Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Bowl of Cherries

My cousin Erin stood before a large crowd of guests at my Uncle Joe’s 85th birthday party in L.A. last week and recited an Irish toast.

“May your home always be too small to hold all your friends,” she said.

And that about sums it up for my Uncle Joe. The room at the Marina Del Ray Hotel was filled with friends, former coworkers, and, of course, family on this most special day.

There were Lenihans up the wazoo at this gig and I got to meet many of them for the very first time.

The theme of the event was “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” a slight variation on one of my uncle’s favorite sayings.

My sister and I were even part of the entertainment, providing the voiceover for a video presentation of Joe’s life that was written in the tough-talking style of the old Dragnet show.

I must say that my sister played the neurotic nun role perfectly, but I’ve got to work on that Jack Webb impersonation. I might need it again some day.

Joe is my father’s younger brother and it’s a little strange hearing him refer to my dad as “Jimmy.”

My father and two of my uncles had served in World War II and Joe said he believed that “Jimmy got the worst of it.”

I have some tough memories tied up with my dad, but Joe made me think of him not as a husband and a father, but as a young man giving up a priceless time of his life and going off to war. Nothing in my life even begins to compare with what he experienced.

I love listening to Joe sing old songs like “The Night Pat Murphy Died” and “One Meatball,” which contains the immortal line, “you gets no bread with one meatball.”

Sweet Dreams

And speaking of meatballs, I put away enough food during this trip to make up for the next three Thanksgivings.

Occasionally, however, I would stop eating and meet new people. I haven’t done this much socializing in a long time and looking around the room at Joe’s party and seeing all those people reminded me once again that’s there more to life than holing up in my apartment on winter nights and watching DVDs.

Sometimes I get the feeling that you could fit all my friends into my kitchen and still play a vigorous game of racquetball without hitting anybody. I'm exaggerating a bit, of course, but that sentiment is closer to the truth than I'd like it to be.

During our trip we went to the Huntington Library, which was packed with people attending the Lunar New Year celebrations.

The highlights included martial arts demonstrations and stilt walkers dressed in flowing red robes. I was standing next to one woman and as we trained our cameras on the towering figures, we both said the same line simultaneously.

“It’s like a dream!”

All dreams must end, I’m afraid, and I’m now I’m back in New York. Back to wearing a parka, back to wrapping myself up in a scarf, and back to wondering why the hell I’m not back in California.

And I’m also back in this empty apartment. Clearly I still have to work on getting out more, meeting people and getting the bread to go along with the meatballs.

I want to build a home for myself that will always be too small to hold all my friends.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

From Fear to Trust

“Tell me your name,” the priest said to me.

I hesitated for a second. I’ve been doing the Ash Wednesday routine for a long time now and no priest has ever asked me to identify myself.

Was he going to hit me up for a donation? Or enter my name into some kind of sinners logbook that I suspect all priests have hidden in their cassocks?

Being from Brooklyn, I was within my rights to snarl “what’s it to ya?”

But I didn’t. I answered like a good little Catholic boy, even though we were in an Episcopal church.

And all the man did was personalize the line from Genesis about remembering “thou art dust and to dust thou shall return.”

As I do every year, I quickly forgot I was wearing ashes so whenever I looked in the mirror today I had a split-second freak-out as I wondered what the hell was on my forehead.

Yes, it’s all a ritual, but it’s my ritual and Lent has taken on a special significance for me this year.

Father Mark at Trinity Church described Lent as “a most exciting time of the year.” This contrasts sharply with my grade school experience where we had to “give up” something for Lent or risk going to hell.

Come to think of it, just about everything back then seemed to involve going to hell, which is about as exciting as you can get.

I think I tried giving up candy one year when I was a kid and you’ll never guess how that worked out. Will I really suffer eternal damnation over a Hershey Bar?

Give It Up

Regrettably I didn’t have time to attend mass today. The Lenten mass is longer than the usual daily service and I didn’t want to sit in church worrying about getting back to the office.

I must say, however, that the pews at Trinity were packed today, unlike most weekday masses, where we have a hard time putting together a baseball game. Some people just show up for the big ones.

A dear friend of mine introduced me to an alternative to the “dust to dust” quote. She, instead, favors the line from Mark: “Repent and receive the good news.”

Some people may not see much difference between the two, but I need all the good news I can get.

I saw a Facebook posting that proclaimed Lent as a time of spiritual renewal, “rather than a time of deprivation.” When you look at it that way, Lent takes on an entirely different meaning.

I will admit it is strange to see people walking around in the 21st Century with soot on their foreheads. But I am so glad this tradition still continues in these days of skyscrapers and smartphones.

I’m feeling in need of a bit of spiritual renewal right about now. I’m still working on being more mindful and I’m not satisfied with my lack of progress.

I am getting better at catching myself slipping into the past or worrying about the future, but I'm still wasting brain cells on this behavior and it's a bit disappointing.

I know the dangers of sweeping declarations so I will not make any. I'm not going to vow to give up anything, except, perhaps, I'll give up making vows I can't keep.

I’m only seeking to renew my spirit.

I'm going to be taking some time off. I'll try and keep up with all your blogs, but don't hate me if I fall behind. See you soon.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When in Rome...

"Volare" will never sound the same to me.

The 1958 hit tune—officially titled “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu”—crops up during a rip-snorting love scene in “Room in Rome” and it’s certainly a vivid variation on a theme.

The film tells the story of two people who come together for a night of love, passion and, quite possibly, a new life together.

It also features some of the most seriously smoking girl-on-girl hook-ups it’s ever been my perverted pleasure to witness. This thing makes “Bound” look like “Toy Story.”

I know, I know. I’m a pig, a degenerate, a lowlife sexist, chauvinist loser who should be mortally ashamed of himself. And, believe me, I am.

Shame was a key ingredient of my Catholic upbringing, after all, along with bad nerves, low self-esteem and an irrational fear of penguins.

But I can’t help myself. These love scenes are incredible.

What? You say you want some plot details? All right, if you insist.

Alba and Natasha meet in a bar in Rome, go back to Alba’s hotel room and proceed to get as naked as a pair of plucked chickens. How’s that for plot details?

I really can’t review this thing because, to be honest, I was counting the seconds until the ladies got back to business. I liked some non-naked moments, I suppose, and I think I remember enjoying the editing of a few scenes, but it’s all a bit of a haze.

I was also feeling a bit claustrophobic after a while, as the movie really accentuates the “Room” part of the title, as opposed to the “Rome.”

“Do you want me to take my clothes off?” Natasha asks Alba early on in the film.

“Yes, goddamnit!” I shouted at my TV. “Let’s get this show on the road!”

Checking In

And these two lovely women deliver the goods. This is a room with one hell of a view. The “Volare” scene alone is worth your time, as Natasha and Alba sing in the shower and then really make some beautiful music together.

I tell you, if I had been wearing a toupee it would have flown off my head and burst into flames. I would loved to have been a part of this film’s crew, but the excessive drooling might have been a problem.

Women tell me they have no interest in guy-on-guy action, so I have to wonder what exactly is up with the male of the species--besides that, of course. Are we really the sex-obsessed Cro-Magnon clowns that women say we are? How ghastly!

Also, I have gay friends and I’m genuinely concerned that I might be offending them by giving voice to my lascivious longings. But being Catholic, I also have to confess my sins, so there you are.

Now in my own defense, I don’t watch dirty movies, I’ve never been in a strip club and that peep show thing was an accident, I don’t give a rat’s ass what anybody says.

But if I’m sitting in my living room and a racy movie like this happens to beam into my TV, well that’s an act of God. And the fact that I had to set up the recording ahead of time is completely immaterial.

I could claim that I watched the movie only because I was trapped in my apartment by the nefarious Nor’Easter Nemo and didn’t have anything else to watch.

But to be borrow a phrase from Ebenezer Scrooge, I would’ve watched this movie if it “was in the middle of a heat wave on August bank holiday.”

I erased “Room in Rome” the second it ended and I was severely tempted to throw the DVR out the window, but I knew I would’ve jumped right out after it.

Maybe I should just accept the fact that I’m just human with all the flaws and faults that come with the job. I’m sure even the most cultured connoisseur likes to sneak in the occasional Big Mac.

I’ll just have to live with myself and my deviant desires. But there is one thing of which you can be certain.

I really am ashamed of myself.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Storm Warning

Pandemonium was breaking out in my local supermarket today and I was so happy to be a part of it.

I try to avoid crowds when I shop, but with the oddly-named blizzard Nemo clawing its way toward New York, everybody and his brother was crowding the aisles of Key Food in search of the last ounce of everything.

The mob scene didn’t bother me, though. I was happy to be amongst humanity. After the preceding few hours I was happy to be at all.

Last night I had sat down before the computer determined to make some progress on a short story that’s been giving me fits.

Elmore Leonard once said writers should forget about short stories and focus on novels and screenplays.

Now I know what he’s talking about. You have such little room to work with in a short story that if one bit doesn’t sound right, the whole thing goes off the tracks.

I was just getting down to business when I started to feel this strange pressure in my chest.

It’s your imagination, I told myself. It’s not…you know…what you think it is.

But the tightness in my chest got worse and my skin felt dry and cold. I started guzzling water and returned to the keyboard, even though I was feeling worse by the minute.

I felt a weird numbness in my fingers and my hands trembled as I reached for the bottle of Xanax I usually reserve for flying. Why the hell were my fingers tingling?

I wondered if this was it, the Big One, that Fred Sanford used to have with amusing regularity. I actually picked up my phone twice to call 911, only to back off at the last second.

That was a huge mistake, by the way, because even if you’re wrong and you wind up spending hours in the ER for nothing at least you’ll put an end to the guesswork.

And Nemo Was His Name-O

The smartest thing I did all evening was to not Google heart attack symptoms because I knew I would’ve found something to make me even crazier.

I finally got to sleep and felt better when I got up this morning. But I still didn’t know what was going on and realizing that a blizzard was on the way, I called my doctor’s office the second he opened his doors and got my quivering tail over there.

What if it really is something serious, I chided myself. Think of all the time you wasted regretting the past and fuming over every bad thing that’s ever happened to you. Is that the way you want to check out of this world?

The nurse, God bless her, cheered me up a little bit when she told me that I didn’t look my age and then my doctor did her one better by saying my heart wasn’t the problem.

He said I have a hiatal hernia, which, while not pleasant, is certainly better than what I thought I had. He gave me a prescription and recommended I see a specialist.

I stretched out on the examination table to get an EKG, lacing my fingers behind my head and easing back on the pillow.

“Don’t do that,” my doctor said. “Your fingers will go numb.”

I walked out there with a new love for life. Nemo be damned, I was going to enjoy myself.

The good feeling lasted all day and even as I stood on the supermarket checkout line listening to that godawful song “Isn’t She Lovely?” playing on the sound system.

Life is a very short story indeed and allowing our emotions to get the better of us will only bring it to an abrupt and pointless end.

A little girl behind me started singing along with Stevie Wonder and suddenly the song sounded much better to me. As she and her father unloaded their shopping cart, she turned and looked up at him.

“When I grow up, Daddy,” she said, “I’m going to sing a song about you.”

She then placed a six-pack of beer on the counter.

"Daddy," she asked, "how come you buy beer but you never buy soda?"

"That's not true," the father said, and gave me a wink.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Your father is a very lucky man, I thought, and I hope he knows it. His beautiful daughter had given me a lovely memory that I’ll hold on to long after Nemo has come and gone.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

An Honest Mistake

My dad was a wholesale meat salesman and he once told me about a butcher he knew who had been caught overcharging customers.

“It was an honest mistake,” the butcher cried to a dubious city inspector. “It was an honest mistake!”

“So what happened?” My father asked.

“What happened?” The hapless merchant lamented. “I’m talking; he’s writing!”

Now I know how that butcher feels. I recently made the mistake of walking into the wrong place, which is how a lot of stories begin and how a lot obituaries end.

I was making my way down 42nd Street on a very cold Saturday night to meet up with some friends at a horror-theme bar called Times Scare.

Much like Grand Central Terminal, Times Square has improved exponentially since the 70s, when pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers lurked on every corner and porn theaters and peep shows lined 42nd Street and the neighboring blocks.

People ran Three Card Monte games right out in the open as if it were a perfectly natural thing to do. I witnessed a brawl one Sunday afternoon when a player claimed he had been cheated.

And I’m sure he had been. That’s the whole point of Three Card Monte-cheating.

The victim chased the dealer down Broadway and one of the con man’s accomplices smashed the aggrieved player across the stomach with a large umbrella. The guy took it in stride, though, and continued the pursuit.

“I’ll fucking kill you!” the player shouted.

Yes, back then New York was a great place to bring your family—as long as your last name was Manson.

However, all that debauchery is gone now. People bring their children to this former No Man’s Land, and Times Square is so squeaky clean it could double for Disneyland.

Or so I thought.

When I reached the Port Authority Bus Terminal I looked across the street and saw a sign advertising Times Scare. Great, I thought, I have arrived.

I crossed the street, walked through the door, and immediately felt something was off. This was supposed to be a club, and yet it was so quiet. Yeah, as they say in the old westerns, too quiet.

A man walked toward me and I greeted him, assuming he was a club employee. But he put his head down to avoid any eye contact and scurried out the door.

Okay, pal, whatever. I walked cautiously down the hall until I reached a doorway, poked my head into the adjoining room, and saw a row of booths. I was completely confused for few a seconds and then I got it.

I was in a peep show joint.

Right This Way

It was an honest mistake, it really was, but who in the hell would believe me?

I’m the star of this little melodrama and even I don’t believe it. It’s like “accidentally” walking into the women’s locker room at the gym, which I’ve also done, but I’d rather not talk about it.

I stood staring at the line of booths. For one insane second, I actually thought that this was part of the club’s atmosphere, a kind of urban theme park: come see Times Square the way it was in the bad old days!

But I quickly realized that this was the real McCoitus and I did some scurrying of my own, right out the front door.

I didn’t know these places still existed, especially now when you can download the most perverted material imaginable straight into your smart phone. Or so I’m told…

I stepped out of the building and immediately made eye contact with a rather shifty-looking young man.

You should never lock eyes with anyone on 42nd Street—not even Santa Claus.

“Yo, chief,” my new friend cried, “you need a woman?”

“No, thanks,” I said, while increasing my pace.

Not to be deterred, this street corner capitalist fell in step right behind me, probably assuming that anyone coming out of a peep show was in need of all sorts of funky stuff.

“How about some weed?”

“I’m good! I’m good!”

I shifted into overdrive and made my escape. Now I have to wonder what else this enterprising fellow had for sale besides prostitutes and narcotics. Rocket launchers? Lose nukes? Anatomically explicit chia pets?

I turned the corner on Eighth Avenue and saw the huge marquee announcing Times Scare that I had somehow managed to miss when I first arrived. I walked in and joined my friends for an evening full of fun and free of porn.

Times Square really has changed over the years. There are plenty of family-friendly things to do in a location that has been justifiably described as the crossroads of the world.

But just be careful not to walk into the wrong place. You don’t want to make any mistakes—honest or otherwise.

Friday, February 01, 2013

That’s The Ticket!

I had to be there.

Today is the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal and I made sure to swing by for a little while this morning and enjoy the party.

There was an orchestra warming up in the middle of the terminal when I arrived. A crowd was quickly forming and security was tight with police officers and National Guardsmen patrolling the place.

The luggage area was filled with displays detailing the history of what is quite possibly my favorite New York City landmark.

I am certainly not knocking the Statute of Liberty (She’s officially in Jersey), Central Park, the Empire State Building or any of the many museums, art galleries, or theaters that this city has to offer.

It’s just that Grand Central Station has a special place in my heart.

I remember the terminal back in the bad old days of the Seventies, when it was essentially a massive homeless shelter.

On a cold winter’s night, people with no place to live would move into station in search of shelter and very aggressively ask for change. I recall one freezing night in particular when the homeless outnumbered the travelers. It was a bad time for Grand Central and for New York, as well.

I want to make myself clear: I am not saying the homeless should be chased off the streets and locked up in pens. We’re all a little closer to being homeless than we would like to believe, so compassion is paramount in dealing with this problem.

But you cannot allow a major transportation hub and a magnificent work of architecture to be turned into a giant flophouse. That’s not a solution; that’s a surrender.

The First Hundred Years

Back then there was usually some foul odor in the air and the ceiling way overhead was blackened with decades’ worth of filth and grime.

Nobody went there except the commuters, of course, and they only hung around long enough to get their trains and run like hell back to the suburbs.

Ed Koch was the mayor of New York for many of those dark years and, while I wasn't a fan, it seems sadly ironic that such a charismatic New Yorker would die on the same day we celebrate the centennial of one of the city's greatest treasures.

The terminal was in danger of being torn down in 1968, but a group of concerned citizens, including Jackie Onassis, fought to save this magnificent structure from the wrecking ball.

Grand Central was refurbished and when I moved back to New York in 1998, I went to a celebration commemorating the station’s rebirth.

There were shops and restaurants in the station. That atrocious black ceiling was scrubbed clean and the original night sky shade of blue-green was restored—complete with lighted starts and outlines of constellations.

I actually encourage out-of-towners to visit Grand Central now, instead of warning them to steer clear of the place.

If I’m anywhere in the vicinity of the terminal, I’ll make a point of walking through it just to take in the atmosphere, watch the people rushing by, and admire the beautiful surroundings.

Grand Central is more than just a location to me. It’s a living, breathing place that bears witness to millions of stories passing through its doors.

I didn’t stay for very long today this morning. The terminal was getting crowded and I had to get back to work.

On the way to the subway, I noticed a man who appeared to be homeless leaning against a closed ticket window and wolfing down a sandwich. Festivities notwithstanding, we still have more work to do.

But the renovation offers an important lesson for all of us. Just like Grand Central, people can be salvaged, too. You can always shake off the grime, get back on track and resume your journey.

All aboard!