Saturday, July 10, 2004


An Update

For those who have been paying close attention to my website, the story section has taken on a new life. The four stories posted today are from the site as it existed before this week. From now on the "Story of the Week" section will be redirected to this blog site. If you've read these four stories already, a new piece posted earlier this week is at the bottom, entitled "Subway's Greatest Hits, Part 1."

If you're not familiar with the blog format, pieces appear in the order of when they were posted to the site, hence, the appearance of the older material appearing first. After today, this will no longer be the case, and you will not have to scroll down to see the newer material.

New visitors please check out my complete website,

Thanks for checking in.

Normal is in the Eye of the Beholder

Normal is in the Eye of the Beholder

Billy Tonelli always used the late afternoon to get ready for Happy Hour. The place was usually empty between 2:00 and 5:00 and he could get everything in order and still have time to get some reading done. Billy was almost startled when the door opened and Valium Jimmy slowly shuffled in, sat on his favorite stool, pulled out a twenty and placed it on the bar.
Billy stopped cutting limes and brought Jimmy his usual shot and a beer. He was surprised to see anybody at that hour, especially Valium Jimmy. Usually Jimmy didn’t get there until at least 9:30. Mostly Jimmy came in alone, though sometimes his long time living companion accompanied him. Billy referred to her as The Three R’s (Rude Repulsive Rita).
Billy thought to himself that Jimmy looked worse than ever. His hair was greasy and seemed plastered to his forehead. His clothes were wrinkled and had a few new tears, made more obvious due to the number of missing buttons. His white on white pallor made him the leading candidate for being poster boy of vitamin deficiency. Jimmy was quite a sight. Even before this day, Billy already theorized that the extremely pasty Jimmy slept in a coffin with dirt imported from Transylvania.
Billy never referred to Jimmy as Valium Jimmy to his face. There were three regular Jimmies that he identified by their careers. This was the Jimmy who always had an abundance of Valium tablets and traded them for cash or jewelry. Generally speaking, it could be relied upon that within the first two minutes of any conversation, Jimmy could be heard to ask: ‘So, you looking for some V’s?’
Billy kept a suspicious eye on the short, weaselly Jimmy. As long as none of the transactions involved Billy and didn’t take place in the tavern, Jimmy was allowed to stay.
“Let me tell you how my day went,” Jimmy mumbled. “I should say how my days went. I’ve been up since yesterday.”
“Are you gonna lay a long thing on me?” Billy responded with a slight tone of sharpness. He already knew the answer even though he still posed the question. Billy’s patience had been tried innumerable times by Jimmy since the first day Jimmy walked in the door and decided that this would be his new favorite bar. Billy subsequently found out that there were two previous favorites where Jimmy had been eighty-sixed.
It wasn’t that he was boring. Quite the contrary. It was just that Jimmy had a habit of telling very long stories about things that Billy wanted no knowledge of. Billy was now the less than proud owner of many unpleasant images that he would be stuck with for life, thanks to Jimmy’s generosity with his personal information. When Jimmy imparted his worldly views of his life experience, it soiled Billy’s existence.
Jimmy launched into his story even though he knew that Billy probably wouldn’t listen. It was just something he had to say out loud; just to see if what came out of his mouth matched what he had just lived through.
“So last Thursday my goddam car was booted and towed. I had to get down to traffic court and pay my goddam parking tickets and get the goddam car out of hock. I had to take the goddam bus. I hate the goddam bus.”
Billy was already looking for things to clean. Jimmy continued.
“Not only did I have to take the goddam bus, but I had to get up early! Goddam traffic court closes at 4:00 in the afternoon! So I get on the bus, and who do I run into? Joey. That mope.”
Joey was another regular. Joey had been a middleweight boxer going nowhere, getting a few bucks a fight to be the punching bag of someone on the way up, when he decided to make a career change. Joey wanted to be an actor, like Tony Danza. He figured that Tony Danza had gone from being a fighter to an actor and he could do it too. There were just a couple of problems standing in Joey’s way. He was completely devoid of training and any skill, and had absolutely none of the charm that Tony Danza possesses. Joey quickly became an ex-fighter-out-of-work-actor-wannabe.
Jimmy downed his shot and took a couple of gulps of beer before continuing. Billy was polishing the coffee machine.
“It’s crowded as hell on the goddam bus but of course there’s nobody sitting next to Joey. He sees me right away and insists I sit with him. He goes into this whole thing about how he’s broke and living with his sister and her kids and it’s driving him nuts and how he’s got to get out. I figure he’s hitting me up for a loan, so I tell him about how broke I am over the goddam tickets and the goddam car. He says to me, ‘you need money too?’ and I says ‘yeah.’ So then he says to me, real loud, ‘I’m gonna boost a bank.’
“I figure he’s kidding and I start to laugh, and he says ‘I’m serious. I got a place all picked out. There’s no cameras in there and the guard is half asleep all the time. It’ll be a piece of cake. I need a second, what do you say?’
“I look around and there’s a dozen people staring at us. I says ‘Joey you’re nuts. Don’t say another word. I don’t wanna know nothin’ about this.’
Jimmy took another gulp of beer. Billy stopped cleaning and started listening.
“So I get off the bus at traffic court and after standing in line for an hour and a half, I find I gotta get some more money from the cash machine to get the car back! I took too much time to get there, and they charged me a goddam storage fee! So I go to this place around the corner. I’m outside at the cash machine and some asshole has spilled some sticky shit all over the goddam machine and the number buttons are stuck and it won’t take my card! I go inside the place to see if there’s another machine, and there’s Joey! He’s sticking up the place! He yells across the whole place ‘HEY JIMMY! I THOUGHT YOU WEREN’T COMING! GIMME A HAND HERE!’
“I’m totally frozen like a goddam deer in the goddam headlights and like twelve cops come running in! Goddam teller tripped the goddam silent alarm before I even walked in the place! Nearly everyone in the bank said that I was with Joey. Look what they did to my goddam shirt! They dragged me to the goddam paddy wagon and threw me in the back in a goddam puddle of who-knows-what! I spent the night in jail and it wasn’t ‘til a half an hour ago that they finally figured out that I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it! Can you believe that shit?”
Jimmy polished off the beer and signaled for another. Billy obliged.
After a long silence Jimmy felt he needed more conversation. “So what was your day like?”
“Three small lunch groups, took a couple of deliveries, sold a few lottery tickets, nothing out of the ordinary… just like yours.”
Jimmy nodded to Billy, understanding.


Lucky Odyssey

(An Average Day in L.A., 12/1/94)

Driving home trying to figure out what to make for dinner, I heard the ad enticing me to visit the friendly , helpful, knowledgeable man in the meat department at Lucky.
“That’s it!” I said to myself, out loud. It’s not unusual for me to talk to myself in the car. “I’ll make pasta with prociutto, broccoli and garlic sauce! There’s no meat in the house. I can stop at Lucky. It’s on the way home.”
I found the friendly, knowledgeable, helpful meat man stocking the cooler with roasting chickens.
“Where do you have prociutto?”
“What’s that?”
Uh-oh. “It’s Italian spiced ham.”
“Never heard of it. If I never heard of it we probably don’t have it.” He went back to stocking the cooler. Yes, indeed, knowledgeable and helpful.
Settling on making my continuously variable no recipe “Rob’s Famous hodgepodge Of Whatever Is In The Cabinet Delight,” I wandered the aisles trying to remember what we were out of in the home kitchen.
I ran into my good friend and neighbor (and landlord), Dave. He was just finishing up and was getting into the checkout line, but I still had things to locate.
Several minutes later I was done with my shopping. Dave was still at the checkout counter with a long line behind him, people obviously getting frustrated. Two managers were working on the machine. I couldn’t stop myself from giving Dave a good-natured hard time.
“Did you break the cash register?”
“Don’t get in this line! There’s something wrong here!”
I looked at my options.
With only six or seven items in my carry-basket, I easily could have gotten into the express line unchallenged, but with at least twelve people in line there, it appeared to be anything but express. All of the other lines were much shorter.
Quickly stepping into a line with only two people turned out to be a poor way to occupy the next fifteen minutes.
The woman at the front of the line was nearly done and next was a guy with only a few things and he was already loading them onto the conveyor. The woman was getting her last items checked and was preparing to pay.
I looked over the guy in front of me. His thick, dark sunglasses hid his eyes, but nothing else.
I couldn’t help but notice his cheap, ill-fitting wig of light brown hair with his own gray sideburns and fringe sticking out from under it. His sunglasses also couldn’t mask his pockmarked face, his extreme overindulgence in after-shave, or his shiny polyester resale shop seventies disco shirt. The contents of his basket were dozens of cans of cat food and a bag of apples.
It was the first of December and the woman was cashing her welfare check. The line stopped completely as the register broke down. There was something wrong with the printer or something having to do with paying by check.
By now, I had put my things on the conveyor and there were people behind me. There was no way out.
Mr. Saturday Night Fever stood silently in front of me while the cashier tried to solve the problem. I began to count the cans of cat food, just out of curiosity. There were over fifty cans-- about half a dozen each of several different brands. A week’s supply for nine or ten cats that apparently all demanded their favorite flavor.
A finger started to incessantly poke me in the back. I turned and there was a woman about fifty of so, slightly pudgy with stringy salt and pepper hair and a few missing teeth. Pointing at one of the checkout stand magazines featuring a gallery of photos and stories about America’s Favorite Serial Killers, she launched into her thought for the day segment on the talk show in her head, where I was the day’s guest.
“How about that Dahmer guy? He got what was coming to him didn’t he?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“They should have killed him the day they caught him.”
The guy in front finally spoke. “What the Hell is taking so long?” The sunglasses couldn’t mask his affected lisp either.
The manager came over to help the cashier as the poking in my back resumed.
“You know, maybe they should have let him live longer so that he could have been miserable in prison, you know, all locked up like that with everyone hating him openly... YEAH! They should have made him miserable for a good long time and THEN beat him to death!”
“I guess they could have done that.”
“They SHOULD have!”
Then from in front of me: “These MEXICANS with their FOOD STAMPS! Why can’t I get food stamps for my CATS?”
Poke poke poke. “O.J. is guilty, I know it.”
“Really? Were you there? Do you know someone working on the case?”
“No, I just know it.”
Then from in front of me, louder this time: “Wish I could get food stamps for my cats!”
Poke poke poke with one hand, pointing at a copy of the Sun with the other: “She deserved it though. Will you look at that! She was a coke snorting lesbian! Just like that Heidi!”
“Heidi Fleiss is a lesbian?”
“She WILL be after a little while in the SLAMMER! Why do these FOREIGNERS get FOOD STAMPS? I should get food stamps! It costs A LOT to feed my cats!”
Finally whatever the problem was got resolved and the line moved forward. I escaped the store, got myself home and ordered out Chinese.


Ten-Four Good Buddies, Over and Out

Ten-Four Good Buddies, Over and Out

Dear Sirs:
Now that the production has opened and seen its first public performances and press reviews, I am filing my report as requested.
I am severely dissatisfied with the progress and state of the dance program that you employed me to be production manager of. I write to you today to outline my grievances surrounding the events of the past few weeks. I find at least some guilt in each of you, therefore I am writing to all of you.
First, Mr. Pembroke. I realize that as a megastar of the industry, your schedule prevents you from showing up to rehearsals, over-committed to so many projects paying you so many tens of thousands of dollars each. Your lack of being on the scene kept you from dishing out the abuse that I suffered at the hands of your partners, therefore I have little ill feeling toward you by comparison. I like you just as a prisoner under interrogation likes the cop that abused him the least. The initial reviews are in: What you contributed to the project is exactly the same piece that you have choreographed in three other current shows running in major cities. You have the least of the guilt, along with the least imagination.
And now, Mr. Edgerton. I must say this in your defense: You are the only one who in any way acknowledged that I was poorly treated. You should know. You dished out half of it. You said that the production and its conditions turned you into something you don’t like, and never wish to become. I accept that. You are something I don’t like and never wish to become as well. A jet-propelled asshole. With your apology of the other night, you feel as though you are absolved of guilt in your abusive treatment of me. Since you are an atheist, it is me who must absolve you. You have no God and no priestly figure to do it for you. Not only do I not accept your apology, I do not accept your dismissal. There are still twelve weeks left on my contract, and I expect payment in full. You feel guilty? You want absolution? Here is your opportunity. Put your money where your large, backbiting mouth is. You’ll get your absolution when the check clears. Until then, fuck you. If I don’t hear from you within the next fourteen days, I will be in contact with the National Labor Relations Board. I’m confident that you will find it infinitely easier to pay me off rather than have a battalion of federal investigators, wearing jack-boots and miner’s helmets, marching shoulder to shoulder up your cavernous rectum.
Last, but far from least of the partnership, would be you, Mr. Pudnicki. The wunderkind of Broadway dance. Obviously you can fool all of the people some of the time. Not this time, pal. The feelings I hold for you are akin to what I previously reserved for my high school football coach. Please accept this warm invitation to descend to the subway station beneath your office building and French kiss the third rail.
I have evidence that you intentionally set me up with impossible tasks so that when they were not completed, you could verbally abuse me publicly. You took my reports on the lack of feasibility to execute your ideas within budget and altered them. You even physically grabbed me. The only reason you still have all your parts attached is because at the time of that incident, I still held out hope that once the rehearsal process was over, I would be rid of you and that conditions would improve. Any further touching of me will be regarded as an attempted assault and I will defend myself accordingly, and I will defend myself until you are a motionless blob of ectoplasm. Don’t forget: I lived for years in neighborhoods that would make you wet your didies just to drive through, Mr. Beverly Hills princey-boy.
For some time, I have wanted to call you a piece of shit, but I now realize that to do so would be a disservice to self respecting shit worldwide. You are not worth what I scrape off the bottom of my shoes after I have been dancing in a dog park. Judging from the reviews in the Los Angeles Times and Variety, that dance would be far more interesting than anything you could choreograph.




Everything was gray in Butch’s world. He looked around his tiny cell for what seemed like the ten-thousandth time. No way out.
The smell! It was completely overpowering. He sensed the deaths of many others who had occupied this same, too small place.
Death row. He knew it, even though he could not understand the language of the people who were his keepers. There was no mistaking it. Every day since his arrival in this bleaker than bleak place he heard the terrible wailing of the others who shared his plight. Depression set in as soon as he arrived. At first his mind raced with thoughts of escape. He clawed futilely at the concrete floor. As each day passed, resignation grew.
He had done nothing wrong! When he was captured, all he was doing was walking down the street! Out of nowhere, men in uniform drove up in a large black and white truck. A chain was put around his neck and he was dragged by the throat to the truck and thrown into the back, then driven to this hellhole.
Butch was stripped of freedom and dignity. Internment without trial. He was treated like he was some kind of terrorist, but he was innocent! Why?! He was as mystified by his circumstances as he was depressed by them.
The food was terrible. Dehydrated meat mixed with corn meal, accompanied by not enough water. Tasteless and barely enough nutrition to sustain him. He grew weaker by the day.
The deadly monotony was broken occasionally by people who would walk by his cell and look at him and mutter in their incomprehensible language. In addition, once a day, the men in uniform came and dragged him out of his cell by the chain around his neck. He was then taken to an exercise yard to walk for twenty minutes or so. He knew the end was near.
A man, a woman and a child who appeared to be their young daughter came and looked into his cell. There was an indescribable aura of warmth about them that Butch felt, but could not describe.
A uniformed guard opened his cell and grabbed the chain. He handed the chain to the man, who in turn handed it to the girl. She spoke to Butch in her strange language as though he could understand. She had a reassuring tone that came through loud and clear.
Butch jumped up with excitement, licking her face and wagging his tail uncontrollably. He was saved.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004


Subway's Greatest Hits, Part 1

Subway’s Greatest Hits, Part 1

In the city so nice they named it twice there’s a transportation system that is easily accessible to all. For two bucks a ride, anyone can get just about anywhere on the cramped overpriced island of hustle.
I ride the New York City subway system almost daily, and have done so for four years now. In my capacity of part-time teaching artist in the city’s high schools I have now worked two school years in four of the five boroughs, spending more time on the subway going to and from various schools than I have spent in the classrooms. The things I have witnessed on the train cars and on the platforms could not be believed by the uninitiated. Some of the most memorable follow.


My favorite performers, bar none, were the E train gymnasts. Three inner-city youths who made a very good living (I know because I gave them money every time I saw them, along with almost every passenger on the car). They came on with a boom box, blasting rap music and taking turns using the bars as parallel bars, spinning on vertical bars and doing floor exercise stunts I had previously only seen in the Olympics in the aisles of the subway car, culminating in two of them on their hands and knees while the third ran the length of the car and did a flip over the two in an Evel Kneivel like daredevil maneuver. All this performed on a moving subway train. I saw them several times, and nobody ever fell during a stunt and no passenger was ever injured by errant body parts.


Some very skilled musicians that I have encountered include: A Tracy Chapman look-and-sound-alike (hell, maybe it WAS Tracy Chapman) on the E platform at Lexington and 53rd Street. A classical string quartet in the passageway between the 6 train and the F train at Bleecker Street. A four piece Blues band in the station at 34th and Broadway (I bought their CD). All manner of players of exotic Asian stringed instruments. A Mexican duo playing acoustic guitar and accordion skillfully singing Mexican folk songs. An outstanding a cappella do-wop quartet. These people play for change and dollar bills for long hours, and most of them are a breath of fresh air. Conversely, there’s…


There is an acoustic guitar player who has steadily improved over the years. He has truly gotten to be a skilled guitarist. His problem: he insists on singing. This is a man whose voice sounds like his nose, larynx, and testicles have been seized by an army of living clothespins. I’m sure that military intelligence will be using him shortly at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan to excise confessions. I know I would confess to just about anything after a few hours of this guy.

Just the other day I was on the R train and a highly skilled sax player who’d reached the end of his rope was blasting “Pop Goes the Weasel” and followed that with abstract trills that could make rats go cannibalistic. When people began screaming at him to stop he screamed back that he would stop when they gave him money. “Give me money and I’ll go away! I won’t stop until you pay me to leave!” He achieved his goal and moved to the next car and began his blackmail by audio torture on a new set of commuters.

On occasion there is a singer-guitarist that pollutes the L line. I have seen this guy at Union Square and at Bedford Avenue. At Union Square I heard him slaughter “No Woman No Cry” and asked a fellow traveler on the platform if he thought Bob Marley would be flattered or appalled at the sound of this. The traveler listened for a couple of seconds, looked at me and laughed as we both said “appalled” at the same time. This guy is one of those people who screech louder at the end of each verse for punctuation. I wanted to be in possession of a stun gun at that moment. At Bedford Avenue I saw the same guy wailing random notes until I figured out that he was singing John Lennon’s “Just Like Starting Over” and came to the conclusion that he only performs songs by dead songwriters to lessen his odds of being assaulted by an artist. When I heard him on the Bedford Avenue platform I prayed that the train come as soon as possible, not just to be carried away, but because I thought that the sound of the train’s braking system would be a pleasant change.

Whenever I hear a substandard musician or someone trying to be a substandard musician (substandard being a quantum leap upwards for some of these people) I recall the story of Sonny Rollins. The jazz great became unhappy with how he sounded and disappeared from the scene for two years. He played under a bridge where nobody could hear him play, his sound drowned out by traffic noise. Two years of playing several hours a day where nobody could hear him, until he was satisfied with his technique. There have been some subway musicians that I have told that story to, hoping they get the hint. On one occasion, when the offender listened to my retelling of the story of Sonny Rollins, smiled and nodded and took up his instrument for a fresh assault, I said bluntly “I’m telling you to go play under a bridge for two years.”


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