I could see now why the man looked so tired and withdrawn. This little dog was ruling his life. He told me this has been going on for nine years. I could not imagine such a life. Pets are supposed to bring you joy, not make you miserable.
“We used to have a German Shepherd but he died a few years back,” he told me. “When we left him home with our Shepherd, Alfie was okay. We could go out and he’d be fine when we got back. But Shep died, and now Alfie goes crazy again.”
I really felt bad for the guy. After nine years of being under Alfie’s tyranny, I assumed that every possible remedy must have been considered. They had consulted a number of veterinarians and dog trainers and even a dog shrink. His dilemma nagged at me, and challenged me to think of some new solutions. Then it came to me.
“Why don’t you get Alfie a cat? They are low maintenance and self-managing. You said Alfie was okay with Shep the Shepherd, so maybe any live body will do?”
For the first time, the man’s face changed from a sullen mask. His eye showed some life – and hope.
“You know, I never thought of that. That’s a great idea!”
With new energy, he reached for Alfie’s leash that he’d hung on the fence near the water guzzler.
“I think I’m going to go home now and talk to my wife. Alfie, Alfie come on, boy, let’s go – let's go see Mommy!”
I said goodbye and good luck, feeling pleased that maybe I did something to help this one person, this one day, in this one life.
Days went by and there was no sign of Alfie and the tired man. A week passed and Lacey and I were there early the day they finally arrived. The man was not wearing earplugs, and his shirt was neatly tucked in. He looked like he’d gotten some good sleep and a little suntan maybe from a full round of golf.
He bounded right over to my sunny bench with Alfie in tow.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I said.
“Listen, I’m glad I ran into you.”
“Me too. How’ve you been?”
“We got a cat – like you suggested. Alfie is happy and we can leave him home now – we even played a full round of golf yesterday. Thanks a lot!”
“No need to thank me. It was my pleasure. I like to believe that there are no problems, only solutions. I’m just glad it worked out.”
Alfie chased Lacey and the man walked over and threw them a well worn tennis ball as both dogs chased and slobbered on with great excitement.
No big thing, perhaps, but seeing them like this sure made my day.
A Quiet Man in a Dark Garage
Isn’t it strange how we might not cross paths with certain people who live or work in our neighborhoods, and, all of a sudden, we begin to bump into them practically every day?
That’s been happening to me lately in Manhattan with Al, the parking attendant who works at Midtown Parking across the street from my building on East 32nd Street. We know each other well from the many times I’ve parked there over the past ten years, but we don’t normally see each other more than a few times a month, at most.
This week, the first time I saw Al outside of the garage was Tuesday morning. He was getting coffee on his way to work. Wednesday, I caught him again as he was leaving the parking garage after his shift. We stepped in stride together on our way to catch the downtown 6-train at the entrance on the corner of 32nd and Park.
With tens of thousands of people walking around Midtown East and Murray Hill, I saw Al yet again today, Thursday, on Third Avenue, as I was leaving the eyeglass store. I had gotten an exam and was picking out new glasses to replace my old ones, which were twisted and scratched beyond repair, not to mention out of fashion.
My oldest daughter, Carolyn, was getting married that Saturday. I wanted to look the best I could in my rented Zeller Tuxedo, which I picked up the day before at 5th and Lex. Tuxes are always a last-minute pick-up, but the glasses, I must admit, should have been dealt with further back than a mere three days before the big event. I procrastinated, feeling and acting lazy and cheap. Eyewear costs a fortune unless you want to buy a pair that looks like the safety glasses the shop teachers made us wear in seventh grade. As for lazy, between the exam and picking out frames and doing the paperwork, it was almost a two-hour affair, especially if you spring for a pair of sunglasses, too, as I did.
To waylay my fears that the glasses might not be ready in time, I agreed to pay an exorbitant special shipping charge to increase the odds. Procrastination always has a “special” price. Nevertheless, I was still worried that they would arrive late, and I was irritated at myself for not taking care of this sooner.
The first time I saw Al on Tuesday, I was feeling a bit stressed – mostly about the upcoming wedding. Even though I wasn’t the one getting married (I did that 30 years ago) being the Father of the Bride put me in the spotlight for a day in front of 200 people. And there were oodles of things to do to help with the wedding: writing checks, running errands, and making and receiving telephone calls, just to name a few. I’ll admit that writing the checks is the most stressful, certainly as compared to walking 13 blocks to pick up a tuxedo. Such is life, and I was very happy for Carolyn and her fiancé, Tommy.
Al has an uncanny way of always making the problems that I think are so big seem smaller, just by talking about his own life’s trials. For example, on Tuesday when I told him that I was feeling anxious about the wedding, he said, “You should be happy that your 27-year-old daughter is getting married and moving on with her life.” He told me that he has one son, no daughters (my wife I have three daughters), and that his son is 34 years old and won’t leave college. He’s never had a real job or even a girlfriend, and all he does is keep graduating. As soon as he graduates with a new degree, he finds reasons to need another degree. Sometimes these degrees require him to go to foreign countries to achieve his academic goals, citing that the best place in the world for this or that is over here or there. “I worry about him,” Al told me. And then he said, “This is my life. I’ll be 60 next month.”
He was right. I should have been feeling only gratitude for the happy occasion and let the small stuff go. I would not be willing to trade my short-term financial and other concerns for his long-term worries about his only son’s future.
Today I saw him squinting as he was reading the Daily News in front of the pizza joint on Third Avenue. I could make out that he had eyeglasses folded in shirt pocket and not where they belonged, on his face.
“There you are again,” I called out, moving closer to talk.
“Oh, that’s right. Congratulations!” Al said with a genuine, wide and happy smile.
Then he added, “Glasses – oh boy, they are expensive.”
“No kidding.” I pressed my hand on my lightened wallet and rolled my eyes back for effect.
“The ones I have in my pocket only cost $12 at the drug store, but I need real ones from a regular eye optometrist, like that place you just came from. But he’s too expensive.”
I nod in full agreement, having just experienced that expense hit my credit card.
“I had a good pair, but not anymore.”
“What happened to your glasses, Al?”
“Well, I went to this place in Queens that was advertising 99-dollar glasses in the news a few months ago.”
“Wow, that’s cheap.” I pictured Al wearing black-rimmed nerdy shop glasses and laughed to myself.
He snickered. “Cheap my ass. It turns out that in small print it said certain frames only for $99. By the time I got finished with the eye exam, lenses, frames that don’t make me look like a freak, coatings, insurance and tax, the damn glasses cost me $750 bucks, man.”
I kept quiet because I knew exactly what he was talking about. My two pair, together, didn’t cost that much, but it wasn't that far in price from it, either. I also knew that Al had been taken for a ride by the eyeglass store in Queens.
“Al, can you read that sign across the street?” He put on his $12 specials and strained his vision across Third Avenue to the parking regulations sign I pointed to. No dice.
“So, Al, what happened to the good ones?”
“Ha – two days after I bought them I’m down in the subway. I’m seeing great – everything, clear as a bell – noticing things I haven’t for years. I’d been getting headaches too and even those went away with the new glasses. So I hear a train heading into the subway, stop, and stick my head out to see if I could see it coming in from the dark tunnel. Usually, without good glasses, I hear the trains, then they just appear at the platform, you know, and I get in. So when I stick my head out to look, my nice new glasses fall off my head and right onto the track and WHAM, the train runs them over and crushes 'em all over the place.”
“Oh no.” I felt so bad for Al.
“Yeah, man. So I figure I’m lucky that I took the insurance in the $750 price so I’ll just go back and get another. I mean it’s just been two days.”
“Oh – good move.” I felt temporarily relieved.
“No, the sales guy says, to replace broken glasses I have to bring the old ones back. Yeah – I told him I can’t. He says why not? Then I tell him because they got run over by a #7 train. So the guy tells me then that I’m out of luck – no glasses, no replacements.”
“That sucks, Al. That really sucks!”
“Yeah, man. I can only read here in the bright light now outside. I can’t read down there in the garage. It’s dark, and the electric lights – the, the ... ”
“Fluorescents,” I offered.
“Yeah – those hurt my eyes.”
Al pulled away from the sun-drenched wall he was leaning against, tossed the Daily News in the trash can on the corner of 32nd and Third, and we began walking back together. He veered left to the darkened garage tunnel and I steered my feet right toward my building on the opposite side of the street.
“Have fun at the wedding!” he said, giving my shoulder a friendly push, nudging me back to my building.
“Thanks, Al. I will.”
As I approached the entrance to my apartment building, I stepped a little more lightly. If my glasses, which I had delayed ordering, arrived late and not in time for Carolyn and Tommy's wedding, I’d just have to wear the old ones or none at all.
The Sweet Tooth Bandit of
On a warm spring night I like to eat a steaming dish of Spaghetti Bolognese in the sidewalk café section of a restaurant in my Murray Hill neighborhood on the corner of 34th and 3rd. There I can watch the world go by.
I write about New York, especially Manhattan. I write what I see, hear, smell and taste. I don’t go looking for stories; they have a peculiar way of finding me. To me, the best seat in the house in New York City is right on the street.
I live in a small studio apartment on the corner of 32nd and Third Avenue. (Missed 33rd and a 3rd by one block.)
Murray Hill gets its name from the Murray family, 18th-century Quaker merchants mainly concerned with shipping and ocean-going trade. About 1762, Murray rented land from the City of New York to build a grand house on a farm. His dream home, which he named Belmont, but which was popularly termed Murray Hill, was constructed on a since-leveled hill now situated at Park Avenue and 36th Street. The total area was just over 29 acres. The farm began a few hundred feet south of 33rd Street and extended north to the middle of the block between 38th and 39th Streets. At the southern end, the plot was rather narrow, but at the northern end it extended from approximately Lexington Avenue to a spot between Madison and Fifth Avenues. Now, for me, these boundaries define most of my days spent in the city, living my new life. Since just about everything New Yorkers need can be found in a few-block radius, we tend to create worlds made up of a few blocks and avenues.
For much of the twentieth century, the neighborhood was a quiet and conservative place housing mainly wealthy older residents. Since the late 1990s, many upper-class young professionals in their twenties and thirties have moved into the area.
On any given day, after the offices of the city turn off their fluorescents, Murray Hill transforms itself into a trendy neighborhood filled with young professionals who flock out most nights, from their cramped apartments to wine and dine along rows of sports bars, reasonably priced restaurants, and pubs. On weekends, the raucous restaurant-and-bar scene along Third Avenue often extends into the breaking dawn of the following day. On some nights, my only solution to sleep is earplugs and a pillow over my head; but it’s Okay. I put the scene in the same category as the sirens. They are the sounds of my city, my neighborhood.
Single room occupancy (SROs) hotels abound. They keep the neighborhood real and serve as a reminder to all that not everyone drinks from martini glasses and eats from fine china in Murray Hill. Just take a walk in the morning and check out the brands of empties strewn on Third Avenue: Thunderbird, pints of Irish Rose, and Colt 45 in cans. Styrofoam Chinese food containers are everywhere too – the four-course meal of choice for the under $7 entree crowd. It’s all stuff realtors edit out of those pretty pictures of two-bedroom apartment rentals listed at six grand a month.
Besides eating and people watching, I devour indie movies, documentaries, and off-beat films. Unfortunately, most of them are shown downtown, at the Angelika Film Center, the East Side Cinema or the Sunshine – all around Houston Street. I don’t mind walking down there, or taking the 6 train or the bus, but last night I was tired after the Bolognese. Next time I’m gonna order the appetizer portion. The dish I got was as big as one my mother would put out for our family with four kids. I guess we kids filled up on bread and practiced "portion control." One scoop or two of Dairy Barn ice cream was the dessert de jour – every jour – and all their flavors were layered like strips of colored goodness in the carton.
After dinner, it was too early to go back to my pad. My place leaked after Hurricane Sandy and wrecked the couch, so I had to drag it out to the freight elevator and out to the sidewalk. I replaced that with a $19 rug from Home Depot. I also turned the cable TV off because the news depresses me. I can’t take all those commercials urging us to take drugs for every little thing from indigestion to toenail fungus. It’s been turning me into a hypochondriac. So if I want to take a nap I have to do it on the floor, or take time to turn down the Murphy bed. When the Murphy bed is down I have to creep around the perimeter of the room like I’m walking about the edge of a 22-foot center-console fishing boat, and it sometimes closes in on me.
It was the best April night so far – a full moon – and nice for walking with a light jacket, or in my case a sweatshirt with a hood. The kids today call them hoodies. How that became ‘gangsta’ fashion I’ll never know; I’ve been wearing them since the fourth grade. Over on 2nd is the Kips Bay Cineplex, where all the bang-bang-shoot’em-up-car chase half-hour-too-long films are guaranteed to be. I figured two hours in a large dark room instead of a small cramped room would be better for my head, so I got a ticket for “GI Joe.” In between nod-offs it wasn’t too bad, though the explosions prevented me from entering REM and the 3D glasses kept sliding off my face. It was a pillow-less sleep.
When I finally came to, I needed something sweet. I was being kind to myself this night, treating myself to dinner and a movie but still in need of some self-love, and ice cream never lets a man down.
Across the street from my place is a Gristedes Market of the basement variety – down an escalator to a full-sized though subterranean and windowless supermarket.
I’m in the habit of keeping my eyes on the street. There’s an SRO next to the supermarket so I’m used to panhandlers, winos and crack-heads blocking the entrance. If I have spare change, I usually hand it over, but never bills. I know they want drugs or booze but that isn’t my business. If they’ve got the balls to make cold calls, then I guess they deserve a sale once in a while. I tried the “Well I won’t give ya’ money but how ’bout I buy you a buttered roll” thing for a while, but that takes time and you can tell they aren’t looking for rolls with butter anyway.
On the way in, I spied something unusual to the right of the automatic doors. Four plastic bags, stuffed and unattended. I got curious and I backtracked away from the store, going out the usually broken super-sensor doors before the “in” door closed on me.
I checked out the apparently ownerless yellow bags.
What I saw were four bags filled to bursting with boxes of cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and more. What’s the deal here? No SRO guys were guarding it and no yuppies were making trips to the $6,000-per-month doorman building three feet over. How odd! Well, it’s none of my business so what the heck; just another New York oddity out of hundreds I’ve seen. Let it remain a mystery. I came for sweet love, not a crime scene. I wanted ice cream before I went up and jumped in the Island of Murphy.
When I got down into the store, there was a commotion going on. At 11:30 at night it’s usually calm. It’s the insomniac shoppers’ time: mainly impulse buyers with odd combinations of organic carrots and cherry-flavored Twizzlers.
I heard more commotion up front by the registers. What the heck was going on in the land of the night owl supermarket zombies?
The checkout counters are cleverly signed as 2nd Avenue, 3rd Avenue, East 32nd and 33rd and 3rd. It’s Murray Hill Geography. The commotion is centered on 32nd Street, the only open checkout line.
“We finally got 'em," said the checkout lady with a Jamaican accent to a tired-looking, pot-bellied manager. The bagger was a Jamaican woman too and they all seemed pleased, joking and retelling what seems to have already been told. I was the only customer, standing there with my pint of ice cream, my sweet treat. So of course I asked, “What’s going on? Who’d you get?"
“Security finally caught da’ Sweet Tooth Bandit. He be robbing this place for weeks, sneakin’ out stuff in dem shopping bags. Yeah, mon – we got 'em tonight!”
“No kidding,” I exclaimed with wide eyes and open ears, trying to absorb every word said through her thick accent.
“Why do you call him The Sweet Tooth Bandit?”
“This crazy dude– all he take is cookies and cupcakes. Two nights ago he make off with a whole carrot cake! Yeah, mon.”
“Well, you know,” I thought, but didn’t say, “We all need something sweet in our lives. Some more than others.” As I left with my ice cream, I felt for the guy.
Don Quixote de la Manhattan
Was I crazy? Had I gone completely nuts? Most of the people in my life had already reached their conclusion and answered in the affirmative. It seemed that I alone had reservations about whether or not I was a certifiable lunatic. After all, if someone has lost all sense of reason and is operating in a delusional state, how can they judge for themselves if they had or had not gone over the edge? Add to this the fact that defining what constitutes insanity is relative to the culture, societal norms, and subjective opinions of those doing the judging, and not by the subjects themselves—and what have you then?
For example, consider street life on the island of Manhattan. Compare it to the average lifestyles of those who live in quiet, leafy suburban hamlets not far from the city, such as Long Island, Westchester or North Jersey—places where many commuters live in nice houses and only come to the city for work. Behavior and appearances that are commonplace here in New York would attract negative attention from the locals in the small towns surrounding the Big City; they might even bring out the police. By the same token, those same persons wandering the city streets in their own private Eden might be labeled crazy and brought to the nuthouse for their own good or for the perceived safety of others.
You might be asking yourself, “What the hell is he talking about?” That’s a good question which I’ll try to answer. Let me tell you a story that may help you, as it helped me, decide who is crazy and who is not in this admittedly always-a-bit-crazy world of ours, as seen in microcosm on the streets of “the city that never sleeps.”
My story, which actually happened, begins with a chance meeting I had with a woman I encountered while sitting on a park bench in Manhattan. I call her the “Don Quixote Lady of Columbus Circle”—and it was a meeting that transformed my life.
I had just turned fifty, a milestone in life and often celebrated as such. Some say making it to the half a century mark is a significant achievement. Others say it’s the last stop before the downward slide into decrepitude. But everyone agrees that it’s the time to begin considering slowing down.
I'm married and my wife and I have three grown daughters in their twenties. I own my own business. I have employees and a house in the suburbs. I also own a modest pied-a-tier in Manhattan that I purchased ten years ago. When my wife and I first acquired it, we used to use it together. We would come to town, attend Broadway shows, and do other “city things” in an attempt to add some pizzazz to our rather routine (often humdrum) existence. It was our place to escape.
When two of our daughters graduated from college and took jobs in Manhattan, they lived in that conveniently located Midtown studio co-op apartment, until such time as their careers took off and they could move to bigger digs elsewhere in the city. After they both had their turn with the place, I began to spend more and more time there. I liked being away from the ‘burbs, away from everything that was familiar.
This is when the first whispering of “craziness” started in my life.
I always liked taking photographs and long walks, so to pass the time I began exploring the city with my camera, snapping away while venturing further and deeper into the city's landscape. I began absorbing diverse neighborhoods, from Harlem to The Battery and every place in between. The vibrations of Manhattan were a far cry from the serene, uneventful life I had been living a mere fifty miles away.
One day, while on one of my walks to nowhere special, I realized I had forgotten my camera. Feeling at a loss, I began to record images and observations in my mind, and on returning to my small apartment took out my laptop and began to write them in the form of poems, essays and short stories. A new life of daily adventures had begun for me and writing about these adventures had set me on an irreversible course—destination unknown.
Those inclined to shun the artistic lifestyle I seemed to be venturing towards were puzzled, and in some cases felt threatened, by what they could not understand and the craziness label began growing deeper roots. But my artist friends, who were longtime city dwellers, encouraged my venture into the new world of words, images and urban adventure. They saw it not as a so-called “midlife crisis” but as the awakening and blossoming of a dormant spirit.
Unbeknownst to me at that point was that walking with no particular plan in mind had pointed my rudderless ship on a course that would lead me to a fellow writer who took pen to paper in Spain over 600 years ago, and to his fictitious hero whose adventures would rearrange the world for me, as it had for so many others. I was about to meet a fascinating woman on a park bench who would introduce me to one of the greatest writers in history, Miguel Cervantes, and to his fictional Knight errant Don Quixote de la Mancha!