Saturday, October 22, 2016

Climbing the Stairs

I stood at the top of the stairs and watched my father emerge from the basement carrying a stack of presents.

This was Christmas Eve, God alone knows how many years ago, and I had gotten out of bed to investigate the sounds I heard coming from downstairs.

We lived on the second floor of our house back then, and the stairs leading to the cellar had a medieval dungeon look to them, disappearing quickly into a critical shade of blackness that seemed to defy the strongest beams of light.

Our cellar was something of an underground junkyard. We put just about everything down there—old clothes, furniture, books--even a couple of refrigerators. Why the hell we didn’t just go ahead and throw this crap out I can’t rightly say.

At the bottom stairs was this small storeroom and one of my brother’s had scrawled “Frankenstein Lives Here” across the room’s green wooden door in an attempt to frighten me. I maintained I wasn’t scared at all, but I avoided that room until I was a teenager.

I kept watching my dad climb the stairs until he looked up and saw me.

“Get back to bed!” he snapped and I quickly did what I was told.

This may have been Christmas, but my dad had a rough temper and could connect with his inner Frankenstein with alarming speed.

Strangely, this was not the night that I suddenly realized that there was no Santa, no elves, and no eight tiny reindeer.

Yes, Virginia…

No, my illusion wasn’t shattered on this particular holiday.

I kept a firm grip on my loyalty to Kris Kringle and reasoned that Santa must have left the presents in our cellar—we didn’t have a fireplace—so my father could bring them upstairs and put them under the tree when he was ready.

Santa was real, I decided, and Dad’s just helping him out.

I was so committed to the fantasy that I refused to believe what I was seeing with my own eyes: a hard-working, flawed man lugging a pile of brightly wrapped presents that he probably couldn’t afford.
I didn’t tell my siblings about seeing Dad on the stairs because in my mind there was no news to report.

Christmas happened as it always did and my faith in Santa Claus and all the surrounding mythology was as solid as the tree standing in our living room.

I believed in Santa for a few more years until the magic of Christmas gave way to the reality of shopping in crowded stores, wrapping presents and eating too much.

I live alone now in a third-floor walkup and the only person who climbs the stairs on Christmas Eve, or any other night, is me. I don’t put up a tree or any decorations, but I’m thinking now maybe I should try and make the apartment look more festive.

But I still remember the little boy standing so high over the gloom, so devoted the man who sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake.

We all have a bit of a Saint Nick and a bit of the monster inside us. We’re all balanced on the brink of darkness, waiting to see which one is climbing up the stairs.

(I'm posting a little early this week as I have to fly to Dallas tomorrow on business. Take care, one and all)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Web Slinger

Now I’ll have to write something else.

My author’s website is finally up and running and it looks so funky I can’t believe it’s about me.

The site is an online marketing tool for my novel Born Speaking Lies and I'm just crazy about it.

The amazing Ed Velandria, the web designer who somehow made sense out of all my gibberish, put together this slick film noir site complete with review copy, a synopsis of the novel, some eerie images, and a mug shot of yours truly.

There are also links to Amazon and Fomite Press, my publisher, for easy ordering. (No pressure)

Ed handed me the reins to the site on Friday, an evening that came so close to being a fiasco of epic proportions that I’m still shuddering at the memory.

We had planned to meet at the Wholefoods in Park Slope at 3rd Third Street and Third Avenue.

On Friday afternoon Ed sent me an email requesting a change in time, but I completely misread the message and mistakenly believed we were going to meet on Saturday, the following day.

At least that’s what I believed until Friday night when I got a text from Ed telling me that he was at the Wholefoods and gently asking just where the hell I was. Oh, shit…

I let Ed know I was on the way and called car service. The first outfit had a 20-minute wait, which was totally out of the question, but the next company told me they’d send someone over in five minutes.

The car arrived, I jumped in, and prayed we wouldn’t hit traffic. And then, as we got onto the BQE, everything took a sharp turn down Freak Street.

Fare is Foul and Foul is Fare

“How much they say to charge you?” my driver, a rather bulky Middle Easter man, asked while fumbling with his phone.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I forgot to ask.”

“They tell me $16,” the driver said. “That’s too much. You call dispatcher and ask why he charge that.”

Me? I’m the passenger and I wasn’t complaining. Why is he getting upset? But I did as I was told, calling the front office and politely inquiring about the fare.

“That’s what it says on the map,” the dispatcher replied, sounding almost as confused as I was. “Why is he dragging you into the middle of it?”

“I’m not sure.”
We rang off and then, as we flew down the highway, my driver made some calls and became speaking excitedly in Arabic.

Meanwhile I sat quietly looking out the window and wondering how badly I'd get hurt if I opened the door and jumped out of the car.

“Dispatcher won’t take my call,” the driver said. “So I call owner and he said to charge you $13, not $16.”

“Well, thank you,” I said, stunned but relieved. “I really appreciate your efforts.”

Now I don’t want to be all self-centered and paranoid and say that shit like this only happens to me…but shit like this only happens to me!

We got downtown without any further weirdness, I met up with Ed and promptly fell in love with my site.

I’m currently looking to set up a book launch party and some bookstore signings, and yes, I’ve started work on a new project.

I’ll probably have another meeting with Ed when my next work comes out to update the site, but this time I think I’ll take the bus.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Rube Tube

I finally entered the 21st Century last week and my metacarpals couldn’t be happier.

For the last several months I have been living (suffering) with a hopelessly outdated TV that has been in our family since the 1990s.

It was a good set back when Bill Clinton was president and I must say that it did hang in there for a very long time.

But recently the picture tube started to go seriously bad. The image would shut down to a single straight line across the screen before snapping back to normal. Then it got worse.

That line would be the first thing I saw when I turned the set on and I had to apply some “percussive maintenance” just to get a picture, which is to say that I smacked the living bejesus out of the thing to keep it from turning into a radio.

I felt like a character from some kitchen-sink drama or a lifelong trailer park inhabitant. All I needed was a sleeveless t-shirt.

Naturally this behavior did wonders for my mental health. I’d finish my morning meditation and qigong sessions, feeling all mellow and spiritual only to turn around and rock my chakras from pillar to post as I fumed, cursed, and bashed the ailing appliance into submission.

It got so bad toward the end that I actually cracked the top of the set—and severely injured my wrist in the process.

Yes, obviously I had to get a new TV, but you’re talking to someone who dodges the obvious the way Count Dracula avoids garlic.

On top of this I have an irrational fear of modern devices, convinced that I’ll never be able to figure them out. And I proceed to confirm that dread by studiously refusing to educate myself about their usage. Vicious cycle, anyone?

Better Living Through Television

I was certain I would waste a pile of money on the “wrong” TV—whatever the hell that means.

I also have this propensity for staying in lousy situations much longer than necessary. Jobs, relationships, you know name it. If it sucks, I’ll pitch a tent right in the middle of it all and put out the welcome mat.

This year’s lack of job security didn’t help matters any, of course, so when I landed my old gig back again, my sister very kindly drove me to Best Buy where we picked out a dandy Samsung flat screen.
Now I should’ve researched this a little better, given the size of the investment.

There were more complex—and expensive—models available, but I got jittery about that “wrong TV” thing and went for the low maintenance machine.

And it will do just fine.

We sprinted over to Costco to get a new DVD player and I was ready to join the machine age.

My new TV is such a blast. I can get YouTube, NetFlix and other great stations without dope-slapping the thing all over the living room. I feel like Flash Gordon.

I don’t have the dread in the pit of my stomach when I reach for the remote now and I can stop terrorizing the neighbors with my low rent Stanley Kowalski impersonation.

Now when the time comes for this TV to go to that big appliance store in the sky, I will act quickly and decisively to get a replacement.

My wrists can’t take any more abuse.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Moses Supposes

Moses is American Express.

He’s not Visa, he’s not Mastercard, and he’s sure as hell ain’t no Discover Card. No, Moses is most definitely American Express.

I have no idea what this means, but I have it on good authority from a raving psychotic who accosted me on Broadway far too early one morning last week.

I remember when Karl Malden did a series of commercials for the American Express card back in the Seventies that ended with the line “don’t leave home without it,” but he never said anything about Moses.

Anyway, this strange little incident happened on one of my gym days in lower Manhattan where I’m up and on the road before the sun has even brushed its teeth.

I was walking up Broadway to the New York Sport Club’s City Hall gym for my 7am boxing class. It was cold, dark, and windy, and I had my hood pulled up over my head and my eyes aimed down at the sidewalk.

I sensed someone behind me as I walked by St. Paul’s Chapel and then I heard a voice coming from over my shoulder.

“Moses is not who you think!”

Moses is not who I think? No offense, but I honestly don’t think about Moses much during the course of the day.

It’s nothing personal. It’s just that I have a lot of things to do and pondering over a man who wandered the desert 3000 years ago isn’t high on my list of priorities.

I slowed down and moved to my right to let this fellow get ahead of me. He was young with some kind of colorful skullcap and fairly decent clothes, so I don’t think he was homeless. Nuts, yes, but not homeless.

He continued ranting about something I didn’t quite understand and I thought this would be an excellent time for us to part company.

Roll the Credits

As I moved toward my left for a detour down Vesey Street, my new companion moved in front of me and I got the distinct feeling he was trying to block my way.

Broadway was eerily devoid of life at that time of the morning, a striking contrast to the bustling scene it would be in just an hour or so when the sun would be up and these empty streets would be crammed with people and traffic.

At that moment, though, I was very much on my own.

The fellow kept rambling and throwing looks over his shoulder, directing his gibberish in my direction. The gym was a few doors away and, as I got closer, he started moving toward me, jabbering the whole time.

I was getting a littler nervous. I love my boxing class but I certainly wasn’t itching for a street brawl. It was unnerving the way he seemed to single me out, as if I had wronged him in some way.

Where’s Karl Malden when you need him?

And I mistakenly tried to apply logic to the situation, wondering what I had done to him. But he wasn’t thinking logically. He wasn’t thinking at all.

“Moses is American Express,” he suddenly shouted as if he had discovered the meaning of life. “Moses is American Express!”

He made some kind of gesture at me and marched up Broadway while I checked into my gym and tried to put him out of my mind.

I accept the fact that roving lunatics are a part of big city life and even Mayberry has its share of nutbags. But its unnerving to be the target of some freak’s random rage.

I need to be more aware of my surroundings, especially at that time of the morning. Moses can take care of himself.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Making Book

My novel, Born Speaking Lies, is going to be published on Saturday.

That sounds so strange to me. After all the time, energy, and grief I put into the manuscript it’s a little hard to believe it’s actually going to be a book.

I’ve racked up an untold amount of rejections, and I got awfully close to a deal with one publisher a few years ago, but they turned me down because they don't do crime fiction.

Finally the lovely people at Fomite Press in Burlington, Vermont agreed to publish my story about a bunch of Brooklyn gangsters who raise a whole lot of hell between here and the Poconos.

And so here we go.

I started writing this book on a typewriter back when my parents were still alive, my two nieces had yet to be born, and Reagan was president.

Now I can’t honestly say I’ve worked on the book for all those years—not even close. I’d put it aside, take up some other project that I was certain would pay off handsomely, only to see that effort come up empty.

Take it from one who knows, multitasking is the biggest scam of the century. All you get for your misguided efforts is a pile of half-finished projects and a whole lot of frustration.

And I’d rewrite and revise, over and over. Something wouldn’t look right and I’d tear it up and start all over again. In one sense I’ve actually written several books.

In that time I moved from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania to Connecticut and then back to Brooklyn, taking various versions of the story with me from place to place.

I rejoiced in becoming an uncle twice, changed jobs God alone knows how many times, saw my parents grow and die, and bid farewell to our family home.

Chapter and Verse

All the while the book was looming in the background someplace waiting for the next rewrite.

I have to ask myself did I really want to finish it or did I just want to keep on revising the manuscript until I traded my keyboard for a harp.

The thing about constant rewriting is that you can tell yourself how great your work is going to be when it’s finished without ever having to produce the goods.

I thought about giving up, too, going on to a different story. But now that I’ve held the book in my hands, seen my name on the cover and read my words on the pages, I’m very glad and thankful that I kept going.

Now I have to publicize the book, which feels uncomfortable after all of these years as a reporter. I’m used to PR people pitching ideas to me; it’s weird contacting reporters and trying to get some ink.

I’m terrified that people will hate the book, that it’s not good enough, that I’ve deluded myself into thinking I could write a novel.

But that’s just more negativity that I don’t need. I have to remind myself that I’ve done something that millions of people have promised to do but never delivered: I’ve written a book.

I’ll be starting up on the next book soon and this time I’m going to organize my thoughts better and cut down on the rewrites. This time I’m going to take less time.

I dedicated the book to my parents, though I know my mother would not have approved of the salty language that appears throughout the story. (Sorry, Mom)

I simply say to them “wish you were here.” And those are the truest words I’ve ever written.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Most Peculiar Man

He lived all alone, within a house, within a room, within himself, a most peculiar man. — Simon & Garfunkel

So what was that all about?

I recently ran into a former coworker while walking up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, which is pretty amazing given the size and population of this city.

But what I find even more intriguing was the strange relationship—if that’s even the right word for it—that I had with this man while we working together.

Most of the time we’d pass each other in the hall and this guy would cast his eyes to the floor and walk by me as if I were invisible.

But every so often this very same man, who took such great pains to avoid eye contact with me most days of the year, would suddenly start a lengthy and enthusiastic conversation with me.

He’d talk about movies or something that was happening at work as if we were old friends.

And then the very next day this fellow would jump right back into his old routine of refusing to acknowledge my existence. It was like working with Hailey’s Comet.

I’m notoriously thin-skinned and I can take offense faster than a speeding email, but for some reason this dude’s behavior didn’t upset me. I was more fascinated than annoyed by his actions.

I didn’t see him as rude or standoffish; he just had a different way of doing things. And while this may be hard to believe, there are actually some people who think I’m a little strange. Shocking, no?

I didn’t pester the guy and try to force him into a conversation because I knew that approach would fail. The man would talk when and if he was ready.

And He Wasn't Like Them...

I just wonder what made him drop the silent treatment on those rare occasions and start speaking with me.

Was it the changing of the seasons, the cycles of the moon, the alignment of the stars? Why did he become so talkative after months of silence?

Usually people at the office speak to you or they don’t. I prefer some semblance of civility on the job—even if it’s just a quick nod—as opposed to the straight ahead zombie stare, but not all people are like that.

I’ve made some great friends on various jobs—people I still keep in contact with to this day—but I’ve also been surprised by former coworkers who abruptly delete me from their lives as soon as one of us gets a new gig.

It’s like you cease to exist in their minds the second you clear out your desk. It has been very disappointing, but, once again, you can’t force anyone to be your friend.

I have since left that job and started another, only to have that position yanked out from underneath me in August when the publication shut down.

But now—big news!--the magazine is being revived under new management and I’ve been offered my old job back. So the bears didn’t get me after all.

Naturally I am thankful and quite relieved as I have some big bills heading my way. Under the new arrangement I’ll be working from my home, something I’ve wanted to do for years.

I hate commuting with a passion. It’s time wasted and that’s on a good day. On a bad day it’s a blueprint for mass murder. So now I won’t be dealing with traffic, office cafeterias, or coworkers—talkative or otherwise.

My family has warned me about being isolated in this new arrangement and I will do my best to get out and away from my desk. And I have to clean up my computer room because I’m going to spend a lot of time in here.

I never did get to speak with my former coworker when I saw him that day on Fifth Avenue.

Our eyes met for a second and I know I saw a flash of recognition in his eyes before he looked away and kept on walking. And so did I.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Endless Day

I climbed up the steps of Liberty Plaza on Thursday morning and looked for the spot where I was standing when the planes hit the World Trade Center 15 years ago.

I was a little early this year, making my annual pilgrimage to the place outside the Brooks Brothers store a few days ahead of today’s memorial services.

My sister and I are going to the theater this afternoon, so I wanted to make sure I stopped by Ground Zero to say my prayers for those we lost and give thanks that I survived that day.

It all looks so different now. The Freedom Tower complex is rising from the location where the Twin Towers once stood before they were destroyed and turned into a mass graveyard by a handful of psychotics in two hijacked jet liners.

While I was taking photos a couple of fire engines came flying up the street with their sirens blaring and I almost jumped out of my skin. Sirens provided the soundtrack for 9/11.

It’s been 15 years since I stood here in a crowd watching the North Tower burn; 15 years since the South Tower exploded right before our eyes as the second plane struck the building, and we all began running, screaming, and praying to God.

Fifteen years since the normally easy commute home to Bay Ridge became the longest day of my life.

It was my father’s 80th birthday and my mother was in the hospital suffering from the lung disease that would take her from us less than a year later. The staff at Lutheran Medical Center had moved her out of Intensive Care in anticipation of receiving thousands of casualties from the falling towers.

But those injured people never arrived because you either got out of the Trade Center alive on 9/11 or you didn’t get out at all.

Please don’t ask me if I feel we’ve learned anything from this atrocity because other than getting accustomed to long lines at the airport, I don’t think we learned a goddamn thing.

Since 9/11 we’ve had the war in Iraq, “Mission Accomplished,” terrorist attacks all over the world, and nonsensical rants about mass deportations and building walls along the Mexican border.

Our response to all the hatred and insanity that we witnessed on September 11 appears to be more hatred and more insanity.

“A Better World Shall Emerge…”

And I don’t excuse myself from this harsh assessment. After the towers fell and then the air finally cleared, I joined the thousands of people walking over the Manhattan Bridge.

I remember telling a woman I had befriended that I was done complaining about every single thing, that I was quite content with the life I had and that I didn’t have to be rich and famous in order to be happy.

But time passes, you forget how terrified you were that morning, and you start to piss and moan about the most meaningless crap.
As I write this I’ve got the TV on and I’m listening to the names of the victims being read at Ground Zero by their family members. It brings tears to my eyes, but it’s something we all need to hear.

When I went to Hawaii last December I took a tour of the USS Missouri where Japan formally surrendered and ended World War II.

"It is my earnest hope,” General Douglas McArthur said on the morning of September 2, 1945, “indeed the hope of all mankind—that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance, and justice."

During the war, a kamikaze pilot crashed into the Missouri, but he only succeeded in killing himself. Historians believe the pilot was Setsuo Ishino, who was 19 years old at the time.

There are photos of the pilot as a young man, looking so serious, but there’s also a picture of him as a little boy posing with his family and holding a toy airplane in his hand. (The irony is astounding.)

He’s about five years old in the photo and I wonder what happened to him, how did his mind get so warped in such a relatively short amount of time that he willingly destroyed himself in an attempt to kill other young men.

What happened to that little boy with the toy airplane?

I wonder about the 9/11 hijackers and all the other suicide attackers who imagine that mass slaughter is some kind of holy cause. How did they get so twisted, so depraved, and how the hell can we stop it?

Yes, I’m disappointed that we haven’t learned much from 9/11, but when I’m feeling really depressed, I recall those who gave so much on that day—the firefighters, police, and EMTs.

I think of those wonderful people who were waiting for us on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, who offered us bottles of water and the use of their cell phones.

I think of that fabulous man who drove down Fourth Avenue in his SUV when the subways shut down and helped me and so many others get home to our families.

I remember all those people and I think maybe a better world shall emerge after all.