Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fools and Drunkards

One of the toughest things for a reporter to do is speak with a victim’s family.

During my five years as a police reporter in the Poconos, I had to interview—or attempt to interview—people who had lost their loved ones due to fires, crashes, or crime.

It was a grim business, obviously, since answering a stranger’s questions about a deceased or injured family member was the very last thing that people wanted to do.

I tried to be sensitive to their suffering, but I always felt like a rat for intruding on their grief during one of the worst moments of their lives.

Some people told me to go to Hell, hung up on me or ordered me off their property. But there were others who willingly answered my questions.

One man, whose father had committed suicide by burning their house down, shook my hand, and, with tears in his eyes, actually apologized for not being able to speak to me. I didn’t know what to say to him.

I got a little better at approaching people as the years went by, but it was never easy. And there was this one time when something totally unexpected happened.

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in Stroudsburg, Pa. circa 1991. I was at the Pocono Record’s old Lenox Street building when the scanner went berserk, erupting with all kinds of signals for mayhem.

I listen to the windstorm of police and fire codes and realized that someone had either fallen or jumped nearby into McMichael Creek.

The dispatcher was calling the police, the fire department, and—most serious of all—a MedEvac helicopter for the flight down to Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown. This was nasty.

I raced out the door fully expecting to meet up with Bob Allen, the county coroner, and get the lowdown on the victim.

The scene was so close to the paper that I’m not even sure if I took my car. But how ever I got there, I ran into the middle of all the confusion looking for eyewitnesses.

Man Overboard

And then I saw her.

There was a rather tough looking woman in her fifties standing near a police car and I immediately sensed that she knew the victim—wife or girlfriend, and she could give me some good material for my story.

I took a deep breath. There was a strong possibility that she’d blow up, call me all kinds of horrible names, and maybe even attack me. But I had to at least try to get an interview. So, I walked up to her.

“Excuse me, miss,” I said softly. “I’m sorry to bother, but I’m with the Pocono Record and I wanted to ask you about the man who fell into the creek—”


He’s an asshole!” she shrieked and then promptly stormed away.

I stood there in shook. People usually tell me how kind and considerate the victim had been. Was this any way to talk about the dearly and very recently departed?

And then I looked into the police car and saw a man, also in his fifties, soaking wet, handcuffed, and grinning like an idiot.

That was the guy, the one who had gone into the creek. But he wasn’t dead or even hurt in any way. He seemed to be the only one having a good time.

The cops said he and his lady friend had been drinking rather heavily at a nearby rat hole of a bar when for reasons unknown he threatened to jump into the creek.

She waved him off, though, so he promptly made good on his promise-diving into some rather deep and turbulent waters and earning himself a ride to the county jail in the process.

I went back and told me editor what had happened and he decided that we would give the story very little play—nothing more than a blotter item—to avoid inspiring copycatting nitwits.

I was a little concerned about suppressing the news, but I think he made the right call.

When I went to the local YMCA the next morning to work out, I mentioned the incident to some of the guys in the locker room and they all laughed.

“What a story!” one of them said.

For the record, that was a very stupid stunt that wasted time, money and energy, and potentially diverted the first responders from a real emergency.

But that was one hell of a quote.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Who Goes There?

World War II stories aren’t the same anymore.

I’ve been reading novels and watching films about the Second World War for decades, but lately I find them to be more upsetting than I once did.

They remind me of my father, who was a WWII veteran himself, and just how awful the war must have been for him.

He told me some incredible stories about his time in the army, and I loved hearing them, of course, even when he repeated them over and over. I couldn’t get enough.

But I’m starting to see the darker side of his stories, the things he didn’t tell me.

He’s been gone for several years and I’m only now getting some idea of how much he must have suffered during those terrible days, when he was just a young man in his twenties.

He must’ve been in constant fear, dodging bullets, scrambling for shelter during artillery attacks and witnessing his friends getting killed. That fear—and a lot of good luck—probably kept him alive.

My father was part of the generation that was supposed to put down the rifle, pick up the briefcase, and return to civilian life as if they had all been away on a camping trip.

This is absurd, of course. How could you possibly go through these horrible experiences and emerge unscathed?

That’s just a fantasy that politicians and civilians like to tell themselves so they don’t have to think about the damaged people walking among them. And it makes it easier to sell the next war.

On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of a story my father told me many years ago while we were driving down the BQE one night.

He and his platoon had gone out on a night patrol somewhere in France, I believe.

Friend or Foe?

As they walked through the dark woods, they saw the silhouette of a soldier up ahead of them. They weren’t sure who the guy was and then he asked them what time it was—in German.

Realizing the enemy was just a short distance away, one of dad’s buddies who could speak German responded in the soldier’s native language.

“He thought we were Germans,” my father said, “and he walked right up to us.”

My dad paused at this moment and when he spoke again, his voice was somewhat subdued.

“Yeah,” he said, “they cut his throat.”

Did you catch that? My father had shifted from the first to the third person, from “we” to “they” as if distancing himself from this gruesome killing.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that these GIs had no choice. If that soldier had yelled, the whole German army could’ve come charging in after him.

I guess that’s why wars suck so much for the people actually have to fight them. Decent people are forced to become savages just to stay alive.

My father was ready to do his job. He had a particular hatred for snipers, whom he considered to be cowards who would kill a few soldiers to slow down an advance and then do the old “I surrender” routine.

But I think this incident was different. This really wasn’t combat, where you’re trying to kill somebody who’s trying to do the same thing to you.

This poor bastard just got careless and it cost him his life. That could happen to anyone at any time in any war.

I wish I could’ve talked with my father more openly about his experiences during the war, but I doubt if he would’ve responded. He wanted to look strong to his family, which is perfectly understandable, but so terribly unnecessary.

Perhaps we would’ve gotten along better if I had a better sense of what it was like for him. But it’s too late for that, so now I’ll say what I always say at this most important time of the year.

Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Junk in the Trunk

There’s a void in my life and I’m loving every inch of it.

For the last eight months, I have been sharing my living room with the lifeless carcasses of my old TV, DVD player, and printer.

I got a new TV and DVD player in October and a new printer before that, but instead of junking the junk appliances, I merely moved the deceased devices a few inches over to the right and…just left them there.

You may be wondering why I did this? I know I sure as hell am.

Why in God’s holy name did I elect to keep this zombie pile of tubes, circuits, and wires prominently displayed in my home for nearly a year as if it were a Warhol original?

Well, I’m sorry to say the answer is similar to the same excuse I offered when I took so long to buy a new TV in the first goddamn place. I was afraid to make a decision.

I couldn’t carry that monstrous TV down three flights of stairs because of my bad back and the sanitation crew wouldn’t take it even if I could because of the restrictions on tossing out old electronics.

Which meant I would have to hire someone to do it and risk—dramatic pause—making the wrong decision.

Now how the hell anyone could pick the wrong junk man I don’t honestly know, but this irrational fear caused my brain to overload and drove me to do what I do best—which is nothing.

Every morning I’d get up, walk out to the living room to meditate and stretch and that crap heap would be one of the first things I’d see.

Things deteriorated to a point where I unknowingly accepted this unacceptable situation, subconsciously deciding that this flotsam and jetsam was a permanent part of stately Robbo manor.

Haul, Yeah!

This is a seriously corrupt state of mind and it can extend far beyond holding onto garbage. If you’re not careful you can find yourself unwittingly agreeing to all sorts of unpleasant situations, thoughts, and people.

Last week I finally got fed up. I was sick of telling myself, “oh, yeah, you’ve got to find someone to haul this crap” and set about to actually find someone to haul that crap.

And I soon learned that it was pretty easy. I jumped on Craigslist and got two quotes that I thought were a little pricy at $200 and $225 respectively.

A third outfit offered to take the stuff for fifty bucks and I regret not owning a gavel so I crack it down upon my old TV like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and shout “sold!”

The young fellow who agreed to take my junk took most of Thursday to get here, constantly texting me that he was close by but never showing up.


I started going through my “wrong decision” routine, but I couldn’t see any potential confab in blowing off the appointment. Unless you’re working an internet scam, you pretty much have to show up before you can rip off.

The dude finally arrived after dinner, apparently coming to Bay Ridge by way of Montreal, tossed that big old TV in a battered pickup and revved up the engine.

I was going to tip him five bucks, but after he claimed to be light on smaller denominations, I handed over three twenties and wished him Godspeed. If that was a scam, it was pretty mild.

I was stunned when I went back upstairs and looked down upon that beautiful blank space next to the TV table.

I felt 50 pounds lighter and much happier now that the honored dead had finally been shuffled off to Buffalo, Brazil, Bensonhurst or wherever the hell that guy took it.

And I have big plans for my newly created gap. I’m going to install…nothing, zilch, nada, niente, and ugatz. (Do you sense a theme here?)

I want to enjoy the wide-open space in all its primal beauty and so I will not put a single thing in that newly liberated zone.

Sorry, Andy.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Home Again, Home Again

I frantically dug my phone out of my pocket, dialed my sister’s number, and began my meltdown.

“Joan!” I wailed as the tears started to flow, “I stopped by the house on Senator Street and it was a bad idea!”

I had returned to my family’s home for the first time in nearly three years last week and I didn’t handle it very well.

The morning had started off with a visit to the Good Fortune Supermarket, the site of the old Fortway Theater on Fort Hamilton Avenue to research a book project I’m working on.

On the way there, I stopped by McKinley Park, which I had not visited in years. My sister tells me that our mother used to take us there when we were children, but I’m sorry to say I have no memory of that.

After revisiting the Good Fortune, I walked through nearby Leif Ericson Park, which was filled parents, kids, and elderly people, most of whom were Chinese, much like the rest of the neighborhood.

From there, I walked down to Sixth Avenue, where I spotted the Sixth Avenue Electrical Supply Corp., formerly Karl Droge Ice Cream, my second home on sweltering summer nights when I was growing up.

This is where I used to go with my friends—and everybody else in the neighborhood—for fabulous Italian ices that could drain the heat right out of any August evening. There’s a church right across the street, but back then Karl Droge was the real holy place.

The building was just two blocks from my family’s home and I figured, oh, hell, I’ve come this far, why not stroll up Senator Street?

Time Machine

Big mistake.

I thought I could deal with this. I’ve driven down this block many times with my sister and I didn’t think it would be a problem.

However, as I got closer to the house, when I saw these beautiful flowers in the garden, where my mother used to do her planting, when I saw the new fence and the ceiling fan in the upstairs apartment, when I saw a car in the driveway, when I realized that people, honest to God people were living here now, I started to fall apart.

A nighttime drive-by is one thing, but a slow walk on a sunny Saturday afternoon is quite different.

I hung around the house for a few minutes, shocked at how quickly the years had gone by.

Then a man walked down the driveway and entered the house and I wanted to speak with him, tell him that I grew up here and that I had so many memories, but nothing came out of my mouth.

I regret it now, but at the time I felt foolish. What does he care about who used to live here?

I started to walk down the driveway to look at the back garden when I reminded myself that I was about to walk on to somebody else's property.

My sister wasn’t home when I called, as she had gone hiking where she could enjoy the here and now, instead of blundering around the past.

I finally walked up the block and headed for home. I guess it was a mistake to visit the old house, but I don’t regret it. I wanted to see.

I would like to go back to Senator Street again someday and maybe even speak with the new owners.

But I’m going to need some time.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Moving Story

With all this talk of books and authors lately, I’m reminded of a certain subway ride I took many years ago and one of the most exciting reading experiences I’ve ever had.

This was in the early Eighties and the book in question was Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby.

My interest in the novel was stirred by a theatrical production which came to Broadway from London in 1981.

The show made headlines because it was nearly nine hours long—theatergoers had a choice of attending two nights or seeing the whole show in one setting—and because tickets were going for the then-unheard of price of $100 each.

Today, of course, one hundred bucks is pretty much the going rate for a show on the Great White Way.

We didn’t have that kind of money back then, but my family had a fabulous time watching a televised version of the London production that was simulcast on the local public television and radio channels.

The late Roger Rees played the title role and he was supported by an incredible cast of talented actors.

The show ran for three or four consecutive nights and each evening we’d switch on the TV, tune in this beautiful old German radio we kept in the living room, and travel to this wonderful world filled with these incredible characters.

And each morning at breakfast we’d talk about what had happened the night before. It was such an enjoyable time that I just had to read the book.

So that’s how I happened to be one the N train one night coming home from work when I got to the scene where our hero Nicholas squared off against the most horrible schoolmaster on earth, Wackford Squeers.

Raise the Devil

Squeers is a corrupt lowlife who runs Dotheboys Hall, a hellhole of a boarding school where the kids are beaten with savage regularity.

As I read the book, I was just dying for Nicholas to pound this hump right through the floorboards.

Dickens takes his time, though, slowly building up to a rousing confrontation where Squeers is beating the hapless cripple Smike.

The N train was just pulling out of Union Square when I got to the part where Nicholas orders Squeers to cease and desist.

“This must not go on!” he declares, and I gripped the strap handle. This loser's going down!

Squeers, of course, has not intention of stopping and he threatens Nicholas with a beating if he gets in the way.

“Have a care,” Nicholas warns him, “for if you do raise the devil within me, the consequences shall fall heavily upon your own head!”

Hit him, Nicholas, I roared inside my head, hit the son-of-a-bitch!

And that’s when Squeers cracks Nicholas across the face with the whip and our hero proceeds to beat the ever-loving shit out of the sadistic warthog.

I completely forgot that I was in the middle of a packed subway car because through the power of Dickens’s writing I had been transported through time and space to that 19th Century Yorkshire school.

Kill him! I silently shouted. Kill that one-eyed scumbag!

No one on that train could have guessed the emotions I was going through at that moment. From the outside, I was just another commuter. In my mind, though, I was the one clobbering Squeers into a coma.

And I think it's important to point out that I had enjoyed this rewarding experience without any of today's technology--no iPhone, no iPad; it was just my eyeballs.

Somehow, I managed to get home without missing my stop or scaring the other passengers. And thanks to Charles Dickens I had taken an incredible journey--without ever leaving the N train.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Zero to Sixty

“The only way to deal with the future is to function efficiently in the Now.” – Gita Bellin

I can’t believe I said “yes.”

Accepting a simple dinner invitation may not sound like a daring leap into the unknown but it felt like a milestone for me.

I’ll explain in a minute, but, first let’s get right to the big news:

As of today I am 60 years old.

Yes, that’s right, we’re talking six decades here, people. I am amazed, stunned, somewhat frightened, and, above all, thankful that I am still walking the earth and not residing under it.

I’m doing my best not to freak out at that sizeable digit, but it hasn't been easy. I mean, how in the four-alarm hell did this happen?

How in God’s name did that adorable little kid attending classes at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School morph into a hairless crank with creaking bones who hears voices and receives flyers from both senior citizen homes and burial plot salesmen in the same day’s mail? (One at a time, boys, please.)

I would demand a recount but I’m afraid I might actually be older.

Arthur, one of my writing class friends, calmed my nerves when I expressed dismay about my age.

“The sixties was a good decade for me,” he said. “You know what you want. You’re more sure of yourself.”

It felt so good to hear this. I still have lots of questions tumbling around my head, but I do feel a bit more confident than I have in the past. And I’m also caring less and less about what people think of me.

Without Further Ado...

I decided I’d give myself the gift of peace today, liberating yours truly, at least for one day, from the fear, the self-loathing, the regret, the anger, and all those other toxic emotions I inflict upon my poor soul on a daily basis.

I started celebrating early, going out on Saturday with my beloved sister and auntie for a stroll around the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and then on to Wing Hing, my favorite Chinese restaurant for a fabulous feast.

On Tuesday, I had the distinct pleasure of introducing and interviewing the writer Neville Frankel, who read from his latest novel On the Sickle’s Edge at the Bookmark Shoppe in Bay Ridge, where I had my own reading.


Louise Crawford, the publicist for my book, Born Speaking Lies, had asked me to help out and I’m so glad she did.

The evening was pure magic. Neville is a fabulous writer and a captivating speaker.

I learned so much during our discussion, particularly about historical fiction, a genre that both fascinates and intimidates me.

I was all set to go home when Louise invited me to join her, Neville, and a bunch of other folks for dinner.

And I said “yes.”

I’ve gotten so accustomed to turning down or avoiding invitations in favor of heading home to my empty apartment that I actually surprised myself by answering in the affirmative for once.

Of course, I have things to do. I want to finish the first draft of my next book by year’s end; I want to pitch my screenplays to agents, and I have to revise a short story I recently completed. And don't even get me started about that short film I want to shoot.

But I knew in my heart that I couldn’t miss out on a dinner with such talented, gracious people.

The years go by so quickly it makes no sense to miss out on good times and good people.

Yes. I like the sound of that.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Friends in Need

“All this time the man who killed me will not die.” – Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

I recently discovered the work of Marlon James.

This didn’t happen by way of a book review, or media buzz, internet message boards, or even the old time word of mouth routine.

I became aware of his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings while walking home from the store one morning when I looked down and saw a single page from the book on the street.

It was page 585 and 586 of the 704-page novel about postcolonial Jamaica that Entertainment Weekly called “nothing short of awe-inspiring.”

I probably should’ve kept walking, as I’ve got enough paper, books, and other assorted crap in my house already.

But as a reader and someone who has published his own book, I felt badly that an author’s work had been abused like this.

Published by Riverhead Press, A Brief History of Seven Killings is James’ third won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, a first for a Jamaican-born author.

And here was this single page from a prize-winning book blowing around the gutter.

It would be a shame if someone deliberately destroyed the book, but not at all surprising in this age of intolerance. I just have no way of knowing.

The wind can blow very strongly off the Narrows, so this single page might’ve traveled a long way before it came into my line of sight.

I don’t begin to compare myself to Marlon James, of course, but I do understand how difficult it is to write a book. Doubts pile up as you struggle to find just the right words that will bring your story to life.

You end up throwing out a lot of your work—at least I sure as hell do—as you write, rewrite, and rewrite so more.

Given all that grief, writers can’t be faulted for wanting their work to live forever, as unlikely as that sounds, rather than being ripped up into confetti.

Page-Turner

My parents always stressed the importance of reading and my mother liked to say “books are our friends.”



Books have been such an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, starting with Dr. Seuss, to the Hardy Boys, and going on to Ken Kesey, whose Sometimes A Great Notion changed my life—seriously.

I frankly don’t a read enough now, especially since I don’t commute to an office anymore.

I’ve read so many books while riding the subways and buses in this town. It’s the best way to deal with the crowds and the delays and the lunatics—as long as the lights stay on.

So I’ve decided I’m going to make an effort to read more every day.

I didn’t like my seventh-grade teacher worth a damn, but I do respect for him for the time he urged us all to read by telling us “with books you can go anywhere.”

It’s vital for children to develop reading skills, especially now that we have all these distractions. Curling up with good book has never been more important.

Books as I knew them appear to be an endangered species as more and more people choose eBooks over the real thing. I have no interest in reading eBooks, but then I haven’t really tried them yet, so I suppose I shouldn’t judge.

When I was in the fifth grade, Mrs. Toomey, my Cub Scout den mother, encouraged us all to find a damaged book and repair it.

I actually carried out that assignment, but don’t ask me what particular book I salvaged or whatever become of it. I’m just happy I did it.

It’s a shame that I can’t repair A Brief History of Seven Killings, but I’ve decided I going to get a copy of the book and read the other 700-odd pages.

And I’ll take good care of it, too, because you can never have too many friends.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Wherever I Wander

That was one very active my bear.

I was digging through my junk box the other day in an underwhelming attempt to clean up and organize when I came across a Mother’s Day card I had given to my mom nearly 30 years ago.

I have so many cards and notes that I’ve given or received from my parents over the years and I just can’t part with them.

This particular card was the one I had given to my mom on Mother’s Day 1988 when I was moving out of my home in Brooklyn to take a job at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

I was so worried about starting a new job and relocating to a new town that I had unthinkingly agreed to take the position without realizing that I was leaving for my new home was the very day that we’re supposed honor our mothers.

So, in addition to worry, fear, and creeping terror, I added an unhealthy serving of guilt a la mode that pretty much squashed any remaining traces of sanity that I had left.

But it’s not like I was moving to New Zealand. I was heading up the Poconos, which was only about 90 minutes away. Some people actually commute to New York every day, for God’s sake.

Going to the card store was a grim affair as I alternated between anguish about the new job—which I was convinced I couldn’t handle—and shame for deserting my mother on this most special holiday.

I stumbled around the aisles trying to find something suitable—and that’s what I came upon the traveling bear

The card has the image of a young bear riding on the back of an elephant and standing on sail boat as he travels the world.

Paws Button

To Mom, with Love,” the copy reads, “Wherever I wander...wherever I roam…

Upon opening the card, the young bear is approaching his family home and ready to step in to loving arms of his mother.

“…wherever my mother is will always be home,” the card concludes.


I cried the first time I saw this card and I’m in pretty rough shape right now. My mom has been gone for 15 years, but Mother’s Day can be a real trial.

During my junk box search I also rediscovered a couple of my mother’s old notebooks, including one with a portrait of William Shakespeare on the cover that I had bought for her during a vacation in London circa 1990.

Most of the pages are blank, but there are some notes in her handwriting, listing books, stores, and films and other items of interest.

How to Become Financially Successful by Owning Your Own Business, is the title of one of the books my mother wanted to buy, showing how she was always looking for ways to get ahead.

My mother also wrote down the name of a Columbia University film professor who had founded an independent film company.

Given my interest in filmmaking, I’m convinced my mother wrote this down for my benefit. She probably told me about it, too, but, dope that I am, I doubt if I followed up on it.

We eventually got through that Mother’s Day, and I lived in Pennsylvania for five years before moving to Connecticut and finally back to New York in 1998.

I didn’t wander like that greeting card bear, but I’m so grateful I had a mother who always made me feel at home.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Wheels in Motion

With all this car service grief I’ve been going through lately, I forgot to tell you about Rob.

Not me, this Rob is the driver who took me Penn Station for my trip to Philadelphia, the one who showed up right on time and ferried me straight to Penn Station without incident, but with plenty of style.

He works for the same company that so royally screwed up my return trip from Penn Station, but I’m certainly not holding that against him.

Rob isn’t a young man, or even middle-aged. No, he’s in his seventies and I confess I was a little surprised by his advanced years when I first saw him, which is somewhat ironic, given the fact that I’m turning 60 in a few weeks.

Rob is also a former hairdresser and gay. I know all this because he told me so within the first five minutes of picking me up.

“I’m a gay hairdresser!” Rob told me at least twice as we drove down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

He was quite a change from the drivers I usually get, who are typically Middle Eastern with a limited command of the English language. And most of them are Muslims.

“I’m sure they don’t like me,” Rob said of his coworkers. “But that’s all right. I’m not inviting them over for tea.”

We talked about how Brooklyn has changed so dramatically over the last few years, and how expensive some formerly horrific neighborhoods have become.

“I picked up three young girls who had paid a fortune for this tiny apartment,” Rob said, “and I told them ‘you’re all assholes!’”

Well, there goes that tip. Rob said he used to be a hairdresser for a one-hit wonder Sixties star whose name escapes me and he used to travel with her when she took her act on the road. Now he drives for the car service to pick up some extra cash.

“People love riding with me,” Rob said. “I play great music, I tell great stories, and I bathe regularly.”

So, Like I Was Saying…

Rob has a young boyfriend who is in forties, but he’s realistic about the relationship.

“Listen,” he said, “at my age I’m a John and I know it.”

Rob is keeping his current beau around through various acts of tender bribery, like buying a pair of tickets to the recent Barbra Streisand concert at the Barclay Center.

However, it seems the boyfriend has a bit of drug problem and the guy prefers getting high at home to going out of the town—and Rob is getting a little fed up.

Gee, I seem to know a lot about this guy’s life, don’t I? But it was a great ride and Rob is a real trip. I was feeling extremely anxious about the conference in Philly and Rob did a lot to calm me down.

I probably won’t see him again, as I have parted ways with that car service.

I even spoke with a woman from the Taxi & Limousine Commission about that atrocious night who told me that it is unlikely the company will be cited for leaving me high and dry in the middle of a monsoon.

Apparently, there’s no law against being incompetent losers, but that’s okay. I’d rather just drop the whole thing and get on with my life.

However, it seems my luck with car service drivers is still in the basement.

On Thursday I took a car home from my writing class in Park Slope and the driver must’ve been new in town...and on the planet.

“Where are you going?” I said with alarm as my exit on the BQE came and went.

“You said Shore Road.”

“Yeah,” I wailed, “but you’re heading to Staten Island!”

I directed this yin-yang off the highway just short of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, guided him to my house, and gave him a less-than-impressive tip.

I tell you, there’s never a gay hairdresser around when you need one.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Philadelphia Story

At the end of William Goldman’s 1960 novel Soldier in the Rain, Eustice Clay, a beleaguered soldier who’s been on a run of appallingly bad of luck, looks up into a stormy sky and expresses his true feelings.

“Fuck you,” he says to the angry clouds.

After the week I just went through, I know exactly how he feels.

I, too, was standing in the middle of deluge, only I was outside Pennsylvania Station, and instead of directing my rage up to the stratosphere, I aimed my anger straight into my smartphone.

“Fuck you!”

And I wasn’t talking to the Almighty, the Fates, the weather gods or any other such supernatural being.

I was shrieking at a car service dispatcher who just told me that there would be no car to pick me up on this horrific night—even though I had reserved a vehicle the day before to take me and my luggage the hell home.

This was a fitting climax to my three-day business trip to Philadelphia. Nothing seemed to go right during this conference. I was bouncing in a dozen different directions, I was making bonehead mistakes and I was so worried about something going wrong that I focused almost exclusively on surviving rather than excelling.

I hit the panic button too goddamn much, choosing to freak out as a first resort—as opposed to carefully analyzing the situation, attempting to come up with a logical resolution, and then freaking out.

I even forgot to pack socks—socks, for Christ’s sake! Who in the holy flying fuck forgets to bring socks on business trip? Luckily the Pennsylvania Convention Center had a gift shop that happened to sell socks, among other things, so that was one less screw-up to worry about.

I didn’t get a chance to see any of the sites or meet up with my awesome Philly friend, Ron. I barely had time to look up from my laptop.

Now to be fair, these conferences can be stressful, but I also did a lot of dumb stuff, real rookie errors, and as the bloopers piled up, I became more and more frustrated and, of course, I allowed the anger took over.

Even the weather went to straight to Hell, as sunny skies soon gave away to a storm system that seemed determined to outdo Noah’s 40 days and 40 nights schtick. By the time the conference was over, I staggered to the train station and prayed for a quiet trip back to Brooklyn.

Wheels in Motion

And then I called for my car.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from this fat schmuck. Of course, I don’t know if this dispatcher is fat, having never seen him, but I imagine him as bloated and unshaven, stuffed into a stained wife beater with a rancid toothpick shoved between yellowed, rotting teeth, and clouds of flies buzzing around him.

I know this is childish but I can’t help it.

After detonating the F-bomb, I called another neighborhood car service and learned they had a driver near Penn Station, who picked me up and got me home. I sent a nasty email to Fat Fuck Charley at the first outfit and filed a complaint with the Taxi and Limousine Commission.


On Saturday I got my new favorite car service to take me and my old computer to the Apple Store in the World Trade Center so I could get out the old files and put them into a new machine.

There was a breakdown in communications, however, because upon my arrival I was told the Apple geniuses couldn’t retrieve information from a busted computer—which makes no sense to me whatsoever, seeing as how if my computer wasn’t busted I wouldn’t be buying a new one, would I?

I then had to lug this 27-inch corpse on to the R train and take it up a few stops to the geeks at the Best Buy at Broadway and Houston.

I started having a conniption fit on the train—I can’t take it, I can’t take it—but then I recalled one of my first big stories when I covered the arrest of a man charged with murdering his wife.

That night was completely out of control and I almost had a nervous breakdown, but I got through it. And I was determined to get through this day, too.

So I bought a new Apple from Best Buy and I’m scheduled to pick it up on Monday. And when I bring it home, I won’t be calling Fat Fuck Charley for a ride.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Germs of Fear

I like to do this visualization exercise where I imagine a beam of pure light coming down straight from Heaven and going right into the top of my head.

The beautiful light clears away all the negative thoughts and emotions in my head, breaks the mental chains that are holding me back and allows me to look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.

The light moves down to my nose, mouth and throat, where it sweeps away all the germs that may be lurking there, a perfect image for a hypochondriac like yours truly.

From there the light surges through my entire body, clearing away and fixing up all my various ailments both real and imagined. This routine may sound corny to some people, but I love it.

However, the other day I got silently tongue-tied when I thought to myself “the light clears away the fear germs.”

Fear germs? There’s no such thing, I told myself.

But now I’m starting to wonder about that. Fear can grip us like a terrible disease if we let it take over our minds. Pretty soon we’re talking ourselves out of all sorts of new possibilities, while talking ourselves into a lifetime of regret and busted dreams.

I’ve got a serious case of the heebie-jeebies right now as I prepare to take a business trip to Philadelphia in the morning.

Bulb in The Woods

I’m posting tonight because I’ve got to catch a train early tomorrow and I’m writing this on my company laptop because my Apple desktop croaked on me two days ago.

Can it really be seven years to since we went down to Prince Street on a snowy afternoon to pick up a shiny new computer and bring it home?

“Your computer is what we would call ‘vintage’,” the young woman from Apple told me Wednesday night. “There’s not much what we can do.”

Of course the timing sucked beyond belief, but then when is there a good time for your computer to kick the bucket?

I don’t have time to run down to the Apple store before I leave and I had to ask my saint of a sister to print out my train ticket so I get my keester down to the City of Brotherly Love. And I’m not anxious to shell out thousands of dollars for a new machine.


On top of that I fouled up the hotel reservation and had to scramble to get a place that’s more expensive and further away from the conference.

That is what I would call “bullshit.”

I’ve got the fear germs crawling all over me, digging into my soul and clinging to my mind--even though I’ve been to these conferences many times before.

A little bit of nerves is one thing, but I’m feeling so antsy right now I could ruin a dozen picnics.

All right, I think we need to throw a little light on the situation. And by a little light, I mean a lot, a gleaming, glorious shaft of sacred light that streaks down from Paradise and penetrates this thick skull of mine.

This spectacular beam is going to burn up those little fear germs like the hideous vermin they are. No moping about the past, no trembling at the future. I’m going to do my job.

All right, then. Let’s light it up.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Listening to God Smile

Every morning when I meditate I start off with a little message to myself.

Open all the pores of your skin, I say, borrowing a line from a qigong DVD I bought years ago, and listen to God smile.

That last bit is my own creation—the DVD says “Listen to a sound from far away”—and while I’m not sure what it means, I do like the sound of it.

Meditation involves listening to silence so you can quiet your mind, step outside of your problems and worries, and, ideally, become a better person.

It’s Easter Sunday and I made sure to meditate on this most blessed morning.

This is a time of rebirth and renewal, where we look forward with hope and let go of the grief behind us. I know these are big words and I say them every year, but I’m just a sucker for a happy message.

I must confess that I didn’t make the most of Lent this year. I didn’t get my ashes on Ash Wednesday; I ate meat on nearly every Friday of the season, and let Palm Sunday blow by like it was somebody else’s religion.

I felt particularly disappointed last week when I saw an elderly woman walking slowly down Bay Ridge Avenue, a cane in one hand and a palm in the other. If she could make it to church why couldn't I?

I don’t feel guilty, as this is a most useless and destructive emotion. I just feel like I’ve missed out on something special.

I did avoid meat on Good Friday and after work I did some shopping, making sure to stop at the old Lincoln Savings Bank (now a Chase branch) to pause at the place where my mother’s desk once stood and wish her a Happy Easter.

The Resurrection, and The Life

Then it was on to Our Lady of Angels Church, where I sat in the pew for a while, reciting the Rosary and giving thanks for all the good things in my life.

I thought of my parents walking up the aisle of this church back in 1950 on the day they were married.

I recalled my Catholic education at the adjoining grammar school and felt the old anger and resentment stirring up before I politely asked them to depart.


A small group of people was gathering behind me and, checking the bulletin, I saw that it was almost time the ProcesiĆ³n del Via Crucis—the Stations of the Cross.

It’s hard to believe my church is now having Spanish language services.

We never thought that would’ve been possible back in the Sixties when I grew up, when Bay Ridge was almost completely Christian and caucasion.

Spanish mass? That’s for Our Lady of Perpetual Help down in Sunset Park. It's English only here.

I regret now that I left before the service started. I haven’t been to mass or confession for a few weeks (months?) and I haven’t sat in for the Stations of the Cross in years.

The language difference is immaterial and I think perhaps I would’ve gotten something out of the Spanish service.

Today I had dinner with my family, where there was much love and plenty of opportunities to hear God smile.


Sunday, April 09, 2017

Death of Smile

Several years ago one of my coworkers was showing me some headshots he had taken for the company ID card.

He was smiling broadly in the first shot, but the grin slowly slipped from his face over the course of the next three pictures.

“Death of a smile,” I said, looking over the images.

That phrase came back to me this week when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing back-to-back Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Woody Allen’s Sleeper, two of my all-time favorite comedies.

Or at least they used to be.

I’ve seen both these films again in the last year for the first time in decades and I had the same surprising, and rather sobering reaction to both of them.

While I had laughed uproariously at these two movies the first time I saw, I could barely crack a smile during the most recent viewings.

The scenes that I had found hilarious back in the Seventies now seemed hackneyed and stale.

Young Frankenstein mercilessly mocked the old Universal horror movies, right down a dart game that Frankenstein plays with a one-armed police chief.

When I saw the movie in the theater—was that the Quad Cinema?—I couldn’t stop laughing at that particular scene.

I loved Sleeper, too, a science fiction parody that is listed on "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die."

I argued with my parents who had also seen the movie and weren’t in the least bit impressed.

At the time I thought it was some kind of generational divide where my poor Mom and Dad just didn’t get Woody’s unique brand of comedy.

Now I feel exactly the same way they did. So I really am turning into my parents?

Hail, Hail, Freedonia...

I first noticed this phenomenon during the holidays a few years back when I watched the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup.

Now that’s a hysterically funny movie and I sat down in front of TV looking forward to enjoying the screwball comedy I had loved since I was a kid.

And…nothing. I don’t think I so much as grinned for the entire film. Even the famous mirror scene with Grouch and Harpo left me cold.

“I didn’t think it was at all funny,” I told my auntie the next day.

“That’s what usually happens, dear,” she said.

What the hell going on here? I always thought I had a good sense of humor. So why was I looking blankly at my widescreen like it was a tombstone?

Part of the problem is that, yes, I am older, and my tastes have changed.

Also, I’m watching these films at home and not in a theater full of people, so maybe the human factor is at play here. Maybe, but it’s not the deciding factor.

I tuned into TCM a few weeks back to watch The Ruling Class, a bizarre comedy featuring Peter O’Toole as a member of the House of Lords who thinks he’s Jesus Christ.

When I saw it in the old Elgin Cinema in 1973, I thought it was brilliant. Please, I silently begged my TV, stay that way for me. Be the same outrageous, shocking satire that I so fondly recall from my high school years.

But, once again, I watched this film as silently as a Trappist monk at Sunday dinner.

The movie was terribly dated and the few points it had to make—like the rich get away with everything, including murder—were delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow right between the eyes.

To borrow a phrase from my auntie, “it was like hanging by the thumbs.”

Maybe I’ll take a break from comedies for a while and focus on heavy dramas. There’s nothing like somebody else’s misery to bring my smile back to life.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Walk Through the Storm

It was a dark and stormy night—seriously.

A rabid storm system barged its way into Brooklyn on Friday and the rain was so nasty I started humming that godawful song from Titanic.

I was in the middle of my Friday ritual, where I order up a vat of wonton soup and a small mountain of fortune cookies from the Hot Wok, my local Chinese place, and park my rear end in front of the TV for a night of Netflix and "Law & Order" reruns.

Exciting, no?

Well, actually it did get a little suspenseful as the wind roared so loudly that at one point that I hit the mute button just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. It was only the wind, all right, but that was enough.

This was one of those nights where you thank God you’ve got a roof over your head.

The rain kept on going and my mind floated back to another brutal storm and even though this one happened in the middle of the day it was one of the blackest times of my life.

It was a cold day in November and my father was starting to show the first signs of dementia.

I was living in the house with him at the time and, to be honest, I was in denial about his condition. I couldn’t allow myself to believe that my dad, who was always the leader of our family, was losing control of his faculties.

He had been a salesman for a wholesale meat company for most of his working life and he used to drive all over Brooklyn to take orders from his customers.

But he had retired years earlier so I was a little surprised when I saw him putting his coat on and preparing to head out into the middle of the pounding rain.

Hold Your Head Up High

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I have to see some customers.”

Customers? It didn’t make any sense. His customers were either dead or retired by then.

I didn’t know what he was talking about—or, more accurately, I didn’t want to admit what was happening-so I just stood there and watched my dad walk out the door.

I couldn’t physically restrain my own father, but I feel so stupid now looking back on that day and my staunch refusal to see the terrible truth.

Maybe it was too hard for me to accept that my father’s mind was slipping away.

He came back a short time later, battered by the wind and rain. I pointed to a small plastic bag he was clutching.

“What’s in there?”

“Order forms,” he said.

I looked in the bag and saw nothing but blank sheets of paper. He apparently thought he was carrying the order forms he used to fill out when he was still working.

It was frightening and quite upsetting to see him like this.

I helped him dry off and put the sheets of paper away. A short time later my sister said we would need to hire someone to stay with him at all times and even then I had my doubts.

The storms got worse around our house as time went by and our father drifted farther and farther away from us, until he couldn’t recall my name and would casually ask for my mother even though she had died years earlier.

It was a dark memory suitable for a dark and stormy night. I try to think about the good times we had with our father before dementia took him from us. And my heart breaks for other families who suffer through this nightmare.

It was bitterly cold and cloudy on Saturday, and I had to wrap myself up in that damn parka of mine, but today the temperature climbed, the sun was shining brilliantly, and ugly memories were retreating back to the gloom where they belonged.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Amazing Ava

A generation ago, The Lovin’ Spoonful asked the musical question “Do you believe in magic?” and as of Saturday my answer is a resounding “yes!”

The cause of the conversion was a pair of lovely run-ins I had with two adorable children as I walked home from the gym.

The first meeting occurred on Fifth Avenue as I approached a local nail salon. A woman, presumably the owner or an employee, was standing outside with this beautiful little boy.

As I got closer to the store the little guy broke away from his mother and came charging up to me with a flyer in his hand.

“Is that for me, buddy?” I asked as took the sheet of paper from his hand. “Why, thank you so much!”

I don’t think I’ll be frequenting the place, but I just loved how determined that boy was to help his mom. But it turned out that this young fellow was just the opening act of my exciting morning.

I was just a half block from my home when I passed a house on 72nd Street where a young couple and their little girl were outside enjoying Saturday’s warm weather. I nodded, smiled, and kept going--but not for long.

“Sir?”

The father was calling me and I turned around.

“Yes?”

“Would you like to see some magic tricks?”

I can never get enough magic in my life, so I readily agreed. It seems their daughter, who was about 7 years old, had a little table set up with a child’s magic kit.

She was a little shy but I gently encouraged her to do her routine, and pretty soon she was waving her magic wand, intoning “abracadabra”, and making coins, cards, and other objects disappear and reappear.

It'll Free Your Soul

I made sure to be properly astounded, applauding loudly with each trick and even helped out when her wand slipped to the ground.

“Be careful or you’ll get in trouble with Harry Potter,” I said.

The budding Kreskin quickly retrieved her baton and brought the show to a rousing finale.

“What’s your name, dear?” I asked, as I handed her a couple of bucks.

“Ava,” she said.

“Well, now you’re the Amazing Ava,” I told her. “You need a cape and some more magic words and you’ll be a star.”

I thanked Ava’s parents and wished them all a great day.

As I walked the last half-block to my house I noticed my mind was quickly returning to its regularly scheduled bullshit—worry, regrets, daydreams, and other assorted mental flotsam—and I hit the brakes.

Wait a damn minute, I thought. You just had a lovely experience a few minutes ago. Why don’t you savor that nice time for a little longer before jumping overboard?

So I abracadabraed myself right back to that sweet encounter. Yeah, I thought, that was a good thing.

I’ve been retraining my brain to find the good things in life instead of choosing to roil in grief. I was lucky to have been passing that house at that particular time and I am very grateful for that.

I regret now that I had taken her picture, but too often we’re so busy photographing an event that we remove ourselves from the actual proceedings.

I was having too much fun to go fiddling with the my phone and her dad was taking plenty of photos anyway. Believe me, I’m not about to forget the Amazing Ava and her bag of tricks anytime soon.

My sister pointed out that it was good that Ava was outside meeting people and doing something creative—as opposed to burying her nose in a smartphone.

And that’s the best kind of magic there is.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Pushing Deadline

When I first got started in newspapers my mother did everything she could to support me.

There was this one time early in my journalism career when my mother was trying to boost my confidence while she ironing some shirts.

She was a multitasker long before the term was invented.

Now I’m a half-breed, a child of an Irish father and an Italian mother, and that combination was often an issue in our house.

“You could be the next Jimmy Breslin,” my mother said, God bless her. “Only you’re not obnoxious. And the reason you’re not obnoxious is because you’re not 100% Irish. Because when it comes to being obnoxious, the Irish, I’m sorry to say, corner the market.”

She said this without venom or rage, but in a normal tone of voice as if she were discussing the weather. It was just a fact as far as she was concerned.

My mother was the kindest, most loving person I’m ever known in my life and she did not have a bigoted bone in her body.

But she was also human and she did harbor this rather strong dislike for the Irish and being married to my old man probably didn’t help matters any.

I think of this story now because newspaper legend Jimmy Breslin died today.

I wasn’t the biggest Breslin fan, but there is no disputing that he did tremendous work and reading his obituary reminded me why he was a living legend.

The Gravedigger's Report

One of his earliest and most notable successes was an interview with the man who dug the grave for John F. Kennedy, which is nothing short of brilliant.

While other reporters were looking in all the high places for their JFK stories, Breslin tracked down the man who was arguably the least important player in the entire assassination saga and got a great story out of it.

The column, according to the New York Times, “sent legions of journalists to find their ‘gravedigger.’”

In 1977 he received a letter from the Son of Sam and Breslin published the letter and an appeal for the gunman to surrender. But the Son of Sam would strike twice more before he was arrested.

I remember seeing Breslin on one of the TV talks shows after John Lennon was murdered, decrying the wave of gun violence in this country, and he wrote a fabulous column about the two cops who responded to the shooting at the Dakota.

I eventually got fed up with his ego after one his columns described a meeting at the White House of all the great reporters in the country.

He felt compelled to add the line “of course, I was there," whereupon I felt compelled to throw the newspaper across the room.

Looking back I wish I had continued reading his work. And I wish he were still around to write about the current occupant of the White House.

In this diseased era of fake news and shameless pandering, his brutal honesty would be most welcome.

I didn’t become the next Jimmy Breslin and this blog is probably the closest thing I’ll ever have to a regular column, but I’m okay with that.

And I bring my shirts to the dry cleaner for ironing now, since I have neither the skill nor the patience my mother had.

We lost Jimmy Breslin today and my mother nearly 15 years ago. If the world had more people like them it would be a much better place.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Darts and Minds

In my own defense, I was drinking a lot that night.

While trawling through the cavernous storage locker that is my memory, I stumbled upon a rather odd recollection of one night in Stroudsburg, PA, back in the early Nineties while I was working at the Pocono Record.

I worked a 2pm-10pm shift, which was out of synch with most other people, but it did allow me to hit the mall and other locations when they were practically empty.

It also meant I stayed up later than most other people and I got into the habit of stopping at the bar near the paper most nights of the week and downing far too many beers before heading to my apartment on Scott Street.

I confess that for a while there, I has getting plastered most nights of the week and I just figured I’d be fine the next morning because I could sleep in late.

Technically this was correct, but I was also putting on weight, and more seriously, I was looking forward to getting wasted rather dealing with my various problems.

Looking back, I’m just so relieved I never got pulled over by a cop. Stroudsburg was a small town and I was just minutes from home, but I’m sure that on many nights I would’ve been royally screwed if I had been forced to honk into a breathalyzer.

There was this one Saturday night where I met up with some coworkers for a good time. I was on a Sunday-Thursday shift, but with my late starting time I had no concerns about having a few beers…and then a few more…and then a few more after that.

And somewhere in that haze of alcohol and foolishness, one of my buddies and I got into a twisted game of darts with a total stranger who looked like a walking cartoon character.

Mugs Away

He had an honest-to-God mullet, a long, dark trench coat and these atrocious white shoes.

I don’t know who he was or why the hell we got into this game but in no time at all we were tossing darts and talking trash like the building was on fire.

Every time Mullet Man’s turn came up, I’d give him the horns—two middle fingers pulled in, index finger and pinky extended--to send all sorts of ancient Italian bad wishes in his direction and hopefully making him miss the dartboard.

He’d do it back to me and we’d all laugh like idiots.

Don’t ask me who won that game. I’m just glad we didn’t harpoon somebody’s privates with all the beers we were putting away.

The evening wore on, Mullet Man faded away, and at some very unhealthy part of the evening I vaguely recall getting just a little too friendly with some dude’s wife.

Luckily that didn’t go anywhere and I’m alive to tell the tale.

I never found out Mullet Man’s name, where he was from, or what he did for a living, and there are some days I’m half-convinced he was actually a hallucination sent down by the Good Lord to scare me off the demon rum.

Now the moral story is…who the Hell knows?

Mullets and darts don’t mix? Stay away from married women? Or maybe just something more direct, like lay off the booze.

All I know is that I’m glad I lost my taste for beer. I stick to wine now, keep better hours, and I reserve my drinking for weekends.

And if I ever run into a guy with a mullet and atrocious white shoes, I’ll steer clear of the dartboard.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Cleaning Out

I wish I had taken a picture of that chair.

Ever since I got my smartphone I’ve enjoyed snapping photos of just about anything that catches my eye and slapping it up on Facebook.

Interesting graffiti, old buildings, theater marquees, restaurant signs, and selfies all get the social media treatment.

The other morning I was walking up to my gym when I saw a tiny chair sitting outside a house waiting for the sanitation crew to take it away.

I thought it would be a nice picture to put up on Facebook along with a wisecrack in the comments section. But I was running late so I kept going.

As I walked on I started thinking about how the discarded chair meant that someone in that house was getting bigger and leaving a part of his or her childhood behind forever.

It’s been a six years since we sold our parents’ house, when we had to throw out or give away toys, clothes, furniture, and God knows what else before we could put the place on the market, and that little chair brought back this memory from the Seventies.

My oldest brother Jim had gone to Eastern Michigan University and during his first visit to the family home on Senator Street we made sure to go see our aunt in Manhattan.

The second she opened the door my auntie took one look at my brother and burst into tears.

I was young, in my late teens or early 20s, and so chronically full of attitude that I just couldn’t bear this emotional display. What is this woman’s problem, I thought. Madam, please get a hold of yourself.

You Must Remember This…

I didn’t understand it at the time—I didn’t understand much of anything at the time--but my aunt was recalling my brother as a child and seeing him as a young man all grown up and back from college was too much for her. All of a sudden he wasn’t a child anymore.

The years went by, I became an uncle, and one afternoon I called my oldest niece, Kristin, who was about to start her senior year of college.

My parents were gone by then and I was living in the house alone, silently dreading the day when I’d have to leave and total strangers would move in.

Summer was almost over and I was sitting on the front steps and looking out on the street where I spent most of my life.
Kristin, who has since graduated, did most of the talking during that phone call and I happily listened as she gave me a rundown of her plans. And at one point I couldn’t help but laugh.

“You know, it seems like it was just last week you were sitting on my lap going ‘wah,wah,wah!’” I said.

We talked some more, I wished her well and we rang off. And then I started thinking that it really did feel like it was just last week that my niece was a baby, with a small chair of her own.

My parents were alive, the house was ours with no thought of selling the place, and we made regular trips over to my brother’s house to see little Kristin. And now that was all gone.

As the tears rolled down my face I finally realized why my aunt had cried that day she saw my brother.

I hope the people who discarded that little chair treasure the good times and I hope that some day the chair’s former occupant will be able to look back on some beautiful memories.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Foggy Day

There’s something so comforting about the sound of foghorn.

It’s a voice of safety and guidance, a saintly sound that seeks to protect sailors from harm.

Now I’m a certified landlubber, but I live near the Narrows in Bay Ridge and whenever the fog rolls in I get an earful of that beautiful noise rolling in right behind it.

It’s a nice old timey sound that harks back to another age of sailing ships and fishing villages.

Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Fog Horn” features a sea monster that mistakes a remote lighthouse’s foghorn for the mating call of one of its own.

The giant creature eventually topples the lighthouse in a fit of rage and the story formed the basis of the monster movie classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Thankfully that has yet to happen in my neighborhood.

I came to appreciate this singular symphony even more during a recent meditation session.

Now I’m just getting over a nasty virus that had wrapped my head in a fogbank of congestion, fatigue, and extreme grouchiness worthy of an angry sea monster.

The dry, hacking cough was a bonus that I would’ve cheerfully skipped if I’d had any choice in the matter.

Had Me Low, Had Me Down…

So many people I know have been sick recently and I am very thankful that I work from home so I wouldn’t have to suffer the additional torture of a daily commute. On the flip side, though, it’s not easy calling in sick when your office is 10 feet away from your bedroom.

I dragged through the week, skipping the gym and cutting off most social activities.

I did keep up on my regular 20-minute meditation routine, but my unhappiness over my health muscled in on my morning session with a serious case of monkey mind that rattled my skull with endless negative chatter about how much the coming day was going to suck and wondering if I’d ever feel better.

I started to improve toward the end of the week and on Saturday I had a moment of clarity even as the fog came moving in.

As the foghorns began calling, I fixed my mind on that wonderful sound and stayed with it for the entire session.

My breathing became slower and deeper and the incessant internal chatter took a break as my mental monkey climbed the nearest tree.

I felt so safe and secure—like I was sitting in the palm of God's hand, and the foghorn’s din sounded so dense, so deep you could almost walk on it. I came out of that meditation in a much better frame on mind.

It was colder this morning and the sun was out, so there was no need for foghorns. As I meditated I could feel this beautiful healing ray of sunlight come across my face. The warmth got me thinking about spring and health and ditching all these winter clothes.

Some days you get fog and some days you get sunshine. If your thinking is clear you can navigate your way through either one.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

‘Our Beautiful Tower’

On the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin with a cache of weapons and started shooting.

Whitman’s killing spree, probably America’s first mass shooting, would leave 17 people dead and 31 others injured.

It was an incredible, shocking moment in this country’s history and it is the subject of Keith Maitland’s riveting documentary, Tower, which PBS broadcast last week.

“It was not something you’d expect from our beautiful tower,” one woman says about the incident years later.

I have to be honest--I sobbed so much during this film I must’ve gone through an entire box of tissues.

Using a combination of old news footage, current interviews, and rotoscope animation, Maitland tells the survivors’ shocking stories of what happened over the course of 96 horrific minutes.

There’s Alex Hernandez, who was shot off his bicycle as he delivered newspapers; and Allen Crum, a manager of the University Book Store Co-op, who offered to help the police stop the slaughter and who ended up on the observation deck with a rifle in his hands.

We hear from Claire Wilson, who was eight pregnant at the time, and who, along with her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman were shot as they left the UT student union.

Eckman was killed instantly as he tried to help Claire, who lay there bleeding in the near 100-degree heat in this suddenly formed No Man’s Land.

One woman tells the filmmakers that “on that day I knew I was a coward” because she didn’t put herself in harm’s way to help the wounded. Wanting to live is hardly cowardice, but this atrocity did spark some incredible displays of courage.

There’s an amazing woman named Rita Starpattern, who ran out to help Claire Wilson, got down on her stomach and kept the bleeding woman talking so she wouldn’t loss consciousness.

And there was John "Artly" Fox, just 17 years old at the time, who with a friend, ran out and helped carry Claire Wilson to safety.

The film includes news footage of Fox and his friend running with the wounded woman as his glasses slide off his face.

Body Count

And we hear from Ramiro "Ray" Martinez and Houston McCoy, two Austin cops who killed Whitman and ended the carnage.

I was 9 years old when the tower massacre happened and I have vague memories of the adults talking about it, including my dad, who spoke about “a fat guy who ran out to help people.”

Tower includes an on-the-scene interview with a heavyset fellow—and Vietnam vet—who rescued some of the victims. This man, with bloodstains clearly visible on his shirt, carried Thomas Eckman and he told the reporter that he knew Eckman was the dead the second he picked him up.

Toward the end of the film, the interviews shift from animation to modern day footage of the survivors, an incredible bit of editing that brings these people and their words brilliantly to life.

Claire Wilson lost her baby and even though the doctors said she could have children, she wasn’t able to conceive and eventually adopted a boy from Ethiopia.

And as much as she loves this child, now a grown man, she also talks about having a dream where she’s holding the baby she lost, who’s alive and well.

“And then I look away and when I look down he’s gone,” she says.

Rita Starpattern died in 1996; she was just 50 years old.

Houston McCoy died in 2012 and even late in life his cracked as he expressed regret for not running into the tower immediately upon his arrival and taking on the gunman himself.

Billy Speed, an Austin cop who was killed that day, and a lot of others would be alive, McCoy says.

“Woulda, coulda,” he adds, clearly still in pain.

In 2016, 50 years to the goddamn day of the tower shootings, the Campus Carry law went into effect, allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns at public universities in Texas.

One of those speaking out against this madness was Ray Martinez, who faced that psychopath.

“Let the police do the policing,” he said.

After the massacre, people expressed shock and outrage, of course, although back then they had no idea that mass shootings would become so frequent in America--Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech--that you would need an Excel spreadsheet to keep them straight in your mind.

It was a different time and this was not something you’d expect from our beautiful country.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Blast Site

We heard about the fire from the mailman who had stopped by the office that morning to make a delivery.

It was July 21, 1987 and a propane gas explosion had ripped through the block on 50th Street and 18th Avenue.

I was working for the Bay Ridge Home Reporter, a neighborhood weekly, and I was assigned to cover the blast. It was one of my first big stories.

The smoke from the explosion and resulting fire rose high over this Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I had never seen so many fire engines, police cars, ambulances and news vans in my life.

I was just getting over a nasty summer cold, but I forgot about that as I joined a group of reporters who were penned in an impromptu press area that was formed by two police barriers.

All I could see was smoke and rubble. I broke out the paper’s Polaroid camera—yes, seriously--and began snapping pictures.

In a case of excruciatingly bad timing, I ran out of film just as a firefighter staggered away from the flames, tumbled on to a stretcher and put an oxygen mask to his face. He was wheeled away before I got a chance to load a fresh cartridge.

A police captain told us that four people had been killed when the explosion ripped through a plumbing supply store. One of the victims was some poor guy on his way to work who had walked by the store at the wrong time. Another victim was due to get married in the fall.

Eleven people had been injured as flying debris blew out windows and tore into people waiting at a nearby bus stop. Twelve cops and a dozen firefighters were also injured.

And at some point I was peering through the lens for another shot when the cops to decided to relocate the press zone.

Without saying a word to me they moved the barriers and suddenly I was unknowingly standing in No Man’s Land.

I felt someone tug on my shirt and a cop was saying, “get behind the barricade!”

Well, shit, I thought I was behind the barricade. I quickly got in line with the other reporters and I was fortunate enough to stand next to a veteran journalist from Newsday.

I watched him flag down a young Hasidic man from Hatzolah, a volunteer ambulance service, and pump him for details about the explosion.

Page One News

“Now, I want to make Hatzolah look good,” he said.

I was a little surprised by his bluntness as I had thought reporters were supposed to ask questions and not make deals. I was new to journalism but I soon learned that sometimes you’ve got to schmooze a little bit to get a story.

I interviewed a young EMT named Isaac and got some good color for my story. And then I raced back to the paper to write. The story was all over the local news broadcasts that night.

I went to the site the next day to for a follow-up and the block looked like a war zone. I interviewed two sanitation workers who had pulled people from the rubble and then I spoke with a fellow whom I would have to describe as your classic New York little old Jewish man.

He was telling me about what he had seen when one of us stepped off the sidewalk and onto to the street. Instantly this incredibly short cop came running over to us waving his arms.

“Get back on the sidewalk,” he yelled, as if we had knocked over a bank. “Get back on the sidewalk!”

We did as we were told and my companion waited until the police officer was out of earshot before he spoke.

“That’s a cop?” he asked. “That’s a midget!

We spoke for a little while longer and then I had to get back to the office.

“Is it okay if I ask your name?” I said rather awkwardly.

The old timer looked surprised.

“What am I, a gangster?” he said. “I shouldn’t give my name?”

I’m sorry to say I forgot that man’s name, but I still remember him.

It turned out the propane tanks were being kept in the store’s basement illegally and the owner received several summonses. I don’t know how the case was settled, but whatever happened, it didn’t make the victims any less dead.

A short time later I was sitting in a deli with some friends who wanted to know about the explosion, so I gave them my firsthand account. I have to say it felt pretty good being the center of attention.

I went on to cover many more disasters over the years, including a gas explosion that destroyed a church. I got accustomed to interviewing cops, firefighters, eyewitnesses and victims who had lost every single thing they owned.

Sometimes I tell myself I miss covering all the mayhem, but after years of business reporting, I think I’ll leave the ambulance chasing to somebody else.

But it sure was a hell of a ride.