Monday, August 29, 2005

El GastrĂ³nomo


It was on a late summer night in the East Village that I first saw the Machine.

I was out with friends one Friday evening and after drinks, snacks, and talk at a funky saloon, they decided they wanted to get something to eat. We walked a few blocks to a Dominican restaurant and managed to get a table. It was late, I wasn't that hungry and the menu wasn't doing it for me. So I ordered a bowl of chicken soup.

I happened to look over to a corner table and I saw this young man, heavyset with a porkpie hat and sun glasses--even though it was 10 o'clock at night. He looked like a character from a seventies cop show, the kind of guy who knows what's going on in the hood and feeds the detective tips.

He had two Cuban sandwiches on his plate surrounded by french fries, which were adrift in ketchup, and he was showing his meal who was the boss. Slowly but deliberately, he polished one sandwich, then the other, and knocked off the french fries along the way.

After cleaning off his plate, the Machine got up and walked to the juke box. He didn't look Hispanic, but he certainly knew his way around the food and the music. As he made his selection, a young African-American with dreadlocks sat down at the Machine's table with his blond girlfriend.

The Machine came over very calmly and leaned over to speak to the guy, who quickly apologized and took his date to another table. I thought, hey, guy, if you're done eating, you really should give up the table.

Of course, the key word here is "if". And it turns out the Machine wasn't done, he was just warming up. As he sat down, the waitress brought him a huge plate of rice and beans, while a waiter came over with bread. I don't recall seeing him ask for any food, the staff just brought it over.

It was like Round Two in a prizefight. The Machine sat down and methodically took on the rice and beans. He didn't stuff his face. He was like a great athlete or skilled jazz musician, working in food. I'm usually repulsed by such gluttony, but on this occassion I would have tipped my hat if I had been wearing one.

The restaurant's owners must pray for this man's good health every night. I know some day the Machine is going to wish he had taken better care of himself, watched his diet and gotten some exercise. But on this night none of that mattered.

Tonight the Machine was working his magic.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

What a Day for a Daydream

So all I have to do is dream...if I want to get Alzheimer's.

A recent study finds a link between daydreaming and Alzheimer's Disease, which attacks the very parts of the brain that we use to create waking fantasies.

Alzheimer's has taken on a new dimension ever since my father was diagnosed with the disease. Now every time I forget or misplace something or struggle to recall a name or movie title, I ask myself is this how it starts?

It seems that daydreaming may be having the same effect as idling a car. You're using up energy and wearing down the engine, but you're not going one inch forward. Gosh, that sounds familiar.

Oh, spiffy. Something else to worry about. If this is true, this is quite serious: all I do is daydream for God's sake. Ever since I was a kid I've dreamed about being famous, loved, strong, fearless, I even saw myself as a talented singer.

Now I don't think I'm the only doing this. Daydreaming has been a plot devise in countless movies, books, (Billy Liar, a book and a movie), and the subject of God knows how many songs--All I Have to Do Is Dream; In Dreams; I Should Be So Lucky;

However, I do believe I'm in the elite when it comes to conjuring up a history that never happened. I talk to myself, I revise the past and script the future. I pretty much inhabit my body on a part-time basis, while the rest of the time is spent in Dementiaville.

When I was a kid I fantasized about stomping school bullies and vicious nuns. I was the smartest kid in the class and the best child a family ever had.

In my adult daydreams I'm a published novelist, a successful filmmaker, a peerless pundit and a happy, balanced member of society. And of course I mercilessly snub anybody who's ever done me wrong.

Naturally, sex is the big one, as I see myself in the sack with beautiful women of every race and usually more than one at a time. I even recruited the bikini-clad woman from yesterday's sunbathing exercise into my fantasies. Only now, in this new verision, I approach her, speak to her, and then seduce her.

Oh, you poor sap.

The scientists interviewed in the Alzheimer article refused to say that daydreaming leads to the disaese. So maybe I shouldn't be worrying about Alzheimer's down the road. Maybe I should be worried about the here and now: getting a job, getting an apartment, finding a girlfriend and actually finishing the novel and shooting a film

I do want to use my mind in a more productive manner--even writing this blog is something than just laying around staring at the ceiling. I want to clear out all the junk in my brain, and make my mind work like a computer.

And I believe you need some kind of craziness to come up with ideas, no matter what field you're in. You can't program everything.

So I'll keep writing, play more Scrabble, remain fit, and, most importantly, socialize as much as possible. At least if I lose all my marbles I'll have gone out happy.

So all I have to do is dream...if I want--hey, wait a minute, I already wrote that. Uh-oh...

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Unsure Road

Maybe I should join a monastary.

Clearly meeting women is not my forte. I either don't have the nerve to approach them, they're not in the places I go, or the ones I do find are psychotic.

I went down to Shore Road today to enjoy the last days of summer. It feels like autumn already, damn it. I saw the usual handful of babes in bikinis and I ran into--can you believe it?--Angelica (she of the black bikini and pierced navel), just finishing a run.

We chatted a little and I went my way, which happened to be the men's room. I remembered that this was the day I had planned to stake out the park so I could ask her for a date. But we know that she had actually shot me down yesterday, thus proving I was right to ask her out at the earliest possible opportunity.

Had a similar experience today with yet another bikini-clad lady. Similar in that I couldn't get up the nerve to speak to her. I still find the park approach difficult, being all exposed. I'm focusing on the rejection, not the actual meeting of someone new.

This woman was a bit older than I'd like, her belly was sagging and she turned out to be a smoker. And you know what? All of that is irrelevant. The fact is I wanted to talk to her and I didn't. What to do but to get back out there and try again? And banish the thought of failure, whatever that means.

I searched in vain for excuses to start up a conversation: the appearance of the Fuji Film blimp (He wants to take your picture!), a sighting of a brazen squirrel, or the sad scene of a young father losing his kite in a tree while his little boy weeped and wailed. (I thought the kite-eating tree was something in the Peanuts' comic strip.) Nothing worked. I couldn't get this woman's attention for squat. Damn paperbacks.

I had a similar thing happened last night when I made eye contact with a woman at the Bryant Park Grill. She was with a friend and here my excuse was a fear of approaching two women. Either they blow you off or gang up and mock you.

But men have done this and survived. So that's what I'll do. Approach two, three, whole herds of women if I have to and save myself that regret.

So it sucks to still be struggling with this. But I noticed something with that little boy who lost his kite. After a considerable amount of crying, I heard him say in a loud voice "that stupid tree!" Then his father put him up on his shoulders and he wiped the tears off his face with both hands, and went on with his life.

There's a lesson in this, and not just for kite flyers.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Missed Connection 2: The Return of Angelica



Oh, goodness do I feel happy.

Why? Well, a beautiful, sexy, lovely woman told me she doesn't want to go out with me.

Confused? Join the club. But I'll tell you all I know. When we last left yours truly I was all bent out of shape because I kept letting women get away from me, even though I had struck up some very nice conversations with them.

One of them, my favorite, actually, was Angelica--she of the black bikini and pierced navel. I finally got up the nerve to talk to her whilst she was sunbathing down by Shore Road after lusting for her in the shadows for weeks.

But once again, I had let her walk away from here, promising I'd see her around. And I had planned to--I'd adjusted my Saturday schedule to make sure I'd be on Shore Road when she--hopefully--would be there.

However, just this very morning I'm doing my errands and I see this woman in shorts and a camouflage t-shirt coming toward me on Fifth Avenue. I'm thinking I recognize her, she seems to know me, and then we go by.

Then I realized it was Angelica. I almost let her go a second time, but I said no! you schmuck, don't do this again. So I walked after her. For a second I wondered what if this were the wrong woman, but then I figured I'd apologize and maybe ask this woman out.

So I caught up her, and it was indeed Angelica, and she remembered my name (!) and I let her talk about her dog (a doberman!) and then I tried to seal the deal: how about you give me your phone number and we'll get together?

Angelica made a face, something between a smile and a grimace (a smimace? a grile?), and said she didn't want any serious complications in her life. I assured her that I'm not serious about anything and encouraged her to talk to anyone who knows me.

Naturally it was not to be. So I wished her well, told her I'd see her around, and then went my way. I felt so good, actually seeing it to the end, asking for the phone number. So she shot me down. I wasn't struck by lightning, she didn't open up on me with a machine gun, and I don't have to lurk around the park tomorrow like a stalker intern.

Nice going, son. You held up your end. Now all you have to do is find a woman who wants to go out with you.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Missed Connection

Betsy: We met Monday night on the R train to Brooklyn. You had just moved from L.A. and got off at Union Street. I was too shy/dumb/whatever to ask for your contact info. Let's keep the conversation going--I learned a lot in just a few stops.

I posted my first "Missed Connection" notice on craigslist today.

I know, I know. Dream on, you pathetic loser. If you get any response at all in the next seven days it won't be from the cute girl you can't stop thinking about, but some degenerate ex-convict ratcatcher with a speargun for a hand and a rusty water spigot growing out of his forehead.

But what else can I do? I don't know any psychics, I can't read tea leaves and obviously I don't have the brains or the cajones to actually ask a woman for her number.

Betsy was the third strike out in two days. The first one, Angelica--she of the black bikini and pierced navel--I think I can find, as she hangs out in the same spot along Shore Road (in her black bikini, natch). I spoke to her last week for the first time, after lusting after her from afar for most of the summer.

I finally got my chance to speak to her when a group of African-Americans (a rare sight in Bay Ridge) conducted a wedding right there in the park. I felt obliged to move when they came near my spot to take the pictures, as I was sweating in my bathing suit while they were all sweating in gowns and tuxedoes.

I felt even further obliged to use this as an excuse to strike up a conversation with Angelica.

"If I had only known," I said as I walked by her, "I would have worn a tie."

All right, that's no prize winner, but it got us talking. I found out she was originally from Greece and lived a few blocks from here. I asked her if she was going to stick around and try to catch the bouquet, but she laughed and said she didn't need the complications.

I didn't have the nerve to ask for her phone number, but I lamely promised I'd see her around.

Of course now that I plan to go down there again on Sunday to find her, you can bet that in the interim she'll have gotten a sex change operation and joined the Swedish Navy.

The second one was on Monday morning at Food City. This woman was buying a huge bottle of water, so I made some lame joke I can't begin to remember, and we started having a nice friendly chat.

Of course that doesn't mean we're going to run off to the Canary Islands together and have quintuplets, but, hell, the greatest relationships of all time started with two people talking.

But no, I let this one walk out the door while I stopped to make a stupid inquiry about the return of the store's sushi chef--like I really had to know that. Forget the woman, forget the potential companionship, it's raw fish and rice I need. Banzai, nitwit.

Betsy was the last one. I got on the R train at Whitehall Street last night and luckily spotted an empty end seat. The young woman in the middle seat was about to butt-slide to the corner pocket, but I was quicker and hurled my keester downward. I knew I wouldn't get the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Subway Chivarly, but I was beat.

As we went along I got the urge to speak with her. She was cute, had on this nice green blouse; she seemed like good company. When she looked to see what station we were stopping at, I quickly told her it was Lawrence Street and that DeKalb Avenue was next. (You got that, Walter Raleigh?)

And so we talked. I found out Betsy--got her first name anyway--had just moved here from L.A., a mirror image of my fantasy relocation to the Left Coast. She came here for a job, most of her family is in New York, and she's been to the city enough times to have seen the sites and not be put off by the upcoming cold weather.

She was cool. She told me lived along the F line, but was riding my train to go to some food coop at Union Street. And when her stop came up, what did Sir Walter Schmuckhead do? Why, he said take care, Betsy, and watched this fabulous woman walk out of his life. And you wonder why I never got married...

That was it for me. I went to craigslist's "Missed Connections" page, whose authors I once mocked with unrestrained glee, and wrote up a message, pleading with Betsy to give me another chance, to keep the conversation going.

Then I shot my posting into cyberspace, where it landed with all the other should haves, wished I hads and sorry I didn'ts and prayed for a miracle. I guess the whole section proves I'm not the only dope in town, but that's hardly comforting.

I know it's ridiculous to hope for any response. The moment is gone, all that exciting magic has evaporated. I can't believe she'd be interested in contacting me even if by some miracle she does happen to see my ad.

Somebody please pound me with anvil, banish me to a Wisconsin suburb, make me join the Young Republicans. Do something to punish me for this rampant, subhuman streak of stupidity.

Rejection hurts, but not trying is the worst pain of all. So from now on, I vow I'm going to seal the deal. I'm going to ask for the phone number, e-mail address, latitude and longitude, some way of getting in touch with them.

The women have every right to say no, go to hell, get a job, and douse me with pepper spray if they want. I'll just say thanks ever so much and have you got any oregano to go with that? At least I'll have tried, damn it.

Oh, well, there's always Angelica in the black bikini. I'm going to go down to her spot in the park on Sunday, and if she's wearing a beard and a sailor suit I'm going to be one angry son-of-a-bitch.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

We Bleed


On my first day as a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, I was so frightened I couldn’t enter the building.

I was terrified by this huge, forbidding structure that looked like a state prison and seemed to be inhaling students off the streets by the hundreds. I was scared of the Fort Greene neighborhood, so different in every possible way from my little enclave in Bay Ridge.

My father had given me a lift in his car that morning and he quickly sensed my anxiety—there was no way to miss it. Instead of getting angry or shouting “Be a man!” and kicking me out of the moving car, he took me for a spin around the block.

As other students went inside, we cruised in the vicinity of this massive fortress like a four-wheeled sputnik orbiting a distant planet. My father told jokes and stories to calm me down while I gripped the armrest to keep from jumping out the window and running all the way home.

People who live in this up and coming area today wouldn't recognize the place it was in the seventies. There were burned out houses on every block, suspicious characters on every street corner and an amazing shortage of white people.

With my father's help, I finally calmed down, got out of the car and started my high school education. It was a long time ago, and I like to think I handle could things better now, but I’ve never forgotten those warm-up laps around Fort Greene Place in my father’s car.

My father turns 84 next month and he can’t drive anymore. He suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and has trouble sometimes remembering the names of his four children.

Last week I took him for his first day at an adult daycare center on 16th Avenue. He’s scheduled to go two days a week for about five hours each day and the Veteran’s Administration picks up the tab.

I was coming along with him in the center's van just this one time. The administrators made it clear that after the first day my father should come to the facility alone. Best to cut the strings, one told me.

I watched the staff sit my father down for a breakfast at a long table with other elderly people, many of whom were in much worse physical and mental condition than he is. They put a huge paper bib around his neck and gave him a plate of animal crackers and a bowl of oatmeal.

It made me angry to hear them speak to him in loud, elongated tones—HI, HOW ARE YOUUUU? Don’t talk to my father like that, I wanted to shout. He may have Alzheimer’s, he may be three-quarters deaf, but he’s not an idiot for God’s sake.

For once I kept my mouth shut. I knew these people meant well and my father seemed to be enjoying himself; he even offered me one of his animal crackers.

It seemed strange that I was being so protective of my father, given our often turbulent history. We've had such screaming matches over the years, even got physical on a few occasions, and I've lost count how many times I swore that I'd never speak to him again. It's amazing how fast all that hostility can vanish.

I said goodbye to my father and got as far as the hallway before bursting into tears. I felt like a rat for leaving him in this strange place with these sick, old people. He belongs in his house, with me, not here, in this adult playpen.

“I remember when he used to carry me on his shoulders,” I said to his nurse while wiping my eyes.

But I believed this would be good for him. Ever since my mother died he pretty much sleeps around the house all day. At least for two days a week, he can socialize with people his own age.

The truth is I was crying because I knew my father belonged here. He belonged here because he’s no longer the big, strong man who gave me courage when I needed it. He belonged here because he was old and now I’d have to be strong for him--just like he was for me.

I wasn't leaving him, as my therapist later explained; he was leaving me. Age and dementia were taking him away from me like a slow moving train disappearing down the tracks.

Maybe my father felt the same kind of pain when he watched me walk through the doors of Brooklyn Tech so many years ago. It might have hurt, but he knew I had to do it on my own. It was best to cut the strings.

I caught the N train home and while we rattled toward 59th Street, I looked at the graffiti smeared all over the walls and pillars surrounding the elevated tracks. There was the usual kaleidoscope of sprayed painted names and numbers covering nearly every inch of concrete.

But one tag caught my eye. It was a simple phrase written in rapidly fading black paint that read “We bleed.”

Yes, we do, I thought as the train entered the tunnel. We bleed and try to keep going.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Crash and Learn

My computer crashed last week and I damn near joined it.

After endless hours on hold, I finally got through to the Bombay Brigade, who promptly put me on hold. This went on for days, I stayed up till 3 a.m. three nights running, cursing, screaming, and getting nowhere.

During the day, I ran to a local internet cafe, one of many Arabic businesses in this neighborhood, to check my e-mails and look for jobs that I couldn't apply to. And then I was back on the phone to India at sundown. I had to deal with people who could barely speak English, who knew virtually nothing about computers--it was a nightmare. (Although I did get an idea for a short film from it. What the hell? What else was I going to do?)

Somewhere in all this, the Dell (oops! did I mention their name??) Center got hit by a flood. I thought this was a pipe busting in the can, but it turned out to be a real, honest-to-God flood, that hit the India offices. It killed hundreds of people, but I was so twisted by then all I can think of was me and my problems.

I've got just about everything back online, though my computer's memory has been wiped clean, forcing me to sign into sites and accounts all over again.

And therein lies the lesson.

It sucks having the system crash, but it's also an opportunity to start fresh. What if I can do that with my own memory? What if I can could get rid of my old, destructive thought patterns and start fresh, with no built in prejudices? Pretty powerful stuff.

It is interesting that my computer hit the deck while I was taking that Goal Imaging class at the 92nd St. Y. It's like I've got all the negativity wiped out to make room for the positive view.

Restart, Robert, restart.