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.