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.