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.