Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Is That You Santy Clause?'

Now it can be told...

I was speaking with my niece in San Francisco the other day and she told me about an incident from her childhood that happened at Christmas time many years ago.

She was just a little girl--she's a teen-ager now--and her father/my brother decided to do the Santa-Claus-coming-down-chimney routine for her.

So he starts banging on the wall to make her think Old St. Nick is coming in for a landing.

The only problem with this plan, she tells me, was that she was terrified by the noise and ran crying into her room.

The next day she asked my brother who was making that awful racket.

"He told me it was Uncle Robert," she said.

Say what? How did I get left holding the Santa bag? I was 3,000 miles away minding my own business in Brooklyn and I have to take the rap for spooking small children?

Why couldn't you just blame Santa? The guy doesn't exist anyway--sorry, kids--so he doesn't have to worry about adorable little girls hating his guts. It's a wonder my niece ever spoke to me after that.

Apparently Victoria got over this episode and somehow managed to forgive me, which is good to know seeing as I didn't do anything.

I have to say Christmas has been a little tough this year. Both I and family members have been struggling with colds this season and I've been dodging coughers on the subway left and right. (Someone is coughing in this internet cafe as I write this. Oy!)

I haven't seen the trees at Rockefeller Center or at the Met, which is hands down my favorite Christmas tree. It's also indoors, so you can enjoy it without risking frostbite.

However, despite all the hassles, including a computer that is as dead as Jacob Marley, I intend to enjoy the holidays this year and I want you all to do the same.

And if someone starts banging on your wall on Christmas Eve, don't blame me.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Oh, Mother!

My old Dell computer finally died on Saturday and as much I hated the damn thing, I have to admit I miss it.

It seems the mother board went south and now I finally have to get that new computer I’ve been threatening to buy for over a year.

The Dell had been giving me trouble for ages. There was a point where I was on the phone with tech support so often I could have run for prime minister of India. And that probably wouldn't have helped much.

They pretty much rebuilt the thing from scratch and repair people were coming to my house more often than the mailman. I even threatened to sue them at one point I was so furious.

On Friday I was uploading pictures from last Christmas when the thing crashed and refused to get back up.

So now the thing is dead, but my holiday plans are going to prevent me from getting a replacement until early in January. I don’t think it will be a Dell.

I went to an internet café in my neighborhood this weekend and it had this creepy kind of peep show feeling to it. The only thing missing was a few old guys in raincoats.

It's strange not being able to log on whenever I want to and look up something on the Internet. I lived a large part of my life without computers, but that is unthinkable now. When I was a kid, computers existed on Star Trek. Now we carry them around in our pockets.

But this experience has shown me that I spend--waste--far too much time on the web looking at one site or another.

I look at videos, movie trivia and, worst of all, I read the comment sections under legitimate news stories. Most of these comments are offensive, ignorant and downright stupid, but for some reason I keep reading them.

Maybe I can use this time away from the keyboard constructively, so that when I come back online, I'll use the computer only when I need it.

Today I also pulled the plug on our old home phone number. I haven’t been using that number and it was a waste to keep it, but it still hurt a little to have it disconnected. I was a teen-ager (or younger?) when we first got that 238 number and getting rid of it is yet another sign of time’s passing.

If you don’t hear from me for a while, don’t take it personally. I’ll be back online as soon as possible.

Have a great holiday!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Fly from Evil'

Dillinger died for this?

I finally got around to watching Manhattan Melodrama, an old movie I had recorded several weeks ago.

The 1934 film stars Clark Gable and William Powell as lifelong friends who wind up on opposite sides of the law--something that seems to happen a lot in old movies.

Myrna Loy plays the love interest and this is the first time she and Powell were paired up. The two would go on to make the "Thin Man" series, eventually starring in 14 movies together.

The film is hardly a classic. The plot is creaky and contrived, even allowing for the passage of time, but it’s got so many great people in it that you really don’t care.

But the reason that I really wanted to see this movie was because this was the last film that the infamous bank robber John Dillinger saw before being gunned down by FBI agents as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

FBI agents had staked out the theater, but they didn’t want to move in on Dillinger until the film was over. My first reaction upon seeing it was that they should have nailed him before he saw this thing. But that's a little harsh.

Manhattan Melodrama opens with the young heroes Blackie and Jim, (portrayed by Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler) on board the General Slocum, which caught fire on June 15, 1904.

An estimated 1,021 were killed that day, making this the New York area's worst disaster in terms of loss of life until September 11.

The ship had been chartered by St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany district in the lower East Side of Manhattan.

I once took a historical walking tour of that area and our guide told us how the husbands of the victims had come home from work that day to learn they had lost their wives and children. The German neighborhood pretty much disappeared after the fire as people moved away in an attempt to escape all that grief.

Blackie and Jim are orphaned in the fire, but they are adopted by kindly Mr. Rosen, who lost his son in the blaze as well.

This relationship, however, doesn’t last very long, as Mr. Rosen is trampled by a police wagon during a riot and the hard-lucked duo is orphaned once again. No one attempts to adopt the boys this time, perhaps fearing a grisly death. When they called this thing a melodrama, they weren’t kidding.

It’s intriguing to note that Mickey Rooney went on to have a long career in the movie business, but Jimmy Butler, who played the younger version of William Powell, was killed in World War II. He was 23 years old.

The boys grow up and Blackie becomes a racketeer while Jim becomes the district attorney and eventually the governor. Throughout the film we see shots of a clock tower bearing the words “Observe the time, young man, and fly from evil.” Blackie never gets the message. And neither did Dillinger.

The two buddies meet again for the first time in years as they are going to see Jack Dempsey fight Louis Firpo.

The fight took place in the Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923 and Firpo knocked Dempsey through the ropes toward the end of the first round, inspiring the George Bellows painting. Dempsey came back in the second round to knock Firpo out.

Gable and Powell don’t actually see the fight, however, since they spend so much time catching up that the fight ends before they take their seats.

Blackie ultimately winds up on death row, thanks to Jim’s superior courtroom skills. Both men suffer great losses and by the end of the film—spoiler alert—Blackie walks the last mile while Jim tries to put his life back together.

Dillinger unknowingly walked his last mile, too, as he left the Biograph. Outside Melvin Purvis and a team of FBI agents were waiting for him and the "Woman in Red," a madam who had tipped off the police in the vain hope of avoiding deportation back to her native Romania.

When Purvis saw Dillinger leaving the theater, he signaled to the other agents by lighting his cigar. Dillinger ran into an alley, where he was shot to death and people were supposedly dipping their hankerchiefs in his spilled blood.

Dillinger has been portrayed countless times in the movies, but my favorite version of his story was Michael Man’s Public Enemies with Johnny Depp portraying Dillinger.

I never bothered seeing this film in the theater and it took me a long time to rent it because I didn't think there was much anyone could do with the gangster genre in general and the Dillinger story in particular. How many blazing tommy gun battles can we stand?

However, I called that one wrong. Public Enemies was a blast in ever sense of the word.

One of the final scenes of the picture has Johnny Depp sitting in the Biograph watching Manhattan Melodrama.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Book Mark

The thing about buying a used book is that sometimes you can get two stories in one.

The first, of course, is the book itself; the thousands of words the author has pulled together in an effort to enlighten, amuse, outrage, or otherwise entertain us.

But another story--or at least traces of one--can come from the book’s previous owner—inscriptions, notes, doodles, and even the underlined sections that someone has put on the pages before they belonged to you.

They are incredibly small pieces of other lives and that’s probably why I enjoy them so much. It's fun to imagine who these people were and what they were thinking when they decided to write in their book.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of the “Spiritual Diary,” a book of a yoga master's inspirational sayings, at a used book stand on the Upper West Side.

An inscription by the previous owner, dated Jan. 1, 2001, read “As an art journal of sorts…all soul, babe, Love, D.” It’s followed by something I can’t begin to make out.

Whoever “Babe” is, his birthday is apparently January 13 because there is a heart-shaped photo of a woman holding up a sign reading “Happy Birthday” stapled to that particular page.

The November 4 page has a cut-off image of a diving woman in a bathing cap all tucked in and ready to hit the water. The book seems like a nice gift, but for whatever reason, Babe decided to part company with it.

I’d love to reverse the book’s history, learn more about Babe and D and why this gift ended up on book stand on Columbus Avenue.

Things got a little more personal last month when I ordered a paperback copy of “The Pistoleer,” a novel by James Carlos Blake. The book, which tells the story of the notorious gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, had received good reviews, so I decided to go online and get a used copy.

I haven’t started reading the novel yet, but when I first opened it, I saw there was an inscription on the inside of the cover page: “Merry Christmas, DAD. Love ya.” I can’t make out the signature, but I think the name is “Christine.”

So who is Christine? Where does she live? Why did she give this book to her father? And why was this book--with its very personal message--put up for sale?

Part of me fears the worst. Maybe the father died and Christine found the book to be a painful reminder of his loss.

Perhaps he didn’t have room for the book in his house—I know that story—and decided to let someone else have it. I hope the father and daughter didn’t have a falling out and the book was sold in anger. But that's just me fearing the worst again.

Looking at that inscription got me thinking about my relationship with my own father. I don’t think I ever told him I loved him, at least not as an adult.

I must have said it to my mother thousands of time, but it was different with my father. I think it’s different for a lot of sons and theirs fathers. You don’t really do the “I love you, man” thing.

I bought plenty of books for my father over the years, but I never wrote any kind of inscription in them; it never even occurred to me to do something like that. I guess I thought I would be defacing the book if I wrote in it--especially with my handwriting.

Once on his birthday I got my father an autobiography of Paddy Chayefsky, author of “Marty,” “Network,” and several other great movies. My father had grown up with Chayefsky—back when he was called “Sid”—and he told me he had gotten such a charge out of reading the book and remembering his youth.

He seemed so moved that I wish now I had written something in that book. I see that it’s a stealth way of getting your message across without blurting out your feelings and embarrassing everyone. I could have told my father that I loved him and only he and I would have known about it.

And if that book ever ended up being sold, the person who bought it would know, too--which would be just fine with me, babe.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Earning The Bird

Each year before I stuff myself on Thanksgiving Day I go to the gym and try to “earn the bird.”

My goal is to work out like a psycho—more so than usual—so I’ll be able to enjoy a guilt-free holiday meal.

It’s ridiculous, of course. The idea of me being free of guilt is kind of like an opera being free of music. Where's the fun in that?

But I did my best this week and then I headed out to Long Island with my sister and auntie to have dinner with my cousin and her husband.

There were relatively few glitches, even though I (naturally) worried about all sorts of mayhem, like miss train connections, psychotic parade-goes, runaway floats, terrorist elves. etc.

We had one minor incident when we mistakenly got off a packed train at Jamaica Station only to learn that we didn’t have to switch trains.

We charged back onto the train expecting to stand for the duration of our trip, but the three lovely people who had taken our seats immediately got up and insisted we sit back down. A few days have gone by since then and I still can’t believe they did that.

When we arrived at our destination, we ate, socialized, and ate some more and headed back toward home. I was feeling pretty good, despite being rather full and extremely tired.

As the N train pulled into 14th Street I happened to look out the window and there was a homeless man sitting on a bench, a shopping cart filled bottles nearby and mounds of plastic bags on either side of him.

He had a full beard and he was clutching a two-liter bottle of 7-Up. On this day that celebrated family, togetherness and being thankful, here was a man who had no place to go and no one to be with.

It was one of the sights that can make me feel pretty small when I complain about what I think are serious problems.

Earlier in the week I learned that a woman at my company who was being treated for cancer had died from heart failure.

I never met this woman; I never even spoke to her on the phone. I only knew her from the emails she would occasionally send me.

I don’t know how old she was but she had a seven-year-old daughter and obviously a lot to live for. I had no idea she was even ill until her supervisor sent out an email announcing the terrible news.

I have a few days off before I have to work to work and I made the usual to-do list of projects. But I think I should put being grateful at the top of the list and keep it there even when the holidays are over.

Recalling that homeless man at Union Square and my co-worker who didn’t live to see Thanksgiving makes me think that there’s a lot more to “earning the bird” than just working up a sweat at the gym.

It also can mean being thankful for what you have, helping people out, and giving up your seat on a crowded train.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fire Fight

Illustration by Greg Bellamy

One of the first things a reporter does when arriving at a major fire scene is find the guy in the white helmet.

That’ll be the fire chief and he’s the one who will help you make some sense out of all the mayhem. Or at least you hope he will.

I covered many fires during my five years as a police reporter in Pennsylvania.

There were blazes where people died, where there was nothing left of the building but the foundation; one time a gas explosion destroyed an entire church in Stroudsburg.

But I think the biggest fire I ever covered in all those years chasing sirens was the blaze that destroyed the Salvation Army Thrift Center in East Stroudsburg nearly 20 years ago.

The building was huge and it was filled with old clothes, furniture and other second hand items. One night all of that stuff quiet literally went up in flames—and I was right there.

Many of the fires I wrote about happened in some distant part of my coverage area. Often by the time I arrived the firefighters had brought the fire under control—“knocked it down,” as they liked to say.

Sometimes the fires broke out in the dead of night when I was home in bed, so the only thing I saw on the morning after was smoking rubble.

But the Salvation Army fire was only a five-minute drive from my office and it broke out shortly after I returned from my dinner break.

Things had been quiet all day—I believe it was a Saturday and there were only a few people in the newsroom. I was hoping it would stay quiet so I could go the hell home.

But then the fire alarm in East Stroudsburg went off and it kept going and going. It went on for so long that people were calling the paper to find out what was happening. By that time I was driving down Lower Main Street and heading over the Interborough Bridge to East Stroudsburg.

A crowd had already formed across the street from the thrift center and firefighters from Acme Hose No. 1 were setting up equipment around the building.

No flames were visible yet, but a heavy stream of smoke was pouring out of the thrift center like a runaway smokestack. I figured things were bad, but I had no idea how bad they were going to get.

The crowd was actually in a pretty good mood. Sure the fire was terrible, but this was event, a break from the routine. There was almost a carnival feeling in the air.

The building had four large windows and as I stood with the crowd I watched each of them slowly turn black from the soot forming on the opposite side of the glass as the fire intensified.

And then the windows started to explode—crack! crack!-one right after the other, and a wave of heat, like a force field, surged out of the building and rolled right into the crowd.

Everyone suddenly fell silent and people seemed to take one unified step backward. This thing was for real.

Flames started to break through the roof and some of the volunteers climbed up on a new platform truck so they could attack the fire without having to stand on the burning building.

Acme Hose had recently acquired this massive piece of equipment and tonight it was making its debut.

The volunteers were hosing down the thrift center from the platform truck when the flames suddenly jumped up like a wild animal breaking out its cage. The firefighters staggered down the ladder to escape the incredible heat and I remember thinking, Jesus, even these guys are backing away from this thing.

Bill Miller was the chief of the Acme Hose Co. at that time and he was there with his white helmet and fire coat. I saw him standing with a group of his top men, “the sole figure in white,” I later wrote. He looked like a general conferring with his officers in the middle of an intense battle.

The flames climbed straight into the sky and from where I was standing I could see one fire truck after another racing over the bridge as fire companies from the surrounding area sent reinforcements.

The Salvation Army canteen, a kind of rolling kitchen, always responded to disasters and this night was no different. Even though they were losing a valuable piece of property and a source of revenue, they were out there doing whatever they could to help the firefighters. I interviewed the man in charge of the canteen right there while their building burned.

The volunteers eventually got the blaze under control, knocked it down, but the building was a total loss. I ran back to the paper and banged out the story so quickly I couldn’t believe it.

I had seen so much of what had happened that I didn’t feel the need to get a lot of quotes from witnesses. I was a witness myself.

The state police fire marshal later ruled the fire had been caused by some problem with the building’s electrical system.

I haven’t been back that way in years, but I understand the Salvation Army has a new thrift center at that spot. I’m a business reporter now, so I don’t cover fires anymore and I no longer search for the man in the white helmet.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Roll The Credits

I’ve been a film addict ever since I saw “The Men Who Made the Movies” on PBS nearly 40 years ago.

I can’t begin to guess how many hours—years—of my life I’ve spent in movie theaters. I like to think I have a variety of interests, but there’s something about film that just gets hold of me.

I’ve always loved those few seconds when the lights go dim and the movie is just about to start. There's no drug in the world that can match that feeling of anticipation.

When I was in high school and college, I used to plot my weekends around the movies. I was either going to see the latest foreign flick, or catching a classic at revival houses like the Elgin Theater or Carnegie Hall Cinema.

Those theaters are gone now, thanks largely to VCRs and DVD players, and there are very few places that show old films—“retrospective cinemas,” as one of my film teachers called them in college--with a straight face no less.

And yet as I write this, I am struggling to remember the last time I actually went to the movies. I see films every weekend—probably too many--thanks to Netflix, the Sundance Channel, IFC, and Turner Movie Classics.

But as far as the last time I bought a ticket at the box office, handed it over to an usher, and sat down in an honest-to-God theater—I couldn't tell you.

This is unheard of for me. I am so used to reaching into that little change pocket in my jeans on a Sunday morning and pulling out the stub from the movie I saw the night before. But that hasn’t happened in a long, long time.

This isn’t entirely my fault. First of all, most movies just aren’t that good. Mindless explosions, lame plots, abysmal acting, sequels to sequels and worthless remakes don’t motivate me to get out of the house.

Tickets cost too damn much and now the bedbug scare in New York really makes theaters particularly unattractive.

But then you take these issues and factor in the knuckle-dragging morons who go to the movies nowadays—the ones who talk back to the screen, talk to each other, or talk to their imaginary friends from the coming attractions right until the ending credits and you have some of the best advertising for a DVD player that I’ve ever seen.

I love movies and I refuse to sit among people who don’t.

I don’t want to be around peabrains who are texting, who think that the theater is an extension of their living room, and who are genuinely stunned, shocked and surprised when you tell them to kindly shut their pieholes and watch the goddamn movie—you know, that thing on the big screen.

Honestly, people, it’s not like we’re asking for too much here. Just stop talking for about 90 minutes, that’s all. I’m sure your brilliant observations and scintillating conversation will keep until you get outside.

I remember going to see Apocalypse Now at a theater in Flatbush and while Robert Duvall was enjoying the smell of napalm in the morning, two guys a few rows down from me were all set to kill each other.

One had apparently told the other to shut up, prompting the first loser to jump to his feet and shout “Let’s go!”—as in “let’s hit each other in the head repeatedly and make total asses of ourselves in public.”

The horror, the horror...

The only grief I have to put up with at home is when some schmuck parks near my house and blasts his car stereo or revs his engine in some vehicular version of the great ape’s chest-thumping.

This usually happens at a critical time in the flick, but I can always rewind and watch the scene again when the idiot finally moves on. I don't have to pay inflated prices for soda or popcorn and I can go to the bathroom whenever I want without having to climb over half-a-dozen irate people in the dark.

Admittedly there are some films that should be seen in a theater. I truly regret not seeing Avatar in 3D, even when it came around for a second run. I enjoyed it so much, it’s a shame I didn’t see that movie in its original format.

Also, it can be fun to say you’ve seen the hot new movie of the day. Even though DVDs seem to be coming out faster and faster, the film is old news by the time it comes to me, having been replaced by the latest hot movie of the day. Still that’s not enough to get me to stand on line for God knows how long.

I haven’t written off theaters entirely and I know that sooner or later there will be some incredible flick coming out that I'll want to see on the wide screen. But for right now, there is really is no place like home.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

A Guy Wakes Up in a Hospital…

A guy wakes up in a hospital after suffering a serious injury to find the world that he knew has been destroyed and he must now struggle to survive in a hostile land.

Now does this describe the beginning of: (a) Day of the Triffids (b) 28 Days Later, or (c) The Walking Dead?

If you said a, b, and c, you are correct. All three films begin with some poor bastard regaining consciousness in a hospital room and learning that he has to fight for his life against invading aliens…or raging humanoids…or walking corpses.

Whatever the problem may be, it is so terrible that it makes the hero completely forget about the lousy hospital food.

Triffids, a British 1962 flick, got the whole hospital wake-up thing started--I think--when murderous plants invade Earth during a meteor shower that renders most of the earth’s population blind.

Our hero is a sailor recovering from eye surgery and is thus spared the loss of his vision.

It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie but I remember being especially creeped out by a scene where the sightless pilot of a commercial airliner keeps asking the air traffic people to talk him down, but gets no answer.

The passengers, who are also blind, are relatively calm until one little kid pipes up and asks “is the pilot blind, too?” And then everybody starts screaming. It’s the kind of scene that a man who is terrified of flying just loves to see. Stupid kid...

I was in bar in the Village a few years back and I was standing next to this large plant, which prompted a woman to warn me about the Triffids. I was impressed with her film knowledge and thought we might make beautiful music together, but it was not to be.

She had a New York Yankees logo tattooed on her lower back and, being desperate to keep the conversation going, I said “you must be a real Yankees fan.”

“Well,” she replied, “I’d have to be an idiot to do that and not be a Yankees fan.”

I was tempted to say that you’d have to be idiot in either case, but I didn’t want her to smash the Triffid over my head. So I kept my much shut and never saw her again.

The novel upon which the movie was based was written in 1951 by John Wyndham, who also wrote The Midwich Cuckoos, which was filmed as Village of the Damned, another excellent film.

In addition to the original movie, Triffids has inspired two mini-series and another film is supposedly due out in 2013. I wonder if every version begins the same way.

28 Days Later, a great flick that was just on the tube the other night, also starts with the hero waking up in a desolate hospital.

This guy is a messenger recovering from a traffic accident and he finds a large part of the people in England have been turned into murderous psychopaths by a virus.

And then finally we have AMC’s The Walking Dead, which just began its run on Halloween night. This time the hero, a sheriff’s deputy, has been shot in the line of duty, and, yes, wakes up in a hospital to find the world has been overrun with fleshing eating zombies.

I actually liked the first episode, though I am getting little tired of the whole zombie shtick. I was discussing the popularity of this sub-genre with a friend and he dismissed it as mindless entertainment for a mindless population.

“Bread and circuses,” he said disdainfully.

I thought the zombie film craze might be a commentary on society taking away our individuality, but I’ll go with the bread and circuses thing. Only zombies don’t eat bread and I wouldn’t try taking one to the circus.

I suppose the hospital room opening is the easiest way to have both the hero and the audience discover what’s going on at the same time.

But it’s me making a little nervous about going to the hospital. In addition to being worried about my health and the medical bills, I have to be on the lookout for all kinds of deadly freaks. How am I supposed to get better with all this aggravation?

Harry Belafonte did a variation on this isolation in a movie called The World, The Flesh and The Devil where he played a miner who is trapped during a cave-in and manages to miss a nuclear holocaust that wipes out just about everyone else on earth.

How about this for a horror flick? A guy wakes up in a hospital after getting his Yankees logo tattoo removed and finds that Sarah Palin is president.

Come back, Triffids, all is forgiven.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Poster Boy

There’s no such thing as time travel, but a trip to the International Vintage Poster Fair comes awfully close.

The event is really meant for serious collectors, which rules me out, but I enjoy looking at these fabulous images that can combine art, history, politics, and advertising all on a single sheet of paper.

This may be hard for young people to believe, but posters were a primary method of getting your message out back in the days before TV and the Internet. They’ve been called the "seven-second medium," since that's about all the time they had to catch the eye of a speeding pedestrian.

The artists who created these illustrations did so knowing that they wouldn’t last long. The posters would go up on a wall or fence where they might be stolen or defaced and eventually covered up by another poster. But that didn’t stop these people from doing great work.

I got interested in vintage posters a few years ago when I did a story for

The economy was booming way back in ‘06 and the site had a feature section called “The Good Life,” which ran stories about expensive activities that would allow people to dump their excess cash and have fun at the same time. It all seems like such a long time ago…

I really wanted to contribute to this section but I had trouble coming up an idea. Then one night I was on the elevator, looking at one of those TV monitors that so many elevators have now, and I saw a notice about the poster fair flashing across the screen.

So I went to the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street, had a blast, and started interviewing vintage poster dealers all around the country.

“These posters weren’t meant for us,” a dealer in Hawaii told me, which was one of my favorite quotes in that story. No, he said, they were meant to be seen by people living 70, 80, or 100 years ago. The ones that survived give us a feel for day-to-day life in another era.

You can get some very nice posters for under $1,000, which is a lot cheaper than many paintings. But if you’ve got the money, you can easily spend thousands of dollars.

And you can choose any number of themes for your collection: travel, propaganda, film, or war, for example. You can also collect posters from a particular era or focus on the work of an individual artist.

The travel posters make you long for the days of great ships and railroads when the world seemed to be a more exotic place. Movie posters remind us that the classics we rent from Netflix were once playing in theaters and the actors we now consider icons were once living and breathing human beings.

It’s fun to view posters in other languages and try to figure out what is being advertised. I saw one poster advertising a performer named Miss Dore and a small dog known as “L'Inimitable Dick.”

A poster advertising a psychic showed the face of a man in a turban with a huge question mark behind him, and the words “Alexander: The Man Who Knows” running across the bottom. I don’t know what Alexander knew, but I do know he had a pretty cool poster.

One of the dealers was going through a pile of his stock and I saw a poster for the 1939 World’s Fair, which my father used to tell us about when we were kids. The very next poster advertised the 1964 World’s Fair--where my father took us when we were kids.

The posters from World War II were particularly memorable, largely because my father was a veteran of that conflict.

There were rousing messages calling upon people to be strong and to support our fighting men. Looking around at today’s toxic political environment, it’s hard to believe that Americans were ever so united.

Many posters warned people to keep their mouths shut—the old “loose lips sinks ships” theme. One of the most memorable was an image of a drowning serviceman pointing his finger directly at the viewer and bearing the words “Someone Talked!

There were enemy posters as well. One Italian poster depicted a bombed out church being looted by an African-American soldier who was drawn to resemble a marauding ape. The message was quite clear: Evil black American soldiers are going to overrun our country.

The fair isn't the biggest event in town, but I hung around for a couple of hours enjoying all the artwork and collecting memories that will last a lot longer than seven seconds.

Monday, October 25, 2010

High Incident

I came out of my house this afternoon to dump some trash and walked right into the middle of a neighborhood drama.

I had the day off from work and I thought I’d relax and enjoy the lovely weather. But things didn’t go according to plan.

I was about to go back into my house when I saw some people standing in a semi-circle around an Asian woman who was stretched out on the ground a few houses away from mine.

She was barefoot, clad in pajamas, and rolling her head from side to side, sobbing and moaning unintelligibly.

One of my neighbors told me that he had seen her walk up the block, sit down on the ground near his house and lay down on the pavement.

She continued to roll her head and wail, while one man dialed 911 and the rest of tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

I spoke to her softly to calm her down, but I don’t think she heard me. I wondered if she had gotten out of a mental hospital, given the pajamas and the lack of shoes. If she lived around here, then somebody should have been watching her.

I asked one Asian woman standing near me if she could speak with this lady and find out what the trouble was, but she informed me that she wasn’t Chinese. Hand me that dunce cap, if you please...

Another neighbor who did speak Chinese said the woman wasn't making any sense. Then somebody else heard her say something about her son…and then she mentioned a number, which we took to be an address on the block.

One of my neighbors—I don’t know anyone’s name—went to that particular house and told a young man who lived there what was happening.

The young fellow said this woman lived upstairs from him. He started asking her questions and we learned that her son and her husband had gotten into some kind of fight and that they had never gotten along. She wouldn’t stop crying or get up off the ground.

“She said she wants her son back,” he said.

We talked among ourselves while waiting for the ambulance to arrive and the group grew larger as people stopped to ask us what had happened.

An EMT from the Fire Department arrived and started asking questions, though it was slow going due to the language barrier and the woman’s condition. He called for help on his radio.

“You’re breaking up,” a static-filled voice said.

“Clean the shit out of your ears,” the EMT muttered as he took out his cell phone.

I helped him and the young neighbor get the woman to her feet in an effort to sit her down on a nearby stoop, but she wouldn’t cooperate, and we had to put her back down on the sidewalk. And then the poor woman started to vomit.

A police car and an ambulance arrived and we had a minor traffic jam happening on the block, complete with blaring horns. The woman continued to cry and moan and then she got to her knees and began bowing before the young translator. He took hold of her arms and made her stop.

I felt a little ghoulish standing there, but just walking away wouldn’t have been right either.

The police officers helped this woman down to her home, but there was no one inside. Finally two EMTs put her on a stretcher and wheeled her to the ambulance.

“The whole block is out,” one of them said to his partner.

It wasn’t the whole block, but, yes, there were a lot of people watcing them. To be honest, how often does this kind of thing happen?

And while this woman may live on my block, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her before today. I doubt if I’ll ever find out the whole story here, but I hope she gets the help need she so clearly needs.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bane There, Done That

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

I was speaking with my aunt recently and I told her I had just rented The Wolfman, a remake of the old horror movie classic that our family had enjoyed for so many years.

“Why?” she asked me with gentle exasperation.

Struck for answer, I reverted to my standard adolescent response.

“Uh…I don’t know.”

Actually, I did know. I was hoping for an easy night at the movies where I could sit back and relax with some enjoyable junk cinema. As it turned out, the only thing I got right was the “junk” part.

This wolf was a dog and the enjoyment for me came when I dumped the DVD into the mailbox and shipped it back to Netflix.

What was I thinking? That today’s filmmakers could actually create something that would rival the old 1941 Universal creepy starring Lon Chaney, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, and the incredible Maria Ouspenskaya?

No one could top Ouspenskaya when she intones “the way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end…

Sure, it’s a load of crap, but it’s really great crap. Just like all those other old Universal horror flicks—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and God knows how many more that made my Saturday nights when I was a kid.

Cheesy dialog, flimsy sets, and plots as creaky as the hinges on Dracula’s coffin—I couldn’t get enough of them. At least these movies were fun, which is more than I can say about most of today’s gore-filled, CGI-crammed retreads.

I don’t care for remakes on principle, the notable exception being The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, which was actually the third time around for Hammett’s novel.

For the most part, however, remakes to me come off as a low rent way to may a fast buck off of established material.

The new version stars two actors I like— Benicio Del Toro as the tortured title character and Anthony Hopkins as his father—but that didn’t help any.

In addition to being much bloodier than the original—what a surprise!—the remake puts an Oedipal/edible slant on the proceedings that leads to an embarrassing monster-on-monster showdown.

I much prefer the pairing of Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains, one of the more unlikely father and son matchups in movie history. We were asked to believe that this slight, dapper English was the father of the towering, rather doofy-looking American.

I had an easier time believing that a man could turn into a wolf than accepting that these two were related. But it didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I enjoy the movie so much.

The original was written by Curt Siodmak, author of the novel Donovan’s Brain, and the scripts for such gems as I Walk With a Zombie, The Beast With Five Fingers, and--one of my favorites—Non-Stop New York.

Siodmak came up with the little ditty about a man turning into a wolf even though he’s “pure of heart,” which was repeated in all the other Universal werewolf movies.

And there was always a scene in these movies where Chaney, in attempt to protect the general public, would hide away in a remote inn. Just before turning in for the night, he’d whirl around with his eyes rolling and shout to the innkeeper, “Lock me in! And whatever you hear, don’t open the door!”

I used to wonder why the innkeepers didn’t boot Chaney out on his ass the moment they heard that. But no, they went along, although they often peeked into the room when the howling started. Big mistake, as any horror movie will tell you.

I guess it’s too much to ask for movie studios to leave the classics alone. No, for as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so will my tears run as directors continue to feast on the remains of old horror films.

Hey, that sounds like an idea for a movie…

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Whole Tooth

I’m always a little surprised when I walk into my dentist’s office and see that computer on his desk.

He’s had the thing for years, of course, but I don’t go to the dentist as often as I should, so it takes me a while to get used to changes around the office.

I was in Dr. Cohen’s office on Saturday for this tooth ache that was lighting up whenever I drank cold liquids.

I decided to break with my tradition of letting problems go until they mutate into irreversible catastrophes and actually do something about this particular issue right in the here and now.

As I walked into his office I started thinking about how long I've been his patient. I was literally a child, a grammar school student, when I first came here. Back then the only place you could find desk top computers was on Star Trek.

I believe I was an eighth grader when I had my first appointment with Dr. Cohen. I went straight from class at Our Lady of Angeles to his office a few blocks away.

Naturally, I was a nervous wreck, convinced I would be facing an afternoon of unbearable torture. It didn’t seem fair. Wasn’t going to Catholic school punishment enough?

I also had been having some bad luck with dentists. Before Dr. Cohen there was one guy who used to insert three of his fingers in your mouth while he was putting in the filings. He never wore gloves and seemed decidedly indifferent to your discomfort.

I suspect he was a horse doctor before he made the switch over to homo sapiens.

There was another guy who used to make obnoxious remarks and even yelled at me one time—as if as a child in a dentist’s chair, I didn’t have enough to worry about. I’m kind of sorry I never bit that guy’s finger.

I don’t know how we found Dr. Cohen, but I’m very glad we did. I recall that first day when I filled out the dental form and handed it back to Mabel, Dr. Cohen’s assistant. She looked it over and gave me this lovely smile.

“You have a birthday coming up soon,” she said.

I couldn’t believe it--somebody actually smiling in a dentist’s office? I thought they only smiled when the patients were screaming.

That must have been close to 40 years ago and I’ve been going to Dr. Cohen ever since. There were some gaps—no pun intended—when I was living in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but it never occurred to me to find a more conveniently located dentist. I just made sure to see him whenever I was back in Brooklyn.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I looked into getting a job as an English tutor in Japan.

I mentioned this to Dr. Cohen and he told me about a trip he took to Mount Fuji when he was in the service. And then he scheduled several appointments for me just in case I got the job.

That didn’t happen, but if I had moved to the Land of the Rising Sun, I’d still probably make yearly pilgrimages to Dr. Cohen’s office.

I have long since given up the candy and sugary sodas I used to live for back when I was in grade school. I remember Dr. Cohen giving this bit of advice to get me away from the sweet stuff.

“A cow lives on grass,” he said. “But if I try to eat nothing but grass, I’d die. It’s the same with cavities. Bacteria lives on sugar; no sugar, the bacteria dies.”

Nearly every one in my family went to Dr. Cohen and most of them still do. My mother always spoke so highly of him, how nice and polite he always was. And I actually lost my fear of dentists.

We also lost some of loved ones along the way. My mother’s gone now, along with my dad. Dr. Cohen lost his father and Mabel, that sweet lady whose smile took away all my fear, died several years ago.

In addition to the computer, the equipment has gone all modern. No more paper files; it's all digital. And the water fountain is environmentally correct, requiring the patient to fill the cup by pushing a button instead of filling up automatically.

It turned out on Saturday that I didn’t have any cavities, thank the Lord. So Dr. Cohen gave me cleaning along with a mini-toothbrush and a recommendation to buy a special kind of toothpaste, which I have yet to do.

We talked about the old days while he updated my chart on that computer. He was sitting in Mabel’s old seat and I looked up to see a photograph of her on the wall.
It’s almost like she was still there.

I shook hands with Dr. Cohen and wished him well. I was glad I had come to see him, not only for my tooth, but for the memories as well. When think of all the years I've been coming to this man, I just have to smile.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Back to School

My late father always had a strong dislike for the word “interesting.”

It was his unshakeable belief—and he had many of those—that this word meant absolutely nothing.

If you told him that anything from a movie to a plate of food was “interesting” he maintained that you hadn’t told him a damn thing.

I think of the times I've used this word and it's usually when I don't want to come out and say something negative.

So, I went to my grammar school reunion on Saturday and it was really…interesting.

I hadn’t been to this Catholic school in Brooklyn in years and I decided I would join my sister and some friends and revisit the place where I spent eight years of my childhood.

The event was held in the gymnasium, where the school used to put on dances and where Mr. Keating, my gym teacher, once ruled with an iron whistle.

I still remember him walking up and down the rows of boys twirling his whistle on a long cord, which would wrap around his index finger and then promptly unwind in a blur. I don’t think I ever saw him actually blow on the damn thing.

The reunion took place in the afternoon and there was plenty of food and drink. I saw people from classes going back to the Fifties and I think there was even someone from the Forties in attendance.

I saw one guy from my year and after some mutual squinting at our respective nametags we realized we hadn’t been in the same class and never knew each other. The conversation, such that it was, quickly fizzled.

I saw my old 8th grade teacher who didn’t seem to recognize me at all, but then how could I blame him? I graduated in 1971 and he’s had plenty of students since then.

I hooked up with some people I had been anxious to see and I was having a good time—until one of my companions pointed to another ancient life form—a nun, actually, walking with a cane—and told me that she was the dreaded lunch room monitor who had turned my early grade school years into the childhood equivalent of Abu Ghraib.

I mentioned her in a 2006 post where I said “if there's any justice in this world, she's rotting in hell right now and will continue to do so for all eternity.”

It looks like justice delayed really is justice denied.

This massive creature used to loom over me like a toxic cloud and force me to eat every morsel of that equally toxic food they doled out in the school’s cafeteria. She was mean, fat, and ugly—and there she was, just a few yards away from me.

I could feel the anger building up in me—yes, damn it, after all this time. I wanted to get a plate of food and purposely not eat it right in front of her.

Better yet, I would stand over her and make her eat everything on her plate--and then the plate and the table cloth and couple of dead skunks if I could find any. How’s that working for ya, sista? You know it’s a sin to waste food!

Tales From the Crypt

Now this may come as a surprise, but I didn’t actually do anything like that. I looked at her, this old, withered lady, and realized that the monster that she had been had long since left the building. It was like the Hulk changing back into Bruce Banner.

And that makes me even angrier. This crackpot abused me, insulted my sister, and harassed entire generations of children and now she’s morphed into this little old lady with a cane. What a scam.

I exchanged nun horror stories with some friends, mentioning the incredible Sister Frances, my teacher/psychopath, who I hope has called it day--God forgive me. But given the longevity of the Lunchroom Lecter, who’s to say?

I did find it funny that in her later years Sister Frances had gone completely crackers and could no longer strike fear into the hearts of the children at the school where she wrapped up her career.

I’m told she used to shriek at the kids to close the window because the Devil could get in--seriously, this is what the woman said.

No, honey, the Devil doesn’t need the window. He walked in through the front door and don’t look now, but, ah, he is…you.

The gym was boiling hot and I was getting tired. I made the mistake of talking to a woman who told me we were in the same class. I didn’t recognize her, but I just kind of smiled and said “really?”

“Yeah,” she said, “back when you had hair.”

Oh, great, hair jokes. Of course, you don’t know me, we haven’t seen each other in something like 40 years and this is the first thing that comes out of your mouth. She and a companion shared a loud laugh at my expense and I just burned.

I don’t talk to people that way and unfortunately I live under the delusion that people will return the favor—despite decades’ worth of evidence to the contrary.

I would never make remarks about anyone's appearance. If someone is extremely overweight, for example, I don't make jokes about it because that's just rude.

I don’t think that way and, though part of me really believes I should, I guess that would make me another crass moron in a world that has way too many already. But it still pissed me off. I wished I had Mr. Keating’s whistle.

My sister and I took a tour of the school with a very bright eighth grader and I kept talking about how things had changed over the years. But when you really think about it, so what? Time passes and things don't stay the same—this is news?

At one point during the day I heard “Don’t You Forget About Me” on the sound system, which I suppose is required listening at these affairs, sort of like playing “Celebration” at weddings.

But I tell you, there are plenty of people whom I would cordially invite to forget about me. Just walk on by, don’t call my name and I will do the same.

I think a better theme song would be Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party,” especially that line about “if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.”

So the day was…interesting. I’m still glad I went. Yes, I did get irritated, but it’s all right now. I learned my lesson well.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cracking the Code

When you’re a police reporter, the scanner becomes your constant companion.

That’s where so many stories begin. You’re sitting at your desk, making the daily phone calls to the various police departments you cover, looking for news.

And then that scanner starts beeping over your shoulder.

The dispatcher calls out the numbers, the codified mayhem that tells you if there’s a fire, car wreck, or armed robbery happening somewhere in your coverage area. You listen for the location, who is responding, and then decide if it’s worth going out there yourself. Some days that scanner can feel a lot like a ball and chain.

I was a police reporter at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, PA for five years starting in 1988 and it didn’t take me long to memorize the important numbers.

Back then an armed robbery was a page one story—“page one all the way,” as my editor used to say; but, given the way the Poconos have grown, I don’t think a stick-up rates more than a fewer paragraphs today.

There was a brief period when I actually had a scanner going on in my apartment so I could hear police calls in my off-hours. I’m happy to say that particular laspe of sanity quickly passed.

On one especially active night, when I was the only reporter in the newsroom, my editor, fearing the worst, looked at the scanner and said “unplug that thing.”

I covered a lot of wild stories in my time as a scanner rat—huge pile-ups on I-80, suicides, multiple-alarm fires—all sorts of grisly incidents where I got the chance to see the carnage behind the codes.

It was exciting, but I’d rather dig ditches than go back to that line or work. Or at least I think so.

Yesterday for some reason I found myself recalling a story I covered that had started when I heard an unusual code coming out of the scanner--I think the dispatcher said something like “Code 15.”

There wasn’t the usual 10-prefix, as in 10-45 for a car accident or 10-55 for a fire, but I got the feeling it was important, so I picked up the clipboard that held several pages’ worth of police and fire codes and went down the list.

I didn’t find anything until I looked at the ambulance code list-I hardly used it—and there it was: “Code 15—Gunshot.”

Somebody got shot? That was normally a police call because usually the cops had to get the shooter, but this one was coming in as ambulance call.

The dispatcher read off an address in Mount Pocono and then finally spoke English: “Gunshot wound to the head.”

There were no doubts about whether I'd go or not. I was out the door, in my car, and heading north on I-80. When I got to Mount Pocono, I found the street where the home was located and drove until I saw the ambulances and police cars.

Back then the town had it’s own police department—there is a regional force there now—and the chief, Dave Swiderski, filled me in on what had happened.

Dave said two teenaged boys had somehow gotten hold of a handgun and, well, you know what happened next. The gun went off accidentally while one boy was holding it and his friend was hit in the head.

There was no shootout, no robbery gone bad, no domestic assault; there was no bad guy or gang banger to be handcuffed and thrown into the back of a patrol car. It was just two kids making a terrible mistake.

At the Scene

The victim was in very bad shape and he was going to be flown by helicopter to a hospital in Allentown. His father, a volunteer firefighter, would be called out to help set up a landing area for the chopper. The police wanted to get to him first and tell him what was going on before he found out at the scene.

I’ll never forget how Dave started to leave and then he turned back and looked at me.

“Some days I really hate this job,” he said plaintively.

I hung around the scene for a little while longer. A man who turned out to be the shooter’s father was standing by himself nearby shaking his head.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said, his voice cracking.

I didn’t ask this man any questions—there was no point in harassing the guy. I went back to the office where I learned that the victim had died and that the police weren’t to going file any charges against his friend. I wrote up the story and went home.

The case faded from my memory, since there was always plenty of mayhem going on to keep me busy. But perhaps 8 or 10 months later, the story made a return visit to my life.

I was back in Mount Pocono on a cold winter’s night. Members of the county drug task force had picked up a heavyweight cocaine dealer who was hiding out in Miami and brought him in to face charges in Pennsylvania.

The guy had a house in town and after he was arraigned and taken to jail, I walked around asking people in his neighborhood if they knew him, what he was like--the usual reporter stuff.

I approached two teenaged girls and it turned out they went to school with the dealer’s son—he’s a nice kid, they told me. I got some more quotes from them and asked their names.

“You can’t use my name,” one girl said. “My dad really hates your paper.”

I wasn’t very fond of my paper myself at that time and I was tempted to tell her that, but instead I asked why.

It turned out that this girl’s dad was also the father of the boy who had died in the accidental shooting so many months earlier; the girl was the dead boy’s sister.

She said her father was angry that my story had mentioned the name of the boy who had accidentally fired the gun. The boy was a minor and he hadn’t been charged with anything, so the families felt there was no reason to print his name.

All I could say was that the police had given me the name, but that’s awfully weak. Juveniles who commit actual crimes never see their names in print; why did we treat this kid differently? I wish I had thought of that when I was writing the story.

The girl started to tear up and I apologized to her and quickly left.

Mount Pocono’s a small town, so I guess it wasn’t too surprising to meet up with someone connected to a story I had covered.

But this chance meeting reminded me that the scanner can't tell us about the people who are suffer in these incidents and that there is no code for the pain I saw in that young girl’s eyes.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years Later

I was making breakfast this morning when I heard a plane fly overhead and I felt a chill go up my spine.

That happened a lot in the weeks after 9/11, when every jet coming in for a landing sounded like a missile attack.

Of course it was crazy; the plane traveling over my house this morning was flying too high and moving too slowly. It wasn’t like on 9/11, when the jets streaked through the sky and exploded right in front of me.

For weeks after that I would look up whenever I heard a jet, half-wondering if it was going to happen again.

The feeling gradually faded, but I guess that since this is the ninth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, I shouldn’t be too surprised that I get a little jumpy.

Today is also my late father’s birthday; he turned 80 on that terrible day and all I had planned to do that morning was to go home after work and celebrate with him and my sister.

Of course we all had no idea that just getting home that day would be such a struggle, that our city would be turned into a war zone, and that so many people would never see their homes or their families ever again.

I went to Trinity Church on Friday to mark this day. Rev. Mark talked to us about loving our enemies and loving the bad parts of ourselves. Jesus said that it’s easy to love your own people, Rev. Mark told us. Loving your enemies is much more difficult.

That evening I went to the Open Center for a seminar on anger, which seemed appropriate at this time of the year. Believe or not, I can be a hostile fellow sometimes, so I thought this seminar would be helpful.

While waiting for the class to start, I walked around the Open Center's book store and picked up a copy of The Wind is My Mother, a book by Bear Heart, a Native American shaman. I flipped it open and the first line I was saw stated "God is forgiveness."

Ezra Bayda and Elizabeth Hamilton, the husband and wife team running the seminar, discussed the idea of speaking up for yourself without getting angry.

"It's not about being a wimp at all," Elizabeth said.

Now it's nine years after 9/11 and what have we learned? Well, from where I’m sitting, not a whole hell of a lot.

If you've been following some of these controversies surrounding 9/11—the Koran burner, the Ground Zero mosque that isn’t a mosque and isn’t near Ground Zero—you might be a little disgusted to see how this awful event is being twisted over and over for political gain.

I keep hearing this line about never forgetting 9/11. Spare me. September 11 became a political football that day the towers came crashing down and nothing has changed. I can’t believe how the victims’ memories are being so wantonly disrespected.

I know I shouldn’t be so cynical, so angry, because that just adds to the misery. But sometimes it’s not that easy.

I look back on that day when total strangers were helping each other, when people prayed together, cried together, all of us wondering what the hell had happened and what would happen next.

We were all together back then and the rest of the world loved us. Now people want to burn Korans and force a planned community center to move away from the so-called hallow ground, which is already home to a strip club and God knows many saloons.

Every year on this day I send an email to Eva, a woman I met on 9/11 in a senior center where we had taken refuge after the first tower came down and the air was thick with blinding, vile smoke.

I walked over the Manhattan Bridge with Eva when the air finally cleared and showed her where the LIRR station was at Atlantic Avenue.

Eva wrote back to say that she would be returning home from California today and that she was a little nervous to be flying on September 11. I told her she would be fine, but I understand how she feels.

We’re both amazed that nine years have flown by so quickly. And we’re both appalled at these bogus controversies that have sprung up from 9/11. Back then we knew what was important; we didn't care about politics. We just wanted to survive.

I wish these individuals who are so intent on pushing their agendas had been with Eva and me on 9/11, walking over that bridge with thousands of other stranded people, watching the smoke rise from the rubble behind us, and listening to fighter jets fly over our city.

Maybe they’d have a little respect for the people who didn’t make it home that day. Maybe they would show some compassion for the victims’ families and reserve this day for mourning the dead and put aside their causes, issues, and complaints.

Maybe, but then again maybe they just want to keep spewing blinding, vile smoke of their own.

How about we put the victims and their families first today? Let's pray for the ones we lost and hope that something like this never happens again. And let’s try and love our enemies and the bad parts of ourselves.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Crowds Roll By

I began the summer in a crowd, so it seems only fitting that I would wrap the season up in the middle of a mob scene.

It seems like only last week that it was June and I was hyperventilating my way through the throbbing mass of humanity at the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island.

And then I turned around and it was Sunday of the Labor Day weekend and I was crammed into a waiting room in the Battery Maritime Building, hoping the Governor’s Island ferry would hurry up and dock before I had a 20-megaton panic attack.

I wanted to do something different on this last weekend of summer and I saw that there would be a parked food truck event on the island—it was billed as “Eats from NYC’s best food carts & trucks and specially crafted local beer.”

There was also an art exhibit happening on the island as well, so I had a chance to get some culture, stuff my face and drink myself into a stupor. Plus I had never been to Governor’s Island before, so how could I say no?

And then I arrived at South Street and saw the line to the ferry snaking its way uptown like it was never going to end. I was tempted to ditch the whole thing and go home, but I do that too often. Screw it, I thought, marching northward, I’ll get on the end of this thing even if it’s in Montreal.

It wasn’t quite that far, but I think I went through a couple of time zones until I found the end. This being New York, it wouldn’t feel right if there weren’t a few line jumpers—urban weasels who think waiting is for other people—and, sure enough, a couple of idiots happily obliged.

First two middle-aged women, who were old enough to know better, got behind me. I heard one say, “just move along and pretend we were here.” Unfortunately for them, the rather tall gentleman who was legitimately in line behind me would have none of it.

“Excuse me,” he asked sharply, “were you in this line before?”

Poof! They vanished in a cloud of scorn. The line progressed and just as we reached the doors of the Maritime Building, two young women came walking out of nowhere and stood along side of me.

I cut them off and kept going, but that big dude I mentioned before proceeded to rip them each a new one. He shouted that they had cut the line.

“There was a line?” one woman had the gall to ask.

No, honey, we were having a block party in your honor.

The guy would not let up and the women yelled back.

“Do you feel good making a big deal about this?” one woman asked.

“Do you feel good sneaking onto the line?” the large man retorted. “You’re dealing with a native New Yorker.”

You tell them, big guy, and all of you please feel free to leave me out of it.

The waiting area quickly filled up with people from all over the world and screaming babies of all persuasions. I don’t do well in crowds and I imagined an evening news story about a stampede at the ferry. I thought I was supposed to be relaxing.

All Ashore Who's Going Ashore

The ferry finally showed up, we all piled on without trampling each other, and then we zipped over to the island. It’s a very nice spot where you can honestly forget you’re in the city. And that really felt good after all the grief I went through to get there.

You can’t enjoy art on an empty stomach, so I went over to the area where the food trucks had been parked, all set to wolf down a complete selection of global goodies.

And then I saw the lines.

Every single food truck had long lines of people circling and curving around within this fenced off field. Hell, I just stood on a huge line to get over here—now I’ve got to do it again? With my luck I’ll get on the same line as the big dude and those two women and another brawl will break out.

I thought I could come back later when the lines shortened a little, but I knew these people would be standing there until Columbus Day. So I hiked around the island, looking at these eerie empty buildings and I checked out the art exhibits. The weather was gorgeous; the setting was incredible-who needs food?

I walked around for a couple of hours and when I got back to the food trucks there seemed to be even more people waiting. Okay, I thought, we’ll get dinner on the mainland. I was very tired by then and I just wanted to go home.

So I got on line.

The good news was that this line was outdoors and moved with amazing speed. One moment it looked hopeless and then the next moment I was rounding a corner and heading to a waiting vessel.

"Everyone's going to Shutter Island," a dock worker said, giving me the best laugh of the day.

And—big surprise—there was one young woman up front looking to jump ahead of everyone else.

“Come on,” she called to her two friends. “No one will notice.”

“I’m not doing it,” one of her companions declared as she marched away.

No one will see you? Are we all blind and deaf? Christ, where are those Catholic school nuns when you need them? They wouldn’t tolerate disorderly lines for a second.

People who pull crap like this rely on not being challenged—I confess I find it embarrassing to get involved in some stupid argument over a spot on a line. It’s unseemly to me, but I should probably emulate the big dude and shame these losers into submission.

So now the summer of 2010 is over. Memorial Day weekend, the Mermaid Parade, July Fourth, they’re all distant memories. I saw a display for Halloween cards in a local store this week. Last week I got a catalog in the mail hawking Christmas—Christmas!—decorations.

I know people want to sell their wares, but have you no idea how miserable this stuff makes me? I always loathed the “Back to School” ads when I was a kid. They showed these impossibly happy little androids racing to class with these Stepford smiles plastered on their faces. Believe me, no real child every smiled on the first day of school.

And I know that pretty soon it’ll be Halloween…and then Thanksgiving…and then Christmas. The days will get shorter, colder and the whole world will resemble Shutter Island. I’ll have to dig up all my winter clothing, worry about colds and flu, and the idea of walking out of the house without a coat, hat, and gloves will be impossible to imagine.

The only good thing I can say about the change of seasons is that it reminds us that life is fleeting and that it makes no sense to put things off.

But I truly hate winter and if it were to vanish forever, I wouldn’t miss it all. And if you feel the same way, get in line.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Armory and The Man

What do I know from art? Not much, apparently, but I still had a good time.

I went to the Park Avenue Armory on Friday for the last day of a 5-day “Open Studio” featuring the work of Yoshitomo Nara, a Japanese artist who is having a show at the Asia Society.

The armory’s website said that the artist and his collaborative team, YNG, “will undertake rebuilding the structure of the installation work, Home, and Nara will establish a temporary studio to create new drawings and other works that will be included in Asia Society Museum’s exhibition Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool.”

According to WNYC, “Nara's appearance at the installation on Monday elicited sobs from one of his young Japanese fans; they just managed to drown out the sound of drills and hammers.” Sounds like quite a guy.

The site also carried this advisory—which I heard on WNYC as well—“All visitors must wear closed-toed shoes with a hard sole and shirts that cover their shoulders. Hard hats will be provided.”

Hard hats? This must be one hell of exhibit. I promised myself I'd go because every week I read about some off-the-wall exhibit or performance, I plan to go, but end up sitting at home watching TV. This is New York, damn it. You've go to do weird stuff like this.

So as soon as I got finished at work, I hopped on the IRT and headed up to the armory at 66th Street. The ride turned out to be a minor detour down Memory Lane when I got off at the Hunter College stop.

I graduated from Hunter in 1980 and I’ve only been by the place a handful of times since then. The school looks completely different now; they have an entire building there now that was nothing but a hole in the ground back in my day.

I have no real feeling for the place. My college years weren’t a particularly happy time for me and since it was a commuter school, I didn’t actually live there; I just visited. It was like going to the office.

I walked down Park Avenue expecting a huge crowd lined up outside the Armory for the exhibition, especially given that it was the last day, it was free, and it had this funky hard hat rule.

But the place was nearly empty. I wasn’t complaining, of course, I just walked right in, got my hard hat, and headed into the massive drill hall.

The place is huge—55,000 square feet--like an indoor football stadium. And there were all sorts of cranes and other types of construction equipment beeping, honking and moving around the place. It was crazy.

As I watched the construction crew work, I suddenly remembered that I had been in this very hall more than 30 years ago, while a student at Hunter.

Cartier had sponsored an event there featuring several World War I era airplanes. It seems that Louis Cartier had designed the first wristwatch for an aviator who complained that pocket watches were unreliable pocket during long flights.

The wristwatch became popular and eventually pushed out the pocket watch as the way to tell time.

The exhibit was rather impressive, as I recall, and they even had a guy walking around in a pilot’s getup complete with a white scarf, aviator's cap and boots.

Cranes Are Flying

I was shocked at how small and rickety the biplanes were. I wouldn’t roll down a hill in one of those things, let alone fly in one. A hard hat wouldn’t help much if you crashed in one of these planes.

Now I was back here three decades later, more time than you could ever measure on a watch. And wristwatches themselves are on the endangered devices list as they are slowly being rendered obsolete by the cell phone, Blackberry, and similar gadgets.

Most of the area was roped off on Friday and there was a small office area where there were drawings hanging on the walls.

Yoshitomo Nara is heavily influenced by anime and manga and that certainly shows in his work. But what was all this heavy equipment doing here? While I was watching the cranes dismantling something, a woman approached me.

“Are they taking it down?” she asked me.

“It looks that way,” I said. “I thought it was going to stay up until tonight.”

As I was leaving I noticed a young woman apparently telling another visitor what was going on. I couldn’t hear what she was saying over all the noise so I approached her as soon as the guy walked away.

“I’m sorry to make you repeat yourself,” I said, “but what does all this equipment have to do with the exhibit?”

“Oh, they’re just doing some renovations in the hall,” she said. “It’s not related to the exhibit at all.”

Say what? I walked in here expecting some massive modern art spectacular and you’re telling me its building renovations. Bring back the biplanes.

I was about to go home, but thankfully I took a tour around the Armory and I have to say it is a fabulous building.

The armory’s website says it was built by New York State’s Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, the first volunteer militia to respond to President Lincoln’s call for troops in 1861. The “Silk Stocking” Regiment included such big time Gilded Age families as the Vanderbilts, Van Rensselaers, and Roosevelts.

The place has one fabulous room after another, demonstrating quite clearly why they called it the “Gilded Age.” This Armory itself is a work of art.

I later learned that the office housing the drawings was part of the exhibit and been built earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll check out the exhibit at the Asia Society. I wonder if they'll let me bring my own hard hat.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Came to Cordoba

All I wanted to do was buy some turkey.

I walked into a butcher shop in Bay Ridge yesterday and found myself in the middle of the Ground Zero Mosque debate.

Now, of course, it isn’t a mosque and it isn’t located at Ground Zero, and there already two mosques located in the neighborhood—along with a topless bar. And the politically motivated lies, distortions, and blatant fear mongering being spewed on the airwaves and the Internet bear absolutely no resemblance to a debate. Now back to the butcher shop...

I was buying some cold cuts and pasta when the cashier—we’ll call her Maggie—rang up my order and then promptly whipped out a newspaper to show me a story about the first Muslim Miss USA who happens to believe that the Islamic cultural center should move from its planned location on Park Place.

"You see," she said. "This woman's a Muslim and she thinks they shouldn't build it there."

What this has to do with the price of eggs—or sliced turkey in this case—I have no idea. I didn’t ask Maggie for her opinion, I didn’t offer mine; in fact I didn’t say a word about the cultural center or anything else. I just went in there to get some food—a common occurrence at butcher shops.

I have a lot of laughs with Maggie most days when I go in there, but I have a little rule: if you subject me to your political views, well, chuckles, you’re going to hear mine.

“They have right to be there,” I said.

“No, they don’t!”

“Oh, yes, they do.”

“It shouldn’t be at Ground Zero.”

“It’s not at Ground Zero.”

And it went downhill from there. Every time I tried to speak, Maggie would interrupt me or just say the opposite. It was rather frustrating.

Now let’s get a few things clear. I stood across the street from the World Trade Center on September 11. I saw the towers come down and I walked over the Manhattan Bridge with thousands of other stranded people while the rubble smoldered behind us and fighter jets flew overhead.

It was the most horrible day of my life, so if you plan on giving me a lecture about the evils of radical Islamic terrorists, save your breath. I had a front row seat.

I work near the site of proposed center and walked over to 51Park, formerly Cordoba House, on Thursday to see what this latest ersatz controversy is about.

That’s all we seem to have lately—furious screaming and hand-wringing about counterfeit “issues.” It’s a good thing we don’t have any real problems—you know, like unemployment, oil spills, or wars without end, amen. No, we’ve got plenty of time for this horse manure.

There was a small group of people milling around the place—the former Burlington Coat Factory--including a police officer who was apparently on hand if trouble broke out. There’s a nice waste of taxpayer money.

I saw a reporter from WNYC, my favorite radio station, standing outside the building. I was walking away when I stopped to look at some chalk writing on the sidewalk.

“Excuse me, sir,” someone said behind me. “I’m a reporter with WNYC…”

I turned around there he was—microphone in hand, headphones covering his ears. I’ve been a reporter for 20 very odd years, so I know what it’s like to interview people at the scene of some big news event. Sometimes they curse you out, sometimes they walk away, and sometimes they won’t stop talking.

So now it was my turn to be interviewed. The guy wanted to know what I thought of the cultural center and I told him the same thing I told Maggie the cashier.

“These people have a right to be here…” I began.

This was my third media interview of the year, following the New York Times, story about the Cyclone and CNN—the fourth, really, since I was featured on both CNN’s website and TV for a story about my father's poem. I’m such a popular guy.

Mad Man on The Street

I’m not sure what I told the reporter—I was babbling pretty seriously. And I don't know if they even used it. But at least the guy didn't interrupt me.

This whole business infuriates me because once again it uses the victims of 9/11 and the fear of all things Muslim as political pawns.

Apparently a large number of Americans have forgotten how George “Mission Accomplished” Bush and Dick “Draft Dodger” Cheney swaggered this country into the war in Iraq by conflating the nightmare of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein.

Now if you’ve been paying attention, then you know that there were never any weapons of mass destruction, no connection between bin Laden and Hussein, and, oh, by the way, how’s that hunt for Osama going?

The war was, of course, a shameless bid to take over the Iraqi oil fields that had been put together by a group of oilmen. You would have thought that Americans would have gotten a better handle on the anti-Muslim fever after that fiasco, but it’s worse than ever.

And for those of you who hate Muslims so much, you may want to ask little Georgie Bush about his family’s close ties to the Saudi royal family. You know Saudi Arabia—that country that won’t allow churches and synagogues? You may remember that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia.

Or you could ask Rupert Murdoch, CEO of the “fair and balanced” News Corp, which has been fanning the flames of hatred, about Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family who is the second largest owner of News Corp. stock, valued at about $2.3 billion.

This fellow has deep funding ties to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the “principal planner” of the Islamic community center. Instead of protesting at Park51 today, the anti-mosque crowd should have gone up to Fox News.

Oh, by the way, did you hear how Fox mouthpiece Glenn Beck used 911 to push one of his sponsors. Talk about disrespecting the memory of the victims...

Some people are angry with Barack Obama for speaking about this cultural center, but I’m furious that he pulled back on his words the next day.

The President of the United States is supposed to bring us together, not drive us apart. I know that may be hard to believe after the Bush Administration, but, really, that’s what good presidents do.

That raging imbecile Sarah Palin felt free to stick her “refudiating” nose into controversy. And speaking of presidents minding their own business, am I the only one who remembers the Terry Schiavo debacle, when George Bush flew up from Texas to sign legislation “saving” a woman who had been declared brain dead?

It’s interesting that Bush received a memo prior to 911 saying that bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States. He didn’t fly up from Texas for that, did he? But when it comes to appeasing radical Christian fundamentalists, Georgie was right there front and center.

Then there’s the survey that shows even more Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. You can almost hear those dueling banjos.

I continued arguing with Maggie as I got my change and walked out the door. This was ridiculous. I don’t care what the subject is, I will not be harangued and I will not be shouted down. It never ceases to amaze me how those who bellow so loudly about “our freedoms” are the first ones to stifle dissent.

I think we have a chance to show our greatness here, to demonstrate how we’re not like the Islamic radicals.

I'm thinking of going to another butcher shop, but perhaps I'll return to my regular place. They've got some nice ready-cooked meals that are come in handy when I don't feel making dinner myself.

I think I can handle Maggie, but if I run into Miss USA, I'm going to pelt her with cold cuts.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Once in a Lullaby

Today is my late mother’s birthday and I decided to a little research to see what happened on the day and in the year she was born.

I think the most striking thing I learned was that The Wizard of Oz was released on August 15, 1939.

This was one of my mother’s favorite movies—she was a huge Judy Garland fan—and it seems fitting that she and this classic film that she loved so much would share a birthday.

Apocalypse Now was released on this date 40 years later, but I can’t say my mom was a big fan of this flick. I don’t even know if she ever saw it. Edna Ferber, who wrote Show Boat, was born on this day in 1887.

Ben Affleck, Ethel Barrymore, Julia Child, Vernon Jordan, Jimmy Webb, Sir Walter Scott, and Huntz Hall—the guy who played Satch in all those Bowery Boys movies—were all born on Aug. 15.

My mother lived through the Depression and on August 15, 1930, Herbert Hoover held a press conference in which he offered plans for relief of people and businesses affected by a series of devastating droughts.

On this day in 1899, Henry Ford resigned as chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company's main plant so he could concentrate on automobile production. The Panama Canal was opened to traffic on this day in 1914, while construction on the Berlin Wall began in 1961.

Woodstock kicked off on this day in 1969 at Max Yasgur's dairy farm in upstate New York. In 1945, Emperor Hirohito broadcast the news of Japan's surrender to the Japanese people.

In 1924, the year my mother was born, Judy Garland—billed as “Baby Frances” made her show business debut at age two.

Thomas Watson founded IBM in that year. Johnny Weissmuller set the 100-yard freestyle record at 52.4 seconds. Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock premiered in Dublin and "Happy Birthday To You" published by Claydon Sunny.

WJZ in New York City broadcast the first foreign language course broadcast on U.S. radio. Mass Investors Trust became the first mutual fund set up in U.S.

The Ford Motor Company--Henry Ford again--manufactured its 10 millionth Model T automobile in 1924.

Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer merged to form MGM. Jelly Roll Morton recorded "Jelly-Roll Blues" and—leapin’ lizards!-Harold Gray’s comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" made its debut.

J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of FBI in 1924, the same year Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb kidnapped Robert Franks in Chicago.

Boston opened its airport and Malcolm Campbell set the world auto speed record at 146.16 MPH.

As 1924 drew to a close, Edwin Hubble announced the existence of distant galaxies.

It was a very good year.