Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What's Up With That, Doc?

So many celebrities are turning 70 this year.

The list includes Tom Jones, Don Imus, Chuck Norris, Herbie Hancock, Alex Trebek, and, yes, Ringo Starr. But the biggest name on the list is Bugs Bunny.

I’m a lifelong Looney Tunes fan—Bugs, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig—I love the whole crew.

I worked an eveing shift when I was a reporter at the Pocono Record. Since I leave nearby, I often went home for dinner where I could relax for a little while and watch the cartoons at 6pm instead of the nightly news.

TNT used to run their cartoon program in the morning and the evening. They had a great commercial for the show that appealed to the child in all adults.

The spot featured a series of rapidly edited scenes of various Warner Brothers characters pounding the beejesus out of each other while a driving drum beat kept time with the mayhem.

“On twice a day,” the announcer intoned, “because you need it now more than ever!”

Truer words were never said.

Recently I was thinking of a Bugs Bunny short called “Any Bonds Today?” As you can no doubt surmise, the cartoon was part of the war effort—and by “the war” I mean World War II.

In the short, Bugs sings and dances as he extols loyal Americans to buy war bonds. As with all the Warner Brothers cartoons of that era, the animation in this cartoon is fabulous.

Any bonds today?” Bugs sings in his famous Brooklyn accent. “Bonds of freedom, that's what I'm selling. Any bonds today?

I had seen a clip of “Any Bonds Today?” several years ago on a PBS documentary and I remember my mother and I had a good laugh at it. So naturally I was pretty happy when I came across this short on YouTube and I was all set to post it on my Facebook page.

Luckily, I decided to watch it first.

This cartoon, which was completed eight days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, is less than two minutes long. About halfway through the thing, Bugs whips around and suddenly he’s in blackface, dropping to his knees and doing an Al Jolson impersonation.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. My favorite cartoon character was putting on this incredibly offensive display.

I know that this was a different time, when such humor was acceptable—at least to white people. And some of the posters on YouTube argued that Bugs is actually mocking Al Jolson and thus not guilty of any ethic offense.

I don’t know about that, but the thing creeped me out. I grew up on the sanitized version of Bugs, which was free of this kind of alleged humor.

Please understand that I’m not calling for censorship nor am I accusing people who are long dead of racism.

I don’t think children should see this stuff for what I hope are obvious reasons, but I believe adults should have access to see this and other cartoons with similar controversial material.

We need to keep these cartoons in their entirety if only as an example of how far we’ve come.

Say The Secret Word

When I was a student at Brooklyn Tech, the school held a screening of “Duck Soup,” my favorite Marx Brothers movie. I forget the occasion—some kind of assembly day, I guess, but I remember the room was packed and everybody was laughing at this old black and white comedy from another generation.

However, this was an uncensored print of the film and at one point Groucho recites some little ditty that ends with the line “…and that’s where little darkies come from.”

The room, which seconds before had been filled with laughter, suddenly fell silent, split between the black kids who were offended and the white kids who were embarrassed—at least I was embarrassed. We stopped being an audience at that moment and became two separate camps.

The awkward moment passed and we all got back into the movie, but it was a shame that race had cropped up in the middle of such a good time.

Yes, I know—that was then and this is now. But this material was never funny and the fact that we don’t engage it in anymore—at least not on screen—is a sign of progress, not stifling political correctness, as some would have you believe.

Race has always been a troublesome issue and to my mind it has gotten worse since Barak Obama was elected president.

You’re free to hate the guy, that’s your right, but if you keep claiming he’s a Muslim from Kenya, or if you refer to the First Lady of the United States as a gorilla—the way a Republican state senator did—well, guess what? You’re a racist.

The Shirley Sharrod fiasco was a new twist on the race issue as notorious rightwing hatchet man Andrew Breitbart released a doctored videotape that “proved” Sharrod was a “racist” when, of course, the entire recording proved the exact opposite.

It was a despicable act, but not surprising given the source. Rats crawl through garbage, vultures feast on rotting corpses, and Briethbart traffics in falsehoods. No news there.

The real losers in this story were the NAACP and the White House, who instantly caved into the bogus pressure and dropkicked Sharrod into the abyss.

What is going on here is the swift-boating of the race issue. John Kerry’s war record was a nightmare for the Republicans in the 2004 election. I mean, Jesus, here was a man who actually fought for his country, running against George Bush, who just kind of...dropped out the National Guard, apparently.

And his running mate was Dick Cheney, the architect of the disaster in Iraq and the serial draft dodger who had “other priorities” when it came to serving his country in Vietnam.

So what did the Republicans do? They attacked Kerry’s war record in one of the most disgusting political campaigns that has ever been my displeasure to witness.

Now we see the same thing is happening again with race. Glenn Beck—who actually stuck up for Sharrod—called Barack Obama a racist with a deep-seated hatred for white people.

Rush Limbaugh, a pill popper as well as a draft dodger, called the NAACP a racist organization and claimed Barack Obama is secretly plotting to destroy the United States to get revenge on white people.

And then there’s the Republican candidate for New Hampshire State House, who declared that “It is time for white people in New Hampshire and across the country to take a stand.”

And, please, don’t forget about Billy Roper, the write-in candidate and proud Teabagger, who said "I don't want non-whites in my country in any form or fashion or any status."

Obviously, bigotry comes in all colors and I used to believe that some people hit the racism button far too quickly. But the reaction to Obama’s election has opened my eyes.

If this keeps up, Bugs Bunny might be appearing in blackface once again.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Visiting Day

There’s nothing like visiting a cemetery to remind you that life is fleeting.

Everywhere you look there are memorials to people who were once living and breathing just like you and me.

My sister and I visited our parents’ grave on Saturday, one day after the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death.

It was brutally hot, just like the day we buried her. I remember riding in the limousine that day and watching people on the street in shorts and t-shirts walking around as if it were any other day. And for them, of course, it was.

Now eight years have passed. It sounds strange, but I never thought I'd be in this situation. Obviously, nobody lives forever--that's why we have cemeteries. But the thought of my mother and father being gone from this world was something I could never accept.

I thought we’d be the only ones there on this bright summer day, but a man and his son showed up a short time after we got there and went to a nearby plot.

The son, who appeared to be his twenties, told us his mother had just died in November. As he spoke, I looked over his shoulder and watched his father lean forward, grip his wife’s tombstone with both hands, and bow his head. He clearly wasn’t used to being alone yet.

Cemeteries have been cropping up in my life lately. During a recent sermon at Trinity Church, Rev. Mark told us about a visit he had made to a hospital on Roosevelt Island.

His driver had once been homeless and told Rev. Mark about the day he came to the church in desperation to pray.

A priest saw this man crying and told him that there was no problem so big that God couldn't help. Since that day, Rev. Mark told us, this man has turned his life around.

In addition to getting a job, he also met a very special woman. She regularly visited her parents’ grave and the driver said he took great comfort in this.

“I’ve lived in fear of dying alone and being forgotten,” he told Rev. Mark. “And now I’m with a woman who remembers the dead.”

It was a very touching sermon and it came back to me while we stood there in the heat. I haven’t found that special person yet, which is largely my own fault, but a story like this gives me hope.

Conscience--What's That?

If a man can go from being homeless and alone to being gainfully employed and happily married, then I think I have a chance at finding contentment.

My reflective mood was spoiled when I heard my sister gasp. I thought there was something wrong with the tombstone, but this was much worse.

“The dog statue is gone,” she said.

She was referring to a small statue of sleeping dog that we had placed on the grave as a tribute to Casey, our family dog who went to his reward years ago and whom my mother loved so dearly.

We thought that the cemetery staff might have removed it, but a visit to the front office confirmed my darkest fear: somebody had stolen the statue right off our parents’ grave.

The man at the office told us that several cemeteries have been experiencing this problem: people just take statues, freshly-planted flowers, or anything else they want.

He suggested that we could look at some of the nearby graves and see if we could find it, but my sister nixed that idea. What if we make a mistake, she said, and unjustly accuse someone of theft? And I frankly didn’t feel like playing Junior G-Man.

I ricocheted between rage to disgust. How low do you have to sink to do something like this? I wonder how these people can sleep at night. Stealing from the dead? You have no soul—or at least one not worth saving.

There is no way that you couldn’t know that this statue had sentimental value. The simple fact that we put it on our parents’ grave tells you that loud and clear. The perpetrator just plain didn’t care.

“I hope something bad happens to the person who did this,” I said on the drive back.

But my sister said that wouldn’t change anything and she’s right, of course. But I’m still angry.

I told my other relatives about this atrocity. My sister-in-law said I should act like a Buddhist. Yes, this was wrong, but the person who took it must need it and I should let it go. She said my spiritual connection with my mother was much more important than this.

“Mom would have said to move on,” I told my brother, “but Dad would have said to cripple the son-of-a-bitch with a tire iron.”

“You should always listen to Mom,” my brother said.

And he’s right. I am going to listen to Mom. I refuse to let this callous act ruin my day of peace with my parents. Whoever did this has to live with themselves and that sounds like punishment enough.

I have more important things to worry about--like finding someone to come visit me on hot summer afternoons.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Back in the Ring

I went to check out something new today and wound up going back in time.

The Sadam Ali Boxing & Fitness Center opened its doors at 68th Street and 5th in Bay Ridge, right near the Alpine Theater at the site of what was at one time Nielson’s Furniture Store.

I can’t remember what went on at that location in the more recent past and that’s making me a little nervous. Oh, my poor old brain cells...

Anyway, I have an interest in boxing, as I've been taking the boxing classes at the New York Sports Club for close to 10 years now.

The instructors are great and you accomplish so much in just under an hour. You work with other people—as opposed to cranking away on a stationary bike by yourself—and you get to go nuts on the heavy bags. After a hard day at the office, hitting something is the best kind of therapy around.

It would take a lot to get me away from the NYSC crowd, but I confess I like the idea of a boxing gym right around the corner from my house. If nothing else, I thought I could at least attend the grand opening and look the place over.

The gym looks great. It’s got boxing rings, heavy bags, and tread mills in the basement and they sell sports equipment upstairs. I really wish the owners the best of luck. There are too many empty store fronts around Bay Ridge and we really need some successful businesses.

Several well-known fighters were scheduled to attend the opening, but I did a double-take when I saw one man who was not listed in the press release.

It was Pat Russo, a retired police sergeant whom I first met more than 20 years ago while working as a reporter for a local weekly newspaper.

At least I was pretty sure it was him. It had been a while since I last saw him and I might have been mistaken, but I heard him say his name while introducing himself to some people.

Still I hesitated, fearful he might have forgotten me. But then I decided, oh, what the hell? If he doesn't know me, I'll just say have a nice day and bounce.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I was a reporter—”

Well, Pat did remember me and we had a great time talking about people we used to know and what we were up to now. It’s hard to believe the time went by so quickly, but the ring rust we had acquired over the last two decades quickly disappeared.

Pat used to work out of the 72nd Precinct Community Patrol unit in Sunset Park and I had a lot of fun with those cops. I rode around in a police van, walked a beat with one of the officers, Bob Orazem, and spent a lot of time hanging around the police station. It was cool.

Pat boxed for the police department’s team and I had the pleasure of writing an article about him when the NYPD went up against the London police department’s team.

He also founded the Sunset Park PAL boxing program and I covered the club’s opening. It was a big deal for the neighborhood because Pat wanted to get kids off the street and into the gym.

The program ran for 20 years, but then the city’s Parks and Recreation Department evicted Pat and the boxing program, claiming it needed the space for an after-school program.

Pat dismissed that idea, saying the parks commissioner just doesn’t like boxing.

“I’ve got a gym in Flatbush now,” he told me, “but it’s a hike for the kids in Sunset Park. And the little kids can’t make that trip.”

We talked some more about people we know and how the neighborhood has changed. Newspapers still had a future back when I first knew Pat, as opposed to now where…well, the less said the better.

When I left that paper, Pat and some of the other cops came to my going away party. From there I went to work at a daily in Pennsylvania for five years, then on to a Connecticut paper for another four, and then finally back to New York.

Pat and I talked some more, exchanged business cards and I went home, amazed that I had traveled so far on such a short walk.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Pony Express

Over the years, I've grown to expect that every important lesson in life must be spawned by a huge event.

You know—the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the Great Flood—I have this tendency to believe that any occurrence that doesn’t resemble a scene from a Cecil B. DeMille picture probably isn’t worth a second look. Maybe it's a result of growing up Catholic.

Fortunately, life has a way of reminding me how wrong this kind of thinking can be. In one weekend I received two important lessons that came out of seemingly trivial episodes.

The first one happened at the recent Senator Street block party.

I have to say that I had a blast at this thing. We had great weather, I met people who had been living on my street for years for the very first time, and I got a chance to stuff myself with all the food I know I should avoid, like hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage and pepper sandwiches, and eggplant parmigiana.

There were plenty of attractions, including a pony ride for the kids. I watched one little girl experience what I strongly suspect was her first-ever encounter with a horse. The poor child looked terrified as she gripped the reins with both hands and her face contorted with fear. I felt so badly for her.

The ride was less than half the block, but by the time she returned to the starting point, this very same girl was smiling broadly and rocking from side to side in time with the pony. You could almost swear it was a different kid—and in a way I suppose it was.

It was so touching to see this beautiful little girl lose her fear. She did something she had never done before and learned that she liked it. Who knows? She may be champion rider some day.

This was a great moment in her life, but it occurred to me later that this kind of personal discovery isn’t just for children. We all have fears we have to face and overcome; we all have our ponies to ride. So it turned out to be a pretty good moment for me, too.

The next day I went to my gym to work off all the hot dogs, hamburgers, sausage and pepper sandwiches, and eggplant parmigiana I have consumed during the block party. The instructor was in a particularly sadistic mood this day and decided to put us through some suicide sprints.

For those of you who don’t know, the aptly-named suicide sprints require you to run half the distance of the gym and race back to the starting point.

From there you run like hell for three-quarters of the distance before turning back returning once again to the starting point. Finally you race to the very end of the gym while, making these awful wheezing noises and seriously considering...suicide.

On Your Mark...

I lined up with two of my classmates in the first wave of runners and off we went with the sweat flying and the instructor roaring at us to run, run, run until we did a total of ten such sprints.

These things are murder. Not only are you running as fast as you can, but you’re turning around, dropping to one knee to touch the floor and then turning and running some more.

I always thought I was a pretty fast runner, but it wasn’t happening for me this day. Maybe I had too many sausage and egg sandwiches.

I was constantly coming in last behind my two other classmates and I heard the negative talk fire up in my brain: What’s going on here? Why can't you beat these guys? Is your age finally catching up with you?

I was letting my ego overtake the point of this exercise, which, of course, is to get a good workout. This wasn’t the Olympics.

Competing against other people like this helps you to push yourself, but it isn’t meant as a judgment of yourself as a human being. Unless I’m doing it.

I kept watching my classmates out of the corner of my eye, which just eats into your time even more. But somewhere around the fifth or sixth lap, I decided to turn in the opposite direction, so that I was looking at the wall instead of my classmates.

And suddenly I was alone.

There was no one to compete against, no one to make me worry if I was slowing down, growing old, losing my edge, or going off my rocker. It was just me running—and I took off. I tied with my classmates in the next lap and actually “won” the tenth and final set.

There was no prize for this. We still had 35 more minutes of hard work to do and nobody gave a damn who won what. But I did score a victory of sorts in that I saw how much I allow my ego to control my life, how I worry about what other people may be thinking. I put myself on a stage, but the only one in the audience is me.

So I was very fortunate. I got two lessons in as many days and I didn’t need lightning bolts or a choir of angels to get the message.

It's time for my pony ride.