30 Mar

Christian is an eighth grader from Chino Hills, California who tops out somewhere under four feet. One might easily overlook him as one certainly looks over him anyway until his wry little comments draw your eyes down to his big brown puppy dog saucers framed by the longest lashes ever visited upon man, woman, or drag queen. He’s learned well and young those eyes let him get away with murder.

His squeaky voice pierced a thousand moments over the last three days always preceded by, “Hey JEFF!” with the surprising confidence an elf might possess, possessed as elves often are with otherworldly charms. One wonders.

This morning he climbed the corner of St. Patrick’s Cathedral screaming “Hey JEFF! I’m taller than you finally! I can see your bald spot.”

As I don’t have a bald spot I yelled back, “Get down off of there you idiot. The last thing we need is to lose a Christian on a cathedral.”

He settled down next to me on the stairs while we waited for stragglers.

The car traffic was a bit of a shit show. At one point a car stalled on 51st Street and the impatience erupted with a woman laying on her horn for a good seven seconds and then driving up on to the sidewalk to get around.

I hear from my left and down, “SOMEBODY just got their period.”

How he managed to have me hear that and not one single one of the other twenty people seated directly all around us was a bit of witchcraft in and of itself.

But later on, as we were leaving the Tenement Museum and I was swiping Metro Cards to get them all on the F Train, I got a series of text messages in quick succession.


Don’t get on a train.

Still at Museum.

Minor Emergency.

I told the group to wait for me on the other side of the turnstiles and walked back to the museum.

“Sorry Jeff,” the lovely teacher said. “One of the girls had to go to the bathroom.”

“Why didn’t she use it before?” I asked.

The teacher looked at me with the universal “stupid boys” and explained, “Because something happened to her that had never happened before and she didn’t know what to do.”

Still seeing the blank look on my face she simply said with a little emphasis, “It’s hard being a girl, Jeff.”

I ran back to the subway to keep the natives quiet and so the young woman (now) didn’t have another set of knowing eyes on her, but I could tell the science of the day was swift.

Apparently another flurry of text messages preceded my arrival because as I looked over the turnstiles, there was Christian, his arms crossed, shaking his head “yes” at me until he burst out laughing.

The kid has powers…


It must be.

9 Jun

What it must be to be a mom.

What it must be to be a mom born in Mexico these days, living here in these less than welcoming United States.

What it must be to be a mom whose son is on an eighth grade trip this unusually crowded weekend in the busiest city in the country, at times drizzly, others radiating a sweltering humidity, walking as we did yesterday eight miles and seven today. When your son is developmentally challenged.

Enrique has a mouthful of braces, the first thing you notice about him as it would be the first thing you’d noticed about nearly any Eighth Grader would they just smile a fraction as much as Enrique does. He is not always smiling. He will go away in his vast mind to a place you cannot follow, a place that seems to take all of his energy and interest, leaving you alone and oddly sad you can’t go with him–you miss Enrique–but shortly, he’s back with you and the surprise of your presence bursts forth on his face like Christmas morning. That weird handshake you did with him to introduce yourself? He can’t get enough. You will repeat it a thousand times. Because you want to.

Enrique has skin kissed by sun gods, ample jet black hair, and a pair of dark brown eyes that are tandem proof of eternity. When they fix themselves on the passing lights of a subway tunnel–he’s turned himself towards the window on the C train and away from you and your eyes feel like spilling over because you hope he is okay in there–you wonder how it must be to be his mom and seated next to him, looking at his absence like the very Pieta. It’s almost silly. None of you are connecting, except on some quantum level where observation is changing the very atoms of your cells.

Then from across a crowded subway he catches you catching him and he is back and squealing your name and you wonder wait, you had a hard time getting out of bed this morning? You’d have missed this?

So you go up to Enrique’s mom as you sit on the steps of creation, the casual yet sweeping stairs of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to tell her how much Enrique moves you. But she bravely grabs the reins of conversation first, despite a minor struggle with the language, and tells you how much Enrique loved The Met, how she let him walk through just three rooms in the Egyptian Wing, but letting him go to any of the pieces that called out to him with a luxury of time each piece took to reveal itself to him. And you wonder how on earth this mother from Mexico living in California has the extraordinary wisdom to craft this extraordinarily deft experience for her boy, her exquisite son.

And for some reason, today, at that perfect moment of weather on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, when the aches of the early morning have been blown away by Enrique’s breezes and you feel no pain anywhere in your body and the sun is warm but not hot, and you’re nearly done your twelve hour day, the moment you tell yourself will register in your memory forever when so many many others have fallen into the oblivion of your tattered old mind, for no reason whatsoever, you find yourself heaving with uncontrollable sobs. You cannot stop yourself.

What it must be to be a mom watching a stranger break down in front of you after having to watching your son like a hawk for the last three days.

When she asks if you are alright you say,


And you choke on the next word.

She tries to help you, in a difficult language, roaming the landscape of the heart, by finishing what she thinks is your thought.

“Oh, you probably know now or someone has told you that Enrique…”

What it must be to be a mom in a second language in a second country searching for an adjective to describe your son.

For her you finish your sentence. In the shadow of a million masterpieces.

“Is the most beautiful thing on earth.”

A death in 6B.

15 Oct

My neighbors are a private lot. It’s fine by me. The number of anyone who has lived in this building longer than two years has dwindled to a dozen perhaps, and I know six of them by name in a game at which I excel.

So when our particularly chatty doorman cornered me this morning, I was perplexed by his gossip.

“Did you hear about Sharon in 6B?”

I hadn’t, and could tell he reveled in his superior access to insider information.

“She died.”

“I’m sorry, who?” I replied, while juggling a coffee and searching my left pants’ pocket for my keys so interested was I.

“Sharon,” he said. “Seventy-something, I’m sorry, maybe late 60s,” he corrected himself, “1970s hairstyle,” digging, further, “from what I hear she was a singer but like so many people who are unsuccessful, got a regular job…” he trailed off, realizing he was talking to an unemployed actor. “I’m just telling the older residents who probably knew her because she lived here for twenty years.”

I’ve lived here for twenty-six.

I was torn between hiring a sketch artist and crafting a piñata in his effigy.

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out who the hell he was talking about. I came up with one suspect. Who I just saw coming in from the rain. Clearly, this was not the same wet woman found crumpled in her shower four days after she never showed up to work.

I’ll spend the rest of the day immersed in a campaign to make my presence more concrete and positive so that Hector needn’t refer to me one day to my confused neighbors as that 40-80 year old guy who oddly no one really ever knew.

Thus saith the Lord.

22 Aug

I’ve been reading the King James Bible.

It’s good to read the KJV. As Christopher Hitchens used to say, the KJV and the US Constitution are the only two great pieces of literature written by committee. He’s right there, as is his assertion that to truly appreciate Shakespeare and Donne and Milton, you have to know the structure, the verse, the density, the heights of poetry accomplished by the King James Bible.

The Psalms are for the most part quite beautiful. Certain turns of phrase elsewhere can completely catch me off guard when I deconstruct them, or say them aloud, usually in my bad British dialect. And there is a carefully wrought redundancy throughout both Testaments, certain verses that repeat themselves in a kind of musical mantra that bypass the head and strike at the heart. My favorite one of late is: Thus saith the Lord.

That’s good writing. It trips off the tongue. It sticks.

It’s also at the heart of the work itself, isn’t it? I mean, it refers to the entire act of faith that is the Bible. Here’s a story, here are its words. Who said them? The Lord. It’s been much on my mind lately.

I just finished a somewhat trying three-day tour with forty very old Texans. When I started giving tours of NYC seventeen years ago, senior citizens who came here were in their late sixties and seventies. Routinely now, tourists in these groups are in their nineties. They move slowly, and think slower. I spent the better part of the last three days tracking down four lost cell phones. (I found them all.) Ironically, it was their group leader, a woman in her fifties, who slowed us down the most. She was of an unhealthy weight and the stress that has placed on the tenuous engineering of her knees has brought her to a crawl while some of the eighty-year olds she works for at their local senior center hosting this trip ran rings round her all weekend. Sadly, she set the tone, and her flop sweat and bitching spread like a cancer through the motor coach.

So I tried to keep them all seated, sedated, and hydrated, only stopping to let them relieve themselves whenever we passed clean bathrooms. Like at Trump Tower. I never pass up an opportunity to let forty people piss at Trump Tower.

As such, I was called upon to talk a lot more. Seven hours a day straight, for the most part, digging up stories out of the bottom of my story bag, madly, stories I hadn’t visited in my mind much lately, old saws that got discarded because I forgot to vet their veracity or got sick of telling them or had written them on the template of my mind in such a way that I would always stumble over the same words day after day ten years ago until I finally told myself, “Just stop telling that fucking story!”

And each story has a story. There are thirteen good stories why NYC is called The Big Apple. Tour guides tend to tell their favorite, the one that gets the biggest “Ah-HA!” moment, or a good chuckle. Same thing with Hell’s Kitchen. There’s a bunch of good stories there. As it is my neighborhood, I’ve looked up a lot of them. A whole lot of them. And because I’ve discovered within the past three years that I had a great-great grandfather who once lived on my very own block, mind you, I am particularly interested. Every good story I’ve encountered that had any sea legs reveals itself to be a good story about the Irish.

I used to tell the story of two turn of the Century Irish police officers breaking up an Irish brawl on a dog day of summer in the west forties, complaining to one another of the heat. “No,” said the other. “It is not as hot as hell, it’s as hot as Hell’s kitchen.” That’s good right? You hear a lot of variations along this line.

But about a year ago I read a different account at the New-York Historical Society. The Irish were so maligned as they fled the Potato Famine for the shores of NYC that those already here referred to them as vermin. Boarding houses erected signs that read, “No actors, no dogs, no Irish.” The Irish were third, the afterthought after the dogs. Finally finding work along the commercial docks as longshoreman, it was the awful, gritty neighborhood where I now live that they first found a good foothold. The rest of the city let them stay there, these filthy misshapen Papists, these drudges who were, as the saying went, “Not fit to mop the floors of Hell’s kitchen.”

I love that story for its last line. It sounds so Irish, a story my grandmother might have told of her mother in that same cadence, the same ironic loathsome lightness. It sticks. So I told it Saturday as we drove across West 46th Street.

Today was Monday and we spent the morning at Liberty Island. When I told my good stories of the Statue and sent them on their way to walk around her feet with a specific time to meet back at the dock, I heard one of the ancients whisper-shout to his wife, “We get an hour and a half here and have to spend two hours at Macy’s tonight? Makes no sense.” I had a lot of ammunition to rebut. I don’t design their itineraries, the slow one with the shitty knees does. And were you to spend more than an hour and a half in this baking sun, sir, the dust holding your bones together would blow out over the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. He kinda pissed me off. But as his remark wasn’t directed at me, it was only a technical foul and I let it go.

We spent the afternoon at Ellis Island. I have a lot of good stories there, too. I can tailor my comments to fifteen minutes or go on with enthusiasm for two hours. Truly. I love talking about Ellis Island. I’ve scoured the museum after over a thousand visits, talked to other great guides for years, and read a lot of great books. Immigration is a hot-button topic and a minefield fraught with peril in an election year. Maneuvering the pitfalls is an adrenaline rush. I get very excited there.

I checked my watch upon arrival and decided on my half hour talk, whatever that is. When I decide how long I’ll speak, I can actually see different bullet points pop up in my head. But I will grant you, I am getting older too. Sometimes the next point is fuzzy in my mind’s eye that apparently needs glasses as well. I have to concentrate more these days and I’m easily distracted, by, say, the horns of the departing ferry boats that would give the healthiest among us a heart attack on their best day.

This afternoon, though, I felt like I was on fire, words coming to me easily, fluidly, with a good turn of phrase here and there I hadn’t planned, making some new connections, even ones I hadn’t much considered before, getting laughs when I wanted them, then the somber moment heralded by my actor-y crocodile tears, the crowd moving in to listen as I lowered my voice, weaving words, worming my way into their hearts and wallets. It was magic. I was sparkling. Until all of a sudden that cranky old man is raising his hand. Right there. Why the fuck is he waving his hand at me, I wondered as my mind began to wander.

I lost my place.

But I kept going, now stumbling over this word and that, forgetting whatsisnames name, you know, electricity, the car, right, Tesla, ums and uhs replacing my former fading eloquence. And still that motherfucker is waving his hand. Finally flop sweat knock-kneed group leader shouts, “He wants to say something.”

So I stopped, summoned a smile, and kindly gestured towards him with outstretched hand, “Yes. Please. Sir.”

And he says.

I was reading recently that when the Irish came here they were treated like garbage and people used to say they weren’t fit to mop the floors of hell’s kitchen.

Picture me staring at him for seven seconds. Count them off in your head right now. Now watch my head ever so slightly cock itself to the right as you see my hand reach out to him once more, the silence devastating. Until I broke it British with:

“Thus saith the Lord.”

My annual letter.

31 Dec

Happy New Year!

It sure was an eventful year for this household! All seven of the children I never had have finished college and are employed variously with impressive jobs that end in ‘-ogist’ and ‘-analyst.’ Except for Becky of course who for all we can tell does something with Burning Man but neither I nor her mother who doesn’t exist can read Becky’s penmanship on all the letters that never come.

The varicose vein on my leg looked so troubling in July that I sought medical attention. Again that week. (I’m looking at apartments above his office by the way.) The doctor began to tell me that “they are due to” and I finished his sentence, “heredity” but apparently I was wrong as it takes much less time to say “age” than it does “heredity.”

I just purchased two thousand dollars of bed bug insurance because I continue to love living here in New York City. As a further example, my new next door neighbor is a woman named Donna and Donna throws a party every Sunday night. I was going to say ‘religiously’ but you may have gotten the wrong impression. It sounds like frat boys murdering dignity. And a mule. Anyway, I see Donna on the elevator nearly every day and we smile and exchange occasional small talk which is only made possible because I’ve maintained my anonymity the four times I’ve called the police on her.

This was a big year for reunions! While I didn’t attend any, it was fun throwing away all the pleas for money so that the next generation of Bucknellians can live in dorms that resemble a suite at the Essex House instead of my accommodations in Kress Hall which looked like Rikers. In defense of Rikers, Kress smelled worse.

Had you been in my living room this year, you’d have seen me in dozens of productions as my career seems to have turned a corner reaching a level of maturity and finesse I can’t seem to recapture as I turn the corner into my bathroom.

I also made the leap to a smart phone this year and feel quite full of myself and I won’t let the fact that I’ve recently left three credit cards in ATMs with this new fucking chip technology dampen my spirits.

I’m wishing you all joy in 2016. I live in the most fortified Times Square I’ve ever seen. I’d be thrilled to wake up in 2016.


The Squares.

18 Aug

More or less, I’ve dragged my ass to the gym every day of my life since I was 17 years old. Granted, I’ve had spells when I’ve eaten my way out of any noticeable results, but I’m on a good kick lately.

Apparently the man on this endless tour noticed today.

“Do you work out?” he asked me in Herald Square.

“Well, yes,” I answered.

He’s one of those guys who asks a question only to talk about himself.

“I work out five times a week,” said he and he should have stopped there. “How about you?”

I had to be honest. “Seven days a week, sir.” He was a bit deflated and left me alone only to regroup, in Madison Square, where he cornered me again.

“Guess how old I am?”

I HATE when they ask me that. While not heavy, his four droopy cheeks and pleated face put him at around eighty-nine in my book. “I really couldn’t say,” I said, then lied, “Sixty?”

“I’m seventy-two!” he sang and I feigned the wrong surprise.

In Union Square he grabbed his wife and paraded her in front of me like a clydesdale.

“She’s seventy-one and goes with me to the gym. We do thirty minutes of cardio and then I do free weights. And I had a quadruple bypass ten years ago!”

Bless his beleaguered heart, he was just happy to be alive I guess, but you’ll forgive me if I didn’t share his enthusiasm. It is so hard to give a tour when one of the guests has an entirely different agenda. Like bragging. Or living.

In Washington Square, I’d had it. After my favorite talk about the authors of Greenwich Village, and it is indeed astounding the heights and volume of literature that have been produced in that tiny neighborhood, I saw him heading my way, wife in tow:

“I’ll bet I can bench press more than you,” he says. “How much can you press?”

So I said,

“Sir, while anything is possible in the Village, your wife might think you’ve been flirting with me all this time. Let’s talk again in Battery Park.”

Addio, Favignana, per ora.

19 Jul

In my junior year of college I met Fran. And she introduced me to her friends. She has that kind of heart.

She would talk of her family home on the mystical island of Favignana off the west coast of Sicily and we, bold with youth and artistically inclined, all talked of building our artists’ colony there one day, perhaps in our retirement, perhaps tomorrow. It was the kind of dream Fran fostered, generous as she is. It was a dream only, but we’d cling to it over drinks, over reunions, over decades.

That was thirty years ago.

When Fran told me her father had sold the house and that she and her sister Julie were making one last visit before deeds were exchanged and history rewritten, I asked if I could come along. Of course she said yes. That is Fran.

We started our journey with four days in Rome. And that time deserves its own letter. But on the fourth day, we boarded a plane in Rome for Palermo and then drove past the Greek temple at Segesta and on to the port city of Trapani where we stopped for lunch and met a nineteen-year-old waiter named Alexander who was born in Russia and lived in Florence and now found himself frustrated and a little lonely at the whim of a move made by his mother and step-father. It was a divertimo, meeting Alexander, but an apt bridge from the Eternal City towards a place of which few have heard.

We boarded a ferry-boat and sailed past the statue of the Blessed Mother at the port’s entrance, watching the Mediterranean turn impossible shades of blue and made a stop at the smaller island of Levanzo. A hundred or so houses cling to the shoreline sandwiched in as they are by two ancient mountaintops. And off we were after all this time, this time in college, this time in grad school, this time struggling with the challenges of life, this time after time after time off to an island where time stands still and one can breathe in one’s life and take stock of forgotten dreams.

Favignana is shaped like a butterfly, and at the narrowest point lies a city of sorts, dominated by two piazzi, one municipal and one religious, circled by outdoor restaurants and little bottega or shops catering to what seemed to us a wealthier class of tourists than might have visited in the past. The old and massive tuna cannery that likely put the island on the map is all quiet now. But old families live in the tiny cobbled streets and older families live out in the country on parched farms where rolls of hay lie in fallow fields suspended beyond the realm of clocks.

We drove up to Franny’s home.

Stately gates open up to a manicured driveway and open-air carport surrounded by walls of ivy and oleander and bougainvillea. A lime-stuccoed stairway leads up to terra-cotta tiled verandas that surround the house. The Italians have mastered the sun and windows and doors are louvered and sectioned to allow light or air or shade depending on the time of day.

Fran and Julie led me into the Great Room, a lovely large high-ceilinged parlor in which sat a large dining room table. And this room said it all. The table. In the Great Room. I could feel the presence of Franny’s family tree among the chairs, laughter echoing off the vaulted chamber, meals shared, stories told, love infusing everything like the simple, rich fare taken from the earth surrounding the house and the sea a walk away.

Surrounding the Great Room are three bedrooms with beautifully tiled floors and in various stages of “unfurnishings,” but that which remained often involved sturdy dressers and commodes topped with pink or white marble. The fourth room was the kitchen, a large affair with blue and white tiles surrounding the multi-purpose sink that washed the food and washed the dishes and washed the clothes on the built-in washboard all fueled at one time by a cistern that was filled by the good graces of the circling mule in the yard. But that was many years ago. Now, indoor plumbing had replaced the mule, a legendary animal I named Sisyphus for his troubles. Over a tiny stove stands a massive and similarly tiled hood, an exhaust I wondered for the once enormous wood-burning stove that must have occupied that spot.

And off the kitchen? A fully modern bathroom with walls of jade-colored tiles and a sink, bathtub, shower, toilet, and bidet.

Outside were the stalls and outlying garages of a fully functioning farm that had stopped functioning many years ago, so many that many of the structures were in various stages of disrepair if not collapse. But all of it had a tender beauty to me, all of it spoke to the hands that crafted the home in stages over generations, all of it sang with the courage of a family that had retreated there during the height of the brutality of World War II when bombs could be seen hitting the village only a mile and a half away.

We spent our mornings around the kitchen table eating fresh fruit and cheese and bread, lazily sleeping in myself, me, not used to the un-air conditioned heat.

We went to the piazzi to wander the tiny cobbled streets and lay in supplies.

We went to the Lido Burrone and rented lounge chairs under an umbrella and soaked in a different sun, cooled off in the shockingly beautiful waters, ate tomatoes and sandwiches at the cafe or had full lunches at the restaurant that sat right on the beach.

We talked of our old dreams.

Fran took me to the other side of the island one day, to the rocky shore where we sat on jagged lime at the foot of a cove and dipped our feet in the water, there, in the shadow of the lighthouse that was once home to merely one arm of her extensive extended family on Favignana. Up in the hills were caves, off in the distance, Sicily, and every sense, on fire, the treacherous burning rocks bathed by the cool sea under the umbrella of perfect skies, an unrelenting sun sure, but jasmine wafting on every breeze.

Julie and Fran and I were joined by Fran’s childhood friends Margie and Karen and we sat on the beach another day, ate in a garden, tried mulberry granita, and woke up the next day for a boat excursion around the neighboring island of Marettimo whose gem of a shoreline offered a grotto filled with sparrows, a waterline lined with coral, and a teeny tiny village where people’s entire lives played out and are being played out right now as I type this in my apartment in NYC. They go on. Despite me.

One night, we ate in an abandoned lime quarry that had been turned into a tony hotel and restaurant. Every night, we strolled the piazza. Both of them. And down to the port, the entire ten days, never not under the watchful eye of the castle of Santa Catarina that sits majestically on top of the highest peak, and lit up at night-time so that it seems to float upon a cloud.

We’d come home and sit on the back veranda and make up stories about the castle. Did you know it is home to Gio-Gio Venti, maker of wind? We’d beseech him he’d grant us a cool night’s sleep. More often than not, he’d acquiesce to our prayers.

But even in the land of the timeless, time does indeed intrude, and Fran and Julie had to attend to those things one must do to save a memory or two, to let go of that which one decides must be let go, to put things like records and dreams in boxes to be shipped to America, the very same journey of their ancestors. Even the rock that kept the silverware from disappearing down the drain had to be dealt with, as did Fran’s lovely collection of broken tiles she’d spent a lifetime collecting in the ‘campo di Favignana.”

My heart broke for them, these lovely sisters who have been so kind to me for as long as I can remember. I felt as though I were intruding on a sacred time in their lives. I wanted to help, but I wanted to disappear into the woodwork to let them dance that delicate dance of celebration and grief.

The closing of the door the last day was as quick as it was painful, and I applaud their courage for their shared hug and the turning of the key and of their backs.

Remember, though, that in a timeless land, nothing is forgotten. The lives that spun through there are a part of the earth, the mountain, the sea. I saw that. I heard the voices in the melodious operatic cadences of the Italian language that washed across my ears for days singing “We were here” and you were, Fran, you were, Julie, you were, Ali, you were Frank and Angelina, and your whole gracious and good and kind family reaching back into the roots of your family, your roots are there and strong and strong especially, in a parched earth that gives way to delicate jasmine, where you will lay on the breeze like an insistent whisper beyond the last memory of the last person on the Island of Favignana.

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