Saturday, October 28, 2006
My mother also prided herself on making good us good costumes for Halloween.
She had no use for store-bought outfits, the cheap plastic junk that rolled off some assembly line in Hong Kong.
Oh, no, not when she could whip up something 10 times better with just a needle and thread.
I think the pinnacle of her costume-making career was the one Halloween when she dressed up my sister and me as Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.
My memories of that time have faded, and I have yet to find any photos of us in our outfits, but I do recall distinctly that we were the hit of the neighborhood.
My brother Peter and I used to team up for Halloween. He was older so he was stuck with the job of watching me. We had good times, though. Back then it seemed like the whole world was comprised of three or four blocks, like a small town.
There was streams of kids going from door to door, no parents necessary back then, and we got tons of this godawful stuff that we actually considered a treat (except for the candy corn, which I always hated!) Today I wouldn't even look at that crap, let alone eat it.
We had to be home before it got too late, of course, because the older kids, the bad kids, would come out like vampires and go egging--pelt people, buildings, and cars with eggs. Or they'd spread shaving cream all over you.
The day after Halloween always looked like a war zone with egg shells and dried shaving cream all over the place. It was considered a pretty serious crime back then, but of course, this was years before Columbine.
I also recall pelting each other with socks filled with chalk dust. I don't know if this was a Halloween-specific event, but we usually did it around that time of year. We'd put on old clothes and pound each other, covering our clothers with various colors. It only hurt if someone didn't break up their chalk into small enough pieces.
A lot of Halloween's have gone by and I haven't dressed up in something like 15 years. To be honest, I really don't care much for Halloween.
As I kid I loved the scary movies and, of course, the candy, but as an adult it just leaves me cold. Any magic connected with the day left me when I was about 10 and it never came back.
I don't know, I consider myself a pretty creative person, but when it comes to a Halloween costume, my mind goes completely blank--I have none of my mother's vision.
I tell my friends that I'm the Ebenezer Scrooge of Halloween. You keep it in your way and leave me to keep it mine.
Last night I tried to get into the spirit by going to a haunted house on Union Street in Brooklyn. I didn't think I'd enjoy it, that I was too old for this sort of thing. Maybe I am, but it was good silly fun and I'm glad I went.
My two companions and I actually got a pretty good scare when we got separated from the rest of the group.
It was pitch black in the place and I thought it was part of the show, that we were being cut off for a reason. But no, we were just seriously disoriented.
"They don't know we're here!" one of my friends wailed. "We've got to call somebody!"
Yeah, like who? The fire department? We'll say we're trapped in a haunted house, please come save us. I think I'd prefer to stay lost rather than resort to that.
We were getting pretty antsy when one of the performers finally yanked open a door and shouted "go to your right!" in a ghoulish baritone. I don't often get directions from the living dead, but I decided not to argue.
Of course right and left lose a lot of their meaning when you're in total darkness, but we eventually caught up with the others in our party and emerged from the haunted house alive and reasonably well. I'm glad we didn't call anyone.
Pick A Card...
I took another walk through the spirit world this week when I went looking for some important family papers.
My father is still in the nursing home recovering from a stroke and we have to produce a whole series of documents if we want to admit him as a full-time resident. Naturally, I have no idea where most of this stuff is.
For some reason, they want my mother's death certificate and the deed to her cemetery plot. I have no idea why they want these things, but I also know it is useless to argue. They want it and we have to give it to them.
I thought I'd hit paydirt when I found this weathered envelope from the old Lincoln Savings Bank, where my mother used to work.
However, instead of important papers, the envelope was filled with old mass cards of people who had died years ago. I found the card for my grandfather, my mom's dad, who died when I was less than a year old. There was a card for Monya Donahue, who died in 1975. She was the sister of my then-best friend and she died so terribly young.
There were others: Fiore Vaccaro, August J. DeFazio, Jenny Nelson, my dad's mom, a honor roll of friends and family who have gone on before us. I also found a scapular with images of the Virgin Mary and a title reading "Our Lady of Mount Carmel Pray for Us."
That felt strange, since my mother died on that day, July 16. She was born on Assumption Day and I like to tell people that she came into this life with the Virgin Mary and went out the same way.
My grandmother gave my mom the middle name "Assumpta" to commerate the holy day, except the doctor, who wasn't Italian, put down Susanna on my mother's birth certificate. My mom always said her middle name was Susan.
I found the death certificate in a box under the bureau in the dining room. It's strange to see my mother's name on this form, to see this a loving, vibrant woman, who made children's costumes and loved ceramics, reduced to a name and statistics on sheet of paper. It seems terribly unfair.
There was a small case in the box as well and I knew instantly what it was: a viewfinder with glass slides of my parents' wedding back in 1950.
These slides are incredible. They're actually three-dimensional, and the color is so vibrant, it feels like you walk right into them and join the celebration. Viewing these pictures is like going back in time.
There's a slide of my mother in her wedding dress sitting before a mirror in our house. My aunt is on one side and my mother's reflection looks right at you. She is so young, so beautiful, I can hardly breathe when I look at picture.
Another slide shows my dad pouring my mom a glass of beer at the reception. With the 3-D effect, it feels like you can reach out and pick up one of the rolls on the table and that color is so intense it keeps my parents young and happy forever.
I found a great shot of them standing behind their wedding cake and kissing each other to beat the band. Their marriage had a lot problems, to put it mildly, but that photo is so romantic that I can forget about all the misery that was to follow.
I never realized what a handsome man my father was. Growing up, he was always overweight and slovenly, but in these pictures he is trim and so good-looking, I can see why my mother fell for him.
It's hard to believe he is the same man who is now in a Coney Island nursing home, making obscene comments to the nurses and claiming he's the victim of a conspiracy to keep him at the place. I guess he really isn't the same man anymore, is he?
I saw my grandmother, who died when I was in the fifth grade, smiling as my mom pins a corsage to her dress. Behind them there is a sign on the wall reading "God Bless Our Home." I saw my grandfather, whom I do not remember at all, walking his daughter down the aisle of Our Lady of Angels.
I've heard he wasn't terribly fond of my dad. My father tick grandpa off by calling him "Pop" the first time they met. And anyway, my father was Irish, and that was enough for to rub my old Italian grandfather the wrong way.
There's my Aunt Margaret, dancing with her brother, the groom, and she's smiling ear-to-ear. Margaret's hands are now twisted by arthritis and she needs a walker to get around, so there's no more dancing for her.
And there's my Uncle Mike, my father's brother, and the official black sheep of the family. Mike died earlier this year, but in this photo he's smiling broadly and holding a little girl in his arms. I have no idea who that child is, but I reckon she's probably a grandmother by now.
My parents told me they had a zither player at their reception who did performed the theme to The Third Man, which was very popular back then.
I wrote a novel back in the 80's--no, it wasn't published--that featured an old man who spent his days looking at the slides of his daughter's wedding. The daughter had run-off one day when her son, the hero, was a little boy.
Toward the end of the book, the bad guy barges into the house and breaks all the slides while the old man cries. I made sure that bastard paid dearly for his sins.
I saw the name "Donbar Studio" on the slides and the address of 10 W.47th Street. I googled it, knowing it was highly unlikely the guy who made these slides was still around. I found a place in Strasburg, Va. and I'm tempted to contact them, ask if they ever had a place up here.
So now I'm sitting in the same house where my mother was photographed on her wedding day. I'm the only one here, everyone else has died, or moved away, or, like my father, is in a kind of limbo.
I guess I'm something of a ghost myself now, walking up and down the hallway. Maybe I should put a sheet over my head.
I've done pretty poor job of organizing the family papers, but I am going to take care of these slides. I'll guard them with my life and anytime I feel like visiting my relatives I'll just crack up the case and stop by and say hello.
God bless our home.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
As I was walking through the Stillwell Avenue subway station this afternoon, I saw a sign reading "Tell us your Coney Island story."
There was a photo of Luna Park, the name I took for this blog, and the idea is to preserve Coney Island's rich and rather bizarre history by getting people to share their memories of the place.
I've got plenty of Coney Island stories and on this day I added a new one.
My father is being treated at Saints Joachim and Anne Residences , a rehab facility on Surf Avenue, a few blocks up from the Cyclone, the parachute jump, Nathan's and all those other spots that make Coney Island the unique place it is.
He suffered a stroke last week and after seven days in the hospital we had him moved to this spot just off the boardwalk.
There's a hospital in our neighborhood, but this place has a better reputation and we thinking of putting my dad in there long-term. So it's a longer haul for us, but his health is more important than our commute.
It's depressing, especially when you realize that the Stillwell Avenue station is the end of the line, literally, for several trains. Walking into this facility, it's hard not to think of the word "terminal."
I walked down the hall to my father's room and found his bed was empty. Mr. Panic Button almost went nuts, worried that my father might have died or been taken ill, but when I went back to the day room I found him sitting there at one of the tables in a wheelchair.
"You walked by me," he said.
He was frail and a little confused, but at least he knew me and so I sat down to keep him company for a few hours. The TV was on, blaring the movie Dazed and Confused, (I know, I know) and there were several other patients in the room. Most were sleeping, a few seemed catatonic, and it was all depressing as hell being here with my father.
From the seventh floor you can look out the window and see the ocean, the boardwalk, and Astroland, but no one seemed interested except me.
I never thought I'd have to push my father around in a wheelchair, but that's what I did today. We made several orbits around the seventh floor, until on of the aide's suggested we go to the cafeteria and get some coffee. Maybe we were making her dizzy.
We met a woman on the elevator who turned out to be a nun stationed at a parish in Bay Ridge. Sister Pauline is a native of the neighborhood and she was there visiting her mother, who will turn 100 years old in February.
When I told Sister Pauline my father is a mere 85, she looked over to her mother and shook her head.
"He's too young for you," she said.
Along the Boardwalk
I asked my father if he remembered taking us out to Nathan's when we were kids. He looked puzzled, apparently unable to recall those times, but I'll never forget them. Summer, winter, it didn't matter, my parents would load us up in the car and we'd go down there and load up hamburgers and those sinfully delicious french fries.
This was back before I had ever heard of cholestrol, obesity, or fat content. I just ate like a wild animal. There was something about those fries, I think it was the salt air, but I couldn't get enough of them.
We used to drive over a bridge some place and there was a fruit stand selling watermelons. Every time we drove by, my father would shout in this mock Italian accent, "water-melony!"and I would laugh hysterically every time.
I remember one night this young man came up to our car as we were munching away and said to my dad, "you've got a nice family, I'd love to see mine again someday, can you spare some change?"
I was a child and assumed everybody was honest, so I said, "c'mon, Dad, give him some money." I think he gave the guy a couple of bucks and probably shot me a dirty look.
I didn't realize until years later that the guy was probably running a scam, that there was no family, just a con game that he pulled on the suckers. But he seemed really nice.
One winter afternoon we were walking back to our car and as my father was putting away his change, I saw a 20 dollar bill fly out of his wallet and sail down the street, a captive of the fierce January winds. I shouted to him, we got the money back, and I was a hero for about a minute.
"Yeah," I said, not thinking in the least. "If it had been a dollar, I wouldn't have said anything, but 20 dollars, that's a lot of money."
"What do you mean you wouldn't have said anything about a dollar?" my parents cried in unison, and proceded to give me a lecture about learning the value of a...dollar. God, why didn't I keep my mouth shut?
One of the dimest memories in my mind goes to the night we went to Steeplechase on a family outing. I was too small for most of the rides, but I had a great time nevertheless. I recall watching my father come sailing down this big metal slide on a little throw rug, like a luge contestant, and it was strange seeing my father at play.
It was like I was the parent and he was the child. And now we're doing that all over again.
At one point in the evening I apparently banged my head on some kind of countertop that had been left in the down position and my parents raised hell with the management. But it didn't ruin the evening for us.
My dad used to tell me about an Indian who used to stand outside one of the arcades, and how my brother, Peter, was terrified of this guy. We have a photo someplace of my brother actually shaking hands with the Indian, but he is stretching his arm so far out, he looks ready to turn around and run away.
Years later, we would go to an Italian restaurant off Surf Avenue, Gargiulio's, where they used to have a giant plaster octopus hanging from the ceiling. It looked like something from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I found out last summer that they had taken it down years ago. Maybe Captain Nemo got him.
My mother used to tell us about how she was at Coney Island the night Luna Park burned down. The park was tremendously popular for many years and I love looking at the old photos of the place, with all the men in straw hats and women in long dresses, walking around this fantasy land.
You could almost believe it was a more innocent time and I guess that's why I chose the name for my blog. It makes me think of this carefree world where it's always summer and the only thing you're required to do is have fun.
The park had closed down by the mid-1940's. My mom remembered standing on the subway platform and watching the place burn to the ground.
Years later I met a friend of my uncle's who, as a young reporter, covered the Luna Park fire for the old Brooklyn Eagle, calling his story in from a pay phone on the boardwalk.
I once took a walking tour of Coney Island and the guide told us that the Native Americans who used to live around there had a name for this spot that meant "Land With No Shadows." I think they were on to something.
And Today's Word is...Weltschmerz
I took my father back to the day room so he could have his supper. There was a lady sitting at the table and she called out to me.
"Young man," she said, "can you help me get my sweater off?"
I helped her, very carefully, of course, and I figured this was about the only place on earth where I would be considered a young man. She squeezed my hand.
"Thank you," she said. "I appreciate it."
It was time to go. Between my father's poor hearing and confused state, we just didn't have much to say to one another. Plus I was a little shaky about the neighbor and wanted to walk back to the train station before it got back.
I saw my father eating some kind of pudding and I thought he could use a tissue. I saw a little tissue box by the woman I had just helped with her sweater, the woman who now had her head on the table, apparently asleep. So I took a few tissues.
"What are you doing?" she snarled, lifting her head. "Those are mine!"
I apologized profusely and she roughly shoved the tissues back into the box. I supposed shouting, "take a pill, bitch!" would have been inappropriate but I was sorely tempted. I guess the mood swings are put of the aging process.
I kissed my father on the head and he told me he was sorry to see my go. I felt guilty, but I would have felt that way if I had stayed there all night. Sooner or later I would have to leave him.
I went back to the train station along the boardwalk, looking at the ocean and the refurbished parachute jump. It seems smaller than I remembered, but isn't that always the way?
I thought of the people in that day room, all of them, just like my father, were once young and vibrant. They weren't born old and helpless, needing wheelchairs. nurses, and medicine; it just happened to them as the years went by.
I realized you really do have to live life to its fullest. The time goes by so quickly that one day maybe someone will be pushing me around in a wheelchair. I want to have something more than regrets and broken dreams.
I'm not sure when my father is coming home. I'm not sure he should come home, but, honestly, I don't like seeing him in that place. That facility is for...old people, not my dad. But then everyone must feel that way about their parents.
So my father would living in the land with no shadows for a little while longer. I'm going to keep trying to get him to remember the good times we had there. Maybe he'll do the "water-melony!" shout for me one last time.
Wouldn't that be a Coney Island story to remember?
Saturday, October 14, 2006
My cell phone battery died on Thursday and I damn near joined it.
I think I used that phone more in that one day than I have for the whole time I've owned it. I should glued it to my head and saved my arm muscles a little trouble.
My father had a stroke that day. Not a major one, but he had to go to the hospital, where he remains, and there were a crazy few hours on Thursday afternoon when I couldn't get hold of my sister and I became convinced something terrible had happened to her.
The nightmare started at 4:30 am when I heard my father shouting for me. I ran into his room and found him on his back. He looked up at me and said those famous words:
"I've fallen and I can't get up!"
I pulled him off the floor and checked to see if anything was broken or bruised. He assured he was all right and I thought that was the end of it. I mentioned the fall to Mary, his aid, when I left for work that morning and thought no more about it.
I went to my gym at lunch time and when I got back I saw Mary had left me a message. My father's blood sugar had gone up dramatically and when she gave him the medicine that's supposed to bring it down, it went up even more. She had called an ambulance and they were going to Lutheran Medical.
Okay, not time to panic. I called my sister on her cell, left a message and told her I'd meet her at the hospital.
Calling All Cars
I should mention here that my sister teaches homebound students in a pretty rough section of Brooklyn. She had been driving to these various homes and apartments, but she got into a accident a few weeks ago and was taking public transportation while her car is being repaired. Since she has no office, her cell phone is her lifeline to the rest of the world.
As I was preparing to leave my office, I realized I hadn't heard from her, so I called her again. And again I get the recording. I leave a second message.
I get on an R and head back to Brooklyn. I felt strange to be out of the office at this time of day, like I was playing hooky. But between my mother and father, I've made enough visits to Lutheran Medical I could probably get there in my sleep.
I'm walking to the front door and I still haven't heard from my sister. So I call her again and this time I get the message that the mail box is full. Now I'm seriously worried. My sister should be at work at this time of the day and that means she has to have her cell phone. What the hell is going on?
I meet Mary outside and she tells she's been calling Joan, too, and not getting any answer. This is unheard of. Whenever something's going on with my father, Joan is always there, usually ahead of me. I'm worried sick, but I've got to go inside and deal with my dad's situation.
My father's on a gurney in the emergency room. He looks even more frail, more sickly. He recognizes me and tells me he's okay. I told one of the doctors about his fall and he nods, telling me the stroke is about 12 hours old.
So this could be my fault. I know I should have done something way back in the morning when he fell, but I was so tired, I had to go to work, and, look, he said he was okay. I can't call an ambulance every time he stumbles, can I? Obviously, I do.
Then a series of doctors and interns start asking me questions about my father's health history. We're going back to World War II and I'm doing my best to remember what his various relatives died of and what age, but it's not easy. And I keep looking across the room, convinced my sister's going to come walking in any second. Not a chance.
"This can only be something bad," I say to Mary. "I'm going to lose my sister and my father in the same day."
"Calm down," she says, rubbing my shoulder.
There are people all around us in bandages, on gurneys, in various stages of injury or ill-health. One little boy is screaming and crying so loudly I want to cover my ears. This has been a hell of a week, as I was at a funeral parlor on Tuesday and now here I am in the ER on Thursday.
I keep telling the doctors I have to leave to handle another family crisis, but there's always another one with a clip board and a list of questions. Mary comes up to me at one point and speaks to me in a low voice.
"There's two cops over there," she says, "ask them about filing a missing persons report."
I thought this was nuts, that I didn't have the nerve to bother two cops with a bizarre story about a possibly-missing sister.
But then I thought, what's the harm? They may tell me something important and if they get annoyed, screw 'em, I just asked a question. I think having my sister missing gave me more nerve or courage to face total strangers and ask for what I need.
Just the Facts
They were pretty decent guys, though, but they told me what I expected hear: that there wasn't much they could do, that maybe I could convince the cops in my neighborhood to crack own the door to my sister's apartment. But healthy adults are free to come and go as they please.
As I listen I noticed a young man seated just behind them in a hospital gown and handcuffs. I guess he was the reason they were in the emergency room.
"Make sure you have a picture of your sister," one cop told me.
I walked away wondering if I had a recent photo of her. Then I realized I didn't know who her supervisor or co-workers were, outside of the New York City Board of Education, which has more people than most towns in this country.
She had just moved to a new apartment and I didn't even know the exact address. I get there by location, not by numbers. This is going to be one hell of a manhunt.
Mary offers to go with me to my sister's place, but I want to do this on my own. I called one of my sister's friends who sounds quite calm and relaxed, assuring me there's no problem, but she does offer to go to my sister's place and look around. She's a lot closer than I am and has a set of keys, saving yours truly a lot of time and effort.
As I walk to my house, I keep thinking, I don't what to do, I don't know what to. I don't know how to begin searching for my sister. I don't what to tell my father if, in fact, something terrible really has happened. And I don't know how to do all the legal things my sister does to keep this family running. I'm scared.
My aunt calls and I tell her about the old man. But, big mouth that I am, I blurt out the fact that I can't find Joan. Now we got two worried lunatics wringing their hands. I promise to call her back as soon as I hear something.
I call Edith, our other aid, to tell her not to come on Friday because my dad's going to be in the hospital for at least three days. Edith is a devout Christian and her phone message makes that perfectly clear.
"This is Edith," it begins. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Please leave a message..."
I know what I want: I want my sister answer the goddamn phone and I want her to do it right now. Can you hear me, Lord?
The irony is that I fully expected Thursday to be a slow day. Work seemed under control and my shrink was out of town, which meant I could go straight home instead my usually trek uptown on the No. 2 train in the middle of rush hour. Now I need my shrink more than ever.
My sister's friend calls me. No sign of Joan at the apartment. It's getting late, almost 8 pm. She should be home now.
I was cleaning up in the kitchen when my cell phone went off. I looked up to the ceiling, imploring "please!" and answer the phone.
Yes, it's my sister. Her cell phone had been out of commission for the last few days. So all the dreadful images in my head were of my own doing, a complete work of fiction. I started to feel majorly stupid and a little insane. But I also drop to one knee and give thanks to the Big Man upstairs.
Why the hell do I immediately go for the worst case scenario? I could use my father's condition as an excuse this time, but this had happened before. I catastrophize, to use a word I saw in a health magazine article. The story mentioned how this bad for your health, by the way, like I couldn't figure that out for myself.
So I'm going to see my father today. He had a minor stroke, but it's a stroke for sure, no TIA's or anything else like that. He'll go to rehab and then come home some time after that. And then we'll have to put him in a nursing home.
And me, I'll have to calm the hell down.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
I just got back from the funeral parlor a little while ago.
A man I used to hang out with when I was younger, named John Lucarelli, died of a heart attack over the weekend. He was 47 years old.
When I knelt down before the casket, I saw there was three CD's lined up over John's body--Jethero Tull, the Moody Blues, and some other ban I didn't recognize. I remember sometime back in the 80's John had talked about going to an Asia concert.
"That was the best concert," he declared. "I don't wanna hear it."
I don't wann hear it. That was a line the boys said to indicate that they would not tolerate any dissension on a particular issue.
The wake brought out a crowd of people from the neighborhood, older, fatter, with less hair and failing vision. I saw faces I barely recalled, people just on the fringe of my memory, and others I thought I should know but didn't.
I had not seen John in years. He was suffering from multiple sclerosis for many years and I don't think he left his home much.
I hung around with John and the Senator Street boys one summer, two decades ago, when I was out of work and lacking any kind of direction.
I had broken away from the local crowd years before to hang out with some guys from school who had interests similar to mine--going to foreign movies, hanging out in Manhattan.
I think I kind of snubbed the local boys and for that I am truly sorry. When the alleged friends I had moved away--thank God--I started hanging out with the Senator Street crew again.
Back then John had this sound system in his car that could probably shattered a brick wall it was so loud. And he was very proud of it.
I remember sitting in the back seat one time when he had something blaring loud enough to rattle my sternum and I cupped my hands around my mouth to yell at him. He still couldn't hear me.
John had married my next-door neighbor's daughter, Rose Ellen, and they had a boy, who is now, somehow, 21 years ago. I can't believe it.
I went to their wedding and they had a belly dancer at their reception, a nod to Rose Ellen's Syrian roots. The dance had them sit down in the middle of the room and then she danced around them--at one pointing draping her veil over her and John's head, as if they were kissing.
Rose Ellen, who was holding John's hand, looked to the crowd and shrugged, as if to say, thanks a lot, fella.
"Hold on, Roe!" shouted George, one of the crew, and everyone laughed.
Good Old George
George wasn't at the wake tonight. He died about 12 years ago, struck down by a heart ailment while playing a game of basketball.
I was there when George died. It was an annual picnic of the Senator Street boys held by one of the former residents who now lives in New Jersey. I had only gone once before, since I was really wasn't a bona fide member of the crew. But my brother was and for some reason I tagged along with him.
So they were basketball and George said something--I wish I could remember it now--but it was so innocuous, so forgettable, because who in the hell knew they would be his last words?
And then he fell. He didn't clutch his chest, or stagger, he just fell to the crowd like a marionette with its strings cut. I think for a second some of us thought he was goofing around.
But he wasn't moving and people started shouting "call an ambulance, call an ambulance!"
Some of the guys tended to him, calling his name, "George, can you hear me?"
"He's turning blue," one man said.
George's girlfriend came out and said softly, "what is it, baby?" but then she pulled away, terrified at what she saw, and the other women went to comfort her.
My brother and I ran to the corner to flag down the ambulance and guide them to the house. We thought it was taking forever, but later we found out they had arrived in under 10 minutes.
They took George away and people tried to calm down. The host's brother appeared to be optimistic.
"The human body is more resilient than you can imagine," he said.
A short time later the phone rang. I think it was one of George's cousins calling from the hospital. The hostess shrieked "what?" and everybody stopped in their tracks and gasped--I'll never forget that sound as long as I live.
Then people began crying, hugging each other. When one of the boys came a little later, a few of the guys charged up to meet him, pulled him aside and told him what had happened. His face fell and then he, too, began crying.
That night we returned to my brother's house in Staten Island and I called my father to tell him about George, who lived directly across the street from house.
"Wait," my father said. "I hear screaming..."
That was George's mother getting the news of her son's death. That poor woman, she lost a husband to the same ailment that killed George, and another son had been stabbed to death in a bizarre case that was never solved.
She had one daughter left, and in her grief, she would tell me, "God is not going to get her."
When I went to George's wake, I was trying console his aunt by saying that George was the sweetest guy in the world.
"Yeah," she said. "And look at him."
I had no answer to that.
So now another member of the Senator Street crowd has died much too soon. I thought Rose Ellen was holding up remarkably well, but she broke down after the priest said the prayers and her family crowded around her.
Christ, I remember when Rose Ellen was a little girl, when she and her friends were listening to the radio and singing along with that song "Band of Gold." How could that young girl possibly be a widow?
Her mother, Dee, who used to be so full of life, sat next to her, small, shrunken, clutching her oxygen tank. That seems to be our choices in this life: go before your time, or slowly fall apart.
Several people asked me how my father is doing, as he is one of the last of his generation on Senator Street. I just shrugged and made the face that says, "not so good."
There were plenty of young people there, late teen and early twenties crowd. I guess they're the sons and daughters of the Senator Street crew.
Before I left I picked up one of the memorial cards, which featured a photo of John on one side and a poem called "No Time For Sad Remembrances" on the other.
The poem is a message from the dead to the living, telling us not to mourn, that our loved one has gone to a much better place.
"I've climbed my highest mountain," one passage reads, "and I've reached my an even peak. And I've found that peace and true reward that you have yet to seek."
Well, John, I hope George is waiting for you up there, and that you guys listen to your CD's and have a great eternity. Those of us down here on earth are still trying to figure out why you had to leave so soon.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
I got some of the best advice in my life today from the Stairmaster at my gym.
It was just two words that appeared on that little screen at the end of the workout, but to me they had the power of a Zen master’s teaching.
Obviously this was a reference to my physical condition, not my mental state, and it was meant to be descriptive rather than instructive, but after a day like today the words had power far beyond the confines of the health club.
Tell Me About It
It started this morning, when I stood on the subway platform and realized my ATM card was gone. That seemed pretty much impossible as I use that thing nearly every single day. If that card was missing it would probably mean my hand was missing along with it.
But I had both my hands…and no card. I raced back home, looked all over, and then called the bank to cancel the card. I had visions of some crack addict-terrorist-bunko artist giddily cleaning out my life savings and blowing it all on drugs, pornography and Slim Jims.
Now I’ve been trying my best to be calm. I just started reading a fabulous book, The Healing Power of Mind, a book of meditations by a Tibetan Buddhist. The philosophy is fantastic, an endless quest for peace and enlightenment that contrasts ever-so-slightly with my life of worry, fear, rage, and toxic over-reaction.
I’ve been reacting to situations better because of this book. The other day a reporter was sick and I had to fill in on the energy beat—something I hadn’t done in over a year and about which I know next to nothing.
I began to get antsy as the story refused to come together, but I just breathed slowly and reminded myself that this is a situation and it will soon pass. No one plotted to put me here; the company was short-handed and they turned to me for help.
I injured my shoulder last week and decided to skip the boxing class for the next seven days to see if it heals. This wasn’t an easy decision as I am addicted to this class, but one of the more experienced boxers in the class had a shoulder injury that forced him to layoff for three months. I’m trying to avoid that.
So instead, I’ve been working out on the equipment. It’s not the same, of course, since you can only push yourself so far while a teacher can squeeze that last bit of effort out of you. But I decided I would enjoy the break from the routine and enjoy the new program.
Take a Number
And then today everything went to hell.
After calling the bank I decided to pick up a temporary ATM card at my bank’s branch at work. It’s only a block or two away and I could then skip right over to the office.
Well, I get this card-carrying twit at the customer service desk. Now, “Customer Service” used to mean you served the customers—helped them with their problems and sent them off happy and smiling.
But that’s another age because the worthless slug I got is talking on the phone, signing off for a delivery from the UPS guy, and, oh, yeah, handling my problem. She checked off some areas on a form that I had to fill out and then pointed, pointed at them, like I was a goddamn German shepherd being ordered to fetch.
I filled out the form, handed it back to her, and she pointed again at some spots that I apparently missed.
“Could you please speak to me?” I asked.
My request didn’t seem to register with this hockey puck, which is even more depressing. At one time people at least knew they were being rude and stupid. Today they don’t know what good manners are, so it’s pretty hard to correct them.
So I get my card, go out to the bank of ATM’s in the lobby and try out the card. I am told that I have virtually nothing in my account. This is unmitigated bullshit.
Either I got ripped off by Willie Sutton’s cyber-space offspring or Miss Bonehead had screwed up. Take a guess.
Back into the bank I go, and this time there’s another woman behind the counter, who, unlike her colleague, appears to have a brain. She finds that my temporary card is only good for my checking account, since the lunk head didn’t process the thing properly.
Now this one is also a good soldier and promptly calls the personal banker, who starts giving me a sales pitch while I’m waiting for my damn ATM card. She said she’d call me next week, whereupon I took her card, took my card, and got the hell out of there, glad to be rid of these losers.
Only I wasn’t. I got to my desk, started working, and then I began to fume. I couldn’t forget that first idiot and her pointing, her multitasking at my expense.
Why not put on the I-pod and switch on a Game Boy while you’re at it, Zipperneck? Then I'll be completely invisible.
Needless to say all this rage and bitterness doesn’t have a place in Zen Buddhism. I claim I want to change, to lose the anger and follow a higher path, yet I go berserk over some rude treatment at the bank. Sure, it was annoying, but I was making career out of it. I let anger become a part of my identity.
I decided to call the branch and let them know how I felt. Somebody picked up the phone and I gave it to with both barrels. I’m a customer, I work for a living, who does this schmuck think she is treating me like this—the whole routine.
“I didn’t get this woman’s name,” I said in closing. “But she’s a jerk.”
Yes, I know, quite witty, but I really was pissed. And just when I was hanging up, it occurred to me that this woman on the phone could very well have been the same ass clown who had caused all the trouble in the first place.
Now she knows how I feel, but I doubt seriously she’ll pass the message along to her supervisor.
Okay, so I get through work, head uptown on the Hell Boy express, which is packed with bleary-eye commuters and screaming babies. My plan is hit a New York Sports Club on 80th and Broadway and then zip over to the Hayden Planetarium for their monthly “Starry Nights” program.
It’s a good plan and with my Zen Stairmaster advice, I’m feeling pretty good as I walk into the Hayden.
I’ve only been there a few times since the overhaul, but I’m partial to the old planetarium, which was dark and solemn and little bit creepy. You really felt like your were leaving the earth when you entered the old place, as opposed to the new one which looks like some sort of game show set.
Still they had a good Latin jazz band and there were people all over the place. I line up for something to eat and one of the food jockeys talks to me in this snotty tone—or maybe she didn’t, but I was so hypersensitive that I was ready to take offense at the slightest thing.
Then the checkout girl starts ringing me up and this geezer charges up, lifts his glass of wine indicating he wants to pay for it right now. Again, I get pissed and wonder if I’ve turned invisible during the day and just wasn’t aware of it.
I’m getting angrier as this jerk lingers there, so I get my change and then—oh, God, this is so bad—I deliberately reach across the guy to get napkins. He’s startled and grabs for his wine and I give him a dirty look.
The evening is turning into a real disaster. I’m ashamed of the way I behaved toward that man and I want to go over and apologize to him, only I’m concerned he’ll take the opportunity for some payback.
I’m thinking I should run back to the gym, throw myself down before the Stairmaster and ask for guidance. What the hell is wrong me? I’m acting like a cranky neighbor in a Neil Simon play or Travis Bickle without a taxi. Is this any way to live?
And what happened to the Zen master wannabe who was going to take everything in his stride and control his anger? Was that just talk? And I doomed to be an angry, hostile man all my life?
Okay, let’s take a time out. I dropped the ball today, big time. But I figure on every long journey you’re going to get lost. You’ll bump into trees, go miles out of your way and wish you had stayed the hell home.
Then you’ll calm down and get your bearings. Check the map and get back on the right road and pick up the journey, happy and thankful for every step you take.
So I’ll cool down, like the Stairmaster told me to, and I’ll resume my journey toward peace and enlightenment.
I came home about 10 pm tonight, checked the phone for messages, and saw something laying face down on my desk. I knew what it was before I even flipped it over and there was my ATM card, now a useless piece of plastic.
I was so agitated this morning that I couldn’t see something even though it was right there in front of my face.
Thank you, oh, great and wonderful Stairmaster, for this valuable lesson.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Maybe F. Scott Fiztgerald was wrong: there are second acts in America. As long as you're a car.
I came out of my house the other day and saw my neighbor's brother was driving a nice shiny Toyota Corolla.
It liked kind of familiar, which was only natural, as the car had belonged to my father for many years.
My father's health has been in decline for several years and so did the Toyota. As my father aged in the back bedroom, the Toyota did the same, a few yards away, in the garage, growing older and dirtier.
It was an eyesore, a kind of urban version of the car-on-the-blocks lawn decorations you see outside many rural homes. The thing became a millstone around our collective necks and I was convinced that our lives would surely change for the better if we could just get rid of the damn thing.
Of course, this being my family, getting rid of something can be a real struggle. My father refused to sell the Toyota, convinced he could still drive, despite the dementia, poor eyesight and near total deafness.
He also misplaced all the important paperwork, including the title, which meant I had to fight with the motor vehicle department to get a replacement. Meanwhile my dad was still paying insurance on the thing every month, essentially pouring cash down a sewer.
But we finally got all the right paperwork together, I got a customer, and after a frantic two-day search for the ignition key, I was able to sell the junkpile for $200.
Only now, it's not a junkpile. Louie, my neighbor's brother, had gotten the car running, cleaned up, and put in a baby seat, where his beautiful little daughter was sitting. I could not believe my eyes; Louie had resurrected the Toyota and turned it into a family car once again.
"Nice car," I said, "I'll have to get one for myself."
It was was kind of spooky looking at the car that once belonged to us. I didn't feel cheated, as I was desperate to get of the thing. It's more like I had something good and didn't see it. I don't have much use for a car in New York, but I don't know why I didn't at least keep the thing in decent shape.
I could have started the engine a few times a week, drove it around the block every now and then, just so the thing would be useable. And I could have gotten more money for it.
I think part of the reason I let the car rot was to keep my father from driving it. Up until a few years ago, my father insisted upon driving and riding with him became a religious experience as I prayed to God we wouldn't get wrapped around a street lamp.
He drove fast, aggressive, and very badly. My father had always been a lunatic behind the wheel, cursing and fuming at anyone who got in his way. A bad male driver was a dopey bastard and a bad female driver was a miserable bitch.
He had a favorite experession--"hit a pole!"--which was directed at any driver who irritated him and there's a family legend about how my father had shouted that little greeting at some motorist around Bear Mountain early one day. And, according to the legend, he saw the guy again hours later with his fender all banged in.
But as he aged he made terrible mistakes, crossing the yellow lines, cutting off other drivers, and driving way too fast. And you couldn't dare tell him to slow down, because he would only press down harder the gas pedal.
Finally he became too weak to drive and the car slipped into oblivion. Every now and then my father would talk about buying a new car, but thankfully he would forget a short time later.
I think about the good times my father and mother had in that car, all the trips they made with Casey, our dog, whom they loved so much. They'd drive to Jersey on the weekends and sit out in the Delaware National Park, or up to my aunt's farmhouse in the Berkshires for long weekends and vacations.
My father complained he drove too much on vacation, declaring that he was "chained to the wheel!"but we thought he was just being a grouch. Once I got my driver's license I understood what he was talking about. It's easy to say let's go here, let's go there, as long as you're not doing all the driving.
For years my father never owned a car, but instead drove his company car. He worked for meat packing outfit in Albany called Tobin's First Prize and every two years he'd go up to the state capital and come back behind the wheel of brand new car.
It was very exciting when I was a kid, getting into that new set of wheels. The only drawback was the fact that the company's logo was plastered on both sides of the car, so we were kind of rolling billboard for the company.
In fact, my father used to cover up the signs with white contact paper whenever we went some highway that banned commercial traffic.
People used to stare a lot and we'd get the occassional wisecrack. My dad told me he ran a red light one evening and a police car popped up out of nowhere and pulled along side of him.
Instead of giving him a ticket, the cop looked at the sign and growled, "First Prize? You won't get first prize driving like that!" And took off.
We got into a crash on time when I was a kid and it was my fault in a way. I was very little and we were driving someplace where there was an elevated subway. The story goes that I saw this and exclaimed, "my, how convenient!"
My father, stunned and amazed by my vocabulary, took his eye off the road to look back as his brilliant boy. And promptly crashed into another car. My mother, who was in the passenger seat, flew forward and hit her head on the windshield with such force that the glass cracked.
Somehow she avoided serious injury, but 25 years later she was having some medical difficulty and her doctor asked if she had ever hit her head.
After the company went under, my father had a series of used cars, including one that was stolen and apparently used in a robbery in the Bronx. It was a really bad time for our family and it was right around the holidays.
I took the call from a detective and told my dad, but we never heard from him again. It's strange thinking the family ride was turned into a getaway car.
My father, always Mr. Nice Guy to total strangers, once gave a lift to a Hispanic man from his job in New Jersey all the way back to Brooklyn.
He had to stop someplace and he told us that he didn't want to take the ignition key with him because he thought he would offend the man by implying he was Puerto Rican and automatically a thief.
So my dad left the key in the ignition and went into the store. And the guy stole our car.
We teased him about that for ages, but honestly, that car was such a piece of junk, he didn't miss it and when I told him I thought I had seen our car someplace he told me to keep it to myself. He didn't want the damn car back.
Old is New
I looked at the new old car and I thought of opportunities I didn't pursue, women I never called, relationships that I ran from the moment it started to look serious. It comes to you when you're alone, just how many chances you had and refused to see, even when they were right in front of you.
And look at Grand Central Terminal, hands down my favorite New York City attraction. For years that place was a sewer, dark, filthy, and pretty much ruled by homeless people.
But then they cleaned the place up. There are restaurants, shops, and the great ceiling that was covered in grime for God knows how long, has been cleaned to reveal the astrological images below. People come to the place and hang around, instead of running like hell as soon as their train pulls in.
What bothers me is that Grand Central was left to rot for so long, you got used to it. People just assumed it was a dump and always would be--until some other people came along and thought differently.
You have to see the beauty in what you have and realize that no matter how beautiful something is, it'll turn ugly real fast if you let it.
So now my father can't drive and his car is belongs to another family. My mother and Casey are gone and my dad doesn't have much time left.
I hope Louie and his family had great times in that Toyota, that they go to wonderful places and bring home beautiful memories. And when that old car finally does break down, I hope they give it a proper send-off.
As for me, I'm going to look harder at what I have. I won't be so quick to walk away from useful items or decent people. I'll keep looking for that second act.