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.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Foggy Day

There’s something so comforting about the sound of foghorn.

It’s a voice of safety and guidance, a saintly sound that seeks to protect sailors from harm.

Now I’m a certified landlubber, but I live near the Narrows in Bay Ridge and whenever the fog rolls in I get an earful of that beautiful noise rolling in right behind it.

It’s a nice old timey sound that harks back to another age of sailing ships and fishing villages.

Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Fog Horn” features a sea monster that mistakes a remote lighthouse’s foghorn for the mating call of one of its own.

The giant creature eventually topples the lighthouse in a fit of rage and the story formed the basis of the monster movie classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Thankfully that has yet to happen in my neighborhood.

I came to appreciate this singular symphony even more during a recent meditation session.

Now I’m just getting over a nasty virus that had wrapped my head in a fogbank of congestion, fatigue, and extreme grouchiness worthy of an angry sea monster.

The dry, hacking cough was a bonus that I would’ve cheerfully skipped if I’d had any choice in the matter.

Had Me Low, Had Me Down…

So many people I know have been sick recently and I am very thankful that I work from home so I wouldn’t have to suffer the additional torture of a daily commute. On the flip side, though, it’s not easy calling in sick when your office is 10 feet away from your bedroom.

I dragged through the week, skipping the gym and cutting off most social activities.

I did keep up on my regular 20-minute meditation routine, but my unhappiness over my health muscled in on my morning session with a serious case of monkey mind that rattled my skull with endless negative chatter about how much the coming day was going to suck and wondering if I’d ever feel better.

I started to improve toward the end of the week and on Saturday I had a moment of clarity even as the fog came moving in.

As the foghorns began calling, I fixed my mind on that wonderful sound and stayed with it for the entire session.

My breathing became slower and deeper and the incessant internal chatter took a break as my mental monkey climbed the nearest tree.

I felt so safe and secure—like I was sitting in the palm of God's hand, and the foghorn’s din sounded so dense, so deep you could almost walk on it. I came out of that meditation in a much better frame on mind.

It was colder this morning and the sun was out, so there was no need for foghorns. As I meditated I could feel this beautiful healing ray of sunlight come across my face. The warmth got me thinking about spring and health and ditching all these winter clothes.

Some days you get fog and some days you get sunshine. If your thinking is clear you can navigate your way through either one.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

‘Our Beautiful Tower’

On the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin with a cache of weapons and started shooting.

Whitman’s killing spree, probably America’s first mass shooting, would leave 17 people dead and 31 others injured.

It was an incredible, shocking moment in this country’s history and it is the subject of Keith Maitland’s riveting documentary, Tower, which PBS broadcast last week.

“It was not something you’d expect from our beautiful tower,” one woman says about the incident years later.

I have to be honest--I sobbed so much during this film I must’ve gone through an entire box of tissues.

Using a combination of old news footage, current interviews, and rotoscope animation, Maitland tells the survivors’ shocking stories of what happened over the course of 96 horrific minutes.

There’s Alex Hernandez, who was shot off his bicycle as he delivered newspapers; and Allen Crum, a manager of the University Book Store Co-op, who offered to help the police stop the slaughter and who ended up on the observation deck with a rifle in his hands.

We hear from Claire Wilson, who was eight pregnant at the time, and who, along with her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman were shot as they left the UT student union.

Eckman was killed instantly as he tried to help Claire, who lay there bleeding in the near 100-degree heat in this suddenly formed No Man’s Land.

One woman tells the filmmakers that “on that day I knew I was a coward” because she didn’t put herself in harm’s way to help the wounded. Wanting to live is hardly cowardice, but this atrocity did spark some incredible displays of courage.

There’s an amazing woman named Rita Starpattern, who ran out to help Claire Wilson, got down on her stomach and kept the bleeding woman talking so she wouldn’t loss consciousness.

And there was John "Artly" Fox, just 17 years old at the time, who with a friend, ran out and helped carry Claire Wilson to safety.

The film includes news footage of Fox and his friend running with the wounded woman as his glasses slide off his face.

Body Count

And we hear from Ramiro "Ray" Martinez and Houston McCoy, two Austin cops who killed Whitman and ended the carnage.

I was 9 years old when the tower massacre happened and I have vague memories of the adults talking about it, including my dad, who spoke about “a fat guy who ran out to help people.”

Tower includes an on-the-scene interview with a heavyset fellow—and Vietnam vet—who rescued some of the victims. This man, with bloodstains clearly visible on his shirt, carried Thomas Eckman and he told the reporter that he knew Eckman was the dead the second he picked him up.

Toward the end of the film, the interviews shift from animation to modern day footage of the survivors, an incredible bit of editing that brings these people and their words brilliantly to life.

Claire Wilson lost her baby and even though the doctors said she could have children, she wasn’t able to conceive and eventually adopted a boy from Ethiopia.

And as much as she loves this child, now a grown man, she also talks about having a dream where she’s holding the baby she lost, who’s alive and well.

“And then I look away and when I look down he’s gone,” she says.

Rita Starpattern died in 1996; she was just 50 years old.

Houston McCoy died in 2012 and even late in life his cracked as he expressed regret for not running into the tower immediately upon his arrival and taking on the gunman himself.

Billy Speed, an Austin cop who was killed that day, and a lot of others would be alive, McCoy says.

“Woulda, coulda,” he adds, clearly still in pain.

In 2016, 50 years to the goddamn day of the tower shootings, the Campus Carry law went into effect, allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns at public universities in Texas.

One of those speaking out against this madness was Ray Martinez, who faced that psychopath.

“Let the police do the policing,” he said.

After the massacre, people expressed shock and outrage, of course, although back then they had no idea that mass shootings would become so frequent in America--Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech--that you would need an Excel spreadsheet to keep them straight in your mind.

It was a different time and this was not something you’d expect from our beautiful country.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Blast Site

We heard about the fire from the mailman who had stopped by the office that morning to make a delivery.

It was July 21, 1987 and a propane gas explosion had ripped through the block on 50th Street and 18th Avenue.

I was working for the Bay Ridge Home Reporter, a neighborhood weekly, and I was assigned to cover the blast. It was one of my first big stories.

The smoke from the explosion and resulting fire rose high over this Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I had never seen so many fire engines, police cars, ambulances and news vans in my life.

I was just getting over a nasty summer cold, but I forgot about that as I joined a group of reporters who were penned in an impromptu press area that was formed by two police barriers.

All I could see was smoke and rubble. I broke out the paper’s Polaroid camera—yes, seriously--and began snapping pictures.

In a case of excruciatingly bad timing, I ran out of film just as a firefighter staggered away from the flames, tumbled on to a stretcher and put an oxygen mask to his face. He was wheeled away before I got a chance to load a fresh cartridge.

A police captain told us that four people had been killed when the explosion ripped through a plumbing supply store. One of the victims was some poor guy on his way to work who had walked by the store at the wrong time. Another victim was due to get married in the fall.

Eleven people had been injured as flying debris blew out windows and tore into people waiting at a nearby bus stop. Twelve cops and a dozen firefighters were also injured.

And at some point I was peering through the lens for another shot when the cops to decided to relocate the press zone.

Without saying a word to me they moved the barriers and suddenly I was unknowingly standing in No Man’s Land.

I felt someone tug on my shirt and a cop was saying, “get behind the barricade!”

Well, shit, I thought I was behind the barricade. I quickly got in line with the other reporters and I was fortunate enough to stand next to a veteran journalist from Newsday.

I watched him flag down a young Hasidic man from Hatzolah, a volunteer ambulance service, and pump him for details about the explosion.

Page One News

“Now, I want to make Hatzolah look good,” he said.

I was a little surprised by his bluntness as I had thought reporters were supposed to ask questions and not make deals. I was new to journalism but I soon learned that sometimes you’ve got to schmooze a little bit to get a story.

I interviewed a young EMT named Isaac and got some good color for my story. And then I raced back to the paper to write. The story was all over the local news broadcasts that night.

I went to the site the next day to for a follow-up and the block looked like a war zone. I interviewed two sanitation workers who had pulled people from the rubble and then I spoke with a fellow whom I would have to describe as your classic New York little old Jewish man.

He was telling me about what he had seen when one of us stepped off the sidewalk and onto to the street. Instantly this incredibly short cop came running over to us waving his arms.

“Get back on the sidewalk,” he yelled, as if we had knocked over a bank. “Get back on the sidewalk!”

We did as we were told and my companion waited until the police officer was out of earshot before he spoke.

“That’s a cop?” he asked. “That’s a midget!

We spoke for a little while longer and then I had to get back to the office.

“Is it okay if I ask your name?” I said rather awkwardly.

The old timer looked surprised.

“What am I, a gangster?” he said. “I shouldn’t give my name?”

I’m sorry to say I forgot that man’s name, but I still remember him.

It turned out the propane tanks were being kept in the store’s basement illegally and the owner received several summonses. I don’t know how the case was settled, but whatever happened, it didn’t make the victims any less dead.

A short time later I was sitting in a deli with some friends who wanted to know about the explosion, so I gave them my firsthand account. I have to say it felt pretty good being the center of attention.

I went on to cover many more disasters over the years, including a gas explosion that destroyed a church. I got accustomed to interviewing cops, firefighters, eyewitnesses and victims who had lost every single thing they owned.

Sometimes I tell myself I miss covering all the mayhem, but after years of business reporting, I think I’ll leave the ambulance chasing to somebody else.

But it sure was a hell of a ride.


Sunday, February 05, 2017

Airport Run

I came bounding out of PS 102 one afternoon many years ago dying to tell my parents the great news.

This was kindergarten around 1962 and I had just made local history by proudly printing my name.

My mother and father were waiting for me in my dad’s car, and I climbed in the back seat, breathlessly reporting how I had spelled “R-O-B-E-R-T.”

And then I showed them the paper I was clutching as irrefutable evidence of this tremendous event.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” my mother said. “Now you just have to learn how to print ‘Lenihan.’”

I was confused. I had just reached the plateau by cranking out my first name, the only one I ever used. It’s not like I was writing checks or signing contracts. Why complicate things?

I eventually caught on that I would need the surname to get through life and a short time later I actually was writing checks and signing contracts. And it hasn’t stopped since.

But what I remember most about that day was seeing my parents waiting outside school for me. Of course I didn’t appreciate it at that time. I was young and I naturally thought Mom and Dad would always be waiting for me.

Twenty-five years later I was coming home from a three-week vacation in Europe. I’d had a great time seeing the sites in Paris, Rome, and Munich, but I’d grown weary of visiting yet another museum, yet another old church. And I missed my family.

We had no Internet or cell phones back then, so I only spoke with my parents a handful of times during the entire trip.

Cleared for Takeoff

I had booked charter flights in and out of JFK, which were cheaper, but not long on customer service. They were like flying cattle cars to be perfectly honest.

I flew out of Munich and expected a brief layover in Shannon Airport in Ireland, which was supposed to have a fantastic duty-free shop.

But we didn’t stop at Shannon. We kept on going, over the Atlantic and landed in Gander, Canada. It seemed like such a desolate, barren place and I wanted to leave as quickly as possible.

My Uncle Walter had been a bomber pilot in WWII, back when Gander was a refueling stop for transatlantic flights, and he later told me that he’d had some great times there before taking off for Europe. I’d found that hard difficult to believe given my brief experience with the place.


Gander would later become a crucial landing area on September 11, when dozens of planes were forced to land at Gander International.

The people from Gander and the surrounding towns stepped up and took in more than 6,600 passengers and airline crewmembers.

When we flew out of Gander I had no idea that the crap-ass airline I was traveling with hadn’t been keeping the people back at JFK informed about the plane’s progress, so I didn’t know that my parents were quite worried about me.

We reached New York an hour late and we shared a terminal with a plane that had just arrived from Kingston, Jamaica, which made it easy for me to find my parents as they kind of stuck out in the crowd.

It was lovely seeing them and it felt like I had been away for a long time. They were a little older now than they were back on that day in kindergarten, of course, but I couldn’t wait to tell them about my trip.

My parents are have been gone for years, and now I have to hire someone to pick me up from the airport whenever I fly. It makes me miss them even more and realize how lucky I was to have them.

And when I make my last trip in this life I hope their smiling faces will be the first things I see when I arrive.