Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Two Professors and a Classmate

Have I entered the Twilight Zone? I fear I’m starring in a modern-day, couch potato version of “The Purple Testament.” No, I’m not looking into men’s faces and seeing ethereal glows that portend their imminent deaths on the battlefield. Instead, I’m innocently searching people from my past’s names on the Internet and finding them all right—as the leading men in very recent obituaries.

What’s unsettling is that it has been three for three for me. And it all began so innocently when I was thumbing through some old folders of mine that were chock-full of college papers and blue-book exams. This stroll down Memory Lane, in fact, inspired me to write an essay that is being held in abeyance until tomorrow—May 1—because of its timely subject matter. But this return to yesteryear also led me to search for a certain professor—the wind beneath the wings of that essay—who was alive and well the last time I checked. This go-around, however, I discovered he had sadly passed—and only last month. Yet another sliver of college ephemera prompted me to search for one more old professor of mine to find out what he’s been up to. And he, too, passed away last month.

Fast forward several days—to today, as a matter of fact—when I encountered a certain surname in a totally unrelated news story. It was a somewhat unusual one, and I recalled a classmate of mine in college with that same last name. He was a good guy—kind of bohemian—and I liked him. I distinctly recall him quietly saying, "Who's this dick?" when our seemingly nerdy microeconomics teacher walked into the room on the first day of class. Anyway, I searched his surname coupled with his first name. There couldn’t be too many people with that name combo, I reasoned, and I was right. He passed away last month.

Is it all a coincidence—everything in threes, maybe? Or am I really in the Twilight Zone? In fairness to all others from my collegiate years, I’ll not Google anyone’s name—for the time being at least, until I’m one hundred percent certain I’m not an angel of death, sitting in front of my computer, in the Twilight Zone.

Granted, in order for this “Purple Testament” theory of mine to hold water, the deceased folks mentioned passed away in anticipation of me Googling them down the road. A reverse “Purple Testament” sort of thing, I know. Nevertheless, I fear what searching my own name might unearth right now.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Perchance to Dream

For some reason I remember Dr. Sidney Freedman, M*A*S*H 4077’s ever-patient psychiatrist played by Allan Arbus, once saying, “Freud said, ‘Every dream is a wish.’” I forget the context but, suffice it to say, ol’ Sigmund was a bit careless in his pronouncements and slothful in his conclusions on occasion—prone to some big-time generalizations. I, for one, do not desire being friends with this strange and unpleasant guy named Martin from the neighborhood. Yet, last night, I dreamed he and I were best pals and met for a game of chess in a nearby Starbucks.

Foremost, I don’t like Martin by reputation and—most of all—from extended observation. I’ve seen him through the years—decades in fact—in places we both frequented. One of them was my favorite diner, which sadly is no more. I never said a word to the man, yet he menacingly glowers at me every time I pass by him on the street. I don’t take it personally, though, because he does the same thing to just about everybody else.

Martin, you see, was a diner blowhard, but not your run-of-the-mill diner blowhard. Let’s just say he was on the higher intelligence side of the blowhard spectrum and wanted everyone to know it. He desperately needed to be heard and to show-off his eclectic acumen. Martin regularly jousted with the much lower IQs of the diner staff and its clientele. He also wrote and read poetry in local establishments that welcomed poets with open microphones. Martin would always attend these events at the pub-eateries that hosted them, but never, ever buy any food or grog—nor would we he contribute a buck when the basket was passed around to help support and sustain area poetry readings and the arts. He often got up out of his chair when the basket took flight to go to the bathroom or to get some fresh air.

I suspect a sighting of Martin triggered this dream of mine. Recently, I spied him seated in a Starbucks' window and playing a game of chess. Martin is a paranoid fellow—his eyes flit back and forth as a rule—so I was not surprised when he sneeringly peered out at me looking in at him and a friend, or more likely a chess-playing acquaintance. I find it inconceivable he could have an actual friend, but anything is possible in this wacky world of ours.

Personally, I don’t frequent Starbucks—too expensive and highfalutin, especially when there are diners and Dunkin’ Donuts around in abundance. Granted, there is no WiFi in these places, and Martin probably couldn’t bring a chess set in and hang around for hours and not even buy a lousy cup of coffee. I played chess as a youth, but never enjoyed games grounded on next-move pressures every step of the way. This goes a long in explaining why I usually lost. Martin would make short order of me in a game of chess in a Starbucks' window. Perchance to dream a better dream tonight—a Freudian one without Martin that I could genuinely wish would come true.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cat-like Coordination in the Pocket Park

It’s been said that the truth is stranger than fiction. And I would add that the quintessential reality show—truly unscripted and unpredictable—plays out on Main Street, Broadway, and at One Penn Plaza, too.

A stone’s throw away from the entrance to Penn Station, there is what is known as a New York City pocket park. This little snippet of real estate is not much to look at, but it’s a place to rest one’s weary bones in what otherwise is a heavily trafficked and rather grubby area of midtown Manhattan.

Grubville notwithstanding, the reality show on display on this day at One Penn Plaza was worth the price of admission. It seems a diverse group of drug-addled and miscellaneous mentally ill men and women gather, kibitz, and commiserate in this little park. There is very probably a shelter nearby that bids them adieu until the dinner bell and lights out. It’s sad, yes, but sometimes the surreal quality transcends all else.

The scene: Enter a straggly foursome. The leader of the pack—by default—is the oldest and sports a scary-looking skull tattoo on one of her arms. She looks like Rhea Perlman and is drinking something masked in a paper bag. And I don’t think it is Hawaiian Punch. Rhea is quite loquacious and doing a lot of sermonizing to her brethren of the streets. The closest in age to her is a Susan Sarandon look alike—had things gone really bad for her. Susan doesn’t appreciate Rhea’s perpetual lecturing of her and the others. She is especially miffed when Rhea unilaterally chooses to grant a little privacy to the youngest members of their ensemble. They need “time to work out their romantic problems,” Rhea says, without the two maternal figures on the scene butting in.

In the midst of this ongoing drama are two teenagers on bicycles performing all kinds of tricks on the various walls, steps, and metal banisters in the pocket park. Rhea is dutifully impressed and asks, “How many Red Bulls did you have to drink to get all that energy?” Self-deprecatingly, she adds how she is “too old and too fat” to ride a bicycle anymore, let alone perform acts of derring-do.

As if this One Penn Plaza reality show isn’t interesting enough, along comes a multiple bag-carrying fellow who kind of resembles the late Larry Hogue, the “Wild Man of 96th Street,” as the New York Daily News dubbed him. This notorious bipolar crack-addict terrorized a Manhattan neighborhood a couple of decades ago. When today’s Larry enters the pocket park, he is in the bicycle-riding youths’ way and taking his sweet time in getting to where he is going. They ask him politely to move and he beams a combination of hate and befuddlement.

When Larry is in earshot of me, I realize he isn’t angry at all, but mesmerized by the youth and what they are doing. He refers to their “cat-like coordination,” which I think is a nice turn of phrase from, if you will, a deranged individual in a truly unscripted reality show on the streets of Manhattan. After expressing some concern for the kids not wearing helmets, and possibly “landing on their balls” as many of their bicycle stunts involve coming down atop metal railings and such, Larry walks off and finds a little chair with a table in front of it—not too far away from where I am sitting—and promptly begins thumbing through his myriad accouterments.

The wind blows some of his trappings away and I watch as Larry scampers after them—very slowly, I might add. Larry has only one speed and it is not fast forward. At long last, with his table properly set, he begins pulling out bottles and mixing them together like a chemist in a laboratory. I can’t say for certain what is in any of them, but I’d wager Milk of Magnesia isn’t among them.

It is Rhea, Susan, and Larry’s turf that I am on. That much I know. They don’t say goodbye to me when I exit the drama and excitement of the pocket park on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in spring. But that is okay. They have left their mark on me with this bona fide New York Experience in the perfect setting. What will tomorrow bring them? God only knows.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Who Took the Clown Pictures Down?

Many years ago in a neighbor’s basement—a magical basement, I daresay—the walls were adorned with images of clowns. One was a standard print of the morose-faced Emmett Kelly, but the others in the ensemble were very different. They were not paintings per se, but made of some kind of colorful synthetic chips—rough to the touch and uniquely 1960s looking.

As a boy, I loved visiting this basement just up the street. It had a bar, too, on the premises, which was loaded with adult beverages and assorted bric-a-brac and memorabilia. The latter was of more interest to me. I recall the basement’s matriarch opening up a thirty-two-ounce aluminum can of Hi-C, pouring it into a sixty-four-ounce plastic pitcher, and filling the remainder up with tap water and a full tray of ice on top of that. I’d never before witnessed the watering down of a Hi-C drink, but it wasn’t half-bad. It was the power of the clown pictures, perhaps, that made everything in the basement look and taste good.

Indeed, nobody cared that the family cat slept on the dinner table and everywhere else for that matter. It was the basement after all. And the cat was yet another intriguing basement player. It was the only housecat without a name. The neighbors across the alleyway had a cat named “Sniffles.” Maybe “Cat” was actually the cat’s name. It remains a mystery to this day. Cat could often be spotted on a perch in the basement’s front window. One chilly afternoon an interior window in the basement was shut with Cat in between it and the exterior one. The family went on a frantic search throughout the neighborhood for Cat, when all the time he was resting comfortably on his favorite roost in the front window.

Like so many other things in life, the basement as I once knew it is no more. Cat is no longer roaming the place, nor are their clown pictures on its walls. The fashionable contact paper that was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s, and that was supposed to resemble wood paneling, has, too, been stripped away. However, the memories linger.

There was a man named Lou who rented the basement resident’s garage. He used to thank basement son Richard—profusely as a matter of fact—for opening the garage for him when fate brought the two of them together. “Sank you, Reeechard!” he’d say both loudly and sincerely. He spoke with some sort of accent, which I enjoyed mimicking as a young teen. It was okay to do that kind of thing back then. In fact for a spell, I must have uttered, “Sank you, Reeechard!” a few hundred times. Then one day, I decided to put some words into Lou’s limited lexicon—ones I had never heard him utter.

“Reeechard, who took the clown pictures down?” I asked. And so, with Reechard’s blessing, we snapped a photograph of a clown picture being taken down—by the devil no less. But it was not in our youthful, living-in-the-moment brains to press the fast-forward button and contemplate that the clown pictures were not, in fact, eternal and would one day come down. Perhaps they’re hanging up in other people’s homes as I write these words. I'd like to think so. Maybe, though, they weren’t thought as worth saving and put out with the trash. Such is the duality of life and everything that we value.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)