Monday, February 27, 2006

TV In My Life

It was with great sadness on Saturday that I learned of the death of the actor Don Knotts. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of my brother Brian and I, glued in front of the TV on weekday afternoons, watching reruns of the Andy Griffith show. We were particularly fond of Knott’s character, Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife. Whether it was trying to impress his girlfriends, Thelma Lou or Juanita at the Blue Jay Diner, or just fumbling in his breast pocket for the single bullet Andy allowed him to carry, you could always count on Barney to be a fool.

Other television memories emblazoned in my brain:

Watching Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral when I was six years old. They played “Glory-Glory Hallelujah.” I remember thinking that this was a strange choice. Why would they sing hallelujah if he was dead.

In 1969 I remember my family and I watching as Apollo 11 touched down on the surface of the moon. As the spacecraft touched the lunar surface, my brother Jimmy jumped out of his chair and danced around the room singing, “We beat the Russians…We beat the Russians!” When this same brother got married in August of 1974, my mother held a wedding rehearsal party at our house. The party was interrupted when everybody herded into the den to watch Richard Nixon resign the presidency.

In August of 1977, I was watching television when a special report came on. Elvis Presley had been found dead. I was never much of an Elvis fan but I knew my sister-in-law Monique idolized him. I ran to the phone to gave her the hot news, not even thinking how badly it would devastate her. When I told her, she burst into tears. I felt a little callous for not considering her feelings.

In December of 1980, I was a college student at Eastern Connecticut State University. My roommates and I were watching Monday Night Football when Polish Bob, our neighbor from across the hall came in. He said he had just heard on the radio that John Lennon had been shot in the leg while walking through Central Park. We thought this a little odd but didn’t think a leg wound would be that serious. About 15 minutes later Howard Cosell interrupted the broadcast saying, “An unspeakable tragedy…John Lennon outside his apartment building on the West Side of Manhattan…Shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital…dead on arrival.

Most of the late night TV newscasts that night ended their programs with a black and white still photo of Lennon from his early Beatle days as the Lennon/McCartney song “In My Life” played in the background.

There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I loved them all…

I finally knew how Monique felt that day in 1977.

In January of 1986, I was fresh out of college and delivering my resume to different companies. I was in my car when the DJ on the local radio station interrupted a song to say that the Space Shuttle Challenger had just exploded. When I got home I turned on the TV, and I watched as the broadcast looped the explosion footage over and over again. It was heartbreaking to watch the parents of astronaut Christa McAuliffe look skyward as they realized what had just happened.

I had gotten up early to put my daughters on the school bus on a crisp, clear September morning in 2001. I had worked late the night before on one of the last trains out of Grand Central. When I got home I went back to bed. Just as I was about to fall asleep the phone rang. It was my sister Kathy.

“Oh good, you’re home,” she said.

“Why, what’s up?” I asked.

“Two planes just crashed into The World Trade Centers.”

“Terrorism?” I asked.

“Looks that way!” She said.

I went downstairs and turned on the TV. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had expected the planes to be of the small single engine variety and I was shocked to learn that they were commercial airliners. I had a pit in my stomach as I watch the days events unfold.

Just as the second tower fell, my phone rang. It was the railroad. It was my day off but they needed someone to cover a quick round trip to New York. I very rarely turn down overtime but my wife asked that I stay home that day. I was working a train to Danbury on the day of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing. Many of my passengers boarded the train in Grand Central with their business suits covered in ash and their faces smeared with soot. It was quite disturbing. I turned down the overtime.

And though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more
In my life I love you more

Friday, February 24, 2006

Separated At Birth

I carry thousands of people on my trains every week. One of the things I hear most is, "do you know who you look like?" Above I have displayed some of the people I hear most often that I look like.

Top row:

That's me on the left, taking a limo ride back to the hotel after Justin and Cara's wedding.

In the middle is my brother Brian. He and I work together on the railroad. Several of our co-workers have a tough time telling us apart. Brian is an engineer, meaning he runs (drives) the train--I am a conductor (collect tickets, make announcements, open and close doors). I have to wear a uniform, Brian doesn't. You would think that fact alone would tip people off.

On the right is former NY Yankees/Mets pitcher Mike Stanton. Our trains carry a lot of baseball fans down to the games. After a few beers there is always some drunk who yells out, "Hey, Stanton give me your autograph!"

Bottom row:

Next, on the left, is the conductor from The Polar Express movie. Many a child sees me in uniform and asks if I'm the conductor in the movie. "Of course", I tell them. My wife works as a teacher's aide in a kindergarten class. Last year I dressed in full uniform and read The Polar Express to her class. I even went as far as growing a moustache for the role and giving each of them a silver bell. I must be a method actor.

In the middle is Connecticut Congressman Christopher Shays. He has been a passenger on my train several times. I told him that a lot of people say I look like him. He said, "I agree, but I'm sure you have more hair than me." I doffed my conductor's cap and, unfortunately, I proved him wrong.

Once upon a time, when I was a young conductor, lovely young ladies used to flirt with me on my train. Now that I have settled into middle age, lovely young ladies tell me I look like Vice President Dick Cheney. (On the far right...of course.) Unfortunately they're not the only ones. I went on a cruise last April. On formal night I went to dinner in my gray pinstriped suit. My buddy Art laughed when he saw me. For the rest of the night he referred to me as "Mr. Vice President". On the bright side, I know what I will be for Halloween this year--I'll dress in hunting gear and bring along a shotgun.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Deconstructing Ginny

My wife’s dear Aunt Ginny passed away in October at the age of 84. She had no children, so my wife and her siblings were the next best thing. I’m on vacation this week so I had the pleasure of spending the last two days helping my wife and sister-in-law start cleaning out Ginny’s house. We plan on putting her house on the market in the spring so everything must go, and I mean EVERYTHING!

Ginny was a world-class pack rat. Today I shredded tax returns that dated back to 1948, detailed medical bills from 1964 and sales receipts from when her husband purchased a boat in 1966. She not only saved cancelled checks from 1961 through 2005 but also saved the check registers and extra deposit slips. My wife even found $15 tucked away in various bank statement envelopes. Being that Ginny was always THE BEST hostess (no one ever left her house hungry or without a doggy bag), we saw this as a sign that Ginny appreciated what we were doing and wanted to treat us all to pizza. Thanks Ginny!

Ginny always blamed her rat pack ways on two factors:

1) She was a bookkeeper, (Hey, you never know when the IRS is going to audit your 1948 return because of that campaign contribution you made to Thomas E. Dewey.)

2) She grew up poor during The Depression, so you should never throw ANYTHING away—a fact she shared with my wife and her siblings every chance she got!

Ginny’s house was like a museum to the late 20th century. My daughters were given a history lesson on the record turntable and the LP. The fact that they could speed up the turntable to 45 rpm and make Jerry Vale sound like the Chipmunks gave them hours of enjoyment. They played several albums, their favorites being: Dixie Land Jazz, Big Band’s Greatest Hits Volumes I-III, The Best of Lawrence Welk and GI Jukebox.

We went through her bookshelves and donated six large boxes of books to the local library. The books chronicled the times of she and her late husband Joe’s lives: World War II, marriage manuals, cookbooks, Hints from Heloise, travel, gardening, boating, cruising, bird watching and finally cancer, colostomies and coronary disease.

We still have all of Joe’s slideshow carousels to go through—we counted 52 carousels that each hold 140 slides each. This gave my wife and her siblings nightmarish flashbacks of childhoods when they forced to sit in front of the projection screen and watch hours of slideshows of Ginny& Joe’s latest vacation.

Disassembling someone else’s life feels a little strange and invasive. I think we felt a little voyeuristic as we rifled through their drawers, looked through their files and emptied their medications. I tried not to look at Joe’s W-2 forms or how much their mortgage payments were ($96, according to the amortization table that she saved and dutifully checked off each month,) but I figure…they’re in a better place now and they probably just don’t care anymore.

Thanks for the memories Ginny…but did there have to be that many!

Monday, February 20, 2006


This is a picture of Grand Central Terminal or as we railroaders call it GCT. It has been my home away from home for the past 20 years. When I first started on the railroad, GCT served not only as the hub of the tri-state area but also a makeshift homeless shelter. On any given day you would find homeless people sleeping, urinating and defecating in its corridors. The Terminal’s water fountains were used as communal showers where you would find many residents taking sponge baths. A Vietnam veteran would, “God bless you” for a little pocket change and a dollar could buy you a spine tingling version of, “Amazing Grace” from an armless black woman.

The 1990’s brought the Giuliani administration and the restoration of Grand Central. The Terminal’s homeless suddenly disappeared, and its hallowed halls began to sprout gourmet restaurants and tony shops and boutiques. It has gotten so high class that even the rats now wear tuxes. The only things that seem to have survived these changes are the roaches and Val.

Val is probably one of GCT’s most visible residents. I first met him as a rookie conductor when he followed me across the main concourse, pointed to the back of my head and shouted, “HEY YOU’RE LOSING YOUR HAIR.” My face turned four shades of red as passing commuters giggled into their palms. Since then, I’ve learned to keep my conductor’s cap on around Val.

Surprisingly, Val himself has had hair transplant surgery. I once complimented him on the hair plugs that dot his scalp. He rubbed his head, gave me a toothless grin, and said, “I do look good, don’t I?”

“Yes Val,” I said, “You look Marvelous.”

Rumor has it that Val was once one of Los Angeles’s hottest disc jockeys. They say that he got caught up in the Hollywood scene, took copious amounts of drugs and fried his brain. He seems bipolar to me though--when he’s up he’s really up and when he’s down he’s really down.

Val calls me Red. I assume it’s due to my ruddy Irish complexion.

Val: Hey Red, can you give me a buck so I can get a cup of coffee?
Me: If I give you any more money I’ll have to claim you as a dependent.
Val: Ha! Good one Red! . . . Hey, did I ever tell you about the time that I (Sodomized) Tony Curtis in the @#$?
Me: You mean Tony Curtis the actor?
Val: Yeah, of course Tony Curtis the actor…Oooh, he was tight!

The Tony Curtis story is one of Val’s favorites. He’ll tell anyone who will listen.
Regularly, someone will yell across the terminal, “HEY VAL… HOW’S TONY CURTIS.”

“TIGHT!” He yells back.

No matter how hard I try to avoid Val, he always seems to find me. He’s like a heat seeking missile. On Thanksgiving Day a few years back, he cornered me in a deli in GCT.

“Hey Red,” said Val, “Since it’s Thanksgiving, could you give me five bucks so I can have a Thanksgiving feast?”

In the back of my head I think back to my Catholic grammar school education. I hear Sister Adele telling the story of the Good Samaritan and then Sister Alice saying, “There but for the grace of God go you.”

I hand him the money.

Val then proceeds to pester the woman behind the deli counter. She has just brought out a fresh batch of barbecue chicken. He tells her to give him the big piece of chicken on top. When the woman grabs that piece of chicken, he complains that it’s too skimpy and then he points out another piece. The woman repeats this scenario about four times and finally screams, “MAKE UP YOUR MIND!”

“See,” Val says, “Beggars can be choosers!”

Saturday, February 18, 2006

One disappointed pup

This is our dog Brenna. She has spent the better part of this year in Alaska training with the US Olympic Dogsled Team. My family has given her all our support, even though it's cost us thousands of dollars.
Thank goodness I saw that dogsled ad in the back of Dog Fancy Magazine.
Last week, just as Brenna was about to board the plane for Torino, I got a call from the nice coach of the Olympic team. It seems that dogsledding is not an Olympic event after all. He said I should send more money so they can lobby the Olympic Committee for 2010. I told him,"say no more, the checks in the mail." Posted by Picasa

Friday, February 17, 2006

Double R-Double M Rocks!

I wrote the song lyrics below when I was eleven years old in the summer of 1973.

How do you do Joey?
How are your neighbors and friends?
What do think of the war going on?
Is it me?
Or is it Vietnam?
Or is it the way
That I brought you up wrong?
Is it wrong?

That previous Christmas my mother had bought me a kid’s drum set from the Sear’s catalogue. It was real groovy. It was blue and the bass drum had some sort of Peter Max psychedelic design. I set them up in my basement and would pound away till one of my siblings would scream... “STOP!”

My 12-year-old neighbor Richie shared my love for the Beatles, he also had an acoustic six string guitar that was only missing two strings.

With these qualifications we decided to form a band. Since both of our initials were R&M we decided to call ourselves…Double R-Double M.

The first thing we did was to hire Richie’s 17-year-old brother George to be our manager.
Big mistake! George was a horrible manager and didn’t get us booked anywhere. The one thing that George DID do was to write our second song, “Maggie Baggie.”

Maggie Baggie lived in Clinton Claggy
She wore cotton in her baggies
Maggie Baggie
Do do do do do
Do do

Richie was born legally blind and was given a tape recorder by the State of Connecticut. The idea was that he could bring this to school and record his lessons instead of taking notes.

Richie never brought the tape recorder to school. He did however; bring it to our first recording session.

Since we were such big Beatle fans we inflected our deliveries in a Liverpool accent. I recorded “Joey” first. I tried to sing “Joey” in a mellow Paul McCartney style. Richie, on the other hand, sang “Maggie Baggie” with a more nasal sound, much like his hero John Lennon.

Unfortunately, Double R–Double M disbanded at the end of that summer. It wasn’t anything romantic like a Yoko that came between us. It was probably more like... I put a hole in my drums or the State repossessed Richie’s tape recorder.

In the deep recesses of my brain I still remember that summer and our songs.

Now if I could only remember where I put my car keys!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Cupid's Lost and Found

Yesterday was Valentine's Day, a day when many a railroad conductor turns to thoughts of... free flowers and candy.

Let me explain.

According to the railroad rules and regulations, whenever a passenger leaves something behind, we (the crew) are to bring it to the railroad’s lost and found department in Grand Central Terminal. This enables the forgetful passenger to come back at some later time and collect their forgotten item. The only exception to this rule is in the case of perishable goods, such as flowers and candy. The lost and found department refuses to accept these items out of fear of spoilage.

History has shown that on Valentine's Day many a harried businessman or woman forgets to take their newly purchased bouquet of flowers or boxes of candy with them when they exit the train at their station stop. This has proved very beneficial for crewmembers that on past Valentine's Day have collected enough flowers to make any funeral home jealous and enough candy to send anyone into diabetic shock.

Last year I made the mistake of making my usual announcement, the one about watching your step when leaving the train and don’t forget to take your personal belongings with you. Apparently my passengers must have heeded my warning. Nothing was left behind. This really ticked off my fellow crewmembers. They were planning on bringing their newfound booty home to expectant lovers. “How dare you make that announcement,” they asked.

I always thought it was kind of cheesy to bring home found Valentine gifts to your significant other. It’s like saying, “ I love you… but not enough to spend $25.”

Every Valentine’s Day my wife asks, “Tell the truth…did you find these flowers or did you REALLY buy them?”

Next year... I’ll save the receipts.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Forgive me Father for I have sinned...

We took our daughters to a Catholic mass on Saturday. This might not seem like that big a deal but we have been raising them as Congregationalists or dare I say Protestants. There’s something in my Irish Catholic genetic make-up that makes it hard for me to admit that I’m raising my children as Protestants. We had both our girls baptized as Catholics, (God forbid that they should end up in Limbo) but between me being too lazy to take them to mass and my Protestant wife’s limited knowledge of Catholicism they’ve become quasi-Protestants. I say quasi because aside from attending Sunday school they haven’t actually taken any official steps to becoming members.

When my younger daughter was baptized, the priest told me that he didn’t care if they were raised Catholic or Protestant but it was important that they were raised as Christians and attended some sort of religious service. I use his statements as my justification for having Protestant daughters and to assuage my guilt as eons of my impoverished Irish Catholic ancestors collectively spin in their graves every time I step into that tidy white New England style Congregational church.