Sunday, March 31, 2019

Soup to Nuts

Groucho Marx has been trying to tell me something for the last 50 years and last week I finally got the message.

I’m referring to a scene late in the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup where Groucho, portraying Rufus T. Firefly, president of the fictional country Freedonia, must apologize to a diplomat from a neighboring nation whom he’s insulted to stop the nations from going to war.

For a moment it looks like Groucho is going to do just that—take the high road, make amends, and avoid catastrophe.

He starts to give this inspiring speech about offering the offended ambassador “the right hand of good fellowship,” confident this man “will accept the gesture in the spirit of which is offered.”

Then it goes all to hell. Groucho does a sudden and complete emotional about-face when he thinks he might be snubbed.

“But suppose he doesn't,” Firefly says abruptly as he struts back and forth. “A fine thing that'll be! I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept… Think of it - I hold out my hand and that hyena refuses to accept!”

The infuriated Firefly keeps fanning his self-created flames until he’s so hot under the collar that when the unsuspecting diplomat walks into the room, Groucho whirls around and cracks him across the face before the guy opens his mouth. War is promptly declared.

It’s a hilarious scene and I always laugh whenever I watch the movie. Groucho is so funny, I think. Look how crazy he gets.

Well, I finally took real good look at that scene and at myself and I’m forced to admit that Groucho isn’t the only one around here getting crazy. I’m looking at this rant now as more of a mirror of my own behavior than I would like to admit.

Land of the Free and Brave

As part of my Hey 19 happiness project, I’ve been trying to monitor my thoughts because so many of my problems start in my brain.

And one thing I do far too often is get needlessly worked up about nothing.
Someone or something will upset me in some way and I immediately start cranking out a hostile scenario in response.

My father used to call this “getting a big head of steam” and some days I crank out enough steam to power the New York Central Railroad.

Of course, in real life, this kind of behavior isn’t terribly funny. People work themselves up to a point where the facts of a situation are obscured by artificially induced rage.

This happens with people one-on-one, as well as on the national and global scales.


David Bowie’s song “Cat People” talks about putting out fire with gasoline.

This is something I often do when I’m when I’m under pressure. (another Bowie song!) I’m angry about a real problem, but instead of trying to calm down, I look for ugly incidents in my past to ratchet up the rage.

It’s like I’m picking a fight with ghosts, a losing battle if ever there was one. Mindfulness is the best way I know to keep these hostile scenarios in check. You keep your mind focused on what is real and what is happening right now. Everything else just gets in the way.

Today at the supermarket I caught myself getting annoyed with a woman at the fruits and vegetable section who I thought was crowding me. I started imagining what a terrible person she must be and how I’d like to give her a piece of my mind.

And then I saw what I was doing to myself—and no one else—and I shut down these buzzing fireflies with a hearty inward cry of “Groucho!”

Hail, Freedonia.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Infernally Yours

I saw this British cop show on TV years ago where the hero, a 19th Century detective, was investigating a series of bombings.

But rather than saying the word “bomb,” the detective used the archaic expression “infernal devices” when referring to the things causing all the havoc.

I recall staring at my TV in disbelief. Did people really say “infernal devices” back then?

And even if they did, the expression sounds so clunky that the show’s writers could probably be forgiven if they decided to update the dialog a little bit.

However, after a series of irritating machine-related experiences over the last few days, I’m starting to think “infernal devices” is an excellent expression—and it’s a certainly an improvement over the expletives I’ve been spewing since Friday morning.

It started with my smart phone, which decided it didn’t want to be charged anymore. I plugged in the power cord and saw the little green battery icon in the corner, but the energy level kept draining until it was in the red zone—and so was my blood pressure.

I finally had to rev the thing up by hooking it into my desktop computer, which solved the immediate problem, but it’s not going to work for the long haul.

I bought a new power cord at Best Buy near Lincoln Center yesterday after being assured there was nothing wrong with the phone, but as of this morning, the new cord wasn’t helping any.

I tried to Google up Apple’s support number this morning to make an appointment at the nearest Genius Bar, but my desktop wouldn’t connect to the internet.

“Seriously?” I shouted. “You’re a computer, for Christ’s sake, this is your job!”

Apparently, my computer decided that on the seventh day it would rest and all I got out of the thing was the twirling beach ball of doom, which has become such fixture in my life, that I half-expect Annette Funicello to spring out of the modem like Betty Boop and start singing “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.”

Bank Shout

All right, you bastard, I snarled, I’ll make the appointment with my Smartphone.

It seemed like a good time to blow off some steaming rage, so I zipped up to my gym for a brutal cycling class. On the way home, I stopped at a local bank branch I hardly ever use to deposit a check.

I slipped the defenseless piece of paper into the ATM and listening to a sadistic symphony of grinding and rumbling while the screen lit up the word “Processing” over and over.

“What are you processing?” I shouted. “It’s one sheet of paper!”


It seems that I had found the only cannibal cash machine in captivity.

The thing did everything but belch in my face before announcing that it could neither return nor deposit my check.

Is it possible to perform the Heimlich maneuver on an ATM?

I called the bank’s “support” number and got some loser in Bangladesh or some other distant location that American corporations go to for their slave labor and tried to get a straight answer.

This genius told me the bank has to “conduct an investigation” into the case of my missing check. An investigation? What the fuck is this—Colombo? My check is in your goddamn ATM.

“This is bullshit!” I shouted into my mobile phone.

I stormed home muttering cuss words like a rabid parrot. I go to banks to save money, not lose it.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, the people of the twisted future, get so fed up with the machinery controlling their lives that they attack any and every gadget they can get their hands on, including cash registers.

I’m not at the level of insanity just yet, but I can certainly understand what makes these devices infernal.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

Ferry Tale

Every morning I set sail for adventure.

Actually, I’m just taking a ferry from my neighborhood in Bay Ridge to Wall Street, but it sure feels like an adventure compared with the other ways of getting around this town.

I recently started a full-time freelance gig at TheStreet.com, where I worked a decade ago. After two years of working from home, I have to get reacquainted with the daily commute.

Now I love the X27, the express bus that stops just around the corner from my house and gets me to Manhattan in the kind of comfort and speed that can never be found on the subways.

The only problem is that at $6.75 a trip, the express bus can be extremely expensive. I don’t want to hike 15 minutes to the nearest train station and subject myself to the infuriating R train experience, so what’s a thrifty commuter to do?

We’ve had the ferry service in Bay Ridge for a few years now and I’ve taken it to downtown Brooklyn several times during the summer to enjoy this funky area.

But take a boat to work? Do I look like freaking Popeye to you?

Well, I may not have his taste for spinach, but I do like taking the ferry to the office. It’s the same price as the subway, minus the misery. And I get this fantastic view of the city just as the sun is rising.

I feel like I’m traveling through time, back to the days when boats and ships were a prime method of transportation. Of course, riding around in an air-conditioned ferry for 38 minutes doesn’t quite compare to taking off for the unknown in a wooden sailing ship, but I’m having fun.

Shoving Off

Coming into the Red Hook stop, I look for a certain church tower that stands out against the sky and it seems like I’m visiting a 19th Century fishing village.

At the Atlantic Avenue stop, I can get a clear view of the Williamsburg Savings Bank building straight up the street.

And at the DUMBO stop, I always look up to the clock on top of the old Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower building.

When I get off at Wall Street, the city is slowly coming to life. The other day I saw a maintenance worker raising the New York State flag outside one of the office buildings.


And then I walk up the street and I feel like that sailor in the Old Spice commercial from the Seventies. Only I’m not tossing around bottles of aftershave.

Now I do have to get up earlier to catch the ferry, since the next one on the schedule will get me to the office just a little bit too late. But it’s a small price to pay for such a convenient ride.

The other morning I stood beneath the overpass on 69th Street to shield myself from the wind and I took a moment to relax and be thankful.

Yes, most of my big dreams still remain dreams, and my career path is still a bit cloudy, but I’ve got a place to work and I’ve an excellent way of getting there.

I can’t wait until the warmer weather, when I can sit outside and enjoy the sun as I go to and from work.

And when winter returns and the freezing winds become too much for me, I can always rejoin the landlubbers on the bus.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Remote Possibility

And, finally, I called for help.

Friday is usually my favorite night of the week. Work is done and I’m free to do go out on the town or go home and sit on my ass.

The choice is completely up to me and I love it.

Most Fridays I'll go for the latter, especially during the winter, and this is what I did the other night.

I had a DVD from Netflix, several programs waiting for me on the DVR, and a chicken burrito the size of a tree stump.

I was all set for some serious relaxation, but my TV’s remote control had different ideas.

This thing has been giving me trouble for the last few weeks, especially when I try to record a program or play something I’ve recorded. I would repeatedly press the OK/SEL button but nothing would happen.

Everything else—volume control, channel selection—worked just fine. But the one button I needed the most was non compos mentis.

I usually got the thing to work after a great deal of cursing and fuming, but on Friday OK/SEL went straight to hell.

I came close to breaking my thumb on this miserable knob. I switched hands, used my index finger, and finally—going full nutzoid—I grabbed a pen and pushed down on the button like Captain Ahab on a blubber hunt. And I still got nothing.

I was getting hot under the collar while my burrito was getting cold on the plate. That remote control was doing a good job of controlling me.

SEL No!

Now I hate having programs taking up space on the DVR and I feel strangely satisfied when I watch a show or movie and then zap it right out of my life. Being unable to delete this stuff was making me crazy.

Enough, I told myself, call the damn cable company before you have a stroke.

Actually, it took two phone calls, but the cable people finally determined that my remote was officially on the fritz and they promised to ship me a new one.

As far Friday, I had a DVD from Netflix for entertainment and some streaming content as well.


Now this was a minor incident that has some major implications.

First—and most seriously—I once again complained about the problem, I got angry about the problem, but did nothing to solve the damn problem until it got spun out of control and I had no choice.

If I had settled this business last week, I’ve could enjoy my program, my burrito, and my Friday night instead of brawling with the remote.

But I also got a chance to see just much TV I’ve been watching.

It seems I spend a lot of my time with my feet up on the coffee table looking at the screen. I tell myself I’m just unwinding before getting to work, but I don’t feel terribly productive.

I also have this habit of retaining and replaying old, unpleasant memories, which does nothing but make me miserable. This is the year of Hey 19 and I want to delete these unhealthy thought patterns and make a conscious effort to be positive.

My new remote is due to arrive by midweek. When it finally does get it here, I’m going to use it to delete those old programs and then I’m going to hit that Off button and go out and make some new memories.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Shark Freak

I sat in the crumbling Times Square theater and prayed I would live to see the credits roll.

This was in 1975. I was an 18-year-old freshman at Hunter College, and a fellow student in my theater class had suggested we take in an afternoon screening of Steven Spielberg’s shark-infested epic Jaws before attending a play that evening.

Jaws, described as the first official summer blockbuster, was frightening as hell, but the most terrifying thing in the theater that day wasn’t the rampaging shark onscreen, but the lunatics in the audience.

You must remember that this was New York of the Seventies, when the Crossroads of the World looked a lot more like the Highway to Hell. There were no Disney stores in Time Square back then, just prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and three card monte hustlers.

I was just in Times Square last night, taking in a production of Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena with my sister, and, except for nonstop noise and lights, the place we walked through on Saturday bore absolutely no resemblance to that dismal place from 40 years ago.

In fact, it was my sister who reminded me of that evening with Bruce the Shark, when I followed my classmate into this dumpy theater somewhere around Eighth Avenue and sat among some of Times Square’s most demented denizens.

I recall the freaks around me laughing at the parts of the film that would frighten normal people--although a shot of a corpseless head suddenly appearing on the screen prompted some serious shrieking amongst the clientele.

But the pinnacle of this debacle was a scene late in the film when the three shark hunters start comparing their various scars.

This was too much for the man sitting right next to me, who stood up, pulled open his shirt and pointing to some scary-looking scar tissue on his chest.

‘Show and Hell’

“Hey, everybody,” he said, pointing to his damaged hide. “Look at this!”

He was promptly greeted with a chorus of jeers and an earnest request to sit down and shut the fuck up.

I had been queasy about my fellow patrons from the moment I walked into this dungeon, but this display had my jaws clenched in terror. It took every ounce of my strength to remain in my seat and not go running up the aisle and racing back to Brooklyn.

Somehow, we managed to see the end of the movie without getting scars of our own.

As soon as the shark was blasted into oblivion, my companion and I headed straight for the exits and went out into the relative safety of the street.

I honestly forget what play we went to see that night, seeing as how the Jaws experience was rather hard to top.

But I am amazed at my youthful stamina as I had enough energy to take in a both a movie and a Broadway show on the same day. Today I can barely make it through a show without nodding off.

Times Square has since gone through a massive overhaul and eventually turned into a place that’s now fit for families. There are those who speaking nostalgically of the bad old days, but I can’t get join that deluded chorus.

Chain stores and rampant commerce can be irritating, but I never want Times Square to return to its Sodom and Gomorrah phase.

But I find myself thinking about that damaged fellow sitting next to me. I wonder how he got his scars. I wonder whatever became of him.

And I wonder what the hell I was doing sitting next to a freak like that in the first place.