Saturday, September 20, 2014

Don't Smoke on Me

While watching reruns of the television classic Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, it never ceases to amaze me where the show’s myriad characters "light up." From today’s perspective at least, they smoked cigarettes in the strangest of places. Apparently in the serene 1950s, it was perfectly acceptable to puff away during an elevator ride, in a taxicab, and—believe it or not—in a hospital room as well. Just this past week I accompanied a patient to New York City’s leading cancer hospital and was pleased to see signs posted outside the building prohibiting smoking. Until very recently, the sight of hospital staff, including doctors and nurses, smoking by its entrances seemed downright surreal. It was, after all, a cancer hospital.

I’m not a proponent of the Nanny State. I fully support smokers’ rights to engage in their poisonous pleasures until death do them part. However, I realize now more than ever that their right to smoke does not include transmitting their second-hand smoke to innocent bystanders. That is, impinging on others’ rights to breathe clean—or relatively clean—air. So, if you smoke and can contain the habit to your little sliver of the world, more power to you. If you cannot, then you’re blowing smoke—really—when it comes to talking about your “rights.”

When I was a high school student in the late 1970s, my peers and I rode in what were called “special buses.” They were leased city buses and it was—even back then—against the law to smoke on them. Nevertheless, the bus drivers didn’t enforce the law. It didn’t matter to them that our buses to and from school were more often than not packed like the proverbial sardines in a can. We’d invariably arrive at school in the early morning, and back home in the middle of afternoon, reeking of second-hand smoke. Our clothes, fingers, and hair stunk to high heaven. The smoking class regularly assaulted the non-smoking class on these always-disagreeable bus rides. Breathing in all that second-hand smoke, and stinking of it, to begin and end each school day couldn’t have been very healthy.

What’s with smokers, too, who think nothing of throwing their butts on the ground. Does that not constitute littering? The telltale evidence of smokers—who are by and large are compelled nowadays to take their habits to the great outdoors—is a surfeit of discarded cigarette butts in front of places of business and office buildings. It’s a new wrinkle in a new age, but it sure beats riding those special buses that weren’t really special at all, and having untold minutes subtracted from our lives for doing something we just couldn't avoid—something scientifically known as "breathing."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Say Hey, Derek Jeter

I read in yesterday’s Daily News that soon to be ex-ballplayer—and future Hall of Famer—Derek Jeter has gotten his very own publishing imprint with Simon & Schuster. It’s very imaginatively called “Jeter Publishing” and the first book wearing said brand is a children’s novel, “The Contract,” by none other than Derek Jeter and, of course, his ghostwriter, Paul Mantell. The novel’s chief protagonist is a boy named Derek Jeter, who gives it his all on the baseball field, always plays fair, and respects his family, friends, and teammates. The book will no doubt further cement the angelic aura of Derek Jeter. After all, he’s an athlete who played his entire baseball career with the same team—the New York Yankees—and has never been embroiled in any scandal or suspected of cheating like so many of his peers.

Full disclosure: I grew up a rabid Met fan in a Bronx neighborhood of mostly Yankee fans, including my father, who lived and died with his team. Through his power of example, he taught me from an early age that being a New York City baseball fan absolutely precluded double dipping. That is, a bona fide fan could not possibly root for both the Mets and the Yankees. It was inorganic. In fact, diehard fans—as both he and I were—loathed with heartfelt passion our cross-town rivals. And so, even all these years later—with my father no longer among the living and my baseball ardor gone with the passage of time—I haven’t fully divested myself of that strong distaste for the Yankees. I never, therefore, partook in Derek Jeter worship.

Nevertheless, I was curious to see what he would say on Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium. With his retirement at the end of this season, I imagined it would be an emotional farewell—saying goodbye to the fans after twenty years in the same uniform and in the same town. I vividly recalled Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium on September 25, 1973. After floundering for much of the year, the Mets were in an improbable and excitingly competitive pennant chase, and Willie had announced his retirement at the end of the season. Willie Mays—who had been brought back to New York to finish his career where it all began—spoke from the heart that night with tears in his eyes. The poignancy of the moment was overwhelming for young and old alike. I wasn’t yet eleven and had tears in my eyes, too. Willie—the “Say Hey, Kid”—was an icon. And while it was sad to see him go, it was all too evident that age had caught up to him and eroded beyond repair his formerly incredible skills. He was forty-two but fittingly exiting the baseball scene on a team that would make it all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.
Yes, I expected at least a little poignancy in Derek Jeter’s parting salvo, but found his speech to the fans cliché-laden and devoid of any deep emotion. It got me wondering if it was just Derek Jeter’s way, or maybe that the absence of any Mays-like poignancy transcended him and was a reflection of the times. Mays played in his first major league baseball game in 1951, just four years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. It wasn’t a cakewalk for him in those early days, nor was Willie raking in millions of dollars. Willie Mays played stickball on the streets of New York with neighborhood kids. And when the Mets honored him that September night, a pedestrian banquet table was set up on the field with gifts aplenty on top of it for the retiring legend. Today’s game is so awash in money and glitz that it cannot help but negatively impact even the retirement of a baseball great like Derek Jeter, whose last contract was for $60 million over four years (a pay cut, too). Willie Mays's journey through baseball was a storied one, and when he remarked on his night, “There always comes a time for somebody to get out,” it was not only true but palpably sad as well. So sad because somehow we knew we would never see his likes again—and we haven’t. The times just won’t allow it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thirteen Years Later

It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been thirteen years since 9/11. I was sitting in front of my computer that morning, responding to a couple of e-mail queries from a copy editor who was working on the manuscript of The Everything Collectibles Book, which I had submitted several months earlier. Simultaneous with me doing this, I spied a headline AOL news story with an image that showed white smoke billowing out of one of the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan. The initial scuttlebutt was that a small plane had crashed into it. Like just about everybody at first, I assumed the craft had accidentally slammed into the building.

I promptly clicked on my television set for further details. And what transpired before my eyes over the next few hours was surreal—an unfolding nightmare. There was talk at one point of there being 30,000 potential victims at the "Ground Zero" site. What all of us were witnessing in real time was the stuff of an apocalyptic disaster movie; inconceivable only a day earlier. It was not something that we ever imagined could happen on American soil in the world’s most renowned city.

At around lunchtime that Tuesday morning, my younger brother and I walked to our neighborhood’s main thoroughfare a few blocks away. It appeared that life itself was in suspended animation. Everything had gone quiet. The standard impatient hustle and bustle and honking of horns, on what typically was a busy street at that hour, was missing. There was a kind of hush enveloping our sliver of the Bronx and—we knew—every section of the city as well. I distinctly recall the local convenience store run by Arabs had placed a big American flag by its front door. The owners no doubt feared being associated with the perpetrators. Later, a very loud jet fighter flew over and unsettled what could best be described as a stunned calm. All of us wondered and worried, too, whether further attacks were in the offing. Suddenly and without fair warning, living in the big City of New York didn’t seem so big anymore. A feeling of vulnerability, which we had never before experienced, was palpable. Neighbors emerged in the late afternoon with candles and silently walked up and down the streets. Flags emerged in places I had never before seen them flown. Ironically, it was a picture perfect September day with blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and low humidity, which apparently aided and abetted the monsters, who had hijacked the jet planes, in locating their targets.

The talk in the terrible days and weeks after the attack was how we would never be the same. After all, how could we be after witnessing this horror in a locale that always seemed so grand and impervious to any harm? Thirteen years have passed and we—very definitely—are not the same. The world is an extraordinarily dangerous place and the threats of terrorist violence are omnipresent. Traveling on airplanes, for one, has become a time-consuming, chaotic ordeal. The thought of having to pass through metal detectors to attend a baseball game is one more glaring example of how—even in our leisure pursuits—our freedom of movements have been compromised beyond repair. So many of the things that we do from now on are going to be attached to some measure of hassle because of a possible terrorist threat, even when the possibilities of one coming to pass are slim. It’s an unhappy state of affairs we find ourselves in, and the passage of time is not going to return us to what was—in retrospect—the less complicated world we called home on September 10, 2001.