Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Mousehole Cat


That darn cat!

I gave myself a Christmas present this year in the form of a video (no DVD, apparently) of a children's story called The Mousehole Cat.

The film is based on a book by Antonia Barber and it features fabulous animation and lovely narration by the talented British actress Sian Phillips.

I've seen it about four times now and I cry my eyes out every time. It's amazing how such a short simple story can have such a powerful impact on me, but maybe that's the answer: it's short, it's simple, and it's honest.

Hell, I cry at a lot of movies. That's not news. There are still few scenes from It's A Wonderful Life that still get me and there's The Big Parade, a silent war epic that has some very touching scenes, and then City Lights, my God, City Lights, with its final image, I can flood a whole theater with my tears.

But this particular film has got its claws into me and it won't let go. And I don't want to be released from its magic.

The story takes place in a small English fishing village called "Mousehole" and it's told through the point of view of a mature lady cat, Mowzer, who lives with an old fisherman.

In Mowzer's view, the old fisherman is her pet, and he's very good at feeding her and scratching her behind the ear just the way she likes it. Everything is fine until one year around Christmas when a terrible storm batters the entire coast.

To Mowzer, the huge tempest is a Storm Cat, lashing at the little town with its high winds that serve as claws. While the Storm Cat can't get at the villagers' boats, the villagers can't get out of the harbor to go fishing.

The town starts running out of food and Mowzer's pet sailor decides that since he's old and his children are all grown, he should go out into the storm and try to catch a load of fish for the town--or die trying.

In the scene that always kills me, Mowzer decides that she has no one in her life but the old sailor and that she will join him on his dangerous voyage. (Damn it, I'm crying as I write this! Arrrh, I hate that!)

Sing, Kitty, Sing

The scene is so simple and beautiful I can't help but get teary-eyed. Even when I try to prepare myself and say, ok, here it comes, brace yourself, it doesn't work.

I don't want to say much more about the story, but there's a great scene where Mowzer faces the Storm Cat and begins to sing. The first time I saw the film I thought she'd screech like cats do, but since it's told from the cat's point of view, a woman's beautiful voice comes out of her and fills the air.

I know it sounds crazy, but it works. And it kills me, too. I find myself laughing at how strange it looks and yet crying at how lovely it is.

I tease my sister (the cat lover!) about this scene, claiming there's all kinds of sexual undertones in Mowzer's confrontation with the Storm Cat. But that's just me acting foolish and trying to hide my strong reaction to this movie behind silly jokes.

I called this weeping condition "Mom's Revenge." My mother used to cry at just about every sad scene that came out of the TV--movies, tragic news stories, even commercials.

Whenever some touching scene appeared on the TV, we'd invariably turn toward Mom to see if she was crying. Then we'd needle her, like we'd caught her doing something wrong. The truth is we "caught" her being human.

Now she's gone and I've got the crying bug. I guess she's looking down at me and saying, you see, this is what it's like.

I suppose it's not very "manly" to weep like this, but I make no claims to being a macho knuckle-walker. I like this side of my personality. It makes me feel more alive and the day I stop crying at movies, TV shows, etc. is the day I've lost all traces of my heart.

I watched my video last night while no else was around to see me wail my way through a box of tissues. Next week I promised to bring the tape over to my aunt's place so she, my sister, and I can watch it together. I've already warned them that it's going to get rather damp around me, but I suspect they'll be joining me in the emotional overload.

I've decided that I'm going to use this film in my search for a wife. If a woman can witness me fall to pieces every time I watch this cartoon and not run out the door in disgust, then she's the one to marry.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

So This Is Christmas...



I think my sister said it best as she was going out the door tonight: "We did it."

She was referring to the Christmas dinner she and I hosted earlier in the evening for about a dozen friends and relatives.

This holiday had a very special meeting to us since it was the first time we held a Christmas dinner at our home in four or five years.

My mother died in July 2002, and she had been in a nursing home for a long time prior to that, so we didn't do anything at home. No tree, no decorations, and certainly no guests.

After she died we held family get-togethers on Christmas, but always at a restaurants because, as I've mentioned previously, my sister and I dreaded the thought of looking at our mother's empty chair while we tried to conduct a celebration.

But this year our father is a bit frail and I think we're a little stronger. So we catered the whole thing, roped in the usual suspects, as my mother used to call our relatives, and had an old fashioned Christmas.

We even bought a tree, which we decorated on Friday night, and it looks fabulous, if I do say so myself.

Right now I am exhausted, too tired to sleep, and I can barely move from all the food I've consumed. But, like my sister said, we did it.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

In my mind Christmas and my mother are inseparable. She put so much into the holiday each year. Buying all of her four children presents, getting all the food, and then cooking her lasagna for a house full of hungry people.

She was always nervous that the lasagna wouldn't come out right, and she'd do a variation on Mrs. Cratchit from Scrooge, saying "I shan't be happy until the pudding is eaten." And her lasagna was so delicious you'd be ready to swap your presents for one more serving.

I didn't appreciate just how hard she worked until today, as my sister and I sat close by the kitchen to get up and get more food and drinks for our guests. And we didn't do any cooking at all and I did all my shopping online.

When I think of my poor mother, a small, fragile woman who was never in the best of health, fighting the mobs at the department stores in downtown Brooklyn and then coming home to start cooking, I just go numb.

She worked so hard and all I could think about when I was a kid was getting presents. Now I have some idea of what you went through, mom, and I surely do appreciate it.

My father used to take care of getting the Christmas tree. No artifical trees, for us, of course, and he always got the biggest tree he could find, so big, in fact, he usually had to saw the top off of them so they could fit in the living room.

And during a time when my parents' marriage was on the rocks--my mother would always refer to that period as "The Troubles"--our tree that year seemed to reflect the dismal state of our holiday.

If I remember correctly, our father didn't buy a tree, so it was up to me and my brothers to do it. We came home with a bedraggled reject that had one branch sticking way out from the trunk.

As one my oldest brother's friends said, the tree looked like it was signaling to make a left turn.

God Bless Us All

Growing up, Scrooge was the definitive Christmas movie. Channel 9 used to show it twice a day for a week on the old Million Dollar Movie program.

My sister, two brothers and I watched it so many times we had it memorized and then we took to performing the entire for our parents. We each had to play several parts, and, as the youngest, I played Tiny Tim.

Of course, as a child, Christmas is all about presents. I mean, the peace on earth stuff is great, but any normal kid wants to see what's under the tree with his name on it.

I think my favorite all-time present was a board game called Green Ghost--honestly--that my brother and I wanted so badly we could hardly think of anything else.

On that one Christmas morning we saw this huge box, like a child's coffin, all wrapped and waiting for us beneath the tree. My brother and I patiently opened all the other gifts, the shirts, the books, and whatever, all the while eyeballing that big, long box.

Finally, my father said we could open it, and the two of us tore at that wrapping paper like starved dobermans on raw steak. I recall my dad telling us to calm down, but I don't think it helped. We wanted to play Green Ghost.

As I look back, I realize it was a pretty crappy game. You played in the dark with these luminous pieces and this revolving plastic ghost who also glowed when you turned the lights out.

This was before the age of educational toys, when kids just played for laughs and parents were happy for a break. And while I think you'd could live your whole life without Green Ghost and be perfectly happy, the game is apparently highly sought after by hardcore toy collectors.

Jesus, who knew? Now I have yet another reason to clean up the cellar. Maybe I'll strike it rich on the nostalgia circuit.

And This is For You

My job on Christmas morning was to hand out the presents. I don't know how that got started, but it goes back as far as I can remember. I gave each member of the family one of their presents, picked up one with my name on it, and then, like the start of the Kentucky Derby, we all ripped at the wrapping paper.

My father insisted we keep a large plastic garbage bag nearby so the brightly colored trash could be easily managed. He was trying to prevent total anarchy but it didn't go beyond the first present. After that it was just mayhem, with paper flying in all directions, the dog bouncing off the four walls, and voices saying things like "oh, look what I got!" and "thank you so much!"

Each year my mother would ask us what we wanted as a special gift; something for our soul, she'd say. And most years she delivered the goods or told us why it didn't happen and take care of us later. On those occassions we'd get a wrapped index card with a crudely drawn image of the missing gift across the front of it. It was like an IOU from the North Pole.

My mother always that she had treated her four children equally and every year I'd tease her by counting one of siblings' gifts and saying, "hey, he got six presents and I only got five."

She'd get all upset and say she tried to make sure we all got the same amount of gifts. Poor Mom, she fell for it every time. Her heart was so big she couldn't stand the idea of any one of us feeling shortchanged.

All is Calm, All is Bright

I think I had my most spiritual Christmas experience a few years ago while my mother was in a nursing home.

Obviously having a loved one, especially your mother, in the hospital on Christmas Day is not pleasant, but I was determined to make the best of it.

Now I had this strange attitude about Manhattan. As a Brooklyn native there's a part of me that's obsessed with "the City" as they say in the outer boroughs--what goes on there, why can't I live there instead being out here in the sticks?

Earlier that week I was riding the crosstown bus through Central Park. As I looked at Tavern on the Green, all lit up and ready for the holiday, I kept thinking how great it would be to live around here in some fabulous apartment overlooking the park and have a real Manhattan Christmas, whatever that meant.

Well, meanwhile I was heading to a nursing home in Staten Island. As my mother was resting in her room, my sister and I went to the top floor where the nursing home was holding a holiday party for those seniors who, unlike my mom, could get up there.

At one point an older black man sat down at the piano and began singing "Silent Night" with great florish and, as everyone joined in, I realized this was the closest I had ever gotten to the true meaning of Christmas.

It wasn't presents, it wasn't tons of food, it was being together with the people you love the most. I wouldn't have learned that lesson going to Tavern on the Green.

There's a scene in Scrooge where a poor old Irish lady who, despite having nothing to her name, brightens up when Scrooge's former fiancee tends to her.

"Cut me throat," she declares emphatically, "slice me liver right down the line, this is the happiest Christmas I've ever had."

Keeping Christmas

I reprised my role as the giver of gifts today and it came back me, just like riding a bicycle.

I missed my mom, of course. The dinner was good, but it could never compare to her lasagna. At this time reflective time of the year, I see that I have not accomplished a lot of the goals I set for myself, and I was so lonely on Christmas Eve I just wanted to go to bed and hide under the covers until April.

But just one year ago at this time I was unemployed and sick as a dog. Last Christmas Eve I had to get up at 7 a.m. and walk through the murky streets to the one doctor in Bay Ridge who had hours on the day before Christmas. I was depressed, sick, and miserable.

So at least things have improved since then. In the new year I'll make an effort to find someone, so that when next Christmas Eve comes around I won't be sitting in front of the TV by myself watching old Sergio Leone videos.

I realize now the holidays are meant to be a struggle. For years I'd say I want a smooth holiday season, but that's like asking for a gentle earthquake. There's no such animal.

After the guests left, my sister and I sat down to watch Scrooge for the first time since my mom died. And got through it without falling apart.

Yes, my mom is gone, but I see now that she is not just empty chair. She lives within every inch of this house and in every part of my life. I thank God for the time I had with her and I will take the goodness she showed me over the years and spread it wherever I go.

Merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy holidays, and may God us bless all, every one.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

All Aboard!


All right, the transit strike is officially over. Now what?

It looks like the folks that have to get here on Christmas Day can use the trains, as opposed to roller blades and hang gliders.

And I can enjoy the sites in New York during the holidays without having to walk through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to see them.

I know this strike crippled the city and I honestly think this was not the best path for the union to take, but by the same token they were fighting for some important issues and the MTA, as I've mentioned before, needs a complete overhaul.

I heard some reporters from the Village Voice on the radio today and they pretty much said this privately run government agency (huh?) is the crony capital of New York, the place where the well-connected install their slow-witted cousins and then run like hell.

We've got Mike "The Working Class Billionaire" Bloomberg and George "Thinks He's Presidential" Pataki talking tough. And that right wing rag of newpaper the New York Post was doing its best to rile up anti-union sentiment, running a photo of their front page today with the transit union president behind bars. Thanks, Rupert. Why don't you go hug the third rail now?

Sorry About That, Comrade

I've been working from home since the strike began and while it felt a little strange, I was getting the hang of it. I was so lucky that I didn't have to walk for hours in the freezing cold like so many others had to do.

It was going fairly well until today when I couldn't contact my boss. I sent him e-mails, I called him at home and at work, and I even sent him a story. Nothing.

Finally I call another editor and find out that my boss is off until Tuesday and no one thought to tell me. Okay, I think I can handle that.

I remember a Soviet cosmonaut years ago who stayed up in space way beyond his scheduled time because the Iron Curtain was coming down and no one remembered to bring the poor bugger back to earth.

I think I know how he felt.

I hate to be paranoid, but I've developed a real talent for it. Plus I've only been at this place a few months and already I'm taking several days off next week because I lose 'em if I don't use 'em. I'm concerned it's going to be "Rob, who?" when I finally do get back the office.

While this is going on, the new basement windows that I had wanted installed finally arrived and two guys came over to put them in. The old windows were falling apart and we were leaking heat out of the house something fierce.

Everything seemed to be going okay until one of the men came in the house and said rather nonchalantly "do you know you have a rat in the basement?" the way some people ask "do you know the way to San Jose?"

There Arose Such A Clatter

Let me explain. We're not dirty people, honestly. It's just this is an old house, we've got a ton of crap in the basement that needs to be tossed out and we don't have the vast number of cats around here that we used to. (See The Cat's Pajamas).

I thought we had mice so I put some poison down there a few weeks ago and after it stopped disappearing I figured I bumped off them all off. Now I find it ain't mice and they ain't dead.

We've got company coming over here on Christmas Day--welcomed company that is, unlike these furry bastards downstairs. But it's always like this, some catastrophe happens before a major holiday or vacation, the absolute worst time for this stuff to hit the fan. I'm actually used to it by now.

I hauled my butt to the local hardware store and stocked up on rat traps and poison. The owner took one look at my purchases and said "good hunting" like I was going after lions in Tanzania. I think I'd prefer lions to rats. They're cleaner and it's much tougher for them to hide in the basement.

My dad's home healthcare aid told me rats love peanut butter so I stopped at the corner deli to pick up a jar of this slop, something I haven't done since grammar school.

I was actually reaching for the low fat brand of peanut butter when it occurred to me that I really wasn't concerned about the rats' cholesterol level.

If anything I'd like to see them all keel over from heart failure. Save me a lot of time, money and trouble. I ditched the healthy stuff and reached for some cheap ass brand I never heard of. These little dirt bags don't deserve Skippy.

You know, we've made so many incredible advances in technology over the years, it's kind of amazing that the old school rat trap hasn't changed much. It's still a crude killing machine that can do a number on your fingers if you're not careful.

So How's This Thing Work?

I figured by this time there would be ditigal innards, laser beams and all sorts of funky stuff, but no, this is the same medieval nasty spring device that showed up to inflict all sorts of pain in the old Three Stooges shorts.

So I'm in my basement with these white Mickey Mouse work gloves on because the rats won't even approach the trap if the get a whiff of humanity.

I'm putting peanut butter on cotton balls and I hear myself singing this godawful holiday ditty "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by a Brenda Lee, a howling, rabid, cross-eyed dog of a song if ever there was one.

I think I heard it on a car radio as I came back from the hardware store and it took root in my memory cells, like all truly hideous songs do. Thank God it wasn't "Mamasita, Donde Esta Santa Claus" or I would have put my face in the rat trap and hit the switch. (Gee, I wish I hadn't mentioned that song...)

It was a kind of strange scene down there in the basement, with me planning the violent death of one of God's creatures while singing a Christmas tune. I think there was a similar scene in "It's A Wonderful Life" but it got edited out.

The basement has been mined. In the next two days I have to help my sister pick up a Christmas tree, decorations, the food, dessert, and soda for the Christmas dinner, entertain a herd of friends and relatives and pray I still have a job when it's all over.

And, as Maxwell Smart used to say, loving it.

All right now, boys and girls, now put on your white gloves, grab some peanut butter and sing along with me: "Rockin' around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop..."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Train Wreck


I can't believe this is happening.

For the first time in 25 years, New York City has been hit with a transit strike--with just five days till Christmas. It's freezing cold and I am hearing reports of people walking over the Brooklyn Bridge.

I can only thank God that my company is allowing me to work from home, though I'd feel a little better if I heard from someone at the office. I just called now and the phone rang 20 times before I hung up.

From what I hear on the news reports, people seem to be coping, at least for the moment. As this strike wears on, though, our nerves will be tested.

I hate this nonsense. I can't believe the idiots on both sides of the table are leaving 7 million people on the hook like this. I have always supported labor unions and I always will, but this is not the way to win popular support.

I save my true contempt, though, for the MTA, an organization that nearly rivals the mafia in its secret deals and illegal operations. It is a blend of a private corporation and a municipal agency that brings out the worst of both.

The MTA must be demolished, its members must be banished to Tierra del Fuego, and then we'll do it right this time.

And then, of course, there's George Pataki. What can be said about this walking empty suit? He's a bonehead, an incompentent, a Republican lap dog who will let the people of New York City walk themselves to death before he'll even think about helping them? Why, yes, to all of the above.

This schmuck actually thinks he has a shot at the White House, so while his flunkies were at that bargaining table, our gutless governor was bouncing all over the map trying to drum up support for a presidential run. If ego were brains he'd be a Phd.

This strike brings back bad memories for me. It makes me think of New York in the Seventies, when the city was a graffiti-covered hellhole, with crime in the streets, garbage piled up on every corner and a different city service going out on strike every other week.

As a kid I remember seeing an editorial cartoon in the Daily News that put labor leader Victor Gotbaum's head on the body of an octopus that was choking the life out of the city. No one ever said the News was subtle.

You Talkin' to Me?

It's the kind of material Neil Simon used in his plays, only it wasn't very funny if you had to live in the middle of it. I hated that New York. I was younger then, confused and angry, and I felt so small and vulnerable. New York was the butt of jokes on the Tonight Show and it seemed like we were going to sink in a tide of filth and blood.

It was the world of Travis Bickle, the psychotic star of Taxi Driver, which I recently watch again on DVD. The memories of that old New York made my blood run cold.

Things started to pick up in the Eighties and when I moved back here in the Nineties, I could barely recognize the place. Times Square, Times Square, was actually a tourist destination. That was unthinkable back in the Seventies, when it was hookers, pimps, and junkies ruling the crossroads of the world.

I remember one time while I was in college walking through there on a Sunday afternoon and seeing a brawl break out at a three-card monte game.

A middle-aged white guy thought he had been cheated and, as he chased after one black guy, another stepped out of the crowd and bashed the angry white male across the ribs with a large umbrella.

The white guy spun around when he got hit, but he didn't seem to be hurting that much. He stood out in the middle of the street in broad daylight and shouted "I'll fuckin' kill ya!" at one or both of the black guys. It was sign of utter lawlessness that was shocking, but not terribly surprising.

And that's back in the day when Grand Central Terminal, my favorite New York location, was a huge marble toilet. On a winter night mobs of homeless people would skulk around hustling for change while everybody else got on or off their trains and got the hell out of there.

Today, Grand Central is tourist spot in its own right. There are restaurants and shops and you don't feel like your life is in danger if you walk in five minutes after rush hour ends.

Oh, God, I don't want to go back to those old days. I don't want the rest of the country to walk away from New York, thinking that we can't manage this city.

Please, everybody, let's end this thing and get New York back on track.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Rail World



And so now we face another deadline.

A threat of a transit has been hovering over New York for the last few days like a huge storm system.

There were rumblings earlier in the month, but the harsh winds of rhetoric intensified on both sides of the bargaining table as the deadline drew nearer.

Friday was supposed to be the official deadline for a system-wide strike and I was bidding farewell to my co-workers and gym buddies on Thursday as if I were moving to New Zealand. See you tomorrow, unless there's a strike, and then, well...who knows?

But the union held back, pushing the deadline for the whole transit system until Tuesday, or as I like to call it, the day after tomorrow.

If nothing happens tonight, the union will shut down private bus lines in Queens, thus sending a shot over the bow of management while keeping on the right side of the anti-strike laws for municipal workers.

I think I speak for the entire commuting population when I say this sucks. Christmas is one week away, the town is full of people who plan on seeing shows, staying at hotels, and eating at restaurants.

Working for the Man

I barely remember the last transit strike, which was in April 1980. I was in my last year at Hunter College, but I don't think I went to class for the entire 11 days the strike was on. I seem to recall my brother taking a bike to his job in Manhattan for the duration, since tele-commuting was something out of Star Wars back then.

Without a transit system, we're screwed. While I worked out an arrangement with my boss to work from home, a staggering amount of people have no such option and come Tuesday, if this strike happens, they will be in big trouble.

I know the feeling. Three years ago, when we were in the exact same situation, I was working as a consultant (aka "temp") at Goldman Sachs.

There was no way I could do the job from home and if I didn't get to the office, I didn't get paid. I was in such a state, I didn't what the hell to do. All I knew was I had to get to work, but I had no idea how to do it.

That strike was averted at the last minute, but the city had apparently commandeered several ferries from New Jersey to carry workers to the financial district. A New York Post reporter interviewed me on the pier about how I felt about this near-strike while a photographer took my picture.

That was a strange feeling for me, being interviewed, after so many years on the other side of the notepad and I didn't like it all that much. Still I was somewhat disappointed when they failed to run my photo. Yet another reason to hate the Post.

All Ashore Who's Going Ashore

I had been taking a free ferry from the pier at 59th Street to downtown Manhattan. The service had been started after 9/11 to take the pressure off the transit system and each morning I'd sail toward the city and try not to look at that horrible gap in the sky.

That was such a nice way of getting to Manhattan, and as my dad likes to say, the price was right. No screeching brakes, no sudden lurches, pitch black tunnels or unruly mobs of commuters.

It was a gentle ride across the water where you never got jostled and you always got a seat. You could read, sleep, or just look at the city going by and pretend you were sailing down the Amazon. I never missed the subways back then.

But I'll miss them this time. We're planning a big Christmas dinner at our home this year, the first time we've had a Christmas at home since my mother died in 2002.And I know I sound like a spoiled kid, but I want it to be perfect. That's all I ask. We've got the food ordered, the people have all been invited and at least two of them won't be able to get here if we have a strike.

So, yes, I will miss the damn subways. I'll miss the foul smells, lousy service, endless crowds and unintelligble announcements. I'll miss the last minute route changes, the surly staff, the jabbering loonies, and the loudmouths who have to bellow their business like fishmongers even though most subway cars offer a fairly quiet ride.

It's like an abusive relationship. I feel so helpless, knowing the fate of millions rests in the hands of some first class twits. We hate the subways, but we can't live without them. And, to be brutally honest, it's still the best way of getting around the city.

So, people, please. Let's not do this. At least not at Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Elfin Liars


And now the news from the front.

No, I'm not talking about the war in Iraq. Who cares about all those American soldiers and Iraqi civilians who died for George Bush's lies and who will have a lot of company before this mess is sorted out?

I'm talking about the war on Christmas.

Each year right wing blowhards trot out this tiresome mythology about how Christmas is being push into the shadows by the godless liberals, political correctoids, secular humanists, and, of course, the gays. I made up that last one, but I'm sure they'll want to blame the queers for this, too.

It's become a yearly event, this holiday charade, and it as welcome as a cheap fruitcake.

Look, they shriek, look how store employees are being told to say "happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Look at how Christmas trees are being called "holiday trees," how religious ceremonies and decorations are being banned from public buildings. It's the end of all that is decent and good in our society.

It's also a crock of rancid eggnog. Demagogues like Bill O'Reilly, John Gibson and the rest of those bums from Pox News are stirring up all these foul emotions just as a power grab, as a way of keeping themselves in front of the cameras while peddling their lame little screeds.

The hatred coming out of some of these psychos is nothing short of appalling. These pious Bible-beaters maintain this is a Christian country and anyone who doesn't like it, too bad.

My, can't you just hear Jesus talking like that? Prince of Peace my ass, this is my birthday, bee-atch, and you're gonna throw me a mad bang or you're all going straight to hell.

This country was founded on the idea of the separation of church and state. Now with the anal orifice in the oval office, the creationist, the intelligent designers and, yes, Virgina, the Christmas Commandos are making their move.

I was saying "have a good holiday" back in high school when I was 13 years old. No one told me to do this; no one had to. I had come from a Catholic grammar school and as soon I got to a public high school, I instinctively knew not to say "Merry Christmas" to my fellow students because they weren't all Christians.They were my friends and I respected their feelings.

And it didn't bother me. Worship any way you want, or not at all if that's your belief. It's your thing, do want you wanna do.

But not anymore. I wonder if these schmucks realize you don't get too many converts by ramming religion down people's throats. It's hard for people to see the light when you're choking them to death.

Jesus Says Buy Something

And the infuriating thing is that there really is a war on Christmas, but it's got nothing to do with chain stores employees saying "happy holidays." It's coming out of the TV in the form of these awful commercials that mutilate Christmas carols and turn them in jingles for everything from SUV's to laxatives.

So the "12 Days of Christmas" is now a Honda jingle that ends with the line "happy Honda-days." Where's Bill O'Weenie now? Got nothing to say about this? Children will hear these commercials and they won't know the songs as treasured Christmas carols. They'll think of them as jingles.

Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, even Tiny Tim have been dragooned into the commercial corps. I'm waiting for Baby Jesus to join the chorus.

Jesus says follow the Star of Bethlehem...to your nearest Toyota dealer for the best sales of the season. It makes frankin-sense to me!

My nominee for most hateful holiday ad is those stupid Lexus commercials where people are giving each other brand new cards like they were candy canes, complete with a big red bow. Oh, yeah, everyone I know gives away cars at Christmas. I mean, how else can you honor the birth of Jesus?

I've always wanted to shoot an underground version of this ad, with the same stupid music, the same smiling idiots, the same bogus winter setting. Only this time the car is being towed way while the debt-ridden dimwits chase after it on foot.

Nothing will change, of course. We'll have these awful, offensive ads until the polar ice caps melt. (Hey, are you talking about that global warming crap?!?) It seems like the main stream media is picking up on this idiocy, giving it a kind of credence it doesn't begin to deserve.

I just want to say to all my friends who are not Christians that these sleaze bags don't speak for me.

All this hatred being spewed at this most beautiful time of the year is particulalry disturbing, but then hatred is the only currency these freaks understand. That's how they got their stooge Bush into the White House and that's how they got this nation into that disaster in Iraq.

So I wish all a happy holiday, whether that be Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa,Ramadan, some Druid shingid, or any other event that I might have missed. Or if you just like to sing carols and savor the smell of Christmas trees in the morning, enjoy.

And to all a good night.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Jealous Guy


How could it be that 25 years have passed since John Lennon was killed?

It's hard to believe such much time has slipped away, and even harder to believe this terrible thing happened in the first place.

The newspapers, TV shows and God knows how many web sites are filled with Lennon memorials and I've decided I'm going to join the chorus.

John Lennon's Imagine was the first album I ever bought in my life. I was at a record store in the King's Plaza shopping center and the album was playing over the sound system. I pretended to look for records (remember those?) while listening to track after track.

When I finally decided that this album was worth the investment, I dug into my pocket, paid something like five bucks and walked out with my very own record. The album came with a poster of John Lennon playing a piano outdoors--was it the Central Park bandshell?

Honestly, I don't remember and I have no idea what happened to that poster. I do remember my freshman high school English teacher had taped it up in his class, which was pretty cool.

I think my favorite cut was "Jealous Guy" a slow, somber apology where Lennon just hung his imperfections out for the world to see.

Like a lot things in my life, I didn't appreciate John Lennon until he was gone. I remember sitting in my living room and switching on the 11 o'clock news. The reporter was interviewing a couple who had witnessed something, but this was before the Internet so I had no idea what they were talking about.

"I saw them carry him into the ambulance," the man was saying. "There was blood coming out of his mouth..."

When I found out it was John Lennon, I was in shock. Who would want to shoot him? He just put out a record and was giving interviews, where he sounded like he was actually happy for the first time in his life.

The next morning the whole wave of emotion came out the radio and TV. In the days that followed I couldn't think about much else.

Crippled Inside

People were actually killing themselves over Lennon's death and I remember a Daily News headline that read "Yoko Pleads: Stop the Suicides!" My God, what a bizarre time. People felt like they had been cut adrift and some of them couldn't handle it.

I think the worst thing was the way in which it had happened. This was a murder, an assassination, really. If John Lennon had keeled over from a heart attack or had died in a car crash, I would have had a little easier time with it.

But for some misbegotten freak to fly halfway around the globe and gun him down like an animal, that just destroyed me. It was obscene, the way he died, and a quarter century's passing hasn't reduced that pain.

Yeah, I grew up with the Beatles, like millions of other people. I remember seeing them on the Ed Sullivan Show, I remember my dad (I think it was him...) bringing home a 45 of "She Loves You" and me and my siblings hopped all around the livingroom to this wild new music.

I remember seeing "Help!" in the Loew's Alpine around the corner from my house. That was back when the Alpine was a single theater, before they split it into four little shoeboxes, and now they're closing the thing down all together. Nothing is permanent, no matter how much we want it to be.

The world has changed so much since that night in December and not for the better. I know I'm sounding like a geezer mooning over the good old days, but back then we were never worried about people crashing airplanes into buildings.

Yes, the cold war was still on, but I tell you, I never worried much about being nuked, because I figured, maybe naively, there were enough normal people on both sides of the equation to keep us from destroying the planet.That's all gone now. Whatever passes for "normal" has been erased and it seems the more extreme behavior the higher you go in this depraved new world.

Mike Malloy's show is coming on now and he's starting off with "Imagine." It actually hurts to hear that fabulous voice and recall how it was so brutally silenced.

We're going to have to keep on imagining, imagining all the people living life in peace, and the brotherhood of man and no hell below us. We've got a long way to go.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Auntie Vanishes



My aunt pulled a disappearing act last week that would have made Houdini jealous.

I call my aunt every morning from work to see how she's doing. She's my mom's sister and a few years ago she lost both my mom and her husband in less than a year.

She lives in Manhattan and several days a week she'd go downtown, take the ferry out to Staten Island and visit my mom in the nursing home. Then she'd go home and take care of her husband, who was dying from cancer. I don't know how she did it.

When these two people she loved so dearly died within such a short period of time, my aunt had a terrible gap in her life. I started calling her daily to see how she was doing and I think I wanted to stay "in touch" with my mom in a way.

Obviously they're two different people, with two distinct personalities, but she's still my mom's sister. And, in better times, she and my mom used to speak to each other on the phone every day.

So I feel like I'm keeping up a tradition and checking up on my aunt, who is healthy (Thank God!) but still in her seventies. If either one of us knows we won't be around in the morning, we tell the other one ahead of time so no one gets worried. Simple, no?

Last Wednesday I came into work as usual, called my aunt and got the answering service. Fine. She went somewhere and forgot to tell me. It happens, nothing to worry about.

I called her again an hour later and get the answering service again. And then again. By early afternoon I left her a message saying, "I am now officially worried, please call me back."

This happened to be one of the few nights where I didn't have to go anywhere after work. I could leave the office and go straight the hell home. Some days that's all I need to be happy.

But now with this busines, I was getting all sorts of horrible images bouncing around in my head. I pictured my aunt slumped in the shower, I imagined her laid up in a hospital bed, the victim of a terrible accident or even worse crime. And I wasn't around to protect her.

I called her apartment building's front desk and they told me they hadn't see her. They promised to have her call me the next time they saw her. If you see her, I added in my fevered brain.

At 4:30 p.m., I still hadn't heard from my aunt and so I left one more message: I'm coming up to your place. If you get this message before 5 p.m. please call me and save me a trip uptown.

Going Uptown

That sounds pretty selfish now that I'm reading it, but I was tired and my aunt's apartment was in the exact opposite direction I wanted to go.

I got to her place at about 5:20 p.m. and I was sick to my stomach. The nightmare pictures started flashing through my head faster, with more detail. I picture myself shouting for help, dialing 911 on my cell phone and screaming for an ambulance.

The doorman called upstairs and told her I was on the way up. That meant she wasn't in a coma, she hadn't been kidnapped by terrorists or renditioned off to Cairo by a squadron of black ops. She was home having dinner with her friend.

She was waiting in the hallway for me when I got off the elevator and I had the dual urge to hug her until her ribs ached and shriek "why the hell didn't you call me?!?" at the top of my voice.

God knows I got that when I was a kid. If my parents couldn't find me they'd hit that panic button with reckless abandon. And when I finally got home they'd shout at me so much I wasn't sure if they were really glad to see me.

It turns out my aunt hadn't checked her messages, something she's done, or failed to do, in the past. That's hardly a crime and I was so happy to see her safe, I didn't care about the uptown detour. I didn't notice how upset I was until the danger had passed and the knots in my stomach uncoiled.

My aunt apologized profusely and she also thanked me for caring enough to check up on her. That last bit made my little ego feel good. Yes, she is lucky to have me, isn't she?

Before my mom entered the hospital, never to return, we tried to take care of her at home. I remember one time helping her into bed and she looked at me with these beautiful brown eyes and said softly, "good boy."

Good boy. Actually I was a middle-aged teen-ager with a rather spotty employment record and an even more dubious future. But to my mom I was a good boy doing the right thing for her. I wish I could hear her say it one more time.

I realize I'm never going to stop worrying about my family or anything else for that matter. The panic button has been handed down to me like the Olympic torch and I'll keep hitting it at the slightest provocation.

I know worry is useless and it gives you a false sense of control, but I can't help myself. There's too much grief going on in the world to assume it can't reach your door. All you can do is pray and hope your relatives pick up the damn phone.






Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Dirty Looks



David Letterman likes to do this mock-nasty face he calls the skunk eye.

He twists his mug up to one side until he's glaring at you with one squinting eyeball. It's a classic dirty look and I think it's funnier than hell.

But in real life, dirty looks aren't so funny. This week an amatuer boxer was shot to death in Brooklyn after he and his killers exchanged dirty looks. That's all they needed to start shooting: a hostile variation on the skunk eye.

The victim's nickname was "Squint" because of his poor vision and there is a theory that this habit led to his death. The shooters interpreted his squinting as a challenge and naturally the only rational response was to gun him down.

A dirty look is the flashpoint for violence. For years I've heard people say if you look at people the wrong way in this city and you'll get shot. And they're right. So many fights start with the loaded question, what are you looking at?

I was in a martial arts class when I was about 20 and the instructor beaned one of the students with a staff while showing him a technique. The kid got up, angry and sneering, and the instructor got his face and asked "are you giving me dirty looks?"

The kid was pretty upset, but he wasn't going to say too much to a high-ranking black belt. And personally, I thought the instructor was wrong to clobber the guy like that, but you know I kept my mouth shut.

When I was in college I had a guy scream at me on the subway platform claiming I was staring at him. As he was twice my size, I didn't argue. But I still remember a woman at the platform looking at me after this freak was done screaming. I'm not sure if she wanted me to take this bastard on, but if so, she was sorely disappointed.

I got into a very nasty confrontation with my father when I was in college. He had this habit of barging into the bathroom without knocking and I got angry. He started yelling and when I came out I got into his face.

Life With Father

My mother, poor woman, stood between the two idiots and it looked like it was over, but then the son-of-a-bitch looked at me and I looked back, giving him the finger with my eyes. He shoved my mother aside and ploughed into me and I started smashing his face with the blade of my hand, screaming "I'll fucking kill you!" over and over.

My brother cam running out of his room and broke it up and I went off to school. It was one of the more disgusting episodes in my life, but that was one day I didn't feel like backing down from my father. He was always, always hitting or threatening to his us. That gets tiresome after a while.

But what did I accomplish by "standing my ground"? I upset my family, especially my mother, who deserved better, and left myself with an ugly memory that still makes me shudder after 22 years. It doesn't seem worth the effort.

Now at age 84 with Alzheimer's my father is less of a problem and too old to do much damage, but then we did have our little spat on Veterans Day. (See "Man Down.")

Yeah, I'm a tough guy with the nuts in the family, it's just the ones outside the home who scare me. About two years ago I got into a stupid little disagreement with some schmuck in my gym who thought I was stealing his towel (!?). And this was just after I finished a boxing class. I told him I didn't know what he was talking about and took my shower.

When I was dressed and ready to go, I looked his way and he was looking back with that same challenging look my father had some 20-odd years ago. This time I looked away. I blinked first, I backed down, I wimped out, whatever you want to call it.

I guess most normal people would say I was smart not to get into a brawl in my gym, which could have ended in my being injured or killed. (Remember Squint?) And the whole thing sucked even more because it was early January, the start of a new year and I was thinking positively about life. And this idiot had to ruin everything.

And who the hell am I kidding with the boxing anyway? I've been sparring more with the instructors lately and I've seen that fighting, even under controlled conditions, really hurts.

I tell myself that I do this as a reminder that fighting is not an option, but I think there's part of me that enjoys the suffering, that trading blows with a professional fighter makes me some kind of bad-ass. It's foolish, but we live in a society where pushing people around is seen as strength and where tolerant behavior means you're a wimp and wuss, and so many other colorful terms.

So lesson learned. I don't want to end up on the front page of The Daily News. I'll mind my own business, keep my mouth closed and keep my dirty looks to myself. Just don't shoot me.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The Port Authority Shogun


Had he lived Bruce Lee would have been 65 years old today.

It's hard to imagine the star of "Enter the Dragon" dealing with the all-too-mortal issues of aging. If you've ever seen any of his movies, you'd swear this incredible being, this force, could never grow old. And, of course, he didn't.

I remember seeing "Enter the Dragon" in high school and, yes, plot wise, it's an abomination, but you knew that going in. It's all about the fighting, Bruce Lee taking on whole divisions of thugs, doing sommersaults into his enemy's face and harpooning that homicidal old geezer in the hall of mirrors.

He was all the rage back in the Seventies. Back then when people said "Bruce" they weren't talking about Springsteen. And then one day he was dead. I remember going back to school after summer vacation and spotting a Chinese kid in my class. He was a martial arts student and a huge Bruce Lee fan.

When he saw me on the first day of school, he didn't ask how my summer went or how I was doing. He just looked at me in disbelief and said two simple words "He's dead." And I knew exactly who he was talking about.

My brother and I used to have a poster of Bruce Lee from "Enter the Dragon" hanging up in our room. I think I got it at King's Plaza Mall, at a store that was going out of business, but the memory is pretty hazy. I'll never forget that poster, though.

Poster Boy

It's a still image from one of the film's numerous fight scenes and Bruce is all coiled and muscular about to dismember some hapless son-of-a-bitch. It's like freezing a bolt of lightning just as it's about to strike.

I know the poster got damaged in some way, like almost every other poster we had, and we took it down and tossed it out. Now the only poster from the era is the black light image of Jimi Hendrix and I don't even want to guess how old that thing is.

Everyone wanted to be Bruce Lee when I was a kid. When kids got into fights, they would invariably starting doing the whole Bruce thing, waving their arms in circles and making these low frequency feline screeches.

You wanted to be fearless, unbeatable, incredibly cool. If you could be Bruce you could handle yourself on the subway ride home, you rescue smaller kids, and you could drive the girls crazy. Beat the hell out of pimples and geometry.

But there's more to Bruce Lee than ass-kicking. People were obsessed with the guy and he's even being used as a force for peace. There's a statue of Bruce Lee in Bosnia, erected as a way of uniting the various warring factions. They may loathe each other, but everybody loves Bruce.

I wondered how Bruce would have handled the Port Authority Shogun, a fellow--I don't want to call him a freak, even though that's accurate--that I ran into a few weeks ago.

It was a Friday night and I was running late for a friend's birthday dinner. I had mapped out the location on Yahoo! and I figured the place was close to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Only I couldn't find any sign of it.

The terminal was in full bustle mode with commuters heading home for the weekend and travelers coming to and getting out of the city. I took a walk down 41st Street, the one that divides the terminal, in search of the restaurant and suddenly the city, the people, the whole world seemed to vanish and I was walking down this deserted canyon.

I heard this loud metal clattering up ahead and I saw this raggy looking guy swinging a steel pole over his head in a kind of lame kung fu routine. The pole was apparently solid because every time he dropped it there was an incredible and rather frightening noise.

I kept walking, even though I was getting nervous. Do I turn around or cross the street? Or do I stand my ground, whatever the hell that means? All these goddamn people in this city, who usually get in my way, and all of sudden it's just down to him and me.

And then it got worse. As he was twirling the pole overhead, the shogun's pants dropped down to his ankles--revealing that a stunning lack of underwear.

Okay, so was this for my benefit? Was he looking to seduce me? Doesn't seem plausible, even though I'm so incredibly handsome. But if not that, what? Why was this guy exposing his equipment on the dark side of the Port Authority bus terminal?

He quickly dropped the pole and pulled up his pants. I kept walking. If I had been Bruce Lee, of course, I would have gone to town, ripping off my shirt, swirling my arms, and throwing a series of blinding punches and kicks. I would have made this degenerate clown sorry he had ever been born.

Remember how Bruce nailed old Han in the hall of mirrors? Just before he launches his attack, he says something like, "you have offended me and my family and the Shaolin Temple" and then kicks the one-handed paper-hanger through a glass wall. That's what I wanted do to this lunatic.

Prepare to Die

But I'm not Bruce Lee. I'm a short, middle-aged guy looking for my place in this world. And the shogun, well, maybe he was harmless, but that metal pipe was nasty.

I walked by and the man did not approach me. I felt cut off from the rest of humanity and when I looped back up to Eighth Avenue, I saw that I was several blocks away from the restaurant.

I don't know if I fed the wrong numbers into the computer or if the map software had gone haywire. In any case, I felt like an out-of-towner, getting lost in the big city and running into one of its demented residents. Wait'll the folks back in Schenectady hear about this!

I wonder what happened to that guy, what his story was, why he was there doing this bizarre show for an unwilling audience of one. He was probably some drug addict who will someday be scraped off the sidewalk in the shadow of that big, heartless building and no one will ever miss him. He'll evaporate like a cloud of bus fumes.

The world won't mourn his loss, the way it did the passing of Bruce Lee. No wailing women, no devastated fans, no legends that would live on for decades after his death. Just a rubber bag, a toe tag and a hole in Potter's Field.

Maybe the shogun wanted to be Bruce, just like we all did in high school. He wanted to be feared and respected in a city and in a world that does their best to grind you down. I can't see anyone putting up a poster of this guy in their bedroom, unless they wanted to scare away intruders.

This perverted dance in the street light's beam was probably this guy's only big moment. And if I had gotten the restaurant's address right, I would have been spared witnessing it.

So Bruce Lee's gone, like so many idols. That's one of the rules for getting in the club. You have to die young and at the top of your game.

If you're still alive after a certain time, then you're old, you're a has-been, and you should step out of the way and make room for the younger generation. I wonder if that would have happened to Bruce if he were alive today. Imagine calling Bruce a has-been. Society forgives a lot, but growing old is unpardonable.

So, happy birthday, Little Dragon. We may have gotten old down here on earth, but we can still dream about being like you.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Pilgrim's Pride


And so another Thanksgiving goes into the record books.

I'm sitting in front of my computer, stuffed to the gills and listening to "Porgy and Bess" (?) on NPR. All the guests have gone and my Aunt Margaret just called to thank me and my sister for a wonderful time.

Most of the cleaning is done, I put out the trash, left some food for Flash, my alley cat amigo, and, praise the Lord, I don't have to work tomorrow. Can't remember the last time I had the Friday after Thanksgiving off and I am truly thankful for this, I can tell you.

This is the first holiday celebration we've had at home since my mother died three years ago. Prior to tonight we always went to restaurants for the holiday meals because my sister and I couldn't bear the thought of sitting at the dinner table and looking at my mother's empty chair.

But some time has passed, and to be honest, my father really isn't in good shape to go out. He's looking frail lately and with the problem he's been having with incontinence, well, it just seemed like a good idea to stay home on the range.

We got a local restaurant to cater the dinner (for a mere 300 bucks) and had nine people over here. In addition to my aunt, the guest list included my cousin, his wife, and his wife's parents.

My friend Stephanie came down from Hartford and I warned her that it might be like eating in a senior citizen home, but she was okay with it and seemed to fit right in with this bunch. If I were her, I'd be worried...

It came off pretty well, though the squash could have been a little warmer. Joan and I were so worried about burning the food, we only heated it up for a short time. Still it was good stuff and I didn't have time to cry over my mother, since we were both so busy putting the meal together. I guess that's what her holiday meals were like, always jumping up and getting things for people.

I usually hate it when people speak on behalf of the dead, but I know my mother wouldn't have wanted anyone crying over her when we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves.

I associate my mother more with Christmas, but Thanksgiving always brings memories of my Aunt Loretta. She was my father's sister, a great, heavy women who lived in this old apartment building in upper Manhattan where my father grew up. We'd ride all the way up on the West Side Highway and walk up all those flights to Loretta's apartment, where you could smell the food cooking from two floors down.

Show me Some Love

Loretta would waddle out of the kitchen crying "Happy Thanksgivin'!" and squeeze the beejesus out of me. I was a little kid and I always looked forward to Loretta's WWF-style bear hugs. It made me feel safe, it made me feel loved. I remember one year my father telling me to get "dolled up" (dressed nicely) because Loretta was so sweet on me.

My siblings and I would play with our cousins while the adults drank and usually argued about something. The house would get so warm we'd open the windows and let some cool air flow into the apartment.

I remember one year when my father was feeling no pain, as the expression goes, and he decided to torture my aunt's cat. Every time the cat walked by him, he'd reach down and pick it up by its tail. And every time he did, Loretta would come flying out of the kitchen shouting "you stupid sonaofabitch!" in her surprisingly high voice and proceed to pound the hell out of my father with her massive hands. Then he'd do it again.

Now so many of those adults, including Loretta, are gone. The one's who have survived can't do much for themselves and they certainly can't host dinners. I remember talking with my mother after Loretta died and we both agreed Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without Loretta running the show. But we moved on, the children have moved up a notch in the holiday pecking order to the adult level with all its responsibilities.

I miss the ones who have gone, but I like helping out the ones who are here. What the hell? I can't be a child forever, though I confess I'm making a pretty good stab at it.

The old timers don't fight like they used to, which is about the only good thing I can say about aging. No screaming matches or drunken arguments. We just feed them and put them to bed. I feel badly for my cousin's in-laws. They are so old, so frail and frightened, both of them need walkers. Is this what the Golden Years are all about?

For years I used to work on Thanksgiving Day. I was a reporter at the Pocono Record and since somebody had to work on the holidays, I made a deal with my bosses to take Thanksgiving with the understanding they'd leave me the hell alone come Christmas. (I worked one Christmas Day in Connecticut and it was freaking horrible.)

One Thanksgiving in Stroudsburg I went over to a church to cover the dinner for the poor and homeless. I normally wore a dress shirt and tie at work, but since it was a holiday and none of the suits were around, I put on some old jeans and a work shirt.

When I got to the church, the hostess approached me with this huge, warm smile and said in these soft, gentle tones, "hi, how are you?" Immediately I knew she had sized me up as a homeless guy and I quickly identified myself. I'm here to cover this thing, lady, not to take a seat, okay? I tell that story a lot, and I told it tonight, and I always get a big laugh.

But maybe I should have played along and sat down at a table with people who really knew what hard times are like. I could get their stories without them knowing it, which may be underhanded, but I may have gotten a clearer, more honest picture of what it's like to rely on the kindess of strangers for your holiday meal.

These people didn't have a loving Aunt Loretta to cook for them and to squeeze them to her breast. They just had the church and each other I guess. And some days that looks pretty good.

I don't have a family on my own and at times like these I wonder what will happen to me if and when I reach my golden years. Maybe I'll wind up at a church dinner, with no one but the other strangers at the table. And if I do I'll thank God for whatever they put in front of me and wink up toward heaven at Aunt Loretta.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Losing the Light



I hate covering trials.

I've been a reporter for, ye gods, something close to 20 years and I've only covered a handful of trials and preliminary hearings. And I've pretty much hated them all.

Time loses all meaning in court. Things that in the real world would be done in no time grind down to extreme slow motion as soon as you add a judge and some lawyers. You sit there and wonder when the hell you're going to get out of there.

You watch the sun go down, the shadows grow long and the stars come out and you're still in this goddamn courthouse.

And then you start taking it personally, as in, could you bastards just reach a verdict of some kind, just or unjust, logical or insane, and let me go the hell home?

You swear you're going to quit this nonsense, going to find another job, break down and become a PR man like some many other ex-reporters and start pulling down some real money for a change.

It's like being punch drunk without climbing into the ring.

Fasten Your Seatbelts

I'm just recovering from the latest fiasco tonight. I was in federal bankruptcy court today covering a hearing where the fiscally challenged Delta Airlines is looking to scrap the unionized pilots' contract.

It's big news, no doubt, certainly the biggest case I've ever covered. And it was exciting: here I am in downtown Manhattan with all these big time lawyers and major news organizations. Everyone was crammed into this small courtroom and I had to stand at the door to hear anything. I felt like a high roller.

A woman from CNN (my old company) asked me how long the hearing would take and I just shrugged. It could go on forever and, you know, I was almost right.

The case started with a bang as the pilots' attorney stood and asked the judge to recuse herself on the strength of some of the judge's comments about the pilots in an earlier proceeding. Well, that got Delta's attorney hopping through his rear end, claiming he had been sandbagged and blasted the pilots' attorney for his courtroom theatrics.

Close to two hours, people, that's how long this battle went on. And, big surprise, the judge decided she wasn't prejudiced against the pilots and ordered the hearing to continue. Then another schlamazzle began over the pilots' pension issue, more time went by and we still hadn't gotten to the opening arguments.

I got tired and went one flight down where reporters could sit in an empty courtroom and listen to the hearing on the sound system. I usually like to see the faces that are talking, but I was too frazzled by then. I knew what these guys looked like, so I sat at one of the attorney's table and tried to stay in the upright position.

The hearing took on an eerie atmosphere, with these disembodied voices arguing with each other. The window in the reporters' courtroom was opened a crack so the wind made these bizarre sounds like a lost spirit. And it kept getting darker.

I remember covering a rape trial in Stroudsburg, Pa. for the Pocono Record some 15 or more years ago, and when the jury got the case, me and the reporter from the Easton Express hung out in the hallway waiting for a verdict. And it kept getting darker.

Hang it up

Now, of course, while you're suspended in this legal limbo, the rest of your life goes on, usually in a bad direction so you can do nothing about it but worry. In this case my father's homecare attendant, Mary, left me a message saying she had called the police on our upstairs tenants because they were having yet another brawl.

I loathe these people. They are white trash to the hilt, they've turned our house into a two-story trailer park and I curse the day I ever laid eyes on them. But I'm not a bitter or anything.

Anyway I'm talking with Mary in the hallway when this woman comes flying down the hallway and starts yakking at me. It turns out you're not supposed to have a cell phone in the courthouse at all. The woman, whoever the hell she was, told me I had to give me cell phone to the marshals six storeys below.

I toyed with the idea of slipping my phone into my pocket and just pretending I had gave it in, but I don't have that kind of nerve or that kind of luck. I'd see a marshal in the hallway and look so guilty I'd wind up on trial myself. No thanks.

It got to be around 6 o'clock when the lawyers got through their opening arguments. The judge, who kept up interrupting the attorneys with her questions, comments and observations, finally noticed how late it was and wanted to get the hell out of there. We're all supposed to come back tomorrow at noon.

I retreived my cell phone and discovered that it was raining, so I had to walk five blocks back to my office without an umbrella. I called my editor and he said he didn't think he needed a story, since there was no ruling. I would tend to disagree, but I was so tired, I wasn't going to argue. No story? No problem.

So now I'm home and I'm getting ready to watch another day turn into night while the lawyers argue, the judge rules, and the reporters wish they had chosen another career.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Bird is the Word




And now, live from Planet Freak Show, we bring you the Case of the Purloined Parrot.

I usually hate to preface a story with the words "this is true" but a recent case out of Florida makes this little disclaimer mandatory.

It seems this woman down there was so enamored with a classic car that she swiped an exotic parrot from her employer, stuffed the bird down her bra (!?) and tried to swap the little bugger for the vintage vehicle.

The deal went south, however, when the car's owner turned out to be a good friend of the parrot-napper's boss. It really is a small world after all.

"The circumstances of the case are the most bizarre I've ever encountered," said veteran wildlife investigator Lenny Barshinger. Where's Long John Silver when you need him?

I recall an old Monty Python bit about a bogus news program that focused only on the news for parrots. So there would be stories like "No parrots were involved in a 5-car pile-up on the M-5 today."

And then there was John Cleese's classic dead parrot sketch where he plays an irate customer returning the parrot what he bought store not two hours ago turned out to be dead. He gives the store owner about a dozen alternate expressions for death before finally shrieking, "this is an ex-parrot!"

Beautiful bird, the Norwegian Blue. Lovely plumage.

I can't imagine stealing a parrot for any reason, and if I did, I really can't imagine stuffing the thing into my clothing. I would think having an animal with a beak anywhere near your breasts would be dangerous for both parties. But I am a little jealous since that bird was getting more action than I've had in a long time.

And what kind of business deal is this? I've heard of oil for food, and guns for hostages, but a bird for a card is a little out there. Now you can't drive a bird, but a car doesn't talk. Unless it's that car from Knight Rider and I think that might have been a fake.

What makes people do this? Is it a strange sense of entitlement, a failure to know right from wrong? A feeling that they are above the law? Or are they just fucking stupid?

Or maybe it'll catch on. I was walking by an Asian store in my neighorhood that sells vegetables and fish when I saw a sign that I thought said "We Accept Catfish."

Hmmm, I thought, now there's an interesting pay structure. What if I brought in a trout or even a parrot? We could have a whole animal bartering economy and finally move on to the cashless society I've been hearing so much about.

Weasels, anteaters, boa constrictors, gazelles, chipmonks and armadillos could all do double duty as currency. Now it could get a little messy and the wallet and pocketbook would need a radical-design, but that's a small price to pay for getting back to nature.

I noticed that sign actually says "We Accept Food Stamps" and they only sell catfish. For money, not woodchucks. So another great idea goes down the tube. But it never hurts to keep a few parrots around the house just in case.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Cat's Pajamas



Oh, the irony...

For years I have tortured my sister with my degrading, hateful comments about cats.

Rancid fleabags was my expression of choice, but I made full use of the language in describing my loathing for felines.

Now, I was just kidding, of course. I was trying to torment my sister by ragging on her cats. I don't have anything against them--nor anything for them, come to think of it. I was just playing around.

She always threatened to get me a cat as a punishment and I always swore I'd donate it to the nearest Chinese restaurant. So it went on over the years. She'd put her cats on the phone so I could hear them purr(?!?) and describe what they were doing while she was talking to me.

Hey, who cares about them stupid cats? I got better things to do then waste time on those obnoxious, lazy, overfed trouble makers.

Or then again, maybe I don't. It seems now I am in need of cats, or at least one, to scare away the mice (or worse) that have gotten into this house.

I put poison down in the cellar, of course. But that cellar is a hellhole and the bastards have been tunneling in from the front garden. (I suspect a rat or two may have joined the party.)

But I don't want these vile creatures in my house and I don't like spreading poison around the old homestead. So, what's left?

Alley cats, that's what. They're always around, knocking over the garbage, brawling and fornicating in the alley at the dead of night. For all the trouble they caused me, the least they could do is help me get rid of the rodents.

I went to the grocery store and walked back to the pet food section. I know nothing of cat food, except that I wasn't buying the canned crap. The odor, the very look of the stuff makes me gag.

So I went for the dry food and I found the perfect brand: Alley Cat, complete with a cartoon of a scruffy looking feline on the bag.

I got some small paper dishes and put on food in the front garden and the backyard. My plan was to have my house reeking of eau d'cat so mice, rats, kangaroos, zebras and any other type of vermin would haul ass out of my home and never darken my door step again.

I put on food once and the next night I forgot. The following morning I open my door to get my paper and there are two cats in the middle of the street looking at me with this wounded, dismayed expression.

How could you forget us? They seemed to ask. What kind of person are you?

Look, this is business. I feed you, you scare away the mice. We don't have to like each, we don't even have to see each other to make this thing work. I'll put down the food, you put down the mice. Got it?

The Calico Queen

At one time mice were unthinkable around my house. At one time my family's house was cat central. With our pet Phoebe, a beautiful calico cat, we had more litters of kittens than you could shake a scratching post at.

Phoebe had her own way of doing things. While she spent time in the house, she also hit the streets, coming back when it suited her. We always had dogs and we had to keep them separated, but, aside from a few skirmishes, we got by without any bloodshed.

Phoebe and her broods ruled the cellar of our house. We'd put down food and water and Phoebe would take care of the rest. I have dim memories of Phoebe and her kittens running down the stairs from the second floor of our house, their tails up in the air.

We gave away a lot of Phoebe's kittens, and we kept a few. I remember Figaro and Domino, a beautiful black cat with a white spot under his chin. He turned up dead one day, poisoned apparently by some godless bastard and I recall how angry and upset we all were. And Phoebe, of course, was crushed.

We could go on vacation for two weeks and as soon as my father turned the car into our driveway Phoebe would pop up out of nowhere, her eyes reflecting green in the car's headlights.

Phoebe got older and she had to have a hysterectomy, so there would be no more kittens. And then, it seems like a short time later Phoebe was feeling sick. My father put her in this ancient cat box we kept around and when he came back the box was empty.

I remember when he told my mother, how she burst into tears, poor woman. My grandmother had died a few years before that and our dog Schnapps had also gone to his reward. With the death of Phoebe now my mom shook her head and sadly said, "it's the end of an era."

That may sound a little strange but I know what she meant. My grandmother, Schnapps and Phoebe had spent a lot of time on this earth and they spent a lot of it together, so, yes, when Phoebe died, there was a feeling around the house that a chapter in our family history had come to an end.

My sister said I should put down water along with the dry food. I joked about strolling musicians and porter house steaks, but honestly it does feel good to help the buggers out. They have to eat from garbage cans, deal with scorn, foul weather and speeding cars.

I guess some days we all feel like an alley cat in a harsh world, so putting out some food and water seems like the right thing to do.

And I like to imagine that I could be feeding one of Phoebe's descendants. God knows she had enough kittens, maybe this is one of her grandchildren coming to our house each night to empty the food dish and scare away the mice.

Maybe it's not the end of an era after all, but the start of a new one.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Thank you, Judy


You never know where you'll meet a decent human being.

Most days they can be awful hard to find and if I went searching for one, a huge corporation would be the last place I'd look.

But that's what happened last week when I called my father's insurance carrier to find out what I could about his IRA.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and he's never been one for keeping records, a trait that I unfortunately inherited.

My mother was always the one that did the finacial paperwork for them, although my father always maintained he was the brains of the outfit, despite the acute lack of evidence.

Since my mom's death three years ago, his financial records have pretty much gone to hell. I've done my best to keep up, but my hatred off all things financial and my stunning lack of apptitude in these matters has resulted in some rather sizeable gaps in my dad's portfolio.

I had to call the insurance company to see what was going on with his IRA. I won't mention the name, but they've got a blimp and a cartoon dog on the payroll so you take it from there.

Naturally I had to go through the answering service contortions, pressing button after button until I got a real person. Her name was Judy, she had what I think was a southern accent and she wanted to know how she could help me today. So I told her about my father's scattered financials and explained that I was calling because of my dad's condition.

Judy told me she couldn't tell me much unless my dad gave her verbal permission. Since I was calling from work, this would be a little difficult. Now I'm not sure what happened next, but somehow Judy went from being another telephone android to being a kind, caring flesh and blood woman who really did want to help me.

I know what you're going through.

That's how it started, when Judy said she understood our situation. She told me about her mother, a former school teacher who had Alzheimer's. She was known for her great spelling ability, but as the disease progressed this same woman didn't know how to put her shoes on.

Judy said her mom had trouble recognized her--her own daughter--but always recognized Judy's husband. She called Judy's brother--her own son--"the heavy fellow" because he was a few pounds overweight. And she called her son's wife "the woman from Tennessee" and nobody knew why.

Judy went on and on with this story, pouring all into my brain from some telephone call-in center somewhere in America. It was such jarring combination of the intimate and the impersonal, I didn't know how to handle it.

Judy finally finished her story and she wished me luck. I was almost in tears by then and I thanked her for kindness. This kind of compassion, real compassion can't be taught in some kind of telemarketing school. You've got to be born with it.

I'm sorry I didn't get Judy's last name because I would have actually written a letter to her supervisors telling them what a great employee they had. I wonder if they would frown about such familiarity with the clients. You're supposed to be a heartless robot like the rest of us, Judy. Get with the program or turn in your headphones. Let's hope not.

So, Judy, I'll thank you through this blog. The few minutes you spent talking to me about your mom meant so much to me you have no idea. And I guess the best way to honor your kindness is to pass along.

Take care, Judy. I'm so glad we got to talk.

Monday, October 24, 2005

White Boy Slugfest


It was a hell of a way to start a weekend.

I got out of work one Friday night a few weeks ago and walked down to Battery Park City.

Was I heading for happy hour at some uber-chic saloon? Hell, no. A romantic rendez-vous with a lucious Eastern European supermodel? Jesus, it hurts to even dream about that.

No, I was on my to the New York Sports Club to take a boxing class. Now why the hell I do this, I don't know. Of course there are the surface reasons: it's great exercise, you get to work out in a group, it saves me from the murderous monotony of the treadmill and the barbells, and it lets me get out my aggressions.

The gym wasn't crowded that night, a sign possibly that people were out having a life rather in here wheezing and perspiring. I found out that boxing class was even more mob-free--I was the only person there.

Sal, a young African-American boxer and martial artist was teaching the class and when others failed to show up, my first thought was, oh, no, he's going to cancel the class. Then a few more minutes went buy and then I thought, oh, no, he's not going to cancel the class.

So he started running me through the whole routine, push-ups, jumping jacks, jumping on the stepper, and then on to the heavy bag and the focus mitts. It looked like a scene from some prison movie where the sadistic guard runs the heroic (and innocent)convict into the ground.

This happened only one other time before, at the Union Square gym on a holiday weekend, and the instructor put me through 15 minutes of work before splitting. And I didn't mind. But Sal went for the whole bleeding hour.

I couldn't believe it. I kept looking at the clock, thinking, ok, we're done here, right? I may not have a life, but surely you've got some lovely young thing waiting for you. Well, I guess she was patient, because Sal did not ease up.

Great White Dopes

While Sal was running me into the floorboards, I noticed a personal trainer had come in and was working his client through a series of excerises, including some punching drills on the mitts.

Like Sal, this trainer was African-American, and like me, his client was a middle-aged caucasian male. I imagined Sal and this other man taunting each other in the locker room, saying, "hey, my white boy can whup your white boy."

That would have been a smoker, kind of like Gerry Cooney vs. Duane Bobick, a fight I'm sure everybody was dying to see back in the 80's. It would have also been a variation on a theme, having white fighters go at it before a minority audience, though hardly entertaining for lovers of the Sweet Science.

Sometimes I feel like an invader when I try boxing, since it's such a huge part of the Black and Hispancic cultures. Who the hell am I kidding? Even if I were younger, I wouldn't dream of getting into the fight game for a living. Just because of my background, I have a lot more choices than most of these poor bastards that punch each other into oblivion.

I see the original White Dope, Sylvester Stallone is making yet another Rocky movie, only this time he'll be 60 years old (!) I remember when I saw the first Rocky back in 1976, at a sneak preview on the East Side. I was going to Hunter College and I saw it with a guy in one of my film classes. I had such a fabulous time, cheering along with everyone else.

But Stallone had to take a good thing and beat it to death, pounding it the way Apollo Creed blasted Rocky's head in the first two flicks. Now I guess he'll climb into the ring on a walker and take on Apollo's granddaughter.

I Knock People Down

Now if you want a fight movie, you should check out Hard Times with my man Charles Bronson.

I watched it again the other night and I had forgotten how good it was. Not just the fight scenes, which were great, but the acting, thanks to James Coburn and Strother Martin, (Bronson didn't say much, but with that mug, who cares?) and some really great lines.

The fights are bareknuckle, grim, and dirty. Fighters kick, choke, and butt with their heads. It is pretty the anti-Rocky, though it's a fantasy as well.

The fighters in this movie are more like gunfighters, with killer reputations; and Bronson has this habit of turning away and walking off into the night at various times in the movie. Once is dramatic, but it seems to happen an awful lot. And no one ever says hey, Charley, where the hell are you going?

The film was shot in New Orleans, which I think gives it another layer of importance, as we're probably looking at places that are no longer there. I guess every film ever shot in the Big Easy now has the distinction, even that crappy Jean-Claude Van Damme thing. They're preserving history.

Lemme at him!

Needless to say the NYSC White Boys did not battle, which was lucky for that other sap, because we all know I would have dropped kicked his ass onto Broadway.

I thanked Sal for giving me what amounted to a private boxing lesson and hit the showers. I went out and did something, I think, though now I can't seem to recall what it was. I guess that was the highlight of my evening. Hmm...

I went to the gym tonight and I'll probably hit it over the weekend. I'm not the exercise junkie I was when I was in college, but I'm still a little too obsessed for my own good. I keep expecting I'll be healthier if I keep working out, but that, of course, doesn't have anything to do with the health problems I've had over the years.

But it's still fun. And give me a few more lessons with Sal and I'll be ready to take on any paunchy caucasian male in town.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Dad's Accident


I had to give my father a shower the other day.

It was Sunday morning and he and my sister had just come home after having breakfast at a local diner. She and I were talking in the kitchen when my father walked in between us and went into the bathroom.

A few seconds later the smell reached us and we knew what happened. My father had "an accident", as my mother would have said.

In other words, he shit in his pants.

Poor bastard. He's 84 years old, suffering from Alzheimer's and he's got to deal with this. We got his shoes off and I threw his underwear into the wash. My sister left and I went out to do some shopping, but when I got back the smell was still coming off him.

I told him to get undressed and saw the stains on the back of his legs. I got him into the shower and turned on the water; he was like an old circus elephant, once so powerful and terrifying, now docile and quiet as I hosed him down.

His doctor warned us that, as the disease progresses, my father will lose control of his bowels and I'm afraid that time has come. My sister thinks the huge breakfast he had at the diner may have upset his system and this would be a one-time occurrence. I hope she's right.

A short time ago I would have been traumatized by this: cleaning up shit and hosing down my father's naked body. I would have freaked and either run away or bitched the whole time. But I guess--I hope--I'm a little stronger, a little more mature. He took care of me when I crapped my diapers, so how can I complain now?

My mother once had an accident in the kitchen. She was terribly sick, as she had been most of her life, and her system couldn't hold it in.

I was in the bathroom at that time, getting ready for school or work, I'm not sure now it was so long. I just remember hearing my mother yelling outside the door and then it was too late. The whole kitchen floor was covered and my poor mother was mortified.

I got dressed and walked out of the house, leaving my father to do the clean-up.

Years later, when my mother's condition had worsened, she called me into the bathroom. She finally blurted out, "can you wipe my backside?" I did it and she shook her head sadly.

"Oh, Robert," she said, "there's no dignity."

No, there isn't. We hear all this crap--the real shit--about the Golden Years, and TV makes old people like cute little cartoon characters. But at some point it just goes downhill and there's nothing cute or dignified about it.

I was talking with my shrink tonight and he marveled at my ability to put things off, the novel, screenplays, relationships--pretty much life in general, as if I were going to live 400 years.

I panic when he talks this way because I know he's right. We have only a certain amout of time on this earth, if we're lucky, and only portion of that time is open for exploration and adventure. Then you're crapping your pants and being hosed down by your children.

I remember when my aunt's husband was in his final year. He had trouble getting around toward the end and my aunt told me to see and do things now before I got too old, because it would be late by then.

If life is so short, if life is so precious, then it's too short, too precious to waste time complaining or mooning over mistakes, or freaking when my father has an accident in his pants.

Yeah, I wished I moved to L.A. when I was 20, I wish I had done something to get into the film business, in any way, rather then becoming a reporter. What the hell was that anyway? Because it was writing? Christ, painting billboards is writing too and at least then I wouldn't have to work in an office.

I can make excuses, but that's another waste of precious time. I can only deal with now, I can only apply myself to my various projects and hope one of them pans out.

And if there are any more accidents, I'll clean them up and get back to work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Faces in the Crowd


You can see a lot by just looking. ~Yogi Berra

Two men left the same building at the same time and they could not have been more different.

I was taking the elevator going last night when a man in a wheelchair got on board at the 12th floor. His body was shrunken, misshapen, and from what I could see, he only had the use of one arm.

I had my usual feelings of sympathy and guilt--whining about my health issues seemed pretty pathetic in light of this man's terrible condition. His whole life is a health issue.

When we got out into the lobby, I watched him roll toward the door, ready to be the good citizen and help him out.

As he rolled toward the door, a man who was pretty much his polar opposite stepped out from another bank of elevators. This man was tall, with broad, weightlifter shoulders. He wore an immaculate, expensive suit and, of course, he had a cell phone plastered to his head.

In my instant analysis, I decided this guy had it all. Great job, beautiful woman, maybe a few of them, fabulous apartment, and a kind of confidence that could repel artillery blasts and stampeding elephants. I felt obligated to hate him, but my heart wasn't really in it. It's no crime to be successful, though somedays I wish it were.

There are millions of people in this city and so many of them walk down Wall Street at 5 p.m. But I couldn't take my eyes off these two. They barely noticed each other as they headed to the revolving door, parting company only when the wheelchair man rolled toward the side door with the handicapped button.

The door was closing and the wheelchair man was about to turn back when I rushed up and hit the button for him. The door gently opened and he looked at me.

"Thank you," he said before wheeling out to the world with his good arm and joining the river of humanity.

I stopped and looked once more at the cell phone guy. He was outside the building, still on the cell phone. I thought of that movie "Unbreakable" where Samuel L. Jackson's character goes to maniacal lengths to find his polar opposite, a man whose body is as resilient as Jackson's is fragile. I had a feeling I was watching my own version of this movie right outside 14 Wall.

I found myself in a kind of limbo, floating between these two men, infinity more fortunate than one, not where near as lucky as the other.

I wonder what it would be liked if they switched places for a few minutes, so the handicapped man could know what it's like to be strong and powerful, and the cell phone man could get a taste of what its like to be so helpless you needed people to open doors for you.

I don't know what any of this means, if it means anything at all. Maybe I should mind my own business, clean up my act, and get a life.

Hell, I could be completely off base on this. The wheelchair man could be perfectly happy and going home to a lovely wife and a 20-room mansion. And the cellphone guy could be on the phone with his lawyer preparing a plea bargain agreement that just might keep him out of the joint.

Tonight I came home after work and after the gym and there was a blind man tapping his way up the steps of the train station with his cane. One passenger steered him toward the turnstiles so the blind man could get out.

I stood and watched to see what direction the blind man would take. I was tired and I really feel like helping anybody, but I have a need to be a hero I guess.

The blind man walked to the opposite staircase, away from me and thus, I decided, out of my jurisdiction. I went up the stairs on my side of the street and went home.