Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Moving Day

The French were right: To say goodbye really is to die a little.

I learned, or re-learned this lesson after dinner last night. I was all set to work on the computer when there was a knock on my side door.

No one comes to the side door so I figured it was my neighbor John coming to ask me for favor. I was close; it was my other neighbor, who lives in the rear apartment of John's house.

This man's name, I believe, is Fei, and he is the father of my two little buddies, Kelly and Maggie, the Chinese girls who like to drive me crazy whenever they see me coming.

Fei doesn't speak English very well, but the message was clear: they were moving. He, his wife, the grandmother, and those two lovely girls who have given me so much joy over the last year or so are packing up and moving to a place about 20 blocks from here.

Yes, it's not that far. And they really intend to come back because the new tenants are actually members of their family, so they'll have a reason to visit.

But I'm so bummed. I realized just how much I love those two little girls. I just figured they always be there for me to play with. I feel like I should demand visiting rights.

It wasn't always that way. They used to be afraid of me; they'd run and hide when they saw me coming. But things improved last year when I was out of work.

In the Beginning...

I'd hear them in the morning when their grandmother was taking them out in the stroller and I'd pick up some trash and walk out, pretending I was throwing out the garbage.

"Hello, ladies," I'd say, as I walked by them.

Gradually they started to greet me in their limited English and I stopped pretending to throw out the trash. I didn't need any fake reason to go out in the alley; I was saying hello to my friends.

Oh, the pleasure they gave me.

We'd play all kinds of silly games, we'd run up and down the alley, or hop back and forth on the steps to the opposing side doors, or look for stray cats (these guys love cats).

Over the summer they found a perfect way to torture me: they would run up on top of my cellar shed and refuse to come down.

I was always terrified they'd fall and hurt themselves and I tried to explain to them, through body language and facial contortions that they should get down before something terrible happened.

But they didn't understand English and all they saw was that by doing this they could make the bald guy hop through his rear end in frustration. So let's keep doing it!

"What is the Chinese word for 'dangerous'?" I lamented.

I tried to be tough with them, stomping my foot and saying forcefully "You come down here right this instant!"

Oh, yeah, that worked. I sounded like Miss Crabtree from the old Little Rascals show and Maggie and Kelly cheerfully ignored me as I tried to put the fear of God in them.

It was the highlight of my day, seeing those two. After they left, I had to go back to job hunting, which became more and more discouraging. So a few minutes of acting like a child helped me get through the day.

To the girls I was an adult they didn't have to obey, an over-sized child, really, which is a fairly accurate description.

It must have looked strange, this grown man running around with little kids. But I liked being with them; it had the same effect as admiring beautiful flowers or watching a perfect sunset. These are priceless moments that do nothing but make you feel good.

Gradually, the girls started coming into the house, much to the delight of my father. I loved hearing the patter of their little feet in our home and I realized how empty the place had become.

My parents had four kids, so at one time the place was packed, and now it's just me and my dad in this huge house. Having these girls running the same rooms where I grew up was very satisfying.

Tony, our Dominican repairman, told me once that it's good luck to have children running around the house. Inwardly I scoffed, but later on I started to think he was right. I felt lucky whenever I was with these two.

Unfortunately, the kids' parents put a stop to visits. I'm assuming they didn't want to impose upon us, at least I hope that was the reason.

I never had any children of my own and for the longest time I didn't think I was missing anything. But after these times with Maggie and Kelly have got me thinking otherwise.

Obviously there's more to being a parent than a few minutes of silliness. You've got to be able to lay down the law, point the child in the right direction, and be there when everything falls apart for them.

I convinced myself that I couldn't do that, that I didn't want to put out that kind of effort. I think I was afraid and I had so much trouble getting my own act together I didn't think I could be a very good example to any child.

But you don't have to be Neil Armstrong to be a good parent. Some rather boring, run-of-the-mill people do a great job as mothers and fathers.

Back to the Future

I remember the day I moved out of Stroudsburg, Pa. back in the early 90's. I had lived there, at 500 Scott Street for five years while working as a reporter at the Pocono Record.

I lived next door to an elderly couple, Mr. and Mrs. Strunk, two of the loveliest people I have ever known.

They were in their 80's when I knew them and they always had a nice word to say. Mr. Strunk liked to talk about the Great Flood of '55 that ravaged the Poconos in 1961.

He once worked as a delivery driver for the Record and he knew Jimmy Ottaway, who owned the chain of papers that included the Record.

I went back to Brooklyn a lot on weekends and I had given the Strunks a key to my apartment in case they needed to get in for some emergency. Well, God bless her, Mrs. Strunk started going in my apartment to tidy up--a very brave woman, facing that toxic dump--and sometimes washing my clothes.

"Oh, boy," one of my co-workers laughed. "It's like you never left home!"

I was miserable at the paper and the Strunks were one of the few bright spots in my life. They had their troubles, of course, like all of us. I came home one day and found the Strunks getting into their car. Mrs. Strunk was sobbing as she was getting into the car and I asked her what happened.

"My daughter died," she said.

That poor woman. She was Mrs. Strunk's only daughter and now she was gone. I felt so helpless that day. I went to the service, naturally, but that seemed like so little for the people had been so good to me.

Then the day finally came when I got a job at another paper and I had to move on.

Moving is always such a nightmare. You've got to gather up all your property, put it in boxes, and look at your life all stacked up in front of you and you think, this is it? This is all that I am? It can be very sobering.

I finally got all my junk together and stuffed it in a U-Haul. The Strunks came into my now empty apartment, and as Mrs. Strunk said goodbye, her voice cracked a little.

That was all it took. I started crying, Mr. Strunk started crying and then all three of us where wailing in the middle of this barren studio. I kept crying all the way to Connecticut, going through a whole box of tissues as I drove along I-84.

I eventually lost touch with the Strunks and the last time I was in Stroudsburg, about a year ago, I went by my old apartment building and found different names on their buzzer. I know they must be gone by now, but I don't want to think about that. I can still believe they're still around, looking after me.

And So Goodbye...

Now I'm the one who's staying still while others move. It's funny, I used to play with my neighbor John's daughters, too, until they got older and I hardly see them any more.

That happened with my niece and her little friend, who are both 18 now, and I'm sure it'll happen with Maggie and Kelly. I feel like Puff the Magic Dragon.

The alley is quiet now, no sounds of my friends running up and down or giving their grandmother a hard time. Their apartment is dark and it feels so empty around here now.

My dear friend Desert Wench once gave me a great piece of advice: some people are only meant to walk on the path of life with us for a short time.

That is so true and sometimes that walk can be painfully short indeed. But with Maggie and Kelly or the Strunks, I thank God for every step.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

We Interrupt This Program...

It has come to my attention that I am...it.

It, like the game of tag, get it? I got it, and now I want to get rid of it.

If memory serves, I was pretty good at tag when I was a kid.

It didn't involve catching or hitting a baseball so I didn't have to worry about blowing the double play or striking out in the bottom of the ninth with a tie score and the winning run on third.

No, with tag, all I had to do was run and dodge, which are about the two things I do best in life.

I recently learned that in the blogosphere people tag each other's blogs and, like a chain letter--or a disease--you have to spread it around answering a series of questions and passing them on to other bloggers.

I got tagged by my Israeli homeboy, DesertPeace. I confess I wasn't too thrilled at first, since I had other posts in mind and I don't know too many other bloggers, and the few I do know I'd rather not piss off by dragging them into these kinds of games.

But upon reflection, I decided I would tag along. The questions are intriguing; it will be fun to pass them around and see the variety of answers, and, most of all, I can't let down my boy Peace, as he is always in my corner, all the way from Jerusalem.

So, for what it's worth, here are my answers.

1.Black and White or Color; how do you prefer your movies?

B&W--love those old movies.

2.What is the one single subject that bores you to near-death?

Golf, watching, playing or discussing. It's murder.

3.MP3s, CDs, Tapes or Records: what is your favorite medium
for prerecorded music?

CD's. Way behind on the whole MP3 business

4.You are handed one first class trip plane ticket to anywhere in the world and ten million dollars cash. All of this is yours provided that you leave and not tell anyone where you are going: Ever. This includes family, friends, everyone. Would you take the money and ticket and run?

God, this is the choice of love or money. I want that 10 mil so bad I can taste it, but I'd miss my family so much I think I'd die. I'm going to say no and then hope to God this never really happens.

5.Seriously, what do you consider the world's most pressing issue now?

Seriously, George Bush

6.How would you rectify the world's most pressing issue?

Make him go hunting with Dick Cheney. Seriously.

7.You are given the chance to go back and change one thing in your life; what would that be?

Prevent my parents from sending me to Catholic school. (No joke.)

8.You are given the chance to go back and change one event in world history, what would that be?


9.A night at the opera, or a night at the Grand Ole Opry. Which do you choose?

Opera. I love the Marx Brothers.

10.What is the one great unsolved crime of all time you'd like to solve?

How did Bush get elected? (AKA "Who hijacked my country?")

11.One famous author can come to dinner with you. Who would that be, and what would you serve for the meal?

Charles Dickens and we'd have pizza from Goodfellas in Brooklyn. Please, sir, could I have some more? Hell, yes, Charlie, and grab a few buffalo wings while you're at it!

12. You discover that John Lennon was right, that there is no hell below us, and above us there is only sky. What's the first immoral thing you might do to celebrate this fact?

I'd do the same immoral stuff I've always been doing, only now I would drop all that Catholic guilt and finally enjoy myself.

So there you have it, sports fans. I'm supposed to tag four other bloggers, but I'm only friends with two, so here goes. I now tag my two dear blogging buds:

Desert Wench and Barbara of Bitchin' & Stuff.

I think Barbara is an especially good choice since she maintains four blogs and thus gets me off the hook on the four bloggers requirement. (Yeah, I know, I should have been a lawyer.)

Okay, so you asked, I answered and I spread the word. We will now return you to our regularly scheduled blog.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

I Found It!

When you're looking for something, always check the cushions.

I found this out the hard way on Sunday when I managed to lose just about everything I needed in quick succession.

It's been cold here in the Northeast, colder than it has any right to be. I went out Saturday night and the freezing air just ate right through my gloves, to a point where my fingers were hurting and visions of frostbite danced in my head.

I'm happy to report that this did not occur and I'm hitting the keyboard with all ten digits.

But the rotten weather has a way of making things worse. This is also a holiday weekend, which I have noticed tend to be more strssful for me than a normal one, and it gets to the point where I almost miss the office. Almost.

Birthday Girl

Friday was nice, as my sister and I took my auntie out for a birthday dinner. We found a French restaurant on Atlanic Avenue, walked in without knowing a thing about the place and had a great meal and a great time.

It's so strange to see how that area has changed. When I was a kid my father used to drive down to the main Post Office building, which is a few blocks away from Atlantic Avenue, to mail all his various order forms to his company's headquarter's in Albany.

I think he did this because the main building was opened at night and he thought his mail would get upstate faster if he sent it from the home office. For me it was an excuse to go for a ride and I could never say no to that. A 30 minute round trip in the car was an adventure for me at that time.

We'd go down the BQE and pull up in front of this huge, medevial-looking builing with these high towers on either end of the block. My father once asked a guard about the building's history.

The guard said the building was either a courthouse or a jail and they used to conduct hangings one of the towers.

It's hard to imagine someone being executed up there. I wonder if the prisoners were forced to wear a black hood as they stepped up to the gallows or did they look out at that growing city below them just before they died.

When I was a kid that part of downtown Brooklyn was poor, black and crime-ridden. We used to drive up Atlantic Avenue or Third Avenueon the way home and it just felt dangerous, like something ugly was going to happen any second.

Prostitutes used to gather on one of the side streets off Fourth Avenue and they'd try down to flag down the drivers of every passing car.

I remember one summer night a rather large lady of the evening came walking up to my dad's car smiling and greeting us with the line, "fellas, fellas, fellas..."

...lend me your ears? I was rather creeped by the whole business, but my father would go on about how he felt sorry for these poor women. Once he went around the block a second time to get a look at them and I wanted to kill him.

I had one of my high school friends with me and while my father was declaring his concern for his fellow human beings, he sort looked like a horny old goat.

One night on Atlantic Avenue, not too far from where that French restaurant is today, two men were fighting right on the street.

Actually one was fighting, a very angry Hispanic man who bounced on his toes and threw punches at a rather meek man who was clearly not interested in mixing it up, throwing down, getting busy or taking it up a notch.

"C'mon," the Hispanic man shouted, and hit the other again. "C'mon!"

My father stepped on the gas and both men were gone from our lives forever.

Now the neighborhood is yuppified, and I'm sure, driving poorer people out to who knows where. I like the idea of a reclaiming a neighborhood and making it safer, but there has to be away to do this without banishing the original residents.

Bay Ridge, where I live, has changed a great deal over the years as well. It was once home to so many Norweigans that supposedly you could walk the streets here in the 50's for blocks and never hear a word of English.

Now it is becoming so heavily Arabic, some people call it "Beirut." You like to think you're home is going to stay the same, but cities don't remain still, like some vast painting. They're always changing and being re-born.

Cut And Run

Saturday was the last day of my film class and I finally saw the footage I shot two weeks earlier. I was a little disappointed as I found that I had poorly framed a few of the shots and one shot I just didn't take at all. I had a list of the shots and apparently I didn't consult it.

Since I came up short on the shooting end, I had to make some magic happen in the editing process. Luckily I had shot some additional material I thought I wouldn't need, but it came in handy, and I finished editing my film.

"It looks like you'll get the Oscar after all," my instructor said.

Yes, well, maybe not this year. But I see now that it's one thing to bloviate about the art of film and quite another to get in there and actually make one. It's a lot closer to building a house than painting the Mona Lisa.

And then it was Sunday and I started losing things. It was like a "Twlight Zone" episode. I got up to go to my gym and I looked around for this novel, The Corrections that I've been reading. I pretty much do all my reading on the subways and I can't get on the train without something to read, even if it's some giveaway weekly newspaper.

Only I couldn't find the book. It was nowhere to be found. I'm running late, I had to get my father dressed so my brother could take him to breakfast, and I have no idea where my book was.

I should mention here that I'm not that crazy about this book, even though it won the National Book Award. But I almost done with it and more importantly, I don't like the idea of just losing stuff. Since my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's I get a little freaked out every time I forget something.

So now I can't find this book that I don't like and that I didn't finish, so I say, the hell with it, I'll take a few hunks of the Sunday Times.

Naturally I miss the R train as I'm entering the train station and naturally I freak out because I just know that the trains don't run worth a damn on a Sunday and I'll never make it to my gym class on time.

Less than 10 minutes later, another R train comes roaring into the station. All right, I figure, my luck is changing.

It Ain't Easy Being Me

I come home and find the TV is on and a Rodney Dangerfield DVD is playing. My brother had put it on for my father, who went to bed a short time later. And the remote is missing.

I start looking all over and I'm getting angrier every second. I call my brother and demand to know what he did with the remote. He claims he left near the TV and I'm telling him it's not there. I hang up, cursing and fuming to point where my father got up from his lunch and tried to help me look for it.

Now I felt like a rat, disturbing my elderly father while he ate. I recalled one of Rodney's old jokes that seemed to fit the situation.

"I put my shirt on this morning," he said, "and the button came off. I picked up my briefcase and the handle came off. I'm afraid to go to the bathroom!"

Then I checked the cushion of my father's favorite chair. And there's the remote.

Okay, I can recover from this. I had planned to tear apart my bedroom and search for The Corrections, but I had enough sense in my head to back off. I was just so tense and angry that I knew I wouldn't find the damn thing, even if it was sitting right in front of me.

I go out to meet a friend for dinner and a movie and as I'm leaving, I realize I can't find my favorite Italian pen. This is important because it's a nice pen and I may need to write down my great thoughts and the phone numbers of all those super-models who throw themselves at me on an hourly basis. (Can I go on Oprah now?)

All right, I say to myself, screw it. Take a normal pen and look for the Aurora on Monday. But between this and the book, I'm really getting upset.

What the hell is going on here? The logical side of my brain--which, admittedly, doesn't have much say in things--tells me this is the result of being poorly organized and that I have to literally clean up my act.

But my whacko side wonders about black holes and evil curses and all other bizarre things. And when I search for something, I get angry and dredge up all these bad memories that have nothing to do with the missing item. It is an unhealthy way to live.

I was raised a Catholic and was forced fed all these images of hell and damnation, but I see now that hell isn't a place with demons and flames and pitchforks, it's a state of mind. It's a place where you can send yourself by giving into rage.

When I was growing up, I remember seeing these bumper stickers proclaiming "I Found It!" I think it was some Christian group proclaiming their love for Jesus and I believe the bumper sticker geared so you would ask them what did they find, whereupon they would give you the whole routine. Luckily, I never asked.

But when I lose something I'm jealous of anyone who has found anything. And I don't want to hear any routine either.

So I meet my buddy for dinner and a flick. I'm riding home on the subway and I happen to reach into my back pocket to find...my Italian pen.

Okay, clearly I'm insane. I admit that straight up. My anger and frustration is blinding me to the the minor things in life and I can't help but wonder about the important things in my life--goals, career, relationships? What am I not seeing while I'm running around in circles complaining and reliving the past?

I got this morning and said my prayers. This is Monday and I'm going to relax, but I really must find The Corrections. If I don't, I suppose I can go the library or order a used copy on line, but that's more effort than I feel like putting out and it doesn't satisfy my fears about my crumbling gray matter.

I get up, turn to go make breakfast and I stop. Could it be...? I put my hand down at the end of the bed, in the gap between the mattress and the headboard, and I pull out, yes, my copy of The Corrections.

I found my stuff, I've got the day off, we're expecting a warming spell this week. and there's not a pitchfork in sight.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cupid, Draw Back Your Bow

"If you have true love, take a tip from a man in misery, don't ever be lonely, poor little fool like me."

--Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose

This could be the longest day of the year--if I so decide.

Yes, it's Valentine's Day yet again and yet again I don't have a girlfriend. It's been so long since I've had a lover on this day for lovers that I would probably freak out if I did have someone.

I've gotten exactly two cards this year, one from my sister and one from my friend Stephanie. And while I appreciate their thoughtfulness more than I could ever express in words, I would like to have someone of my own.

This sucks. Of that there can be no doubt. The airwaves and newspapers are filled with Valentine's Day ads and the TV news programs are doing all these flowers-and-candy stories.

I have a chance to go out tonight to a few places, but honestly I don't think this is a good night to go looking for someone. It's sort like trying to find a New Year's Eve date on Dec. 31.

I was out on Friday with nothing to do and I saw so many happy couples out and about, I felt this hostility, thinking, oh, look at these twits, they're so happy, they're so in love, I could just puke.

In other words, I was thinking like a loser. Whatever my problems may be, I don't think being mean and miserable is the proper response. Nobody wants to date Travis Bickle.

I had one decent Valentine's Day back in the Eighties, when I was dating Louise, a woman I almost married. We exchanged gifts, went to dinner, the whole deal. It was lovely, but my problems spiraled and Louise eventually--and rightfully--moved on.

I had one of my favorite Valentine's Days with Stephanie, when she came in from Hartford and we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks.

It was on a Friday night, I believe, neither one of us had dates, so the potential for major misery was there, but I had a blast. The exhibit was great, the museum was packed to the gills, and Stephanie was wonderful company.

I went to a nice anti-Valentine's Day party when I was living in Waterbury. A bunch of us went to a Japanese restaurant in New Haven and had a great time. The restaurant was in an old house and we were seated on the top floor.

Stupid Cupid

The staff took so long serving us that they bent over backwards and let us stay there forever. I felt like royalty.

The worst Valentine's Day I ever had? Well, I guess that would be about two years ago when I just started dating this woman named Christina. I had met her on New Year's Eve, after she posted an ad on craigslist looking for a group of people to go see "Cold Mountain."

I felt some kind of connection with Christina, so I called her up and we went out a few times. We hardly knew each other by the time Feb. 14 rolled around, so I proceeded with caution.

Christina, however, proceeded with insanity. After initially agreeing to a date, she pulled out at the last second, giving me some half-assed, grade school quality lie about having to meet a friend.

I have no idea what her problem was, but the timing was excrutiating. You pull this crap on Valentine's Day? God, even if you hate my guts, fake it for a few hours, and dump me on the 15th.

To top it off, I was leaving the office on Friday that year and I happened to bump into this young Indian woman who worked on my floor.

She was much younger than I, but she was cute with a lovely English accent,(she had never been there, but had been schooled by British teachers) and I had been thinking about asking her out.

So I get on the elevator and she comes walking out into the lobby holding a huge bouquet of roses. Between that and Christina's bonehead stunt, it was a one-two shot to the heart.

But I survived, and here I am typing this business. This is a week night, and I've got to work on my fiction. So I'll probably hit the gym and get back to the keyboard.

For you lovers out there, God bless you. Enjoy this day and every day and I'll see you out there as soon as I can.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Snow Job

Oy, who asked for this?

I'm so accustomed to hearing TV weather nitwits scream about the next ice age that I tend to tune out the word "blizzard" whenever I hear it.

Well, the bastards fooled me today and actually got this one right. We're up to keesters in snow in the Big Apple here, folks, and if you're reading this in a warm, sunny place, I hate your guts.

Oh, of course I don't hate you, I'm just ribbing you a little. With all that damn sunshine you're getting you should be able to take a joke.

This being Sunday, I don't have to go anywhere, except to my boxing class, and I decided to skip that today, which is not easy when you're a gym junkie, but I've got to shovel my sidewalk yet again today.

I did it once this morning and my nice clear pathway got covered over in about an hour. Nuts...

I've been running around a bit for the last day or two.

Mary, my dad's homecare aid, called me Saturday morning to say her daughter's water broke, so she couldn't come in. She was able to find a substitute, God bless her, so I could go to my film class in peace. (And, by the way, it's a boy, 9 pounds and change. Going to be a big guy.)

We were learning how to edit video on the MacIntosh. Once you learn what all the buttons mean, it's incredibly easy.

Slash and Burn

I have dim memories of cutting and taping Super-8 film in high school film classes and there is just no comparison. If you don't like something you did on the Mac, hell, you can do it all over again. And you don't have to worry about losing anything, because if you saved it, you still got it.

I was nervous, but I volunteered to use the thing first. I kept asking questions until I got what I wanted and I turned a pretty decent bit of work, if I say so myself.

I was editing the work of a classmate who was out sick and, since I was the star of his film, I got to look at my own mug for 30 minutes straight on the monitor. I usually cringe when I see myself, but I kind of liked how I looked on Saturday.

This fellow had gone a little crazy with the zoom lens, like some old 60's movie rendition of an LSD trip. It's tough on the eyes and it distracts from the story, and I as tried to edit around these telescoping shots, I got a new respect for the film editor's job. You can only do so much with raw footage.

As I was wrapping up, another classmate pointed to the window.

"It's snowing," she said.

I went down to the subway at Union Square and waited for the R train. I was in the perfect middle spot of the platform, where at one end, a young African-American man was beating on a set of plastic paint cans with a professional drummer's speed and ferocity, while at the other end, an elderly man with an accordion was slowly cranking out a rendition of "Somewhere My Love." You've got to love this town.

I almost stayed in on Saturday night, looking for any excuse to sit at home and watch DVD's--the snow being a great excuse--but I know I'm not going to meet anybody that way.

I had signed up for a get-together being thrown by this Brooklyn residents group, so I hopped back on the R train, took the F over to Smith Street and hung out for a while in a cool saloon with a bunch of nice people.

The snow was still falling when I got home and I crashed in front of the TV to watch a movie called "Mimic" where these giant insects roam the subways munching on homeless people and anyone who gets too close to their nests. It looked like it was filmed on a soundstage in Canada.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

I kind of like being buried like this. Even a hyperactive, non-stop city like New York has to to slow down when it gets hit with a blizzard.

People seem a little more neighborly and we could always use more of that. And the city looks nicer too, all white and glistening. A few days from now it will be sooty and disgusting, but let's not think about that just yet.

Snow was always great when I was kid. It often meant a day off from school and hours of frantic playtime. One time we were having a snowball fight with some of the kids on the block and we all took garbage lids to use as shields, like Roman soldiers.

One guy hurled a snowball at me and I picked it right off with my garbage can lid, though I felt the vibrations down to my ankles. I recall one massive snowball fight we had when one of the opposing players rushed our and camp and began destroying our stockpile of snowballs.

My brother responded by putting him in headlock and burying him neck-deep in those shattered snowballs.

"Here," my brother taunted the hapless fellow, "you like snow? Here you go!"

One year after a blizzard, a bunch of us went to the O'Neil brothers' backyard with our G.I. Joes and created this massive fortress out of a snowpile. In my memory, it was a fabulous beehive of tunnels and traps, an engineering marvel from which our soldiers (don't dare call them dolls!) could wage war on somebody.

Fighting Man From Head to Toe

Being kids, of course, we destroyed the thing at the end of the day, gleefully stomping on every inch of that fort and crushing a day's worth of work. But children have this need to break things, and we also had an excuse to dive back into the snow and rescue our G.I. Joes.

I have been threatening to move to a warmer climate pretty much from childbirth and yet I am still here in Brooklyn. I hate the bitter cold, I hate the short, dark days, and I hate bundling up in 12 layers of clothing. But I do love a good blizzard and I'd say we're in the middle of one right now.

I better get out there for a re-shovel. I've got pick up to my dad's lunch, do a ton of laundry and find a dish for my alley cat buddies, as their usual food dish is buried under a snow drift.

There's a great movie called "The Long Day Closes" that traces the life of an English family in the Fifties. It's more of a moving photo album, then a film. There's no forced plot, no cardboard villians, just stories from people's lives.

I always get teary-eyed when I see the Christmas scene. The family is home after going out for the holiday. It's night and snow is falling, and the mother's voice is heard on the soundtrack saying, "My God bless anyone who doesn't have a home to go tonight."

And I heartily agree.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Lights, Camera, Action...Finally

I directed my first film on Saturday and it only took me 22 years.

It was about three minutes long, it took place in a narrow hallway, and while it will never be mistaken for Gone With the Wind to me, it's a classic.

I've been taking this digital video course on Saturdays and for the second class the instructor gave us a short film to shoot, handed us a camera and kicked us out into the hall so we could get busy.

I have written screenplays, both long and short. I have been on the sidelines of several shoots where the actors say my words, more or less, while a director tells them what to do.

I once saw David Mamet on a talk show discussing his experience as a screenwriter for Brian DePalma's The Untouchables. He said he felt like an aunt on the set and I can see why. You believe you have a right to be there, but you get the distinct feeling you're in the way.

I've been dreaming about this since high school, after watching a PBS program called "The Men Who Made the Movies," a fabulous series covering the life and times of such great filmmakers as William Wellman, Raoul Walsh, and Alfred Hitchcock.

I had even given myself a deadline to direct my first film. I decided I must be in the director's chair by the time I turned 26 because that's the same age as Orson Welles when he directed Citizen Kane.

I'm 48 now, so you can see what I think of deadlines.

The Early Days

I had shot some abysmal footage in a high school film class and never edited the thing, much to the teacher's consternation. I did a cool little black and white crime story in college that included a tracking shot that I did with a borrowed wheelchair.

But then I made some other piece of junk in that class. I didn't plan anything on that one and it show. I just shot some slo-mo footage of my sister leaving our house. Take it from me, it was a mess. And then after that...

Well, I became an aunt. I wrote scripts, took notes, planned great films, but I never got behind a camera. I had talked myself into believing that I couldn't do it, that I couldn't direct a film.

I didn't say it in those words, but I sent myself that message loud and clear: stay in the background. You write, you don't direct.

But here I was after all these years, behind the camera, expected to produce results. I couldn't make excuses, I couldn't complain that they were destroying my script. I was the top dog.

The story was simple. One person in an awful hurry bumps into a second one. The first goes down and angrily fends off the second person's attempt to help him up. The first guy dashes off while the second one heads off in the opposite direction...holding the first guy's watch.

Okay, so it ain't The Seventh Seal, but it was mine, or at least one version of it was mine. There were three of us in the class, so we all played parts in each other's films in addition to directing our own flicks.

I was the busy, impatient guy in both films--is this typecasting, or what? I did a good job of hitting the deck, having taken jui-jitsu many moons ago and having been raised Catholic and thus hungry for all sorts of pain.

So I did my first acting gig and then it was time for me to direct my film. My mind went blank. I looked at that buttons on the camera and I could not think of what to do first.

"Uh...How Do You Start This Thing?"

I was afraid to touch the damn thing, sure I would break it or start some terrible chain reaction accident that would shut down the Eastern Seaboard. One of my classmates, a very nice Indian man, started helping me out and the terror faded as I went along.

I show my first scenes and then moved the camera for the reverse angle. I found my other classmate, a woman, was telling the Indian gentleman what to do, so I sort of cleared my throat and told him to stay still. Then I gave him my directions.

Nothing personal, honey, but this is my masterpiece, not yours. You'll get your chance soon enough.

I found I liked directing, I liked making decisions. When I shot the last scene, where the Indian man walks off with the victim's watch, I didn't think he was holding the watch properly.

I could barely see the watch in the viewfinder, and since that was the punchline of the whole damn story, I really needed to have it prominantly displayed.

My two classmates started to walk away and I very politely said, "hey, let's shoot the last scene one more time." And then I told my actor exactly what I wanted. No screaming, no temper tantrums.

I didn't run off and lock myself in my trailer, mostly because I didn't have one, but still, I didn't have to be rude to get what I wanted.

Then I replayed my footage in the monitor and I was very pleased indeed. I was now a director.

Then it was time for another acting gig. Earlier in the day I had seen myself on the video monitor and I couldn't resist the urge to do a little shadow-boxing as I watched myself on the screen.

So for my second turn as the rushing guy, the woman directing me suggested I do some of that business as I walked down the hall.

To calm myself down, I chugged down the hall punching the air and singing "You're Not the Boss of Me." It worked. I felt comfortable in front of the camera as I did my Type A guy routine.

To Be Continued

This Saturday we're going to edit our videos and I'm looking forward to taking this bit of visual clay and sculpting out a story. It's going to be cool.

I told everyone about the shoot, including my 18-year-old niece, Kristin. And it turns out she's having her own brush with greatness. She told me she will be appearing in her high school's production of "Les Misérables" this spring and I was estatic.

"What part do you have?" I asked excitedly.

"Oh," she said matter-of-factly, "I play a whore."

Well, my goodness, isn't that nice? My lovely little niece, whom I used to bounce on my lap, with whom I used to play horsey,piggy back, and peek-a-boo, now all grown up and portraying the town strumpet.

I just can't tell you how proud I am right now. And I know somewhere up in Heaven, my mom is looking down and saying, "oh, look, there's my little whore!"

Oh, well. Maybe some day my niece and I will work together. Maybe I'll be a big-time director and she'll be a famous actress, and I'll have her play such great women as Cleopatra or Madame Curie, or Amelia Earhart.

Or maybe I'll be grinding out zero budget quickies and I'll tell her to go down to the end of the hallway and steal that guy's watch.

But she won't be playing a hooker, that's for damn sure.

Friday, February 03, 2006

My Own Private Alcatraz

Years ago, when I was visiting my brother and his family in San Francsisco, I took the ferry out to Alcatraz, the infamous prison that sits in the middle of the bay.

This was the hightlight of my trip, the only thing I had actually planned on doing once the plane touched down on the runway, other than seeing my brother, his wife, and my beautiful little niece.

I had read an article about Alcatraz in the New York Times travel section and decided I had to see the place. Hell, after all those prison movies and episodes of The Untouchables I had watched as a kid, I figured a pilgrimage to the great American big house was mandatory.

The weather that morning was awful, all gray and windy, just perfect for sailing out to the notorious slammer.

As I waited to board the ferry, a group of German tourists approached and one of them, pointing out to the island and the unmistakable buildings, asked me, "Das is Alcatrez, ja?"

I told him it was, whereupon they all started chanting "Al Capone, Al Capone." It's nice to see how the best of American culture is spread around the globe.

Brother Racoon

I was wearing my Brooklyn baseball cap, which I had gotten a few years before. I had convinced myself it protected me whenever I had to fly.

I have such a terror of airplanes that I created this myth on my own, dubbing my battered headgear as "my lucky cap" that would protect me from all manner of castostrophes. And I half believed my own malarkey.

Now I also do a lot of praying when I fly and make so many promises to God while I'm in the air that I'd pretty much have to become the Pope in order to make good on them all.

Most of these desperate vows evaporate as soon the wheels hit the tarmac and admitting to be panicked prayer-type doesn't sound very cool, whereas wearing a lucky cap, that's got character.

The cap also does a bit of local advertising once I leave the city. People often approach me in the strangest settings and want to know if I'm really from Brooklyn--as opposed to some tourist who just likes to throw the name around.

This trip was not different. As I rode on the ferry, a heavyset man in his late 50's walked up me and asked "are you really from Brooklyn?"

I told him that, yes, I was, and he told me that he, too, was from the garden spot of the world, as Ed Norton once described Brooklyn, and that he was now living in Hawaii--quite a leap from Flatbush.

"Yes," he said, "it's been a long time, but now I feel like I'm finally happy."

I thought it was a little strange that a total stranger would confide me, especially on a boat to Alcatraz, but I have to say I genuinely happy for the guy. He wasn't be obnoxious or rubbing my face in dirt.

I was alone on this vacation, as I have been on so many times before and since, and so if someone wants to talk to me and tell me his life now, at long last, on track, I'm glad to hear him out. I'd like to think he saw something in me, aside from my cap and the local connection, that made him feel able to confide in me.

I didn't get that man's name and regrettably I lost track of him when the ferry arrived at Alcatraz. But I found myself thinking of him Wednesday night as I rode home on the subway.

Shine A Light on Me

I was taking a hard look at my life, my career, my living arrangements--pretty much the whole menu--and I was profoundly uphappy.

I realized that in spite of all my big dreams and bigger talk, I am not one inch closer to making them any of them come true as I was all those years ago on that ferry.

No woman, no real writing career, and I'm living in my family's house with my elderly father. I am neither a famous writer or a respected filmmaker and my biggest adventure seems to be trying to hold on to a job for more than a year.

The truth is I never took any real chances in my life. I didn't head out to L.A. back when I was 22, I just talked about doing it someday while the time kept passing. God knows L.A. is full of people dying to get into the film business; even the homeless people have screenplays tucked under their rags.

But it's that failure to try, that cowardice, really, that gnaws at me. Even if I didn't get into the business, I could honestly say, that I had tried. And who knows? Maybe I would have met the woman of my dreams, settled down, and had a whole passel of brats out there in the warm California sun.

Yeah, I know, and maybe I'd be miserable and alone in some crappy apartment on Sunset Boulevard, choking on the polluted air and sweating out the next earthquake. But at least I could stop wondering about it.

I look back at myself at age 22 and realize I didn't have the vision or the emotional strength to strike out on my own.

And I'm not talking about thrill-seeking nonsense like jumping out of airplanes or hiking through Afghanistan with a Swiss Army knife and a handful of crackers. I'm talking about calculated risks that are rewarding and honorable even in failure.

Instead I live in the house where I was born, with my elderly father, a man I once swore I would get away as soon as I possibly could.

I've had lengthy stays in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, working at dead jobs I couldn't stand in towns that had absolutely nothing going for them, dreaming of the big break, but I never took off for a place where I didn't have any friends, where I didn't have a job waiting for me.

Some days I feel like a statue in the park, where everything is changing around me and I'm standing still, slowly turning green while the pigeons crap all over me.

City of the Damned

And that's why it's good to look back on the Alcatraz trip. If you've never been there, I can tell you it is fabulous, a guided journey around the ninth circle of hell. You could quickly understand why people would try and escape from this place, even if they died in the attempt.

You had to wear these headphones with recordings that direct you to different parts of the facility, where you hear the details of major events from the perspective of both former guards and former inmates.

Unlike most prisons, which are built off in the boondocks someplace, far away from humanity, Alcatraz stands in the middle of a major American city, heart-breakingly close to all the best things in life.

One of the ex-convicts on the guide tape talked about a particular New Year's Eve when the prisoners, all locked in their cells, could hear the sounds of a party floating over from a nearby yatch club.

The contrast is so striking, the lowest of the low within hearing distance of the most privileged and pampered.

The convict said he and his fellow prisoners were determined to celebrate the new year and they got hold of pots, pans, metal trays--anything that could make noise.

And when the clock struck twelve, they went berserk, raising all kinds of hell to drown out the sounds of their more fortunate neighbors.

So here you had people with nothing, no hope, no future, locked away in one of the most hellacious spots on earth. And yet they could find cause for celebration.


Now I think of that man on the ferry and I realize he wasn't just telling me he was happy, he was also saying he had gone through some tough times, that paradise had not been given to him like a Christmas present; he had to pay for it with years of his life.

And while I can't get back the years I've wasted, or feel I've wasted, I can stop throwing away more time complaining, I can get out of the past, and away from this prison cell where I have confined myself for so many years.

I met another former Brooklynite on that trip to Alcatraz. As I got on the ferry that would take me back to San Francisco, one of the attendants, a middle-aged black man nodded to me and told me was from Brooklyn, too.

"Bed-Stuy," he said with obvious pride.

I wondered what had brought him all the way out here, to work at this place, but the ferry was pulling out in a few minutes and I confess I like filling in the gaps myself.

He had a real entertaining rap going and when four high school students boarded the ferry, he gave them quite a welcome.

"Congratulations, gentlemen," he said, "you have escaped the Rock."

And now it's my turn. I'm going to get out of this self-made prison. I'm going to bang those pots and pans and even if I never make to the yatch club, they're going to know I was in the neighborhood.

See you on the outside.