Sunday, October 27, 2013

Gnome of the Brave

Victoria had it all planned.

My 18-year-old niece called me from Colorado recently to tell me what I would be wearing for Halloween this year. As usual with Victoria, I have no say in the matter.

“You’re going to be a garden gnome,” she said.

Yes, that’s right, my brother Jim’s daughter didn’t see me as a pirate or one of those sexy vampire types I keep hearing about.

No, she had decided that I should go out in public dressed like some mythic subterranean creature with severe wardrobe issues.

“A gnome?” I demanded. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Victoria said. “All the women will love it.”

“With my luck the only thing I’ll attract will be female gnomes,” I shouted.

I should probably pause here to mention that this would be a distinct improvement over my current dating status--but I still ain’t doing it.

“No,” my niece insisted. “They’ll look at you and say, ‘wow, this guy dresses up like a gnome. There must be something to this guy.’”

Yeah, he’s a mental case!

“Why don’t I just let you take over my love life entirely?” I asked with a heavy dollop of sarcasm.

“You should,” Victoria said. “Women will think you’re so cool and then you can thank me.”

Oh, sure. There’s nothing I’d like more than having a teenager call the shots on my relationships—or the lack of them. I told Victoria she should try writing an advice column for the lovelorn.

“I would be the best Dear Abby ever,” she assured me.

Of course she would. She’d have all her readers dressing like gnomes in no time at all.

Gnome Sick

This latest conversation played out like most of my other phone chats with Victoria, with me laughing until I choke and repeatedly crying to the heavens, “what’s wrong with this kid?”

It’s hard to believe that this is the same person who once sat on my knee and laughed at all my silly routines. Now she and her cousin, Kristin, both run rings around me. And I absolutely love it.

Victoria actually wanted the entire family—including my auntie—to dress up like gnomes this year, which makes sense because, as we all know, gnome is where the heart is.

But the idea made me think of those creepy family portraits that have been polluting the web lately and I strongly suggested we skip it.

To be honest, I’m really not a big fan of Halloween. If you’re into dressing up in a costume, by all means, go forth and knock yourself out.

I’ve really enjoyed some of the creative outfits I’ve seen over the years. Honestly, I’m not an Ebenezer Weenie. It’s just not for me.

But, more importantly, I’ve been feeling lousy all week with some kind of bug that has sapped the energy out of my body like Count Dracula coming off a seven-year hunger strike.

I’ve got the chills, a stuffed head, and a severe case of the crazies. And I’m so exhausted that the only character I’ll be playing this year will be Rip Van Winkle.

However Victoria has decreed that I will dress as a gnome, Halloween or not, and she will not be deterred. Her bedroom has this forest theme going on and she tells me that when I come out to visit, I’ll have to don a gnome hat and pose for a photo.

“That’s totally happening,” she declared. “You can’t escape your fate!”

Fair enough. And, speaking of fate, Victoria has already decided upon next year’s Halloween family theme.

She wants all of us, yes, all of us, to dress up like the Village People.

Okay, so I call dibs on the Cowboy. And now it’s time to rehearse my moves: “Y-M-C-A, it’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A…”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pocket's Red Glare

I really thought I was going to need that toothbrush.

I had to dump the contents of my pockets into a tray on Saturday, but I didn’t do it for Homeland Security.

I did it for art.

I had joined other members of the Meetup group “Everything Brooklyn” to attend the annual Gowanus Open Studios event in Park Slope.

We hiked in and around old warehouses in Park Slope that have been converted into art studios.

One of the artists, Joana Ricou, was working on a fantastic project where she asked people to take whatever they had out of their pockets, put it all in a tray, and allow her to photograph it.

Joana explained that the contents of our pockets tell us who we are at a given moment in time. The photos are a freeze frame of our lives, particularly in this age of the smart phone, where we carry personal computers packed with all our vital information.

I usually leave my house with my front pockets brimming with all manner of stuff—bloated wallet, I-phone, house keys, and a business card holder that also contains my parents’ prayer cards as well as one for Mary, the woman who took care of my dad up until his death.

Mary’s card is inscribed with “The Prayer of St. Francis,” my choice for the most beautiful prayer ever, and I like to keep it handy.

On this day I also was carrying a traveler’s toothbrush. I had thought that perhaps I’d go to a story-telling show in Manhattan after the art tour and, if so, I intended to stop at one of the New York Sports Club’s outlets to take to a sauna, a shower, and brush the old chompers.

What can I say? I wasn’t a Boy Scout for very long, but I do like to be prepared.

I stepped back when the call for volunteers went out. I wasn’t going to allow someone to take a mug shot of all this personal material so total strangers could gawk and snicker at it.

But the concept fascinated me; it’s so simple, yet so brilliant. What we carry says so much about us that I thought I might learn something if I joined in.

Personal Defects

One of the people in our group went first and, annoyed at myself for holding back, I stepped up behind him and grabbed an empty tray.

“I might need two of these,” I said.

I must say it took a while to dig out all of my possessions. I thought I heard somebody chuckle when I removed the toothbrush, but it didn’t bother me. I wanted to share.

I told Joana about the prayer cards and she plucked Mary’s out of the folder and set it on top of the pile so the camera could capture it.

Then I stepped back and I looked at my life in a tray. Jesus, the only things missing here were a pack of condoms and a flare gun.

Clearly I don’t like to be caught short, and I’m a virtual slave to my dad’s rule of “better to have it and not need it, then to need it and not have it.”

My life often feels as crammed as my pockets. Before meeting up with the group on Saturday afternoon, I had gone to my gym, dry cleaners and fruit store. And I seriously thought I’d go to another event in Manhattan? Ultimately, I scraped that last bit, deciding that the day had been long enough.

I felt strange looking at my all stuff; it was liberating in a way, a kind of out-of-body experience. I belonged to no one.

Yes, at the moment I had no identity, no way of calling the outside world, and no place to live. But I also felt free to be somebody else—or a better version of who I am now.

I could be someone who is not so cautious and uptight. I could stop obsessing about planning things and actually start doing them. Even my parents’ prayer cards, which mean so much to me, are symbols of the love that I carry for them in my heart every waking moment.

I had a sudden flashback to Jack Finney’s “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets,” a short story I read as a freshman at Brooklyn Tech in 1971 and which I probably haven’t thought about since.

The story concerns a young man who risks his life to retrieve an important business document that has blown out the window of his high rise apartment and come to rest on a ledge.

The guy gets into some very serious trouble and at one point he wonders what people will think when they scrape his corpse from the sidewalk and look through his pockets.

All of a sudden that vitally important document wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Joana’s project really got me thinking, which is the greatest compliment I can pay to any artist. Thanks to her I was recalling my past, examining my present and reconsidering my future.

I gathered up my belongings and made way for another one of my companions to take the plunge. My pockets were full again, but nothing could weigh me down.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hell, D’oh!

Maybe I should’ve stuck with the hamsters.

I left my office in lower Manhattan on Friday night and walked right into the middle of an animal act.

A man was setting up a series of boxes at the corner of Broadway and Cortland Street and unpacking a portable petting zoo.

There was a line of hamsters crammed on top of one box and a cat on leash crouching before a bucket of dollar bills.

I don’t know what this man was planning to do, but I don’t care for animal shows.

If you need to make other creatures perform so you can feel superior, well, then we all know who the truly inferior animal is, don’t we?

Besides, I was due uptown at Playwrights Horizons, where I was taking in a new show called Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.

I had recently bought a subscription for the company’s 2013-2014 season and I was looking forward to seeing the first show. So I left the hamster man and jumped on the E train for 42nd Street.

There’s no place on earth like Times Square on a Friday night. The energy surging through the area is phenomenal. Within these few blocks you’ll find everything I absolutely love and thoroughly hate about New York.

There’s culture side by side with sleaze. In the boisterous crowds you’ll see gaping tourists, hustling street people and sophisticated theatergoers. There are fabulous restaurants, fast food joints, and falafel stands.

In a sense, the show really started the minute I got off the subway.

I was alone, but then didn’t bother me too much. I love the theater and I usually strike up a conversation with the people seated around me. And that’s what happened on this night as soon as I sat down. Theater people just like to talk to each other.

Okay, so I had a prime seat, excellent company, and I was in the greatest city in the world. I was in a very good mood.
And then the play started.

Curtain Rises

You know, I hate to be a nit-picky pain in the wazoo, but I have to say that Mr. Burns really didn’t do it for me.

The play shows how pop culture becomes the stuff of mythology as humanity struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.

The first act, which is the best, has survivors sitting around a fire retelling episodes of The Simpsons. The atmosphere is charged as the characters quiz a stranger about the state of other cities and the whereabouts of missing loved ones.

If only they had stopped there. Unfortunately, the story turns farcical, with groups of survivors performing episodes of the long-running animated series until finally, some 75 years later, the material has been mutated into a kind of grand opera.

Science fiction writers have been addressing similar themes for years and the playwright didn’t add much to the mix. She may have had a point, but she insisted upon making it with a sledgehammer.

The final act was excruciating and I actually felt sorry for the actors, who were all excellent. I sincerely hope they get better gigs out of this show.

The fact that Ben Brantley from the New York Times raved about this show should have been a warning. This was the same man who had swooned over the current revival of The Glass Menagerie that left my sister and I decidedly cold.

Maybe Mr. Brantley could review the animal show on Cortland Street. He’d probably gush on about that, too.

I’ve always said that going to the theater is a tremendous experience, no matter what the quality of the play.

Mr. Burns severely tested that belief, but I still haven’t changed my position. Theater is a miracle with an intermission.

After the show, I walked right up 42nd Street to get to my train and Times Square was just as crazy as ever.

I toyed with the idea of stopping by the Times and giving Ben Brantley a piece of my mind, but I don’t think I would’ve gotten through security. And the man has a right to his opinion, no matter demented it may be.

I made great connections on the subway and got back to Brooklyn in record time. Despite my disappointment with the play, I was happier than a box full of hamsters.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Into The Woods

Every Sunday I like to sit down and read the New York Daily News “Justice Story” column.

As a former police reporter and perspiring writer, I enjoy these old time stories of crime and punishment.

After five years of chasing police cars and fire engines, being cursed at by lowlifes, and harassing victims’ families at the worst hour of their lives, it’s nice to sit on my rear end and enjoy all manner of mayhem without having to report on it.

I’m cover accounting now, and while it’s nothing like police reporting, I get to work a normal schedule and I don’t have to fly out the door in the pursuit of havoc every time the police scanner squawks.

Last week I was reading a Justice Story about Carl Gugasian, aka “The Friday Night Bank Robber,” a one-man crime wave who, over the course of nearly 30 years, had knocked over a series of banks from New England to Virginia.

This guy hit his intended targets like a commando taking down a terrorist cell. He meticulously planned his robberies, always wore elaborate disguises, and earned his moniker by sticking up banks on Fridays just before closing time.

The article said Gugasian pulled a number of jobs in Pennsylvania and instead of using a getaway car, Mr. Friday Night would rob banks located near forests so he run into the woods and vanish.

And that’s when I sat up in my chair.

“Hey,” I said to my computer screen, “I know that son-of-a-bitch!”

Of course, I don’t actually know the guy, but I did cover a bank robbery in the Poconos that bore all the signs of Gugasian job.

It was a rainy day—possibly a Friday—sometime in the 1990s, and I was recovering from a nasty bout with the flu. I was sitting at my desk praying to God for a quiet day at the office. But about an hour into my shift the scanner lit up with a call for an armed robbery in Mountainhome. And off I went.

The bank was sealed up tight, standard procedure for a hold-up, and there were cops all over the place. Some state troopers I knew were heading into the woods where the gunman had run and I fell in right behind them.

“Where are you going?” one of the troopers said in mock outrage.

This was part of the usual razzing I had to come expect from these guys.

Crime Scene

Sgt. Mike Chaplin, the commander of the Swiftwater barracks at the time, once told me that cops only break your balls if they like you. If they don’t like you, they just don’t talk to you.

The ground and bushes were soaking wet and I thought, great, I’m just back at work and now I’m risking a bout of pneumonia.

I’ve had a lot of trouble with my health over the years and as I stomped into the woods with rainwater in my socks, I wondered if maybe the stress of covering crime was too much for me.

Perhaps I should stick to town meetings, or even get out of reporting all together.

But then I looked around at all the cops, felt this surge of adrenalin charge through me as I trailed an honest-to-God bank robber, and I thought, no, whatever’s running down my immune system, it wasn’t police reporting. I loved this stuff too much.

I ran back to the bank and hit the mother lode of information when I found an actual eyewitness to the robbery. This man had planned a day of golf with his buddies and stopped off at the bank so he could pick up some cash.

“I walked into the bank,” he told me. “And everybody has their hands in the air.”

Then he turned, saw a masked standing behind the door pointing a gun at him, and raised his hands, too.

The golfing buddies actually chased the gunman into the forest—something you really shouldn’t do—and they saw him throw a handful of cash in one direction and run in the other in hopes of throwing off his pursers. But they kept on his tail.

“Then he slowed down,” the golfer told me, “turned and pointed the gun at us. That’s when we stopped chasing him.”

I was tripping at this point. Page One story, complete with fabulous quotes—fuck the flu!

My heart sank when a local TV truck pull up. They were going to interview my witnesses—reporters are so possessive—and go on the air that evening while I couldn't get my story out to the next day.

I knew the TV cameraman, who was a very nice guy, but not a reporter. His job was to get footage for the show to run with the news copy.

“What’s going on?” he asked me.

“Oh, not much,” I said, my stomach in knots. “Just waiting on the cops.”

The cameraman got his footage, left without talking to the witnesses, and I was able to breath again. I know it wasn’t nice, but this is a tough racket. And I didn’t lie. I just didn’t tell him about the great material I had just gathered. Sorry, dude.

Wanted Man

Mike Chaplin was my best source ever. He would always tell me a ton of details just to give me a better understanding of a story.

In this case, he told me that the guy was a suspect in at least two other area bank robberies, including one where a bank employee was shot. But he asked me to keep that out of the paper.

“We don’t want him to know what we know,” he said.

The suspect wasn’t caught that day despite an intense manhunt.

I eventually moved on to business writing and Mike Chaplin retired and moved to Florida to get into the aviation business.

Carl Gugasian evaded the law for roughly 10 more years before some kids in suburban Philadelphia found a length of pipe buried in the woods that contained guns, ammunition, masks, maps, and a list of potential bank targets.

It was April Fool’s Day, 2001.

I decided to email Mike a copy of the Daily News story. We hadn’t communicated in a long time and I figured he’d get a kick out it. He remembered the gunman’s profile instantly, though not this particular job.

And then he said something that absolutely made my day.

I have to tell you, I love flying,” he wrote. "I have a great business but I really miss catching the ‘perps.’ And I really miss working with you. We were a helluva team... I miss you, Buddy.

Same here, brother, and I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one who has fond memories of that grief. And for the record we were indeed a helluva team.

I am thankful beyond description for my current job, but I have to admit that, on occasion, I do miss the sound of sirens, the smell of smoke, and the thrill of chasing cops in the rain.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Picture This

Oh, come on now.

Look, I know I’ll never be mistaken for Brad Pitt, but I can’t possibly be as ugly as this temporary office ID photo makes me out to be.

I left my ID badge at home the other day and was forced to go through the ritual of posing for a temporary badge like a purse-snatcher being booked at a police station.

This was the second time in six months that I've done this and I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious statement about my job, a sign of creeping dementia, or both.

Whatever the reason, I can assure you that it’s a swift pain in the caboose.

I think I handled things better this time around, or at least I was handling them better until I looked down at the ID photo and came face-to-face with an absolute freak of nature.

Are you kidding me? I looked like an extra from The Walking Dead, for God’s sake.

My head sits on my shoulders like a rotting pumpkin and for some reason I’m looking up to the ceiling as if the roof is about to come crashing down on me.

If I could make a mask out of this face I’d sell it at Halloween and retire to the Cayman Islands.

Parents could scare their kids into eating their veggies by showing them this photo and saying “finish your greens or you’ll look like this!”

The funny thing is that I had just recently found someone else’s ID photo on a utility box in the Fulton Street subway station.

I Was Here, But Now I'm Gone...

Willbaldo—I’ll keep his last name to myself—had apparently been working as something called a “default receptionist” at a bank in the World Financial Center. And, through no default of his own, he got stuck with a terrible photo.

He appears to be in his twenties. He’s standing in the lobby of an office building with his eyes closed as the camera captures him in mid-blink and he looks like he’s sleepwalking or waiting for the Rapture.

I have this fascination with discarded photographs. They’re frozen moments in a stranger’s life, a small sign that we really are individuals with unique stories even though most days we may feel like ants in a massive colony.

I wonder what Willbaldo’s story is.
Does he still work at the bank or is he pounding the pavement in search of another job?

Is he married with children or does he live alone in some barren apartment? Is he happy?

Wouldn’t it be something if I could just slap on Willbaldo’s ID sticker and immediately know everything about him?

Imagine if we could all switch identities so easily, instantly know everyone else’s joys, secrets, and fears. The ID photo could be a kind of spiritual flash drive that allows us to walk a mile in another man's soul.

We might finally stop killing each other.

Willbaldo probably didn’t want to wear that awful picture any longer than he had to and got tired of being somebody else’s property. Perhaps that’s why I left ID badge home.

My mom always scolded me whenever I picked up stuff from the street, but it didn’t seem right to leave Willbaldo’s picture just sitting there. So I slipped a New York Times newspaper bag over my hand like a CSI, scooped it up, and brought it home.

I’ll probably keep Willbaldo’s photo for a while and get used to seeing it around my desk. Then one day I’ll pick the thing up as if I’ve never seen it before and ask “what the hell am I doing with this?”

And Willbaldo’s cut-rate portrait will go into the trash like it was meant to all along. But until then I’m going to hold onto this fragment of his life and imagine what I might see if I could look at the world through his eyes.