Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Coin Toss

There’s a scene in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, one my favorite holiday movies, where Magoo, portraying Ebenezer Scrooge, sings as he greedily counts his coins.

“Ringle, Ringle, coins when they jingle,” he goes, while Bob Crachit freezes his tuchas off in the next room, “make such a lovely sound.”

I’ve recently embarked on a mission to clean up all loose change in my house and I have to say that the sound of all that jingling hasn’t been lovely at all.

There are pennies all over the place. They’re in plastic soup containers, glass jars, any kind of canister that can possibly hold pennies…holds pennies.

Part of the problem stems from the dark days of coinage, when banks refused to take your change unless you put it all in those awful paper wrappers.

Nobody wanted to sit down for hours at a time, counting the pennies, then losing count and having to start all over again. So the pennies piled higher and deeper.

I think that’s why pirates buried their treasure. I can't see Long John Silver trying to put all those gold doubloons into paper wrappers. Arrh, Jim Boy, bury the booty and let some other schmuck deal with it.

And they’re just pennies after all. It’s not like they’re really worth anything. When I was a kid if someone stooped so low as to pick up a penny, he was quickly branded a “brown bender” and mocked without mercy.

I did a newspaper story several years ago about a bank in Connecticut that decided to waive the wrapper rule and take the coins straight up.

The place was quickly overrun by every brown bender in a three-state radius. The bank's president called me to thank me for the publicity, but added that “you’re killing me with kindness!”

They pulled in enough pennies to fill an armored car, which swayed from side to side as it drove away from the bank.

But we’re in the 21st Century now; banks don’t need wrapped coins, so my girlfriend advised me to get my tail up to the nearest place with a counting machine.

My first attempt was a bust. I had decided to wash all those dusty old pennies (yeah, I know, money laundering, ha, ha, give it a rest) but one of the suits at the bank told me that wet coins would kill the machine. They want dirty money?

So I trudged home with nothing to show for my efforts except severe case of lumbago.

Take two. I took the bus this time and kept my money dry. One bank’s coin machine has this stupid little character called—are you ready?—Penny Arcade, who guides you through the coin dump in a squeaky rodent voice.

“Boy, you sure have a lot of coins,” the pre-adolescent android said, stating the excruciatingly obvious.

I finally got the first batch of coins cashed in and then hauled out the next one. I went to a different bank this time, which was closer, thank God, and had a counting machine that didn’t talk.

I joked to myself that I’d probably break the machine with all these damn coins. And that’s exactly what happened.

Halfway through feeding the machine my pennies, the little conveyor belt stopped dead and the screen called out for help. I had killed Penny Arcade’s silent cousin.

As I waited for the tellers to fix the machine, I looked at blown-up photos of old Bay Ridge that the bank had put on the walls.

It’s hard to tell when exactly the pictures were taken, but it clearly wasn't Christmas time since people were in their shirtsleeves. You can see the Alpine Theater’s marquee—back when it was just one theater--advertising a Blondie movie from 1946.

Trolley tracks are also visible, so we’re talking about a time when you can actually buy something with pennies. My mother always said how much she loved the trolley, how it was so roomy and comfortable, and how angry she was when they were replaced by buses.

A bank staffer got the coin machine up and running and I finished off the count. I came home satisfied that the house was now penny free.

Then I walked into the dining room and saw a ceramic figure of the Little Girl with the Curl, which my mother had made years ago. The top is bowl-shaped so it can hold fruit or little doodads or, in this case, a hell of a lot of pennies.

Where’s Mr. Magoo when you need him?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Final Edition

It’s seems sadly fitting that I learned on the same day that Editor & Publisher was folding and Tom Flannery had died.

Tom was a reporter at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa., my first daily newspaper job. E&P is—soon to be “was”—the trade magazine for the newspaper industry, which at the time was being printed at a plant in nearby East Stroudsburg.

I subscribed to E&P for years and I even worked there briefly in the late 90s before going to work for

Like a lot reporters, I always went straight to the want ads when the latest issue of E&P arrived because, like a lot of reporters, I hated my current job with a passion and I had to get the hell out before I went berserk.

I did get around to reading the articles, but the job listings always came first. E&P was my lifeline to the outside world and each issue offered some hope that maybe this week I’d find my dream job.

You had to read the ads carefully, though, because sometimes you’d spot a great job, get all pumped to apply, only to see that the paper was located somewhere south of South Succotash and had a circulation of about 12. I learned to check the locations before reading the rest of the ad.

This was before email applications, back when you had to photocopy your resume and your best clips, type up a letter and some labels, and bring the whole thing down to the Post Office so you could mail it. (God, it sounds like I’m cranking up a Model T.)

When I was living in Waterbury, Conn., I went to the photocopy place so often that I made friends with the staff. They got to know me at the Post Office, too.

I answered an ad in E&P for the Pocono Record in 1988, got the job, and that’s where I met Tom Flannery. Tom was covering Stroudsburg Borough Council and seemed to know everybody in town.

He wasn’t shy by any means and he seemed like one of those wise-cracking reporter characters from old black & white movies. All he needed was one of those old gooseneck telephones.

I was driving along North Seventh Street in Stroudsburg one day when I saw Tom walking over the bridge that spanned I-80. I honked my horn and was a little surprised to see Tom’s face go pale.

I found out later that Tom had written some articles about drug dealers from the Bronx or Brooklyn and when he saw the New York plates on my car, he thought someone was sizing him up for a drive-by.

We only worked together for a short time before Tom got a job at the Intelligencer Journal in Lancaster, Pa.

Before he left, Tom suggested I take over the Stroudsburg Borough beat and, on his very last day, he saw to it that I covered the arrest of a murder suspect. It was a wild night, but I’m glad Tom set that up because it was also an incredible experience.

Get Me Rewrite

After getting the story and writing up the article, I met Tom at a bar near the paper for a farewell drink.

“Give him as many drinks as he wants,” Tom told the bartender.

I saw Tom once or twice after that, talked to him on the phone a few times more and then we lost touch. I later saw him on the show Nightline discussing a story he had done on a defense contractor in Lancaster and his hard work had earned him a Pulitzer nomination.

I eventually got back to New York and somewhere in my career I worked at E&P for a short time before getting the offer from CNN, my first internet reporting job.

I felt badly at leaving E&P so soon after starting, especially after meeting several nice people there, but even the spokeswoman at the Newspaper Association of America told me to take the CNN gig.

“I enjoy working with you,” she said, “but if you don’t take this job at CNN I’ll kill you.”

I left E&P and I let my subscription run out. We all know what’s happening to the newspaper industry, but I was still shocked that the magazine was folding—not going online, not being salvaged in some way, just shutting down and disappearing. It doesn’t seem right.

When I look at what’s happening to newspapers, I think of the movie industry when it shifted from the silent films to talkies. Looking back, it may seem like it was a smooth transition—we just added sound to movies, that’s all.

But it's a lot different when you’re in the middle of a seismic change, when it has an impact on your life. A lot of good people lost their livelihoods when the silent pictures faded away and that is what’s happening to newspapers.

When I heard about E&P, I started thinking about Tom for some reason and decided to do a web search to see what he was up to.

I was stunned to find his obituary. He had died unexpectedly in June 2004, shortly after filing what turned out to be his last story. He was 56 years old.

A newspaper man and a newspaper magazine are both gone now. Time has no mercy on people or industries. That doesn’t seem right, but there’s not much we can do about it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hair Today

I ran into Anthony, my mother’s former hairdresser, on Thanksgiving Eve and greeted him with the old standby “how’s business?”

And he told me.

“I sold the building,” he said. “I’m retiring.”

I couldn’t believe it. Another familiar place disappearing? Anthony has been running the beauty salon on Fifth Avenue for as long as I can remember. He can’t just close up shop.

Anthony said he’s not leaving Brooklyn. I thought he might head off to someplace like Florida, but he dismissed that idea.

“Maybe I’ll go to Key West for a couple of weeks,” he said, “but I don’t want to boil down there—especially in the summer.”

Anthony was one of the few people who actually loved his job.

“I couldn’t wait to get to work,” he said. “It was never really work for me.”

Not too many people in this world can make that claim.

One of my earliest memories of Anthony was coming home with my brother from grocery shopping when we were kids.

We had gotten caught in a terrible downpour that soaked the paper bags—no plastic bags back then-and the groceries began falling to the ground right in front of Anthony’s salon.

I remember a bottle of Coke hitting the sidewalk and exploding. No plastic bottles back then.

It was getting pretty desperate when Anthony opened the door and handed us some shopping bags so we could get our stuff and go home.

My mother had often gone to Anthony’s salon to get her hair done there and I did, too, for a while—back when I still had hair.

And the day I went into his salon to tell him my mother had died, Anthony was very kind and supportive.

“She’s sleeping with the angels now,” he told me.

I had to ask him how long he had been in business.

“Since 1966,” he said.

I did a double-take. I knew he had been there a long time, but I had no idea it was that long.

So that means I was nine years old when Anthony opened up. Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States that year, the first of eight presidents who would enter the White House during Anthony’s 43-year run.

There were no cell phones, Blackberries, no Internet, and no widescreen TVs, but Gemini VIII docked with an orbiting satellite in 1966 and Russia’s Luna 9 landed on the Moon.

It was the year of the Miranda decision, where cops had to tell you about your right to remain silent. It was the year a man named Richard Speck killed 8 student nurses in Chicago and, a short time later, a man named Charles Whitman killed 13 people from atop a building at the University of Texas.

A loaf of bread cost 22 cents and a gallon of gas went for 23 cents. A new home cost $40,000 and a new car had a price tag of $2,401.

John Lennon set off a firestorm of self-righteous outrage that year when he said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. The Fab Four released Revolver, played their last live concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and began work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band, which would be released the following year.

Both Star Trek and How the Grinch Stole Christmas made their debuts that year. A Man for All Seasons won the Oscar for Best Picture and its star, Paul Scofield won for Best Actor. Elizabeth Taylor won Best Actress for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

I guess you could say 1966 was a tumultuous year, but then what year isn't?

Anthony and I talked about how Bay Ridge has changed and how we don’t recognize it anymore. It felt strange because I used listen to adults talk this way when I was young and I had no idea what they meant.

My world wasn’t going to change. The people, the shops, the neighborhood, they were all going to stay the same.

“I had all these beautiful ladies, like your mother—God rest her soul.” Anthony said. “All these beautiful ladies and they’re all gone now.”

We shook hands and Anthony wished me a happy new year. So now something else from my generation will disappear and the neighborhood will look a little less familiar.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Page One Story

We pulled into the funeral home parking lot just after 8 pm, found a spot, and waited for the cops to show up.

It was June 1988. I had just started working as a reporter for the Pocono Record, moving to Pennsylvania from Brooklyn a month earlier, and on this night I was handling the police beat.

Frances Cox, one of our photographers, was sitting next to me in the passenger seat and we were waiting to get a picture of a man named Jerry Burgos, a New York transplant like myself, who was inside the attending his wife’s viewing.

Nilsa Burgos had been discovered in the couple’s burning home a few days earlier. Her death had been ruled a homicide after an autopsy found no trace of smoke in lungs, meaning she was dead before the fire started. She was seven months pregnant.

The paper had been running stories about the killing for days and then one of the reporters had gotten a tip that the state police would pick up Burgos at the funeral home and charge him with his wife’s murder. Frances and I were assigned to cover the arrest.

I was new to daily journalism, my only prior reporting experience being at a couple of weekly papers in Brooklyn. I had walked a beat with some cops in Sunset Park, covered some drug busts with Brooklyn South Narcotics, but I’d never witnessed a homicide bust.

We didn’t have to wait too long. It seemed like I was just putting my car into park when Burgos, a heavyset Hispanic man with glasses, walked out into the warm spring evening. We climbed out of my car and got closer as two state troopers, Clark Ritter and Mike Hartley, approached Burgos.

There was none of the “freeze, punk!” stuff you see on TV; no wrestling the perp to the ground and slapping on the cuffs. Looking at these guys huddled together you’d never think one of them was being charged with a horrible crime.

“Now, Jerry,” Ritter said in a low voice, “we’re going to get into the car…”

“…and you keep your hands were I can see them,” Hartley said, spreading out his fingers.

Burgos took one step toward the unmarked police car and---FOOSH!—the flash from Frances’s camera lit up the three men like a stray lightning bolt, creating the photo that would appear on page one the next morning.

People snarled and glared at us and one of the cops told Burgos “I had nothing to do with that.”

“That was uncalled for!” one man shouted and it struck me as such an odd choice of words; it was so formal, like he was going to challenge me to a duel.

The cops hustled their prisoner into the car and drove off, while Frances and I made the long march back to my old Toyota through a gauntlet of angry mourners who yelled and cursed at us.

“Why don’t you come to the funeral, assholes?” one man shouted.

“It’s the job,” I said, my eyes to the ground.

We got into the car and took off looking for the courthouse in a town called Mountainhome. As I drove around this unfamiliar territory, I started having serious thoughts about a career change.

“This isn’t for me!” I wailed. “I can’t handle the stress. It’s bad for my health.”

Going to Court

It was one of those nights where the whole world seemed to be spinning out of control. I stopped at a gas station on the way to the courthouse and instead of getting a normal attendant, I get some bearded Deliverance reject who apparently was engaged in a fierce argument with an imaginary friend.

I asked him for directions—just directions, that’s all—and this loon looks up to the sky and shouts “whaaaaaaaat?” at the top of his lungs. He did this about three more times in our short encounter before I got my change and floored the pedal.

We finally got to Mountainhome and I began looking for the courthouse. Being a New Yorker, “courthouse” to me meant a huge marble structure with massive columns and long, wide steps leading to giant iron doors.

But this wasn’t New York and here the district court was just a store front, so there was no place to hide from angry relatives.

I went inside while Frances waited by the front door to get another shot of our man. I got the affidavit from the judge—a very nice lady, by the way—and for some odd reason I took a seat in the waiting room.

The cops showed up just then and I saw a flash through the window, indicating that Frances had gotten another photo. A woman who was one of several people accompanying Burgos shouted “why don’t you write how hard he worked?”

And then they saw me.

One man complained to the state troopers, demanding that they throw me out of the courthouse.

“They’re harassing us!”

I’m harassing you? I thought. I’m about two seconds away from jumping into my car, tear-assing back to Brooklyn, and becoming a Sanitation man. What are you talking about?

The cop explained that the arraignment was open to the public and anyone could attend. Then the guy sat down and started on me.

“So there’s nothing else going on tonight, buddy?” he sneered.

The tension was so awful I don’t know why I didn’t go wait outside or sit in the courtroom. One of the cops looked away, probably embarrassed for me, while I just sat there.

“Look,” I said finally, “I will gladly take any comment you want to make, but I have to be here.”

“I’ve made all my comments,” he snapped.

The arraignment was brief and ended with the judge ordering Burgos to be held in the county prison. When it was over, I heard him mutter something about wanting to get a drink. I felt the same way.

We got back to the office and I went to my desk to write the story while Frances went to develop her pictures. The paper would hit newsstands in just a few hours.

That weekend I told my father about the insane things that had happened in one evening and he gave me a great pieces of advice.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to put your head down and keep on going.”

Jerry Burgos was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. One of the most damaging witnesses for the prosecution was his own son, a young boy who innocently told police that he didn’t see any sign of a fire the night his mother died until after "Daddy carried me out to the car.”

Burgos appealed his sentence and managed to get a second trial, but he ended up being sentenced to life without parole.

I didn’t quit my job that night and race back to Brooklyn to work for the Sanitation Department. I became the full time police reporter, covering fires, car wrecks, arraignments, and the occasional murder for the next five years.

I learned to blend in, back off, and look inconspicuous. I got used to people hating my guts and cursing at me. When it got bad, I just put my head down and kept on going.

I worked with several of those cops—particularly Hartley, who loved to break my balls—and I had a lot of page one stories, but nothing as dramatic as that first crazy night.

Frances Cox, whom I would jokingly call “Frances the Talking Photographer,” was later diagnosed with cancer and died a few years after she took that picture.

The last I heard of Jerry Burgos, he was still in prison. I haven’t thought about him in years, but every now and then I look back on the night when I stood so close to a murderer.

And I wonder how much he’s changed since the day he made page one.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Tale of the Ticker Tape

A decade ago, while working as a reporter in Connecticut, I was driving through some small town on my way to some forgettable assignment and listening to the news on the radio.

The Yankees had won the World Series and New York was going to give them a ticker tape parade that very afternoon.

I’m not much of a sports fan, and I usually root for the Mets when it comes to baseball, but it just killed me to be sputtering around the back roads of East Deer Tick when my hometown was throwing such a huge bash.

"What am I doing here?" I whined within my old Toyota. "I should be back there."

Well, today, I got a second chance to see the Yankees parade down the Canyon of Heroes. And it was certainly worth the wait.

My office is on Broadway, overlooking the parade route and, after a little hustling, I got to see a good portion of the show without facing the cold or the crowd.

And the crowd was unbelievable. I know it’s New York, the Big Apple, and, yes, Toto, I know I’m not in East Deer Tick anymore, but still the number of bodies amazed me.

I looked out the windows to Dey Street on one side and Fulton Street on the other and both were crammed with more people than there were in many of the towns I had covered. But then there are probably more players on the Yankees than in many of the towns I’ve covered.

It was weird seeing the streets I walk on every day suddenly choked by such much humanity. I don’t know what, if anything, the people in the back of these crowds saw, but I hope they had fun.

I crammed into a corner office on the sixth floor with a bunch of my co-workers and watched the parade from the safety and comfort of our workplace—which we rarely associate with safety or comfort.

We got to talking about ticker tape parades and one of my colleagues told us how he saw the ticker tape parade for the astronauts who landed on the moon.

"That was…40 years ago,” he said, a little surprised by the number.

Wall Street gave up ticker tape a long time ago, but judging by all the debris flying through the air today, I'd say we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that paperless society I’ve been hearing about since the fifth grade.

It looked like a blizzard going on out there and rolls of toilet paper kept sailing through the air like low flying artillery rounds. Somebody was tossing some stuff that actually looked like hay, which made me wonder how they got a horse into an office building.

I saw Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter, but I needed help identifying some of the others. Whenever the crowd roared I knew it was somebody big. Fortunately one man had brought his 10-year-old son, who sported a Yankees cap and shirt and was able to set me straight.

I saw one guy on a flatbed truck with hair down to his rear-end who periodically crank his head back and forth and whipped his massive do like a samurai sword. I don’t know what he was doing there, but he’s probably in a neck brace now.

I was told that Rudy Giuliani showed up and I’m happy to report that he didn’t take credit for the Yankees’ win. Knowing his tyrannosaurus ego, I was surprised he didn’t get all Kanye West and grab the trophy for himself. Oh, by the way, Bernie Kerik couldn’t make it.

I saw Reggie Jackson, who was looking rather old, and then—ugh!—former Mayor Ed Koch, who was looking even older.

“The first ticker tape parade was in 1886,” one of the executives said, reading the information off his computer.

“Yeah,” I said, “and it was in honor of Ed Koch.”

Actually, that’s not true. The first ticker tape parade was a spontaneous event that occurred during the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Ed Koch was just a kid then.

The parade broke up and eventually I drifted back to the desk, but I heard shouts and cheers for most of the afternoon.

By the time I left the office, the people had moved on and the only evidence of the parade was the portable barriers that had been set up for crowd control.

The nearby bars were clogged with Yankee fans who didn’t feel like going home. There were knots of them hanging out in front of the local dives.

Some of them were feeling no pain, as the expression goes, and navigating around them was a bit of a chore, but it sure beat driving the back roads of East Deer Tick.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Love in the Time of Swine Flu

There once was a time when I looked forward to the sign of peace.

That’s the part of the mass where you shake hands with everybody around you. It's kind of like a spiritual version of the seventh inning stretch.

We started doing the sign of peace in the Catholic Church when I was in grammar school and I remember how one of my classmates once grabbed another kid’s hand during mass and said “hey, how’s the wife and kids?”

Fortunately for him, none of the brothers caught him in the act for they would have no doubt sent him to meet his maker right there in church. It’s a much shorter trip.

I’ve been attending services at Trinity Church for a few years now and I’ve gotten to enjoy this little hand-to-hand routine. I greet my regular buddies and new arrivals and next to the sermon, it is—or was—my favorite part of the mass.

But that was before the H1N1 virus and all its attendant hysteria came to town. Now my church has a hand-sanitizing android stationed in the vestibule ready to spew its gooey contents into any outstretched palm.

It looks so out of place, a penny arcade reject, standing in this venerable place where Alexander Hamilton once worshiped. But as much as I hate the damn thing, I’m glad it's there.

Unfortunately when the priest says “let us exchange the sign of peace” I often hear “let us exchange our various germs.” And I remind myself to keep my hand away from my face and make sure to get a spritz of hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

But it doesn’t end with the sign of peace. After that comes communion, where the priest puts the host in your hand and then you take a sip of wine from the chalice.

Now I do not drink from other people’s cups, I don’t care where I am. Nothing personal, no offense, but it's not going to happen.

I did, however, con myself into believing that if I just gave the host a quick dip into the chalice, I could get a taste of the sacramental wine without risking infection.

That, of course, is delusional thinking, and it took the swine flu outbreak and my recent heavy cold to shake me out of this fantasy.

I thought about skipping the wine entirely, but that’s not easy to do when everybody else around you is either sipping or dunking.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but a couple of times I’ve actually fake-dipped my host into the chalice, stopping just short of the wine--which is incredibly lame given that I’m trying to save my immortal soul here.

I always slink away, half-expecting a voice that sounds a lot like Charleston Heston to thunder from the rafters “I SAW THAT, NUMB NUTS. WHAT PART OF ‘ALL KNOWING’ DON’T YOU GET!?”

Your Host Today

A few weeks ago I was all set to fake-dip when an older priest whom I didn’t recognize actually yanked the host from fingers, sank it into the chalice, and rammed it right into my kisser.

I felt like I was back in Catholic school where you’d turn to a pillar of salt if you even thought about touching the host.

I went to church this week, wincing every time someone coughed. It reminded me of my morning subway ride, where I play a little game I call “Find the Cougher.” I take a seat, open my book or newspaper, and within a few minutes, it’s guaranteed somebody sitting right near me will start hacking and choking like a career coal miner.

One morning the my train was so full of coughing people I wanted to jump up, wave a baton like Arthur Fiedler and lead them in an all-hacking version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I wonder what non-hypochondriacs do during their morning commute.

So now I’m standing in church and I realize that a heavy duty cougher is in the pew right behind me. The guy’s got a cold, virus, swine flu, the heebie jeebies, who the hell knows? All I know is that he’s sitting near me and that means I’ll have to shake hands with him.

Yes, I am brother’s keeper, but if my brother’s sick I really want him to keep him the hell away from me.

During his sermon, Rev. Mark encouraged us to look for God in everyone we meet. And if can’t see Him in someone we don’t care for, he said, then we should look harder. Does that include the guy spewing his germs all over me?

All right. I shook hands with the guy during the sign of peace, but I didn't have much choice. He was right behind me. I made a mental note to keep my right hand away from the rest of me until I could sterilize it.

The cougher dashed up the aisle ahead of me at communion, which meant no sipping, dipping or even looking at the chalice for yours truly. I took my host straight up and then headed back to my pew ahead of everyone else, which felt a little like the walk of shame after a lousy date.

I shook hands with Rev. Mark on the way out, as I always do—he wasn’t coughing--and then I slipped around the tourists, pushed the door open with my shoulder, and put my hand beneath the hand sterilizer’s nozzle. The thing hummed and squeezed some glop onto my fingers.

It wasn’t the sign of peace, but it did give me some peace of mind.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Peace Now

I finally found peace this week.

No, not serenity, calm, stillness or tranquility—don’t be ridiculous. I’m still as neurotic as ever.

I’m talking about a novel called Peace by Richard Bausch, a gift from my brother which I thought I had lost somewhere between my house and the New York City subway system.

I had just made up my mind to read that particular book after looking through the stacks of paperbacks around here. I brought it to work, kept it in a brown plastic bag to protect the cover, but when I got home that night and looked in my bag, I found that I had been seperated from Peace.

I looked all over my house, peeked into the garbage can, I even checked out the re-freaking-frigerator--nothing. I tried the Zen thing of letting go and the book apparently returned the favor because I couldn't find it anywhere.

At breakfast the next morning I because convinced—convinced—that I had tossed the book in the trash can. Seconds later I heard the garbage truck pulling up in front of my house and I seriously thought about running out in my pajamas and yanking the can away from the sanitation man.

But I got to the front window just as the guy was dumping the contents of my garbage can into the truck's churning innards, so if the book was in there, Peace would soon be in pieces.

The Peace attack came just a few days after another brain bust when I forgot my cell phone number. This wasn’t a momentary lapse of memory where I paused for a few brief moments. No, I completely forgot the damn number.

I was making an appointment to have my chimney inspected when the woman at the other end of the line asked me for my contact information.

“It’s probably best to call me on my cell phone,” I said.


And my mind went completely blank.

Zip, gone, erased from my memory, like Ben Affleck in that crappy movie Paycheck, on which I wasted a small piece of my own paycheck renting and a large chunk of my time watching.

And even though the movie sucked from pillar to post and from hell to breakfast, I still felt compelled to watch the damn “Making of…” features on the DVD.

Why, why do I torture myself like this? It’s like eating a hideous meal and asking for the recipe. Maybe that’s why I’m forgetting things: I’ve got too much junk in my head that the important stuff is being pushed out.

I struggled to recall the number, which only helped to freeze up the locks on my memory bank. I kept coming up with bits and pieces of other people’s numbers, but I couldn’t find the right combination of digits.

Forget Me Not

“I’m sorry,” I finally I told the chimney lady. “I can’t remember my own number.”

“That’s okay,” the woman at the other end of the line said. “You never call your own number.”

Yes, but I never send myself Christmas cards and I still know my address. While we went over some details I dug out my wallet, fished out my ragged mini-phone book and looked for my number.

“I found my cell phone,” I blurted out like a losing game show contestant.


A few days later I was trying to recall the name of a popular British actor. The guy’s a huge star; he played Batman in The Dark Knight.

He got a lot of bad press when a tape of him screaming and cursing at a cameraman while filming the last Terminator movie was leaked to the news media.

There’s a point in the tape where this actor sarcastically sneers “Oh, good for youuuuuu!” at the hapless cameraman. I tease my sister with that line, dropping it unexpectedly when she tells me what she’s been up to. And now I couldn’t remember his name.

I could see his face, I could hear his voice. But nothing else would come. And I didn’t have his name in my little phone book.

C’mon, he’s Batman for Christ’s sake. Heath Ledger was the Joker and that other guy was Gordon…another British actor—yeah, Gary Oldman. But the Dark Knight had me dazed.

I’ve written before about memory lapses—haven’t I?—but this one really got to me. I was set to throw in the towel and look it up on, when it came to me--yes, Christian Bale. Oh, good for meeeeeee!

I’ve been joking about senior moments for a long time, but now I’m starting to wonder. It’s been happening more often lately, but I can’t recall any specific cases, which makes me even more upset.

The annoying thing is that there are so many people, places and things I would love to forget, but they’re still hanging around my hippocampus, which is odd since I didn’t know hippos went to college.

But there's some good news. The other day I was ordering something over the phone and the operator asked for my contact information. I hesitated just a second before reciting my cell phone number flawlessly.

And when I got to my office I saw a small brown plastic bag on my desk. I looked inside and there was Peace, safe and unread.

I had started reading another book, but that’s all right. I put Peace in a safe place. Now if only I knew where that was…

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sound Tracks

I was doing my evening shopping the other night when I heard a familiar song on the radio.

I had trouble making out the tune because of the noise around me, but I knew I’d heard this song before.

As I put my groceries down in front of the cashier, I listened carefully and tried to figure out the words.

It was from the eighties, one of my favorite decades for music. And I could tell it was a woman singing. Then there was a sudden gust of silence around me and I was able to name that tune.

It was “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna.

Okay, well, if you just ring me up, I'll be on my way. Please, for the love of God, ring me up.

As soon I got my change, I bid farewell to the Material Girl and bounced down to the corner drug store for some additional shopping.

At first I wasn’t paying too much attention to the piped-in music, but as I roamed the aisles in a futile search for whatever the hell it was that I wanted, I started to listen to the song pouring out of the sound system—and wished I hadn’t.

This was a song from the seventies, one of my least favorite decades for music, clothes or just about anything else.

It was a man singing this time…wait, don’t tell me…oh, crap, please don’t tell me it's “Everything is Beautiful”— Jesus, Mary, and Ralph, don’t I have enough problems?

Come back, Madonna, all is forgiven.

If you haven’t picked it up from the title, “Everything is Beautiful” is a mawkish streak of audio bilge that it so cloying and creepy it can make the skin crawl clean off your bones.

Ray Stevens, the towering talent who gave us “Ahab the Arab (pronounced “A-rab”, by the way), “Guitarzan,” and “The Streak,” is also responsible for this atrocity and it’s rather hard to believe that one man could do all this damage and still avoid incarceration.

“Everything is Beautiful” was Stevens’ attempt at a serious work, I suppose, and it certainly is a seriously bad piece of work.

The thing actually won a Grammy—another reason to hate the seventies--and I remember my father singing it incessantly, which, of course, made me loathe the disgusting little ditty all the more.

Obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but some things in this world really aren’t beautiful in their own way or any other goddamn way. Face it, some things just suck--like this song.

I guess I was fortunate to be in a drug store, so if I felt the urge to lose my lunch, I’d be close to plenty of medicine. Maybe I could get some earplugs, too.

I got to the cashier just as this nightmare was ending and another seventies song came on. I recognized this one, too. Funky opening…strings coming in…another “poppa” tune...this was-oh, yes--the Temptations’ classic “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Finally, they’re playing a song I liked.

Hymn and Me

This was a big hit when I was a sophomore in high school. One kid would start singing it in mechanical drawing class, half-a-dozen more would join in and pretty soon the teacher would be bouncing off the four walls.

I really wanted to hear this song again, but it has a rather long instrumental opening and, since I had just gotten my change, I really had no business being in the store.

I decided to do some bogus browsing until I heard the first verse. The place was crowded, though, and I kept having near misses with legitimate shoppers.

When I found myself walking through the cosmetics section looking at the make-up, I decided to throw in the towel and get the hell out. And then I heard those opening lines…

“It was the third of September,
a day I’ll always remember, yes I will.
‘Cause that was the day my daddy died…”

I rolled out of the store, a satisfied customer.

The soundtrack of my life continued while I was attending mass at Trinity Church. (No wisecracks, please.)

A recent service began with a beautiful hymn called “Be Thou My Vision.” The lyrics go back a little further than the eighties or the seventies to more like the Sixth Century.

I can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow and I never sing in church. I lip-synched my way through eight years of Catholic school and I’m proud to say I never got caught.

But I was so moved by this song that I actually picked up the hymnal and joined in. That has never happened before. Next I’ll start speaking in tongues--which might be improvement.

Naturally, I sounded godawful, but this was church, by God, not American Idolatry. And it still sounded better than Ray Stevens.

Even the priest was in a singing mood. Rev. Mark was giving us a sermon about being at our best and he mentioned an old Sammy Davis Jr. song called “I Gotta Be Me” to prove his point.

How well I know that song—also from the seventies and another one of my father’s favorites. He liked it so much he bought the single and played it seemingly non-stop on this crummy old phonograph we had in the living room.

The record used to skip at the end, so that when Sammy was supposed to say “Daring to try, to do it or die,” the needle got stuck on “do it or die” and that’s all you heard until my father tapped the needle. After a while I wanted to die before hearing that song again.

“Forgive me,” Rev. Mark told us, “I’m not that good a singer….”

Oh, no you’re not, I thought. You’re not going to stand there before God and everybody else and sing that old clunker, are you? Well, as matter of fact...

“Whether I’m right,” Rev. Mark sang, “or whether I’m wrong…”

You know he was actually pretty good. Maybe he could do “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone” for an encore.

After his number, Rev. Mark told us that there was someone attending the service whose father was in a coma and he began to speak to this person directly.

“I’ve gone with you to the hospital,” he said. “I’ve seen talk to him, tell him that you love him even though he can’t hear you. That’s what I’m talking about.”

He said this with such tenderness, such emotion that I started to think that maybe everything really was beautiful in its own way.

“When we’re at our best,” Rev. Mark said, “we are at our most-loving, our most-grateful, and our most-forgiving.”

Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t have said it any better than that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Retracing My Steps

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Matthew 5:44

For the last few days I’ve been trying to remember where I was standing on 9/11 when the planes hit the World Trade Center.

I pass by Ground Zero every day on my way to work and as the anniversary drew closer, I'd walk by the Brooks Brothers store on Church Street and see if I could find my exact location on that most hideous day.

I had to imagine that the towers were still there and try and recall if I was closer to Church Street or Liberty Street when I watched smoke pour out the North Tower and when the South Tower exploded into flames as the second plane hit the building.

I had just come from my gym near City Hall and was on my way to my office, which back then was at Liberty Plaza—right across the street from the Trade Center.

That was my father's 80th birthday; my mother was at Lutheran Medical Center being treated for a chronic lung condition. I had all these nit-picky worries and concerns rattling around in my head that would soon become totally meaningless.

As the North Tower burned and a woman stood next to me sobbing, I looked in the direction of St. Peter’s Church a few blocks up the street, where I had been attending lunch time services, and thought that I’d go there and pray for the victims. I thought that the worst part of the day was over, but I was wrong.

Bear in mind that a lot of us who were so close to Ground Zero initially had no idea what was going on--we didn't see a plane, we just heard an explosion. One of my co-workers kept saying it was a bomb, but I told him I had heard something streaking through the air just before the blast.

I couldn’t begin to imagine that a commercial jetliner had crashed into the building. Or that it would happen again a few minutes later.

Eight years ago the weather was perfect—unlike today where it rained like hell. There wasn’t a cloud in the beautiful blue sky; it was the kind of day that makes you happy to be alive.

And those flawless conditions somehow seemed to make the attacks even more horrible--if that's possible. How could something so vile happen on such a lovely day?

Homeward Bound

As I walked over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn with thousands of other people, the wreckage of towers smoldering behind us, I vowed I’d treasure every day, that I wouldn’t get upset over petty things, and I'd just be thankful that I and those I cared about had survived the attacks.

And now I look back on myself this morning, riding the R train into work, bitching that I couldn’t find a seat like I usually do, annoyed that the conductor kept opening and closing the doors, and wondering why it was taking so goddamn long to get to Rector Street.

When I got to my stop, the rain was coming down heavily and the police were directing people toward Broadway and away from Liberty Plaza. The streets were jammed and I was getting drenched and even crankier as I tried to plot a course around all these people in my way.

I heard the names of the victims being read, but I was getting soaked and I just wanted to get inside. I had work to do and the weather was awful, so I didn’t go to any of the ceremonies on my lunch break.

I did go out briefly to get a soda and I ran into some Mennonite women, who seemed to have stepped out a time warp with their long dresses and cloth bonnets. They were standing on Broadway in the rain--without complaining--giving out CDs of spiritual music and a booklet entitled "Love Your Enemies."

Now I feel ashamed of myself, thinking about a job on this of all days--when we learned--or should have learned--that so many of the things we think are so important have no meaning at all. The vast majority of the 9/11 victims were going to work that day, too. What good did it do them?

And I wonder--did I learn anything on this day eight years ago? Had I forgotten running away from the explosions with everyone else who was standing in Liberty Plaza, many of the screaming or praying or crying?

And what about those first few days afterward when the burning stench from Ground Zero filled the air and missing person leaflets began popping up on walls and streetlamps around the city? How do you worry about a job after living through something like that?

That’s why these memorial services are so important—because we do forget the things we should always remember. We need to be reminded of life’s fragility, how tomorrow is promised to no one, and how everything we hold dear can be taken away in a second.

The crowds had thinned out by the time I left the office this evening so I made a point of going by Liberty Plaza and looking for my spot.

It was still raining pretty hard, but I took a few moments to stand still, look across the street, and remember that terrible sunny day.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Street Theater

We never go out after dark.

Whenever I visit my girlfriend in the Bronx, I always plan on staying in.

It's a simple set-up. She cooks a fabulous meal while I hog the remote and HBOverdose on all the movies coming out the TV.

We've never formally declared that we won't leave the building until sunrise, but that's how things work out. The neighborhood around Pelham Parkway is not the safest place in town and frankly there's not a hell of a lot to do...except get into trouble.

I’ve almost gotten used to the blasting boom boxes, roaring motorcycles, screaming sirens, shouting from the street at all times of the night, and the regular rumble of the No. 2 train clattering on the elevated tracks just two blocks away.

I can tolerate the noise, but only from the safety of my girlfriend's apartment, and an incident this past weekend really brought that point home, so to speak.

On Saturday we had gone to see “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s haunting play that takes place at a brothel in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The characters in this Pulitzer-prize winning drama are at the mercy of gun-toting thugs who consider themselves soldiers fighting for "the people."

The madam who runs the brothel likes to think her place is a sanctuary from all the surrounding insanity, but she and the other characters learn a hard lesson when they run afoul of a brutal army officer.

After eating dinner a few blocks from the theater, we left Broadway and chugged up to the Bronx, where I took my usual spot in front of the TV and started watching “Street Kings,” a film about corrupt L.A. cops with Keneau Reeves and Forest Whitaker.

At some point during the movie, I heard loud voices rising up from the street. The local lowlifes like hanging out in front of my girlfriend’s building, even though I doubt any of them actually live there.

The racket is nothing new to this neighborhood so I didn't pay it any mind. But the noise got louder. And louder still. And more voices chimed in, urgent and angry.

While Reeves and Whitaker were bashing each other onscreen in the movie's climactic fistfight, my girlfriend peered through the blinds at the mayhem happening live two stories down.

“Rob,” she said, “there’s a fight going on.”

I knew I should get up and take a look, but I was kind of into the movie. Plus people are yelling and fighting around her building all the time. It’s hardly breaking news.

But it bothers me now to think that I was so numbed by the constant noise and so mesmerized by the TV violence that I had no interest in the real thing.

Finally, car horns started blaring and I got off my rear end and looked out the window. A group of young men were circling two African-American teenagers in the street who were beating the living crap of each other.

They were both bare-chested and one held his opponent by the neck while he threw a series of looping right hands into the other kid's face.

This was nothing like a movie fight scene. No slow motion spin kicks, no spectacular judo throws or fancy boxing footwork. This was just brutality.

And while these kids were in the street, they were anything but kings. They were the lowest of the low: poor, uneducated, with little hope of ever getting out of the Bronx.

The fighters moved out of our line of vision and so we went to the next window. I heard more yelling, the group apparently separated the two kids, and then I saw one of them being held back by another young guy.

Fuck you, nigger!” The kid shouted.

I looked at the shocked faces of people hanging out at an all-night bodega on the corner. They looked like ordinary people trying to enjoy the last weekend of summer before a small-scale riot erupted right before their eyes.

The crowd slowly broke up as things settled down, people walked away, and traffic started up again. I didn't see any sign of the police.

Is it even worth asking what they were fighting about? Some imagined insult, the wrong look, someone brushed against somebody else without apologizing--what difference does it make?

My girlfriend compared the bunch outside to warring tribes in New Guinea, though I'm thinking of bloodthirsty soldiers in the Congo.

She said there would probably be a revenge attack the next night, but things were relatively quiet for the rest of the weekend. It doesn't matter, though. Somebody else will be fighting there for some other reason soon enough.

I've always hated the end of summer. When I was a kid it meant I was going back to school and now that I'm an adult it means I'm going back to freezing my keester off in just a few painfully short months.

I hate watching my tan fade, I hate watching the days grow shorter and colder. I hate being stranded in my home because of snow, freezing winds, and subzero temperatures.

I'm a native New Yorker, but I can't stand cold weather and every year I vow that I'll never spend another winter here again. And yet I'm still here.

My girlfriend, though, is looking forward to the winter. That's impossible for me to imagine--you welcome all that misery?--but then I'm just a tourist visiting her neighborhood; I don't live there.

She says that the cold winds will drive the mutts indoors. The street kings will have to get off the corners and take their boom boxes and their brawls with them.

Maybe so. But even if they do, we still won't go out at night.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lion at the Crossroads

One night, nearly years 30 ago, I was out on a date in Times Square.

I had taken my then-girlfriend to see a comedy called “Mornings at Seven,” which was quite popular at the time.

It was my date’s birthday and we had started off with dinner at a small French restaurant, went to the show, and then walked around Times Square like a couple of tourists from Ohio.

It was a warm spring night and even though Times Square--the so-called "Crossroads of the World"--hadn’t been Disney-fied yet, the place still had a magical feel to it. Or maybe I was just in love.

As we walked down a street somewhere in the theater district, we noticed that people coming in the opposite direction were stopping in their tracks and staring at man who was walking a few yards in front of us.

It was really a cinematic moment as we got closer, anxious to know who he was and why he was getting all this attention.

There were several people with him and they were all entering a club. We caught up with the guy just as he turned in our direction--seemingly in slow motion--and we got a good look at him just before he disappeared into the building.

It was Ted Kennedy.

He looked like a movie star, smiling and nodding to everyone around him. We stood there for a few seconds, not quite believing our eyes and then the doorman approached us and nodded toward the group.

“Kennedy party?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” I said like a card-carrying idiot and then my date and I walked down the street.

“I don’t like how he treated his wife,” my girlfriend said a few moments later.

I shrugged, not really caring about Kennedy’s martial problems. I was just beginning to realize how I had just screwed up a fabulous opportunity.

“I should have said ‘yes,’ damn it,” I whined. “I should have told them we were with the Kennedy party.”

Why did I tell the truth? Why didn’t I just fib to that doorman and stroll in the club with my date like we belonged there?

So many successful entertainers, politicians, and business people got their start in life with a lucky break, a chance meeting, and a little bit subterfuge. But I had to make like George Washington with that goddamn cherry tree. Can I blame this on Catholic school, too? Oh, hell, why not?

For a while after that evening I fantasized about what it would have been like if I had actually joined Ted Kennedy and his guests.

I imagined meeting all sorts of celebrities and political types; maybe taking Ted aside and telling him some of my big ideas. Perhaps Ted would have been impressed with this guy from Brooklyn and given him a high profile job someplace in his organization. I could have been the next Pierre Salinger.

But I didn’t take that risk. So I didn’t join the Kennedy party and I never saw Ted in the flesh again. And now today, so many years later, he’s being buried in Arlington Cemetery.

My father was an Irish Catholic, and thus genetically predisposed to worship all things Kennedy and I know, had he been in my shoes, he would have blasted headfirst through a brick wall to be anywhere in the vicinity of one of the royal family members.

As a lifelong salesman and a rather aggressive individual, he would have had no problem lying to that doorman’s face and joining the party. Christ, my father would have probably said he was a Kennedy, which in a way he was.

My dad would not listen to any discouraging words about the Kennedy family--it was like bad-mouthing Jesus.

I inherited that devotion and for the longest time I defended the Kennedys against all kinds of criticism. Jack had an affair with Marilyn Monroe? Ridiculous. Bobby had a fling with her, too? Like hell he did. I really didn’t need a doorman to let me join the Kennedys. I was already in.

I remember the Chappaquiddick incident unfolding on the evening news when I was a child and I have vague recollection of Ted’s televised address where he tried to explain his atrocious behavior.

Please note: I believe he was responsible for Mary Jo Kopechne’s death, even though he was never convicted of that crime. ran a story quoting then-Edgartown Police Chief Jim Arena as saying he would have charged Kennedy with vehicular homicide, but that charge that did not exist in 1969.

The CNN story said the diver who pulled Kopechne from the car “told media outlets she may have lived had Kennedy called police immediately” and a State Police detective claimed that Kennedy "killed that girl the same as if he put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger."

Kennedy’s name will be forever associated with this tragedy and rightfully so. This was the crossroads in his life.

But I also believe he did great things as a senator and that instead of sitting back and living off his trust fund, Ted Kennedy sincerely tried to help people.

He has gone to his reward now, far beyond the range of critics who have been shrieking “what about Chappaquiddick?!” for the last four decades every time a Republican got into trouble.

These are the people whose hatred of the Kennedys is as fervent and illogical as my father’s devotion to them.

I'm always amused by these individuals who foam at the mouth at the very mention of the name, but still try to palm themselves off as level-headed and thoughtful people who are only interest in justice and fair play.

Why, yes, of course you are. I never doubted that for a minute.

I grew up watching Kennedys live and die and now the last brother is gone.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten very far if I had told that doorman that I was with Ted. Someone probably would have asked “who the hell are you?” and quickly shown me the door.

But who knows? Maybe that night in Times Square was a crossroads in my life and I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if I had simply said “yes” instead of “no.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Land of Enchantment

So there I was, hanging off the side of an ancient Indian cliff dwelling at New Mexico’s Bandolier National Monument, praying I wouldn’t slip and fall to a hideous death, when my cell phone started ringing.

I couldn’t believe my ears. The phone’s obnoxious trill was so unnatural, so out of place in this ancient, spiritual location. It was like playing a kazoo at midnight mass.

I hardly use the damn thing and someone’s calling me now—of all times—when I’m inches away from becoming the lead story on the 11 o’clock news? (Assuming it was a slow news day.)

“Someday I’ll laugh at this,” I muttered into the rungs of the wooden ladder that were the only thing between me and oblivion.

Normally I can’t resist a ringing phone. Even in my most misanthropic moments—and I’ve had quite a few of those—I have a Pavlovian drive to answer a telephone’s siren call. I just have to know who is on the other end of the line.

However, on this day, that phone could have rung, whistled, howled, or sung the overture to The Barber of Seville, I wasn’t going to answer it.

I was coming down from the Alcove House, which is 140 feet above the floor of Frijoles Canyon and a long way from Brooklyn, and I was re-learning the painful lesson that descending from a high place is a lot scarier than going up.

The Alcove House is only accessible by four wooden 30-foot ladders and a woman at the main office told me that “some people like that and some people don’t.” Only now did I realize to which camp I belonged.

Maybe that woman was the one calling me, all set to scream “are you having fun yet, you big city schmuck?”

I knew I should have heeded those warning signs back on earth advising people who were afraid of heights to haul their sorry asses back home (or words to that effect), but I didn’t want to give into my fears.

“It’s really cool when you reach the top,” a little girl told me during my ascent.

Hell, I scolded myself, if this child can make the climb then you have no excuses.

And she was right, the place really was cool. But children don’t worry about death and serious injury the way nervous middle-aged men do.

After looking around the place and checking out the kiva, I went back to the ladder and headed down, saying the Hail Mary and all the other prayers that had been pounded into my hapless head during my years as a prisoner of Catholic school.
Then the phone began ringing and I asked myself, what the hell am I doing here?

I was on vacation, that's what, visiting my cousin Pat, whom I had not seen in nearly 30 years (oh, God…) and her beautiful family.

I wanted to reconnect with Pat, meet new family members, and hook up with a blogging buddy in New Mexico while seeing and doing things I had never done before. And I’m proud to say that I did all of the above.

Doctor, Please, Some More of These

Of course, there was the little issue about flying, which scares me to hell and back. But thanks to the miracle of Xanax, I was able to get on an airplane and medicate myself to a point where I wasn’t afraid of being 8 miles high.

The fact there’s a drug that can calm me down on a plane amazes me. I seem to recall wandering around Chicago’s O’Hare Airport giggling like a loon while waiting to board my connecting flight to Albuquerque, but my memory’s a bit hazy.

Once I touched down, I hopped into my rented PT Cruiser and blasted on over to my cousin’s place.

This is the first time in years that I was actually visiting someone, as opposed to crashing in a soulless motel and talking back to the television, and it felt great.

I live alone, so I really enjoyed being with my cousin, her partner, Shelly, and their lovely daughters, Lucy and Emma. It was comforting to eat at a dinner table with human beings instead of the evening news. And I haven’t even mentioned the dogs.

Pat also gave me tons of ideas for sightseeing and I visited such spots as Pecos National Historical Park, Los Alamos, and Fort Union, where the wind whips around the remains of a 19th Century U.S. army base. I felt like I was on Easter Island.

And on the way back, I got caught in a full-blown, honest-to-God hail storm, complete with driving rain that forced me to pull over to the side of the road and lightning bolts straight out of a Roger Corman horror movie. What fun!

Pat also suggested the trip to Bandolier and I’m so glad she did—honestly. I survived the climb down from the Alcove House and came away with a feeling of accomplishment instead of regret.

When my heartbeat returned to normal, I checked my messages and found my aunt had been the one who called me. I called her back to explain why I had left her hanging, so to speak.

And that was one of the last times I used that phone. A few days after Bandolier, I was in the bathroom at my cousin’s house when I managed to brush my hand against the clip holding the phone to my pants, knock it loose and—kerplunk!—right into the can.

It was only submerged for a few seconds, but that was enough to send my cell phone to telecom heaven.

How that happened, I do not know, but I'm certain I could repeat that move again and again from now until the return of Halley’s Comet and never come anywhere near the toilet. Clearly, the phone's number was up.

I got a new phone the same day and tried to put the incident of out my mind, but when I watched Finding Nemo with Lucy that night, well, let’s just say that the film had a special meaning for me.

On my last full day in New Mexico, I met Pat’s brother--my cousin--Dan, and his wife, and then hooked up with my blogging pal Donna, whom I had “met” on the Internet years ago and finally got to see for real before Xanaxing my way back to New York.

On the way home, I vowed to take these little pills only on planes because if you’re not careful you can be popping a pill every time something bad happens—like dropping your cell phone in the toilet, for example.

Sometimes life is supposed to suck and if you’re not feeling it, you’re not learning anything. And you can't enjoy places like Bandolier if you're numbed out on happy pills. So I’ll save my prescription for Xanax time I fly. (Oy, that even hurts me…)

Now I'm trying to adjust being back in New York, with the noise, the buildings, and the people, people, people, everywhere you turn. Where the hell do they come from?

But to recap: gracious hosts, great friends, fabulous sites, and a new cellphone—this was one enchanting vacation.

Now, how long is the flight to Easter Island...?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Union Street Dues

There must be something about Union Street.

Twice in the last month I’ve been struck on the R train trying to get to or from my office and both times the fertilizer hit the air-conditioning unit right at the Union Street station.

They got me coming and going--literally.

Is this place haunted or cursed in some way? Did an angry wizard stub his toe on the way down the steps and put a whammy on the whole station? Did some old shaman or witch doctor lose his Metrocard down there and decide to give it the evil eye?

It was probably some old ratbag nun who croaked on the platform while religiously pounding the bejesus out of an emotionally-scarred child and who was then condemned to bollix up my commute until the Rapture sucks all the chosen up to Paradise.

If that’s the case, I’ll gladly perform a citizen’s exorcism and drive the misbegotten battle ax back to the nether regions of hell from whence she came.

Better yet, I’ll send her to the G line. That’s G as in “God, what have I done to deserve this hell ride?”

Five minutes on that nightmare train and the holy spirit of Sister Mary the Merciless will abandon all hope and sob as if she’s been buried neck deep in an onion patch.

Last night’s ride was exceptionally bad. It took me 90 minutes, yes, 90-freaking-oh-my-God-you-can’t-be-serious-minutes, to get from my office near Wall Street to 86th Street in Bay Ridge. I could’ve been halfway to Montauk in that time. And I'm not sure why I wasn't.

I had a feeling something was wrong when I got on at Rector Street and saw a mob of people craning their necks and staring down the tracks like they could eyeball the train into making an appearance.

When the train finally did arrive it crept and crawled, dropping anchor at nearly every stop and sitting there with the doors open. God forbid the conductor should actually tell us what’s going on. Hell, we’re just the passengers. Why should we be informed?

And, oh, yeah, I forget to mention I had a 7 pm appointment with an acupuncturist. I’ve been doing this for a while and I find it so incredibly relaxing, quite unlike being stranded on a packed subway car. (I was going to make a “pins and needles” crack, but even I have some standards.)

On and on it went, like a slow motion replay of a normal subway ride. The train would stop dead in the tunnel or inch along so slowly it was an insult to the word “motion.”

Catch That Train

Meanwhile, on the express line, trains were flying by at warp speed. I could see the faces of contented commuters, relaxed, even happy, as they were actually getting somewhere while I fumed, cursed, and gnashed my teeth.

“Who needs Abu Ghraib?” I muttered quite loudly.

I was dying. My watchband broke a while ago and, rather than get it fixed, I’ve been using my cell phone to tell time.

But I turned the phone off earlier in the day and when I turned it back on in the subway the thing couldn’t tell me the time. I was reduced to cranking my head to check out nearby wristwatches.

It seemed like nobody else on the car was in any hurry at all. They all acted like this agony was perfectly normal. They screwed around with their Blackberries, read the New York Post or jabbered away about the most inane topics.

I wanted to jump out of my seat and scream “am I the only one in this goddamn city who actually has to be somewhere tonight?”

One young couple spoke in a language I couldn’t identify and when I heard them laughing I was half-convinced that they were mocking me. I don’t know why they would do this, but who needs proof when you’ve got paranoia?

There was one older gentleman who talked with some co-workers about living in Breezy Point and actually had some interesting things to say. His family had been out there for years, he said, and he had an old photograph of his grandfather in an early 20th Century Army uniform, complete with campaign hat and jodhpurs.

“He was in Mexico looking for Pancho Villa,” the man said, “but then they sent him overseas to fight in World War I.”

This was fascinating and had it been any other night I might have joined in on the conversation. But I was tired, late, and angry as all hell, so by the time this man started talking about his son the doctor, I was happy to see him get off at DeKalb Avenue.

Then we hit Union Street and my train turned into an eight-car planter. I went from thinking that I just might be on time, to I’ll be a little late, to there’s no goddamn way I’ll make it, to somebody please fire me out of a cannon. Maybe the cops were looking for Pancho Villa on the train tracks.

As I raged, a young man in camouflage pants sitting next to me started to doze off and came close to dropping the book he had in his hands. I badly wanted to wake him up for having the nerve to be so relaxed while I was so miserable.

When I checked out his book, I nearly heaved: One Hundred Years of Solitude—sort of like this train ride.

The trouble is that in addition to screwing up my evening and ratcheting my blood pressure up to the stratosphere, this rotten evening made me think about an upcoming plane trip I have to take.

I’m scared hell of flying and if this simple subway ride was any sign of my luck with transportation, maybe I should just put a beach chair in my backyard and pretend to do the Times crossword puzzles for a week.

We finally limped into 86th Street like an old battleship. I was going to call the acupuncturist but I was a few blocks away, so I decided to just get there rather than talk about it.

And get there I did—only to find the lights were off and the door was locked. My guy had cleared out, which irritated me a bit. I was only a half-hour late, dude. I really need my needles.

But he hadn’t heard from me and if I were him, I’d be tempted to pull the pin, so to speak, and go home.

I know there’s a lesson in all this grief. I should be more patient. I should learn to let go of things and make the best of a bad situation. I should stop taking the subways.

Of course I can’t do that last one. And to be honest, as much as I complain about the trains, I don’t think I’d like driving to work everyday. At least on the train, we’re all in the same boat.

There are many Union Streets in this life—not just physical places, but things that get in the way of we want to do. How you react to these events tells a lot about what kind of person you are.

I have to do a better job of roping in my anger and pumping up my patience. I’m going to ride an emotional express to peace and contentment.

But I still don’t like Union Street.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Notes from the Underground

I see these two whenever I take out my wallet in search of my Metrocard; and each time I think, “oh, yeah, them…”

“Them” is a photograph of a couple; a man with a shaved head, kind of like yours truly, his arm around a lovely dark-skinned woman, who is possibly Hispanic or South Asian.

The man is wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and striped red tie. I can’t see what the woman is wearing, but she has a terrific smile.

I love you!” is written in fading ink on the back.

I have no idea who these people are, but one of them went through the Rector Street train station at least once because that’s where I found this photo. It was face down on the warning track at the platform's edge that tells riders if you step beyond this point you’re going home in a sandwich bag.

I don’t know why I picked it up, seeing as how I’m a hyper-hypochondriac and your average subway station floor could double as a germ warfare laboratory.

I can just picture my late mother seeing reach me down for the photo and shrieking “don't touch that thing!"

I thought about putting the picture back on the ground where I found it, but, in addition to being littering, it just didn’t seem right to chuck it back in the filth. I mean, “I love you!”—that exclamation point makes it serious.

I put the photo on top of a payphone and started to walk away. But if the couple came back, I knew they would never look there.

I wondered if I should turn it over to the station agent, but there were no names or phone numbers on it, and it seemed foolish to hand over a picture.

Maybe the former owner doesn’t want the thing back. Maybe they had a nasty break-up and the injured party hurled the photo to the ground and got on the train sobbing and cursing the other’s name. It is a thin line between love and hate after all.

So I put the damn thing in my wallet where it remains to this day. Now I feel like a voyeur by proxy or a low-wattage degenerate. I don’t want this picture in my life, but I can’t seem to toss it.

I’ve never met these people, but I’m really starting to dislike them. Why didn’t I listen to my mother?

Make A Note of That

I know what it's like to lose stuff on the subway. I recently lost a prized notebook somewhere between Rector Street and 86th Street in Bay Ridge and I still can't believe it.

I carry it around to write down ideas, dreams, thoughts, impressions, bits of overheard conversation, ravings, fears, movie and book titles, and the occasional doodle. It’s kind of like a transcript of my psyche.

I started doing this years ago because I got tired of forgetting ideas or writing them on paper napkins and junk mail envelopes. I slip the notebook into my jacket pocket or my gym bag every morning and off I go. When a bolt of inspiration strikes, I’m ready to take it down.

I’m never without this thing—until one recent Monday evening.

I was running late for an appointment and I did my usual nutbag-psycho-curse-under-my-breath routine as I scurried down to Rector Street.

Naturally I had just missed an R train so I sat down on the bench and took out my notebook. I wanted to write down a description of two sign-wielding men whom I had seen outside St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway.

One guy was leaning up against the church’s iron fence with a small cardboard sign reading “Stranded, Broke, and Looking for a Miracle” beside him.

Just a few feet away, directly in front of the stranded guy, was a local fanatic whom I’ve seen before, wielding his placard that said “Stop Fornicating...Repent…Stop Sinning” and ending with “Jesus Loves You.” (No exclamation point.)

I decided to make a note about them, so I took out the little book and started writing. The train finally showed up, I got onboard, and took a seat.

Somewhere along the way I fell asleep and I remember waking up suddenly, convinced I had dropped something. But I saw nothing when I looked around, so I thought I was okay.

I remember getting off at 86th Street and idly regarding a young woman with a bright red streak through her hair and four rings dangling from her lower lip.

I stepped off the train, walked toward the stairs, put my hand in my jacket pocket and found…nothing. My notebook, the raw material of my brilliance, had vanished.

I quickly looked into my knapsack, looked around, while the train prepared to leave the station. Get back on the train, my brain screamed, get back on the train now before it leaves.

But I hesitated for one elastic second, long enough for the doors to close. The train pulled out and I stood there with an empty pocket and escalating blood pressure.

I ran up to the next station like an aging purse snatcher, but the work crew had already cleaned out the train and they didn’t find anything in the trash bins. I was stranded and looking for a miracle, but nothing came through.

I know something like this happens to all writers sooner or later. And to be honest, I think the quality of a lot of the material in that notebook was questionable.

Often I can’t read my scribbling and when I can, many times I wonder what the hell did I write that down for? I’ve got a new notebook now, but it’s just not the same. And it bothers me that some fornicator may have my idea book.

I keep meaning to post a notice about my missing notebook on the MTA’s Lost and Found site, but I’m having trouble figuring out how to do it.

This morning I reached for my Metrocard and found myself looking at that happy couple. I’d like to run into these people someday and tell to be more careful with their goddamn pictures so I don’t go through this misery again.

Then I’ll ask them if they’ve seen my notebook.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

...And the Train You Rode in On

If the train I was riding on Thursday morning had been a horse, I would have put it out of its misery.

But then again, if I had been riding a horse, I probably would have gotten to work a hell of a lot sooner than I did.

I work in Lower Manhattan, and normally it’s not such a bad ride from Bay Ridge Avenue to Rector Street. I get in the first car and usually slide right into the double-seat near the motorman’s cab.

If I get the seat that’s flush against the wall, my morning is made—which should give you an idea of what my life is like.

I get this seat so often I tend to think of it as mine and I get rather peeved when some thoughtless vulgarian decides to plop his or her carcass on my prime spot.

I feel like a co-pilot on an airliner when I'm in that seat, ready to take control of the train just in case the motorman rips off all his clothes, puts on a busby, and skips down the track singing “Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy” at the top of his lungs.

That’s never actually happened, mind you, but I want all the R train riders out there to know that if it ever does, your boy is ready to take the helm…or the switch…or whatever the hell they call that thing.

On Thursday I slipped into my favorite seat and prepared for a journey of reading, napping, and staring blankly at the bourbon ads that lined the car. It seemed like any other day.

We had just reached Union Street—Union Street, damn it, just handful of stops from my office—when the motorman gets out of the cab, locks the door behind him, and leaves the train like he’s got a hot date with Miss Subways.

Hmmm, I reasoned, this can’t be good.

And it wasn’t. In fact, it sucked, big time. The motorman—who was still had his clothes on, by the way—returned to the train, got into the cab and started furiously pumping some kind of lever.

The thing looked so flimsy and useless. Here we are on this massive train, powered by enough electrical energy to light up an Eastern European country and the motorman is fumbling around like he’s trying to crank up a Model T.

The cab quickly filled with static-filled voices as the motorman discussed the situation with the conductor and the MTA’s version of Mission Control.

Back and forth he went, leaving and returning the car like a duck in a shooting gallery. And each time he started cranking, I thought, this time he’s got it, the thing is going to work and we’re going to be on our way. But each time we get nothing.

The R train has recently been dubbed the dirtiest line in the city, which I frankly doubt, but on this morning I didn’t care about the garbage or the filth, I was more concerned with the lack of movement, which can be very bad for a train.

I thought that any minute the motorman was going to turn to us and say “the train is going to die because not enough people believe in fairies. But if all of you clap your hands real hard…” Hell, I would have tried it.

As the minutes passed, I started on my patented "why-today-of-all-days" routine.

I wanted to get to work early. I was filling in for my vacationing boss, I had a gym class I wanted to attend at lunchtime, and most importantly, I was just inches away from actually buying a plane ticket for a trip out west to see my cousin--instead of just talking about it.

Seats in the Upright Position

I had been inches away from doing this for about three days straight, but because I’m terrified of flying, I couldn’t bring myself to press the button and buy the plane tickets.

As always with domestic trips, I go through the ritual of seeing if I can take Amtrak instead of a jet and then I keel over at the expense and the stunning amount of travel time needed to reach my destination by rail. It would have to be the plane, not the train.

I vowed that Thursday morning would be it—either I bought the damn plane tickets or I’d give up on the vacation. No more pussy-footing around.

And now the subway was ruining everything.

My girlfriend was very supportive of my attempts to conquer the air. She lives in a rather funky section of the Bronx and she pointed out that I routinely visit her.

"You can come up to the hood, but you can't get on a plane?" she asked.

But Thursday was also the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death and I flashed back to 1999, when I threatened to visit the Grand Canyon, but kept balking because of the damn flying. Too bad the R train doesn’t go to Arizona.

My mother had very gently encouraged me to go ahead and buy the tickets because she didn’t want me to give in to my flying phobia. When I finally took the plunge, she announced it to the family as if I had just made Eagle Scout.

“Robert has overcome his fear,” she said so proudly.

Now I really wanted to get to the office and make this happen. But the train was still DOA. I overheard the motorman say that there was a sick passenger on board and some yo-yo—apparently trying to help—had pulled the emergency brake.

Now why in God’s name would you do something like that? Did this boob think that by pulling the cord a doctor would drop out of the ceiling like prizes from a piƱata and tend to the ailing rider?
Or maybe the poor victim would vanish from the train and reappear in the ER like a lovely assistant in a David Copperfield trick.

No, numb nuts, all you did by pulling the cord was put the train out of commission…kind of like your brain.

I don’t know what happened to that loser but I suspect a lot of the passengers would have happily stuffed his mouth full of Metrocards and strung him up by that emergency cord.

Time wore on people started trickling out of the train and leaving the station. I kept on going from the platform to the train, fearful that I would decide to leave just as they'd get the thing running again.

I had been prepared to go down with the train, but finally I couldn't take it anymore. It was getting late, the conductor was offering no hope, and I got tired of looking at this lifeless train stretched down the track like a giant string of wieners. I had people to see and places to go.

Now I do complain about the subways a lot, but one thing I can say in their defense is that if there’s something wrong, you can get out and take a look. That doesn't work so well on an airplane.

I climbed out of the station and walked down Fourth Avenue to Pacific Street to get the No. 2 train. I arrived at work a short time later and I was only an hour late. And since I was the boss that day, I didn’t have to make any excuses.

I made it to my gym class, and, yes, I did buy the airplane tickets and I’ll soon be flying out west.

I know my mother would be proud if she could see me boarding that jet and taking my seat.

But if I hear “Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy” coming out of the cockpit, I’m going the hell home.