Sunday, May 21, 2017

Friends in Need

“All this time the man who killed me will not die.” – Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings

I recently discovered the work of Marlon James.

This didn’t happen by way of a book review, or media buzz, internet message boards, or even the old time word of mouth routine.

I became aware of his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings while walking home from the store one morning when I looked down and saw a single page from the book on the street.

It was page 585 and 586 of the 704-page novel about postcolonial Jamaica that Entertainment Weekly called “nothing short of awe-inspiring.”

I probably should’ve kept walking, as I’ve got enough paper, books, and other assorted crap in my house already.

But as a reader and someone who has published his own book, I felt badly that an author’s work had been abused like this.

Published by Riverhead Press, A Brief History of Seven Killings is James’ third won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, a first for a Jamaican-born author.

And here was this single page from a prize-winning book blowing around the gutter.

It would be a shame if someone deliberately destroyed the book, but not at all surprising in this age of intolerance. I just have no way of knowing.

The wind can blow very strongly off the Narrows, so this single page might’ve traveled a long way before it came into my line of sight.

I don’t begin to compare myself to Marlon James, of course, but I do understand how difficult it is to write a book. Doubts pile up as you struggle to find just the right words that will bring your story to life.

You end up throwing out a lot of your work—at least I sure as hell do—as you write, rewrite, and rewrite so more.

Given all that grief, writers can’t be faulted for wanting their work to live forever, as unlikely as that sounds, rather than being ripped up into confetti.


My parents always stressed the importance of reading and my mother liked to say “books are our friends.”

Books have been such an important part of my life for as long as I can remember, starting with Dr. Seuss, to the Hardy Boys, and going on to Ken Kesey, whose Sometimes A Great Notion changed my life—seriously.

I frankly don’t a read enough now, especially since I don’t commute to an office anymore.

I’ve read so many books while riding the subways and buses in this town. It’s the best way to deal with the crowds and the delays and the lunatics—as long as the lights stay on.

So I’ve decided I’m going to make an effort to read more every day.

I didn’t like my seventh-grade teacher worth a damn, but I do respect for him for the time he urged us all to read by telling us “with books you can go anywhere.”

It’s vital for children to develop reading skills, especially now that we have all these distractions. Curling up with good book has never been more important.

Books as I knew them appear to be an endangered species as more and more people choose eBooks over the real thing. I have no interest in reading eBooks, but then I haven’t really tried them yet, so I suppose I shouldn’t judge.

When I was in the fifth grade, Mrs. Toomey, my Cub Scout den mother, encouraged us all to find a damaged book and repair it.

I actually carried out that assignment, but don’t ask me what particular book I salvaged or whatever become of it. I’m just happy I did it.

It’s a shame that I can’t repair A Brief History of Seven Killings, but I’ve decided I going to get a copy of the book and read the other 700-odd pages.

And I’ll take good care of it, too, because you can never have too many friends.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Wherever I Wander

That was one very active my bear.

I was digging through my junk box the other day in an underwhelming attempt to clean up and organize when I came across a Mother’s Day card I had given to my mom nearly 30 years ago.

I have so many cards and notes that I’ve given or received from my parents over the years and I just can’t part with them.

This particular card was the one I had given to my mom on Mother’s Day 1988 when I was moving out of my home in Brooklyn to take a job at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

I was so worried about starting a new job and relocating to a new town that I had unthinkingly agreed to take the position without realizing that I was leaving for my new home was the very day that we’re supposed honor our mothers.

So, in addition to worry, fear, and creeping terror, I added an unhealthy serving of guilt a la mode that pretty much squashed any remaining traces of sanity that I had left.

But it’s not like I was moving to New Zealand. I was heading up the Poconos, which was only about 90 minutes away. Some people actually commute to New York every day, for God’s sake.

Going to the card store was a grim affair as I alternated between anguish about the new job—which I was convinced I couldn’t handle—and shame for deserting my mother on this most special holiday.

I stumbled around the aisles trying to find something suitable—and that’s what I came upon the traveling bear

The card has the image of a young bear riding on the back of an elephant and standing on sail boat as he travels the world.

Paws Button

To Mom, with Love,” the copy reads, “Wherever I wander...wherever I roam…

Upon opening the card, the young bear is approaching his family home and ready to step in to loving arms of his mother.

“…wherever my mother is will always be home,” the card concludes.

I cried the first time I saw this card and I’m in pretty rough shape right now. My mom has been gone for 15 years, but Mother’s Day can be a real trial.

During my junk box search I also rediscovered a couple of my mother’s old notebooks, including one with a portrait of William Shakespeare on the cover that I had bought for her during a vacation in London circa 1990.

Most of the pages are blank, but there are some notes in her handwriting, listing books, stores, and films and other items of interest.

How to Become Financially Successful by Owning Your Own Business, is the title of one of the books my mother wanted to buy, showing how she was always looking for ways to get ahead.

My mother also wrote down the name of a Columbia University film professor who had founded an independent film company.

Given my interest in filmmaking, I’m convinced my mother wrote this down for my benefit. She probably told me about it, too, but, dope that I am, I doubt if I followed up on it.

We eventually got through that Mother’s Day, and I lived in Pennsylvania for five years before moving to Connecticut and finally back to New York in 1998.

I didn’t wander like that greeting card bear, but I’m so grateful I had a mother who always made me feel at home.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Wheels in Motion

With all this car service grief I’ve been going through lately, I forgot to tell you about Rob.

Not me, this Rob is the driver who took me Penn Station for my trip to Philadelphia, the one who showed up right on time and ferried me straight to Penn Station without incident, but with plenty of style.

He works for the same company that so royally screwed up my return trip from Penn Station, but I’m certainly not holding that against him.

Rob isn’t a young man, or even middle-aged. No, he’s in his seventies and I confess I was a little surprised by his advanced years when I first saw him, which is somewhat ironic, given the fact that I’m turning 60 in a few weeks.

Rob is also a former hairdresser and gay. I know all this because he told me so within the first five minutes of picking me up.

“I’m a gay hairdresser!” Rob told me at least twice as we drove down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

He was quite a change from the drivers I usually get, who are typically Middle Eastern with a limited command of the English language. And most of them are Muslims.

“I’m sure they don’t like me,” Rob said of his coworkers. “But that’s all right. I’m not inviting them over for tea.”

We talked about how Brooklyn has changed so dramatically over the last few years, and how expensive some formerly horrific neighborhoods have become.

“I picked up three young girls who had paid a fortune for this tiny apartment,” Rob said, “and I told them ‘you’re all assholes!’”

Well, there goes that tip. Rob said he used to be a hairdresser for a one-hit wonder Sixties star whose name escapes me and he used to travel with her when she took her act on the road. Now he drives for the car service to pick up some extra cash.

“People love riding with me,” Rob said. “I play great music, I tell great stories, and I bathe regularly.”

So, Like I Was Saying…

Rob has a young boyfriend who is in forties, but he’s realistic about the relationship.

“Listen,” he said, “at my age I’m a John and I know it.”

Rob is keeping his current beau around through various acts of tender bribery, like buying a pair of tickets to the recent Barbra Streisand concert at the Barclay Center.

However, it seems the boyfriend has a bit of drug problem and the guy prefers getting high at home to going out of the town—and Rob is getting a little fed up.

Gee, I seem to know a lot about this guy’s life, don’t I? But it was a great ride and Rob is a real trip. I was feeling extremely anxious about the conference in Philly and Rob did a lot to calm me down.

I probably won’t see him again, as I have parted ways with that car service.

I even spoke with a woman from the Taxi & Limousine Commission about that atrocious night who told me that it is unlikely the company will be cited for leaving me high and dry in the middle of a monsoon.

Apparently, there’s no law against being incompetent losers, but that’s okay. I’d rather just drop the whole thing and get on with my life.

However, it seems my luck with car service drivers is still in the basement.

On Thursday I took a car home from my writing class in Park Slope and the driver must’ve been new in town...and on the planet.

“Where are you going?” I said with alarm as my exit on the BQE came and went.

“You said Shore Road.”

“Yeah,” I wailed, “but you’re heading to Staten Island!”

I directed this yin-yang off the highway just short of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, guided him to my house, and gave him a less-than-impressive tip.

I tell you, there’s never a gay hairdresser around when you need one.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Philadelphia Story

At the end of William Goldman’s 1960 novel Soldier in the Rain, Eustice Clay, a beleaguered soldier who’s been on a run of appallingly bad of luck, looks up into a stormy sky and expresses his true feelings.

“Fuck you,” he says to the angry clouds.

After the week I just went through, I know exactly how he feels.

I, too, was standing in the middle of deluge, only I was outside Pennsylvania Station, and instead of directing my rage up to the stratosphere, I aimed my anger straight into my smartphone.

“Fuck you!”

And I wasn’t talking to the Almighty, the Fates, the weather gods or any other such supernatural being.

I was shrieking at a car service dispatcher who just told me that there would be no car to pick me up on this horrific night—even though I had reserved a vehicle the day before to take me and my luggage the hell home.

This was a fitting climax to my three-day business trip to Philadelphia. Nothing seemed to go right during this conference. I was bouncing in a dozen different directions, I was making bonehead mistakes and I was so worried about something going wrong that I focused almost exclusively on surviving rather than excelling.

I hit the panic button too goddamn much, choosing to freak out as a first resort—as opposed to carefully analyzing the situation, attempting to come up with a logical resolution, and then freaking out.

I even forgot to pack socks—socks, for Christ’s sake! Who in the holy flying fuck forgets to bring socks on business trip? Luckily the Pennsylvania Convention Center had a gift shop that happened to sell socks, among other things, so that was one less screw-up to worry about.

I didn’t get a chance to see any of the sites or meet up with my awesome Philly friend, Ron. I barely had time to look up from my laptop.

Now to be fair, these conferences can be stressful, but I also did a lot of dumb stuff, real rookie errors, and as the bloopers piled up, I became more and more frustrated and, of course, I allowed the anger took over.

Even the weather went to straight to Hell, as sunny skies soon gave away to a storm system that seemed determined to outdo Noah’s 40 days and 40 nights schtick. By the time the conference was over, I staggered to the train station and prayed for a quiet trip back to Brooklyn.

Wheels in Motion

And then I called for my car.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from this fat schmuck. Of course, I don’t know if this dispatcher is fat, having never seen him, but I imagine him as bloated and unshaven, stuffed into a stained wife beater with a rancid toothpick shoved between yellowed, rotting teeth, and clouds of flies buzzing around him.

I know this is childish but I can’t help it.

After detonating the F-bomb, I called another neighborhood car service and learned they had a driver near Penn Station, who picked me up and got me home. I sent a nasty email to Fat Fuck Charley at the first outfit and filed a complaint with the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

On Saturday I got my new favorite car service to take me and my old computer to the Apple Store in the World Trade Center so I could get out the old files and put them into a new machine.

There was a breakdown in communications, however, because upon my arrival I was told the Apple geniuses couldn’t retrieve information from a busted computer—which makes no sense to me whatsoever, seeing as how if my computer wasn’t busted I wouldn’t be buying a new one, would I?

I then had to lug this 27-inch corpse on to the R train and take it up a few stops to the geeks at the Best Buy at Broadway and Houston.

I started having a conniption fit on the train—I can’t take it, I can’t take it—but then I recalled one of my first big stories when I covered the arrest of a man charged with murdering his wife.

That night was completely out of control and I almost had a nervous breakdown, but I got through it. And I was determined to get through this day, too.

So I bought a new Apple from Best Buy and I’m scheduled to pick it up on Monday. And when I bring it home, I won’t be calling Fat Fuck Charley for a ride.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Germs of Fear

I like to do this visualization exercise where I imagine a beam of pure light coming down straight from Heaven and going right into the top of my head.

The beautiful light clears away all the negative thoughts and emotions in my head, breaks the mental chains that are holding me back and allows me to look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.

The light moves down to my nose, mouth and throat, where it sweeps away all the germs that may be lurking there, a perfect image for a hypochondriac like yours truly.

From there the light surges through my entire body, clearing away and fixing up all my various ailments both real and imagined. This routine may sound corny to some people, but I love it.

However, the other day I got silently tongue-tied when I thought to myself “the light clears away the fear germs.”

Fear germs? There’s no such thing, I told myself.

But now I’m starting to wonder about that. Fear can grip us like a terrible disease if we let it take over our minds. Pretty soon we’re talking ourselves out of all sorts of new possibilities, while talking ourselves into a lifetime of regret and busted dreams.

I’ve got a serious case of the heebie-jeebies right now as I prepare to take a business trip to Philadelphia in the morning.

Bulb in The Woods

I’m posting tonight because I’ve got to catch a train early tomorrow and I’m writing this on my company laptop because my Apple desktop croaked on me two days ago.

Can it really be seven years to since we went down to Prince Street on a snowy afternoon to pick up a shiny new computer and bring it home?

“Your computer is what we would call ‘vintage’,” the young woman from Apple told me Wednesday night. “There’s not much what we can do.”

Of course the timing sucked beyond belief, but then when is there a good time for your computer to kick the bucket?

I don’t have time to run down to the Apple store before I leave and I had to ask my saint of a sister to print out my train ticket so I get my keester down to the City of Brotherly Love. And I’m not anxious to shell out thousands of dollars for a new machine.

On top of that I fouled up the hotel reservation and had to scramble to get a place that’s more expensive and further away from the conference.

That is what I would call “bullshit.”

I’ve got the fear germs crawling all over me, digging into my soul and clinging to my mind--even though I’ve been to these conferences many times before.

A little bit of nerves is one thing, but I’m feeling so antsy right now I could ruin a dozen picnics.

All right, I think we need to throw a little light on the situation. And by a little light, I mean a lot, a gleaming, glorious shaft of sacred light that streaks down from Paradise and penetrates this thick skull of mine.

This spectacular beam is going to burn up those little fear germs like the hideous vermin they are. No moping about the past, no trembling at the future. I’m going to do my job.

All right, then. Let’s light it up.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Listening to God Smile

Every morning when I meditate I start off with a little message to myself.

Open all the pores of your skin, I say, borrowing a line from a qigong DVD I bought years ago, and listen to God smile.

That last bit is my own creation—the DVD says “Listen to a sound from far away”—and while I’m not sure what it means, I do like the sound of it.

Meditation involves listening to silence so you can quiet your mind, step outside of your problems and worries, and, ideally, become a better person.

It’s Easter Sunday and I made sure to meditate on this most blessed morning.

This is a time of rebirth and renewal, where we look forward with hope and let go of the grief behind us. I know these are big words and I say them every year, but I’m just a sucker for a happy message.

I must confess that I didn’t make the most of Lent this year. I didn’t get my ashes on Ash Wednesday; I ate meat on nearly every Friday of the season, and let Palm Sunday blow by like it was somebody else’s religion.

I felt particularly disappointed last week when I saw an elderly woman walking slowly down Bay Ridge Avenue, a cane in one hand and a palm in the other. If she could make it to church why couldn't I?

I don’t feel guilty, as this is a most useless and destructive emotion. I just feel like I’ve missed out on something special.

I did avoid meat on Good Friday and after work I did some shopping, making sure to stop at the old Lincoln Savings Bank (now a Chase branch) to pause at the place where my mother’s desk once stood and wish her a Happy Easter.

The Resurrection, and The Life

Then it was on to Our Lady of Angels Church, where I sat in the pew for a while, reciting the Rosary and giving thanks for all the good things in my life.

I thought of my parents walking up the aisle of this church back in 1950 on the day they were married.

I recalled my Catholic education at the adjoining grammar school and felt the old anger and resentment stirring up before I politely asked them to depart.

A small group of people was gathering behind me and, checking the bulletin, I saw that it was almost time the ProcesiĆ³n del Via Crucis—the Stations of the Cross.

It’s hard to believe my church is now having Spanish language services.

We never thought that would’ve been possible back in the Sixties when I grew up, when Bay Ridge was almost completely Christian and caucasion.

Spanish mass? That’s for Our Lady of Perpetual Help down in Sunset Park. It's English only here.

I regret now that I left before the service started. I haven’t been to mass or confession for a few weeks (months?) and I haven’t sat in for the Stations of the Cross in years.

The language difference is immaterial and I think perhaps I would’ve gotten something out of the Spanish service.

Today I had dinner with my family, where there was much love and plenty of opportunities to hear God smile.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Death of Smile

Several years ago one of my coworkers was showing me some headshots he had taken for the company ID card.

He was smiling broadly in the first shot, but the grin slowly slipped from his face over the course of the next three pictures.

“Death of a smile,” I said, looking over the images.

That phrase came back to me this week when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing back-to-back Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Woody Allen’s Sleeper, two of my all-time favorite comedies.

Or at least they used to be.

I’ve seen both these films again in the last year for the first time in decades and I had the same surprising, and rather sobering reaction to both of them.

While I had laughed uproariously at these two movies the first time I saw, I could barely crack a smile during the most recent viewings.

The scenes that I had found hilarious back in the Seventies now seemed hackneyed and stale.

Young Frankenstein mercilessly mocked the old Universal horror movies, right down a dart game that Frankenstein plays with a one-armed police chief.

When I saw the movie in the theater—was that the Quad Cinema?—I couldn’t stop laughing at that particular scene.

I loved Sleeper, too, a science fiction parody that is listed on "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die."

I argued with my parents who had also seen the movie and weren’t in the least bit impressed.

At the time I thought it was some kind of generational divide where my poor Mom and Dad just didn’t get Woody’s unique brand of comedy.

Now I feel exactly the same way they did. So I really am turning into my parents?

Hail, Hail, Freedonia...

I first noticed this phenomenon during the holidays a few years back when I watched the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup.

Now that’s a hysterically funny movie and I sat down in front of TV looking forward to enjoying the screwball comedy I had loved since I was a kid.

And…nothing. I don’t think I so much as grinned for the entire film. Even the famous mirror scene with Grouch and Harpo left me cold.

“I didn’t think it was at all funny,” I told my auntie the next day.

“That’s what usually happens, dear,” she said.

What the hell going on here? I always thought I had a good sense of humor. So why was I looking blankly at my widescreen like it was a tombstone?

Part of the problem is that, yes, I am older, and my tastes have changed.

Also, I’m watching these films at home and not in a theater full of people, so maybe the human factor is at play here. Maybe, but it’s not the deciding factor.

I tuned into TCM a few weeks back to watch The Ruling Class, a bizarre comedy featuring Peter O’Toole as a member of the House of Lords who thinks he’s Jesus Christ.

When I saw it in the old Elgin Cinema in 1973, I thought it was brilliant. Please, I silently begged my TV, stay that way for me. Be the same outrageous, shocking satire that I so fondly recall from my high school years.

But, once again, I watched this film as silently as a Trappist monk at Sunday dinner.

The movie was terribly dated and the few points it had to make—like the rich get away with everything, including murder—were delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow right between the eyes.

To borrow a phrase from my auntie, “it was like hanging by the thumbs.”

Maybe I’ll take a break from comedies for a while and focus on heavy dramas. There’s nothing like somebody else’s misery to bring my smile back to life.