Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Confessions of a Crossing Guard

I was a crossing guard in elementary school, entrusted with life and death "street-crossing" powers over my fellow students. And if some snotty 7 year old got out of line, well, it was my job to show him the error of his ways. My name is nycityman, and I wore the belt and badge.

“We met as soul mates on Staten Island
We left as inmates from an asylum
And we were sharp, as sharp as knives

And we were so gung ho to lay down our lives”

I came from a proud crossing guard tradition. My older brother was a crossing guard, captain of his squad. My father was a crossing guard before him. And my grandfather, he was a horse and buggy guard. For generations, my family has bled white. (No racial overtones implied, white was the color of the safety patrol belts.)

It was the turbulent 1960’s. Across our great land, college campuses erupted in social upheaval. Radicals seized the day. America’s young people were experimenting with illegal mind-altering drugs. The situation was no different on the seemingly tranquil grounds of Staten Island’s PS 55, home to some of the most militant toddlers in the lower 48. It was our sworn duty to keep things under control. We had many names – crossing guards, safety patrol officers, safety monitors – most just called us “sir.”

Ours was a loyal legion, a band of brothers - me, P.J. Clark, Frank Schmidt and Tim Beraud (the names have not been changed to preserve the glory) and it was an honor to serve in their company - each man trustworthy and true (well, each fifth grader trustworthy and true, anyway.) We were a wall of white (once again, not a racial allusion but a reference to the color of our safety belts. However, as this was Staten Island, we were, in actuality, a wall of white as well.) As is the case with all great fighting units we had our motto, our rallying cry – “We Came. We Saw. We Ran Home to Our Mothers.” In retrospect it doesn’t seem particularly inspiring, but then again, we were just rugrats at the time. If you took on one 10 year old, you had to take on all of us; and when we stood on each others shoulders, over-sized overcoat, stogie and ersatz adult raspy voice in place, as in classic, “Our Gang” mode, than it was as if we were two battle-hardened 20 year olds. We were trained, we were tested, and we were combat-ready. One just doesn’t get to be a safety patrol officer. It’s not something that’s handed to you by accident of birth or family affiliation (are your ears ringing, Jim Belushi?) You had to start small and prove yourself. I began as a door monitor, valiantly and oft-times, physically, refusing entrĂ©e to any undesirable and potentially treacherous intruders. And only then, having demonstrated gallantry and courageousness under-fire, was I even considered for the coveted post of crossing guard. Unfortunately, we were the last of a dying breed, the Greatest Generation. Eventually they had to give our jobs to adults - to Moms. They just weren’t making kids like us anymore. The newer youngsters who followed so poorly in our footsteps couldn’t stomach it, couldn’t handle it, they froze like Michele Bachmann taking the American History Regents. At one elementary school after another, all across these United States, terrified students, lives in grave peril, were dodging conveyances like George Bush dodging tossed Arabian footwear.

You may think I speak in exaggerated tones, titillate with tall-tales literally told out of school. But I humbly submit that there are few malevolent miscreants more malicious, mischievous and unmanageable than a 6 year old hopped up on Pixy Stix and Yoo-Hoo (curse you Yogi Berra and your damned chocolate energy drink.) If I had a nickel for every Mary Jane, every box of Good and Plenty, every Razzles I’ve ever confiscated, I’d have more Republicans in my pocket than the Koch Brothers. And very often the impounded plunder went far beyond the relative innocuous nature of such candied comestibles. I’ll always recall Paul, who from 4th grade on was permitted full access to his father’s Playboy collection. On occasion, much to the delight of us all, Paul would sneak an issue or two into the classroom. As any precocious and curious child would, I looked forward to those days and that rare opportunity to sample the taboo, the forbidden, and the inviolable; but as a responsible safety patrol officer answerable for the welfare of the younger children, keeping morality and their emotional and mental health utmost in mind, I had my sworn and solemn duty. Did excessive force ever come into play? Perhaps, but these were difficult times, and ultimately we were respected for what we did and how we kept the peace. Judge me if you will, but do so after you’ve skipped a mile in my PJ Flyers.

Lest I lead you astray, the existence of a 5th grade crossing guard did have its benefits. Of course there was the thrill, the excitement, the daily rush of living on the edge, never knowing what the very next minute may bring. There was the ceaseless gratitude and respect of the entire school populace, as well as the eternal admiration of the faculty. And need I bother mention the attention of the ladies? The ladies, yes, the ladies (well, eventually they’d be ladies.)

If you’re the type who thinks - children, they’re so innocent, so truthful, so open-minded, so honest and trusting – well then, you’ve completely blocked out your own childhood. We were petty, manipulative, selfish, egotistical, evil, miniature monsters, disguised in cute little packages, like Gremlins or Chucky Dolls, always on the ready to annihilate any tot considered even slightly different from what our little un-experienced, under-developed minds perceived as the norm. Every school yard is Darwinism played out in real time, right before our eyes, with the strong devouring the weak. And we, my friends, were charged with keeping all that aberrant behavior somehow in check.

“And we would all go down together
We said we'd all go down together
Yes we would all go down together” – Billy Joel

Although I speak of events that occurred some four decades ago, a crossing guard is always sworn in, on call, on duty, always alert. Wherever there’s an elderly lady struggling to traverse the thoroughfare, wherever there’s a child not looking both ways, wherever there’s a 20 year old, scantily clad coed, un-attentive to the traffic patterns as she gossips on her bedazzled smart phone – we’ll be there. When our country calls, we serve and we go where we’re needed.

The Few. The Proud. The Safety Patrol.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Oprah Winfrey: Fly Like An Ego

“All thru' the day I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.
All thru' the night I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.” - George Harrison

The Oprah Winfrey Show
The Oprah Winfrey Oscar Special
O: The Oprah Magazine
Christmas at the White House: An Oprah Primetime Special
Oprah Winfrey Presents: Mitch Albom's For One More Day
Building a Dream: The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy
Oprah After the Show
Oprah's Guide to OWN
Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes
Oprah Presents: Master Class
Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple
OWN - The Oprah Winfrey Network

“All thru' your life I me mine.”

“Think like a queen.”
“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.“
“When I look into the future, it's so bright it burns my eyes.”
“I finally realized that being grateful to my body was key to giving more love to myself.” – Oprah Winfrey
(Yes, Oprah, that’s surely what you’re lacking, sufficient self-love.)

“All I can hear I me mine, I me mine, I me mine.”

While scrutinizing the seemingly, inestimable array of questionable, quality programming available from the boundless bounty that is the cornucopia of contemporary cable, I happily happened upon OWN. Excited by the possible prospect of round the clock presentations of adroit, astute and intelligent English theatrical adaptations, imagine the distress and disappointment upon the reveal that OWN was not the Oscar Wilde Network. But remote control still un-clicked and faith still in tact, there certainly would be nothing particularly pernicious about enjoying an evening of light escapist fare featuring the quirkily appealing star of today’s most popular and most ribald romcoms. Alas, as in the lyrics of the great Jackie Wilson’s, “Higher and Higher, “ disappointment was my closest friend, for neither was this the Owen Wilson Network. So then, what had I stumbled upon? What was the true nature of this cable phenomenon? Was I instead destined to discover much about Olivia Wilde or perchance Oliver Wendell Holmes? Or perhaps I had been fortunate to find a network dedicated to Oliver Wendell Douglas, one completely devoted to the work of Eddie Albert. And then it happened.

Onto my light emitting diodes exploded a promo for a new program, “Oprah Winfrey: Master Class.” While the tone of said commercial suggested nothing less then a coronation or even conceivably the hotly anticipated arrival of end of days, what we were actually being presented with was truly far more significant than either. As explained by the “voice of God” delivered copy line, “Oprah turns the camera on Oprah!” Then in a close-up much too tight for anyone’s large screen HDTV, except for maybe Gayle’s, the anointed one looked sincerely to camera and expounded upon her philosophies and the overall wonderfulness that is Dame Winfrey. In what was indisputably the most momentous half minute of any of our unessential existences she assured us of how blessed we are to have her among us. As Cole Porter would intone, from this moment on, Christmas, New Years, Independence Day, wars, births, weddings and deaths would all be rendered thoroughly meaningless, for now we were consecrated with a show in which Oprah would explain the everlasting ecstasy that is Oprah. We are not worthy. Our country, our society, our world as a whole - nay, our solar system, galaxy and universe - need more Oprah. Her underexposure is the thing of tragedies. For indeed, she may have her own 24 hour television network about herself, her outlook, her crucial consequence in our lives, but sadly, she is not on every television network 24 hours a day and we are genuinely poorer for that.

It’s entirely possible that somewhere in one of the more remote sections of the world where they have the misfortune of not having being exposed to the snuggie or the thigh-master or to Snookie, someone from the cast of The Gods Must Be Crazy may someday turn to a compatriot and forlornly express that what their civilization is missing, is more Oprah. But, on a planet that houses the likes of Donald Trump, William Shatner and Sarah Palin (sorry, snarky, forced and often unrelated Palin references are a contractual obligation) one would be hard-pressed to think of a more self-absorbed, more self-important personality, and one less in need of more television time than hers truly. In reality, wouldn’t it be healthier for both Oprah and ourselves, as a reasoning and independent peoples, if we gave each other a little “me“ time, a little time apart? Aren’t we all really enablers to Oprah’s need for constant attention and public validation? Isn’t it time to explore life on our own and sever those apron strings? And is there really anything more we can learn about Oprah? For example, I have no interest in her life yet, despite that, I know about her troubled childhood and her recent discovery of a lost sibling, I know about Gayle and Steadman. She’s omnipresent, omnipotent, and seemingly completely void of any desire for privacy.

If Oprah went on the air and proclaimed it “Stab Your Spouse Day” then, excitedly and exuberantly, told the audience to reach under their seats for their own personal and gratis stiletto, no doubt within hours the streets would flow crimson. From whence does such power and influence rise? To have such persuasion, such control over people’s habits, purchases, behaviors, yes and sometimes, very thoughts – she must hold some mighty and critical office. She must have been born into royalty. She must possess some rare and unique ability and talent, perhaps even some form of a superpower … or maybe she’s brightened the formerly bleak landscape of television with such imperative and urgent fair as -“Secret Crushes,” “How to Get the Man or Woman of Your Dreams,” "When Your Best Friend Steals Your Man" and its popular follow-up, "When a Family Member Steals Your Man,” She hosts a pop psychology/gossip/celebrity chat daytime talk show. Like Ricky Lake and Jenny Jones and Sally Jesse Raphael and Richard Bey. Well done, and completely deserving of a Kennedy Center Honor. And what of unfortunate, founding-father Phil Donahue, the founder of the feast, now relegated to irrelevancy and unremitting reassurance by Marlo that he is free to be, you and me?

Oprah Winfrey is a powerful woman, some say even more powerful than a locomotive, and to finally give her some much deserved credit, she uses that power to do a lot of good and worthy and charitable things. She gives much of her time and her fortune. She has helped to enrich the lives of many people. She is well known for her immense generosity. And how is that generosity so well known? She makes sure she tells us. Some generous gentry approach philanthropy in a more dignified, quiet manner while others are more “self-horn-blowers,” if you would, and bring camera crews, produce multi-part special episodes, make TV documentaries and narrate books-on-tapes about their magnanimity. She should be praised but is there room for others to praise her when she spends so much time and energy doing it herself?

“I always knew I was destined for greatness” - Oprah Winfrey.

The Beatles perform the George Harrison composition, “I me mine.”

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saturday Song Selection - Ball of Confusion

“Segregation, determination, demonstration,
Integration, aggravation,

Humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball of Confusion

That's what the world is today” -Whitfield/Strong

It certainly has been a bit of a delay but Saturday Song Selection returns in fine fashion with a Motown classic that is, unfortunately, as relevant today as it was upon its release in 1970. From the most supreme vocal group in the history of popular music - the amazing, unforgettable, incomparable, remarkable, unparalleled, unsurpassed (if I’m remiss and have forgotten any further appropriate superlatives, please chime in) tempting Temptations. The Temps have long been a particular favorite of, “... and several butcher‘s aprons,” and as it‘s my quill and papyrus, I selfishly reserve the right to make such grand, sweeping, unarguable definitive statements. In the interest of fairness, however, if any one would like to posit another troupe of troubadours as being superior to Detroit‘s finest please do so and let the conversation commence.

For purists, the true Temptations are the classic-5 line-up of Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Paul Williams and David Ruffin, but some 22 members have donned those slick shiny suits, conquered that complicated choreography and mastered those heavenly harmonies. The Temps are still recording and touring today with sole surviving original member Otis Williams keeping those soulful fires aflame into a fifth decade. Although incontrovertibly clueless about the exact number of Temptations that first must come and go before the inevitable happens and nycityman finally gets his rightful chance - and I ain’t too proud to beg - nary a shower has passed in those very same five decades that didn’t include a “My Girl,” a “Since I Lost My Baby,” or a “Just My Imagination,” (hmm, that title appears painfully prophetic) the preparation has been done.

“Fear in the air,
Tension everywhere

Unemployment rising fast,”

As to my proclaimed relevancy of this 41 year old recording - some current events (send the kids out of the room now, we’ll have some more fun again later.) Today the United States began active involvement in its third simultaneous war. If we separate out the secret campaign that we’ve also been conducting in Pakistan from the overall larger conflict in Afghanistan, in reality we are engaged in four wars at one time.

“An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth

Vote for me, and I'll set you free

Rap on brother, rap on
Well, the only person talkin'

'Bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems,

Nobody is interested in learnin'
But the teacher”

Libya. Afghanistan. Iraq. Iran. Unemployment. Home foreclosures. Climate change. Terrorism. The Republican’s war on women, working people and education. The protection of predatory priests. The earthquake, tsunami and the threatening nuclear catastrophe in Japan. (to lighten up this all too depressing tally we’ll now conclude with the current, catch all, go-to punch line) And Charlie Sheen. “Just a Ball of Confusion.” Regarding the current unfortunate situation in Japan and in the interest of full disclosure - as we self-important types sometimes say as if what we’ve experienced or what we ponder is of grave interest to the planet - nycityman is an anti-nuke guy from way back and still has the souvenir button from the “No Nukes” rally attended sometime in the 80’s. Unfortunately the “We are the World” sweatshirt worn while holding the hands of complete and questionably hygienic strangers at Hands Across America, has long since met the multiple-washing fate that all poorly manufactured garments eventually succumb to.

“Round 'n' round 'n' round we go
Where the world's headed, nobody knows

Just a Ball of Confusion

Oh yeah, that's what the world is today.”

Saturday, March 19th Birthdays -

Billed as "The Funniest Woman in the World" and the oldest person to have a US top 40 hit at age 75, pioneering comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley was born 117 years ago. The fact that I remember someone born in 1894 so well is, needless to say, a bit disconcerting and never to be discussed again.

The extremely intense, extremely cool and extremely not a number but a free man, late Patrick McGoohan, proudly born in New York, would have turned 83 today.

And happy 75th to Ursula Andress, and if I may be so bold as to speak for the earth’s population in its entirety, we are humbly and gratefully in debt for the legendary picture below. Thank You.

The almost classic-5 Temptations, Dennis Edwards having replaced David Ruffin, with Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today.)