Friday, March 31, 2006

How To Get To Sesame Street

When my daughters were young they would occasionally, like most children, watch Sesame Street. One day while watching along with them, I noticed they had introduced a new character named Ruthie, played by Comedienne Ruth Buzzi.

Buzzi was a cast member on the 60’s variety show, Laugh In. Her most well known sketch was that of an old women who sat on a park bench. Every week this character would use her pocketbook as a weapon to beat a dirty old man that sat next to her on the park bench. This skit always made me laugh, so I was very excited to see her late one evening on my train.

Ms. Buzzi could not have been more pleasant and struck me as more of a benevolent schoolmarm than one of the flower power hippies who regularly appeared on Laugh In.
I told Ruth how nice it was to see her on TV again, and that I had two young daughters who watched Sesame Street. After hearing this she demanded that I write down my daughter’s names, as well as my home address.

While I was doing this, she told me that sometimes, (now looking around to see if anybody was listening,) Big Bird loses his feathers, when this happens, a seamstress has to sew them back on.” “Every once in a while,” she said, now in a hushed tone, “ I can get my hands on one of those feathers, and if I do I’ll mail it to you. I doubt I can grab two so your daughters will have to share the feather.”

“That would be great,” I said.

I figured that she probably would forget about our conversation as soon as she got off the train, but a week later a manila envelope arrived in the mail. Inside the envelope was an autographed picture of Buzzi, along with an index card with two small yellow feathers taped to it.

Ruthie had come through.

I raced into the kitchen to show the girls the package. They would have been much more impressed with dead scales from the hide of Barney the dinosaur, but they seemed to like the feathers all the same.

Well, I said, we’ll have to send Ruthie a thank you card.

A week passed and we hadn’t sent a thank you card, then a month, then six months.

Six months or so, after receiving our package Ruth Buzzi appeared on my train again. I was extremely embarrassed that we hadn’t sent a thank you card and wondered if she would remember me. As I collected her ticket, I reminded her of our history, the Big Bird feathers and the failed thank you note.

Apparently Ms. Buzzi is a stickler for manners. When I apologized, her eyes flashed in anger and her lips pursed. She turned her head away from me as if to say, “ you’re dismissed.” I felt much like the old man on the park bench and half expected her to start beating me with her purse.

Some years later I recounted this story to Marty, one of my regular commuters and an actor/puppeteer. He held two jobs at this time. One as a man eating Venus Flytrap in the Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors and his regular gig, appearing on Sesame Street as the giant wooly mammoth, Mr. Snuffleupagus or Snuffy as the kids call him today.

In recounting this story to Marty, I had hoped that he would diminish the value of the gift and make me feel a little less guilty for not having sent a thank you card.

Big Bird feathers! Marty said. Do you know how valuable those things are?

No, I said, I guess not.

‘I wonder what the statute of limitations is on a thank you cards?’ I asked.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Top Ten Reasons I Failed On The South Beach Diet

(drum roll please!)

10. Belatedly discovered Milk Duds NOT on diet...Go figure!

9. You can't deny an Irishman his potatoes.

8. I figured...if gaining it all back is good enough for Oprah, it's good enough for me.

7. When they said "no starch," I thought they were talking about the collar on
my shirt.

6. Krispy Kreme: Nuff said!

5. Apparently, blogging not considered a cardio workout.

4. "Give us this day our daily bread"... Who am I to argue with the Lord.

3. I'm not only the Girl Scout Cookie salesman... I'm also a client.

2. Three words: Cadbury Mini Eggs.

1. Me love me them carbs.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Shocking e-mail

Hi Bobby,
It is so nice to hear from you! I cant believe that it has been five years since we communicated via email in which you gave me some very interesting information about you father e.g. that he actually had a heart condition which he died from a few years after participating in the obedience exp.I was able to use that information in my Milgram biography "The man who shocked the world" (p.76) and credit you as the source of the information in the Notes section of the book(p. 317) I don't know if you have read it, but it has generally gotten a good reception from critics, and Discover magazine judged it one of the top books of 2004.
I enjoyed reading your piece about the experiment and your father's part in it.
Thanks for getting in touch.
With best wishes,
Dr T Blass
University of Maryland

See the biography of Dr. Thomas Blass:

Friday, March 24, 2006


Something shocking happened to my brother John one Sunday night in 1974. He was at his girlfriend’s house watching the CBS news show 60 Minutes and half paying attention to the screen when correspondent Morley Safir started a segment titled “Following Orders.” Safir introduced the piece by showing black and white footage of a psychological experiment that was conducted at Yale University. John was about to turn the channel when he noticed that one of the men in the film looked exactly like my father. My father had died nine years previous to this broadcast, so he was perplexed. He jumped off the couch in order to get a closer look.

As Safir narrated, the film showed a short, stocky and bespectacled man. He was middle-aged and wore suspenders. He was seated in a stark white room while a man in a long white lab coat attached electrodes to his arms. When he finished connecting the wires he asked the man if he had any questions or concerns.

Man in suspenders: About two years ago I was at the Veteran’s Hospital in West Haven.
While there, they diagnosed me with a heart condition…nothing serious, but as long as I’m having these shocks…how strong are they? How dangerous are they?

Man in lab coat: No, although the shocks may be painful, they are not dangerous.

THAT GUY IN THE SUSPENDERS IS MY FATHER! John shouted. He called home and my mother answered the phone.

Mom: Helllooo!

John: Mom, quick turn on 60 minutes. Daddy is on there…and they’re electrocuting him.

Mom: What are you talking about?

John: It’s some kind of psychological experiment and every time he gets a word association question wrong… they shock him.

Mom: Oh THAT experiment (as if my father had been in several experiments.) Yes, I vaguely remember him doing an experiment at Yale about 12 years ago.

The shocking truth is that in 1961 through 1962, my father, who worked as head auditor for The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad,(predecessor to the railroad I work for) took a part time job with a Yale professor named Dr. Stanley Milgram. The railroad did not like their management employees taking part time jobs but my father had nine mouths to feed and was employed at Yale for about a year.

Milgram, a social psychologist, took out an ad in the New Haven Register that offered to pay volunteers $4.00 for one hour's work, to participate in a psychological experiment at Yale University in a study to investigate memory and learning. Participants were told that the study would look at the relationship of punishment and learning. Volunteers would work in pairs; one would be the teacher, the other a learner. The two men would draw straws but it was fixed that my father (a confederate) would always draw the short straw and be the learner.

My father was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached to his arms. It was explained to the teacher that the electrodes were connected to an electric shock generator and that the teacher was to shock my father for every wrong answer he gave in a series of word association questions.

The teacher was then brought to a separate room and sat in front of the shock generator. The machine had about 30 switches. The switch farthest to the left read 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (severe shock). The switch farthest to the right was simply marked XXX. Every time my father got a question wrong, the learner had to give him a shock that increased in severity with every wrong answer (in reality, my father never received any shocks). My father’s groans and screams were pre-recorded and played each time the teacher gave him a shock. Many of these teachers expressed concern for my father’s well being, some even protesting about continuing, but the researcher in the lab coat urged them on.

Milgram’s results were shocking. He found that 65% of participants, even after hearing my father’s screams, zapped him all the way to the last switch. This study proved that everyday normal people could cause pain and suffering to another person under the right set of circumstances (think Nazi Germany). This experiment is still talked and written about today. Just last year The New York Times ran a piece on it, after US soldier Lynndie England said that she was innocent of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, because, she said, “I was just following orders.”

Shortly after the 60 Minutes broadcast, Dr. Milgram, who then chaired the Psychology Department at City University of New York (CUNY), appeared on the Phil Donahue Show. He had finally released the findings of the experiment and had written a book about it. It was titled, “Obedience to Authority.”

As we watched the show, we were all in a state of shock. They ran the footage of my father being strapped to the chair and we could hear his protests when the teacher started flipping switches and doling out discipline.

“Let me out of here!” He cried, “You can’t keep me here! Let me out!”

We still weren’t certain if my father was really getting shocked or not. We wondered if this might have had something to do with the fatal heart attack he suffered less than three years later at the young age of 49. After the show, my mother contacted CUNY and asked to speak with Dr. Milgram.

The next day our phone rang and I answered it. The man on the other line said, “Hello, this is Stanley Milgram, is Mrs. McDonough in.”

Dr. Milgram could not have been more pleasant. He told my mother how much he enjoyed working with my dad and he reassured her that he was unharmed in the experiments. He sent my mom an autographed copy of the book that was inscribed:

To Mrs. James McDonough,
I thought you might like to have a copy of this book.
As you know, your late husband was part of the
research team at Yale University. It was a pleasure
to work with him, and he was a very fine man.

Stanley Milgram
April 1974

After her conversation with Dr. Milgram, my mother rented the 8mm reel to reel version of the “Obedience to Authority” movie so we could all watch it at home. We gathered in our living room as my brother Jimmy set up the projector and hung a white bed sheet from our living room wall. I really didn’t remember much about the movie, probably because the quality of the projector was so poor. It had no audio and the picture was grainy (perhaps the sheet just needed washing.) I do remember making some great shadow puppets on the wall though.

My father had died just two weeks prior to my third birthday and I have no recollection of him. We used to have an 8x10 picture of him that hung over the TV in the den of my mother’s house. This picture was an icon for me, a photo of someone from the past, not known but idolized. Much like the pictures of Jesus, Pope Paul and John F. Kennedy that my grandfather had hanging on the walls in his house next door. When anybody spoke of my father this was the picture I had in my mind’s eye.

In 1994, when I purchased my first VCR, I wanted to get a video of the “Obedience to Authority" movie. I contacted Yale University which in turn referred me to Penn State University who now own the rights to the movie. The librarian told me that they normally only sell the video to institutions of higher learning and that they never had an individual request a copy for home use before. He said he could sell me a copy, but the going price was $1000.

I explained to the librarian that I was the son of one of the experiment’s main participants and I just wanted a copy for the family archives.

The librarian told me, that under the circumstances, he would talk to Alexandra Milgram, Dr. Milgram’s widow (he died in 1984 at 51 years of age) and see if they could give me a break on the price.

I was shocked, when a few days later I received a call from the librarian at Penn State. Mrs. Milgram said that I could have a copy of the movie for free, as long as I paid shipping and handling. The video arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

Unlike the 8mm home movie we had watched, this video was crystal clear. The hair stood up on my neck as I heard my father speak for the first time (he sounded nothing like I suspected). I had never seen his picture taken from behind before and I inspected his bald spot. I had to laugh when I saw that we had the same smile and mannerism. I pushed the play button over and over again as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

Recently, I had a middle-aged woman on my train, a Yale name tag hung from her neck. We began talking and she told me that she was a psychology professor at the University. I asked her if she was familiar with the Milgram experiment.

“Of course,” she said.

I then launched into the story I’ve just told here and how I received a copy of the video from Milgram’s widow.

“How strange,” the psychologist said, “ that the only memory you have of your father is that of him being a victim.”

“Shocking really,” I said.

For more information on the “Obedience to Authority” experiment, please visit:

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Be A Pepper

Remember this jingle?

I drink Dr. Pepper and I’m proud
I’m part of an original crowd...
Be a Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper.

Is this all it takes to be an original?

I think not.

There is a funny scene in the Monty Python movie, “The Life of Brian” when Brian, who lives in the time of Jesus, gets mistaken as the Messiah by a large group of followers. Brian tries to tell his new disciples that they’re mistaken and that he would like them to leave him alone.

Followers: A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!

Brian: Look. You got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals!

Followers: Yes, we’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

Followers: Yes, we are all different!

One follower in back: I’m not!

A lot of the passengers that ride my trains think that they’re originals too.

At least once a week, I’ll get some guy who’ll pretend to be asleep when I come to collect his fare. After I “wake” him, he’ll smirk and hand me his ticket. These passengers truly believe that they’re the first person that has ever thought of playing this game. I used to be patient with these people, saying something like… “Oh! You got me that time” or “That was a good one!” but after 20 years of these lame games my patience has worn thin. Now I’ll burst their bubble by saying something like…“If I had a nickel for every time somebody pulled that, I’d be a rich man.”

Boyfriends and husbands love to play the lost ticket game. The foreplay begins when the man acts as if he has misplaced his girlfriend/wife’s ticket. He gives me a sly wink as he quickly starts patting down his shirt. Just as the women starts to go into panic mode, he’ll pull the ticket out of his pocket and says something like…Gotcha! The woman then usually slaps the man on the thigh and screams…“Oh Bill!”(John, Dick, Harry etc.)

The frequency with which I've seen the above scenario played out makes it unoriginal. However, the whole teasing spouse thing is one of the strangest mating rituals I’ve ever seen. Perhaps I should contact an anthropologist at National Geographic or Wild Kingdom for further study.

I started thinking about originality at the convenience store last week. I purchased a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. While I was waiting in the checkout line the cookie spoke to me.

Cookie: Bobby, I’m chewy and hot from the oven. Eat me.

Me: Cookie, I can’t eat you. I haven’t paid for you yet.

Cookie: Oh come on… just one little nibble.

Me: Oh, if you insist!


When I got to the checkout counter, I showed the cookie to the cashier and asked if I could get it for half price.

"If I had a nickel for every time somebody pulled that," he said "I’d be a rich man."

I guess I’ll never be a Pepper.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


I dedicate today’s post to the memory of my mother who would have turned 87 today. She loved St. Patrick’s Day and was proud to be an Irish-American.

I wonder which window it was, I thought, as we looked out at the sagging sashes of the dilapidated little yellow house.

In the fall of 1992, I took my mother to Chicopee, Massachusetts to visit her birthplace, the former home of her grandmother, (my great-grandmother) Catherine Ahern Linehan. I had become obsessed with my family history and I asked her to come with me in the hope of jogging her memory and learning more about my maternal roots.

As we sat in the car looking out at my great-grandmother’s home, my mother shared a disturbing story with me:

“Sometime around 1893,” she said, “My mother’s 14-year-old sister Ann was trying to open a stuck window in this house. Try as she might, she couldn’t get it open. They say that she pushed so hard that she burst a blood vessel in her brain. Because it was the late 19th century, the doctors could do nothing for her. She lingered in bed for days and slowly bled to death”.

Ann’s younger sister Bridget (my grandmother) sat vigil at her deathbed. Bridget tried to pray but she was distracted by the sack of candy that hung on the back of Ann’s door. She couldn’t wait to get her hands on these confections and because of this, wished her sister a speedy death. By the end of the week she had her wish.

As we drove away from the little yellow house, my mother told me how her mother always hated the name “Bridget.” It seems as though, New England Yankees used to use the name “Bridget” as a synonym for their Irish servant women (i.e. Mrs. Cabot asked Mrs. Lodge, “How many Bridgets do you have working in your mansion.”) She insisted on being called “Bessie” apparently not realizing how many farmers had given their cows this same name.

I held my mother’s arm as we trudged through Calvary Cemetery in Chicopee. We were looking for my Great-Grandparent’s gravestone. As we searched she told me about her Grandmother Linehan. She was only seven-years-old when her Grandmother died but she remembered her fondly.

“I can still picture her wrapped in a shawl, knitting while huddled around the wood burning stove in her kitchen. She was a very devout Catholic and when she wasn’t knitting she was praying the Rosary. She was a kind-hearted person,” she continued, “ I like to think that I inherited my grandmother’s personality and not my mothers.”

Apparently my Great-Grandmother Linehan did not have an easy life. She was born Catherine Ahern in County Cork, Ireland. As a young girl she immigrated to Boston to escape the great hunger of the potato famine. She found a job working in a cotton mill in Chicopee and at the age of 23 married John Linehan. He also was an Irish Immigrant, who by all accounts, was a stern disciplinarian who drank too much.

They had ten children and only four grew to adulthood. Margaret, their seven year old daughter, died of pneumonia at the tender age of seven. Their only son John Jr., inherited his father’s love of the drink. He ended up destitute, homeless and dying of Tuberculosis in 1910 at the age of 30. They say that the ragman carted him back to the little yellow house into the arms of his despondent mother.

She was quoted as saying, “My son has finally come home…to die.”

After walking past several rows of granite tombstones, we finally found my great-grandparents grave. Their daughter Ann (the window opener) is buried with them. The gravestone is surprisingly ornate and modern looking.

Standing at the gravestone stirred something in my mother’s memory. She said, “When Grandmother Linehan died,” her last words were… “Over the hills and far away.”

”These words painted a mental picture for me. I envisioned my Great-Grandmother on her deathbed. Her last thoughts of being a young girl, running through the peat-covered bogs and fields of her native Ireland. She ambles up the green hills and runs into the arms of the God that she so fervently prayed to.

May the roads rise to meet you.May the winds be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall softly on your fields and until we meet again;
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pat Boone and Mother Love

The Ticket Receiver’s Office (or TRO, as we conductors call it) is just off the main concourse in Grand Central Terminal. This office is basically a bank, where we conductors turn in our cash, cash fare reports and tickets. This is also where we get our change; pick up new tickets and cash checks.

The TRO isn’t very fancy, in fact it’s basically a hallway with two windows covered in bulletproof glass. Behind one of these windows works a short and portly African American woman who is in her late 50’s. We conductors sometimes refer to her as “Mother Love.”

The name “Mother Love” was given with a sense of irony, much the same way 400lb men are called “Tiny.” I say this because Mother Love is not the warm and fuzzy type. In fact she frightens me. She is a no-nonsense woman who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. When you enter her office you better have your cash fare report ready and your money neatly stacked and facing in the same direction, if not… be prepared to suffer her wrath.

Those of you who know me personally know that I’m always singing. I consider myself an off-key troubadour of sorts. One day I entered the TRO doing my version of Michael McDonald singing the Marvin Gaye song, “I heard it through the grapevine.” I was really getting into it, contorting my face the way I had seen Michael do on those MCI commercials.

Oooh I heard it through the grapevine
Not much longer would you be mine
Heeey I heard it through the grapevine
And I’m…

I looked behind the bulletproof glass and there stood Mother Love, frozen at her cash register. She pulled down her glasses to the tip of her nose and looked over the rims. She gave me a stone cold stare till my face turned bright red in embarrassment.

“C’mon Marvin,” she finally said, “Give me your money.”

“Hey,” I said, “I’m just trying to give you a little blue eyed soul.”

I not sure...but I think I detected a smile.

The next day when I walked into the TRO, Mother Love said, “Hey Marvin, you got anymore Motown for me today?” I then launched into a Smokey Robinson falsetto.

Ooooohhh baby baby
Ooooohhh baby baby

To my amazement, Mother Love started dancing and swaying to my soulful sounds. She began calling over her co-workers and saying, “This boys got some soul.”

“That’s right,” I said, “I’m a regular Pat Boone.”

Mother Love doubled over in laughter. From then on she has called me Pat Boone.

Since that day, Mother Love and I have become good friends. She even once brought me an authentic Philly cheese steak from her neighborhood in Philadelphia, (She commutes from Philadelphia to NYC every day.) She recently changed shifts and I don’t see her much anymore. Now when I enter the TRO singing, I hear that same old joke:

Co-worker: What did you do with the money your mother gave you?

Me:(playing along) What money?

Co-worker: The money she gave you for singing lessons.

Ha! Ha! Ha!

At least I know I have one fan.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Punch Buggy

In October of last year my family, along with my sister Eileen and her 18-year-old son Kevin, drove down to Maryland to attend my nephew Justin’s wedding. It was supposed to be a five-hour drive but it took eight, due to traffic, the torrential rains, and a “shortcut” given to us courtesy of AAA. This drive felt even longer due to the fact that Kevin, who was sitting in the front seat next to me, would sporadically tap on the sun visor that was above his head. I tried to ignore it at first, thinking that the boy had Tourettes that had gone unnoticed or, possibly, he was obsessive/compulsive.

By the time we reached the Tappan Zee Bridge, I couldn’t take it anymore. Just when I was about to say something, his mother asked from the backseat, “Kev, what are you doing?”

“I’m playing padiddle,”he said.

“Padiddle” I asked, “What’s that?”

I found out that there are many versions of the game padiddle (even strip padiddle) but according to, padiddle is a game played while riding in a car. When you see a car with only one headlight on, yell out ‘padiddle!’ and punch the person next to you in the shoulder if they don’t say it also.

Kevin: Padiddle!
Me at the same time: (quiet)
Kevin: (punches me on the shoulder)

Luckily, Kevin learned a kindler/gentler version of this game and he never did punch me on the shoulder. He may have had mercy on me since I was driving. This was a good thing since Kevin stands about 6’4” and weighs about 280. Instead, he would knock the sun visor. Still the same, by the time we reached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I wanted to shove his padiddle down his throat.

My daughters have been playing a variation of padiddle lately. Their version is called “Punch Buggy.” Whenever someone in the car sees a Volkswagen Beetle they have to yell out “Punch Buggy—No Punch-backs!” They then deliver a punch in the arm to the person sitting next to them. Once starting this game, you’d be amazed at how many VW beetles there really are out there on the road.

My daughter’s 11-year-old friend Gwen has added another step to this game. She says that when you yell out “Punch Buggy—No Punch-backs!” you then need to include the color of the VW beetle you see.

Gwen: “Punch Buggy—No Punch-backs! Red!” (Delivers a punch in the arm)

Gwen’s nine-year-old brother invented another variant he calls “old man-no punch backs.” I hope this game doesn’t catch on. We have a lot of senior citizens in our town and we’d all end up with black and blue arms.

It’s gotten to the point that even my wife and I play this game when the kids are not in the car. She ALWAYS beats me—in fact, I finally got her, once, this week! My wife is only too happy to report to my daughters how many punch-buggy punches she has delivered to me each day!

Now it’s to the point where sometimes I’ll even play this game when I am alone in the car.

Me: Yellow Punch Buggy—No Punch Back! (Punching an imaginary person next to me.)

Sad, very sad—but at least it keeps me observant and awake.

Luckily we have no long road trips planned in the near future.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Dad Scout Cookies

Every March for the past six years or so, I’ve been pedaling Girl Scout Cookies up and down the railroad’s New Haven Line. I usually leave a couple of cases in the stationmaster’s office in New Haven and bring a couple boxes with me to sell to my coworkers in New York. The cases are adorned with signs that my wife prints up. They have pictures of the cookies on them and read: “Please support your local girl scouts” $4 a box. I leave an envelope and use the honor system for payment.

My daughters and I used to sell these cookies the old fashioned way. We’d go door to door and call up relatives for orders. Now my daughters complain that the driveways in our neighborhood are too long and that dad insists on stopping and talking to all the neighbors.

It was hard to generate many phone sales this year. My wife’s Aunt Ginny, who was one of our best customers, passed away last year. My brother Jimmy, who was also a great customer, now has to watch his sugar intake. We could always depend on my nephew Danny but this year he is on a gluten-free diet. Even my wife and I didn’t order as much as we usually do. We’re watching our carbs.

It’s against company policy for me to solicit cookies on my trains plus the panhandlers don’t like the competition. Occasionally a passenger will see me carrying a case of cookies and ask to buy a box and who am I to deny them the pleasure of Thin Mints, Samoas, and Do Si Dos.

If you’re not familiar with the different varieties of Girl Scout Cookies, let me give you a run down.

Thin Mints: This cookie is about as American as Mom and apple pie. In fact, if you don’t like this cookie, George W. Bush will call you an evildoer and route you out.

Samoas: The best coconut, chocolate, caramel cookie, ever named after an island in the South Pacific.

Trefoil: Boring shortbread cookies for boring people with boring lives. They are also big with the toothless population (i.e. small babies, senior citizens and rednecks.)

All Abouts: Basically a Trefoil on a bed of chocolate. A cookie that’s trying to say, “Look at me, I’m not boring, I have a layer of chocolate on one side” But ultimately, it’s the Bryant Gumbel of the cookie world.

Do si dos: Peanut butter sandwich cookie with a really stupid name.

Tag a longs: Another peanut butter cookie that judging by its name, must be Do si dos kid brother.

Lemon coolers: The low fat cookie. I figure if you’re going to spend $4 on a box of cookies…you might as well pile on the fat.

CafĂ© Cookies: The new cookie on the block. The kind of cookie that thinks it’s too good for the rest of the cookies. The kind of cookie that hangs out at Starbucks and demands to be eaten with a $5 Vente.

I’m not sure how I became the main salesperson for these cookies. It may have been when I arrived early to pick up one of my daughters from their troop meeting. I believe her cult…ah I mean troop leader may have indoctrinated me. Against my protests, she demanded that I join them at circle time at the end of the meeting. We stood in the circle, crossed our arms and held hands. I expected to start singing Kum-Bai-Ya but instead we started squeezing hands. The scout on my right squeezed my left hand and I in turn squeezed the hand of my 11-year-old neighbor on my left. We took one step forward with our right foot as the troop chanted the Girl Scout Pledge. This whole exercise made me feel like a cult member at Jamestown. I prayed they wouldn’t bring out the Kool Aid next.

On second thought…I’d never have to sell Girl Scout cookies again.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Teacher Man

I recently finished the book, “Teacher Man” by Frank McCourt. It’s a true story about his life as a New York City schoolteacher and I found it hysterical. His Irish wit and wisdom had me laughing and crying on the same page. This book stresses just how important good teachers are in our lives.

My sister Eileen has been a schoolteacher for about 25 years. She has been teaching across the hall from Mr. Cappetta, a veteran teacher in his mid 50’s. After several years of teaching together they discovered that Mr. Cappetta once taught at St Lawrence School, the Catholic grammar school where my older siblings and I went. There is about a 40 mile distance between St. Lawrence School and the school he and my sister teach now.

Eileen asked him if he possibly taught her younger brother Bobby (me) as a student.

Mr. Cappetta said that yes, way back in 1973, he did have young Robert as a student. It was his first year of teaching and he remembered me fondly.

I told Eileen that I remembered Mr. Cappetta fondly as well. He was one of my favorite teachers. I decided to send him a thank you letter, some 32 years later. Here is an edited version of that letter:

September 29, 2005

Dear Mr. Cappetta,

I told Eileen that you are in the upper echelons on my favorite teacher’s list.

In my mind I think back to the first day of 6th grade, 1973. I picture you standing before the class, the young teacher with a sun streaked pageboy haircut. You have Stephen Stills’ style sideburns that border a handsome face. You’re wearing a red striped oxford shirt that is open at the collar and is draped by a wide yellow tie. Your dress pants are brown corduroy and they hang from your thin frame. On your feet you wear brown Earth shoes.

You roll up your sleeves, pick up a piece of chalk, and go to the blackboard and write: “MUTUAL RESPECT”.

You propose a contract of mutual respect between yourself and your new students, a class that is notorious for being disrespectful. Although I recognize this new philosophy as a derivation of the old golden rule we learned in religion class, I can’t help but be impressed by it’s simplicity, and that a teacher would speak to us like adults. “ He’s very cool,” I think.

Sure, Mr. Moore, our 5th grade teacher was cool, (after all he was quarterback for the football games at recess) but he tended to talk down to his students and he was a serial chalk thrower. I was pretty much the class mute, and I tired of listening to his admonitions that were directed toward other students.

I remember you taught world history and you gave us our first major assignment. We had to write an essay/art project dealing with our favorite era from those we studied.

Colleen Coniff chose Ancient Egypt, and she made a paper mache Siamese cat and she painted it gold. Any Egyptian would have been proud to bow before it. Laurie Giannotti designed an ornate sundial that proved as accurate as any Timex on the market today. Angelo Pizola buried the good citizens of Pompeii in mounds of plaster of paris.

I, on the other hand, considered myself a minimalist. I drew the outline of a Trojan horse on a block of wood and my brother cut it out for me with a jigsaw. I then glued the horse to a square piece of plywood that I had found stuffed on a shelf in my basement. I took little plastic football players from my NFL electric football game; spray painted them silver, and declared them Trojan warriors. I was quite proud of myself.

When all your students’ projects were completed, you held a world history fair. You invited other classes from the school to come in and see our displays. I remember that my Trojan horse looked a little pathetic, dwarfed by the spires of giant clay pyramids and an imposing cardboard Parthenon that surrounded it. You had to chuckle, when on closer inspection, you realized my Trojan warriors were actually two running backs and a wide receiver. But you told me it was a good effort and you gave me a B.

When we did the unit on sea life, you displayed your prized seashell collection on a card table in the corner of the your classroom. You lovingly arranged sand dollars, sea sponges, coral and starfish on a bed of beach sand. In the center was the flagship of your collection, a big pink sea urchin. On the table there hung a sign that said, “FRAGILE, DON’T TOUCH.”

One morning upon entering your classroom you found your prized sea urchin sprawled upon the beach sand in several fragmented pieces.

Now if you were Sister Alice you would have dusted for fingerprints and then told the class that you knew who the perp was. “You might as well come forward and make it easy on yourself,” she’d say.

Sister Adele would have used the fear of God: “You know who did it, I know who did it, and the good Lord above knows who did it, so you might as well come forward and admit your guilt.”

Nobody did.

We all feared a class reprisal and each of us expected to be interrogated, but instead of doing this, you blamed yourself for being foolish enough to leave something so delicate around 11 and 12 year olds. “It was bound to happen,” you said.

“Cool,” I thought, “Very Cool.”

As far as I know, someone’s guilt still hovers like a black cloud over that brick building on the corner of Main Street and Union Avenue.

Eileen tells me that you are still a wonderful teacher. She said that your fellow teachers are amazed with how well behaved your classes are. “ What’s his secret?” She asked.

“It’s all about MUTUAL RESPECT,” I told her.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Theatre Train

I have worked the 11:22 p.m. train from Grand Central to New Haven on and off for the past 20 years. The official name for this train is 1594 but we railroaders call it the “Theatre Train”. It has earned this moniker for three reasons: the most obvious reason is that it is the first available train for theatre-goers to take back to Connecticut after their show lets out.
The second reason is that Broadway actors and stagehands take this train home as well.

The last reason is that several passengers on this train are intoxicated. This always causes a lot of drama (sometimes trauma).

I have become somewhat of a Broadway pollster on this train. When I see a passenger reading a Playbill or discussing a show, I’ll ask: "What did you see? and "How did you like it?"

In all of my years polling people, I don’t think anyone has ever said, “ I hated it!” The degrees of like vary though, from the tepid, “We liked Mama Mia,” to the gushing, “We LOVED Wicked.” I attribute this to the fact that these people just dropped $100 a ticket on the show and probably went out to an expensive dinner beforehand. Add in the cost of the train ticket and they have just spent a bundle. I’d force myself to like the show too.

Two weeks ago, I had a group of five women returning home after seeing “The Pajama Game.” This is a new show that stars Harry Connick Jr. It also stars Mike, one of my regular commuters. That evening, Mike was sitting directly behind these woman as they flipped through their Playbills and critiqued each actor’s performance. I whispered to Mike that they were talking about his show. He gave me a knowing nod and put a finger to his lips as if to say, “Don’t say a word.”

They must have given Mike rave reviews. Just before he got off the train he stopped by and introduced himself. He happily posed for photos and signed their Playbills. As he got off the train he thanked them for seeing the show and for all their kind words.

There is a pod of about 15 stagehands that ride my train every night. They always sit together in the head car of the train so that they can commiserate and conspire against me. I have known most of these guys for years and we have a lot of fun bantering back and forth with each other. Jack, Richie and Guy work on The Producers, Pete works on Jersey Boys. Jeff is the head carpenter on The Light in the Piazza. Justin and sometimes his brother Bill, work the computers for Avenue Q. Mike and Kenny work on The Lion King. Giancarlo was a stagehand in his native Italy and now works for Phantom of the Opera.

One of the benefits of knowing so many stagehands is that whenever I go to a show, they get me house seats. These seats are always in the orchestra section, center stage. When we went to see The Producers, Guy gave my wife and I a back stage tour. When we went to see Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom himself (my friend and former passenger David Gaschen) gave us the backstage tour.

Whenever the Knicks, Rangers or Yankees are in town, my normally civilized theatre train becomes decidedly uncivilized. Middle-aged frat boys wearing their beer muscles, sometimes want to pick a fights. Sometimes with me, sometimes with other passengers. Occasionally they get out of control and I have to call the police and have them removed. Other times they pass out and miss their station stop. Sometimes by several miles. (hee!hee!)

Drunken party girls who ride this train tend to get loud. When I ask them to quiet down they cop an attitude and give me dirty looks. These nights usually end with them crying to friends and then getting sick in the aisle. It’s then when I call this train by another name…”The Vomit Comet.”

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

This is the finger my wife broke

This is the finger my wife broke.

This is the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is the fingernail all crumpled and shorn,
That held the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is the leaf one November morn,
That got in the fingernail all crumpled and shorn,
That held the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is the leaf blower my wife had adorn
That blew the leaf one November morn,
That got in the fingernail all crumpled and shorn,
That held the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is the motor it was so worn
That was in the leaf blower that she had adorn,
That blew the leaf one November morn,
That got in the fingernail all crumpled and shorn
That held the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is my wife’s finger straight as the day she was born,
That got caught in the motor since it was so worn,
That was in the leaf blower that she had adorn
That blew the leaf that November morn,
That got in the fingernail all crumpled and shorn,
That held the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.

This is my wife all forlorn,
That once had a finger straight as the day she was born,
That got caught in the motor since it was so worn,
That was in the leaf blower that she had adorn,
That blew the leaf that November morn,
That got in the fingernail all crumpled and shorn,
That held the bacteria,
That caused the infection
That lay in the finger my wife broke.