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!"


"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.


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 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.