Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Improbable Brotherhood

Had our God in heaven ever blessed us with a more beautiful day than 13 years ago today?

        Then the planes hit.

        At 8:46 am, three blocks from impact, my wife was dropping Gaby at first grade. "People in the top floors are throwing furniture out the windows," Viviane would later recount. She wasn't wearing her glasses. Those weren't chairs. Bodies were free falling.

         It was a painful, absolutely horrific time. So many families lost so much. 

         The one silver lining (a term I hate) was how New Yorkers -- and our city --  instantly changed. 

        This anonymous, crowded, sharp-elbowed bustling place suddenly became gentle. We genuinely cared for one another, witnessing and participating in innumerable acts of kindness.  We couldn't articulate it, we certainly didn't choose it, but each of us had fundamentally acknowledged our mutual humanity.  On the subways, you knew.  The city's entire vibe had gone Midwestern. 

         No matter where you lived, we were all New Yorkers on the same team. Common creatures, proud and angry, reeling in devastation and terrible hurt and above all, deep down, terrified to the bone.

        In those dire straits, your world irrevocably changed, you don't cope by yourself. We needed one another. And we acted the part. We were nicer, more polite. We slowed a step or two. We became Dr. Seuss characters. Skin color didn't matter.  Who cared how much someone earned.  Cops were on a pedestal.  The Mayor was our Savior, rock and unquestioned leader 

        Mean streets became avenues of utopia. The pile still burned (it smelled like burning computers thrown on a human barbecue) but our patented brusque coarseness was refined and buffed to a Mayberry-like folksy softness. 

         The months wore on. The bagpipes faded. A war commenced to satisfy our desire to lash out just as we were attacked. And nearly imperceptibly, the respectful, loving metropolis that New York had implausibly become slowly began to fade away.

          And here we are today -- an us-against-them City. But "them" isn't a raging fanatic in a cave. It's the young cop, the kid whose pants are falling down his backside. Our great differences are politicized. Rancor rules.  There's no time to be polite. Are you kidding me?  I'm walkin' here! The Opportunity of 9.11 has been squandered. A Silver Lining has turned jet black. 

        Finally, 13 years after the planes, the ground zero Museum is up and running.  You can get your 9.11 T-shirt.  But our improbable brotherhood ain't for sale. It's been permanently lost.




Friday, June 13, 2014

On the Bridge

Beautiful sight on The Williamsburg Bridge this evening:  A young man proposing to his girlfriend. She accepted.
Now, I am generally the first person to violate the privacy of any individual in this city doing something out of the ordinary by whipping out the iPhone and posting the video on social media. Hey, public acts are fair game.
But this was too sublime, too deeply personal, too untouchably special.  It was their moment and theirs only.  
Capturing this would have gotten massive likes and shares, but I could not encroach. And, of course, as the couple will tell the story, many, many times in the coming years and decades, of a profoundly intimate moment of commitment over the murky East River on the romantic old foggy bridge, as much as I seek immortality on a daily basis, I did not want to be the part of the oft-repeated tale that goes, "...and then we see this creepy man in a tan pinstripe suit and red pumas taking out his camera phone and starting to film us."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Everything's Spinning

Thanksgiving evening, and the city streets are virtually empty.  Perfect night to walk the dogs. Just my boys and a few scurrying rats...and now an older black woman in a heavy coat who catches my eye.

"Everything's spinning," she announces.

I try to smile, but her words are surprisingly unsettling. The dogs pull up in front of her, enjoying the peculiar odors baked onto Manhattan concrete like a haughty sommelier lovingly sniffs a goblet of Chateau Petrus. The woman's eyes widen. 

This time, nearly pleading. "Everything's spinning."

Is this satirical social commentary?  An observation on our country, our society, spinning out of control? Stop the world, I want to get off? 

The damn dogs are stuck in place, sucking in the remnant aroma of some old poop or discarded fried chicken or something. 

Again, "Everything's spinning."

I'm close enough to see big clear eyes and know she's not drunk. While our world is literally turning in space like a blue-green Dreidel (happy Chanukah, people), her own world isn't spinning. Are her haunting words a kind of existential cosmic observation -- the basic existence, unique personal unfathomable inner realities, and greater universe we inhabit all concurrently twisting madly out of control?

A chill passes through my body.  I tug the leashes and briskly walk away.

It is when I'm home, in the comfort of our cozy apartment that everything immediately becomes clear. 

Of course!  "Happy Thanksgiving." That's what she was saying. 

Say it out loud: "Everything's Spinning…Happy Thanksgiving."

The old woman is gone now, if she was ever there at all. I feel horrible. She can only assume, no matter how hard she tried, this rude man with the small expensive dogs lacked the decency to return a simple holiday greeting. 

Sharing this anecdote is an attempt at redemption of sorts, sent to balance the scales of karma.

Yes. Everything is Spinning. 

And please have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bob's Party Bus

Bob’s Party Bus
            Talladega Superspeedway has a notorious reputation as the loudest, most raucous party stop on the NASCAR circuit.  It’s also the place where Kevin Kent was sent to surrender to Christ.
            And if that’s not enough of a man-bites-dog story, before Kevin Kent went stone cold sober on October 6, 2007, dedicating himself to Jesus in the middle of the throbbing infield after 31 years of drinking and drugging, he was the good-time ringleader and captain of an amazing psychedelic bus that had probably served up more suds than Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
            After his spiritual awakening at Talladega, Kevin became a brand new man.  His one-of-a-kind party bus still draws crowds at the races.  It’s just taken on a different role, now helping to tell a remarkable story of grace accepted and redemption pursued.  The bus remains an amusement park-worthy attraction thousands of fans experience – covered inside and out in drips and streaks and splatters of florescent paint, colorful gobs slung on the walls and seats and floors, as if Jackson Pollock worked at Earl Scheib Paint & Body.  When darkness falls over the race track, fans still wait their turn to climb aboard, putting on 3-D glasses to view a twisting, oozing menagerie of electric blues, hot pinks, ruby reds, canary yellows and lime greens, a demented mix of color in a shifting landscape that throws anyone walking through the bus into a trippy, 60’s frame of mind.  Kevin continues to be a fixture by the back emergency exit at the end of the tour, wearing a coat and hat speckled in neon paint.  But instead of handing out beads and booze, he offers Bibles and church service DVDs.
            “Before I was saved, this bus was the scene for one non-stop, hard-core party,” he said. “I used to put pasties on girls coming through.  Now I give them my testimony.  You could say we went from The Pastey Bus to God’s Bus.”
            The 1960 Chevrolet had been shuttling Indiana school kids before it was purchased by Kevin’s friend, Bob.  “About six of us got an assortment of paint and just let it rip,” Kevin says. They feverishly coated the bus top to bottom in a freaky free-hand style acidhead Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters would have approved.  When the black lights were installed and 3-D glasses brought in, the old Chevy became a favored party destination, particularly at Michigan International Speedway in the late 1990’s.  Word spread, and Bob’s psychedelic bus became the place to visit in the infield. 
            In 2002, an aggressive cancer snuck up and took Bob’s life.  Kevin purchased the bus from his friend’s estate. “I wanted to keep Bob and his dream alive, so I bought it and simply named it, ‘Bob’s Party Bus’.”  Kevin and the bus would make regular pilgrimages to NASCAR’s two summer races in Michigan
            The legend of the psychedelic bus grew, as did Kevin’s appetite for beer.  He could drink four or five cases a weekend.  He had started drinking when he was 14 and never let up, even after getting kicked out of school for good at 16, and being convicted of DWI several times. Drinking led to drugging, and over the years, getting blotto as often as possible cost Kevin his driver’s license, two marriages and a few jobs.  But he had no intention of stopping. 
            In the infield of Michigan, Kevin roamed freely with a drink in his hand, except for one spot.  He’d always come across a hot band playing catchy music and having a good time.  He stayed away.  “They were a Christian rock band, and I knew Christians never had any fun. I didn’t need to know about God, and I kept my distance,” he said. 
            At the 2007 August race in Michigan, he noticed a guy named Mike unloading a trailer for the band.  He offered to help.  Mike was fine on his own; he only had one box. “What? I’m not good enough to carry your box?” Kevin joked. 
            The men hit it off, and Kevin invited Mike and a band mate to see the magic bus.  Naturally, they were impressed and returned with the rest of the band that evening.  Each band member autographed the inside of the bus.
             On Saturday night, a fellow in the band who went by the name of Preacher Man Berry told Kevin that a big-time racing executive would be at the concert to hand out shirts, sign autographs and thank the fans.  Kevin spotted the exec at the show and invited him to see the bus. The buzz had spread further than anyone imagined and the exec was eager to check it out.
            Kevin and his friends cleared everyone out to give the executive special tour.  They chatted and snapped a few pictures.  On the way back to see the band, the executive told Kevin he needed to take his amazing party bus to Talladega.  
            “I’ve always wanted to go, and I have a friend down there, but I can’t do it,” Kevin said.
            “You didn’t hear me.  You really need to get this bus to ‘Dega,” the executive repeated.
            Kevin gave the same answer.  The executive asked why.
            “This bus doesn’t do to well on gas.  And we need to eat.  It costs a lot to get down there and back, and I just don’t have the money,” Kevin said.
            “What about if I split it with you?”
            An offer like that was the last thing in the world Kevin expected to hear.  Too shocked to even speak, he nodded eagerly.  The executive took out his wallet and handed Kevin $500. 
             Kevin was in awe of the gesture.  He had found a steady job as an Iron Worker in Ohio, but he feared how much the trip would cost.  And the bus needed immediate repairs.  He sputtered, “I’m really not sure, my wife is gonna kill me…”
            Before he could finish, he was handed another $200. 
            “I really want you to come to Talladega, and hope this will make her happy,” the executive said.
            Kevin couldn’t thank him enough.  But what the executive said next surprised him even more.
            “Thank you for being such a good fan.” he said, extending his hand.
             Kevin looked him in the eye as they shook. 
            “I’ll be there,” he said.
            “I know you will.”
            The motorsports executive didn’t know it at the time, but his extraordinary impromptu gesture likely saved Kevin Kent’s life.  
            Even as his drinking escalated, Kevin worked non-stop over the next month to prepare the bus for the long haul to the deep South.  He got new tires and added a generator and air conditioner.  He’d heard about the awesome bunched-up restrictor plate racing at NASCAR’s longest track, but he was more hopped up planning how he’d cut loose in the party capital of NASCAR.  “I was so excited knowing that I’d be able to go crazy.  And once we got there, party I did: Thursday, Thursday night, Friday and Friday night,” he said.  
            Everyone in ‘Dega who saw Bob’s Party Bus loved it. The story of the bus spread to the other camps.  Big crowds were flocking at the entrance with fans calmly lining up for the incredible tour.  One of the fans who’d mounted the bus, Mark, was a member of the Christian band, The River.  Saturday morning, within earshot, Mark told Kevin’s wife, Debbie, he wished Kevin would stay sober.   “He’d be so much more fun, don’t you think?” Mark said.
           It wasn’t an angry challenge or an aggressive intervention, more the tone of a caring person disappointed with the way someone’s life has turned out.  Now, Saturday night in Talladega is like Fat Tuesday in New Orleans.  That didn’t seem to bother Kevin.  For the first time since he was 14 years old, he decided not to drink.  “I really didn’t spend too much time thinking about it.  I just decided not to have that first drink, and the night unfolded. Amazingly, it was the most fun in my life I had ever had.  Without a single drink, I had a blast.”
            As day turned into night, Kevin was chatting with Wes, another member of the band.  Kevin casually mentioned he was thinking about getting a Bible.
            “I’ll see what I can do,” Wes said, before the men went to sleep.
            On Sunday morning, Kevin woke up with a headache.  “I’d been drinking so much my body just assumed it had to feel horrible in the morning,” he said.  He and Debbie had such a good time with Mark and Wes of The River, they decided to head over to the church service the band organized between the track’s first and second turns.  Wes spotted them and announced he had a Bible for Kevin.   
            This wasn’t a spare Bible gathering dust on a shelf.  It was the Bible Wes’s  kids had used through five states, the Bible he had taken around the world twice on his mission trips, the one Wes had received after he accepted Christ into his life.
            Kevin couldn’t accept Wes’s personal Bible.  But Wes insisted.
          “God has answered my prayers.  He’s led me to give this to you.  Take it,” he told Kevin. 
           With tears of happiness in his eyes, Kevin accepted the Bible.  At the church service, he raised his hands and told God he was sorry for all he had done in his life.  He prayed, “Jesus, please forgive me, I’m giving my life to you.”  He saw a bright flash, more intense than lightning or a welder’s flash, brighter than anything he’d ever seen.  When the light was gone, he could see more clearly, as if God had removed the plastic from his eyes. The air even tasted better.
            “At that moment, God removed my desire for alcohol and drugs. He took away the anger from my body, and I began to love my family even more, with all of my heart. He helped me love from the inside out and not the outside in. The song Amazing Grace is the story of my life – I once was lost, but now I see,”
             Kent, who is now 47, has been clean and sober since that weekend in Talladega.  He’s still not sure why one of the top officials in motorsports was so strident about him taking Bob’s Party Bus to Talladega, putting his life on a new path, other than it was God’s will.  “Can you think of any other reason?” he asks.  Bob’s Party Bus is still mobbed at a half dozen Sprint Cup races each year.  It’s easier to find than ever, now bearing a 30-foot cross illuminated with color Christmas lights visible clear across the track.  The bottom is rusting badly, and Kevin is praying for additional divine intervention.
            “You could say we did a conversion on the bus, from R-rated to G-rated,” Kevin noted.  “It’s still Bob’s Party Bus but with a different purpose – to share the love of God with other people.  When people come to visit the bus, I have their attention, and can witness that there’s much more to life than alcohol and drugs.  I share my testimony with them so they know what God can do in their lives. I’ve replaced booze on the bus with Bibles. Anyone who needs one is welcome.”

Reprinted with permission from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (Motorbooks) which is available at many online bookstores.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Doctors Only Want to Talk NASCAR

The NASCAR season is a traveling circus from February through November.  For ten months, a dedicated group of people pull off a Super Bowl on steroids just about every weekend.  Even after the champagne flies to crown a new champion in Miami around Thanksgiving, there will be scant rest for the weary.  Each series has awards banquets, and Daytona is looming over everyone’s head like a safe dangling on piano wire.  Following the longest season in professional sports, the only real vacation for thousands in the NASCAR industry is around Christmas, where all versions of Ricky Bobby’s baby Jesus are celebrated. Then we prepare for a new season.  For my family each year, a late-December respite in Vermont is the much-needed so-called battery charge.  
One particular off-season ski trip was my chance to move beyond “intermediate” skiing.  Out on the slopes, the sun was disappearing behind the formidable mountain.  I was successfully closing out Day One, and would have four more to improve the old technique. 
For the proverbial Last Run of the Day, Viviane and I come across a black diamond called “Superstar.”  Just seeing that name gets my adrenaline pumping: strong and confident notions of red, white and blue achievement, Superman, Wonder Woman, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps in their USA Speedos.  Superstar!  If my run were televised, Jim McKay would in a canary yellow blazer describing it. 
Viviane is smooth and light on her skis.  She describes my style as Jean-Claude Killy on the green bunny runs and Jerry Lewis on the blacks.  Today, Jerry is a no show.  I haven’t gone down once.  The legs feel good.  It’s time to master the elements, blast past the fat part of the bell curve and enter the rarified realm of the expert skier.  I am a super star.
I point a pole to the beckoning trail sign.  Viviane nods, and a bad idea builds momentum with the trail’s steep decline and wind-blown moguls. (Are the scary bumps called “moguls” because they mimic Donald Trump’s hair?)
My wife is out in front, deftly finding her way down the difficult slope.  I pick up too much speed and try to cut back in a groove between slick moguls, a move that would have looked good on the chalkboard.  Too bad we’re not in a classroom, but skidding down an iceberg.  My skis hit a rut and jerk to the side.  My top heavy body surges in the other direction as if launched from a circus cannon.  Except my arms aren’t stoic at my sides.  This is a flailing, out-of-control, agony-of-defeat cartwheel.
            NASCAR drivers see crashes happening in slow motion.  Wayne Gretzky explained when he scored a goal, time slowed, and the puck appeared the size of a pizza pie, the goal as wide as the Hoover Dam.  None of that here.  It’s an instantaneous, oh-snap blur, white canvas screaming toward my face.  Greg Louganis couldn’t have hit the surface at a more precise 90-degree angle.  It sounds like chomping a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch.  I bounce like a Super Ball.  On the second revolution, my head smacks the rock-hard mountain like a bowling ball dropped from a roof.  Finally, silence.
            It is a sad reflection of our You Tube culture that laying there, thankfully breathing (albeit stunned) and reassured my skull was not split like a rotten pumpkin, I wonder if anyone on the chair lift captured my spastic circus-act flop.  Please tell me no one camera-phoned this. I’m destined to be an internet laughing stock.  Without royalties.
There are no cameras or giggling.  I’m alone, in one piece.  This can’t be that bad.  The morning papers said a Manhattan window washer survived a 47-story fall.
All my digits are moving.  But as the commercial says, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
That initial crunch wasn’t the give of snow.  It something in my shoulder breaking. 
My wife kept her wits and balance, and had pulled to a stop below.  The grade is too steep for her to come up. All is OK, no worries, I reassure her with a lefty Super Star-like thumbs up.  The covenant of marriage allows making claims to your life partner that you do not believe.  She tells passing skiers following her gaze up the mountain, “Oh, he’s fine.  He’s just catching his breath.”
All I can do is flash a dumb smile and that thumbs-up with the arm I can move.
“Baby, just put your skis on and ski on down!” she urges.
Maybe an expert skier could do that. I’m an eternal intermediate, forever checking that middle box on the rental line, a reckless overachiever who flirted with bragging rights for super-stardom beyond his proficiency and paid the price.  The run couldn’t have been named “Devil’s Emergency Room” to scare me away?  I try to stand, but the shoulder is shot.  I slide on my bottom across the slippery surface, faster and faster down the steep hill. This is not going to end well.  I dig boot heels into the ice, and lurch to a stop.
The mountain is quiet, save my gasping.  I lean on my good shoulder and crawl, inches at a time, across the mountain, toward the woods.  Isn’t that where animals go to die?
Someone, it’s a ski instructor, is waving his poles and shouting down from the lift. “Do you need me to radio for help?”
Up there, I’ve looked down at the meek humiliation of the daring and the clumsy, those unfortunate injured skiers who are strapped in and carted away on the Red Cross sled.  Yeah, call it in.  Now I’ll know how it feels to be present for your own funeral procession.  Like driving a stock car at the track in Charlotte, which had different ending of hearty slaps on the back and a framed photo on fake marble, I’ll check off another bucket-list experience.
Viviane says they closed Superstar after my crash.  Too treacherous; an out-of-control intermediate from the city was nearly killed.  My fast-fading manhood is revived.  Yes, it was the ferocious mountain, not me.  Mother Nature won today’s battle, the war is mine.  I am a superstar…until I find out Viviane was conjuring a well-meaning fib, something a married woman says with noble intentions but nary a shred of truth. 
The doctor examining me says he’ll take x-rays but it looks like a broken collar bone.  “What do you do for a living?” he asks, sounding not that interested. 
“I’m with NASCAR,” I tell him.  He smiles, makes eye contact for the first time, and asks if Jimmie Johnson is going to win a third championship.
In the mirror, I basically have no right shoulder.  The disappearance of a frequently used body part is sickening.  My arm is dangling low like an ape’s, the shoulder having apparently said, hasta la vista.  The surrounding skin is already yellowish green.  I want to puke.
“This looks pretty bad.  Do I need surgery?”
“I don’t think so,” he says.  “I want to know this.  Earnhardt moving to Hendrick: is that going to change the competitive balance in the sport?  I mean, Dale Jr., Gordon, Johnson – that’s like a Murderers Row or the Purple People eaters.  What a lineup!  They’re gonna dominate!” 
I’m in starting to shiver, slipping into shock maybe.  The dull pain is starting to spread to my chest.  I’m wondering if they’ll screw rods into my body like some of the drivers I’ve talked to, or if I’ll be limping around like the Hunchback of NASCAR in New York.
“Do I have to stay in the hospital?” I ask.
“We’ll fix you up here, and you’ll be out in just a few.  There’s quite a separation in the bone break.  You must have hit pretty hard.  Hey, I’ve seen some hard hits in NASCAR this year. I couldn’t believe Gordon walked away from that lick in Pocono.  How about those HANS devices and new softer walls?  They’re really making NASCAR much safer.”
“This hurts a lot.  How long will the pain last?”
“Oh, it’s like any bone break,” the doctor says.  “We’ll give you some strong medication.  Did you know Dale Senior broke his collarbone at Talladega, the car just flipping like crazy, and then he drove the next week with that broken collarbone?”
 “Yes, he actually won the pole and the race.  Watkins Glen.  Road course.  Toughest course to drive, I’d imagine, with a painful injury like that. Doctor, I’m on the first day of a five-day vacation.  Do I have to go home?  We can get back to New York in about five hours.”
“It’s up to you.  Frankly, you’ll at first be uncomfortable wherever you are.  You can stay in the lodge.  Hey, speaking of New York, that track NASCAR was building is not going to happen?”
This dance goes on until the doc gives me a sling and bottle of horse pills.  He tells me to see an orthopedic surgeon back in New York.  “I’d bet that doctor will want to operate. If I were you, I’d avoid surgery. You could place one end of your collar bone on one side of the room, and the other end on the other side, and the bones will find each other.  The collar bone is a truly amazing thing.  You should be OK in a few months.”  
He was right.  I got better.  (The collarbone can find anything; too bad it can’t go work for the CIA and find bin Laden.)  I was in tip-top shape but then gruesomely rolled an ankle at Texas Motor Speedway.  What used to be a jutting ankle bone at the bottom of my skinny chicken leg soon resembled the kind of plump tomato my grandmother would have proudly thrown in the pot for Sunday’s sauce.  You hit 40, and you become spastic.  Your body grows hair in odd places and progressively falls apart.  TV commercials offer electronic devices to alert the authorities when you become incapacitated.  I can accept that.  Harder to deal with is how I’d viewed those who get hurt on business trips as losers.  I’m in that club, too.  Not exactly on the bucket list.
Each NASCAR track has a well-staffed mini-hospital in the infield.  It’s meant for drivers, not clumsy, aging, accident-prone PR people.  I hobble to the Infield Care Center for an ace bandage and a tape job. I’m hosting CNBC and the New York Daily News, will be on the ankle all day, and need to stabilize it.  The Speedway doctor won’t tape me without taking x-rays.  Sure enough, the tip of the fibia is broken.  The doc shows the film – a chunk the shape of India floating beneath the shin bone.  The kind, gentle and efficient folks at the Texas Motor Speedway Infield Care Center strap on a metal boot, hand me crutches, and suggest I see an orthopedic specialist back home.  “I know,” I say.  “I bet they’ll want to operate.”
The busted ankle brings out the best in service companies.  Avis fetches my car at the hotel, no charge.  Continental bumps me to first class with curb-to-gate wheelchair service.  I make a mental note to fake an injury before a future trip.  In light of recent events, pretending won’t be necessary.
I return to New York to see another doctor.  You can guess what happens when he hears I got hurt at a NASCAR race.  The orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village secretly wishes he were Tony Stewart’s jack man:    
Clumsy PR Guy:  So, it’s broken. Bummer.  But there’s no ligament damage, right?
Doctor:  No, none.  What amazes me is how fast those drivers go when they are so close to one another. Extraordinary, isn’t it.
Clumsy PR Guy:  What about the tendons?
Doctor:  The tendons are fine.  You don’t have to worry about that.  They say it’s the roar of the cars and the whole massive feel of it. You go to a race, and you are just blown away and hooked.
Clumsy PR Guy:  I have been elevating the leg and keeping ice on the ankle. How long should I do that?
Doctor:  As long as needed.  I hear NASCAR is still looking at building a track in the New York area.  Jersey?  Near the Meadowlands?  Out on the Island?  No, no, Staten Island. Yes, that’s it.  Is it true?  That would be great. That sport really needs to be here in New York.
Clumsy PR Guy:  Unfortunately, there’s not enough political support, and that’s not gonna work out.  Listen, getting back to me and the ankle, I imagine there’s some sort of physical therapy ahead?
Doctor:  You will absolutely need rehab.  We can make a recommendation – plenty of good places.  It really seems to be a sport that has caught on like wildfire. I have a friend at ABC, who was a big skeptic but is now completely sold on it.  They show your races, right?
Clumsy PR Guy:  Yes, ABC is a partner, and NASCAR is very popular.  I sit at a computer all day.  My main exercise is hitting the send button on email.  So I like to run at night. When will I be jogging again?
Doctor:  Should be a few months.  Just between you and me, it gets pretty wild at some of those tracks, huh?  What’s it like?
Clumsy PR Guy:  It’s fun. The fans are a panic. I writing a book on them.  There’s a fan who took the NASCAR flag to the top of Mt. Everest.  Another guy walks around at the track naked except for a Goodyear tire and Tom Sawyer straw hat.  Come to think of it, he walks a lot, and I’ll be walking a lot.  I can do that with the cast you’ll give me?  No crutches?
Doctor:  Yes, of course. I don’t understand Staten Island. Why didn’t they just didn’t go buy the land at Grumman airport out on the Island? It’s totally available.

This is a top ankle and knee guy in New York magazine’s list of the city’s best doctors. He’s in demand and hard to reach.  I was able to see him instantly.  You see, his assistant is a Sprint phone-carrying NASCAR fan.  She saw “NASCAR” on my email requesting an appointment.  I was promptly slotted in.  Getting my first preference for follow up appointments was a snap.  I just had to answer a few questions about what Dale Jr. was like, and does he really have a girlfriend?
Who says they don't love NASCAR in New York?

Reprinted from THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY, which is available online and wherever fine books (and some really crappy ones) are sold.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Imagine Lennon’s Autograph

I’m a big Beatles fan. No matter what challenges the day presents, those marvelous collection of tunes – really, any one of them beside “Mr. Moonlight” – will turn my frown upside down.

Unfortunately, the four mop-topped lads from Liverpool didn’t produce in my father the same serotonin kick. Back in the day, dad would storm into my room to make me lower “that Devil’s music.” 

(Yeah, “Yesterday,” “Here There and Everywhere,” and “Eleanor Rigby” are the soundtrack to many a backyard satanic ritual.  Any impressionable kid hearing those songs will start hunting down and sacrificing furry animals to drink their blood.)

One night, my dad gets home from work and reports, “I got you the autograph of that bum, John Lennon.  He came in to buy a car.”

I am absolutely beside myself.

Really really!!! Let me see it!”

Dad fishes into his wallet.  Lennon’s signature is scribbled on the blank side of his “Midtown Chevrolet” business card. This was the tail end of the era when big throaty American cars dominated the roads. There was an expansive Chevy dealership on Broadway and 57th Street smack in the heart of Manhattan: gleaming ‘Vettes, Monte Carlos, Camaros, and Impalas were displayed behind oversized second floor plate glass windows overlooking Broadway. Today, the space is the bland home to a nondescript chain drug store selling potato chips and flu shots.

The autograph sure looks real. But is this some sick trick?

I can barely sputter out the words: “How do you know it was really him, John, the Beatle?!”

“He had long hair and was with an ugly chink,” my father says. 

Yep, that would be Yoko.  It was authentic. Our own Archie Bunker had nabbed a Beatle signature, right before he was heading toward LA for the fabled “Lost Weekend.” And given it to me.

Dad may have loathed the man, his music, even his taste in women. He may have been narrow minded in some areas, but he thought enough of me to humble himself for that autograph. Beneath the gruff crudeness and defensive characterizing of people would sometimes appear a heart of gold.  Ok, maybe a heart with gold-plated paint.  A thin coat.  Now that he’s gone, these gestures are the memories that stay with me. 

The memories are really all I've got.  I lost the autograph.  Imagine no possessions.  Indeed. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life is Too Short for Yoga

You want to twist, not lunge. The goal is to strengthen the core.  Align correctly. Embrace all sensation. In class and at dinner, your tailbone is a topic of conversation. You had never considered the tailbone, except that time when you fell on it, hard, drunk. It hurt to shit and was the only time you celebrated the hangover runs. Now, here, in France, you're commanded to be conscious of your tailbone.
Following class, you will drink blended vegetable and aloe concoctions tasting like a mouthful of spicy grass (but the most exotic, fulfilling, delicious grass ever put down your throat). The women with cryptic tattoos on their inner forearms will discuss the ideal pace for downward dog and scour books on anatomy. "Yoga is about freedom and choices," one says, sounding like Mitt Romney after discovering Buddha body conditioning. 

You're instructed to breathe through your fingers, to take in deep breaths though the soles of your feet, suck it into your marrow, force that extended deliberate breath into your blood and make your ribs longer, open your pelvis, thrust your newly discovered superstar tailbone into the center of the earth, hold that air -- the fuel of life and existence from the beginning of time to the end of eternity -- and deliver the largest universal atmospheric suck since Adam from the end of your toenails to the top of your head.

I make the sucking sounds, which resemble a wounded duck with asthma. Then the instructor says, to the 15 yoginis and me, Close Your Eyes. This is a positive development. Now I won't look like an idiot loser. I'll only feel like an idiot loser.
Deep relaxed breathing in a heated room when the AC should be on is supposed to cleanse your body and clear your mind. If being mindless is the desired end result, I should be receiving the Gold Belt in a few days. 
But I'm having Danger Will Robinson moments in trying to follow instructions to breathe into the knees and toes. You see, our baking, crowded room in the back of this splendid Villa in the lush hills of the South of France reeks like a high school gymnasium. 

Later, it will smell worse after I vomit onto my yoga mat.

But now, the last thing you want to do is suck stifling gym-socks air. Preferable, is to lay next to the gorgeous pool with the high-tech environmentally-friendly chlorine substitute and the view of the Riviera, Nice to the left, Cannes off to the right, soaking in the stunning lush scenery before our personal bazillion-star half-blind chef Stefan prepares another amazing farm-to-table meal proving healthy can be freaking delicious.

The morning's instructor is Ben. It's his Villa, too. Well, actually this plot of paradise belongs to his mother, one of Forbes' top female CEOs.  Ben is a fit, shirtless guy with a rich mama and lean segmented muscles he can recite by their Latin names. The requisite tattoos of a modern day yoga instructor run down those well-sculpted arms. Across his tight chest read the scripted words, "Look To This Day," the title of a poem on the wall of his childhood bedroom. Ben can launch into a head stand with greater ease than how I rise from a chair. He can walk on his hands. Any physical thing you can do, he can do better. If Ben's hair were longer, he could be lead guitarist in a metal band that chooses fitness over dope.  He reminds one of Freddie Mercury without the overbite and played by Sasha Baron Cohen in the movie. Ben attended UCLA, studied English but admits he didn't make it to class much. Now he teaches yoga in Thailand and Italy, and in private lessons to wealthy women in candlelit upper east side apartments who answer the door clad in revealing lingerie, as well as in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous haunts like our present locale, a breathtaking 10,000-foot Villa here in Tourettes (insert your favorite string of profanities here), courting an international crowd earnestly seeking, well, I'm not sure yet.  Better health?  Stress relief?  The perfect pose?  The ideal mind-body-spirit balance?  The replacement of one addiction with another?  A guarantee to live an almost inhumanly long time and be able to walk perfectly erect to your child's funeral casket? 
For me, participating in a week's worth of yoga torture sessions with a roomful of strong, independent women and a sweet stocky man from Chelsea is what can be termed a fish-out-of-water scenario. I was brought up in a strict Baptist household. Women who put their legs behind their heads were known as prostitutes.
Make no mistake, I am here to support my beautiful wife, one of those lithe, strong-spirited women, a terrific yoga instructor in her own rite in New York, trained at the renowned Jivamukti Institute. Plus, I haven't had a vacation yet this year. I also understood that every night following Stefan's haute cuisine, Ben serves an impressive array of local French wines.

            Everyone's Lux Yoga mat is flat on the floor in a perfect rectangle. Mine is a wet scrunched-up mess. I drip on it the way the body of a plump, desert-tortured man waters the parched earth in July's midday sun.

Well before my mat became spattered in puke infused with twigs, Ben implored the group to consider that, though he admitted it may not sound very Yogi, this session, and life, is a series of victories. The point is, even if we can't vault from a squat into a handstand, just coming to class on a gorgeous September morning a few miles up the hill from Nice is a singular win. Accumulate victories, Ben urges.
The game hadn't started, however, and I was being shut out. Can't imagine notching a “W” today. Just sitting cross-legged during Ben's preamble pep talk, spine straight and tall as if a hovering nun were about to crack you on the knuckles with a stiff metal ruler for the mere whiff of a slouch, my throbbing right ankle rekindles the break of a decade ago. Our first exercise involves pulling back the fingers. I ain’t exactly Gumby there. More Gumby after six months in the freezer. Holy Moses, can’t even properly stretch my digits!  Hand surgery last year. Is it true the word Yoga derives from the ancient Hindu, meaning “Exercises Showing You Suck?"

            My body is a sad fucking rebelling disgrace. The ravages of time.  And sitting. And shitty food. And too many adult beverages. And the downtown air the EPA and Whitman and Giuiliani, heroic as he was, solemnly attending funeral after funeral and throwing out baseballs at games bonding a wounded city, lied about. Years later, it came out in a multipart newspaper series. The air wasn't exactly mountain clean. Ah, but they had boldly declared: drink up, suck it in, ye brave New Yorkers, hare krishna hare rama, and we were proud defiant Americans beckoned back to the neighborhood as the pile smoldered. I've not been able to run like I used to after the planes. Countless rescue and recovery workers have met a slow, painful, hacking, suffocating death. Breathe deep, indeed.

We haven't even stood up yet. I’m sweating, and screwed.  Ben says yoga is not a competition.  Focus on your own mat.  But let’s be serious. In life, if we focused on our own mat, not a single McMansion would be built. If we focused on only our own mat, half the stores on Madison Avenue would be out of business.  Hell, Madison Avenue itself would shut down.  Why do women in places like Dallas, Atlanta and LA wear makeup to exercise class? Why the snazzy outfits?  If we paid strict exclusive attention to our own mat, why does our instructor own a Rolex?  To be human is to aspire to be seen, to desire acknowledgment and affirmation. To be sold a bill of bullshit and apply it liberally. And let me add, to be a yoga novice at an advanced yoga retreat is to be named to the starting lineup in the Super Bowl of Shame and Disgrace.   
Man is a highly competitive gossipy animal. I can only imagine the detritus of my impression, wheezing and teetering and stumbling across a slippery unkempt mat. “That’s some James Brown shit you're doing!” exclaims Isaac, who’s assisting Ben, as I wobble like a drunk on a moving tightrope, trying to balance on one leg after failing at other poses.
Isaac, a contortionist who has taught to starry-eyed praise in the underground yoga blogs, later tells me, “I genuinely enjoy your practice.” If yoga is anything, it is pure kindness. Or the ability to lie with a wide smile and gleam in your eye.
As much as I want the opposite, I derive no pleasure from this, other than deep pride in seeing in the periphery my wife’s advanced springy moves, body positions that cackle in the face of advancing time.
The music is nice, though a bit heavy on eastern mystical Indian-type music, which sounds like wailing old men being burnt by cigarettes. There’s the occasional gratifying familiar song on the soundtrack. If I could lift an arm, I'd call for a repeat of the quick dose of Bob Dylan. Anything off Blood on The Tracks, and you'll forget the body’s taunting rank inadequacies, which grow as the lunges and twists and stances become progressively harder to attain and hold.
It would be very easy to leave, here in the last row next to the door. Wait until Ben describes the next truly unreasonable circus-worthy balancing act and just slip out the back, Jack. 
Yet, our instructor’s opening pep talk was spot on, here or anywhere else where the humans on my team forge an identity so utterly inferior.  I gotta make the best of this.  May not get the big victory.  But won’t be defeated.  It's fucking September 11 after all. Stop being such a pussy and arch your weak back off the mat!  Those whose bravery defies common description trudged up the burning-out-of-control skyscraper’s stairs with heavy gear on their back.  Yoga is really about being strong to help others, isn’t it?  Well, if that’s so, there should be a fireman’s helmet stitched onto each mat.
I push and push, shaking like an addict denied his drugs, testing muscles unused in decades, making an unquantifiable sacrifice in a benign attempt to right the large injustice of this day and the various and sundry injustices of all other days.  I grit teeth and spray sweat until the room starts to spin, my stomach churns, and the gourmet breakfast exits right where it went in.
It is now that the vacation pool beckons. Life's way too short for yoga. In every class, somebody's lucky enough to be positioned next to the door. 
Tell me this. What good is strength if everyone is strong? The strong are incomplete without us.  The mighty are meaningless absent the meek.  They are unfulfilled without us. The strong need us. For we are, simply, The Weak.