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.