1.Would movie theaters sell even more popcorn if they offered no-cal ‘I Can’t Believe its Not Butter’ as a topping? 2. I always carry my own 0%fat butter spritzer to the movies! Sometimes patrons look at me weird hearing the pumping sound coming out of my lap. 3. How long until Mayor Bloomberg requires mandatory no-fat topping in all theaters?!? 4. Over and over conservatives gripe about ‘taking responsibility’. ‘Take responsibility for your own retirement!’ ‘Take responsibility for your own healthcare!’ Can someone remind me who took responsibility for the phony WMD evidence in Iraq? Or the financial meltdown that left millions unemployed? I know who benefited from these disasters but I can’t find a record of who took responsibility for them… 5. “Girls’ is the most original new program on television, IMO. It is shocking, heartbreakingly sad, hilariously funny, outrageous and depressing all at once. 6. How many viewers were all set to hate the ‘girls’ on ‘Girls’? They came from privileged families with celebrity parents (the daughters of Brian Williams, David Mamet, well known rock and rollers and artists)…but I have to admit they are damn good actresses as well. 7. Why do the hosts on FoxNews seem like high school: (Steve Doocey (annoying drama club president), Bill O’Reilly (school bully), Sean Hannity (football team quarterback), Megyn Kelly (captain cheerleading squad), Alan Colmes (geeky valedictorian who gets pushed in the bushes) while the hosts on MSNBC seem like Graduate School: Rachel Maddow: (snarky Graduate TA), Chris Hayes (wonky grad student), Lawrence O’Donnell (self-righteous Dean of Students), Martin Bashir (brainy foreign exchange student). 8. Something I just learned: Abraham Lincoln was the only president to hold a patent. Want to know what he invented? Look it up. (Hint: It had to do with beached boats.) 9. If Mitt Romney wore two-tone saddle shoes to match his hair would it catch on like Pat Boone‘s white bucks? (boy, how old do you have to be to remember that!) Has any popular male figure created a shoe fad since Beatle Boots? (excluding Michael Jordan) 10. When did Ann Romney become a bright blonde and how come no one noticed? 11. Why do I always imagine Antonin Scalia wearing a lobster bib eagerly awaiting dinner? 12. It was sad, like vacation-ending-sad, when I watched the last episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ and realized it would be a year before I returned to King’s Landing. 13. I haven’t had a cigarette in two months and my blood pressure has dropped almost 10 points. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. 14. Republicans want to repeal Obamacare. Did they ever get around to repealing the Congressional resolution renaming French fries Freedom Fries? Shouldn’t they repeal that first? 15. ‘Awake’ had the worst ending for the best new series on broadcast TV. Of course, if it hadn’t been cancelled at the last minute there would have been no sucky ending. 16. The best acting I saw all year was on TCM: the movie ‘DINNER AT EIGHT’ (1932) with Marie Dressler and John Barrymore. Each had a scene that took my breath away. I ran the scenes back, watching them again to make sure they were that good. They were. And the movie itself, a Chekovian ensemble of the destitute and nouveau riche keeping up appearances is so appropriate to OUR times. 17. When apartments sell for $88 million and $100 million to Russian oligarchs and Arab billionaires don’t tell me it has no affect on rents surrounding them in Manhattan. 18. I never had professional psycho-analysis but old girlfriends did a pretty good job. Dana Delaney: “You have parts of Jeffrey AND Brian in you. You exaggerate the part that’s like Jeffrey. You ignore the parts that are like Brian.”Heidi Ettinger (Landesman): “Richard, you think if you’re having a bad day you should be able to walk down to the newsstand and see the newspaper headline declaring: ‘Richard’s having a bad day!” Joan Pirkle (Smith): “You don’t act like you’re G-d’s gift to women; you act as if women were G-d’s gift to you!”19. Something I just learned: The last living witness to Lincoln’s assassination was on the TV show ‘I’ve Got a Secret’ in 1956. He remembered being upset that John Wilkes Booth had hurt himself leaping from the balcony to the stage. You can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_iq5yzJ-Dk 20. Something else I just learned: Japanese-Americans live longer on average than Japanese citizens living in Japan (and I learned this from a wacky right-wing talk show host!) 21. If a corporation is 20% owned by a foreign investor, say a sheik or a Russian oligarch, and the corporation donates money to an American political campaign: are foreigners helping to influence an American election? 22. How come anti-immigration zealots don’t seem to get upset by dual citizenship when dual citizens are Israeli or Irish? 23. If I wore a hoody from the old TV show ‘Just Shoot Me’ would I deserve to be shot for wearing a hoody? 24. The older I get the more I realize the most expensive thing I’ve acquired during my lifetime was a conscience. 25. The older I get (and the older Kyle gets) the more I understand why my mother always said: “I wish you and your brothers were little again!” 26. The older I get the more I understand you cannot love life without loving transience. 27. Thinking back to the time when Herman Cain was top candidate for the Republican presidential nomination: doesn’t it seem now like an unreal bad dream? 28. I’ve eaten in some of the best restaurants in the world and experienced unforgettable meals but is there anything better than a Dairy Queen Blizzard? 29. Now that we ‘reboot’ movie series like ‘Spiderman’ and ‘Batman’, can we reboot presidential candidates as well? I’d love to experience that naïve rush of believing in hope and change again!! 30. The ocean in Florida has more than fifty shades. Every evening at dusk I go to the beach to read and each evening it is a different color: lagoon blue or lime or turquoise or sky-blue or gray or sapphire or white-capped. Its different every evening and must have fifty shades of gray alone…31. I went to five colleges: UNH, UCSB, UCBerkeley and Yale but when I dream about college I’m always on campus at Santa Barbara. 32. There is an American fantasy that financial moguls must be SMARTER than the rest of us. After all, they were intelligent enough to make all that money. There are some, I’m sure, who are above average in intelligence but anyone who has lived through the last five years should realize many aren’t more intelligent. They are more ruthless, more reckless, less conscious ridden than the rest of us. This American myth made it easier for them to get away with their crimes. 33. Financial moguls who go bust are like Ann Curry: On Friday the market values you at tens of millions, on Monday: “Out with the traife!” 34. Speaking of network morning hosts: Savannah Guthrie looks like she’s being tortured each morning on the Today Show. She can’t even make believe she’s interested in making Martha Stewart’s pinto bean/guacamole parfait! And she’s a lawyer, why should she? 35. When will NBC realize the problem is not his female co-hosts but Matt Lauer. He is a neutral shade that needs strong colors surrounding him. His success is not in spite of his blandness but because of it. 36. Hey, NBC: Where is J. Fred Muggs when you need him? 37. My brother Jeffrey once told me remonstrating over my poor career choices: “You could have been the next Matt Lauer. Instead you’re the next Soupy Sales!” He was wrong. I could never do what Matt does. And I loved Soupy Sales! 37. When I met Mitt Romney in a greasy spoon on 55th street in December not one person in the place recognized him. I often wonder if those people would know who he was today. 38. When has Paul Krugman (the stimulus is too small, inflation will stay restrained, austerity stifles growth etc.) been wrong about the American economy? 39. When has Lawrence Kudlow (the Bush ‘Goldilocks Economy‘, the Celtic Tiger) been right? 40. In the same vein: “The Irish economy is showing encouraging signs of recovery!” The Cato Institute, June 2010. ‘Nuff said. 41. No matter how many times conservatives quote him on the cable news shows, Obama never promised the stimulus would bring unemployment down below 8%. He never said it. NEVER. (Christina Roehmer did make that prediction base upon incorrect projections on the economic damage but that’s not as effective a political statement.) 42. Excuse me, but if I remember the last three years correctly, the economy DID begin to improve after the stimulus. 43. I usually finish the Sunday New York Times by Wednesday. 44. I save the Book Review, (my favorite section) for last. Can I make one of those obnoxious commercials? 45. I still read the Style section for the wedding announcements but its been years since I’ve seen someone I know. 46. The last wedding announcement where I personally knew someone getting married was comedienne Marilyn Michaels. 47. I haven’t watched a Sunday morning network news program in years. I listen to every single one by podcast and don’t miss a thing visually. 48. ‘Up with Chris Hayes’ and ‘The Chris Matthews Show’ are not podcast so I guess I should amend that! 49. I might read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY if someone tells me its better written than THE STORY OF O. 50. So again: why are the days so short in Florida?
In 1983, I was two years into my television career when I was offered the hosting job on HBO’s PREVIEW WEEKEND with Karen Morris-Gowdy as co-host. HBO used to free up its signal for a weekend, usually around Labor Day to entice new subscribers offering music concerts and the latest movies (there were no weekly series yet). In fact, HBO only began broadcasting a 24 hour seven day a week schedule the year before I hosted this show which was part sales pitch, part TV guide for the weekend schedule.
Karen Morris-Gowdy was my co-host and on set I tried to hide how flabbergasted I was by her beauty. She was also sweet, gracious and easy to work with. We shot for two days and on the second morning I arrived early and ran into a gal, dressed in jeans, no makeup, hair under a bandanna who had a great personality and sense of humor. We talked back and forth for about ten minutes and I didn’t realize that it was Karen until we sat in our makeup chairs. I can still FEEL how embarrassed I was (dork that I was I told her I hadn’t realized it was her!)…but she didn’t mind at all. She thought it was funny. Karen was from Wyoming, the daughter in law of sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy and though she had been America’s Junior Miss a decade before, she was completely unpretentious and unmindful of her great beauty (do women like that exist anymore?)
Oddly enough, Matt Lauer, with whom I would play TV musical chairs years later, was subsequently the host of an HBO PREVIEW WEEKEND after my stint.
You can watch this Flashback here:
I know. How could I praise one of the Koch brothers?!? I shudder every time I walk into Lincoln Center and see David Koch‘s name on the wall. David and Charles Koch are notorious for supporting extreme right wing causes including the Tea Party. If you are progressive they are the most dangerous corporatist bete-noirs of our age.
David and Charles are the most (in)famous of the clan but many people don’t know that there are actually four Koch brothers, the sons of an engineer who discovered a better way to retrieve gasoline from refining heavy oil early in the Twentieth-Century. Actually, two of the brothers are twins, David and Bill, but as the Village Voice pointed out in a 2011 profile: “In the shadow of his brothers’ Tea Party fame, Bill Koch seems almost like a normal billionaire.” Which doesn’t mean we share an obvious affinity. In 2010, Forbes Magazine estimated Bill Koch’s wealth at $3.4 billion and he uses those billions to support Republican candidates and stifle renewable energy projects among other things. No Thurston Howell, he also is an amateur yachtsman who blew $65 million to win the Americas Cup in 1992.
But another of his hobbies is one that interests me: preservation of historical artifacts. Bill Koch buys and collects American Western memorabilia and artwork and he has a collection that will knock your socks off. You may have read that he recently bought the the only existing photo of BILLY THE KID for $2.3 million.But that is just the cherry on the sundae. His collection includes stagecoaches, wagons, rifles, Native American clothing and weaponry, Custer’s guidon (military flag) recovered from THE LITTLE BIG HORN, Custer’s yellow deerskin glove, a lock of his goldenhair, his folding chair, Sitting Bull’s breast plate and rifle worn at the battle, the gun that shot Jesse James, Pat Garret’s folding rifle that was in his hands when he was gunned down, actual Indian scalps (!) hanging from spears, memorabilia from Western brothels, saddles, Wyatt Earp’s vest and the Marshall’s star pinned to it, a vast array of cowboy hats, chaps and boots, 150 antique guns and knives-many belonging to famous outlaws and lawmen, a Howitzer cannon from 1867 and a large plexiglass case filled with gold nuggets mined in the West that must be worth a fortune just in itself! And then there is the artwork: original sculptures and paintings from Remington and Russell, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, sepia photos and landscapes.
Bill Koch lives in Palm Beach (not far from David Koch). I can’t imagine how he keeps this collection (1.5 million objects) in his home, (like Fibber McGee’s closet?!?), but for a few months much of it was exhibited at the Four Square Arts Center in Palm Beach and I had a chance to see it. The museum was bursting with memorabilia and art to the point that some of it had to be hung in the hallway while wagons and coaches were set outside on the lawn of the museum.
Clearly this avalanche of artifacts could be overwhelming but breaking it into smaller displays made it easier to digest. These divisions include Native Americans, Women in the West, Mining, Saloon, The Brothel, Cowboy Life, Economic Growth and Migration, Indian Wars and Firearms.
It is jaw dropping to be inches away from the pennant recovered from the Custer-Sitting Bull Battlefield and to actually touch the table where Billy the Kid’s corpse rested after his assasination, but there were many unexpected things I found here as well.
After Dodge City, Bat Masterson became a newspaperman in NYC. He died in 1921, not in a gunfight but slumped over a typewriter writing his last editorial. His final words included these: “There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I’ll swear I can’t see it that way.” Wow! A progressive message preserved and promoted by a Koch brother!
The gun collection here is awesome, from rifles to derringers to pepperboxes and revolvers. One can viscerally understand how firearms became indelibly linked to the American experience. I’m not a gun nut, (although my brother is!) yet I was struck by the artistic beauty and craftsmanship of these pieces.
I hadn’t thought about the pepperbox in years. Pepper-box revolvers have multiple barrels that revolve about a central axis and there were several odd looking, fascinating examples here. Some derringers were so small you could hide them in the palm of your hand.
I was also shocked to see how closely my own toy gun from childhood resembled the actual Colt 45 Peacemaker, even down to the metal engraving and pearl handled grip.For my generation Western mythology was a big part of our childhoods. I remember how much we cherished that old air rifle. The barrel was blocked so it could not shoot out anything dangerous but there was a way to pour baby oil into a small barrel hole so it would waft smoke. That seemed so neat! And, boy did it make a LOUD bang! One day my brother (another brother, not the one with the guns) swung it like Davy Crockett when we got into a fight with neighborhood toughs. The neighborhood kids used to play cowboys (no Indians) dividing into rival teams from Eggert Place and Dickens Avenue, sneaking up and ambushing the other team. And I remember the night we were caught, roped and tied to the monkey bars in the playground until our parents came to rescue us for dinner!
The Wild West inhabited a large part of our imaginations growing up and yet it seems to hardly exist for kids growing up today. Comic book super heroes have taken its place. Will that change in childhood role modeling, divorced from national history and actual heroism, make a difference to this new generation of Americans as they grow into adults?
The Palm Beach exhibit was open only a few months but this collection really cries out for a museum of its own. If we are lucky, Bill Koch will bequeath one someday as a legacy. I may abhor his brother’s name on Lincoln Center but I wouldn’t mind passing through the doors of a Western museum with Bill Koch’s name on it. Its not like he just wrote a check. He spent time, money and effort to gather all these important artifacts in one place and I have to admit, many of my favorite museums (The Frick, The Gardiner, the Neue, The Barnes, the Getty) were created by wealthy robber barons, businessmen and socialites. Collections like these, motivated by personal passions also display a unique individual taste and touch often lacking in professionally curated museums.
Finally, in an interview about this exhibit Bill Koch admitted: “Collecting all this stuff, I’ve become somewhat anti-Manifest Destiny.”
Which might indicate that even for a Koch brother there is hope for personal growth.
A few weeks ago I was in NYC for the premiere of a new movie at the Tribeca Film Festival. ‘EVOCATEUR’ is a documentary about Morton Downey Jr., the volcanic right wing talk show host from the late eighties. Last year in Miami I taped an hour and a half interview for the film. With a movie you never know how things will end up and although I took friends along I warned them that I just might pop up on screen for a brief soundbite. I’d said the same thing to friends before the premiere of ‘Bruno’ and was pleasantly surprised when I turned up in a five-minute scene. On the other hand I worked with Clint Eastwood for a week on ‘Magnum Force’ and was completely cut from the final print (yet I STILL get residuals!). Ya just never know… There were interviews and photos on the red carpet but as we entered the theater one of the producers grabbed my arm and warned: “Prepare yourself. You’re in a lot of this movie.” And surprisingly, I was. I wasn’t one of Mort’s close friends. I didn’t directly work with him. But I did have a good crow’s nest view of his rise and fall.
I knew Morton from Channel 9 where we shared a studio; I hosted PEOPLE ARE TALKING live in the mornings and at night they would push my set back, roll his in from the opposite end and tape his show. We had lunch together the first day he showed up at work and a year and a half later I was in that same cafeteria when word flew through the building he was cancelled. We did go carousing and drinking together a few times and the first time I went to ELAINE’S it was at Mort’s invitation to sit round his table. Shortly after his cancellation I was sitting next to him the night he punched Stuttering John in the face and smashed his tape recorder! (Which oddly is not in the film.) The movie is very well crafted with jaw dropping clips from the broadcast and graphic-novel style animation that pushes the story sublimely beyond reality. Some may have a problem with the use of animation in a documentary but as one who was there, albeit on the periphery, the era did seem surreal and the animation is true to that spirit if not the literal truth. The movie paints an unsympathetic picture of a very troubled man, haunted by Oedipal issues, lashing out at the world. Yet like many out of control celebrities and rock stars there was something vulnerable, wounded and child-like about him despite the bullying, despite the insensitivity to others. And of course, there was charisma, at least for awhile. There is still a theatrical excitement to watching Mort, an electric and thrilling spontaneity. I don’t think we’ll be saying the same about Limbaugh or Beck in twenty years.
The movie draws parallels to modern political media but doesn’t belabor them. On this issue I was quoted in The Daily Beast: “In our culture, we always had one guy who was an off-the-wall conservative, like Mort,” TV host and Downey pal Richard Bey told The Daily Beast. “Back then, people didn’t take them seriously—they were P.T. Barnums of conservatism. But now you have a whole party that is of that ilk. People take our modern versions of this political commentary—Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—seriously, and even worse, politicians take them seriously.”
It was great to see Mort’s in-studio bodyguard Dave Giegold, who just a few years later held the same job on THE RICHARD BEY SHOW. He looked great and pretty much the same as he did 15 years ago pulling overheated guests apart on air. Sally Jesse Raphael was there too but avoided me like the plague.
As Mort’s career ascends the movie is exhilarating, surprising and energized. As he self-destructs its a sad story and less engaging. I never saw someone rise and crash so quickly in this business. He made Brett Butler’s TV career look like Lucille Ball’s. As I say in the movie: ‘He rose like a rocket and he fell like a stick”. From beginning to end the MORTON DOWNEY SHOW lasted a little over a year and a half.
In the end this is not the kind a car crash that fascinates oglers. Watching Morton, cancer stricken through sagging, dying flesh renounce chain smoking and anger is like watching George Wallace paralyzed in a wheel chair, grasp the hand of his black nurse and renounce racism. Both men saw the light but there’s more painful pathos than satisfaction in seeing someone find it so late, far too late.
The film ends at his funeral, where its noted considering his tremendous popularity and fan base, there is a paucity of mourners. Ironically, ‘MORT’ is the French word for death.
Spoiler alert: The truth about Morton’s alleged bathroom attack by neo-Nazi’s is conclusively revealed by his best friend and its just what you’d expect.
After the movie I spoke with this best friend for a few moments. “Off camera Mort always seemed like a nice guy to me,” I told him. “Generous, friendly, always giving gifts, picking up tabs. It just seemed to me that this whole process overwhelmed him, carried him off like a tidal wave. He couldn’t handle it. Like Lindsey Lohan. Or like a miner who strikes gold after twenty years and blows it all in a night at Miss Kitty’s Saloon & Whorehouse.”
Mort’s best friend seized my forearm and stared at me intently: “You’re wrong, Richard. He was not a nice man. He was not a nice man at all. He was a very, very bad man…and I could tell you stories.”
This was from his best friend.
And as I said, I was only in the crows nest.
For more information about funeral plans, just click here.
Once again I will be filling in for Alex Bennet on SiriusXM Left all next week and Monday, April 2nd. The show is on Sirius XM from 7-10 AM on Channel 127, March 26-April 2nd. Please try to listen in if you can. The number for SiriusXM Left is 1 866 99 SIRIUS if you would like to call in.
And later in the month I will be attending the opening night of a new documentary on Morton Downey, Jr. which is making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. I have not seen the film but I drove down to Miami last year for a long interview for it. Morton began his show the same time I began People Are Talking. We both shared the same studio at Channel 9; I would tape in the mornings and my set was pushed back for his show at night. Off camera, Morton was generous, funny and wild and back then he was one of a kind. And on-air we all knew Morton was just a joke, didn’t we? Considering Breitbart, Beck, Limbaugh and the other raving right-wingers it might have been one of those odd times when satire precedes the real thing. I believe THE RICHARD BEY SHOW was another example…and coincidentally both shows were created in the same studio!
I will be filling in this Friday for Mark Riley on WWRL 1600 on the AM dial. The show begins at 6AM and ends at 9AM. I hope many of you can tune in to listen and call into the show…whether you agree or disagree, whether you are progressive, libertarian or conservative. You don’t get harmony when everyone sings the same note and the only person who should relish the sound of his voice echoed back is a yodeler! I’m looking forward to it…and hope you are as well.
As you probably know by now Lynn Samuels passed away over the weekend. It is not possible to understand how someone so overfull of life could be bereft of it. We shared emails back and forth two weeks ago after a show. Lynn, as always unpredictable and provocative, had become an avid Ron Paul supporter. We exchanged thoughts on that, on Kyle, the season and the current state of radio. She was a talent unique on radio, especially these days when hosts are required to follow the party line. No one who heard her over the airwaves would ever forget her. And beyond that she was also a sweet, precious human being whom I had the privilege to call a friend.
Some of you may have met her at my birthday party, others might remember her from her work on radio. Tomorrow, Tuesday Dec. 27th, I will host a three hour morning tribute on Sirius Left, Channel 127 from 7-10 where we can share our thoughts and memories about Lynn. Many of her friends in broadcasting will be calling in but you can join us as well. The studio number is 1 866 99-SIRIUS.
I hope to end the show with a segment of listeners singing Christmas Carols, one of Lynn‘s signature segments at this time of year. The New Year is somewhat less than Happy for her disappearance from it.
Downstairs from Kyle’s apartment is a tiny greasy spoon, the kind of shoebox fast food place where all the workers are immigrants, the eggs are grilled fast and customers are in and out in less than a minute. The man and his wife on the line ahead of me looked familiar.
“Aren’t you Mitt Romney?” I asked in disbelief.
“I sure look like him, don’t I…” he replied not turning from the counter.
“Wait a minute: You ARE Mitt Romney,” I insisted. Not one person in the place recognized him. Even after I said his name quite loudly. “I’ll have to talk about this on the radio tomorrow…”
Now I had his attention.
“Oh, you’re a radio guy?” He said quickly, finally turning. “Well, okay, we, uh, forgive you…”
His wife tried to cover quickly for the lame joke. “Oh, thank you for your good work.” She complimented. There are so few LIBERAL radio hosts I’m sure she assumed I was a conservative.
“Well, I AM surprised…I certainly will mention that you were eating in a greasy spoon like ordinary people and not having a power breakfast at the St. Regis!”
I asked if they had seen the tree yet and they said ‘No, they hadn’t had time ’ asking when it had been lit. I told them the tree lighting was Wednesday and it was also the day President Obama had come to NYC for three fundraisers. (I made certain to refer to him as PRESIDENT Obama and not ‘Obama’.)
“Now, THAT must have created some traffic problems!” said Mitt, now more interested. I told him that the papers had predicted gridlock of historical proportions and that I had been stuck on a bus for hours Wednesday night. “Oh, dear, that’s terrible…” he sympathized.
“Regardless of the gridlock, I don’t think you’re going to be carrying THIS state…” I said as pleasantly as I could.
“We have hopes we will carry New York…” he answered.
“Yeah, well we’ve learned a lot about the promise and the realities of hope over the last few years, haven’t we?”
He chuckled. His wife smiled. A third man with them seemed to be a campaign official.
As he got his breakfast bag I shook his hand and finally told him I was a Democrat but that he and John Huntsman seemed to me to be the only Republican candidates capable of being President. His wife shook my hand as well. They were gracious and friendly. As assuredly as he will not get my vote, I was thrilled to have met him and appreciative of his accessibility and friendliness.
There was no security detail, no Secret Service. And perhaps it was not necessary. When they left I asked the workers: “Do you know who that was?’ Even after I told them he was one of the leading Republican candidates for president they still shrugged and shook their heads. I looked behind me on the line and to the three small tables of customers. “Did you see that was Mitt Romney?” I asked exitedly. NOT ONE PERSON IN THE ENTIRE PLACE, NOT ONE RECOGNIZED THE MAN, LET ALONE THE NAME…
In the spring of 2009 the manager of my investment fund defrauded millions from a bank leaving me one day with $200 in my wallet and $3 in my bank account. He was a trusted friend from high school, coincidentally also the Alma Mater of Bernie Madoff, Far Rockaway High School. During the next eight months I fought the good fight, taking any job I could get, borrowing money from friends and running up credit cards. By December I was $60,000 in debt, my employer had folded, my lease was up and I could no longer hang on in the most expensive city in America. Even General Washington had to retreat from New York when the odds grew overwhelming. Florida, where my father left his sons a condo would be more hospitable than Valley Forge.
It was painful to leave the city of my birth, the city I loved, a place where I could rely on the comfort and support of friends. Most of all it was painful to leave Kyle, the 11 year old boy I had helped to raise since he was a toddler. I’ve never regretted life long bachelorhood but did regret not having children and after all these years I didn’t love Kyle like a son. I loved him as a son. A year before this financial debacle I had quit my job to focus solely on his education, taking him to summer school everyday, hiring tutors, suing the Board of Education and insuring he received the education he deserved. I could well afford to concentrate on his needs for a year. I lived off disbursements from my considerable savings. In an instant they had disappeared.
Christmas is a time when people give and receive gifts but I had other holiday priorities. What could I sell? What could I box up and store? What would I try to move? I spent an afternoon packing until everything headed for storage was in boxes stacked across the bedroom. When Kyle came over and saw the sealed cartons he was ashen.
“What are all these boxes for?”
“I’m moving them to storage…”
The color returned to his face and he wiped the back of his hand across his brow the way only cartoon characters show relief.
“Whew…” he exhaled. “I almost had a heart attack. (A phrase he picked up from me.) I thought you were moving all this to Florida.”
“Kyle, I am moving to Florida. I don’t want to. I have to.”
“You’re gonna miss Sidewalk Singers?” Sidewalk Singers was his after school singing group. They were singing carols in public the week before Christmas.
“I don’t know, Kyle. I may be gone by then. We’ll see…”
He cried out ‘Noooooo’ and started stripping the packing tape across the seams of the boxes. “NOOOO! You can’t leave! I won’t let you!”
I hugged him, told him how much I loved him and assured him that I would come back every few weeks to see him.
This recession was bad and it wasn’t only retailers who couldn’t move goods this holiday season. There were no replies to any of the items I posted on Craigslist. Not one. I wrote clear, attractive descriptions and all my postings were accompanied by photos. The prices I asked were more than fair but not one buyer was interested. On top of this everywhere I went–in the cab, on the street, in the subway, on my TV—were ads trying to get me to buy things I could no longer afford. The ear-to-ear grins of the models and actors seemed manic and mocking. I felt as if they were pushing drugs. Buying stuff will get you high, make you happy, bond families and lovers.
Ultimately in frustration I posted a note in the laundry room of my apartment building:
Santa is coming early this Christmas!
I’m moving. All is yours for free!
That night there was a knock at my door. It was an old woman from Costa Rica. Her English was not always clear but I understood the excitement in her eyes as she saw the dresser, the brass bed and the big screen TV. She said she would leave for an hour and come back with her friends. While we waited Kyle walked around the apartment saying goodbye to all the objects he had known since he was a baby. Several times he blurted in disbelief, “You’re not giving this away!? You can’t!”
But I did.
I lived in what is called an 80/20 building. Although it’s a luxury high rise and 80% of the tenants pay market rate, 20% are poor or working class New Yorkers paying reduced rents. The landlord gets a ten-year tax abatement in exchange for joining this program. I preferred living with a mix of neighbors. There were teachers, postmen and other municipal employees but also pensioners and others on some form of public assistance. I’d lived in buildings where my neighbors were venture capitalists, traders and lawyers, even movie stars. I preferred the sense of community in an 80/20 building
The Costa Rican grandmother soon returned with a United Nations delegation: twelve neighbors from the Caribbean, Asia and South America. I assisted an eighty-year old Mexican man without a word of English wheel the TV into the elevator and across the lobby back to his apartment. Through a translator he declared he would ship this quarter-ton television back to Mexico! We also talked about the assisted living communities and how he’s been looking to go to one. I told him about this assisted care design guide that will help him decide on a place to go. They took everything that was not being sent to Florida and when the woman from Tobago asked if she could have the sundries from my two bathrooms I asked that she leave only the toothbrush and a bar of soap.
I opened the pantry. “Anyone here want tuna fish?”
Pasta, soups, canned meals?
When I offered the 36-roll package of toilet paper I’d bought at Costco it was like the riot at Patty Hearst’s cheese distribution center. I parceled out the rolls so everyone got a fair share.
I finally closed the door behind them accepting mixed “Gracias” and “Thanks”. It felt good to know that my stuff would continue to have a function, that someone new would appreciate that life-like TV picture or explore new dreams between the posts of my brass bed.
Kyle was perplexed. “Toilet paper?” he asked. “They were fighting over toilet paper?”
“Well, Kyle, some people aren’t as fortunate as we are,” I replied. “And toilet paper costs money. Look at how much you waste when you go to the bathroom.” He was notorious for wadding a quarter roll each trip to the lavatory.
“But toilet paper?” His repeated, eyebrow raised, mouth open, still not getting it.
I had helped the old Mexican man wheel the TV set into his apartment. It was a small studio, jammed with boxes, mattresses and cluttered clothing racks. With the addition of the TV I had to slide like a crab to get out.
Now, that was poverty. Whatever deprivation I was facing I also had the assets to pull myself upward: an education, (relative) youth, a career history. An eighty year old Mexican who can’t speak English? He had a twenty five-year-old cathode ray TV set. For me, poverty was a passing episode in life, a colorful digression I might reminisce about in the future (as I’m doing now). For them, it was life. And it was nothing to laugh at.
Shortly, there was another rap on the door. The grandmother had returned with all the other women.
“Por favor,” she asked. “You were so good to us. We want to pay you back. We clean your apartment for you. We bring all things for cleaning. You get deposit back.”
Kyle and I weren’t the neatest of roommates and the bathrooms, especially, would have made my mother gag if she were alive. I welcomed them in; Kyle went off to play with one of their sons and for the next hours they cleaned and scrubbed. When they were finished the apartment was spotless, ready for the rental agent. It hadn’t looked like that since the day I moved in.
“Merry Christmas,” we shouted back and forth as they left with pails and mops and towels. “Thank you. Gracias! Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad!”
The apartment was quiet now, bare except for the few items awaiting the movers. The room seemed gigantic. The floor-to-ceiling living room windows looking to the Hudson, the Bronx and Central Park suggested an even larger feeling of emptiness.
“Why did those people do it?” asked Kyle.
“Why did they come and clean up everything?”
Our voices echoed around the naked room.
“Well, see, when you do nice things for people, Kyle, they want to do nice things back for you. That’s why we give Christmas gifts to each other on the holiday, to people we love, the ones we care about, those who helped us get through the year. And when you give a gift, the other person usually wants to give one back to you.”
“Are you going to get me a gift for Christmas? Are you?”
“Don’t I always get you something you want?”
“Yeah, but this year you don’t have any money. And you’ll be in Florida. Are you still gonna get me something for Christmas?”
I had to be out of the apartment before Christmas but I would surely buy something special for Kyle before I left.
“Poor Weechu” (his baby name for me, when he only spoke Portuguese), I teased. “What is he getting for Christmas? Are you going to get Weechu a gift?”
“Come, on…Christmas is for kids. It’s about parents getting kids gifts. Not kids getting gifts for the parents,” he said. “Wow, we can’t even watch TV. There’s no TV! I can’t believe it. Everything’s gone.”
“That’s okay, Kyle” I said. “You already gave me a great gift for Christmas …”
“Before you, I never had a son to love and I always wanted one. Now I have a son.”
Each time he says it he says it the same way, almost singing the same three notes. Sometimes it springs from anxiety after he’s done something bad. He says it in a whisper each night in bed, halfway between consciousness and dream. It’s the triplet that ends our phone conversations. He doesn’t say it by rote, but I know Kyle well enough to realize that it always doesn’t mean what it says. Sometimes it means: ‘Don’t give up on me.’ Sometimes it means ‘I’m scared. Protect me.’ Or ‘Please don’t punish me.”
I often tell Kyle that I know him better than he knows himself and I should. I was there since he was two and a half, sharing his nightmares and fears, teaching him to ride a bike, learn English, control his anger, helping him understand race, politics, how reality is different than a dream, why lying about the tooth fairy was an act of love (he caught on immediately—‘And what about Santa Claus?’ Is that something parents make up too?’), explaining why, even within the world of ‘Star Wars’ Darth Vader was not a good role model and that he was an even worse one in our world. I took him to live theater over and over hoping my passion was contagious.
As well as I know him, I understand myself too, well enough to recognize how much I enjoy hearing those words. Kyle can be an astutely manipulative boy and he recognizes the power these words have over me. Still, there are times when I don’t doubt their spontaneity and sincerity.
“I love you…” he whispered.
“I love you too…”
It was dark, no lights in the room. All the lamps had been taken away. We stood in the silence, gazing out the big windows, savoring the delicious view, knowing we might never see it like this again. With the furniture gone, it felt like we were suspended in air, floating above the city.
The blue arc lights from penthouses at the Time Warner Center and whiter ones up Broadway around Lincoln Center, the red taillights of cabs and the changing green-yellow-red traffic lights, lit up the city around us like a Christmas tree.
Last week I returned from 9 days in NYC and in a few days I’ll be going back for over a month. I’ve sublet an apartment on the Upper West Side and I’ll be filling in for Alex Bennett on Sirius Left, channel 127. More on that as it approaches. I hope I get to see a lot of you over the holidays but if I don’t be certain that you have my best wishes for a Merry Christmas…Kyle is an enthusiastic Harry Potter fan (he re-watched EVERY movie episode in chronological order when he was with me last summer!) so he was excited when I got tickets to see Daniel Radcliffe in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” on Broadway. After the curtain call Radcliffe and John Laraquette came back onstage to raise money for ‘Broadway Cares’, the yearly fundraiser for AIDS. The cast had autographed posters and playbills for sale but Radcliffe anxiously announced they were going to try something new that night. He had worn an electric blue bow tie throughout the performance, untied it from his neck and autographed it along with Laraquette. “Would anyone start bidding for it at $50?” Kyle looked at me pleading: “Come on! Its only $50!” Before I could even think about it the auction raced forward to $400. “Kyle, I am NOT going to pay 400 bucks for a bow tie! Forget it…” Shortly, the bidding jumped to $1000…and there was a pause. Kyle stared back and forth between me and the stage. “Will anyone in audience go to 1100?” Radcliffe asked. There was another silence. “ONE MILLION DOLLARS!” shouted Kyle as my hand flew out to cover his mouth. A smattering of applause for this outrageous bid was overtaken by a wave of laughter as all heads turned to see us sitting on the aisle in the orchestra, my hand stifling Kyle from saying another word. When it faded a bit Daniel Radcliffe looked down at Kyle and said: “I think we’ll pass on the million dollar bid for the moment…” The bidding resumed and finished with a $5000 offer for the bow tie! I’m just grateful Kyle didn’t choose a more reasonable amount or I’d now own the most expensive neckwear on my tie rack!…I also saw ‘Seminar’ with Alan Rickman which was in previews. It was impressively acted (especially Lilly Rabe), wittily and cleverly written for the most part. The dramatic contrivance of evaluating an entire book from a minute’s perusal is too much to ask of an audience even with the suspension of disbelief and the play fell apart in the last scene; characters inexplicably reversed behavior, loose ends were tied in neat bows and arch dialogue melted into sentiment. But it was a fun evening and more fun to tell Kyle that after seeing Harry Potter a block away I saw Professor Severus Snape…I counted 8 different languages on my walk home from 45th Street to 55th Street. And two more I couldn’t identify! Is there any other city in the world where that would happen?…One night I was invited to a fundraiser for Primary Stages saluting past Pulitzer Prize winners in Drama. Marsha Norman (Night Mother), Frank Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses), Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park) and others were sitting at tables right next to ours. I met Wendy Wasserstein’s sister as we both signed in for the event. Her manner and speech patterns were so reminiscent of Wendy’s I choked up with emotion while I described how classmates loved and missed her sister. Edward Albee, who is in his eighties I’m sure, made a memorable speech from the stage. He’d received the Pulitzer three times (A Delicate Balance, Seascape, Three Tall Women) but informed the audience he thought he was missing a prize. In 1963 “Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolff’ was selected by the Prize Committee but the Trustees had found it ‘obscene or offensive…or something…If you look in your programs you will see there was no prize awarded for that year. So let me ask all of you here tonight: ‘Do you think I won three Pultizer Prizes?” After pausing for effect he sighed: “Or do you think I won four?” Supported by his cane, he shuffled back to his seat through the affirmation of resounding applause. As impressive as that was it wasn’t the highlight of the night for me! In 1977, when I was an actor at the Yale Rep, I used to eat alone, studying me script and memorizing lines over dinner. One night at the Howard Johnson’s over by the Long Wharf I spotted a guy at the next table poring over his script in a similar manner. “Sorry to bother you but are you working at the Long Wharf Theater?” I asked. He said he was and mentioned that he was a writer. I asked his name and he replied, “Harnick”. The way he pronounced it sounded funny to me so I quipped, “Harnick from the planet Ork? Like Mork?” (Yeah, this WAS the seventies…) No. He was Sheldon Harnick who had written “Fiddler on the Roof” and one of my favorite musicals “Fiorello”. As a kid I must have listened to the cast album of “Fiorello” a thousand times. I knew the lyrics to every song by heart and still do. Mr. Harnick was incredibly gracious (especially after my lame joke) and we talked throughout dinner getting very little script work done. Well, Sheldon Harnick, now eighty-seven was here this night. He’d won a Pulitzer for writing the lyrics to “Fiorello” and though he did have a complaint it wasn’t about NOT winning the Pulitzer for ‘Fiddler’. There was a short chorus sung in the show called ‘Home Again” celebrating the return of Laguardia and other doughboys to the US after WW I. Originally a much longer song and most of it was cut from the show before opening. The melody for his lyrics can still be heard in the overture. Well ‘Harnick’, for the first time performed the entire song. He was terrific. Robust, on key, inspiring. I sang along with the chorus. Thank you Mr. Harnick for once again making my night! And thanks to my good friend and former classmate Jeremy Smith for inviting me to this unforgettable evening…Things I learned picking up Kyle from school: 1. 75% of (white) boys these days have Justin Beiber haircuts. 2. ‘Mad’ is the new fad adjective, as in “OMG, I had me some mad detention today!” 3. Kids EXPLODE out of school with the energy of a bomb. Why do workers slink from the office enervated, completely drained? 4. Young girls hug each other constantly. I don’t remember girls doing this when I was a kid. They hug with the intensity family members show to newly released kidnap victims…I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and caught the latest exhibit on caricature and political cartoons: Infinite Jest
Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine
The 19th century cartoons of Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Daumier are amusing and historically interesting but there was little 19th century American work and almost no Nast. British Napoleonic cartoons are colorful and spitefully funny but I could have done with a little more Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and less Bonaparte. There were, however, a few 20th century cartoons from Oliphant, Herblock, Levine and others that were more powerfully artistic in original sketch form than they seem in newsprint. Inexplicably, most of these are some distance down the hallway leading to the main exhibition rooms so make sure not to miss them if you go: a frightening Nixon with V-shaped fingers rising from forboding black void, a frail Clinton rebuilding his image on a flimsy scaffold after Monica, an Eisenhower who is all elephantine ears. And there is an entire wall of Hirschfeld’s that are fun to decipher. The last cartoon in the exhibit is called ‘The Headache’ modeled after a 19th century George Cruickshank cartoon, this version has Obama bedeviled by little devils with pitchforks. Despite it’s deficiencies it is certainly worth seeing and I may return for the guided tour the museum is offering on December 15th…I saw ‘Tower Heist’ with Kyle, which despite my apprehension going in, was enjoyable and well done. I am not a Ben Stiller fan and Eddie Murphy seems so perfectly buff and pampered these days that I can’t even accept him playing any facsimile of an actual human being anymore, let alone one who is struggling and downtrodden, but Murphy is funny here. Yes, there is something disconcerting about multi-millionaire movie stars playing proletariat class warriors from Queens and yes director Brett Rattner seems to be a pig…but go, if you haven’t already. You’ll have a good time. Finally, I saw ‘Anonymous’ with an old friend and former Shakespearian castmate. Ugh. ‘Anonymous’ is awful and offensive in the worst way something can be awful and offensive: it was boring. The movie makers obviously see themselves as clever and daring but the film is puerile, like watching a High School kid sniggering at obscenities he’s scrawled across the cover of his Signet Macbeth. And about as entertaining. With Derek Jacobi(a complete waste. Olivier‘s Polaroid commercials were compelling in comparison.)and Vanessa Redgrave (who despite everything creates a vivid acting doodle of Elizabeth in her dotage), I was anxious to see it and had anxiety before seeing ‘Tower Heist’. Just goes to show ya; ‘Ya can’t tell a movie by its trailer.’ (Well, some of the time you can’t!)…See ya back in NYC.