Before I realized I’d said it I inadvertently suggested to Danusia “Why don’t we go to the beach?” Last Friday. We’d been talking about Labor Day weekend and maybe doing something special, and I know she’s very fond of the beach. I am not, which is why I was surprised I’d said it.
This would be the second time I’ve been to the beach this summer, we’d been in the spring once or twice to fly kites, but that didn’t involve wearing a swimsuit or going in the water.
The first time for me this summer was a few short weeks ago, when she wanted to take a friend to the beach one last time before her friend moved back to Poland. I donned swim trunks, and besides putting my feet in the water I didn’t even bother to take off my shirt. I spent the rest of the time safely ensconced beneath the nifty beach umbrella Danusia had ordered on Amazon.
A definite improvement over the cheap umbrella we’d gotten at a CVS in the Rockaways last summer. I don’t remember what happened to that one, I just remember having to chase it down a few times after the wind ripped it out of the sand and sent it flying across the beach like a spear.
This one has its own screw in post and is bigger and made of heavier cloth than the last one. It will not fly away and my fears of impaling a stranger with our flying umbrella have subsided.
I still have other fears, like the fear of displaying my more than middle aged body in public, gone are the days of cavorting naked at the nude section of Jacob Riis beach. I fear getting sunburned, eaten alive by biting flies or mosquitoes, sand in ridiculous places and drowning.
These fears are shaped and reinforced by past experience, the worst being almost drowning in Far Rockaway when I was 11 or 12. Then there was the time I caught some kind of skin fungus in Coney Island the summer I turned 14 through an open cut. I had lesions on my skin for a year after that.
My father loved the water having grown up in Tampico, Mexico- a costal beach town if there ever was one. So trips to the beach were a requirement of growing up in my family. But after I moved out of the house and started my own adult life the only way I went to the beach was because a woman in my life wanted to go to the beach.
Of course the woman in my life now is Danusia, and she loves the beach every bit as much as my dad did. But she, unlike my dad, does not insist or require that I accompany her. She usually goes with friends or her niece, Kasia.
“Let me call Kasia to see if she and Ritchie want to come along,” Danusia said after I’d sealed my fate. Kasia and Ritchie indeed want to come along.
Saturday morning we got up early and I made sandwiches and Danusia made enough three-bean salad to feed an army and we dragged all our stuff down to the garage and loaded up the car. We drove to Brooklyn to pick up Kasia and Ritchie.

It was a great day for the beach, we decided on Saturday because we both had stuff scheduled for Sunday and rain was forecast for Monday. It was partly cloudy; high wispy clouds that held no rain but diffused the hot sun nicely, the hot sun bearing down relentlessly is one of the things I hate about the beach- and a nice cooling breeze was in the air. A high of 85° was predicted and the weatherman did not disappoint.
I had already decided that I was going in the water; I decided that right after my inadvertent blurting of let’s go to the beach. A voice inside said, “be brave, go in the water, and don’t be a stick in the mud.”
As soon as I erected the nifty new umbrella and we set up the pop-out “tent” I bought from “Today’s picks” on the Today show- it’s a really cool tent that springs into shape but a pain in the ass to try and get back into a flat round shape I was ready to go in the water. I’d even taken off my shirt encouraged by some of the flabby out of shape old man bodies milling about the beachfront. But first, we all had a bite to eat. That old don’t eat before you swim myth is just that, a myth.
Eating done, Danusia announced, “I’m going in the water!” “Me too,” I said. “Us too, said Kasia. And the four of us waded in.
The water was cold, I had hoped it would be a little warmer, but I sucked it up and braved the cold. I went in up to my chest, and then a big wave came and broke over my head and it was no use trying to keep my hair dry. I let the fears go and enjoyed being in the water and bouncing in the waves the way I’d done as a child. At least now I know to stand sideways against the tide so I don’t get knocked over and under the way it happened so many years ago in the Rockaways.
Besides the four of us there weren’t may people in the water. “Look!” Danusia said. “More people are coming in the water because of us!” And they were, now. I was just beginning to relax and enjoy it when there was a frantic whistling from the shore.
“Out of the water! Everybody out of the water!” It was a young woman in a bikini holding one of those white lifeguards floats under one arm. “There’s sharks in the water! No swimming. The drones have spotted sharks in the water.”
Damn! The first time in years I’m digging being in the water in years we get thrown out of the water. It was a little more than five minutes, I think more like fifteen, but I fulfilled my own promise to myself.
Later that night we were watching TV after taking showers and eating dinner. Danusia suddenly kissed me and said, “Thank you,” while looking deeply into my eyes. Puzzled, I tried to think of what kind of good deed I’d done to merit such a special thank you, I said, “For what?”
“For going in the water with me today,” she said.
It is the little things that count.
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The first Christmas tree I remember with any clarity was the tree my mother bought the Christmas of 1963. I was 7 years old and President Kennedy had been assassinated just weeks before.
We waited till Christmas Eve, my mother explained that the tree man would want to get rid of any trees he had left and we would be saving money. So Christmas Eve my mother and I set off to the Christmas tree man on the corner of Franklin and DeKalb avenues, the northeast corner of our housing projects. There was a big empty expanse of asphalt between the curb and the first building there, an ideal place to sell Christmas trees.
She said it was ok to wait till Christmas Eve because in Mexican tradition Christmas really isn’t over till January 6th, Dia de Los Reyes. That was the day the three kings found Jesus and gave him gifts. If we’d still been in Mexico we would have had to wait till the 6th for our presents, just like baby Jesus. But my mother was savvy enough to know her American brought up kids demanded their gifts on Christmas day. So it was a sort of compromise. And no double gifts.
There was a big man with a red florid face smoking a big stinky cigar selling the trees. He smelled of whiskey just like my father and wore a colorful woolen cap.
It was cold and he had a barrel with stuff burning in it to keep warm.
“What can I do you for, Mrs.?” He asked cheerfully as my mother inspected the trees, her face set in her “I can smell shit” expression.
“Tell him we want to buy a tree,” she said to me in Spanish. I was embarrassed to have to translate for her. At 7 years old I was already a judgmental so and so that thought my mother should learn how to speak English properly if she was going to live in the United States.

“My mother wants to buy a tree mister.”
“Okay, sonny, tell her to pick one out!” I looked at the sign and it said Christmas trees $5.
$5 was a lot of money, my mother had said. We can’t afford $5. That’s why we had waited.
Mama found one she liked and pointed to it.
“Sure, lady, that’ll be five bucks.”
“No, mister, $2.” My mother countered.
“Uh uh, lady. Not $2, $5. Okay, I’ll do her for $4 since it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Please, mister. $2.”
Mama could be stubborn. “Son, tell him it’s all we have,” she said to me in Spanish. I was paralyzed, the man was big and scary and I didn’t want to make him mad. My mother proffered the two crumpled one-dollar bills and made a sad, imploring face. “Please, mister,” she added.
The man let out a big sigh. “Yeah, sure, lady. $2. It’s Christmas Eve, so I gotta be nice. Two bucks it is. Don’t tell anybody else, ey?”
I nodded dumbly in agreement as the man wrapped the tree in some twine. My mother hoisted the tree up onto my 7-year-old shoulder and supported the end of the tree as I bore the brunt of the weight and we set off for our building around the corner.

Today I bought this year’s tree up near Broadway and 157th Street near our home. I bought our tree at the same place a couple of years ago and even though pricey I won’t have far to carry it. I saw some nice 5 to 6 footers, and asked how much.
“These are $55,” the nice young fellow in his Covid mask said.
“A little too much for me, I said.” I walked over to the smaller ones, and picked one that was barely 4 feet tall.
“These are $45 plus tax.” Tax? Since when did they start charging tax on Christmas trees?
“So what’s that come to?” I asked.
“The tax is about four bucks.” I said nothing, just though for a second. Almost 50 bucks for a tree.
“I could do you for $40. With the tax it’s $43.” I got a deal and I didn’t even have to ask! I must have subconsciously learned my mother’s facial expressions.
“Yeah, okay, I said, digging out my $43. The guy cut a fresh cut into the tree and put it through the netting wrapping gizmo. I put the tree in my Whole Foods trolley and headed down the hill to the back door of my building.
We have a new kitty that’s probably never seen a Christmas tree so I put it up and haven’t decorated it yet. I want to see how she reacts to the tree first.
Every year when I buy a tree I try to remember other years, other trees.
Last year I went to get a paper on Broadway the day after Thanksgiving and there were two small trees in front of a fruit stand on 158th Street. They were just leaning in front of a storefront gate.
“Are these yours?” I asked the fruit guy, a middle-eastern fellow.
“Yeah, sure. They’re mine.”
“How much for one tree?” He thought about it for a second and then said “$10, mister.” I gave him a $10 bill and got a Douglas fir the same size as the tree I got today for $33 less. I don’t even know if that fruit guy actually owned the trees but I’m glad he got the ten bucks.

One Christmas when I was married to my first wife Kat we were so broke we had no tree. I was on welfare and she was collecting unemployment due to our drug habits, so we taped some Christmas tree lights to a wall in the shape of a tree. The next year was a little better, and we managed a scraggly Charlie Brown tree.

Things with Kat weren’t always so dire; after we had a son and both started working again we always had big trees and lots of presents under them.

Then there were the Christmases my now wife Danusia and I had in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We lived on Broadway just a block from Woodhull hospital, in a neighborhood as devoid of green as the Mohave Desert. And that meant Christmas trees, too. The first Christmas there I walked almost all the way to Greenpoint before I found a tree seller, and had to pay to have it delivered. At least they carried the 7-foot Blue Spruce up the stairs. In 2007 it cost $70 including the delivery. 

            The following year Danusia surprised me by walking through the door one night carrying a 6-footer.

“Where’d you get the tree?” I asked.

“I got it on East 3rd street, only $30!”

“How’d you get it here?” I asked.

“On the subway! All the people on the J train thanked me for bringing the wonderful smell of pine on the train!” Only Danusia could buy a tree in Manhattan and tote it on the subway to Williamsburg all by herself, one of the reasons I love her so.

A couple of years later, after we’d moved up here Hamilton Heights it was my turn to go downtown to the $30 for any tree place and tote it up on the subway. I took a little shopping cart to make things easier on myself and nobody thanked me for bringing the tree smell on the train. I’m not as charismatic as Danusia, I guess.

But I got the tree up the 5 flights of stairs and we had a great Christmas. Thinking of that tree reminds me to be grateful we live in an elevator building in Washington heights now, a short walk from that 5th floor walkup, and I’ll never have to walk a tree up and down the stairs ever again!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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When my therapist asks how I am feeling and I say, “Tired,” he says: “That’s not a feeling. Glad sad mad scared. Those are feelings.”

Sometimes I feel happy, sometimes I feel sad, but mostly now I just feel helpless.

There are a few people that mostly just make me mad, but this isn’t about that. This is about having my life turned upside down, leaving me feeling helpless, powerless, and yes, scared.

Someone Danusia and I both knew succumbed to the virus last week, it finally touched home. It wasn’t some faceless person from the Bronx or Queens or Wuhan China, it was a guy we both knew and seemed pretty healthy when we saw him not even six weeks ago and now he’s gone. And he wasn’t more than 4 years older than me. That’s scary.

We started wearing gloves and masks two weeks ago. We were lucky that because of my some time work I had a bunch of unused N-95 masks, and nitrile gloves. I’ve been stripping paint off our kitchen cabinets in preparation to move to another apartment upstairs so I knew where to find the masks and gloves.

We also have tons of 70% plus alcohol since Danusia is in the habit of spraying everything with it as a matter of course. Plus Purell or reasonable facsimile hand sanitizer, and toilet paper, of course. I had come home with a pack of 24 rolls of Scott bathroom tissue just before the crisis, or before the Corona or Covid 19, take your pick, forever now to be known as the new B.C.

Danusia came home with 3 or 4 rolls of TP every time she went out after the big mad panic buying rush.

“People are storming the big stores but they don’t know about the discount stores on Broadway!” She proudly declared to me as she dumped her booty on the dining room floor. She’s so cute.

Yesterday she proudly declared that we still have 19 rolls. “And one roll lasts us one week!” She added. Yes, she wrote down the start date of the last roll of Marcal.

TMI, yes, I know. But we need a little humor in times of fear and desperation.

Two weeks ago after the first mad dash to empty the shelves Danusia asked if we might run out of food.

This is a land of plenty, with very good supply lines, so I doubted it. But to be prudent I headed down to Trader Joe’s the next day, with my mask and gloves.

A little about the mask and gloves. Before all this (B.C.) I always felt a little resentful when I saw people wearing surgical masks in the street. To me it was an indication of either a person afraid of the outside world or someone that thinks his or her shit doesn’t stink. So I had a little trepidation when I showed up to meet some friends wearing a mask and gloves.

But I got over that real quick watching the Six O’clock news.

That first trip to T.J.s was a real eye opener, the store was jam packed with folks throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their carts. I figured I would get some cured meat that would last but it was all gone, save for one package of Brooklyn bangers. I passed on those.

I did stock up on peanut butter, one cannot live without a supply of salted peanut butter. Sardines, cheese, and fresh produce.

So we have plenty of food, and the stores have restocked and I’m not worried, and now I only need to go out for fresh produce.

It was cool getting on an almost empty subway last week, seeing the streets devoid of people and once Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods started making people line up their respective stores were pleasingly easy to navigate, though Whole foods still has those annoying Amazon shoppers who never heard of half of the stuff they are being asked to put in their big brown bags.

“Is this Bok Choy?” One fellow asked me in Whole Foods yesterday.

“Yes. Yes it is.” I replied in my best deadpan voice.

“”Thank you,” he said, not even noticing my droll delivery.

The first time I stood in a socially distanced line was ten days ago at Trader Joe’s on 21st street. I waited 10 minutes to get in, and inside it was pretty empty there was no line at the registers. Yesterday was my first line at Whole Foods (I went later than usual) and everyone kept their distance politely.

Last week I realized that having my personal protective equipment isn’t enough as I watched the cashier at Trader Joe’s pack my stuff. So now I have a routine when I get home, I spray everything with alcohol. I’m grateful to the U.S. Army for teaching me decontamination procedures.

First, I spray my gloves and mask the second I come through the door.

Then I set my shopping bag on the floor, and spray each item inside one by one as I remove it from the bag. And wipe with a disinfectant wipe.

Then I remove my gloves, after spraying them again, and wash my hands and face. I let everything air out before storing it all.

When I was in the army we were instructed not to bunch up when we traveled

as a unit on a road. “Keep your interval, men! Don’t bunch up! One round will take you all out if you don’t!” They were speaking of artillery rounds, of course.

The Covid virus is like an invisible artillery round. You can’t see it, you can’t smell it, and you can’t feel it. You can only be scared of it.

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I’ve been doing this volunteer thing, and I guess it grew out of my community garden volunteering. Since I’m retired now, I try and think of better things to do than binge watching the entire Sopranos saga (twice) or looking up arcane stuff on the Internet.

When it’s warm and it’s garden season I spend a lot of time working at our community garden, Hope the Friendly Garden on the Hill. It’s actually meant to be Hope Garden but someone bought that domain name out from under us. More about that in the future.

So when the weather turns cold, what can I do?

That’s where New York Cares comes in. I’ve known about them for a while, every winter that I bought a new coat the old coat would go to a New York Cares coat collection station. And when I searched the Internet for volunteer opportunities a couple of years ago New York Cares came up.

This past August, in preparation for the end of garden season I signed up at New York Cares and attended an orientation. You have to do that in order to participate in any kind of volunteer event they host.

To backtrack a bit last year I took and completed a Master Composter course with the Lower East Side Ecology center. Part of becoming a master composter involved volunteering at events, and I did a bunch of “tableing,” meaning I sat at a table draped with a LESEC banner and showed off our worm bin.

I also did food events where my only job was to separate compostables from regular trash, a messy business indeed.

But it was rewarding and satisfying, doing something for the planet and my own sanity in the face of a world gone amok. That work prepared me for what I do now for others.

The first event for New York Cares was in the late summer, I spent 4 hours at the Intrepid Museum directing other volunteers to their stations. They packed a million meals in one day.

Then I signed up to tutor high school kids for their SAT tests. I do that most Saturdays until March.

My wife Danusia told me how for Christmas she used to buy gifts for strangers anonymously every season, and when I got an email from NY Cares about something called “Winter Wishes” I signed up.

Winter Wishes entails receiving letters from underprivileged children in the city and fulfilling their Christmas wish. I asked for 6 letters.

When the time came to go pick them up I mentioned it to Danusia, who expressed interest in helping out.

“How many letters did you sign up for?” She asked. “Six,” I replied.

“Are you crazy? Do you know what those kids ask for? You can’t spend five or six dollars on a gift. It’s more like forty or fifty.”

I was dismayed by the thought of having to shell out $240 to $300 for gifts while on a fixed income. I went to the New York Cares office and tried to get them to take some of the letters back. I figured I could do two, three max. I was told I had to speak to the woman who ran that program. When she came out she explained that the envelope was sealed, and that it was too late for adjustments. It was still three weeks before Christmas.

“You know, for some of these children this will be the only gift they receive this holiday season.” She told me. Talk about rubbing the guilt in! I left with my six letters hoping the kids didn’t want too much.

Of course I was alarmed when I started going through the letters, which were cute and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

One was easy, a six-year-old boy wanted a Bumblebee Transformer toy, and I could do that. The only girl I got wanted an LOL Doll or a Barbie. I wondered what an LOL Doll was. Two boys wanted either a skateboard or a scooter. One wanted a radio-controlled car, and the last boy wanted an iPad or a laptop, and failing that, an Apple Smart watch. Dream big, kid.

The instructions from NY Cares said not to spend more than $40 on a gift, and to wrap them. Then I either had to ship or deliver the gifts to some location in Bushwick.

I looked online for the best prices for some of these things, turned out that Walmart is cheapest, but there’s no Walmart near us. Danusia and I took the bus across the river to the big Mall in the Bronx, where there is a Target and a Marshalls. I got a radio-controlled car at Marshalls for under $30.

The skateboards were over $40, but Danusia offered to pay for one of them, and she got the Barbie for the girl. The LOL Doll thing was way to confusing. They were out of Bumblebees so I got another Transformer instead. There were no reasonably priced smart watches.

I went to Burlington coat factory the next day, where I found the scooter for half of what one of the skateboards cost. That kid’s first choice was the scooter anyway so I bought it and returned one of the skateboards to Target. I found a Kid’s smart watch on sale there for less than $40 and I we were done.

I’d also picked up some cheap wrapping paper and started wrapping when I got home. Danusia had wanted to include a bunch of candy and cookies she’d gotten as gifts from Tiffany’s after buying stuff for her boss there. I sort of tucked these things into the boxes and packages.

Of course when Danusia came home she was unhappy with my wrapping and re-did all of the gifts, individually wrapping the extra goodies. On the day of the deadline, December 6th we stuffed everything into our Whole Foods trolley and some IKEA shopping bags and headed out to Bushwick.

One of the gratifying things about giving a gift is watching the person’s face when they open it. This was not going to happen, and this is what makes the volunteering such an important tool in building self-esteem. I have to know that I did this out of love, and not to receive a reward.

I do it because I spent so much of my life taking, not just things but taking emotions and life out of people, friends family and strangers; and it’s time to do some giving.

The last thing we did for Christmas was to make our annual lino-block cut cards and send them out.

Well, actually it was me that did the block cut and printed it out, but Danusia wrote out most of the cards and finished them off with a little glitter to hide the imperfections. If we know you and you didn’t get one, sorry we missed you. Maybe next year.

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Last night my wife Danusia and I went to The Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the annual New Year’s Eve “Concert for Peace,” and had an amazing time.

At first, when we were planning to go I was surprised and more than a little disappointed that it started at 7 PM and ended at 8:30, I could swear it went on later than that. What else could we do till midnight, I thought?

The first time we went together, we walked down Central Park West afterwards and caught the fireworks and beginning of the midnight run in Central Park. But that was in 2007 I think, and we were much younger then. Last night I could only think of getting home before midnight and avoiding the crazies on the subway.

Danusia had gone to the first concert for peace there when Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra in in 1984, and saw Philippe Pettit do a tightrope walk in the Cathedral at the 1996 Concert for peace.

Last night I got to sing along with Judy Collins for the fourth time.

Usually she just sings Amazing Grace a cappella and everyone sings along, but last night she started with Both Sides Now, the Joni Mitchell song Judy made her own.

I sang along the best I could, not knowing all the lyrics. But singing along made me tear up with joy, love, and gratitude.

I was singing with Judy Collins! Where else could I do that?

I have to say, her voice is still amazing, no raspy aged whisper here.

Judy told a joke her doctor told her when she was still smoking.

“Every time you light a cigarette god takes an hour of your life and gives it to Keith Richards.” We all laughed, and I’m grateful I haven’t made a contribution to Keith’s life fund in 16 years.

This year I paid off two credit cards, celebrated 18 years clean, 11 years of marriage to Danusia, and the publication of a story in an anthology!

Not to mention starting our second year in our wonderful apartment in Washington Heights, and being relatively healthy for my age. That’s a lot to be grateful for.

I no longer feel sad that when I turn on the news in the morning there is no breaking news flash that a certain someone choked to death on a hamburger and a certain someone else died of a heart attack trying to save him.

Or that some publisher isn’t breaking down the door with a book contract.

Whatever will be will be.

We even made a new friend last night, Luisa. She was alone, standing in the very long line to get in with us.

This little light of mine.

When we go to the front of the Cathedral the end of the line was just feet from 110th Street, and Danusia wondered aloud if we were getting in. Knowing that it can hold 6,000 people I thought we had a pretty good chance.

We were waiting for a friend; a young polish woman Danusia befriended a couple of years ago. She was coming from Brooklyn and was cutting it close. She texted Danusia that she was on the C train at 72nd Street just as the line started to move.

I kept looking for her as she kept updating us of her location.

“She’s on Morningside?” Danusia said.

“Two blocks away. Tell her to run.”

We weren’t the only ones waiting for someone. In front of us a group of 5 or 6 people joined a group already in line.

Behind us a woman spoke loudly into her cellphone. “ Make a right onto Amsterdam Avenue! Run!”

Danusia was on the phone with our friend Justyna, and I saw a young woman running up Amsterdam Avenue with a cellphone to one ear. It was Justyna, and she almost ran past us as I grabbed her arm.

The four of us sat together and basked in the love and gratitude, and at the end we lit our candles and sang along to O-o-h Child (things are gonna get better) and the standard finale of This Little Light of Mine with Jamet Pittman.

Afterwards we raced across the street to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, another tradition in our years together. I knew we had to get there fast because a good percentage of the people who attend the concert include it in their New Year’s tradition. We had hot drinks a pastry before heading home to ring in the New Year in our warm comfortable home, far away from noise and crowds of Times Square. That’s a New Year’s celebration I’ve never indulged in, and have no regrets in missing.

Like my alcoholic 11th grade English teacher Mr. Kerrigan used to say, “Going to Time Square and getting drunk on New Years Eve is for amateurs.”

But that’s just his opinion, and if that’s what you did last night, I envy your bladder’s staying power.

Happy New Year, friends!

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When I was living at the Pratt Institute dormitory in the early 70s I would play this song every Sunday morning after waking up. Actually I did it after lighting the first cigarette of the day and going to the bathroom, of course.

Probably while the coffee was brewing on my roommate’s Mr. Coffee machine, and while I was deciding whether I should shower or not. It was that way then.

 Listening to that song always brought to mind another Lou Reed song, “Beginning to see the light.” A little wine in the morning, and some breakfast at night.

It was what I had done just hours before, usually.

After a Saturday night at Max’s Kansas city and then to whatever after hours bar everyone went to when Max’s closed at 3 AM we would head off to Ratner’s deli on Delancey street for what for me was dinner.

As I listened to the song I would think about my wasted years so close behind, and it was a sad thing to know I was only 20 at the time and thinking that.

And I did have a restless feeling right by my side.

I was looking for the light but was afraid to open the door.

It was much easier to drink the wine in the morning.

When I first heard the Velvet Underground sometime in the winter of 1970 I was very drawn to the chaos of songs like Sister Ray and I Heard Her Call my Name, the dark humor of the Gift and the atonal mystery of Black Angel’s death song.

But I was also calmed by the beautiful Melodies of Sunday Morning and I’ll be your Mirror.

Lou Reed was a songwriter that reached into my viscera, all of the love, hate, fear and turmoil that churned inside me.

I bought in to the despair of Heroin and the insanity of White Light/ White Heat and lived my life that way for a long while.

It would really be trite to say I saw the light, it’s more of I’m set Free.

It took some time.

In that time I stopped playing Sunday Morning every Sunday morning, I lost that and all the other records I owned, among other things; I stopped going out to listen to music, stopped going to the movies and whatever else people do.

My world grew small, just me and no one else, not my wife of 16 years, or my child, or any friends I might have made along the way.

It has taken some time, and Sunday mornings now I spend with other like-minded people looking to fill that space in my soul that the song once filled.

It feels good and sometimes I go out for coffee with them afterwards, breakfast for real this time, since I’ve had a good night’s sleep and have lost the restless feeling inside.

Today I love the sun, the wind, and the rain. And the feeling inside.

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A couple of months ago I decided to go on a keto diet of sorts. I say of sorts because I knew I would never give up putting a couple of teaspoons of sugar in my coffee every morning. Nor was I going to fast for 16 hours of the day, and that I was going to be tempted to eat the occasional baked morsel. Not to mention the odd corn chip here and there.

One of the things that swayed me into plunging into keto (besides eating meat) was that peanuts and peanut butter were on the menu. I love peanut butter.

I love hummus and chips too, but peanut butter won out.

I thought it bizarre that legumes were off the table; they’ve been a part of my diet since my mother served me my first pinto bean. And chickpeas are legumes, so bye-bye hummus. And my famous refried beans.

But hello peanut butter!

I’ve been a fan of peanut butter since I was a child and my mother would buy the big cans of welfare peanut butter from our neighbors on welfare in the projects. My mother also bought the big slabs of American cheese from them, but this is all about peanut butter.

It didn’t taste as good as store bought peanut butter like Jiff or Peter Pan, and as a kid I couldn’t put my finger on the difference.

Turns out it took me many, many years to figure that one out, to reach my eureka moment.

That happened when I was living on the Lower East Side in the ‘80s. I lived on East Houston Street with my then wife Kathy, and we discovered a health food store called Prana on First Avenue between 7th and St. Marks place. Besides having fresh ground coffee they had these big jars of organic peanut butter that were actually less expensive than Jiff or Peter pan. The only problem was they didn’t taste the same.

The old Prana storefront on First Avenue

I finally had the temerity to read the labels. Skippy, Jiff, and Peter Pan all contain sugar as well as salt. And they are roasted peanuts! Roasted peanuts taste better than raw peanuts! What a revelation!

So I sought a middle ground, and in-between. Something that was healthy, without sugar, but still with that roasted peanut taste. There were new health food brands coming out, like Smart balance and Smucker’s natural peanut butter. But they all had an inch of oil floating on the top! What a pain in the ass it was to mix it all together- something one is never quite successful at. You end up dripping oil on yourself (if you prefer to eat it out of the jar like me) the first half of the jar and having your teeth glued together when you get to the bottom of the jar.

Have you ever seen a dog eat peanut butter? They spend half the time figuring out why their teeth are stuck together! Well, that’s how I feel when I get to the bottom of a jar of “Natural” peanut butter. Why isn’t it homogenous like Skippy and Jiff? Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils! Skippy and Jiff are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and not sugar, but high-fructose corn syrup. And Americans eat Skippy and Jiff by the boatload. Which is why a lot of Americans in most of the country look like boatloads.

Well, I got tired of looking like a boatload, so I take care to avoid processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, high fructose corn syrup, or both.

Back to natural peanut butter. With the advent of health food stores came grind your own machines, and I decided to try them. After all, what could be more natural than grind your own? But it tasted different. Again, it was raw vs. roasted. And roasted without salt is different from roasted with salt. Now I have to bring a saltshaker to Whole foods if I want my fresh peanut butter to taste like what’s in the jar. Plus, it’s actually more expensive to grind your own, price per pound wise. Don’t even get me started on Fairway’s prices.

So, for my comparison, we’ll stick to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s as they each have their own store brand peanut butter. They both have the floating oil on top, and they both claim to be just peanuts and sea salt. Smooth or crunchy, and there’s an unsalted option. No sugar, high fructose, or partially hydrogenated oils.

Trader Joe’s 16 oz. jar is $1.99. Whole Food’s 365 brand is $2.49, fifty cents more. Of course I’m gonna buy the cheaper one, though a long time ago before there was Trader Joe’s I relied on the 365.

Last week I was in Whole Foods and I decided to splurge, after all I would save a trip to T.J’s and isn’t that worth fifty cents? So I bought a jar of 365, my first in many a moon.

My method of dealing with the oil on top syndrome it to store the jar in the fridge overnight upside down. That way the oil flows down and is at THE BOTTOM of the jar when I open it. It’s also slightly congealed and therefore less watery when I mix it all together. I’ve gotten pretty good results, less oil stains on my at home snack eating tee shirts. So I did the same to my jar of Whole Foods 365. This is a recent discovery so this was my first 365 jar to be put to the test.

Well, wasn’t I surprised when I opened the jar two days later and discovered that the oil came right back to the top! And didn’t seem to have solidified at all!

Very disappointing, especially for fifty cents more. I can only describe it as Watery As Fuck.

I read up on natural peanut butters and such since the W.A.F. 365 peanut butter. On the jars they tell you that the oil naturally rises from the freshly ground “just peanuts.” But I have to tell you; in all the plastic tubs of peanut butter I ever ground myself, with or without salt, I have yet to see the oils rise to the top. It’s just all ground peanuts. So I have to think that the oil in the jars is added. Not naturally rising to the top. Just another finger on the scale. And guess who has the heavier finger in this case?

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Yesterday evening I had just finished a volunteer shift directing trash traffic at a cultural event at the Abrons center on the Lower east Side and went down to take the train home at Delancey-Essex street station. It was a little after 7:30 PM, and the station was crowded.

A woman’s voice was making some kind of shrill announcement from the PA system, but because of the crowd, a J train on the Brooklyn bound side of the upstairs tracks and a really loud amplified busker down on the F platform all I hear was “all trains holding in place.”

I had already swiped my card and was sorry I had gotten off the M-14 A bus, which would have gotten me across town to better train choices.

But I had no idea, right? It was one of New York’s little surprises.

I checked my Bus Time app; there was another bus in 3 minutes. But just then a train pulled into the Manhattan bound J/M tracks. Salvation! I bounded up the steps just in time to jump on a southbound J train. I was hoping for an M to take me to West 4th, but an A train at Fulton would do.

When I got to the A platform at Fulton Street I started getting a better picture of the situation, hearing things like “power outage” and “stalled trains.” There was a nearly empty A train sitting in the station and hoards of people milling about on the platform in a state of absolute confusion.

Ever the consummate New Yorker I dashed off to the 2 and 3 line upstairs, which would get me home. It wasn’t my first choice due to the fact I knew the 1 train was ending at 96th street and I would have to bus it to 145 to get back on another 1 train for the one stop trip to 157th, my home station. But I was running out of choices.

A Brooklyn bound train pulled in, so at least I knew this line was moving. After 10 minutes a crowded uptown 2 train pulled in and I miraculously got a seat thanks so t gaggle of confused tourists. God bless the tourists, at least sometimes.

It turned out to be an exercise in futility, the train stopped for 5 minutes at each station and crawled at a snail’s pace between stops. It took 45 minutes to reach 14th street from Fulton. I seriously debated getting off at 14th but by now a clearer picture of the little surprise was emerging.

“Due to the loss of power in some stations, we have significant delays in both up and downtown service,” the conductor kept saying. Not knowing which stations lacked power I thought it prudent to stay on the 2 despite the slow going.

“This train will be going over the local tracks, and will not be stopping at Columbus Circle.” Came the next bit of news.

So I braced myself and kept my nose in my New York Times crossword. Saturday’s nonetheless.

I finished it by the time we got to 42nd Street. We stopped at 50th, and I was surprised until I remembered we were going local. By now the “being held in the station by supervision” was down to 2 minutes instead of 5-7. (Yes, I was timing it.) As the train slowly rumbled forward I wanted to see what all the rumpus was about on 59th street. As the train pulled into the station I encountered a sight I’d never seen before. The station was completely dark, illuminated only by the light from our passing train. Spooky indeed. I snapped a few photos on my iPhone for posterity.

The train actually stopped at 66th, which was totally dark except for the countdown clocks, which read “2 to 96.” Truly eerie stuff. I wondered what other stations were in darkness, and if there were trains with people on them stuck in stations. I knew now this was serious.

I worried about my wife Danusia, who texted me she was going downtown to pick up her bicycle, which she’d left at her job in the Village. I kept texting her “no trains” to no avail and settled for one last “ride safe.”

Being a savvy New Yorker I thought I’d outsmart the crowds and get off at 72nd, where I could possibly catch the M-5 bus all the way home or if I was lucky, a cab. A cab would be impossible to come by at 96th street with the crowd alighting from the subway looking to get uptown fast. So I got off at 72nd.

When I went upstairs I was surprised to see that south of 72nd street there were almost no lights on! It wasn’t just the subway. And there wasn’t an empty cab in sight. I raced down the stairs and was lucky enough to catch another 2 train to 96th.

The crowd waiting for the busses was beyond immense; there were thousands of people standing in the middle of Broadway waiting to mob the first bus that came. I got in front of the crowd ready to fight my way onto a bus when I miraculously spotted not one, but two cabs on the downtown side of Broadway.

I maniacally dashed across Broadway narrowly missing the front of an approaching subway shuttle bus and jumped into the closest cab and told him where I wanted to go.

I was met by a real rarity in New York nowadays, a white guy behind the wheel.

An aged hippie who railed against every mayor since Wagner and told me the Larry Silverstein guy had sent the planes into the World Trade Center so he could make some money.

“That’s why they killed Kennedy, too,” he added. I didn’t ask him to elaborate.

As he drove up Riverside drive (The Henry Hudson was packed, he told me.) and ranted about bikes and Ubers and Lyfts I noticed he hadn’t turned on the meter. When we got to my building he acted surprised and said “oh, boy, do you think you can pay me in cash? Like twenny bucks? You think that’s fair?”

I handed him my last twenny and spotted my wife pushing her bike up the building entry path. I was glad she made it home safe.

Watching the news later I found out that it was an isolated area on the west side that had been affected, and it seemed weird that some lights went out and others didn’t. I noticed channel 4 NBC news was having a hard time broadcasting while ABC news was clear quality. I also learned that yesterday was the same date as the great blackout of ’77, July 13th.

I remembered finding out about that one over the phone. I was calling the Sutton Theater on 57th Street where my then girlfriend Anna was working to tell her I was on my way to pick her up. The manager answered and in a weird voice said, “Can’t talk now. The lights. The lights,” before the phone went dead.

I was at a payphone on the corner of Washington and DeKalb Avenues in Brooklyn, and as I hung up I glanced at the Manhattan skyline at the river end of Washington Avenue. I could see the Empire State building, and I watched in amazement as the lights in it went out floor by floor, then block by block until it got to where I was standing. The police sirens started almost immediately.

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BYOB has a totally different connotation nowadays at Trader Joe’s. At least for me it does. I’ve been shopping at T. J.’s ever since the first store opened on 14th street back in 2006. But I never noticed the “bring your own bag” raffle until a couple of years ago.

I wasn’t big on bringing my own bag for a long time, much to the chagrin of my wife Danusia, who is very eco- conscious. At least much more so then me. But finances being what they are I started thinking about winning that $25 gift card. After all, twenty-five bucks is twenty-five bucks for a senior citizen on a fixed income.

Plus since completing the Master Composter’s course this spring I have myself become more eco- conscious, and felt guilty every time I went shopping without taking a reusable bag. And I’ve no excuse for that given that we have tons of reusable bags at home, including two that are 100% compostable that I scored at the Zero Waste fair I worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard last month.

The reusable bag I got from T.J.’s

I always assumed that if I brought my own bag I was somehow automatically entered in the weekly BYOB raffle, but as we all know the world is full of unrequited assumptions. So I finally asked my wife about it.
“You have to tell the cashier you want to enter the raffle,” she said. And all this time I was waiting to be invited to partake. Like I keep waiting for someone to offer me a job.
I saw a woman on the subway yesterday with a T-shirt that said:

I’ll do it tomorrow
I can’t do it
It’s too hard

I can definitely relate. But now I knew the secret, so I had no excuse. So for the first time last month, as the cashier filled my own bag with a smile (they smile because they are being watched, unlike the Whole foods employees who won’t even look you in the eye they’re so mad) I bravely blurted out,
“I’d like to enter the raffle.” There, I said it, I want in.
The smiling young man said “Sure,” and tore off a strip of register paper and directed me to write my name and phone number on it. It seemed pretty low tech and cheesy, I remember when I first spotted the board with “This month’s winners” I looked around for entry forms like they used to have at Key Food years ago, and seeing none wondered how they did it. Now I knew, on a strip of torn register paper.
Whole Foods has a raffle for a $250 gift card, but you have to go online and fill out a whole survey. In a way it’s easier to do that than to ask the clerk for a piece of paper.
I’ve been entering dutifully for the past couple of months at every Trader Joe’s I’ve shopped at, and anxiously looking for my name on the board every time I walk into a T.J.’s. After I told Danusia about it she said, “I’ve been doing that ever since they opened the 14th Street store and I’ve never won. I think it’s impossible.

Years ago when I was married to my first wife and working in Queens I shopped at Key Food. I shopped at the one in Kew Gardens where I worked and Kathy and I shopped at the on Avenue A a couple of blocks from out home on Houston street. Key Food ran a weekly raffle for $50 worth of groceries. We won three times, once in Queens and twice on Avenue A.

Of course we stacked the deck by swiping all of the entry forms and sat at home filling whole books of entry forms and stuffing the box with them. After the second time at the Avenue A store the manager smelled a rat and informed me that we were disqualified from further entries. At least we got $150 worth of free groceries out of the deal.

I also won a $50 gift certificate from Balducci’s on 6th Ave around the same time because I answered a question right on the trivial pursuit game some radio station used to run. The question was “What New York City gourmet food shop employs a strawberry topper?” Since I worked down the street from Balducci’s at the time I figured it was them, and I was the first one to get it right when I called the radio station. I got the gift certificate and a stack of trivial pursuit cards in the mail a couple of days later. I bought a $30 steak and some expensive cheese with the certificate, and learned who Mel Ott was.

Last night I looked at my phone as it was done recharging and saw I had a message from a 212 number I wasn’t familiar with. I played the message.
“This is Christine from the Trader Joe’s 93rd Street store. I’m happy to inform you that you have won this week’s $25 raffle. Stop in as soon as you can to pick up your gift card.” Dang, I won! I thought. I told Danusia about it, and she reiterated she’d been doing it for years and never won.

What you can get for $27.36 at Trader Joe’s

So this morning I went to the 93rd Street store and claimed my prize. “Where’s the board with the winners names on it?” I asked. I wanted to take a picture of my name up on Trader Joe’s wall. “Oh, we don’t do that at this store. Sorry,” the smiling young man that gave me my card and free reusable bag said. Well, you can’t have everything, I guess.

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I just got done watching season three of True Detective on HBO, and I have to say it was a big disappointment. I thought the writing and the direction were pretty weak. Direction because a guy like Mahershala Ali, who just won his second Oscar comes off like a third rate community theater actor trying to act like an old man (the make-up however was first rate), not very convincing to me, and if it was to the director, then he should look for another job.

Stephen Dorff as Detective Roland West, on the other hand was great. He pulled off the old cynical depressed alcoholic with great charm. I guess it’s harder to act like a doddering old man on the brink of full-blown Alzheimer’s than just an angry old fool. I even liked the scene where he goes into a biker bar looking to get his ass kicked, his dialogue was so sharp (the woolly mammoth you’re fucking) that he had to be ad-libbing, because the writers were so lazy they stole actual dialogue from other movies.

In the final episode’s last scene Carmen Ejogo, Mareshala Ali’s love interest in the series walks into the VFW post bar where his Detective Wayne Hays character is drinking his depression away and approaches him. When he asks her without looking up what war she fought in (you’re not supposed to be in a VFW bar unless you qualify as a veteran of war) she retorts:

“I don’t let people talk to me that way, few women and no men at all…”

I sat up straight when I heard that, it’s a rip off of a line from Charley Varrick.

Charley Varrick is a Don Siegel crime thriller from 1973 if you don’t know it, and it happens to be one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen it many times, first when it was released in theaters and then on TV whenever I came across it on late night re-runs. Sometimes I would catch the whole movie and sometimes somewhere in the middle, but I always watch to the end.

The main adversaries are Walter Matthau, a bank robber and stunt pilot, and Joe Don Baker, and enforcer for some kind of Southwestern Crime syndicate. I’m not going to relate the whole movie, but if you like crime movies like me, it’s a must see- especially the last scene where Charley shows why he is “The last of the independents.”

Here’s Molly!

Early on Baker’s character, a hit man called “Molly,” is asked to repossess a car from a black man. It’s a brand new Cadillac the man has defaulted on. It’s to be his transportation during his pursuit of the bank robber Varrick, who has inadvertently stolen $765,118 of the mob’s money from some tiny bank in New Mexico.

As he walks up to the car key in hand, the unnamed debtor reaches for Molly’s arm and says,

“You pink punk ass you…” And Molly quickly swings around and punches the guy in the face, knocking him down. As he continues to the car, unlocking it, he says, “There are few men that speak to me in that tone, few Caucasians, and no Negros at all…”

Now if that’s not a practically verbatim rip-off of dialogue, I don’t know what is. Maybe the writer loves the John Reese novel, since I’ve never read it I don’t know if that bit of dialogue is in it. Most likely the screenwriter (Howard Rodman) put that in. But it’s a great line, the whole script crackles with great lines.

So here I add T.S. Elliot’s take on plagiarism:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

To me it’s most certainly defacement.

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