Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Nuns & Roses

I'm trying to remember the name of the nun who used to torture me during my lunch period at Our Lady of Angels cafeteria.

She was so horrible, so repulsive, that I guess I can't be faulted from blocking her name from my memory. Her face, of course, is another matter.

She was fat and seriously ugly, like a brahma bull in a nun's habit, and when she came lumbering into the cafeteria my stomach would tumble.

Sister Mary...? No. Sister Agnes...? No, can't get the name. Well, whatever her name was, if there's any justice in this world, she's rotting in hell right now and will continue to do so for all eternity.

The Play's The Thing

I recently saw the play "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley, and while it was fantastic, it also brought back some toxically unpleasant memories.

The story takes place in a Catholic school in the Bronx during the 60's and except for a different borough, and a slightly different style of nuns' habit, everything looked frighteningly similar to my old grammar school.

There was the photo of the Pope on the wall, the old time loudspeaker from which the mother superior would supplant the voice of God and issue her holy orders of the day. There's a scene early on in the play, where a young nun tells the mother superior that she's teaching an art class to her students.

"Art class," the older nun sniffs disdainfully. "A waste of time."

That about sums the nun mindset, or least the nuns I had the great displeasure of meeting. If you've never went to Catholic school, I envy you. All the rumors, all the horror stories, all the funny-but-sick anecdotes that you've heard are true; even the ones that aren't.

These women really were horrible--for the most part--mean-spirtired, frustrated old hags who should not have been allowed to look at children, let alone teach them. They were the bullies in black, who ruled not out of a sense of dedication or love, but through fear and abuse.

They would hit the students, pull the girls' hair, basically do anything they wanted to make the children feel like dirt. It was like Parris Island for eight-year-olds. All of this was done in the name of God and discipline, but I don't recall seeing very much of either during my first five years of grammar school. All I saw was a lot of terrified kids, myself included.

Everything out of our mouths seemed to begin with the words "Sister says..." like "Sister says we have to use fountain pens." Every mistake, every little error was inflated to mass murder levels, so a kid who forgot his homework was made to feel like Josef Mengele, Ivan the Terrible and Ghengis Kahn all wrapped into one.

I haven't done any formal research on the matter, but to the best of my knowledge, no one ever died because a kid didn't have his pencils sharpened during math class.

And, of course, we had the catechism drilled into our heads all day long. We were forced to memorize these sing-song questions and answers, like Who made us? God made us. They got longer and more complicated, and more ridiculous as the year went on.

Sisters of Merciless

I remember my first grade teacher, Sister Rose Bernadette, who was actually semi-normal. My brother used to tease me by calling her "Sister Rose Berna-jet" which for some reason made me furious. I can't believe I'd defend a nun for any reason, but I guess it was a schoolyard version of the Stockholm Syndrome.

I spent so much time being afraid in those years. I once lost all my crayons, except for green, and I couldn't bear to tell anyone about this. When Sister Rose found out, she hit the roof.

Another year, I managed to drop this quizbook into the narrow space on the stairwell between the bannister and the wall. It fell some three flights to the basement, I suspect, but I wasn't going after it and I sure as hell wasn't going to admit that I lost it. I just went around with knots in my stomach fearing discovery.

I was always bad at math and one year we use to have recess right before math class and I always dreaded what would happen when recess ended and I had to answer, or try to answer, the sister's questions.

In the third grade I had Sister Joan Bernadette (no relation to Sister Rose, as far as I know) and she used to get on my case about my penmanship.

She once had me stand at the blackboard in front of the whole class so she could skewer me because of my handwriting. Finally, she screamed at me to go back to first grade where I belonged, and when I started walking to the door--doing what she just told me to do--she screamed all the louder because I wasn't trying.

If I had been a POW I would have received better treatment. I was a child, for Christ's sake, and while I shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain, Christ on a cracker, what the hell was wrong with these demented bitches?

Was it the lack of sex? Because I don't think a non-stop roll in the hay with best endowed porn star in creation would have helped these freaks, and I doubt if the even the most desperate XXX actor in the Western Hemisphere would want any part of that action anyway.

I remember when that fat sow in the cafeteria would stand over me and make me eat all that godawful food they severed, the sort of stuff that stray dogs would turn down.

One time my sister, who also went to this holy hell hole, bravely came over to the table and tried to defend me. The two-legged sow rudely waved her away and for that alone I'd like a chance to rearrange Sister Schweinhund's porcine mug with a baseball bat. Not too bitter, am I?

Meanest Mother of Them All

And then there was Sister Frances Josepha. Ah, Sister Francis, my fifth grade teacher. I don't want to be harsh, but the truth is Sister Francis should have traded her black habit in for a white straitjacket and relocated to a sanitarium in the Ural Mountains.

Completely out of her mind, this one. Not just mean, though she was that and then some, but also nuts. Bonkers, psycho, wacky, you pick the adjective. An overgrown infant who was given a position of authority, Sister Francis delighted in turning the kids against one another. Her favorite term was "bozo" when addressing students.

Sister Frances was obsessed with communists. Convinced the godless commies were going to invade any minute, she told this room full of fifth graders to keep our souls in pristine condition at all times because machine gun-toting Reds could burst into our classroom at any moment and mow us all down in a blazing hail of hot lead.

How these satanic cutthroats made their way to our school in Bay Ridge to assassinate the occupants of this particular class was never explained. I would think they'd arouse some attention on the R train, what with the guns and the accents, and I doubt they had money for a taxi. Didn't matter. You never questioned Sister Frances.

And to be fair, she ended that story with the line, "I'm not trying to scare you." Scare us? KGB mauraders are charging up the steps ready to kill us during recess. Don't be silly, sister. What's to be scared of?

Once during an American history lesson, we all turned our books to a page with a drawing of a vast army moving through the woods during the French and Indian Wars. They were about 20 across in the image and they stretched out to the horizon as they marched off to some battle.

"You see that?" Sister Frances said. "That's what the communists are doing right now."

Really? And where is this exactly? The Poconos? Are they planning to invade Mount Airy Lodge? They'll be awfully confused when they get a look at those heart-shaped bathtubs.

She once told us an allegedly true story about some bad young girl who somehow got involved with Satan--the real one, not some guy in a red-horned costume.

I forgot most of that tale, but the kicker was the girl died as she so richly deserved and the word "Hell" was emblazon across her chest, so she had to be buried with her breast covered. I guess it was kind of like the Evil One's luggage tag.

I remember bursting into tears during one of Sister Frances' classes. The particular reason escapes me--oh, memory, you're such a tricky bugger--but when you're a child under constant daily pressure, when every bleeding mistake or misstep is a horrendous crime you going to either start crying or start shooting. Luckily there were no gunstores in my neighborhood.

I stood there wailing and she gave an open-handed uppercut, not in the least bit painful, but as I type up this bad memory I am consumed with the fantasy of socking this wrinkled old bag right in the jaw and watching her tumble ass over tin cup across the smooth wooden classroom floor.

Another time I was at the blackboard and for whatever reason I didn't move fast enough, so she screamed "get over there!" and then sneered, "scared of your own shadow." Which, I was. But who made me that way, Sister Francis? You should have taken a long look in the mirror, assuming your god ugly puss wouldn't have shattered the poor glass into a million pieces.

Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

My mother went up to see this headcase on parent/teacher day and two seconds into the meeting, without any provacation, Sister Frances said, "if any student says I beat them, they're lying."

Duly noted, nut bag. Oh, and, by the way, you're a lying sack of sanctified cowflop.

That was a difficult year, fifth grade. I believe that was the year my grandmother died, and, a short time later, my parents split up for a brief, but agonizing period. My siblings and I were fighting a war on two fronts.

Later on in the year I was selected to be some kind of class president after the previous one was booted for dereliction of duty. I didn't want the job and I remember trying to make myself smaller as Sister Frances cast her vulture's eye around the room.

I could feel her heat vision on me before she stated my name--"Robert!"--and I knew I had been selected. Sort of like George Bush. I didn't want to rat out the tough kids, and I pretty much kept to myself, ignoring whatever meager responsibilities I had.

Some of the girls complained to me when I didn't put the bad kids in place, but I had enough problems without pissing off the local roughnecks.

It used to kill me to see how nuns were portrayed in movies and on T.V. They were always these saintly, soft-spoken, attractive (say what?) young women who were so holy they damn near glowed. Oh, for Christ's sake, I'd wail, what world are you dimwits living in?

Later on, Catholic school survivors began writing the truth, so we got plays like "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You." That show is a little severe, even for a Catholic school survivor like myself, but it does blow the holy nun cliche to hell, where it belongs.

My 50th birthday is less than two years away and I know I should forget these episodes and forgive these awful women. But I can't seem to do it. I'm still angry, after all this time.

I blame my Catholic school education, my exposure to these freaks, for so many of my problems--my lack of confidence and self-respect; my inability to speak up for myself, to say I don't like something or I don't want to do something; and my insufferable desire to be liked no matter how much it costs me. I spent a lot of my life scared of my own shadow, for no goddam good reason, and it makes me mad.

The more I get to know myself, the more I see that I and most of the other kids in that class did not begin to deserve the abuse, scorn and humilation that was heaped upon us in the name of God, country and education. Even the bad kids back then weren't that bad.

Maybe it's a good thing that I've forgotten the name of that nun in the cafeteria. Maybe I should finally forget all the other pain associated with my Catholic school days and live in the time I have now. How long can I keep blaming my problems on those awful times? When do I take responsibility for who and what I am?

The past is nothing but shadows now, and shadows can do me no harm.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Eyewitness Gentleman

I was so sorry to learn of the death this week of veteran ABC newsman Bill Beutel at age 75.

He was the network's London correspondent for many years and he hosted an early version of ABC's morning TV show that became "Good Morning, America," but I remember him best as co-anchor of the local "Eyewitness News" team that I used to watch religously when I was a kid.

His death brought back so many memories of growing up in New York during the Seventies.

It's been a long time since I've had anything nice to say about local TV news. Maybe all these years as a newspaperman has built up a deep and unbreakable prejudice; or maybe I've seen one useless, pandering, dim-witted "news" story too many, but I find it a struggle watching these clowns on a daily basis.

But back in the 70's, when I first started watching "Eyewitness News" it was all so different.

Film At 11

Arguably, the informal, sometimes jokey approach to TV news, which was new and daring back then, spawned the witless McNews programs we have today. But they were innovators in those days, breaking away from the stuffy, deadly dull delivery of other news teams, and letting everyone know they were human beings.

The Eyewitness News team cracked jokes, zinged each other with wisecracks, and had what seem to be a genuinely good time covering the sprawling open-air madhouse that was and is New York City.

Bill Beutel's served as the voice of reason for this group of talented young reporters, letting them and the viewers know that they were professionals.

Every night my family would gather around the TV--kids watching the news willingly!--to hear the latest one-liners from the team.

I remember the reporters the way other people remember great baseball teams: Roger Grimsby, the head honcho, John Schubeck, the entertainment reporter, Bob Lape, the restaurant reviewer, Tex Antoine, the weatherman; Roseann Scamardella, and the black correspondents, Gil Noble, Melba Toliver, and later John Johnson.

Milton Lewis, their investigative reporter, used to include the phrase "now listen to this..." when he wanted to tell the viewers something shocking. I dimly recall Lewis describing how he had been harassed at some politcal rally, where a mob of rowdy was calling him a queer because he was using a cigarette holder.

"So I put away the cigarette holder," he said with a shrug.

There was a young Hispanic reporter named, oh, yes, Geraldo Rivera, who went from doing forgettable features to breaking the Willowbrook scandal, where the residents of a mental institution were being kept in the most horrifying conditions.

That story actually forced a change in state law. It's hard to believe the twisted turns that Geraldo's career has since taken, but back then he really was a good reporter.

And then there was Howard Cosell.

Good Evening, Sports Fans

What can I say about the famed sportscaster? An egomaniac? No doubt. A bloated windbag in love with the sound of his own voice? Amen, brother.

That droning, nasal voice still plays in my mind to this day. It was so easier to imitate and mock. But the guy also stuck it to the powers that be when most others in his profession wouldn't say a word.

I recall one time when a reporter did a story about elderly people in New Jersey who were reduced to eating dog food because their benefits could not cover the costs of meat and vegetables.

When Cosell came on, he mentioned how the State of New Jersey couldn't take care of its seniors, but somehow found the money to build a news sports arena. A lot of people didn't want to hear that, but Cosell didn't care.

He had Muhammad Ali on the show one night, when Ali was preparing to defend his title. Ali brought howls from the whole staff when, referring to his opponent, he angrily declared, "I don't like fighters who talk too much!"

After the segment ended and one of the co-anchors started reporting a story about a man threatening people with a gun, Ali shouted from off-stage, "I'll get 'em!"

"Thank you, Muhammad," the reported said without missing a beat.

And oh, those verbal duels between Grimsby and Cosell.It seemed Grimsby would always find some bizarro story to read just before he introduced Cosell.

The long-winded sportscaster would retaliate with his thesaurus blazing, prompting Grimsby to once declare, "Howard, if birds were words, you'd be covered in white."

Breaking the News

Jim Bouton, the renegade ball player who wrote the sports tell-all "Ball Four," came on board to fill in for Cosell, and he was quite funny in his own way. He even filled in as the weatherman, clearly making it up as he went along.

Schubeck, the movie critic, once tried to track down George C. Scott, after the actor had refused to accept the Academy Award for "Patton." Scott was in some New York medical facility, so Schubeck donned a white smock in an attempt to gain entry. He didn't get past the front door.

Tex Antoine was the resident weatherman and he worked a lot of humor into his reports. He, too, with match wits with Grimsby.

One night it was so cold, Antoine advised viewers to bring in their brass monkeys, a none-too-subtle reference to the "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey" line.

Grimsby responded by saying "thank you for that well-digger's report." My father explained that one to me, repeating the line "it's cold enough to freeze a well-digger's ass."

All the good times ended one night when Antoine came on after a report about the rape of a five-year-old girl. For some bizarre reason, Antoine actually said something to the effect of "when rape is inevitable, sit back and enjoy it." He was fired a short time later. The party was over.

That's the problem, I'm afraid. People are so intent one being outrageous, on pushing the envelope, or being edgy, that they don't know when to stop. It's not about wit, it's about shock, and as John Simon once said, shock is the last bastion of the impotent.

Bill Beutel never went for shock. He just did his job exceedingly well. I was nearly in tears on Sunday when ABC showed its retrospective of Beutel's life. It was hard to believe so vibrant man had grown old and died.

I'm trying to find a specific memory for Bill Beutel, but I can't seem to put my finger on one. I remember him more as a presence, a co-anchor who made you watch, made you listen, and made you think. He just seemed like such a classy guy, back when "class" had some meaning.

All of this was in another age, before the abomination of Fox "News," right-wing hate radio, and the blogosphere.

We lost a fine reporter, a good friend and decent man this week. We lost an eyewitness.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Mission Accomplished

So we're coming up to third anniversary of the war that was supposed to have ended in three weeks.

So shock and awe has turned into blood and guts. So U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians are being killed and maimed on pretty much a daily basis.

So what?

At least we've still got George Bush in the White House. And may God help us all.

I can still remember the day when The Chimp in Chief first pitched the Iraq war lie to the American people. We were still hurting from the fresh and terrible wounds of 9/11, our soldiers were fighting and dying in Afghanistan, and Little Georgie took to the tube to talk about the threat from...Iraq?

I stared at the T.V. in disbelief. What was this schmuck talking about? Iraq had not attacked us on 9/11, the people responsible for the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center were in Afghanistan.

Then the chatter started, the lies, the distortions, the half-truths, all aimed at selling this war. Weapons of mass destruction, smoking guns and mushroom clouds--dog and pony, smoke and mirrors, ham and egges, doesn't matter what you call it, every word was crap.

The attacks started, too, on people's patriotism, on their character, and their nationality. Remember Freedom Fries? Remember the shameless sliming of the Dixie Chicks?

They tried to link Iraq to 9/11, something so despicable you wonder how these no good lying bastards sleep at night. Unlike most of these neocon stay-at-home warriors, I was there on 9/11, I was at Ground Zero, across the bloody street from the Trade Center.

I wasn't sitting on my ass in front of TV screen far from the action, I wasn't scurrying around on Air Force One like our fearless leader, I wasn't wimpering in the White House basement like Condi Rice, while Richard Clarke ran the country.

Lies, Lies and More Lies

I was there when Osama Bin Laden--remember him?--attacked my country, my city, and my way of life.

News reports show that a mere five hours into the 9/11 attacks Donald Rumsfeld, that psychotic war criminal, was telling his staff to "go massive" in trying to connect 9/11 to Iraq.

So while thousands were dying, while family members were desperately trying to reach their loved ones--many of them in vain--and while decent, hard-working people were wondering just what in the hell happened, this lowlife was trying to use this tragedy as springboard into war.

As the war seemed more inevitable, as that emissary of Satan, Dick Cheney, beat the drums for invasion louder and louder, my father, a real soldier, who, unlike Cheney and Bush, actually fought for his country (a little thing called World War II--ever hear of it, Bushtards?) looked at the news is disbelief and said, "I can't believe my country is starting a war."

Well, I guess it wasn't his country anymore, at least not the one he risked his life for. No, this is now an oil guzzling theocracy run by rabid industrialists and supported by fundamentalist Christian maniacs.

The bombs started dropping on that night in March, followed by the quick toppling of the Iraqi government and the Saddam statue. And all the pathetic pundits were crowing about how right Little Georgie was and how wrong all those evil liberals were. They didn't know, nor will they ever admit, that this was the start of a national nightmare that has yet to end.

I know people say we should pull the troops out now, and believe me, nothing would please me more. But, as I and many others said before this fiasco got started, getting in will be a hell of a lot easier that getting out.

If we go now, civil war will likely break out and thousands more will die. If we stay, that'll probably happen anyway and more U.S. soldiers will die.

So, George, you get a great job. You started something we can't get out of, you sent thousands of innocent people to their deaths, and, of course, you gave a tax cut to the rich as well.

I can only hope that you and the rest of your crime family will be rounded up and put on trial for the many crimes you have committed against the American people and the world at large.

And only then will I say "Mission Accomplished."

The Wild Rover

I arise today, Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendor of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth,Firmness of rock.

--St.Patrick's Breastplate.

You could tell it was St. Patrick's Day just by the godawful weather.

It was cold as a bastard last night, but that's a given with St. Patrick's Day. The Irish wouldn't know what to do if they had warm, sunny weather on their most important day.

I'm half Irish (the other half is Italian) so I celebrate on March 17. I wear green and listen to the Clancy Brothers--I love the old Irish tunes--and I used to make a point of watching The Quiet Man, but I haven't done that in a while.

I take it easy on the alcohol since there's got to be more to this day than drinking yourself into a stupor, but I'm certainly in the minority on that score.

My father had a stock line he used to say every year at this time: The St. Patrick's Day parade marches up Fifth Avenue and staggers down Third.

I Love A Parade

When I was a student at Hunter College I went to one of the more infamous parades, where the streets were clogged with drunken lowlifes. At the foot of Central Park, one loser had climbed on the back of a horse's statue to play cowboy.

I remember seeing a cop climb halfway up to pull the jerk down, then he shook his head and came back down. The schmuck wasn't worth the effort. I walked by a group of white kids, and of them was slapping this rather dazed black man, who smiled as if he wasn't all there.

"Come on, boy," the kid snarled, intent on starting a fight, "I'm smacking you in the head..."

"Let it slide," one of his companions said. And I kept walking.

I got on the subway at Fifth Avenue and there was another drunken teen-ager, smirking as he urinated against the wall. People looked in every other direction as they entered and exited the station.

"I'm sorry," the kid drooled as he pissed away, his unit in hand. "I'm sorry..."

The parade debacle was all over the news that night and, of course, people demanded that something be done, so the cops laid down the law the following year. So much so, that the parade looked like a police officer's convention with blue uniforms everywhere you looked.

A local news reporter interviewed one stiff who complained the parade "was like an Orwellian nightmare" and it seemed as if he had just learned that expression five minutes before the cameras started rolling.

And every year, outside Hunter, an ancient black lady used to sell "erin go braugh" flags. She never spoke, never made a sales pitch, and the only part of her that moved was right arm, robotically waving a little green flag back and forth, back and forth.

The Minstrel Boy to the War is Gone

My most memorable St. Patrick's Day was the one in 2002, the first parade after 9/11. My sister and I found a prime spot right outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we could dash in when necessary to use the bathrooms.

We saw Mayor Giuliani and the police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, and the crowd went crazy. They were heroes to me back then, though a lot has changed since.

Firefighters from around the country came to the parade to show solidarity with the New York City Fire Department, which had suffered so terribly back in September.

I saw shoulder patches from California, Tennessee, God knows how many other places. I had tears in my eyes as I cheered them on.

Over the years, my sister and I have gone to see the Chieftains several times and last year we took my dad to see "Riverdance" at Radio City Music Hall.

We sat in the dead front row, so close we could the sweat flying over the dancers' faces. It was a hell of a show.

My dad suffers from Alzheimer's Disease and his condition has deteriorated dramatically in the last 12 months. We didn't think he'd be up to a night in the city, so we took him out to dinner last night to a local restaurant in Bay Ridge.

On the way, we ran into my cousin and his wife, who don't leave anywhere near this place. I confess I wasn't too happy at first, as I wanted to take my dad out, bring him home and be done with St. Pat's for another year.

But they meeting up with my aunt--my dad's sister--at the same place, so we got a table for six and made an impromptu family occasion of it. This sort of gathering usually doesn't happen until Christmas, but none us is getting any younger.

You know, it worked out just fine. Even though the restaurant had the worst Irish singer it's ever been my displeasure to hear, we had a good time.

Sing Along

We sang along to "Cockles and Mussels" and "It's a Great Day for the Irish", three bloody times, and then the singer thankfully took a break--probably to park cars, his full-time job--and the restaurant played music on the sound system.

I got into the spirit of things when they played "The Wild Rover." For those of you who don't know it, the song tells the story of a drunken carouser who's going to change his evil ways and live the good life.

The chorus is rousing, as you sing "it's no, nay, never"--and then clap your hands four times--"no, nay, never, no more, will I play the wild rover, no, never, no more." It's a great song, and unlike a lot of the Irish tunes, there's hope here, as the guy has survived to tell his tale.

It's a pity the recorded music put the live singer to shame, but, hell, this wasn't Carnegie Hall. My dad was pretty quiet for the most part, but once I saw a flash of his old temper, as he suddenly rose halfway out of his seat and snarled toward the window behind me.

"What are you looking at?" he said angrily.

I turned and saw nothing, but my aunt said some guy had been looking through the window. Yeah, and so?

It's not unusual to peer into a crowded place; I do it because I want to see if I'm missing something. But my dad took it personally for some reason and it was disturbing to see that old time rage coming back.

We simmered him down and enjoyed out dessert. When we were ready to go, I led my dad out to the bar and had him stand in a corner while I got our coats.

The Summer's Gone, and All the Flowers are Dying

It was tough, as I waited for the coat check girl, watching my dad stand in the corner, old and frail, looking lost and confused, while younger people yelled and laughed around him. I was worried some drunk would bump into him and knock him over. He's not the wild rover any more.

I was getting angry at these boozing idiots, didn't they see that old man right behind them? But honestly they weren't doing anything to him; they were just having a good time.

We walked my dad through a blistering wind to my sister's car and got him home. Then my sister went to a few local places in a fruitless search for Irish music.

I think St. Patrick's Day is being watered down and the old songs are being slowly forgotten. I hope I'm wrong, but I feel like the day is being reduced to green beer and plastic shillelaghs and precious little else.

At the end of "The Wild Rover" the narrator says he'll go back home to his parents and beg for their forgiveness. He sings, "And, when they've caressed me as oft times before,I never will play the wild rover no more."

I never did much roving, much to my regret, and my dad is all we have left. I'd give anything to have my parents caress me again, like they did when I was child. But I know I was lucky to have them for as long as I did.

You could call it the luck of the Irish.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Very Idea

Sometimes I wonder why I bother.

All right, that's a lie. Of course I know why I bother, but I need to toss a little self-pity around first, the way a sumo wrestler throws around a handful of sand before a match.

My latest crisis du jour started off innocently enough last week when I had what I thought was a four-alarm genius idea for a screenplay.

I get ideas or pieces of ideas all the time but rarely do they slide into my head with the ease and simplicity of this particular gem.

I was riding the No. 3 train back to Brooklyn listening to the various lines of thought rattle and criss-cross through my skull when this idea came to me, and, I'm telling you, it was a beaut.

I told my shrink about it and he is an aspiring writer, too, and he liked it so much he promised not to steal it. I'm not going to relate the idea here, but, trust me, it was sweet. Or so I thought.

Okay, a few days go by, it's Wednesday and I'm working from home because Mary, my dad's aid, is sick with a sinus infection and I skip over to my home-away-from-home page,, a.k.a. the Internet Movie Database.

This site has every pertinent fact about every movie or T.V. show ever made. Every name is linked, so if want to find out more about a particular actor, writer, director, sound guy or caterer, all you have to do is click on to the name and you're on your way.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

It's a movie freak's best friend and worst nightmare. Once I log on to that site, I can't seem to get out it. I'll check out one person and then I'll see another actor or screenwriter and I'll click on his or her name and before you know it I've gone down the rabbit hole and two hours have gone by.

I like to tell people--and myself--that I watch very little T.V. That's true, but if I'm spending all those hours surfing the net, dredging up tons of "information," the vast majority of which I will not retain for more than a day, well, hell, why not park my keester in front of the boob tube with a bag of Cheetos and waste time the old fashioned way?

But that's for another time. On this particular day I was tracking down the career of a TV actor I like when I found a short film he did in 1999 and read the plot summary. And there it was: my screenplay idea with someone else's name on it.

All right, let's get real. If you going to write, you have to be ready for this kind of thing. It's a rite (write?) of passage, really, a reminder that there are other brains out there, other voices trying to be heard.

But this one really hurt. This story was so me I didn't think there was any way I'd lose it to someone else. I was so hot on this idea, my first attempt at a romantic comedy and it was born, dead and buried in under a week. My poor little ego was battered, as I assumed that only a genius like me could come up with a script as great as this.

Apparently not. It felt like I was in a circus tent and someone just kicked away the pole. I'm flapping around here in the dark looking for something else to prop up all this billowing canvas.

I didn't do much the rest of that day in the way of writing. I surfed the net even more, only I didn't try to make up excuses for doing it, like calling research while looking at the "Girls Gone Wild" site. I just did it and hated myself for it. I am a good Catholic boy, after all.

I crawled into work the next day and kept my head low. I felt overwhelmed by everything--my job, the looming tax deadline, outstanding bills--everything looked like an insurmountable problem to me and when I put them together it seemed like all the dark forces of the universe were aligning to make me miserable.

Now I suspect this viewpoint may be a little severe. I don't think the gods are clearing their appointments just so they can play bean bag with my sorry ass. But it makes me wonder why I should bother being a writer.

I've never had any of my fiction published nor a screenplay produced. Why go on torturing myself?

So I look at the alternative: come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. Repeat until death. know, that's not really doing it for me either.

I went back to my shrink and we talked about a similar experience he had while writing his thesis. His advisor esstentially told him he could either jump off a bridge or get to work on something else. I'm afraid of heights, so I don't think I'll be doing any gainers off the Verrazzano any time soon.

At the very least, I'm glad I didn't write the complete screenplay. All I have is a page or two of notes and snatches of dialog, so it's not like I poured my life into this thing.

And there's still some material here that I like: my hero's life of misery at a dead end job, his exchanges with his crew of loser friends--these scenes are all well-written, if I do say so myself. And it looks like I'll have to say so myself at this rate.

Say A Little Prayer

On Friday I was feeling a little better and I got into the office to do my morning ritual.

I file a story every night and I'm always concerned that I've made a mistake or missed something and I'll be greeted with a steaming pile of vicious e-mails when I switch on my computer at work.

I always carry my mother's mass card, which bears an image of St. Martin de Porres. I prop the card up in front of my computer, praying that, please, please let there be no mistakes in today's story.

I screwed up one item big time and I had people writing the most brutal things, like I was deliberately trying to mislead them. Get a grip, losers, if I wanted to screw you over I could do much worse.

These nightly stories are real grinders: short hits about various companies that are really the business reporter's equivalent of the police blotter. I'm on a tight deadline and I'm not what you call a natural business writer.

I shouldn't pray for this kind of thing. World peace, famine relief, the end of the Bush Abomindation, these are all things worthy of prayer, but asking for divine intervention on a job, in a business where mistakes are a part of the game, well, that seems like an all mighty waste of the Almighty's time.

But I still do it. On Fridays I pray especially hard, telling the Lord that I really wanted to enjoy my weekend and no worry about whether or not I'll have a job on Monday morning.

This Friday I set up my St. Martin mass card when I spotted a business card on my desk. It turned out to be my shrink's card, though why it was on my desk, I don't know, but I inadvertently (are you getting this all down, Sigmund?) set it next to St. Martin.

For a second I was worried someone would see my shrink's card and spread the word around the office that I was a psycho. But I liked the juxtaposition of the Catholic saint and the Jewish therapist, forming my own little altar. How can I lose?


On Saturday, I wailed my problems to my bud Hank, who could probably charge me for therapy sessions for all the whining I do whenever we hook up. First he reminded me that I've gone down this road before, with me complaining about losing an idea, and then he told me that an idea is one thing, but the execution of it is quite another.

There are plenty of movies about relationships, he said, but that ones that stand out have something that draws people to them. And, of course, he's right.

We had gone to see this Russian fantasy film called Night Watch, which was a trip. The filmmakers tried much too hard to make the thing look "cinematic" but it had more raw energy in it that the last five films I've seen put together.

I got a little head start on the entertainment. While waiting for Hank outside the theater, two middle-aged man on the ticket line started shouting and cursing in each other's faces.

They were nose-to-nose, spewing rage in all directions. One man was with his teen-age son and the other was with a woman I assumed was his wife, who kept trying to pull him away.

I'm not sure what the problem was, but I think one man said something about a parking space, indicating this bout may have been a road rage incident carried over to the pedestrian world.

Whatever the cause, it was very disturbing, and while I'm sure these men both thought they were "standing their ground," they looked ridiculous. And one of them wound up sitting in front of us. Hey, maybe there's a script here...

I met up with my other bud, Sal, who wants to make a movie based on a one-act play I did. Sal is so full of drive and positive energy he just about glows in the dark. I read a quote today that said "genius without hard work is worthless" and Sal is the living embodiment of these words.

You can shoot Ben-Hur in your head, but if you don't get up off your rear end and starting making contacts, shopping your idea around and even bugging people when they don't want to talk to you, you great idea will never leave your cranium.

Sal is out there non-stop, doing whatever he has to do to turn his dream into reality. A few hours with him, combined with Hank and, of course, the shrink, and I'm ready to jump back into the snake pit.

So, yeah, I do know why I bother: because it would bother me a hell of a lot more if I didn't bother, if I gave up and watched reality shows and crime dramas until they carted me off to the old age home. I'll work on other scripts and stories and whatever else and I'll keep going until I find the right combination to get my work out there.

And if that doesn't work, there's always sumo wrestling. Wonder how I'd look in one of those little diapers.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Death in the Family

My Uncle Mike died this week and we still haven't told my father.

He was the youngest child in my dad's family--just as I am the youngest in my family, but the similarity ends there, or at least I hope it does.

Mike died in a V.A. hospital in Californina. I knew things were bad when my Aunt Margaret told me last week that she was flying out to visit him.

Margaret never flies, always chosing an ocean liner through the Panama Canal rather than getting on board a jet.

My Uncle Joe in L.A. called me Saturday morning to tell me the news. He said Mike seemed to be alert when they first to see him this week, but was kind out of it when they went to see him again. Joe suspected Mike was lit--drunk--in his hospital bed, meaning someone was sneaking him booze.

I thought this was a little outlandish until I spoke to my brother in San Francisco, who told me he stopped visiting Mike in the hospital for that very reason: Mike kept bugging him to bring in a bottle.

Mike was the closest thing my dad's family had to a black sheep. He did things his way, just like Frank Sinatra, and abused himself with cigarettes, alcohol, and God knows what else, so that the truly amazing thing about his death is the fact that he lived to be 76 years old.

He did just about everything to his body but throw it under a speeding locomotive. God protects fools and drunkards, but I guess even He gets tired.

My father was determined to make some kind of character of Mike, "my kid brother" as he liked to call him. My mother couldn't stand him and insisted upon calling him by his given name of Hubert.

Mike had a pet wolf, which ran off on him one day, much to his sorrow. Mike apparently dated Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary fame. And Mike told me a novelist once created a character called "Father Lenihan" in Mike's honor and put him into a book.

Mike even told me once to join the Merchant Marine, like he had done, and then he showed me his sailing papers, kept up to date, he said, as his "escape plan" in case the world of landlubbers ever got to be too much.

I have to be honest. I never cared for Mike. I know you shouldn't speak ill of the dead and I am truly sorry for his pain, but I can't say too many good words about the guy.

In Mike's world view, everybody was full of crap but him. Teachers, politicians, union leaders, just about anyone who came into his sights. Most of these people probably are full of crap, but Mike never seemed to offer anything better, just wisecracks and disdain.

My father liked to tell a story about Mike's experience as a paratrooper, when he broke his leg while making a jump in Korea and was sent back to the States--one week before the Korean War broke out. That was Mike all over.

Ride, Captain, Ride

I went to visit my brother in San Francisco for the first time in 1979 and he took me over to Sausalito to visit Mike on his houseboat.

Mike was working on a car when I first saw him and every time the engine refused to turn off he shook his head and said, "well, I'll be dipped in shit."

He also receited some dirty ditty that ran, "the French they are a funny race, they fight with the feet and fuck with the face." Yeah, I guess he was a character.

I remember the houseboat being rather rundown, not quite the floating palace I had imagined.

He did make a great sandwich for lunch, though, and I mentioned I was going to take a ferry tour around San Fransisco Bay. Oh,no, he said, he had a friend with a sailboat who would gladly give me a much better tour.

So that's what I did. We got on board this small sailboat and went right under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was great and it beat hell out of riding around on some tourist tub.

Mike and one of his buddies--a grizzled old timer who looked like a prospector from an old western--told me they actually knew the captain of the tourist ferry, who had earned the nickname "Cap'n Crunch" because he somehow managed to crush a parked Volkswagen while docking the massive vessel.

And Cap'n Crunch made an appearance that afternoon. At one point the ferry rolled by us and Mike and his buddy jumped up and down waving and shouting "Hey, Bernie!"--apparently the Cap'n's real handle--and then we were bouncing like a cork in the ferry's wake. I can't swim so that was a little disturbing to me.

Mike gave me the wheel and went out to the bow and when he asked me to turn, I guess I did it too hard because Mike was suddenly went staggering dangerously close to the edge of the boat.

We made it back to port, however, and had a spaghetti dinner at someone's house, though I can't remember whose place it was. I remember that the spaghetti was good, though.

A few years later Mike set up a job for me at a school for me in San Francisco. I had been an English tutor in college and I had expressed an interest in moving out west.

However, when faced with the possibilty of actually doing something I had talked about for ages, I did what I usually do in such cases--I bailed. I told the lady running the school that I had changed my mind and would not be moving out of Brooklyn.

Mike was livid, called me an asshole, and he was probably right. He was one of those people who could pick up and take off for parts unknown and always end up all right, but I was always afraid of going hungry and winding up on a park bench.

Calling Long Distance

Years later I talked to my shrink about this and he asked me why I didn't go to California. I was young, I could have quit or gotten a new job out there or I could have moved the hell back to Brooklyn if I felt like it. But I didn't. I stayed frozen in place like I so often do.

Mike would call my father on occassion and my mother would always roll her eyes when she realized who was on the other end of the line. If my father noticed her disgust, he didn't say anything about it.

I think the next time I saw Mike was he came back east to attend his son's funeral, sometime in in the late Eighties, I think, but I'm not certain. Mike had married a French Canadian woman years before and had two kids before the marriage went south.

I met them in 1967 when my family drove up to Montreal on vacation. I remember my cousin Claude as being a serious young boy who showed us his microscope and slides. He was a nice kid; too bad I never saw him again.

No, it seems like I just blinked and Claude was a young man, dead on a Montreal street from a drug overdose. I still remember the little boy, though, in his bedroom, so proud of his microscope.

Mike stopped by our place in Brooklyn before heading north. I recall the place stunk of booze and cigarettes, as everything did when Mike was around.

Mike knew my desire to write fiction and upon his return from Canada he told me this story about how he was riding on the bus and had a wet dream--ejaculating and creating life, he told me, even while having to face death.

I've yet to work that story into any of my fiction, but I may yet. At the time, however, I was rather creeped out by the whole thing.

One Last Time

On my next visit to San Francisco, my brother suggested I go across the bay and see Mike. I was reluctant to go, but then I got really ticked when my brother said I was going alone.

He would take me to the ferry and pick me up at the end of the day, but I was going in to this thing solo. Like hell I was. I refused and I got so mad at one point I suggested that the next time my brother came to New York he could go down to the Bowery and visit those drunks.

I learned my sister-in-law wasn't fond of Uncle Mike either. While she was pregnant with my niece, Mike decided to tell her how he was tempted to run out of the hospital after his first child was born. Just what an expectant mother likes to hear.

I didn't go to see Mike that year, but I made up for it a few years later. I had a rented car then and after meeting with the editor of the Santa Rose Press Democrat--I didn't get the job--I drove into Sausalito and spent the afternoon with Mike and his girlfriend or wife, or whatever she was.

I think Mike called me Jimmy at one point, which is my brother's name, but I didn't take it personally. It was the last time I saw him alive.

After that Mike was mostly a slurred voice on the telephone. I heard a story about him being pulled over by a young cop, who asked my uncle if he was drunk.

"Don't be fucking stupid," Mike replied, "of course, I am."

My father said Mike was in danger of going to the slammer for all his drunken driving offenses.

Let me say here that I have no tolerance for drunken drivers. After working for five years as a cop reporter in Pennsylvania and covering some horrific crashes, I can tell you that a drunk behind the wheel can do more damage than a truckload of dynamite.

But Mike somehow avoided the joint and was, for a time, actually consuling other alcholics. His health eventually gave out and for a while he was calling us collect from the V.A. hospital.

Now he's gone and we're faced with this dilema of whether or not we should tell my father. My dad is 84 and suffers from Alzheimer's. Part of me is saying, hell, the guy doesn't need any more bad news. But I feel he has the right to know what happened to his kid brother.

Most of my family is in favor of not telling him, so I guess I'll keep my mouth shut, but I'm not comfortable with it. I feel like I'm censoring the news, even if it only applies to one person.

No, I didn't much care for Mike, but the least I can do is say a prayer for the man who took me sailing around San Francisco Bay so many years ago.