Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Empty Seat

We lost such a beautiful voice last week.

I’ve been taking this fabulous class “Five for Five” for the last three years and not only have I learned so much about the craft of writing, but I've also had the privilege of meeting some fabulous people.

One of those people was Kathleen, a lovely woman and an amazing writer, who died last week from cancer.

I’m still having trouble accepting this terrible news.

The class is going to start up again in a few weeks and it’s hard to believe that we won’t see Kathleen again, that she won’t be sitting on the couch in our teacher, Rosemary’s, living room, sharing her writing, her thoughts, and her heart.

Every week I looked forward to hearing her work, much of which was autobiographical. Kathleen was an Irish Catholic like yours truly so I appreciated her stories about our tribe.

She was also so insightful and supportive when commenting on our work. One night I was suffering from a hideous cold and I somehow managed to drag myself to class, follow Rosemary’s prompts, and produce something readable.

I was happy to get through the class without keeling over, but Kathleen made a point of approaching me when we were leaving and complimenting my work.

“You did great work tonight,” she said. “And you were sick!”

Those few words did more to make me feel better than a crateful of Vitamin C. And Kathleen and her husband were kind enough to come to my book signing last year, along with the rest of my classmates.

You Will Know That I Am Gone

As her illness worsened, Kathleen started missing classes. She was due to come to a recent class, but at the last minute we learned that she had taken a bad turn and had to go to the hospital. A short time later we found out she had died.

Several months I posted a link on Facebook to Peter, Paul, and Mary’s rendition of the Sixties folk song “500 Miles.”

“That’s from my generation!” Kathleen wrote in the comments section.

The song opens up with the line “if you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone,” and those words have taken on a new meaning for me.

People like Kathleen are rare in this life and I feel so blessed for having known her.

There are so many things that I want to tell her and ask her, and it hurts to know that I'll never get the chance.

I saw Kathleen at our group reading in August. Her work was fabulous, as always, and I was just so happy to see her. I had no idea it would be the last time.

I wrote to her in June to tell her how much we all missed her and she told me how the disease “had me on a roller coaster.”

“I want to get back to my real life immediately and that just does not work,” she said. “If I rest now I will have a life to live.”

Kathleen thanked me for writing and added that “at least I’m over the ‘poor me’,” which is a testament to her courage and a lesson for us all.

She ended her message with “Lots of love, Kathleen.”

That’s what I’m feeling now, beneath this terrible sadness, I have lots of love for you, Kathleen, and I always will.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Tone at the Top

I picked up my home phone’s receiver on Thursday and listened to something I hadn’t heard in months.

A dial tone.

Ever since my accident in December, I’ve been pretty much living off my cellphone.

I preferred the mobile unit to the hospital’s phone and it was more convenient to use the cell when I got home and had to lumber around the house in leg braces for weeks.

However, my old landline phone was getting ready to call it a day and I asked my sister to get me a new landline phone for Christmas.

The new one is a beauty and comes with a spare receiver that I set up near the TV so I wouldn’t have to dash into my computer room every time someone called me.

There was only one problem: I couldn’t get it to work.

I read the directions over and over, but I couldn’t make sense out of them. I pressed the various buttons, plugged in all wires and the thing was still as dead as Kelsey’s nuts, as my father used to say.

I should mention here that I have no idea who Kelsey was or what caused his unfortunate condition, but the expression just seems to fit this situation.

I repeatedly promised myself that I’d call tech support and get the phone working, but I let the days go by without taking any action.

When I finally called tech support, surprise, surprise, they were experiencing heavier than normal call volume—what exactly is normal call volume?—and I had another excuse not do anything.

Still On The Line

I told people to call my cell until I figured out the situation with the new phone—like it was some great mystery that I had to unravel. Gradually I got accustomed to not having a home phone.

I rationalized that landlines are so 20th Century and most of the calls I get on the damn thing are from telemarketers anyway. Who needs it?

This is a familiar story with me. I don’t know how something works and instead of taking care of the problem, I adjust my life to the inconvenience until it becomes the norm.

And it’s not just with technology. I have an unfortunate habit of putting up barriers where none exist and this sounds like a good habit to break.

Every time I walked into my computer room I could feel the new phone staring at me with zombie eyes.

Finally, I’d had enough. I was going to call tech support, heavier than normal call volume be damned, and get my phone working.

I got connected with a young woman who ran me through a series of questions, which quickly determined that I was using a wire from my old phone and plugging it into the wrong socket.

I corrected these two errors, picked up the receiver, and nearly burst into tears when I heard that lovely dial tone singing back to me. It was just a simple adjustment, but to me it was like day Alexander Graham Bell hollered “Watson, I need you!”

Okay, so I’ll giving myself a split grade on this one. I’m disappointed that I let this situation go on for so long, but I’m happy that I finally took care of it.

Now I have to set up the voice mail and if I get any messages from Kelsey I’m not calling him back.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Counting all the Stars

I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan, but not this past weekend.

In fact, I had a series of fabulous encounters that had me absolutely reeling with joy.

It started on Friday when I was bouncing out of the Barnes & Noble at Union Square and spotted a gaggle of smartphones raised high in the air.

The store routinely hosts authors of every sort and I reckoned these people were jockeying to get a photo of some cable news blowhard or the latest celebrity chef, whose overpriced cook book would probably end up in the dollar bin by Thanksgiving.

Oh, get a load of these star-struck twits, I mentally sneered. They’re so pathetic.

I was due to meet a friend for lunch on 28th Street and the only reason I was in the store in the first place was to use the facilities, as the old kidneys ain’t what they used to be.

But I figured, what the hell? Let me at least find out which D-lister I’m snubbing.

“Say,” I asked a nearby employee. “What’s all the excitement about?”

“That’s Tony Bennett,” he said.

What? You mean Tony Bennett—as in “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Stranger in Paradise,” “Once Upon A Time” and God knows how many incredible hits?

You mean Tony Bennett, the man, the legend, the freaking deity?

Well, yes, actually. He was making an appearance to promote his latest album with Diana Krall and he was no more than 10 feet away from me.

I quickly whipped out my smartphone and joined the small crowd of intelligent, sophisticated people—how dare you call them twits?—and began clicking like a Western Union telegraph operator on Mother’s Day.

“I’m gonna die,” I wailed, “I’m gonna die!”

Juliet is the Sun

I didn’t die, but I came awfully close to keeling over. This man is an incredible 92 years old and he had this aura around him that you could almost touch.

As I was shooting my brains out, the beloved singer stepped up and hugged some lucky woman.

“Hey,” I whispered, “I need a hug from Tony Bennett, too!”

I hung around as long as I could before rolling uptown to meet my friend for lunch. But my star-gazing had only begun.

On Saturday my sister and I went into town again to attend the Irish Repertory Theatre’s annual block party. We’ve seen many of this company's productions and the block party is always fun.

Once again, I made a pitstop at the Barnes & Noble at Union Square. (Gosh, maybe someday I’ll actually buy something there.)

The place was celebrity-free on this day, which is good because I was perilously close to giving new meaning to the word “Riverdance.”

We were enjoying the music and speeches at the Irish Rep when we happened to look up and saw Bill Irwin, famed actor, clown, and comedian, whose lengthy resume includes appearing in the video for “Don’t Worry Be Happy” with Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin.

Mr. Irwin will be doing a show at the Irish Rep called “Exploring the Works of Samuel Beckett,” and he performed a selection from that program.

“This is your second celebrity sighting,” my sister said.

Yes, but little did we know that we had one more to go.

This time, though, we saw a celebrity in the making in the form of Juliet, a beautiful six-year-girl who swept us off our collective feet with her fabulous dancing.

I thought I had left my heart in Barnes & Noble, but Juliet scooped it right up like a loose football and ran straight for the end zone.

Her dancing was flawless. She kept time with the music, created her own steps, and did not show the slightest bit of shyness. When one of the singers struck up a slow, bluesy number, Juliet effortlessly shifted to her own interpretive moves.

She appeared to be a natural performer. Her folks weren’t pushing her to entertain people, she wasn’t desperate for attention and I’m convinced she would have danced with the same exuberance if she’d been alone in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

My sister and I approached Juliet and her parents to let them know just how much we enjoyed her impromptu performance. And I’m going to keep an eye out for this kid because I’m sure we’re going to hear from her again.

I’ve decided I’m going to take this excellent weekend as a good omen. There’s no logic behind this, but I’m in transition right now and I need all the good news I can get.

I’m going to be positive, creative, and productive and I’m going to go forward and look all the good things in life.

As long as there’s a bathroom nearby, I’ll be fine.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Where There is Darkness...

We need to be more like Kelsie.

Kelsie is a comfort dog I had the great fortune of meeting today during a 9/11 memorial service at St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton Street.

Her handler, a very nice woman from the Tri-State Canine Response Team, told me that she and her canine colleagues respond to all kinds of emergencies, including the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.

And they were at Ground Zero today, where they most definitely needed, even after all this time.

It’s been 17 years since I stood outside the Brook Brothers store across the street from the World Trade Center and watched smoke pouring out of the North Tower; 17 years since the second plane slammed into the South Tower moments later and we all ran, while the towers and the world as we knew it came crashing to the ground.

I think about the people I met on that day, like the elderly lady I helped to her feet after she collapsed in shock when the attack began.

I think about the Japanese businessman who spoke virtually no English and who was so stunned by what he had seen that I had to lead him around by the hand like a child.

I’m thinking about three young men who came into the basement of a nursing home on Water Street where I and many others had gone to escape the massive clouds of debris from the fallen towers that rolled through the streets—clouds that are still killing people to this very day.

One of the young men had been blinded by the dust and he had a hand on his friends’ shoulder, while holding his shirt over his damaged eyes. Where are those three companions today?

It is in Giving that We Receive

My father marked his 80th birthday on that terrible day. He left this world in 2007 but I’m thinking more and more about him lately and I’m happy to say that the good memories are outnumbering the bad ones.

I haven’t been in Manhattan on 9/11 for a few years now and while I can’t say it felt good to back, it did feel right and proper that I returned to this location instead of watching the memorial ceremony on television.

I got in the city early to take my boxing class and I took a few minutes to walk around the neighborhood while it was still dark and relatively free of people.

I found myself getting angrier and angrier as I thought about how we had learned nothing from the September 11 attacks.

I don’t like saying that, but when you look at how we have become so divided, so hateful toward one another since that day, it’s pretty hard to find any beams of light in all the darkness.

After class, I went back to the Brooks Brothers store to pray and give thanks and then I headed over to St. Paul’s for the ceremony.

We recited the Prayer of Saint Francis, where we asked the Lord to make us instruments of His peace, and then the reverend rang the Bell of Hope, a gift from London, at 8:46AM to mark the moment the first plane struck.

I consider the Prayer of St. Francis an oath, a sacred promise to God that we will put aside hatred and respond with love. And meeting Kelsie reinforced that belief.

I started getting teary-eyed while patting Kelsie’s head as she radiated a kind of goodness that puts humanity to shame.

We have to be more like Kelsie and the other comfort dogs, who give us so much and ask for so little in return. Maybe if we behaved more like them, we’d be less inclined to start wars, imprison children, and crash airplanes into office buildings.

Maybe these dogs should be teaching us old humans some new tricks.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Shift Change

Shift, shift, shift!

I went back to boxing class last week for the first time since my accident in December and it was special kind of magic.

I was thrilled to see Abby, my instructor and all my friends in the class, whom I haven’t seen in 9 months.

But it also felt weird being back in the gym after such a long absence, like I was an imposter or a trespasser.

Of course, the original prognosis said I’d be out of commission for 18 months, so I’m certainly grateful for that. And if I had fallen on my head, I wouldn’t be here at all.

I had gotten used to sleeping later on Tuesdays and Thursdays, instead of getting up before sunrise and slogging into the city.

I was worried I wouldn’t be able to roll out of bed that early or that I’d keel over halfway through the warmup or that I’d reinjure myself and wind up flat on my back again.

For the last few months I’d been going for long walks in my neighborhood, lifting weights, hitting the bag at the gym and working out on the Stairmaster.

I was also going to weekly physical therapy sessions at NYU Langone’s facility on Shore Road. I was working with an excellent trainer and when we had our last session at the end of August I knew it was time to get back to boxing.

It was rough. After all that time off, my cardio had just about disappeared and this became excruciatingly apparent during my one-on-one mitt session with Abby.

Better, stronger, faster

I dreaded this portion of the class because I feel like everyone in the room is watching me.

The reality is that people are far too busy working out and worrying about their own time with Abby to give a rat’s ass about me, but I still felt like I was in the spotlight.

Of course, this being Abby, he had to break my chops while putting me through all kinds of misery.

“We can rebuild him,” he said, mimicking the opening of The Six Million Dollar Man. "It’s Bionic Rob…I’m gonna call you Steve Austin.”

I could tell he was taking it easy on me, but even so, he used the time wisely, forcing me to work on my boxing technique and getting the basics down so that I have them branded into my DNA.

“Extend your arm,” he said during the round. “Put your shoulder into it. Shift your weight—shift, shift, shift!”

Shifting was pretty hard, as my battered knees are still kind of creaky. But I really appreciated his insights. Abby is a former amateur champion, and the nephew of a one-time light-heavyweight world champion, so he definitely knows what he’s talking about.

And “shift” seems to be the operative word in my life right now. My professional life is currently in flux, people and places that have been a part of my life for years have suddenly disappeared.

It’s a scary time, but it’s also exciting. I’m looking to shake up my life—in a positive way, of course. Maybe these sudden shifts are God’s way of telling me to break out the routine and go confidently in the direction of my dreams, as Henry David Thoreau advised.

Steve Austin took some nasty hits and came back to be a hero. Bionic Rob is going to do the same.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Out of Wok

Now I’ll have to get my wonton soup someplace else.

My local Chinese restaurant, the Hot Wok, went out of business last week and yet I still have this urge to swing by and pick up an order.

The Hot Wok was my go-to place on many a Friday night, when I gave into the call of the comfort zone, got a vat on wonton soup and a mound of fortune cookies, before scurrying on home to watch the latest offering from Netflix. (Exciting life I lead, no?)

The Hot Wok is—was—located at 69th Street off Narrows Avenue, the middle store in a trio of businesses that I like to call “Bachelor’s Row,” starting with the pizzeria on the corner, the Wok, and then the deli, all lined up and waiting for the man who doesn’t feel like cooking.

I had noticed their gate was down and I prayed that they were just on vacation, but when I called them, I got the “number is no longer in service” message. A few days ago, one of the customers at the deli confirmed the awful truth: the Hot Wok was no more.

I’m still bummed about this, and not about just the food. The people were great and they were very nice to me. After my accident the owner—I’m sorry I never got her name—greeted me so warmly when I started walking around the neighborhood again.

And her daughter Vicky liked to break my chops whenever I came in. One night she put me through a spirited version of the why game, where she greeted all my responses to her questions with a “why?”

“What is your name?” she began.


“Why is your name Rob?”

“My parents liked the name.”

“Why did your parents like the name?”

That went on for 10 solid minutes of hilarious torture. By the time I got my order, Vicky was doubled over laughing at her own schtick, while I grabbed my soup and ran like hell.

Too Damn High

Vicky would often stick her tongue at me when I walked by, but I’d just take out my phone to get her picture and she’d quickly cease and desist.

And now the whole family is gone as if they never existed. They made no announcement and left no forwarding address.

The place served good food and it was always hopping on a Friday night. The phone would ring nonstop and the owner would take my order while handling the customer on the line.

I suspect the Hot Wok was done in by high rents, an on-going nightmare in New York that’s driving small business out of existence and filling this town with scores of empty storefronts.

Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio suggested slapping blood-sucking landlords with a vacancy tax if they keep their stores empty in hopes of scoring top dollar rents.

If something isn’t done, the city will lose its mom and pop stores and funky little businesses and all we’ll have left will be banks, chain stores, and fast food joints.

And speaking of rents, my great blogging buddy Ron had to pull the plug on his dream to move back to New York from Philadelphia because he can’t afford to live here.

I’m sure there are plenty of people scrubbing their plans to move here while long-tine residents are moving to places with cheaper rents.

The thing is we need local businesses like the Hot Wok and we need people like Ron to give this city character and color. We don’t need any more hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons, or Russian oligarchs buying up every inch of available space in New York.

And adding to all this confusion is the fact that my own situation is up in the air now and I’m looking a new direction. The Summer of 2018 is certainly ending on harsh note.

Last night I went to the Panda on Third Avenue to get an order of wonton soup. The people are very nice and the soup isn’t bad, but it’s a longer walk from my home and there’s no Vicky to tease me.

I’m just hoping these people can stay in business.