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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

On This Spot

I stopped to give someone directions on Monday and ended up in a time warp.

I had just stepped out of my building at lunchtime when a little old lady stopped in front of the revolving door and asked for directions.

“Excuse me,” she said in what sounded like an Eastern European accent. “Could you please tell me where is 198 Broadway?”

She was speaking to a man standing by the door and I was about to walk away until I noticed the guy was ignoring her. So I stepped in.

“Where do you want to go?”

“198 Broadway,” she said, holding up a slip of paper. “My eye doctor is there.”

I work at 195 Broadway, so I didn’t think this would be too difficult. My office is located in this magnificent old building in Lower Manhattan that dominates one side of the street.

The place is a treasure, with this fabulous lobby that looks like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille picture.

It was the headquarters of AT&T from 1916 to 1983 and since they were a monopoly back then money clearly was no object. The place is like a cathedral of capitalism.

AT&T even installed a basketball court on the fifth floor so their employees could get a workout during the workday. I’ve been working there for several months now and I’m still amazed every time I walk through the front door.

But 198 Broadway? That was another story.

I looked across the street to the massive Fulton Street Transit Center project, which may actually be finished before the sun burns out.

There’s only one narrow building at the end of the block but it’s empty now, boarded up so it looks like a 12-story tombstone. Everything else has been torn down.

“This is 195…” I said, pointing lamely to my building. “But I think 198 Broadway is gone.”

She paused for a moment and then shrugged.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll just go there and ask them where he moved.”

She turned and walked down the street and I went in the opposite direction, not realizing until a few minutes had gone by that there was no “there” to go to and no “them” to ask when she got there.

I turned around and tried to find her, but the lunchtime crowd had already swallowed her up.

The hammers and the drills were going full blast at the construction site so I went over to St. Paul’s Chapel to walk around the tombstones and escape the racket, but the noise from nearby the Freedom Tower site was even louder.

I started seriously thinking about a vacation.

St. Paul’s is a survivor, unlike a lot of other structures in this town. It was completed in 1766 and George Washington worshiped here on his Inauguration Day in 1789.

After the 9/11 attacks, recovery workers at the WTC site rested at the chapel and you can find banners, letters and other 9/11-related items on display there.

From George Washington to September 11—and still going—that’s quite a ride.

Back in The Day

St. Paul’s is a popular tourist site and there are so many people walking around there taking pictures that sometimes you forget it’s a church.

I went there recently and was a little surprised to see an African American man on his knees before the altar devoutly praying while the out-of-towners moved around him. It was a strange, but comforting sight.

Still, I couldn’t get that lady and the phantom building out of my mind. I told my aunt about her and how disappointed I was that I couldn’t help her.

“You can’t help them all, dear,” she said.

No, I guess not. But I decided to do a little research about 198 Broadway and I learned that Central Telephone Exchange was located there in 1880 before being consolidated with other companies.

On July 2, 1902, The New York Times reported that Arthur S. Cox Co. and L.J. Du Mahaut had sold a six-story building at that location for Martha H. Andrew. The structure had been occupied by the Dennison Manufacturing Company, but was gutted by fire six months earlier.

“The price paid for the property is $325,000,” the article said. “The buyer is a builder, who will erect on the site a twelve-story office building costing $250,000, from plans by Walter H. Wickes.”

That would by my friend’s building, the future home of her eye doctor…and now a hole in the ground.

The building was once apparently home to a photographer, E. Muller Jr., who had taken a picture of a troop ship steaming past the Statute of Liberty in 1919.

On August 12, 1964 the Times reported that “the 12-story office building at 198 Broadway, between Fulton and John Streets, has been purchased by an investing client of Joseph S. Wohl, lawyer, from Daniel S. Levy and Joseph Richter.”

How strange it was must feel to look for a place and find that it's gone. I remember driving with my parents years ago by the ruins of Shore Road Hospital, the place where my siblings and I were all born, and seeing how it had fallen into disrepair, with weeds growing all around the property.

There’s a senior citizen’s home on the site now and I wonder if I might be making a return visit to the place someday.

I once helped an elderly woman cross Sixth Avenue near Leif Ericson Park and she told me about growing up in Bay Ridge when it was a much different place.

“This all used to be farmland,” she said, pointing to the park, the highway, and surrounding buildings. It was hard to imagine farms where there is now so much concrete and asphalt.

Old photographs can tell you a lot about a street or a neighborhood. You’ll see magnificent homes that are gone now and you’ll marvel at how much a place has changed.

But it’s not a smooth, magical transition. It’s done with drills, wrecking balls and dynamite. It’s the future rolling over the past and people can be swept aside.

I got on the subway that night and I saw a woman with a little boy in a baby carriage. He was a completely hairless fellow, kind of like yours truly, and he looked around the car as if he were an alien scientist studying a newly discovered species.

I imagined him years from now, as a young man, and I pictured myself as a senior citizen, approaching him and asking him for directions to a place that no longer existed.

I wondered how I would react when I got the news. And I wondered if he would try and give the old guy a hand or just keep walking.

You can’t help them all, dear.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

'He Used to Be A Big Shot'

I dove headfirst into my comfort zone last weekend and I’m not the least bit ashamed.

I know I should get out more: meet people, visit museums, go to the opera, attend concerts, wrestle alligators, and parachute out of burning airplanes.

I live in New York, for God’s sake, there’s any number of things to do in this town, including alligator wrestling if you look hard enough. You can probably wrestle an alligator while diving out of a burning airplane if that tickles your fancy, though I don't know why it should.

But sometimes I don’t feel like doing anything social at all. Some nights, instead of expanding my world, I feel like drawing it in around me like a handmade quilt. Some nights I just feel like staying home and watching TV.

And that’s what I did the last week when Netflix sent me a DVD of old Jimmy Cagney movie I had never seen called “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.”

I didn't even know about this 1950 film until a few weeks ago, but it didn't matter. If you’ve got an old black and white gangster movie starring Jimmy Cagney, brother, you better save me a seat or you’ll be standing all night.

I could fill a whole Internet with praise for Cagney. Just look at the movies he's done: “The Roaring Twenties,” “Footlight Parade,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Public Enemy,” “White Heat,” “One, Two, Three,” oh, God, it’s an unbelievable body of work and there are plenty of others that I haven't mentioned.

I have a personal fondness for a film he did called “Shake Hands With the Devil,” because, in addition to be a good movie about “The Troubles” in Ireland, Cagney also plays a character named Lenihan—and he spells it the right way, too.

I also enjoy a lot of Cagney’s lesser films like “City for Conquest,” where he plays a boxer who fights so he can send his brother to music school—yeah, really; or “Each Dawn I Die,” where he’s a reporter framed for murder and sent to prison.

While these may be referred to as B-movies--Geezer Alert!--they're still better than most of the crap you see in theaters today.

I admit I was a bit nervous about “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” because I knew so little about it and was concerned it could be a dog.

But as soon as the credits started to roll, I knew I was in good hands. I saw the famous Warner Brothers logo, heard the stirring anthem that starts off so many great movies, and I was on my way.

There I was in my living room, my feet up the coffee table, a plastic tray on my lap and munching on a bag full of roasted peanuts. I cracked shells while Cagney cracked skulls and it was great.

At one point I actually sat there and savored my feeling of contentment: nowhere to go, no one to see, no phone calls to return, no emails to answer, no lame conversations with doltish nitwits whose brains couldn’t fill a peanut shell.

I wasn’t even guilt-tripping myself to get up off my ass and go see the outside world. No, the outside world could stay outside for all I cared. I was truly at peace.

Familiar Faces

The film had a great supporting cast, too, with the likes of Ward Bond, Barton MacLane, Helena Carter, and Barbara Peyton.

I used to tease my mother when she’d get excited and call out the names of these lesser known players because, well, I didn’t know them. Just to be a smart-ass I’d shout the names of obscure people in the cast and crew: Harvey Lipschitz! Agnes Diddlebopper! Phineas Grupa!

But now, thanks to watching all these flicks with my parents, I actually do know a lot of these people and I get just as worked up as my mom did.

As always with these old time movies, there is the second tier of actors whom you know and enjoy, but just can’t name. One of the supporting cast members, Luther Adler, looked familiar to me and a quick search on IMDB confirmed where I had seen him before.

It turns out that he had starred in an episode of The Untouchables in 1962 where he played a gangster—no, really?—who had a gun-toting henchman played by a tough-talking Leonard Nimoy, light years away from the Vulcan pinch and the pointy ears.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but the future science officer of the Enterprise doesn't live long and prosper on Elliot Ness' home planet. He is gunned down instead of beamed up and his blazing demise occurs in the background of a dramatic father and son confrontation. It’s like, “oh, yeah, by the way, this schmuck gets killed, too.” Most illogical.

Speaking of getting killed, a whole bunch of people manage to do that in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” but you might have already picked that up from the title.

This is by no means Cagney’s best movie; the pacing is not always the best, the love scenes are a bit clunky, the story is told in an unnecessary series of flashbacks, and I actually think Cagney is a little too old for the part. But I'm not complaining.

Some people have called this a sequel of sorts to “White Heat,” but this character is a bit cooler than the Oedipal complexed Cody Jarrett. None of the "top of the world, Ma" stuff in this movie, though Cagney does severely clock a guy who makes the incredibly dense mistake of telling our hero he's crazy. Don't these guys ever learn?

One of my favorite scenes happens early on when Cagney blackmails a corrupt cop portrayed by Ward Bond. The cop becomes enraged at first but realizes the hoods have him over a barrel. The scene ends with Ward Bond looking defeated and whipped while Cagney stands behind him and smiles from ear-to-ear. With this much charisma, who needs dialog?

While doing a little research on this film, I learned that Barbara Peyton, Cagney’s co-star, saw her life spin out of control with drugs and alcohol, until she was literally selling herself on the Sunset Strip. She died in her parents’ home at the age of 39.

And, years later, it turns out that Phil Spector and Lana Clarkson were watching this film in Spector's chauffeured car on the way to his Alhambra mansion the night of her murder. Kiss tomorrow goodbye, indeed.

I’m glad I didn’t know any of these things when I sat down in front of the tube with my bag of peanuts. This knowledge hasn’t changed my opinion of the movie, though it is a bit disturbing.

Naturally, you don’t make a habit of hunkering down with the DVD player night after night. I know there are people to meet, places to see and things to do. But every so often, you have to retreat, regroup, and wrestle the alligators another day.