Category Archives: Personal Journal

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“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Don’t do it!”

In the mid 1970s that was the intro for the hit TV show “Baretta” about a street-smart quick-talking undercover cop with the NYPD who lived with an old man and a cockatoo.

When “Baretta” came on, it was dad-and-me TV. Dad and I would watch Robert Blake as Baretta ham it up with Huggy Bear. (Google it. He was street ’70s cool!)

Am I going down this nostalgic path to wax poetically about Robert Blake, a child actor of “Our Gang” turned tough guy actor who was later accused of murdering his wife by shooting her in a car outside a restaurant and then acquitted?

Nope.

It’s to remember where I was when the lights went out in New York City on July 13, 1977.

History shows that the electrical shutdown started at about 8:55 p.m. with a lightning strike in Yonkers.

I didn’t know anything about that at the time.

But what I do remember is watching “Baretta” with my dad in our Bronx apartment.

The screen suddenly went blank and everything in the apartment went black.

My dad enlisted me to find out what happened. So I went to the first floor where my dad rented space for his knitting factory.

As I went up the stairs with a flashlight, I looked outside and noticed just how freaking dark it was out there.

The house we rented was on a corner and one side was parallel to a major highway. Our corner had at least three light poles so it was never dark — except that day.

Looking out the factory’s ground floor windows, something our basement apartment lacked, I could see a very dark Bronx street.

It was something I had never seen before.

“Dad?!” I cried out. He told me to talk to the landlord.

As I went up the stairs and gained a higher vantage point, I could see more of the street and streets on the other side of the highway.

There were no lights anywhere!

My landlord screamed to go back downstairs and turn on a portable radio to hear the news. The Bronx was blacked out. Later I learned it was wider than that.

So here we were on a hot July night with absolutely no lights.

What to do?

Our landlord got into a post-Fourth of July mood and broke out the fireworks that he did not sell the previous week.

He still had a bunch of firecrackers, Roman candles and bottle rockets.

He gave them to me and I remember my dad joining in.

My mom came up with my infant brother. My middle brother, who was too young to light the fireworks, was running back and forth delighting in the explosions I was orchestrating.

The previous week I may have been able to get my hands on a few firecrackers and bottle rockets but now our usually stingy and sour landlord was gleefully opening up a trunk full of leftover fireworks.

I was in heaven.

Rich, my friend from around the block and now About Men Radio brother, and I talked the next day about the looting and pandemonium that happened all night long in the city.

We later found out about the people in the subways and in Shea Stadium when the ballpark went dark and the stores that were broken into.

There were stories of good Samaritans, New Yorkers helping each other or simply gathering outside their buildings to meet their neighbors.

Or in my case, blow up some fireworks with them.

Related:

Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?

Remembering Prince in Concert in New York City

Young men coming of age in the 1980’s in New York City was an amazing time, with many stories to tell.

One of my favorites takes place at our go-to club, The Ritz, where many bands of the time were heard and good times were had.

1984: We show up at the club to see Sheila E, a protégé of an artist at the time known as Prince, knowing that he would be a shoe-in to show up to promote himself.

sheila24n-1-webShe puts on a great show, and even gives us a few thrills as she has wardrobe malfunctions and flashes us some flesh.

The night could only get better.

She plays her last song and leaves the stage but comes back out for an encore.

When she returns, the music strikes up for a song she has a duet with you-know-who.

When she introduces him, the crowd goes wild.

They finish and go off stage but now the crowd is stomping and cheering for him to come back out.

As he returns to the stage, holding a tambourine in each hand, he bows and tosses the instruments out to the audience exactly as he does in his hit movie.

Unfortunately we were nowhere near where they landed, so no souvenirs for us.

Prince performs a couple of his hits and brings down the house.

What a fantastic impromptu, intimate experience!

But the fun wasn’t over.

We worked our way down to the men’s room before leaving. What we found there has stayed in my mind.

Two lucky people left the club that night with tambourines touched by Prince himself.

The guy we saw in the bathroom didn’t get one but one had skimmed across the top of his head and slit open his scalp.

He was bleeding like a stuck pig, smiling his ass off since it was something “given” to him by that famous artist.

Lucky dude.

I guess every time he scratches his head and feels that scar where no hair grows he’ll remember that fantastic night at the Ritz.

How I Survived My Daughter’s First Concert (and Mosh Pit)

My daughter turned 20 today.

So many feelings and memories surround the writing of that sentence.

I had to stop a second because my eyes started sweating a little.

FamPho154

I have many wonderful thoughts of being able to be that larger-than-life presence in her life. I was, and still am, the daddy.

Although my role as protector has evolved as the years have passed, I recall a particular event where I almost had to go full pit bull as her guardian.

My daughter had turned 14 and was developing her own taste in music.

Of course, as parents we went full bore on all the sappy Disnified music and songs from when she was just a wee girl.

But now she had reached teenagerdom, and the cutesy posters in her room were slowly being replaced with celebrity posters and music idols.

With her birthday approaching, my daughter asked for tickets to see the band We The Kings, who were going to be playing at the House of Blues in Orlando.

I agreed to get the tickets but she could not go alone and I would not simply drop her off — not yet. Not at 14. Not my little girl.

So we had a date night. I was going with her. We headed off.

D&M Now

I decided to eat at the House of Blues. It was a nice outing. We had burgers and talked.

She answered my questions about who these guys we were about to see, where they came from, their style of music, were they cute, etc.

My daughter obliged me my silly daddy questions.

She then informed me that the main band would play after four opening acts.

FOUR!?!? I thought. This is gonna be torture.

I had no idea.

Having patronized the House of Blues restaurant, we were given early-entry passes to the show.

We could pile in before the rest of the Kingers or Kingheads, or whatever they called themselves, could gain access to the hallowed halls of Blues.

We walked and there were only enough people standing to fill about three rows.

Uh-oh. No seats.

I had forgotten that this was a general admission event and there would be no seats. My first alarm went off, but I used to go to heavy metal concerts at small and large venues.

“I got this!” I figured.

As the rest of the patrons started to stroll in, I noticed a few things.

First, I was the oldest thing there. I was even older than the building I was in.

Second, everyone looked at me as if I were a narc.

Third, I was crowding in on my daughter’s first musical fan experience. So I quickly surveyed the room and found some steps that led up to a ledge only a few feet off the main floor where there was a bar.

I had no interest in drinking that night (hard to believe but true), only in the small nook with a railing that overlooked the floor.

I didn’t care about the view of the show, I just wanted to find a place where I could see Marina and I had found it.

silvio and daughter

I leaned over and told Marina where I would be. She nodded, still sporting this wonderful smile and soaking in this new experience.

I trotted up to my perch and stood watch like a medieval sentry through the first two bands.

They were local, unknown bands and they didn’t draw a large reception.

I could still see the curly mop of my happy daughter. And she would look up to my position and flash me a smile and return my thumbs-up each time.

I had forgotten from my concert-going days that true fans and followers pile in as the night gets longer.

And then they came.

By the middle of the third band, I started to see a wave forward and to the side of Marina’s head. The crowd was growing and moving as one large organic being.

My daughter was now in this sea of bodies.

I was starting to sweat.

The fourth band was obviously a favorite as the crowd moved violently in every direction.

I could see Marina still enjoying herself, swaying with the crowd, still pretty much in the same area I had left her when I noticed a new configuration.

A mosh pit was developing!

Oh God, no!!

My little girl was right in the area where the crowd was parting to allow this abomination to take shape.

She was right along the edge of this pit. And I remembered, again from my metal days, what could happen to those unsuspecting individuals around the edge of a pit.

While I scanned, searching for curly hair, I saw him enter the circle: an experienced mosher, all 7-foot-9 of him.

He was a perfect sculpted specimen.

I know because he pulled his shirt off, threw it over his shoulder and proceeded to mosh, throwing arms and fists in every direction.

My eyes were focused on this monstrosity and willing that he not come anywhere near Marina.

I knew in that moment that if this man-child of Greek-proportioned musculature and probably 2 percent body fat came anywhere near my daughter that my 5-foot-10, soft-bodied dad self would fly down in a heartbeat to kill him.

I even saw it played out in my head: Me swooping down and beating this pseudo -Adonis to death with his own leg that I had just ripped off of him.

I didn’t have to though. He stayed at the other outer edge, making contact with more than one bystander. I looked over to the safe edge and scanned for curly hair.

I didn’t see any.

I lost her!

I know I must have displayed that on my face because I felt a hand  over my mine, which was death-gripping the metal rail.

I looked up and saw what was definitely a mom.

She looked right at me and said, “Did you lose your daughter in there?”

Holy crap. She knew.

Yes, I nodded vigorously.

She told me to calm down and that she would be OK. I didn’t believe her but I did settle down and refocused.

I scanned closer to the stage and there she was, almost at the stage level with a great view of the show and away from that idiot in the pit.

I breathed again and mouthed “thank you” to that mom.

The last opening act left and the lights came up a bit more as we waited for the main act.

Marina turned around and had an easier time of spotting me. She flashed a wide smile and a thumbs up.

I actually got to watch the main act and enjoyed the show.

After the show ended, I managed to get back to my little girl, who was beaming.

I hugged her, more for my benefit, and then we left.

I asked her how she enjoyed it, and the words came out at teenage speed.

On the trip home, she told me how she took advantage of the mosh pit forming and creating new space to get to a better location to enjoy the upcoming band.

And when the crowd surfers came by, she just ducked a bit to avoid them.

She took a glancing blow from some Keds sneaker but that was it.

She loved her first concert.

She thanked me and said she would never forget it.

Me too. And somehow, I survived it.

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The Words to Avoid When Fighting With Your Wife or Girlfriend

I have a very interesting relationship.

I’m an American with a German girlfriend. Not only that, but I now live in Germany.

Maya and I met in Manhattan in 2007 – she was an au pair – and I
decided to move to Germany in 2013.

Over the years, I have flown over the Atlantic Ocean more times than I can remember, spent unthinkable sums on long-distance phone cards and eaten enough bratwurst for a lifetime.

Like most couples, Maya and I have our fights.

But when I first moved to Germany, we were really fighting.

Small things, like how frequently the dishes should be done, how to
train our dog or who should run which errands, were leading to huge
blowups.

We didn’t know what to do.

The fights got so bad and so frequent that on several occasions we considered breaking up.

But then we actually found a solution, a kind of strange one, but a
solution: We decided that we would only speak in German.

I’m fluent in German, but we had always spoken English.

Our hope was that switching to German would somehow set us on a better track.

And it worked.

What we found was this: If we spoke in German, our fights would be resolved much more quickly and wouldn’t be anywhere near as intense.

Interesting, right? But why?

Personally, I found that when I didn’t have as much language at my
fingertips, it was harder to get angry.

I was forced to think more about what I wanted to say, which drew my focus away from my anger.

Also, I used fewer or no curse words.

My girlfriend thinks that speaking in German did the trick because it
forced us to communicate at a much more basic level, which eradicated the kinds of ambiguities that had led to previous fights.

Though the tack Maya and I took to try to reduce our quarreling might be unusual, its reason for having worked does make sense, according to François Grosjean, emeritus professor of linguistics at Neuchâtel University in Switzerland and author of several books on bilingualism.

Grosjean said that when Maya and I switched to German, we both,
consciously or not, began to be more careful with what we said, which probably led to our being more patient with each other.

So I guess the takeaway is this: If you’re looking to reduce the number of fights you have with the missus or if you are looking to reduce the intensity of the fights you’re having, learn German.

Kidding!

Just measure your words more and try to be more patient.

Such actions have got to be universally effective.

Editor’s Note: Or as they say in German Eine neue Sprache, um eine Beziehung zu heilen. (Finding a language to heal a relationship.)

mug

Chad Smith is a freelance journalist and English teacher who is originally from Queens, New York. He now lives in Hamburg, Germany. Some of his hobbies include swimming, chess, reading and photography.

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Modern-Day Man and His Lack of Friends

Recently I read an article from the UK on how “2.5 million men have no close friends.”

Fifty percent of them have two or less friends, while 1 in 8 said they have no close friends they could to turn to in times of need.

This really piqued my interest, especially when thinking of my crew from About Men Radio.

We were all friends early in our lives — some of us from grade school and then through high school and college.

After that, many of us went off in different directions to pursue careers, marriages, family, kids, etc.

Twenty-plus years later, we have reunited as a group and have picked up our friendships just where we left off.

What makes this article about us men having few or no close friends really hit home is when I think about how many close male friends I’ve had in the interim.

The friendships are very few and not the lasting friendships like the ones fostered from when we were kids.

So, can I be considered to be part of this group of men that do not have close friends?

It seems that being married and raising a family definitely has limited the time and desire to make lasting friendships with other men.

Now that my kids are older, I have found that I allow myself to foster more male bonding with some work friends and some dads who have kids who are friends with my kids. (It makes it easier.)

Twenty-one years at the same place of employment also helped to allow me to build some good friendships of both men and women, but again nothing like the relationships that I have with the About Men group.

What is it that makes these older relationships stand the test of time while the newer friendships typically fade without much consequence and we can easily live without them?

I will be interested to know what others in my age bracket think and what experiences they’ve had with friendships over the years.

Email us at amr@aboutmenshow.com to share your experiences of friendship.

 

No Moose, No Peace

Captain Ahab had Moby Dick.

Wile E. Coyote had the Road Runner.

And Elmer Fudd had that wascally wabbit.

My quarry for 25 years has been a moose.

Not one in particular, just ANY moose. And for the record, not to spear, eat or shoot, but to merely glimpse one of these magnificent creatures in the wild.

It is an obsession that took root when I was a reporter in the Adirondacks in 1990 and participated in a search with wildlife biologists for a moose nicknamed Big Richard (more on that in a minute).

Since then I have been to Maine (three times, including to Moosehead Lake twice, most recently this summer), gone on a moose-spotting adventure tour and traveled to Vermont and New Hampshire (including to a section of roadway known as “Moose Alley”).

Do you think that in all of those trips to places heavily populated by members of the deer family that I have spotted a single one?

Nope. Every time, they have flipped me the hoof.

IMG_0185
In Moose Alley and yes, I am wearing a moose T-shirt.

My enthusiasm for moose started when I was a reporter at the Press-Republican, a newspaper based in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

I was invited by a wildlife biologist from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to tag along with a contingent of researchers who were tracking a moose to change the battery on its radio collar.

As a kid who grew up in the Bronx, my experiences with wildlife were limited to squirrels and pigeons, animals I saw at the Bronx Zoo and whatever I encountered on the subway.

IMG_2595
My collection of moose friends at home.

So when the chance arose to observe a moose in the woods, I seized it.

I felt like Marlin Perkins minus the safari jacket.

My first revelation was about the name of our quarry.

When I asked the researchers why he was called Big Richard, they gave me a look that conveyed “Are you that naive?”

And in that moment I had an Edith Bunker epiphany and went “Oooooohhhhh! OH! OH! NOW I get it!”

IMG_2594
Yes, this is a bona fide moose antler that I bought at a taxidermy shop in the Adirondacks.
FullSizeRender
Yeah, right. Didn’t see a single moose, much less crash into one.

A contingent of researchers trailed by reporters tromped through the thick woods in a tropical downpour. We were soaked, having taken on more water than the Titanic.

Nonetheless, we trudged on as radio signals indicated we were getting closer to Richard.

But at that point I had to break off from the search since my wife at the time needed to get to her graduate class in Plattsburgh, and we only had one car.

Of course, after I left, the search party spotted Richard. The researcher raised his tranquilizer rifle, aimed and fired. The shot went wide. Richard, spooked by the noise, took off.

A second search for him that I joined weeks later was equally fruitless. Alas, his remains were found about a year later, apparently having succumbed to natural causes.

Despite my absolute dismal record for finding moose, I remain fascinated by these creatures and as interested as ever in seeing one in the wild.

When the rut is on, they are quite active and can travel vast distances in search of a mate.

My no-fail plan?

Hitting the woods during the mating season, bathed in Eau de Mrs. Bullwinkle.

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Remembering the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings in Newtown

Note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., which took 27 lives. 

I wrote this column when I was executive editor at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. It appeared in the paper on Dec. 27, 2012.

Weeks before the mass murders made Newtown, Conn., a household name, we had planned to spend Christmas Day with a friend there.

She had recently finished months of chemotherapy and radiation and we thought it a good idea to visit. Then the shootings happened and suddenly our plans to go to Connecticut took on a different meaning.

The visit became more of a mission trip: I had a calling to do something since we would be within five minutes of Sandy Hook.

My wife, son Daniel and I brought the makings of a hearty kale soup, dessert and pick-ons and spent a relaxing, affable afternoon with our friend and her cat, Joey.

I had packed a small tin of homemade cookies that I had decided I would give to whatever poor flatfoot had to work sentry duty on Christmas Day in downtown Sandy Hook.

Against the enormity of what had happened there, this would be the merest of gestures. But it felt like a tangible offering that might say something to a stranger for a moment.

After we left our friend’s, we stopped at a makeshift shrine/memorial housed in a large white tent off I-84’s Exit 10.

Just across from the Newtown Diner, the memorial was unmistakably marked by a huge American flag hanging from a bucket truck.

Meg opted to stay in the car with Dan.

I went in. I was tentative.

A friendly young man wearing an ID tag around his neck assured me it was OK to go in, that it was a place to meditate, to pray or just observe.

Inside, piled high were collections of flowers and stuffed animals. Large white posters were available to sign. A wave of grief struck me with such ferocity, it literally left me breathless.

I signed a card and scanned the displays, my eyes looking but not really seeing.

We then drove into downtown Sandy Hook. There were few Christmas lights in Newtown, but only a mile down the road, we came on an oasis of light.

Candles, notes, stuffed animals, cards and flowers over-filled the width and length of sidewalks of Sandy Hook’s downtown.

I had not seen anything like it or felt anything as powerful since a visit to Ground Zero on Sept. 25, 2001.

Live Christmas music filled the quiet street. A young man, oblivious to the cold, played a piano perched outside a storefront.

It was a scene both surreal and comforting.

And there they were: Two cops bundled against the cold wearing reflective vests, keeping an eye on traffic and visitors.

Overwhelmed, Meg opted again to stay in the car. To my admiration, my 14-year-old son flanked me, carrying the tin of cookies, as we approached the cops.

I tried to talk but, overcome by emotion, my voice cracked like a boy going through puberty.

They at first demurred when we offered the cookies, but when we said we had come from Pennsylvania, one of their faces lit up.

Where in Pennsylvania, one asked. The Poconos. Oh, he said, beautiful country. I ran a marathon there this summer and golfed there.

They graciously accepted our humble offerings, his partner taking the tin to a nearby patrol car.

Taking off his glove, the Pocono marathoner offered a warm handshake and wished us a Merry Christmas.

Maybe those cops were not exactly the shepherds tending their flock, and we were not exactly the three kings bringing gifts, but in the overwhelming darkness that had befallen us all, Sandy Hook on Christmas night offered me a glimmer of light and the promise of hope.

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I Crack Myself Up

I remember the date well because I still have the hospital discharge paperwork.

My first wife and I were living in Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. She was a teacher and we became good friends with her school principal and his girlfriend (later to be wife).

Christine was an artist who lived in a small upstairs apartment on the village’s Main Street. She had a pair of saw horses and resting atop them was a large rectangular piece of glass that had come from a New York City bus shelter.

(How she came into possession of New York City Transit Authority property, I am still not sure.)

The glass on the saw horses served as a flat space for Christine, who would paint and draw. She was moving in with Dan and he asked if I could help carry the glass to a van.

Sure, I said. What could possibly go wrong?

It was summer, and even though we were in the mountains, it was sweltering hot. I sized up the glass and swallowed hard but was confident we could do the job.

Leading to Christine’s walk-up was a very narrow, serpentine staircase.

Dan and I grunted and carefully maneuvered the big pane (that should more appropriately read “big pain”) down the stairs, sweating bullets the whole time.

We got out the downstairs doorway — home free! — and made our way to the van. Dan was closer to the van’s rear doors.

Nearly done!

First I heard the noise. It sounded something less than a gunshot but more than a firecracker.

And then my eyes fixed on what caused it: thousands of bits of glass, like flecks of Styrofoam, blanketed the van, the street and the sidewalk.

Somehow we must’ve just tapped the edge of the glass against the van with the right amount of harmonic convergence to cause it to explode.

The noise and the mess were so great that people literally stopped in their tracks.

My forearms were pockmarked with blood as tiny glass meteorites shot into my flesh. But Christine’s arm was a full rivulet of blood as the glass had cut her more deeply.

Dan, who incredibly escaped largely unscathed, took one look at us and whisked us to his car and headed pedal-to-the-metal to the hospital ER.

My problem was not that I was bleeding out but was almost PASSING out from the sight of my own blood.

My face looked like it had been bleached.

Yes, truly.

In the end, the doctor elevated my feet, got me some Band-Aids for my boo-boos and gauzed up Christine like the second coming of the Mummy.

This all came to mind recently when my wife and I had to take a large broken mirror to our garbage center and the attendant there saw what I was doing and said to me: “Don’t cut yourself.”

Don’t worry, pal.

Been there, done that and have the mental scars to prove it!

cracked mirror

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A Bronx Ghost Story

We have discussed horror movies and shows on About Men Radio but I have a real ghost story to tell that occurred right under my roof.

I was probably about 12 to 13 years old and living in The Bronx.

My parents had a two-family house that was shared with my grandparents.  The house had two owners before us, the first of which owned an Italian restaurant nearby.

The story goes like this:

My grandmother was sleeping and woke up in the middle of the night and it felt like someone was watching her.

She opened her eyes and in the darkness there was a figure of a man standing beside her bed.

This did not scare her since she was a believer in spirits and all that supernatural stuff.

If this happened to me, I would have ran out of the house screaming!

My grandma was cool though and felt this spirit was not threatening and she eventually fell back to sleep.

These nighttime visits continued to happen periodically.

She noticed it was a man in a dark suit and he wore a hat. He would just stand there and look down at her as she lay in bed.

She told my mom and my uncle about these visits.  She wasn’t scared but was getting tired of being awakened in the middle of the night.

My uncle had a friend who was a medium, actually a “Santero,” a priest of Santeria, a Caribbean spiritual religion.

He came to the house and felt a presence as soon as he walked in the house.

It wasn’t malevolent but possibly a lost spirit that had not moved on.

He went though the house and lit candles and said numerous prayers.

He spoke out loud to the spirit and comforted him and told him that his time on earth was over and he should move on and rest in peace.

It worked!

My grandmother stopped being disturbed by her nocturnal visitor, and she was able to get a full night’s sleep again.

Some years later, our neighbor’s daughter passed by with a friend who grew up in our house, family of the first owners, and they asked her about my grandparent’s apartment and if she knew if anyone had died there.

You know what her response was:  She said her uncle had died there and that was his bedroom.  Shit! The chills went through me when I heard this.

We asked about him wearing a hat and yes he typically wore one like most other men back in that time.

Crazy stuff, ghosts, Santeria, and I guess you can say an exorcism, right under my nose in The Bronx.

Boo!

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A Bank Job: My Work as a Teller in the Bronx

A recent story in The New York Times made the case for why all young people should at least work one summer as a bank teller.

It stirred memories of my years working as a part-time bank teller while going to college.

While I didn’t get those money-management skills that the article suggested would result, I do have a wealth of stories to tell!

I worked at the Independence Savings Bank branch in Parkchester in the Bronx for about four years.

image
Photo courtesy of Fern Felman

The testosterone-fueled tellers (there were several college-age male tellers, present company included), would spy a pretty woman on line and try to time our transactions so that we would be the one to call “Next!” and have the fair maiden at our window.

Those strategies sometimes called for speeding up the work you were doing with your current customer or walking away briefly from your station to get the timing just right.

We got to know our customers well, many of whom were cops, firefighters, senior citizens and blue-collar working stiffs. One account holder routinely would bring us candy and slip it into the metal coin tray.

The place was populated with a lovable cast of co-workers: There was our Saturday head teller, Mike, an engineer by profession who was a huge “Star Trek” fan.

On Saturdays, he would disconnect the Muzak and pipe in a classic rock station from a radio for those working behind the thick glass windows to enjoy.

Among my colleagues was a guy named Charlie. Charlie was, um, crazy.

At night, when we were the only two tellers working, he would be in a tearing hurry to “prove” — reconcile our cash and the deposits and withdrawals and other transactions — so he could get out and spend time with his girlfriend.

Charlie was short in stature but a wiry guy with a kinetic energy. When he was counting bills, it was a blur of fingers and paper.

Since I was newbie, I was slower and more prone to errors, which would delay Charlie’s exit. (He was my senior, so he had to make sure I was reconciled. In addition, both tellers had to leave at the same time.)

This was a frequent scene:

Charlie hectoring me “Did you prove?! Did you prove?!” And I would get more flustered and prone to making mistakes, which would mean he would yell at me more and I would get more flustered.

Well, one night, not only did I prove, but I did so in record time.

I can still see and hear Charlie going excitedly: “You proved?! You proved?!”

And in a gesture of celebration (or insanity) he picked up one of the cushioned bar stools for tellers and heaved it, legs first, into a wall. The stool’s feet left four distinct puncture marks in the plaster wall.

I was aghast and convinced we would be fired.

Thankfully the next day was a Saturday, and the bank manager on duty was a mellow Irishman named Bob who spied the holes and when I told him what had happened, just chuckled, shook his head and said: “Crazy Charlie.”

The lesson?

Money might not buy you everything, but working with it sure generates some good stories!

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Dancing as Lunchtime Therapy in a Bronx School

This story is about a song, a New York City public school, an energy-releasing lunchtime activity, and a unique policy by school officials that kept the peace during some rough times.

Growing up in the Bronx during the 70s was a rough adventure for most city kids. Gangs, violence and an economic downturn made it a hotbed of insecurity for the people who were struggling to make ends meet.

During 1976-78 I attended JHS 125, Henry Hudson Junior High, in the Bronx.

The neighborhood was a racially mixed group of working-class families, and I witnessed many in-school and after-school fights and beat downs.

I had my share of conflicts myself, especially with my personal nemesis, a kid named Kevin, who constantly picked on me and caused me grief almost every day.

During one lunch period, my backpack disappeared and I found it in the trash with all the discarded food.

I was so mad. And who was standing right there laughing? Kevin, of course.

I lost my mind and went at him. We were wrestling on the floor when we were pulled apart by the teachers and sent to cool off.

No principal’s office, no suspensions — they just broke it up and told us to stop. This happened so often it’s all they could do.

Nowadays things are different and we would probably have been detained by a school resource officer.

What did administrators do to diffuse the volatile dispositions during lunch periods?

They let us dance!

I am unsure if this was suggested by students, but a phonograph and speaker were provided, and kids brought in their favorite records.

I personally did the “Robot” thing made popular by Michael Jackson and the song “Dancing Machine” to the “Theme from SWAT.”

Then there was the track that only the best dancers were allowed to take the floor and set the place on fire as we all watched and cheered them on.

“The Mexican” was a progressive rock anthem recorded at Abbey Roads Studio by the British Band “Babe Ruth” back in 1972.

It’s driving drumbeat and funky bass and rhythm were perfect for the freestyle dancing that was being born at this time, as it was on its way to be one of the most influential songs of what was to become hip-hop.

The energy that was released by kids dancing to this tune and all of the spectators cheering them on was amazing.

We forgot about our conflicts and struggles and enjoyed being together and free during this short time during our lunch period.

Little did we know that we were witnessing and participating in the birth of the musical and cultural revolution of hip-hop.

“The Mexican” was one of the songs that was covered multiple times and used in so many songs that influenced that generation and the next.

Along with Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” and The Incredible Bongo Band’s “Bongo Rock” and “Apache,” these songs influenced and shaped the hip-hop music and culture.

Of course older songs from years before influenced the breaks and the beats of these tunes, and I do not want to misrepresent or disrespect the original artists who came up with these riffs.

“The Mexican” and the other songs represent how some kids of the Bronx during the late 70s at a school on Pugsley Avenue honed their freestyle moves during lunch periods and blew off steam instead of fighting each other.

Looking back, I wonder if the administration that allowed this really understood or realized the importance this activity had for the sanity and sense of freedom for these kids.

I know I still listen to “The Mexican” today and think back to this time as the beginning of an exciting and influential period in music and dance that is still with me today.

 

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Remembering 9/11: A Firsthand Account of the Day of the Attacks

Note: We pause today to remember the attacks of 9/11 that claimed nearly 3,000 lives. 

Jaime Vallecilla, a graduate of St. Raymond’s Boys High School in the Bronx and a classmate of many of the About Men Radio crew members, shares his harrowing account of being at One World Financial Center on the day of the attacks 14 years ago.

Fourteen years later, it is still difficult to recall the events of that day.

A single event transformed the lives of so many and changed the way we live our lives in the modern era.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I had recently started a new assignment for a mutual funds company based in One World Financial Center. After three weeks at the site, I was finally growing accustomed to my surroundings and was hoping for a lengthy contract.

I arrived at the office at 7:30 a.m. as was typical for me. Traveling from New Jersey, I liked to stay ahead of the height of the morning commute. It was close to 9 a.m. when I received a phone call from my wife and she told me that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.

I immediately thought a private citizen had lost control of his plane and had crashed into the tower.

Only two years before, John F. Kennedy Jr. had crashed his plane off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. A tragedy in either case, but I didn’t give it too much attention.

I continued working.

Just a few seconds later, I heard my coworker shout “Oh my God!” as he stared out of the office window. I ran to join him.

The scene outside was chaos.

I looked across the street and saw two Lincoln Town cars smashed together. The two drivers were just staring blankly ahead, probably trying to process what was happening.

The parking lot in the background had cars that were in flames.

A woman was shrieking in the middle of the road. I followed her body positioning and realized why she was screaming.

Strewn across the road in front of her were human remains. An ambulance arrived a few seconds later and covered the parts with sheets.

I then saw thousands of tiny pieces of paper floating from the building, each of them smoking or on fire. I could not believe how the fire continued to spread at the top of the building.

“What happened to the sprinkler system?” I wondered.

“Let’s go people!” shouted my manager to the group of us on the floor.

Pat was a retired NYPD veteran who had discovered a passion for information technology after his police life was completed. He was on the force at the time of the first World Trade Center bombing and his sixth sense was tingling.

We single-filed down the back staircase and exited the building through the basement door and onto the street.

The street was filled with people. The police were trying to set up a perimeter and keep people away from the building and the firefighters raced toward the building in their full gear.

I stayed close to my colleagues waiting for further instructions from our managers. After a couple of minutes, I saw some people pointing to the top of the building. A woman standing next to me exclaimed, “Oh, God no!” and started crying.

I adjusted my eyes and realized what they were looking at.

People were jumping from the upper floors of the building. One after another, some even holding hands and jumping together. I was horrified and couldn’t bear to watch anymore.

I walked away from the North Tower and toward the South Tower, trying to keep my colleagues in view. After a few minutes, I heard a loud, deep rumbling noise and I turned my head to see what it was.

The airliner was big and moving quickly but I thought that it was flying way too low. The unthinkable happened as it slammed right into the South Tower.

I thought for sure I would be hit with debris but the airliner was seemingly swallowed by the building and spit out on the opposite side.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd. I started running, and so did everyone else. A woman next to me kicked off her expensive high-heel shoes and took off running barefoot.

At this point I knew this was no accident and had no way of knowing what was coming next. I took out my phone and called home. I was hoping to reach my wife and just hear her voice, if just for one last time.

The phone connection never happened so I said a quick prayer and continued to run. I reached a point where I had to decide what to do: Should I run uptown or run toward the NY Waterway Ferry?

I ran toward the ferry.

There was a ferry already at the dock and I ran right onto it, past the ticket-taker who tried to grab my arm as I ran by him. Seconds later an announcement was made over the loudspeaker to load the ferry and leave the dock. A few more people boarded and the boat left.

It was a short boat ride across the river but long enough to observe the people around me. A woman across from me was lying across the bench in a fetal position, rocking and sobbing.

Others desperately asked around for a working cellphone but there weren’t any.

As we reached New Jersey, I tried calling home again but I still could not get through. I just needed to get home.

I went to the NJ PATH station, jumped the turnstile and boarded the train. It filled up quickly and the conductor got us out of the station.

I was in the last train car. As we emerged from the tunnel, I looked out of the little window facing the rear of the train car and I saw a large cloud of something but I couldn’t tell what it was.

The man sitting next to me had a portable radio and he was giving updates. He said the North Tower had collapsed. He also said the Pentagon had also been struck by an airliner.

Hearing this news just increased my urgency to get home.

Arriving at the Newark Penn Station train station gave me some comfort as I knew that I was closer to home.

The train car I boarded was full and it’s true what they say happens in times of crisis, your humanity kicks in and you try and help those around you even if they are complete strangers to you.

There were people covered in dust; people offered them tissues, water and whatever snacks they could find.

The passengers around me shared their stories with me and it was surreal how quickly people could bond over this traumatic event.

I was the first stop off the train and I said a quick goodbye to my new train friends. I rushed to my car and glanced around the parking lot.

I wondered how many people would never be picking up their car and returning home.

I sat in the car, took a deep breath and called home. My wife answered the phone and broke down when I told her I was fine and on my way home. I don’t really remember the drive home. I just remember pulling up to my house and seeing a bunch of cars in my driveway.

I walked into my house and embraced my wife. My house was filled with family members and neighbors, all lending their support.

For the next few hours I repeated my story to family, friends and neighbors and I was also riveted to the television, trying to understand the full scope of what had just happened.

I received a call later that evening from my contract employer to make sure I was accounted for. They said they would call me later in the week to discuss work logistics.

A week later I was asked if I was OK with working in Boston. With no income coming in, I readily agreed. Another week passed and I received another phone call letting me know that they couldn’t accommodate me in Boston.

I received two weeks’ pay and a “good luck to you” send-off.

With no work prospects in sight and social media yet to be invented, I said a lot of prayers and reached out to as many friends as I could for job leads. I was lucky to land another contract a month later, but it was in the heart of ground zero.

I walked along Broadway every morning and passed the wall of missing person signs on the fence of Trinity Church. A sea of faces smiling at you and tearing you up inside because you knew there would be no happy reunions.

I did that walk five days a week for eight months. The pictures remained; a makeshift shrine to the victims of that awful day. That charred, horrid smell lasted that long as well.

In the present day, I am forever changed because of the events of that day.

Every fire alarm that sounds in the building I take seriously. Prior to 9/11, I would just ignore them and keep working.

I have a heightened sense of awareness of the people and things around me. I am always looking to see what just doesn’t belong. I sometimes scour the skies to see if any planes are flying just a tad too low

For my son’s birthday this year he asked to spend the day in New York City and visit the 9/11 museum. My wife was a little apprehensive but agreed to go. As you entered the museum, the displays quickly bring you right back to that day.

I passed the room where there was a photograph of each of the victims who died that day.

I took my children inside to show them the friends I had lost that day.

Frank Schott (pronounced “shot”) was a coworker during my early days on Wall Street. He was a quiet, bright guy who was as conservative as they come. We would tease him by calling him “Money” Schott and we would ask him when his next feature film would be playing at the Globe Theater in the Bronx that specialized in adult movies.

He couldn’t help but laugh.

Frank never made it home that day.

JennieAnn Maffeo was another coworker who was a calming force in the sea of troubled IT projects. I don’t think I ever saw her without a smile on her face.

On Sept. 11, she was waiting for the shuttle bus to the NY Waterway ferry and was doused with jet fuel after the first plane hit. She was burned over 98 percent of her body and endured 14 surgeries over the next 41 days until her body could no longer fight that fight.

Alan Feinberg was a fierce competitor on the softball field and I always looked forward to facing his team. We had those classic back and forth matches that became trash talk fodder until the next time we faced each other.

It was no surprise that Alan raced to the World Trade Center as part of Battalion 9 to help those in need.

He perished along with 14 others from his firehouse.

John Burnside and Joe Kellett were my high school classmates.

John was a firefighter and Joe a stock trader. Both of them still had so much more living to do.

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My children listened as I told some of these stories and they understood why I get emotional watching the 9/11 memorial telecasts.

I am working in the financial district again, my third tour of duty.

On the way to work, my bus passes the Freedom Tower and I silently pay homage to all those who were lost that day similar to the way Catholics make the sign of the cross when they pass a cemetery.

It’s a constant reminder that I will never forget, nor should anyone ever forget.

 

 

Summer Jobs: Give Me One With Everything

In honor of Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer, we are resurrecting an earlier post by AMR crew member Richard Rodriguez about a memorable summer job he had.

You may never look at hot dogs the same way. Read on:

It was the mid-1980’s and I was working at a summer job.

I was fortunate to have a neighbor who employed me, God rest his soul, who in his retirement started a small business selling hot dogs from a converted laundry truck that grew into a restaurant on wheels.

He would be up way before the sun, cooking bacon and making gallons of fresh coffee. I would meet him at his favorite spot near a major roadway and start my day serving egg sandwiches, buttered rolls and hot coffee to customers traveling to work.

After the morning rush, we would switch to hot dogs, chili dogs, meatballs, soda, and of course, more coffee, as it seemed that was the universal drink of the workingman.

The days consisted of mad rushes serving a line of people stretching down the block to wondering when the next customer would show up.

It was a long day.

You may wonder where we went to the bathroom, especially since we were also constant drinkers of the magical black elixir.

I typically ran up the street to a friendly furniture store that allowed us to use its facilities. The boss never left the truck, which had a sink and running hot water, as per code, but no bathroom accommodations.

One day during a lull, the boss had to relieve himself of some of that coffee he constantly consumed. (I don’t think I ever saw him without that coffee cup in hand.)

He did not think about hoofing it up to the store where I usually went. Instead, he had a special coffee can with a lid he kept under the counter.

We always wore aprons.

He cautiously looked up and down the street making sure no one was headed our way, and proceeded to take that special can, remove the lid and slid it under his apron.

This was a much-practiced action, as he quickly undid his fly and I heard the stream hitting the bottom of the empty can, all behind the veil of that apron.

Without warning, a group of hungry people appeared by the window and I jumped to start serving them.

The boss had been caught by surprise, but he stealthily removed and capped the can, washed his hands and began serving the customers without missing a beat.

I swear I could not figure out how he did this so quickly. I did not notice him go through the motions of putting it back in his pants or zipping up for that matter.

Yet there he was by my side, with a smile, sliding hot dogs into buns and asking if they wanted sauerkraut or onions.

If these people waiting for their lunch to be served only knew…

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Why the WDBJ Shootings Touched Me So Personally

I am at home, sitting in front of my computer, weeping.

I had seen a news alert about the shooting deaths of two news people from a Virginia TV station that occurred during a live broadcast.

Like so many others, I turned to the web, and more specifically, Twitter, to get the latest.

And then I watched a 12-minute video of the news team at WBDJ-TV report about the deaths of their colleagues.

The footage led with remarks by the station’s general manager, Jeffrey Marks, who looked straight into the camera and delivered the news to viewers.

Clearly, Marks and the three anchors were distraught.

Their voices cracked with emotion. One anchor alluded to studio workers crying in the background. But they were composed and set about their jobs with the utmost professionalism.

The shootings touched me profoundly, and not just because of the loss of such young lives in such a public, abrupt and senseless way, but because, I realized, it touched close to home.

A little over two years ago, I was the executive editor of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa.

On the night of Aug. 5, 2013, reporter Chris Reber was covering a township meeting when 23 shots strafed the small municipal building.

Reber had been at the Pocono Record a little less than three months in his first full-time staff reporting job.

His beat: The “West End,” a collection of mostly rural communities sprawled across Monroe County’s countryside that included Ross, a square-shaped locality of about 6,400 residents that historically had been a low generator of news.

“Nothing ever happens there,” Marta Gouger, at the time my top lieutenant, warned him.

But Reber, being new and desiring to be thorough, wanted to develop sources and get acquainted with his community.

It was the first Ross Township meeting he had ever covered.

Nineteen minutes into the meeting, gunfire erupted.

Reber would later report in a firsthand account that plaster was blowing out from the walls as gunshots ripped into the building.

He crawled to safety, exited the building and called the newsroom with dispatches from the scene.

I was at home when I got the phone call. I bolted and arrived in the newsroom in a T-shirt, sweatpants and slippers. I alerted our publisher, who made it to the newsroom in 45 minutes for a trip that ordinarily takes 90.

For a brief time, we did not know whether Chris had survived and I was beside myself. Chris was only a few years older than my oldest son and I was overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and paternal, protective feelings.

In the chaos, I did get this email from one of my editors: “Reber is (at) the meeting. … Reber is OK, but dead guy on the floor in the meeting. Reber is shook, but said he can work.”

(Three people were killed and one seriously injured by a crazed resident who had had a 20-year feud with the township over his debris-cluttered property.)

In a note later to the staff, I told them that their journalism that night represented a high-water mark for breaking news coverage. I went so far as to nominate it for a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking Local News.

We had a therapist come in to debrief the news staff.

We had a “thanksgiving” luncheon “to give thanks for Chris’ safety and a way of giving thanks for the professionalism and personal support in a time of crisis that you’ve all demonstrated in a big way,” I wrote.

Chris has since left the Pocono Record but remains in journalism.

Newsrooms are like other workplaces but perhaps a bit more tight-knit. In them, we laugh, bicker and celebrate like other families.

And when there is an inexplicable loss like this in one newsroom, it’s felt in others elsewhere.

Today I ordered a basket of cookies to be delivered to WDBJ. It is a small gesture to express condolences but, more importantly, to show support.

In the days after the Ross shooting, I was deeply touched by the outpouring of support that flowed to our newsroom by colleagues and strangers alike.

For those who wish to pay their respects, the station’s address is:

Digital Broadcast Center
WDBJ Television
2807 Hershberger Road
Roanoke, VA 24017

Rest in peace,  Alison Parker and Adam Ward.

reporters

 

Oh Baby! The Miracle in the Bathroom

On Aug. 25, 2002, one of my daughters, Emily, came into this world in a hurry, and she has been running nonstop ever since.

My wife and I were blessed with three children, a first-born son and two daughters, and then we had No. 4 on the way.

The pregnancy was going smoothly and as we approached the due date, my wife’s grandmother came from Puerto Rico to help Millie with the kids.

Let me say something about my wife’s labors: My son took two days while the third one was out an hour after we arrived at the hospital.

Each kid’s arrival got exponentially faster, which should’ve warned me about what we were in for with this fourth child.

It’s late August, the due date approaching and the kids are playing around the house.

Zach is 7, Rebecca not quite 5 and Audrey is barely 2.

Great-grandma is speaking Spanish to them, and then my wife comes out of the bedroom and informs me that her water broke.

I figure we have plenty of time since the hospital is only seven minutes away.

Bad move.

I’m finally ready to get to the car and my wife tells me we are not going anywhere: This baby is crowning!

What?! My head explodes.

My wife knows the mess this is going to be and she settles herself on the toilet in the hallway bathroom.

bathroom

I can actually see the head of the baby coming out! She is not going to wait.

Meanwhile, the kids and great-grandma are all looking in and my wife is telling me to call 911.

There is no way I have time to even talk to a 911 operator, so I call my neighbor across the street to make the call for me.

Logical, right?

My poor neighbor had just gotten out of the shower and had a house full of his own kids and his neighbor’s kids.

He came over with no shoes and had the 911 dispatcher on the phone.

By then, that baby was out. Her head came out easily but she got stuck at the shoulders.

The umbilical cord was up over one of her shoulders and I had to gently move it and then the rest of her came out quickly.

She was beautiful, with thick dark hair but not making a sound. I opened her mouth and swept the mucus out with my finger and she began to stir and breathe.

Thank God!

We laid mom and baby down on the bathroom floor on some towels.

We wrapped up the baby and mom held her tight.

Audrey came back with her own baby doll and stayed with mom and her new sister until the ambulance arrived.

I was finally able to call the doctor and let him in on the delivery. He would meet us at the hospital where they would cut the cord and finish up.

I actually had to sign the birth certificate since I delivered the baby. That was cool.

Some days later, after all that excitement at home, we busted my son charging neighborhood kids money to see the bathroom where the baby was born. (He’s going to be a successful person someday.)

I am thankful that there were no complications and it all went well. It was an amazing experience that we will always remember, especially for Emily and I, and that bathroom.

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Oh Rats! A Subway Stare-Down That I Lost

What creature would roam underground, scurrying from point to point through an intricate network of tunnels — dank, dirty and dingy — tirelessly trudging in claustrophobic surroundings?

I know them as New Yorkers. And they rule the subways.

For a long time I was one of them. Today I fondly think back of my days underground — and over ground when on the El — from the safety and sunshine of Florida.

But there is another New York inhabitant that is the true ruler of the subway, especially its tunnels.

This New Yorker has many cousins in fields, landfills and building basements and is an abomination born of the darkest of crevices – The Subway Rat!

This monstrosity is no ordinary rat. Its above-ground cousin shares similar disgusting traits, such as its almost cat-like size, hideous teeth and fur and voracious appetite. Did I mention it’s as big as a freaking cat?!

The New York Subway Rat has all those traits and exponentially raises it a few degrees.

Many New Yorkers never get to see one of these monsters.

They are the fortunate ones.

I am a New Yorker who faced one and lived to tell the tail…um…tale.

My commute back in the late ’80s was on the No. 6 train from Parkchester in the Bronx to the Garment District near Seventh Avenue. (No self-respecting New Yorker ever called it Fashion Avenue.) But the No. 6 doesn’t go to Seventh Avenue in the Garment District.

I would get off at the 42nd Street Station and then take the Shuttle to the West Side.

I would always go to the first car, not because I wanted to watch the passage through the tunnels from the front door, though I often did.

My principal reason for taking that spot was logistical.

The 42nd Street Station back then had a supervisors’ booth that had long been abandoned.

But the structure was still there and at the mouth of the tunnel, it jutted into the platform forming an inverted “U” from the front tunnel entrance. To either side of the “U” there was a narrow walkway that went right up to the tunnel’s mouth.

Since this walkway was always empty, no one would stand there to wait for the train and I could exit from the first car onto the platform without bumping into anyone waiting to come in.

It saved me a few milliseconds, and if you know a New Yorker’s morning commute, every fraction of a second mattered.

For months I exited the car without ever looking. Until one day…

Sniffing around this secluded platform, at the height of morning rush hour, just inches away from where I was about to plant my first step was a Subway Rat.

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He was this big: I am holding my hands out at least three feet apart!

I froze mid-step.

Average rodents will typically scurry away when confronted by a human. But this is Subterraneous Verminus Rodentus we are talking about here.

This — this thing — stopped sniffing the ground, swiveled and stood on its freaking hind legs!

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I was still frozen mid-step, and five cars away there was probably a conductor watching this exchange and wondering who would win, and more important how quickly, because he needed to get the train moving and close the freaking doors!

This New York Subway Rat knew who was boss. He was!

After a brief stare-down, it lowered itself and slowly, deliberately, walked to the tunnel and out of sight.

I exited the train, turned left and got the hell out of there.

I lived to tell the tale. But often I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t froze and if I had quickly used my soccer skills to kick that bigger-than-a-football-size vermin into the subway car before the doors closed.

Oh the pandemonium that would have created!

But I’m certain the rat would have landed on its feet, killed some passengers and slowly walked off the train and into its subterranean realm.

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Showing Dad Admiration and Respect Through Soccer

Respect: Of the many who demand it, few get it and even fewer deserve it.

I truly believe that respect is earned wordlessly, silently, almost imperceptibly through action.

I recall a certain event with my Dad that exemplifies this notion. It happened as I was entering my rebellious years. I was 14.

I held high respect for Dad from very early on. But once a boy becomes a teenager, he may show disrespect toward the very towering figures he put on a pedestal for so long.

Allow me to explain.

My love and devotion for the game of soccer is ingrained in me just from having been born in Argentine lands.

The very air in the country, heavily laden with the perspiration of countless players and games, practically infects all newborn boys with the fever of soccer.

How it grows and develops in an Argentine child comes from the father and then through endless street, sandlot and neighborhood games, moving toward more structured Futból leagues with his peers as he grows.

Having moved with my family to the Bronx as a toddler, an element of that soccer growth was interrupted. In the early ’60s, youth soccer was not as popular as it is now. My father, who in Argentina played at the professional level, continued in some adult leagues that played in Van Courtland and Flushing Meadow Parks.

But for me, chasing la redonda (the round one) in New York became strictly a father-son thing.

As I got older, Dad encouraged me to pick up the ball with my hands, and slowly but surely, a soccer goalkeeper was developing. He told me that since I did not grow up with the opportunity to play potrero (sandlot) soccer, that I should work to become a goalkeeper.

After-school trips to the park were a daily occurrence.

Since available soccer goalposts were a rarity, we would set up a couple of markers to serve as goalposts in front of a fence or wall with grass leading up to it and kick away — me crouching and diving, Dad stopping to give me pointers, explaining the art of the keeper and tirelessly kicking soccer balls.

It was heaven.

Summers, fall and spring, the training continued.

As I got a little older, the feeling of “I know more than you” started to also develop.

One day we went to Pelham Bay Park for our goalkeeper training.

At this session I made the mistake of thinking I could show my Dad up. I thought that not only was I the best, but that I was going to show him in a very flashy way.

How? In my case, by making stops while moving half-heartedly toward the ball, by chicken-winging my arm and knocking out the kicked ball with my elbow, by staying upright and turning my back to the ball and heel-kicking it back.

What I forgot was that the man in front of me was once a professional soccer player and I had never experienced a true soccer shot.

I quickly found out that he had always pulled his punches.

And I found out most loudly.

The next few shots came in a blur.

I remember getting a hand on a few, and how they hurt. The ones I could not stop, because they came at me as if fired from a howitzer, hit that wall behind me with a stupendous BANG!

They hit off that wall so hard that they went right back to Dad without my intervention and he readied himself for the next shot.

At one point the volley stopped and he walked to me. He calmly asked if we were done.

He seemed 10 feet tall again. He never directly addressed the barrage, never mentioned my display of disrespect.

We probably talked about soccer the way we always did on the way back home.

But in that one loud, wordless moment, he got back that respect that I vainly attempted to take away.

MacGyver and Other Tales of Improvised Engineering

My friends would call my little inventions MacGyverisms so I thought I would share a few.

If you’ve read my earlier About Men Radio blog, then you already know that I had an early start building radios out of broken components and older radio parts. (“Radio Shack: Real Family Fun.”)

As a kid we had Tonka toys that were utterly indestructible.

I’ll attest to that as we lived on the 9th floor in the housing projects and upon seeing that commercial of an elephant standing on a Tonka toy and it didn’t budge, I’d figure that to be thrown from the 9th floor would surely cause some damage.

So I opened the back window — making sure no one was sitting on the benches — and hurled my dump truck outside.

Then it was a race downstairs to look for the wreckage.

I got downstairs and to my surprise the truck was totally intact.

Not even a scratch or busted plastic glass windshield. I was very impressed.

As I looked at the fire trucks and ambulances in the neighborhood, I noticed that they had lights. So I took a drill that I made and proceeded to cut some holes into my ambulance.

There was a plastic piece where lights would go, so I removed it and created a housing underneath. I also punched some holes through the top of the cab and used white Christmas lights as my ambulance lights.

I had spliced the wires and added it to a battery pack and finally had running lights. Except they didn’t blink, so I had my handy Radio Shack kit, which had a flasher attachment, so I modified that to make it work

My dad was pretty inventive as well.

He could make pretty much anything out of metal. As a young boy, I wanted some kind of plastic toy but on Christmas I opened up the present and found this derrick.

Crane Boom Green

 

I didn’t play with it very much. It wasn’t until I had a friend over and he asked and then I showed him how it worked.

It had a structurally sound crane boom. For example, my dad wore 5-pound steel-tipped shoes to work every day and the crane picked them up and didn’t tip. It might have not been the most attractive vehicle in my fleet, but it actually worked the best.

MacGyver: You can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it.

It wasn’t until high school and Pedro broke his glasses, that I thought about melting my pen to fix his them. It was a quick fix but it seemed to work.

MacGyver: A paperclip can be a wondrous thing. More times than I can remember, one of these has gotten me out of a tight spot.

I began a job and they didn’t give me keys to the desk, but with my trusty old paperclip, I got into my desk. It took about a month before they finally gave me a key.

paper clip

MacGyver: If I had some duct tape, I could fix that.

My ex broke a draw and I used duct tape to get it working again. She couldn’t understand how I fixed it so quickly. She did want me to fix it properly, so I had to run to the lumber yard and get a matching piece.

I glued it together and that chore was fixed that day.

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My Brother Always Had Your Back

Note: Today marks the birthday of AMR contributor Richard Rodriguez’s late brother, Ralph. To commemorate the day, we are reposting this blog entry.

My oldest brother passed away a few years ago and I think of him often. I miss him a lot.

He was a unique person and was always there when you needed him no matter what the circumstance: car breakdowns, accidents, moving, fixing things. You name the situation, he was there for you.

The story I’m about to tell is true. Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty, and the facts may be twisted as my memory has seen better days.

One night my friends (most of the AMR crew) were headed out to the movies when my brother got a phone call and he asked us if we could help him with a friend whose car was stuck.

We declined since we knew my brother would be able to handle it.

When we got back, my brother was still out, and my other brother was out there too.

This was serious! So off we went to help.

He was at Ferry Point Park on the Bronx side by the Whitestone Bridge. At night, it was big “make out” spot.

Our friend was not stuck in the parking lot, but had squeezed his car through the pilings and into the dark recesses of the place, and was stuck in mud.

My brother had maneuvered his vehicle back there too, and in trying to get the other car out, also got stuck.

What a situation: Our friend was there with a girl who was not his girlfriend so this demanded our utmost discretion.

This poor girl was sitting in the back of my brother’s van as we all tried to get the vehicles unstuck.

We called a tow truck.

Problem was that when it got there, it was too big to get through the barriers.

We convinced the driver to pull one of the pilings out of the ground with his wench so he could get through.

This was going to be an expensive night.

Then the cops showed up.

They couldn’t believe what we were doing, but at least they were cool about it when our friend said, hey I’m a cop.

But when they asked to see his badge he couldn’t find it. He probably dropped it in the mud trying to get his car out.

Shit. Big trouble.

The officers warned us to move the cars and get the hell out of there and be sure to put the piling back.

They didn’t want to see us there when they swung back around later.

We hopped to it.

The tow truck got the cars out, we put everything back the way it was and we made tracks.

Still no badge (he actually found it the next day), but at least everyone got to go home and none of us ended up in jail.

I guess we should have gone out to help my brother from the start since that’s what he would’ve done for us without thinking twice, ‘cause he always had your back.

Ralph bro 2

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Catholic School Discipline to the Left and Right of Me

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John Roche, a graduate of St. Raymond’s High School for Boys, a journalist and author, shares with us his experiences at Catholic schools following Christopher Mele’s blog post about corporal punishment.

Roche’s recently published book, “Bronx Bound,” is a cop thriller/mystery set in the familiar environs of his old Bronx neighborhoods, including Orchard Beach, Parkchester, Tremont Avenue and other settings.

I can honestly say that all throughout my Catholic schooling, I only got hit when I deserved it. And I can add that, during those 13 years, I deserved a lot more smacks than I ever got from a Christian Brother, Sister of Charity, priest or a lay teacher.

The slaps I did receive are etched in my mind.

But truth be told, all these years later, with all kinds of political correctness under the bridge, I still strongly feel that I deserved it. I just wished I knew that was the punishment that would be meted out before I committed the transgression.

It wasn’t a terrible crime, and actually, then and now, it was kind of funny.

A math teacher was chastising me for wasting my time, mind and my parents’ money, explaining that they worked hard to pay her to teach me algebra.

“Your parents hired me and pay me to be here, so if you don’t care about wasting your time and talents, you should care about that,” she said. “I’m being paid by them, by YOU, to teach you this.”

I couldn’t resist.

“So if my family is paying your salary, it’s like you’re our employee, right?”

“Exactly!” was poor, unsuspecting Mrs. Webb’s response.

I fixed my tie a little, and then said, “If that’s the case, take the rest of the day off.”

The class went crazy with laughter, and Mrs. Webb’s face went crimson.  I actually felt bad for her, even later in the day during detention.

At St. Raymond’s, an all-boys high school in the Bronx, detention amounted to what we called “The Wall.”

We had to stand along the wall (not against it; leaning could result in a second day’s detention) outside the principal’s office.

I was a frequent visitor, mostly for being late for school in the morning. Frequent, like three out of five days, and more if you threw in the trouble I got in for being a smartass.

I was a smartass, but I was also smart, and that got me out of detention early most days.

Our principal, Brother Christopher, was one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. And sensible.

Brother Chris

Once, for instance, I got The Wall for chewing gum in class.  When he asked me why I was in detention that particular day, I told him, and rolled my eyes, I guess.

He questioned why I seemed annoyed, and I said that it seemed silly to me that people could chew gum anytime and anywhere, but doing so in school was forbidden. We had that hammered into us since we were in first grade, yet it didn’t make any sense.

“Gum, once chewed and no longer wanted, creates a mess — stuck under desks, in books, on walls, in the hair of our fellow students,” Brother Christopher explained. Huh.

The best part of The Wall, was that most days, after 20 minutes or so of standing, Brother Christopher would ask a question, and if you got the answer correct, you could leave.

I got a lot of those questions right, like “What is the definition of ilk?” or “What does the ‘S’ stand for in Harry S Truman?”

This day — the day I embarrassed my well-intentioned math teacher almost to the point of tears — Brother Christopher stepped before me and with a smile asked a question.

“Would you like a ceart-laimh or a ciotog?”

I was stumped, but I knew I had a 50/50 chance at being right, and ciotog, rhyming at the end with rogue, sounded better to my ear.

“I’ll take a ciotog, Brother,” I said.

With that, Brother Christopher swung and clipped my jaw with the stone fist of his left hand. Everyone else on The Wall collectively gasped, which I could barely hear over the ringing in my head from the punch.

“You can go now,” he said. “You’re lucky you didn’t pick the right hand. No more disrespect to your math teacher, understood?”

Holding my still-stinging jaw, I nodded.

I don’t remember much algebra these days. But 36 years later, I remember that lefty punch.

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Manhunt for Escaped Prisoners Echoes Search for Another Killer

It was about 1 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 2014, and I was driving back from my job in New York City along I-84 in Pike County, Pa., within a few miles of home.

In the coal-mine-at-midnight darkness came a burst of strobe lights atop the roofs of two cars in my rearview mirror.

They were closing in.

Fast.

Damnit, I thought. Was I speeding? Sometimes in these wee hours, I did have a tendency to leadfoot it.

But no, the two vehicles – one a Pike County sheriff’s patrol car and the other from the Pennsylvania State Police – went roaring by and never gave me, the lone motorist on a darkened highway, a second thought.

Hours later I would come to understand why.

***

The shrill ringing of our landline woke me out of a deep sleep. I had finally hit the rack around 1:30 a.m. and now through my blurry vision I could see it was about 8 a.m.

It was my wife, Meg, and she was taking our youngest son to track practice at school.

The words came pouring out of her like coffee beans from a torn burlap bag:

“I know you were sleeping, love, but I wanted to tell you that we were turned around on Route 402 getting to school because there was a shooting at the State Police barracks last night. Apparently two troopers were shot in an ambush. The place is crawling with cops and we had to take a detour.”

The news hit my brain like a jolt of electricity. Here? In the Poconos of Pennsylvania? Ten minutes from our house?

Not a month earlier, I had quit my job as executive editor of the local daily paper, the Pocono Record of Stroudsburg, Pa., to join the Metro desk as a staff editor at The New York Times.

I immediately called my successor at the Pocono Record to tell him the news and then stayed glued to my computer for updates.

For the next 48 days, being glued to the news for updates would be the MO for thousands of residents in the Poconos whose lives were disrupted in the huge dragnet for Eric Frein, the man sought in the sniper shootings that killed one trooper and seriously injured another at the State Police barracks in Blooming Grove, Pa.

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I am drawn back to those whirlwind weeks of the search for Frein, a former high school marksman with a reputation as a stellar shot, as I stay equally glued following the developments in the search for the now one remaining  escapee from the Clinton County Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.

I have a foot in both worlds, being a former resident and reporter in the North Country and a newsman and resident of the Poconos.

Though the searches were sparked by different events — one an ambush shooting involving a single person and the other a breakout by two inmates from a maximum-security prison — the searches share a good deal in common.

Hence, my empathy for what North Country residents are enduring.

Like the Dannemora breakout, the Frein search drew national headlines and launched rounds of speculation on social media about his whereabouts.

And like the search for David Sweat and, up until yesterday,  Richard Matt, there were armchair sleuths who criticized or second-guessed the work of the searchers.

While not as rugged as the Adirondacks, the Pocono woodlands where Frein was hiding posed huge logistical challenges for the army of law enforcement that descended on Pike and Monroe counties.

Swamps, dense vegetation and greenways of no man’s land gave Frein ample places to hide. Plus, he was a practiced survivalist and war games re-enactor, so he was a bit on his home turf.

But for locals, this was anything but a game.

Posters with his face were plastered in stores, bulletin boards and even a huge electronic billboard approaching the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City.

For the first time since we moved into our house, I concerned myself with making sure our car doors were locked and our outdoor lights were left on overnight.

School schedules were disrupted as the search pressed on for a killer on the loose. My son lost an entire week that he had to make up at the end of the school year.

Meanwhile some residents were left shut out of their homes or in them as officers locked down certain roads during the most intensive searches.

Federal, state and county assets were pressed into service, including new-fangled machines, including one called The Rook, to help in the search.

It felt like every day was a game of Whack-a-Mole with new leads popping up, then being squashed and new ones surfacing to replace them.

Out of the highs and lows of the search emerged a sense of community spirit and support for law enforcement.

Blue ribbons were tied to trees as a symbol of community backing. Businesses, local residents and firehouses donated food, water and other needed supplies by the truckload to sustain the searchers.

In the end, it was during a sweep of a search area that a team of U.S. marshals spotted and arrested Frein.

He had been using an abandoned airplane hangar as a base of operations.

He was peacefully taken into custody and the 48-day siege that had consumed the Poconos came to an end.

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Camping in the Catskills: A Trip to Remember

By AMR contributor Richard Rodriguez 

RichRodriguez

I came across some photos of the About Men Radio crew back in the day when we were young and crazy and camping in the Catskills in New York.

Of course we were just a bunch of New York City boys spending a weekend in the mountains, so out of place and not ready to take on nature and the elements.

It was July 1986. I am not sure how many of us had actually been camping before, but we were ready to have a male bonding weekend in the woods.

We loaded up two vehicles with a tent, gear, food, drinks, and surely stuff we didn’t need. Our destination was Woodland Valley Campground.

Campsite secured, we went about trying to set-up camp.

We hadn’t even gotten the tent up and John had already dipped into the beer stash.

So much for his help.

Finally the tent was up, and we cooked up some BBQ. Good times ensued.

Got through the first night fine, and in the morning we took to the trails and headed up the mountain.

Then the rain hit, and it didn’t stop. We tried to find shelter under rock overhangs but we couldn’t go on and we headed back to camp.

It started to rain hard and steady. The other campers were leaving in droves, but we refused to give up, and the people leaving actually gave us all their firewood!

We were stacked and actually had enough to keep a fire burning for practically the whole weekend non-stop.

Unsure of what to do as the rain continued to fall, some of the crew ventured to the nearest town and convenience store and returned with some much needed supplies: porno magazines of almost every variety.

This collection of adult entertainment became a legendary stash that survived our camping excursion and was passed around to each of us at one point or another for a number of years.

Not sure where this collection is today…

The rain did finally stop, and we continued to enjoy the outdoors.

The highlight of our shenanigans was a belching contest between Chris and Gary.

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Chris and Gary engage in a belch-off while Pedro keeps score. Gary was reaching so far into his gut that his stomach hurt, as depicted here. And Chris was rocking that camo cap! WTF?!

It was an epic battle between two belchers extraordinaire, and I can’t remember the final outcome, but it was a roaring good time that capped our crazy weekend that made a great impression on our friendship for years to come.

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Let’s Go Mets! Recalling the 1986 Ticker-Tape Parade

In October 1986, baseball history had been made and Chris Mele and I were ready to experience a ticker-tape parade in the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan for the World Series Champion New York Mets.

We were men with a plan:

Chris was going to meet me on Park Row by City Hall, where the parade would climax. I had jury duty in the Bronx and I planned to jump on the No. 4 train, which would bring me right to City Hall.

Of course, 2.2 million other people had the same idea.

I caught the train, and the crowds poured in.

I had to stand all the way but I didn’t even need to hold on as we were packed in and couldn’t move.

Then the “LET’S GO METS!” chants started. We were all screaming at the top of our lungs.

The energy was unreal.

These chants turned into “Who Do You Love? Bill Buckner!!!” OMG! Poor Bill Buckner, the weight of Boston’s loss on his shoulders.

(Cheer up, Bill. Even if you would have fielded that ball, you never had a chance beating Mookie to the bag.)

I finally arrive at City Hall. I figured my chances of finding Chris were slim, but we connected on Park Row — all without cellphones — imagine that?!

We try to get a good spot to watch the parade wind down Broadway.

People were standing on cars, light posts, mailboxes and we could hear the cheers and the “LET’S GO METS!” chants as the vehicles carrying the champs got closer.

Paper rained down from the buildings, even some toilet paper.

We are able to catch a glimpse of Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling as they worked their way to the front of City Hall where Mayor Ed Koch, Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato waited to give speeches and share in the victory.

Chris and I tried to make our way over to City Hall, but there were so many people, we could hardly move.

The police corralled a large crowd of us down one of the side streets and blocked both ends. We were jammed in and the mob was getting rowdy and ugly.

The police were holding us back while the crowd pushed and shoved.

There was a couple of mounted police in there with us and the next thing I know I was face to face – no, face to rear — with the backside of a very large police horse.

I thought that’s it: Either the horse is going to kick me into oblivion or the officer on the horse was going to club me down for bumping into him.

Finally, the police opened up the end of the street and we broke out of there.

We caught some of the presentation from the City Hall stage, and Koch and Cuomo had to cut their words short as the crowd drowned them out with chants and cheers for the champs.

I think at that point we decided we had enough life-threatening experiences for one day and we parted to safer grounds. We escaped the area before the throngs started heading out.

The sanitation crews were already out cleaning up the paper and debris on Broadway, as life in the city never stops and doesn’t miss a beat.

The Night I Nearly Died

Us men, we are invincible, right?

Maybe it’s “machismo” or just stupidity.

I don’t have time for my own well-being, right?

Some years ago, I discovered the answer to that question and in the process, faced my mortality.

It’s ironic that the night this started, I was attending the funeral of a family man who had died before his time.

It began with a bad stomachache that I attributed to lunch but when I got home it just got worse.

I was up all night puking. I was on the bathroom floor, delirious from pain but never did I once say to my wife that maybe – just maybe – I should go to the ER.

Finally I was able to sleep and when I woke up, I felt a little better. I saw my wife off to work and got the kids off to school.

Meanwhile, the pain had settled into my lower abdomen, on the right side.

Damnit! This was probably appendicitis. I called in sick to work and called my wife and told her that I would drive myself to the hospital.

No problem. I got this.

Why should I bother anyone and inconvenience them? I was feeling better and the hospital was only a few minutes away.

The doctor checked and he agreed with my diagnosis and sent me for a CT scan for confirmation.

I eventually got wheeled into the OR and when I woke up in recovery, the nurse told me that my appendix had actually burst.

With much difficulty, I made my way into the bathroom. I leaned on the sink and looked in the mirror and saw someone I hardly recognized.

Who the hell was this guy with the pale face, sunken eyes and look of death?

This was me and this was serious.

With a burst appendix, I could’ve died. It probably burst right on the floor of the bathroom that night, which is why I felt better.

But all that time that I wasted refusing to admit I needed help, those toxins were leaking into my gut and setting me up for an internal infection that could have done me in no matter what the doctor did.

I spent the next two-plus weeks in the hospital, always with a fever and constant IV antibiotics.

I don’t think I ever realized how grave my situation was.

To this day I have downplayed the whole thing.

Maybe I’m still lying to myself because it scares the shit outta me that I flirted with death.

I missed my kids performing in the school talent show and I missed some of my son’s baseball games. In truth, though, I came close to not seeing them grow up at all.

At the hospital, I convinced the doctor that I could go home and take my own temp every day, take my meds and come back if I was not feeling well.

I just wanted to go home.

I should have stayed in the hospital.

Better yet, they should’ve just shot me.

Two weeks later, I felt a weight in my lower abdomen, so I went back for another CT scan.

The doctor said he would need to drain the abscesses from the infection caused by the burst appendix. He explained he was going to go in through my anus — using both hands and a syringe — to drain the fluid.

Nice. I should have at least gotten dinner and a movie first.

Still, the procedure was successful.

After all of this, I was not the same person. It took most of a year to really get back to normal.

I still don’t think I realized how close a brush with death this was.

Thank goodness for antibiotics and for my doctor for violating me with that syringe.

I’m glad I’m still here to talk about it.

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Snow Foolin’: The April 1st Blizzard of 1997

As Winter Storm Juno 2015 is hitting the Northeast, I remember back to 1997 to a most improbable storm, the April Fool’s Day Blizzard.

Both my wife and I went to work, dropped my son off at daycare, and there was snow in the forecast.  Of course, we were thinking spring at this time and it was actually warm out.

The temperature dropped and the snow fell all day.

Conditions deteriorated quickly. I worked close to home and picked up my son early and came home.

My wife, unfortunately, had an hour commute on a good day and surely had a long night ahead of her.

The snow piled up fast, and four hours went by and she still had not gotten home.

She finally called me from the car and was only a few miles away but was stuck.

Damn. So close.

I called my neighbor and he came over and watched my sleeping son while I went out to get her.

I had a 4×4 pick-up and was confident that I would have no problem getting to her and bringing her home.

She was also pregnant with our second child and I was worried about her and the stressful night she was having.

I pulled off the road right past her car, and to my shock, the truck slid off the side of the road and down to a wood fence.

Shit! Fuck!

I tried going back and forth and just dug myself deeper into the deep snow.

Now we were both stuck.

I checked on my wife. She was fine, just tired.

I went to work on my truck. I tried to dig out a path to get some traction, but nothing I did helped, just brought me closer to that fence.

Finally someone came down from the house and I thought we were saved.

NOT!

This freakin’ guy was all nice and asked me my name and where I was from and then: “Do you have insurance? You’re tearing up my lawn and if you hit my fence…”

That’s when I cut him off and let him have it with a torrent of profanities that I didn’t know I was capable of.

He turned tail and said he was going to call the cops, and I screamed back at him to go ahead maybe they’ll actually help me!

I was fuming, but then someone in a truck stopped by and offered to help.

He had a towrope and proceeded to pull both of our vehicles out.

I thanked him and he promised that his friends would take the guy’s mailbox out for us.

Nice. I’ll have to drop a case of beer off for this kid.

We drove carefully home, and I think about that night every time I pass by that house.

Liquor is Quicker…At Making You Sicker

I am sure you’ve heard the saying “Beer then liquor, never been sicker. Liquor then beer, have no fear.” But have you ever put that slogan to the test?

I did one night in my youth, not realizing the consequences of my actions but I did come away with some lifelong lessons.

It was a typical Saturday night in the city, hanging out with my friends in the Village and planning to go to one of our favorite clubs, The Peppermint Lounge.

John, Pedro and I met some other people who brought a bottle of blackberry brandy. I don’t think I ever had tried it before, but after a couple of sips, I was hooked.

This kept us warm and primed us for the evening at the club. I had more than I should have but what the hell — I was feeling good.

“The Pep” was a multi-floored club with dancing to DJ beats on the ground level, live bands upstairs and then a “video lounge” tier where you could sit around tables and socialize.

The night was just starting, so we went straight up to the lounge and grabbed some beers and smokes.

Mind you, I was the one person at the time that didn’t smoke but drinking and smoking go all too well together, so I indulged.

That nice cold fizzy beer hit my blackberry brandy-laden stomach along with the smoke and nicotine that I was not used to and you can only guess what the result was.

I tried to hold it back, but oh!

All this purple barf came up and I grabbed for cups and glasses on the table and filled them up, but it just kept coming.

The table cleared out as I spewed that blackberry brandy on the table.

Pedro wanted no part of this so John got me up and moving and tried to get me to the bathroom, which of course, was down a flight of stairs.

As he was leading me, a couple of attractive girls were coming up and of course we tried to make ourselves appealing to them but all I could do was york some more purple chum at their feet.

So much for first impressions.

John finally got me to the bathroom but by then I was done. I had nothing left in me.

I was surprised at this point the management didn’t toss me out on the street for wrecking the place, but when we got back upstairs, the table was cleaned off and another group of people was sitting there like nothing had happened.

I vaguely remember the rest of the night.

I think I napped under a pinball machine at some point and the sun was coming up when I finally arrived back home.

I got a little sleep before my family woke me up, and wouldn’t you know it, I had a party to go to that day that I smartly resigned from partaking in any drinking.

Guess that was a good thing.

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / iqoncept

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Is it Worth Finding and Keeping a Job?

This blog post comes to us from a listener who wishes to remain anonymous. We think this story is worth sharing and will resonate with readers at About Men Radio, which is why we have agreed to conceal the author’s identity.

In writing about the hardships of being the breadwinner, being laid off and then the uphill search for work, this contributor touches on a growing trend in today’s economy and society.

As documented recently in an excellent story in The New York Times, “The Vanishing Male Worker: How America Fell Behind,” finding a job is more frustrating than ever and then, once you have one, it maybe be unrewarding.

It’s a case of being too young to retire, of being considered too experienced to land a job you’re truly qualified for and of how, ultimately, it all feels like taking sandpaper to your soul. –Chris Mele

After college I worked for 24 years straight without a break. Three places of work, all in the same field and, overall, I enjoyed my time. There were ups and downs but generally I gave it my best and I was treated fairly through most of it.

After much turmoil as the result of a corporate transaction, I was downsized. I actually welcomed it, and was ready to give some time back to my family. I embraced being home and spending time with my wife and kids. I was involved with the kids’ schools and activities to the max.

I was out of work for almost a year, much longer than I ever thought it was going to take to find new employment. My advanced education and years of experience seemed to be more of a disadvantage in this economy for the jobs available. I landed a temporary job doing what I had done previously.

It was like starting over, and although I had more experience than most people at this place, I was the low man on the totem pole, but that was OK. I actually liked it in a way, having the least responsibility.

I did my work and went home. Work stayed at work.

It was very disappointing when I was passed up for a permanent position, as I would have been expensive to keep at that level.  So, I was back to being unemployed.

This time around was different as money was short and my savings was all about gone. I needed a job, period. It still was hard out there finding something. Six months went by and so did the unemployment checks.

It was a stressful and depressing time. My self-worth took a severe beating and I questioned some past decisions that may have set me up for this predicament.

It’s very bad to think this way and very self-destructive.

Finally, a really good opportunity came up. It pays well, but it is still a temporary position. It’s also a very long commute and I spend more hours a day on the road than I would like.

I just needed to suck it up and do it. Survival mode.

Some months later, I’m not really excited about what I’m doing, and I find it is very different than what I first expected. Is it just that I can’t do this like I used to, or is it truly a poor fit and poor judgment on my part since I was distressed when I made the decision to give it a go?

I’m not sure, but it seems to be sucking the soul out of me.

I miss spending time at home, as everyone had gotten very accustomed to me being there and depending on me, and now I’m gone over 12 hours a day.

Sounds like I’m whining, but I’m not happy with my situation and looks like I’ll need to try something else again. But what if I make a change and still feel unhappy?

I think being unemployed has spoiled/ruined me in respect to working.

Being unemployed allowed me to experience something that I might not have ever had the chance to do otherwise.

So what is my time worth to me? My time is almost priceless when it comes to my family. Whatever I end up doing to support my family will need to provide me a sense of worth and hopefully something I enjoy.

Or maybe I just need to retire.

I know this is not an option right now and I will need to do some serious self evaluation and soul searching in the coming months so maybe I can start planning for that day.

I can’t wait

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / fuzzbones

Food and Culture Come Together at the Holidays

Coquito y Empanadas!

For the past 23 Christmases I have been able to share the joyous holiday spirit with my lovely wife.

We combine two very different Hispanic cultures and customs.

To outsiders, Hispanics all seem to be the same because we share the same language from the mother country of Spain, Hispanics vary widely in words, customs and traditions.

Caribbean Hispanics differ from Central American Hispanics, and those differ immensely from South American Hispanics.

To compound the issue further, there are smaller subsets of those major groups that also differ from each other. But it is that diversity that strengthens us.

The blend of Hispanic traditions and cultures is huge in my family.

My wife hails from the northern part of Puerto Rico — the Bronx. (I kid.) Yes, she was born in the Bronx, but her Puerto Rican heritage is strong and forged by very many long summer vacations in Puerto Rico.

For my part, I was born in Argentina, the southernmost of Hispanics. I lived many years of my childhood in Argentina.

So through marriage we combined our cultures and traditions and no place is it more apparent than during the holidays.

From the pernil and pasteles at Thanksgiving to the asado on Christmas Eve, foods blend and bring together the cultures.

So this Christmas, like so many before, I proudly make a Coquito recipe entrusted to me by my wife’s aunt from Puerto Rico and I also will indulge in a batch of my Mom’s Argentine empanadas.

But, of course, I will share with friends. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas y Feliz Navidad!

A Grandfather’s Blessing

Christmas is here, and I remember when I was a young kid and celebrating this joyous holiday with my family, having a ball hanging with so many cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.

Christmas Eve was the night when all of my Mom’s family would gather to celebrate.

She was one of seven children, five sisters and two brothers, and with their respective kids, other relatives, friends and my grandparents, they filled my grandparents’ apartment with two to three dozen people.

It was loud and hot, and the smell of all the food was great, but the most important thing to the kids back then was the mountain of gifts that was stacked up all over the place, divided by family.

My grandfather would then get everyone’s attention and give his blessing to the family, giving thanks for our health and for being together as one family.  I’ll always remember his deep and powerful voice that exclaimed his love and pride for everyone there.

Then he would hand over the ceremonies to one of the uncles or older cousins to announce and distribute the gifts to one family at a time.  They would read the tags and we would cheer and carry on with love and good humor.  The best, of course, was that the young kids would always be first and receive a gift that was a toy.

Oh the joy of Christmas!

About Food: Living in Two Worlds

Like many immigrants I am a product of two cultures. I live in the United States but was raised in a Puerto Rican household. That cultural dichotomy can be difficult to navigate but the food I grew up eating helps keep me firmly in touch with my Latin-American heritage.

My mother and grandmother were the rulers of the kitchen as a kid and while they would admit to not being world class chefs, they had their specialties.  I will on occasion try cooking a pork shoulder like my mother made with varying degrees of success but that hardly matters. The aromas have already anchored me securely to my Boricua roots.

This multimedia piece was produced for the “Coming to the Table” series from Feet In Two Worlds.

About Food: The Place to be Was Always The Kitchen

Growing up in a household and family where so much revolved around the kitchen stays with you forever, and I owe my cooking chops and style to the women in my family, especially my mother and her sisters.

When asked to talk about how I learned to cook and who influenced me most, it took me back to my childhood and how social it was when my mom and aunts prepared meals for the family. The kitchen was the best place to be, not only for food but to catch up on family, history, and gossip.

I try to continue this with my own kids and encourage them to make meals, experiment and be together as a family at as many meals as possible. I am happy to share these experiences and memories with Fi2W and my fellow hosts of About Men Radio.

What is your story?

This multimedia piece was produced for the “Coming to the Table” series from Feet In Two Worlds.

About Food: A Gaucho Tradition Handed Down…From Mom

In Argentina, manly traditions are generally handed down from father to son. Gaucho traditions such as using a facón (a gauchos’ personal knife), throwing boleadoras (a gaucho’s hunting weapon), or making an asado (a gaucho grilled meat feast) are typically the domain of men.

Not so in the la Frossia household.

I am a man with strong Argentine roots but the art of an asado was passed on to me by Mom, not dad. I learned the process, preparation and grilling techniques of a traditional Argentine asado from her, and display the effectiveness of those lessons on special occasions with family and friends.  My plan is to build a traditional stone Argentine parrilla (grill) for future asados but will bow to tradition.

I’ll be the one teaching my sons and daughter how to prepare the asado for their families.

This multimedia piece was produced for the “Coming to the Table” series from Feet In Two Worlds.

Strangest Summer Jobs: Part One

It is hard to imagine a world today without our cellphones. For many of us, they have become a permanent attachment to our hand or hip.

Does anyone memorize phone numbers anymore?  I know I don’t, but I can remember phone numbers to places where I lived more than 20 years ago yet I can’t remember my own children’s cell numbers.

During one summer when I was in college, I got a job with New York Telephone, after the monopoly break-up but prior to the industry proliferation of wireless devices in the marketplace.

How did we communicate when on the streets back in the pre-historic, pre-cellular days?

Pay phones were the way of the world. They were prominently positioned on the streets, at airports, bus stations, businesses and gas stations.

Today’s generation wouldn’t recognize a phone booth or understand having to dig change out of their pockets to call their BFF.

That summer I worked in a warehouse on the west side of Manhattan counting coins collected from all of the pay phones from the Bronx and Manhattan.

Each week this facility filled up a room with bags of nickels, dimes and quarters totaling over $100,000 —   not a bad take but I’m sure nothing compared to how much the cellphone industry rakes in today.

The counting room had a security guard who ran a metal detector over you when you left the room, so all your own coins, keys, and any metal objects needed to stay outside in your locker.

Cameras were also placed throughout the facility and at each counting station.

I was told that some employees in the past had developed a system of dropping coins down into their boots while they were counting, thus prompting the video surveillance.

I noticed that security rarely wanded you all the way down to your shoes.

On my first day, I was trained by a man who on one hand had a thumb and no other full fingers. He was the fastest counter in the place.

The counting machines were along a complex conveyor belt where the upper level brought you full banks of coins to be counted, and the lower level belt took away the full bags of counted coins.

The counting machines were pretty cool.

Each pay phone bank had a tag with info that you entered into a computer, and then you dumped out the change into a large tray and sifted through it to remove foreign coins and slugs.

Next, you lifted the tray and dumped the coins into the machine, which had a large spinning platter that pushed all the coins to the edge where they were lifted off the tray according to thickness and flew through an electric eye that counted them and off they went into a bag.

When a bag was full, the machine beeped and you would tie it up and throw it on the conveyor belt.

Attach a new bag and the counting continued.

That’s how the day went: pretty repetitive and mindless.

The place had a Musak system that we would commandeer and play our own mix tapes, yes tapes. So we would boogie to counting thousands of coins.

I remember that one of the favorite tunes that summer was the theme from “Beverly Hills Cop.”

One afternoon everyone was leisurely counting and we saw some people leaving early! We found out later that they had counted a certain number of banks and were allowed to go home. Damn!

The next day, we were all flying through the counting, knocking out those banks in record time and yeah, I got to go home early but this only lasted a week.

All the regular employees were brought into the boss’ office one at a time and got chewed out for not counting fast enough and the going home early thing was only to get production up.

Now that the coin counting was going great, us summer guys were expendable and we were transferred to escorting, but that’s another story…

 

A Very Good Dog

For anyone who has grown up with pets, the family dog has always been a true member of the family.

Recently I experienced the death of an extra-special pet, one that was the first I raised as an adult with my young children.

We inquired about Chow Chow puppies from a breeder who we had dealt with in the past and found she had a litter in the same bloodline as a dog we had before.

She sent us a puppy.

I picked this little guy up at the airport after he had traveled on two flights over a long day.

My son was about 2 years old. When they saw each other, the puppy barked and growled at him (playfully) and then my son cried and wouldn’t stop.

My wife was away on business so it was just my son, the puppy and me.

That first night was full of cleaning up pee and poop. And my son crying.

What a way to start a relationship.

The puppy was a fluffy hairball of red, black, gray and white and my neighbor thought he looked like a puff of smoke, so he was named Smokey.

Eventually things settled down and we were getting along fine, and then two days later mom came home.

She came in the door and that little dog barked at her like she had no business being there. Smokey had determined that his new family was my son and I, and this new person just didn’t belong.

Chows are known to be a one- or two-person dog as they attach themselves to one family member and basically looks to this person as the pack leader. Everyone else in the family may end up beneath them if they do not assert themselves.

Properly trained and socialized, Chows are naturally protective of their family, and when treated with love and respect, will return that love.

With this knowledge, I attended puppy obedience classes with Smokey, which proved to be very effective and rewarding for both of us.

His strong-willed personality almost got the better of him during one class when he was determined to take a toy from a much larger Akita puppy.

Dog owner and instructor intervention saved my determined puppy from some well-deserved whoop-ass that he was about to take from the other dog.

He was good with the kids, and they loved him dearly. Smokey was there for my son and through the births and childhoods of my three girls.

He was a good dog, a very good dog.

Early one morning in his 14th year, before the kids got up for school, he woke up my wife and me.

He had gone to the bathroom in the house. I didn’t think too much about it at first as he was getting old, having trouble getting up the stairs and needing more frequent trips out to go.

I let him outside and cleaned up the mess.

When I went to check on him, we looked each other in the eye and right then I knew this was it.

He knew it as well.

I covered him with a blanket and sat on the floor with him.

Stroking his head and speaking softly to him, I listened to his rough breathing and wished for his passing to come quickly and, I hoped, with little pain.

He never complained about any pain or discomfort before and wasn’t now. As his final breath passed through his nose I whispered to him how much I loved him and that he should go now and rest.

Rest in peace, Smokey. Good dog.

Parisian Laundry

The first overseas trip I ever took was when I was in my mid-20s with two of my best friends from junior high school, Ben and Tom.

We spent three days in London and six days in Paris. Fighting every urge to overpack, I took just enough clean clothes to get me through about half the trip.

London was wonderful. After visiting some sites, we took the Chunnel train from England to France.

Paris was amazing. We were staying in a beautiful boutique hotel, The Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, which Ben’s father had recommended.

The hotel is on Quai Voltaire, a street on the Left Bank overlooking the Seine with unparalleled views of the Louvre across the river. Our quaint room had a small balcony (an important detail to this story).

After three days of sightseeing, I was running out of clean clothes, so it was time to do some laundry. Since this was my first time in Europe, I asked Ben how laundry in a hotel was done.

He said it was just like doing a load of laundry in a Laundromat in the U.S. They would pick up the laundry bag, return it and charge by the load.

I only needed to wash a few pieces to get me through the rest of the trip, but, following Ben’s advice, I figured that if they were going to charge me for a full load anyway, I might as well get my money’s worth, right?

So I filled the hotel’s laundry bag for pick-up.

At the end of a great day at the Louvre, we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. Instead of the laundry bag that I had left on the bed, in its place was a neat little tower of packages, each beautifully wrapped in Kraft brown paper and tied with twine.

As I opened the packages, I noticed that all of my clothes were cleaned, pressed, and exquisitely individually wrapped. Not just each of my shirts, but each pair of underpants and even each pair of socks.

My initial thought was, “Wow, Parisian hotels are amazingly elegant, even with mundane things like laundry.”

Then, I noticed the bill sitting next to the small tower of packages. The bill for DRY CLEANING (not washing) each piece of clothing was 550 francs, which at the time was $110.

My mind was busy trying to calculate the ft-lbs of energy that would be needed to throw Ben, a much larger guy than me, off the balcony over Quai Voltaire, and into the Seine.

My entire vacation started to be ruined until Tom calmly gave me a piece of advice that I still apply today.

“Gary, look at it this way,” he said. “For $110, you’ve bought yourself a story that you’ll be able to tell for the rest of your life.”

Whether you like this story or not, I don’t care. I just need to keep getting a return on my $110 investment.

Gimme One With Everything

It was the mid-1980’s and I was working at a summer job.

I was fortunate to have a neighbor who employed me, God rest his soul, who in his retirement started a small business selling hot dogs from a converted laundry truck that grew into a restaurant on wheels.

He would be up way before the sun, cooking bacon and making gallons of fresh coffee. I would meet him at his favorite spot near a major roadway and start my day serving egg sandwiches, buttered rolls and hot coffee to customers traveling to work.

After the morning rush, we would switch to hot dogs, chili dogs, meatballs, soda, and of course, more coffee, as it seemed that was the universal drink of the workingman.

The days consisted of mad rushes serving a line of people stretching down the block to wondering when the next customer would show up.

It was a long day.

You may wonder where we went to the bathroom, especially since we were also constant drinkers of the magical black elixir.

I typically ran up the street to a friendly furniture store that allowed us to use its facilities. The boss never left the truck, which had a sink and running hot water, as per code, but no bathroom accommodations.

One day during a lull, the boss had to relieve himself of some of that coffee he constantly consumed. (I don’t think I ever saw him without that coffee cup in hand.)

He did not think about hoofing it up to the store where I usually went. Instead, he had a special coffee can with a lid he kept under the counter.

We always wore aprons.

He cautiously looked up and down the street making sure no one was headed our way, and proceeded to take that special can, remove the lid and slid it under his apron.

This was a much-practiced action, as he quickly undid his fly and I heard the stream hitting the bottom of the empty can, all behind the veil of that apron.

Without warning, a group of hungry people appeared by the window and I jumped to start serving them.

The boss had been caught by surprise, but he stealthily removed and capped the can, washed his hands and began serving the customers without missing a beat.

I swear I could not figure out how he did this so quickly. I did not notice him go through the motions of putting it back in his pants or zipping up for that matter.

Yet there he was by my side, with a smile, sliding hot dogs into buns and asking if they wanted sauerkraut or onions.

If these people waiting for their lunch to be served only knew…

Extraordinary Circumstances

Every day we come face to face with issues and problems, deal with our kids, family, friends and co-workers and we bitch and moan but at the end of the day we regroup and get ready for tomorrow.

Rarely do we really look at ourselves and say how lucky we are to be able to do all these things and survive to see the next day with little more than some passing stress. No big deal, nothing life changing.

Recently, at the library looking at movies to borrow, I picked up a documentary called “When I Walk” and I was apprehensive about it and wasn’t sure if I should bring it home.

The story chronicles the young filmmaker and his battle with multiple sclerosis. My wife of 23 years has battled this disease for 21 of those years and counting, and although she is one of the bravest people I know and has never given into this disease, I was not sure how she would view this film that would force her to look at her disease and realize how truly devastating it can be.

I brought the movie home.

She was a bit apprehensive when she looked at the box, but we watched it, cried with it, felt deeply close to Mr. DaSilva and his journey and how he continued to move forward through his adversity.

I did not regret bringing this home and I believe we were all the better for sharing it together.

We all have heroes that we look up to: sports figures, world leaders, teachers, movie and TV stars, but sometimes we overlook the people closest to us.

My wife has continued to live life, raise children and push her limits even though she knows she will pay consequences afterwards.

Her disease has not stopped her from living day-to-day and dealing with those everyday stresses. We have all learned to help a little more, go a little slower, appreciate the little things and celebrate small victories.

I know my kids and I have learned some important lessons on life and how to deal with true adversity, as their mom continues to inspire us every day.

Unemployment and Fatherhood

Just when you think you have things figured out, life throws you an off-speed pitch that takes you by surprise and changes the way you look at the world.

I’m about to run out of my second stint of unemployment in the past two-and-a-half years and I’m not sure what direction I’m headed.

Money is tight, I have yet to dip into retirement funds, yet my kids are all clamoring for iPhones and I have a new driver on the horizon who will surely want a car (actually, she wants a Jeep).

“Everything is on hold” I tell them until I find some steady work.

Never thought I would ever be in this sort of situation, as I have a graduate degree and many years of industrial science experience, but I find myself in a situation that many people my age and similar background are suffering through.

I worked successfully for a company for over 20 years but after a merger I find myself unemployed and wondering what to do next.

At first I thought this shouldn’t be too bad. I got a decent severance and I should be able to find something rather quickly. I’m even kinda burned out and could use a little break after working non-stop from way back in high school, through college and after.

Boy, was I wrong. And here I am, trying to show my kids that college, hard work and loyalty will do you right in the world.

If nothing else, I have used this time to really be a participant parent, which I would have otherwise not have been as I would have been working and away from home most of my awake time during the day. I’m not sure if my kids really appreciate me being home, but I would not have been able to experience the field hockey and baseball games, swim meets, dance classes, field trips, Halloween parades, class parties, marching band performances, football games, cheerleading events, everyday shuttling kids from place to place, and the list goes on and on, if I had not had this opportunity to be home.

I’m actually not sure if I really want to go back to the life I had before, but with four kids to put through school and beyond, I will have to do some full-time work at some point to afford them the chance to go beyond what I have done with my life as I know they are capable of doing.

They are so much smarter and more prepared for the future than I was at their age, and I want them to succeed and pass that to their own children at some point.

Growing up, my dad typically worked two jobs to support his family and I hardly saw him during the week, and I have probably spent more time with him now as an adult then back when I was a kid. All in all, I am very happy to have been able to spend this time with my kids at these important times in their young lives, and I
hope I have made some impact.

No, wait.

I am sure I have made a lasting impression that hopefully some day they will appreciate the time that dad was around.

Daddy Detective: The Case of the Missing Media Player

My eleven-year-old daughter misplaced her beloved iPod today.  After FaceTiming with her friends, she had some ice cream and then lost track of it.  We searched the house in all the places she remembered she’d been to but no luck. Stump city! She even claimed that she had a blackout from some point on and couldn’t remember what happened.  Unbelievable!

Our spirits soared when she remembered that the “Find My iPod” app was set-up, so we tried to locate it with that. Unfortunately the handheld computer was not responding, most likely powered off or the battery was drained.  I took her aside and asked if she’d broken it, dropped it in the toilet, etc. and was doing this just to make it look like an accident but she assured me this was all legit

After much crying and consternation my daughter reluctantly went to bed but I was still going crazy trying to figure out where the heck the darn iPod had disappeared to.  As a last ditch effort I tried the find app one more time and miraculously it shows the device’s location from  an hour ago.  IT’S STILL IN THE HOUSE!

I grab a flashlight and my iPad and start searching every nook and cranny. Not sure if I’m on a wild goose chase or what but I’m determined to find the iPod even if I have to stay up all night. It’s a point of pride now.

I send the command from the “Find My iPod” app to make a sound and BINGO, a low, muffled ping!  I check the living room but the sound grows faint.  I head back towards the kitchen, and yes I hear it, it is here somewhere.

Yep, you guessed it. The freakin’ iPod was buried at the very bottom of our trash can, under the dinner scraps, coffee grounds and the rest of the trash. Nice.

I really should make my forgetful daughter clean up the mess I had to make retrieving it but the thought of how happy she’d be in the morning made it all worthwhile.

Daddy Detective saves the day!

Again…

…for like, the millionth time.