Friday, December 31, 2010

Blizzard of December 2010: Mayor's 'Sorry' A Tertiary Response

Article first published as Blizzard of December 2010: Mayor's 'Sorry' A Tertiary Response on Blogcritics.

By now you (five days after the storm first hit) would think that New York City's Mayor Bloomberg would get it right, but he is still fumbling the ball. He says he is "Sorry" about the poor response to the blizzard, but then he defends Sanitation Department Chief James Doherty and says that he is the best head of sanitation that New York City ever had. Doesn't this sound something like George W. Bush defending FEMA head Michael Brown after the debacle of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?

To add insult to injury we get a report in today's NY Post that the sanitation bosses in the outer boroughs ordered a work slowdown as a protest of the mayor's budget cuts for the department. Now, if this is true, it is disturbing on many levels, but it also can be seen as a criminal in light of the deaths in Brooklyn and Queens because streets remained unplowed.

As for Bloomberg, either he is in complete denial of how poor the response was, or he is still basing it on looking out his window in his mansion and seeing clear Manhattan streets. At yesterday's news conference Bloomberg assured everyone that Doherty vowed that all city streets would be cleared by 7 AM today (Thursday, December 30). Well, that didn't happen, at least not here in Queens, and I am not sure about the other boroughs, but I'm kind of thinking they're going to need more time. Maybe lots more time.

Bloomberg also defended the rationale of clearing "major" roadways first. Apparently, this means all the streets in Manhattan before the ones in the other boroughs. He also noted that "tertiary" roads would remain as the last ones to get plowed. Well, again lost in his la-la land of Manhattan, Bloomberg doesn't realize that most New Yorkers (those who live in the outer boroughs) actually live on those tertiary (or third class) streets, not like him in the palaces along Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Central Park.

Some people in other areas of the country are no doubt laughing at us and our response to the storm. Blogger dharma55 called New Yorkers "blizzard wimps" in her article on Blogcritics. The truth is we are blizzard wimps, but why is that? Why are New Yorkers not conditioned to handle such major weather events?

The answer, dear readers, is because of our city government. This storm is a perfect example. It was downplayed from the beginning, and then after it was clear that forecasters were wrong and it was going to be a major weather event, even then there was no declaration of emergency. By the time the storm hit with all its fury, the city was stuck in a no-win situation, and the populace was lost in the blizzard.

Other cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Buffalo handle much worse weather much better than this. Why? Because the local government has prepared for it, and thus the citizens are prepared too. Bloomberg and company are more concerned with people getting to Broadway shows during a blizzard than getting to a hospital. It is the obvious truth, and people died during this storm because of it. Wishing that big storms go away and come back again another day does not work, not in New York City or anywhere else.

So yes, we "blizzard wimps" here in New York are stuck in our little houses on clogged tertiary roads, waiting for the plows to unclog our streets. We are not making excuses either. Many New Yorkers (and I know because I am one of them) have taken shovels in hands, lots of them, and many have dug out their cars, houses, and businesses, only to have nowhere to go or no customers because the streets are not passable, the buses and trains are not running, and people are caught in this winter miasma and getting angrier by the minute. This is horrific for everyone, but especially those in poor health who can't get to hospitals or those homebound persons who can't get assistance or meals that they need.

At this point many people have wasted a week of their lives battling something that should have been handled differently. Whether it was a sanitation slowdown, a clueless administration, or a Mayor who is behind a curtain and working meaningless switches like the Wizard of Oz, the bottom line is the Yellow Brick Road was only plowed in certain places. You can bet that tomorrow night in Times Square, when the Mayor watches the ball drop on New Year's Eve, that many New Yorkers are going to be thinking how appropriate that is because the ball was indeed dropped, and as of yet no one accepts responsibility for the fumble.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blizzard of December 2010: Apocalypse Snow

Article first published as Blizzard of December 2010: Apocalypse Snow on Blogcritics.

I know Apocalypse Snow is the title of a film about skiing, but it just seemed apropos as I look at what has happened to New York City in the last few days since the big blizzard hit. Other appropriate titles could range from Dawn of the Dead and The Walking Dead (in reference to the city's response to the storm). No matter how you look at it, people died and suffered and someone must be held accountable.

I've seen footage from television cameras in helicopters passing over the city, and you would think Manhattan was in a completely different time and place than Brooklyn or Queens. This is where the mounting anger and frustration come from in a very understandable way. I saw abandoned cars and a city bus in a short walk yesterday, but the panorama offered by a camera in a helicopter indeed invokes images of those doomsday films: abandoned cars and trucks every and anywhere, deserted streets, and a feeling like the authorities long ago repaired to their well-supplied bunkers while the populace was literally stuck in their tracks and left to fend for themselves.

The horror stories also mount: a young Brooklyn mother-to-be, in labor and bleeding in the vestibule of her apartment building, waited for a response to 911 that came ten hours too late. The baby died after they were both taken to the hospital. A Queens woman calling 911 about her ill mother was forced to wait hours for a response and the mother died. Another Brooklyn woman called about her stricken father who had died, and she had to wait overnight with the corpse in her apartment until an ambulance could arrive. Are unplowed streets to be blamed for these things, or is it more pernicious: an almost total breakdown of the system meant to serve and protect New Yorkers?

These are just some of the stories; there are many more, including passengers on the A train being forced to wait in a tunnel for seven hours. Anyone who has been in a NYC subway car knows that seven minutes is a long time to be in a crowded car, but seven hours? This is ridiculous. Then to rub salt in the wounds, after this and many other incidents where buses and subways were stuck or not running, the Metropolitan Transit Authority announced fare increases to go in effect as a New Year's gift to beleaguered passengers.

If I didn't know any better, I would think the character Gru from Despicable Me was running this city, but at least he is revealed to have a soft side and to actually care about people in the end. Here Mayor Mike and company seem content to let people stew (or is it freeze?) in their homes and apartments, with their cars stuck out in the streets. Even senior citizens, reliant on the Meals on Wheels Program, are trapped without food and waiting for expected daily meals that never come.

So, yes, this does seem like a city that is being run by an ad hoc committee instead of an administration (and especially a mayor) who has been on the job long enough to be able to handle things like this. If people start evoking the name of Mayor Lindsay (who after a big blizzard in 1969 basically did about the same thing to Queens and the other outer boroughs), they would be right on the money. Lindsay, who had presidential aspirations, was finished after that bungling of the storm clean up. Perhaps this will once and for all put the final nail in the coffin of Bloomberg's notions of running for higher office.

I know this storm hit a large area of the nation, and it has been a difficult time across the country, and many millions of people have been affected. Any time you shut down JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Airports for any length of time, it is going to hurt people all over, including people on other continents waiting for flights that never came or planes that could never take off.

Here in our little corner of the world we have had to suffer, and if people can blame George W. Bush for Hurricane Katrina and President Obama for the Gulf Oil Spill response, then surely we can all rise up and blame Mayor Bloomberg for this horrendous response to the blizzard of 2010 here in New York. People are angry, and the Mayor says he is angry too about the response to the storm. Well, instead of playing it like the Queen of Hearts and calling for heads to roll, maybe the Mayor should look in the mirror, mirror on the wall.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blizzard of December 2010: Surviving Cabin Fever

Article first published as Blizzard of December 2010: Surviving Cabin Fever on Blogcritics.

There is always a point after a big snowstorm that everyone starts getting what is known as cabin fever. When I hear that term, I always think of a log cabin covered with snow with only the top of the chimney exposed and the smoke drifting up into the snowy air. While we are not that snowed in, we are kind of trapped in some ways and have had to think of things to make the best of it.

The problem in New York City is that Manhattan always gets the best attention during snowstorms. Mayor Bloomberg was on television telling people to take mass transit and go to a Broadway show, go out to eat, blah, blah, blah. If Mr. Mayor ever made it to the outer boroughs, he would find that not only are the streets not plowed, but that many subway lines and bus lines are not running either. Sure, we'd love to see a show, but how are we going to get there?

I ventured out today to get coffee, only to see cars, taxi cabs, and even a city bus stuck in the snow. Plows can't get down these streets with vehicles in the way. It is a frustrating situation to be sure. What was worse is that my local Starbucks was closed and completely covered with snow over the windows and doors, so I had to trudge back home and make my own coffee.

Still, getting out and walking was good for me. I got to breathe the cold fresh air, and I also saw that many other people still hadn't even been out yet because their front doors were still covered with snow.  At least I had made it outside.

Later in the morning my daughter and I went back out to have some fun. I did some more shoveling as she scouted for the arms for our snowman, and then she started finding the best packing snow to commence the creation of the base.
I joined her and we fashioned a snowman we called "Mike" in honor of the mayor who forgot that Queens and the other boroughs besides Manhattan existed. When finished, Mike seemed a pleasant enough chap, but his biggest attribute was silence. I always wince when Bloomberg speaks, so I wish he would take a cue from his namesake snowman now and then.

We then prepared snowballs for the snowball fight of the century. I was no match for my Lauren's onslaught of carefully aimed volleys, and then had to capitulate after she caught me off guard with one last shot to the kisser. She packs a mean snowball and has quite an arm and pinpoint accuracy.

After this contest was over, we made our snow angels. This is an art that depends on many things, mostly the depth and quality of the snow. Finding virgin snow is much harder on the second day after a storm, with all the varmints running around the yard (in this neck of the woods, varmints are squirrels, raccoons, and birds). Still we were lucky to find a good patch of snow on our patio and the angels came out quite nicely.

Since my son was sick with a bad cold inside, we decided it wasn't fair to enjoy ourselves too long without him. Besides, the cold was really starting to get to us, so we put our shovels away, bid adieu to snowman Mike, and headed indoors for cups of warm soup, English muffins, and hot tea.

As the day waned, the cold wind blew harder, and even cabin fever seemed preferable to the frosty bite of the outdoors. Besides, we have it much better than those poor folks in the old days in that cabin with the lone chimney sticking out of the snow. We have cable television with hundreds of channels - even though the last few days it seems that all we watch are either Nick Jr. or Disney. We have our computer connected to the Internet for our amusement and entertainment, and we have a video cabinet stocked with an infinite number of movies from which to choose (though we have had to watch Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland and Despicable Me too many times to mention).

So there are ways to avoid cabin fever, like getting out and taking a walk or playing in the snow, but there is also a time when you must acquiesce to its presence and accept your circumstances. Pop a log on the fire, make some hot cocoa, and sit back and relax. Before you know it you'll be back at work and school and wishing you could do something like this, so enjoy it while you can!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Blizzard of December 2010: Being Snowed in and Loving It

Article first published as Blizzard of December 2010: Being Snowed in and Loving It on Blogcritics.

Everyone remembers big blizzards the same way they remember where they were when John Lennon was shot or they heard OJ Simpson declared innocent. These events are markers in our lives, but absolutely nothing is the same as a really big snowstorm - at least to those of us who don't live in Minnesota or Canada or other places where twenty inches of the white stuff is no big deal.

Here in New York City and the surrounding area, a few inches of snow causes the red flags to start flying. Traffic snarls, trains crawl, and people slip slide their way to work and school. If the snow is any deeper, everyone assumes catastrophe is only moments away and the city starts shutting down. People clear milk, bread, and eggs off the supermarket shelves, and the streets become deserted.

There are bonuses involved in this. If the snow comes during the Christmas season with the city covered in lights that twinkle through the snowflakes like so many millions of stars, well then it is an added bonus. There is absolutely nothing so romantic as walking along a New York City street with the lights blazing through the snowflakes holding the hand of the one you love.

Of course, with kids in the picture romance takes a back seat to fun and games. My kids watched the snow through the window all day yesterday, and as of this morning (it has abated to just flurries right now) there are about twenty inches deep of play land out there that is just waiting for sleds, snowball fights, and the most abominable snowman we can build. Of course, the shovel awaits dear old dad as the kids romp, but it is still great fun.

My grandfather liked to talk about the great blizzard of 1888, which still stands as one of the largest ones to hit the city. This came in March of that year, effectively shutting down a city that at the time did not have the means to battle such a huge storm. New Yorkers were trapped in their apartments (in the days before television and radio) without much to do, so it is not surprising that my grandfather was born at the end of that year with a slew of other blizzard babies.

My father recalls the great snowstorm of 1947 (falling on December 25-26) that stopped the city cold. He tried to get home from work, but his subway train got stuck in Jamaica, so he had to walk the rest of the way. That's not something one forgets. He said he had to shovel "for days" and the city was closed down.

It is absolutely astonishing to see New York in the snow. The city slows down to an eventual halt, making it seem like a storybook New York from the old times. For a brief moment, before the plows start to rumble down the streets and the car fumes turn the snow black, there is a kind of hush only a snowfall can bring to the Big Apple, and it's the kind of city quiet that lulls one into a dream state that is intoxicating.

I remember a few great snowstorms during my lifetime, but especially the one of February 1978. I recall the winds had completely covered both the back and front doors of our house. Being a game kid who wanted to go outside, I remember telling my father that I'd jump out the window and then shovel the door out. He considered the options and then tossed me out the window into the cushion of white below. I loved that exhilarating feeling of floating through the cold air and going down into that snow pile, but it took me three hours to dig out that front door, and I would have much rather been sledding down the hill with my friends.

So now we have the great blizzard of December 2010 with which we will make new memories. Unfortunately, the roads are going to take a while to get plowed because technology can just do so much with tons of snow. In the meantime, I can't jump out the window like in the old days, but I will get out there with my kids and have as much fun as possible thanks to old man winter.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

As Gang Green Turns: Ryan Has Wife's Foot in Mouth and Sanchez May Not Play on Sunday

Article first published as As Gang Green Turns: Ryan Has Wife's Foot in Mouth and Sanchez May Not Play on Sunday on Blogcritics.

The media here in New York - and I imagine in Chicago as well (where the Jets will play this Sunday) - is having a field day with the reports about the video of Ryan's wife that surfaced. It is reported that Ryan supplies the male voice on the tape, and they are talking about her feet and other weird things. Ryan will not comment on it. He says, "It's a personal matter." For once the foot in Ryan's mouth is not his own.

This story eclipses the story about Mark Sanchez, who is injured with a shoulder tear and may not play this Sunday. Mark Brunell (who has thrown just one pass in a game this season) will be his replacement. Against the Bears. Bang the drum slowly, please.

In the continuing soap opera As Gang Green Turns, it just doesn't get any better - or worse - than this. What are green-blooded Jets fans thinking about this? Well most are saying Sanchez should play to secure a playoff spot. Some are more cautious and say if he is lost for the playoffs because he plays on Sunday, then what is the point?

Of course the questions about Ryan and his wife's feet persist. Is she in that video? Were the Ryans making tapes for a "swingers" web site? The list goes on and on. In response Ryan says, "I have a beautiful wife." It is a personal matter after all, right?

So we head into Sunday with more questions than answers. Hey, Jets fans, maybe you can ask Santa for a victory over the Bears on Sunday, but I think you would do better to turn to the big guy upstairs, because it looks like they don't have a prayer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

People Still Like Getting Christmas Cards in the Mail

Article first published as People Still Like Getting Christmas Cards in the Mail on Blogcritics.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
With every Christmas card I write.
-Irving Berlin

At this time of year there is so much to do, and it seems that one cannot find time to sit down and write Christmas cards anymore. Obviously it is easier and faster to just jot down some lines on the computer, use spell check, and hit the send button. Unfortunately, there is something inherently unsatisfying about the process for both the sender and the receiver.

Of course, if you have children and want to send a card in the mail, then you are now caught up in sending the picture card as opposed to sending a regular Christmas card. Certainly pictures can be slipped inside folded cards and sent, but invariably that is more time consuming, so the senders now opt for store created picture cards (easily made in minutes in places like CVS). They come with envelopes, so one only needs to have the message printed on the front of the card, something innocuous like "Love" and then Mom and Dad's name followed by the kids' names (I admit to falling into this category).

It is exciting, especially for kids, to get these cards. My daughter comes home from school and can't wait to rip them open. She gets to see how big cousins and friends' kids have grown in a year, and they are going to see the same thing when they get the card with a picture of her and her brother on it. There is something a bit old-fashioned about this custom, even if it is coming to you via the latest digital camera technology.

I do have a problem with these cards. They still lack a "message" because of their design. There is no place to write on the front, but one can turn it over and have an entire 4 inch by 8 inch surface to send a message. Sadly, no one seems to avail him or herself of this possibility these days (again, I admit I fall into this category).

Still, whenever I listen to Christmas songs these past few weeks, inevitably Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" comes on, and when he gets to the part about writing Christmas cards, I get a little misty because we're sending them but not writing them anymore for the most part. Even the labels on the front of the envelopes get printed out courtesy of the computer.

Despite the impersonal efficiency these cards have wrought, the post office can take solace in knowing that people still like sending cards and receiving them. That is good news for the USPS, at least one month out of the year.

We have received a good many cards, and I'd estimate that close to two thirds of them are of the picture variety. Sadly, even the standard folded cards come with scant messages. People I haven't seen in years write something like, "Love and best wishes" followed by their names. I had no idea how they were doing before getting the card and nothing more after receiving it.

No matter what, I do enjoy going to the mailbox and pulling out all those cards in colorful red and green envelopes, and the picture cards certainly make the front of a white refrigerator door seem downright festive. Now, if people could just get back to writing something on these cards, then things would seem infinitely more personal, and wouldn't that make old Bing happy? Well, maybe next year.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

As Gang Green Turns: Jets Keep Playoff Hopes Alive in 22-17 Win Over Steelers

Article first published as As Gang Green Turns: Jets Keep Playoff Hopes Alive in 22-17 Win Over Steelers on Blogcritics.

In my way of thinking, there was no way the Jets (10-4) would come into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers (10-4), especially not after losing at home against the Dolphins last week, but here they go again surprising me and their fans with a not too pretty win at Heinz Field as the snowflakes fell like pixie dust all around them.

Mark Sanchez actually had a good game this week, looking like a man on a mission. He went 19 for 28 for 170 yards and made a seven-yard touchdown run that came as a surprise to everybody, but most especially the Steelers' defense. 

The game started with a great 97-yard run by Brad Smith who took the ball in for a 7-0 lead. If that didn't take the wind out of the Steelers fans, it certainly gave Jets and their fans the shot in the arm they needed after the last two games that had knocked them (and coach Rex Ryan) off the playoff bandwagon.

The Steelers managed to take the game back by the end of the first half, and going into the locker room with a 10-10 tie was not what Ryan and his team wanted to see. Nevertheless, the Jets came back out in the second half and scored on Sanchez's heads-up run and then Nick Folk's 34-yard field goal. There was no looking back after that and the Jets were on their way to a much needed - and completely unexpected - victory.

What is still alarming is that the Jets' offense and defense never seem to have a good day during the same game. While the defense is always the thing that Ryan likes to boast about, something like the Steelers not going into a huddle can seem to throw it off kilter. In the end the Steelers were coming down the field like a team that was going to score no matter what, but somehow the defense rallied and stopped them from scoring and the Jets got the win.

It goes without saying that this was a must win for the Jets, and now the playoffs are still a possibility for Gang Green. The big question is which team is going to show up from week to week. Ryan is lucky to be getting out of Pittsburgh with a victory, but the road to the playoffs is still a bumpy one, and we would expect nothing less in the soap opera As Gang Green Turns.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cliff Lee Signs with Phillies - Good News for Bosox; Bad News For Mets

Article first published as Cliff Lee Signs with Phillies - Good News for Bosox; Bad News For Mets on Blogcritics.

There is an old saying in baseball about the best trades being the ones you never make. If team owners really believed in this one, then Cliff Lee (and many other players) would have never left their teams in the first place.

Now we get word that Lee has turned down offers by the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers for a deal that pays less money with the Phillies. Can it be possible that in this world someone would turn down more money? Apparently, Mr. Lee has gone with what makes him more happy rather than what will make him more rich.

The real losers here are the Yanks, Rangers, and Mets; the winners are the Phillies and the Red Sox. The deck is now stacked in the National League East for the Phillies to take that division again. The Mets have nothing to show so far this winter except signings of a few minor players that make George "The Stork" Theodore look like Willie Mays.

The deck is also stacked in the American League East now. The Red Sox have made great moves, and maybe the best move of all was to make a play for Lee, knowing they didn't want him, but confusing the Yankees' brass enough that they let Carl Crawford slip through their fingers. Steinbrenner must be rolling over in his grave.

Cliff Lee took poet Robert Frost's advice and went down the road less traveled by signing with the Phillies; in doing so, that may make all the difference, not only in Mr. Lee's life, but also in the outcome of two division races and eventually the 2011 World Series.

As Gang Green Turns: The Misery Continues in Jets 10-6 Loss to Dolphins

Article first published as As Gang Green Turns: The Misery Continues in Jets 10-6 Loss to Dolphins on Blogcritics.

After losing a terrible game last week on the road against the Patriots, the New York Jets (9-4) and their fans were hoping for much better things against the Miami Dolphins (7-6) at New Meadowlands Stadium. Alas, it was not to be; even though the defense showed up this week, the offense once again seemed dazed and confused as the Jets lost 10-6.

The immediate focus has to be on quarterback Mark Sanchez, who was 17 for 44 for 216 yards. He has looked like he is making it up as he goes along, and the results are not pretty. Sanchez is fumbling, getting intercepted, and stumbling his way through these last two games. In the process, the Jets' hopes to take the division are now lost, and it is questionable whether they have what it takes to even make the playoffs now.

The bright spot of the day for head coach Rex Ryan was that his defense came back, looking less like the zombies from the AMC series The Walking Dead in last week's game and more like the highly touted "best" defense in football today. The problem is no matter how well the defense clicked, the Jets offense came down to two Nick Folk field goals.

To make matters worse, while the Jets were losing this one, the Patriots (11-2) were wiping up the field with the Bears (9-4) in an 36-7 victory. Surely there is no doubt after these last two weeks that the Pats are the best team in the NFL right now.

After the loss to the Pats last week, Ryan buried the game ball in a symbolic effort to say that loss was over and the team had to move on. Today the team did nothing to prove that they, and not the game ball, are six feet under. With a road game against the Steelers (10-3) looming next week, Sanchez and the offense better get themselves together or the season will be ostensibly lost.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

As Gang Green Turns: The Mouth That Roared Gets Gored

Article first published as As Gang Green Turns: The Mouth That Roared Gets Gored on Blogcritics.

I have been trying (as I think most Jets fans have) to process the New York Jets 45-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football this week. "Trying" is the operative word here because it is difficult to accept such a horrific defeat.

Rex Ryan said, "We got our butts kicked" after the game, but that is only part of it. The fact is that his big mouth has roared too often, he has proclaimed far too many things, and the reality is so far from his boasting that it is now shockingly clear: Ryan's defense is a sham. He can have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and say they are the best defensive backs in the game, but it is meaningless when there is no effective pass rusher on the team. It became clearer than ever in this game.

Partiots' quarterback Tom Brady seemed to have all the time in the world on Monday; meanwhile, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was getting the bum's rush all night. He was throwing interceptions and looking like a high school kid being thrown into a college game. Yes, it was that bad, folks.

The Jets failed on so many levels that there is no word -humiliating, disgraceful, pathetic among them - that can possibly describe how bad this game was for the Jets and their fans. Before the game Rex was shooting his mouth off about which was the better team; after this game it's clear not only that the Jets are not going to win their division but that they aren't even close to being in the same league as the Pats.

It's an ugly truth but it had to be said. As a Jets fan, I am wondering if I should even hope for them to make the playoffs as a wild card team. After the way they played Monday night, it would be better for them to sit home and watch the games and maybe learn something for next year.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Night John Lennon Died

Article first published as The Night John Lennon Died on Blogcritics.

It is inconceivable to me that it has been thirty years since a maniac came out of the night and assassinated John Lennon. What's worse is it happened in my city. This was the place where John and the Beatles first broke into the American consciousness, and now in this his adopted city he was taken much too soon. I still can't even believe that he is gone, but his enormous contribution to music and his amazing spirit certainly lives on and on.

The night before John died I had what I've always thought was a foreshadowing of his death. I was on the phone with my friend Ralph. He was in the Air Force and home on leave. We were talking about how we were going to get together the next night to celebrate his return, and I was sitting on my sofa looking up at the shelf on my wall, where I had the four individual pictures of the Beatles that came with the White Album in frames. As I was talking with Ralph the frame with John's picture in it toppled off the shelf. Nothing precipitated this event: no rumble of the subway below, no bus going by outside, no helicopter flying low overhead. It just fell.

At the time I thought it was weird but nothing else. When I got off the phone I got up and put the picture back in place, staring briefly at John's face and remembering when I saw him in Manhattan a couple of years before. It the only the second time I had ever seen him in person (the first being when he walked on stage during an Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden). He had been walking down the street, hands in pockets, rather nonchalant and happy. When I saw him he looked at me, and he knew I recognized him even in his sunglasses and hat pulled down a bit. He gave me a little smirk and something like a nod, and I wanted to say something, but my tongue was infinitely tied in knots, and it is best I did not blurt out something stupid. John kept walking and so did I, my hands shaking for blocks. I had just seen John Lennon.

The next night Ralph and I met some friends in a bar in Queens in the shadow of Shea Stadium, where John and his mates once rocked the house. We were there to ostensibly watch Monday Night Football, but the bar was filled with people and music. It was decorated for Christmas, and there was a jovial mood filling the place.

We all talked and talked. Ralph told us about life in the Air Force. He was stationed in Greenland and he couldn't talk about this and that. We started talking about high school and various teachers, and the night went by very quickly. As it started getting late, our friends who had to work the next morning left. Ralph was on leave and I was in college and had no classes on Tuesday mornings, so we sat at the bar and started watching the football game.

Only a few minutes had gone by when there was a special news bulletin that broke into the program. The announcer spoke stiltedly as she said that there was word that John Lennon had been shot outside the Dakota Building. He was being rushed to the hospital. Ralph and I just looked up at the screen, and everyone in the bar stopped and stared at the screen with us.

The game came back on for a time. Someone pulled the plug out of the jukebox, and the patrons all crowded around the bar and watched the TV waiting to hear an update. I don't know how long it was until the next news bulletin came on, but the grim face of the news anchor Kaity Tong told it all. Before she spoke, the room was so quiet, I could hear the taps dripping behind the bar.

She confirmed that John Lennon had died at St. Luke's Hospital. I felt myself shaking, worse than when I had seen John on the street; I felt like I was convulsing. Ralph hung his head and stared at his hands. Behind me I could hear some of the girls crying, the men too, and the bartender who looked like a professional wrestler complete with bald head and tattoos kept wiping the tears from his eyes.

There wasn't anything left to do or to celebrate. Ralph and I put on our coats, walked outside, and stood in the cold quietly watching a big city bus go down the street. Ralph seemed to snap out of a trance and turned to me and shook my hand. We parted without words because there was nothing left to say.
I went home to my room and sat on the floor, pulling all my records out of the cabinet. I threw Sgt. Pepper on the turntable and listened to John sing those prophetic words, "I heard the news today, oh boy..." I looked at all the albums spread on the floor, and I cried some more as I was shaken by the hopefulness of their early photographs.

I leaned my head back and stared at the pictures on my shelf, especially the one of John that had fallen the night before. I didn't know all the reasons why this felt like the loss of my brother instead of a stranger whom I had fleetingly met. John Lennon was a celebrity, one of the biggest stars of all time, and yet I felt like it was a personal loss. I had invested so much time and energy in the Beatles and then later John (and to a lesser extent the other Beatles) in his solo career.

To those too young (or too old) to understand, I can only say that John meant something personal to me. He had touched my life, and so many lives, with his work. Perhaps it was because we perceived he stood for something we believed in deeply, like his message of peace and love for the world that we got through his music. On a very big planet with very big problems, John seemed to stand for those of us who had no voice, and he spoke and sang what we wanted and needed to be heard.

Today, thirty years later, I stare at the skyline of the city I have loved all my life, and I know that John loved it too. He felt at home in New York, free to wander the streets unencumbered by the celebrity that had once threatened to overwhelm him elsewhere. Here John was free to be himself and to be what he saw himself as in the end: a New Yorker.

The world has changed in these last thirty years, as has this city. Today people will mark John's passsng in many different ways, but the way I shall remember him is not through public displays or even to watch reports about him on the TV or the Internet. The way I will remember him is to listen to his music, to appreciate what made him occupy that special place in so many hearts around the world.

So on this day I'm going to put on my headphones and turn up the volume. As I listen to his songs, I will not think about that night he died, but about the life he lived. And I will remember that one special day when two New Yorkers passed each other on the street, and in that simple everyday moment there was an acknowledgement of everything I had ever felt in a simple smirk and nod of the head that let me know that John knew what he meant, not just to me, but to everyone whom he touched in life.

You are still missed, John Lennon. In pace requiescat.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Remembering Celebrations of St. Nicholas Day

Article first published as Remembering Celebrations of St. Nicholas Day on Blogcritics.

It has been many years since I enjoyed St. Nicholas Day parties as a boy, and with this being St. Nicholas Day Eve, I started reminiscing about this exciting time that my family sadly no longer celebrates each year.

My mother's side of the family is German, with a touch of French courtesy of my great grandmother who came from Alsace-Lorraine. They spoke a little German around the house, and I am left with a smattering of phrases I can still remember fondly like Das ist gut or Guten Morgen. One of my most cherished memories involves the day we called "Little Christmas," which fell on December 6th each year, which is the feast day of St. Nicholas.

We would gather at my Mom's sister's apartment when I was small. Aunt Margie would have the tree decorated and small gifts spread on the table. There would be snacks served like nuts, raisins, chocolates, and cream wafers accompanied by tall glasses of milk. She would put on Christmas records; usually Bing Crosby, Elvis, and Frank Sinatra were the chosen artists, and the room was filled with music, warmth, laughter, and love.

In those days my grandfather sat in a chair in the corner and smoked his cigarettes and drank whiskey, thinking nothing of secondhand smoke because no one knew about that then. We would each take our turns opening the gifts. They were always toys, and that was why we were most excited. There was a guarantee of no disappointments like the shirt or scarf we would inevitably get stuck with on Christmas morning.

It was the same every year. One year I got an astronaut GI Joe, another year it was Johnny West, and then General Custer. Another year I got a few small cavalry soldiers. These action figures were always a prelude to the bigger and more desired toys on our Christmas lists that Santa was no doubt feverishly working on at that moment up at the North Pole, even on his feast day.

I did understand that Santa went by several names: St. Nick, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus. These were all one and the same person, but on this night St. Nick was all that mattered. Once the toy opening frenzy was done, my grandfather would tell stories about St. Nicholas back in Germany. Of course, Pop was a confidant of the jolly old elf (as well as the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, and the Tooth Fairy).

Pop's stories were sometimes a little scary, with St. Nick not coming down chimneys but through windows and doors. Instead of a jolly old elf, their was a bit of mischief in Pop's version of the man. While he was ostensibly looking for children's shoes to fill with small toys, candy, and chocolate, this St. Nick could get very angry. Each story featured his little malevolent streak, leaving coal in the shoes if a kid didn't believe in him, sparking the rear end of bad kids, and giving a hot foot to misbehaving adults. It got me thinking that I better be good or I could not only miss out on toys but also get a little hot in my pajama bottoms.

We had this party every year even if it was a school night until my grandmother passed away. This is when Aunt Margie moved in with us to help my mother care for my father's father. The parties shifted to our house for a time, but as we got older and lost the belief in the jolly old elf who came in a sleigh, they sadly ended.

I do recall this night with such happiness, as I do going to see Aunt Margie and getting hugs and kisses from her. She loved all her nieces and nephews so much, and though she never had children of her own, she was like a second mother to all of us. I remember her being filled with joy, so thrilled to see us happy and excited about the party. I have never been able to think of Christmas and not associate it with her, and though she is gone now, I still do because the "spirit" was surely in her and it was quite contagious.

Now that I am older, I am back in the fold and a believer again. I keep the tradition of Santa Claus alive with my children, and whenever I am asked if I believe in the man known as St. Nick, Kris Kringle, or Santa Claus, I remember the spirit of those "Little Christmas" parties at Aunt Margie's house and I say, "Yes" because that spirit is transferred from generation to generation, and that spark I feel as I find that special toy for my kids is surely the proof that Santa Claus lives, as Francis P. Church once told little Virginia O'Hanlon so many years ago, "forever" and will always "make glad the heart of childhood."

So this year I have decided we will have our own "little Christmas." I will tell my children one of the stories my grandfather told (without scaring them like he scared me), give them little treats, and stoke the fire of their imaginations, preparing them for the Christmas morning to come when all their visions of gifts and more will be realized. After all these years, I think it's about time this family recognized St. Nicholas again, for is he not the one who started it all?

Whether we realize it or not, after all this time he is inspiring us to emulate him year after year. Take a look in a mirror when you are in the store and putting yet another toy in your cart, and you just might get a glimpse of the jolly old elf dressed in your clothing. Happy St. Nicholas Day to all, and to all a Gute Nacht.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Pope's Endorses Condom Use: A Door Opens

Article first published as The Pope's Endorses Condom Use: A Door Opens on Blogcritics.

Though it may be difficult for people who are not Catholic to understand the church and its leadership, do not think that Catholics themselves ever understand things any better. Some of us too were caught by surprise when we heard the recent news that Pope Benedict XVI had endorsed limited use of condoms (by male prostitutes). While some may see this as bizarre, it does open a door that many of us may have thought was permanently sealed at the Vatican.

A few days later, the Vatican "clarified" its position and basically said that "all" people should be able to use condoms as a way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. In this amazing turnaround, it seems that the Vatican somehow realized that it cannot be the stalwart supporter of a "right to life" for the unborn without wanting to save the lives of those already living.

This whole business of the Pope's opening a door shows an awareness that has been very much needed and a long time coming. As a leader of the world's Catholics, the Pope still does have the authority and respect of many people (many non-Catholics respect him as a holy man as much as they would respect the Daili Lama). His recognition of the realities of AIDS spread through sexual activity is a milestone for the Vatican and a crucial move toward facing the realities of the twenty-first century.

This does not mean that Catholic teenagers everywhere will start using condoms, or for that matter adults or even the male prostitutes for whom the Pope originally made this statement. Still, it does infiltrate into the common understanding of people that condoms can be used to stop the spread of a killer disease. If in the process this also stops unwanted pregnancies, then some may see that there is an additional benefit from this pronouncement.

When I heard this news, I couldn't help thinking about a story of a young girl I knew over twenty-five years ago. As her 8th grade teacher I felt she was articulate to the point of putting college grads to shame. "Tanya" was a straight-A student, and at thirteen she had the whole world ahead of her and confessed that "I have big dreams for myself." I had visions of her becoming anything she wanted to be, but I did imagine her becoming a doctor because of her love of science and a desire to "save the world" from everything.

Unfortunately, this young lady became pregnant. When she disappeared from my class a few months later, I learned about this from her mother. I did not see her again until graduation day when I saw her sitting on the steps of a house across the street watching her classmates in their caps and gowns as they filed into the auditorium for commencement.

Some of the kids saw her and waved, but they had their own appointments with destiny inside those doors, and they moved on. I ran across the street and sat next to her. I asked her how she was doing, and she held her swollen stomach and said, "I'm due any day now." Tears streamed down her face and I had to fight back my own. Tanya told me how she wanted the boy to use a condom, but he told her, "I'm not wearing that. It's against my religion." Then this "good" Catholic boy took her virginity and impregnated her.

Here was the girl I felt would be a star, and now she sat there about to become a mother and was watching all her friends go off to get the dream she might never attain. I only had a few minutes and asked if she was well and what her plans were. She said her mother would help her raise the baby. The baby's father ran away. He was an older boy who never graduated from high school. He had no job and no prospects and now he left her with a baby and little if any hope.

Well, I went into that auditorium that day and fought away the tears. I figured I'd never see Tanya again, but I did see her a few years later on the L train as I left a meeting in Manhattan and was going home. She sat on the train with her mother and a little boy, and she was feeding him broken cookies from a plastic bag. She recognized me and said, "Hi, Mr. L." I sat down next to her mother and she said, "This is my son Tyrone."

The girl was now around seventeen and did not look well. I asked her how she was doing and she cried, leaning against her mother's arm like the little girl she used to be.

Her mom turned to me and said, "She is very sick, Mr. L. She has the AIDS."

I looked at Tyrone, who seemed very healthy, and asked, "Is Tyrone okay?"

"Yeah," her mom said, fighting back her own tears. "His tests come back negative so far."

There was no way to talk about things with them like I would when I ran into other former students. I couldn't ask her about high school because she never went to one. I couldn't ask her about her plans for college. Anything and everything she should be looking forward to was gone.

Tanya looked up at me and wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand. " married yet, Mr. L?"

I couldn't believe that she could even think about me in this situation. I just shook my head. "No, not yet." Sometimes I thought I was too involved in my studies. I was getting a doctorate and it was consuming my time, so I was putting off the rest of my life thinking there was always tomorrow. Sitting there and listening to Tanya clarified my own mortality; I realized I didn't have all the time in the world.

We talked about Tyrone after that. He liked the Incredible Hulk. He liked Barney and Elmo and all the things kids like. As I heard him say "More cookie" to his mother, I watched Tanya's frail hand shake as she fed another piece to him.

I got off the train at my stop and turned to watch them through the window as the sliding doors hushed to a close. The familiar ringing sound could be heard, and through the smudged glass I saw Tyrone lean against Tanya and she against her mother. The train went on into the darkness of the tunnel, and I knew I would never see her again.

All these years later the Pope made his pronouncement, and I thought about Tanya almost immediately. Even if John Paul II (the Pope back in those days) had issued a similar edict, there would be no way of knowing if that boy would have used a condom, but it makes me wonder. I also wonder what happened to Tyrone. No doubt his grandmother raised him and maybe, just maybe, he had his mother's innate intelligence and went on to be the doctor she never could be, working to cure AIDS and other diseases. At least that's what I want to think.

The Pope's endorsement surely will save lives, and that has to count for something, but it's all too late for a girl who dreamed big and was lost to the ravages of a disease that marches on, regardless of policy, like a wildfire consuming everything in its path. Some may think what the Pope has said is too little to late, but for all the Tanyas out there and the Tyrones yet to be born, it may just save some lives and help to abate the cruelty of an illness without a consciousness that soldiers on and on.