Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bridge Game

Uncle Joe was mighty proud of me.

I like to talk to my uncle in Los Angeles regularly to see what’s going on with the West Coast branch of the family.

I’ve stayed with Joe and his wife more times than I could possibly count and it’s always nice to shoot the breeze with him.

Joe called me this morning and I filled him on a recent trip I talk to Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island that turned out much better than I had anticipated.

“So,” he said after I finished, “you got up off your arse and did something different?”

Indeed, I had.

I had been trying to decide if I wanted to go on this trip with one of my Meetup groups and, as usual, I was coming up with all kinds of excuses not to join in.

My apartment was a mess, I haven’t been doing enough writing, I was tired. And I don’t know my way around Staten Island—what if I got lost?

But I also knew that if I stayed in my comfort zone and spent the day by myself, I’d be miserable. Finally, late on Saturday morning, I made up my mind to go, jumping aboard a S51 bus and hoping I wouldn’t end up an X-File.

I arrived in 20 minutes.

The bus went over the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge and two stops later I was walking a half-block up to Fort Wadsworth.

It was embarrassingly easy to get there, but I had turned it to such a bear in my mind. And even if I had gotten lost, so what? Getting lost in Staten Island is one thing; getting lost in Antarctica is another.

Fort Wadsworth, an area on the Narrows first fortified by the British in 1779, is in a beautiful location. It’s almost directly across the water from where I live, but seeing the same site from the opposite angle was a trip.

“Fort Wadsworth?” Joe said when I told him. “I went there sometime around 1938. I forget what it was all about, but I know I was there. Funny you should bring it up.”

Photo Finish

The rest of the group was coming from Manhattan via the Staten Island ferry, so I chilled outside in the warm autumn sun outside the Visitor’s Center until they showed up.

A park ranger took us on a tour of this eerily empty place. I tried to imagine what the place was like back in the 19th Century, when Staten Island a rural place.

After the tour, we walked up to the Alice Austen House.

Born in 1866, Alice Austen was America's earliest and most prolific female photographers, who lived in her family’s home Clear Comfort, which is right on the Narrows. She was also gay and her home is a national site of LGBTQ history.

Her earliest existing in photograph dates back to 1884 and over the next 40 years she produced around 8,000 photographs, focusing on the daily of New Yorkers.

This was long before I-phones and Ms. Austen had to lug around nearly 50 pounds of photographic equipment in order to photo subjects.

She lived off the interest from money left by her grandfather but the principal was lost in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and by age 63, she had no income.

She sold off silver, art works, and furniture, took a mortgage on her home, but the bank foreclosed in 1945 and this incredibly talented woman ended up in the poorhouse, where, as one person said, “there was a single, bare lightbulb hanging over each bed.”

I found myself getting quite upset as I learned how Alice Austen had suffered in her final years. But there is some good news.

Eventually her work was the subject of a Life Magazine article in 1950 and she was able to move into a private nursing home, where she died on June 9, 1952.

I’m glad I got to learn about Alice Austen and I know I’ll be going back there and Fort Wadsworth to enjoy other events.

You sure can learn a lot by getting off your arse.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Harte of the Matter

I saw many fabulous sites during my London trip this summer, and one of them was just around the corner from me.

I was staying a (very) small hotel near Bayswater Road and, though I was only there for 10 days, I miss my old neighborhood.

I’d take my morning walks in Hyde Park, catch the tube at the Lancaster Gate Underground Station, and whenever I got the munchies, I’d bounce around the corner, walk by the Greek restaurant that was always packed, and get fruit, cheese, or similar stuff at one of two grocery stores.

On the way back to my hotel one night, I saw a plaque on an empty building on the corner that had been put up by the Greater London Council which honored the American author Francis Bret Harte, who lived in London for several years before his death in 1902.

I know that name, I thought. I know I do. Now, who the hell is he…?

The title “Outcasts of Poker Flat” emerged from my old high school English class memories, followed by absolutely nothing else. I had to learn more.

Harte, who was born in Albany in 1836, was a writer and poet, best known for writing stories about the California gold rush. He moved out west in 1853 and held various jobs, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist.

While an assistant editor at the Northern Californian, Harte wrote a scathing editorial condemning the massacre of 80 to 200 Wiyots at the village of Tuluwat and was forced to leave town after receiving death threats.

Roaring Days

I recently read (re-read?) “Outcasts of Poker Flat,” which was published in 1869, and another one of Harte’s best known stories, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” published in 1868, when I returned from England and I was struck at how the brutality of nature features in both stories.

Gambling, luck, and extreme suffering are also themes in these stories. And both—semi-spoiler alert-- end tragically.

I watched a film version of Outcasts of Poker Flat with Preston Foster, which took elements from “The Luck of Roaring Camp” as well, but quite frankly, it didn’t work. Billed as “a flaming drama of the roaring days of the gold rush,” I found the film to be the dull and plodding.

Short stories often suffer when they’re expanded into full-length films, as they become weighed down by additional characters and contrived story lines.

There’s a 1952 film version starring Dale Robertson, a spaghetti western, called The Four of the Apocalypse based on the two stories and, even an opera. There's also a Russian film called Armed and Dangerous that's based on Harte stories.

Harte accepted the position of United States Consul Germany in May 1878, took a similar position in Glasgow, and settled in London in 1885. He died in Camberley, England in 1902 from throat cancer.

I get the feeling this neighborhood hasn’t changed much since Bret Harte’s time. The rows of buildings look like they’ve been there a long time and I hope it stays that way. And I hope Harte’s home is preserved.

I’m grateful to the Greater London Council for putting up the plaque and sending me off on this fact-finding mission. There’s more of Harte’s work I want to read and more famous authors I have to discover.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Good Citizen

Christopher sounds like quite a guy: he wants to save the country, build houses for the homeless and be a good citizen.

I became slightly acquainted with Christopher this week while walking along Third Avenue one morning last week. I was coming home from the gym when I saw a composition notebook on the ground.

I have this fascination for lost writings and photos, so naturally I stopped to take a look.

I saw instantly that the notebook belonged to a child—I couldn’t make out the last name, but “Christopher” was written clearly across the cover.

I was a little surprised to see an old-school marble notebook, since I figured kids today are using I-pads, smart phones, and robots to do their homework instead of pencil and paper.

I’m not good at determining children’s ages, but Chris is probably a first or second grader. He proudly declared his desires about adulthood on the first page:

When I grow up I want to be in the army,” he writes, “so I can go and save the country from the bad guys and destroy there (sic) country so they won’t have a home so that is why I want to go to the army so I could save this world.”

I think it’s great that this young man wants to save the world, but I’m not sure joining the army is the best way to do it. And it’s rather depressing that terrorism is on this young man’s mind, but then I guess that’s not surprising given how terror attacks have dominated the news.

My Back Pages

Christopher drew two figures on the bottom of the page, one labeled “Gab” and the other “Me.”

I thumbed through the notebook and found another entry where Christopher said he wants to build houses for the homeless so they’ll have someplace to live. He writes that he wants to be “a good citidisent” which I believe is meant to be “citizen,” but he was close.

I felt badly because I sure that this notebook means a lot to this young boy. I lost a notebook on the subway a few years back and I was devastated. I had used it to write down ideas for stories and other things and while I’m sure it mostly gibberish, I’m equally certain I lost some gems as well.

I keep journals at my shrink’s urging and they’re very helpful.

Journaling is a good form of self-discovery and I find a lot of the things that are troubling me often lose their power once I pick up the pen and commit my fears to paper.

I stood there on the street holding a child's dreams in my hands and wondering what to do.

If Christopher had written his home address or his school in the notebook, I would’ve gladly tracked him down, returned his journal, and encouraged to keep up with the writing.

In the end, I left the notebook right where I found it. Maybe Christopher will retrace his steps and retrieve it, though that seems unlikely.

But I do hope Christopher grows up to live his dreams, that he beats the bad guys and builds homes for the homeless. He sounds like he’ll be a good citidisent and we need more like him.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

58 Crosses

Well, at least we can send thoughts and prayers.

I just finished reading the Times’ story on Stephen Paddock, the latest American psycho to unleash his twisted fury on innocent people—this time at a country music festival in Las Vegas, where he fired down into the crowd from his hotel window, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds—yes, hundreds, of others.

The carnage has been called the deadliest mass shooting in American history—until the next one, of course. And we all know that there will be a next one.

Paddock is a man contrasts, according to the Times, who doesn’t fit the mass shooter profile, but we do know he was a fucking lunatic with ridiculously easy access to a shit-ton of firearms.

The video footage of the shooting is sickening, with the unmistakable sound of machine gun fire ripping through the air while the singer on stage stops to figure out what’s going on and then turns to run. It makes me ashamed to be an American.

The stories emerging from the shooting are horrible, with people dying as they used their own bodies to shield their loved ones from the merciless assault.

Paddock wasn’t a Muslim, though ISIS is claiming he was, and factions of the right wing media are working overtime to make some kind of Islamic connection to distract us from the blistering reality that this son-of-a-bitch was a Caucasian American male that neither a border wall nor a travel ban would’ve stopped.

So now we have the vigils, and the speeches, the thoughts and fucking prayers that didn’t do jack shit to prevent last year’s slaughter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando or any of the other mass shootings before or since.

Death from Above

A group of volunteers is planting 58 trees to honor the victims, while another man is planting 58 crosses. I think these are touching, commendable tributes, but I can’t stop thinking about the 58 corpses.

The gun lobby and its paid hand puppets immediately launched into loathsome, bogus wails of “too soon” at the very mention of control, as if they actually gave a shit about the victims or their loved ones.

It’s strange how it’s never too soon to discuss changing the law after a deadly fire, plane crash or other such tragedy. Only when guns are involved do politicians hit the brakes on change and get all protective and worried about people who are beyond saving.

Ladies and gentlemen, please go fuck yourselves. You have no intention of changing the law, even with talk of banning the bump stock, which helped Paddock rack up such a sizeable body count.

The Second Amendment chimps are hooting that there are other ways of killing people, like fertilizer bombs, runaway trucks, and hijacked jetliners.

No doubt, but by introducing some kind of sanity to our gun laws, we could at least shut down one potential avenue of mayhem.

We could, but, of course, we won’t.

I don’t know why I even bother writing about these shootings anymore. People are more upset about football players kneeling during the National Anthem than they are about mass murders.

So, by all means, send your thoughts and prayers to Las Vegas, but save a few prayers for yourself and ask God to spare you from the next massacre that’s surely heading our way.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Light and Day

I’m not sure, but that might’ve been a panic attack.

I’ve been bouncing in all directions for the last few weeks, so I guess this probably wasn’t the best time to watch The Light Between Oceans, an incredibly moving story that I thoroughly enjoyed, though I’m sure some people would dismiss it as just a tear-jerker. Fuck them.

The film tells the story of a couple living in a lighthouse in post-World War I Australia, who make an understandable but nonetheless disastrous decision when a boat containing a dead man and a live baby comes ashore on their island.

It’s painfully ironic that people who are entrusted with providing this guiding light could stumble down such a dark path, but so many of us have trouble finding our way even at high noon.

The thing had me weeping and wailing as the inevitable confrontation takes place, but I also found an excuse to conjure up all these terrible thoughts about what a lousy son I was, how I caused my parents all kinds of worry and misery with my constant screw-ups.

What all this grief has to do with a lighthouse in Australia I have no fucking idea, but when I’m upset, it doesn’t take much for me to go full-on Chernobyl.

I’m finally switching to a new bank after months of rage and madness at my old institution, which is gleefully screwing me over the hacking of my accounts.

Light the Way

I was hoping for a quick resolution to our dispute, but it’s looking more like the siege of Leningrad.

One of the managers at the new place sat me down Saturday for their version of 20 questions. He smiled when I told him my mother’s maiden name.

“She’s Italian?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, wincing at his use of the present tense.

My mother’s been gone for 15 years and I still miss her terribly, especially when there’s bad news on the doorstep. I was going to correct this fellow, but I thought better of it. Why embarrass the man and make myself miserable as well?

I went out Saturday night to unwind at a happy hour event, but my attitude was severely off.

I had been making improvements with the anger management, I really had, but the banking woes have made me super-irritable, so Saturday’s atrocious train service made my foul mood that much worse.

And while I met great people that night and had some nice conversations, I just don’t think a 60-year-old man should be hanging around in bars.

I got pretty depressed, thinking that I was too old to have fun and destined to haunt the bingo halls and I think many things contributed to my intense (over?) reaction to the movie.

So I think that banker had the right idea. I should think of my mother in the present tense, make her a part of my daily life instead of the fading past, and let her be my lighthouse guiding me through the unforgiving ocean.