Thursday, December 22, 2011

Star of Wonder, Star of Night


I switched the TV on to the Christmas carol channel to get the holiday spirit going last night and came away with some valuable information.

The cable people like to run little Yuletide factoids along the bottom of the screen while the music plays. So I learned that in Hungary, food cannot be eaten on Christmas Eve until a twinkling star is seen in the sky.

No food, I thought, that’s ridiculous. What happens if it’s overcast and you don’t see any stars?

You go Hungary! (Ouch! I'll be getting a lump of coal for that one...)

But as I thought about it, I started to like this tradition. A star is a sign of hope and given the current state of the world we could all use a little hope right this very minute. It seemed like a good idea to hold up the party until you get that sign from above.

I just got done watching “Scrooge,” the best film version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and it got pretty emotional.

I grew up watching this movie with my family and now here I was sitting by myself, remembering all those great holidays. I went through a lot of tissues as I recalled Christmas past, but it’s still a great movie.

I was planning to Scrooge my way through Christmas this year. I was sickened by news of Black Friday shoppers pepper-spraying each other or trampling over their fellow human beings to snatch up two-dollar waffle irons.

Keep Watching the Skies


And then there’s the commercials that Santa Claus peddling everything from electronics to candy. St. Nick is even walking the floor of a car dealership for God’s sake. This is how we celebrate the birth of Jesus? No, thank you.

But you can rise above all that misery and still enjoy Christmas. There is a festive mood in the air, there are so many beautiful songs, and then, of course, there are all the lights.

The Salvation Army set up a kettle on Church Street near my office and I saw one man holding up a sign that said “It’s our last week—can you at least give us a smile?

And instead of Christmas carols the boom box was playing the Beatles “All You Need is Love.” That got me smiling all right.

I joined my sister and some friends for a trip through Dyker Heights to look at the Christmas decoration extravaganza. For those of you who haven’t been there, the homeowners go insane with lights, music, animatronic figures, and people in costume.

So many cars drive up one particular street during the holidays that the police have to direct traffic. There’s even a tour bus that brings people over from Manhattan to look at the Brooklynites in their native habitat.

My sister suggested parking the car a few blocks away from Christmas Central and walking around the various streets. That turned out to be a great idea.

We avoided the traffic jam, but more importantly, we got to walk around with other people. I honestly don’t know how these homeowners can afford to pay their electric bills—they must have separate generators.

I kept thinking this is crazy, this is over the top, but then I’d see how much fun the kids were having and it all seemed worthwhile. I didn’t have to look into the sky to see any twinkling stars—they were all around me.

I’m going to take some time off for the holidays, so I want to wish everyone a merry and a happy whatever-it-is-you-celebrate. Enjoy yourself, keep searching for your twinkling star, and don’t ever go Hungary.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

'A Disturbing Image and A Crude Gesture'


In the movie “The Next Voice You Hear,” God skips the burning bush and uses the radio to speak to humanity.

I recently saw this 1950 film, starring James Whitmore and future First Lady Nancy Davis, and found it to be a bit clunky and contrived.

But it made an impression on me because it showed how good, decent people can forget that they’re good and decent as they rush around trying to find a place in the world.

Upon hearing the voice of the Almighty, everyone starts taking life slower and being more respectful to one another.

I thought that was important and it seemed to tie in so nicely with my Day One project, where I vowed I would improve my outlook on life.

And then I decided to go the movies on Friday night and everything went to hell.

I rarely go to the movies, preferring to watch films at home. Most movies are overrated and overpriced and most theater audiences are comprised of inconsiderate morons who talk, act stupid with their smart phones, and do just about anything else they feel like doing except to clam up and watch the goddamn movie. (Not too hostile now, am I?)

But I had heard great things about “The Artist” and I didn’t feel like waiting on Netflix. So I went online to buy a ticket. And that’s where it all went wrong.

My credit card information at the ticket website was outdated and every time I tried to correct things, the website crashed. I was going nuts. Day One turned into Day None as I fumed and swore at the Internet as if it had passed me a bad check.

I finally ordered the damn ticket—or so I thought—and staggered out of the office. I was running late and since I was in a hurry that meant everyone else in New York was operating at super slow motion.

The woman at the restaurant where I went for dinner screwed up my order. When I finally got my chicken chili on rice—not the beef chili!—I had to wolf it down while listening to crappy Christmas music or risk being late for the movie.

There were two or three other people sitting alone at their tables and later I thought we looked like a modern version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Outside, people seemed to be a daze. Total strangers approached me, got in my way.

“Papi, you got a cigarette?” one woman asked me as I walked down Broadway.

“I don’t smoke.”

Another woman stopped me in the stairwell of the R station.

“Excuse me….”

“I can’t talk to you now!” I snapped and kept going.

Coming Through

The train took forever to show up and when it did it crawled into Brooklyn like it was going under a barbed wire fence. Some loser at DeKalb Avenue shoved his hand in the door at the last second, holding up the train even more.

When I finally got off at Atlantic Avenue, another idiot clogged up the stairs as he walked and fumbled with his Blackberry at the same time.

And when I got to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the ticket machine wouldn’t print out my ticket. I was borderline psychotic by this time, but I got a ticket at the box office and took a seat.

“The Artist” was excellent and everyone in the audience managed to behave. But I was in such a foul mood that I decided to go straight home after the movie ended.

Today I looked over the ticket receipt to figure out why I had gotten shafted. It was only then that I saw the words “Almost there. Review your order and then click PURCHASE TICKETS.”

Oh…that’s why I didn’t get a ticket the other night. I didn’t actually buy one.

The receipt lists the movie’s rating—PG-13 “for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.” It seemed like a perfect way to describe my evening.

I was feeling pretty miserable for most of Saturday. Once again I had promised to change my evil ways and once again I had bitten the dust.

But luckily, I happened to be walking down 86th Street when I came across an old soldier who was sitting outside a bank and collecting money for veterans.

I love talking to these old timers—they’re like living history books. And since my father was a veteran, I can never get enough WW II stories.

This man—I’m so sorry I didn’t get his name—told me he was in the Navy—“and nowhere else but the Navy!”—and had fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

“Those are some of the toughest battles of the war,” I said.

The old veteran smiled.

“We had fun,” he said.

I wished him a Merry Christmas and headed for home. This man had seen things I could never begin to imagine and gone to places where getting a movie ticket was the last thing on anybody's mind.

He had lived in a time when there was no Internet, or I-pads, or any of this other crap that weighs us done and obliterates our attention span. And he’s still with us.

Day One is not going to be an overnight sensation. It’s going to be a slow, painful process as I eliminate disturbing images and refrain from crude gestures.

The next voice I hear will be my own, telling me to get back to work.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beautiful Boy


Every night when I come home the first thing I see is Ben’s heart.

It’s just a heart-shaped piece of green glittery paper that I have taped to my front door, but it means so much to me.

Up until recently, Ben was my four-year-old next-door neighbor. I knew I’d miss him after I moved, but I didn’t realize how much.

He gave me that green heart back in the summer as my sister and I were cleaning out our family’s house. Every weekend we’d look forward to seeing Ben poke his head in from outside and shout “Wob-ert!”

He would talk with us, look around the empty house, and then suddenly say, “I have to go now.” And off he’d go.

Ben is such a sweet kid, always willing to share things, which I find amazing for a child that age. I don’t think I was anywhere as near as generous when I was four years old, so Ben has taught me an important lesson.

We told him not to give us anything, but nevertheless Ben stopped by the house one time and gave my sister and me some balloons he had. Then he promptly ran for the door.

“You keep! You keep!” he said over his shoulder.

It was great having such a devoted fan. I offered to blow up a beach ball for him one afternoon and while I huffed and puffed, Ben cheered me on.

“Awesome! Awesome!” he yelled. “C’mon, Robert, you can do it!”

A Friend Indeed

I could do it, but it took a little more lungpower than I had expected. I finally got the thing inflated and handed it over to Ben. He stopped playing with it long enough to ask me a question.

“Do you have kids?” he asked.

No, I don’t, but if I did I’d want them to be just like Ben.

During this summer’s Senator Street block party, I got into a wild basketball game with a bunch of little girls who were visiting one of my neighbors.

They surrounded me, grabbed me from behind, tried to kick the ball away from me—it was more like the WWF than the NBA. But Ben jumped in between me and my tormenters and put his arms out, determined to be my bodyguard.

“Those girls are cuckoo,” I said when the game family ended.

“Those girls are tutu,” Ben added. Oh, well, close enough…

One day I watched Ben crossing the street with his grandmother and her homecare aid. The grandmother was on a walker, the aid was busy helping the old lady, and Ben was standing next to them. They looked so vulnerable as they stepped off the sidewalk.

“I’m going to the park!” Billy told me, all excited.

I winced imagining these three being exposed to the cuckcoos that drive around here. I told them to wait until there were absolutely no cars coming down the block.

When the street was finally clear, the three of them started across with Ben putting his hand out in the traffic cop position. Atta boy, Ben.

After we closed on the house my sister and I stopped by Ben’s house to say goodbye. We had to go now.

“You give me your phone number,” he said.

I gave Ben my card, though I don’t expect him to call. He’s a kid and I’m a grown man-more or less-but I do get tempted sometimes to knock on his door and ask if Ben can come out and play.

I’m glad for the time I had with Ben. He has a special place in my heart and he’s welcome to it.

You keep, Ben. You keep.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Day One


Over the summer, DC Comics took the incredible step of resetting all 52 of its continuing series and starting them all over again with issue No. 1.

Superman and Batman may have been around since the 1930s, but DC is scrubbing everything that’s happened in their comic universe over the decades and beginning anew.

I don’t know how comic book fans are reacting to this plan, but it sounds like a great idea to me.

I have gone through so much upheaval over the last few months that I’ve decided it’s time for me to start my life all over again at Day One.

And I’m doing this right now. I can’t afford to wait until New Year’s Day to make any resolutions—my life needs a radical reboot ASA-freaking-P.

I’m in a new place, we finally sold the family home, and I’m back at the gym five torturous months after my back went out and took my right leg with it.

There was a time when I thought I would never heal, that the incredible pain in my shin would be with me forever. The agony started one Friday night in July--just as we started clearing out the house and I was searching for a new apartment. The timing was perfectly hideous.

I also thought we’d never finish the clean-up. Every weekend I’d look at all that…stuff and wonder if we’d ever get down.

But the mission’s been accomplished and I’m feeling better. I’m not a hundred percent—still getting a tingling in my foot--and I have to do a daily series of core exercise for the rest of my natural life, but I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m very thankful.

I’m sure all of things coming together is just a coincidence, but I’m going to treat these events like a screaming, 20-megaton message from the Universe that says “start over from Day One!

Look! Up in the Sky!

I have to change the way I think, shake off this negativity that’s been part of my make-up for far too long. I have to bury the past like it’s nuclear waste. It’s time to replace agonizing with action and worry with work.

I have to do things I’ve never done before, see new places and new faces. I’ve got to stop playing it so safe all the time.

Of course, I’ve made scores of these vows, promises, declarations, proclamations, and resolutions to change, only to see them go south as I returned to my old ways.

To be honest, I’m not sure how my Day One plan is any different from the other times, except that it’s a month ahead of the traditional date.

If I were still in my old frame of mind I’d say that I started early so I could quit early, but it’s Day One, so I ain't thinking that way no more.

I put a “Day One” sign on my bathroom mirror and on the wall of my cubicle at work so I can remind myself that every day is a chance to make things better.

I wheezed through my first boxing class in months on Thursday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to get down over this. It’s Day One, I told myself. Pretend this is the first time you ever walked into the gym.

On Saturday I took a boot camp class, where you work with weights and a stepper until you’re ready to die—at least I was. I’d never taken the class before, so I was glad I had done it, but I’m sore from working dormant muscles. I’ll bet Superman never had this problem.

This Day One project is going to be tough. I see that I really have to monitor my mind, lest I slip back into a pile of ugly thoughts or rotten memories. There’s more to change than just vowing you’re going to do it. I have to totally rewire my noodle.

It's a long shot, but if it pays off, I know that I'll be a lot happier. And I won’t even need a cape.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

All the Old, Familiar Places


There was a time many years ago when I was struggling to find my way.

I had trouble holding on to a job, my physical health was bad and my mental condition was even worse.

I was so upset that I went to my mother looking for some kind of guidance.

“What’s going to happen to me?” I asked her in desperation.

She paused for a moment, clearly upset at my state of mind.

“Well, you know,” she said, “when I die, you’ll get money for this house.”

My mother meant well, of course—she always did--and I know she was trying to comfort me. But those words really shook me up. Did my mother have to die before I could make something out of myself? If I were making a list of the lowest points in my life that conversation would certainly be in the top five.

My mother and father are both gone now, I’ve found something like a career, and today we finally sold our parents’ house.

After all the work, all the cleaning, all the worry and aggravation, everything came down to a few hours at a local bank. We signed a stack of papers, like generals putting their names to a peace treaty, my sister and I handed over our house keys, and it was all over.

The house that had been in our family for over 60 years, the place where we were raised, is no longer ours.

After the closing my sister and I went back to the house to say goodbye to our neighbors and take one last look at our home. We took some flyers off the front steps and brought them to the backyard to throw them away.

“Do you realize we’re trespassing now?” I asked my sister.

I’m feeling so many different emotions right now. The first is relief, now that the sale is over, and then guilt because I feel relieved. I feel sad about giving up the house, but our family isn't there any more. It really is time to move on.

We did the walk through on Sunday with the new owner and while I waited for my sister to pick me up, I heard Jimmy Durante on the radio singing “I’ll Be Seeing You.

It’s a song from my parents’ day about holding on to memories and the lyrics seemed so appropriate.

“I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.”

I wonder what the new owner will do with the place. I've seen people do some incredible things with the old houses in the neighborhood--rip out the insides, pave over the gardens, or add an outdoor porch. Whatever happens, we'll have no say in the matter.

When we were leaving, I stopped to look around and make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. I spotted something on the refrigerator and when I got close I saw it was magnet with the image of the Virgin Mary and the words “God Bless the Lenihan Family.”

I slipped it into my coat pocket and now it’s on the refrigerator in my new home.

I see how blessed we were to have that house, to have our parents for as long as we did, and to have so many great memories. Now it’s time for someone else to make that house into a home.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Meet Again


I feel like I’m living in an American Express commercial.

The massive financial services outfit used to run ads featuring various celebrities who asked the musical question “do you know me?”

I was more partial to the Traveler’s Cheques spots where Karl Malden sternly declared, “don’t leave home without them.” He said it with such intensity that I was afraid to leave my house--and I wasn't traveling anywhere.

I could’ve used Karl Malden’s help last week when I ran into a series of people whom I vaguely recognized but couldn’t initially identify.

You look at them for a few seconds, they look at you, and you search your mind to find a name to go with the kisser—like Karl and Michael Douglas chasing down a perp in “The Streets of San Francisco."

It started one night when I was coming from work and I followed this older gentleman into my local grocery store. I know that guy, I thought, I’ve seen him someplace before…

It wasn’t until I was paying off the cashier—and this old timer was right behind me—that I realized he was my ex-boss’s ex-husband.

I hadn’t seen him since I left that job, nearly 24 years ago. He was a nice guy and we always got along, but we never had that much to do with each other.

I think I might have seen a flash of recognition in his eyes, but I didn’t say anything to him and now I wish I had.

To be honest, we probably wouldn’t have had much to talk about after “hello,” but I think that’s better than pretending to be strangers.

The very next day I’m walking by the same grocery store—what is it with this place?—when I saw a man with white hair and glasses walking toward me.

It took a few seconds to withdraw the name from my memory bank, but then I remembered that it was Brother Myles, my eighth grade math teacher.

I used to greet him in the schoolyard with the “be seeing you” salute from “The Prisoner,” my favorite TV show of all time. Brother Myles always returned the gesture, though I don’t think he was a fan of Number Six.

I also used to tell him the lamest jokes I could find—bad puns, hideous one-liners, the whole shtick. I can’t recall a single one of them now and for that you should consider yourself very lucky. These bits were the toxic waste of comedy.

Before the Beginning


I had actually run into Brother Myles years ago while working at a local weekly newspaper—the same place where the ex-boss’s ex-husband would occasionally turn up. (See above.) Brother Myles had some business with the editor and I introduced myself. He had trouble recognizing me, but then I made a clunky pun and he winced.

"Oh,” he said, “it’s all coming back to me.”

See that—and I didn’t even need an American Express card.

I’m not sure if Brother Myles recognized me during our most recent encounter, but I didn’t say hello. It’s been so long since we’ve had any kind of contact and I didn’t have any bad jokes to tell him.

I had one more repeater two days later and this time it wasn’t anywhere near the grocery store. I was walking along 75th Street when I passed this woman on Seventh Avenue.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied, thinking to myself, gee, what a nice lady.

We reached the corner and while we waited for the light, I thought I’d keep the conversation going, which turned out to be a huge mistake.

“My only complaint is the cold weather,” I said. “I really hate the winter.”

“Yes, you hate the winter,” she said, “but do you love God?”

Oh, for the love of God, not another religious psychopath. I hate them more than I hate winter.

And what a brilliant segue. Here I am talking about the weather and she brings the Almighty into the act. Life is so simple when you’re a mindless fanatic.

“Yes, I do,” I said and promptly set a speed-walking record for getting the hell out of a tight situation. I nearly got hit by a car while making my escape, but I’d gladly risk a fender to the keester than deal with that freak.

I tried to put her out of my mind, but something was gnawing at me about this woman and it was beyond the initial annoyance at her idiotic behavior. No…I had seen her someplace before…

Do you know me?

Oh, it’s all coming back to me. This was the same nutbag who had harassed me on the subway back in June. And she had used the same sneaky approach where she pretended to be sane before launching into her sermon.

Unlike our last meeting, however, I wasn’t jammed into a two-seater on the R train trying to be polite. This time I was able to escape.

But I don’t like running into the same loony more than once in a lifetime. It’s bad medicine. I thought this woman was out of my life, but here she was again, turning up like a bad penny or a good boomerang. Either way I want nothing to do with her.

So I’m had these three reunions in less than a week. I don’t know if that’s a sign of cosmic forces beyond my comprehension or just a series of coincidences.

What would Karl Malden say?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Now Playing

I finally got around to visiting the Great Wall Supermarket on Fort Hamilton Parkway this week.

The place opened up about six years ago, but I haven't had any reason to come down this way in ages.

I had actually been here many times in the past; I practically lived in the building when I was a teenager—only back then it wasn’t a supermarket; it was the Fortway Theater.

God alone knows how many movies I saw there, but the titles include Batman, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Excalibur, Deliverance, The Omega Man, The Lone Ranger, and, of course, The Exorcist, when I had to pretty much carry my poor traumatized mother up the aisle after the movie ended.

The Fortway was one of four theaters in my neighborhood when I was growing up. There was the Harbor (now a health club); the Dyker (now a Modell’s) and the Alpine, the sole survivor--if you call being subdivided into eight broom closets with paper-thin walls “surviving.”

The Fortway was the cheap place, charging $1 to see second run movies and we always knew that the quicker a film got there, the more likely it was to be a dog.

“It’s at the Fortway already,” was our way saying “this movie must really suck.”

It had quiet a history, though. According to Cinema Treasures, the Fortway opened its doors on October 21, 1927 with a silent film called The Rose of Kildare and four vaudeville acts on stage. It had a Kilgen theater organ and “an atmospheric style interior where electric stars used to twinkle on the dark blue ceiling.”

Unfortunately, I never saw the Fortway in its heyday. By the time the Seventies rolled around, the Fortway looked a lot like New York in the Seventies—rundown, battered, and barely holding on.

To paraphrase my mother on the night she saw The Exorcist, it was a shadow of its former self.

One night while trying to enjoy a movie, I saw a cockroach crawling on the back of the seat in front of me where a young woman was sitting, her boyfriend right beside her.

Cinema Para-sleazio

The roach was getting awfully close to the woman’s neck and, in addition to being grossed out by the bug, I was concerned the disgusting critter would crawl down the girl’s back, causing her to shriek, whereupon the boyfriend would presume I was the culprit and dropkick me clean up into the twinkling electric stars.

Luckily, that did not occur and the creepy little fellow disappeared into the darkness.

“The Fortway is the best advertisement for a VCR that I have ever seen,” I declared at some point in the Eighties.

I guess a lot of other people felt that way, too. The theater was split in three in the Seventies, destroying the electric stars effect, and further divided into a five-screener in 1982.

In June of 2005, the curtain came down for the Fortway and the Great Wall went up two years later. The marquee is still there, the only evidence of the theater’s existence. The supermarket’s clientele is mostly Asian, reflecting the neighborhood’s demographic overhaul.


I walked around the place trying to imagine where the lobby used to be, where the pinball machines had been set up. I pictured the candy counter, where the matrons doled out buckets of stale popcorn and soda in cups the size of wastepaper baskets. It was all gone.

I got angry looking at these people trampling all over my past. Yes, the Fortway was a dump, but it was my dump. I wanted to get on the PA system and shout “Attention, Great Wall shoppers—get the hell out of my theater!”

I felt like Jesus rousting the money-lenders out of the temple. A theater is a sacred place where dreams come to life, where magic becomes real. It’s not some soulless warehouse for peddling Cheerios and toilet paper.

But these people weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just out shopping and probably knew nothing of the building’s history. Movie fans aren't bound by theaters anymore. They can watch films at home, on the subway, or on the toilet if they're so inclined.

My parents used to tell us about buildings and businesses from their childhood that had been torn down or paved over, but I didn’t appreciate what they were talking about back then.

When you’re a kid, there is no was; everything just is and you believe it will always be. Until the day it isn’t and then you're the one giving the nostalgia tours.

During my visit to the Great Wall, I passed by a woman giving out small cups of noodles.

“Is it good?” I asked a little girl standing nearby.

“It’s spicy,” she said.

Indeed it was. And while it could never satisfy my craving for stale popcorn, it wasn’t half bad.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tales from the Scrap Heap


They come out on Sunday nights, just as the sun is setting.

“There they are,” my sister said the other week, “the metal people.”

We were outside our parents’ house and I could see a few people at the end of the block going through garbage cans. They’d have a lot of competition as the evening wore on.

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing people collecting soda cans and bottles so they can get the deposit money. They tend to be elderly Asian women lugging overstuffed trash bags on their shoulders.

There was one lady in particular who used to come around every Sunday night. This was back during my chronic Diet Coke addiction, when I was drinking the vile stuff for breakfast, so she made a small fortune every time she stopped by my house.

I don’t know anything about her, since we didn’t speak each other’s language, but she had a nice smile and she’d always clasp her hands together and bow slightly whenever I gave her some bottles.

She had an eye for the recyclables, that’s for sure. I handed her a bag of soda bottles one time and gestured that there were no more. But she scanned my trashcan anyway and, sure enough, she found a discarded water bottle that I had missed.

I went cold turkey on the diet soda after a major reflux incident and I never saw her again.

Lately, I’ve noticed people of different ages and ethnicities going through the garbage and they’re looking for more than just bottles and cans. They want metal.

Now we’ve been throwing out a lot of metal in the last few months as we clean out the house—battered pots, scratched up frying pans—stuff that we didn’t want to keep and isn’t good enough to donate.

Who Goes There?

Maybe that’s why we’re seeing these folks around our house, but I really think it’s a sign of bad times, of people doing anything they can to get by.

I’m always tempted to speak with these people, but there is the language barrier. And while I would never pass judgment on anyone, I don’t want to embarrass them by asking why they’re doing this.

Yet I’m dying to know their stories. Who buys this stuff from you? How much do you get for it? Do you make enough money to feed your family?

We came out one afternoon to find an Asian couple with a little girl going through the trash. I offered them an old glass bottle, but they politely declined. The girl said “bye-bye” as they left.

Last week we put out our mother’s old ironing board, which she had used for years. I can easily picture her standing in the kitchen and dutifully getting the wrinkles out of our clothes.

It was a little banged up, but still usable. However, it’s more suited to a house than an apartment, so we decided to toss it.

We already had a pile of trash outside the house, so I tried to set up the ironing board so it wouldn't obstruct the sidewalk.
The last thing we needed is some Whiplash Willy to trip in front of our house and haul us into court.

I wasn’t even sure the garbage men would take damn thing, since they can be so picky about junk sometimes.

It disappeared in less than an hour.

Whoever took it didn’t wait for sundown; they scooped up that ironing board in the middle of the day. I hope they get plenty of use out of it.

The Metal People will probably be with us for a long time. Given the current economy, you’d better pray to God that you don’t become one of them.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Runner's World


My sister and I stood on a corner in Brooklyn this morning and watched the world go by.

The New York Marathon made its yearly pass through Bay Ridge on Sunday and you can see people from just about every country on earth competing in the 26-mile race to Central Park.

The marathon is such a fabulous event. It’s like a moving version of the UN General Assembly. We saw competitors from France, Italy, New Zealand, Chile, Denmark, Argentina and Japan, to name a few.

I’ve been going to see the marathon for years and I never get tired of it. There’s nothing quite like watching a seemingly endless stream of humanity stampeding down Fourth Avenue like a herd of Texas longhorns.

It’s looks as if the residents of an entire city have dropped whatever they were doing, strapped on their running shoes, and hit the road.

There's so much going on. Helicopters crisscross the sky; photographs snap pictures, local bands set up and jam right on the sidewalk, and people like me and my sister stand along the route of the marathon cheering the runners on.

The runners move in waves so just when you think everyone has gone by, another pack of perspiring people will come blasting down the street.

Running is certainly tough, but being a fan isn’t a walk in the park either. My hands went numb from constantly clapping and high-fiving runners and I cheered myself hoarse trying to spur them on. We need a training program for fans as well as participants.

Many of the marathoners put their names on their shirts so you can add a personal touch to your cheering.

You’ve never seen these people before and you’ll never see them again, but for a few fleeting seconds you get to bond with them. It feels great to see them smile, or give a thumbs-up before they disappear into the crowd; it’s a stationary version of runner’s high.

All these people, from all these countries and each one has their own story, their own reason for being here.

On Your Marks...

I fell instantly in love with a French woman one year after she blew me a kiss in response to my spirited shout of “Vive le France!” I go back every year hoping I’ll see her again… catch her eye…and get her to slow down for a few goddamn minutes.

Marco, a young man from Italy, was a standout this year. He slapped palms with anybody who had a hand out and worked the crowd like he was running for office instead of the finish line.

Of course some of the runners didn’t hear us as they had I-pods plugged into their ears. Seriously, what is the story with that?

I would think that being in the middle of the New York Freaking Marathon would be plenty of sensory stimulation, that you wouldn’t want to block out the sounds of this incredible event. But then what the hell do I know?

My sister saw one guy texting as he ran and I saw another one talking on his cellphone. I suppose the conversation went along the lines of Hey, you’ll never guess where I'm calling you from…

I’d like to think of the marathon as the antidote to technology, a temporary rejection of all things digital and electronic in favor of the primitive pleasure of running your heart out in an event that dates back to ancient Greece.

My sister and I used to compete in shorter races back when the running craze first started. We even ran in a race that went from Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. It was quite a run, but we were somewhat younger at the time.

The pack of runners finally thinned out to just a few people and the back-up vehicles.

As I watched the stragglers pass by, I once again flirted with the idea of joining them, of finally getting off the sidelines and running with the likes of Marco, my French flame, the I-pod people and all the other mobile life stories that beat a thunderous path around the five boroughs.

I haven’t done it yet, but there’s always next year.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Devil’s Note


It’s Halloween, the perfect time to chase some old ghosts out of my life.

I finally moved all of my stuff out of the family home and now the house where I was raised is scary empty. You can actually hear an echo when you speak or walk around on the wooden floors.

The weather was hideous on Saturday, which seemed strangely appropriate seeing as how we had a monsoon a few months back when I moved to my new place. Apparently the weather gods don't like to see me changing addresses.

Now I’m sitting in my home office surround by more boxes than a FedEx driver and I keep telling myself that I’m going to get this stuff in order and the place will look fabulous when I’m done.

I think if I say it enough times I might even start believing it.

One package that did not make the trip was a box filled with my old diaries. I had been putting off deciding what to do with them for the last few weeks, but now that the clock is winding down to the closing deadline, I had to do something about this stack of marble notebooks.

I’ve been keeping journals fairly regularly since I moved to Pennsylvania 1988. I remember my first night in the Poconos, sitting in my room at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, writing in a journal about what a terrible mistake I had made.

I kept it up when I moved to Connecticut five years later, dubbing my first journal “The Waterbury Tales” after my newest hometown and I’m still doing it today.

Each journal starts out the same. My handwriting is neat, my thoughts are organized, and, since many of them begin on January 1, I put down my resolutions as well.

But the nice penmanship and good attitude usually last just a few weeks before the entries degenerate into unreadable scrawl that even I can’t stand to look at and my mental state takes on a similar appearance.

So do I want to keep these things?

Captain's Slog

Yes, they could provide insight to my past lives, something I could use to mold myself in a better person. On the other hand, it’s just more stuff that’ll take up space in my new apartment.

I settled the issue last week when I started leafing through some of the journals. Good jumping Jesus, was I really that miserable for all that time?

Did I have any fun in my life? Convicts serving life sentences are happier than I am, if my journals are to be taken seriously. My existence could not have been that bad, but clearly my vision of the world was seriously twisted.

I do think keeping a diary or journal is a good idea, but they have to be more than annals of angst and chronicles of complaints. They should be workbooks for your life.

Often you can get identify what’s really troubling you by putting your darkest thoughts down on paper. That’s one way of chasing out the demons—just put your finger down your mind’s throat and stand back.

But then you have to come up with a plan, figure out what you’re going to do next instead of just reporting your crappy circumstances. Okay, we get it. Life sucks and everybody else on the face of the earth is a mouth-breathing imbecile. Now what?

I certainly don’t want to bring these toxic tomes into my new life. I was thinking I could mail them to any of my old Catholic school nuns who might still be above ground.

One look at my atrocious handwriting should be enough to send those miserable old hags sailing through the pearly gates like Evel Knievil jumping over a line of Greyhounds. But I don't know...that sounds a little hostile.

My sister said she might have a journal burning party to get rid of her old diaries. I decided to dump my memoirs into a bucket of water and watch them turn into a pulpy mess. That'll show 'em who's boss.

Now I have a new notebook and I don’t allow myself to write down a negative thought unless I find something positive to balance things out. Maybe a sense of balance is the best thing you can get out of a journal. It’ll drive the ghosts clear out of town.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Palms Away


I got a non-contact palm reading the other night and high-fived the hand of fate.

I had gone to Pret a Manger on Friday in hopes of getting some of their fabulous turkey chili.

The place is a block away from my office, but it took a while to get there because I walked out into the lobby of my building just as a group of demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street came marching down Broadway.

We are the 99 percent!” they chanted. “We are the 99 percent!

I was going to wait until they went by but then I realized that I’m the 99 percent, too, and thus should be out there walking with them, if only for half-a-block. I marched, but to be honest I’m not much of a chanter.

Pret wasn’t serving turkey chili, so I settled for soup and a sandwich and grabbed a table in the back of the room. There were a number of people around me who appeared to be part of OWS.

An older gentleman with a full gray beard stopped as he walked by my table and looked down at me.

“Press?”

“Is it that obvious?” I asked.

“I could tell by your hat,” he told me.

Actually the hat is a giveaway from WQXR, the classical radio station, but the call letters do suggest news media and the guy was right. I am indeed the press.

He told me he was an anthropologist and he was studying the people at OWS. We chatted briefly about the goings on down at Zuccotti Park and then my newfound companion made an odd request.

“Put up your hand.”

I obliged, raising my hand in the old western movie “How” position and waited to hear my fortune.

I don’t really believe you can tell anything from eyeballing the lines in someone’s palm, aside from seeing if they've washed their hands or not. But I’m fascinated by these ancient beliefs, and, well, you never know, right?

But it’s hard for me to discuss palm-reading without thinking about Bela the Gypsy from “The Wolf Man” who, upon seeing a pentagram in a customer’s hand-—that sign that says she's going to be his next victim when he turns into a wolf--promptly gags and boots her out of his tent.

Moments later Bela gets all canis lupus and has her for dinner. If only they had some turkey chili...

And How

Fortunately my palm reader didn’t react in this manner and he skipped the prognostication in favor of some character studying.

“You tend to think too much,” he said, hitting the bull’s eye. “You need to trust your intuition.”

He asked me to turn my hand around, which surprised me because I didn’t know palm readers did the flip side, but I cranked my paw and showed him some knuckles.

“You’re very smart…”

Okay, stop right there. Naturally I love hearing this kind of thing, but I wonder if at any time in the lengthy history of palmistry if anyone ever looked down at a person’s hand and said, “dang, you are one stupid son-of-a-bitch!” Probably not.



My dinner guest, however, hit the target once again.

“…but you have a tendency to use your intelligence as a way of keeping away from people.”

“Well,” I said, “I’m here by myself on a Friday night…”

The timing here is interesting since, among the many books that we’ve come across in our parents’ house, is a tome called “Palmistry For All” by the single-named Cheiro. I don't know how long we've had it or who brought the book into our home, but I think it's a keeper.

Cheiro, a.k.a. William John Warner, was an Irish astrologer and occult figure of the early 20th century who took his nom de palm from the word “cheiromancy,” another term for palmistry.

He read the hands of such notable figures as Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, Mata Hari, Oscar Wilde, Grover Cleveland, and Thomas Edison.

“Everyone knows that ‘the face can wear a mask,’” Cheiro writes in the preface to the American edition of his book, “that a person may be a good actor and put on a certain expression that may deceive even the best judgment. But hands cannot change as the result of a mere effort to please; the character they express is the real nature of the individual—the true character that has been formed by heredity or that has grown up with the person by long years of habit.”

The book is in one of the many boxes I have stacked around my apartment and I predict I will find it…some day.

So I didn’t get the turkey chili, but I got to walk in a demonstration, had a decent bowl of soup, got some good advice from a total stranger, and I wasn't attacked by a werewolf. Hands down, it was a pretty good evening.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Worm and Fuzzy


When you’re trying to remember something, the worst thing you can do is to try to remember it.

I find that when I forget things like movie titles or actors' names—and this is happening more and more as I grow older—the missing information will often pop into my head when I’m busy doing something else.

Like true love or an audit by the IRS, these things always hit you when you’re not looking.

I’ve been breaking this little rule lately as I try to recall an exchange I once had with my mother and predictably I'm getting nowhere fast.

I don’t remember the time or the occasion, but I know I was trying to get a rise out of my dear mother and I succeeded admirably. I remember how angry she got, but I can’t recall what I said.

Her reaction was vivid as she put her hands on her hips like so many Italian ladies do when they’re furious, and snarled—I swear to God—“You worm!”

Yes, you read that right. My mom compared me to a slimy crawling thing that lives in the mud and manure. And I had it coming. This was a premeditated, coldly calculated act of outrageous smart-assery. Was it something I said? Damn straight. Do I remember what it was? Hell, no!

“Mom said that to you?” my sister asked in disbelief when I told her.

“Yes, she did!”

Many people will tell you that their mothers are saints, but my mother really was a saint, an angel, and the sweetest person you ever want to meet.

Hey, she put with me, right? If that isn’t cause for canonization on its own then all twelve apostles can pull off their halos right now and form a celestial Frisbee team.

So for her to respond in that way means that whatever I said must have been a four-alarm, paint-peeling doozy of a snide remark.

Glimmer, Glimmer

This bout of amnesia is so annoying because I can easily call up all sorts of useless stuff, like who played Festus on Gunsmoke (Ken Curtis), but I can’t get a handle on such a very personal encounter.

I know that I was young, in my teens or early twenties, and like many people in that age bracket, I had an answer for everything. There are some people who will tell you that things haven’t changed much in the last four decades but I like to believe that I’ve matured.

My mother was obsessed with keeping us healthy during the winter and she was always chiding me to button up my coat and cover my chest.

But instead of telling me that, mom always said, “Button your chest!”

“My chest doesn’t have buttons,” I’d shoot back without fail. It was a winter tradition with us.

I was leaving the house one soggy morning and my mother called out “watch your feet!” This was mom’s shorthand for “don’t step into puddles and catch your death of cold.”

However, since she said “watch your feet,” that’s exactly what I did. I slowly turned my gaze downward until I was looking at my feet.

“They’re not doing anything,” I said, playing the fool with award-winning skill.

I closed the door when I heard my mother’s exasperated harumpf! and went my wisecracking way.

See, I can remember these idiotic quips, but the big one still eludes me. It’s become my White Worm.

I know that my mom and I joked about this incident for a quite a while after it happened, with me imitating her by standing arms akimbo and shouting “you worm!

Maybe the remark will come back to me one night. I’ll be half asleep, ready to drift off, and the offending sentence will buzz through my brain like Halley’s Comet cruising across the sky.

Or perhaps I’ll be buttoning my chest or watching my feet when the magic happens, and I'll shout, “yes, that’s what I said!”

I know that line is crawling around some dark corner of my head like the ugly little bugger it is and I want to pull it out into the sunshine.

I owe it to mom. And I owe it to Festus.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Kitsch of Death


That didn’t take long.

I’ve been in my new apartment for about two months and I just had my first decorating catastrophe.

I’ve been trying to change. For years I’ve never really bothered to put a personal mark on any of my apartments--mostly because I was living in towns I didn’t like, working at jobs I had grown to hate.

It didn’t seem worth the trouble to make my place homey when I was always dying to find another gig and skip town like an escaped convict busting out of death row.

I’m going to do things differently with the new place. Not only am I only going to keep it neat, but I’m going to put up posters, photographs, and knickknacks to make it look like someone actually lives here. And I’ve got plenty of stuff to choose from since we’ve been cleaning out my family’s house.

One of my favorite items was a wall-clock sized thermometer from Hatfield Quality Meats that had been hanging in our home for several presidential administrations.

This thing is a kitsch classic, emblazoned with the face of a cartoon pig wearing a chef’s hat. It’s a tacky salute to a bygone era when…pigs wore chef hats.

My father was a meat salesman and after getting the thermometer as a freebie, he brought it home and proudly showed it to my mother. He wanted to give the thing a prominent place in the dining room, but my mother took one look at the Hatfield pig and turned in a real McCoy. She banished the temperature-telling porker to the porch wall.

It makes me think of that atrocious leg lamp from "A Christmas Story" that Ralphie’s dad so dearly loved and Ralphie’s mom so thoroughly loathed.

Hog Heaven

However, unlike the leg lamp, the Hatfield thermometer—spoiler alert--wasn’t destroyed under suspicious circumstances. It was doing just fine until I got my hands on it.

We were all set to put the Hatfield hog into the donation pile, but I got this sudden urge to keep it in the family. I actually liked the thing, so I packed it up, brought it to my new place, and hung it over the doorway leading from the kitchen to living room.

All right, I thought, so satisfied with myself, I’m making my mark. Only I didn’t make it for long.

My landlady had given me these sticky hook things for hanging pictures because she doesn’t want me hammering holes into the walls. I thought they could handle Hatfield, but then I came home and found out otherwise.

It was a pretty grisly sight. There was shattered glass all over the kitchen floor and the porcine chef, now uncovered and exposed, look forlornly up to the ceiling.

The only thing missing was a circle of yellow crime scene tape and two detectives from “Law & Order” taking my sobbing statement. It was a case of negligent hamicide and I was the guilty party.

I was so upset I want to go to crying all the way home, wee-wee-wee, but I already was home.

I shot an email to Hatfield Meats asking for their advice, which was really a stealth appeal for a replacement, but an executive wrote back to say that I was “probably one of the few who still have one of the thermometers.”

One of the few? Maybe I should call Indiana Jones.

I was ready to give old Hatfield a proper burial (throw it in the garbage) but my sister encouraged me to contact a local glassmaker to see if I could get a new cover for the thermometer.

So I’ll give him a call and see if I can’t get Hatfield repaired and returned to his rightful place on my wall. It’ll be something to squeal about.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Smokin’ Faces


It’s been eight years since New York’s anti-smoking laws drove cigars, cigarettes and Tiparillos out of the bars and restaurants and sent smokers out into the streets.

You won't hear me complaining. I don’t miss the smoke stench that would take root in your clothing after a night out on the town, or that smoker’s cough you’d get, even though you didn’t smoke, you didn't chew and you didn't go with girls who do (or did).

I grew up when smoking was still acceptable, when cigarette commercials ran on TV, and movie stars didn’t hesitate to light up.

Some of the stranger, more personal, artifacts from that distant era have been turning up in my family’s house in the form of ceramic ashtrays that we made as children.

I had forgotten how my fellow Cub Scouts and I used to make these things for our arts and crafts projects.

Now let’s think about that for a moment: children making ashtrays. Kids were actually aiding a deadly and disgusting addiction by making one of its more important accessories.

My dad used to recite a parody of the Boy Scout oath that went “On my honor, I will do my best to smoke cigars and cigarettes.” Maybe it wasn’t such a parody after all…

We’ve found two of these ashtrays so far. One is the simple coiled clay model that just about every kid made and then there’s the ingenious ceramic house one of my brothers designed.

The idea was that you put your cigarette through one of the windows and the smoke would rise out of the little chimney. I remember my parents--who didn't smoke--marveling at my brother’s ingenuity while visitors to our home complimented his handiwork and made full use of it.

All of that is behind us now. I don’t know what Cub Scouts are making these days, but I would hope ashtrays are off the list.

Full Smoking Jacket

There is, however, one thing I do miss from the Tobacco Age and that’s the smoking jacket. I suppose it’s a little strange to miss something that you never had and was out of style long before you were born, but I miss smoking jackets nonetheless.

Maybe it’s because of all the old movies I saw as a kid, but I associate smoking jackets with class, dignity, intelligence…and money.

Yes, all right, I admit it. The characters wearing smoking jackets in those old flicks weren’t exactly living on Skid Row. They had mansions or palaces, or really cool flats like Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Rathbone often put on his smoking jacket and fired up the old calabash pipe before cracking his toughest cases. (Of course the contents of the pipe might have helped, too, but only Mrs. Hudson knows for sure.)

Smoking jackets were intended to protect the wearer from falling ash and absorb smoke from cigars and pipes, though I suspect your lungs did the yeoman’s work on that count.

A 1902 newspaper editorial declared that smoking jackets were “synonymous with comfort” and Fred Astaire, who sang about putting on his top hat, was so fond of smoking jackets that he was buried in one.

I recently learned that my great Uncle John on my mother’s side of the family had actually owned a smoking jacket factory in Manhattan during the Twenties.

Details are pretty sketchy, but I do know that the business, like countless others, was wiped out by the Great Depression.

People weren’t particularly interested in purchasing silk smoking jackets when the cupboard was bare and the landlord was pounding on the door.

My dad’s father was also in a rather exotic line of work at the time of the stock market crash. Grandpa Lenihan, who had been everything from a barge captain to an honest-to-God cowboy, was cleaning Turkish rugs when the stocks went south. And like great Uncle John, my grandfather saw his enterprise go under.

I thought that smoking jackets had gone the way of straw hats and walking sticks, but they seem to be on the comeback trail.

While wasting my time on Facebook, which, of course, is redundant, I came across an ad for an actual smoking jacket. It goes for $195, which I’m sure is a hell of a lot more than what ancestor charged, but that’s inflation for you.

But it’s kind of interesting. Great Uncle John had a smoking jacket factory just before the stock market crashed. So is the return of the smoking jacket a portent of another financial meltdown? Will we be ground out in the ashtray of fate while we're heedlessly puffing away?

Let’s hope not. But just in case, I think I’ll treat myself to a smoking jacket and a Turkish rug. If we’re going to hell, we might as well go in style.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Tao of Ow


It’s officially autumn in this part of the world and while I loathe the coming cold weather, I’m not sorry to close the door on the Summer of ‘11.

My life took a bad hop back in July, when I had to drop out of my beloved boxing class due to extenuating—and excruciating—circumstances in the form of a bulging disc.

An MRI revealed that I have a mild case of arthritis in my back.

It was a bit of a shock. I mean, arthritis…me? C’mon, old people have arthritis; I’m strong, fit, in the prime of life…sort of…I can’t get arthritis.

Except that I can. My doctor said this is a degenerative condition, that he can treat the symptoms, but not the disease, and promptly packed me off to a sports medicine facility for physical therapy. The head trainer seems positive about my recovery.

I’ve gone to two sessions so far and I’m following the home exercise program the trainers have given me. At least it’s some kind of workout, even if it’s mostly stretching.

I also get to see people who are in much worse shape than I am trying to get their bodies—and their lives—back together.

The rehab’s radio dial has apparently been Krazy Glued to a classic rock station and I’ve been hearing songs by Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, and other Jurassic rock stars.

The other night I was trying to extend my shockingly tight calves to the tune of “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks, a band whose name seems rather appropriate given my current situation.

Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star, and everybody’s in the movies, it doesn’t matter who they are…

But being unable to work out like a lunatic the way I used to is driving me batty. Doctors recommend regular exercise as a treatment for everything from diabetes to depression and what’s the one thing I can’t do? Yep…

I always knew I wouldn’t be able to do the boxing class forever, that some day I’d be so goddamn old I wouldn’t be able to put the gloves on let alone do the workout.

Time For You To Leave


When that time came, I had planned to shift over to my Tai Chi phase and replace the beastliness of boxing with the gentle movements of the ancient Chinese martial art. I just hadn’t planned on doing it so soon.

But since boxing’s off the menu for the foreseeable future, I decided to take a free beginner’s Tai Chi class last week at a place on Dean Street.

I had a good time. We did five moves of this lengthy form and it felt strange, but I was getting into it.

The people were nice—there were no Karate Kid loons running around smashing cinder blocks and screaming that their hands were deadly weapons. The instructors here try to help you.

Tai Chi has been described as moving meditation and I can see why. You have to be in the present moment if you want to do the forms correctly.

I’m always worried about the future or stewing over the past, so I found I really had to change my way of thinking to keep up with the class.

At the end of the night I felt a nice pull in my lower back as if things were loosening up down there. Great, I thought, I sign up for a month’s classes and see what happens.

I was thinking that this could be the start of a whole new life for me. Instead of a wheezing Rocky Balboa wannabe, I would become Shaolin Rob, speaking softly, living on rice and vegetables, riding the subways in a lotus position and levitating up to my office instead of taking the elevator.

Hell, I already have the shaved head. It’s time to get in touch with my inner Kwai Chang.

First I thought I should run it by my trainer. I was sure he’d have no problem with me doing these simple routines. And I was wrong.

“Not yet,” he said. “You have to wait a little longer.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I’m too fragile for Tai Chi? I see 80-year-old Chinese ladies doing these routines in every park in town, but I can’t join them? If not Tai Chi, what the hell can I do—basket weaving?

I was tempted to ignore my trainer and take the class anyway, but I don’t want to do myself any more damage. He’s also twice my size and it wouldn't be smart to piss him off. A guy who specializes in pain management could probably manage to inflict a lot of pain if you rubbed him the wrong way.

Yes, I wish my life were a non-stop Hollywood movie show because celluloid heroes never feel any pain—but I sure as hell do.

I’ll do what my trainer tells me to do and stay away from boxing and Tai Chi until he gives me the thumbs up.

In the meantime, does anyone need a basket?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let There Be Drums


I complain about the subways a lot, but some nights you can feel like you're inside a rolling concert hall.

There are mariachi bands, rappers, gospel singers, and nostalgia acts and many of these people are quite talented. And all it costs is the subway fare and whatever you feel like giving a particular performer.

You get the occasional clunker, like the guy I saw at the W.72nd Street C station one night who did such a horrific job with “Unchained Melody” that he should have been hauled off in irons.

A tourist actually took this loser’s picture, though there’s no way you could capture that hideous noise in a photo. And if you could, you’d be clawing your eyes out as soon as you saw it.

One night I heard the sound of no less than five different drummers as I rode uptown and then home to Brooklyn.

First a couple of guys got on board the northbound No. 2 train with large African drums and proceeded to rock the house. I was annoyed at first, since I was tired after a long day at work and I wanted some (relative) quite. But these guys were good.

Outside I crossed paths with a deranged man who was screaming “Never Can Say Goodbye” at that top of his lungs as he fished for change out of parking meters. He wasn’t on the subway, so technically he doesn’t count, but I just felt like sharing this little acoustic nightmare.

He took a break from his change diving to yell out a string of obscenities at persons real or imagined before pouncing back on that poor song that has been done so well by Michael Jackson, Gloria Gaynor and Isaac Hayes.

You can say goodbye, I thought. You can say goodbye right now and no one would ever miss you.

I did my usual the-nuts-always-find-me lament, but then I decided to get off that schtick. Obviously the guy was not right in the head and if this is what he has to do to get attention then you should probably feel sorry for him.

On the way home, I was waiting at Columbus Circle for the D train when two guys on the uptown platform wailed away on some overturned plastic buckets. They were good, too, but I was hungry and a little grumpy (shocking, no?) so I was glad when that train pulled into the station.

Watch the Closing Doors

At 34th Street the doors opened and there was guy sitting on the platform with a full drum set playing to beat the band--if there had been a band to beat. And, once again, he was very talented.

It was strange-- I felt that instead of moving, the train was sitting still and the world was turning for us, displaying different musicians. Of course I hadn’t eaten in a while.

At 36th Street in Brooklyn, I was overjoyed to see the R train sitting across the platform just waiting for me to jump on board. But then the train pulled out of the station and I started cursing like the “Never Can Say Goodbye” guy, only without the singing.

While I waited for another local I caught sight of sign taped just over the third rail. It said “Test Site. Nano Insulators.”

I have no idea what that means, but I suspect it has something to do with large and lethal amounts of electricity. I hear a lot about the third rail of politics, but nothing beats the real thing when it comes to delivering the fatal goods.

And I do like that sign. It sounds like a band: Test Site and the Nano Insulators. They’ve got a wicked drummer.

I caught the N train and crossed my fingers that we’d overtake that loco local and found I was sharing the car with a man who was afflicted with a seriously bad cough.

Now I am fairly kind person. Not a candidate for a sainthood, perhaps, but I do have compassion for my fellow human beings.

However, I am also a Metrocard-carrying hypochondriac so when I’m trapped inside a moving metal box with an ill person I shift from “We’re all God’s Children” to “Every man for himself!” faster than a speeding contagion.

I was ready to pound on the door like a berserk bongo drummer, but fortunately the train pulled into 59th Street and I blasted out onto the platform. Naturally I missed the local and it was only then did I think about that man on the N train.

Perhaps he couldn’t stay home because he feared being fired. Maybe he couldn’t afford to go a doctor; maybe he didn’t have health coverage. I felt pretty ashamed of myself. But shame isn’t productive so I just sent good wishes his way and waited for the local.

There were no musicians on this train—nobody was even humming along with their Ipods. But I felt okay. I had the music in me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You Will Know That I Am Gone


In the weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, WNYC and WQXR, the local public radio stations, asked listeners what they wanted to hear as they thought about the attacks and the events that followed.

I meant to contact them and make my own suggestion. I kept telling myself to do it, seriously, dude, don’t forget to do this or you’ll be very sorry.

However, like a lot of others things in my life, I never got around to doing it.

I find this especially irritating given that one of the many important lessons that came out of 9/11 was that we should do things now and not put them off until later—because there may not be a later.

But I ignored that lesson and so on Sunday I listened to other people’s musical choices, while my own played only in my mind.

For the record, the song I wanted to hear was the old folk tune “500 Miles.” Credited to Hedy West and copyrighted in 1961, the song is a mournful ballad about a traveler who is broke, far from home, and ashamed to go back.

I always associate this song with Peter, Paul and Mary, since I grew up listening to their version of it. There’s something so haunting about Mary Travers’s voice that goes right through my heart every time I hear it.

The song has been recorded by scores of performers over the years, including Sonny & Cher, Jackie DeShannon, Bobby Bare, Elvis Presley, and, yes, even Jim Nabors, who sang it during an episode of Gomer Pyle that I somehow managed to miss.

The song is about loss and missed opportunities and the opening is deceptively powerful.

If you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone, you can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles…”

“500 Miles” has taken on a special meaning for me since 9/11. Shortly after the attacks, Goldman Sachs, my then-employer, relocated me and all of the other staffers who had been working at Liberty Plaza, which was across the street from the Trade Center, to its property on Water Street.

The change put a little distance between the ruins and me and got me one R train stop closer to home. I was also near Battery Park and I often went there during my lunch break.

A Walk in the Park

One day as I walked through the park I was shocked to see that The Sphere, the metallic sculpture that had once stood in the Trade Center’s plaza, had somehow survived the attacks and had been relocated to the park.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t think anything could have escaped the collapse of the towers, particularly a piece of artwork.

Created by German sculptor Fritz Koenig, The Sphere is 25 feet high and cast in 52 bronze segments.

It had been placed at the center of a ring of fountains designed by trade center architect Minoru Yamasaki to mimic the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

The Sphere stood at the place of the Kaaba, described as the most sacred site in Islam. And to think that it was all destroyed by Islamic extremists...

Six months after the attacks, the sculpture had been relocated to Battery Park and rededicated with an eternal flame.

As I stared at The Sphere, I could hear someone somewhere in the park playing “500 Miles” on the guitar. I didn’t look to see who it was; I don’t think I wanted to know. I just wanted this slow, somber tune to be the soundtrack for my discovery.

Of course the song was written decades before 9/11 and has absolutely nothing to do with the attacks, but the idea of losing someone, of knowing that they’re getting farther and farther away from you, seemed painfully appropriate in a city that had lost so many thousands of its people.

Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four, Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.”

When I hear this song now I think about the victims’ friends and families who never got the chance to see their loved ones again.

“The artwork was meant to symbolize world peace through world trade,” according to Wikipedia.

We all know how well that worked out. But The Sphere still managed to survive that horrific day and, as the plaque near the sculpture says, it “endures as an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.”

The Sphere should serve as a reminder for us to keep striving for peace and to never let it slip away like a train leaving the station.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fall and Rise


I walked out of my building at lunchtime one day last week and saw two Buddhist monks crawling on the ground.

They were robed and barefoot, right there on Broadway, and I watched them stand up, raise their hands to the sky in prayer, and then get back down on the pavement to start all over again. A woman I assumed was a nun followed closely behind them.

They didn’t make a sound, didn’t look left or right, they just kept on going, very slowly and steadily.

It was a strange sight, even for New York and people walking down the street stopped to look and take pictures. This ceremony clearly had something to do with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but I'm not sure what.

Ground Zero is right around the corner, so they must have been honoring the thousands of people who were lost on that day.

This may sound strange, but I actually felt a bit of hostility toward these people as I watched them scuttle along the cement.

Seriously, what was the point of this abuse? How are these monks any different from the other religious nutbags I mock and condemn on a daily basis? Let's not forget that the slaughter on 9/11 was perpetrated by psychopaths who thought they were doing God’s work.

“They’re full of shit, too,” I muttered toward the crawling contingent.

I know, I know--shame on me.

It’s so hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since I stood across the street from the World Trade Center watching the North Tower burn. Ten years since a second plane struck the South Tower and sent a sheet of orange flame rolling across Church Street. Ten years since we all ran up Liberty Street on a sidewalk that suddenly felt like a hellish treadmill as we desperately tried to get away.

It's been ten whole years since I sought refuge in a seniors home on Water Street while the earth was covered in the toxic cloud created by the towers’ collapse and ten years since I joined the crowd of survivors hiking over the Manhattan Bridge while fighter jets streaked over our heads.

My father turned 80 on that day; my mother was in the hospital fighting a losing battle against lung disease and she was moved out of the ICU in Lutheran Medical Center to make room for the expected wave of victims that never came.

On 9/11, either you got out or you didn’t.

Where Does the Time Go?

My mother died in July of 2002 and my father left this world in January of 2007. We’re about to sell our parents’ house and we’re busy cleaning out every trace of our family’s history from the property.

I thought about going to the ceremony at Ground Zero today, but I was just too tired and I wound up watching it on television. I sent my yearly email to a woman I met in that seniors residence and whom I escorted to the Atlantic Avenue LIRR station after the dust finally settled.

On Friday I went to an exhibition of 9/11 photographs called “Here is New York” that had been set up in the lobby of my building.

The images of the smoldering rubble, horrified spectators, and courageous rescue crews brought back everything from that day except the godawful smell, which hung in the air for weeks after the attacks.

I think of how Americans all came together back then, supported each other, wept and prayed, and it makes me heartsick to see how, in such a relatively short time, the country has degenerated into a nearly ungovernable free-fire zone, its people more divided than at any other period in my lifetime.

September 11 has been used as an excuse to start a disastrous war, create a string of bogus charities, and drum up business for an online gold peddling company.

It’s difficult not to believe that we’ve learned absolutely nothing from the events of 10 years ago. We live in a country where a major political party’s presidential candidates say—with straight faces, mind you—that God told them to run for the nation’s highest office.

They’re not interested in the power or the money; no, they’re just obeying the will of the Almighty. Think about that the next time you feel like mocking the crazy Muslims.

On Friday night I walked over to the Brook Brothers store on Church Street where I was standing when the second plane hit the South Tower. I moved around a little bit until I was convinced that I had found it, the exact place where I watched history unfold.

I wanted to grab somebody, anybody, a guy heading home, a family of tourists, and say, here, look, I stood on this very spot on September 11, 2001. Aren't you impressed?

I managed to calm down and enjoy the moment privately. And as I looked at the new towers reaching up toward the clouds, I suddenly felt that the Buddhists had the right idea. They weren’t performing some bizarre ritual on Broadway; they were doing the most intelligent thing imaginable when faced with the nightmare of 9/11.

And I thought they shouldn’t be doing it alone. We should all join them; every one of us should get down on our bellies, crawl on the ground like animals, and then stand and pray up toward the sky.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Green-Eyed Driver


“Envy's a coal comes hissing hot from Hell.” -- Philip James Bailey

I caught sight of the helicopter flying a few blocks ahead of me and I floored the pedal. I was going to catch this bastard no matter what.

It was late and I was blindly driving into some roughneck part of town filled with crumbling warehouses, burnt-out factories, and pitch black alleyways.

As I pulled up to a red light, a freight train came rumbling out of the darkness just a few feet from the roadway. I had no idea what I was going to do when and if I caught up with that helicopter, but then it wasn't really a night for ideas--or rational thought.

But, wait, there’s something wrong here.

I don’t own a car. This neighbor is a little too weird-—it kind of looks like the old Industrial City down by the waterfront, but it kind of doesn’t. It's familiar territory, but it has a Blade Runner twist. And I don't chase helicopters for any reason whatsoever.

Okay, now I get it. None of this is real. It’s actually yet another of my loopy nightmare-dream-delusions that strike me without warning or anything resembling logic.

In this latest hallucination, I had seen this massive helicopter rumbling overhead and I noticed it was dangling a large poster announcing the debut of a new anchor for a network news program.

The anchorman was a former colleague of mine whom I had worked with at a newspaper many years ago. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I always thought he was a decent guy.

But in this dream he had committed the one, hideous unpardonable sin for which there can no atonement whatsoever.

He was more successful than I was.

Down These Mean Streets

Now a normal person might feel happy when a former coworker makes good. He would congratulate his old buddy, maybe drop him a line and wish him all the best on his new gig.

Yes, that’s what a normal person would do. But we’re talking about me, remember?

I started to get all sorts of mad dog angry. How could that stiff possibly get such a big time network job? I whined as I roared through the streets of Freak Town determined to catch that chopper. I’d smarter, better-looking, more talented than that loser will ever be. I should have the goddamn anchorman job, not him.

I lost sight of the helicopter—and my mind--just as I reached the traffic light. I was trying to decide my next move when this huge car came driving from the opposite direction, crossed over the dividing line, and came much too close to my ride.

“Join us,” this gang-banger in shades said from behind the wheel of the invading auto. “Join us or we’ll cut you.”

Join you? Cut me? What was this lunatic talking about? And how can he drive at night with sunglasses on?

I had about two seconds to ponder these scintillating questions when a guy with a tire iron leaned out of the rear window and began pounding the living beejeezus out of my car.

I don’t recall much after that and I’m not complaining. If the rest of the dream was anything like the stuff I can remember, I’d much rather forget it.

And now the moral of our story. This dream clearly was a warning about the dangers of envy. My obsession with somebody else’s success had caused me to abandon all sense of caution, drove me into some extremely dangerous territory, and brought me on a collision course with the Psycho Twins.

Envy really is the green-eyed monster, taking a wicked toll on your time, energy, and brain cells. It can cost you a good night’s sleep.

And it’s pretty tough on your car, too.