Sunday, January 31, 2016

Chaos and Control

I was all set to raise some serious hell.

I was preparing to do battle with my cable company and I had a chip on my shoulder, my nose out of joint, a bee in my bonnet and a massive bug up my ass.

For months I have been struggling to get my remote control to function properly, but things were only getting worse.

I had to press down on the buttons until my thumb ached, but I could barely change the channels.

Certain channels wouldn’t come up at all, so I got into the habit of
clicking a nearby number and working my way up or down to get to the station I wanted.

I couldn’t get the Sundance Channel, for example, so I went to NY1’s Spanish language station and then clicked downward.

While it was nice to hear the weather report in Spanish, I still wanted to watch my “Law & Order” reruns.

But the very worst part of all this cropped up when I tried to watch TV shows I had recorded and I couldn’t fast-forward through the commercials.

The whole point of getting the damn DVR was to spare myself from watching all those tedious ads for drugs, hair replacement, and that awful Kars 4 Kids jingle.

Now I want to state right here that I have no doubt that Kars 4 Kids is a fine program that raises funds to help needy children.

If I ever own a car again I’ll be sure to donate the thing to them once I’m done with it. But I really dislike their commercial.

I reacted to this remote control misery in my usual manner: I cursed and whined and swore I’d do something about it and proceeded to do nothing but curse and whine some more.

Finally, I’d had enough. My hand was turning into a hook from all the strain and I was running out of obscenities. I decided to call the cable company.

I had convinced myself that these money-grubbing bootlickers were going to refuse to replace my remote control unit. They’ve never been the most cooperative outfit in town and I geared up for a titanic telephonic donnybrook.

I was going to skewer the hapless underling who answered my call, demand to speak to his or her supervisor then insist on being connected to the head of the damn company.

Crossed Wires

Hell, I was ready to go to his house and throw the remote through his window if I had to.

“Hello, can I help you?” the customer service woman asked.

“Yes, my remote control isn’t working—”

“Would you like a new one?’

What? You’re not fighting with me? You’re not going to demand my life savings and one of my vital organs in return? What the hell’s going on here?


“Okay, we’ll send you one. It’ll take about three days. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“Have a nice day.”

And that was it. I was all psyched up for a battle that never took place.

The remote arrived a short time later, I popped in the batteries and it works fabulously.

I can go to the exact channel I want and I can fast forward through all those commercials at light speed. It feels so strange to do all this without fuming and cursing.

This is a minor incident that underscores some major character flaws that I’ve been struggling with—and blogging about—for years.

I let problems go until they become unbearable. Then, fueled by resentment and repressed rage, I create combat scenarios and whip myself into a fury. And more often then not, it’s just wasted effort.

I completely invented this confrontation instead of letting reality dictate my reaction.

This might be hard to believe, but I honestly think I’m making some progress in this area, through mindfulness meditation, prayer, and journaling.

But I seem to slide back to my old ways when I’m tired, worried, or unwell.

I want to keep on improving. I want to change the channel on my anger and lower the volume of my rage, so that the only time I ever get angry is when I get my cable bill.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Crying in the Chapel

In my senior year of high school I failed the calculus final and wasn’t permitted to graduate.

My mother and I went to the Math Department’s chairman on what was supposed to be my graduation day to plead my case, but the truth is that I had no case.

I couldn’t grasp the basics of calculus and I think I had subconsciously decided early on that I would never understand this stuff—with the predictable results.

(Illustration by Min Gi Ha)

My math teacher seemed surprised that I was blowing off the graduation exercises—it’s only a ceremony, he said—but I didn’t want any part of it.

So my mother and I left, walking down DeKalb Avenue to get the subway back to Bay Ridge while hundreds of my fellow seniors were heading up the street to get their diplomas.

It surreal, going against that wave of humanity, and it felt like it would never end.

Somewhere along the way we ran into one of my classmates, Wendell, a really nice guy, who had also flunked math, but who had elected to go through with the charade. We wished each other well and I never saw him again.

We eventually got home, I went to summer school, and finally got that diploma.

I’ve been going through a pretty rough patch in my life and I recently recalled that morning back in 1975 when my mother literally walked right by my side during one of the worst days of my young life.

While bombing out in senior year is something I’d love to forget, at least that awful experience left me with a beautiful memory of my mother’s love for me.

I’m trying to use that image of her walking beside me as a counter to some of these terrible memories I’ve been inflicting upon myself lately, where I recall all the times I argued with my mother, all the times I hurt her feelings, lost my temper or just acted plain stupid.

It’s like a nonstop horror movie.

The Meaning of Contentment

I know what’s going on here: my twisted psyche is responding to my current troubles by dredging up the dismal past. It’s all in my head, but just because you can name the demon that torments you doesn’t mean you exorcise it.

I’ve recently started going to confession again and last week I decided this would be a good way of getting these feelings out.

It may be just a ceremony to some people, but it’s taken a renewed importance in my life.

Therapy, mediation, and journaling are all excellent tools, but I wanted to take my troubles to a higher level.

So I went back to Our Lady of Angels Church, knelt down in the confessional and told the priest about the terrible things I had done to my mother.

“And she’s gone now so I can’t do anything to make up for it,” I said.

“It’s different when we get to Heaven,” the priest said. “We see the big picture and all the little things that troubled us down here on earth have no meaning up there.”

My mind and my emotions took off in opposite directions. My logical side was annoyed—is this guy seriously peddling a grade school version of Heaven with the puffy clouds and harp-strumming angels?

Oh, come on, pal, I may act like a child but I’m old enough to know better.

But at the same exact time I pictured my mother in such a lovely, peaceful place, so fitting after all the suffering she endured toward the end of her life, and the thought brought tears as to my eyes.

The priest absolved me of my sins, wished me well with my current problems and sent me off without even giving me penance. But I still had to pull over to the nearest pew to pray and cry some more.

I know my mother has forgiven me for every idiotic thing I’ve ever done, but getting absolution is a chance for me to move forward and deal with the present.

I may not have the big picture yet, but my vision is expanding and on a good day I can see my mother high up in Heaven, deep in my heart, and forever at my side.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Simon Says

I tore through several tons of crap in my wallet, but there was no sign of it.

My debit card was gone.

This is your punishment, my conscience shrieked inside my skull. This is what you get for being so greedy.

I had gone to the Chase Bank in Hoboken to get some cash the other day, but now my trip to the ATM was DOA.

I had crumpled receipts, ancient dry cleaner tickets, and business cards from people I couldn’t begin to remember, but the debit card had vanished.

I instantly imagined drooling hordes of subhuman sloths cracking open my bank account, throwing handfuls of my life-savings into the air while laughing hysterically and buying themselves all manner of ill-gotten goods and services.

However, I had one item in my wallet that didn’t belong there: a Metrocard that I had found on the X27 bus last week after an evening out with my sister and auntie.

I had seen the thing on the seat in front of me after I said goodnight to my sister and rose to get off at my stop.

The few times I’ve picked up these cards in the past they’ve always turned out to be worthless—who throws away a card with money on it?--and I assumed it would be the same thing here.

And yet I picked the card up furtively and got off the bus without handing it over to the driver, so clearly I had personal gain in mind.

A few days later I checked the card’s value and my eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw it was worth 42 bucks.

That’s a lot of money any way you slice it. And it’s somebody else’s money.

I felt so ashamed. I blather on about kindness and paying it forward, but I had paid myself—and rather handsomely.

The sad irony here is that I lost my work ID card on this same bus line in November and a very kind woman who found it tracked me down, called me at work, and handed it off to me on her way home.

I posted a notice on Craig’s List announcing my discovery and—big surprise-got no responses. I called the MTA’s Lost & Found number but I didn’t get an answer and as each day goes by I forget to call back. (Yes, I know how lame that sounds. I forget to call.)

I suppose I could fall back on the old finders keepers schtick, but I know that’s a lie.

I didn’t find this card on the street. I was inside this rolling environment with an authority figure—the bus driver—right there in front of me and I should’ve given the goddamn card to him.

Double Cross

I asked Fred the Shrink for his advice and he came up with an interesting solution.

“Give it me,” he said.

Oh, brilliant. You don’t have enough of my money already?

“If I gave it to the bus driver it would’ve gotten back to the owner,” I said.

“That’s unlikely,” he said.

“But I feel so guilty!” I whined.

“I know,” Fred replied. “The Jews and the Catholics walk down that same path.”

The thing is I know that my sister—who was sitting right next to me on that bus—would’ve handed it over to the bus driver without a moment’s hesitation. Whether it got back to the rightful owner or not, she would’ve done her part.

I knew what I had to do. I went to Our Lady of Angeles Church on Fourth Avenue on Saturday morning, knelt down in a pew and waited for a priest to hear my confession.

This church is where it all began for me—literally.

My parents were married here 65 years ago, my siblings and I attended OLA grammar school and we all were baptized, received our First Holy Communion and were confirmed by Jesus Christ in this church. And this is where our parents’ funeral masses were held.

If there was any place in this world where I could find absolution this was it.

The walls of the church are lined with images from the station of the Cross and it happened that the confessional was right beneath the station where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the Cross.

Yes, the Romans made Simon do this, but the guy still helped. He didn’t look to profit from his actions—like someone else I could name.

The confessional at OLA has been refurbished since my grammar school days. Instead of sitting in the pitch dark, you enter a lighted room and kneel before a wooden screen.

The priest was an old timer and had a very formal approach, reading prayers and telling me when and how to respond.

He said I probably should’ve left the card alone and also noted that the person who lost the thing shared some of the responsibility.

“The card doesn’t even matter,” I said. “I was just so greedy and so self-centered.”

“You’re fighting that,” the priest said, “and that’s good.”

He absolved my sins and gave me three Our Fathers as penance. I never did find my debit card, so the bank gave me a new one.

This morning I got off the F train at 15th Street and a man who could barely speak English asked me to get him on the train because he had forgotten his wallet.

I refused and started to walk away, but I changed my mind and buzzed him through. He gave me the fist jab as he went by and while he might’ve been scamming me, I do feel like I have one less cross to bear.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Face the Music

The young Orthodox Jewish man approached me while I stood in Grand Central Terminal drinking a diet soda.

“Excuse me, sir, are you Jewish?” he asked.

“No, I’m afraid not,” I said.

“Oh, you have a Jewish face,” he replied. “Have a nice weekend.”

Jewish face? Me? Who knew? I’m sure the nuns in Catholic school would be surprised to hear this--not to mention my parents.

But then I’m also circumcised so it’s not just my face that looks Jewish. Maybe this guy wasn’t so meshuggah after all…

This little episode may sound strange to people in other parts of the world, but it was just one moment in a very long day I recently experienced in and around Grand Central, my favorite New York landmark.

The place is so beautiful and vibrant, but I can remember the days when the terminal had fallen into a serious decline.

Commuters virtually ran through the place to escape the filth and the panhandlers. However, it’s all so different now and I always tell tourists to make sure they visit the station while they’re in New York.

Now on this day I had departed from my usual schedule to attend a Very Important Meeting in midtown and I walked through Grand Central to get out of the cold and prepare for my meeting, which, as I mentioned, was very important. At least it was to me.

As I wandered through the station’s lower level, I could hear someone singing a series of Ray Charles’ hits. I parked my tuches on a bench in the lower level and I realized the singer, a very talented performed named Eunique Mack, was sitting on the other side of a nearby column.

This guy was good and I was soon humming along with the music when I should’ve been prepping for my meeting.

Oy to the World

He moved easily from Brother Ray to John Lennon and in a moment of exquisite timing, he began singing “Imagine” just as a crowd of commuters emerged from one of the platforms and began filling the station.

His voice served as a soundtrack for this busy scene and I briefly put my worries aside and imagined all the people living in the world in peace.

And then a rather disturbed man behind me started shouting “fuck you, you fuck!” at an invisible enemy. Yes, well, this is another track from the city’s hit list.

I got up to go to my Very Important Meeting as Eunique launched into “New York, New York” and it filled me with such confidence. Yes, I thought, if I can make it here, I really can make it anywhere.

However, I wasn’t going to be king of the hill or top of the heap on this day as my Very Important Meeting turned out to be a Colossal Waste of Time.

The people I was meeting with gave me such a runaround I almost plotzed.

What kind of fakakta outfit was this? I schlep all the way in here and you schmucks have the chutzpah to treat me like a schlemiel? Gay avek, the whole pack of you!

Sadly there are people who think nothing about leading you on and wasting your time, which is why it can be so hard to make it here.

When people yentz you like this, the best thing to do is put it behind you and make sure you don’t repeat their misdeeds.

I staggered back into Grand Central, shell-shocked from all the abuse. I was feeling quite fershlugina, I can tell you.

But I always cheer up when I walk through the terminal. This place triumphed over some pretty tough days and if that can happen for a building, it can happen for people, too. Just imagine.

I saw that Eunique had relocated to the tracks on the upper level where he was singing “Georgia.” The F-bomb Man had moved upstairs, too, but he was quiet now, having apparently dispatched his imaginary foe.

So I found no peace on this most pointless day. But at least I had a nice time in Grand Central and heard some good music and that was enough to put a smile on my Jewish face.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

On the Wing

Thank God we only do this once a year.

On New Year’s Day my sister and I battled our way into Wing Hing, a fabulous Chinese restaurant on Avenue U, to order our holiday dinner.

The place was packed as people lined up for a table or crowded around the front desk to order takeout.

And just when you think the joint couldn’t possibly hold any more bodies, the front door swings open and a family of five comes plowing through.

It’s like Armageddon with dumplings.

My sister bravely made it to the counter while I did my best not to get trampled. Jesus, if I wanted this kind of lunacy I would’ve gone to Times Square a few hours earlier.

This place would make a hell of a reality show and I feel like we should be given t-shirts that say “I Survived New Year’s Day at Wing Hing.”

You need the right attitude to get through this ordeal. I felt my nerves starting to jangle as the body count kept rising, but I did my best to stay calm and polite.

I held the door open for people, wished everyone I met a Happy New Year, and they all wished me the same.

There’s part of me that wonders why we suffer like this, why we put up with the jostling and the aggravation. And then I taste the food…

Wing Hing is the opposite of the chichi Manhattan dining experience, where the painfully hip and the terminally cool line up to consume mediocre food at exorbitant prices. This is great eats at reasonable rates.

And to be honest, I don’t think I’d enjoy the meal as much if it didn’t come with the insanity. It’s all part of being Catholic where you can’t appreciate anything unless it’s accompanied by some pretty serious suffering.

As to what we ate, well, it might be easier ask what we didn’t eat because it feels like we handed over the menu and said “let it ride!”

So another New Year’s Day is in the record books and now the real work begins. I thought the Wing Hing leftovers would last for days but there’s not much left in my refrigerator except a few containers of rice and some asparagus.

See you next year.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Of Dogs and Pandas

I’ve been searching for a quote to set the theme for the New Year and I think found it in a fortune cookie I cracked open the other night.

“Never chase a dog into a dead end alley,” it said.

That sounds like the kind of advice that I’ve been ducking for my most of my life, so maybe 2016 is the year I avoid the dead ends.

Of course, I should mention that I got another fortune in the same batch of cookies that said “a panda will enter your life in the near future and you will feed him delicious food.”

That one had me a little confused, but if a traveling panda ever does slide over to Chez Robbo, I hope he brings a bottle of wine.

I’m keeping the resolutions short and simple this year: I’m going to reinforce the good stuff that I should be doing and cut down on the crap that does me harm.

And I’m thinking now that the dog in my fortune cookie can represent anger, fear, and ignorance. And the panda might be a stand-in for love, compassion, and kindness.

I recently chased that dead end dog for quite a while during a dismal detour I took when I was in Honolulu.

Getting lost in a strange city is almost a requirement for travelers and you often make fabulous discoveries that become the highlight of your trip.

However, this diversion was a disaster, a shameless waste of time, energy, money, and sanity. I had set out on my last day in Honolulu to see an antique store that one of my tour guides had highly recommended.

I checked the directions of my smartphone, decided I knew how to get there, and I started walking…and walking…and walking. And I still couldn’t find the place.

No Shirt, Sherlock

Every time I checked my phone I got a different set of directions.

I trudged through some pretty unpleasant terrain where tourists don’t normally go while getting nowhere fast. I was trying to keep the temper in check but that got tougher as time dragged by.

I hiked by a golf course, a public library, and at least one school, but there was no sign of the store. Finally, just as I was about to give up and crawl back to my hotel, I found the goddamn place.

Okay, I thought, here goes...

I walked into a building filled with racks and racks of Hawaiian shirts in all sizes and patterns. Cool…only I don’t particularly care for Hawaiian shirts and I certainly wasn’t thrilled at seeing so many. All right…

I gave it a few more minutes and then I split, grabbing a bus at a nearby corner and hunkering down for an endless ride back to my place.

The bus driver promptly made one right turn, drove a short distance, and I saw the entrance to the Honolulu Zoo, which was only five minutes from the hotel.

In other words, I had made a monstrous circle around downtown Honolulu to get to a store that was mere minutes from my crib…only in the opposite direction.

My father, who was always so proud of his “unerring sense of direction,” would have gone berserk if he had witnessed my blatant blundering. I skulked off the bus at the next stop, ran to my room and hid under the bed for several hours.

I’m trying to find some good out of this fiasco, but it’s not easy—except that I must’ve walked off four pounds. The lesson is painful: I took off without properly preparing.

And when I couldn’t find my way, instead of relying on my own instincts, I looked for someone else to do the work—this time it was the GPS on my phone, which is only a machine and incapable of slapping you upside the head and shouting “you’re going the wrong way, dickhead!” Though that could be an interesting app now that I think of it…

Clearly I have to be more self-reliant and replace hope and guesswork with facts and research.

So for 2016, people, remember to avoid following dogs down those dead end alleys and if a panda knocks on your door, for God’s sake give him something to eat.

Happy New Year.