everything goes to hell—literally—because when I get to the block between Marine Avenue and Ridge Boulevard I keep running into black cats.

I know the old bit about black cat’s crossing your path is a ridiculous superstition, but being Irish and Italian it’s hard not to believe in magic—especially the bad kind.

And ever since I hit the deck back in December I’m even more prone to pay heed to omens, portents, premonitions, and a whole slew of spooky stuff that my logical side dismisses as horseshit, but which my pre-Christian DNA fearfully follows.

This latest lunacy started a few weeks ago when I was walking up 93rd Street and I ran into not one, but two—count ‘em, two—black cats on the same block. It was like they were having a lodge meeting, for Christ’s sake.

“Are you kidding me?” I silently implored the sky. “I don’t have enough misery with the double-knee surgery, you’re directing the very symbol of bad luck into my path?”

I was fervently praying that one evil omen would cancel out the other, but I’m not holding out much hope for that one.

And I had even calmed down enough to a point where I could laugh at the silliness of it all—until this past Saturday when I was walking up the very same street and ran into another black cat.

Apparently, his buddy had taken the weekend off, but one black cat is still one too many for me. By this time, I was so deranged that I actually followed the poor kitty up the street in a desperate bid to see if he was indeed noir to the bone.

“Buddy, lift your head,” I said to him, going full on Dr. Doolittle. “Please tell me you’ve got a spot of white under chin.”

The Devil’s on His Way

The stray feline obliged and I think—I hope—I saw a few strands of white fur amidst all that darkness, but I doubt it.

God knows what the poor cat was thinking, but I suspect it was something like “get the hell away from me with your stupid medieval beliefs, you bald-headed son-of-a-bitch.”

I later confessed my fears to my sister, a card-carrying cat lover, and she dismissed this dark age delusion.

“Where did this idea that black cats are bad luck start?” she asked.

I had absolutely no idea, so I did a quick jog around Wikipedia and I found that the folklore around black cats varies widely, with some cultures believing that they actually brought prosperity.

In Germany, some people thought it was a bad omen when a black cat crossed your path from right to left, while a left-to-right stroll is a sign of good times.

Pirates believed that you’d have bad luck if a black cat walked toward to you and good luck if they walked away from you. I guess it’s a good thing that cats can’t moonwalk.

Black cats were feared and hated by the Pilgrims—and we all know what a barrel of laughs they were.

And this is where superstition takes a very bad turn.

The Pilgrims thought black cats were familiars for witches and they’d punish or kill people who owned black cats and black cats themselves were slaughtered in great numbers because of this nonsense.

It doesn’t take much of a leap from murdering cats to burning people as witches, which is why Stevie Wonder warned us that when you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer—and so do a lot of other people.

The cats aren’t the problem, people are. They’d rather believe in some satanic fairy tale than accept responsibility for their own actions. Why admit you screwed up when you can blame your problems on some poor animal?

I think maybe it’s time I let go of these crazy notions.

And while I’m not going to go around breaking mirrors or walking under ladders, I’m willing to give black cats a break and acknowledge that these beautiful creatures been maligned for far too long.

Hell, maybe I’ll even celebrate Black Cat Appreciation Day on August 17.

But I’m also going to stop walking up 93rd Street.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Out of the Park

It all comes down to teamwork.

I’ve been working with this fabulous writing class for the last of couple of years now and today I joined my classmates for a reading of our various works in progress.

The class is coordinated by our teacher, the fabulous Rosemary Moore, and the reading was held at the Old Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The place has a history that dates back to the Dutch settlers and was a major site during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

Rosemary had asked us all for a short bio to read when she introduced us and I emailed her one of my favorites:

Rob Lenihan is a writer and journalist who was born in Brooklyn the same year the Dodgers left. He hopes the two events were not related."

I usually get some laughs on that one and today was no exception. And I needed all the humor I could muster because I was scared to Hell and back as my mind cranked out a whole host of disaster scenarios.

What if my piece was too long? What if it was too short? What if the damn thing just flat out sucked? What if I stammered, stuttered, or stumbled on my way to the podium? I had done several rehearsals during the week and I was making some bigtime bloopers.

Oh, Jesus sneeze us, how could I not screw up this thing up?

Who’s a Bum?

Well, I’m happy to report that the reading went very well if I say so myself. I read at a decent pace, got a nice round of applause, and some kind words during the post-reading food fest.

And I’m so grateful that my most awesome sister not only came out to support her baby brother, but she also drove us to and from the event.

I must say it was an honor sharing the stage with such talented people. Signing up for Rosemary’s class was one of the very best decision I’ve made in a long time and I thank God that these folks are my friends.

Rosemary is a gifted instructor who brings out the very best in all of our students. She starts each classing by encouraging us to “turn off your censor” and just write. And then she gives us prompts that we can work into our drafts—or we may not.

The funny thing is that my classmates and I often grumble about Rosemary’s assignments only to find that she’s provided us with a great opportunity to do some tremendous work.

I can’t believe the stuff that she has helped pull out my head. In fact, I’ve actually come up with an idea for novel solely through her classes.

And tonight I learned that the Old Stone House has another historical distinction. It turns that the place was also the original clubhouse of the baseball team that would eventually become the Brooklyn Dodgers.

So, I wasn’t alone on that podium today; I had a whole team of baseball legends backing me up.

Now the weekend is over and the Monday dreads are kicking in. I wish I could make a living at what I do in Rosemary’s class and work with these wonderful people on a fulltime basis.

Well, maybe someday. Right now, I’ve got to face the reality of another work week. I’m hoping the Dodgers are still in my corner.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

In the Crosshairs

Now we can add five more names to the list.

Last week’s mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis continues the apparently endless stream of gun violence that has gripped this terribly misguided nation.

I’ve worked at small newspapers, so this latest attack is particularly disturbing.

I think of the newsrooms in Pennsylvania and Connecticut where I used to ply my trade and see how easily it would’ve been for some gun-toting lunatic to walk in and start shooting.

Yes, the shooter had a personal beef with the newspaper, but we can’t ignore the fact that Trump—I refuse to call him president—has declared the press “the enemy of the people,” that he has repeatedly labeled any unflattering story as “fake news” and encouraged the crowds at his vanity hoedowns to jeer at reporters.

I’ve covered many seminars about corruption in the business world and one phrase that I’ve heard repeatedly was “tone at the top”—meaning how the behavior of a company's leaders can have a major influence on the actions of the rest of the staff.

If your C-suite people are being honest, your employees are likely to follow suit because of the example that management has set. Likewise, if the top executives are flipping the bird at the very notion of integrity, well, why should the underlings behave any differently?

The tone at the top of this country is vile.

We have a lying, thieving, and possibly traitorous megalomaniac occupying the White House, who surrounds himself with a mob of grifters and bootlickers.

We have Border Patrol officers taking children away from their parents, while that smirking Aryan chimp Jeff Sessions cites scripture to justify it—the very same passage that was used by Colonial Americans loyal to the Crown and slave owners who wanted to hold human beings in chains.

Conceived in Liberty

And we have an administration and congress hellbent on making the rich richer and corporations unaccountable.

I’ll never understand how middle class white people could ever sign off on tax cuts for the wealthy.

Do you seriously think these money-grubbers are going to share anything with you? They got rich by inheriting their millions from their daddies and keeping that money in the family.

The shake-up at the Supreme Court is the latest blow to the country I love. Trump will undoubtedly nominate some free market ideologue who will rubberstamp all the Republican talking points and make them the law of the land.

I keep thinking of the sequence in It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey sees what his world would be like if he had never been born.

This includes learning that his beloved hometown of Bedford Falls has been turned into a vice-ridden rat’s nest called “Pottersville” after the diseased old man who owns just about everything.

George realizes his value and sees his town restored. But that’s only a movie.

Life is a little more complicated. Right now, this country is well on its way to becoming Trumpville as a diseased old man and his cronies do everything they can to make life easier for themselves and their rich buddies.

With each terrible incident, I hear people say “we’re better than this” but that’s not slowing down our moral decay. This well-funded minority is turning this country into an angry tribe of self-centered cretins who will believe anything as long it conforms to their own twisted world view.

Happy Fourth of July.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dog Show

I’ve seen a few dogs in the theater over the years, but the one I spotted recently really stands out.

This was the real thing--as in the four-legged kind--a little lap dog I had the pleasure of meeting on my birthday last month while attending a performance of Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This little fellow—I think he was a fellow—was perched on the lap of a woman sitting in the audience and I spotted them as I was returning to my seat during intermission.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I always feel comfortable talking to total strangers in the theater.

Perhaps it’s because of the live actors on the stage or the fact that we all share a love for this singular art form, but, whatever the reason, I can chat up people I’ve never met before in a way that I wouldn’t even think of doing in a multiplex.

So, when I saw this lady and her dog, I just had to stop and talk.

“Is that a comfort dog?” I asked.

“No,” the lady said in a distinct southern accent. “I’m allergic to kiwi and he reacts in case it’s in my food.”

The poor lady, who was named Mary, told me that she almost died twice when her throat closed up due to a reaction to kiwi. Clearly that little doggie has a big job.

“And what part of Brooklyn are you from?” I asked, unable to fight my smart-ass instincts.

Mary laughed and told me that she was a retired school teacher from Georgia who had decided to stop whistling Dixie, pull up stakes, and relocate to New York City.

Yes, this loony bin that so many retirees can’t wait to flee is this lady’s retirement destination—a kind concrete Boca Raton.

Quitting Time

“I don’t know too many people who actually retire to New York,” I said.

“If I had retired to southern Georgia like so many of other people,” Mary said, “my biggest decision would be where I’d be having dinner tonight. Here, there’s so much to do and so many things to see.”

She was right about that and I think Mary appreciated New York in a way that a lot of Big Apple natives don’t—including, at times, yours truly.

I’m slowly getting out into the world after my fall in December, but prior to that I know I spent far too many weekends sitting in front of the TV watching old movies.

The only good thing about the accident, if there is such a thing, was that it happened during the winter, so I didn’t feel like I was missing much. But now I’m sticking around the house even though the weather was warm.

There have been a few blips here and there. I went to the WWOW show a few weeks ago to enjoy the actors performing old timey radio programs. I hadn’t gone to one of these events in a while, and this performance was the last one of the season, so I’m glad I went.

Last weekend my sister and I went to a silent disco event on the 69th Street pier, which is a five-minute walk from my house.

I’ve been meaning to attend one of these things—where you get the music through headphones rather than through booming speakers—so this was a good chance to scratch it off my list.

It was kind of weird watching people get down in total silence and the headphones became uncomfortable after a while, but I did try it. The next day we all went the Public Theater to see Cypress Avenue, a very good, but very disturbing play.

And today I went to a friend’s birthday party in Park Slope and had way too much wine.

I gave Mary my card before going back my seat and told her that she was welcome to join me and my family on our theater excursions.

I haven’t heard for her, but I’m glad I made the offer and I’m very grateful that I met her.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Crossed Wires

Like all kids, I hated going to the doctor.

I feared being poked with needles, dreaded having that tongue depressor thing jammed down my throat, and absolutely hated wasting so much time in the waiting room when I could be outside raising all kinds of hell.

Now there was this one day fine spring day when I had to go the doctor to get a booster shot.

Today of course I know full well the importance of checkups, but back then I felt like I was walking the last mile.

My dad had been doing some home repairs that morning and he sent me around the corner to Windsor Lock, the neighborhood hardware store—back when we had neighborhood hardware stores—to get several items including lightbulbs and two short pieces of wire.

Off I went, relying on nothing but my memory of what my father had told me to complete the order. When I returned a short time later, I handed the bag over to my father—and he promptly went nuts.

He was so happy and so proud of me for getting every single thing he wanted without the benefit of a shopping list.

“You even got the two pieces of wire!” he said in cheerful disbelief.

Well, that’s it, I reasoned, they can’t possibly take me to the doctor now. I’ve done such a good job, made my father so happy. It’s time to go out and play.

But a short time later my dad was getting out the car keys and telling me it was time to go see Dr. Abrahamson.

What the hell? I just pulled off the retail miracle of the century, you can’t possibly drag me to that needle-wielding psychopath now. I earned a pass on pain.

In my childish mind I had decided that the doctor’s visit was punishment, so by doing a good job for my dad, I was automatically off the hook—quid pro no doctor. Clearly, however, I had a lot to learn about logic and how a job well done does not excuse you from taking care of your health.

I used to tell that story a lot and I’d always end up by describing how disappointed and betrayed I felt when parents hauled me off to the doctor.

Roll Up Your Sleeve

But now on Father’s Day I want to change the focus a little on this tale and concentrate on how happy I had made my dad that morning.

This didn’t happen too often, to be honest, or at least not as much as I would’ve liked. We butted heads a lot during his lifetime and I keep thinking I could’ve done more to make things better between us.

My father fought in World War II and I am only now appreciating how much that terrible experience must have affected him.

He was once trapped in a foxhole for days during an artillery attack and wound getting frostbite in both feet so badly that when help finally did arrive, he had to be carried away by a stretcher.

One of his buddies was a guide in Montana, and he, my dad, and two other soldiers had planned to go on a hunting trip together when they got back to the States—only the other guys were all killed in action and my father was the only one who came home.

How can anyone possibly walk away unscathed from something like that?

I get angry when people talk so casually about going to war, the ones who say “we” when they obviously mean somebody else has to do the fighting.

My father didn’t have any bone spurs, he didn’t have any “other priorities” and he sure as fuck didn’t prance around on an aircraft carrier crowing “mission accomplished.” No, he just fought for his country.

It’s a waste of time and energy, but I wonder sometimes what kind of man my father would’ve been if he hadn’t gone to war, if he hadn’t witnessed all the brutality.

He’s been gone with 11 years now, so we’ll never know. I guess the best I can do is recall the happy times.

The pain from the booster shot has long since faded, but I’ll never forget that smile I put on my father’s face when I brought home those two pieces of wire.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Though Your Heart is Aching

When it’s someone close to you, it’s always too soon.

I was in grammar school when I had my first dental appointment with Dr. Ronald Cohen.

I was terrified, convinced that I was going to suffer unspeakable torment as this stranger sadistically yanked all of the teeth out of my head.

When I completed all the various forms, I nervously handed them over to Mabel, Dr. Cohen’s nurse, and briefly thought about running out the door.

This was in early May and when Mable checked my birth date, she gave me a lovely smile.

“You’ve got a birthday coming up,” she said.

I was confused. The torturer’s assistant was being nice to me? Isn’t she supposed to laugh like a lunatic and shove me into the arms of the drill-wielding psycho?

It turns out that I may have overreacted a little bit. Mabel was a wonderful woman and when Dr. Cohen came out to greet me, I found him to be a kind, gentle man who only wanted to keep me healthy.

And he would be my family’s dentist for nearly 50 years.

Mabel died several years ago and then last week my sister told me that we lost Dr. Cohen, too. I turned 61 last month so obviously Dr. Cohen was not a young man, but he always seemed fit and healthy and he certainly wore his age well.

His widow told my sister that Dr. Cohen, who suffered from diabetes, was working up until the day before he died.

I was close to tears when I heard the news and I still can’t believe he’s gone. This is the end of an era as yet another person leaves our lives. I know that I’m at the stage of life where I’m constantly saying goodbye to family and friends, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

You Must Keep on Trying

I went through high school, college, and adulthood and for nearly every one of those years I made my annual visit to Dr. Cohen.

He was more than just a rinse-and-spit guy. He was committed to educating his patients about the importance of oral hygiene. Often during examinations, he would hand me a mirror and take me on a guided tour of my own chompers.

“He acts like they’re his teeth,” I once jokingly complained, “and you’re just borrowing them.”

He was constantly looking to improve himself, staying up to date on the latest developments and doing research in his spare time.

As I moved into adulthood, Dr. Cohen and I would talk about things beyond brushing after every meal. He once told me about how his grandfather back in Russia had been forced to join the army.

“They just grabbed him off the street and threw him into a car,” Dr. Cohen said. “His family had no idea what happened to him for six months.”

And yet despite that abrupt introduction to army life, the elder Cohen went on to be an exemplary soldier and actually considered making the military his career, but since he was Jewish he knew he would never become an officer, so he mustered out.

After I graduated from college, I considered going to Japan to teach English. When I mentioned this to Dr. Cohen about this, he told me about how he had climbed Mt. Fuji during a leave from his military service in Korea.

I didn’t get the job, but Dr. Cohen had seen to it that all my dental work had been taken care of just in case I had to leave the country.

I know we all have to leave this life eventually, but I guess I thought that Dr. Cohen would always be there for us. And while I’ll have to find a new dentist now, I can’t imagine anybody else putting me at my ease the way Dr. Cohen did.

I’m looking back at that terrified grade schooler I once was, and I have to say that in all those years Dr. Cohen never caused me any pain.

Until now.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Shore Leave

I’ve always believed that the Seventies was a bad time for music, but a great period for movies.

Now, to be honest, I do enjoy a handful of disco era hits, but I think even the most stalwart Studio 54 devotee would have to look back at that decade’s soundtrack and ask, “wow, what the hell were we thinking?”

And don’t even get me started on the clothes.

However, it’s important to note that while the clubs were busy thumping humanity into a stupor, Hollywood was igniting movie screens with such classics as Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, and Serpico, to name a few.

I recently caught up with Cinderella Liberty, another film from that era, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it great, it’s certainly damn good.

I saw this film with my parents in the old Fortway theater when I was a sophomore in high school. I hadn’t seen it or even thought about it since, but then Turner Classic Movies ran it a few months ago and it was sitting patiently in my DVR until I finally decided to give it a look last week. And I’m so glad I did.

Released in 1973 and starring James Caan and Marsha Mason, Cinderella Liberty tells the story of John Baggs, a lonely sailor, who falls for Maggie, a prostitute he meets in a bar, and becomes a father figure to Doug, Maggie’s mixed-race son.

Baggs is bureaucratically marooned in Seattle after the navy loses his records. Bear in mind, this was over 40 years ago, before computer files, so when I say “records” I mean real world paperwork stuffed into a manila folder.

Today it’s hard to believe now that we once functioned without computers, but, somehow, we did. Back then we thought we were living in the most modern of modern times, but looking back at that period now, it looks like we hammering our information on to stone tablets.

Anyway, without the records, Baggs is virtually nonexistent in the navy’s eyes, and he spends more time with Maggie and Doug. The supporting cast includes Eli Wallach, Dabney Coleman, Bruno Kirby, Allan Arbus, and Sally Kirland.

Hey, Sailor

The movie was directed by Mark Rydell and based on a novel by Darryl Poniscan, the author of, among other things, The Last Detail, which was another fine Seventies film about sailors that starred Jack Nicholson.

I liked this film because it took its time to tell a story about believable characters. There are no monsters, wookies, or superheroes and there are no explosions, slow motion machine gun battles, or ridiculous fight scenes.

It’s just the story of some very ordinary people who are down on their luck and trying to make a life for themselves. I seriously doubt that anyone would make this film today as it lacks all of the aforementioned blockbuster ingredients and offers no possibility of a movie franchise.

Now there are few lines of dialog I could’ve done without. Statements like “Why is it everybody else gets chicken and I always get the feathers?” and “Love is shit with sugar on it” could have been easily deleted from the script without any fear of being missed.

And the theme song is hands down horrible, a faux bluesy jingle called "You're So Nice to Be Around" that was sung by that musical oddity Paul Williams.

No offense to Mr. Williams or his fans, but the guy never did anything for me, and while this tune somehow earned an Oscar nomination—it must’ve been a lean year for music—the song is really nice to get away from.

The tune might have been bearable if it had been performed by an actual African-America blues singer instead of a painfully Caucasian counterfeit trying to sound black.

But the song and the subpar dialog pass quickly and you’re left with one fine film.

On May 25, 1977—the day after my birthday— Star Wars was released to theaters and arguably kicked off the whole science-fiction blockbuster chain reaction that we’re still living with (suffering through?) today.

Like disco hits, I enjoy the occasional fantasy film, but a steady diet of these things is kind of like listening to nothing by dance music. There's not enough sugar in the world to make the shit tasty.

When it comes to feeding my brain, I’d much rather feast on chicken than scarf down a plateful of feathers.