Friday, December 26, 2008

'Yes, Viagra, There is a Santa Claus..."

I got a spam e-mail the other day that asked a simple, but important question:

Joyous neuroses, Culpepper?‏

I don’t know who Culpepper is, but I often suffer from joyous neuroses at this time of the year.

The email was an offer for Viagra, the gift that keeps on giving. But with the way my love life has been going, I have no use for Viagra, unless I need a place to hang candy canes.

Joyous neuroses seems to be spreading as 2008 draws to a close. I noticed that I was the only customer in my local card store on Tuesday afternoon, which is just not normal.

“How’s business?” I asked the owner, hoping he'd have some happy news.

“Not good. There should be 20 people in the store at this time of the day.”

He then delivered a lengthy diatribe about the alleged Ponzi scammer Bernard Madoff and $50 billion scam.

I went to a supermarket to get food for the dinner and the place seemed pretty sparsely populated.

While I was waiting on line at the checkout counter, one of the other cashiers—a young woman with a Santa hat and four metal studs in her face—scolded a delivery boy who had brushed against her.

“Watch the booty!” she snapped.

On Monday, when it was so bloody cold, I walked down the street feeling sorry for myself until I saw a group of Mexican immigrants lined up outside a local coffee shop on Fifth Avenue, waiting for someone to offer them work. I put head my down and kept on walking.

The good news is that we survived our family Christmas dinner, which was the source of some serious joyous neuroses. It felt strange hosting this dinner at our parents’ home and not having them there.

This year’s event was particularly important because it may or may not be the last Christmas dinner we host in our family home.

The original plan after my father died was to sell our parents’ house some time in the spring, but if you’ve been reading the papers, you know what’s going on with the housing market.

But we did have a nice dinner and now in the great holiday tradition, I am overstuffed, overtired, and overdrawn.

I didn’t watch any of the holiday movies this year, since most of them remind me of my mother.

I was briefly tempted to dig up “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which has some very nice songs, but then I recalled how my mother used to sing one in particular—All Alone in the World—and I thought it was best to leave that video in the cabinet. Maybe next year.

This year I was cursed to hear “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” the Christmas song I loathe the most, four times in just two days. That has to be some kind of human rights violation. Where is Amnesty International when you need it?

If you don’t know this song, I envy you, as it is so atrocious it could drive the Pope to atheism.

The song revolves around some cloying cute bilingual brat who keeps pestering his “mamacita” about Santa Claus’ whereabouts. Whenever I hear this song I want to scream mamacita donde esta barf bag?

The worst moment came on Christmas Eve when the song came on while I was trapped in my sister’s car.

She promptly pumped up the volume and sang along with this nightmare while I calculated how seriously injured I would be if I jumped out of a moving car.

After the dinner, when everyone had gone home and my sister and I were washing a mountain of dishes, we were treated to another Christmas clunker entitled “Dominick the Donkey.

This song is also quite hideous, but by that time I was so tired I was numb to any kind of pain.

Maybe next year we’ll do another holiday road trip. I’ll just about anywhere, so long as it’s warm and I don’t to hear “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” ever again.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jingle Bell Crock

A year ago at this time I was healthy, happy, and in Hawaii.

Now I’m sick, cranky and freezing in Brooklyn.

This is progress?

I am really trying to get some Christmas spirit going now, honest I am.

My sister and I got the Christmas tree (a mere 75 bucks), dug the decorations out of the basement—all the lights work, praise Jesus—and brought out the best china in preparation for our family Christmas dinner on Thursday.

Even as I write this, I’m listening to Christmas music, trying to get the yuletide feeling again. But it’s not happening.

I’ve had a cold for the last 10 days and it’s not just any cold. This is the Blagojevich of colds: vile, debilitating, and it won’t go the hell away.

I was coughing so much last week I sounded like Tiny Tim about to kick the crutch. This blows.

One of my neighbors has an elaborate holiday light display, which features the word “JOY” crucified to the front of his home. It seems like an order or a curse instead of a proclamation.

I’m tempted to put up an equally large sign reading “WHERE?!?” But it’s too damn cold out.

After a week of hacking and cursing, often simultaneously, I cracked down and went to my doctor on Friday, which really is not the best way to kick off your holiday vacation.

I should be out getting plastered in some dive bar hovel while chasing after women half my age until I fall face-first into a vat of week-old fondue. Now that’s an old fashioned holiday.

“I want to enjoy the city at Christmas time,” I whined to my physician.

“You want to go to empty malls?” he demanded. “I went to a mall the other and it was empty. It was very depressing.”

I know he was trying to cheer me up by bringing up the stock market crash, but I’d rather have a choice in where I go rather than being laid low by disease.

Last year, when we were in Hawaii (oh, God) I remember thinking that it didn’t really feel like Christmas.

I was running around the beach on December 25 and wearing shorts and a t-shirt every day. It just didn’t seem normal, which is actually the point of a vacation.

Now I’m back in Brooklyn, shivering, exhausted, and growling at the very sight of Santa. Yeah, that’s more like it.

Scrooge This

For a while there I was getting ill nearly every holiday season. But I’ve been on a good streak for the last three or four years and I was hoping my luck would hold out.

The really bad thing is that this is my second illness in three months. I had a nasty sinus infection in September and now this. And the damn winter has just officially started.

In the immortal words of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, “oy vey iz mir.”

The good news is that I don’t have to be back at work until January 5. (Let’s hope I have work!) I got the R train Friday night at Rector Street and saw someone had marked up the poster for the new movie “Valkyrie.”

“Tom Cruise,” the poster shouts in big letters, to which some pen-wielding smart-ass added “…is really short!” Ouch! Where’s the Christmas spirit, dude?

I might have laughed, but I had a woman dump me because I wasn’t tall enough, so this may be the only time in my life I actually sympathize with Tom Cruise.

But then he’s got Katie Holmes and I don’t, so screw him.

I did get a chuckle out a Stolichnaya poster a few yards down the platform. This one displayed a photo a hot-looking woman wearing a Russian army officer’s hat.

Somebody—perhaps the Tom Cruise defiler—scribbled next to the woman’s face “I marry American and now I have green card.

Maybe if I had enough Stolichnaya I’d forget about my cold. Or, better yet, I could hook-up the hot-looking woman in the army hat and help her get a green card--assuming I pass the height requirement.

I wonder how you say “piss off, half-pint” in Russian.

Okay, so it’s time like these when you have to count your blessings. I’ve a roof over my head, a—fingers crossed—job, my friends and family. I have all this time off, which I will use to build up my health, both physical and mental.

I want to detox, body and soul, so I’ll be able face ‘09 with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. Or a song on my face and a smile in my heart—with enough vodka it won't matter either way.

I kind of wish I had planned to go somewhere during this time. It seems nearly every one I know is heading out of New York to some sunny place.

But I’m so sick and tired that the idea of a stay-cation was too tempting to resist.

I promise I’ll make a big trip for my next vacation and see new places, despite my fear of flying. Only this time if I wind up in some place warm, I’m not going to come back.

Right now I’m listening to Johnny Mathis (yeah, I know) singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and I’ve decided I’m going to cheer up. I’ve got a few more days to recuperate until the family shindig and then I can hibernate until it’s time to return to work.

I’ll get through this Christmas and I’ll get into the spirit of the season. But keep a bottle of Stoli’s handy just in case.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hi, Mom

I had this dream not long ago where I was meeting with my parents in the living room of our house.

They were both alive and elderly, which is my most recent memory of them. My mother was sitting next to a walker, which she used in real life when her health began to fail.

My father was standing next to her, not saying a word. This is probably the best indicator that I was dreaming.

My mother was telling me that she and my father appreciated how I helped take care of my mother and they wanted to give me something.

“We’re going to give you ten dollars,” she said with great emphasis.

I laughed and explained that they didn’t have to give me a reward, that it was my pleasure to help her and that 10 bucks really didn’t go far in today’s economy.

Apparently the stock market meltdown hadn’t occurred in this dream world.

I’m trying to think what happened during the day to spark that dream. One thing in particular was learning this woman I was interested in had a boyfriend.

Even though I laughed off the idea of a reward from my parents in the dream, I think subconsciously I wanted someone to pat me on the back and tell me I was appreciated. So my mind conjured up the image of my mom and dad.

A short time later I came across an old journal of mine from the year 2000. That was the year I took a trip to Seattle and did a kayak tour around the San Juan Islands. That was a fabulous trip and I can’t believe it’s almost eight years now.

But the journal also took me back to the days when my mother was sick and I was struggling for something resembling a career.

One particular entry was quite disturbing. It was dated June 6, 2000—the anniversary of D Day, which, as I noted in the entry, was quite appropriate.

Can’t stop yelling at my mother,” I wrote. “God please help me; please forgive me…did she ever yell at you—the whole time you were sick or losing those jobs. God, why am I such a shit?

I don’t recall what happened on this day, but it doesn’t matter. There’s no excuse for my behavior and it sickens me to read those words.

I like to look back at the days I helped my mother and imagine myself as some kind of hero, but my own words are there to remind me of how I behaved.

So much of it comes back to self-loathing. I hated myself for stagnating in my parents’ home, for never having the nerve to do something, anything, daring, for not taking any risks.

But instead of facing my problems, I lashed out at the people around me, particularly the person who loved me the most. When the Mills Brothers sang about always hurting the one you love, they knew what they were talking about.

I think part of me actually resented my parents for growing old. It frightened me to see the ones who raised me, who took care of me, become so fragile and so in need of my help.

If I learn nothing else from this experience, I want to at least see that self-hatred only produces more hatred and all that venom eventually spills over and hurts the people around you.

Hello, Again

I think about putting this all behind me and living a better life, but the problem is that I only had one elderly mother and she’s gone now. I can’t really make up for my behavior.

Still, I know my mother would want me to be happy.

She was the most forgiving person I’ve never known and while I hate it when people speak on behalf of the dead, I know she wouldn’t want me abusing myself over this.

In that same entry I tell myself to get some help. I’ve been working on that for a while now and I recently took a qigong course at the New York Open Center.

It was only four-weeks long, but I’m so glad I took the course. As usual, signing up involved a few days of me hemming and hawing about whether I should spend the money on this thing before actually hitting the buttons and registering.

Qigong uses simple exercises and meditation to promote good health. (I’m suffering from a cold right now, but then I just started.)

The exercises are simple, but stimulating, and the mediation techniques are very powerful. Unlike some of the other styles of meditation, where you just concentrate on your breathing, qigong meditation is filled with images.

You picture light traveling through your body, or imagine floating beneath a waterfall that showers you with “all the energy of the universe.”

The teacher spoke about how his instructor “composed” a particular meditation exercise and I thought that word really captured the idea behind these meditations. They’re like symphonies for the mind.

In one particular meditation, the teacher tells us to lie down in a field of followers and visualize a special being coming to us.

“It can be a Buddha or a saint,” he says on the DVD.

I’m not a Buddhist, so I expected my special being to take the form of Jesus or St. Martin de Porres, to whom my grandmother regularly prayed.

But instead of Christ or St. Martin, my special being turned out to be my mother. She came to me alive and healthy and smiling so radiantly.

During normal waking hours, I can never think of my mother for any length of time without crying because I miss her so much.

But during this meditation I was able to see her and not breakdown. It’s like she’s really standing in front of me.

I emailed the qigong teacher asking him if it’s unusual to see a deceased loved one during the meditation and he said it was entirely appropriate. I shouldn’t be surprised at seeing her, since my mother is something of a saint to me.

And I don’t feel guilty when I see her. I don’t feel ashamed for snapping at her and being such a self-centered jerk. The meditation is filled with positive energy.

I get to see my mother just about every night, so I guess I got my reward after all. And that’s worth lot more than 10 bucks.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Take Me to Your Savior

In my sophomore year of high school, I was doing so poorly in several subjects that I decided only a miracle would keep me out of summer school.

So I was pretty shocked when I walked into my home room class on the last day of school and found that I had passed all my classes—not by much, of course—but I was officially a free man until September.

“It’s enough to make you go back to church,” I said, marveling at my narrow escape. Of course I didn’t mean that. I had no intention of going back to church.

I was a smart aleck teenager who was much too cool for church. And I had suffered 8 years of abuse at Catholic school that would have had the Blackwater torture team screaming for their mommies.

No, I was just making a lame joke in a desperate bid to make people laugh. My luck ran out a few years later when I failed math for real this time and had to take it over again in summer school.

I had been going to lunch time services at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan for almost a year. It was close to work, I went on my lunch hour and, most importantly, I enjoyed it.

But I had let that slide recently. While I’m still within walking distance of Trinity, my current location is several blocks farther than before.

And, hey, I had things to do; the economy is collapsing, people are being tossed out of work. I just can’t get up and leave my desk. So I got into the habit of working straight through lunch.

Then I was surfing the Internet—I’m the busy guy, remember?--and I found a news story about a have a Yeshiva College study that found going to weekly religious services—regardless of religion--may lower your risk of death by 20 percent.

The survey’s authors believe the positive health benefits may stem from the sense of community that regular church-going offers.

Hey, whatever. All I know is that when I saw that bit about lowering my risk of death, I decided that was enough to make me go back to church. It was like Ebeneezer
Scroog seeing his headstone--only then does he decide to keep Christmas and make nice with Tiny Tim.

So I hiked down to Wall Street just before noon and took place at my usual pew. I saw some of my regular buds while Rev. Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones delivered a fabulous sermon inspired by the miracle of loaves and fishes.

The upshot of the sermon was that we all have great abilities within us.

“It’s all in you,” the reverend said. I was feeling better already.

But the best was yet to come. While I was kneeling down waiting for Communion, Rev. Buzzuti-Jones paused to give me a nice pat on the shoulder before giving me the Host.

No priest has ever greeted me like that before and I really think that Yeshiva bunch is on to something.

It’s fascinating that religion is both a communal and private experience. People all come together to doing something that is—to me, anyway—very personal.

The Reverend even touched upon this in his sermon, noting that attending church services is counter to the norm.

“Look how many people are outside on the streets,” he said, “and how empty the church is.”

Organized religion has long been a large part of the problem, with righteous fanatics of every stripe storm-trooping into our lives. From the Salem witch trials to the 9/11 hijackers, the holy rolling loons abused and misused religion while making life hell on earth for the rest of us.

Put Your Hand in the Hand...

In this country we’ve got the perverted priests and the “intelligent design” fruitcakes who despise science so long as it doesn’t involve widescreen TVs and using the Internet to spread their bilge.

I was just reading about a state representative in Kentucky who believes that the state’s Homeland Security office “should be crediting God with keeping the state safe.”

There are plenty of people whom I respect have no absolutely no use for religion, who would roll their eyes if they could see me walking into a church. (I find it hard to believe some days myself.)

Come again? You mean to say that in addition to all His other duties, God has to keep Kentucky safe?

There’s no mention of what happens to the rest of the country while the Almighty is protecting the Bluegrass State, but maybe God can check on the rest of us when He gets a chance. I wonder if He works security during the Kentucky Derby.

He could really clean up at the betting window, since He already knows the winner.

Last week a British newspaper weighed in with another survey, which found that more people believe in ghosts and UFOs than believe in God.

I don’t have anything against visitors from outer space. Hell, we’re all God’s children, after all, even the little green men.

It’s just that I don’t give them much thought, what with the collapsing economy, my vanishing retirement accounts, worldwide terrorist attacks, and people being trampled to death in Wal-Marts.

Many of the UFO beliefs have a Messiah-like quality where the faithful maintain the aliens will come down to earth and cure all our problems.

They’ll be our saviors and take us away from our lives of drudgery and pain, but they won’t weigh us down with any of those pesky commandments. It’s religion-lite.

Real religion requires work; you have to make a conscious effort to do good things and live a good life, whereas all you have to do to believe in Martians is sit on your keester and wait until they land in your driveway.

The interesting thing about the supernatural poll is that people who believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena don’t believe in God.

As someone who is terrified of flying, I have to say that I do a lot praying when I’m up in the air but it’s not to Casper the Friendly Ghost.

I always thought the nuns in Catholic school had come from another planet, or some dark corner of hell. Sometimes I think it would have been great if Sister Frances Josepha, my fifth grade teacher, had been abducted by a UFO, but then I wouldn't wish that psycho on anyone, aliens included.

If they were planning an invasion, they would booted her ass out of their flying saucer and hightailed it back to Pluto.

I love a good ghost story or tales about aliens, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Jersey Devil, the Abominable Snowman, pixies, banshees, zombies, Doppelgangers, Jerry Springer, Ring Around the Collar, whatever you got, I’m down for it.

One of my favorite shows when I was a kid was In Search Of, where once a week Leonard Nimoy would “investigate” some bizarre incident, life form or activity, and marshal the “facts” until the freakish looked plausible.

It was entertaining as hell, but it wasn’t enough to make me lose my religion.

Astrology has been popular for ages, and while I don’t believe the stars have any say in our destiny, every now and then I get a little jolt.

On Saturday night I was doing my usual routine, where I sit in front of the TV and tell myself I should be going out instead of sitting in front of the TV.

Just before going to bed I made the mistake of picking up the Daily News and checking my horoscope.

If you’re single,” my forecast began, “then it’s unlikely that your will meet someone wonderful by sitting home alone on the weekend, Gemini.”

This wasn’t so much a prediction as it was good advice—the kind of advice I routinely give myself and which I routinely ignore.

I have to admit, though that being called out by the horoscope page really hurts, but one of my friends told me that this is how the universe chose to give me the message.

I should mention that the supernatural survey was done by a marketing firm in conjunction with the release of an X-Files DVD, and details of how the poll was conducted were not reported. So the whole thing could be a marketing scam to benefit Mulder and Scully.

I came back from Trinity Church feeling quite happy indeed. That pat on the shoulder had a long-lasting effect and I plan on getting back to my lunch time routine.

I don’t think my company will be out business if I leave the office for less than an hour and I’m sure the bosses won’t object.

And if they do, I’ll get my buddy Sasquatch to beat the living crap out of them.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Out of the Park

All right, people, listen up: the long wait is over.

The 2009 full-color calendar, based on writer/photographer Brenda Becker's astonishing blog “Prospect: A Year in the Park”, has arrived.

Yes, Brenda has knocked this one right out of the park--and straight into your life.

Brenda, of course, is the multi-talented individual who also cranks out those other great gifts to the blogosphere, CrazyStable and, of course, Prospect: A Year in the Park.

Ye gods, is there no stopping this woman? Let’s hope not.

“Designed by the photographer and produced right here in Brooklyn,” Brenda tells us, “it is a perfect gift for anyone who is a Brooklynite by birth, adoption, or desire. Buy an extra one to send to those out-of-town relatives who always ask ‘why you live in Brooklyn’!"

Chart the days of your life with the beautiful images of Brooklyn’s special wonderland, Prospect Park.

"The calendar is a season-by-season reflection on the fathomless beauty and variety of Prospect Park: its forest, meadow, lake, and treasures of art and architecture," Brenda says. "Every month will transport you into a different facet of Brooklyn's jewel."

This calendar is so beautiful, it’ll take the sting out of getting older, paying your monthly bills, and blowing off your new year’s resolutions.

How much do you think this calendar costs? Fifty bucks? No! 25 bucks? Guess again, pilgrim.

Why, this little item is going for a mere $15 plus $2.50 for first-class U.S. postage. Good grief, Brenda's practically giving them away!

Now, I know what you’re thinking: "hey, Rob, I can’t live another minute without this extraordinary calendar. How do I get my trembling hands on this stunning work of art, so that I can be one of the cool people?"

Why, funny you should ask. You can order from the calendar site with one click via PayPal. Or, if you prefer, you can mail a check to:

Brenda L. Becker
11 Marlborough Road
Brooklyn, NY 11226

Shipping will begin December 10 and they’re sure to go fast. So don’t delay, order your calendar today. You'll be glad that you did.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

We didn't get to see the Macy's parade floats being inflated this year, but we did see a guy on stilts scratching his ass, so it wasn't a total loss.

My sister and I went up to 79th Street on Wednesday, Thanksgiving Eve, in hopes of seeing the floats being brought to life.

It was an intimate little affair, with just us and several million other people who had the same idea.

We got close to the floats, we really did. But the crowd that circled around the Museum of Natural History was so big and so thick with humanity that the two of us, who share a deathly fear of being trampled, decided to skip this particular ritual.

I seem to recall that at one time this event wasn't so incredibly popular, that only a handful of people actually knew about it. That has definitely changed.

We tried to get in the perimeter from every possible angle and as we came down one of the avenues, we saw some of the members of Cirque Du Soleil setting up shop on the sidewalk.

This group included the aforementioned man on stilts who made a rather big production of relieving his itchy rear end, which made us think that this was part of the show. At least, we hoped it was, but we didn't stick around to catch the rest of his act.

It was fun, though, seeing all the people streaming through the streets and all the little kids getting so worked up about the parade.

During my round of holiday calls, I found out from my former sister-in-law (I still can't used to that idea)that her uncle, the infamous Uncle Duke died two weeks ago.

Uncle Duke was a character and a half, a huge man who said exactly what was on his mind, no matter how politically incorrect it might be. I'd quote some of his best lines, but I'm sure I'd offend somebody in cyberspace. It's hard to believe he's gone.

When Uncle Duke got on a roll, he was unstoppable and quite entertaining. One time, many years ago, he had my mother and I in stitches when he found his grand-nephew playing with a dishwasher magnet that looked like a small doll.

"This is for fruits," he declared as he scooped the little boy up in his arms.

Today we went out to Hicksville to have dinner with our cousin and her husband at a local restaurant, which was packed to the gills. We had a nice time, great food, and I'm happy to report that there were no terrorist attacks on the Long Island Railroad.

News reports said that terrorists involved were targeting New York "during the holiday season to create an opportunity for maximum carnage." Maximum carnage--just in time for the holidays!

As I got ready today I heard more details about the slaughter in Mumbai, where maximum carnage was clearly the objective.

Like most people hearing these reports, I was horrified, but that feeling intensified when my aunt told me that a woman who lives near her summer home in Berkshires was in Mumbai at the time of the attacks.

As of this morning her husband had not heard from her and my aunt had no message from him when she got home this evening.

I only met this woman once a few years ago, but actually knowing someone who is involved in this nightmare--even if only peripherally--increases the anxiety level by a few thousand notches. We later found out she had gotten out of Mumbai shortly before the slaughter began.

There's a part of me that keeps thinking things will change, the world will become a better place. Not overnight, of course, but slowly people will find ways of communicating with each other without bloodshed.

I felt that way when we crossed over into the 21st Century--a new century, for God's sake, surely we'll find a new way of doing things. Then 9/11 happened.

More recently, I was feeling positive about the new administration, that, despite the terrible economic picture, we were going to start over. And then this happens in Mumbai.

I found myself thinking of the old Simon & Garfunkel recording of "Silent Night-7 O'clock News," where the duo sings the beloved Christmas carol while a newscaster reads some of the worst headlines of 1966.

The list includes the escalating war in Vietnam, the death of Lenny Bruce, and the murder of nine student nurses in Chicago.

It was pretty scary when I first heard it 40 years ago, and the world has become a much more dangerous place since then, or so it seems to me.

It's nearly 1 AM on Friday, Thanksgiving is officially over, and the holiday shopping season is about to kick off.

It'll be subdued this year, most likely, given the economic meltdown that has spread out from Wall Street like the shock waves coming from the epicenter of an earthquake.

At least one retail analyst thinks the holiday shopping season is already over because it never got started in the first place.

Food banks are reporting a spike in the number of people coming in for meals and this includes people who once donated to the shelters and who are now forced by circumstance to eat there.

For the first time in ages, I don't have to work today. After all those years of working around the holidays, it's nice to kick back, sleep late, and properly digest my turkey dinner. And I'll make sure not to scratch my butt in public.

I'm thankful for the day off and the big meal, especially in a world where people are starving to death. I'm thankful for my family, which has grown smaller over the years. I'm thankful for my steady paycheck and the roof over my head.

I pray for people who don't have these things, who suffer in ways I could never imagine. It makes my own problems seem quite small indeed.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

All My Funds

They say there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway and at these prices I’m not surprised.

I went to the theater the other night see in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and there was so much drama going on that it rolled off the stage and into my life.

The production stars John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson and…Katie Holmes. Yes, that Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise’s wife, blah, blah, yak, yak, you know the drill.

“All My Sons” opened on Broadway in 1947, back when the average weekly salary was about 46 bucks and theater tickets were about seven. How much did our tickets cost? Why, funny you should ask. They went for a mere…$116 each.

Yes, that’s crazy, but we got them right before the stock market collapse, back in that strangely distant yet recent time, when costly theater tickets seemed like a manageable extravagance, rather than a certifiable act of insanity. What a difference a depression makes.

The theater was packed on this night, but I suspect there were a lot of people looking at the price on their ticket stubs, recalling their sinking retirement accounts and muttering, “what the hell was I thinking?”

Still, there’s nothing like the Broadway experience. I was walking down West 45th Street on way to the theater after a particularly trying day at work—which included a round trip to Norwalk, Conn.—and I perked up looking all the people streaming into theaters with their blazing marquees. You can’t get this kind of energy out of an I-Pod.

And we did get to see Katie Holmes. Now I know some of you lowlifes out there are probably thinking, “hell, for that kind of money you should get to sleep with Katie Holmes.”

Well, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You don't see me saying stuff like that, do you? Go wash your minds out with soap.

Now to be honest “All My Sons” isn’t Arthur Miller’s best work, but it deals with serious issues of responsibility and honor, and it marks a turning point in his career.

This was his second play, following the four-night demise of his first work, which was ironically titled “The Man Who Had All the Luck.” Miller had said that if “All My Sons” didn’t succeed, he would find another line of work. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

While it was written some 50-odd years ago, the story still resonates today. Joe Keller is a factory owner who orders his partner to ship defective airplane parts to the Defense Department during World War II, an act that leads to the deaths of 21 pilots. The partner goes off to jail while Keller is set free to enjoy prosperity after the war.

The issue of defense contractors certainly strikes a nerve in these days of Halliburton, only back then people who got our soldiers killed either went to the slammer or had the decency to kill themselves. Those were the days, my friend.

I had seen “All My Sons” a few years ago at the Westport Country House with Richard Dreyfuss and Jill Clayburg and I thought it was okay, but nothing special.

My favorite version of the story is the film with Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster, but that might have something to do with those two tremendous actors playing the lead roles.

The bad news started as soon as we sat down, cracked open our programs and found Diane Wiest would not be appearing in tonight’s performance.

How’s that? We shelled out all this money and now one of the top performers wasn’t going to show? I sat there fuming while my credit card gently wept.

Then the show started and…well, I wasn’t impressed. I enjoyed John Lithgow’s performance, but the director made some odd choices, staging the play like classical Greek theater.

I confess I didn’t enjoy Katie Holmes at all and I’m not just saying that to be a Katie hater (hata?). She came off as shrill and unnatural, but, looking back, I wonder how much of that was her fault and how much blame should go to the director.

Curtain Call

One of the other actors moved around the strange so oddly, doing this golf-swing pantomime that made me think of Ed Norton's bit in The Honeymooners when he stands up and addresses the ball: "Hel-lo, ball!"

There were echo effects that I found disruptive, incidental music that was distracting, and rear-projection that really wasn’t necessary.

Meanwhile, back in the audience, some loser behind us starts coughing all over my sister, drowning out the actors while spraying his germs all of the first 10 rows.

I've had enough problems with my health to be sympathetic, but this guy sounded like he unhooked himself from an iron long to be here. The show must go on applies to the actors, not the audience.

This guy should have taken a cue from Diane Wiest and stayed the hell home. Of course, she wasn’t paying 116 bucks to get it, so for that kind of money you’ll drag yourself off your death bed to make it to the show on time.

The cougher finally toned down to a mild gag. At intermission, we stood up to leave when I noticed my seat was stuck. I always lift my seat so people can get in and out of the aisle easier.

Only this thing wouldn’t budge. Finally, I yanked on it and the woman sitting behind me—I think she was the cougher’s wife—lets out this shriek—owwww!—like she's being chopped in half...which wouldn't have been a bad idea.

She had somehow managed to stretch her legs under my seat and then sat while I stood there in front of her struggling to lift the damn chair. And then she makes this awful noise, like Stinky from the old Abbott & Costello Show. (“Not so harrrrrd!”)

“I’m sorry,” I sputtered, mortified by any kind of attention. I was convinced there was going to be a scene, with the husband coughing curses all move me while I crushed his wife's head in my chair.

And what the hell was I sorry for? That she was an idiot? If you see a car coming toward you, genius, get out the way. Or better yet, stay put, and do us all a favor.

Fortunately, there were no further incidents and we watched the rest of the show in peace. Most audience got up at the end, of course, for the standing ovation, but I refused to budge from my seat.

The standing ovation used to be a special gesture, a sign that the performers and the playwright had gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Now people give the washroom attendant a standing ovation. Besides, I was afraid if I stood up the schmuck behind me would start screaming again.

So it wasn’t a magical night at the theater, but we had a good time. Now, however, we realize we can’t drop money on shows like this anymore. Looks like we’ll be doing local theater, puppet shows, and poetry readings for the duration.

I got an e-mail offering discount prices on “All My Sons,” dropping the price down to $64 bucks, but I deleted the thing without reading it. Just like my investment accounts, it’s best not to look at this stuff right now.

I finally got to see Diane Wiest, but only on the screen, in Synecdoche, New York, where the ticket was only 11 bucks, a steal by comparison. I thought about giving her a standing ovation, but I refrained.

There was one point in “All My Sons” where a character tells Keller how he was impressed by Joe’s factory, saying “it looked like GM.”

“I only wish it looked like GM,” Lithgow said with a chuckle.

The audience chuckled, too, only this was gallows humor, as we knew all too well that one of the titans of American industry now teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

But that line was written in different age, back when the American economy was booming, factories actually built things, people felt hopeful, and theater tickets didn’t cost 116 bucks.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Safe Mode

I meant to be writing about something else tonight, but thanks to my crappy computer I'm putting that off until I know what the hell is going on.

I am on what the Dell tech guy calls "Safe Mode" though I'm not sure what that it is. I guess it means nothing bad can happen now, like being safe at home in baseball.

I wish they had safe mode for relationships and careers. Oops, did I say something stupid? That's okay, I said it in safe mode. Screwed up that big assignment? No problem; I was in safe mode at the time.

Then again I've been playing it safe for most of my life and it hasn't done me much good.

All I know is that I have been on the phone with tech support so often and for so long that I'm thinking of running for mayor of Mumbai.

I know just about everybody over there and I think I'm developing an Indian accent. I've got a campaign promise, too. Vote for me and I promise I'll stop long as you fix my computer.

I still can't believe how long this has been going on. It's been over a month and they still don't know what the hell is wrong with this piece of junk.

I've had total strangers come to my house on two separate occasions, perform major surgery on the computer and pronounce it ready for action...only to have it crap out on me again.

The computer people are supposed to call me back tonight in under an hour--ha!--and they'll probably want me to back up all my files and reinstall Windows. I am considering jumping out of the window. I don't feel like backing up my files tonight. I'm not in the mode.

I've been ranting and shouting most of the evening, but, strangely enough, that hasn't helped any. I got up feeling okay for a Monday, but it seems the day went to hell inside of a few hours.

I found out I have to do a road trip for work tomorrow. I wasn't too happy about that, as it is an arduous trip to an exceedingly uninteresting place, but then at least I still have a job...please, God...

Then I learned that my expense voucher for my last road trip did not go through, so I had to call our company's help desk, which, like Dell tech support, is located in India. Maybe all my calls are going to the same place.

I hate to sound like a geezer, oh, hell, who am I kidding? I love it. But it's just that there was a time when you filled out your expenses without going on line or talking to someone on the other side of the earth.

You filled out a form with a pen and handed the form and your receipts to your boss and a short time later you got your money. Why must every single thing we do be done online or with tech support?

Then on the way home tonight, the R train went into safe mode, or more like slow mode, while the express trains were routed on to the local line.

I couldn't call tech support from the subway car, but if I did, I'm sure I would have been talking to India.

I don't mean to sound xenophobic or bigoted, especially in this age of Obama, and if I have offended anyone I sincerely apologize. But it just feels like we're going about things in a totally wrong way.

Companies are hiring people overseas because they can pay them less. That means they're screwing people on both sides of the equation. And now with jobs so scare over here--Citigroup announced plans to sack 53,000 people--this kind of greed is even more repulsive.

I tried explaining to the voice on the other end of the phone that I bought this computer to make my life easier, but all I'm getting is misery. I don't want to live in safe mode. I want to live my life and stop talking to disembodied voices.

I feel like every time I get a handle on things, when I think I'm ready to handle whatever life is going to throw at me, something goes wrong and I flip out.

I think it's because I'm so damn dependent on this computer and I'm so helpless when it bites the dust.

I've got the phone pressed to my ear right now with the crappy Muzak playing. The shift supervisor is supposed to talk to me.

I guess he'll apologize and promise it'll never happen again and we'll resolve the issue, you can be sure of that. And then, of course, it'll happen again.

Whatever happens tonight, my next computer is going to be a Mac. That seems like a much safer mode.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Old Cowhand

Did you ever see someone go by and wonder what his story was?

We see God knows how many people in the course of a day and instantly forget the vast majority of them, but every so often someone sticks in your mind.

I had that experience the other morning when I was riding the R train to work and I saw a man wearing a cowboy hat and boots.

He was an older gentleman, easily in his seventies, wearing a jacket and tie with his cowboy attire. He sat down and took a book to read and I could see it was a western by Louis L’Amour, one of the all-time great cowboy writers.

I didn’t think people read westerns any more and the really strange thing is that man’s book itself looked old; like it was printed back when paperbacks cost 60 cents.

I confess I haven’t read much of L’Amour’s work, I admired how he strove for accuracy in his stories. He used to say that if he mentioned a spring in one of his books, then you could be sure that the spring really existed “and the water there is good to drink.”

And what a life he led: professional fighter and trainer, L’Amour traveled the country by rail and then traveled the world as a merchant seaman.

The old cowboy was minding his business, which I should have been doing, but I wanted to know more about him. Did he actually ride the range at one time—before he started riding the R? Or was he going through his second childhood?

I didn’t read too many westerns when I was growing up—I was more a fan of science fiction and private eye stories—but I loved western movies.

Some people tend to dismiss them as B-movies or horse operas--and many of them are--but some of the greatest American films have been westerns.

They deal with such powerful themes: honor, courage, love, greed, and evil. And some of America’s greatest filmmakers have made westerns, like John Ford, Anthony Mann, and Sam Peckinpah.

There are so many great films: High Noon, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, Will Penny—and that’s my short list.

I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on a double bill with Shane at the old Carnegie Hall Cinema years ago. It was great hearing this audience of sophisticated Manhattan cineastes cheering wildly as John Wayne and Alan Ladd took on the bad guys.

Hey, Fellini may have been a genius, but, come on—what could possibly compare with Shane’s showdown with Jack Palance?

The Fifties were a good time for the western and I’m particularly fond of Anthony Mann’s westerns, such as The Man from Laramie, Bend of the River, Winchester ’73, and The Naked Spur, all of which starred James Stewart. They were understated and with real characters, as opposed to cactus clich├ęs.

Saddle Up

Jack Nicholson did a few westerns in his career and I recommend The Shooting, a 1967 low budget Roger Corman movie that co-starred Warren Oates, a fine actor who died much too soon.

I’ve never seen a film so determined to tell you as little as possible about what’s going on. In some many movies characters just about turn to the camera and explain everything to you, but not this flick.

I saw the movie again a few years back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and I stuck around for a Q&A with the director Monte Hellman. One guy raised his hand, stood up and started to ask Hellman to explain the ending of the movie.

“I’ve been avoiding explaining this movie for nearly 30 years,” he said. “I’m not going to start now.”

I like spaghetti westerns—or is it Euro western?—though I consider a kind of sub-genre or variation on the theme. Sergio Leone is the master director of this breed, with The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon A Time in the West, and Duck, You Sucker.

Westerns used to dominate the TV schedule, too. I remember The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Branded, Have Gun Will Travel, and—though, God, how I’ve grown to hate this word—Maverick.

I did rent one season of Deadwood and enjoyed it immensely, but I must confess it was mighty strange to hear cowboys throwing around the f-bomb.

The western seemed to die overnight as cop movies moved in the genre’s turf. You can kill more people in a crime flick—machine guns and 9mm handguns do more damage than six guns. Carnage and mass destruction are the goals nowadays.

Kids don't play cowboy any more. I don't think they play anything in the real world any more. Do you get the feeling we've lost something?

It occurs to me now that years ago I saw another guy all done up in a cowboy outfit riding on the N train. But, unlike the older gentleman I saw last week, this other dude was one seriously mean hombre.

He was dressed entirely in black with a long coat and a Stetson and he sipped clear liquid out of a little glass bottle he held in his gloved hand.

He was muttering curses under his breath and then suddenly punched the window on one of the doors, inspiring several people to skedaddle and change their seats. No one complained when he finally got off the train. I never found out what his story was, but that's okay. This boy was plum loco.

The old cowhand got off at Lawrence Street, instead of riding off in the sunset and I never saw him again.

Coming home on the R train that night I sat across from a man with muttonchops—not the food, but huge patches of whiskers on either side of his face. He looked like a Civil War general. (R must stand for "Retro.")

There was another guy sitting near us who kept making these weird animal noises—ack! ack! He seemed fairly normal, whatever that means, with a brief case across his lap.

He just kept making these damn noises. It was irritating as hell, and I know I should have ignored him—like the muttonchop man clearly was—but it was irritating me something fierce.

I was tired after a long day and I was tired of the way people behave in public—shouting at the top of their lungs, screeching along with their Ipods, or making strange noises.

People spit, curse, hustle you for money—you ride the trains enough you’re bound to hear somebody shouting “Excuse me, ladies and gentleman…” before putting his hand out.

So as I stood by the door to get off at Bay Ridge Avenue, I gave the guy an “ack!” right back. He gave me a dirty look and mumbled something I couldn’t make out.

Now, I will admit that this was a very stupid thing for me to do. First, it’s dangerous as hell. I’ve lost track of how many killers have been described with a variant on the phrase “he seemed harmless,” or “he was always so quiet.”

But more importantly, it was just plain mean of me to mock someone who was clearly not well. Whatever point I was trying to prove was completely lost on this guy. I’m ashamed of my behavior.

That's not the cowboy way.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My President

It's official--Barack Obama has been elected the next president of the United States.

I have never more proud of being an American than I am tonight.

Not only did we elected our first African-American president, but we're also pushing those horrible Bush year behind us, flushing them down the sewer of history where they so rightly belong.

I still can't believe it. I was so worried that John McCain and that card-carrying freak he chose--or was told to choose--as a running mate, Sarah "Winky" Palin, were actually going to steal the White House and continue the Bush nightmare of war, divisiveness, and lies.

I told my sister that if McCain had won, I would be calling her tomorrow from Canada (here I come, Jen!).

But it was not to be. Obama overcame the attacks on his family, his religion, his name, for God's sake, and yes, on his race.

These neo-clown sleaze bags had to hop through their own asses to keep from saying "don't vote for the black guy," but make no mistake, that's exactly what they were saying: "don't vote for the black guy."

They wrote books filled with lies about him. They actually criticized him for his overseas popularity, as if international respect is something to be ashamed of.

We heard bare-faced lies about so-called "real Americans" who wrap themselves in the flag as they wipe their rear ends with the Constitution.

Obama had an entire news network in the form of Rupert Murdoch's "fair and balanced" atrocity, Fox News, gunning for him, throwing out the Madrassa fantasy at every turn.

It was awful to watch John McCain degrade himself so thoroughly, signing up with the Karl Rove branch of the GOP and throwing mud when people wanted hope. He even hired on the same people who had slimed him in South Carolina.

And that ridiculous woman--God, what a monstrosity. I'm so glad that America said "thanks, but no thanks" to that imbecile.

I just listened to McCain's concession speech and I have to say that he sounded like the John McCain of old, the man I respected even when I didn't agree with him. It's a shame he didn't conduct himself with the same kind of dignity throughout his campaign. Who knows what would have happened?

But, no, he chose the dark side, so we had tales of Bill Ayers and Rev. Wright; feigned outrage about Obama's lipstick on pig remark that actually gained traction--until reality, in the form of the stock market meltdown--shook America out of her stupor.

These pathetic attacks have no meaning when people are terrified of losing their homes.

Horror stories about scary black reverends or old Sixties radicals are nothing compared to watching your retirement savings evaporate overnight. Joe the Plumber disappears when Fred the Repo Man shows up at your door.

President-Obama is speaking now as I write this. It's such a shame that his beloved grandmother could not be here with him to see this historic night. But our loved ones are always close even after they leave this world.

After all the celebrations, the new president will have his full. His supporters expect so much and we have this wrecked economy and two wars to contend with.

"We know the challenges tomorrow will bring the greatest challenge of our lives," he just said, and he's so right.

But that's for another time. Right now, it's time to rejoice. So, with apologies to James Brown, said it loud, Barack Obama is my president and I'm proud.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

November One

When I was a police reporter in Pennsylvania, whenever I heard the call for “November One” on the scanner, I knew somebody had just died.

“November One” was the code for the county coroner so if I heard the code for a car accident (I think it was 10-15) followed by the coroner’s radio handle, I knew that we had a fatal accident—and a most likely a page-one story.

Yesterday was Halloween and today—November One-is All Saints Day, so I guess it’s not surprising that I would think about a man who worked so closely with the dead.

This is also the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or Dia De Los Muertos, where friends and family come together to honor deceased loved ones.

And--my thanks for Flatbush Gardner for reminding me--today is also the 90th anniversary of the Malbone Street Wreck, where nearly 100 people died in the worst transit disaster in New York City history.

It happened in Brooklyn, just outside Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. After the accident, the name of the street was changed to Empire Boulevard and that's the name it carries to this day.

"November One" seems like a good handle for a coroner.

Burning Bright

A few nights ago I was walking down my street when I smelled smoke. I looked up the alley of the home I was passing and saw a cardboard box burning away, completely engulfed in flames.

It looked so unusual and primitive blazing away in this modern setting. There was no one around and in my rather overactive imagination I thought of some kind of strange ritual.

Then I remembered that this was the home of an adorable little girl who had died over the summer. I have no idea what was in that burning box, but I am convinced it had something to do with that beautiful child whose life was so cruelly snuffed out.

Perhaps it was something so strongly connected with the little girl that her parents couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, but the idea of throwing it into the trash was unthinkable. It's like changing the name of a street after something terrible has happened.

So they destroyed it completely, exerting some tiny bit of control over a world that must look brutally chaotic to them.

Also, I believe these people are Buddhists and, according to one web site I checked, tradition calls for family members to burn the deceased possessions 100 days after the funeral so he or she can enjoy them in the next life.

If that's so, I hope this sweet little girl has all her dolls and toys with her now and having fun every day in a place where November never happens.

I was recently thinking about Eliza, a woman I met a few years ago when she was running a movie-goers club. One Sunday a month, Eliza would organize a group of people to see a movie and then go to lunch or dinner. (I think we did breakfast once, too.)

It was the first internet-related group I ever joined and I had some great times with it. I met new people, saw some good flicks, and ate at some nice restaurants.

The first movie I saw with this group was Spellbound, a documentary about spelling bees, not the Hitchcock classic.

Eliza was waiting outside to greet any stragglers and direct them into the theater and then afterward about a dozen of us went out to eat. This group meant a lot to me, especially in a city where it can be very hard to make new friends.

Each month, Eliza sent out an e-mail saying what movie we’d be seeing and what restaurant we’d go to afterward. She’d always end up by saying “Have fun—and that’s an order.” Great advice, when you think about how short life can be.

One time in the winter we went to a theater where the heating system had broken down. A lot of people in the group complained about being cold, so after the movie Eliza marched up to the manager’s office and got free passes to another flick for every member in the group. She was all kinds of brassy.

I should mention here that I wasn’t cold at all, having just put away a nice steamy bowl of turkey chili, which kept me warm for the duration of the movie. But I took the pass anyway.

A Golden Heart

Eliza once invited me to a birthday dinner she was throwing for herself at Guantanamera, a fabulous Cuban restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. I accepted and met up with her and two of her friends.

I got the distinct feeling that a lot of invited guests had blown this party off, which is pretty crass, actually, but between the great food and the jumping music, nobody seemed to mind.

Eliza ran several media-related events and when I got laid off from a job, she gave me a freelance editing gig on her e-mail newsletter. My first attempt at editing this publication was disastrous, but I improved quickly.

I didn’t get rich doing this, but I put it on my resume to show prospective employers that I was working instead of sitting around playing video games all day. As a result, there were no blank spots on my resume.

I eventually drifted from the movie group, got steady work and, as all too often in life, I lost contact with Eliza.

Then last September, I went to a small theater on the Upper West side to see a production of “The Innocents” and two other ghost stories, and there was Eliza, who had also joined this particular group.

She told me she had disbanded the movie group because it was too much work organizing the thing. We talked about getting together sometime and a short time later she sent me an e-mail inviting me to join her new sports Meetup group. She always had something going on.

I honestly meant to join, but I’m not into sports and I belonged to so many Meetup groups already that I didn’t want to sign up for any more. But I told myself that I’d keep in touch with Eliza.

Two months ago I received an email from Eliza’s account, but it turned out to be from her sister. She was writing to say that Eliza had died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. She was 45 years old.

I meant to write something about Eliza on that day, but I didn’t, and it is to my great shame that I am finally discussing my friendship with her two months after she died.

But then I meant to stay in touch with her last week and I didn’t, so all I can say now is rest in peace, Eliza.

Last week I went to a wake for a woman who was related to a friend of mine. My friend was about the only person in the room that I knew. It was an odd sensation, going to a wake after burying my parents.

I felt detached, away from everything, and I suppose I was. But I'm glad I went. A little bit of effort can touch people so deeply.

At one point I went downstairs to use the men’s room and I was amazed at the size of the place. As I was leaving, I saw the funeral director and told him what a great facility he had.

“It’s a good place to stay out of,” he said with a laugh.

On the way out I picked up a funeral card for the departed. This had an image of Jesus on one side and a poem on the other. The last stanza of the poem reads:

“A golden heart stopped beating,
Hard working hands at rest,
God broke our hearts to show us,
He only takes the best.”

That could be said about a lot people I’ve lost. Something to think about on November One.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Way Out East

I was sitting in a theater on Friday night when Phillip Seymour Hoffman walked right by me.

He didn’t see me, but then I don’t think anyone else did either. I was feeling somewhat invisible on this night.

I had been stuck for something to do for the weekend, but I was determined to fight the gravitational pull of Netflix and my living room couch and get out into the alleged real world.

I was tempted to see the opening of Charley Kaufman’s movie, Synecdoche, New York, starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, which opened on Friday, but sitting in a dark movie theater seemed a bit too similar to sitting on my couch.

You don’t meet too many people in the dark, or at least not the kind of people you want to hang around with once the lights come back on.

I decided that if I’m going to live in the five-borough asylum that is New York City, I really should do the New Yorky things that I couldn’t do when I was living in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

So I went to the Labyrinth Theater Co.’s free play reading at the Public Theater, where, yes, smart-ass, I would sit in the dark by myself, but this is theater.

You can meet people more easily at a play than you can at a movie, especially during the matinee. I’m always chatting with fellow audience members when I go to a play, whereas when a movie ends, everybody heads for the doors.

I sat in the lobby reading the Village Voice waiting for the doors to open and scoping the people around me, keeping an eye out for attractive single women in my approximate age bracket and coming up with nothing.

I took a seat in the front row and hoped I’d have some free space on either side of me during the reading, but a lovey-dovey young couple whom I had seen in the lobby and tried to avoid gravitated to the two seats on my left.

The couple wrapped up in themselves and made little cooing noises at each other—God, I’m a cranky old bastard, aren’t I?—while I prayed for the lights to come down as quickly as possible.

It was then that a heavyset man with a full beard walked by me and I was sure it was Hoffman—no surprise given that he’s a member of the Labyrinth—but just to settle things, he greeted some women in the audience with just one word—“Ladies…” –and I was certain it was him.

Don’t stare, don’t stare, I shouted at myself as he walked to the back of the theater. You’re a New Yorker, not a yahoo from East Bumfuck. You’re supposed to be jaded; you’re supposed to be indifferent to everything around you.

But he’s one of my favorite actors, my inner yahoo whined, and his movie opens today!

Nobody cares what you think, schmuck, and he knows about the goddamn movie opening; he's in it, for Christ's sake. Just shut your piehole and act cool.

I sat there and fantasized about talking with Phil about theater, movies, the state of the world. I could tell him about my projects, give him a rundown of my own (exceedingly brief) stage career, and--the big one--invite him to read my blog.

Then we could all go out to some chi-chi club and talk art until the sun comes and the cows come home.

They Say The Neon Lights Are Bright...

Once again, however, I was blind-sided by reality. The two actors came out and began the reading and there I was, back on earth and sitting next to the clingy couple.

The actors were very good, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with the play itself.

Perhaps if there had been a real set and props, I would have felt more enthusiastic, but I found myself nodding at one point and then worrying that Hoffman might have seen me.

He won't take you to the chi-chi club if he sees you leaning over.

At the end of the show, I stood up, put on my jacket and looked up and locked eyes with Hoffman who was sitting way in the back.

Don’t stare, don’t stare!
I walked around the young couple and out the door. It turns out that Hoffman exited through another exit and once again I found myself locking eyes with the guy.

Get the hell out of here!

I walked quickly out the door and headed down to St. Mark’s Place to get some dinner. As always, this street was packed with people—nearly all of them young couples.

This city and this block in particular are so teeming with life I had to wonder why people feel a need to travel around the globe to “exotic” locations. St. Mark’s looks like a bazaar…and it looks like rather bizarre.

It’s fun being down there, but not so much when you’re alone. You can just slide right off the glittering surface of this city if you’re not careful.

This is the kind of thing I’ve been trying to change for years now and while I’ve made some progress, I still get caught flatfooted every so often and wind up on my own.

When I was living Connecticut, I once called a friend who lived in the Village one Friday night and whined about how I was stranded in, well, East Bumfuck.

But he told me he felt stranded in Manhattan, too, as he walked by these chi-chi clubs were everybody is young, aloof, and clad in black.

By the time I moved back to New York, my friend had gotten fed up with the whole scene and moved to a lake community in the wilds of New Jersey.

He told me he liked the East Bumfuck life, though he did miss some things about New York.

“You always give up something,” he said.

I wound having dinner at the Chipotle on St. Mark’s, after promising myself I wouldn’t, and got on line behind a young couple who were all wrapped up in each other.

After I got my chicken burrito and sat down with my Village Voice and hoped no one would take the empty table next to me.

But yet another young couple—how many does that make so far?--put their trays down and prepared to sit down. I’m like a young couple magnet. Why can’t I just attract the young women and get rid of the guys? Can't I break up the set?

The woman had to go to the bathroom, but before she could do that, the two of them just had to hug and kiss each other because they were going to be separated for such a terribly long time. I scarfed down my burrito and got the hell out of there.

The subway was catering only to young couples, as well, and wondered if maybe they should have their own train.

I think there should be some kind of warning sign for us aging types to stay home or go out on a different night. I’m tired of being part of the background.

Saturday night wasn’t much better. I went to one bar in Sunset Park, but bailed almost immediately because it was too loud, too crowded and too young. I ended up at a saloon at the end of the R line that was too quite, too empty, and too old.

Balance—that’s what I need, or else you start to slide.

This happened to me last week, while I was eating a sandwich at my desk. I had a flashback to when I was a kid eating lunch with my mother.

It wasn’t any particular memory; I just went back to a time when I could swing my legs off the seat and not come anywhere near the floor.

I was actually getting teary-eyed as the image became more real and I wondered what the hell was wrong me, why I had to take a perfectly lovely memory and use it as an excuse to start weeping.

My shrink had to point out that this was a beautiful memory and maybe I was crying because I don’t have anything new to replace it.

East Bumfuck isn’t a place on the map; it’s a state of mind. And you can spend your whole life there if you’re not careful.

I heard Charlie Kaufman, the writer and director of Synecdoche, New York, on the radio today talking about his flick and I'm really excited to see it now. But I don't want to go by myself.

Maybe I’ll ask Phil to come with me...and then we can start hitting the clubs.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Refresh My Memory

I ran into an acquaintance of mine on the subway Thursday night.

Now if only I could remember his name.

Actually, it’s not just this man’s name that has escaped me. It’s his entire existence. I have no memory whatsoever of having met the gentleman prior to Thursday, yet he clearly knew me.

It was around 8:30 pm and I was minding my business on the Brooklyn-bound R train when a man on crutches got on at 34th Street with a young woman. He looked around the car and then his eyes fixed on me.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

I was the only person in this section of the car, so I assumed he was speaking to me. But I didn't recognize him at all, so he must have mistaken me for someone else.

“Rob, right?”

Oh, God—he knows me, but I don’t know him. What do I do now?

He told me his name, which I realize now I have since forgotten, and introduced me to his wife, whose name I couldn’t recall if you water-boarded me for three days straight in a bucket of rancid sauerkraut.

They sat across from me and we began talking about his injury, which at least gave me a chance to avoid any direct questions about his life and times. I can only thank God he mangled his leg or else I would have looked like a total idiot.

We had a rather pleasant conversation, though, especially considering I couldn’t begin to remember who this man was or how I knew him.

We talked about living in Bay Ridge, the scary job market, and the encroaching winter. Imagine if I actually knew who this guy was. We would have gotten along famously.

I felt the conversation slowing down after a short while, so I smiled weakly, held up my paper, and indicated I would read for the duration of what now seemed like an excruciatingly long ride. Can I change my mind of the water-boarding thing?

Forgetting someone’s name, while embarrassing, is not so terrible, given the sensory assault we are subjected to on a daily basis. But forgetting an entire person is terrifying. It’s like someone threw me a surprise lobotomy.

I was wondering if this was an elaborate practical joke. Or maybe I walked into a Hitchcock movie where a stranger approaches me and then all a sudden he’s dead on the ground and the cops are setting me up as a patsy to be the fall guy.

Or is it setting me up as a fall guy to be the patsy? Either way it sucks.

But this was no film noir episode. This felt more like a senior moment. My father suffered from dementia and every time I forget or misplace something, I start to get the nagging feeling that I’m heading down the same trail.

My dad used to laugh about a movie entitled “I'll Never Forget What's'isname.” He never actually saw the flick, or at least he didn’t remember seeing it, but he got a real out kick of the title. I used to think it was funny, too, up until Thursday night.

I suppose the subway story is yet another sign that I’m getting older, along with the various aches and pains and the gray hairs on the parts of my body that I don’t shave.

And the eyesight is fading. I prided myself that at 51 years of age, I still don’t wear glasses. But I fear I’ll have to cave in pretty soon.

I was out on Friday for sushi and when I got the bill, I squinted, cocked my head, turned the slip of paper at every possible angle in search of better lighting and I still couldn’t make out those ridiculously tiny numbers.

Are they just hoping we’ll hand over the plastic and not bother to look?

I finally showed the bill to my companion and asked her to tell me what it said. It was a little embarrassing, but at least I remember her name.

I’ve been watching this TV show, “Life on Mars” about a modern day New York cop who gets clobbered by a car and wakes up in…the Seventies.

This may be the first time I’ve ever seen a time travel story that goes back to a time when I was alive. I forgot how awful the clothing and the music from that time really were, so thank God someone created a show to remind me.

Do You Know Me?

Obviously I’m not the only one with memory problems in this world. Hell, if society didn’t have a collective amnesia, most politicians would never get elected.

I decided I should do something to help myself before I forgot what the problem was, so I did a Google search of the phrase “improve memory” and got 670,000 hits.

Regain a Young Brain, one sponsored link says, though it doesn’t specify whose young brain I should regain. I’ll work with mine, but if there’s a nicer one around I’m willing to take it around the block for a spin.

Memory Formula: $29.99, another proclaims, which is an easy number to remember.

Debilitating Brain Fog? You’re asking me? If I have brain fog, I wouldn’t know it and I’d be traveling on automatic pilot—which sounds like a large portion of my life.

I saw the word “Free” and I clicked onto another link about improving memory, but it turned out to be for computers, not people. Computers don't have to worry about forgetting something. If they do, it's probably your fault.

“Want To Improve Memory?” one headline asks and then answers: “Strengthen Your Synapses. Here's How.”

I thought this meant I had to make my synapses do push-ups and hoist barbells, but it’s really all in my head.

“Stress is a major cause of synapse dysfunction,” the article said. After a couple of rounds with Dell’s Tech Support it’s a wonder that I have any synapses left to snap.

And I was feeling awfully stressed in the subway car Thursday night sitting across from that guy on the crutches. I kept sneaking looks out the window to see how close we were to home.

Damn it, if only I had stayed on the No. 2 at Times Square I never would have run into Captain Crutches. I’m really starting to dislike that guy, whoever the hell he is.

The memory article advises people to reduce stress (good luck with that one), exercise regularly (I knew push-ups were going to be part of this.), do puzzles, and challenge your brain by breaking routine.

Can’t I just eat lots of fish instead? I thought they were good for memory, but then I ate three tons of raw fish at that sushi dinner and I still can’t remember that guy’s name.

I do recall a Three Stooges bit where Larry says “fish is good brain food.”

“You should catch a whale,” Moe says and smacks Larry upside the head—which can’t be good for your memory.

I tried googling “fish + memory” but the first few articles were about the fish’s memory.

One link asked the musical question, Do Fish Have Memories? Well, they keep getting reeled in—just like people during election time-so I guess not.

But there’s evidence to suggest otherwise, according to an article entitled “Three Second Fish Memory Myth”—a great name for an album--which says that a 10 year(?!) study of fish memory “concluded that fish can not only remember in the short term but also rely on long term memory.”

Oh, the poor bastards. You mean fish remember bad break-ups, traumatic childhoods, and the Bush administration? That three-second memory is starting to look pretty good.

You can forget something and then forget that you forgot it, so you won’t be embarrassed about forgetting it in the first place. I can forget Catholic school, freshman year, my last 20 relationships, root canal, the IRS, and anything my boss tells me to do.

You could even forget fact that you spent 10 years of your life trying to prove fish have long term memories.

I got up at Bay Ridge Avenue and my mystery companions got up with me, as this, too was their station. I wished them well, hoped his leg improved, and told him I’d see him around. Then I dashed the hell out of the car and up the stairs.

I’m going to the gym now so I can exercise my synapses and improve my three-second memory.

I'll work out hard and hope I won’t forget how to get home.

And if some stranger walks up and greets me by name, I’m going to slap him across the face with a 20-pound flounder.

He won’t forget my name anytime soon, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Garden Party

I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends...

Hey, that sounds like a song. I'll have to keep that in mind. Meanwhile, let's talk about Sunday's Brooklyn Blogade at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

This fabulous event at this beautiful location was organized by that sharp-eyed shutterbug Flatbush Gardener, whose photos I am once again proudly stealing for this post.

I've been going to the Botanic Garden ever since I was a child, but this visit was really special. We had lunch outside at the Terrace Cafe and then headed into the Members' Room for some presentations from the Garden's staff.

And then we got a guided tour of the place. The weather was beautiful as our guide took us around the garden's various sites. I told everyone about how I came here when I was a little kid with my aunt and got lost in the Japanese Garden.

I still maintain that I was never lost and even if I were, this would be the place to do it.

We ended up by the herb garden where I spotted a plant known as the "cannibal tomato." Not to worry--this is not a killer tomato that comes to life and goes for your jugular.

Legend has it that this particular plant was once popular with cannibals in the South Pacific who used it to make sauce for eating people. I didn't know cannibals used sauce for their human meals, but then I never eat hamburger without ketchup, so there you are. Or there you were.

I visited the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass. years ago when I spied this strange implement mounted next to a human tooth in one of the glass display cases.

It turned out that the tooth once belonged to a cannibal ruler. He was suffering from a toothache, the story goes, and an explorer (I want to say Capt. Cook, but I'm not sure.) offered to remove the malicious molar if the chief gave up his consumption for human flesh.

The chief agreed and out came the tooth. The chief converted to Christianity and, as a sign of trust, he handed over his fork that he reserved for eating folks--the strange implement in the case.

I found it interesting that cannibals used forks. I just assumed if you made the decision to eat a fellow human being, you wouldn't be too worried about your table manners, but it's all right now. I learned my lesson well. You can't please everyone, so you've to--hey, there's that song again.

Anyway, the Blogade was great. We had a lot of fun, plenty of sunshine, and no one was eaten by cannibals. Who could ask for anything more?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ninth Circle of Dell

At times like this I almost miss my typewriter.

I spent four hours in tech support hell on Friday, spending the time being passed around from techie to techie like a hooker at a bachelor party.

I’ve logged enough time talking to India to give me jet lag and frequent flier miles; I’ve got a crick in my neck from holding the phone against my shoulder and a crushed ear from pressing the receiver to my head.

The only thing l don’t have is a working computer.

After months of mild misbehavior, my Dell desktop finally went berserk last week, switching off without so much as a by-your-leave, which was one of my mom's expression that I thought I would bring out for this occasion.

The computer liked to torture me, coming on long enough for me to think it was okay and then keeling over right before my eyes.

I’d hit the power button a few times, the thing would power up, I’d feel confident it was okay and then—poof!—it would croak again.

Usually I handle these things with a combination of blind fury and mindless hope. After cursing the fates for a couple of minutes, I become baselessly optimistic, figuring if I just give the machine a rest, it’ll come back to normal—as if my computer is suffering from Montezuma’s revenge or a bad migraine.

It was really bad this time and I knew I had to crack down and call tech support. I know this means hours of waiting, talking, fiddling with the machine’s innards and trying to decipher the accents and the techno-babble being drilled into my head.

The Dell bunch also likes to sell you stuff, which I find most irritating. (Maybe they should call themselves “Sell.”)

That’s like trying to sell a drowning man a year’s worth of swimming lessons. Yes, I’m sure they’ll come in handy some day, but you could pull me into the damn boat first?

The first time a guy talked me into buying ink cartridges. Fine, I was out of them anyway and could have really used them when my aunt and uncle were here last week.

Okay, so I buy the damn ink, they put me on with tech support, the dude takes over my computer. It’s weird watching your cursor come to life and shoot around the screen; I felt like calling a priest.

The guy messes around for a bit and pronounces my computer ready for the world. Great, Internet here I come.

And then it craps out on me again.

I’ll call back and the next guy offers me the special tech support—not the regular support we give the losers, but the super secret, top-of-the-line, bells and whistles, first-class tech support…for a nominal fee.

I got a little mouthy at this point, insisting to talk a techie and not a peddler. The next person, a woman, tries a bunch of stuff, and determines that it’s a hardware problem and sets me up with one of their local repair people.

I find out the guy works during the day and takes off weekends…kind of like me. But we agree he’ll come to my house on Friday at 6pm and work his magic. I dash out of work, leaving God knows what in my wake, and find the guy on my stoop.

This Won't Hurt A Bit

Naturally the computer is in the one room in the house that I didn’t clean up, so this poor bastard is stepping over clothes, books, boxes, shrunken heads, artificial limbs, and several tons of dirty laundry, including my underwear.

I go out to the living room and shudder with embarrassment.

The guy replaces the burnt out motherboard, I throw him 20 bucks and I’m ready to get back on line.

Only I don’t have any Internet connection. None, zip, zilch, never heard of it, how did you get in here anyway? So I call the techie on his cell (sell?) and he tells me to call support.

All right, I don’t complain. It shouldn’t be long. So I call the number—I’m not sure where Verizon is—and the woman starts giving me a series of tasks to perform.

I feel like a guy in an airplane being talked down by the control tower…only I can’t find the runway and the pilot just dropped dead.

Finally, she tells me to call Dell.

“Wait a minute!” I wail. “They told me to call you!”

So the Verizon woman calls Dell for me, puts me on with yet another techie, who takes over my computer once again—I feel so violated!—and opens the thing up like the medical examiner carving up a corpse on Law & Order.

I had that damn phone pressed to my head for hours. I give the guy credit, though, he tried everything to get me back on line. And finally—he did it.

“I see that your computer is very slow,” he tells me. “Have you considered getting additional memory…?”

He means buying additional memory, of course, but I’m so happy to be connected I say sure, though I draw the line when he tries to sell me some traveling memory unit.

Enough already, pal, huh?

But then I see that my Norton 360 security system is not working. Surfing the Internet without this protection is like going to Vegas without condoms. You may have fun, but you’re liable to catch something very nasty.

“I’m going to give you a number,” my salesman techie friend says. “For Norton—”

--no, please don’t say it, please—

“—technical support.”

More geeks? Are you kidding me? I can’t handle any more disembodied voices floating around my skull; I can’t keep telling the same story over and over again. It sucked the first time and has not improved with the re-telling.

But there was no getting around it. And since I had wasted my Friday night anyway, I decided to finish this thing once and for all…for the time being.

I called Norton tech support, left a number, a nice young man working somewhere outside of Manila called me back. He, too, took over my computer—Jesus, I’m going to get a bad reputation—and tries to make small talk.

“I see a picture of a woman on your computer, sir,” he says. “Is she your wife?”

“No, she’s my aunt,” I say, “but I’m sure she’ll be very flattered to hear that.”

We laughed, talked about politics, both here and over there, where, my buddy tells me that in the Philippines “we have a lady president.”

Finally he tells me I can leave and he’ll finish up. Great. The next night I go online to write a blog posting about how my computer was resurrected and now I’m back in the game.

And it crapped out on me yet again. I've got ink cartridges, additional memory. I just don't have a computer.

I’m writing this now from another location and the traveling techie is supposed to come by my house this week with another new part.

He’s not getting a tip this time and he doesn't fix my damn computer, I’ll be on the next plane to India with a Louisville slugger on my lap.