Sunday, September 28, 2014

Guarding the House

Whenever we went on vacation, we always took our dogs with us.

Kennels were absolutely out of the question as we considered our pets to be members of the family.

You don't put your loved ones in a cage just because you feel like getting out of town for a few weeks.

There were a few occasions, though, when we were staying at my aunt’s farmhouse in the Berkshires when we had to leave our dog, Casey, at the house.

Usually we’d be going to the movies or dinner and it wouldn’t be right make him sit in the car for two or more hours. And just before we left my father would explain the situation to Casey.

“Casey,” he’d say, “you have to stay home and guard the house. Guard the house.”

My dad usually said it twice to drive the point home, but honestly he didn’t have to tell Casey even once. Dogs are natural born guardians, ready to lay down their lives for their loved ones without a moment’s hesitation.

I thought about the dogs in our family recently when my sister and I made one of our nighttime rides by our childhood home on Senator Street.

We sold the house three years ago, but we still like to drive by every so often to see what’s become of the place where our parents raised us.

Dog Days

The new owners have made some modest changes to the exterior, but the house always seemed eerily uninhabited whenever we go by, dark and lifeless, and sharply contrasting with the other homes on the block.

There were times when we wondered if the owners were going to try and flip the place just to make some fast cash—which, of course, they have every right to do. They own the property and they can do just about anything they want with the place. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

However, things were different on this last ride. As my sister slowed down, we could see a car in the driveway and there were lights in the upstairs apartment.

But, most importantly, we saw the silhouette of a dog’s head in one of the second floor windows. He—or she—sat motionless, looking out on the street below.

It probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it meant a lot to us. I felt like the house was finally becoming a home.

A dog is a sign that there’s a family living there, that there’s stability. The new residents are putting down roots.

I thought about our parents and all our old neighbors who used to live on that block, almost all of whom are gone now, and the new families moving in to what used to be our space.

It’s a bittersweet feeling, but I’m glad there are people living there.

We had a number of dogs in our family: Casey, Schnapps, and before my time-Kerry and Daphne—all loyal and loving, all devoted guardians.

I don’t know anything about the new people and I’m in no hurry to find out, just as long as they’re happy and they put the house to good use.

And to that dog we saw in the window, I want to say keep up the good work. Keep guarding the house.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Big Upset

On March 31, 1980, WBA Heavyweight Champion John Tate was on his way to winning his first title defense when his opponent, Mike “Hercules” Weaver, landed a massive left hook to Tate’s head and sent the young fighter crashing face forward to the canvas.

It was a stunning upset, something that just wasn’t supposed to happen. Weaver was considered a journeyman, even though he had given Larry Holmes a rough time in a losing bid to win the WBC belt.
(Illustration by Brolga)

I was watching the fight at home with my father on that March night and my dad let out this roar when Tate tumbled limply to the mat.

Whoa!” my dad shouted.

We watched as Tate’s handlers rushed into the ring, turned the fallen fighter over and tried to revive him. He looked like a corpse. They gave him oxygen and when Tate finally did stand up, the sportscaster said four men were needed to help him out of the ring.

“Shocking…” my father said.

But things were about to get a lot more shocking in our house.

My mother, Gloria, who had been sick all that week, walked out of the bathroom, weakly called out to my father, “Jim,” and then fainted.

I must’ve been close to her because I remember grabbing her to keep her from falling to the floor. Her eyes were closed, she wasn’t moving, and in that moment I thought my mother had actually died.

“Come back!” I shouted at her. “Come back!”

My father came alongside of me, grabbed my mom and gently eased her to the floor.

“Shut that off!” he yelled, nodding to the TV.

I ran over to the TV, where Tate was still stretched out on the mat, and clicked it off. My dad was talking to my mother, gently shaking her, and trying to get her to speak.

And then there was a terrible moment, when she wasn’t responding, and my father pleaded with her to stay with us.

Glo!” he said desperately.

It was just one syllable, but I’ll never forget the terror in my father’s voice as he held my mother in his arms.

Say A Prayer

I’d never seen my father like this before. He had fought in World War II; he had seen men killed on the battlefield. He wasn’t afraid of anything.

But I saw that he was a husband, terrified that he was about to lose his wife of 30 years. We have a tendency to think that our parents’ lives began when we were born, but, of course, they’ve got a whole history together that we know nothing about.

My father's plea seemed to work because my mother opened her eyes then and he leaned over and kissed her.

I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and started screaming at the operator as she kept asking all these goddamn questions.

Will you just send the ambulance?”

“Calm down!”

Yes, that’s just what I needed to hear with my mother on the kitchen floor softly saying “God help me,” the same words my grandmother had said years before on the night she died.

The ambulance showed up and I rode down to Lutheran Medical Center with my mother, while my dad followed us in his car. I talked to my mother on the way the hospital.

“Pray to St. Martin,” I said, invoking my grandmother’s favorite saint.

And then I leaned on her and sobbed uncontrollably. I heard the ambulance attendant sigh as I wept. This was the first time in my life that I had ever realized my parents could die.

I sat in the waiting room while the attendants took my mother into the ER. The fights were showing on the hospital’s TV and I saw that Sugar Ray Leonard had knocked out Dave “Boy” Green with a devastating left hook of his own.

Leonard later called it "the hardest single punch I ever threw.”

There was a replay of Green hitting the deck and I suddenly wasn’t a boxing fan anymore. Now I was sickened by the thought of people bashing each other in the head while a crowd roared its approval.

Even Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, took his lumps that night. While he was walking to the post-fight press conference, someone punched him in the face and knocked him down.

Meanwhile I was begging God to spare my mother’s life. My hair had just started thinning back then and while I had been very upset about it, I told God to take every single hair on my head if it meant keeping my mother alive.

I had done a lot of talking about moving to California and escaping Brooklyn, which wasn’t the cool place to be in those days, and I told the Almighty that I’d stay right here for the rest of my life if that’s what He wanted. Just please help my mother.

I’d cry, recover slightly, and then start crying all over again. My sister came down to the hospital with her boyfriend and gasped “oh, no!” when she saw the look on my face, convinced my mother had died.

We waited and waited until one of the doctors said my mother was out of danger and we could go home. She stayed in the hospital for about week before she was able to come home.

It turned out that my father had a religious experience as well on that night, as he started going to mass after my mother’s recovery.

John Tate was never the same after the Weaver fight. He became a cocaine addict, served time in prison, and was seen panhandling on the streets of Knoxville, TN.

On April 9, 1998, Tate suffered a stroke while driving his pick-up truck, crashed into a utility pole, and died from his injuries.

Years later we’d have a lot of close calls with my mother, racing to one hospital or another as her health deteriorated, and she finally left this world on July 16, 2002.

But at least on that night our prayers were answered.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Red Light, Green Light

As the recipient of many a rejection letter, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing when I’m about to get the heave-ho.

The language is always polite and supportive, but the message is still the same: scram.

And yet I always read every word on the outside chance that the latest letter may be the one that says “Yes” after all those “Nos.”

I try to stay positive, I really do, but when I saw an email from Project Greenlight in my inbox the other day, I got that old familiar feeling.

Project Greenlight is a TV show produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, among others, that gives first-time filmmakers a chance to direct a feature film.

The deadline to submit entries came up in August, on the very night before I was going to fly out to Colorado. I was sorely tempted to flag it: I had too much to do, my entry wasn’t top notch, I'm too old, and, the old standby—I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning.

Excuses? I’ve got a million of ‘em.

But this time I decided to rewrite that script. I’m always letting things slip by, saying I’ll get it to later, but never admitting to myself that “later” has this sneaky way of turning into “never.”

I had a video I had shot in my director’s class at the School of Visual Arts class two summers ago. (Jesus, already?)

It was crudely edited, with some rough spots that made my wince, but the idea of not submitting anything made me wince even more. Screw it. The dialog was good, if I say so myself, and the two actors in the scene gave off a lot of energy.

A few clicks later I was officially in the running and ready to enjoy my vacation.

I had pretty much forgotten about the submission until I got that email. Perhaps I was a finalist in the competition, the first step in the march towards wealth and fame. I moved my cursor over the message, paused a second, and then clicked.

Bourne Loser

On behalf of the Project Greenlight team,” the email began, “we would like to thank you for submitting your film to our director's contest.”

Okay, so far, so good…


Here it comes…

“--your submission did not make it to the Top 200,” the message continued. “With thousands of videos submitted for consideration, the competition was fierce.”

I wasn’t feeling particularly fierce at that moment. I mean, hell, I couldn’t even crack the Top 200?

Please know that your film was carefully considered by the Greenlight community, where each video was viewed and judged.”

I’ll take your word for it. Now I'm going to carefully consider if I want to jump off the Chrysler Building.

Do not be discouraged by this decision,” the email concluded. “Project Greenlight was created for you, so please continue to support the community so we can hold more contests like this one.

Discouraged, me? It's just one more addition to add to the growing ranks of rejection.

And at least I made the effort to enter the competition, instead of coming up with an excuse.

As I soon as read the last line my phone rang. I thought it was Matt Damon calling up to apologize for the mistake and to assure me that the limo was on its way to take me to the studio.

But this guy didn’t sound at all like Good Will Hunting.

You’ve just won a fabulous cruise to Bermuda,” a creepily jovial robovoice informed me.

What's this--a consolation prize? Your dreams of becoming a famous filmmaker have been dashed to itty bits and pieces, but here’s this lovely parting gift.

Please press one...”

I hung up the phone. Please don’t be discouraged, but I’m not interested in your bogus cruise.

Unless Matt Damon’s going…

Thursday, September 11, 2014

'A Turn of the Page'

I looked at the clock as I left my gym this morning and watched that red second hand sweep around the dial.

It was 8:36 AM, September 11, 2014. In 10 minutes there would be a moment of silence to mark the time when the first hijacked plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center 13 years ago at 8:46.

I thought of the second hand running around the clock, relentless, unstoppable. I’d give anything to back it all up, return to that beautiful sunny morning in 2001 and undo this nightmare.

But time only goes one way.

There’s a song by the Moody Blues called “Isn’t Life Strange” that’s been playing in my head for last day or so, even though I haven’t heard it in years.

It’s a solemn tune that seemed to fit today’s mood.

Isn’t life strange,” it goes, “a turn of the page. A book without light, unless with love we write. To throw it away, to lose just a day, the quicksand of time, you know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry…”

I walked down Church Street and stood outside the Brooks Brothers store at Liberty Plaza, the same place I was standing on 9/11, watching the North Tower burn.

And I was standing there when the second plane hit the South Tower, sending sheets of flame out across the street. I remember the screams, I remember running, running as fast as I could, and feeling like I was going nowhere.

That was a long, horrible day. It was my dad’s 80th birthday and we were supposed to take him out to dinner. But instead I was hiding out in a nursing home on Water Street while debris from the fallen towers blanketed lower Manhattan.
And then I walked over the Manhattan Bridge with thousands of other refugees as fighter jets screamed over our heads.

This morning I looked up at the Freedom Tower and said a prayer for all those who had died and thanked God I had survived.

The area wasn’t as crowded as it has been in previous years, which I think is partially due to the fact that the ceremony was held at the memorial site and only the victims’ families were permitted entry. And, of course, a lot of time has gone by.

“This will be the last one,” a man on the corner said to me. “After this there won’t be any more memorials.”

Unless With Love We Write…

I don’t know where he got this information, but he seemed desperate to talk and not interested in listening so I just nodded until it was time to go to work.

I was standing in the lobby of my building waiting for the elevator when a man approached a woman and began speaking to her.

“Have you been out front?” he asked. “It’s unbelievable.”

Of course I had to investigate. So I walked out to Broadway where four people were holding up signs and singing some kind of hymn. Then I read the signs one woman was carrying.

Thank God 4 9/11,” one side read. Another bore an image of the late Joan Rivers and read “Joan in Hell.”

The woman wore a t-shirt reading, so apparently these were psychotics from the Westboro Baptist Church, here in my city, spewing their hatred a block away from the spot where nearly 3,000 innocent people had died.

There were several cops around to protect these good Christians. A group of construction workers across the street jeered and made obscene gestures at them, but the zealots kept on singing.

It was unnerving to watch these cultists, who were so convinced they doing God’s work. The 9/11 atrocities were committed by religious fanatics and, make no mistake, these people today are cut from the same twisted cloth.

Later I found myself wishing I had confronted them, spat in their faces and risked being arrested. But I’m sure that’s just what they’d want—more hate.

I took time this afternoon to write my annual email to Eva, a woman I had met at the nursing home on 9/11. We walked over the bridge together and I directed her to the Long Island Railroad Station at Atlantic Avenue so she could get home.

“You’re still my 9/11 hero,” she said in her response.

A lot has happened in my life since 9/11. Both my parents have died and we sold our family home.

But the world hasn’t changed all that much. Innocent people are still being murdered around the world, we have a new terror threat in the form of ISIS, and the disaster in Iraq shows no signs of letting up.

Isn’t life strange? So many pages have turned since 9/11, vanishing into the quicksand of time, but I don’t think we’ve learned anything and I don’t think we ever will.

And when I think about that, you know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry…

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sabrina, Isabel and Jack

I’m sending Isabel and Jack back to Colorado, but I’m going to let Sabrina stay around a little while longer.

Isabel and Jack are brother and sister—I believe-and I first laid eyes on them last month at a used book store-coffee bar in Fort Collins, Co. when I was visiting my brother and his family.

We had gone to this place one morning, and while I have far too many paperbacks in my house already, I couldn’t help but wander over to the used books section in the back of the store.

I’m just going to look, I lied to myself. I’m not going to buy anything.

And I was doing pretty well until I walked by the 50-cent shelf and spotted The Hook by Donald E. Westlake. I didn’t know this particular title, but I’ve been a Westlake fan for a long time.

I thumbed through the book, trying to decide if I should buy it or not when a wallet-sized photo fell out from in between the pages.

It was a picture of a little girl holding even smaller boy. On the back it said “Isabel 3½” and “Jack 9 months.”

That settled it; I had to buy this book. I slipped the photo back into the book and brought it to the cashier, hoping she wouldn’t find it when she rang up the sale.

I have this obsession with finding photographs and other items, but I worried about bad karma, as I was taking a picture that didn’t belong to me. Finding the photo after the sale is one thing, but this felt shady…underhanded.

Struggling with his character…

I tried to rationalize my actions, deciding that the book’s original owner probably didn’t miss this photo, and it belonged to me now since I was buying the book. The human mind is capable of all sorts of moral gymnastics when the need arises.

I wanted to know more about these children. I wanted a piece of these lives, I wanted to learn their stories, but I realize now that I don’t have anything but a picture of somebody else’s family.

I have to make things right.

I crossed paths with Sabrina a few days later during a stop at a coffee place in Durango. When we sat down at our table I saw that someone had left behind a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
I’ve enjoyed Abbey’s novels A Fool’s Progress and The Monkey Wrench Gang, but I’ve never read his non-fiction.

I was debating if I should bring home another book when I opened it up and read this immaculately written note on the acknowledgements page.

“28.07.2014 Durango, CO

Sometimes I wondered if I could ever make it through this book. Struggling with his character and his style of writing, I was still intrigued enough to finish. He undoubtedly loves the American Southwest and expresses that in a very moving way. Enjoy. Sabrina, Switzerland.”

I really wanted to keep this book now and not just because I like Edward Abbey. Sabrina’s message made the book priceless in my eyes.

This time I did right thing, though, going straight to the owner and asking her how much the book cost.

“Oh, just take it,” she said. “Somebody left it here. You can have it.”

There was no guilt this time, no worries about bad karma. I handled this transaction on the up and up. Sabrina has moved from Switzerland, to Colorado, and is now with me in Brooklyn.

When I’m done I’ll leave her someplace where for another reader to find. I wonder where Sabrina will go to from there.

Tomorrow I’ll be mailing the photo of Isabel and Jack off to the used bookstore in Fort Collins with a note of explanation and a fervent hope that they will be reunited with their family.

They’ve been on a long, strange trip, but they may get home yet.