Saturday, May 26, 2007

New Grand Opening

I saw a sign in the window of a Chinese restaurant that I think should be the theme of my 50th birthday.

It was a handwritten note taped to the window that read "Grand Reopening."

Now to the best of my knowledge, this place has not been sold, did not close down for renovations, or changed its menu. The only thing different about the place is the sign.

I'm guess I'm showing my age here, but I can remember when a restaurant used to have one grand opening and that was it. I figured a grand opening was like virginity, once you lose it, you really do lose it. Apparently, I was wrong.

I could quibble about the word choice, but I like the idea of taking something you can only do once and doing it again. Hell, every day for a restaurant is a grand opening if you really wanted to stretch the point.

I think I'll look at my life in the same way. Every day will be a grand opening and I'll keep it going until I get it right.

So far, I'm off to a good start. Here I am, just a few days into AARP country, and I actually got proofed tonight at a local watering hole.

Can you believe that? I hit the half-century mark and someone actually wants to check and see if I'm legally entitled to have a drink. That's a real birthday present.

I had spent the evening at a jazz club in Park Slope, a tiny place on Fifth Avenue where the leader of the quartet was a very versatile fellow who played two trumpets at the same time. I have trouble getting a decent tune out of a kazoo.

I stayed for one set then decided to check out this new bar in Bay Ridge on 74th Street.

The place just opened and it's done up in an Alpine ski lodge motif, which is perfect given that it's in Brooklyn and it's been unseasonably warm during this Memorial Day weekend. Naturally everybody's mind is on skiing.

I wonder if the place is intended to be a kind of museum for people born after global warming. Yes, children, it once got cold on Earth, and this is how people used to have to fun...

The place was packed with mostly young people--the young own the night on the weekends--but I went in when I saw a few women in my age bracket at the bar.

I was just thinking that the bar was a pretty cool place when I heard someone shouting, loudly and rather rudely, I might add, "hey! hey!"

It was the bouncer, a hulking, tattooed, steriod-pumped young man who had abandoned his position at the front door to play Joker Poker. I couldn't believe he was serious, but one look into his intellect-free eyeballs told me that he was not kidding.

Mongo Kill!

A guy at my gym said my friends were pulling a practical joke on me and had gotten the bouncer to proof me, but this was a last-minute decision, so that can't be it. This guy really wanted to check my ID.

I dug out my driver's license and handed it to him. I was hoping he might actually do the math and realize that I had just hit a birthday milestone a few days before, maybe buy me a drink...hint, hint. I even put out my arms and cocked my head, silently asking, hey, how about that?

Nothing. He just nodded, handed back my license and returned to Joker Poker. I think he was just automatically checking anyone who walked through the door and clearly he had been hired for his bulk rather than his brain.

I received several gift certificates for my birthday and I treated myself to a book entitled "Fifty Things to Do When You Turn Fifty." The book covers such vital topics as health, finance, and fashion and hopefully I'll read it before I turn sixty.

My cousin in Minnesota gave me some great advice about turning 50: don't do it. Unfortunately, his e-mail arrived a few days too late, but I'll keep it mind.

I've been telling people my age because my fragile ego needs to hear people say that I look much younger. I was working out with Wilton, one of the boxing instructors at the New York Sports Club, the other night and it was pretty brutal, especially for a man my age.

When you work with Wilton on the focus mitts, it's more like an assault than a workout. He hits you coming and going, sometimes when he's not even looking. This week he threw some kicks into the mix, prompting me to ask if this was a gym class or the UFC.

When class was over, I told Wilton my age and he joined the legion of the surprised.

"Good for you," he said. "You're halfway there."

"From your mouth to God's ear," I said.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "And I'm still going to be beating you up."

I had a quick image of Wilton chasing me around the nursing home, whacking me with the focus mitts, while I tried to roll away from him in my wheelchair. I decided to hit the showers.

I'll tell you who is almost all the way there: a convicted mobster by the name of Albert "The Old Man" Facchiano, who was just sentenced to six months in prison on federal racketeering charges.

I'm not sure, but I suspect the nickname is somehow related to the fact that Mr. Facchiano is 97 years old--yes, that's right, the guy is three years short of being a century old and he's still breaking the law.

The Old Man got his start in the days of Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, which sounds like a mafia version of "Jurassic Park." In addition to the jail time, Facchiano must serve 18 months probation, which sounds rather optimistic, if you ask me.

What did this guy do? Shake down little old ladies for the Social Security checks? At his age, it doesn't sound like he'd be much of a threat, but the old timers can fool you. And I think it's great that a senior citizen is staying active, rather than sitting at home and watching TV.

Good for you, Al. See you when you get out--just in time for your grand reopening.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Half-Century Man


You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.

Don't let yourself indulge in vain wishes.


--Rabindranath Tagore

So now it’s official. I’m 50 years old today.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been around for half a century. Five decades. Fifty years. A hell of a lot of time.

It doesn't like that when I look over my life, but when you say fifty years--fifty years--it's kind of scary.

I just got off the phone with my brother in San Francisco and we talked about how time just disappears, how what seems like an eternity in childhood just flies by when you're an adult.

So let's look back a little, shall we? On this day in history, the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883.

The first public parking garage opened its doors in 1899; Samuel Morse sent the first telegraphic message—“What hath God wrought?”—1844, and the Marx Brothers first movie, "The Cocoanuts," opened in 1929.

And, on this day in 1957, Robert Kent Lenihan was born in Shore Road Hospital in beautiful Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The hospital was torn down years ago, but I’ll still kicking, more or less.

I’ve got the usual complaints about not being where I want to be at this point in my life, but I’ve beaten that drum for so long, even I can’t stand the sound of it. Enough already, live your goddamn life and enjoy it.

So today I’ll celebrate. I’m thankful to have made it this far and I pray that I’ll be around many more years.

It was such a beautiful day in New York today that I’ve decided to take credit for it. This lovely weather has been sent to our city in honor of my birthday.

The day started early with my sister calling me at about 7:15 am—while I was meditating—to wish me a happy birthday and do her Sally O’Malley impersonation. (“You’re 50! 50 years old!”)

I should mention here that both my sister and good friend Sal each gave me the same birthday card.

It features a picture of luscious young woman taking a shower while saying “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Inside the card, it reads “I asked her if she thought you were old.” Zing!

I finally recovered from Saturday’s birthday extravaganza, but I was pretty much useless for most of Sunday. My bud Hank took me out of Tuesday to the Five Points Restaurant on Great Jones Street and tonight my sister and I went to my aunt’s house for dinner.

On the way into work this morning I bought a plastic poppy from a World War II veteran. He was standing on Wall Street trying to get donations for veterans, but no one was paying much attention to him.

In Flanders Fields, the Poppies Blow

I think many people don't know the meaning of Memorial Day, while others just don't want to part with the money. I gave the man a dollar and told him my dad had fought in the war.

"Is he still around?" he asked.

"No," I said, "he's gone."

"So many of them are," he said.

"God bless you," I said, and went to work. It didn't occur to me until an hour later that this may have been the same man I spoke with a year ago, back when my dad was still alive. It's nice to think so.

This being Thursday I decided to go to Trinity Church for the laying on of the hands.

I’ve done this a few times before and I’ve always found it comforting. I was feeling pretty good today and I started to panic as I lined up to receive the blessing (is that what they call it? I’m Catholic, so I’m not sure).

You’re not suffering, I scolded myself. You shouldn’t be here. You’re a fraud.

I thought of my grandmother, Clorinda Ferrari, who shared a birthday with me. She died when I was in the fifth grade and I asked her not to get angry with me for taking part in a protestant ceremony.

Then I calmed down. I didn’t have to be a basket case to take part in this ceremony, so I stepped forward and told the woman (Reverend? I really have to get this straight.) that I was fifty years old today.

“Happy Birthday,” she said, smiling.

“I never thought I’d be this old,” I said.

She laughed, said that 50 isn’t old anymore, and I told her that I was still trying to find my way. The reverend put her hands on my head and encouraged me to believe in God, to dare with God, to walk with God.

It was such a lovely experience that any kind of guilt I had melted away. Guilt is such a Catholic trait anyway. I don't think the Episcopalians have much to do with it and I'm sure they're better off.

This service never ceases to amaze me: here I am, a 21st Century man, a believer in science and technology, yet I so love this religious ceremony that flies in the face of all things logical.

I love it because for about 30 seconds some one in this cold, nasty world actually cares about you and tries to help. Some days we have trouble getting much from people.

While I was waiting for the service to begin, I picked up a pamphlet to check out the basics of the Episcopal Church.

I'm not sure if I wanted to change teams, so to speak, but I do like some of the aspects of the church, including the female priests.

Also, the Episcopal Church seems less dour and forbidding than the Catholics. It appears to run on positive energy rather than fear. But I had scrap the whole idea when I saw the Episcopalians don't have saints.

I'm sure there are very valid reasons for this, but I've got to have my boys. I've been praying to St. Martin for so long, I can't just turn around and give the guy the heave-ho. I guess I'll just have to swing by Trinity Church as a visitor rather than as a team member.

So that was my day, the anniversary of my birth. I can't say it was terribly exciting, but I am sure glad to be here. Now it's time to walk with God.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My 50 Cents


(This is another piece I did for my solo performer class at the People's Improv Theater. I'm turning 50 on Thursday so I thought I'd post this little number.)

I was born in Brooklyn in 1957, the same year the Dodgers moved out.

I'd like to think these two events are not related, but in my darker moments—which are pretty much all I have lately—I can’t help but wonder.

I mean, here I am, making my debut in the world, and the beloved Brooklyn Bums are packing their bags and hot tailing it for the West Coast. As my first grade teacher, Sister Mary Rocco Agonista used to say—what the fuck?

I have this image of Pee-Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and all those other baseball legends sneaking into Shore Road Hospital on a moonless night, peering into my crib and screaming, “holy shit, will you look at the mug on that little mongrel! That’s it, we’re moving to L.A.”

In case you’re slow on the arithmetic, or you’re just stupid, I’m turning 50 this year. Fifty goddamn, oh, no, Mother Machree, there must be some kind of freaking miscount years old. And I’m just a little cranky.

I keep doing the math, hands down my worst subject in school, and it still comes out the same: 1957-2007, 57-07—even I can’t screw that up. I’m half-a-century old, people, and the key word here is old.

There’s something terribly wrong about this: I’m not rich, I’m not famous; I’m not rolling around in the hay with smoking hot supermodels. What is this bullshit?

Not a single one of my shallow, pathetic, teen-age fantasies has come even remotely true. I haven’t painted my masterpiece; I don’t even know where the goddamn canvas is.

This is so bad that I actually appreciate my forties. The forties have a rugged, hard-drinking experienced manly feel to them—not that I fit the profile, of course, but it’s nice being in the same age bracket.

I used to read private eye novels when I was a teen-ager and all the heroes of those potboilers were tough-talking men in their forties. They were strong, fearless, and resourceful. And they got laid a lot more than I did.

People are always surprised when I tell them my age. They shake their heads and say, “wow, you don’t look 50!”

I always smile back and cheerfully say, “Blow me! What am I supposed to look like, dipshit, Grandma Moses?”

It’s not that I’m against maturity. It’s just that I’m not any good at it. I’m not a responsible citizen; I’m not a productive member of society.

I can’t give sound advice or make rational decisions. I don’t know how to operate half the appliances I own and by the time I do figure them out, they’re usually obsolete. Just like me.

Ghana Get You

If I were to go back to my old high school and address the graduating class, I’d looked out across that sea of eager, smiling youngsters, and say, “shit, I wish we could trade places.”

Then I would go beat the crap out my old geometry teacher. I never liked that bastard.

I read this article on the Internet about turning 50, which talked about the short term memory fading as we age, but wisdom, knowledge, and judgment improving.

Oh, sweet, I’ll be a genius, but I’ll be too senile to know it. I can split the atom and crap my diapers all at the same time. Remember, you’re not getting older, you’re getting crazier.

I was going to do a net search to see who else is turning 50 this year, but I quickly scrubbed that idea.

Jesus, that’s all I need: a list of people who’ve had the same amount of time on earth as I’ve had and whose accomplishments make me feel like I’ve been in coma for the last 5 decades.

Have I said “blow me” yet? My short term memory is fading so fast I don’t remember.

Now, I suppose I could take stock of my life and be thankful for what I have, for even making it to 50, when so many other people haven’t. But this one little item caught my eye and it’s gotten my withered old brain thinking.

The African nation of Ghana is also turning 50 this year. I don’t know a damn thing about the place, but I think it would be a very nice gesture on their part if they made me their king. Or president, premier, field marshal, grand marshal, Marshal Dillon, whatever they got, as long as it’s top dog, I’ll take it.

I won’t do anything drastic. Give me a spiffy uniform and chest full of K-Mart medals and I’ll do the ribbon-cuttings, march in parades and perform weddings. I’ll kiss babies, make speeches, shake hands and pose for pictures with the out-of-towners.

All I want in return is a nice condo, a stack of porn DVD’s, and lifetime supply of Viagra. Is that so much to ask?

You see, the truth is, I really need this gig. I’ve had all this time on the planet and I don’t have jack shit to show for it, so being made ruler of an entire country would go a long way in making me feel better.

But I want to assure the people of Ghana that I’m not just going to take up space in their country. Hell, no, I’ve got a plan, a big plan.

And I will devote all my energy into making it happen. I’ll work tirelessly, nights, weekends and holidays, and I don’t care if it takes me another 50 years, I will do everything in my power to bring the Dodgers to Ghana.

Play ball!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Party Guy



Somewhere around 11 pm last right, just as my party was ending, it occurred to me that I was having a good time.

After worrying about everything from a nuclear disaster to an attack by flesh-eating zombies, I am forced to admit that my 50th birthday party was a smashing success.

The food was great, the company even better, and everybody got along. Obviously I got all stressed and bent out of shape for no reason whatsoever, thus proving yet again that I'm completely out of my mind.

This is news?

I'm sitting here in my computer listening to the overture from "Oklahoma!" on the radio while I can faintly hear the thump-thump-thump of the bands marching on Fifth Avenue in the Norwegian Day parade.

I love this parade and I'm not even a Norwegian, which rhymes by the way. It's a Bay Ridge tradition and one of my favorite signs of spring.

The Norwegian population around here has thinned over the years, but they still know how to throw a good parade.

The costumes are beautiful, kids are running all over the place, and, unlike St. Patrick's Day, the weather is actually decent.

I was walking home from the store this afternoon and I saw an elderly Norwegian couple navigating around a group of Arabic kids playing in front of the mosque on 68th Street. Times have changed.

I'm exhausted, barely able to type. The party ballons are still floating around my porch, inclduing the big 5 and the big 0, though, like myself, they're getting a little wilted.

I am so glad I threw this bash. Hang the expense, the worry, the effort--it was all worth it. I've never done anything like this before and I think it was high time I tried.

Do It Right

My 30th birthday, my 40th birthday were all low key affairs, with just the immediate family present. You have to do something big for the half-century mark.

Naturally there were a few rough spots. I was convinced we would run out of food and I would be forced to ring up a local pizzeria and tell them to empty their ovens and bring me everything they had, cooked or not.

I ended up with a ton of extra food, including a nearly full tray of sausage and peppers that's currently turning to a block of ice in my freezer.

I opened the doors for friends, relatives, and a few total strangers. I was like the Godfather at Connie's wedding, going from table to table talking with people, making sure everyone was having a good time. Only I didn't have to stuff cotton in my cheeks.

But it most of looked that way when it came time for me to blow out the candles on my birthday cake. My sister and some of her cohorts actually slipped in a few of those trick candles that keep coming on after you blow them out.

I kept huffing and puffing and the damn things kept on re-igniting. I didn't anyone made those candles any more. They're like joy buzzers and whoopie cushions. Nobody buys them in this day and age, do they?

I guess a good novelty item never goes out of style.

Everyone was laughing and shouting "blow! blow!"--which has a double entredre element I could do without--until it finally occurred to me that I was being hosed.

"I want to live to see 51!" I shouted.

Finally, one of the boys blew offending candles out and dumped them into a cup of water. Hopefully he buried someplace in the desert like nuclear waste.

The people really mixed well. It was strange seeing a co-worker speaking with a drinking buddy, or one of my relatives laughing it up with one of the Senator Street boys. People who hadn't seen each other in years were getting together again.

After 11 pm, some of the hardcore party people went to the bar and kept drinking, but I was pretty much toasted. I transported my various gifts and all that food back to my house and hit the sack.

I saw some of my guests at the parade today and several of them thanked me for inviting them, which kind of surprised me. I was afraid people were going to blow my party off and that anyone who showed up would be doing me a favor.

I still feel that way, but I think we showed people a good time, and that's a nice feeling, even for old bugger like me.

Ser deg senare!

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Party That Ate Bay Ridge


Next year I'm going to stick a candle in Twinkie and call it a day.

That is, God willing, I'm still here, and haven't keeled over or been driven mad by the supreme agita I've got over this 50th birthday party I'm throwing for myself tonight.

This thing is like the Blob—it keeps getting bigger. I just ordered an extra tray of food to feed these people and I’m still not sure if I have enough.

I keep hearing from people I assumed—oh, that evil word!—weren’t coming. When the hell did I get so popular? Most weekend nights I can’t get arrested and now I’m going to have more bodies around me than Donald Trump. Only I don’t have his money.

And the things I worry about. First I was worried there wouldn't be enough people. Now I'm worried there will be too many.

I caught myself this afternoon worrying that my friends coming in from Manhattan might get mugged on the train coming in, or jumped on the streets as they walked down to the bar where I'm having this thing.

How did I ever make it to 50 without being locked up in an insane asylum?

Do I still have time to skip town? Is there a birthday boy relocation program that will spirit me off to Paraguay under an assumed name, a new identity and a different birthday? If so, sign me up.

What was I thinking? Why would I choose to celebrate being 5 decades old? Merely because I did it? Giant redwoods and box turtles do that and a hell of a lot more and no one throws them any parties.

I am nowhere closer to where I want to be in this life than I was when I was 40…or 30 for that matter. I hate my job, I don’t have a girlfriend, and I can’t stand where I’m living. This is cause to celebrate?

Over There, Over There

Oh, but what if it works? What if it goes well and the food is good and my friends and loved ones have a great time and every one talks about my party for weeks, months to come? Wouldn’t it had been worth all this expense and worry?

Hell, no. Take me to Paraguay.

I think of all those years when I told everyone I didn't want a big party; I just wanted a quiet evening with my close friends and family members.

And then my birthday would roll around and I'd mope to myself, gee, I wish I had thrown a big party for myself. Schmuck! I didn't know when I had it good.

All right, the truth is you throw parties for your guests, not yourself. Your happiness and comfort is not the issue here. You get people together so they can have fun and stuff their faces. You’re happy, you’re not happy—who cares? It’s only your birthday. The event is bigger than you.

Last we took my sister out on her birthday to see “Journey’s End,” a very powerful play about World War I. The drama takes place entirely inside a trench, with a flight of stairs leading ominously up toward the light of day. And certain death.

When the massive enemy assault begins, the commanding officer tells one of his frightened men that "it’s time to go up—you have to go up!” He pretty much chases the poor guy out into the battle.

Well, I think I have an idea how that jittery officer feels. I don’t want to go through with this, but I have to. It’s for the greater good.

Okay, I'm ready. I'm going over the top. See you on the other side.

And save me a package of Twinkies.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Lord of the Fruit Flies



I was walking to the subway station this morning when I saw a man on the corner wearing a t-shirt with a simple message:

Get Ready...

He was a Mexican, doubtless waiting for day labor, like the rest of his buddies who hang around 68th Street.

Usually they hang out by the coffee shop up the block, but maybe this man wanted to stick out from the crowd. I don't know how this particular spot got to be the pick-up area, but that's where you'll find these guys.

I was in the coffee shop one time and a Mexican fellow ahead me thought I was his buddy, who was, in fact, behind me.

The first man handed me a cup of coffee without looking. So I took it and said, “gracias.” We all laughed and I gave the coffee to its rightful owner. We all got along just fine. I honestly don't know how to solve the problem of illegal immigration but building a wall, literally or emotionally, isn't the answer.

That guy's t-shirt was getting to me, though. Especially the ellipsis—the three little periods seemed to be full of bad medicine.

I could almost hear the bomb whistling through the air like an old war movie as I ran around in circles in an open field desperately looking for cover.

Yes, I do have this incredible ability to find the negative in just about anything, so the words "get ready" had an ominous tone to them.

Get ready for what? Armageddon? The Rapture? Get ready to get hit by a car because you're too busy reading the Mexican guy's t-shirt?

Maybe this has something to do with the fruit flies. I read an article online about a new study that found fruit flies have free will and spontaneity.

I didn’t know that this was ever in dispute or that anyone actually cared one way or the other, but then I don't give too much thought to fruit flies to begin with. Having a free will doesn’t seem to be doing them much good. Of course it’s not helping me much either.

It's one of these stories that wind up being the worst of both worlds: I can't see what it has to do with me, but I can't get it out of my mind. I wonder if fruit flies have this problem.

Party Guy

I've got my 50th birthday party coming up on Saturday and I'm a nervous wreck. I'm worried no one will show up; I'm worried too many people will show up.

I'm worried we're going to run out of food or the food will be awful, or my various friends and relations will all hate each other and the party will turn into a bench-clearing brawl with blood and bake ziti covering the walls.

Get ready to put on a strait jacket.

I was riding home on the subway the other night, brooding about the party and some part of my mind decided to speak up.

"I don't want to go to this thing," the voice in my head said quite plainly.

I recognized that voice. It's the voice I used whenever I plan to go to some single's event or party and pull out at the last second. There's no logic to it, just the stubborn baby voice saying "I don't want to go."

I took a minute to explain to myself that since this is going to be my party, it's pretty hard not to make an appearance. Unless the food is good. Then you can leave town and nobody will care.

I heard a real baby voice at work on Monday when George, on my co-workers, brought his young son to the office. George is one of several young, or relatively young fathers in my office.

Two other colleagues recently had children and they share baby war stories like army vets meeting up at a reunion. I, of course, have nothing to say.

It’s strange to see George as a father. He’s kind of a class clown in the office, constantly making jokes and old movie references. Watching him hold his young son and kiss him on the cheek allowed me to see a different side of someone I usually rely on for laughs.

The Boy, as George calls him, is cute. He went stumbling around the newsroom clutching an Elmo doll, until he decided to drop it on the floor. I like having kids around the office. It makes the place seem a little bit more habitable.

George had to conduct a video interview so one of the women in the office, Andrea, agreed to watch The Boy while the old man went to do his thing. The quite lasted about two minutes, until The Boy realized that his father was not around. Then he went insane.

The Boy stomped all over the office shrieking, “Daddy!” in deafening tones. Nothing Andrea did could get The Boy to come down. He just wailed louder and louder, Daddy, Daddy!

“I think I can wait until I have kids,” Andrea said later. "I can wait a long time."

Some of the other fathers in the office chuckled softly, recognizing the sound. I tried to remember what it was like to when I was his age, how I wanted my dad to be with me no matter what.

No Questions Asked

The Boy was at the age when the father is something akin to God. You want him and nobody else and when you finally get him, you know that he’ll cure whatever’s bothering you.

It’s a child's view, of course. This is the age when a kid is supposed to worship his father. The rebellion, the competition, the outright warfare that plague many father and son relationships hasn’t happened yet.

George finally came back and The Boy jumped all over him. I wonder what's it like to be in George's shoes, to get that boundless, unconditional love coming at you. I bet it feels great, but I'm never going to know.

I have this memory fragment of being with my father in a crowded room someplace. For some reason I think it's a bar, but I can't imagine my dad taking me into a saloon. And I don't see any bar allowing him to do it.

I felt like Gulliver in this land of giant men. I grabbed what I thought was my father's wrist, tugged on it, and chanted, "Daddy, Daddy." Then I looked up and this total stranger was looking down at me. He started laughing at me and I quickly let go of him.

I guess I found the right father and got the hell out of there. I don't remember anything else about that day. Some days I have the memory of a fruit fly.

My memory failed this week, but in a good way when I caught a break on the nightmare front. I woke up Tuesday morning feeling fearful and I knew I had just had a bad dream, but for once I couldn't remember it. It was like my subconscious hit the delete button.

The only thing I remember was that Stan, an economist I use as a source was in the dream. I had spoken to him earlier that day about a breaking retail story and he surprised me by saying he wasn't following the news. I could hear the agitation in his voice and then he told what the problem is.

"My mother was diagnosed with leukemia just this morning," he said. "I'm not paying any attention to the market."

I don't blame him. It's amazing how the allegedly important things in your life shrink the moment something truly serious happens. I wished him the best and got off the line. That night I had some kind of dream about him and, while I have no details, I know it was bad.

Stan came by the office on Wednesday where I got a chance to shake his hand and wish him all the best in person. We traded sick parent stories, which are not quite the same as new baby tales.

People in our position, who have to tend to and eventually bury their parents, are the real combat veterans and we're fighting a battle that can't be won. We have to deal with death, not life.

So in light of that, maybe I should just go and have fun at my birthday party. I've done just about everything to make sure all my guests have a good time; now it's up to them. I can chose to be happy, I have a free will, just like a fruit fly.

Get ready...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Night of the Demon


I got into a terrible fight with my father the other night.

The fact that he's been dead since January didn't slow him down at all. He still wanted to wring my neck.

This was a nightmare, frightening and horribly accurate; a bad dream in the extreme.

It was more like a newsreel from my childhood than a jumble streak of bizarre images. The only thing missing was narration by Walter Cronkite.

In the dream, my father is right on top of my mother, screaming in her face. I'm standing in the kitchen, appalled by what I'm seeing and I say to myself, if he hits her, I'm going to kill him!

And then he hits her. A brutal smash across the face that sounds like a gunshot. I shout at him to stop and then suddenly, like any nightmare creature, my father is now in my face, his eyes rolling around in his head like they always did when he was angry.

"What's the matter with you?" he snarls.

And, as in real life, I shrink from him, frightened by his rage. I don't protect my mother, I don't punish my father for his awful behavior. I just back down.

God, this is so unfair. I rarely dream about my parents and the first time I dream about them together, they appear is this hideous scenario.

Sometimes I can figure out the source of my dreams pretty easily. I meet someone in the street and I dream about them, or some version of them, a short time later. Case closed.

But while I think about my parents all the time and I've got some unresolved anger toward my father, there was nothing in recent memory that would have sparked this horrible vision. I had to poke around the crime scene of my mind and find clues to this psychic felony.

My father did beat my mother and not in a dream; he did it for real, when I was a child, during a time my mother called "The Troubles." Though she was Italian, she saw fit to borrow an expression associated with the Irish.

Perhaps she inspired by my dad, who was Irish. And our house was often like a mini-version of war-torn Belfast, though without the barb wire.

I wish I could say I only dreamed my father struck my mom across the face, but that's not true. He did--at least one time he did it right in front of my brother and me; I didn't dream that up, though there were times later when my father tried to make me think I did.

He would refer to something that had happened during that time and start off by saying, "you don't remember back then, but..."

Oh, yes, I do, I would think in retaliation. I remember all too bloody well.

Years later, when my mother was in her 70's, she began to suffer from terrible migraine headaches, that kind made her a virtual cripple. She told me that resentment and rage about "The Troubles" from so many years ago were the source of the migraines, a testament to the power of unresolved anger.

But why do I dream of this now? The nightmare happened early Friday morning so I retraced my steps over the last 24 hours. At work I had my monthly same-store sales report, where I have to come in super-early and grind out three to four versions of the same story.

It's a tough day, but I actually thought it went well. I went to the gym after work and during the warm-up I had a momentary flashback to this terrible fight I had with my sister when we were kids. It was terrible, but it was years ago and had absolutely nothing to do with my workout.

"No," I told myself sternly. "You're just looking for a reason to fell bad."

And the bad memory went away.

That night, I went to the Second Annual Brooklyn Blogfest, where bloggers from all over the borough crammed into the Old Stone House in Park Slope. The meeting was a blast; I met some great people, saw the faces behind some of my favorite blogs and I got a free dinner.

Blog Rolling

In addition, shots of my bald head appeared in an NBC news report of the event and the New York Times blogger referred to my blog and quoted me during the open mike portion of the evening.

I was nervous about speaking to the crowd, but I had just done a much longer presenation during my recent solo performance class, so I got on line for the microphone.

As I got closer to the mike, I noticed my name tag was gone. I hate those damn things; I feel like I'm being tagged like an animal in the wild, but they do have their uses.

I looked around on the floor and then I saw it: my name tag was on the elbow of the woman currently speaking to the audience. It was really crowded up on the stage so I guess that's where the transfer happened.

I thought if I tried to take it back at that moment, I'd get a sock in the nose, so decided to let it go. Then I walked up to the mike.

"Hi, my name is Rob," I said, like a speaker at an AA meeting. "And my blog is called The Luna Park Gazette. Pretty much whatever is in my mind is on my blog."

I return to my seat to polite applause and when I sat down a young man tapped me on the shoulder and held something out to me: my name tag.

Okay. I came home and I was feeling good, honestly. I got through a tough day at work, went to the blogfest, and made some real connections. Then I made the mistake of going to bed.

I woke up at 3AM and hit the can. This being Friday, I figured I could get through with a little less sleep than usual. I went back to sleep and that's when I had the nightmare.

I woke out of that dream exhausted, frightened and a little ashamed. Even in my dreams I was a coward. Why couldn't I be some swashbuckling hero? Hell, why couldn't I dream I was Spiderman? I've heard that creative people supposedly have vivid dreams, but I wasn't feeling very creative. I just felt awful.

The dream held on to me throughout my waking life, as I had a truly bad day at the office. I kept trying to get this one story out and I couldn't get any of the information I needed. I was constantly asking this PR woman to e-mail me a copy of an analyst's report and she kept telling me that she had sent it three times already.

E-mail is one of the easist forms of communication on the planet and somehow I couldn't get one item sent to me over the Internet. Click a few buttons and you're done; or at least that's how it usually works.

The story was a total disaster. My editor kept asking me more and more questions about it and finally, at about 4:30 pm, she tells me via IM that she's not going to post the story. Fine. Do whatever you want with it. So what if I wasted most of the day on something that never ran? I still get paid.

I went into the men's room before leaving for the day and while in the stall, I decided to flush the toilet with my foot, rather than--I told myself--touching the potenially filthy thing with my hand. But instead of stepping, I stomped, big time, and a few seconds later, I saw a steady of water dripping out the side of the fixture.

It took a few seconds for me to realize that I had damaged property, not irreparably, not even seriously, but I had damaged somebody else's property, in a fit of rage. I started the day cowering from my father and now I had turned into him. This is progress?

So that's what happened to me, but it still doesn't explain why, why did I have this terrible dream when I was feeling so good before.

I remembered my experience at my gym, when I shooed away an unpleasant memory that I had conjured up solely to bring myself down. I couldn't do that in my sleep, I was locked in the theater of my subconscious.

I'm convinced there is some part of my mind that doesn't want to me be happy, to be successful. And that part of my psyche is going to lash out, put up road blocks and toss down boulders, do anything to keep me from enjoying life.

I've got a lot of work to do. I've got to work on that unresolved anger and I've got to learn to love myself, to lose the self-loathing that can scare up more frightening images that a horror movie triple feature.

Does forewarned mean that I am now forearmed? I won't know until I go to sleep.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Odor in the Court


There are eight million stories in the Naked City--and they're all crammed into landlord tenant court.

At least that's what it seemed like to me last week when I went down to the courthouse on Livingston Street.

I was there to attend a hearing to evict the animals who had been occupying the upstairs apartment of my family's house--until they took off in February without so much as a by your leave, as my dear mother used to say.

In my mind, though, this was an exorcism, a holy ritual to drive these vile tenants, these two-legged rats, out of my ancestral home and back to the depths of hell from whence they came.

So, yeah, I don't like these people. And I have to say that being forced to give up my morning, show up late for work, and waste three hours in court waiting for a two-minute procedure has done nothing to improve my opinion of them.

But it was necessary. We had to go through this routine because even though these bums are gone from the property, we need an official order to get the city marshals up there to clear the place out.

If not, these larcenous leeches could come slinking on back and say we stole or damaged their precious property. Knowing them, they'd probably claim they had Rodin's The Thinker up there.

The hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and I figured that since it was in downtown Brooklyn, it wouldn't take long to get there.

Now I work in lower Manhattan, just two stops away from the Court Street station, but somehow I thought I'd roll out of bed and pop up in the judge's chambers all fresh and ready to go. Oh, the power of denial.

I totally misjudged the time, of course, but I would have been okay if I hadn't arrived at Bay Ridge Avenue just in time to see the R train pulling out of the station. This has been happening to me a lot lately and I'm starting to take it personally.

This was the worst kind of miss, too; where you walk down the stairs at the brief quiet period when the train is in the station and the doors are open. Then you hear that obnoxious ding-dong--which sounds a lot like loo-zer!--and you know you don't have a hope in hell of catching that bastard.

I even tried pantomime pleading with the conductor, opening my big brown eyes nice and wide and cocking my head like a dog begging for a biscuit. But the putz in the control booth was immoveable, unlike the train, which hauled ass out of the station and left me on the platform.

All right, so I wait for the next train. And I wait. And then I wait some more. I was really trying to do the whole Zen-mindfulness-Buddhist monk routine, but it was just rolling me off as I thought our lawyer throwing his hands up in frustration while the judge got ready to can my keester on contempt charges.

The train finally pulls in, I get on, and instead of roaring out of the station like the one I had missed, this anemic R limps out of the station like a wounded lamb. I start doing my out-patient low-breath mumble and people in the car are moving away from me.

In desperation I hop on the N train at 59th Street in the lame hope I'll catch up with that first R train--I'm determined to catch that bugger. Naturally, that train was well on its way to Montreal and I end up on Pacific Street waiting for its dim-witted cousin to crawl into the station.

Here Come Da Judge...Eventually

Okay, I get to Court Street, dash down to Livingston Street, run into the lobby of the Kings County Courthouse, ditch my property into a plastic try and waltz through the metal detector on the first try; I didn't even get the wand.

I run to the elevator bank to catch a ride to the fifth floor, but the elevators and the subways are apparently operating on the same schedule. I see a mob of people all staring up at the floor display signs as if waiting for a message from God. Or perhaps an elevator, but it looked like neither one was going to show up any time soon.

I look at this situation calmly and logically: I've been cursed. I've offended some witch doctor or minor league deity and now I'm going to be brutally reamed by the judge.

I find a flight of stairs and up I go, just weeks away from turning 50, I'm running up five flights like Dirty Harry racing to put the kibosh on a rampaging pyscho.

I get to the courtroom, finally figure out what number to tell the court office so I get on the hearing list, and then I slide into one of the benches, where I wait. And I wait. And then I wait some more.

Th e place stinks--literally. The ventilation is bad and the air reeks of confinement and despair. The room fills up quickly with bodies and I realize no one is waiting for me to get the party started. The wheels of justice really do grind slowly, when they grind at all.

I'm one of the few Caucasians in the room and probably one of the few landlords, which usually go hand-in-hand around this place. The players--lawyers, clerks, and other such courthouse veterans--stand out because they walk around confidently, greeting each other with a smile and cracking jokes while the rest of us sit with our heads hanging low.

I'll bet a lot of these people are victims of unscrupulous landlords, forced to live in freezing, rat-infested hellholes. Years ago The Daily News dubbed one especially vicious property owner "The Dracula Landlord." And each year The Village Voice nominates the worst landlord in New York, but I swear it's not me.

My sister and I became landlords by default, after my father got too sick to run the place on his own. We're good landlords, I want to say to all these people around me, we ain't Dracula.

Since I don't know what my lawyer looks like--my sister made the initial contact--I eyeball every white guy in a suit who walks into the room. But I don't get any response and I'm starting to wonder if I've been stood up.

I'm sitting next to this young black woman and her beautiful little daughter, who was about four years old. Instead of being miserable, I decide to have some fun, so I start making goofy faces at her. She responds by poking me every time I look away and then pointing to her mother as the guilty party.

"It's him," she keeps saying earnestly.

We're having fun until my lawyer--it feels strange to say that--shows up. He tells me that we have to wait for my tenants to be officially called by the judge. When they fail to appear, we can get the order.

So finally the clerks call out the hated names--yuck! phtooey!--and my lawyer gives me the signal and I head out the door with him, pausing briefly to wave goodbye to my little buddy. The hallway is jammed with more bodies, as lawyers and their clients huddle wherever they can and discuss what's going to happen next.

The place is filled with so many different ethnicities the U.N. should open a branch office down here. My lawyer moves swiftly, clearly knowing the terrain and how to maneuver around inert objects. I follow him into an office filled with even more people, all silent, all seated, all looking down at the floor.

My lawyer speaks with a young Irish-looking man behind a desk for a few minutes and as they talk, I notice a small, framed black-and-white photograph of a police officer on the desk. The resemblance to the young man is incredible, clearly that's his father in the photo, and I wait for a break in the conversation to ask about the photo.

"Let's go," my lawyer says and sprints out of the office.

That's My Boy

Whoosh, he's gone and I'm being pulled by his slipstream, but I linger for a few seconds and point to the picture.

"I'm curious," I say, "is that your dad?"

The young man makes this sad, wisful smile and nods. There's so much emotion in his face, I know his father must be dead.

"Yeah," he says.

I know there's more he wants to tell me and I want to hear it, but I can't lose sight of my lawyer or I may never get out of this place. I guess I'm feeling a little ashamed because my father's memory doesn't make me smile like that. I don't have his picture on my desk.

Like all of us, my father had his faults, but he had this way of inflicting them upon his family that is very difficult to deal with sometimes. I still feel angry when I think about our confrontations over the years and I really do try and think about the good times we had as a family and how he supported me when I was at my worst.

Maybe this man's father died when he was a child, so he only has fond memories of his dad. His old man didn't get a chance to grow old, there wasn't time for the relationship to hit the inevitable bumps along the road, so now he holds a sacred place in his son's heart. And maybe I got it all wrong.

We go before another judge in another courtroom and my lawyer exchanges pleasantries with her about a vacation he took to Ireland. When he asks me for the deed to the house, I hand my copy to him and his face promptly falls five floors down to the lobby.

"This is no good," he blurts, holding the deed as if it's diseased. "We need the original!"

My stomach starts doing back-flips. I look in my bag, but I know that's the only paperwork I have and if it's no good, that means I'll have to come back here again and relive this nightmare. If a Buddhist monk would freak out at that possibility.

The lawyer starts babbling something about going to the hall of records nearby and getting a proper deed, which means more time on the clock, more time away from my job, and more time around here.

"But let me ask the judge first," he says.

Yes, let's do that. Let's ask the judge who is running this show. And the judge takes one look at the photocopy and says it's just fine. The lawyer shifted from zero to panic in under two seconds and for absolutely no reason. And he's supposed to be on my side.

I have to raise my hand and swear to the particulars in the case, who owns the house, who were the tenants, and so forth. I answer a few questions, the judge approves the order, and the lawyer turns around and asks me for a check for $900.

Did Perry Mason ever demand payment so quickly? You never saw him taking money from anybody and he got people off death row.

It would have made for some interesting TV if old Raymond Burr turned to his client once the real murderer confessed before a whole courtroom full of witnesses and said, "all right, sweetcheeks, show me the money."

I hand over the check and I hear the judge offering the lawyer her condolences. It seems his father died just a few weeks ago. I express my sympathies and tell him about losing my dad in January. I'm thinking about the young man and his black and white photo and all these sons who have no fathers.

The lawyer gives me his card and vanishes into the crowded hallway. I take the stairs again and in a few minutes I'm back on the R train heading for work.

I said before that this was a necessary procedure and I think it was necessary in other ways. As awful as this morning was, I think it was important that I go through it, that I see people in such difficult situations to remind me how lucky I am to have always lived with a roof over my head.

Lesson learned, but please don't make me go back there.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Memory Mill


(This is the text of my solo performance. I can't say how much I enjoyed this class and how glad I am that I finally decided to take it.

Reading the words is not quite the same as watching a performance, but I hope you get an idea of what I was trying to do.
)

My house is so empty there should be an echo.

Oh, there’s plenty of stuff: furniture, closets bursting with clothes, rows of bookshelves.

It’s a two-family house, with three bedrooms, dining room, porch; it’s huge, a relic from a time when they really knew how to build houses.

The only thing the place doesn’t have is people; no people at all. Except me.

My family bought this house in Brooklyn in 1948. My grandparents passed the place on to my mom and dad, and now it belongs to their four children. It’s gone through many hands over the last 60 years, but it hasn’t moved an inch.

My mother died five years ago and my father followed her in January. My sister and brothers all moved out years ago, and the last bunch of tenants took off for parts unknown.

I’m the only one here, the master of the house—until we sell it.

I lived most of my life in this place; even when I was living somewhere else. Whether it was Connecticut or Pennsylvania, I was always close enough to dash home whenever I wanted to.

Now I have full run of the place. Every morning I get up, make breakfast, and get ready for work with only the voice of the radio news to keep me company.

At night I come home, eat supper and make sure all the doors are locked and the lights are turned off.

I feel like a sentry at a distant outpost, or one of those Japanese soldiers found hiding in the jungle long after the war ended.

I’m still on duty, bowing to the emperor’s tattered portrait. For years I complained about not having any privacy. Now I don’t have much else.

But you should have seen this place when I was growing up. This house used to rumble with activity: people, dogs, cats, kids running in all directions, tenants upstairs walking over our heads.

You could hear my mother singing as she cooked in the kitchen, ship ahoy, ship ahoy, who wants to marry a sailor boy? You could hear the kids fighting, my father yelling at the kids to stop fighting.

The whole place roared like some industrial age factory, though instead of making steam engines or auto parts, the house churned out memories—by the ton.

Now the factory has shut down, a victim of time; the workers are scattered in all directions. And the emptiness here reminds me of my own failure to move out, to move on, and start my own family and create the next generation of memories.

When I was a kid, every Christmas Eve my Italian grandmother would set a place at the dinner table for the souls of the dead. She’d put out food and wine as if wandering spirits might actually stop by and help themselves.

While I was eagerly waiting for Santa Claus, grandma prepared to welcome her late husband, Paul, her daughter, Mary, and the others who had gone before her.

That single plate and glass sat at the dining room table in such sharp contrast to the bedlam that would roll through the house in just a few hours, when we tore open our presents, argued with each other, and dove into huge helpings of grandma’s lasagna.

On Christmas Eve, the dead were the guests of honor.

Normally I was frightened by ghost stories, but this one didn’t bother me. I liked grandma’s tradition of keeping in touch with the spirit world. None of my friends’ families did this, so I thought it was kind of cool.

Today I could hold a banquet for all my deceased loved ones, fill every chair at the dining room table for a feast that would rival any holiday.

The day my father died, I got this crazy idea of keeping this empty house, of buying out my siblings and getting my sister to move into the upstairs apartment in a desperate attempt to keep some semblance of my family within these four walls.

It’s like I wanted to dip the entire house in bronze, like an enormous baby shoe.

But that notion wore off like a fading dream. My sister’s happy where she is now and I know I don’t want to be a landlord any more.

So we’ll have to clean the place out, all that stuff in all those rooms, and then the basement, oh God, the basement, a horror story in its own right, filled with boxes, toys, old clothes, ancient refrigerators, and even my grandfather’s wine press.

It’s all down there like a museum’s forgotten wing.

I used to be frightened of being in the basement when I was a kid, but I don’t know why. Any zombie or werewolf, vampire, that might have been chasing me would have tripped over all that crap down there and broken his neck before ever got his claws into my hide.

I’m thinking now maybe we should just fill the basement with cement and tell everyone the house has a really solid foundation.

We’ll get it done, though. I’ll sort through my possessions and my memories, keep the ones I need and toss the rest. But I’ve been known to over pack.

I dread that last day in my family’s house, when, relived of duty, I’ll walk through those empty rooms making sure nothing’s been forgotten and all the windows have been closed. The echoes will be real on that day, loud as gunshots, and almost as painful.

I try to picture what the next family to move in here will be like, but my eyes well up at the thought of other people cooking in my mother’s kitchen, or watching TV in our living room, and sleeping in my bedroom.

Who are these intruders, running down the hall like I used to do when I was a boy—wiping over my family’s history like a bricklayer covering over a crumbling wall?

I want to hate them for what they’ll be doing, but all they’ll be doing is making memories of their own.

And sometimes I can accept the change, wish the new residents well, and hope they have half as many good times in this house as I did.

I wonder if they’ll have pets or will they be the kind of people who worry about getting fur on the upholstery. Will they dye Easter eggs at the kitchen table and dress up in homemade costumes on Halloween like we did?

Will they host huge dinners, and put up a real Christmas tree, or will they decorate one of those God awful artificial things?

And on Christmas Eve, will their grandmother set a place for the dead?

Whoever they are, I hope they appreciate those good times they’ll have here sooner than I did--when everyone is alive and healthy, because that won’t last forever. Even though you think it will.

And some day, many years from now, if they do put a plate out on Christmas Eve, maybe I’ll come back to my old house and pull up a chair.

I don’t know what the afterlife is like, but wherever I am, I’ll never say no to a good meal.