Sunday, August 28, 2011

All Clear

I was almost done removing the tape from the windows this afternoon when the wind started up again.

Trees were bending, dark ugly clouds tumbled through the sky, and I thought, here we go...

Hurricane Irene had been busted down to a tropical storm and was heading off to New England with her head hanging low.

But, of course, now that I had removed the protective tape from my windows, she would make a bloodthirsty U-turn and come roaring down my block shrieking “I ain’t done with you yet, skinhead!

All right, so maybe I’m a little oversensitive, but it’s been rough couple of days.

I was trying not to worry about the storm, but it seemed like every five minutes we were getting reports of Irene’s destructive progress as she stomped her way up the East Coast.

Friends from all over the Internet wished me well, including one in Florida, which was kind of spooky since I always thought of the Sunshine State as a hurricane haven. If a Floridian is worried about you making it through a hurricane, you know you’ve got trouble.

We had a tense night with pounding rain, mandatory evacuations, and tornado warnings. I was getting pretty worked up until I finally decided that it was all in God’s hands and sat done to view the UFC fights on Spike.

There’s nothing like watching a bunch of heavily tattooed men pounding each other senseless in a cage to take your mind off a killer storm.

New York seems to have been spared any serious damage, but the latest news reports are blaming Irene for at least 21 deaths.

The victims included a man who was killed in a fire in Prospect, CT, which is just a short ride from my old place in Waterbury and another man who was killed in the Poconos, where I lived for five years, after a tree fell on him. Police said the man pushed his son clear of the falling tree, but could not get out of the way himself.

Live From Armageddon

The storm coverage was nonstop, of course, and it included lots of live scenes of reporters standing in middle of the hurricane and yelling over the storm that the wind was very strong. Yes, and in other news, water is wet.

Honestly, I’m in favor of melodramatic video footage as much as the next shameless news hack, but this is getting a little tedious.

There was a time when if you wanted to say someone wasn’t too bright, you’d declare that “he’s doesn’t know enough to come in from out of the rain.”

Apparently not coming in from out of a hurricane makes you a journalist.

One Fox reporter in D.C. really got dumped on when he was showered by raw sewage. Better him than me.

Years ago I recall seeing Dan Rather clinging to a palm tree and yelling into his microphone as he covered a hurricane.

I could barely make out what he was saying so I switched over to Tom Brokaw, who sat in a studio and reported on the very same storm. He looked warm, safe, and sane.

Okay, so Hurricane Irene didn’t come back to level my house. I’m glad that very long night is finally over and my heart goes out to those who lost loved ones.

And I’m especially thankful for all the support I received from my friends. They held me together better than any tape ever could.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Mighty Wind

So when does the lava start flowing?

I’m sitting here in my family’s nearly empty house waiting for Hurricane Irene to show up and raise all kinds of hell and high water.

The storm is supposed to make landfall in North Carolina early Saturday morning and then churn its way up the East Coast and hit our fair city tomorrow night.

The Alpine Theater on Fifth Avenue has removed all the lettering on its marquee, the oil delivery company on the corner has taped up its windows, and my local grocery store was crammed with anxious shoppers stocking up on food and water. (I was one of them.)

I still can’t believe it--a hurricane coming to New York. It’s the kind of thing that I read about happening in other places, not in my hometown. I mean, they're closing the subways--the subways!--and there's talk of mandatory evacuations.

I got a good look at the destructive power of hurricanes when I went to Florida in 1992 to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew for the Pocono Record. It was like an atomic bomb hit the place.

But a hurricane bearing down on New York? C'mon, that’s about as unlikely as an earthquake rocking the city.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, we had one of those, too. Just a few freaking days ago…

I haven’t gotten over that little incident, where I was sitting at my desk Tuesday afternoon and I felt this wave of energy come up from below and roll right through my chair. I tried to ignore it, told myself I was imagining things, but then I heard my co-workers all round me asking “what was that?”

When I went down to the lobby of my office building the people in the upper floors were streaming out of the elevators and going the hell home. It wasn’t easy getting back into the elevator and returning to the sixth floor.

The Hour and the Day

But I figured at least we were done with bizarre occurrences for a while…until I heard about Irene.

Irene hasn’t even gotten here yet and already I’m fed up. We want to sell our parents’ home and all of a sudden all kinds of natural disasters are heading our way. What next? Locusts? Frogs falling from the sky? Maybe Godzilla will swim over from Japan and breathe radioactive halitosis all over Bay Ridge.

I was going to skip church this afternoon because I’m so tired with all the packing and moving and this goddamn leg of mine that refuses to get better. But then I reasoned that when you’re looking down the barrel of a hurricane now is not the time to lose your religion.

The gospel reading at Trinity was “The Parable of the Ten Virgins” from Matthew, which ends with the line “therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

The hymn of the day was “Peace Like A River.”

When I got out of work this evening, a homeless man was sitting outside St. Paul’s Chapel holding a sign that read “No home, no job, have fun.”

“It’s all bullshit,” he shouted at a woman walking down Broadway. “Nothing’s going to happen on Sunday.”

“I like the way you think, brother,” I said, as I dropped a handful of coins into his cup.

“You have fun,” he told me.

I shall do my level best, given the circumstances. One block away some ranting loon with a portable speaker system was haranguing weary commuters about the power of God.

“The earthquake wasn’t enough,” he said through a mouthful of static. “God is real!”

Yes, and, unfortunately, so are you. I probably could have paid the homeless guy to hit this loser with his sign, but that wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do. It would have been fun, though.

So now we’re doing this strange dance of going on with our normal lives while waiting for the catastrophe to smack us upside the head.

I hope the weather people are wrong and that Irene loses power, blows out to sea, becomes nothing but a joke on Twitter and a one-day punch line on late night TV, and that we all have peace like a river.

That’s what I hope. But until then, we have to keep watch…

Monday, August 22, 2011

'All Will Fall Into Place'

I never thought I’d be able to walk from one end of our basement to the other in a straight line, but the day has finally come.

That probably doesn’t sound like big news, but if you had ever seen the basement of my family’s house, you’d probably be as stunned as I am right now.

Our basement had been something of a garbage dump for as far back as I can remember, filled with old refrigerators, furniture, books, toys, and boxes, boxes, boxes.

In fact, other than the Arc of the Covenant and Jimmy Hoffa’s mortal remains, it’s hard to imagine what wasn’t down there.

We recently hired a crew of extremely capable contractors to come in and haul all the stuff out. Sergio, the head man, took time to show us old photographs, papers and other items he thought might be valuable to us, but pretty much everything else got the heave-ho.

When the crew drove off the first day, I said to my sister “thank God there are guys like them to do jobs like this.”

These men don’t sit behind keyboards or crunch numbers or yak about gigabytes all day long. They roll up their sleeves and work.

It was eerie walking around that nearly empty basement. The barren space really underscored the fact that we won’t own the house much longer.

There were still some bits of the past hanging around. I saw the battered box of the old Green Ghost game that we were so crazy about when we were kids. Sergio found Creeple People, a toy where you made the heads and limbs of troll-like creatures and put them on pencils.

There was a single plastic toy soldier, the remains of a game where you knocked them over with a cork fired from a little cannon. I forget the name of the thing, but I do remember having fun nailing those soldiers. It was a simpler time.

Message From The Past

As I looked around the basement, I saw an old birthday card on the floor. It was stained and filthy, but I could just make out an image of a bunch of grapes on the front, the one in the center sporting shades and a smiley face.

The card was addressed to me and it was from my parents—Mom was the one who actually picked and signed the cards--and it read “When it comes to sons, you’re the best of the bunch.”

I can only guess how old this card is, how many years it had sat forgotten in some dark corner of the basement.

At first, I didn’t think it was terribly different from the scores of other cards we’ve found until I looked on the inside flap and saw a note from my mother.

Dear Rob,” she wrote, “I have faith in you and you will succeed. Just be patient. I have enclosed information on St. Martin. Pray to him and all will fall into place.”

Do I have to even mention that I started sobbing when I read this? No, I didn’t think so.

St. Martin de Porres was very important to my grandmother and I took Martin as my confirmation name in the fifth grade, the year she died.

I remember walking home from school with my mother one day and she started to cry as she told me how happy she was that I was taking St. Martin’s name.

I was a little embarrassed at seeing her cry, but I was a child and back then I had no idea how incredibly painful it is to lose your mother.

Years later, when my mom died, we had the funeral director put St. Martin’s image on her prayer card.

I’ve been struggling over what items I should keep from our house and what I should throw away, but part of me believes that if I walked away from our home with just that battered birthday card and the clothes on my back, I’d have everything I need.

The line about falling into place is so important at this time of my life because right now it feels like everything is up in the air. My sister said it was my fate to find this card and I’m not going to argue.

What’s even more amazing is that St. Martin is often depicted holding a broom because he believed all work to be sacred, no matter how menial.

I wish we had taken a broom to our basement decades ago so we could have used it for something more than a subterranean junkyard.

I think we all just assumed that the space would never be cleaned because it had always been in that hideous condition and, thus, always would be.

That’s a dangerous way to think because you wind up accepting a lot of bad things in your life merely because that’s the way they’ve always been.

You can’t allow junk to pile up in your house or in your mind. Trash should be thrown out the door at the first opportunity and toxic thoughts should get the same treatment.

If negative thinking starts to overwhelm you, say a prayer, then roll up your sleeves, grab a broom, and start sweeping. You’ll be doing sacred work.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

If You’re Still Alive…

Who is Jeffrey Meyer and why is saying those terrible things about me?

It seems that Mr. Meyer, whom I have never met, is telling people on the other side of the globe that I am no longer amongst the living.

I know I don't have the most active social life in the world, but I think putting me on the DOA list is a little harsh.

Michael Williams, the director of the Bank of Africa, that venerable financial institution, sent me an email wanting to know if I had authorized Mr. Jeffrey Meyer of West Virginia to claim funds of $500,000 “because he informed us that you were involved in a fatal car accident.”

He informed you of that? Funny, Mr. Jeffrey Meyer never informed me. Hell, it was the least he could have done since he wants all that dough. I wonder how it happened.

The inheritance funds had been used to open an online account for me at Bank of Africa by the United Nations Compensation Unit, which we all know and love.

“So if you are still alive," Mr. Williams wrote, "please kindly get back to us so that we will not be making any mistake as we are about sending him your user name and password to logon to your online account with Bank of Africa.”

If I’m still alive? I’ve been feeling a little run down lately, but I’m pretty certain I’m still breathing. And if I’m not, it may take me a little longer to get back to you.

Now I could probably use $500,000 as much as the next person, but I’m a little suspicious of this deal.

I mean, seriously--West Virginia? Bank of Africa? Mr. Williams, could you be a little more precise? West Virginia’s a pretty big place and I believe Africa is even bigger.

“The reason why your funds were delayed last time was because you did not provide the requested documents,” Mr. Williams wrote, “To confirm that you are still alive and you are ready to transfer your funds through our online banking transfer, get back to us with the details as required below for confirmation.”

Cash or Check?

There was a last time? I thought this was the first time.

I have to be honest here: I was reluctant to write about this email at all since it mentions death and I am so incredibly superstitious.

That’s not too surprising, I guess, given that I’m Irish and Italian. I believe in leprechauns and the evil eye, and on really bad days, when I’m not sure if I’m still alive, I believe in leprechauns who give the evil eye, which are the very worst kind.

I’m so superstitious that I actually created my own irrational belief when I was a teen-ager.

I had gotten into the habit of taking the second newspaper from the stack at newsstands for the perfectly logical reason that the top one was usually pretty tattered by cheapskates who pawed the front page but didn’t bother to buy the damn paper. (This was back when people still read newspapers instead of computer screens.)

However, as time went on, I found myself avoiding the top newspaper on the stack because—I told myself--it was bad luck. Somehow bad things would befall me if I took the first paper.

Where did that come from? I can’t blame Jeffrey Meyer for that one. Superstitions can usually be traced back to something people fear or misunderstand.

In my case, I think I was trying to create some feeling of power against all the bad things in the world—like fatal car accidents.

If I take the second newspaper, I thought, I’ll get a booster shot of luck that will protect me from all the Jeffrey Meyers in the world.

I didn’t answer the Bank of Africa’s email. If Michael Williams wants to take Jeffrey Meyer’s word over mine, then I don’t want to do business with his bank.

However, he is free to send me that half-million bucks, which I’ll put to very good use—if I’m still alive.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Everything Must Go

In 1997, I moved back to Brooklyn from Waterbury, CT, to take a job at a trade magazine in New York.

My plan was to stay at my parents’ house for a few months and then get an apartment, preferably in Manhattan.

Things didn’t work out that way. I could make all sorts of excuses as to why I didn't move—my career difficulties, my parents’ illnesses—but that’s just what they are—excuses. And I’ve had a bellyful of those.

Both of my parents are gone now, our two-family home is empty except for me, and I’m finally, finally, moving on.

It’s not Manhattan, L.A., the left bank of Paris, Park Slope or any of the other exotic places I’ve dreamed about. No, I’m still in Bay Ridge.

I’ve found a very nice apartment just a block away from Shore Road. It’s a longer walk to the subway, but it’ll be worth it for all the space I’m getting. The express bus stop is just around the corner if I feel like treating myself and with this bum leg of mine that’s not such a bad idea.

I was hoping to move a long way from New York to some place much warmer, instead of six blocks away from my parents’ house. But that’s not going to happen, at least not yet.

I know that I’m luckier than a lot of other people in that I have a roof over my head and a steady paycheck. In this nose-diving economy I consider myself pretty fortunate.

So I’ve got to clear out of here and make way for the new owner, which means everything of mine has to be packed up, given away or thrown out.

This is going to be tough because I’ve always used my parents’ house as a kind of a storeroom. I kept my foot on home plate, subconsciously believing I could always go back there. Reality has finally caught up with me and now everything must go—including me.

Moving is so stressful, weighing hard on the body and the mind. It can be painful looking around at all the boxes that make up your life and wondering, this is it?

Boxing Day

I came home from work one night last week and my little buddy Ben, the four-year-old who lives next door to me, ran up the block towards me shouting “Robert, Robert!” He was so excited to see me.

Too bad you never had a family of your own, my dark self said, then you could have this kind of welcome every night.

But there’s no point in abusive thinking. I can only deal with what I have now.

The clean up of our house has turned up so many incredible finds. We’ve come across stacks of arts and crafts books, a reminder of my mother’s love for such projects, and one book is appropriately titled “Don’t Throw It Away!” Mom sure took that to heart.

I’m finding birthday and holiday cards from my parents and other family members that are years old. It’s fabulous watching how my nieces matured, with their awkward child’s scrawl slowly being replaced by fine adult penmanship.

Do I keep all these cards? It seems wrong to throw away messages from parents even if it’s just “Love, Mom and Dad.” But where do I put them?

And what about my high school yearbook? I hated high school, hated myself in high school and wouldn’t go back to that life for a stack of gold bullion the size of the Chrysler Building. But throwing it out…?

There’s one item I know I’ll be keeping. It’s a little envelope from the now-defunct Lincoln Savings Bank that my sister and I found in our parents’ closet.

“Roberta Curls?” my sister said, reading what I’m sure is my mother’s handwritten note. “Who’s Roberta Curls?”

But then we looked a little closer and saw the note actually said “Robert’s Curls” and was dated July 1, 1959, just two years after my birth.

We opened the envelope and out came locks of beautiful brown baby hair that once adorned my now hairless head. Where are you now that I need you?

I’ve said this before, but there are times when we feel like archeologists, only instead of searching ancient ruins, my sister and I are digging through our family’s past.

But I have to deal with the future. I vow that my new digs will be a real home, not the debris-laden bachelor hovels that my other apartments were. It’s going to be a refuge from the outside world, not a hellhole that recreates that dilapidated condition of my mind.

This apartment will be a proper place for me and Roberta Curls.