Thursday, December 20, 2007

But Once A Year


I got an e-mail the other day that I think really captured the true spirit of the holidays.

"The best present on Christmas," it said, "is penis enlargement."

I couldn't put it better myself. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the expression "stocking stuffer" doesn't it?

The e-mail came from a "Dr. Brandon Watson," who I suspect may not be a real person. I don't think he had anything to do with Sherlock Holmes' sidekick--"Watson, the game's afoot!"

(More like a foot-and-a-half, old boy....rim shot).

And I don't think this Dr. Watson is related to the guy who helped come up with the DNA model, along with Crick, but it does sound like the same field of study.

I guess this really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Maybe if one of the Christmas spirits had done this for old Ebeneezer Scrooge he wouldn't have been such a putz.

There's a Tiny Tim joke here, but I refuse to go that low--which makes me think of about six more jokes.

Oy, as Santa Claus likes to say.

So once again, the holidays are here. This will be my first one without either one of my parents, and we won't be doing anything in our house this year.

I was done in the basement last night and I saw the Christmas tree stand gathering dust in a corner.

I realized that even though putting up and decorating a Christmas tree has to be one of the most annoying, irritating, and frustrating rituals in the history of humanity, I miss not having one this year.

Even when my father was in the hospital last year we put up a tree. Now for the first time I can remember, I won't be discovering pine needles in the carpet for the next six months.

When we sell the house and I figure out where the hell I want to live, I'm going to get back to putting up a tree.

It's a pain, but there's nothing more uplifting than seeing a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. Even Dr. Brandon Watson couldn't match that kind of pleasure.

On the way upstairs, I saw the red leash that once belonged to our family dog, Casey, and I found that upsetting. My mother loved Casey so much and, to be brutally, honest, I was pretty mean to that dog at times.

I could make a lot of excuses--bad health, immaturity, failing career--but it's all hot air. I was just taking my frustration out on a helpless animal.

All I can do is tell God I'm sorry and vow to be a better person. I think I'm going to stay out of the basement for a while, too.

I had another bit of a holiday dilemma at work the other day.

I was walking to my gym when I saw a legless man in a wheelchair holding out a cup for change and, just a few yards away, there were two men from the Salvation Army standing before a kettle. One of them was playing a Christmas carol on a horn.

So who gets my dollar? The legless man, so plainly in need, or the Salvation Army, which does good deeds for so many people?

It's Christmas time in the city.

I went with the Salvation Army; I guess they looked more official. I probably should have given them both a buck each and spared myself the hand-wringing and the guilt.
I'll take care of the legless man the next time I see him.

I'm behind on the holiday cards, naturally. The other day I had to walk several blocks to the main post office to pick up a package from my uncle and his wife in L.A.

The post office is on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, which has become a Chinese neighborhood over the years.

I walked in the front door and saw a line of people snaking around the lobby and you know everyone there had some special story about their package, I mean, nobody was going to buy a book of stamp and leave, so it meant that I'd be on that line well into 2008.

May Your Days Be Merry and Bright

Then I saw a special window reserved for people picking up packages--like me. I raced over there and got on line behind a Mexican fellow and his two buddies.

"Is the right line for packages?" I asked, ever the paranoid.

"Si," he said, pointing to the window with the big No. 5 on it."Cinco."

All right. Instead on the Dante's Inferno line, I'm in the express lane for the classy customers. I never went to Studio 54 during the disco debacle, but I'm sure getting in there felt a lot like this--only without the stamps.

Our postal clerk was a middle-aged Asian woman, who, like my friend on line, had a limited grasp of English.

It fascinates me how New York reels in people of such varied cultural backgrounds and forces them to live and work together.

My new friend was picking up the package. The clerk opened the window on her side, slid the package into the no man's land that exists between the post office and the customer and gestured at the fellow.

"Open window," she said, "open window."

The Mexican fellow tried to do that, but inside of sliding the window up, he was trying to pull it out.

"Open window," the clerk insisted.

He said something that I believe meant "that's what I'm trying to do, lady," and then added "puta," which will you get on the naughty list in a heartbeat if Santa heard you say it.

Luckily the clerk didn't hear him, and I doubt she would have understood anyway. The man's buddies chuckled softly and the guy looked at me to see if I understood. I smiled, he got his package, and they all left.

I got my gift, which turned out to beautiful blanket that my uncle's wife made. It is now on my bed keeping my aging butt warm on these cold winter nights.

I've been going to mass once a week at Trinity Church lately. I like the priest who conducts the service. I believe he's from Africa, though I am not certain. Whatever, he always gives a nice sermon and welcomes people of all faiths to join in.

The church is especially beautiful at this time of the year and I actually received communion for the first time in ages.

During Wednesday's sermon, the priest--I've got to get his name--was speaking to us when a cell phone went off.

There's a sign at the front door telling visitors to switch off their mobile phones, so I and a few others looked around the church wearing our "who's the idiot?" scowls.

It was the priest.

Yep, our spiritual leader had to reach under his vestments and pull out the old Blackberry right in the middle of the service.

He apologized profusely, saying he was on call, then switched the little bugger off.

"I'm mortified," he said. "Just pretend you didn't see this."

No problem, padre. I've gotten a lot of comfort and joy from your sermons, so I can easily overlook a cell phone snafu.

I came home on the subway tonight and two young men were playing an instrumental version of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" on the platform. That's one of my favorite carols and they did a nice job with it.

A man was walking through my car on the 3 train tonight, loudly invoking Christmas as he asked for money. I didn't give him anything, as I found him a little too aggressive.

"God bless all the people who gave money," he said, "and God bless all the people who didn't."

That's a nice thought. As soon as he left the car, a woman got on the train and began her spiel for money. The panhandlers can come fast and furious on some nights, especially around December 25. It's a series of nightclub acts

She talked about her kids were hungry, and how ashamed she was asking us for money. I don't know if her story is true, but I gave her a handful of coins anyway.

I'm going to be running around a lot with the family this holiday season, so I wanted to make sure I got my Christmas message out.

I doubt if I'll have time for blogging until January, so I'll take the opportunity now to wish all of you out there a happy holiday and a prosperous new year. Let's make it a good one, without any fear.

And good night, Dr. Brandon Watson, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What About the Boy?


I feel like I should be passing out cigars.

A few weeks ago, I became the proud father of...myself.

Allow to me explain. I'll try to make sense, but I make no guarantees.

I have to take an airplane flight in the near future and I'm not handling it very well.

I'm what you might call a fearful flier, a first-class white-knuckle loon who has left his hand prints in the cushions of a squadron of passenger jets over the years.

The very thought of getting on to a plane makes my stomach turn upside down and inside out--all at the same time.

The logical side of my brain tells me all about the statistics of car crashes versus airline crashes but my neurotic side won't answer the door.

I wanted to do something positive, try and rid myself of this irrational fear that has plagued me since I took my first flight out to San Francisco nearly 30 years ago.

So I did some research. I thought about behavioral therapy with a flight simulator. I've heard that there's some kind of fearful flying program at LaGuardia Airport that involves an actual "graduation flight" to Boston and back.

Some people had simpler suggestions.

"That's what Xanax is for," a neighbor said to me.

But I settled for hypnosis, which has always fascinated me. I know all too well the mind's self-destructive power, it's ability to create disaster scenarios instantly without the slightest bit of evidence.

Hypnosis seeks to turn that around, to dismantle the mind's evil apparatus, the dark factory that belches out streams of negative smog every waking second.

All I've seen of hypnosis is the nonsense on TV, with some guy waving a watch in someone's face, intoning "You are under my power" and then people are forced to cluck like chickens or commit heinous crimes without remembering anything after they're done-like The Manchurian Candidate.

I wanted the real thing...whatever that was. But where to begin? I didn't have much time to do much research, which is definitely the wrong way of going about it, but I was running out of time.

I had taken a seminar on self-hypnosis a few years back, so I decided to call the woman who had run it. I liked her style and after a brief phone call, we agreed to meet earlier this month.

She would put me through one session, record it, and have me listen to the tape every day until flight time. The cost was more than I really wanted to pay, but my sister said that if the process worked, it would be money well spent.

I went to this place off Park Avenue South that looked like some kind of New Age clearinghouse, with several rooms reserved for...I don't really know.

I imagined people levitating in one room, holding a seance in another, and contacting UFO's in yet another.

My hypnotist arrived and we got our own room. Once inside, she put on a tape of ocean sounds, turned down the lights and started to Svengali me.



People, Let Me Tell You About My Best Friend...

This had to be one of the strangest experiences of my life.

I'm sitting in a chair with my eyes closed while, Marianna, the hypnotist, talks me to from what feels like a thousand miles away.

I think I actually might have nodded off at one point, but I recall Marianna asking me what I saw.

Well, I saw a little boy, about 7 or 8 years old. He had dirty blond hair, a red short-sleeved shirt, blue jeans with the cuffs turned up and white sneakers.

He was running around an empty airliner while cottony clouds rolled by the window against a cartoon blue sky. The kid looked like something from the Sixties, like Dennis the Menace. So who was this kid?

He was me.

I don't know how I knew this, but I did; there was no doubt. This boy was some version of me, young and innocent, happy before the nuns and adulthood got hold of him. He was the inner child I've been hearing so much about for so long, here in the flesh...more or less.

I loved this kid so much--instantly, the emotion just welled up inside me. Marianna could see it in my face.

"Something's going on," she said. "Tell me what's happening."

"It's me," I said, and tears rolling down my face.

"You love him, don't you?"

"Yes," I said, "very much."

"Do you want to give him a hug?"

"Yes."

That's what I did, up there in the cartoon, I picked up my young self, Little Rob, and hugged to my chest, kissed his cheek and told him how much I loved him.

It--he--felt so real, this was real person I was holding in my arms and I loved the hell out of this kid.

"Little Rob needs to be protected," Marianna said. "He needs you to be strong, because he doesn't understand what's going on. If you get upset, he'll get upset."

Amazing how the mind works. I have these regrets about never having children and I'm also filled with this incredible self-loathing.

Now I was faced with a version of myself that I could love unconditionally, who was innocent of all my crimes, real and imagined, who needed to be protected and nurtured.

It was beautiful.

Every day I see real parents with their real children on the subway as I go to walk. I think of how on some mornings, most mornings, I feel lousy, unhappy with place in life, sometimes I feel physically rotten.

Now imagine having to go through all that and then have to be responsible for a child as well.

Maybe the child takes your mind off your own problems and forces you to take care of someone else.

As I get older, I see how hard my parents had to work, how they were just people with hopes and dreams, good points and bad, just trying to do their best.

When the session ended I stood up, dried my eyes, and had this urge to look around for Little Rob.

"Give me a hug," Marianna said, and I gladly obliged.

I left New Age Acres feeling relax, loose, confident and a little confused about what had just happened.

This experience underscores how empty my life is and how I need to love someone for real, how I need to take care of a flesh and blood person, not an image from a trance.

Every morning I play the tape of my session with Marianna and I'll keep doing it until I take off, and then, I'll bring on the plane with me so I can listen to it as I sail over the country.

It's part of my routine, along with prayer, meditation, and the morning pages. At this rate, I'll have to get out in the middle of the night just to be on time for work.

This morning I was walking to the post office to pick up a package and I was feeling agitated about the upcoming trip, about all the things I had to do before leaving, crap I had to deal with at work.

I was getting really angry, when I saw a woman coming toward me, holding her little girl by the hand.

That's right, I thought. I'm a parent. I don't have time for this. I've got to take care of Little Rob.

I put my gloved hand out into the cold air and gave a squeeze. And I'd swear I got a little squeeze in return.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Going Nowhere


When I was in Catholic school, the nuns used to tell us about Limbo, where those souls still marked by original sin would go until Judgment Day.

The list included babies who had died before being baptized and all those people who had passed on before the Resurrection. I always pictured it as a strange, gray world where people just waited and waited.

I got my own taste of limbo today when I got stuck on the elevator.

I had come in early because my colleague is off for the next two days and I have to do his job as well as my own.

I had some feature stories to do as well and I wanted to go to the gym at lunch time.

So naturally this was a perfect time for the elevator to crap out on me. Notice that I said "on me," as I take these kinds of things very personally.

My building is being renovated and looks like 10 cents worth of God help us. I have to go around the corner to get in through the Pine Street entrance and there are temporary walls inside that have shrunk the lobby down to Lilliputian dimensions.

It's very confining and it makes me think of that weird building in "Being John Malkovich," only without the humor.

The elevator service is also incredibly slow because of all the work, apparently. I don't know what the renovations are all about, but this goddamn place better look like the Sistine Chapel when they're done or I'm going to carve my initials into someone's rear end with a Ginsu knife.

I come in from the cold, I see an open elevator door, and I make for the thing like it's the last lifeboat on the Titanic. (I wasn't in drag, though--at least not today.)

It's just and me another guy, no herd of cube rats pressing every floor and slowing me down in my vital work. Doors close, we're flying up in the air. Then we get to the 12th floor--where my companion plans to get off--when it all goes to hell.

The elevator stops dead and the button for the 15th floor, my floor, of course, goes dead. I step forward, hit the button again, and nothing happens. The doors won't open, the buttons won't light up and we're going nowhere.

I don't like heights, elevators, small spaces, basically everything that was happening at this moment. I hit the emergency button and someone answers...eventually.

"Is there a problem?" the voice coming out of the speaker asks.

"Yeah," I say, "we're stuck on 12. Can you open the doors?"

"We'll get you some help."

"Can you open the doors?"

"In just a few minutes."

Spiffy. The other guy is taking it much better than I am, surprise, surprise, and he nods to the Captivate TV screen mounted over the speaker.

"At least we have TV," he says.

Yeah, TV in an elevator. I'm sure everyone laughed when they first heard this idea, but there it is. When you really can't tear yourself away from a screen, you have one anywhere you want it.

"I thought the biggest problem today would be the weather," he adds, noting the blizzard said to be heading our way, although it didn't amount to much. I think the weatherman must work for the elevator company in his spare time.

Meanwhile, I was getting tense. I felt like I was dangling 12 stories in the air. I looked down at the emergency button, the one you hit if the cable snaps and you don't want your remains scrapped into a Dixie cup.

How the hell does that work? I ask myself. And will I be able to push it or will I too busy screaming like Fay Wray waltzing with King Kong?

I'm going on a trip very soon, a plane flight, and I am terrified of flying. I've been taking some steps to prepare myself, but I sure as hell didn't need this little episode.

Is This Thing On?

Though I guess it proves disaster can happen anywhere, even during the most routine events...like an elevator ride.

"Hello?" I say at the speaker.

"Yes?"

"What's going on?"

"We're going to have someone there in a few minutes."

"That what's you said a few minutes ago." I say. "I do have a job to go to, you know?"

I start to perspire and I'm aware that I'm getting panicky. I take out my date book where I keep my parents' mass cards, one with St. Martin and the other with St. Patrick, and I kiss them both.

Please, God, let me get out of this, I mutely pray.

I've been thinking a lot about my parents recently and it seems I've been sending them in two different directions. I miss my mother so much, even after five years, and I have all these beautiful memories that bring me to tears.

With my father, though, I seem to have nothing but anger, as I recall--and relive--all the fights and bad times with him. I don't get it, I don't see why I can't just put these bad thoughts away and get on with my life.

I turn my mother into a saint and my father into a devil. Neither one, of course, is accurate, but I feel that I was unworthy of her love and undeserving of his abuse.

"Hello?" I snap at the speaker.

"Yeah, just a few more seconds..."

Screw you, buddy, I want out now. I'm glad there's only two of us in this elevator and I'm starting to wonder if I'm going to freak out, will this man have to slap my face like they always did in the old movies.

The elevator rumbles, drops one flight to the 11th floor, and the doors open. My companion and I step out into the lobby.

"Are you guys out?" the voice asks.

"Yeah," I say. "Now how do we get our floors?"

I was not anxious to stuck again and I was hoping there was a stairwell someplace around here. But the voice from below is confused.

"Just take another elevator."

"Oh, yeah," I snap, "so we can get stuck again."

I mutter "twit" as the elevator doors close. I wonder if this guy has seen my face, will he know me as the weenie who whimpered on the 11th floor.

Another elevator arrives, we step on, and there were three people from my office, talking and joking, completely unaware of how I had just narrowly cheated death.

"We got stuck in the elevator," I say.

"Oh, yeah...?"

Yeah, and please try not to get too excited. I don't want to spoil the fascinating conversation you've got going on.

My companion, the calm guy, gets off at 12 and I wish him well. I also start to feel ashamed about how I had behaved. For Christ's sake, guy, have a little gumption will you?

I'm doing a story about kendo, the Japanese sword-fighting art, and Zen Buddhism makes up a large part of its teachings. The samurai was supposed to fight without thinking about death, thus eliminating fear. Well, Toshiro Mifune, I ain't.

I got to my desk, got to work, and eventually put the man-eating elevator out of my mind.

I've got more important things to worry about. Like getting on a plane.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

30 Minute Man


I don't know what to do with my evenings anymore.

Well, that's not really true. I've got a steamer trunk full of half-finished scripts, short stories, oh, and yeah, that novel of mine that I started before the Internet came into our lives.

Still, I feel a gap in my life.

I did my 30-minute solo performance last night and I managed somehow to survive.

This was the culmination of the Solo Performer 2 class that I took at the People's Improv Theater, better known as the Pit.

Even though I signed up for the class, I was telling myself that there was no way in hell I could stand up before an audience--by myself--and flap my gums for half-a-freaking hour.

And yet...I did. And it went pretty damn well, if I do say so myself.

I was the second feature of the night and while my colleague, Mary, did her act, I sat backstage in an old barber chair like Albert Anastasia waiting to get whacked at the Park Sheraton Hotel.

My solo show is called "Breathe With Me," something my mother used to say when she was struggling with lung disease.

I couldn't believe how quickly Mary's show seemed to go by and suddenly she was coming backstage and giving me the thumbs up.

I had chosen to open the show with a song, "What's So Good About Goodbye," by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. As I walked out into near total darkness, I heard the opening notes on the song and Smokey's fabulous voice.

"What's so good about goodbye,
All it does is make-a you cry
..."

And then the lights came up...

Grunt Work


I rehearsed this show every day, usually while I cleaned up after supper and made my lunch for the next day. I recited it when I rode the trains at night, mumbling under my breath, and fitting right in with the rest of the subway loons.

This is the only way to get the thing to work. Once you memorize it, once you know it backwards and forwards, then you can get creative with the piece.

I actually frightened my sister when she came over on Sunday, as she approached the house just when I was shouting the F-bomb at the top of my voice.

It was part of the show--honest.

I reminded myself that people were coming out to see me at an odd hour--Monday at 9:30 p.m., hardly a slamming spot--so that I would have to give it every thing I had.

Like they say in my gym's boxing class, "don't leave anything behind."

I also told myself that I was telling my story, no one else's, so I couldn't very well forget something like that.

Naturally my health failed my as we got closer to the date. On Friday I was feeling crappy; I had an upset stomach, I felt fatigued, nothing terribly serious but just enough to distract me.

I met a woman coming home on the subway Sunday night who told me she was a performer who was once part of a group called "Witches in Bikinis." We rode into Brooklyn together and she got off at one of the Park Slope stops.

"Break a leg," she said to me--for real.

On Monday morning I was a wreck. I was cursing and fuming and even though I promised myself that I'd get to work early, I couldn't seem to get out of the house. I couldn't find my shoes, I had to fill the cat dishes, and I still felt awful.

After work I went to my gym and took a nice long sauna, so I could sweat out the poisons, both physical and emotional. As I was getting dressed in the locker room, I saw that my undershirt was stained.



It was barely noticeable and I'd be wearing a shirt over it anyway, but I couldn't bear the thought of this thing on my body.

The audience wouldn't know, but I sure as hell would. So, swoosh! right into the trash bin. Bad karma be gone.

I wandered around Herald Square for a while before show time, walking in and out of Old Navy, Foot Locker and then over to the Manhattan Mall. I started to fell like a vagrant so I hiked down to the Pit.

I was way early, of course, so I sat in the sub-arctic air of the Pit's waiting area wondering if there was so way to get out of this. I was feeling a little better physically, but my nerves were getting to me.

I saw a sign in the restroom asking people not to throw paper towels in the toilet because "our plumbing is old and disagreeable."

"So am I," I muttered as I dried off my hands.

Bugging Out

Mary showed up with her husband and we did our best to comfort each other even though we were both ready to climb out the window and run screaming down Broadway.

There was a very noisy show going on before us, filled with loud voices and plenty of whoops and whistles.

As Mary was speaking to me, I saw something out of the corner of my eye moving along the wall. It was a roach and I picked a magazine from a nearby table and brushed him off the wall.

I guess I didn't feel like committing bug-icide before my show. It could be more bad karma.

"I'm listening," I told Mary as I knocked the little critter off the wall.

But he was a determined bastard, and about a minute later, there he was, back on the wall, the Little Cockroach that Could.

"Son-a-bitch!" I knocked him away again. "I give you a break and you come back for more?"

The earlier show ended and we weht in. The tech woman arrived and we set up the lights and the music. Some clown from the earlier show was backstage with his groupies and he was apparently holding some kind of improv class--bull session--mental masturbation sing-along.

What he was doing he hogging our freaking space. But, I didn't want any negative ions in the air so I kept my mouth shut. Hell, I let a roach live, didn't I?

There was about a dozen of these bums, too, which also gave me pause.

They finally left and Mary and I had the place to ourselves, until the audience showed up.

Lights...Lights...And More Lights


As I took my place on stage, I couldn't see a damn thing. The theater lights just about blinded me--something I noticed the last time I performed--and I really like that.

I could be back in my kitchen rehearsing instead of doing my piece for real. I couldn't see anyone, so I felt free to walk around, to wave my arms, and shout.

I'd never done anything like this before and I was loving it. I think the piece needs a little bit of editing and I could probably slow down, but I still had a great time.

That's the beauty of a solo piece--it really is all about you.

I wasn't somebody's best friend, a hanger-on, I wasn't in the darkness, I wasn't in someone else's shadow as one scumbag "friend" said to me back in high school. (You can see I've gotten over it, right?)

I came to the end of my piece and Smokey came back on. I've always wanted to use that song in a show and this seemed to be the best time.

I was going to go with Taps because of my father's military background, or a big band number from my parents' generation, but I settled on Motown because that's my time. And the words are telling.

What am I going to do now? Hell, if I know. My bud Hank is encouraging me to turn the story into a script and my classmates say I've got a novel in there. Either way the material is great and it's real.

I know, I was there.

So now I've got to find something other than rehearsals to fill my nights. I can finish that novel I've working on for the last 45 years, send out my short story and get my script together.

Whatever I do, it'll be the only thing I work on, and I'm going to keep working on it until I get it done. All by myself.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Wait A Minute, Chester


Many years ago my mother used to sell life insurance at the old Lincoln Savings Bank in Bay Ridge.

The bank had order forms where people could leave their phone numbers so a salesperson--like my mother--could call them at a later time.

One day she told us how she picked up a card, dialed the number and asked to speak to Chester Drawers.

But this was a number for a furniture store and that's when my mom looked at the calendar, saw it was April 1, and realized she had been punked.

And then she and the woman at the end of the line burst out laughing.

I thought about this story the other day after I looked through a bureau drawer in my parents' bedroom.

I'll sleeping in that room now, in their bed, and I decided to clean out the bottom drawer to make room for some of my stuff.

But some drawers should stayed closed.

When I pulled it open, I saw that it was brimming with all my mother's summer blouses. I recognized all of them, I remember her wearing them, back when it was warm and the sun was shining and she was healthy, happy, and still with us.

I held some of her clothes in my lap and I began to cry. I was thinking of that wonderful woman who could laugh so easily at herself and I was missing her so badly.

My sister was in the house because Sunday is our clean-up day and I was actually hitting myself on the thigh to stop this crying right this instant.

Naturally, I cried even harder. My sister came into the room and gently suggested that we clean out that particular drawer another day.

"Good idea," I said as I put the clothing away.

My mother's been gone for over five years now and yet the sight of some of her clothing can still make me cry.

Is this normal? Should I be "over" my mother's death? I think part of me believes that if I ever do get over it, then I'll somehow forget my mother. That's insane, but the human mind is capable of some pretty bizarre stunts.

"I think you haven't accepted this yet," my sister said to me. And I suppose she's right.

She suggested I try a bereavement group at a church. She had done this shortly after my mother died and gotten some benefit from it.

I may try that after we fight our way clear of all the holiday madness. I work near Trinity Church and I'm very fond of the place--even though I was raised Catholic. (Sorry, your Eminence.)

I checked their web site, but I couldn't find anything like a bereavement group. I'll have to go old school on this one and call them on the telephone.

After I calmed down, we set about to cleaning the place up. A few weeks ago I found an envelope filled with stamps that must be at least 30 years old--or more. I saw some 6 cent stamps in the bunch--how long ago was that?

Several the stamps bore the image of the pope (was it Pope Paul? Jesus, some Catholic I turned out to be.)

I used to collect stamps when I was a kid. Our next door neighbor was into stamp collecting and he used to do business with an outfit called, I believe, William Deems.

They'd send you stamps and if you were late with the payment they'd send you a card with a cartoon figure of a guy being crushed in a giant vise.

"We're in a jam because you owe us money!" the card read...or something along those lines.

One time I didn't send them any money, even after the cartoon guy. So the next letter I got was image-free.

"Let's keep this between us," it started off, suggesting there would be legal hell to pay if I didn't get up the money.

I paid them off and, like a lot of things, I eventually lost interest in stamp collecting and moved on to other things.

So this envelope filled with old stamps had a nostalgic value in addition to whatever monetary worth they might carry. This was a time capsule of sorts, blessed by the Pope, no less.

I decided to put the envelope some place safe and then go online some time in the near future and determine how much they were worth.

Well, that place is so safe even I can't find it. I have no idea where I put that envelope. I thought I had put in one of the hardcover books in my bedroom, but I have to yet to find them and now I'm getting a little nervous.

I'm A Peaceful Man

Did I throw that envelope out? Did I toss away untold riches and commit a mortal sin to boot by trashing the pope's mug?

It's like David Mamet's play American Buffalo where a trio of lowlifes plan to steal rare coin. It's a great play with some awesome dialog.

Only my case is about stamps. And they haven't been stolen. And, the dialog is not quite some awesome. But other than that it's exactly the same.

What is about me and getting rich? Every time I think I have something of value, I manage to screw it up.

Years ago when I was living in Pennsylvania I bought a lottery ticket and promptly lost it. Then the state lottery office said no one had come forward to claim the humongous prize money.

I was visiting my family in Brooklyn at the time for Christmas and I got this sinking feeling. Could I be the mysterious hold out? The dummy who let millions of dollars slip right through his fingers?

I called the lottery office in Harrisburg to get some information and they told me the deadline was fast approaching, that the ticket's owner would lose this king's ransom if he didn't get his butt in gear and step forward to claim the dough.

Now I'm sure many people across the great state of Pennsylvania had lost their lottery tickets. And I'm sure they were kicking themselves like I was as they saw a fortune disappearing before their eyes.

And they have a lot of company. About $570 million in lottery prizes went unclaimed last year, according to a USA Today story.

That didn't make me feel any better, proving that misery doesn't always love company.

I never did find that ticket so I don't know if I should rightfully be in a palace on the Isle of Capri lighting Cuban cigars with 100 dollar bills.

I don't actually smoke Cuban cigars or anything else, but if I won that lottery money I would gladly start.

Years before this, we were vacationing in the Poconos--where I would later live--and we were playing some bingo game that was being sponsored by one of the local supermarkets.

You got a ticket with each purchase so we split up so we'd have more purchases and thus more tickets. We were from New York and we thought we were pretty sharp. We were going to put one over on these hayseeds.

I checked out my stuff and I left something behind--I forget what. Now my sister was right behind me in the line, but she wasn't my sister then.

Get it? We were total strangers. I had never seen that girl before in my life.

Anyway, I start to walk out and my sister--the total stranger--pipes up.

"Little boy," she said, "you forgot something."

Little boy? Who talks that way? Didn't she know were pulling a scam? We were being closely watched and we could do hard time if we got busted.

I retrieved whatever the hell I forgot and slunk out the door, and I'm not one to slunk lightly, I'll tell you that.

Later my sister thought we had come up with a winning combination that was worth $750, which was a lot more money back then.

"I think we won!" she cried.

And what does my mother shout at this moment, when she could possibly be a big winner? She doesn't yell "Thank you, God!" or "It's about time our luck changed!"

No, my dear mother jumps out of her seat and screams..."Oh, no!"

Yes, that's right. Faced with the chance of coming into a ton of money, my mother immediately refuses to accept delivery. And I'm afraid that's a family trait. It's a fear of financial success, even though financial success would make us a lot happier.

I was at a party recently being held by The Interdependence Project, a mediation and yoga facility in the East Village.

They were raffling off all sorts of good and services. I think I bought five tickets. And moments later, I had four.

The raffle was starting and I was one fry short of a Happy Meal. What if I won? What the hell would I say?

Call the Pennsylvania State Lottery Commission and they'll vouch for me. That didn't seem plausible.

The winning numbers turned out to be so far off from the ones I held in my hand that I wondered if I was in the right place.

I left a short time later, relieved that I didn't start screaming in a place that holds weekly mediation classes and discussions based on Buddhist philosophy.

I still have no clue where I put those stamps. As my dear mother would say when I lost something, "it'll turn up" and it--whatever it was--always did.

I hope that turns out to be the case with these stamps because I don't feel like pissing away another fortune. I'd rather be trampled by an American Buffalo.

I'll keep looking for that envelope. But I'm staying clearing of the bottom drawer.

That one's all yours, Chester.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Exit Stage Left

I met a woman on the elevator today who had finally had enough.

"Going to lunch?" I asked her as we rode down to the lobby.

"No," she declared. "I'm going home!"

"Really?"

"Yes," she continued. "Did you ever have one of those days when you just can't take it anymore?"

One of those of days? Jesus, I've been having one of those days every day since the day I was born. If I had this woman's attitude, I would have gone back into the womb years ago.

"Well, good for you," I said. "Instead of going berserk in the office, you're going home so you won't have to kill anybody."

So we got down to the first floor, I went to the gym for my lunch time boxing workout and my elevator companion went home. I wonder how many office shoot-outs could have been avoided if people had done what she was now doing--going the hell home.

Maybe we all need to get in touch with our inner Snagglepuss.

Clearly that's not possible most days and I'd like to know what kind of office this woman works in that she can get away with this sort of thing. Sounds like I should be sending them a resume.

There seemed to be a lot hostility in the air tonight and I wonder if it has something to do with the looming specter of Christmas.


Bear in mind, I'm not talking about the celebration of our Savior's birth, but the retail blitzkrieg that drains our wallets, fattens out stomachs and ruins our souls.

I was on the Upper West Side tonight and I saw that the used book stand that normally occupies the corner of 73rd Street was gone, replaced now by rows of--yeow!--Christmas trees.

I hope that used book guy comes back, although he's gotten enough of my money to retire to Florida.

I walked into a bodega a block away and heard "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano on the radio. Worse yet, I started singing along with it as I paid for my ice tea.

I guess there's not stopping it, is there?

I was going into the bank on the corner when this woman walking two poodles got into a nasty exchange with a man walking down the street.

I don't know if this was part of a long-simmering neighborhood feud or one of those chance encounters that make New York such a charming place to live.

"Fuck you!" the man said to the woman, before turning around and continuing down the block.

"Fuck you!" The woman howled in some kind of Eastern European accent. "Fuck you, fag-guht! "

Please, Madame, not in front of the poodles.

I walked away from this scene, always a good idea in these situations, when I passed a young man with some kind of walkie-talkie cell phone. He was holding the thing about six inches from his mouth and speaking to it like it was a disobedient parrot.

"You're always in control of the situation," he told his pet phone. "You know that!"

Yes, and thanks to your loud tone of voice, we all know that. I should have introduced him to the foul-mouthed poodle lady.

Of course, I have issues of my own. Like that lady in the restaurant on Thanksgiving Day who kept staring at us during our dinner.

Take a Gander At This


Yes, I know, it's a week already. The leftovers should be gone by now, but this is a holiday mystery that won't go away.

We had just about finished our meal when I looked over to the bar and saw this thin, middled-aged woman with glasses staring at me and my entire family.

I turned away a few times, convinced I was being paranoid. I’ve seen my father fly off the handle in similar situations, only to be completely off-base.

I didn’t want to follow in that particular set of footsteps. And, this being New York, you can risk your life if get into a beef with a total stranger.

Anyway, it's ridiculous. This woman couldn't possibly be staring at us. I mean, what the hell for? So I looked in her direction.

And she was still staring at us.

I thought she was waiting for our table and, to be honest, it was taking a bit of time to get out of there as we dithered over the bill. I would forget about her, then look at the bar, and see her again.

I finally got out of my chair and walked to the front of the restaurant. It was insane, why would a total stranger eyeball us for no good reason? Maybe all the tryptophan was getting to me.

We finally got everybody out of the restaurant and gathered outside to wait for a car service. I look up and there she is, Miss Goggle Eyes, standing in the doorway, just behind my aunt, smoking a cigarette.

She came out of the place a short time later with a man I assumed was her husband.

"That was fun," I heard her say. Maybe for you, lady, but not me.

The car service came, we went our separate ways and I forgot all about my delusions concerning the lady with the glasses.

Until the next day, that is, when my sister called and said she noticed her, too. And my aunt, as well, who asked, “why is that woman staring at us?”

I know I should forget about her and get on with my life, but I can’t. I have to know. Maybe Meena can help me.

Meena is a SOUTHERN BORN spiritualist, according to handbill I picked up on the subway (complete with capital lettering sprinkled throughout).

Please note that I changed her name for this post on the off-chance that her power is real and that she'll turn me into an anteater.

“She seeks to help many thousands of people who have been CROSSED, HAVE SPELLS, CAN’T HOLD MONEY, WANT LUCK, WANT THEIR LOVE ONES BACK, WANT TO STOP NATURE PROBLEMS or WANT TO GET RID OF STRANGE SICKNESS.”

I wish someone would help Meena with her caps-lock button; it seems to be possessed.

But if she’s for real, maybe she can help explain the mystery of the lady with the glasses.

And while she’s at it, she can help me get rich, find a really hot girlfriend and take care of this pain in my elbow. After all, "she works her power to SATISFY each and everyone.

“She reveals to you all of the hidden secrets, evils (sic) eyes and lurking dangers that may harm you. If you really want something done about that matter HERE IS THE WOMAN WHO WILL DO IT FOR YOU IN A HURRY…See her in the morning. BE HAPPY AT NIGHT.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a different approach.They left a flier in my doorway that says “All Suffering Soon to End!”

Now, by that reasoning, I won’t to worry about the Lady with the Glasses anymore, since we’ll be in paradise. Thought it won’t be paradise if she’s there…staring at me…for eternity.

There's a nice color drawing on the flier, showing a man and a woman in a field. There are trees and flowers, and a lovely field with a moose standing behind them.

Yes, that's right, a moose. No, I don't know what the moose is doing there, but at least it's better than a poodle...or an anteater...or a lady with glasses.

I'm thinking more about that woman I met on the elevator today. Maybe I should get out of the cubicle in my brain and take the elevator to my soul.

Get away from all these hostile thoughts and weird memories, put an end to all suffering. Leave in the morning and be happy at night.

Somebody hit the down button for me.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Orphans' Holiday

It's almost 10 o'clock and Thanksgiving is nearly over.

My relatives and I did the restaurant thing in our neighborhood and it worked out fairly well.

It was a beautiful day here in New York and I went for a nice long walk before stuffing my face. It has turned much colder and I can hear the oil burner coming to life as I type this. Oy, that oil bill...

It's hard to believe that neither one of my parents is here with us on this day that celebrates families.

With my father's death in January, my siblings and I are officially orphans.

I actually had to ask my sister what we did last year since I kept drawing a blank. She reminded me that we first went to visit my dad at the nursing home in Coney Island then took the train to my aunt's place in Manhattan for dinner.

Ah, yes, I remember it well. It was raining something fierce that day and we took the bus to the Stillwell Avenue train station.

I remember going by Nathan's and seeing the place was open and serving customers.

I'd like to go back there one Thanksgiving or Christmas and interview the people who are eating hot dogs in a fast food joint instead of turkey with their families.

But not this year.

I'm taking Friday off, so I have a nice four-day weekend coming to me. I started things off last night by going out with some friends in my Bay Ridge Meetup last night.

On the way over to the Salty Dog, a bar in my neighborhood, I saw a group of young men--I think they were Arabs--hanging around a store front on Fifth Avenue.

One young man had gotten out of his car, which was haphazardly parked in a bus stop. A young woman was holding his face in her hands and speaking to him in hushed tones.

My instincts told me something was wrong and I felt this urge to cross the street. But sometimes if you make it too obvious that you're avoiding a certain group of people, you can provoke them and still end up getting your ass kicked.

This is life in the urban jungle.

So I walked right by them as I did, the young man broke away from his girlfriend, got a baseball bat out of the truck of his car and raced right by into the middle of the group.

"You mother fuckers!" he shouted, wielding the bat.

The group of men--there was about six of seven them--backed off, a couple of them told the bat boy to calm down, take it easy.

I kept walking, but I turned around in the middle of the block to see what was happening. The guy with the bat got right into one fellow's face.

"How about you, mother fucker? You got a problem?"

The guy apparently didn't have a problem, since he turned away. And I did the same thing, vowing to listen to my instincts next time and cross the freaking street.

I didn't know any of these people. I grew up in this neighborhood, but more and more I'm feeling more like an outsider.

I have no idea what this near-brawl was about, or who the psycho with the bat was or how the whole thing got resolved.

I don't believe there any serious injuries, as nothing cropped up in the news this morning. But it was strange having happen right in front of me.

We've had some brawls at holiday dinners over the years, but nobody ever reached for a baseball bat. At least not yet anyway.

A Spoonful of Sugar

In other news, the army thinks my father is alive. I say this because I got a package Tuesday from the V.A. filled with my father's medications.

I got used to receiving this package for the longest time. I'd open it up and put the pills in my father's medicine dispenser.

But since he died in January, I have no need for these pills and neither does he. I don't understand why just out of the blue they decide to send out medication for a deceased veteran.

It doesn't really bolster my confidence in the V.A., which admittedly has been nonexistent for many years now. I saw how these clowns operate and I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this latest blunder.

My dad used to refer to doctors as "pill rollers," a derogatory term that came from the army. He might have been on to something.

But it's a waste of time and taxpayers' dollars and it's just a little creepy. Pills for a dead man--it sounds like the opening for a "Twilight Zone" episode.

I also got one of these robot phone messages this week for some hospital claiming we owe them a balance of $265. I suspect this has something to do with my father's treatment.

I called this particular group of idiots on Wednesday, but they decided to take the day off. Well, they ain't getting a dime out of us.

It just seems that these weird things crop up right at the holidays and the people you need to speak to, the ones who can straighten all out, are not around.

It's like they've done their stupid deed of the day and now it's time for turkey, gravy and football.

Right now I'm thinking of a scene in Rocky when Rocky takes Adrian out on their first date.

"It's Thanksgiving," she protests.

"Yeah," he responds, "but to me it's Thursday."

Now I know how he feels. Without my parents around, and without a wife or children of my own, Thanksgiving loses a lot of its appeal.

But don't get me wrong. I am thankful that we had my parents for as long as we did. Most of my friends lost their folks a long time ago.

And am I thankful for the life I have now, my friends and family, the roof over my head and the food on my table.

You can become spoiled about until you see just how many people around the world don't have these basic items that make up a decent life.

Sometimes I complain that no one ever told me losing my parents--especially my mom--would hurt this much.

But what's the point? There's no way of describing this pain; you have to go through it. And you can't prepare for it. There's no vaccine, like a flu shot that will help withstand the heart ache.

You just have to stand on the tracks and let this freight train rip right through you. And then you have to get on with your life, even though it doesn't make much sense any more.

My life is shifting now. I'm making new connections and rekindling old ones, so it's kind of exciting.

I know my parents wouldn't want us to crash and burn after they died, but damn it, I really do wish they were here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Smoked Ribs


I stood outside Lundy's the other night peering through the dusty window.

At one time, this seafood place on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay was the supposedly the largest restaurant in America.

My father told me that he walked in there one night and there were over 2,000 people in the place. But that was years ago and now Lundy's is just an empty shell.

I was coming from a family birthday party and I stopped by to look at the place before walking back to the train station. It was hard to imagine all those bodies in this empty place.

I googled "Lundy's" tonight and in addition to getting hits about the famous restaurant, I also came across web sites devoted to an apparently fierce conflict in Canada called the Battle of Lundy's Lane that took place during the War of 1812.

While I'm certainly no historian, it bothered me that I had never heard of this particular encounter, which one site described as "the battle bloodiest ever fought on Canadian soil."

But that was a long time ago and now, besides the battle, you also get hits about the Comfort Inn located in Lundy's Lane.

Put Up Yer Dukes!

The dinner was pleasant and I was glad I was actually able to attend. I had taken a mean shot to the ribs during a boxing class on Thursday that hurt so much I was convinced I had some broken bones.

The funny thing--and when I say "funny" I mean "messed up"--was that I wasn't sparring, at least not officially.

The trainer was just working me with the mitts, but with this particular fellow, these mitt sessions can start to resemble a UFC title fight.

Wilton, a very nice guy, I might add, throws kicks, sweeps, backhands, all the stuff that Marquess of Queensberry said you shouldn't do. The class is labeled "boxing" on the gym web site, but perhaps Wilton doesn't search the net much.

He faked for my head, which I blocked, then threw a shot to my body, which I didn't. I grunted and kept going, but by two o'clock that afternoon I could barely walk.

The really strange thing--and when I mean "strange" I actually mean "strange"--was that I was feeling particularly positive that day.

I had lost one of my hand protector gloves, these fingerless numbers that are supposed to take the place of hand wraps, a week earlier--and then I found it on Thursday.

It is easier slipping these gloves on than wrapping your hands up like the Mummy, but they can be a little tight. I complained to a friend that the fingers in my left hand were getting numb during class and then--zap!--I lose one of the gloves.

Apparently celestial forces were at work. Or I'm just careless.

I went back to wrapping my knuckles, which I really disliked, since it takes so damn long and all my wraps are chewed up from years of abuse.

I called the gym, but, of course, no one had turned in my missing glove. So I wrote it off and planned on going on with the hand wrap routine.

On the way into work on Thursday, I gave my seat to a woman who go on at DeKalb Avenue. She was middle-aged, a working woman, and she really appreciated the seat. I was tired, but I thought she needed the seat more. And, hell, I sit all day at the job.

I go to my gym at lunch and then--zap!--there's my missing glove, just sitting on top of the equipment cage. Someone had assumed it belonged to the gym and tossed it into the cage with all the other gym equipment.

You see, I told myself, you do a good deed and get rewarded.

And then Wilton smashed me in the ribs.

I'm not sure how that part fits into the cosmic plan and I'm starting to suspect there ain't no plan, that we're all just kind of sailing through space here.

Mangia, Mangia


But at least I was able to make it to the birthday dinner. I had the shrimp fra diavolo and everyone at the table forced me to have dessert. I put up a struggle, but eventually I threw in the towel and ordered the tartufo.

Most of us will be meeting up again on Thanksgiving Day and--here it comes--I can't believe the holidays are upon us again.

I made this brilliant observation to the cashier at my local butcher shop and she nodded in agreement.

"People are so busy, so stressed," she said, "that they don't realize that time is flying by."

Quite true. I find it hard to believe I'm 50, but I was still one of the youngest people at the dinner table.

When we were leaving, I helped one of the guests out to a waiting car. She was on a walker, and nervous, having recently fallen. It felt familiar, as I had done this for my mother and father not so long ago.

We crossed Emmons Avenue, which apparently turns into a speedway after dark. I had my eye on one set of headlights that was coming straight at us, and I was muttering, "you are going to stop for us, aren't you, big guy?"

He did, fortunately, but when we got the lady to the car, the vehicle was so high up from the street, that this poor woman couldn't raise her foot high enough to get in.

It's hard to believe that someone could be that frail and constricted, but this is what happens when we age. It's tough, it's unfair, but there's no point in complaining.

We decided to call car service for this woman, and, so we had to walk back across Emmons Avenue. You can feel awfully vulnerable when you're there in the traffic with someone on a walker. But we made it.

"I don't know what I'd do without you," the woman said, which is the same thing my father told me last year when we brought him back from the nursing home in Coney Island.

It's touching to hear those words. It's also a little scary because I have no children and I'm not getting any younger. The holidays keep coming faster and faster and one day--if I make it--I'll be the one on the walker looking for help.

I thought about how important it is to enjoy life while you still can because time whips by so quickly. The meal was over by 8:30 p.m., still early on a Saturday night.

But I wound up going home and watching a DVD, which is a habit that needs to change.

Still, I had a nice meal with family, I got to take a stroll along Emmons Avenue, which, aside from some maniac drivers, is a hopping little spot.

And I actually helped a little old lady cross the street--twice.

And I've learned my lesson. Virtue really is its own reward and I do not expect any kind of divine compensation for doing a good deed. My ribs can't take it any more.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Icon Deficiency


My state senator sent me a birthday card last week.

"Wishing you the best on your special day," it said.

My birthday was back in May, so I was a little confused by my senator's card. Apparently the day was so special, no one told me about it.

The guy used to be a cop prior to his political career and seeing how slow he is on the birthday beat I'm glad he wasn't a fireman. I'll be sure to vote for him...in August.

Actually, I could use a friend in high places right now to help me get my truck back. When I say "my truck," I don't mean a real truck, naturally, I mean the huge billboard of a truck that once loomed over the West Side Highway.

It belonged to Yale Express System, but when I was growing up it was known as "Robert's truck."

Whenever we went up to Bear Mountain or to my Aunt Loretta's place in Upper Manhattan, I made sure to look for my truck.

The thing was monstrous and it looked like it was going to fly off its moorings and land right next to us. I'd always look into the cab and check on the driver's silhouette and try to imagine who this guy was and where he was going.

"There's your truck," my mother would say.

It was a big deal when I was a kid.

Yale Express went out of business years ago, according to the Times.

United Rentals moved into the building where the truck was perched a few years ago and fixed up my truck, but then that cracker box eyesore known as the Javits Center, which owns the property, decided to expand. Just what we need, right?

I never liked the late Jacob Javits, God forgive me, and I like his eponymous boondoggle even less. (Hey, that's a pretty cool name: Eponymous Boondoggle, attorney at law. I'll have to use that some time.)

So my truck was removed from the building a few weeks ago and demolished. Not even my birthday-challenged state senator can do anything to save it.

I know I sound like the old geezer whining about the good old days, but I loved that truck. It's not just an important symbol from my childhood, it was also a neighborhood fixture that could be seen for miles.

It was an impressive piece of work, too, not some digital mirage cooked up by a gang of software-wielding geeks. That fake truck was the real McCoy.

October seems to have been a bad month for icons in my life. The Times also reports that Newark's Lincoln Motel has also been demolished.

However, unlike the Yale Express System, I will shed no tears for this particular structural assassination. In fact, it sounds like it was long overdue, as the place was a hangout for all sorts of lowlifes.

I know the place because I drove by there on most weekends for five years, back when I was working at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

There was so little to do in Stroudsburg and the drive wasn't that bad, especially at night when I worked, so I'd get some clothes together and haul ass back to Brooklyn.

The Lincoln Motel was one of those landmarks that told me I was getting close to home. Traffic would get heavier and crazier as I got deeper into the urban area.

There was one stretch of highway I used to call "The Animal Run" because it seemed motorists would go through this personality change as they went under a particular overpass, driving faster and crazier as they approached New York.

Then I'd drive by that huge, cheesy sign bearing the 16th president's image and I'd say to myself, "gosh, what a way to honor old Honest Abe."

I pictured Lincoln looking down from heaven and saying, "aw, gee, boys, you shouldn't have." And he was right. They really shouldn't have named this blood bucket after him.

The guy had enough to handle with the Civil War and the Ford's Theatre's thing--did he really need to have his moniker slapped onto a no-tell motel in freaking Newark?

Maybe the giant Lincoln climbed down from the sign and drove off in my truck. You could hardly blame him. 10-4, Mr. President, and watch out for the Smokeys.

I'm A-Walkin' in the Rain

I stumbled upon another local icon Friday when I was walking around the Upper West Side.

I had just come from the Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway, where Mariane Pearl, widow of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, was reading from her latest book, In Search of Hope.

She seemed to be a lovely woman, pushed onto the world stage by this horrible incident. Smiling shyly, she read a few pages from her book and then opened the floor to questions.

One woman, who seemed to be old enough to know better, asked the "Duh!" question of the night.

"Why do you think they kidnapped and killed your husband?"

Gee, lady, why don't you take your head out of your butt and get some fresh air? Fortunately, Mrs. Pearl had a little more class than that. A few awkward seconds went by as she searched for the right words.

"Well, it's complicated," she said. "I wrote a book about it..."

Yes and I believe it was called...wait, don't tell me...oh, yeah, A Mighty Heart. And what luck, Einstein, we just happen to be in a bookstore. Maybe you can pick up a copy while you're here?

I know, I know, too harsh, too crabby. I wrote some of Mrs. Pearl's comments about tolerance and hope on the margins of Friday's paper and naturally I can't find them now, but it's clear I have a lot to learn from this woman.

After the reading, I headed south in search of a place to eat. Being alone ruled out most restaurants because I wasn't about to sit at table alone on a Friday night, even if they're giving the food away for free.

I might as well have "LOSER!" tattooed to my forehead and get it over with.

I was about to go to some fast food dump when I found Big Nick's on 77th Street and Broadway.

This was a classic, old New York diner, which should join the Amargosa vole on the endangered species list.

Now, the name "Big Nick" must refer to the owner, because the diner itself is only slightly larger than a phone booth. I put my coat on the revolving stool and sat down in what felt like a diner museum.

Oldies were playing on the sound system--stuff like "Duke of Earl" by Gene Chandler. It was like being in a time warp.

A small TV screen--there wasn't room for a large one--was showing Three Stooges shorts with no sound, which put a strange spin on the whole Stooge experience. Moe's various blows didn't seem so painful in this noiseless vacuum.

The menu was larger than a lot of small town telephone books. There were little signs all over the place.

Directly in front of me was a list of different types of burgers, like an extended family: Veal Burger, Turkey Burger, Shrimp Burger, Vole Burger--just kidding.

One sign read "Close the Refrigerator Door by Hand." I could ask how else would you close the door, but I'm afraid of the answer.

Another sign over the counter read "Everybody Must Change the Ice," which I suppose was meant for the staff, but it was taped over my side of the counter, so I half-expected someone to give me a shovel and a bucket and say, "get to work, knucklehead."

I was tempted to order the Sumo Burger, which was a solid one-pound of turkey chop meat, but I was afraid I'd end up looking like a sumo wrestler.

And Thanksgiving is just around the corner anyway. So I ordered the vegetarian chilli with rice.

To be honest, I reall don't remember much about the food. I loved this place, the crowd, the noise, the Stooges. I could eat there every day.

My waiter told me the place opened in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for God's sake. Now that's an icon.

I threw the tip down on the counter and the waiter offered me a free bit of pastry. How often does that happen? I couldn't make out the name because of his accent, but I believe it was some Greek confection and it was delicious.

As I paid my bill at the register, "Runaway" by Del Shannon came on the sound system and I wanted to hang a little longer just to hear this gem.

It was raining went I left, but I didn't care. I hadn't met the woman of dreams, and I couldn't recall Mrs. Pearl's comments, but I learned a great lesson in Big Nick's.

Everybody must change the ice. If we all do that much, the world will be a better place and every day will be a special day.

Keep on truckin'...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Mother of A Night


Mom always said I should get a good night's sleep and I'm starting to see why.

I'm on the Netflix routine, so every weekend, I jam a couple of DVD's into the old player piano and catch up on the movies and TV shows that I've been missing.

For the last few weeks I've been watching an HBO series called Carnivale, a enjoyably bizarre little tale that got canned a couple of years ago.

It has one of the most entertaining opening credit sequences that I've ever seen, with a swooping camera that goes into tarot card images which then morph into Depression Era newsreel footage.

The show's got all sorts of weird, supernatural elements that I enjoy and, while I've heard the program ended with a lot of loose ends hanging, I still intend to ride down this dead end street until I run out of blacktop.

I watched an episode last week where the hero, a young man with a mysterious past--naturally--is being tortured by strange dreams.

I was watching late Saturday night and I must have nodded off. The next thing I remember I was sitting across the table from my mother.

She was wearing what looked like my old blue trench coat and I wonder if that was some connection to the garage sale we had last month. We brought out the old clothes and other family stuff, maybe some memories tagged a long.

My mother said nothing in this dream and her face was a blank slate--no emotion at all. I find this so frustrating,so disturbing. I want to hear her voice, I want her to speak to me, to tell me things, but instead she just stares at me.

Of course,the last time I dreamed out her was in profile, so at least now she was looking my way.

My sister thinks this was a visitation, but I think this was a dream inspired by the TV show, a bit of subconscious channel surfing that produced this little number.

Still, why would I dream of my mother, especially since I dream about her so rarely?

Before the Beginning

I had gone to to a friend's birthday earlier in the evening at a fabulous Cuban restaurant on Eighth Avenue.

I was a little apprehensive, as I didn't know who would be there, but it turned out to be a great night, with just four people, delicious food, and wild Latin jazz.

The place reminded me why I like New York so much. Yes, the city has theater, museums, and Central Park, but it also funky little places like this.

I had actually thought about not going to this dinner and I'm glad I didn't give to that comfort zone way of thinking.

However, something happened on the way to the restaurant that I think is worth mentioning. As I rode on the D train, a young couple got on at West Fourth Street with their baby.

The man was white, the woman was Asian, and their little girl was adorable. She sat there on the bench looking around and making these funny sounds like a cartoon character.

She was so beautiful, and the couple seemed so happy, that I had this incredible mood swing in a matter of seconds.

One moment I was admiring this lovely child, feeling happy and tender, and then in the next moment, I realized I don't have a kid of my own and probably never would, and this terrible sadness came over me.

It was so bad and so sudden that I wanted to put my face in my hands and cry my eyes out.

I was able to control myself and I got off at Rockefeller Center. But clearly this is not a good way to live. I wonder now if this parental longing somehow resulted in the dream about my mother.

Is she disappointed in me for not giving her grandchildren? I doubt it. My mother wasn't that kind of person.

Is she trying to comfort me? It's too hard to say. The look on her face betrays no emotion whatsoever.

Maybe if I thought about her more often, I might get some answers. To be brutally honest, I live in the past, replaying old slights and insults until the years evaporate and the pain is like new.

I have all these fond memories of my mother, of all the good times we had together, you'd think I'd replay some of those on my emotional juke box, instead of blasting myself with the past.

The only trouble with that reasoning, of course, is that every time I do call up a treasured memory of my mother, I slide into sadness when I think that I'll never see her again.

I had one more strange dream a few nights ago. This was truly a nightmare, though, where I'm in a church wearing nothing but a towel.

I had terrified, helpless, Apparently, in this dream, this was the second time I ended up nearly naked in a church.

I dove under the table holding the votive candles and tried to hide, but then a fat ugly nun--redundant?--waddles down the aisle holding a flashlight.

She shines her wicked beam on me and gives me the "get lost" thumb. As I get up, doing my best to cover myself, I tell the bouncer-nun that Jesus wouldn't throw people out of church.

"Jesus didn't live in here all the time," she responded.

Now how come this psychopath can address me directly when I can't get a word out of my own mother? I guess that's why they call these things nightmares.

A church is usually considered a place of refuge, a sanctuary--remember The Hunchback of Notre Dame?--but in this dream I was getting the bum's rush by a flashlight-wielding nun.

She was like one of the ushers (usherettes?) that used to work at the old Fortway Theater when I was growing up.

As a victim of a Catholic school education, I have a boundless distaste for nuns. The ones I had at school were horrible people who should not have been allowed anywhere near a child, let alone teach one.

So in this dream I am exposed, literally, and kicked out of a place of worship by a nightmare figure from my childhood. Is the nun some dark version of my mother?

Some orders actually refer to the sisters as "Mother." I do, too, but I usually add a second word to that title just to show them how I really feel.

I can't blame a TV show for this latest nightmare, not when I have 8 years of Catholic school behind me.

Or is it behind me?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

One More Time


Well, I did it again.

Tonight, I participated in the class show for the Solo Performer 2 course I'm taking at the People's Improv Theater, or The PIT, as we like to call it.

I took the first class earlier this year and we had our class show in May.

I am not a natural actor and I don't speak in public, so these classes push me in ways I never thought possible.

In the theater they like to say "break a leg." Last night I damn near busted a toe walking into my room. I let out such a yelp I must have frightened people two zip codes away. But the show must go on.

I wasn't happy with my performance tonight, to be honest. I stuttered a couple of times, but I also think I "acted" better this time around. I was conveying emotion, and not just reading.

I spoke about losing my parents and how difficult it was dealing with my dad, who suffered from Alzheimer's, so there is no shortage of emotion here.

One of my classmate's had invited several friends and family to the show and when I came out of the theater I heard one of them say, "there he is." Meaning me--one woman patted my shoulder and told me how much she enjoyed the show.

"My mother died from Alzheimer's," she said.

I think I relied too much on reading tonight, rather than memorization. I see now that the more you remember, the more natural you become.

I'll get another shot at this: In December, we'll be doing our 30 minute (!) shows, which means yours truly will be on the stage by himself for half a freaking hour.

What the hell was I thinking? Damned if I know. I am Catholic, after all and self-abuse comes naturally.

As much as I love this class, I have to say it is taking time away from the other thousand projects I'm working on.

But I'm going to give it my all and devote myself to cleaning out the artistic closet: shoot the film, finished the goddamn novel, and write the screenplay.

Here's the text of tonight's performance. Some of this may be familiar, since I've been writing about this topic for some time now. Nevertheless, here you go...


Breathe With Me

I dreamed one night that my father was still alive.

He was walking through the living room of our house in Brooklyn in his boxer shorts and I could tell by the brown stains around his calves that he had soiled himself…and I’d have to clean him up.

As I guided him into the bathroom to give him his shower, like I had so many times before, I felt confused rather than elated at seeing my father among the living.

I thought I didn’t have to do this anymore, I said to myself. I thought I was free.

Didn’t we bury my father back in January, just a few freezing days into the New Year? Didn’t my family come together to watch as he was laid to rest alongside my mother, who had died five years earlier?

I saw the honor guard standing at attention around his casket, in tribute to his time as a soldier during World War II.

I remember the bugler playing taps and the head of the honor guard walking over to my sister with this slow, robotic dignity, and presenting her with the folded flag that had draped my father’s coffin, and expressing thanks on behalf of the president, the President of the United States, and a grateful nation for my father’s honorable service.

And now you’re telling me none of that happened? The wake, the funeral, the honor guard, that was the dream? It all took pace in my head, a bit of wishful thinking expanded into a feature-length fantasy?

My father had the Alzheimer’s, not me.

So I still have to take care of the old guy, get up in the middle of the night whenever he has to go the bathroom, go with him to his doctor’s appointments at the V.A. Hospital, and face his explosive temper—as well as my own?

I have to go back to all that misery? Is that what you’re telling me?

And that’s when I woke up and found myself in my parent’s bedroom—alone. My father really is dead, so I don’t have to bathe him, feed him, wash his filthy underwear or give him his pills three times a day.

I don’t have to be responsible for him in any way whatsoever. And in that moment of realization, I felt such joy at being relieved of duty, like a solider getting his discharge papers.

And then I felt such incredible shame for what I was thinking.

My father had always been a tough customer, a hard case, and having Alzheimer’s hadn’t helped things any. When we were growing up he had a series of colorful expressions he’d use to get his point across:

“I’ll lose my shoe up your ass!”

“I’ll knock you into the middle of next week!”

“I’ll turn you every way but loose!”

“I’ll kick your ass up through your collar!”

Or for those times when he was feeling especially poetic, he’d say, “death will come on swift wings.”

But yet, this was the same man who would comfort me when I was worried about something by quoting Gen. Patton’s line: “never take counsel of your fears.”

When faced with a difficult task, he gave me the greatest advice, simply by saying, “better behind you than in front of you.”

And he told me the three rules for survival in the U.S. Army that work just as well in civilian life: “keep your mouth shut, your bowels open, and don’t volunteer.”

I’ve lived in my parents’ house most of my life. I’m not proud of that—quite the opposite, actually—but that’s just how things worked out. Or how I let them work out.

After working at small newspapers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, I came back to New York for a job at a trade magazine and moved in with my parents: just for a short time, until I found my own place.

That was 10 years ago. I’ve got plenty of excuses as to why I never moved out: I couldn’t hold to a steady job, I was afraid I’d wind up homeless. And, hey, my parents needed me.

So the years went by, I stayed still while my mom and dad got older and older.

It’s been said when you have elderly parents that you become the parent. But that’s not really true. It’s not the same as the young couple who brings a new life into the world. You’re not filled with hope or joy.

Instead of watching your loved one grow and learn, and experience new things, you see your mom and dad become slower, weaker…feeble.

Their world shrinks, until it’s down to a few rooms in the house or a bed in the nursing home.

You’re like a gardener tending a dying plant.

My mother was the first to go, a victim of lung disease. It got so bad--and she became so frightened--that she’d call me into her bedroom on some nights and plead “breathe with me, breath with me,” as if I had some divine power to keep her failing lungs working.

And I’d do it; I would breathe with her. We’d look into each other’s eyes, like acrobats about to perform a difficult stunt, and I’d inhale slowly, exaggerating the motion, flaring my nostrils, and exhaling through pursed lips: smell the roses, blow out the candles; smell the roses, blow out the candles.

I only wish I could have kept her breathing. But her condition worsened, she went in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, until one summer day her doctor called me to say my mother had gone into cardiac arrest.

By the time I got to the hospital she was gone.

My father aged rapidly after that. For a while, he’d drive over to Staten Island nearly every day to visit her grave--“going to see Mom,” is how he put it, as if he were meeting her for tea.

But that stopped after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and my father, a salesman for 30 years, could no longer drive a car. He stopped washing, unless I pestered him, and the line between the past and the present began to disappear for him.

Sometimes he’d come into my room at night with this puzzled look on his face.

“Where’s mom? I don’t see her anymore.”

“She’s gone, dad. We lost her.”

“I miss her.”

“Yeah, dad, me, too.”

We had some tough times, though. Between his dementia and my self-loathing, our house could be a pretty volatile place.

The worst was on Memorial Day one year, when I was at the kitchen sink and he was suddenly right on top of me.

I snapped at him to give me some room, for Christ’s sake and then he bellowed into my ear, like he’d been doing all my life.

I got so angry at him, so sick of him screaming at me, that I put my hands against his chest and…pushed him back. I only wanted some space, some room, damn it, in this huge empty house--I felt like I was on the IRT at rush hour.

But I forgot how old and weak my father was-- no longer the man who once hoisted me on his shoulders to see JFK at Coney Island ages ago. No, this man was frail, unsteady, and he fell backwards, crashing hard to the kitchen floor.

You know, there were times in my life when I really wanted to let my father have it, to kick his ass up through his collar and knock him into the middle of next week.

But as I watched him struggled to his feet that day, like a boxer trying to beat the referee’s count, I realized I didn’t want to do the oedipal smack down; I didn’t want to live in a world where I could overpower my father.

I didn’t want to be him.

So I ran; I left the house, desperate to alone. But I had forgotten about the Memorial Day parade that was being held in our neighborhood, where men like my father were being honored, not thrown to the ground.

There they were, veterans as far as the eye could see: Korea, Vietnam, and, yes, World War II.

And if these brave soldiers knew what I had just done, they would have banded together and formed the biggest firing squad in modern history.

We patched things up that day, but there were other skirmishes. Once last summer he tried to hit me and I got so angry, I shrieked “May God strike you dead!” like some backwoods Bible-thumping preacher.

But at least this time I didn’t attack him; I was the adult, the mature one, the parent, and I left the house before I did any damage.

And then one night around Christmas my evil wish came true. My father got out of bed to go the bathroom, fell down and hit his head. A short time later, on the first Sunday of 2007, he died.

So now I’m in our family’s house, alone. We’re slowly cleaning the place out and fixing it up so we can sell it.

Some days, I feel overwhelmed, like I’m at the bottom of well, a mouse in a deserted cathedral.

There are too many memories here and not enough people. I’m suffocating in all this emptiness.

When we finally do sell the place, we should have a ceremony. My siblings and I will stand at attention outside our house.

I’ll walk over to the new owners with this slow robotic dignity and present them with the keys while a bugler blows taps.

But taps marks the end of one soldier’s life. The others, the survivors, must keep marching, keep fighting.

That’s what our parents want us to do. They want us to keep smelling the roses and blowing out the candles.

Breathe with me; breathe with me.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sale of the Century


We sold off a bit our family history the other week, but there was plenty left over at the end of the day.

My sister and I held a part of a garage sale outside our house in an attempt to clear out the closets and raise some money for some home improvement.

I’ve walked by scores of these things in my life: someone takes all their stuff from the attic or basement and hopes for the best.

But this is the first time I ever sat on the other side of the table. And I hope it’s the last.

I mean, it wasn’t so terrible; we actually met some very nice people. But we gave up a Saturday and wound up with a grand total of $53.

Still, as my late father used to say, that’s $53 dollars we didn’t have before.

We sat there, surrounded by old clothes, knick-knacks, and other such stuff that we’ve found in the course of our clean-up.

Earlier in the week we had gone around the neighborhood putting up fliers announcing the sale and I posted a notice on Craigslist, complete with an image of a treasure chest bursting with booty—the pirate kind, not the other kind of booty.

I called the event the “Last Chance” garage sale, reminding people that winter was coming and that they better hustle if they want to get in on the bargains.

It’s strange putting your family’s property up for sale. You watch people rifle the clothes rack and you want to tell them, “hey, that belonged to my mother; show a little respect, huh?”

But I recall the times I’ve gone to these sales and handled the items so casually because they meant nothing to me.

Are we being too money-hungry? Would our parents be angry if they knew we were doing this? Hell, it’s not the vital stuff; it’s just things that we’ll either throw out or give away when we sell the place. I’d like to think they’d applaud our initiative.

My sister showed a natural skill for selling. As soon as a potential customer got
close, she’d approach them and ask “are you looking for anything in particular
today?”

I took a more laisse-fare approach, not wanting to scare off the customers—or be forced to haggle.

I confess I was dreading this day, convinced I’d be buffaloed into giving away the store by some smooth-talking flea market veteran. But, while I did give up one item a little too quickly, I made it through the day without being ripped off.

One of our first customers was a Hispanic man who was looking for some clothes. My sister asked he wanted some toys for his family, but he told us they were back in Mexico.

He bought a pair of gym pants and a jacket with “Brooklyn” emblazoned on the front that had belonged to the lowlife former tenants of ours.

I’m sure this man was working here illegally, so I felt good that he had some decent clothes for the winter. I don’t envy him being so far from loved ones.

Later it occurred to me that I had found a sweatshirt with a hood upstairs and washed it with the intent of keeping it for myself. It was only later that I discovered the zipper was broken.

I wish now I had given that sweatshirt to the Mexican guy--on the house. He could have gotten the zipper fixed and the sweatshirt would have paired well with the jacket.

Another lady bought a stuffed bear on a leash that belonged to my sister. She told us that she was going to give it to her sister, who, as a child, had dangled a similar stuffed bear out the window of her father’s car.

You know what happened next, don’t you? The chain broke and the bear tumbled onto the highway, never to be seen again.

One woman bought my Grand Canyon guide book. I had gone there in 1998 and I didn’t need the book anymore—the memory of that trip is permanently etched in my brain.

Still, it’s strange, watching someone walk away with your property. Only it’s not your property anymore, it’s someone else’s. And that’s what it’ll be like when we sell the house.

My Back Pages

A man with some kind of Eastern European accent was interested in records. We have a lot of old albums, but I didn’t want to put them out because I want an expert to take a look at them first. I’d be pretty angry if I handed over a classic LP for a buck fifty.

There was a story just recently about a woman who found a painting lying in the trash four years ago that could now could fetch up to $1 million at auction.

But I went into my room and took some records out of my closet. As I went out into the daylight I saw a recording of the Sherlock Holmes’ story The Adventures of the Speckled Band read by Basil Rathbone.

My mother had bought this and other such records for us when we were kids. My brother and I used to listen to The Adventures of Sinbad, Treasure Island, The Castaways, and stories by Edgar Allen Poe.

This was long before DVD players and I-pods and we enjoyed the hell out of them.

Like the old time radio dramas, these records made you use your imagination to create the pictures that were being described to you. And since we were all big fans of the Sherlock Holmes movies, we loved the records.

And now some stranger was putting his grubby little hands all over that childhood gift from my mother.

I sat there stewing, praying he wouldn’t chose that record, all of the others in the pile, because if he did, I’d have to sell it to him and I’d watch him walk down the street with that piece of my mother’s memory tucked under his arm, and I’d either have a nervous breakdown or chase him the block with ball peen hammer.

It was time for action, not hand wringing.

“Excuse me,” I said, pointing to the Rathbone record. “There’s been a mistake. That one’s not for sale.”

The guy handed it over without any complaint and he wound up buying some album of songs we had gotten as a freebie. That was a close one, Watson.

Then there was this very lovely woman who bought many of my mom’s art supplies.

My mom was into ceramics and other artsy-craftsy stuff and this woman, who was a teacher, bought some brushes and other items for her class. It was nice to see my mom’s stuff going on to a new generation.

And then this woman—I’ve since forgotten her name—happened to open one of the craft books, flip through the pages, and out fell a color photo that must have been at least 35 years old.

It’s a picture of me—God, what happened to all that hair?—my then-best friend and his older sister. We’re all kneeling in front of their Christmas tree, my friend with his arm linked through his sister’s while I’m holding her right hand.

I’m wearing a scarf with the Midas logo—the Midas muffler, get it?—a gift from my friend’s other sister, who ran a Midas shop with her husband.

The picture takes me back to a place where I don’t want to be. I was the second-banana then, the best friend, the one who made the jokes, but was never respected, never taken seriously.

And what’s worse is that my friend’s sister died a short time later—from pneumonia, I believe.

She was a very small, sweet woman, and Christ, I don’t think she made it to 40 years old. I guess my friend and I weren’t holding on to her tightly enough.

She and her husband had lived in Danbury, Conn., and my friend and I had visited them one summer for a few days. The next time I went back there it would in the winter for her funeral.

I remember the wake, when my friend’s mother reached into her daughter’s coffin and started speaking to her, as if she could hear, as if she would come back to life and get out the casket.

Apparently my mother had held on to this photo and then forgot about it. While I’m glad we didn’t give it away, I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it. It's now in the pages of another book.

My sister had to leave late in the day and a short time later a couple parked their car in front of our house and started looking at our goods.

“Are you looking for anything in particular today?” I asked, getting into the salesman routine.

The woman picked a blouse that had belonged to my mother, but the price tag was still on it, so she never wore it.

We might have bought it for her when she was sick, hoping she would one day be well enough to wear it. Only that day never came.

I was supposed to start the bidding at 5 bucks, but I blurted out three for some reason.

“Would you take two?” the woman asked.

It was late, I was tired, and I had screwed up. I suspected this couple relied on the lateness of the day to get a break in the prices.

After six hours of sitting outside, you just want to get this stuff out of your life. So I went for two bucks.

We closed up a little while later and we won’t do this again until the spring.

One of our neighbors asked me later that evening, “are you ready for E-bay yet, darling?”

Yeah, I think I am.

I was going to my gym in Park Slope yesterday and I saw people holding a garage sale outside their house.

The stuff looked like junk mostly, but then my family’s items must have looked the same way to other people. I hope this people flipped through the books they wanted to sell to make sure they wouldn’t lose any valuable photos.

I checked out the DVD’s, but I didn’t see anything I liked, so I kept walking.

“Hello!” a voice called out. I turned and saw a woman walking toward me.

“Are you looking for anything special?” she asked.

“No, thank you,” I said, and kept walking.