SORRY, WRONG NUMBER – By GARRY ARMSTRONG

People of a certain age will recall the title from a popular radio drama that became a film noir classic with Barbara Stanwyck as the damsel/wife in distress and Burt Lancaster as the spouse with mayhem on his mind.  You can also dial “M For Murder” with the same theme: the telephone as a nefarious device and weapon.

A friend just wrote a piece, extolling the virtues of the telephone as a personal link in the impersonal age of social media. Good point. You need to be able to talk, hold an intelligent and coherent conversation on the phone.  Social media doesn’t require those basic skills.  Courtesy is also another trait required on a phone conversation even when you’re dealing with unpleasant matters.

My wife, Marilyn, rises to heroic stature dealing with insufferable customer service, health care reps, local business people who lose the check and fail to show up. Credit card hackers who’d love a little personal information and the idiots who’ve dialed the wrong number but keep redialing anyway.

I hate the telephone!  It stems from all the years of unwanted calls from the TV station that employed me for 31 years. Three o’clock in the morning calls demanding I grab my gear and immediately report to the scene of a grisly crime, awful weather, deadly fires, criminals running amok, traffic accidents with myriad, mangled bodies and the latest gangland or drive-by shooting with multiple victims.  All breathlessly awaiting my presence to round up the usual suspects for eye-witness accounts and/or to go banging on doors asking parents “how they feel” about the recent death of a loved one.

Hey, how do you feel, Pilgrim?  All of this hurled at me in fleeting minutes once I picked up the phone and heard a familiar voice with the phony excuse of waking me up out of my warm bed.  I usually cursed myself if I answered the phone.

Marilyn normally took the calls because of my hearing problems.  I couldn’t blame her. Nor could I hurl expletives at the person calling.  You can’t shoot the messenger in the TV news biz.  Being called into work goes with the territory.

Instead, I blamed the inanimate object.  The telephone. Outraged, I yelled obscenities at it.  Meanwhile, the telephone sat there quietly,  probably mocking me. After all, the phone was just doing its job. Nothing personal.

Statehouse on Beacon Hill

During my bachelor years when I had to take these calls, I frequently hurled the phone across the room during my tirades against the telephone company, its employees, executives, and Alexander Graham Bell who I imagined as Don Ameche from the old biofilm.

Why did they seemingly always call me?  Why was someone always picking on me?  Frequently, I’d envision conspiracies to target me. Racism? Envy because I was on the tube every day, outshining other folks? Political target?  I had an ‘attitude’ with some local pols. It was me against the giant telephone conglomerate.  I was riffing Dwight Eisenhower’s warning.

Truth time.  Early on in my Boston TV news career, I let it be known I was ‘always available’ for major, breaking news stories.   I envisioned the scoop on that major story that would shoot me to stardom and a mega-contract.  I put myself on the spot that assignment editors love. An eager-beaver young reporter with stars in his eyes and experience not yet absorbed.

Veteran reporters scoffed at my enthusiasm even as I sauntered around the newsroom full of myself at landing big stories that had me prominently featured on every newscast of the day from sunrise to midnight.

In my glee over the big stories I always forgot how it began.  Always the damn phone call.  During my saner moments, I knew I was my own worst enemy. That logic didn’t sit well with me.

During long lunches as everyone congratulated me with my face and story on all the monitors, I realized I was in a catch 22 scenario.  Hero of the hour absorbing lots of congratulations while my brain kept reminding me that it was that early phone call that made all of this possible. I continued blaming the phone for interrupting my sleep. I would go on shooting the messenger for years.

One time I lived up to my vow to avert the phone call-to-arms.  I answered the call. Heard the voice and slowly said, “Sorry, wrong number.”  I grinned to myself, returning for a good night’s sleep.

I was still smiling as I awoke and turned on the radio in the morning.  The all-news station was frantically blaring out details about a massive fire, building collapse and the loss of many lives.  It was such a big story that the networks were in on coverage.

My smile turned to a scowl. The potential ‘story of a lifetime’ had been lost to my erstwhile, “Sorry, Wrong Number.”

Oops.

SMILING FACES, SOUR CHERRIES – Marilyn Armstrong

Bad days are like sour cherries. Even in a great batch of fruit, you hit some duds. As you munch, you’re going to get some berries that are overripe, sour, or bitter. You bite into them, make a face, and put them aside. You don’t eat them because they don’t taste good.

Life is like this. Day follows day. Some days suck.

The past couple of years have been difficult. Too many bad days, too many days of feeling helplessly enraged by events far beyond my control. Too much anger in me and in the air and all around. Too many prices going up while our incomes never change.

I suppose I could have smiled on through, but I didn’t want to, any more than I felt like eating sour cherries. I had a right to be angry and saw no reason to pretend otherwise.

Was I wrong?

I don’t think so. People who care about us will cut us some slack. Leave us emotional space to get over what’s bothering us and what’s more, they should. You’d do it for them, wouldn’t you?

The whole “stay positive” thing is out of control. If the proponents of permanent smiles are to be taken seriously, no one will ever frown again. No tears, no sadness, no anger. Ever. There will be one acceptable emotion. Happiness. We will all wear a Happy Face. Happy, happy, happy. No matter what. Has anyone read or seen The Stepford Wives?

Original 1960 George of the Jungle cartoon

So, what’s your problem? Losing your home to foreclosure? Got cancer? Heart Disease? No job? No prospects? Don’t be mad or sad. You’ll be fine. No matter what those doctors are saying, no matter that you don’t have a place to live. Or a life. Or a future.

According to the proponents of Happy Face, no problem is so big it can’t be overcome with a positive attitude and a bright smile. I’m betting most of the people who believe in Happy Face have never confronted an intractable problem. One day, their fake smiles will catch up with them. They will crash and burn. The corners of their mouths will turn down and their faces will shatter on impact.

I’m not suggesting we all walk around sneering, sulking, and grumpy, but we need to be allowed to express what we feel. Otherwise, life becomes a total fake.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY OLE BLUE EYES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s Frank Sinatra’s 104th birthday. Somewhere, Sinatra and his pals are smiling and ordering another round of the good stuff.

I recall another Sinatra birthday celebration. 1962. It was a very good year. ’62 was the year JFK met with a group of young reporters and told us we were making history. I’m not sure we understood.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: SINATRA, FRANK, 1953

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY: FRANK SINATRA, 1953

It was the year a bumbling team, the New York Mets, made their début as National League baseball returned to Gotham led by ringmaster, Casey Stengel.

It was the same year in which my Mom received a phone call from someone named Jilly. She was perplexed. That didn’t happen often.

“Garry”, Mom yelled, “Some strange man named Jilly is on the phone for you. Is he one of those drinking people I told you to stay away from”? I gave Mom an insolent look and curtly told her Jilly Rizzo was a confidante of Frank Sinatra. Mom gave me a look that indicated disbelief and anger. Payback later, I quietly concluded.

“Kid, is that you?”, Jilly croaked as I picked up the phone. “Geez, Your mom’s a pistol! No disrespect, Kid.” Jilly Rizzo, a nightclub confidante to Frank Sinatra and an “A” roster of celebrities, was apologizing to me about my Mom. I beamed inwardly.

Rizzo went on to explain “Frank” wanted me to join him and a few friends for a small party. I blurted out a thank you and got details.

For those who didn’t read an earlier story, I had met Frank Sinatra a few weeks earlier. It was a chance encounter during an interview I had done with Jilly Rizzo for our college radio station. For some reason, Sinatra liked what he heard and saw and we had a long conversation over drinks after the Rizzo interview. Sinatra even asked pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr, and Hank Henry to give us the table.

Go figure!

FrankSinatra9

We had chatted about personal stuff. I shared the difficulties of my hearing loss and ensuing diction problems. That apparently opened the door for Sinatra to talk about his own diction problems and his concentration on crisp phrasing of lyrics.

After the conversation was interrupted, Sinatra promised we’d get together again. I thought he was just being polite to an aspiring reporter. I was wrong!

Back at Jilly’s Nightclub again, I was greeted by Sinatra pal, Hank Henry who, without hesitation, handed me a double scotch neat and led me into a backroom. There were about a dozen people gathered around a large table. I blinked twice because I recognized almost everyone.

Dino, Sammy, Joey, Richard Conte, Joey Heatherton and radio icons like William B. Williams among others. There was a big birthday cake in the middle of food and booze on the table. The cake frosting was topped by a Sinatra figurine. The classic Frank Sinatra with raincoat slung over his shoulder. I just stared.

sinatra at mic

“Something wrong with the booze, kid?”, Sinatra asked, grinning as we shook hands. I nodded no and took a long slug of the scotch. Good stuff!! Sinatra beamed and led me over to the table introducing me as a friend. There were nods and smiles all around.

Across the room, the music began. Big band stuff. Instrumentals no vocals. It sounded like Tommy Dorsey. There were lots of jokes about Sinatra, his hair (it was very thin and receding), his affection for “renegade” talent and taunts that Eli Wallach was looking for him. By then, it was well-known that Sinatra had gotten his legendary “Maggio” role in “From Here To Eternity” with a little “help” even though Columbia Pictures had originally wanted Wallach for the role that earned Sinatra an Oscar and kick-started his comeback.

At some point, Sinatra pulled me aside and said he wanted me at his party because he liked my style. I was confused. Sinatra smiled and explained he wanted a young person around to remind him of his own youth and personal struggles. He said he’d appreciated that I didn’t try to get a scoop in our first meeting.

There was more chat about dealing with adversity, about how media was changing and the challenges he faced to stay relevant. I just nodded. He asked how things were going for me. I told him about my meeting with JFK and he grinned.

Pictured: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in a scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 1953.

Pictured: Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra in a scene from FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, 1953.

We talked about movies a bit. I mentioned I hadn’t seen “The Kissing Bandit”, a well-known Sinatra clunker. We shared our love of westerns. I started doing lines from “The Magnificent Seven” and he laughed. He told me about working with Steve McQueen in “Never So Few”. I did little bits of scene-stealing shtick as he discussed McQueen. Laughter all around as others listened in.

dean-martin-say-daiv-jr-frank-sinatra-456-021411

Sinatra finally was serenaded by Dino, Sammy, and the others with a raucous version of “Happy Birthday” laced with profanities.

I just sat smiling, sipping my scotch and not believing I was in the middle of all this. Later, as I got ready to leave, Sinatra approached with two more drinks and smiled, “Cheers, Kid!”.

They were still laughing and singing as I walked out.

A NOSE JOB FOR MOM – Marilyn Armstrong

I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story, or how many times I have told it to you. It bears retelling.

At age 22

My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor, and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as a bookkeeper. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

The first place she worked was in a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to get a better job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. Of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them. My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.

She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”

He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant so no one would ever do that to her again.Finally, I made a leap of understanding. I connected this anecdote to an aspect of my mother I never “got.” My mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.

“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.

“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.

“It looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is the original model with which I was born.

Since the last time I told this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty enough. She was asking me if I wanted to not look Jewish. Remarkably, this thought had never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.

I know many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I know non-white mothers frequently sent their light-skinned children north hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until recently, did it occur to me my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. I was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age. I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.

September 15, 1990 – My family at our wedding. I think most of us look a bit alike!

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion to “get my nose fixed” was an attempt to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.

Garry said, “And when did you finally realize this?”

“Yesterday,” I said.

“Yesterday?” he repeated. Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 72? That is a bit slow. You really didn’t know?” I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently, everyone else got it. Except me.

FIRST, FORGIVE YOURSELF AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW – Marilyn Armstrong

One Sunday in church, Pastor’s sermon was about forgiveness. He asked everyone in the church to stand up. Then he asked those who had any enemies to sit down. Everyone sat down but one very old woman.

“You have no enemies at all?” asked Pastor.

“Not a single one,” she answered, nodding her agreement.

“Please, come up here and tell everyone how you reached such a great age without having any enemies,” said Pastor. A deacon accompanied the elderly woman to the pulpit and everyone in church applauded as she slowly made her way up the steps. The pastor adjusted the microphone.

“You must have done a lot of forgiving,” said Pastor. “Please, tell us your secret.”

The old lady smiled beatifically.

“I outlived the bitches,” she said.


Life marches on. You get older and after a while, you realize all the people you used to obsess over, the people who hurt you, are gone. By the time you pass 70, a lot of people have disappeared from your life. Good ones you loved and the evil ones you hated. The sickly ones with bad hearts.

Chickens come home to roost.

Crazy drivers meet their maker on a dark highway. Heavy drinkers, smokers, drug users find a sad end. It turns out that hating them was a waste of energy. Cancer, heart attack, and other diseases weed out people, the best and the worst, remorselessly and without no regard for personal qualities. Meanwhile, the older generation passes away, one funeral at a time.

Roaring Dam: Photo: Garry Armstrong

Time makes most of the fears and worries of living less important. It turns out, forgiveness is not about repairing relationships so you can be friends again. It’s all about letting go. Passing all that negative crap to your “higher power,” whatever that means to you. Acknowledging that you can’t fix everything and you might as well stop trying.

Realizing it’s not your job to fix it. It never was. Everyone told you that … even your mother, but you weren’t listening.

Shit happens. Some of it — unfair and unforgivable — happens to you. You can make it the center of your world and spend your life brooding and obsessing over it. Or, you can decide you won’t be defined by the worst stuff that happened to you — or the worst stuff you’ve done.

I know people who had wonderful careers full of honor and respect who lost their jobs and promptly declared themselves failures as if the one negative event — getting let go — negated everything which had gone before.

I know men and women who were abused as children who still define themselves as victims — 50 or 60 years later. They can’t let it go. I think — and I could be entirely wrong — that they are waiting for the chance to tell “the bad people” how awful they were. Get it all off their chest once and for all. The problem is, it doesn’t happen in real life. That’s movie stuff. In real life, the bad guys stay bad, never apologize, never admit they were wrong, never own up to anything.

Best choice? Love yourself. If you feel good about you, you can be pretty happy no matter what life throws at you. It’s that simple — and that difficult. If you begin the process of forgiving, forgive yourself first.

Forgive yourself for the mistakes you made, for the bad choices, the stupid decisions, the asshole(s) you married, almost married, allowed to mess with your head.

 

The jobs you screwed up, shouldn’t have taken, should have taken (but didn’t). The opportunities you blew. The unfinished manuscripts still lying dusty in the box in the basement, the unpublished stories that never went to an editor. The times you were wrong and didn’t apologize. Your failures as a parent, the books you didn’t read. All the “shoulda coulda woulda” you’ve accumulated.

If you throw it all out, you won’t eliminate all your problems. The money you don’t have won’t suddenly show up in your bank account. Youth and health won’t return. But, you don’t have to haul the past with you into the future and you can enjoy what you do have without obsessing over what you missed.

The sooner you do it, the better. Life isn’t forever, even if you live entirely on salad and never miss a day of exercise.

With a little luck, you’ll outlive the bitches.

REGRETS, I’VE HAD A FEW – Rich Paschall

But Then Again, Why Mention?

by Rich Paschall

We all have regrets, that’s for sure.  You can not lead a life without them.  You may regret that first stumble and fall, if you remember it at all.  You may regret dropping that toy.  You may regret letting go of that balloon.  You may regret throwing food on the floor.  You may also regret spilling the milk, but why cry over that?

As you grow, I guess there are plenty of things to regret.  How about the day you did not do your homework?  How about the time you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar, literally or figuratively?  How about the time you were grounded for not doing _________ (fill in the blank).

School years can be filled with regrets.  Many of them will actually have to do with getting caught, rather than what you did.  Of course, if you fell off old man Jones’ garage and broke your arm, you will probably regret that.  If you picked on someone smaller and got your butt kicked, you probably regret that too.

When you could not work up the nerve to ask Sally or Janie or Billy to the prom, you may regret it years later.  This especially stings if you find out the person you wished to ask, liked you too and was hoping you would ask him or her out.  There are a lot of friendships, especially at the high school level, that may have developed into something, if only you had the courage to move forward.

This is especially tough for gay boys and girls who feel they may be the only gay ones in their class and are afraid to approach anyone on this topic.  Recently, I learned a high school classmate was gay so I went back to look at his yearbook picture.  I wanted to see if he was the person I remembered.  He was smart and handsome and someone I would not have thought I could approach.

Adult life may be filled with a series of sorrows over decisions made.  Should you have gone to college?  If you went, did you pick the right school?  The right major?  It is easy to spend time at the fraternity parties and local bars.  Will you later wonder if studying harder would have made a difference in later life?

There was a good friend of mine through elementary and high school who also went on to the same University with me.  We took many of the same classes, not all.  We frequently studied together.  Sometimes, OK many times, our studies started with a trip to a deep dish pizza place where we would order pizza and pitchers of beer.  Since deep dish pizza took a long time to make, we might get 30 to 40 minutes of studying in before the pizza arrived.  After that, it was just pizza and beer.  I guess I do not regret this one too much.

After college I cultivated many groups of friends.  A lot of these friendships revolved around local bars to watch sports and drink beer.  In later years it might involve karaoke too.  We loved our nights out, at least we thought we did.  As I look back on those years, I am not sure I remember who came along or what occasions we enjoyed most.  They were just nights out, killing time.

Then, of course, it would be easy to regret all the money we spent at these various places.  Some nights, we poured money over the bar just as fast as they poured drinks into our glasses.  Buying drinks for others, especially if they did not have a lot of cash, seemed like a great idea.  They probably do not remember me, just as much as I do not remember them.

My mother spent a lot of time in the local lounges, one in particular in my lifetime.  The time spent took up more than 50 years of her life and all of her spare money.  At these places, I am convinced she felt she made a number of deep friendships.  It was important to get to these places on Friday or Saturday night to see her “friends.”  When she had a stroke at 73, a couple came to see her once or sent a card.  After the first few weeks, we never saw any of these people again over the next 16 years.  I did wonder if she regretted any of the time spent at the Lounge.  In her case, I just don’t know.

dead leaves

If you married the wrong person, you may have deep regrets. If you married several wrong people, I guess it could be a lot of regrets. Friendships and marriages are sometimes chosen in haste. They need to be corrected rather than regretted.

The thing about regrets? There’s nothing to be gained from them. You should learn from mistakes, but regrets aren’t worth anything. You can’t get back time lost. You can’t get back money spent.  You can’t undo painful history. There’s nothing to be gained from dwelling on mistakes. Take the lesson. Move forward. Skip the regrets.

Don’t look at yesterday when today offers you the opportunity to look forward. You can’t change what happened. Maybe you don’t really want to. Everything you’ve done — good and bad — is part of you.

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

WALLOWING IN THE PAST – Marilyn Armstrong

An endless recitation of woes are giving me migraines. It’s not that I lack sympathy. More like I’m emotionally exhausted. So many people are stuck in a pit of youthful misery. Bad childhoods, terrifying ex-marriages or other horrible relationships. Or worse, they want to write. They need to write, but they can’t. The words won’t come.

So don’t write. It’s not as if you are legally obligated to be a writer. If it isn’t working out, give it up. Do something else. Anything else.

Don’t they want to move on?

Apparently not. The quagmire of despair has become a comfortable, homey place. So they set up a desk, computer, and light and there they stay. Some of these bloggers continue exploring the depths of their suffering for hundreds — thousands? — of posts. Many are closing in on Social Security yet are still suffering from childhood trauma. So much for time casting a rosy haze over the past. Even if you haven’t solved your problems, it doesn’t mean you can’t just let them go. There will be new tragedies down the road and plenty more misery to come. I can pretty much guarantee it.

There ought to be an official cutoff date at which point you are required to close the book on whatever dreadful experience life dealt you during your wretched childhood and ghastly former relationships. Or at least after the passage of one full lifetime, you should be required to find some other subject about which to write.

we are not our mistakes

Sometimes I think it’s because they’ve found an audience for their posts about suffering and it’s their fallback position. Can they really be enmeshed in the same memories after thirty or forty years have passed?

I know lots of people who were abused as children. Hell, I wrote a book about it and because of that, I had total strangers telling me their stories. I suppose I deserved it. If you write a book on the subject and people read it, you can’t blame them for thinking you might be interested.

Now, let’s add in all those who had abusive relationships as adults. Isn’t that everyone? Who hasn’t had a terrible relationship or three? I plead guilty on all charges, your honor.

It was my first husband (before you ask, he died) who strongly suggested I might want to move in a different direction.  Of course, this was before my second marriage, the one in which I managed to step in front of the same bullet I’d previously dodged.


NOTE TO SELF: No one is ever too old to behave like a moron.

You have to want to move on.

It takes time and work, but I’m glad I (finally) did it. There have been plenty of new traumas to cope with. I doubt I’d have survived if I hadn’t cleared the decks. I’m overloaded. I cannot read another angst-laden tale of abuse and trauma. I’m know how awful it can be. Been there. I support all efforts to free oneself from the lingering effects of the past — but I’ve got a few problems and plenty of personal angst. If I can, I’d rather make you laugh than cry.

Cardinal, well-fed!

For all of us, it’s time to stop defining ourselves as the worst things that happened to us. We are not what others did to us. We aren’t our mistakes. As much as we have suffered, surely we’ve also found at least a little bit of fun, joy, friends, and love.

Misery is like a piano falling on your head; happiness just creeps up on you. The result? Long after the people who hurt us have disappeared from our lives, they are still beating us up and the only one getting hurt is us.

Got any good jokes?

THE JOYS OF DOORMEN – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I lived in New York City for the first 40 years of my life and since then I’ve lived in the woods in a small town in Connecticut. So I have a good perspective on life in the city versus life in the country.

To be honest, there’s very little about city life I miss, except for being able to go to the theater without spending hours sitting in a car, stuck in traffic. However the one major perk of city life that makes me wax nostalgic, is the pleasure of living in an apartment building with doormen. Now, most people would probably not think of doormen as a big selling point for living in New York City. That’s because doormen are the best-kept secret among us long-time New Yorkers.

There’s a special relationship that often develops between friendly residents and chatty doormen. You get to know each other well and become like a family. These men know a lot about your life from the comings and goings in and out of your apartment. And people tend to talk to doormen, almost like they do to hairdressers. Mine knew my kids, my mom and my friends in the building, which created a strangely intimate relationship. They knew when we were doing work in our apartment, like when our upstairs neighbor’s bathroom leaked and our bathroom ceiling fell in. They followed every skirmish in our battle with the insurance companies, which lasted two years.

I’ve experienced this relationship as a child, as an adult and as a parent of young children. Each phase is unique and gratifying. As a child, every doorman knew my name and often the names of my friends who visited frequently. I had severe school anxiety so waiting for the school bus in the lobby every morning could have been a tense time for me if I hadn’t had a doorman to distract me and keep me talking. Jimmy was my favorite for many years, a tall thin man with a missing tooth who made me look forward to the morning wait for the bus. If I was running late, he would make the bus wait for me and would call up to our apartment to tell me to hurry up.

The doormen also helped the kids in the co-op bend the rules so we could play in the street. They let us skate and ride bikes in front of the building, which was strictly forbidden. They were our lookouts, warning us to stop if someone on the co-op board was entering or leaving the building and might ‘report’ us.

When my kids were young, we lived in a different building, all of two blocks away from the one I grew up in. But the next generation of doormen, they were as wonderful to my kids as mine had been to me, and they too developed a strong bond.

Their doormen let them skate, skateboard and practice gymnastics down the long, narrow hallway leading from our elevator to the lobby. I could send the kids downstairs to play on their own and know they were safe and supervised. I had built-in babysitters.

They often let my kids spy on people in the elevators on the security cameras they kept behind the lobby desk. For some reason, that was a huge treat!

The long hallway in my apartment building

Once our doormen went above and beyond for my ten-year-old son, David. David had a pet python and there was a large ficus tree in the lobby. David thought the snake would have fun climbing around in the tree so the doormen let David sneak the snake into the lobby and, when no one was looking, put it in the tree. David and the snake nonchalantly hung out in the lobby for several hours, with people coming and going, until someone finally noticed something moving in the tree. That ended the tree climbing experiment.

The lobby decor has changed but the ficus tree is still there!

As an adult, there are a myriad of other reasons for enjoying the luxury of having a doorman. They accept deliveries for you when you aren’t home and help you with your bags.

Another convenience, beyond mere safety, is they let workmen into your apartment when you aren’t home so you don’t have to wait for them to show up or give them your keys.

\You also feel safe knowing the doormen monitors everyone who comes into the building. They won’t let anyone up to your apartment without your approval. They are your first line of defense against predators and nuisances.

In the country, I’m friendly with the local post office workers, farmer’s market cashiers and with the people at the nearby coffee shop and market. It’s not the same thing. It’s not as personal. These people may like you, but they don’t know your life or have your back like doormen did.

Doormen are a special breed of extended family that I treasured as a New Yorker and I miss as a country dweller.

 

WHERE IS STEVE McQUEEN WHEN I REALLY NEED HIM? – Garry Armstrong

It must be payback. Karma, hubris – or both.

For more than 30 years, I drove a succession of fully loaded convertibles with Steve McQueen in my brain. Once, I was racing to a story in the dead of night when a State Trooper pulled me over. He asked the traditional question. He smiled when I told him I was heading to a fire. After being cautioned to drive responsibly, I sped on to the scene. Steve McQueen was with me.

Nothing fazed me. Not Boston crazies or New York cabbies. Oh, hubris!

My convertible days are behind me. Thanks to retirement, an income adjusted to social security, “wonderful” pensions and too many tickets from my Steve McQueen days, I drive like a normal guy, more or less. You’d think I’d paid my dues, atoned for my sins.

Not hardly, Pilgrim.

I’ll admit I still drive too fast, even if I’m doing the speed limit. That’s because I wasn’t born in the Valley and I don’t have Valley in my blood, so to speak. You see, in the Valley, driving is a leisurely business. Very leisurely. Twenty miles an hour is fast for a lot of our local people and not only in school areas. We are talking normal stretches of road with no special considerations or construction.

Not a racing car exactly!

I’m convinced there’s a legion of slow drivers waiting for me to pull out onto the street. I’ve been targeted. Wherever I go, they are waiting. It’s particularly frustrating when I’m heading to an appointment. These days, it’s usually a doctor appointment for my wife or me. We usually allow extra time for possible traffic jams, construction, weather delays, and accidents.

The X-Factor is the slow driver. (Drum-roll.)

They usually appear just as we are pushing up to the speed limit and think we’ll be able to make good time. We’ll get to our destination and have time to relax. I’m beginning to think about playing some music for the drive.

That’s when they show up. In the blink of an eye, they appear. The dreaded slow drivers. A whole conga line of slow drivers. No way to maneuver around them because our local roads are two lanes. One in each direction and narrow to boot. I can feel the anger and frustration beginning to boil up inside me.

If I’m driving alone, I allow the profanities full volume. If my wife is with me, I mumble, tighten my wrists and think evil, vile things. The slow drivers sense this and slow down even more. It is torture. What would Steve McQueen do?

Photo credit: RolexMagazine.com

Photo credit: RolexMagazine.com

Sanity and common sense kick in only because I know we can’t afford accidents with me as the culprit. That makes it more infuriating. They slow down, even more, sensing my plight. Could it be worse? Never ask that question because the answer is always yes!

It gets personal when I realize nature is calling. Home isn’t that far away but it could be an embarrassment if I don’t get there in time. The drivers drive even slower.

I whisper a prayer, forgiveness for my wild days on the road. I turn onto the road home. I can do this. I can make it. Traffic slows to a halt. What would Steve McQueen do?

Gritting my teeth, I see two cars ahead of me. They are staring at the road. They are texting. They are not old but rather part of the legion of slow drivers targeting me. All seems lost as I swing and sway to delay disaster, traffic begins to move again.

Slowly.

Minutes that seem like hours go by until I reach home. I pull down our long driveway. I race into the house with personal shame just narrowly averted. I calm down before returning to the car to collect my things.

I look up at the street. There’s no traffic. The slow drivers have disappeared. Is it a conspiracy?

What would Steve McQueen do?

MAO, A CAT – Marilyn Armstrong

Jeff and I got Mao as an 8-week-old kitten in the fall of 1965. We had just gotten married the month before, and of course, we had to have a cat right away. Why a Siamese? I don’t know. Karma maybe?

From the very first day, Mao was Master of All He Surveyed. Although I have had many cats through the years, Mao was the first and by far the most utterly unique.

Mao – our cat – Photo (from print) by Ben Taylor — and THANK YOU!

He was very smart for a cat. For instance, when we were out-of-town, we would have someone “house-sit” for us. No matter who that person was, and no matter how much Mao ordinarily liked them, while we were away, Mao would attack him or her (or them) virtually continuously during our absence. He would hide behind the bushes and attack legs as they tried to open the front door. He would wait around the corner and then pounce. He would launch himself from atop the bookcase, landing on a victim’s head, sometimes causing serious damage.

The moment we returned, Mao ceased his attacks and commenced purring. He figured, I believe, that he needed to drive out the interlopers so that we could return. Since we always DID return, his belief was consistently reinforced!

Mao protected us from bed goblins. If you were on Mao’s “family member” list, he would stop by your bedroom every night. You had to lift the covers so he could walk to the foot of the bed and back up. No goblins tonight? Good, I will go now, and he did.

Mao was the only cat I’ve ever known that perpetrated acts of vengeance hours or days after your perceived offense. If, for example, you shooed him off the table during dinner time, he would wait until you were sitting on the potty with your pants around your ankles and could not chase him. Then he would casually bite your shins. Tail held high, he would stroll away.

Mao patrolled the perimeter of the grounds like any good watch cat should. Every day of his life, he performed it, almost as if it were a ceremony. During his closing weeks with us, he began to patrol in the company of a younger feline, Mr. Manx. As if passing the torch to the next generation, he taught Mr. Manx to walk the perimeter, and inspect the beds, which Mr. Manx then did for the rest of his life.

In October 1978, Mao, who had been diagnosed with cancer some months before, disappeared. We never found his body, though we were sure he had gone off to die. For the last couple of weeks before his departure, we had noticed that he felt different. Where his muscles had been hard, they were now soft. He slept most of the day and moved slowly.

It is many years and lifetimes later. Jeff has passed. I live far from that place where Jeff and I and Mao and all the other fur-people lived. But I remember him. We all remember Mao, the most special cat.

Mao, I am sure you were there for Jeff when he came to the Bridge. I’m sure you will be there for me, too. You and all my other furry friends who I loved will be there together.

But you were and will always be, utterly unique and entirely unforgettable.

NO MORE EXPENSIVE FUNERALS! TIME FOR CHEAP CREMATION! – Garry Armstrong

I was driving along I-95 in Connecticut when I spotted the billboard for “Direct Cremation”.

cremation with confidenceTraffic was just slow enough for me to read a few lines of the pitch. It promised no fuss, no delays, no middlemen, red tape … and a money-back guarantee if unhappy with service. I wasn’t sure who’d get the money back.

I started laughing over Marty Robbins and “El Paso” playing on the oldies CD. I was still laughing when Marty’s gunfighter died in the arms of his young sweetheart. Instead of a tearful funeral and the strains of “Streets of Laredo,” maybe the gunfighter should have had a direct cremation. No muss, no fuss, no mournful boot hill goodbye.

Direct cremation may be the latest answer to a world of violence. Mob hits, drive-by killings, gang bang slayings with collateral damage. Stressed out serial killers and contract button men doing “jobs.” The bodies just keep piling up.

Medical Examiners are overworked. Cemeteries are running out of room. The U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, only gives each citizen a whopping $242 per body.

What to do?


Direct cremation!


Speaking of overworked medical examiners, I’m reminded of a story I covered in Boston.

direct-cremation-crematorium-main

Goes back 40 plus years. The county medical examiner was “under the gun” with some of his findings. He didn’t look like Quincy, Ducky, or even the sexy Lacey from the “Castle” series. He was a sad, tired, bleary-eyed man in the autumn of his years.

Your intrepid reporter was on the scene. The M.E. was momentarily diverted so I could check the autopsy lab and the morgue. I found the controversial corpse and made a cursory examination. I confronted the M.E. about his findings on the case. He insisted the victim was stabbed to death. I asked him about the several large bullet holes I’d just found. He was speechless.

Direct cremation would have avoided a lot of controversy and embarrassing questions. It’s an idea whose time has come.

These are also known as “drive-through” cremations, I’m sure you can find more if you look. Google “drive through crematorium.” I’m sure every mobster should have these places on speed-dial.

WHEN DO I LOOK LIKE ME? – Marilyn Armstrong

Considering one thing and another, I have always been sure I could not possibly be related to the people who raised me. I suspect everyone, especially as a child, is sure they are a misplaced orphan. Sadly, there was always one problem from which I could never escape.

I look just like them. Both of them. They didn’t look alike, so how could this be?

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Apparently, you change as you age. So you can look exactly like dad when you’re three, but exactly like mom when you’re sixty. Periodically, depending on how the genetic package rolls, you can resemble one or the other — or both  — at any given point in time.

I used to look like my father, but I got older. Now, look like my mother.

I wonder if I’ll ever look like me? Whatever that means.

I know nothing about what brought me into the world any more than I know what will take me out. Probably, that’s just as well. I think I lack curiosity about my fate which others apparently have a strong need to know. I never felt any serious desire to research my ancestry or get my DNA checked. When I did it, it was a fun birthday present for Garry and I.

What was, is. What will be, will occur. I’m not in charge and never was. I am okay enjoying as much of the now as I can while I’m still part of it.

Yet, every now and then, I wonder if it’s possible I was actually put here by a transiting starcraft. An intergalactic seed dropped from the sky that somehow, wound up in this world. In this peculiar place. A bit of pollen falling from a drifting craft on its way to somewhere in an infinite beyond.

It could be true.

THE OTHER SIDE OF IMMIGRATION – Marilyn Armstrong

Learning (or, in my case, trying to learn) another language was high entertainment.
Immigration isn’t easy, isn’t fun.
These days, it can also be life-threatening. 


In English, I rarely if ever used a word the wrong way. I was a serious reader very young and had a big passive vocabulary. By passive, I mean I knew a lot of words but had never used them in conversation. I knew what they meant and how to spell them, but not how they sounded.

I had no idea that Too-son and Tucson were one place. Or that ep-ee-TOME was really an epitome. I remember those two examples because of the hilarity they caused the adults in the area. I was all of 8, but adults were not all that nice to kids. They still aren’t.

My feeble attempts to properly learn Hebrew was even more entertaining. I am sure that my fumbling attempts to learn the language, having caused hysterical laughter, probably played a part in my never properly learning Hebrew. I was so embarrassed by my errors, it didn’t seem worth it, especially since everyone knew at least a little English.

My first big discovery which occurred during my second day in the country was that Zion (Zy-on) means penis. In Hebrew, the pronunciation is actually tzee-own. So if you say that Israel is the “Land of Zion” using your good American pronunciation, you will reduce Israelis to tears of laughter.

They can be a rough crowd.

To add another layer of problems over the difficulty of just getting the words out through my teeth (which were not designed for all those gutturals), many words in Hebrew are very similar to each other but have different meanings. For example, sha-ah is an hour. Shannah is a year. And there you stand saying, “My Hebrew isn’t good. I’ve only been here for two hours.”

After a while, I spoke English and used Hebrew words as needed. Eventually, more Hebrew found its way into my sentences, though complex ideas never made the cut. I could say simple stuff. I could buy groceries. Chat about the weather, as in, “It’s really hot.”

The alternative was “It’s raining hard,” because you only had two seasons: hot and wet.

Eventually, I got to a point where almost everyone could understand most of what I said, sometimes without laughing, but not with joy. My accent made their ears hurt and they preferred English. It was less painful.

You might consider this when you meet immigrants who are trying to learn English. I mention this because having been on the other side of this experience, a bit of kindness to people trying to work through a difficult life transition while learning a new language and culture can go a long way to make them feel less lonely, threatened, excluded, and generally miserable.

Scape-goating our immigrants is identical to scapegoating our grandparents. Unless we are Native Americans, we are all immigrants.

FOWC with Fandango — Scapegoat

THE CRASHING SQUIRREL – Marilyn Armstrong

I’ve been going eyeball to eyeball with our local squirrels. First, I thought we had just a few squirrels, but lately, I realize we have all of them. The entire woods full of squirrels are part of our world.

Our fearless deck squirrel

They all come, hang around, decide they need to wrap themselves around the feeder and suck the seeds out of it. Garry fills the feeder in the evening and by the following morning, more than half of it — about 3 pounds of seeds — are gone.

Another snack

They used to get spooked when I tapped on the window. Then they only got twitchy if I opened a window and yelled at them. Eventually, that didn’t work either. Now, I have to actually go out on the deck and they sit there, on the rail, staring me in the eye. I’m pretty sure that eventually, I’m going to have to physically remove them. By hand. I’m not looking forward to that. I have a feeling these little guys bite.

It isn’t that I mind them having a meal. I mind them eating everything and never stopping. How can such small furry creatures eat so much and so often? It seems to me that their appetites are never satiated. There’s no such thing as enough … or if there is, there’s another one waiting on the rail to take over.

I have come to recognize some of them by their scars, by the colors of their tails, by their size.

This morning, our midday squirrel was back. I know they are supposed to be crepuscular — feeding early in the morning and just before the sun sets. But this one likes noon. Just about as I’m setting up the coffee, he’s hanging on the feeder.

Squirrel on the rail

So I opened the top of the Dutch door and said: “We’ve had this discussion before. It’s time for you to go home to your trees. Eat acorns. Find plants to chew.” He looked at me. I’m pretty sure he smirked at me, too.

I reminded him that I was getting weary of this conversation. I could see him thinking. “Shall I buzz off or shall I jump into that flat feeder? Hmm.”

Taking that fatal leap!

Finally, he decided I was NOT a force to be reckoned with and he launched himself into the flat feeder. But this once, the flat feeder fought back and tipped sideways.

Tail end of the crashing squirrel

All the seeds spilled down to the ground below along with the squirrel. I nearly caught the shot on his way down, but all I got was the fuzzy tip of his tail as he fell to the ground. Which wasn’t so bad because he landed in the forsythia bush, then on the ground where there were pounds of seeds he was now free to eat.

You’d think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? Surely humiliation would stop him from further depredations.

You would be wrong. In fewer than five minutes, he was back on the rail.

I had to go out and forcefully explain that it was past feeding time and he was going to let the birds have a go at the feeder. They sit in the nearby tree limbs, waiting for the squirrels to move on and for some reason, they seem to know I’m yelling at the squirrel — not them. How they knew this, I have no idea.

The young Cardinal

I ultimately convinced him to go travel amongst the trees and give the birds time at the feeder. The first arrivals were a couple of Cowbirds, a few Goldfinches, and a big Red-Bellied Woodpecker plus a young Cardinal. I actually got some pictures.

Cowbirds

I’m sure he was back as soon as we left to go to my son’s birthday party because when we came home, the hanging feeder was nearly empty. We are running out of seeds and have run out of money, so everyone is just going to have to survive on their own for a while.

REALLY, MY MOTHER – Marilyn Armstrong

My mother was not a “regular” mom. This confused me a lot while I was growing up. Other mothers made cookies, kissed boo-boos. Hung out with other mothers in the summertime. Swapped recipes. Watched soap operas.

My mother didn’t bake anything, much less cookies. She was a terrible cook because she hated cooking. She was an unenthusiastic housekeeper and the whole huggy-kissy mothering thing eluded her.

She didn’t watch soap operas, loved the Marx Brothers and MGM musicals. She never graduated high school, but read voraciously and constantly. Especially about science and space. She was fascinated by quarks, black holes, and antimatter.

She never kissed a boo-boo; I don’t remember her kissing me at all. She wasn’t that kind of mom. She talked to me about everything and more important, she listened to me.

Mom-May1944

She had no interest in gossip, recipes, or cute stories about anyone’s kids. She wanted to talk about politics or the space program and which nations were so hopeless they needed a complete redo, from scorched earth up (she had a list). I think if she were still alive, she’d probably add this country to her list.

She enjoyed talking to me. I’m not sure if she talked to anyone else about being a young woman when FDR became president. How, when the NRA (National Recovery Act) was passed, there was a spontaneous parade in New York that lasted 24 hours. Ticker tape, and all.

How the government had surplus crops during the worst years of the depression, and government agents took the extra food, dumped it in vacant lots and put poison on it so no one could eat it. Even though people were starving.

I thought she was just paranoid, but I have since learned that it happened, just the way she said it did. For all I know, it’s happening right now.

She didn’t trust the government, was sure they were spying on us. Positive that  J. Edgar Hoover was out to get us and he had a long list — and we were on it. Turned out, she was on target about most of it.

Mom1973-3She was in favor of equal rights for everyone, everywhere. Pro-abortion, in favor of birth control, gay marriage, putting wheat germ in everything (yuk) and holistic medicine before anyone knew what that meant.

She wanted all religion out of the schools and government.

She was in favor of the death penalty. She felt there were people who should be taken out and shot. No long terms in prison (too expensive). No years of appeals. One well-placed bullet in the brain and justice would be served.

That was my mom.

She gave me Knut Hamsen to read and a grand piano for my 14th birthday. As well as appropriate anatomical books about sex. She figured I needed accurate information so I could make informed decisions.

She hummed most of the time, sang the rest of the time. She got the words wrong all the time.

She read me poetry when I was very small and treated me like an adult. She was a grimly determined atheist and would debunk any hint of religious belief should I be foolish enough to express it. I always felt she had a personal spite on God for failing her and the people she loved.

She was the most cynical person I’ve ever known. It seems I am following in her footsteps.

So here I am. Older than my mother was when she left this earth. I think my mother would like this version of me. She always liked me, probably more than I liked myself.

RETURNING WEDGEWOOD – Marilyn Armstrong

It must be something about me. Dishes come back. First, there was the Spode’s Tower, which was passed around the family for 25 years until one day, it came home. Again.

Spode Tower Pink

Spode Tower Pink

This time, it’s the Wedgewood.

This morning, a large heavy carton arrived via UPS. It was from my sister-in-law who lives in northern Maine. I haven’t seen her for a long time, though we’ve emailed back and forth occasionally and exchanged Christmas presents and cards.

There was a card taped to the box which said: “OPEN ME FIRST.”

96-Card-Wedgewood_04

Translated into years and a timeline, Garry — the man to whom I have been married for almost 29 years — was my first husband’s (now deceased) best friend and my son’s godfather. He had just come back from vacationing in Ireland when Jeff and I were married. It was August 1965 and he gave us the Wedgewood as a gift. That was merely 55 years ago.

Jeff and I separated in 1978. My son and I went to live in Israel at the end of that year and didn’t come back until 1987.

I didn’t take the Wedgewood to Israel, so Jeff gave it to his mother. She loved it and had room to display it.

72-Wedgewood_10

Grandma Kraus died last year at 103. This morning, the Wedgewood came home. It is — for now — on the coffee table in the living room. I’m not sure what to do with it. I guess it can live on the coffee table, at least until Garry does laundry and needs to sort it, something he does on the big glass coffee table. Which is useless for any other purpose, unless you count barking your shins as useful.

72-Wedgewood-OIL_09

And so, another set of dishes has come home. I don’t know or can’t remember if any other china, porcelain, or pottery is lurking in my past. For all I know, it’s in the mail, winging its way back.

Life is circular. Stuff comes back.

Especially dishes.