Sunday, May 17, 2015

Living in the Present

Trust me…I am living in the present. Despite the fact that I post a lot of pictures from the past and frequently wax nostalgic for the “simpler times” of my youth—when a Mets’ game and the warm and reassuring voices of Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner were downright otherworldly—I am fully present in the present. Okay, so I think the present isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it stinks in so many ways, which I won’t count at the moment. Suffice it to say, people walking around the streets with their heads buried in their iPhones and obliviously talking on their cells is disconcerting, annoying, and—really—dangerous. Why don’t you look where you’re going, jerk! But this grievance of living in the here and now has already become a cliché. Yada…yada…yada.

So, I thought I’d look on the bright side of the present for a change and underscore some of the things I think are better today than in those simpler times of my callow youth. For starters, recycling is a major step forward. Everything from ketchup to prescription cough medicine came in glass bottles once upon a time, which were just heaved into the regular trash. How many Hawaiian Punch and Hi-C heavy aluminum cans did we toss into the garbage that weren’t recycled? An awful lot.

While I don’t like the trend of human beings being replaced by technology, I’m nonetheless happy there are ATM machines. They are convenient and I use them for virtually every transaction. Withdrawals the old-fashioned way—with a flesh-and-blood bank teller at the other end—always make me feel guilty, as if I’m doing something wrong. I’ve never seen you before. What exactly are you trying to pull with this withdrawal? You don’t look anything like the person on your ID.

I’m pleased, too, that in the here and now my high school alma mater—Cardinal Spellman in the Bronx—has cast asunder “lunchtime sponge duty,” where the unlucky and the unwashed were compelled to clean dirty lunch tables with filthy, germ-laden sponges and pick garbage off the floor as well. No rubber gloves were passed out, and no extra time was allotted to get to our next classes, which the sadists in various authority positions relished. We didn't, of course, have time to wash our hands. If we were late for a class, an unsympathetic teacher could set the “detention” wheels in motion—and a few of them did—even if we had the very legitimate “sponge-duty” excuse. There are no students who are “sponge-worthy” in the present and thank God for that.

As far as diagnosing and treating diseases, our healthcare is considerably better than it used to be. I’m old enough to recall a neighborhood family doctor making house calls. And when my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia, nuns in the Catholic hospital he lay dying in stayed at his side 24/7. Still, the disease he succumbed to came on fast and furious. While the Marcus Welby doctoring approach is sorely missed, one still has to appreciate the advances in modern medicine. If living and longevity count for something, the present has its benefits.

If the Hudson River is representative of waterways everywhere, I suppose Iron Eyes Cody would have less to tear up about nowadays. My father swam in the river in the 1940s and recalled pushing an unrelenting stream of excrement away. I even remember the river smelling more of garbage than of the salty sea. Now, though, its odor in lower Manhattan is of a pleasing brine and not raw sewerage. That having been said, Iron Eyes, I’m certain, would still have ample reasons to open the floodgates.

Then there’s the Internet. I couldn’t have written the books that I have without it—and certainly not in the short time frame was afforded me. I wouldn’t be writing this blog, either. At some point in the 1970s, I wrote a rather lengthy letter to TV Guide asking the folks there a long list of questions. Most of them were of the “Whatever Became Of?” variety. For some reason, I was fixated on death and who in the celebrity world had passed away. I remember asking, “Whatever became of character actor Larry Keating, who played neighbor Roger Addison on Mister Ed and, before that, Harry Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show?” and “why was he replaced on the former by Leon Ames?” I was a curious youth. Now, all I’d have to do is Google “Larry Keating” to get the answers to such burning questions. Someone at TV Guide—it should be noted—sent me a personal response to my lengthy missive with possible resources—books of all things—that could help me find answers to my many questions. Larry Keating, by the way, was diagnosed with leukemia and—like my grandfather—died from it pretty quickly.

YouTube and Netflix have been gifts in the present. I don’t think I’d ever have watched shows like Rawhide, Wagon Train, and Stagecoach West without them, not to mention countless other television classics and historic moments, which might otherwise be buried in the archives at the Museum of Television & Radio. Speaking of which, I watched several episodes of Adam-12, a Dragnet-esque show created by Jack Webb, on Netflix. I recalled it from my youth, but it didn’t hold up for me. I found it interesting that they played for laughs a domestic abuse call, like it was a complete waste of the police’s time. With smirks on their faces and exasperated meaningful glances, Officers Malloy and Reed asked only that a wife-beater—festooned in a wife-beater tee—be a little bit nicer. One more plus for the present. Drunks, too—even behind the wheels of cars—weren’t taken all that seriously on television and on the streets. Now they are.

Finally, I must say the present has at long last put a lid on smokers—as best that it could—who have literally taken our breaths away and stunk up our clothes, hair, and skin for far, far too long. I began every single day of high school reeking of cigarette smoke courtesy of a ride in a packed-like-sardines bus where it was tolerated, even though it was against the law. It cannot be denied: The present has its place. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Facebook and Punks

More than any other venue, Facebook has linked the present with the past in ways that would have been inconceivable a mere decade ago. The “Whatever Became Of?” roster has shrunk considerably because of it. Schoolmates, neighbors, and co-workers from yesteryear have returned a lot older and sometimes a lot wiser, but not all the time.

Overall, Facebook has been a fascinating experience. As a boy growing up in the 1970s—long before the technological revolution and the advent of social media—I remember purchasing loose “punks,” as they were called, in the candy store. They were incense sticks that were also used to light firecrackers and a few other things. Of course, put punks in the hands of punks—of the street variety—and all bets were off. I find it interesting that—with thirty and forty years of water under the bridge or over the dam—I still have a strong dislike for certain members of the punk fraternity—the bully brigades—from my youth. Perhaps if I got to know them in their adult incarnations, I might feel differently. Then again, I might not. And considering some of the things I’ve encountered on Facebook from the old punk class, I might even—believe it or not—think less of them.

But why accent the negative when there are punk redemption stories, or at least one that surprised and kind of buoyed me. A fellow named Paul from the old neighborhood—whom I didn’t know but have interacted with in a Facebook group—has come a long way. By his own admission, he was a rudderless youth not averse to getting in trouble. Paul, though, transformed his life—a bona fide one-eighty.

However, one day during some memory sharing give-and-take on growing up in the old neighborhood—Kingsbridge in the Bronx—during the 1960s and 1970s, a woman recalled that Paul committed a punkish act—I think it might have been the slashing of her car tires—and was a big-time bullyboy in her eyes. Paul had no recollection of the specific incident, but it sincerely troubled him that he might have done what he was accused of, as well as similar acts of non-kindness to other people. Paul promptly issued a heartfelt apology to anyone whom he may have bullied or hurt back in the day. From my observations in the Facebook laboratory, Paul is an exception to the old punk rule.

That is, a healthy share of the punks that I remember from the days of yore—that are on Facebook at least—tend to wax nostalgic about their punkish pasts. It seems stealing from mom-and-pop stores was a whole lot of fun, with the punks proudly recounting their cunning in getting away with it. It doesn’t seem to bother them that many of these shopkeepers worked long, long hours for not a whole lot of money. And I don’t think they would stand for having their paychecks or property robbed from them today. You can take the punk out of the old neighborhood....