Friday, June 23, 2006

This Gentle Night


They say you should record your dreams, though I had nightmare this week that I would surely love to forget.

It was a sneaky bastard, coming to me sometime after dawn, like the milkman, instead of the usual dead of night routine, and it shook me right down to my ankles.

I woke up around 4 AM, feeling fully rested, and decided to get a few hours more sleep before getting up for work. Big mistake.

It seems like the second I closed my eyes I was in the middle of this hell dream. I was on the couch watching as my father slowly collapsed to the floor of our dining room.

In the dream I ran by my late mother, who was sitting on a chair in the living room and did not look up when my dad fell. She was alive and healthy in the dream, and appeared to be watching TV, though I don't recall it being on.

It was like I was running through time, racing through the past, represented by my mother, to my dad lying there on the floor.

I ran over to my father, tried to get him to talk to me, and then I called for an ambulance. Only the phone in the living room didn't work.

Nor does the one in the kitchen, or the one in my bedroom. By the time I reached the third phone I was at the breaking point, and I put my head back and wailed, "what the fuckkkkkkk...!!"

I remember kneeling down beside him, trying to reach the outside world as I tended to my father. I felt so incredibly helpless I just to scream my head off.

I woke up then, sweating despite the air conditioner. That had to be the most vivid nightmare I've had in years.

This dream just didn't sprout of nothingness, of course; nightmares never do. I've been having trouble with my phone for the last few days and I've been forced to rely on the cell.

My dad's health is frail and we had that business earlier in the week where we had to truck him out to the hospital for the colonscopy. I must confess, though, I am a little surprised how it all came back so quickly and powerfully.

My shrink tells me that when you dream, you are everyone and everything in the dream. Applying that theory to this nightmare, then not only am I the son, but I am also the dying father, the-briefly-seen mother; I'm even the broken telephones, an image I could do without.

I told my aunt about the dream the next day and she reminded me that I'll be facing this situation in the near future. At some point, my father is going to need an ambulance and I'll have to keep my cool, even if the phones go out.

I remember having this sort of waking nightmare when I was a kid. My father was in bed with me and I was looking at the window, where I was certain I could see the shape of a man, standing on the inside ledge.

He had no features, everything was obscured by shadows. I was certain he was there and I kept saying "Daddy, there's a man on the ledge," and my father, half-asleep, assured me there wasn't.

I even used that dream in a novel I wrote years ago and never sold. I called him the Window Man, and he foreshadowed the villian's arrival. I may bring him back for a return engagement.

I used to dream a lot more when I was younger. I had a cable movie channel in my head, crammed with weird images and bizarre characters. I often woke up yelling, or my siblings would tell me they heard me shouting in my sleep. I rarely remembered any of the details.

I thought I could handle the film version of The Exorcist but the thing had a delayed reaction on my nervous system and wound up costing me a night's sleep.

I had enjoyed the book and so when the picture came out my mother and I went to the old Fortway Theater to see it. My mom loved horror movies, but she was more old school; Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, that crew. She was not prepared for the twisting heads, flying pea soup, and assorted mayhem that went on during this flick.

Sweet Dreams of Made of This

When the movie ended my mother was so drained by what she had seen, I literally had to lift her of the seat and lead up the aisle of the theater. People coming in for the next show stopped dead in their tracks and stared my mother, clearly wondering, what the hell kind of movie am I going to see?

I later joked that I should have struck a deal with the manager, where I walked my mother around the theater a few times to draw in more customers. Of course, that might have driven them away instead.

When I got my mother into the house, she stood in the kitchen and loudly declared, "I am a shadow of my former self!"

Eventually my mother calmed down and we all went to bed. Then I get the brilliant idea of digging up the novel and re-reading parts of it and comparing them with the movie. Oh, that did it. I gradually realized I had a right proper job of scaring the living crap out of myself.

In the horror story pantheon, I find demonic possession particularly frightening. The idea of myself or someone I love being taken by an evil spirit, forced to do horrible things, just terrifies me.

You can't just drive a stake through their hearts, like Dracula, because you wind up killing your loved one while the demon escaped. I worry about the important stuff, don't I?

I lay in the top bunk of the bed I shared with my brother, unable to sleep a wink. I got my radio, put it up against my ear and listened to some soft-spoken late night host spread good thoughts. He said if you were feeling blue, you should call out someone's name and say, "share with me this gentle night." And he said often that person will come to you in the real world.

Yes, it sounds touchy-feely, but I was such a basket case that night I would have done anything to shake the fear that gripped me. So I said the name of this girl who had broken up with me, who had done me wrong, who had only gone out with me because she had a crush on my then-best friend, a no-good lowlife in his own right.

But I thought I was in love and I missed her, so I whispered "Mary, share with me this gentle night." I did it a few times, and I gradually fell asleep. When I woke up the world had gone back to it's usual mundane self and I had to go to school. I never heard from Mary and I can't say I'm sorry, but she, or at least my image of her, got me through those awful dark hours.

The Exorcist came out, oh, sweet Jesus, 33 years ago. I guess Mary is married with kids of her own, long out of my life and that's the way I want it. She was a lot like the Window Man, a figment of my imagination.

I have real concerns in my life and I can't wallow in the past. But the power of nightmares can be scarier than anything Hollywood ever cooked up.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

All Clear


Father's Day came a little late this year, as we found out today my dad does not have cancer.

He had his colonoscopy today and despite the dire predictions of his regular physician--a 70% chance of cancer--my dad came away with a reasonably clean bill of health, given his age.

Or, as the old man used to say when he was much younger, "you're in good shape for the shape you're in."

I will now take this opportunity to say that I was wrong to think we shouldn't have ordered the test. I thought the stress would be too much and not worth the effort since he's in no condition for surgery or chemo. Now that it's over, I see the value in having all the answers instead of just guessing.

What's causing the weight loss and the incontinence? I don't know. The specialist thinks my father's medication may be causing all the misery with his guts. I suppose they'll be more testing, but at least we eliminated one big question mark.

The Night Before the Day After

Father's Day was quiet around my house. My sister came over with a movie--My Left Foot, with Daniel Day Lewis--and we ordered my dad's last decent meal for the next 36 hours. I couldn't help but wonder how many more Father Days we'd have with him. We told him that he was going in for the test and that the next day would entail nothing but Jello and laxatives.

For those of you who've had to prep for a colonoscopy, you know what it's like, and for those of you who haven't, well, you'll find out soon enough. Take it from me, it's not pleasant, but after the first hour or so, everything calmed down.

My father went to bed, my sister came over to help me out and we wound up watching two solid hours of "Hell's Kitchen." Ugh, I'm so ashamed.

I had to take the day off from work the next day and I woke up feeling irritable and nervous. I had a flashback to this day when I was about 10 or 12 years old, when my father insisted on moving my prized stamped collection. I forget the details, but I remember he was hitting me or yelling at me the whole day.

I recalled what a violent, vicious bastard my father could be and I guess my subconscious was dredging up these ugly memories to fuel my resentment at having to go through all this grief just so he could get the exam.

But whoever my father was in the past, that man is long gone, and a frail, elderly, sick man has taken his place. I would like to think a mature adult has taken mine, but I'll leave judgment to others.

Mary, my dad's aid, and I had to take him over to St. Vincent's Hospital in Staten Island for the test. My mother died in that hospital in 2002 and I can't say I missed the place, as it was a second home for me and my family while we took turns visiting my mother.

We had a car service driver come over and pick us up at noon. I figured we were in for trouble when the driver, a rather clueless Middle Eastern fellow, asked me if I knew where hospital was. I gently explain to him, why, no, numb nuts, I'm relying on you to know where the hell we're going.

So we set off over the Verrazzano, while the driver called the home base on his radio and asked for directions in a mix of Arabic and English. As a grandchild of immigrants, I support everyone's right to legally work in the United States.

However, as a consumer and guy with places to go, I don't want to deal with a driver who can't find his ass with his two hands and a roadmap.

We saw parts of Staten Island I didn't know existed. We went narrow dead end streets, we asked everyone we saw where the hospital was and seemed to get different directions every time.

My driver got on the radio again and I heard the guy at the home base give directions in Arabic and end it off in English by saying, "it's very easy." I wish that guy had been our driver.

Follow That Cab

I confess I was getting angry. I don't like that side of myself, but there is no excuse for dragging us over hill and dale. And the true irony here is that had my father been a little younger he could have directed us to the hospital with his eyes closed and relying on his famous unerring sense of direction.

But that knowledge of the city's streets and avenues is fading, now unreliable. The landscape has changed so much he'd probably feel like a foreigner in a new country. Sort of like our driver.

We finally got the hospital and the driver apologized for his abysmal performance. I just wanted to get out of the car and I told Mary to call the company and told them not to send Wrong Way Corrigan for the return trip.

Then we took my father upstairs where I put him in the dressing gowns and let the team do their work. I was nervous he would not survive the exam, that I had missed something in the prep that would lead to my father's death or injury.

I was ready for a long day. I had packed a bag with a book, the Times, a notebook, and fresh under garments for my dad just in case. Mary and I went down to cafeteria where we had the worst vegetable soup on God's green earth.

I suspect the guys painting the second floor lobby might have accidentally dumped a can of turpentine into the soup bowl because this stuff was vile. I guess the hospital wants more customers.

I remembered that my dad, my sister, and I actually had our Thanksgiving dinner here one year when my mother was hospitalized. We went to see her and came down here to eat, because we didn't want to go to a restaurant while my mother was stuck in St. Vincent's.

For some reason I was in a good mood that day. I guess we had come so close to losing my mother earlier that year that it was great to still have her around. Despite the dismal surroundings, the awful circumstances, and the cardboard turkey, I was happy and I was actually singing "Home for the Holidays" until my sister rolled her eyes.

That's It?

Mary and I went back upstairs and discovered the show was over. My father was finished, the doctor had gone, and there was so sign of cancer. My dad had survived, I hadn't accidentally bumped him off, and he was in the recovery room trying to feel up the nurse.

We went downstairs to wait for the car service to send us a driver. While I sat with my father in the waiting room, this elderly woman with dyed black hair was struggling with her shopping bag.

The cap had come off her water bottle and I offered to take the thing outside and dump it out. On the way back in, I got some paper towels out of the men's room and wiped the thing dry.

"You're a sweetheart," she said. "What's your name?"

"Robert," I said, going formal.

"Do I know you?"

I guessed she wanted to know me and I explained I had spent a lot of time around the hospital during my mother's illness. I told her my mother had died and the lady showed me a medal she had around her neck with the name "Carl" engraved on it.

"My son died at 42," she said. "He had an aneurysm. His wife came home and found him dead."

"How are you now?" I asked, meaning why she was visiting the hospital today, but she read it another way.

"You never get over losing your son," she said.

We chatted for more minutes and then she and her friend went their way. It's amazing how many stories are out there if you just take the time to listen. And these people, they're not glamorous, or wealthy, or particularly lucky. They're just doing their best with what life has given them. And so often, they are invisible.

Mary rapped on the window, indicating our car had arrived. I got my father out the front door, where I had stood sobbing in my sister's arms four years ago upon learning of my mother's death.

"Guess what?" Mary asked.

I looked and saw it was the same goofball driver who had taken us to Staten Island by way of Belgium. I was about to lose it, but I figured he must have consulted a map since we had last spoke. And, honestly, I was feeling a little ashamed of my bad temper on the ride over.

We got my dad in the car and I slid into the passenger's seat.

"You know where you're going now, boss?" I asked gently.

"Yes," he said.

That's all I had to hear. We're in good shape. For the shape we're in.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

By Any Other Name

How many different expressions are there for the word "vomit"?

One thousand? One million? When faced with the ugly things in this world, we poor mortals come up with colorful descriptions to lessen their impact. Just look at all the synonms for death.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote a classic science fiction story called "The Nine Billion Names of God," where these monks in Tibet dedicate their lives to compiling a list of all the terms for the Almighty. Once they're done, they believe, the universe will end.

I think there are probably even more terms for reverse peristalsis and I suspect those monks would be very busy if they took on this little project.

How many can you--pardon the expression--come up with? Upchuck, hurl, barf, heave, puke, chunder, Technicolor yawn, praying at the porcelain altar, tossing your cookies, losing your lunch--shall I go on? No, I don't think so.

I got to thinking about this rather unpleasant subject today as I headed back to the office from my lunchtime gym session. As I was walking up Wall Street, I saw a man hunched over a trash bin, assuming the all-too-familiar position of a guy who had just thrown up.

A drunk, drug addict, somebody on the way down; you see a lot of that in a big city and you learn to ignore it because you pretty much have to. But as I got closer, I saw that he was well-dressed for a homeless man and then realized I knew him.

A Friend in Need

He's a co-worker of mine, I'll call him Sam, and he'd looked ready to keel over. His eyes were sunk deep in his head, his face was a terrible shade of white. It was frightening to see him like this.

Sam is a great guy; funny, talented, and helpful. He recently became the father of a little girl and he talks about her often. He pals around with three or fourth other guys in the office in this little crew and their banter is always entertaining.

They go through more pop culture references than a Tarantino film festival--80's hits, gangster movies, old TV shows, they'll find a way to work it into the conversation. Usually these little office cliques can be annoying and exclusive, but these guys will let anyone join in and I never get tired of listening to them.

Sam is also a cancer patient. From what I understand, he's been undergoing treatment for some time now. I don't have all the details as I don't know him well enough to ask him those sort of questions. I do know there's a history of cancer in his family and he's told me about his concern for his daughter's health down the road.

As I was walking toward him, not quite believing what I was seeing, he looked up and we locked eyes. Sam seemed surprised and embarrassed, and you could hardly blame him.

I wished I could have backed up the last few seconds and found another way to get back to work, but it was too late. So I approached him.

"Sam? Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he nodded weakly. "It happens sometimes with the treatment. You get sick."

I asked him if he needed any help and he shook his head, trying to make a joke out of it.

"No, no," he said. "Nothing to see here, nothing to see here."

I took the hint and headed back to the office. No one wants to be seen at such an awful time and the fact that Sam had become violently ill at lunch time in the heart of the financial district seemed particularly cruel.

You might as well put him on the Jumbotron at some crowded baseball stadium. Sometimes there is just no dignity in this life.

As I walked to my building, I saw two patches of Sam's vomit on the sidewalk, a CSI trail of evidence that his guts had betrayed him just as he left the office. Two young men ahead of me made a big show about almost stepping in the puke, yelling, jumping to one side and shaking their heads in disgust.

I wanted to tell them to shut up, that something very bad was happening to one of my co-workers, a good man who deserved better than their scorn. This wasn't some bum on a three-day bender, or some drunken high roller losing his three-martini lunch. This was someone I knew struggling with a horrible disease.

But, of course there was no way they could have known what was going on and I'm sure if I were in their place I wouldn't have acted much differently.

I rode up the elevator feeling ashamed of myself. All the times I've played the martyr, whined about my bad luck and my bad health, and why does this always happen to me.

I've had a lot of problems with my health over the years, but nothing that even begins to compare to what Sam is going through. I suffered from chronic fatigue for many years and that led to some serious depression.

Mr. Pitiful

Oh, God, the time and energy I've wasted complaining. And all the pain and suffering I cause my family as they watched me tear myself apart.

I said and thought some pretty stupid things back then, actually wishing I were dead. All I can do is plead insanity, because that's what I was during my worst moments of illness--insane.

Just imagine if you had to go through what Sam is going through right now, I scolded myself. Do you think you'd have half of his courage?

And here's a man who is several years younger than I am, with a wife and child, while I'm single, childless and likely to remain that way. It's like I feel guilty for not being in his place, that he somehow has more of a right to good health than I do.

I know this is unhealthy thinking, a kind of negative egomania, where somehow other people's problems get tied up with my mental state. But I've gotten better over the years and I've been able to turn off the flow of negativity.

I get so nutty about my health that every time I'd hear someone had a cold or flu, I'd instantly pray, oh God, don't let me catch this bug. Last year I tried something different. I tried asking God to help the sick person first, to make them feel better. And that gave me more comfort than my own self-serving pleas.

There's a running bit in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, where no one in the hero's family can actually say the word "cancer" out loud. Everytime the subject comes up, their voices suddenly drop to a whisper. Hell, I don't like even typing the word.

There's a good chance my father may have cancer and we're finally taking in for the colonscopy next week. I'll be taking Tuesday off from work so I can go with him and Mary, his aid, to St. Vincent's Hospital in Staten Island. He's been losing control of his bowels and dropping weight for sometime now and it's frightening to see the clothes hang off him now.

One of the many things he and my mother used to fight about--and it didn't take much to set them off--was my father's overeating. He's had a gut for most of the time I can remember and he's always eaten anything he can his face around. Now he can skip meals and not say a word.

If he does have cancer, there's not much we can do. I seriously doubt that he can stand chemotherapy. But his doctor feels that there's a slim chance that my father's incontinence might be a result of his medication and if we can find out the truth and improve his quality of life, than all the grief will have been for a good cause.

I'm dreading these tests, as I know they will take a terrible toll on my father. And I'd be a liar if I said I'm not thinking about the difficulty of getting to and from the hospital. And whenever the subject of cancer comes up, it's hard not to think about your well-being. There are no rules, no protective force field around you or your loved ones, keeping the disease at bay. It's just luck.

Seeing Sam today reminded me how lucky I've been and how I have to use whatever time I have on this earth in a constructive way.

I hope to God that Sam gets better and that my father does not have cancer. And I hope I'll have the strength to face whatever happens without falling apart or wailing about my luck and doing the poor me routine.

It's not poor me, after all. It's lucky me.

Monday, June 12, 2006

It Happened On Thompson Street


When I was a kid, my father always used to brag about his "unerring sense of direction."

Time after time, when we were on vacation, or out for a daytrip, my father would find shortcuts to our destination, getting us around traffic, construction sites, natural disasters and other obstacles.

And always, as we emerged from some tiny sideroad, a few miles away from wherever we were going, he would sit tall in the driver's seat and say, "once again, my unerring sense of direction has found the way."

No, he's not a modest man and his boasting about his sense of direction got to be annoying as well as unerring.

It did seem impressive, though, at least to a child. My father appeared to have some kind of sixth sense or radar to guide him through unknown territory.

There are some aspects of my father's personality that I don't want or would like to get rid of, but one thing I know I did not inherit and could sorely use today is--yes, that's right--his unerring sense of direction.

I don't know where the hell I'm going; ask me for directions you won't either. I should take that bumper sticker that says "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost" and plaster it across my forehead.

I take after my mother. Whenever she tried to figure where we were, my father would shake his head wearily and say, "Gloria, if ever there's a war, and I'm a general, you won't be a scout!"

Growing up, my heart would sink as people would call me over to their cars and ask me for directions. Why me, I would think, all these people on street and you decide I'm the one to lead you salvation? Do I look like I know where I'm going?

But rather than just say "I don't know," and keep going, I'd walk over to the car, feeling compelled to blurt something, so I wouldn't look stupid.

The strange things is that, at the time, I always thought I was giving the correct directions. Then, as the car pulled away and the hapless driver disappeared from my vision, and probably from the face of the earth, it would suddenly come to me. No, not that way, go the other way. But by then it was too late.

I used to joke that the Missing Persons Bureau must have a whole division working to find the people who took my directions. I remember one time, I was about 13, I guess, and this car load of people from the midwest--Kansas, Missouri, somewhere like that--waved me over to ask for directions.

These people looked and sounded so out of place in Brooklyn it bordered on parody. They were looking for the Staten Island ferry, but since we were in Bay Ridge, with the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge a few miles down the road, I suggested they forget the ferry and head over the bridge if they were so hot to get to Staten Island.

Can't Get There From Here

Later, I realized maybe they had specific reasons to get to the ferry and that I probably sent them off on a colossal detour and huge waste of time and gas.

I'm not much better with landlubbers. My family will ask me where a particular store is and often I can't name the street. I'm like a bat, I just hone in on the place.

It happened again, sort of, the other night, when I saw this couple, obviously tourists, sitting on the R train and looking at a subway map with some confusion as we pulled into Lawrence Street. Dummy that I am, I asked where they were going and they told me Chambers Street.

"Chambers Street?" I asked. "You're going the wrong way. You're in Brooklyn now. You should get off here and head back to Manhattan."

I was in the clear and I should have kept my mouth shut, but I suggested they get off at Whitehall Street. They thanked me and as I watched the subway doors close, I knew something was wrong. I ran halfway down the car, consulted the map on the wall and realized they should go to City Hall.

But by then, naturally, it was too late. I pictured this nice middle-aged couple walking around the Staten Island Ferry Terminal cursing me in German. Mein Gott, why couldn't I mind my own damn business like every other New Yorker?

I've gotten better over the years, in spite of that little setback. I realize it's better to admit I don't know where a particular location is then to spew out bad directions in a desperate desire to be liked by total strangers.

One time I was walking along Houston Street when a guy pulled up to me and wanted to know how to get to the Westside Highway. Well, I don't drive in Manhattan and while I had a vague idea of where he had to go, I didn't want to screw him up.

So I grabbed another pedestrian and asked him if he knew how to get to the Westside Highway. He did, so I introduced him to the first guy. The driver got his directions, the other pedestrian got to feel like a good citizen and I didn't send someone to the side of a milk carton.

I had a similar incident recently after a meet and greet with an online dating partner went south. We had IM'd, talked over the phone and seemed to be getting along, so we set up a date.

Big mistake. Whatever this woman and I had going, it could not survive a flesh-and-blood meeting. The weather worked against us, as a driving rain shut down the 4 and 5 train lines, forcing my date to take the subway downtown to the Starbuck's in Astor Place where I sat reading a piece of the Times.

When she finally did show up, she was wet and uncomfortable. I did my best to put her at her ease, but nothing was working. We had so little in common, I could have leaned over to any other neighboring table and started a higher quality conversation in 10 words or less.

After about 30 excrutiating minutes, she announced that she was leaving. I walked her to the subway station, tried to give her a peck on the cheek--nothing fresh, honestly--and got a piece of her collar.

On The Town

All right, free at last. It's 7 o'clock on a Friday night in the Big Apple. There's got to be something going on. I called my best bud on the cell and asked him where he was.

"I'm in sitting in my apartment in my underwear," he informed me.

Okay. Scratch that. I looked through the film listings, but I don't like going to the movies by myself, not the way I used to. It's just too depressing and it's unlikely I'll meet anyone in the dark.

Well, I wondered around the Village looking for something to do. I swung by the Angelika, but there was nothing I wanted to see and now I was getting hungry. I was walking down Houston Street--yes, there again--when a woman driving by honker her horn.

"Do you know where Thompson Street is?" she asked.

Yikes. It was one of those situations where I did, but I didn't. I should know where Thompson Street is, I know I've been there a million times, and I know, I know in my heart that it's right around here. But I had no idea where.

Salvation came in the form of a man with a huge green umbrella. I flagged him down and tried the Westside Highway routine. Once again, I got lucky, as this man knew exactly where Thompson Street was.

I hung around rather uselessly listening as the umbrella man enlightened the lady in the car. When he was done, everyone thanked each other and we went in three different directions.

By this time, I was wet and tired myself and I began looking around for some place to eat. Nothing was grabbing me and I didn't want to eat alone in a regular restaurant because it screams "loser!" to everyone on the Eastern Seaboard.

I found this little Thai place, where the only customers were two young women, one of whom was blabbing loudly away into her cell phone. Thankfully they left and I had to the place to my self. I had dumplings and pad kee mao and enjoyed every morsel.

I decided to throw in the towel and head home. But first I got the restaurant's business card, so I could actually people the name of the place that I liked so much and then I decided, damn it, I'm going to get the address right, so I marched up to the corner to read the street sign.

I was so proud of myself. Here I was, getting the facts, not reallying on memory, or voodoo, or rock formations. I may not have an unerring sense of direction, but I have enough brains to remember my surroundings.

I stopped at the corner, looked up and read the sign. I was on Thompson Street.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

And That's the Way It Is...


"You must do the things you think you cannot do."
--Eleanor Roosevelt

Katie Couric has nothing to worry about.

I made my web video debut on Tuesday and that 6-6-6 date turned out to be quite fitting. It was hell on earth.

I'm a reporter for an online business news outfit and I've been threatening to do a video commentary for the site for several months.

Part of the problem, aside from cowardice, was the structure of my beat, which is pretty much meatball business journalism.

I write about stocks, any stocks, that are moving dramatically up or down.

Without a "normal" beat, where I cover one industry or sector, it gets hard to know particular companies. In the course of a day, I write about biotechs, mining companies, dotcoms, retailers, and anything else that looks remotely newsworthy.

I had seen other reporters do video spots and I was itching to try it. I had a chance to do live TV while I was at CNNfn.com, but I never took the opportunity and I always regretted it. Now I have a chance to do TV, of sorts, without the terror of going on live.

Ink-Stained Wretch

As a newspaper reporter, I have a built-in dislike for TV reporters. I always hated when they pulled up to a crime or accident scene in their big satellite dish vans, because they got all the attention and usually got it my way.

Nine times out of ten they would take newspaper stories, read them on the air, and pretend it was their “scoop.”

I knew a reporter for the Allentown Morning Call who used to do a dead-on impersonation of a local TV hack. He’d put on this intense mug, grip a phantom microphone, and intone, “behind me are a group of parents and they are...angry!”

I once covered a huge fire at service station in East Stroudsburg. The place was just consumed by the blaze and I could see flames leaping into the air as I drove to the scene.

I got hold of the owner, who, not surprisingly, was in a foul mood. It’s always tough conducting these interviews because every question sounds idiotic. You lost everything? Will you rebuild? Are you pulling an insurance scam?

I got a few quotes, talked to the fire chief and a few witnesses, and high-tailed it back to the newsroom to write my story. That night I watched the 11pm news out of Scranton and there was this pretty young thing telling viewers all about the awful fire in E-burg.

And then the service station owner comes on the screen and, golly, he was just so polite and helpful. He spoke in full sentences, not grunts, like I got, and he never glowered or growled at this cute little woman in the short skirt. Hmmm…do you suppose that had something do with it?

Okay, so that was years ago and I should be over my video bigotry (videotry?). We have a feature section that basically comes up with ways people who have money can burn through it faster.

I did one story about vintage posters, which was a lot of fun, and today they posted my article about expensive fountain pens.

In case you didn't know, you can blow a mess of cash on a freaking pen, if you so desire. I mean, like hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Like Mel Brooks said, it's good to be the king.

Have A Seat...

It was tough writing the story, since my daily routine chews up a lot of time, but I finally finished it, turned it in to my editor and then walked into the studio the way a condemned man walks the last mile.

The studio is slightly bigger than a broom closet and it was hotter than a Turkish bath. I took my seat in front of the teleprompter as Ryan, a young man who helps run the video department, switched on the lights. Ryan, who was great, by the way, did his best to put me at my ease.

Then he turned on the camera.

It was freaky. My voice, fueled by several cans of Diet Coke, came out all fast and wheezy. I had written the script that was now flashing before my eyes, but it suddenly looked like a foreign language.

I stuttered, I stammered, and as I sure as hell did not project, the way my old high school history teacher wanted me to.

The temperature seemed to rise with every word I read. I wanted to run back to my computer and resume my life as a word rat and leave video to the TV star boneheads who can't string two words together unless they're being piped into their ears.

Then it was over. I read the sign off and turned to look at Ryan. God bless him, he said I did a good job and gave me some tips for the future. Out of nowhere, he asked me what I had for lunch that day and we started talking about our favorite foods.

"You see," he said, "that's what it has to be like with you and the camera. You have to have a conversation with the camera."

It was good advice and I walked out of the studio, I swung by the desk of one our top video reporters and whispered, "Greenberg, watch your ass!"

I watched myself today—couldn’t get the sound to work—but from the look on my face you’d swear I had been taken hostage by Iraqi insurgents and was seconds away from my beheading.

The video was nicely assembled, with the Manhattan skyline in the background and images of fine pens appearing on the screen while I spoke.

I take back all the nasty things I’ve said about TV reporters. Well, no, actually, I don’t. I still think most of them are smiling androids with no talent and less brains, but I admit reading that teleprompter is harder than it looks.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Graduate


My niece Kristin graduated from high school yesterday and I still can't believe it.

Like most geezers in my age bracket, I look at the passage of time and say something brilliant like "Oh, my God, I can't believe it!"

I remember the day Kristin was born, back when I was working at a weekly paper in Brooklyn.

The phone rang and I heard my mother's voice on the other end of the line exclaiming, "Robert, you're an uncle!"

"Boy or girl?" I shouted.

"Girl!"

And then I began pounding my fist on the desk, I was so bloody happy. My boss, who was hardly one of my favorite people, let me go out and buy a new outfit for my new niece. And off I went.

I remember seeing Kristin in the hosptial; I remember holding her for the first time when my brother and his wife brought her home, walking back and forth like a guard at Buckingham Palace. I was so nervous, so excited, I didn't know what the hell to do first.

When she got a little older, I stumbled upon a way to make her laugh. I would just get out of my seat, wave my hand and say, "hey!" She sat on my brother's lap, laughing louder and louder each time I did it. That is one of my favorite memories.

I would show her photo to total strangers, I was so proud. I remember riding with her and my brother on an escaltor in a Staten Island mall. Kristin was in her stroller and as we rode up, two teenage girls came riding down.

One girl was completely overcome when she saw Kristin in those brief seconds and she turned to her friend to exclaim, "she's so cute!" And she was.

Now I guess those two teenaged girls have children of their own while Kristin is preparing to head off to Oneonta in the fall where she'll be a freshman--oh God!--in college.

I never married and I don't have children so the happiness of Kristin and Victoria, my niece in San Fransisco, is vitally important to me.

I don't mean to gush on about my little ones, as I'm sure that can get real old, real fast, but I do want to say how lucky I am to have these two angels in my life.

So over the years I watched Kristin grow. She and I used to wrestle on the floor of her home in Staten Island. On Christmas Day, she made a point of pounding on her old uncle. One year she took a bunch of discarded bows and put that atop of my balding head until I looked like a walking gift pile.

One time I was wrestling with her in the living room and when I came into the kitchen, my mother scolded me.

"You make her wild!"

"Oh, sure," I said, all defensive, "make me the villian!"

I had three seconds to play the victim before my niece's voice rolled into the kitchen like a sweet fog.

"Uncle Rooobberrrt...!"

Oh, well...

She and Lisa, her little friend next door, used to get on my back for a double horsey ride--absolute murder on the knees!--and generally run me into the ground. I recall one time sitting quietly in a chair while those Kristin and Lisa buried me in a mountain of dolls.

Every time I put my head up, Lisa would shriek, "Cover his face!" and mash a doll into my mug. I actually had a good time. See what a Catholic education does to you?

Kristin had this adorable way of ruining a birthday surprise for you. Each year she'd walk up to me with a package and declare, "it's a jacket!" or whatever the gift happened to be.

She wasn't being malicious, it was just that she was so young and so excited, she wanted to be the first one to deliver the good news.

I remember the year when she finally understood not to do this, and I poked her ribs, saying, "you want to tell me what this is? Huh? You want to tell me?" She didn't crack.

Then one day I went over to my brother's house and pulled Kristin to my knee. We both looked at each other and we knew that we couldn't do this anymore, that a certain era had come to an end. And, as always, another one began.

Like a lot of kids, Kristin was into hip hop music, and like a lot of adults, I made a fool of myself trying to sound like I was cool. I used to greet her saying stuff like "yo, dog!" and other such nonsense.

"Why are you trying to sound cool?" she asked once during a phone conservation, making it sound like an impossibility.

"Hey," I said. "Nana talks this way. She goes around the house with a baseball cap turned around saying, 'yo, yo, yo.' "

"Nana doesn't talk that way," she said without missing a beat, "and if she did, she would sound cooler than you!"

Yikes. I think I liked it better when she couldn't talk.

The Long March

Kristin had to go through her parents' divorce as my brother moved out of their house to be with a new woman. I know she suffered a lot during the initial break-up and I'm sure she's hurting today, but I think she's strong enough to get around this shock to the system and move on.

So now she's off to high school. I got her a couple of graduation cards on my lunch hour last week. I must confess I was feeling quite sad, as I thought of the time passing, of how my mother would not be here to watch her granddaughter accept her diploma.

And I guess I was going through a little self-pity, recalling when I was Kristin's age and I thought I would always be young. You look at these cards, all extolling the great wonders awaiting young people and you're forced to realize you don't have that kind of potential anymore.

I'm not saying give up and quit--that's just not acceptable. But still, you really are only young once.

Of course my high school graduation was hardly a happy affair. I was a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, a fine school, but not for me. I was struggling with math, as I did every year, and I wound up failing and having to go to summer school.

My mother and I went to the math department chairman in a vain attempt to let me graduate--I didn't sleep at all the night before--but to now avail. And I didn't deserve to pass. I look back and I see I gave up, decided I couldn't do the work and made that prediction come true.

The thing is, I never should have gone to Brooklyn Tech, but my two brothers had gone there ahead of me and my father thought the place was some kind of holy ground that all his sounds had to pass through on their way to manhood. It was a holy nightmare for me.

Forgive me if I've written about this before, but I'll never forget the day my mother and I walked down to the train station at Dekalb Avenue. All the graduates were walking in the opposite direction in their Sunday best.

Even Wendell Love, a hell of a nice guy, who also failed math, was coming into school to attend the ceremony. We exchanged pleasantries and then went our separate ways. God, what a painful memory.

It was strange, I failed calculus, but I was also eligible for advanced placement history. Like the song says, isn't it ironic?

I passed math in summer school and got my goddamn diploma. I just wished I had spent those four years at another school.

I'm glad Kristin didn't have these problems. She was a fine student who worked hard at all her classes and I know she'll do the same once she gets to Oneonta.

I wound up getting two cards for her last week. One was typical graduation number, and the other was more artsy, with the a drawing a bird flying across the sun.

"Fly today," the card read, "soar tomorrow."

That's great advice, for all of us. I wrote Kristin a note inside the card, telling her that she was a blessing to our family and reminding her that Nana must be the proudest person in heaven today.

Keep soaring, sweetheart. Uncle Robert's down here on terra firma, waving his heart out.