Sunday, May 31, 2009

Garden Party


I walked through the old neighborhood for the first time last night.

I was on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx with my aunt, sister, and girlfriend, who lives a short distance—though a world away—from the Italian enclave on Arthur Avenue.

We had spent a fabulous day at the New York Botanical Garden, wandering over through so much greenery we forget we were in New York.

It takes just under forever to get to the garden by subway from Bay Ridge, but you can get there in 20 minutes if you take Metro North from Grand Central.

Plus you get to pass through one of my all time favorite sites in New York, which provides entertainment, a history lesson, and fabulous architecture along with a transportation hub.

While waiting for our aunt to arrive, I saw a lady get on the ticket line with three huge parrots resting on her.

She was pulling a large cage on wheels, but I guess she wanted to give her crew some fresh air before packing them in the carrying case.

For a second I thought she was peddling stuffed parrots, but then two of them started gnawing her head, confirming they were the real thing.

It would be something if they took off and started flying around Grand Central. (Are you supposed to put salt on their tails to keep them from flying? Or is that for frying?) Fortunately they stayed put.

The garden is beautiful and for just six bucks you can walk over the place.(My girlfriend, being a Bronx resident, got a dollar off the entry fee.)

You have to cough up 20 dollars if you want to go into the greenhouses and take the trams that drive all over the place, but on a sunny day like Saturday, it’s much more enjoyable to walk.

I usually go to the gardens in the winter for the annual model train show at Christmas. Each time I do it, I always tell myself that I should come to the garden when it’s warm. And then I don’t.

We walked through the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and then on the forest trail where we walked by a waterfall—remember this is still the Bronx—and down to a canoe landing area.


Winging It

My aunt is a budding bird watcher, so she had brought along some binoculars for close-up views of birds and other wildlife. I could used them to watch the parrot lady in Grand Central Station.

Birdwatchers are depicted as kooks and weirdoes on TV shows, but I was rather enjoying myself. We spotted a rabbit near some bushes and I zoomed in on him with the spyglasses.

He took off just as a tram drove by us and my aunt said we never would have seen the little bugger if we’d been riding the van.

We were beat by closing time, however, and the tram driver gave us a lift back to the front gate. From there we walked down to Arthur Avenue with the intention of going to the restaurant we knew in the neighborhood.

It was too long a walk, however, so we asked a group of people-clearly several generations of one family—for a good restaurant. The old man group told us of one place a few blocks away.

“Tell them Tony the dentist’s father sent you,” he told us.

Arthur Avenue and the surrounding streets really like a little world onto itself. Like the Botanical Garden, it’s this special area with the big city. I felt like an explorer and a local at the same time—being half-Italian I sort of fit in, right?

The restaurant was very good—a nice local joint with good food and no attitude. The only drawback was a group of about 10 people making enough noise to sound like 30 people.

The biggest loudmouth of the group started to tell what I’m sure was a racist joke—I heard the line “there was this black guy...”—before he dropped his voice and continued talking. The group laughed a few moments later.

My girlfriend is from the Virgin Islands and hearing this clown made me angry. The thing is I’m pretty sure I know the joke this guy was telling. A joke is harmless unless it hurts you. Then it becomes personal.

We got out of there and walked around the neighborhood with the outdoor cafes, bars, and people all over the place. We went by Tony the dentist’s father’s house to thank him, but the house was dark. But I’m sure we’ll be back soon enough.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

52 Year Pickup

“Those who do not understand their own destiny will never
understand the friends they have made nor the work they have chosen, nor the one life that waits for them beyond all the others.”

--“All the True Vows” from The House of Belonging by David Whyte.


I was leaving my house the other morning when I saw a minor traffic jam on my block.

A huge black limo was trying to squeeze through the space between a double-parked van and a Poland Springs delivery truck. I don’t know what the limo or the Poland Springs guy were doing on my street, but there they were.


The truck driver, who I believe was from Africa, guided the limo driver with one hand while holding his cell phone with the other and speaking into it in some language I didn’t understand.

It had the potential of being a miniature disaster, but the delivery truck driver was doing a good job of guiding the limo to safety.

When the limo was clear of the two parked vehicles, the trucker began waving his hand and chanting, “it’s good, it’s good.”

I turn 52 today and if I had to pick a theme for this birthday, those words sum it up very nicely: it’s good, it’s good.

My family took good care of me, with a matinee show of Ethan Coen’s “Offices” and then dinner at fabulous Italian restaurant. The play was good, but there was one character—an angry office worker—who reminded me a little bit too much of my younger self.

I’m not rich or famous or even close to a lot of my goals, but I’m still here with a great family and friends. I’ve got a steady paycheck and a roof over my head, things that many people in this world don’t have.

I get sad when I think of my parents and how they made every birthday feel like a national holiday. I share this birthday with my grandmother, who died when I was in the fifth grade.

I wish I had gotten to know her better, but I was also lucky to have her and my parents for as long as I did.

This is a time for reflection as well as celebration as I look over the direction my life has taken over the years and where I’d like it to go from here.

I was walking by the Empire State Building a few weeks back and I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said “Make Your Destiny.” I liked the sound of that. It’s a very powerful affirmation that encourages you to get off your rear-end and take charge of your life.

I kept walking and a few moments later I saw a young woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Don’t Get Caught.”

I liked that, too, and I think somewhere between those two slogans who can find a philosophy of life. Live you destiny...but don’t get caught.

I went to mass at Trinity Church on Friday and Rev. Jones talked about one of the four noble truths of Buddhism that says suffering is part of life.

Blow Out the Candles

He told us that there is potential for great joy in life as well, and encouraged us to go out and become the source of joy in someone else’s life. It was a good time for me to hear this sermon.

However, I took a bit of step backward on Friday afternoon when I did one of my nonsensical Google searches where I look up someone I haven’t seen in years. Usually I look for some putz from the past who has done me wrong, hoping that they’re being imprisoned in Gitmo. And I'm always disappointed.

But this time I looked up an old grammar school friend of mine whom I’ll call Phineas Grupa. That’s not his real name, of course, but his actual handle isn’t much different and that’s probably why it was stuck in my head after all these years.

I haven’t seen Phineas since we graduated in 1971 and I was wondering what had happened to him.

Well, it turns out that a lot happened to him. He is the CEO of some electronics company out west and, according to Forbes, he pulls down a salary of $216,000 a year, with a total compensation package of, oh, a mere $440,000.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Phineas? Pulling down that kind of dough? He was a nice kid, but my God, this is insane.

I quickly checked the news releases about the company to see if the company’s stock is tanking or if the board of directors has been indicted, but there everything looked good.

Oh, come on, I thought, it’s my birthday. Can’t you give me something to work with?

I went to the company web site to make sure it was the same Phineas, and saw that in addition to making all this money, he still had a full head of hair.

Now I really hated the bastard.

I could just imagine him in his ski lodge with his beautiful wife, and they have cars, and dogs, horses, and elephants, and they go to all the cool places around the world while I’ll still live in Bay Ridge and ride the R train.

I could never meet this guy, I thought, because we’ll have to compare our lives over the last 35 years and I will definitely come up on the short end.

But I don’t want you to think I’m jealous or anything like that.

Whatever Phineas has in this life he got it on his own—just like the rest of us.

He had an aptitude for electronics that I don’t begin to have, so being jealous of him is like being jealous of a brain surgeon. You don’t just walk into the operating room and start cracking open craniums.

You have to work at it and, on some level, you have to love your chosen profession or you’ll never excel at it. You have to make your destiny.

Phineas and I are two different people, so instead of being jealous of him or anyone else, I should take Rev. Jones’ advice and become the source of joy in someone else’s life.

Like the delivery truck driver, I can help lead someone through a tough time in their lives.

It’s good, it’s good.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I Love A Parade


Happy Norwegian Day.

The annual Norwegian Day parade is going on in Bay Ridge today and from what I saw the turnout was pretty good.

The parade is one my favorite signs of spring and it usually means my birthday is not far behind.

That used to be a good thing but as my birth year becomes more and more distant, I’m finding fewer and fewer reasons to be cheerful. But I do love a parade.

I was coming home from a night away and I had no idea what all the noise was about until I saw the people in plastic Viking helmets. Oh, yeah...

I was holding two bags of groceries and I had to wait for a gap in the parade before I could dash...lurch...across the street.

I had dinner at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan with my best bud Hank on Thursday—the day before his birthday—and as I walked into the place I had this feeling of deja vu. Then it came to me.

I had eaten lunch here in 1997, my first day on the job at Adweek, where I first met Hank. I had just moved back to New York from Waterbury, Conn. and had recently turned 40 and was still clinging to a few strands of my hair.

“That’s right,” Hank said when I reminded him. “I didn’t know what to make of you back then.”

I remember talking briefly with Hank at that lunch and then we sat at different ends of the table.

I was starting a new job in my old town a dozen years ago and I felt like a cross between the streetwise kid from Brooklyn and Gomer Pyle gawking at all the tall buildings and purty woman.

I remember coming out of that restaurant and turning on to Broadway for the walk back to the office through Times Square.

I couldn’t believe the mobs of people swirling around—yes, I know Times Square, crossroads of the world and all that stuff, but still, there were a hell of a lot of people walking around.

My last gig at my paper in Waterbury had been at the bureau in Naugatuck, Conn., where my lunchtime routine consisted of walking down the main street (Was it actually called Main Street? I forget now.) to a local deli and walking back, during which I saw about three people, two moving cars, and the occasional stray dog.

Usually I saw the mailman driving by in his truck, blasting Rush Limbaugh’s drug addled perjury as if we all needed to hear this bilge. I also saw where the town actually ended. Now that I was back in New York, all I saw was people and skyscrapers.

My parents were still alive back then, still reasonably healthy. I had big plans, of course. I was going to get an apartment in Manhattan, publish my novel, and make a film that would bring me worldwide attention and untold wealth.

You’ll probably be shocked to learn that none of those things came to pass, at least not yet anyway.

The World Trade Center was still visible in the New York skyline back then and I wouldn’t hear the name Osama bin Laden for several more years yet.

The economy was booming then, rents were skyrocketing and Wall Street executives ruled. I didn't know about credit default swaps, or derivatives, or "complex financial products."

The city had become a much friendlier place, quite different from the one I had left 10 years earlier.

I visited New York nearly every weekend during my time in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but I wasn't living there and so I didn't appreciate the change until I was actually back in the New York groove.

My parents are gone now, along with the trade center and all the hair on my head. We all know what happened to the economy. I didn’t last long at Adweek, but I got my friendship with Hank out of it so things worked out just fine.

Bay Ridge has changed a lot since then as the Muslim population here has grown to a point where mosques and signs in Arabic are common.

My block is mostly Chinese now and as I was heading to the train station Friday morning, a woman stepped out of her front door with a handful of burning incense and began waving it in front of her.

I suppose this is intended to bring good luck and I found it rather comforting even though I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not Norwegian, but I still enjoy the parade.

I walked by an empty storefront on Fifth Avenue last week—too many of those around here for my taste—and I saw a sign that said “Psychic Reader Coming Sone.” I hope the psychic’s readings are better than her spelling.

I think that place used to be a typewriter repair store many years ago, back when people used typewriters. And read newspapers. And they didn’t email, Twitter, IM or blog.

Cell phones were around—not for me yet—but if you said “Ipod” to anyone back then they would have thought you were talking about a garden or a science fiction movie.

I went by the store yesterday and saw the place had been painted and there were signs advertising “Face Readings” and “Love Readings.”

Being a terminal smart-ass, I thought of a reading that went “With a face like that you can forget about love.” I probably won’t be opening a psychic reading parlor any time sone.

Things have changed and many of them not for the better, and it can be depressing to look back over all those years and think about how I haven't reached so many of my goals.

That's why I love a parade.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Letter to Mom

Dear Mom,

Happy Mother’s Day.

I wish you were here so I could tell you in person, but I’ll have to settle for this. I miss you so much, yes, even after all this time.

It’s still a little painful seeing all these Mother’s Day cards, commercials, posters and pop-up ads on the Internet. Advertisers can tie Mother’s Day into just about anything in an attempt to sell stuff.

You hear “Makes a great gift for Mom!” for everything from flowers to industrial machinery. I can’t see you driving a fork lift, but if you had asked, I would have done anything to get one for you.


I didn’t send any Mother’s Day cards this year. I know it’s nice to honor the mothers in my life besides you, but I let the time go by and then it was too late for snail mail, so I’ll have to make some phone calls.

I regret that now because you certainly taught me better, so I’ll make a point of doing a better job next year.

Your granddaughters, Kristen and Victoria, are getting bigger, maturing, which means I’m getting older. They’re so smart and beautiful; they amaze me. I know you would be so proud and I wish you could be around them and provide with the same unconditional love and boundless faith that you gave to me.

It’s a tough world and there’s nothing like a loving grandmother to take the edge off of some the disappointments we all must endure.

I want to apologize to you—once again—for every stupid, insensitive, mean-spirited, careless thing said I ever said or did to you.

I wish I could go back and erase all those words and actions, but if I had that kind of power, I’d use it to bring you back so I could apologize to you in person.

I’m still living in the house. We haven’t even thought about selling the place given the rotten economy and the crumbling housing market. I don’t want to sell, but I also need to move on, physically and emotionally because so much here reminds me of you and Dad.

I’m a little better with the crying, though every now and then I’ll have a memory of you and it’ll be so real, the tears will just pour out of me.

I don’t think that will ever change and I don’t think I want it to change. If I stop crying over you then I’ve probably lost a very large piece of my heart.

I try to remember all the things you taught me. I try to believe in myself, the way you believed in me. I try to be of good cheer, like you used to say, and I try to be up, up, up. I see the waste of toxic emotions, but it’s still hard to keep them in check.

The only thing you ever wanted was for all your children to be happy. I’m still working on that. I make a point of being thankful for the smallest things in my life while working toward getting the big prizes.

Every now and then I’ll think of you and become so upset, I’ll say to myself that it’s not fair—that you should still be here with us, guiding us, enjoying all the good things in life with us.

But you’re the one who told me that life is not fair and I know how lucky we were to have you with us for as long as we did. It just went by too goddamn fast. Excuse my language.

Just had a little crying fit right now, but I’m better. It kind of snuck up on me. It's funny; Aunt Marie pointed out to me yesterday that I cry at movies the way grandpa did.

“You’re a throwback,” she said and I felt rather proud.

I’m also proud to be your son and I’m going to do everything I can to make you proud of me. I’m sure you’d say that you already are proud of me, but I know that I have lots more to do to be the man I should be.

I miss you and I love you more every day. Now I’ve got to go make some phone calls.

Love,

Robert

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Countdown to Blogfest


Hey, Brooklyn bloggers, it's almost time.

The Fourth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest is going to happen tomorrow night--that's Thursday to you--and you've got to be there.

This stellar event celebrating the very best this bloggy borough has to offer will be taking place at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO. Doors open at 7 pm and you have to be there or you'll hate yourself forever.

Well, no, you won't hate yourself. But I sure as hell will. And I'll cry and stomp my feet and eat junk food and put on a lot of weight and probably lose my job and wind up homeless and it'll be all your fault.

What kind of heartless bastard are you anyway?

All right, that's enough of this emotional crap. Here are some particulars:

WHY WE BLOG will be the theme of a panel discussion moderated by BCAT's Megan Donis and featuring Jake Dobkin of Gothamis, Anne Pope of Sustainable Flatbush; Tracy Collins of Freakin' Blog and Melissa Lopata of Hip Slope Mama.

This year Brooklyn Blogfest introduces BLOGS-OF-A-FEATHER, special small-group sessions led by notable bloggers in a wide variety of blog categories, where you can connect with other bloggers who share your interests.

The evening will also feature A VIDEO TRIBUTE TO BROOKLYN'S PHOTO BLOGGERS by Adiran Kinloch of Brit in Brooklyn, WHY WE BLOG VIDEO SPOTS by Blue Barn Pictures and then yours truly will MC the annual SHOUT-OUT: a chance to share your blog with the world!

Whether you live to blog, blog to live or you're just dying to see me on stage,you won't want to miss Brooklyn Blogfest 2009: the best Blogfest yet.

Fourth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest

May 7, 2009
Doors open at 7 p.m.
powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Admission: $10 ($5 for students and seniors)

Brooklyn Blogfest After-Party
Galapagos Art Space
16 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201
(right across the street from powerHouse Arena)

Cash bar and refreshments

Brooklyn Blogfest 2009
Insight. Advice. Inspiration. Resources.


So now I've got the Twinkies in my hand and a gallon of ice cream in the freezer. Only you can prevent me from turning into a fat, unemployed homeless guy.

You know what you have to do...

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Joe Franklin's Come and Stayed


I saw a living legend the other night and I was so happy to learn that he’s still living.

I was at the theater recently--God, I love how that sounds; it makes me seem so cultured.

So like I was saying, I was at the theater the other night taking in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and during the intermission I headed for the gents. (We don’t call it “the crapper” on Broadway. We’re cultured.)

The line was huge, rolling up a flight of stairs and into the back of the theater. The usher had to move us along in small groups to avoid a mutlti-male pile up, which sounds a little funkier than I intended. (Or did I subconsciously intend it to be funky and just won’t admit it? This is all your fault, Freud.)

I'm used to seeing this kind of mob scene outside the woman's room, but never with my own gender. We’re supposed to be in and out and on our way. (Now that was intentional.)

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, the crapper.

I finally got to the appointed place and as I came back up the stairs I saw this little elderly man--he reminded me of E.T.--standing quietly on line with this serene look on his face.

Is that who I think it is? I thought to myself. Is that Joe Franklin?

I was debating this issue as I walked up the stairs and just as I reached the top step, I heard a man behind me say loudly, “We haven’t seen you in a long time, Joe.”

I turned and saw this gentleman was talking to E.T., who was not E.T. at all, but Joe Franklin for real—standing in bathroom just like a normal person.

I’m sure you youngsters out there are asking yourselves "who the hell is Joe Franklin?"

Well, I’ll have you know that Joe Franklin is the king of nostalgia, a living and breathing—thank God--New York institution who started his career on the airwaves shortly after another Franklin named Ben did that business with the kites. I’m not sure if the two are related.

Shortly before the intermission ended, Joe finally emerged from the men’s room and walked down the aisle to his seat, where a woman stopped him along the way to apparently gush all over him and I pointed him out to my companions.

The thing about Joe Franklin was that he was shockingly devoid of charisma or personality, which normally would be a liability if you want a career in the entertainment business, but it didn't seem to matter with Joe. I liked the guy, even though sometimes I had the urge to check his pulse.

I remember his TV show running on Channel 9 in New York at some ungodly hour. Opening to the strains of “The Twelfth Street Rag,” Franklin’s show was usually the last thing on the tube before the test pattern—and it was debatable which of the two was more exciting.

He had people from the lowest rung of the entertainment industry ladder. I think if you were in the business back in the day, your agent got you a spot on “The Joe Franklin Show” to prove that at least he was trying. And after appearing on the show, you probably fired your agent.

Joe Franklin’s Wikipedia entry says “he interviewed over 10,000 guests during his 43-year TV run” and his guests ranged from novelty acts like Tiny Tim to headliners like Bill Cosby, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, John Lennon.

I'm sorry to say I never saw anybody like that on Franklin’s show, but I’m reasonably certain they actually did appear. Hell, Ben Franklin probably stopped by as well.

Memory Lane

The entry says the show “frequently included (sometimes on the same panel) utterly unknown local New York punk bands, self-published authors, ‘tribute’ impersonator lounge singers, and the like, giving the show a surreal atmosphere.”

Now that’s more like it.

“Surreal atmosphere” is the perfect description because when you switched the show on you often wondered if you were dreaming. Billy Crystal used to do a great impersonation of Joe Franklin and I wonder now if they ever appeared together. It would be tough telling them apart.


I learned that I know someone who appeared on Joe Franklin's show and shared the evening with a penguin act. She tells me that she accidentally stepped in penguin poop--who would do so deliberately?--and ruined her shoes.

"How many New Yorkers ever stepped in penguin shit?" my brother in California asked when I told him this tale. I would say not many, outside of zoo employees and guests on The Joe Franklin Show.

Joe Franklin makes me think of old time New York, the nostalgia city in my mind that's made up of memories, exaggerations, and wishful thinking.

It was the place of Toots Shor, The 21Club, Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant and the Stork Club, all the legendary hotspots that I never actually visited.

This was New York before the Internet, cell phones, and Blackberries. There were no DVDs or I-pods and Disney wouldn't have dreamed of setting up shop in Times Square. We didn't have Rush Limbaugh or Fox News and the New York Post was actually a respected newspaper--back when we still respected newspapers.

All cars were American made back then. We actually made things in America. We didn't know the term "water-boarding," but we considered it to be so heinous that we prosecuted Japanese soldiers for doing it to our troops.

Joe told the New York Times how he missed the old Times Square “Giuliani came in here with machine guns and cleaned it up, and now it's not really New York City any longer. It's more Las Vegas. It's more Super California. But it's good for the city and for tourism.”

After the play, we walked down Fifth Avenue and about 45th Street and saw a former bank that was now an empty shell.

There are a lot of empty storefronts around the city, which, given the economy is not surprising, but seeing a bank with the “Retail Space Available” sign was disturbing, especially when it's right on Fifth Avenue.

Despite the lateness of the hour, the place was all lit up, so we could see the bank’s fabulous classic design, stripped down to the bone. Even the hands of the wall clock were gone, giving the place a truly surreal atmosphere.

It looked like a tomb being excavated by archeologists. The place was a center of high finance at one time, before credit default swaps and "complex financial products," with thousands of people going in and out its doors on a daily basis, but that was back in the days of the Stork Club, Toots Shor’s and Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant.

I’m glad we still have Joe Franklin.