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.