Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Worry Bird

I have always been a worrier.

As far back as I can remember, I was always concerned that some disaster, some catastrophe, some horrific incident would occur and rip my world to shreds. Accidents, plagues, murder attempts, my mind is a non-stop Hitchcock movie.

I probably inherited this trait from my dear mother, who, while physically small, was the heavyweight champion of the heebie jeebies. If we stayed out late without calling, she’d get all upset and say “I thought you were dead in an alley someplace!

I was always tempted to ask her why we ended up an in alley and not some other location, but I didn’t want to press my luck.

In addition to heredity, I also had to endure the toxic freak festival of Catholic school, which pumped out enough angst to light up the Las Vegas strip for a thousand years, so it’s no wonder I’m a hopeless hand wringer.

If I could conjure up stock tips the way I churn out worries I’d be lighting up my cigars with $100 bills. And I don't even smoke.

My father picked up on my worrisome ways when I was a little kid and he did his best to break me of this habit.

“I’m going to get you a worry bird,” he once told me.

The worry bird, he explained, plants himself on his perch and listens as you tell him all your problems. Then he’ll sit there all day and do all the worrying for you while you go out and join the rest of humanity.

My father was natural salesman and an Irishman to boot, so his ability to spin incredible tales—also known as “lies”—was quite impressive.

In fact, he told the worry bird story with such gusto that I actually pictured a fine feathered fanatic slapping a wing to the side of his head and cawing “oy vey is meir!

Unfortunately, the worry bird only existed in my father’s imagination and my apprehensive abilities have only increased over the years.

“You look for things to worry about,” he once said. And how right he was.

Birds of a Feather

This problem really came into focus while I was vacationing in California this summer. My uncle, his wife, and I were heading back to L.A. after a visit to San Diego and we stopped at the Hotel Del Coronado, a fantastic old resort, where Billy Wilder’s comic classic “Some Like It Hot” was filmed.

My sister had just started her own vacation, flying out of Brooklyn that morning for Vancouver.

I’ve made no secret of my fear of flying, but I also get nervous when my loved ones get on a plane. I am always extremely relieved when I get that phone call telling me they have safely arrived at their destination.

So while I was standing in the lobby of this grand old hotel I checked the time, did the math, and calculated that my sister’s plane should have landed.

So where was my phone call?

I’m sure everything’s all right, I told myself, which is what I say when I’m convinced everything is terribly wrong. She’s probably getting her luggage or settling in at the hotel.

As the time went by I could feel the tension rising in the back of my mind. I could’ve used a whole flock of worry birds, but all I saw were seagulls. Oy vey is meir..

Finally my aunt called me to say my sister had arrived and all was well.

Great, I thought, now you can relax.

And then I paused as the harsh truth rang through my head.

Until the next time…

I think I associate worry with control, telling myself that if I agonize over something hard enough then I will somehow prevent it from happening. It’s perfectly ridiculous, of course, but it also seems to be entirely incurable.

Constant worry prevents you from enjoying life and it can keep you from taking action. Instead actually doing something about a problem, you sit on your perch and just worry about it.

And it’s also stressful, which is bad for your health, and that’s one thing I want to avoid. I don’t want to end up dead in an alley someplace—or anywhere else.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Money Roll

I’ve been getting a lot of double takes from cashiers lately and it has nothing to do with my incredibly handsome face.

All I have to do is take out my wallet and I become a retail sensation.

That’s so cool!

I’ve never seen anything like that before!

And what’s been the cause of all this excitement?

My wallet.
Yeah, cashiers see a lot of wallets in the course of a day, but they don’t see too many like mine.

This wallet is light years away the traditional black or brown items I’ve been lugging around since high school. This is—product placement alert!—the Mighty Wallet and it looks like…money.

Seriously, it’s like some Texas oilman went off the deep end and fashioned a wallet out of his petty cash.

It’s got George Washington’s mug shot and all the serial numbers and signatures, though if you look closely it says “One Half” instead of One Dollar.

I treated myself to Mighty Wallet after the old Italian job I’ve been carrying for the last seven years was starting to look seriously busted.

I tend to abuse my wallets, treating them more like steamer trunks than billfolds. I stuff them until they’re ready to bust with receipts, ticket stubs, credit cards, the Encyclopedia Britannica, hell, you could probably find a couple of dead mobsters at the bottom of one of my wallets.

Things got so bad that a TSA agent at the San Francisco Airport laughed when he asked to see my driver’s license.

“Big wallet,” he chuckled.

I knew this couldn’t go on much longer, but I could never muster enough interest to go out and shop for a wallet. Isn’t that something your aunt gives you for Christmas?

Cash & Carry

Inspiration finally came to me when I saw the wallet of my dreams in the window of a funky little gift shop on Lexington Avenue.

It was silly, it was unnecessary, and in some circles, it might even be deemed to be unprofessional.

Naturally, I had to have it.

I went inside and meandered a bit, weighing the costs and the ramifications, and the phases of the moon, the price of wheat, and the average mean temperature of Kalamazoo before I finally committed myself and bought the goddamn thing.

According to the company website, the Mighty Wallet is made from a single folded sheet of a strong micro fiber material that is “tear and water resistant, super strong and incredibly long lasting.”

There’s no stitching and the wallet instantly adjusts to a custom fit. It can certainly handle all the crap I’ve been stuffing into it, like business cards from people I haven’t seen in 20 years.

But the best thing has been the reaction from cashiers. It really seems to brighten their day.

“I’ve never seen that before,” one fellow at a restaurant said to me. “A wallet made out of money.”

A woman at the local Home Depot was beside herself when I reached for my credit card.

“Wow, that’s a great wallet!” she said.

Even my boss did a double take when he saw the Mighty Wallet. Now I know I’ve hit the jackpot.

The lady who owns a Middle Eastern deli in my neighborhood was surprised when she saw it, but she pointed out that criminal types might see my Mighty Wallet and think I was actually lugging around a wad of cash.

And then they’d be mighty upset when they found out that they’d been had.

“A lot of crazy people around,” she said.

The only other problem is that the inside of this thing looks like money, too, so sometimes I have to squint to see just how much cash I’m actually carrying. But it’s a small price to pay.

I’m loving my new wallet. It’s just a silly little item but it seems to make people smile and that’s worth more than gold.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Maim That Tune

It started three days ago.

I got a song stuck in my head—and I mean stuck—and for a while there it looked like nothing short of a lobotomy was going to get it out.

The song was “Welcome Me Love,” by The Brooklyn Bridge, which was released in 1969. This was the same year that the Beatles released "Yellow Submarine" in the UK and Led Zeppelin released its debut album in the US. But I didn’t get any of their songs stuck in my head.

This was also the same year Tommy James and the Shondells (what is a Shondell, anyway?) released “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” which popped up in a recent episode of “Breaking Bad,” one of my favorite TV shows. But again, that song didn’t loiter in my mind.

No offense to Brooklyn Bridge fans out there, but I really dislike this song. But even it were my favorite song of all time, I still wouldn’t want it bouncing relentlessly around my skull.

Why did this particular tune get stuck in my head? I wish to hell I knew. The thing just invaded my brain one morning and refused to leave. This was Occupy Memory Lane.

I’ve had songs trapped in my head before, but it was usually sparked by something that revved up my mental juke box. I heard the song on the radio, or someone near me was singing it, or I read some news item about the band.

But not this time. I haven’t heard “Welcome Me Love” since Richard Nixon was president and no one even so much as whistled a few bars of the song anywhere in my zip code. Yet the thing came crashing into my mind like John Dillinger taking down the First National Bank.

It was so bizarre. I felt like I was the target of a CIA mind control experiment.

You're Not Welcome!

I once had a boss who used to walk around the office and belt out a line from another Brooklyn Bridge song, “The Worst That Could Happen,” without warning, logic or mercy. He’d warble “It’s the worst that could hap-pen!”—and then fall silent.

I don’t why he was so fond of that tune, but no matter how many times he squealed out that lyric, “The Worst That Could Happen” never got stuck in my mind. Maybe the song was stuck in his head.

When “Welcome Me Love” first showed up, I thought, hmm, isn’t that interesting? A 40-year-old song just popped up out of nowhere. The human mind is such an amazing engine.

But then it wouldn’t leave. The song kept playing and playing, round and round. Ben Franklin once said guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days and this tune was starting to stink up the joint like a 30-pound mackerel.

I thought the song would just go away, but it flat out refused. It went from being a squatter to being an invader. This was turning into a hostage crisis only I didn’t have any mental SWAT team to rescue me.

Relief finally came at the end of the week.

I went for a walk at lunchtime on Friday and I happened to enter a Rite Aid on Broadway near City Hall. I forget why I went in there, but as I walked around I heard Billy Joel singing “Leave A Tender Moment Alone.”

All right! I like that song and I loved album--An Innocent Man –from whence it came. And now I have another reason to love the Eighties, besides the clothes, the songs, and the fact that I was much younger.

So I finally broke the spell of “Welcome Me Love” and my brain feels 10 pounds lighter.

But I shouldn’t complain. Among the other songs that came out in 1969 was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies, an acoustic atrocity I loathe beyond description. It would be an absolute nightmare if that awful thing ever got stuck in my head.

Oh, no…

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stay Safe

I got to Manhattan before sunup this morning as I headed to an early gym class.

It was like any other morning until the bus reached Battery Park and I saw the ring of American flags surrounding “Sphere for Plaza Fountain,” the battered sculpture that somehow survived the collapse of the World Trade Center 11 years ago today.

We rode up Church Street and I saw the police cars and the news vans getting ready for the memorial services.
When we stopped at Rector Street I saw that one of the disembarking passengers was wearing kilts, most likely a police officer or firefighter on his way to join up with one of the honor guards that would be playing today.

I wish I had seen him when I had gotten on the bus. I would’ve gladly shaken his hand.

When I got off at my stop, I said thanks to the bus driver, as I do every day, and he gave me some good advice.

“Stay safe,” he replied.

I was working across the street from the Trade Center that day, just like I do now. And on that day I had gone to the gym, too. But the similarities end there.

My mother was in the hospital on September 11 and she would die there the following July.

My parents’ wedding anniversary was on September 10, although there was no way to celebrate, given my mother’s condition. And on the day of the worst terrorist attack in this nation’s history, my father marked his eightieth birthday. We lost him in January 2007.

The weather was nice today, but nowhere near as beautiful as it was back on 9/11. That’s one of the most bizarre things about that horrible day that still sticks out in my mind. It was warm, like the start of summer instead of the end, and there wasn’t a cloud in the brilliant blue sky.

As I walked to my office after my workout, I saw Senator Chuck Schumer, a man I always admired, crossing the street on his way to Ground Zero.

The ceremonies have toned down a bit over the years, which I suppose is not surprising. People move on and despite all the claims of “never forget,” that’s just what they'll do. They'll forget.

And please understand that I'm not trying to be cynical or disrespectful. I'm just being realistic.

Once inside the office, I heard the bells tolling at St. Paul’s Chapel at 8:46pm, the time the first plane struck the North Tower.

This Of All Days

Eleven years ago at that time I was just about to enter my office building when I heard something streak through the sky, crash into metal and explode. I had no idea what had happened, and how much the world was about to change.

I didn’t know that we were under attack, or that I was about to witness another airliner strike the South Tower a short time later. I had no idea I would be spending the rest of the day struggling through crowds and choking on vile smoke to get back home to Brooklyn.

A short time later this morning we heard the bagpipers playing and I thought of my fellow bus passenger. We looked out the window and saw line of officers moving up Fulton Street.

I went to St. Paul’s at lunch to light a candle for the departed and then I walked down to Liberty Street and tried to find the spot where I was standing when that second plane hit.

There are all sorts of scaffolding and netting there now so it was hard to locate it, but I did my best. I can still remember the sheets of orange flame shooting across the street, the people screaming, and everybody running as fast as they could.

Today whenever I caught myself getting annoyed at something foolish I quickly put a stop to it.

On this of all days, you pull this crap? I asked myself. Are you serious?

I vowed I wouldn’t talk about politics today and I intend to keep my promise.

This is a day of mourning, a day of remembrance. This is a day when you pray for the victims and their families and you thank God you and your loved ones survived.

This is a day when you remember those leaflets that once covered every inch of available space in this city, the ones that bore the names and images of people you knew would never be found.

I could say a lot more about this day and how I feel about the world we now live in. But I think my bus driver said it best this morning so I’ll give him the last word.

Stay safe.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Rail World

No matter how old you are, you can never outgrow model trains.

I don’t care how educated or sophisticated you may be, the second you see a model train chugging through a miniature village or a diminutive mountain range you’ll freeze in your tracks and go roaring right back to your childhood.

I experienced this phenomenon during my recent trip to California. While walking through Balboa Park in San Diego with my uncle and his wife, we paid an impromptu visit to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum.

This’ll be pleasant, I thought, we’ll just take a quick look around and be on our way.

And then I heard that unmistakable sound of trains streaking around the bend and the years faded away like clouds of steam from an old locomotive.

For the record, the museum is the largest and only accredited scale model railroad museum in the U. S. with over 27,000 square feet of exhibiting layouts.

It also has collections of some of the first scale model trains ever made.

The layouts are huge and feature realistic reproductions of mountains, deserts, and train yards. The San Diego & Arizona Eastern exhibit boasts a 10-foot high model of the Carriso Gorge and the Goat Canyon trestle.

The actual trestle was the largest timber railroad trestle in the world at the time of its construction in 1932, which is something I didn’t know until I went to the museum. So in addition to being a lot of fun, model trains are also educational.

As I wandered from one stunning layout to the next, I remembered the train sets my siblings and I used to play with when we were kids.

I think we started off with the larger trains before working down to the HO scale models. I was particularly fond of an old time trolley that had a working headlight.

We had toy buildings and a mountain tunnel for the trains to ride through. You can create your own little world and, just like Mussolini, you, too, can make the trains run on time.

The set came with this big black transformer with red handles and it usually took some finagling to get the juice running. But once we got them rolling there was no stopping us.

Once Upon A Time There Was An Engineer...

The appeal of model trains went in cycles for us. We’d set them up in the basement, have a tremendous time playing with them, and then after a while, we’d pack them up in boxes and put them away.

But we were sure to resurrect them somewhere down the line. So many other toys lose their appeal and are forgotten forever, but we kept rediscovering the trains over and over.

I was glad to see so many families in the museum. It’s good for kids to experience something real, instead of the goddamn computer games. Model trains have been passed down through generations, which I think is something more than you can say for Grand Theft Auto.

Of course that’s not to say that the digital age has not reach model trains. I was amazed at the advances in technology that have taken place over the years.

First of all, the sound effects were incredible. In addition to the whistle, these trains actually made the great chugging noise like their real world counterparts.

It was so realistic I half-expected a massive diesel to come bursting through the wall.

At least one of the trains was equipped with a small camera—a choo-choo cam-- that flashed images onto to a large monitor so you could actually see what it was like to ride on one of these things.

While I was trying to take a photo of one of the trains, a gentleman came up next to me holding a remote control unit.

“Do you want me to back it up?”

I was confused at first but then I realized he worked at the museum and was controlling the train with this remote. I was stunned. No more big black transformers. Everything happens right in the palm of your hand.

I thanked him, but I declined his offer. It didn’t seem sporting to back up the whole operation for my benefit. I was like a hunter; I wanted to nail my prey in the wild.

We finally had to leave the museum, but I was so glad we found this place. What started off as a simple diversion turned into a first class ride down memory lane.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

No Class System

I’ve never flown first class, and it seems unlikely that I ever will, but that doesn’t bother me at all.

I’m so terrified of flying that all the perks would be wasted on me. Screw the comfy slippers, the free food and drinks, and the chance to share armrests with prime passengers, I just want to get my sorry ass back on earth as fast as possible.

However, I had some experiences during my recent trip to California that are still bugging me, fear of flying notwithstanding.

My flight out of JFK started off well. I had a nice chat with a skycap who cracked jokes and made me feel right at home. When I mentioned that my driver’s license photo was old, he laughed and said “I’d recognized you anywhere, Mr. Lenihan.”

Then I saw a guy in the terminal who looked so much like Rod Stewart I thought he’d start singing “Maggie May” at any second.

And then I got on the plane.

There was a young couple in front of me who were using their seats like a park bench--and this was before takeoff. People, please, simmer down. The flight isn’t that long and if you really want to join the Mile High Club, head for the restroom like everybody else.

Then there was the guy behind me with three animals—I mean children—whom he could not begin to control. They were screaming and bouncing all over the place and even in my Xanax-induced stupor I was getting cranky.

“C’mon, guys…” the feckless father whined in a weenie voice.

C’mon, guys? How about “shut up you little bastards before I stuff all three of you into the overhead luggage compartment”? Jesus, where are those Catholic school nuns when you need them?

The best part came last, though, as we were getting ready to land at LAX. I could feel the plane slowly descending and I was getting happier with each passing second. Yes, I had cheated death once again! Kiss my keester, Mr. Reaper, I’m going to Hollywood!

Then the plane suddenly began ascending. And by suddenly, I mean, “oh, my God are we playing ‘Top Gun’ here or what?”

“That didn’t feel right,” a young woman sitting next to me said.

Coming and Going

You’re goddamn right it didn’t feel right. It felt so severely un-right that I wanted to put a hammerlock on the nearest flight attendant and demand an explanation. Luckily the pilot decided to clue us in.

“There’s wrong nothing with the plane, ladies and gentleman,” he said unconvincingly. “There’s just some equipment on the runway.”

Equipment on the runway? Like what—fire engines? Whoopee cushions? Ancient Etruscan sex toys? Whatever it is, get it the hell out of my way.

And what is it doing there anyway? Didn’t they know we were coming? They should’ve tidied up first.

I always clean my place before people come over. I want them to feel right at home. And I don’t want them playing with my ancient Etruscan sex toys.

Okay, so California was a blast, I had a great time with my uncle and his wife, and then all to soon it was time to get back to Brooklyn. However, this time the travel trouble started even sooner—like right outside the terminal.

I got a surly skycap at LAX who seemed to have majored in attitude at reform school.

As I stood on line waiting to check my luggage, an obviously wealthy middle-aged couple were deposited right next to me and the skycap took care of them first.

It’s important to note that American Airlines has not one, but two gates marked “Premium” at LAX, where these two should have gone and yet there they were, horning in on the peon parade.

Did I make a scene? Scream and demand an explanation? No, of course not. I was too worried about the impending flight to start a curbside donnybrook.

Great, I thought, I get into a shouting match with the gold dust twins and then my plane will go down and this will be my last act on God’s earth.

Once inside the terminal I waited for the premiums to board the plane first and walked to the gate when my group was finally called.

But I noticed several first class types coming up along the side of the line, looking to get on board. Apparently they were too busy foreclosing on little old ladies’ homes to hit the gangplank when they were supposed to.

God forbid the blue bloods should stand on the same line as the monkey-people, so a flight attendant quickly opened up a second line to handle the riff-raff--like yours truly.

Both lines have these podiums with attendants checking our tickets. But something on the first class podium caught my eye. It was a little plastic cup of pretzels, apparently put out there so the high rollers would have something to munch on before take-off.

As I boarded the plane, I thought, why don’t you give us the finger while you’re at it?

I’m thinking of writing a letter to the airline, which means I’ll never do it. It’s not worth the effort and it sure as hell won’t change anything either in the sky or on the ground. Money talks no matter where you are.

So keep your wide seats and your free lunches, I don’t care. But it wouldn’t kill you to share the pretzels.