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Flatbush Flashback

Everybody Had a Hard Year

Everybody Had a Hard Year

Soho street art. Photograph © Robert Rosen.

 

On Friday, March 12, my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, and I received our second Covid vaccinations at a Duane Reade a few blocks from where we live—Moderna for those keeping score.

 

Exactly one year after New York City went into lockdown we walked out of the drugstore feeling elated, facing the world as fully vaccinated people, awaiting a return to something approaching normalcy. To celebrate, we bought bread and little pizzas at the Sullivan Street Bakery.

 

People told us we were lucky to get vaccinated so quickly. I've no doubt. I know people in Florida and Missouri who drove hundreds of miles to be vaccinated. We've certainly been luckier than the nearly 540,000 Americans (more than 30,000 in New York City alone) who've died from Covid-19 and continue to die at a rate of about 1,400 per day. That only one person in my family, my 81-year-old uncle, succumbed to the disease is both tragic and miraculous. My mother, 94 and in an assisted-living facility in Florida, continues to endure, though I haven't seen her in more than a year.

 

I've spent that year mostly within the confines of my apartment with Mary Lyn and our cat, Oiseau, who seems to appreciate having us here 24/7 and will soon be in for a rude shock. The days have been a blur of routine and routine horror. April, the "cruelest month" as T.S. Elliot called it in "The Wasteland," more than lived up to its reputation in 2020.

  • It was the month almost a thousand people a day in New York City died from Covid.
  • It was the month the sound of ambulance sirens were heard round the clock and the sound of vuvuzelas and people banging on pots and pans to salute "essential workers" filled the air every evening at seven.
  •  It was the month most of our building cleared out and we were the only ones left on the seventh floor.
  • It was the month that one morning, before dawn, clad in latex gloves and a $3 face mask and armed with a small bottle of hard-to-find hand sanitizer, I ventured into a supermarket. On the checkout line, I saw, social-distancing behind me, a man wearing a gas mask, with the rest of his body, down to his shoes, wrapped in plastic garbage bags, his cart overflowing with carrots, potatoes, and onions. I felt as if I were in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie.
  •  It was the month we stopped going to supermarkets.
  •  It was the month we began washing our groceries with disinfectant.
  •  It was the month I began studying a Covid map of the USA. A small corner of Montana had no cases. I wanted to be there.
  •  It was the month we stopped taking the subway.
  •  It was the month Mary Lyn began working from home, turning our couch and coffee table into her office.
  •  It was the month I lived in a state of terror and didn't leave the house for days at a time.
  •  It was the month that when I did emerge from my apartment, always early in the morning or late at night, when there were fewer people in the street, I felt enraged every time a maskless person came too close to me.
  •  It was the month, while passing through Times Square, I saw only two people: the Naked Cowboy and a solitary tourist listening to him.
  •  It was the month that every time my throat felt scratchy I thought it was the beginning of the end.
  •  It was the month I became aware of the mobile morgues—refrigerated trucks and trailers—parked outside every hospital and couldn't walk past one without imagining the overflow of bodies inside.
  •  It was the month my post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie became more of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

And that was only April.

 

As the months passed and the body count grew, every day I binge-watched the news, though it sometimes made me feel physically ill. I could barely believe I was living in a country that elected Donald Trump. For all the good it did (none), I began rage-tweeting at Trump in response to his endless flow of toxic inanities.

 

By May, as restaurants struggled to survive, our entire neighborhood, Soho, was transformed into one big outdoor café. It would have been nice to sit in one of those cafés and have a glass of wine if being around people didn't seem like such a bad idea.

 

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Post-riot graffiti as literary criticism. Photo © Robert Rosen.

 

On a Saturday night at the end of May, after the murder of George Floyd, Soho was trashed and looted. The luxury stores and quaint restaurants were reduced to a jumble of smashed windows and boarded-up storefronts, some covered with graffiti, others with street art.

 

The pandemic played havoc with what I loosely call "my writing business." The European and West Coast events I was planning for Bobby in Naziland went by the wayside. My participation in a documentary, Did America Kill John Lennon?, and an event celebrating Lennon's 80th birthday, at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, were postponed indefinitely.

 

But some good news did emerge from our household: Being in lockdown gave me time to make progress on a new book, as yet untitled, about the 1970s. You can read a description here. And Mary Lyn released some new music, including a pandemic-inspired song, "I Can't Touch You (Supermoon)."

 

Then came the election. We lived through that, too.

 

Now I'm wondering if the widespread availability of vaccinations is the light at the end of the tunnel or just another oncoming train.

 

I'm betting on light. In a rare act of faith and optimism, I've rescheduled my Lennon event at Subterranean Books for October 7, 2021. I hope to see some of you there, well vaccinated and probably still masked.

________

My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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The Impending Resurrection of the Killarney Rose

 

I walked by the Killarney Rose, on Beaver Street, the other morning. The windows were boarded up and the menu holders affixed to the outside were empty. By all appearances, the bar was permanently closed, another victim of Covid. It must have just happened, I thought, feeling a wave of sadness. I'd passed by Christmas Day and the lights were still on. Before breaking out the black crepe, I wrote to the Killarney Rose, not really expecting an answer. But I got one: The Killarney Rose will reopen as soon as the city lets them.

 

Why all this feeling for a dive bar on an out-of-the-way street in a neighborhood I rarely spend time in? A bit of background:

 

I stumbled upon the Killarney Rose about a dozen years ago, when I was wandering through the Wall Street area, thinking how I needed a catchier title than "A History of Modern Pornography" for the book I was working on. I looked up and saw I was on the corner of Beaver and Broad. It was like a sign from on high—a literal one. That's it, I thought. That's the title: Beaver Street.

 

Though it would be years before the book was published, I knew then I had to have the launch party on Beaver Street. I walked the length of the street, from Broadway to the intersection of Wall and Pearl streets. The Killarney Rose was the only possible venue. I walked in. The bar had two floors, and the upstairs room had the look and feel of a private club. It was perfect.

 

The owner agreed to let me to use the room free of charge, as long as I could bring in enough paying customers to make it worth his while.

 

"Not a problem," I said.

MC Byron Nilsson delivers the opening monologue at "Bloomsday on Beaver Street," June 16, 2012.

 

On the night of June 16, 2012, Bloomsday—the day that James Joyce's Ulysses takes place—I launched Beaver Street at the Killarney Rose. Hosted by the indomitable Byron Nilsson, "Bloomsday on Beaver Street" was a celebration of literature that had been branded pornography. Before a packed house of hungry and thirsty supporters, musicians (including my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott) played rock 'n' roll, actors read from Ulysses—Laralu Smith's reading of the Molly Bloom passage was a highlight—and I read from Beaver Street. The presence of "Subway Vigilante" Bernie Goetz, who had an abiding interest in the subject matter, added a surreal touch to the evening's festivities.

Lexi_Bloomsday.jpg

Lexi Love reads at "Bloomsday on Beaver Street II," June 16, 2013. Photo © Michael Paul.

 

The celebrations continued, in 2013, with "Bloomsday on Beaver Street II," another night of music, theatre, and literature. One memorable moment was adult actress Lexi Love's highly emotional reading from her favorite book, Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black, by Cookie Mueller.

 

Then, on December 14, 2019, the Killarney Rose was the scene of "Bobby on Beaver Street," the launch event for my latest book, Bobby in Naziland, featuring myself and six actors, many of whom you may have seen on stage, TV, and/or in the movies, reading choice passages from the book.

 Susan Barrett, at "Bobby on Beaver Street," December 14, 2019, reads about her brother, a character in Bobby in Naziland.

 

Finally, on January 25, 2020, Mary Lyn Maiscott celebrated her birthday and the release of her song "Middle Child" at the Killarney Rose.

 

Less than two months later, life as we knew it ended. But the Killarney Rose, despite all outward signs, did not. All we can do in this still-new year is wait for its resurrection. It can't come soon enough.

________

My latest book, Bobby in Naziland, is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

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Death of a Salesman

 

In the summer of 1967, when I was 15, my "Uncle Paul," as I call him in Bobby in Naziland, took me on the road to make a few sales calls with him—an adventure I'd been looking forward to since school ended. He worked for Highlander, a women's suede and leather coat manufacturer. His territory was upstate New York.

 

One afternoon we were in a women's clothing store in Utica (or maybe Rome), in the buyer's office, sitting opposite his desk. Paul introduced me as his nephew and launched into his sales pitch, about fall's hot new suede fashions, which, if stained, could be easily cleaned with an ordinary pencil eraser—that was, supposedly, a big selling point.

 

The buyer—pudgy, middle-aged, and with a receding hairline—was resistant. There was too much inventory, he said. Other Highlander coats weren't selling as expected.

 

Had I been in my uncle's chic Italian size-nine loafers, I'd have given up then. I thought there was no chance the buyer was going to buy. I was ready to leave.

 

But my uncle kept pressing him, charming him with jokes about Cary Grant, stories about women and deep-sea fishing, wearing him down, veritably seducing him. By the time he was through, the buyer had agreed to buy 10,000 dollars' worth of suede coats, and my uncle had earned a 15 percent commission.

 

The buyer then looked at me and asked, "Do you know that your uncle's the greatest salesman in the world?"

 

"Yes," I said, swelling with pride, amazed at the turnaround I'd just witnessed. I thought that I, too, might want to be a salesman.

 

You won't find the above story in Bobby in Naziland. It occurred outside the book's time frame. But you will find other stories about my uncle. Some are not flattering, but all are true. What I wrote in the book about "Uncle Paul" was my way of coming to terms with a difficult relationship with an uncle who was like my older brother when I was a kid. I worshipped him because he was living proof that it was possible to escape from the kind of life I felt trapped in. With his salesmanship skills and "winning personality," he'd escaped from a similar life. My uncle represented everything a lower-middle-class kid might dream about: money, success, expensive cars, and exotic travel.

 

When I was 19, and in the throes of rebelling against everything, my illusions about my uncle fell away. I saw him for who he was—the deeply flawed man I'd write about in Bobby in Naziland. I was so angry at him, for reasons I won't go into here, I stopped talking to him; I cut him out of my life.

 

As I matured and became more accepting of people and their flaws, we reconciled to a degree. We talked and spent time together.

 

I'm writing this now because on July 20, my uncle, 81, died from Covid-19 in a Florida nursing home. I'd last spoken to him several months ago. He was unhappy with where life had ultimately taken him, and I'd gotten the feeling that he didn't want to talk, that there was nothing more to say.

 

Due to the pandemic, there was no funeral. So I sit here, in New York, sorting out a spectrum of emotions and memories accumulated over a lifetime. I prefer to dwell on the positive.

 

My earliest memories of my uncle are from 1956. He was a starting offensive guard on Brooklyn's James Madison High School football team, and my parents took me to games to watch him play, though I could never seem to pick him out on the field. His football career ended when he tore up his knee. I can picture him in an autograph-covered cast, recuperating on a green couch in my grandmother's living room.

 

When I was older, he sometimes took me deep-sea fishing, for blues, fluke, flounder, and porgies, on the charter boats at Sheepshead Bay. "Let's cut a slice of life," he'd say, as we set sail. Fishing was another thing he excelled at, and he was passionate about it. There were days, especially when we went for blues, when he was the only one on the boat who caught a fish. He once took me to Montauk to go cod fishing. It was my best fishing day ever. You dropped your line in the water and out came a fish. We caught hundreds of pounds of cod between us, which we gave away, except for a couple of fish we took home for our mothers to cook.

 

Also when I was 15, he took me on my first airplane ride, to Cleveland. He had to go there to pick up his car, a silver Cadillac, which he'd left in a parking lot when he had to fly back to New York for an emergency. He wanted me to keep him company on the drive home. Riding on a jet plane and spending an entire day with my uncle, traveling 465 miles in his Cadillac, was the most thrilling thing I'd done at that point in my life.

 

He took me to Ranger hockey games at Madison Square Garden and Titan football games at the Polo Grounds. We spent afternoons cruising around in his other car, an MG convertible, which was almost as exciting as flying in a jet. And he turned me on to the Beatles "White Album," though I don't think he ever got past side one.

 

My uncle might have been a salesman, but he was no Willy Loman. If anything he was more akin to an honorary member of the Rat Pack.

 

I hope what I've written will provide some comfort to those who knew him by his real name.

________

Bobby in Naziland is available on Amazon and all other online booksellers, as well as at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, where you should (and probably can) buy it again.

 

I invite you to join me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter or my eternally embryonic Instagram.

 

 

 

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