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.


The father was calling me and I turned around.


“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.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Airport Run

I came bounding out of PS 102 one afternoon many years ago dying to tell my parents the great news.

This was kindergarten around 1962 and I had just made local history by proudly printing my name.

My mother and father were waiting for me in my dad’s car, and I climbed in the back seat, breathlessly reporting how I had spelled “R-O-B-E-R-T.”

And then I showed them the paper I was clutching as irrefutable evidence of this tremendous event.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” my mother said. “Now you just have to learn how to print ‘Lenihan.’”

I was confused. I had just reached the plateau by cranking out my first name, the only one I ever used. It’s not like I was writing checks or signing contracts. Why complicate things?

I eventually caught on that I would need the surname to get through life and a short time later I actually was writing checks and signing contracts. And it hasn’t stopped since.

But what I remember most about that day was seeing my parents waiting outside school for me. Of course I didn’t appreciate it at that time. I was young and I naturally thought Mom and Dad would always be waiting for me.

Twenty-five years later I was coming home from a three-week vacation in Europe. I’d had a great time seeing the sites in Paris, Rome, and Munich, but I’d grown weary of visiting yet another museum, yet another old church. And I missed my family.

We had no Internet or cell phones back then, so I only spoke with my parents a handful of times during the entire trip.

Cleared for Takeoff

I had booked charter flights in and out of JFK, which were cheaper, but not long on customer service. They were like flying cattle cars to be perfectly honest.

I flew out of Munich and expected a brief layover in Shannon Airport in Ireland, which was supposed to have a fantastic duty-free shop.

But we didn’t stop at Shannon. We kept on going, over the Atlantic and landed in Gander, Canada. It seemed like such a desolate, barren place and I wanted to leave as quickly as possible.

My Uncle Walter had been a bomber pilot in WWII, back when Gander was a refueling stop for transatlantic flights, and he later told me that he’d had some great times there before taking off for Europe. I’d found that hard difficult to believe given my brief experience with the place.

Gander would later become a crucial landing area on September 11, when dozens of planes were forced to land at Gander International.

The people from Gander and the surrounding towns stepped up and took in more than 6,600 passengers and airline crewmembers.

When we flew out of Gander I had no idea that the crap-ass airline I was traveling with hadn’t been keeping the people back at JFK informed about the plane’s progress, so I didn’t know that my parents were quite worried about me.

We reached New York an hour late and we shared a terminal with a plane that had just arrived from Kingston, Jamaica, which made it easy for me to find my parents as they kind of stuck out in the crowd.

It was lovely seeing them and it felt like I had been away for a long time. They were a little older now than they were back on that day in kindergarten, of course, but I couldn’t wait to tell them about my trip.

My parents are have been gone for years, and now I have to hire someone to pick me up from the airport whenever I fly. It makes me miss them even more and realize how lucky I was to have them.

And when I make my last trip in this life I hope their smiling faces will be the first things I see when I arrive.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Unbought and Unbossed

Shirley Chisholm, we need you now more than ever.

Forty-five years ago this month, an African-American woman from Brooklyn announced that she was running for President of the United States.

I have this faint memory of seeing Shirley Chisholm on the old Eyewitness News show calling upon her fellow Americans to join her in “an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny as we go down the Chisholm Trail for 1972.”

Obviously she didn’t have a prayer of winning, but the fact that a minority woman had stepped forward and declared her candidacy for the highest office in the land was an incredible moment in this country’s history.

I had the distinct privileged of interviewing Shirley Chisholm sometime around 1990 when I was a reporter at the Pocono Record.

She was staying at one of the area resorts and I was lucky enough to be sent down there to speak with her. I’m from Brooklyn and I had grown up watching her on TV, so it was a thrill to meet her.

I reminded her of her presidential announcement and that line about going down the Chisholm Trail.

“You remember that?” She laughed. “You must’ve been so young.”

Yes, I was, but I never forgot that moment. This was a time when presidential candidates were Caucasian males and Caucasian males only. But Ms. Chisholm said she ran for the office "in spite of hopeless odds ... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the
status quo."

Harsh Times

The Seventies was such a volatile time in America—the Vietnam War was raging on, there were riots on college campuses all over the country, and Richard Nixon was busy spying on his political enemies.

And Shirley Chisholm was in the middle of it all. I reminded her of a raucous Democratic State Committee meeting in the Catskills in 1970 when Ms. Chisholm demanded that the ticket have a black candidate.

“Get off the stage!” someone shouted.

“You come down and get me off!” Ms. Chisholm responded.

I told her that I had also seen this confrontation on TV, and I mentioned that no one had taken her up on her offer.
“No takers!” she said with a smile.

I was so happy to speak with her. She was strong, determined, and decent. Her early campaign slogan—and also the title of her autobiography--was “Unbought and Unbossed,” and that’s just what this country needs—back then and especially now.

“I have a firm belief in myself and unshakeable faith in God,” she told me.

She radiated this incredible energy and she bemoaned the apathy that gripped America at the time.

I can only imagine what she’d think about the current political situation where the president is a racist reality show star determined the undo the Constitution. I wonder what she would have to say about “alternative facts.”

Shirley Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991 and she died January 1, 2005. I’m so grateful I had a chance to meet her and I just wish we had more people like her who demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rainy Day Children

It was the first day of school, the rain was falling, and a little girl named Patricia was crying her eyes out.

That random recollection came floating through my mind the other day, possibly roused by a recent review of my Catholic school posts. Apparently I knocked it off a shelf in my memory and it just started playing.

Patricia was a classmate of mine, a scrawny, pale child who seemed to be getting into trouble throughout the entire first grade.

She pulled some stunt on me once—pushed my crayons to the floor or some such childhood version of a capital offense--and I decided that she was evil incarnate and could never be forgiven.

We had all heard she had been left back and would have to repeat the first grade, and yet there she was, sitting with the rest of us in our second year at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School.

And then the voices started.

One of the girls told the sister that Patricia had been left back and several other kids quickly joined the chorus.

“She’s not supposed to be here,” they all said.

Patricia looked around the room in terror as the accusations piled up around her.

I don’t honestly remember if I joined in with the others, but I was definitely with them in spirit; we had an intruder in our midst and she had to be exposed.

And that’s when Patricia started crying, louder and louder as the nun in charge escorted her out of the classroom.

This particular sister was surprisingly restrained upon learning of the child’s chicanery and spoke to her softly—as opposed to smacking the kid into a coma and throwing her under a speeding locomotive.

This Way Out

“Now, now,” she said to Patricia. “It’s already raining outside, we can’t have rain inside, too.”

She deserved it, I thought, she’s a liar and a cheater. I went home and told my parents about how bad Patricia had been caught and driven out of class on a rail.

But they didn’t react like I thought they would.

“The poor thing,” my mother said. “That’s terrible.”

Terrible? No, she had it coming. She didn’t belong in our class. And I still hadn’t forgotten about that crayon incident.
“Those kids should’ve kept quite,” my dad said.

I didn’t begin to understand their logic. Patricia was trying to crash the second grade; she deserved to be punished. Why were they so sympathetic to a blatant fraud?

But then my mom and dad had lived through the Depression and the Second World War, so they knew what real evil, real hardship looked like. And, as loving parents, they were angered and upset at the thought of any child suffering.

I was completely confused at the time, but I see now that my parents were right. We should’ve kept our mouths shut that day.

All Patricia had done was try to get ahead any way she could. If she were a Wall Street broker she’d be hailed as a genius and if she were a politician we’d put her in the fucking White House.

The school staff would’ve discovered her scam soon enough. It wasn’t necessary for us to play Hitler Youth.

Patricia’s breakdown rolled right off me that day like rain on stainless steel, but all these decades later I can hear her sobbing and it cuts right through my heart.

I never saw Patricia again and though it means absolutely nothing now, I’d just want to say that I’m sorry for what we did to you. I’m sorry you were humiliated like that.

And I hope you’ve had a happy life with plenty of joy, much love, and very few rainy days.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Future Tense

Imagine a world where the air is so foul that people are forced to live underground.

And imagine that America is a fascist state run like a corporation with a slew of vice-presidents.

In 1971 author Philip Wylie imagined such a world in a script for the NBC series The Name of the Game.

The show centered on a magazine publisher, an editor, and a crusading reporter, but this particular episode took a sharp turn into science fiction.

And what was the title of this show?

LA: 2017.”

Yes, exactly, the hideous world depicted in the program takes place…now.

I watched the show when it was first broadcast on January 15, 1971—46 flipping years ago today--and it floated back into my memory last week when I should’ve been doing something else.

I immediately began searching for some background on the show and I learned this episode was directed by a young man named Steven Spielberg, who I believe has been fairly successful in the movie business.

The story involves the magazine publisher, played by Gene Barry, who is driving home from a conference on ecology when he passes out behind the wheel and wakes up in the eponymous dystopia.

Prior to keeling over, Barry is dictating a memo to the president, warning that the threat to the environment is so serious “it could be the beginning of the end of the earth as we know it.”

And I Feel Fine...

For a detailed description of the show, you may want to take a look at John Kenneth Muir’s Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV.

My memory of the show is quite hazy, not surprising, I suppose, given all those years. I recall Gene Barry waking up in the polluted planet, a terrorist bombing, and not much else.

I also read a novelization of the script written by Wylie, but I remember even less about that.

While the program was ahead of its time in many ways, it does look somewhat creaky now, judging by what I on found on YouTube, like an excruciating scene with some aging hippies.

But it’s easy to look back and mock the past. The show did highlight the dangers of pollution, but clearly we didn’t get the message.

On Friday, a deranged “businessman” who claims climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese will be sworn in as the President of the United States.

All of a sudden being driven underground by polluted air doesn’t seem so farfetched.

There’s a scene in “LA 2017” where Gene Barry berates the vice president for maintaining a totalitarian state, but the VP asks why didn’t the wealthy publisher do something to prevent this twisted world from happening when he had the chance back in 1971.

Why, indeed.

I have very little hope for our environment, our economy, or our democracy as this new gang takes over the government.

Already there’s talk of shutting out reporters from the White House and the President-elect can’t seem to hold a press conference without a gang of goons cheering on his every move.

We’re heading into some very rough days, I fear, and we’re a lot closer to the end of the earth as we know it than we were way back in 1971.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Freeze and Thank You

I thought the library was supposed to be quiet.

I went to the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Friday in search of some heat. Not in the form of racy novels, mind you, but real heat, as in the hot air that keeps you from freezing your ass off.

The heat in my building had gone belly up the night before and since I work from home, my office was getting chillier by the moment.

The repair guy got it running for a short time early Friday morning and I made the mistake of celebrating too soon, thus encouraging Fate, Karma, or whoever the hell controls the eternal thermostat to snort and shout “that’s what you think, skinhead!” before promptly shutting the boiler down again.

No problem, I told myself. I’ll just grab my laptop, skedaddle over to the neighborhood reading room and do my job on the fly.

Hell, I’ve written stories in airport terminals and hotel lobbies and conducted phone interviews in speeding taxies. The library is also where I developed my reading habit as a child, so this gig would be a bit of a homecoming.

Okay, well, it didn’t quite work out that way. First of all, the place was crowded and I had trouble getting a seat. Then there was a small army of toddlers running, screaming, and crying in all directions.

And on top of that there was a lady conducting an English conversation group for them what don’t know how to talk right.

But I accepted all that, particularly in light of that fact that I was feeling actual warmth. I knew I could handle the noise.

However the real problem was with my laptop, and more specifically…me. I had trouble getting into my company email account, which meant I couldn’t communicate with my editors or file my stories.

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest

You have signed out, the message on my screen read.

"No, shmuck, I didn’t sign out," I growled at the inanimate object.

True to form, my mind started churning out all these awful scenarios of missing deadline and getting in trouble. And then some little kid went completely over the wall and start screaming to hell and back.

This must’ve been the first time in my life that I ever wanted to be in an office.

I began cursing at my laptop, a habit I picked up from my Italian grandmother who used to tell the TV to shut up whenever it got on her nerves.

Finally I’d had enough. I was undoubtedly annoying people around me by adding to the noise level, so I slammed down the lid on my laptop and hightailed it back my igloo.

On the way home I grumbled about how unfair it all was and I reminded myself that the New Year wasn’t a week old yet and already I was giving the anger management resolution a hernia.

Anger really has become a habit with me and I could hear myself fuming about how awful everything was knowing full well that I really wasn’t as pissed as I sounded.

It was like I was playing a part rather than reacting with my true feelings.

My ongoing dread of technology is part of the problem, but only a small part. It’s this addiction to rage that I want to quell.

Anyway, I got to my apartment, kept on the sweater and the ski hat and got cranking on my stories.

The heat came back on at about 3:30pm and it stayed on this time, which is good as we had a snowstorm on Saturday and brutally freezing temperatures tonight.

And now I’m thinking of a homeless I see most mornings when I go to the gym who sleeps at the base of a street lamp at Broadway and Vesey Street.

He’s huddled under some rags with only a piece of cardboard separating him from the freezing concrete. I’m sure he’d be very happy to have a roof over his head, with or without the heat.

If I see him on Tuesday, I’ll be sure to say a prayer and put a dollar in his cup.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Picasso’s Disciple

“What do you is what counts and not what you had the intention of doing.” – Pablo Picasso

I’m not going to waste any time listing my New Year’s resolutions.

I truly love the idea of making all these annual promises to change, clean up my act, eat better, work harder, learn a foreign language, and solve all the world’s problems in the next 12 months.

But I’m thinking I might tone it down a little. I already know what I want and what I have to do to get what I want.

So this is a tune-up, a check-in to see how far off the path I’ve wandered (pretty far) and what I have to do to get back on track. I just can’t take the cynic’s route and dismiss the potential for change.

I know that I’ve slipped up pretty seriously in several areas and it’s all for the same reason—a lack of discipline.

For one thing, I’ve been wasting far too much time screwing around on YouTube. I do love the site, but I’ve allowed it to take over my life.

There’s always an old song or instructional video, or movie clip or some other such time-burning bullshit to keep me from writing, reading, meditating or otherwise improving my life.

I’ve also been watching too much TV and not even good TV, but a lot of crap. And let’s not even mention Facebook.

Start Here

I’d like to be more disciplined in my reaching my goals and I want to use “discipline” in a positive sense, not the self-defeating, psycho drill sergeant browbeating mentality that bludgeons my soul into a fetal position.

That kind of abuse just sinks you deeper in the mud.

The followers of Jesus Christ were called disciples, and they didn’t follow Him out of fear or guilt; they followed Him out of love, and that’s how I want to approach my goals—with love, not dread.

What I’d like to achieve is a state of striving gratitude, where I am thankful, truly thankful for everything I have--from my family to the roof over my head to the food on my table—while still working hard to make my life better.

And while it’s certainly true that you can change your life any day you chose, New Year’s Day seems like a good time to start.

The Picasso quote at the top of this post is going to be my guide for 2017 and discipline is going to be my mantra.

I already know I’m going to stumble. God knows I’ve done it many times before. The only way not to fail is to do nothing and then you fail at life.

The kind of regret from not attempting something hurts a hundred times more than trying something and failing. I know this from some very personal experience.

I have a specific set of goals, most of which have been around for several years. But I finally published my novel last year and if I can scratch that sucker off the list, then I’m free to move on to others.

And if I could learn how to speak Polish and bring about world peace this year as well, so much the better.

Happy New Year.