Sunday, August 23, 2015

Life in the Big City

I came into Manhattan one Friday morning praying for an easy day.

Now to be honest, I pray for an easy day every single morning of my life, but I was feeling especially miserable on this day and all I wanted to do was refill my Metrocard, get to work, and live to see the weekend.

Was that so much to ask? Funny you should ask...

I bounced off my bus and hopped down the stairs of the Courtland Street R station to beef up my Metrocard.

It’s quite simple, really. Just slip your card into one of the vending machines, tap out the desired amount, and then pay for it.

The first two steps went fine, but when I attempted to dip my credit card into the pay slot I found that the pathway was obstructed and I rang up a No Sale.

No problem, I thought as I cancelled the transaction. I’ll just use the other machine they’ve got here and then head for the office. It was a can of corn, as my father would’ve said.

But the first machine’s affliction was apparently contagious and my credit card wouldn’t work on the second one either.

And then I got a little upset.

“This city sucks!” I screeched to the heavens. “This city fucking sucks!

Okay, perhaps I could’ve handled that a little better.

Condemning an entire municipality and all of its inhabitants over some defective devices does seem like a bit of an overreaction. But my nerves were awfully twisted that morning.

When I finally put my head back on my shoulders, I walked to the end of the station, filled up my card at a different machine and made it to work on time without cursing at any other inanimate objects.

The day went by, the wretched memory faded, and I made plans to attend a free concert at the World Financial Center after work.


Now for some reason the concert didn’t come off. I saw the artist talking with some stagehands but there was a serious lack of music and I couldn’t get a straight answer out of the one twit whom I had approached.

But, unlike the subway station debacle, I didn’t lose my crackers this time. I just was feeling too damn good. It was Friday, a beautiful summer night, and I was right by the water in the greatest city in the world.

I was already in the middle of an open-air concert.

The World Financial Center is a beautiful facility, filled with all kinds of stores and shops and it was crammed people from all over the planet walking, talking and enjoying life.

I strolled through the food court as if it belonged to me, smiling and taking in all that crazy energy.

“Ah, New York City,” I said. “There’s no other place like it in the world.”

And then I recalled the bug-eyed lunatic howling in the train station just a few hours earlier, the one that looked an awful lot like me. What had happened to that guy?

There’s no excuse for my behavior that morning, twisted nerves notwithstanding. New York can make you crazy—if you let it. It’s crowded, noisy, and people aren’t always showing the love like they should, myself included.

But, to borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, if you don’t like what’s going on in New York, wait a minute. Something funky is bound to happen.

And now that summer is drawing to a close and I’m already dreading the coming cold weather, I deeply appreciate how special that night was, even though nothing really special happened.

New York has so much to offer and it’s all out there waiting to be experienced.

Just make sure you fill up your Metrocard.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ever the Best of Friends

A few days ago, a line from the film David Lean’s classic Great Expectations popped into my head like a lyric from an old song.

It’s from the opening scenes of this beautifully rendered version of Charles Dickens’ novel where the hero, Pip, a young boy living in the marsh country of southeast England, is visiting his mother’s grave when the escaped convict Magwitch jumps him.

Magwitch orders Pip to bring him food and a file so he can break free of the chains that are weighing him down.

And just to make sure the kid comes back, Magwitch invents a sadistic sidekick who, he says, will come after Pip if he doesn’t do what he’s told.

“There's a young man hid with me,” Magwitch says with extreme malice, “in comparison with which young man I am a Angel.”

I can’t recall anything that prompted this particular memory. It just cropped up in my head, but I have to say it’s most welcome since watching this movie was part of my family’s Christmas tradition.

Great Expectations isn’t a Christmas story, of course, but it was written by Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol, which we also watched every year.

Saturday was my late mother’s birthday and, as I think of Pip & Co., I recalled another line from the film, where Joe, the kindly husband of Pip’s wicked sister, forgives the adult Pip for treating Joe so harshly after the young man had moved up to high society.

“Ever the best of friends, eh, Pip?" Joe says.

Whenever my mother wanted to make sure everything was all right on the home front, she used to ask us this simple question.

“Bestus friends?”

Wish I’d Said That…

Now I always believed that my mother was borrowing a page from Dickens’ novel, but I have just learned today from my auntie that this was not the case.

“Bestus friends,” it turns out, dates back to my mother’s childhood and has nothing whatsoever to do with Great Expectations. I’m not sure of the origin, but it ain’t Dickens.

The things you learn when you, ah…ask questions.

My mother’s phrase was an olive branch that she’d extend to us after an argument. Whatever the problem, she wanted to put the misery behind us.

That’s the way to live. To often I chose to carry grief around like a set of chains that can’t be filed off. I see the great expectations I had for my life fading away and I do whatever I can to make things worse.
There are times when I can hear this voice in my head forcefully declaring, “I’m so unhappy.” But when I look for ways of improving my life, that voice always clams up.

I think the best birthday present I could ever give my mother would be to abandon this negativity and try to find some joy in my life.

I was running low on cash on Saturday and I decided to several blocks out of the way to the Chase bank on 75th Street.

It didn’t occur to me until I was walking through the door that I had made an accidental pilgrimage to the bank where my mother worked for so many years on the very day was born
As usual, I made sure to stop by the spot where her desk used to be and recalled the times I visited her here.

It felt good being here on this most special day and I blessed myself on the way out the door.

Bestus friends now and forever.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Boardwalk Empire

I can still smell the gunpowder from tonight’s fireworks show at Coney Island even though I’ve been home for hours.

My sister and I went out to the world famous amusement area to catch the pyrotechnics before the summer fizzles out.

I haven’t been to Coney Island at this time of year--or at this time of night--in ages. Yes, I ventured out there in May for the Wonder Wheel poetry night, but the summer season hadn’t started yet.

Tonight it was going full blast—literally, figuratively, and any other “ly” you can think of. And my sister and I happily dove right in.

We started off with a Mexican dinner in Bay Ridge before clattering out to Coney via the N train.

I’ve regarded amusement parks with disdain for the longest time, dismissing them as a low class form of entertainment. But I decided to drop the attitude this evening and enjoy the insanity.

I took great pleasure in the crowds, the noise and the whole twisted atmosphere that makes Coney Island such a singular spot. I recalled the times when we came out here with our parents, when it felt like we were visiting some magical world, which we were, come to think of it.

Neither my sister nor I enjoy the glammed up torture devices that other people call rides.

We have no interest in getting aboard anything that spins you around, flips you upside down, or hurls you high in the air. So there was no Wonder Wheel and certainly no Cyclone on the agenda this evening.

Rockets Red Glare

Hell, we had a hard time even watching these monstrosities do their sadistic stuff on the shrieking clientele. If I want to be abused, I’ll go to Gitmo.

However, we did go on the Spook-A-Rama and my sister tells me that we rode on this thing with our father when we were kids. I don’t remember that, but I’m sure that back then they didn’t have all the warning signs that plaster the exterior of the spook house today.

Once you bought your ticket in the old days, you were on your own.

And the Spook-A-Rama was great, a silly, low-rent, nitwit whirlwind that had us laughing from start to finish.

“Was it fun?” a little boy asked us as we got out of our car.

“Yes,” I said, “you should check it out.”

We wandered around for a little while longer then took our places on the crowded boardwalk to enjoy the fireworks. And they were fantastic.

I got so wrapped up in shooting video that my sister had to remind me at one point to put down the damn I-phone and watch the show for real.

It was a hell of a display, all swirling colors and endless explosions, with a rousing climax that resembled a benign artillery attack.

When the smoke cleared, we walked down to Brighton Beach and then took car service back to Bay Ridge.

We’ll never be able to recreate the great times we had as children, but it was sure nice to smell the gunpowder and take those old memories out for a spin.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Primary Response

The shirtless man was about 50 feet away when we saw him heading toward us.

My sister and I were walking to the boardwalk in Santa Monica during our recent trip to LA, while the shirtless man was apparently going home.

He was seriously out of condition, the kind of guy who really should’ve reconsidered the no-shirt look. Yes, we were close to the beach, but we weren’t close enough to warrant this unfortunate display.

“Oh, God,” I muttered to my sister so that only she could hear.

Now this man was a total stranger who had never done anything to me; and yet here I was making snide comments.

And then he put me in my place.

The path to the boardwalk became quite narrow and the shirtless man reached out to a parked car to unlock the door. But, upon seeing us, he stopped, stood aside and let us walk by.

I felt about two inches tall as I skulked by him, mumbling my thanks. This man whom I had just been mocking was being so polite and considerate—unlike a certain hairless fellow from Brooklyn I could mention.

And it doesn’t matter that he didn’t hear me. My sister heard me; I heard me. And the toxic energy went out to pollute the universe.

Clearly I have a lot of problems with hostility. I like to think that I’m kind and thoughtful, but incidents like these crop up far too often in my life.

I suppose it’s some kind of defense mechanism, but it can be downright offensive as well. There are far too many foul emotions circulating around the world without me adding to the mess.

No Shirt, Sherlock

A therapist once told me about the concept of primary response, where you react to a given situation in a most basic, primitive way—the “fight or flight” mode—instead of carefully assessing the problem.

I caught myself slipping into this mindset—or mindless set—at my office not too long ago.

We moved to Hoboken in June and it seemed that every time I went into the cafeteria there was this guy hovering around the counter and getting in my way—which is, of course, the worst offense any human being could ever possibly commit.

But gradually I started looking at myself, rather than complaining about this man.

What was making me so hostile? I’m not happy about a lot of things in my life, but lashing out at people isn’t going to help.

It turns out this man a company employee charged with keeping the cafeteria clean and stocked with napkins, paper towels, tea and coffee. Rather than getting in my way, he was doing his job.

I started nodding to him whenever I went in there and then we exchanged “good mornings.” We just started talking last week and I learned that he is the proud owner of five, yes, five, dogs and that he has to get up early each morning to feed them.

It took a little work, but by overriding the primary response I was able to make a friend. God knows how many good people I’ve driven away with my blunt attitude.

Humor can also defuse hostility. This morning I was shopping at my supermarket when I wheeled over to the fruits and vegetables section to get a bunch of bananas.

However, there were two young women trying to decide on which bunch to get for themselves. I felt that same old irritation, the same old anger, as the primary response got ready to go full bore.

But then I thought of my friend back at the beach, swapped out the resentment, and replaced it with humor.

These evil people won’t let me get my bananas, I thought in mock indignation.

Ridiculous? Of course it was; that was the whole point. I shut down the primary response, give myself a laugh, and didn’t go bananas. It felt good to keep my shirt on.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Between the Lines

“Please forgive my honesty,” Veronica said as I put my right hand on the small table.

Why not? I had a come to her broom closet of a studio to hear whatever she could allegedly glean from reading the lines of my palm. As John Lennon liked to say, just gimme some truth…

“I’m a spiritualist,” Veronica explained. “I’m not a witch or a fortune teller.”

This was on Saturday night and I was feeling no pain, as the saying goes, having knocked back a couple of glasses of wine over dinner at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants.

I had nothing to do, which has been happening with depressing regularity lately, and I told myself that this would be fun, even though there was some part of me hoping to
get…something more out of this experience.

It’s seems strange that in this age of the Internet and the selfie stick so many people are looking to the mystic arts for answers about love, money, and career.

But I’ve always had a need for a bit of the magic in my life and I have a lot of company. I could only imagine what my late father, who loathed all things supernatural, would’ve have thought if he could have seen me now.

I got the idea to do this a couple weeks ago when another psychic—where are they all coming from?—was giving out fliers on Fifth Avenue advertising readings for 10 bucks.

I had originally planned to see this woman on Saturday, but, after walking into an empty studio on two separate occasions, I decided to take my spiritual business elsewhere. And that’s how I met Veronica.

“Watch your head,” Veronica told me, nodding to the low-hanging shelf over my chair.

I heeded her warning, but not for long as I cracked my cranium on the damn thing just a few minutes later. Shit, why hadn’t Veronica predicted that?

Palms Away

“You’re blessed with a long and healthy life,” Veronica said, despite my throbbing coconut. “You’re a very giving person, but people have used that against you.”

Oh, they have indeed, far too often and for far too long. Veronica went through a nice mix of compliments and cautions, some of which were surprisingly accurate.

“Forgive me for saying this,” she said, “but you have a lot of negative energy. You absorb it from people around you.”

Right again. Veronica correctly surmised that I’m depressed, that I’ve been having difficulty sleeping, and that I’ve been going through some bad times lately.

“You’ve been having trouble making decisions,” she said.

Another bullseye. In fact for the last two weekends I’ve planned on going out with my Meetup group only to agonize, debate, and finally bail at the very last minute. And I wound up doing virtually nothing.

Veronica also picked up my tendency to ruminate about the past.

“You went in the wrong direction 12 or 15 years ago,” she said.

I think it was more like 30 years ago, when I failed to make good on all my talk about moving to Los Angeles and pursing my dream of being a filmmaker.

Still, my sister encouraged me to think about something that might have happened—or failed to happen--in the time frame that Veronica described, but I’ve yet to come up with anything.

At the end of the reading Veronica suggested I get a special psychic makeover and I must say it sounded tempting to have my chakras dry-cleaned. Maybe this would be the thing that finally sets me on the right path.

But then she told me it would cost 350 bucks. Please forgive my honesty, but that’s too goddamn expensive.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I went for the reading.

It really was fun, except for the head banging business, and even though I don’t believe in it—or at least I don’t think I do—the session got me looking at how I’ve been living my life and that’s certainly worth a sawbuck.

We all want answers, we all want to be happy, and we all want to be loved. You just have to find the right way to get there.

Maybe I should try voodoo…

Sunday, July 26, 2015

True to Form

Have no fear, Elizabeth; your prayers will be heard.

Elizabeth is from Yonkers and she’s suffering leg pain, hypertension, and sciatica, among other ailments. And she’s asking people to pray for her.

I’ve never met Elizabeth, but I learned a little bit about her this week when I was walking home and spotted a form she had completed on the sidewalk.

I was about to dismiss the folded sheet of blue paper as trash and continue walking, but once I saw handwritten notes across the back of the form I had to know what was going on.

I’ve been picking stuff up off the ground ever since I was child, much to my late mother’s consternation, and there’s nothing more exciting than reading the words of a stranger.

This probably qualifies as some kind of invasion of privacy, but I can’t help it. I like to read about other people’s lives. And it’s not just me: there’s an online publication, Found Magazine, that’s dedicated to this type of material.

It turned out that this form was a request for prayers from an evangelical church in Texas and apparently Elizabeth, who attends services at a church in my neighborhood, had dropped it before she had a chance to mail it off to the Lone Star State.

Please fill out completely,” the form said. “Write prayer needs on back. Our prayer team will continue to pray for you.”

I’ve never heard of the Texas church, which I shall refrain from naming. I did a little research and learned that the pastor is “an anointed healing evangelist who has devoted her life to carrying a message of hope, deliverance, and healing to the nations.”

Neither Rain, Nor Sleet...

The church’s website has an online prayer form, but Elizabeth from Yonkers elected to go by snail mail as she listed her health problems and asked for help.

A lot of people will roll their eyes at this sort of thing, but I know what it’s like to be sick and frightened as I struggled with chronic fatigue and other immune system problems for a large part of my life. You can lose hope very quickly and become hostile, angry, and quite depressed.

I look back on some of the awful things I said when my health was really bad, all this “why me” stuff, and I feel quite ashamed of myself. But shame just make things worse and it’s far more important to be grateful for every day on earth.

There are times when things are so bad and so far out of your control that all you can do is pray. I’m going through some difficult times right now and I’m spending a lot of time asking the Almighty for help.

I’m not overly impressed with this Texas ministry, but that’s not my business. Clearly Elizabeth sees something worthwhile in the organization and so all I have to do is pass the message along.

When I was in Colorado I came across a photo of some children that was stuck within the pages of a used book and I eventually mailed them back to the bookstore in hopes that the pictures might make their way back to their rightful owners.

And that’s what I’m going to do with Elizabeth’s prayer form. This afternoon I put a short post-it note on the front, slipped the form into an envelope and dropped it in the mail.

The Texas prayer team will soon be praying for Elizabeth’s health, and so will I.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Man on the Run

I was singing along with Paul McCartney in the Key Food this morning when my voice started to crack.

The supermarket’s sound system was playing “Band on the Run,” the title track from Sir Paul’s 1973 album, which dominated the airwaves back in those ancient times.

My mother knew the song from hearing it repeatedly on her children’s various radios but she managed to mangle the lyrics by singing “Man on the Run.”

I set her straight on her mistake and we had a good laugh over it.

But last week marked the 13th anniversary of her passing and hearing that song today was a sad reminder of the gap I still have in my heart after all this time.

Still, I don’t recommend crying in the produce aisle as you’re liable to upset the other customers.

This was my first full week since returning from vacation in Los Angeles.

The good times are fading quickly from my mind much too quickly as the problems I shoved aside while staying at my uncle’s house were waiting for me as soon as my plane landed at JFK, including a career issue that’s been clinging me to like a Siamese twin for far too long.

I knew I should’ve torn up that return ticket.

One of the things I miss the most from the trip was the morning walks my sister and I used to take around our uncle’s Mount Washington neighborhood. It’s a beautiful hilly area that’s so full of trees it’s hard to believe you’re in a city.

Like You, Mama…

We’d walk by these wonderful homes, trying to decide which one I should buy when—and if—I finally move out to LA. I talked to her about my terror of moving across the country without a job, particularly at my age, and my sister gave me a fantastic bit of advice.

“You should pray,” she said. "Pray to Mom."

Pray to Mom? The thought was totally alien to me. Each morning I pray that both my parents rest in peace, of course, but it had never occurred to reach out to the person who brought me into this world, who showered me with nothing but unconditional love, and ask for her guidance.

I took my sister’s advice this week, and not just about California, but about my current difficult situation.

The first days back in town were rough, very rough, and I felt like a drowning man. That’s when I prayed to my mother.

I know that she wanted us all to be happy and to stop tearing ourselves down, and asking for her advice reminds of me how much she loved us.

I finally got some encouraging signs on Thursday. Things are still pretty serious, but they’re perhaps not as dire as I had thought and I’m extremely grateful for that tiny bit of daylight in an otherwise very dark place.

This was also the same day that my mother left this world in 2002 and I’m sure many people would say that the good news arriving on this particular date was nothing more than a coincidence. Good for them.

I, on the other hand, intend to take it as a sign that I’ve got somebody very special watching over me.

The rain hasn’t exploded with a mighty crash and I didn’t fall into the sun. And if I ever get out of here and leave New York, I’ll be the man on the run, but I’ll always stay close to Mom.