Sunday, November 19, 2017

Long Time Passing

We were doing fine until we found that shoebox.

For the last few Saturdays, I’ve been going over to my auntie’s house in Manhattan to help her clean her apartment.

Last week we made some progress reducing the clutter in her walk-in closet and yesterday we renewed our attack, directing our efforts to the various boxes that sat on the shelves.

We discovered two boxes of shoes that she apparently hadn’t worn in a while and then I reached up for a third box expecting to find yet another pair of kicks.

But this time we struck gold.

This box was filled with dozens of old family photographs, a ton of jumbled memories, many without names or dates, all thrown together in a haphazard history.

The moment we pulled back the lid, my auntie and I both knew it was quitting time. I switched off the closet light, we pulled up some chairs, and went back in time.

Clicking through digital images doesn’t begin to compare with looking at these old pictures, where you can almost feel the years passing by.

There were photos of my nieces when they children (they’re both adults now), a number of people I didn’t know, and two old black and white images. The first shows a couple and their three children, while the other is picture of their four-year-old daughter sitting outside their house.

The man and woman were my grandparents. I never knew my grandfather, though I’m told he cried easily at sad movies, a weakness that passed from him, to my mother, and down to me. My grandmother was elderly when I was growing up and she died when I was in the fifth grade.

A Long Time Ago

Their oldest daughter in the photo was my Aunt Mary, who had come to America from Italy with my grandmother and died when she was 18 years old. Growing up I heard a lot about Mary, but it took a long time for me to fully understand her loss, and feel the pain of a life that ended far too soon.

The young boy is my Uncle Walter, who would grow up to be a bomber pilot in World War II.

And then there’s that little girl who appears in both photos.

“That’s your mother,” my aunt said.

I stared at the photograph in disbelief. That beautiful like child clutching a stuffed animal, seated near a little wagon, and looking at the camera with this slightly confused look on her face—that’s my mother?

Of course, she’s not my mother in that picture, not even close. She would have a long way to go before me and my siblings make our appearance.

I wanted so badly to speak to my mother, squeeze her hand, and tell her much love her and how badly I miss her. I took everything I had to keep from crying.

I remember once when we were kids and my mother got fed up with our fighting.

“Life is over in second,” she declared. “You may think it’s long, but it’s really just a second.”

And looking through those old photographs I see how right she was. One moment she’s a little girl and the next moment she’s a grandmother. And now she’s a memory.

I looked through the photos of my niece Kristin on her first Holy Communion and my youngest niece Victoria on vacation and appearing on stage in Kabuki make-up for a school production. I wish my mother could be here to see how they’ve grown.

I took some photos of the pictures, put everything back in the shoebox and then it was time to leave.

So, yeah, we didn’t get much accomplished in the way of cleaning yesterday, but my heart sure got a hell of a workout.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

One Lump or Two?

You see them in all corners of this great city of ours, just itching to spring into your life.

New York has a seemingly vast population of unique individuals that some crass folks might refer to as nuts, kooks, weirdos, or freaks.

But, hey, come on, without these characters this town would be nothing more than a plus-size Topeka.

These people are very helpful in the event you forget what city you’re in.

One look at their bizarre antics and you’ll shake your head and say, “Oh, yeah, that's right; I’m in New York.”

Take, for example, the gentleman I spied last week walking down Fourth Avenue here in beautiful Bay Ridge shortly before the start of the New York Marathon.

He was in his forties, wearing shorts and a straw hat and carrying a massive plastic fish slung over his neck like a Gibson guitar.

I’m not sure where he acquired this particular item, but I suspect one of the local seafood restaurants might be missing a sign.

And just to make sure we were all looking at him, this fellow was howling out an ear-splitting rendition of the old Sly and the Family Stone hit, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” at the top of his lungs. I honestly don’t think anyone on this earth could stop this guy from being himself.

I would’ve taken his picture but I was concerned he might pummel me with his giant tuna.

Next we have the cheerfully psychotic fellow I unwillingly befriended on the crosstown bus the other night after a theater outing with my sister and auntie.

For some reason, the crosstown bus requires a ticket rather than a Metrocard. The bus driver doesn’t usually ask to see the ticket but you can get an $150 summons if you’re caught without one.

I don't know the logic behind this, but it's not a hardship by any means--at least not for most people.

So the three of us got our tickets, crowd into the bus, and I happen to be standing over this rather stocky chap with a shaved head and a bushy mustache. I thought he was chatting to the woman sitting next to him, but I soon realized he was addressing the world at large.

And then he made eye contact with me.

Lookin’ at the Devil, Grinnin’ at His Gun

Yes, sadly, when it comes to head cases, I’m a walking piece of flypaper. The loons spot me and streak in my direction like salmon surging upstream.

“You got that ticket, huh?” he asked me.

“Yes,” I said, praying the conversation would end there, but knowing it wouldn’t.

“They give you a $150 fine if you don’t got that ticket,” he said. “Man, someone tried to give me a summons I’d lump him up.”


“Yeah,” he declared, “I don’t care if I go to jail. I’d lump him up.”

He seemed quite fond of that expression “lump him up” and said it repeatedly. I was hoping he wouldn’t turn his words into action.

“We don’t got them tickets in Queens,” he said. “You try that in Queens, we’d lump you up.”

It was getting awfully lumpy on this bus, like poorly stirred oatmeal. I kept looking out the window, hoping that our stop would come up soon.

“Let someone try and give me a summons,” my travel companion was saying. “I’d lump him up.”

Yes, sir, I fervently believe that you would lump this person up. Now can we change the subject?

“I’d go to jail,” he said, “I don’t care.”

A seat became available across the aisle, and I sent my keester in downward mode. As I made contact with the nice plastic chair, a woman sitting next to me promptly got up and walked away.

“Don’t worry, lady,” my friend called out to her, “he don’t bite.”

Somehow I don’t think this lady was concerned about me, but was rather attempting to avoid any contact with my buddy. I was going to point this out to him, but I didn't want him to lump me up.

We arrived at our destination, I bid Willy Lump-Lump good night, and bounded off the bus with all due haste. My sister and I had a good laugh about my encounter and I couldn’t wait to tell people about it.

I just hope my plastic fish won’t be jealous.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Run for Your Life

And I was actually starting to feel hopeful...

The New York City Marathon went off without a hitch today, just days after eight innocent people were slaughtered in Manhattan in the name of a psychotic delusion.

Once again, my home was the target of a fundamentalist murderer, 16 years after the September 11 attacks.

This latest scumbag told the police that he had planned his attack for Halloween because there were would be more people on the street.

His victims included five friends from Argentina celebrating their high school reunion and a young mother from Belgium. Yeah, I’ll better Allah is just tickled pink by all these dead infidels, you asshole.

I didn’t think things could get any worse, but then that Putin-loving fuckwad in the White House proved me wrong by tweeting a vile load of politically-motivated bullshit before the victims’ bodies were even cold.

What the hell is wrong with this scumbag Trump? And what the hell is wrong with his idiot supporters who still stand behind him after all the lies, screw-ups, bigotry and flat out corruption?

He didn’t make any political comments after the Las Vegas massacre; Republicans were too busy shrieking “too soon!” at the slightest mention of gun control.

I lived through the Bush years, when that imbecile stood upon the charred remains of the 9/11 victims and ordered that disaster in Iraq, which helped create Isis.

What's the Good News?

The scandal-wracked Trump Administration is in desperate need of something to get the Russia investigation off the front pages and starting a war is an all-time favorite among imperialists and two-bit dictators.

Impeach, impeach, impeach…

So that's why I was really looking forward to watching the marathon pass through my neighborhood. I do this every year, but today I was really in need of some good news.

And for a while it worked. The weather was crappy, but nobody seemed to mind. There were runners from all over the world, runners in wheelchairs and on crutches. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, they were all racing through the streets of my city and charging the atmosphere with beautiful vibrations.

I was having a blast, high-fiving runners, taking photos, and shooting the breeze with fellow spectators. Watching all those athletes rolling down Fourth Avenue, I starting to feel some stirrings of optimism.

Yes, these fundamentalist mother fuckers are a curse upon world. And, yes, I am afraid for myself and my love ones because I don’t know how we stop these suicidal sons-of-bitches from striking again, and again, and again.

If someone decides to take his own life, all the pathetic macho man posturing in the world won’t do shit to stop him.

But look at all those runners out there, I thought. Look at all those good, decent people, who just want to enjoy their lives. They’re stronger than any terrorist on earth. And I know that Trump will fall and fall hard.

And then I read about Texas where a gunman invaded a small-town church, killing at least 26 people. The dead include the pastor's 14-year-old daughter.

Her father said she was "one very beautiful, special child."

We don’t have all the details yet, but what fucking difference does that make? Nothing will change, the killings will continue, and there will be no place to run.

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.