Saturday, July 17, 2004


Guns Without Butter

Most of my writings have been in a humorous vein. Not today. Gun violence has been on my mind this week. I'm told that the majority of people never know anyone who's been the victim of gun violence. Somehow, I've known way more than my share. I was never in the armed forces, and though I had a low lottery number in the last days of people going to Vietnam, somehow I was never drafted, and therefore never saw the war firsthand. Still, I've seen two shootings on the street in my lifetime, and people that I know have been touched by the carnage of the dark side of American life.
Whenever I see a report in the news about someone who went on a murder/suicide rampage I always say that they did the shootings in the wrong order. I have never owned a gun, probably because I know myself well enough to know that I probably should not own one. In my younger days I had quite a temper. I grew up around some pretty abusive people, and that has given me somewhat of an attitude. I'm happy to say that I've mellowed considerably. From August of 1992 to October of 1993 I had a losing streak of biblical proportions, things that would have driven almost anyone totally insane. I did not react well. I'm sorry to admit that I could have easily become one of those disgruntled ex-employees that pop up in the news all too often. In that time I ended my first marriage, got dumped by a woman that I was totally in love with, and lost my home. My father-in-law, who I loved like he was my own father, had heart surgery that went wrong and he died within 24 hours of the operation, and I had to take my newly estranged wife on a 500 mile drive to Duluth help arrange the funeral, staying in the house of my in-laws, Jan's mourning family including her six hockey playing brothers treating me like I was a treasonous bastard for leaving their sister. Upon returning to Chicago I found out that my college roommate, someone who was like a brother to me, was dying of inoperable cancer. And that was just the first three-and-a-half weeks of that fourteen month period. Things did not improve. I didn't take it well. Even though I was bouncing back and forth between deep depression and rage, I still never bought a gun. When I lost my job because I was so impossible to be around, I took this out on my former bosses and convinced them that I could indeed kill them at any minute and mentally terrorized them. I am not proud of that, but I am proud that I never fully crumbled. I am past it, married again, have built a new life, and am very happy.
I met Bryn Hartman about six months before she shot her gifted actor husband Phil in his sleep and subsequently turned the gun on herself. I met her at a barbecue in the home of a mutual friend, had a very pleasant conversation with her, and had no idea that there was anything amiss.
Jan, my first wife, had a niece ( I guess you could call her my niece as well, for that matter) who was murdered by a deeply mentally troubled ex-boyfriend when she went to visit him on New Year's Day a few years ago to tell him she had taken a job in another state. Even though he had a record of mental imbalance he was still able to buy a gun because the state of Minnesota sealed his medical records, and the gun shop had no way of knowing that he should not be in possession of a firearm. She was a beautiful, sweet, smart young woman in her twenties at the time of her death. This was not the only person associated with my first wife who met such an end. One of her best friends from high school in Duluth became a deeply religious Christian, married someone from her church, and had children. She and Jan hadn't seen each other in many years, probably because they had gone their separate ways once she joined her church (Jan not being a church type). One year, on Thanksgiving, the woman's teenage son killed everyone in the family except the father (Jan's old friend's husband), who was late coming home. Apparently the son turned the gun on himself when he got tired of waiting for the father to come home for dinner. This happened in the late 1980s, as I recall. Nobody who knew the family had any inkling that anything was wrong. They were active in their church and seemed happy.
This has been on my mind all week since hearing the news of a cousin of mine. I barely knew her. My mother's side of the family has always been pretty close. Growing up I spent many a weekend and holiday with aunts, uncles and cousins close and distant. We had annual picnics with dozens of extended family members. I know all of my mother's first cousins reasonably well, and have met their children. One of these cousins was, for a time, my optometrist. He had two daughters, fairly close to me in age. My sister called me last week to inform me that my cousin's daughter had broken up with her husband and had been living in my cousin's house with her children, my cousin's grandchildren. Apparently this divorce was going very badly. The husband showed up for his scheduled visitation. They had a fight in the driveway in front of my cousin's home. She went inside, got a gun, came back out and shot her husband three times in the driveway, went back inside the house into a bedroom and shot herself. This was with my cousin and the grandchildren in the house. Neighbors all said that they knew that the couple had been arguing, but it had never gone beyond shouting to anyone's knowledge.
Although many Americans seem to fear the strangers, report after report and study after study tell us that we have much more to fear from those we know. Co-workers and relatives who are with us all the time can hurt us much worse emotionally than strangers, and the depth of that hurt can bring on these flashes of rage. We have nothing at stake with strangers. Most people have more of a chance to be hit by lightening or win the lottery than to be killed by random violence.
I understand that people like jewelry salesmen probably have the need to own a gun. Just yesterday there was a million dollar heist of such a person here in New York, well planned and executed by a team. There is no evidence, however, that this person would have been able to stop the robbery, and if armed would likely have been killed himself.

It is important to remember that most police officers have found that guns in the hands of those who are not fully trained, when at the time of crisis, were often stripped of those guns which were then turned on the lawful owner by the assailant. Anyone can be gotten to by someone who is determined enough. Remember Ronald Reagan. To put it into pop culture terms, on an episode of "The West Wing" there was a shooting where the president was wounded, and someone brought up the issue of gun ownership by the general public. It was pointed out that the president, a man who has an army of bodyguards better armed and trained than anyone in the history of the world was still shot by a lone nut. The more guns that are on the street, the more are used, which means that more innocent lives are lost or permanently altered by physical maiming or mental damage.

I have no easy answer to this issue. There is none. The genie is out of the bottle. We will never get all the guns off the street. I believe that it should be very difficult to buy new guns, but then again, I don't own stock in Wal-Mart or K-Mart, or for that matter Smith and Wesson, Colt, or any other arms manufacturer. I heard a comic once say in his act (I can't remember who it was, or I'd credit him) that guns could be as cheap as dirt, but bullets should be $10,000 each. THEN people would think twice before shooting. But then again, maybe not.

Friday, July 16, 2004


Backstage It's Always Halloween

            It doesn't have to be October. Anytime can be the time of year where all those in the theater world have that discussion close to our hearts and minds… Are there really theater ghosts? As far as this reporter is concerned, to quote that Neil Diamond tune made famous by The Monkees, I’m a believer.
            When beginning my Equity apprenticeship as assistant stage manager at Shady Lane Playhouse in Marengo, IL, one of my first tasks was to assist the stage manager in cleaning up the backstage area. This was no small job, as it had been trashed by two former disgruntled employees. When these two had been informed that their services were no longer going to be needed, their last good-bye to the small dinner theater was to hurl anything not nailed down in any direction they saw fit.
            Marengo is a small town, some 60 miles outside of Chicago, and Shady Lane Playhouse was a location perfectly suited for campfire tales. The theater was literally in a former barn, with a restaurant and gift shop in adjacent buildings. Actually, my first task was to remove the bird nest from the air cleaner of the company station wagon.
            The backstage area at Shady Lane held two large dressing rooms, a prop storage room, a tool area, a refrigerator and the costume loft.
            The stage manager and I arrived one week before any of the actors were due, and we had the place to ourselves. We spent the first day on the job getting to know each other making small talk while engaged in our drudgery of the massive clean up. Several hours into a very long day of picking up props and tools, sorting them into an organized, sensible manner, and mopping or spraying every dressing room surface, I had the unmistakable feeling that someone was watching me. I looked up to the costume loft and saw a man, dressed in a white jacket, looking at me and smiling. The man looked nothing like the stage manager, who was a young, attractive blonde woman from New Jersey.
            I ran up the stairs to the costume loft looking for the intruder. It was the only entrance.
            “What happened?!” She called out to me, nervously.
            “I saw somebody up here!”
            “Oh, my God! Don’t say that!”
            I tore through the loft looking through every pile of clothing. Nothing. She joined me in my futile search.
            “You must have imagined it. We’re tired.”
            “I was sure I saw something!”
            “Well, there’s nothing here.”
            “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
            Months passed. The incident was forgotten. Shady Lane had the longest summer stock contract in the U.S., some 40 weeks. The season started with a cast of three and ended with four, with shows in between having casts of up to ten actors. Actors were cast out of New York, and three were with us for the duration, with others having shorter runs in between. Some of the actors had worked there before.
            As each new actor arrived, the standard “getting to know you” sessions would take place. We were all confirmed city people out in the middle of nowhere, working in a theater adjacent to one of Illinois’ largest hog farms.
            One of the later arrivals was an actress who had worked there for several seasons. For her, working at Shady Lane was sort of a summer get-away and qualify for this year’s health insurance gig. We engaged in small talk surrounding the theater and its oddities.
            “So have you seen the ghost?” She asked me.
            “What ghost?” I said with a tone of incredulity.
            “The theater has a ghost.”
            “Yeah, right, sure, the theater has a ghost.” I was totally dismissive.
            “He hangs out in the costume loft and wears a white jacket. We think it’s Frank, the original owner. Several people have seen him over the years.”
            Chills immediately washed over me. I had never mentioned the incident again and it was her first day there. I saw his face. Now I’m a believer. Not a trace… of doubt in my mind… 

Monday, July 12, 2004


Subway's Greatest Hits, Part 2

There are eight million residents within the city limits. Combine that with throngs that flock to work here from the suburbs, along with tens of thousands of tourists and business travelers on any given day. All of them are riding the subway car that I’m on at this very moment.

Most of these people are just trying to get someplace, doing the best they can to create a bubble around themselves, shutting out the outside world by the use of iPods, CD and cassette players, books, newspapers or magazines.

People can become very good at minding their own business on the subway. I recall a scene in the movie version of Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders.” Elliot Gould and Marcia Rodd are locked in an embrace. She is shot and killed by a sniper. Spattered with her blood and in shock, Gould’s character stumbles on autopilot into the subway and goes to his in-laws’ apartment. He sits on one of the plastic benches that line the sides of the subway car. The man sitting next to him looks at Gould briefly and pulls his jacket away from Gould so that the blood won’t get on his clothes. That is the level of minding one’s own business that can be achieved by the hard-bitten long time residents of the Big Apple.
Some riders just stare off into space or shut their eyes, viewers of their own dream theaters. Still others are walking from car to car and selling toys, batteries and candy. Even more are panhandling or collecting for charities that may or may not exist.

I do not fall into any of these categories. I look. I listen. I even talk to people.

The subway does have its own special scenery. Ad posters for hair care products, beer or flavored malt beverages, English as a second language schools, the Bronx zoo, and clinics that promise easy payment plans for skin disorders and tattoo removal line the space above the subway car windows. In the boroughs where the subway is not a subway, but an elevated train (reminding me of my hometown of Chicago), I look at classic residential architecture along with buildings in various states of construction or disrepair. Graffiti of various nature is everywhere. It runs the gamut from high quality art to gang symbols, street poetry, political statements, and annoying repetitive tagging by morons who need to see their names scrawled on any free square foot.

The rest of the scenery is made up of my fellow passengers. As I have said in the past, for two bucks they let anyone get on. This is why it’s called “public transportation.”

Earlier this year while on my way to Richmond Hill High School in Queens, late again, I was kicking myself for not getting out of my apartment five or ten minutes earlier. Looking repeatedly at my watch (as if that would help make the train get the hint that I was late and go faster) I noticed that sitting directly across from me a woman was staring intently at herself in a hand mirror, trying to steady herself by leaning against a vertical post next to her, and shaving her eyebrows. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud. I leaned to a woman sitting next to me, a pretty secretary on her way to her mid-town office, and said: “I was just kicking myself in the ass for being late, but now that I’ve seen someone shave their eyebrows on the subway, I know I took the right train.” She joined in the laughter.

In the same vein I have seen some major make-up errors due to a sudden shift or braking maneuver. Eye shadow and eyebrow pencil racing stripes that run to the ear or the hairline are my personal favorites. I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen paramedics come on board to remove tiny colored brushes from nasal cavities.

One February day I saw a man in a wetsuit carrying a surfboard, apparently on his way to hang ten on the famous curls of that famous surfing Mecca, the East River.

I won’t even go into the screaming religious fanatics or conspiracy theorists. Too many to mention or give any special attention to.

As I said, two bucks entry. It’s one of the cheapest shows in town.

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