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.