Monday, March 25, 2019

Someone Should Keep An Eye On Him

Harold Lloyd ~ Safety Last!

“That’s it. I’ve had it.”
Staring at the dirt encrusted window I made up my mind to cheer myself up. After September 11, 2001, my job relocated from a building overlooking the World Trade Center to the industrial center of Long Island City – the old Bloomingdale’s Warehouse on a concrete hill overlooking the Long Island Railroad yards. I sat in a windowless closet dead center in the core of the immense building where it took thirty seconds to walk to the nearest window to see if it was light or dark outside. My space reminded me of Limbo.
Limbo is the place in Catholic mythology where lost souls take mail. As a kid they used to show us catechism slides in preparation for our first confession, communion and confirmation. Same slides were used for all sacraments. The nun would pep up the slides with a little bit of color analysis.
“Remember children, if you are not baptized a Catholic, God will never welcome you into Heaven. You will spend eternity in a way station.”
“A what station?”
“A way station. Limbo is a way station.”
“A gas station?”
Kids usually enjoy pursuing this line of questioning until it is stone dead but Limbo erased our curiosity. It was so boring the kids lost wind. The Limbo slide was a Twilight Zone drawing of a group of men and women in 1950’s styled dress clothes standing in the middle of a room with no windows looking up through a hole above the room where the ceiling should have been. Alone at night in my space, I’d imagine the ceiling lifting away and some brooding higher being staring down at me, drumming her finger against chin.
After 31 months in LIC we made a second temporary move. Our downtown building, 90 Church Street, was still under renovation. My business moved me to the center of my New York universe, 14th Street and Fifth Avenue. My building straddled the West Village, East Village, Union Square and Washington Square. I pinched myself.
My job was boring. The only thing making work tolerable was the location. I loved our building. I loved the neighborhood. The energy in the streets was palatable. The schools and media/arts in the area converged sending an electric charge through the air. Old churches with welcoming grounds, five minute walk down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, my new iPod. I was getting in tune.
Unfortunately, the building owner was not in tune. Our lease was up in six months and cleaning our windows was not on his list of things to do. It drove me crazy to turn around at my desk and see my seven-foot high window loaded with gook. The lack of natural light made me sad. All that amazing people watching down there – I was losing a fantastic opportunity to daydream a portion of my day away. After several failed efforts trying to get building services to respond I determined, “I can do this.”
I’m mechanically challenged. As a boy, my parents paid me to leave our Queens apartment over the weekend. They planned to paint the apartment and did not want me anywhere near a brush or paint can. They came to that decision earlier when I used an entire gallon of paint to partially coat a small closet. Most of the paint ended up on the floor and my clothing. I finished up by painting myself into the closet’s back wall. My parents would not stir the paint till they were sure I had gotten on the subway to Manhattan. This hamstrung my home decorating development. I’ve decided to move once or twice in my life rather than deal with painting an apartment. If I walk past a hardware store with a Benjamin Moore sign I can feel the help looking out the window shaking their heads side to side. I am pre-judged. I walk the earth as Cain, never to know the satisfaction of a home project well done.
Up to three years ago, I‘d stare at a screw not knowing whether to turn it left or right to tighten or loosen it. My cousin Jimmy, god bless him, taught me a short poem, “Righty Tighty, Lefty Lucy”. I still mumble it under my breath when I introduce myself to a screw. When my daughter was five she said to her mom, “Someone needs to keep an eye on him.” This was her response to the crash she heard in the kitchen when my make shift ladder, a chair with a milk case on top of it, crumbled leaving me hanging from the cabinet over the sink.
Back on 14th Street, I stared at the window, studying the problem. It was heavy and huge. It could hurt me. I stood on the sill, gently swinging the window in to let it lie across my desk. The dirt and dust flew in with the breeze scattering my papers around the tiny office. Fifth Avenue roared below. The sound and the air felt good. I saw the caked up dirt and measured the assignment. I needed loads of paper towels and a bucket of water. It was five-thirty, the office was mostly empty so I took off my dress shirt and turned my garbage can over, enlisting it for bucket duty. Heading for the bathroom, I ran into my next-door office neighbor, Barry Stabile.
“What are you doing?”
“Washing my office window.”
“No kidding, I’d love to do that, but my window doesn’t swing out. It’s blocked by the wall jutting out. What are you using to wash it?”
“This garbage can and paper towels.”
“I bought a squeegee for cleaning my car windows today. Do you want to borrow it?”
“Absolutely, thanks.”
Filling the bucket with lots of water I returned to the window with my borrowed squeegee. It only took two passes of the squeegee to blacken the water. I was not clear on how the building would feel about me washing my own window. I decided to finish the job with the dirty water rather than chancing a run in with a security guard walking the floors. The squeegee had a one-foot handle that allowed me to clean most of the window but not the very bottom. There was no room on the side of the window for me to approach it that way. The only way to clean the bottom of the window was to let a little bit of water pour down the glass from the top and take the dirt off the glass on the pass. This worked well and my spirit lifted as I saw the dirt peel away like volcano lava. The water fell from the bottom lip of the window and spread out along the marble ledge outside my window. Here is where my alternate reality began playing tricks on me.
I love film and I love architecture. Sometimes these two subjects dovetail in my mind and what I see in film becomes my reality. I love Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Their astonishing stunts tickled me to no end. Anytime I saw a city scene in a silent film or an early talkie I assumed it was all taking place in my world, Manhattan. Walking a skyscraper’s ledge, hanging from a clock or tip toeing a plank bridging two building roofs. It all took my breath away and it was all happening in New York (not true, but what did that matter to me). I was mesmerized. As a boy I’d roam Manhattan looking up at the tall buildings. I’d daydream about what building belonged in what film and if it didn’t belong in that film, didn’t it look just like the building that was in that film? It got to the point where I stopped looking up. It no longer mattered. My mind was made up. Further viewing was not required.
I was convinced all tall buildings between 14th and 23th Street on or near Fifth Avenue were built by insurance companies. Each had been used as a location in some old film involving a treacherous escape, rescue or pursuit. How could I forget Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in “Safety Last”, or Oliver Hardy hanging by a telephone wire outside a top floor window. All these buildings had elaborate ornamentation – spires, towers, big face clocks, columns, pillars, reliefs, gold roofs, chevrons, cupolas, and more. Some were stone wedding cakes with a complex series of ledges starting at the mid floors leading up to the top floors kissing the sky. Armed with my fuzzy celluloid-driven view of the local building architecture, I ill advisedly approached my cleaning chore with faulty data.
As the water dripped off the window onto the outside ledge I gave no thought to its final destination. My building was built around the time of the Great War in the last century– the water-spilling out my window onto the ledge would of course move onto another ledge, then another ledge then another ledge till all the water was dispersed or evaporated. I was on a high floor. My building had many tiers below me. I was sure of this based on my movie memory rather than me ever performing an actual visual assessment. Say for instance me standing in front of my building and looking up. This never happened. What was the point?
Pleased with the way the window was beginning to look I continued pouring the black water on the window. This was going so well I got caught up in the moment and figured what the heck and emptied the entire bucket onto the window. High floor, many ledges, the building would soak it up on the way down.
My bucket empty I soaked up the water on the glass with paper towels. I was beaming, thinking to myself, “Mom loved a clean window, she’d be proud of me.”
I threw all the dirty paper towels in the bucket and began walking to the bathroom to wash up. When I came back to my office a security guard and a building engineer bounced in right behind me.
“What are you doing?” they screeched. I knew the answer but shut up. They were not here to congratulate me on a job well done. Plus, I still had the bucket and the squeegee sticking out of it under my arm. My non-response encouraged their curiosity.
I stared at the two men thinking, the great thing about life is the potential to learn something new everyday. The problem is sometimes you learn the new thing on the wrong day. Now if I learned a day before I washed the window that my office was right over my building’s Fifth Avenue entrance, and that same day learned my office window’s ledge had no sister ledge beneath it, then I would have developed a different plan for washing my window. Much to my chagrin, neither the security guard nor the building engineer was interested in life’s potential or the order in which I learned new things.
I stood stupid in my wet T-shirt absorbing their taunts and blows, “You can’t do that?”
“It’s against building regulations.”
And each of them added my all-time favorite Dad question.
“What were you thinking?”
I almost answered, but convinced myself I was having an out of body experience and that this was happening to someone else, not me. I stood there, arms hanging at my sides, till they wore themselves out.
If you enjoy my work, check out my memoir, "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood." It's available at Logos Bookstore, 1575 York Avenue, or buy it online at AmazonBarnes and Noble or other booksellers. If you do read it, please leave a few honest words about the book on Amazon or B&N. Thank you.

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Happy Birthday, Uncle Mommy

Today my mother aka "Uncle Mommy" (because she was the best uncle I ever had) would be 89. Her unconditional love for Rory and I has a big room in my heart that I visit each time I need a hug.

Five years ago, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood published my tribute to Maaaa.  It goes like this...

So I walk into the house, I’m 10, and the first thing I see is a pair of bare legs on the inside of a closed window and the rest of the body isn’t in the apartment. I’m praying to God whoever it is doesn’t fall, the soapy glass prevents a clean identification of the person sitting on the outside sill, but I kind of figure it’s my mother by the unmistakable fluffy sky blue slippers dangling from her toes. Now I’m flipping out because I’m scared of heights. She’s four stories up, 50 feet smack over the concrete backyard. My heart’s outside my chest doing a Mexican Bean dance on my T-Shirt. Finally an arm starts swirling away the soapy water and I see Mom’s face through the glass and she smiles at me. I love that smile, and for a brief moment, I was not frightened for her I was just amazed at how hard she worked to keep our small apartment clean. 

When I was boy right through my teens, if I was away a day or longer from the house she’d surprise me and clean my room like something out of a movie. It looked so good I thought I was in Beaver Cleaver’s bedroom. This blew my mind, I’d run through the apartment and grab my mother and kiss her over and over and shower her with thank yous. All Mom said while I tackled her, “Watch my head, I don’t like people touching my head.”

This morning, I washed ten windows, five storms windows and two screens. When I got to my daughter’s room that’s when Mom’s spirit swept through me, I felt it, I felt her, and she made several passes. As I cleaned my daughter’s space (dusted the knick-knacks, too) Mom stayed with me for two hours and I began to feel the love and enjoyment she experienced doing this for me countless times many years ago. Doing something she was good at with her whole heart. Mom knew she had maternal limitations; she was a street kid who never grew up, an urban Peter Pan smoking a Marlboro with a bump-up hairdo and a High Ball drink, neat. But with the mothering tools she had, she gave totally with humor and unconditional love.

As a dad, I’m no Ward Cleaver. Nope, I’m restless, pushy and jump the gun a lot, and this drives my daughter cuckoo. I wish I could control it but I’m not adopted, and if you spent quality time with my parents you’d know I’m a dysfunctional family car accident survivor. I know my paternal limitations and I give my best with the skills I have to express love to my daughter. I make things for her: dioramas, cards, photo books with stories, whatever I can to extract a smile. Once in a blue moon, I’m able to patch my patience together and clean the dusty house around my records, books, papers, photos, Dad’s art, and sports junk.

This morning, thinking about my daughter while I polished my mother’s bone china pieces and her Aries statute, behind me I felt that same smile I saw through the soapy window when I was 10.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Mommy!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spring Balks

Three years ago on March 20th during winter's final hours on the first day of spring I took a long walk through Central Park in the snow. North of the Reservoir a brisk wind made swirly drifts here and there. Geese searched for food under the white blanket covering the rolling field between 97th Street and 100th Street. Same spot my Our Lady of Good Counsel's Yorkville football team practiced at in 1969. Half sleet was coming down by the time I reached the Botanical Gardens entrance. I discovered this beautiful oasis late in my life. My curled numb fingers inside my wet gloves told me this visit would not include twilight strolling.

I headed for Harlem Meer on the edge of the park and saw a nutty boy muscling his way through the snow on a small bike. Every half minute he stopped to clean his chain.  I enjoy how kids defy logic when it comes to things like what to do when it starts snowing? Of course, get my new bike out. That clash of need between using your new toy on the wrong battlefield. You gotta do it.

Children's defiance brought me back to sleigh riding on 79th Street on what we called Cherry Hill in the mid 1960s. My shivering brother, Rory, and I after countless rides rushed home to wrap our soaked clothing around the steam pipes and on top of radiators to get them dry (they stunk the place up) so we could go out a second time if Mom didn't tackle us at the doorway. We threw our clothes out the door down the landing and dressed in the hall to not give Mom a heads up we were on our way out. Because we never waited until everything was dry we usually got sick. And Mom loved the newsprint all over our asses and long johns from sticking newspaper down our dungarees and inside our boots.

March 24th is Mom's birthday. She loved snow. My family would have enjoyed the walk with me. Mom wearing her Babuska hat, Dad in his Elmer Fudd hat, and Rory sporting our Boy Scout Troop 654 approved yellow and green rubber boots we bought at Arbee's Army & Navy store on Second Avenue. A store that sold a majority of Yorkville kids' play clothing.

Want to see other Central Park photographs taken during the March 20th snowfall? 

Here is a public album.

If you enjoy my work, check out my memoir, "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood." It's available at Logos Bookstore, 1575 York Avenue, or buy it online at AmazonBarnes and Noble or other booksellers. If you do read it, please leave a few honest words about the book on Amazon and B&N. Thank you.

130 five-star Amazon reviews out of 130 posted

Babushka Mom & Rory.

 Dad & Rory

90 St & Fifth ~ same spot as above 2013

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Happy St. Joseph Day!

St. Joe building a diving board.
March 19th is the Feast of St. Joseph. An Upper East Side wide holiday in 1962. The St. Joseph parish on 87th Street began as an orphanage on York Avenue (then known as Avenue A) and 89th Street in the 1800s. The present church’s cornerstone was blessed in 1894. My mother and her sisters went to St. Joe’s school in the 1940s. My affection for the saint was built into me.

In second grade, I was chosen to play St. Joseph in a play in front of the St. Stephen of Hungary's student body. Everything about this excited me right up to the beard but the nun lied. She told us St. Joe was the patron saint for the U.S. Post Office and therefore in heaven he was in charge of the mail between heaven and earth.
Tommy 2nd grade.

I later found out St. Joseph had never been near a post office but had a lot of other patronage responsibilities including patron saint against doubt, for cabinetmakers, Canada, carpenters, China, confectioners, craftsmen, dying people, engineers, families, fathers, a happy death, a holy death, house hunters, Korea, laborers, Mexico, New France, Peru, pioneers, social justice, travelers, Universal Church, Vatican II, Viet Nam, working people.

Alas, I was St. Joseph in charge of Heaven's post office and as my costume got built by the Nun I got happier and happier. First, I got to wear Father Emeric's cool brown priest sandals. The sandals signaled poverty but to me they signaled taking my toes out for a walk in the cool March air. Then, I got to wear his brown robe with rope belt. The priest uniform, I had the whole priest uniform! And I could swing that Franciscan poverty rope around like a beat cop. I nailed a couple of kids in the head as I walked up to the stage. They'd get even later. Who cared?
Sister Lorraine thank you note, 1962.

Sister Lorraine, our teacher, had this thing for the post office and authentic historical scenes and since St. Joe had a beard I was getting a beard. I had no problem until they put the itchy wool choker on my face held on by a thick rubber band over my ears and around my neck that cut off the blood to my brain. I couldn't stand it, and though I knew my lines I had a problem getting them out of my mouth through the beard to the audience. I fixed that. Every time I spoke I lifted the contraption off my face and spoke my lines out of the side of my mouth. It was my last feature role.

Happy Saint Joseph's Day!

Original St. Joseph's on Avenue A & 89th Street, 1890.

If you enjoy my work, check out my memoir, "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood." It's available at Logos Bookstore, 1575 York Avenue, or buy it online at AmazonBarnes & Noble or other booksellers. If you do read it, please leave a few honest words about the book on Amazon or B&N. Thank you!

  St. Joe's 8th Grade graduation same month as D-Day
June 1944, my Mom, bottom row, third from left.

Monday, March 18, 2019

An Irishman Gave Me The Finger

Ourselves Club on East 84th Street in 1903

 Paddy’s morning I woke from a strange dream. It was a spring day in the early 1900s in Yorkville. I knew this when I saw isolated wood-frame houses scattered among the vacant lots along the cobblestone street lined with trees in early bloom. I rode inside a copper colored trolley shooting the breeze with the driver.

We passed Lexington Avenue on 79th Street headed towards Third Avenue, when an Irish gentleman dressed in his Sunday best, velvet green vest, spats, top hat, the works, decided to dart out mid-block and jog theatrically across the street in front of us. The driver paid him no mind and kept the trolley at cruising speed. This forced the gent to move faster than he intended and his feet tangled. The gentleman finished his cake walk crossing with a 360 degree turn with his arms flailing and remarkably kept his balance.

The Irishman fumed when he saw us giggling at him. He marched across his lawn to his porch and pulled a large wooden contraption down the steps and out on the grass ~ looked like the catapult that the French hurled the cow at the English with in "Monty Python's Holy Grail."

He set the weapon up on the lawn and started cranking a handle on the side of the device. The driver and I exchanged a look, we expected, "Incoming!" Instead, after several "Crank, Crank, Cranks," a colossus wooden fist rose up with the middle finger saluting ~ the carved hand was giving us the finger. The Irishman crossed his arms, smirked and nodded towards the bus. 

If you enjoy my work, check out my memoir, "I Hate the Dallas Cowboys - tales of a scrappy New York boyhood," it's available at Logos Bookstore, 1575 York Avenue, or buy it online at AmazonBarnes and Noble or other booksellers. If you do read it, please leave a few honest words about the book on Amazon and B&N. Thank you.

Central Park

Central Park

Thursday, March 14, 2019

My Favorite St. Patrick's Day ~ 1970

Ask a New Yorker published my column about my favorite St. Paddy's Day. 

It's one of those memories that float in and out my head and lift my spirits.

Here's a link to the story, a link to Old Saint Paddy's and a few pictures through the years.

The singles Thank You and Everybody is a Star by Sly Stone was in heavy rotation on March 17, 1970.

That day was a keeper.

Erin go Bragh!

copy of my grandfather's baptismal certificate from St. Pat's Cathedral  ~ 1900

Old St. Pat's

Buddy @ LaSalle Academy 1970

Tommy @ LaSalle Academy 1970

Artie Peters & Tommy mugging for Joe Menesick on the #6 Local 1970

Tommy & Buddy 1985

Buddy, Tommy, Karl, Eddie & John 1982

Buddy & Tommy 2011