Sunday, November 24, 2013

Prayers of the People

Now I have two more names for the list.

There's a point during the mass at Trinity Church where we say the Prayers of the People, expressing thanks to God and asking for His help with the words “Lord, have mercy.”

We pray for our leaders, for the sick and suffering, the widowed and infirmed, and “for all who have died in the hope of the resurrection, and for all the departed.”

Each of us is then given the opportunity to name loved ones who have passed.

I’m still not accustomed to speaking up in church, but I find it comforting to name my parents, aunts, uncles and others close to me who have left this world.

Last week my family lost my both cousin Mary-Anne and my uncle Walter within the space of a few days. So I’ll be calling their names out in church as well.

I’m sorry to say that I had pretty much lost contact with Mary-Anne and I had not seen my Uncle Walter in years.

But it’s painful to think that they both died just at the start of the holiday season when we emphasize the importance of family and being together.

Walter, my mother’s brother, was a bomber pilot during World War II who went into commercial aviation after the war ended.

One of my fondest memories of Walter is when he showed up at brother’s wedding in Brooklyn many years ago.

Have A Seat

I seem to recall that there was some doubt about his attending, but Walter came walking into church at the appointed time and I remember my father talking about it for days afterward.

Mary-Anne was from my father’s side of the family and I have a dim memory of attending her wedding when I was just a child. One of my uncles took the glass of Champagne that had been placed before me, drained it, and put the empty glass back where it had been.

I still remember the look of shock on my mother’s face when she mistakenly thought that I had guzzled the bubbly.

I hadn’t seen Mary-Anne in nearly 30 years—oh, Good God, could it possibly be that long? We lost the connection with a lot of family members when my Aunt Loretta died.

Loretta, my dad’s sister, used to host huge Thanksgiving dinners at her apartment in upper Manhattan and so many of the people on my father’s side of the family attended.

We lost another connection with the death of my mother, who cooked the Christmas dinners. It seems to me that the older generation was better at keeping in touch and holding on to those family ties.

This year my aunt, my sister, and I will be having Thanksgiving dinner at my apartment. It’s no comparison to Aunt Loretta’s affairs, of course, but we’re family and we'll be together.

I like to think of the afterlife as one big Thanksgiving dinner where we sit down at a huge table with the ones we love from days gone by.

There’ll come a time when I’ll take my seat at that grand feast and sometimes I wonder if anyone will call out my name during the Prayers of the People.

But even if they don’t, I will always be thankful for my family.

Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

On the Avenue

I stood outside the shuttered storefront on Fifth Avenue on Friday afternoon and peered through the grating.

The last time I had been here, the place was crammed with all kinds of men’s clothing.

But now it was bone empty, the lights were off, and a notice from the city marshal’s office was taped to the window.

The store's owner had been shot to death last year by some psycho who went on to murder two more shopkeepers before the cops got him.

I had heard the owner’s family was keeping the store open and I wanted to shop there as a personal tribute to a hard-working man who had been cruelly and senselessly killed.

But the place seems to be the latest casualty on Fifth Avenue, my old shopping ground.

I used to live right off the avenue and every Saturday morning I’d go on my weekly shopping expedition, hitting the bank, bagel shop, dry cleaner, and fruit store, before ending up at Picardi’s, a neighborhood butcher.

By the time I got home I was usually staggering under the weight of multiple plastic bags and my arms were stretched out of their sockets.

I started going to other stores after I moved down by Shore Road and my bad back has driven me into the shopping cart generation.

I only live a short distance away, but I barely recognize Fifth Avenue now. Some of the newer stores seem tawdry, peddling junk rather than quality merchandise.

Last One Out…

I stopped by Picardi’s to get some cold cuts and dinner. One of the women who works there cooks these fabulous take-out meals, which are a blessing to a lifelong bachelor who hardly even looks at his oven.

But I’m going to have to go elsewhere for my supper. On the way out, the cashier told me that Picardi’s would be closing by the end of the year.

I couldn’t believe it. This place was something of a landmark in the neighborhood--or at least in the neighborhood I grew up in. But the shop's owner is getting on, as are the customers.

There is a large Arabic population in Bay Ridge, as well, and they all go to halal butchers.

“I’m sure I’ll be in here before December,” I told the cashier, “but if I don’t see you, take care.”

“Nice knowing you,” she replied.

I walked out onto the avenue that was no longer mine. I saw an elderly woman walking toward me and I wondered how much Fifth Avenue had changed since she was young.

Maybe she had started complaining about Bay Ridge going downhill when she was my age. And perhaps my version of the golden age looked like a steep decline to her.

I know change is inevitable and that neighborhoods are in a constant state of upheaval. I just don’t like it when it happens to my neighborhood.

I walked into a new men’s clothing store near my old home and immediately wished I hadn’t. I looked around briefly, but I didn’t see anything I liked and I bailed before anyone could approach me.

It was time to go home. As I headed back toward Shore Road I thought about the old stores that used to line Fifth Avenue. They’re long gone now, but it was nice knowing them.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Greatest Barrier

Whenever something bad happens, there’s a part of me that thinks I had it coming.

God is punishing you, I’ll tell myself. God is coming after you for all the bad things you’ve done.

It’s crazy, it’s unhealthy, and yet I still do it.

I’m just getting over another bout with chronic fatigue and, as usual, I made matters worse by getting angry and believing that I had somehow brought this illness upon myself.

You’re so arrogant about staying in shape, I scolded myself, that’s why you’re getting sick.

It’s a dark kind of ego trip, where I believe the Creator of the Universe is gunning for me—like He doesn’t have enough to do already. It’s all about me—as long as it’s bad news.

I got so upset last week that at one particularly low point I sent a desperate plea up to the Almighty.

“Whatever I did,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

Blind apologies usually don’t make much sense or have much value, but then I wasn’t thinking very clearly.

Just a few days later I was listening to a web cast of a service at Trinity Church. Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee was preaching that day and she talked about finding a message written on a welcome card in one of the pews.

“Listen,” she told the congregation. “Listen with the ears of your heart, not just your mind.”

And so I listened as Rev. Mallonee read two simple sentences and my heart nearly cracked in two.

Please don’t let me lose my job,” the message said. “I’m sorry for what I did.

Sending Out An S-O-S…

That’s all. No name, no explanation. It was an anonymous cry for help, like the survivor of a shipwreck putting a message into a bottle and hurling it into the sea.

I have no idea who this person was, but I instantly recognized the mindset, the frantic, illogical belief that connects our misdeeds—real or imagined--to our misfortune.

I would like to know what this person did—or, more importantly, what he or she thinks they did that was so terrible. I know from personal experience that we often believe we’ve committed the most heinous deeds only to find that the rest of the world doesn't see it that way.

I don’t know why bad things happen in this life, but I refuse to believe that they are some kind of divine retribution.

I don’t see God as a heavenly accountant, moving our lives around like beads on a universal abacus, determined to make sure everything adds up.

But fear can conjure up all kinds of irrational beliefs. It's just easier to spot them in other people rather than in ourselves.

After reading the card to the congregation, Rev. Mallonee spoke directly to the author of the message.

“Whoever you are,” she said, “blessed are you for you admit your failure. Blessed are you for you are free from the greatest barrier that humans put up between us and God’s mercy…human pride.”

She added “if you keep this attitude of total supplication and openness, God will bring you through it.”

I hope this person doesn't lose his or her job. And I truly hope he or she comes to terms with whatever they supposedly did.

If you can somehow make up for it, then do so as quickly as possible. If you can’t, then believe you have been forgiven and climb over this barrier.

I’ll see you in church.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Long Run

I high-fived the whole world today and then took a walk through time.

The New York Marathon charged through the five boroughs today and once again I joined my sister to watch more than 50,000 runners race down Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge on their way to the finish line in Central Park.

I can’t believe I almost didn’t go this year. I seriously thought about staying home and looking through the Sunday Times while athletes from every corner of the earth were running just a few blocks from my house.

Luckily my sister called last night and inspired me to get off my butt and away from the Sunday papers.

I slapped palms with so many runners today my hand went numb—and I didn’t care.

It was worth the momentary sting to connect with such a diverse group of people.

We marathon spectators are really ambassadors for a day, representing our city and our country to throngs of speeding visitors.

“Thank you,” one woman said to me as our hands connected.

“Thank you,” I replied.

This year’s event is especially poignant, since Hurricane Sandy scrubbed last year’s event and the country was rocked by the Boston Marathon bombings in April.

We started getting cold and my sister suggested we swing by our old home, which was less than two blocks away. I haven’t been down that street in so long and I wondered what the new owners had done with the house, which we sold two years ago this month.

I was also hoping to see some of my former neighbors, including the old Chinese lady who lived next door to us for so many years.

I always refer to her as “my buddy” because that’s what she is—my buddy, my friend, a sweet, lovely person who means the world to me even though neither one of us can understand what the other is saying.

She was always after me to get the garbage out on the proper days and insisted on carrying the empty trashcans into my backyard even though I was standing right next to her.

I’ve been worried about her because she’d had open-heart surgery a few years back and I was hoping she was all right.

Miles Away

There didn’t appear to be anyone at our house today.

Most of the people on our block now are Chinese, including the owners of our house. And, like a lot of other people on the block, the new owners have replaced the small steps leading to our front door with a massive brick staircase.

There was also new front and side doors and what appeared to be a huge air conditioning unit on the side of the building.

I thought I would be devastated to see anyone else living in the place where I grew up. And I figured I’d be outraged if someone dared to make any kind of changes to my ancestral home.

But standing out on the sidwalk with my sister, I realized that it didn’t bother me to see the place occupied by new people and I wasn’t at all fazed by the alterations.

I carry the memories of my time there in my heart wherever I go; they’re not bound to any piece of property.

I was hoping we’d somehow magically run into my buddy next door and my sister came up with the brilliant idea of ringing her doorbell.

We did that very thing, her husband answered the door, and my sister flagged down a woman walking by and asked her to act as a translator.

Then my buddy came out. It was so great to see her after more than two years. She and her husband are in my parents’ general age bracket, so seeing them makes me think of my mom and dad.

I gave her a big hug and a kiss and told her I missed her, language barrier be damned. I know she understood me.

They very kindly invited us inside but the conversation was understandably brief and we left a short time later.

I’m thankful that we got to see my buddy again. And I can finally accept that the house on Senator Street no longer belongs to us.

Like marathon runners, we see many memorable things on our journey through life, but we must keep on going until we finish the race.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Wind and Sirens

All I can hear is the wind and sirens.

And so began a blog entry I wrote a year ago when Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York area. While I had electricity that night, the storm had taken out my television, telephone, and Internet connection.

I am writing a post that no one can read,” I wrote. “I’d be completely off the grid if it weren’t for the cell phone and the radio. So I guess they weren’t kidding….

I’m writing this on an unusually warm autumn day. But things were different a year ago.

The winds are wailing all around my house. From my third floor window I can see the tops of the trees being whipped from side to side. Hurricane Sandy has arrived and she is stomping all over this corner of the world.

I was going through another one of my back episodes at the time and could hardly walk. While I was accustomed to being stuck in my house, I wrote that the hurricane “makes me feel even more cut off.”

I have to write because there’s nothing else to do.

I wrote about feeling old and isolated, about being stranded. I went on about how I had a million things to do, “but the weather and my physical condition have pushed me into a corner.”

I had no idea that so many people were dying that night; that so many people were losing their homes and all their possessions. It was like I was in bathysphere sunk deep into a black ocean.

I didn’t realize how lucky I was, that losing my cable service for 12 days was nothing compared with what so many others were going through. Yet looking back at my post-storm entries, I devoted so much space to complaining about not being able to watch TV or screw around on the web.

I’m sorry I reacted so foolishly. Being cut off from the world, I didn’t appreciate how people had suffered and, in fact, continue to suffer. I wish I could’ve been more grateful for coming through such a nightmare unscathed. I’d like to think I learned something.

I truly see how much time I waste on the web,” I wrote in my unseen entry. “I’ve been tempted several times during the writing of this post to check my email list or Facebook or any number of news sites. It’s time to recharge my vow to spend more time writing and less time surfing.

That vow still needs work. I can feel my attention span crumbling as I flit from one website to another each night. How much of this alleged “information” do I retain? And what good is any of it when disaster strikes?

Today is All Saint’s Day. I had the day off, so I watched the lunchtime service at Trinity Church on the Internet.

“God is counting on you to be holy,” Rev. Mark told the congregation. “God wants you to be blessed and to be a blessing for others. God wants you to be a saint.”

I’m a long way from being a saint, to put it mildly, but I think being thankful for what I have is a step in the right direction.