Monday, January 31, 2011

Squirreled Away


I was riding home on the R train the other night when a man came walking through my car playing “Quando, Quando, Quando” on the trumpet.

He was doing a pretty good job and I was impressed by the way he pushed his beat box with one hand and blew his horn with the other. I tossed him a dollar as he went by.

“Quando” means “when” in Italian and that seems like a fair question to ask at this time of the year, as in “when, when, when will this goddamn winter be over?”

There’s snow all around me. I’ve spent so much money on that de-icing crap I should buy stock in the company. I can’t step foot out of the house without putting on the parka and strapping on these Frankenstein clodhopper boots.

But then I’m hardly going out at all thanks to this hideous weather. Thank God for Netflix.

And now another storm is on the way…

These never-ending blizzards remind me of a story my father told us about a particularly harsh winter he experienced when he was a young man.

My father, who lived in Upper Manhattan, became concerned about the condition of the squirrels in Central Park. Yes, that’s right, the squirrels.

My dad was worried that the squirrels would be starving, given the rotten weather and cold temperatures. While I think that was very noble of him, I have to confess I’ve never given the squirrels much thought.

It’s nothing personal; it just that I always assumed that the squirrels manage somehow. You hear a lot of complaints about New York, but I’ve never heard anyone say, “hey, we’re running low on squirrels.”

My father was always trying to help someone, though; usually a total stranger and often someone who didn’t deserve or appreciate any help.

One time he gave a man a lift from New Jersey to Brooklyn. The man was Hispanic and when my father stopped the car to go into a store, he left the keys in the ignition to show that he wasn’t bigoted. And the guy promptly stole his car.

The car was a clunker and we were well rid of it. In fact, I was out driving with him a short time later and I pointed to a car in the next lane that looked a lot like the stolen one.

“Be quiet,” he said, “the guy might try to give it back.”

Yeah, so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that my father wanted to help the furry little guys out. So one day he loaded up his pockets with nuts and chocolate bars and marched into the frozen wasteland of Central Park.

He found the squirrels, all right. Or rather they found him. It turned out that he was right; the squirrels were indeed very hungry. They were so hungry that scores of the ravenous critters came charging out of every corner of the park and headed straight for my father.

They ran up his arms and legs, tore into his pockets and bit him repeatedly in their desperate attempt to get at the goodies. They weren’t polite; they didn't line up in orderly fashion and say “please.” They just attacked.

“At one point,” my father said, “I looked up over a hill and saw even more squirrels galloping toward me.”

I’m trying to imagine what a herd of charging squirrels looks like. It sounds like something out of a Hitchcock movie.

My father decided this would be a good time to make his exit, which he did, quite rapidly, throwing the remaining nuts and candy bars over his shoulder.

He had to go to the hospital to be treated for the various bites he had suffered during the feeding frenzy. He recovered and I don’t think he ever tried to feed the squirrels again.

But he got a good story out of it and its nice to have something to laugh about while waiting for the snow to melt and the sun to shine.

Quando, quando, quando...

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Check is in the Mail


Whoever said Sunday was a day of rest should have seen me yesterday.

I was leaving my house at about 10:30 AM, gym bag over my shoulder, sack of laundry in one hand, and a fistful of mail in the other. It was cold as hell and I was in a hurry—which I see now was the cause of all this grief.

My plan was to drop off the laundry, mail my letters, and head for the gym. That’s my usual Sunday routine, except that this time after I dropped off the laundry, I saw that one of my letters was missing.

And it wasn’t just any letter, oh, no: this was the one to my credit card company that contained a rather sizeable check.

I know, I know, why don’t I just pay my bills online? I’ve got no excuse except that I’m worried some hacking geek in a dank basement will clean me out with a few clicks off his keyboard.

I ran up and down the block a few times with my head down to the pavement like a bloodhound, looked around my house, and interrogated the laundry guy, who must’ve thought I’d gone through the rinse cycle a few too many times--no check and I was running late.

On the train I tried to calm down and come up with a plan. One of my themes for the new year is “solutions not surrender;” instead of throwing myself on the ground and wailing “what am I gonna do?!?” I’ll try and find a way out of this mess.

Okay, I got off at West Fourth Street, lurked in the subway stairwell, and call the credit card company.

Did you ever notice that when your stressed everybody else’s IQ seems to drop into the negative numbers? Every person you meet is suddenly slow-witted, inconsiderate and completely blocking your way.

Think of Something

At the laundry mat, hyper as I was, I held the door open for a woman who decided at that very moment to walk in slow motion.

“Are you coming in?” I muttered.

While I was in the subway station talking on the phone, this yo-yo sneaks up behind me and runs his Metrocard through the indicator to see how much money he’s got left. (In all fairness, I was probably in his way, but this is my story, not his.)

The first loser I spoke to said he’d be glad to help me. All I have to do is sign up for some security program for $12.95 a month.

This was particularly irritating. I had a real problem here and this clown was trying to sell me something. They really ought to train their people better.



“I’m in a freezing subway station,” I shouted to this fellow, who was, no doubt, in some steamy location on the other side of the globe. “I’ll get back to you!”

I got to my gym and called my bank—while some clown crept up next to me and opened up a locker. When did I become so freaking popular?

After several bad connections and language breakdowns, I learned I was screwed. I didn’t have any of the necessary information with me. Fine. I worked out and then ran up to my auntie’s place and helped her shop.

It took me a while to calm down, but I finally did. I stayed at my aunt’s place for supper and then rode home on the R train determined to solve this mess. I’ll pay online, I thought, get a new credit card, and cancel the check. It’ll be a pain, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.

As I fumbled for the key to my front door, I looked in my mailbox and there was my credit card bill. One of my neighbors must have found it on the ground and very kindly put it in the box for me.

So I didn’t have to cancel the card or the check, I didn’t have to deal with customer service or tech support or some nitwit trying to peddle stuff I didn’t need. I was off the hook.

This morning I carried the letter with two hands and dropped it into the mail. No more rushing around for me, no more multitasking.

I’m going to pay my bills online like the rest of the world. And after that I’m going look into this texting business.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Snow Drift

I was walking through Washington Square Park on Sunday when I saw a young man playing a piano.

It was freezing cold, there were piles of snow all over the place and here was this guy hitting the keys like he was making his debut at Carnegie Hall.

I was pretty tired, but I was reasonably certain that I was not hallucinating.

Musicians are hardly an unusual sight here when the weather is warm. On a summer weekend you have your pick of performers, along with the jugglers, magicians, sword swallowers, capoeiristas, comedians, and the guys who pose like famous sculptures.

But tickling the ivories outdoors in January? That takes nerve.

The guy had a decent crowd around him, too, considering the rotten weather. Maybe he was out there now because he didn’t want to compete with other musicians.

In fact the only thing resembling a rival for the small group of gawkers that I could see was a fellow sitting on a nearby park bench with several pigeons balanced on his head and arms. A few people were taking his picture, but I don’t know if the guy was doing an animal act or just happened to be partial to pigeons.

This is my least favorite time of year. Christmas and New Year’s Day have come and gone, the resolutions are already starting to crumble and I feel like curling up with my remote until April. I think bears might be onto something with that hibernation business.

My uncle in California told me that it was 80 degrees in L.A. on Sunday—80 degrees! He sounded almost apologetic, but I didn’t take it too badly. It gave me an excuse to make my annual vow that this will be the last--no kidding, I really mean it—last winter I will ever spend in New York.

This has been a yearly occurrence with me since the Carter Administration and I still haven’t done it yet. But one year I may surprise myself.

Meanwhile I had to get up early the other day to shovel away the latest snowfall. It was still dark out, so I thought I’d be alone, but my neighbor, this lovely elderly Chinese lady, was out there shoveling her walk.

This lady had been hospitalized last year for open heart surgery, so naturally I freaked when I saw her with a shovel in her hands.

“Get back in the house!” I cried, even though I know she speaks very little English. “Get back in the house!”

I pointed to her front door and gestured that I would shovel her walk. But she wouldn’t hear of it. She shoveled some more and then started spreading ice melting pellets in front of my house.

Now I keep a huge bag of that stuff in my porch all winter long, so I didn’t need any of hers. But that’s pretty hard to say in pantomime.

I got out my own de-icing stuff and got to work. I thought I had convinced my friend that I had the situation under control, but then I turned around and there she was—no coat on this time—spreading more of that crap around behind me.

I knew I had been beaten, so I gave her a loving pat on the head and went inside.

I’m very lucky to have this woman as a neighbor. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from friends and family about creepy people next door, so I thank God I’ve got somebody so nice, considerate, and quiet. If I do go to California maybe I’ll take her with me.

I hung around Washington Square listening to the piano player for a little while, but I had places to go. I made a point of dropping a dollar into this large pail he had set up near his piano as I walked by.

He gave me some hope that someday all this crap will melt, and there will be warmth and green again and the jugglers and sword swallowers will return.

I think that’s worth a buck.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Date Night


When I was reporter working at newspapers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, I would come back to Brooklyn most weekends and stay at my parents’ house.

I wanted to see my folks, escape the small towns I was working in, and enjoy New York like a tourist.

We had this little routine where, on the night before I had to back to work, we’d rent a movie from a local video store and watch it after dinner. Since I was the guest I had the honor of picking the flick.

One day I took out an old movie called Johnny Belinda. I can’t say why I happened to choose this 1948 film. I had heard of the movie, but I didn’t know much about it besides the title. But I like old movies, as did my parents, so I thought it would be a good choice.

When I got home from the video store and announced this week’s movie, my mother immediately turned to my dad and gave him a sharp look.

“Do you know this movie?” she demanded.

“Yes,” my father said quickly, “yes, I do.”

It turns out that my parents had seen Johnny Belinda on their first date. And luckily for him, my father remembered this important little detail.

Of all the movies I could have picked to watch, I had chosen the one that had helped bring my parents together. I guess you could say my siblings and I are here largely because of this picture.

Based on a stage play by Elmer Harris, Johnny Belinda takes place in a fishing village on Cape Breton Island, which is located off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Lew Ayers plays a doctor who has recently moved to the island and Jane Wyman, who won an Oscar for her performance, stars as Belinda, a deaf mute girl whom everybody, her family included, assume is stupid. Her own father refers to her as “the Dummy.”

The doctor sees that Belinda is anything but stupid. He points out to the father that his daughter pretty much runs the family mill, but the old man still doesn’t think anyone can help this young woman. The father, portrayed by Charles Bickford, is actually a decent man, but he’s gone through some tough times.

The doctor begins teaching Belinda sign language and she learns to communicate. There’s a heart-breaking scene when Belinda faces her dad and signs the word for “father.” The look of shock on the old man’s face is priceless.

“That’s the first time she’s ever called me that,” he says in amazement.

It brought tears to my eyes, which probably isn’t saying much since I cry at movies all the time, but there you are.

The story is deceptively simple and while it does eventually slide into a courtroom melodrama towards the end, it has many good scenes and, as with all these old movies, a talented cast.

The black and white photography is beautiful and it allowed the filmmakers to shoot in Monterey, Pebble Beach and other locations in California instead of Nova Scotia.

I never really thought about the movie much until a few years ago, after my mother had died and my father was suffering from dementia. I asked him about taking my mom to Johnny Belinda on their first date.

But this time my father shook his head vigorously and said no, that was not true. Maybe I got it wrong, but I don’t think so. My aunt suggested that perhaps it was too painful for my dad to think about my mother, so he just rejected the memory entirely.

I don’t know if there’s anyone around who can set me straight on this. But until I hear otherwise, I’ll go on believing that I owe a lot to Johnny Belinda.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

First Day

“With the opening of the New Year, all the closed portals of limitations will be thrown open and I shall move through them to vaster fields, where my worthwhile dreams of life will be fulfilled.” -- Paramahansa Yogananda

It’s the first day of 2011 and I’m starting things off right with a new computer.

This has been a somewhat challenging holiday season, what with aborted travel plans, a wicked sinus infection, a busted computer, and a blizzard that had me wondering if penguins would come waddling down my block. There was a moment when I ready to declare this the worst Christmas of all time.

But I’m feeling better, the new machine is up and running, the snow is (sort of) melting, and I’ve been enjoying a seriously needed stay-cation. I lounged around the house, tossed my diet out the window, and watch hours of stunningly bad TV. It was great.

I’m trying to be realistically positive for this new year. I want to make changes but I’m willing to accept that they won’t happen in the first 24 hours of 2011. It may actually take a few days to totally transform my life.

I got a little bummed earlier this week when I was looking over my resolutions from last year and realized they were pretty much a carbon copy of the things I want to do for this year.

Eat better, be more positive, focus on the present, organize all the crap that I keep tripping over—yeah, I know all that and I still haven’t done most of these things. But New Year’s Day is a chance to try again and maybe get it right this time.

I think what I’d like to do most in 2011 is change my attitude toward the problems and difficulties that are bound to happen in this life. Right now I tend to freeze up and wail “what the hell am I going to do?!?” Believe it or not, this hasn't helped very much.

I would rather look for solutions instead of focusing on the misery, to repair rather than complain, and to move on rather than blow up.

It’s a good thing I have a year to work on this because I’m pretty sure I’m going to need it. And 2011 will probably give me plenty of chances to put this declaration to the test. But if I get it right I can move on to other resolutions next year.