A tile from Spanish Harlem

After both my parents died, some of the most difficult things to get rid of were the kitchen utensils.  Most were useless:  old, grease-encrusted relics of the 60s and 70s that these two frugal people had bought or found along the way of their married life and had been deployed literally thousands of times while I was growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

 

I remember Mom’s and Dad’s actions in the kitchen because of these egg beaters and ladles – the way the two of them moved like dancers between stove and counter and sink and refrigerator.  These utensils defined their domesticity and care for my younger brother and me.  Yet they were of little use for me and my wife.  They were broken or about to be broken.  Throwing them away, however, was like discarding living memories.  Yet one survived.  A spatula with a wooden handle and six-inch long blade with 1/2-inch holes in it makes it the perfect pancake tool.

 

When the Lovely K and I traveled from New England to the City in early December 2001, about two weeks after Mom died, to go through the apartment and determine what to keep and what to toss, I came in contact for the first time with how much a pack rat my dad was.

 

He had been born in 1921 and grew up during the Depression in Babylon, New York.  He often told me how men would come to his back door which led into his family’s kitchen and ask for a hot meal.  He wouldn’t tell my brother Jim and me these stories during dinner, in order to get us to eat our food.  He would just tell us to tell us.  His mother died when he was nine, and he also had to get rid of his dog when he was young because of an onset of asthma.  His early childhood was marked more by hardship than by joy.  His father remarried and had a daughter and two sons, and then his dad died when my father was a junior at Hamilton College.  He quit school a year before graduation to move back home and support his family.  Hamilton considered him an alumnus and they sent him appeals for money, and he went to his 50th anniversary reunion.

 

He told me once, and only once, that he had always wanted to be an architect – he was quite a handy draughtsman and artist – yet he had to get a practical job because of family need.  He went into television as a buyer of movies, mainly westerns, which he watched so many of that he and his colleague would make bets on how they turned out.  He would go to Hurley’s on 49th Street and Sixth Avenue when he got off work and order two ryes for the price of one scotch.  That was a better deal, and who cared if rye didn’t taste as good as scotch.  It was still a better deal.

 

Dad eventually went into advertising sales with Transportation Display Incorporated, which was bought by the Winston Network at one point.  He was there for years, becoming VP of Sales, and finally, at 64, when it went through an LBO, his revenue forecast was not so sanguine as top management wanted, and they fired him.  He sued and claimed that it was age discrimination.  He won and got a modest settlement, something in the neighborhood of $40,000, but he ultimately lost, since this job and his interaction with clients was his life, and his rapid decline started from that point and continued until his suicide in 1998.

 

The apartment’s second bathroom, off the dining room, had a commode and a sink only, intended for a maid who would have lived in this room a hundred years ago when the building was built.  The commode had an overhead tank and a pull chain that caused a rushing sound of water going down a copper pipe about two inches thick.  We called it “the Dragon Toilet.”  Perhaps mom coined the name, and it stuck.  She was known for creative things like that.  She had worked at J. Walter Thompson.

 

When you sat down in that bathroom to do your business, you would look at a floor-to-ceiling storage space – about ten feet of vertical – which had advertising posters from the 1960s, scraps of wood of all sizes and types, and jars upon jars of semi-matching screws and nails and tacks.  It had my father’s tools.  Tools he used to build the kitchen cabinet and countertop covered with the tiles he took me to Spanish Harlem to buy.

 

Tools he never used as an architect.

 

But rather as a father.

 

 

 

photo:  konaboy

Reconciled

Carter wouldn’t hold my hand walking to school this morning. 

 

Karen told me that he was mad because I wouldn’t agree to carry his backpack as we walked out our apartment door onto the landing and I had to explain in Soft Public Hallway Language that I wasn’t about to do that.  Sorry, but I was carrying a 15-pound computer bag, and if he wants to have any street creds as a card-carrying New Yorker by the end of his first year here, he’ll start toting his own gear.  As it is, I carry his karate bag on Saturdays so he can ride his scooter without encumbrances.  That, I understand.

 

So tonight when I walked into karate fresh from work, after Karen had dropped him off, I was recalling that he wasn’t really featuring me today.  I sat down in one of the beige folding chairs, ready to listen to Brooke Fraser on the iPod while reading the Chronicle of Philanthropy – a weird mixture of music I love and work background that I need to know – and I caught his eye after he had done a round kick on a standing punching bag and he was jogging to the back of the line.  He looked out from underneath his padded sparring helmet, his upper lip puffed from the mouthguard, and our eyes met, much like the lamb and the man in Chagall’s “I and the Village.”  He smiled, and I smiled back; dotted lines formed between our souls.  There was once again a connection.  Perhaps it had been lost for a few hours.  He was glad to see me, and he felt affirmed.

 

My heart exploded with love.

 

 

“Tranquility”

For the past six years, at least, I’ve wanted to get a tattoo.

 

Seriously.  A tattoo.

 

Those of you who know me should be laughing.  But it would be on the upper part of my right arm, though I had considered my left arm until I got this blackhead a few years ago that somehow got irritated or ingrown and now looks like a 1/8-inch cigarette burn and might compete with a design.  I have a word I want emblazoned on me:  the Hebrew “chesed,” which you have to pronounce by saying the “ch” like you’re clearing your throat of a milk loogie and which is translated variously as God’s loving-kindness, his unmerited favor…his…grace.  (Older Jewish writings claim “commitment” or “devotion” are better renderings.)  And yet the blackhead gone bad might mess with the seghol vowels underneath the first two letters.  But this is not the problem with having a tattoo.

 

The problem – which is also not necessarily or primarily a question of religion for me (Leviticus 19:28 notwithstanding, which I thoroughly acknowledge and respect) nor is it a problem of having a muscular enough arm (for it’s ripped when you look at it at a certain angle after it’s been working out for an hour…when wet…and if you squint) – the problem is that a tattoo on this person of mine is like putting a racing stripe on a Ford Escort station wagon.

 

I am decidedly uncool.

 

This state of Uncoolness may ultimately force me to blame my eventual decision on religion or an atrophying, dry, arm in the harsh light of unsquinting eyes.  And it will mask the truth:  that as hip as I try to be, I am still a preppie-looking guy with glasses who is way too uptight to have body art.  The Lovely K hasn’t expressed a firm opinion one way or the other.  I have a feeling she’s enjoying me wrestle with this mid-life quandary – I turned 45 last month.

 

Of course I wonder what the boys would think.  If Dad gets a tattoo doesn’t that mean I get to have Spongebob Squarepants inked across my hairless chest at age 9, or 7, or 5…?

 

Shalisa, the receptionist at the gym I go to, has Chinese characters running down the right side of her neck.  I asked her today what they meant.  “Tranquility.”  Sure enough, she’s pretty laid back.   She also has “Faith” written inside a heart on the underneath of her left wrist.  But she also has a stud through her tongue – something which has not grabbed me yet and probably will elude me until I am a good deal north of 60.  Samchee, also at the gym, got her body art somewhere in Mount Vernon near the Bronx but told me about Sacred Tattoo down in Chinatown.

 

I don’t know.

 

My father-in-law bought a yellow VW bug in his 70s and then a Benz coupe.

 

Sometimes your ride changes as the years wear on.

 

Sometimes you drive more for the fun than the utility of it.

 

 

 

photo:  Phoenix Photography

Have ID?

On a Tuesday last October, I went downtown to 125 Worth Street in Manhattan to get a copy of my birth certificate so I could apply for a passport.  Mine had expired in 1998.

 

I had thought little about her.  What shall I call her?

 

I can’t use the pronoun over and over.  That seems heartless.  Impersonal.  I don’t want to call her “Mother.”  That sounds too much like Mom, or too much like Mom addressing Tootsie, her own mom, who was like a bejillion years old when I was a boy.  This nameless person was the woman who gave birth to me, though she legally “surrendered” me three days later, as if I were a prize in some war between familial factions.  So some kind of special name seemed appropriate.

 

I considered “Mary,” as the archetype of the suffering and submitting mother.  Or Eve, as the mother of all mankind.  She has/had blonde hair, according to documents I was allowed to see.  She was a drama major.  Her father was in the Navy.  She was Presbyterian.  Susie.  The name of my first girlfriend.  In pre-school at Park Avenue Christian.  Susie Scott had black hair and was cute as a button.  But “Susie” seemed to fit this woman.  And I needed to name her so she was specific, localized, real.

 

I had thought little of Susie while I went downtown on the W train to City Hall, then hunted around for Worth Street, which I knew by name, by reputation, but where in the dickens was it?  Finally found a sheriff – we have those here?! – who said to take a left at Centre Street and keep going.  I found it around the corner from Worth on Centre.

 

Going in I was warmly greeted by a security guard named Denise, to whom I, too, gave my name, and who, after taking all my metal including my belt and the buckle with it through the screening machine, said to the others present, “Stand back, you’re in Howard’s way!”  The door to the Office of Vital Records was just to the left of the security entrance.  I thanked Denise with a smile and a laugh as I walked through the door.

 

I asked the woman at the podium if I could use the application that I had filled out online and printed.  No problem.  Stood on line and while waiting emailed my buddy Dave to see if he wanted to have dinner sometime.  Got a message back, “That would be stellar.”  People behind me were complaining about how long one of the clerks took in processing applications and bitching about a customer who was asking too many questions.

 

“She’s wasting her time…and ours!”

 

I waited only about ten minutes, max, and then went with my application to Window 5, where a black lady perched on a stool – did it have a back? – and, surrounded by stacks of papers in a 6-foot-square space she shared with another person, processed my paperwork.

 

“Can I see ID?”

 

I handed her my Massachusetts driver’s license.

 

“That’ll be fifteen dollars.”

 

I handed her the check I had written out two weeks ago.  It was curved in the middle from being in my wallet.

 

She clicked a few more keys and a desktop printer spat out my birth certificate.  She slid it under the glass partition.  Transaction done.  No further words from her side, so I silently walked away.

 

Denise had her back to me and was eyeing other potential security threats enter as I walked out the side entrance, so I didn’t say goodbye.  I faintly regret it, for she was so kind when I came in.  At least, I was the recipient of kindness.

 

I went to the Post Office in midtown with my passport application and gave another lady my application and birth certificate, which she kept and promised would be mailed back with my passport in two to three weeks, since I expedited the process.

 

There was no record of Susie on that piece of paper from Worth Street.  No sign that she ever existed.  The document that proved I was born in the City of New York did not refer to her, honor her, acknowledge her, reference her, in any way.  Susie’s act of bringing me into this world is documented – claimed? – only at the Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency and in oral tradition (my telling others about it), which in effect is based only on what Spence-Chapin says.  For all I know, the agency is lying through its teeth.  Maybe Susie was actually “Trixie,” a carnival side show performer who had an orange mohawk, a five o-clock shadow, and six fingers on each hand.

 

But that’s doubtful.

 

 

photo:  justin mclean

Georges

George, our mailman, has a smile like a summer morning:  new and expectant.

 

Yet he hasn’t been delivering our mail recently because of an alleged altercation with someone in an apartment building three doors over.

 

As the story goes, from the Lovely K, who had spoken to the replacement mailman, also named George, George the First had been delivering the mail and an occupant of said building wanted a check that was being delivered to his neighbor.  George refused to give it up.  The person slammed George’s fingers in the open mailbox door.

 

When I first met George (the First), he was in our foyer, where the mailboxes are, and he introduced himself to me.  I thought this somewhat of a novelty, and a very un-urban thing to do.

 

That is, to be so cordial.

“Sixth Sense writer tone deaf”

“M. Night Shyamalan, I might be your last fan.

No, it’s not because I liked ‘The Happening.’  I didn’t, and I’ll get to that in a moment.  It’s because guys like Manny Ramirez of the Red Sox go through slumps like he did last year, and then their bats come alive.  And I’m a big Manny fan.  But for now, I think you’re on the D.L.”

Shyamalan’s latest movie, to which I went tonight with the Lovely K, is a total waste of time, money, popcorn, high fructose corn syrup and – yes – even the CO2 that we emitted, since it ultimately ends up in the xylem and phloem of trees that are in a murderous and vengeful rage at humanity.  Or so it is posited by the writer/director/producer.

 

To take a step back:  I, along with most other movie-goers, greatly enjoyed “Sixth Sense.”  I, among fewer, actually thought “Unbreakable” was quite a work of art.  I told a friend yesterday that the first time I saw it I was disappointed at the end because I wanted the plot to continue and show a face-off between the Willis and Jackson characters, but in subsequent viewings I grew to appreciate the pace and parallel nature between it and a comic book story.  It fascinated me.  Now – and I might lose some of you here – I actually liked “Lady in the Water.”  A lot.  I thought Paul Giamatti was terrific, and I was intrigued of the weaving of this Korean myth.  Whatever you say about it, the plot and characters all hung together, and while most would think it a bizarre story, it all worked.  It was cohesive.  And also more than a little artful.  And redemptive.  “Signs” was thumbs down, and I gladly didn’t see “The Village.”

 

Then there’s tonight’s train wreck.

 

First, I have a bone to pick with movie studios who obviously get college freshman to write fake Fandango reviews for free pizza and minimum wage, when anyone who’s seen it tonight has rated it a “No” or “Oh-No!”  All the “Go” and “Must Go” votes were computer generated by pinstripe suits sitting high in LA skyscrapers sipping mango nectars.  On Wednesday night, the day before it opened.

 

Yes, I am ranting, and this blog is not given to rants.  But I also value good art.  (Most days.)

 

Shyamalan broke two basic rules of great art:  he tried to teach a lesson, and he didn’t tell the truth.

 

“M. Night, take four advil, rest the arm, and get your head back in the game.”

 

 

photo:  macmanluke

 

 

 

 

 

 

puddle

The sprinkler is on these days at River Run playground at 83rd and Riverside Park, and the boys have been enjoying it during this latest heat wave.  Yesterday, the Lovely K took them straight from P.S. 9 to the park with a brief stop at Duane Reade for water pistols.  Six of them, ostensibly, or so I thought, so the boys could go double barreled.  No, knew the wiser wife:  it was because inevitably one or more guns would break, and she needed back-up weaponry for tearful soldiers.

 

In other news, we were headed from church Sunday evening down to Big Nick’s, crossing 79th Street at Broadway, and I made a stupid decision to let Teak follow about five feet behind me.  He was on his scooter and was preparing to traverse a puddle at the curb’s edge which looked deeper than his legs were prepared to meet.  I saw it in slow motion:  he came down the curb and the front wheel of his scooter went deeper and deeper.

 

His body, expectedly, went over the front of his scooter and he went half in the water.  Water, mind you, that has just fallen during a downpour on a 95-degree day, but which is sitting in and now soaking up all the filth that a New York City street holds.  He had soiled his shorts from about the midpoint and skinned his right knee which, now slightly bleeding, caused him more mental than physical anguish.

 

Sobbing, he walked a few steps into the middle of the street and stopped, crossing his arms in my direction, as though to say, “I will get run over right here and now just to show you!”  I scooped him up, grabbed his scooter, and tried to get him across to the other side.  It was a chore to get him to Big Nick’s, an establishment which received all his wrath, as it was the destination that launched his fateful voyage across 79th Street.

 

But as is true of all pain, by the time he finished his hot dog – no onions, off the bun, cut into slices, with mustard on the side to dip – he was participating in the family discussion, his dimples had returned, and his shorts were dry as a bone.

 

 

 

 

photo:  DB007