The Old Trouper

I worked with Mickey Rooney once, on a thirty-second cheap-as-paper spot for some product, God MickeyHeadshotcolorknows what. We set up camera and lights in some tiny hotel room off Times Square, it was probably in the early Eighties.

We set up at 10, scheduled to shoot at 11. I worked with several stars of the old days in that era; even the nice ones were prone to leave you waiting a while while they primped, trying to recapture long-lost glory. They were, after all, survivors of the ultimate vanity profession. And Mickey had been out of the spotlight for awhile, so I expected someone a bit down in the dumps. I wouldn’t have been surprised by bitter and spiteful, either – I’d seen that from people who’d fallen from much less lofty heights.

Knock on the door at 11, here’s Mick. Tiny man, hair like old roots get hair, smile bigger than his face and enough energy to power the city. Neatly dressed and presentable but looking his age and who cares?

“Hey, nice to meet ya, where do you want me?”

 

We showed him the setup, pinned the mike to his lapel, did he want a run-through? Nope.

 

Turned on the lights, rolled camera, Mickey said his lines without cue cards word-perfect. I think we did three takes but we could have used any of them interchangeably, they were all virtually identical. The spot was 30 seconds, his read was 28 on the money.

 

“Anything else ya need? Another angle, maybe?”

 

Nope. He’s got his coat on and gone. If he was there fifteen minutes, it was a lot.

 

There was no pretension, no thoughts of art or posterity. It was a job. But ever since then, when I think of professionalism, that memory creeps in.

 

He knew his work and clearly held himself to a standard. It didn’t matter what we were doing, that wasn’t his job. The product wasn’t his job. He wasn’t trying to control everything. He knew his part in the process, plugged in and did it thoroughly, cooperatively, collaboratively and with a quality control that was absolutely rigid inside himself.

 

I have my doubts, with what little I know of his life, that he was always so easy to work with. I’m sure he had his edges – seven marriages (is that right?) (Editor’s Note: It’s eight! Talk about diminishing return!) has to be an indication of some big hole inside – but by the time I met him, the guy was a pro in the best sense.

 

One of the things I like about writing books is that I don’t have to answer to anybody along the way. I set the standards at my own level, such as it is. But not everything in life is that self-contained and when it comes to working with others, you could do worse for a role model than Mickey Rooney at 60.

 

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Tales of the City #3,643

If New Yorkers are different (and they’ll tell you they are), it’s because they’re Masters of Incongruity. If there’s anything New York excels at, Incongruity is it. Other cities have the best rivers flowing through the middle of town or the biggest mansions or the most cafes with waiters who are too good to talk to you. We compete for those honors but we don’t necessarily win. But when it comes to Incongruity, we’ve got it by the bucketful (truckful/transport aircraft full, choose your metaphor).

y fire 3Here’s just a little local slice:

See the building on the left? That’s the 14th Street Y, where I had hoped to use the elliptical machine for my workout.

See the building on the right, the red one? Yes, it’s a firehouse, one of the remaining old slice-of-New-York ones.

So naturally, who had a fire just when I needed my workout? The gym right next door to the firehouse. And of course, they had to send four engines, not just the two housed one foot away.

So all the firemen were standing around outside while a whole other group went through the building double-checking everything.  From what I heard, the fire was in the shower attached to the locker room attached to the pool and the exercise room where my elliptical machine – my intended – was waiting for me faithfully (or maybe not – I think she’s promiscuous when I’m not around).

y fire2How do you have a fire in a shower, that’s what I want to know?

Anyway, a motley group of gymrats was standing on the sidewalk outside in their shorts and T-shirts.

“Where’s your clothes?” (It’s ten degrees in Manhattan today, folks)

“They hustled us out. They’re inside.” He shivered. “I’ll never complain about the cold again as long as I got my coat on, never!”

I consoled myself with a slice of pizza from Artichoke’s next door (eat your heart out, Smitty). Slice of life, though, that’s the New York way.

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Truth Over Law

I’ve been quiet for a while because I’m WRITING (almost finished with Mindbenders 2: Under the Radar)! And I rarely deal with politics here because I think it’s mature of me to pick my battles and I try to be mature as often as it comes natural.

Edward_Snowden-2

But the NY Times today published an editorial (well worth reading -link here) recommending clemency or a plea bargain for Edward Snowden, who exposed a long list of NSA abuses in a stream of articles published in the Guardian and the Times and the editorial unleashed a shitstorm of responses characterizing Snowden as either an evil traitor or God’s gift. I just added this comment to the Times page and thought I’d reprint it here for the twenty of you that read this page. Sometimes you just have to stand up for something:

 

 

To the Times:

The President’s own commission scorched his program (when’s the last time that happened?).

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle agreed that the NSA wildly overstepped its boundaries (by having none at all) and all but the one toadie judge agreed.
So how can anyone say these revelations haven’t been a service to the nation and the world?
Does anyone believe any of this would have become public if someone like Snowden hadn’t come forward?
No, none of you do, even the ones who are going to write to flame this comment.
Snowden did break the law, but there is a long-standing history of light or suspended sentences when a higher truth was served and this is certainly one of those examples.
I suggest Snowden be sentenced to time served in exile in Russia – after that first vodka party at the airport, I doubt it’s been a whole lot of fun for him.

 

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A Tale of Two Myths

mcdonald ave -2

I stopped watching TV regularly when I started making documentaries, about twenty years ago. Maybe watching started to feel like work. But I taught my son at an early age that everything he saw on TV was pretend, because the shared stories of a culture are its myths and myths serve us on the level of need and desire, not reality.

Myths, unlike reality, involve choice, involve all kinds of issues of what you want (or at least are willing) to hear.

There are lots of ‘reality’ shows on our TV these days. What I know about them comes from a couple of glances gained in coincidence or by mistake and boils down to: a) There’s no reality there and b) Most of them seem designed to make us feel better by feeling superior to the idiots on the screen.

Which may be a better explanation of why I don’t watch a lot of TV.

Anyway, so I got off the subway at McDonald and 18th Avenue in Brooklyn the other day and saw the big TV lights set up on the corner. Not being in the business anymore, this was all fun to watch again so I walked up to the crew and asked “What’s the show?”

crew3-1

“Brooklyn Taxi.”

He must have seen the lack of recognition on my face because a moment later, he added:

“It’s showing in France. I think if it does well over there, they’ll bring it here.”

I thought that was wonderful – and telling.

McDonald Avenue is central Brooklyn, an ethnic stew. A swarm of Hasidic Jews, the Islamic Cultural Center right around the corner, the traditional Italians though their numbers may have dwindled in recent years and a lot of African-American faces as well. The elevated train tracks are rusted and the storefront signs hand-painted. Unlike Manhattan, the place hasn’t become overrun with chain stores. The streets look like something out of ‘The Professional” or ‘The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3″. It’s gritty and not at all glamorous, but these people are living together in a clamorous give-and-take, something the French have not had a lot of success creating with their immigrants in recent years.

So it seems like the French myth is the exoticism of the melting pot and ours is that the world is full of morons with even less taste than us.

Maybe we should aim a little higher.

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Brooklyn Nights

brooklyn window2

The night whispers in her ear as she turns the pages and the train clickety-clacks past the window. Her mind fills with dreams of distant destinations and Cleopatra.

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Home

We met two years ago today.

We’d exchanged a few emails and a couple of phone calls. I’d stood her up twice, once to help out a friend on short notice and once because I (really) got sick.

Our first date was five hours long, our second twelve. She struck me as kind of uptown when we first met but that faded fast as we got to know each other. And I’d read her writing before we met, so I knew her heart was amazing. I’d already decided that, even if I wasn’t romantically (or otherwise) attracted to her, I had to know her.

She was more cautious at first: ‘You’re in a relationship; I’m still dating,’ she told me once. Or twice. Or maybe three times, but the smile was getting broader by then. I was more ready to gamble, because I felt the possibility of something wonderful ahead, something I couldn’t be sure of because I’d never experienced it before.

claire brick wall v2I turned out to be right, which is an astonishment almost every day. We’ve had a wonderful time from the start.  The fun comes not only because we like many (by no means all) of the same things  but also because we really appreciate each other. We’re dream best friends, we crack each other up and we’re able to be ourselves in the other person’s company, which turns out to be the greatest of gifts.

So now I’ve moved to Manhattan. I have city traffic and ambulance sirens outside the window instead of Staten Island’s chirping birds and hot rods. But the peace I’ve been looking for all my life lives within these four walls, lives between the two of us. For the first time in my life, I come home every night.

 

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Commuting Adventures, Chapter 663

In Manhattan, rich people ride buses and subways, right alongside you and me. In Bloomberg’s world, this means that mass transit has to work – because those are his people – so, in Manhattan, it does. The buses are sleek, long, come frequently and go everywhere. The drivers generally know what they’re doing and are even somewhat nice to customers at times. As they should be – you never know who might be watching.

bus long shot v2smStaten Island, on the other hand, is America – everybody is supposed to have a car. Riding the bus is riding the wrong side of apartheid. You are poor and meaningless or you wouldn’t be here.

The buses are old rattletraps that lurch and bounce and bang so hard at every ripple in the road that you can’t talk on your phone even with headphones. Buses routinely arrive seven to nine minutes off the schedule, unless you live near the couple of stops where the inspectors lurk.

The drivers skip stops, ‘forget’ to open the back door when there’s a crowd of people trying to get out, drive away as customers run after them banging on the side of the bus and generally treat you like something on the bottom of their shoe. Understand that New York is all about winners and losers and  you will appreciate that being on the bottom of a bus driver’s shoe is an achievement and one to be avoided if at all possible.

Yesterday, we get off the ferry expecting to find a bus waiting. Most Staten Island buses are synchronized to the ferry. In this case, we wait ten minutes for one to arrive, once everyone else has long gone.

No, this isn't him...

No, this isn’t him…

One of the men waiting on line (naturally, right next to me) has his headphones on and is singing along. Not real obnoxiously at first, although his voice isn’t great unless you like the sound of bourbon. As time went on, he gets louder and louder. Being smart, resourceful New Yorkers, we all roll our eyes and continue to ignore him.

With the bus running late, naturally there are people lined up all along the route, so the bus is packed after about five stops, with twenty-five or so to go. So the bus starts skipping stops here and there, driving right by people who’ve been waiting for half an hour or more and now will wait half an hour more. No room.

A woman gets on early in the trip with a baby stroller and a really sweet-looking child of maybe three months. Signs all over the bus say strollers must be collapsed inside the bus. She manages somehow to push the stroller through the crowd to the rear door and leaves it there, taking a seat someone charitably gives her in the row behind. The door, being a modern creation full of self-awareness, begins to speak: ‘Please step away from the rear door.’ It repeats this message every ten seconds as we wend our way through the northern end of Staten Island. At some point, I hear a passenger ask her if she can’t fold up the stroller and she says ‘Yes, of course’ in a sweet tone of voice and proceeds to leave it untouched.

The two people crushed up against me have a conversation:

-That sounds like a good job. Why don’t you apply for that?

-I think I’m afraid of heights. Well, no – actually, I’m afraid of falling from heights. You know, you bend over and take a look and – no, I guess I am afraid of heights, now that I think about it.

By now, we’re about halfway across the island and the singer has been singing the entire trip from his throne at the back of the bus. And finally, he gets what he wants: somebody asks him to turn down the volume. If there was any room on the bus to duck, you’d see the whole busload of people bending in the opposite direction. You know what’s coming. The singer lets out a strain of invective that would honor a defrocked priest, all about his right to express himself and the other guy’s sad taste in music, ending in a repeated chant of ‘Sh*t or Get Off the Pot! Sh*t or Get Off the Pot!’

Passengers wisely ignoring everything around them...

Passengers wisely ignoring everything around them…

The driver, smart enough to not get involved in the singer’s argument, now announces over the PA (loudly): ‘Please move the stroller away from the rear door.’ Because the message is still sounding: ‘Please step away from the rear door’ every ten seconds. Maybe this woman doesn’t take orders from inanimate objects.  She ignores the PA as well.

The singer’s argument quickly devolves to ‘What’re you lookin’ at?!’ and things return to normal or what passes for it.

Three blocks later, a bunch of people get off and you can actually see the front of the bus. The driver gets out of his seat, stands with hands on hips and yells, ‘Lady, fold up that stroller! Now!’ and waits, staring, until the woman hands her baby to the friend sitting next to her (who knew she had a friend?), gets up reluctantly (and slowly) and folds up the carriage, placing it on the other side of the aisle. The door is satisfied; it stops speaking. The driver returns to his seat and we move on.

Conversation over my head:

-Is that a dalmation?

-With the woman jogging?

-Yeah.

-I think it’s a retriever – no, maybe that’s a pointer. But he looks like he’s saying ‘Can we go home now?’, doesn’t he?

And then it’s 9:36 and I reach my stop, calm and refreshed and ready to start my day at work…

 

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City of Characters, Number 372

I’m on the ferry heading to work this morning.

ferry doorsAs the boat is nubbing into port, I go to pull open the glass sliding door so we can all get off. and the guy standing next to me smiles and says “Charley – ”

Huh? My name’s not Charley and I don’t know this guy.

And then I realize, he’s talking about the guy on the other side of the glass door, one of the intrepid ones waiting on the outside deck for docking. He might be leaning lightly against the door from the other side.

Okay, no problem. I pull the door just a little bit, just enough for him to feel it and stand up straight, off the door. He does and I pull the thing the rest of the way.

Five seconds later, they drop the rope and the whole crowd heads off the boat. That’s when I note that Charley is listing, first in one direction and then the other.  Heading generally in the direction of home (off the boat, at least) but tacking this way and that like a sailboat into the wind. Walking oh so lightly, as though the ground might be moving just enough to trick him if he’s not careful.

He’s clearly had a long night, Charley has, and now he’s on his way home to sleep it off. Apparently this is not the first time either, so the ferry regulars know Charley and the careful treatment he requires.

New Yorkers love their characters and generally know how to take care of them. City of Characters, indeed.

 

 

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Invisible Forces at Work, Part two

I’m still working on ‘Mindbenders 2: Under the Radar’ (excerpts here). I hope you’re as anxious for me to finish as I am.

The problem – I’ll take this problem – is that the story keeps getting better. I keep finding things to add or improvements on what I had. So I’m happy with the results if not the ever-expanding timetable.

didnt die6-2 200 copyAnyway, in the meantime, I’m going to begin posting a few examples of the science behind the stories (here’s a previous post on the subject). Because, while I am surely taking liberties, the things that Renn and the other characters do are based on some very freaky but very real science.

Communication (and miscommunication) between two minds, unraveling steel cables without touching them, making wall paintings appear to be flying around a catacombs – all of these things build on the notion that there are forces that exist in nature without our being aware of them and that human beings with powerful concentration could manipulate them to their own ends. The manipulation part is my invention or at least exaggeration (I hope) but the invisible forces certainly do exist and from time to time, I’m going to link to examples on these pages. Because one of my motivations in writing these stories is to remind my readers – and myself – just how wondrous and strange our world is.

So here’s one that came to my attention today. It’s easy to say, “It’s only water.” But if a little sine wave can have that effect, what could a human being with immense concentration and intent do with the same force?

Use your imagination and you’ll have a window onto the next book (which will be arriving soon, I swear).

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On the Bus

I can’t help it – I just have one of those faces. I stop in a public place for a minute and someone has to tell me their life story.

different bus, different night...

different bus, different night…

I was riding the bus home the other night. When I got on, this fellow about my age in a baseball cap and a parka was sitting in the long seat by the front and immediately decided to strike up a (loud) conversation with me.

How are ya, fella? I’m a paranoid-schizophrenic.

I’m not dangerous—just off my meds. I ride this bus every day, unless they put me back in Rikers.

They bother ya, the city. They’re okay if you stay on the meds but you go off? Oh boy.

What you doing on the bus. You don’t have a car? A license? No? You paranoid-schizophrenic? Heroin addict? Crack addict?

Me: No—just poor.

You’re not poor. You probably have a condo, a coop, something.

(Shake my head no)

Okay, my stop. (gets up, announces to the passengers in general:)

I’m a paranoid-schizophrenic. I ride this bus every day, unless they put me in Rikers. (gets off)

 

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