Sunday, July 29, 2012

Son of Thunder

I got down on my knees to receive communion at Trinity Church on Friday and saw that I was kneeling on St. James.

Okay, I wasn’t actually kneeling on the Apostle James, son of Zebedee. Poor guy had enough problems without me getting on his case.

No, this was a cushion bearing his name—one of 12 that line one side of the altar--and of all the saints I could have picked to rest my rickety knees upon, it seemed appropriate that I came down on St. James, who, together with his brother, John, were known as the “Sons of Thunder.”

St. James figured prominently in my life last week. In addition to communion, I had my second crack at film directing at the School of Visual Arts on Wednesday, which was the Feast of St. James.

I’ll be honest—it was a rough night. I didn’t feel terribly confident, but admittedly I was trying something a little different.

I was doing a “walk and talk” where one actor walked toward the camera delivering his lines. My previous scene had been shot on a tripod—or “sticks” as they say in the business.

I was very nervous. One of the actors showed up and told me he hadn’t read the script yet, which was interesting since I handed it in over a week ago. Fortunately he only had a few lines.

But it was more than that. I don’t think I was sufficiently prepared.

I believed I could direct the scene because I had written it, but our teacher, Todd Stephens, had told us that even when you write the script, “you, the writer, have to hand the script off to you, the director.”

And he is so right. Directing is an entirely different job from writing. The writer sits in front of the computer and creates the script, but then director takes that script, assembles a cast and crew and creates the film.

We shot the scene in a full-blown tavern set that the SVA has on its sixth floor and during one of the takes I saw myself on the hand-held monitor I was carrying, which meant I had walked into the shot.

Apparently this is called a “bogey” on film sets, making me the bogey man.

I was starting to feel like the Son of Blunder.

Cut and Run

“Where’s my eyeline?” one the actors asked me, and naturally I had no idea what he was talking about. Luckily Todd was there to explain that this is the direction where the actor is looking while performing.

“This shit is hard,” I whispered to Todd.

I felt rushed to get all the shots done before class ended and there was a moment—a very long moment-when it seemed like everybody in the room was looking at me for guidance—and that’s because they were.

I wanted to look up to the heavens and scream “St. James, get me out of here!”

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned, I am not a natural leader. After all these years as a reporter, I never had an interest in being an editor.

I know what a scurvy lot reporters are and I don’t want to give up writing so I can spend my day chasing around them shouting “where’s that story?”

But leadership is what directing is all about. Todd told us about a major studio film that’s having a lot of problems because the director lost control of the crew.

I don’t want that to happen to me, so that means I have to change and acquire new skills. Basically all the stuff I resist like it’s an invading army.

I was very lucky to have such a great crew working with me. Todd came in a few times to give me much appreciated—and severely needed—guidance and my confidence started to grow. I put more authority into my voice as I said “action” and “cut.”

We finally got the last shot—the Martini—and called it a wrap.

My father—James--used to say that tests tell you what you know and what you don’t know. I had quite a test on Wednesday and I learned there’s a lot I don’t know about directing.

But this was a great experience, allowing me to make my mistakes in a controlled setting before going out and wreaking havoc in the real world.

I’m no saint, but given a little more time, I think I’ll make a hell of a director.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Gun Battle

And now another massacre…

Once again we’re watching footage of sobbing victims, listening to recordings of frantic 911 calls and viewing news coverage of candlelight vigils. It’s getting harder and harder to tell these incidents apart.

After the mass shooting at the “The Dark Knight Rises” premier, you can be sure of two things: nothing will be done to change the gun laws in this country and there will be more massacres like this, more images of murderous loners, and more eulogies for innocent victims.

According to news reports, the gun murder rate in the U.S. is at 19.5%, almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest nations combined. But at least we still have our freedom.

The NRA has won this battle. Virtually no one on the national level is even talking about gun control despite a string of these hideous attacks. The Republicans are on the gun lobby pay roll and the Democrats are scared of their own shadows. God damn the whole pack of them.

You already know the arguments: gun laws infringe upon our God given right to kill each other in great numbers. I'm sure the Founding Fathers must be very proud of us.

I can’t believe I live in a country where this kind of madness is allowed to continue. When there was a mass shooting in Australia several years ago, lawmakers convened the next day to pass stringent gun laws.

Cold, Dead Fingers

The gun nuts cling to this wet dream that everyone should be packing heat so that we can all return fire should an armed psycho start picking us off.

Let’s have a rendezvous with reality, shall we? First of all, most of these fearless gunslingers would crap their pants and dive under the nearest chair screaming for their mommies as soon as the shooting started. The others would no doubt go berserk, filling the air with lead and gunning down even more innocent people.

Ironically, I spent a good part of the week trying to get my hands on a toy gun. I’m directing a scene for my film class where a character pulls a gun on another. I didn’t think I’d have any problem getting hold of an ersatz heater, but I was wrong.

While many of my favorite toys were guns when I was growing up, the days when you can pick up a realistic looking toy are long gone.

I ordered a toy pistol through Amazon and hoped that it would arrive in time and look realistic. While I waited, I checked with a movie gun rental place, searched the Internet, and even asked my boss if his kids had any toy guns that I could borrow. Nothing panned out.

The Amazon gun came last night and it’ll do just fine. But it amazes me that I had to go through all this trouble to get a toy while that psycho in Colorado was able to get all this firepower so easily.

So welcome to a world where a movie theater can be turned into a slaughterhouse. Get ready for more speeches, more grisly footage and more candlelight vigils.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Hallowed Ground

I always have this urge to bless myself whenever I walk through the old Lincoln Savings Bank on Fifth Avenue and pass the spot where my mother's desk used to be.

Other people see the bank only as a place of business, but for me this is hallowed ground.

Of course it’s no longer the Lincoln, having been sold off years ago as the big banking fish kept on eating the smaller ones until it’s now a Chase branch.

Images of Honest Abe still adorn this fortress-like structure, however, and, as one local blogger told me, “it will always be the Lincoln.” It certainly will be for me.

My mother sold life insurance at the Lincoln and now, with Monday marking the tenth anniversary of her death, the bank has taken on a special meaning for me.

I don’t want to think about that awful day a decade ago when I raced to the hospital in Staten Island after learning my mother had gone into cardiac arrest.

I don’t want to remember how I wept and wailed in my sister’s arms after I learned we were too late, that my mother had died after a long terrible spiral of failing health, of calling 911 when she couldn’t breathe on her own, of taking her to the hospital, bringing her home for a short time, and then taking her back to the hospital again.

Going to the cemetery where she and my father are buried only reminds me that she’s gone. Walking through the Lincoln reminds how she lived.

She was a part-time salesperson, taking the job after years of being a wife and mother. She had no sales experience but soon she routinely outselling her fulltime male colleagues.

My mother really blossomed in this position. Normally a rather shy person, she would often walk around the bank floor in search of potential customers, instead of sitting at her desk and waiting for the clients to come to her, the way the other salespeople did.

“You’re like a shark prowling around there,” I told her.

I enjoyed visiting her at the bank or calling her at the office after I moved to Pennsylvania. It was fun seeing her in the workplace and I enjoyed speaking with her one-on-one.

We shared a lot during these conversations and it’s funny to think that, in some respects, the job actually brought us closer together.

These Honored Dead...

I remember going to visit her on a particularly trying day, when both her boss and my father were giving her grief.

“I’ve had it with men today,” she said sharply as she sat behind her desk. And then she looked my way and gave me the most beautiful smile.

“Present company excepted, of course,” she said sweetly.

She brought her humanity to the job as well. One time a man came in to collect on a life insurance policy for his teenage son who had been killed in an accident.

The man began to cry and my mother quickly joined him. She said she was embarrassed for breaking down like that, but there’s no shame in showing your heart. Banks should have more people like her on the payroll.

All these memories come back to me so easily, despite the passing years, and I would give anything to speak with her again, tell her how much I loved her, and apologize for every stupid, insensitive thing I ever did or said.

That’s not going to happen, though, so all I can do is hold her close to my soul and try to be more like her every day.

The bank has ATMs, so I could do almost all my business without stepping foot in the place. But I go inside because I want to; I do it because I need to see the place where my mother worked so hard, accomplished so much, but still always made time for her family.

The Lincoln has changed a lot since she worked there. In addition to the ATMs, there are cubicles in the middle of the vast floor where my mother used to search for customers and that seemed to go on forever when I was a kid.

My mother’s desk is gone, too, and I’m sure the bank had perfectly logical reasons for removing it. But I like to think that they took that desk away to honor her memory, the way a baseball team retires a beloved player’s number.

If I had my way there would be a plaque marking this location, a fine bronze carving with her image and it would read: “On this spot there once worked a loving mother, loyal wife, and dearest friend, who lived every day of her life with malice toward none and charity for all.”

Sunday, July 08, 2012

‘Where Are You Roaming?’

There is a moment in “Twelfth Night” when Sir Andrew Aguecheek mournfully declares, “Oh, had I but followed the arts!”

Following the arts proved to be a challenge that I happily accepted on Friday night when I attended an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s comedy that strapped on its walking shoes and set out to prove that all the world is indeed a stage.

The New York Classical Theatre production started off at Castle Clinton but then literally picked up and moved all over Battery Park with a large, appreciative audience in hot and humid pursuit.

Sounds crazy? Well, it was and I don’t think I ever enjoyed a production of this play as much as I enjoyed this one. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this show was…enchanting.

It was everything a summer night in New York should be—great weather, courteous people, and a fabulous performance. The fact that it didn’t cost a dime was pretty cool, too.

This was a last minute thing for me. I had just read the Times review and I was debating about what I wanted to do with my Friday night.

There were one event I half-heartedly planned on attending, but it was inside and I couldn’t bring myself to go indoors on such a fine evening.

But even when I decided to attend this play, which was a 10-minute walk from my office, I told myself I wouldn’t stay for the whole thing.

Chasing around the actors as they move from place to place? I thought. Preposterous. The first time they move, I will, too—straight to the nearest subway station.

But I stuck around when we moved from Castle Clinton to a nearby section of the park. And I stayed with the crowd as we moved to the Coast Guard/Navy Memorial and finally back to the castle for a rousing climax.

Groundlings Day

This was theater at its most basic level. No microphones, no massive, computerized sets, no orchestra—it was just actors and Shakespeare. And that was all we needed.

The City of New York and all its craziness served as a background to the 400-year-old comedy—the skyscrapers, the Staten Island ferry chugging through the water, jets roaring overhead and gawking tourists walking by.

The actors were fabulous, in addition to being light on their feet. Moving around so much meant they had to cut through the audience to get to the “stage.”
So when a young woman stood in the way of Andy Paterson who was playing Feste the Clown, he simply tooted a kazoo in her ear and she quickly got out of his way—although she did look a bit mortified.

I made room for a person I thought was a fellow audience member, but who was in fact the lovely Chantal Jean-Pierre, portraying Olivia, on her way to deliver her lines.

My favorite moment of audience participation occurred in the final act, when Ian Antal, portraying Sir Andrew, mistakenly accuses Viola of beating him up.

“That’s him!” he declares.

And just at the moment, a little boy who was completely oblivious to what was going on walked by the actors and kept on going toward the exit.

“Not him,” Antal said, without missing a beat.

After the play I hopped the express bus home, but I was feeling so good I think I could have floated back to Brooklyn.

This is why you live in New York, why you put up with the noise, the nuts, and the nitwits, so you can have a night like this.

Lady Olivia said this was very midsummer madness and she was so right. Play on, indeed...

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tale of the Tape

I saw the yellow crime scene tape stretched out around the men’s clothing store on Fifth Avenue this morning, but I didn’t think anything serious had happened.

People put up that tape for just about anything. Maybe there was wet paint in the vicinity. Maybe the store window might have broken and shattered glass was littering the sidewalk.

Whatever it was, I was sure it was something minor.

I never thought the owner—a man I have often spoken with--had been shot dead. It wasn’t glass that was shattered here today. It was a man’s life.

The New York Daily News reported that Mohammed Gebeli, 65, was shot in the neck at Valentino Fashion Inc. on Fifth Avenue and 77th Street. He was taken to Lutheran Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

I still can’t believe this. I’ve shopped at this store; I’ve spoken with Mohammed Gebeli, had those kind of softball conversations that pass between merchants and their customers. And now he’s dead.

I didn’t know this man well at all, but I do know that he deserved better much better than this. An animal deserves better than this.

He worked hard to keep his business going, was cordial to his customers. It’s appalling to think of him staring down the barrel of a gun and bleeding his life away on the floor of his shop.

You read these stories all the time in the paper. A hard working storeowner is gunned down in his business, that’s standard tabloid fare. But I never knew any of the victims—until today.

I stood across the street with a handful of people and watched our local city councilman speak to a cop in a patrol car.

A young woman who filled me in on what had happened turned out to be a reporter. She thanked me after we were done speaking and now I wonder if she’ll be quoting me in her story.

I have no problem with this. As a former police reporter I know how hard it can be to get any kind of information about a murder victim. Family and friends are often reluctant to speak and sometimes they get angry with you for intruding upon their privacy at such a painful time.

It’s just that I barely knew the man, so there is little I could do except express my shock and disbelief.

As I stood on the other side of Fifth Avenue, I thought of the old movie line where the cop says to the crowd of gawkers, “Nothing to see here, folks; show’s over.”

And that’s so true. There really was nothing to see here. The victim’s body had been removed and any evidence gathering was being done inside. And unlike the movies, the killer wouldn’t be returning to the scene of this crime.

Yet we lingered there expecting…what exactly? Answers, perhaps. Maybe we needed something to make us feel safe, something to tell us that this could never happen to us or to anyone we love in a million years. And, speaking in the broadest possible terms, it was an event, something out of the ordinary.

I wish I had known Mohammed Gebeli better. I wish I had shopped in his store more often, shot the breeze with him about sports, politics and life in general.

We were from different cultures, obviously, but that means so little in the day-to-day affairs of life. And it’s totally meaningless now.

I pray for his family and I hope something very bad happens to his killer.

But most of all I wish that this terrible incident had never occurred, that Mohammed Gebeli was still alive and still at work, and that the yellow crime scene tape had never been stretched out in front of his store.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

'Daddy Looks Pretty'

I have this vague memory from my childhood of seeing my father walking into the dining room of our home in a suit and tie.

I forget the occasion or why my father was all dressed up. I forget everything about that day except what I said when I saw him.

“Daddy looks pretty,” I declared.

I wasn’t trying to be a wise guy or cast aspersions about his manhood. I was a little kid and I was using the only words I knew to describe how my father looked.

I haven’t done a Father’s Day post for a while now; it hadn’t even occurred to me to write one until that very morning and by then I already had another post ready to go.

I suppose I could’ve put that other post on hold and written something for my dad, but my heart wasn’t in it.

So I decided to disregard Father’s Day and then, of course, I started to feel guilty--something I’m rather good at.

When I was living in Pennsylvania I used to work Sunday through Thursday. I came home to Brooklyn most weekends and I recall one year I was leaving my parents’ house early on Father’s Day to get to work in Stroudsburg.

My father guided me down the driveway of our house, which he always did, and as I drove down the street, a Paul McCartney song called “Put It There” came on the radio. The song is about a father and son relationship and I started crying as I listened to it.

I berated myself, saying if I had a normal Monday through Friday job I could’ve spent Father’s Day with my dad. If there's a way to hurt myself, you know I'll find it.

My father’s been gone for five years now and Father’s Day has lost much of its meaning to me. I called my two brothers to wish them the best, but for the most part I don’t think about this day at all.

Show's Over

And then this week father paid a role in a very upsetting dream I had.

Now it’s no secret that I absolutely hate the cold weather. I dread the freezing temperatures and painfully short days. I hate hibernating in my apartment for weeks at a time and wrapping myself in thermal underwear and a dozen blankets just to get a decent night's sleep.

If I can’t walk out the door in a t-shirt and shorts I’m going to be miserable. It’s horrendously hot in New York right now and I don’t care. I can deal with the heat and humidity a lot easier than I can with blizzards and frostbite.

This winter-phoboia must’ve been cooking in my subconscious the other night because I dreamed that the summer was over and I was in the middle of autumn. I felt like Rip Van Winkle sleeping through my favorite time of the year.

Suddenly it was midnight dark at 5pm; leaves were falling off the trees and I had to bury my hands in my jacket pockets—my jacket!—to keep them warm.

As I struggled to make sense of what was happening to me, my father came walking down a nearby alleyway reciting some strange poem about the fall.

I can’t remember the words, but apparently it dealt with the quickness of the passing year. I woke up and I was greatly relieved to find that I hadn’t missed summer after all. But that image of my father lingered in my mind.

At first I thought he was mocking me. He was known to needle people about their insecurities and I assumed that he was razzing me about my fear of winter.

But I’ve been thinking about this dream more in the last few days and I believe now that my father wasn’t teasing me at all. I think he was warning me, telling to me to enjoy life while the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming.

I had a difficult relationship with my father, but lately I find that I’m thinking less of our arguments and more of the good times I had with him.

I’m finding it easier to think of him in his Sunday best rather than in one of his foul moods. I think the pretty is finally driving out the ugly.

So I know I’m late with this, but I’ll say it anyway: Happy Father’s Day, Dad.