Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Treading the Last Waters of August

In Ancient Rome, the Dog Days extended from July 24 through August 24, still the case, according to Wikipedia, “in many European cultures.” Not many Romans in sight these days, but maybe it’s purely cultural that so many French, Italians and Germans come to New York to suffer weather New Yorkers flee to France and Italy (but not Germany) to avoid.

No one in his or her right mind would have opted for the stifling, roasting summer of 2010 here. If the French had a word for it, it was yuch. On this day after the Dog Days, I recall sweltering in better New York circumstances….

I was ten minutes away from meeting a friend at “Alice's Tea Cup" (one of my two daughters’ three restaurants, I relate with pride) on a late August afternoon when my elevator went dark and came to a standstill. I used the light on my cell phone, its battery already low, to find the alarm on the panel. I hoped to let someone know I was trapped, but the alarm was as dead as the lights and the fan. The air in the elevator grew stifling. I began to peel off one layer of clothing at a time, folding and stacking each new article neatly beside me on the elevator’s leather bench, where I had resignedly seated myself in darkness, envisioning being discovered, eventually, flashlights shining on my dank, naked body. I imagined the woman waiting for me—an Ambassador, to make me feel worse—thinking I’d knavishly stood her up. I mused over a scene from “Sweet Charity” where Charity and her high-strung beau are trapped in a stopped elevator, and he reads a sign that says, “Capacity: 2000 pounds” and, in a panic, cries, “I weigh 163, how much do you weigh?!”

Trying to preserve my battery for an ultimate emergency, I sporadically dialed and finally reached our doorman, just long enough to learn from him that it wasn’t the elevator alone, nor the building, lacking electrical power—it looked like it could be Manhattan’s entire Upper West Side, possibly the East Coast, that was effected. It was more than plausible; I’d been through this East-Coast-blackout-thing before (which reminds me of another, salacious, only-in-New York story I don’t know you well enough to tell—yet.)

Hours later, I heard voices calling to me. My rescue squad had arrived; I didn’t care what took them so long. “Can you find…” and they described two locks or latches on the elevator doors. I used the scintilla of battery power remaining to search, grope… and find them, as the phone-light dimmed and died. Following shouted instructions, I released the contraptions and… is this madness?... opened the doors! Into pitch darkness. “You have to jump,” a voice instructed, adding
sadistically, I thought“from the elevator.”

Now I have to interrupt myself to tell you that many years ago an actress-friend was downtown at a city building stepping off an elevator when it abruptly moved, and she was cut in half. The memory, when I allow myself to have it, haunts me. “Jump?” “Yes!” Into a black hole. I took a deep breath, braced myself… and, ready to absorb the painful shock that would shoot through my legs when I landed… jumped! And landed softly, immediately, less than a foot below. I stood there stupidly, not knowing what came next. A door opened, the only door on the floor, and a housekeeper stood waiting for me to enter. Sting’s housekeeper. Sting’s apartment. Behind her, an anxious doorman and super. We passed through Sting’s apartment, past his row of mounted guitars—which, I have to say here, I’ve seen in a better light. The rear, service staircase being the only entree by stairs to our apartments at present, I exited Sting’s back door and slowly climbed the five unlit flights to mine—this was so distinctly unglamorous, so mundane now—and knocked at my back door. My wife, Jean, monitoring news of the blackout by portable radio in a kitchen lit dimly by a battery-operated lamp, opened the door, surprised to see me. She had no idea that I had been in our building—been in our elevator—no more than 75 feet away the entire time.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I’ll be frank. I’m a Jew and I’m not looking to take an Arab to lunch.

My wide circle of friends doesn’t include one Muslim. I had a Pakistani doorman I got along with so well I would jokingly inform him we were keeping an eye on him, warn him I could have him deported faster than he could say Allah akbar and offer him a cupcake at noon “to celebrate the first day of Ramadan.”

I’ve rubbed shoulders with Muslims throughout the Middle East and at the UN, and rubbed the PLO’s most prominent Palestinian in America, Edward Said, the wrong way. I’ve had better relations with Baha’is, Buddhists and Coptics.

So, when I support the right and the propriety of Muslims to create and maintain a place for prayer, i.e., a mosque, anywhere in The United States, it’s not for them—it’s for us.

I do so with some reserve, even with trepidation. Conceivably, a mosque could be a mask for ill. But we have to take that chance. Not to do so would be tantamount to treason for all we stand for. All we profess to stand for.

That would start and end with freedom. Not freedom in the abstract, not freedom in slogan or song, not even freedom as our bromidic birthright—but the freedom we uniquely enjoy as citizens of The United States, freedom we are granted, freedom we are remarkably entitled to—by right and by law, by tradition, precedent and practice—specifically by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of The Constitution of The United States.

Setting The Constitution, the flag and apple pie aside for a few minutes, let’s examine this polarizing, complex state of affairs in simple English, a language that pols, pundits and some plain fools are cynically unwilling and seemingly unable to speak.

The mosque at Ground Zero that everyone is so emotionally-charged about is only one facet of a 13-story community center containing a mosque. It will also include offices, meeting rooms, a gym, swimming pool and basketball court, facilities for lectures, forums and weddings, and a performing arts center.

Simple. A community center. Not on Ground Zero, but two blocks from Ground Zero. Two blocks from the “hallowed land” self-righteous and self-serving knee-jerks-with-opinions have self-hallowed. Land only the families of the 3,000 victims (victims, not “martyrs”), not politicians or pundits, have any right to sanctify, and, unless they’re entitled to wear vestments, only totemically at that. Not to overlook that in Manhattan, two blocks away is a good distance from anything.

Ten blocks from Ground Zero is a narrow, two-story mosque that has yet to alarm or rile anybody. It was founded 25 years ago by Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Imam whose American Society for Muslim Advancement intends to build the disputed community center. Even closer, a mere four blocks from Ground Zero, is a basement-level mosque founded 40 years ago. Not only do both mosques predate 9/11 by a great many years, but also, the latter preceded the Twin Towers by several.

Not so simple in the hearts and minds of demagogues and dogmatists. “A mosque steps from Ground Zero,” according to the topography of The New York Daily News. Forewarns The New York Post “…where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems."

An opportunity for an opportunist to weigh in. House Minority Leader John Boehner said the decision to build the mosque wasn't an issue of law, “whether religious freedom or local zoning,” but a matter of respect. So, a man sworn to uphold the Constitution of The United States of America puts “respect for a tragic moment” before law or the Constitution—in an election year.

Not to be out-voiced (in an election year), national Tea Party leader Mark Williams objected to the mosque by declaring that Muslims worship "the terrorists' monkey god." Does anyone care what manqué 2012 GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had to say? Just as I thought.

Article I, Section 3 of The Constitution of The State of New York declares: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed in this state to all humankind…” That is in addition to the inalienable rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of The United States. We have the categorical manifesto of the President of The United States: “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

I don’t believe you stand for any policy or principle in part. You either stand for something or you don’t. The men who wrote The Constitution put religious freedom first among The Amendments for a reason. It might not coincide with my choice, if given one, but I’ll stand by it confidently, and, come to think of it, proudly.

With similar logic, and passion, I feel I have no choice but to support the right of The American Society for Muslim Advancement to build its mosque where it chooses—in spite of doubts that it may be ill-advised. “This is America…”

"Unshakable" is absolutely right; it can be no other way.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sidewalks of New York

Rutted and cracked, stained with gum and takeout and tears, pounded by wayfarers, dancers and do-nothings, still, something in our pavements glitters—not with gold, as myth would have it, but with essence, as New York theology would confirm. Eau d’ ordeal, tincture of rush, elixir of anecdote. The Sidewalks of New York.

Everybody has a story. A scam, a mugging, a hustle. And, unsurprisingly, every story has a punch line. Why squander a good misadventure?

An elderly Jewish woman told me of exiting El Morocco years ago when an armed man emerging from the shadows warned her, in her words, “I have here such a big gun.” My daughter’s friend, Clement Hill, reacted to news of Lauren’s mugging by commenting on Facebook that he “didn't realize that mugging was still ‘a thing’… seems so 1980s,” then added, “I hope you told him he was being very passe." (That’s two punch lines!) Another friend, screenwriter Richard Potter followed with, "I barely touched you. You fell on your own."

I reported a new hustle weeks ago by a man who no doubt retrieved a container of food from a trash basket and worked his way up the street with it, deliberately running into people as if they weren’t looking where they were going, letting his ever-dwindling portion of food thud to the ground and then guilting his victims into compensating him with cash for a new meal.

Muggers aren’t noted for their humor, but scammers—you bet! Just last week, a perfectly average-looking man in his 30s, gesturing toward a nail salon with a quickie massage table visible through its storefront window, asked me from ten feet away, “Can you pay for me to get a massage in here?” When I shook him off, he called, “I’ll let you watch the expression on my face while I get it.”

My friend, raconteur Herb Graff, would have given him $10 for that line. That’s what Herb gave a panhandler who asked for $10 for “A down-payment on my co-op.” That’s what he gave the one soliciting money for “The United Negro Pizza Fund.”

Writer Tom Bisky describes a scammer who was, “and still is, in a class by himself. Ten years ago, on a corner of Rockefeller Plaza, he somehow managed to sell me a ‘free’ baseball cap for $10. I don't remember a single detail of his spiel. I just recall thinking that ten bucks didn't seem all that much for a sturdy-seeming baseball cap. Plus, I really wanted to get away from the guy, so it amounted to ‘hush’ money I was glad to pay. Today, if I were put in charge of giving a lifetime achievement award to New York's most brazen, balls-out scammer, he would win hands-down. From time to time, I pass the same Rock Plaza corner—and he's still there, with his baseball caps in hand. For at least a decade, he's been scamming royally at one of the nerve centers of New York tourism. In fact, he's a ‘nerve’ center unto himself, because he's never more than a few yards from one (or more) of New York's Finest. So, if any of us ever really gets this guy's number, we should retire it. Among Gotham's major-league scam artistes, he's like Ruth and DiMaggio rolled into one.”

Perhaps a sociologist could explain why crowds in our city dependably make a story better. Cindy Bigras relates that she was pick-pocketed on Madison Avenue during her lunch hour. When she caught the culprit and seized her wallet back, passersby “started bitching at me” for slowing down the foot traffic.

Linda Amiel Burns drew a better-natured crowd. “In the days when Bloomingdale’s had revolving doors, a man with a green raincoat pushed himself into my section, and in a split second I could feel that my handbag was lighter, reached into it and found my wallet was gone. The mugger had a partner who tried to steer me in another direction, but I saw the green raincoat and ran after the guy like an obsessed maniac. A crowd began to follow me as I kept screaming, "Give me back my wallet!" It did occur to me that he could turn around and shoot me, but nothing was going to deter me at this point. This guy represented every man who had ‘done me wrong,’ and I was crazed and kept running after him. Suddenly, he turned around, threw the wallet at me, and ran off. And the crowd cheered and applauded.”

And why not? It’s street theater. On the Sidewalks of New York.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Bilderbergers?

Many years ago, striding through Times Square in the early daylight following an all-nighter, my eyes were drawn to three stocky men seated at a bare table in a vacant, unlit Broadway cafeteria. Through a smudged plate-glass window, they looked as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders. In my eyes, attending church was clearly not on their agenda. I mused aloud to a companion that these three men met at dawn every Sunday morning to decide the fate of the world for the week. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to having a conspiracy theory.

Now I have the Bilderbergers to ponder. Never heard of them? Of course not—that’s the point. They hide in plain sight.

The Bilderbergers are not a radio couple like the Bumsteads or Bickersons. They are members of a global elite who gather once a year behind secured doors to discuss the weighty global issues of the future. The present is already past history to them.

The Bilderbergers’ first conference was held in 1954 at the Hotel de Bilderberg, in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands. Choosing anonymity almost to the point of pathology, they are named, presumably by themselves, after real estate. Hence, The Bilderberg Conference, The Bilderberg Group, The Bilderberg Club, the aw, shucks, just folks Bilderbergers!

Just folks like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Sofía and King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and Prince Charles of Wales. American folks like Presidents Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Senators John Edwards, Tom Daschle, Chuck Hagel and Sam Nunn. And current Governors Rick Perry of Texas—and, according to the record, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, present in Chantilly, Virginia in 2008. Or was he in Argentina?

Initially, the Bilderberg Conference organizers fashioned their invitational list to include two participants from each nation, one to represent a conservative viewpoint and the other, a liberal perspective. To this day, attendance remains by invitation only. But who extends the invitations and who accepts is shrouded in as much secrecy as what the devil they do when they get there. "Bilderberg's only activity is its annual Conference,” states a 2008 press release from the American Friends of Bilderberg. “At the meetings, no resolutions are proposed, no votes taken, and no policy statements issued…" A Hudson Institute statement on Bilderberg declares, "We seek to guide global leaders in government and business." The 2009 Bilderberg conclave took place in Athens, Greece. And look what happened to Greece!

How do some 130 rich and famous, powerful and royal, participating members of the Bilderberg “society” avoid attention, much less scrutiny, year in and year out? Why does the media always look the other way? And why are the Bilderbergers so shy about being Bilderbergers? Bill Gates initially told everyone he was going to a medical conference in Barcelona instead of to this year’s Bilderberg gathering in Sitges, Spain. I love that Tony Blair lied to Parliament about attending Bilderberg in 1993. Not so with U.K. Prime Ministers for and aft, from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown and Britain’s present PM, David Cameron. Not content to keep to their own counsel after whatever they did for or to their countries or others’, Bilderberg alumni include Former Prime Ministers from France, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, Iceland, Poland, Canada and Sweden; Chancellors of Germany and Ministers of Ireland; EU Commissioners; UN, WTO and NATO officials.

In the world of finance, the former and present Chairmen of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker and Ben Bernanke. Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Most, if not all, of the world’s major bankers. Factor in an international array of charlatans of industry. And, the token guests at any power-appointed party, academics and eggheads.

If you’ve been overlooked and feel unfairly slighted, it may make you feel better to know The Bilderberg Conference refused to include Japan. In 1972! The courtly Bilderbergers are, after all, a world-class group. I’m applying for membership. In the name of Sarah Palin.
Complementary sources:
Thanks to Dick Atkins@A-Films for his valuable input.