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.