AN AMBER ALERT FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT

It is time for a nationwide Amber Alert for law enforcement officers and I am calling on New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead the way.

Today I learned a New York State Trooper was shot to death and two others were wounded in the Catskills. It appears the man who shot the troopers, Travis D. Trim, 23, of North Lawrence, New York, was killed in a shoot-out with the State Police. Last summer Ralph “Bucky” Philips shot three New York State Troopers, killing one. He was caught after a five-month manhunt and is serving two life sentences. One wonders if Philips would have been caught sooner had an Amber-Alert type system been in place.

Is this personal for me? You bet it is. My life was saved by the New York City Police Department’s 84th Precinct in 1984 when I was held up and shot in the head at point blank range. All alone and bleeding to death from a head wound with the bullet lodged in my brain, I was able to get back to my feet, but my life would have soon ended if several units from the 84th Precinct hadn’t arrived lightening fast and taken me to the hospital.

I would propose calling the alert the Gregory alert, in honor of Brother Gregory Myles, a counselor at the New York State Police Academy, who selflessly tends to the hearts, minds and souls of those in the trooper family who are impacted by violence.

The Amber Alert website says the alert has saved the lives of hundreds of children. There is no doubt the Gregory Alert would have a similar effect. When these alerts are triggered, law enforcement notifies broadcasters, state and city transportation officials, radio and television programming is interrupted, alerts appear on highway signs, in e-mails, on wireless devices and on the internet.

When someone hurts or takes the life of a man or woman that has pledged to protect our lives with their own, an alert like this is the least we can do.

SHARPTON & JACKSON: A BIGOTRY DUET

Boston columnist Mike Barnicle was right recently when he said the reaction to Don Imus’s inappropriate remarks has included a “tsunami of hypocrisy.”

But before I get to that, let me first apologize to my readers and retract any positive words I wrote about Reverend Al Sharpton in the previous blog entry.

Watching Sharpton over the past couple of days and doing a bit of research into Sharpton’s past, it is clear he has no right to the title Reverend, unless, of course, you are one who believes a racist and anti-Semite can be a Christian minister.

Consider the following.

1) Sharpton was found civilly liable for falsely implicating a Dutchess County New York attorney in the rape (which never occurred) of Tawana Brawley. The whole fiasco was determined to be a hoax. Sharpton has never apologized to the attorney and still refuses to do so.

2) During a 1991 crisis in New York City’s Crown Heights, Sharpton said, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” Again, he never apologized.

3) During a landlord-tenant dispute involving a Jewish-owned store in Harlem, the Wall Street Journal reported on February 29, 2000, that “Mr. Sharpton was even more malevolent. He turned (the) dispute between the Jewish owner of Freddy’s and a black subtenant into a theater of hatred. Picketers from Mr. Sharpton’s National Action Network, sometimes joined by (Sharpton) himself, marched daily outside the store, screaming about “bloodsucking Jews” and “Jew bastards” and threatening to burn the building down.

After weeks of increasingly violent rhetoric, one of the protesters, Roland Smith, took Mr. Sharpton’s words about ousting the “white interloper” to heart. He ran into the store shouting, “It’s on!” He shot and wounded three whites and a Pakistani, whom he apparently mistook for a Jew. Then he set the fire, which killed five Hispanics, one Guyanese and one African-American–a security guard whom protesters had taunted as a “cracker lover.” Smith then fatally shot himself.”

Eight people dead, and no apology from Sharpton.

And so here is Sharpton, along with Jesse “Hymietown” Jackson passing judgement on Don Imus. Sharpton and Jackson clearly make their bed with the poisonous sheets of bigotry and hypocrisy. It has been a long time since either man has been in the same room with honor and integrity, although, I suspect when he was a younger man working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson knew honor and integrity well.

CBS and NBC’s claim that they fired Don Imus because they care about the way women and black Americans are treated is, well, a lie. It’s about sponsors and money. Neither network nor their parent companies are free of misogyny and bigotry in their offerings. Given the fact both networks gave Jackson and Sharpton an audience, one wonders why they didn’t they didn’t invite Mel Gibson to the meeting. And given Sharpton and Jackson’s bigoted behavior, why would they give either man airtime if their commitment to healing the public airways was genuine?

Now we have Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in the mix. Here is someone who knowingly promoted a distortion of truth that led to a war that thus far has cost more than 3,000 American lives and untold thousands of Iraqi lives. The fact she thought to comment on Mr. Imus makes a despicable thought look like an act of purity and honor.

Meanwhile, Don Imus has accepted, without excuses, responsibility for his behavior. He has met with and received forgiveness from the gracious and remarkable women on the Rutgers basketball team. He has been talking nearly daily with Reverend Deforest Soaries, the extraordinary man who facilitated the meeting between Mr. Imus and the Rutgers players.

Told today that Sharpton and Jackson said they hadn’t forgiven Mr. Imus, Reverend Soaries put it all in perspective. He said, “Where there is no forgiveness, there is no Christianity.”

May God bless Reverend Deforest Soaries, the women from Rutgers and Don Imus. May God help Sharpton, Jackson, CBS and NBC.

IMUS, HONESTY AND FORGIVENESS

I have fought bigotry of all my life: anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, etc. The list, sadly, is endless. As a recovering alcoholic and one who increasingly recognizes and believes in the beauty and power of honesty, accountability and self-accountability are pivotal realities for me. While no one, least of all Don Imus, excuses his remarks last week denigrating the women of the Rutgers Basketball team, the man has done all any human being can do when they make a terrible mistake. He has admitted it, apologized for it and, in my view, learned from it. Were our elected leaders and, in some cases, our religious and social leaders as wedded to self-accountability as Imus, our country would be better off.

I hear that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, ministers both, have called for Imus’s resignation or firing. A sad and barely understandable reaction on the parts of both men. After all, should Jackson remain forever punished, unforgiven and judged because he once referred to NYC as hymie town? Should Sharpton, who in so many ways has developed into an extraordinary civil rights leader, remain forever punished,unforgiven and judged because of the Tawana Brawley fiasco? The answer is no.

None of us are thoroughly free of the disease of prejudice and bigotry. Our responsibility as a people and as individuals is to acknowledge it, own it, apologize for it, make amends, learn, and struggle to get free of its insidious and poisonous grasp. Imus this morning showed he has learned from this by pointing out that while “the climate on (the Imus) program has been what it’s been for 30 years (it) doesn’t mean that it has to be that way for the next five years or whatever because that has to change, and I understand that.”

How I wish more people had the character to own unhealthy aspects of themselves. Were this to become a trend, we, as individuals, and we, as a people, a world community, would find the world in a better place. Forgiving is not an easy thing to be sure. Someone said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” If you disagree with this in any way, the man who said it, Mahatma Gandhi, has long since passed away.

The building of real character rests in large part on the back of honesty, the ability to allow self-honesty its full reign, no matter how grueling and painful the journey may be at times. A wonderful woman once said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” So said Helen Keller.

A childhood hero and a current hero of mine said “The true measure of a man’s strength is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” Imus created his own challenge and controversy with his remarks. He has chosen to stand in the open, take responsibility, apologize, make amends and learn. That meets the definition of strength in the last quote. The man who uttered the words in the last quote was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rarely, if ever, is a person fairly defined by a single act. In a way we are all, in some measure, the sum of our history and our dreams for tomorrow. The tally of all I know about Imus is this; he is a man that started a ranch 10 years ago for kids with cancer, sickle cell, siblings of children who died from SIDS and more. He is a man who after watching one of the children from his ranch fear their imminent death from sickle cell, came back asking elected leaders to explain why so little is being done on sickle cell research. He is a man who has drawn enormous attention to the plight of children with autism and over the years has raised more than $100 million to help others. He is a man, too, who said a horrible thing last week. He has owned it, apologized, and learned. You can ask for nothing more from a human being.

An Imus resignation or firing would be a terrible mistake for many reasons, not the least of which is this: how refreshing is it for you to finally see someone in the public eye not just apologize, but admit they were wrong in the first place? It’s a novelty. Perhaps with Imus’s display courage, humility and accountability, it might just become a trend.

SHEP AND THE PRIEST: PART II

This is a continuation of a memoir excerpt placed in the blog last month.


The next day the priest drives me to meet the Good Man from Long Island. It is late afternoon and we are driving down a beautiful street in Long Island with large houses on large lots on either side. Yards have shrubs of all shapes and sizes and the trees, while denuded of leaves, are large and seem to signal to me with their gallantry that they have always been there and always will be there and they know I’m a good boy and they don’t depend on anyone either.

We pull into a driveway off a cul-de-sac. In front of us stands a ranch house that seems to stretch on forever it is so large. There is a two-car garage with doors as white as snow and a shiny black Cadillac Fleetwood sits in the driveway. I remember Dad telling me Fleetwood’s are the top of the line.

We are walking towards the front door and I am sweating and hoping I don’t smell bad. I’d bathed best I could early that morning, heating water up on my hot plate and scrubbing down very inch of me. I’d gone to the basement with Lyn and put my head under the power burst of the ice water in order to shampoo my hair. The water is brutal cold, after a few seconds my head begins to freeze, my vision gets blurry and Lyn wraps my head in a towel until it warms up, repeat. It takes more than 10 soakings like this to thoroughly wet my hair. Then it takes another 15 or so to rinse out the shampoo. Head under brutal cold water, start to freeze, blurry vision, wrap towel around head, wait for warmth, repeat.

The front door opens before we reach it and a woman in her thirties comes out to greet us. She is so beautiful and dazzling I am instantly a combination of breathless and worthless. “Father, so good to see you,” she says, extending her hand to the priest. “Good afternoon.”

The priest shakes her hand and looks at me. “This is Peter,” he says. I am out of place and want to run away, but where can I go? I’m in Long Island and Long Island is filled with these big houses and dazzling rich people who smell good and never sweat.

Suddenly I am completely focused. The smell of cooking food pours out of the open front door and I am so hungry I can’t make sense of anything.

Everything in the house is large. I’m standing inside the front door on a marble floor that must be 20 feet wide. To my left there is a hall that disappears somewhere. In front of me and to my right is a sunken living room that’s so big I can’t figure out how a person sitting on one side of the room can hear what someone sitting in on the opposite side is saying. I think the entire population of Rhode Island could migrate to this living room with room to spare. There is a large fireplace along one wall with a large fire burning away. I remember Mommom and Poppop’s fireplace in Rumson and how my Dad loved making the fire and tending to it, his eyes growing soft, half closing with sweet memory, watching the dancing flames. I miss him.

The Good Man from Long Island sits on the far side in a large leather chair; a huge unlit cigar in his hand, his floral-patterned shirt opened low, revealing a tanned chest and, I swear to God, a gold chain. He has a tan and it hits me that his wife does too. It’s wintertime and they have tans. They are rich. They’re tanned top to bottom. I may be just 18 but I know if you live in a big house in Long Island and you have a shiny black Fleetwood Cadillac and you have nice clothes and deep tans you have a lot of money. There can be no other explanation and I know this.

The Good Man from Long Island waves for me to sit down next to him with his cigar. I sit down on a large leather couch that almost swallows and digests me.

“How old are you, kid?” the Good Man from Long Island says.

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen. That’s a good age,” he says and I can’t figure out what the hell is good about it but of course I don’t say this. “The Father tells me you’re living in some abandoned building in Brooklyn.”

I say, “That’s true.”

“How long you been on your own, kid?”

“Since my Dad died when I was 15.”

“We need to help this young man, honey,” he says to his beautiful well-groomed wife in a loud voice. She’s in the very large kitchen which is up two steps from the living room with a woman who looks like a maid to me. “I been there, kid, the Father will tell you. I been there. I know poor. It’s not fair it should happen to any of us. You don’t have family?”

I say, “No, not anymore.”

“That’s too bad, kid. I can tell you with hard work and perseverance you can make it. That’s how I did it, hard work and perseverance. Isn’t that right, honey?” he says to his wife.

She says, “Absolutely, sweetheart,” in a tone that makes me think she didn’t hear him but knows what to say to keep him happy. I find myself feeling sorry for her, though I’m not sure I know why.

The smell of food is everywhere and I am so hungry I can barely focus on the conversation.

The Good Man from Long Island says, “You like construction, kid?” and gets up from his very large leather chair and gestures with his cigar towards the very large dining area off the kitchen.

I know this answer. I say, “I love construction,” at the same time telling myself that the act of running to the dinner table would not be in the neighborhood of impressive. As for loving construction, I know if the Good Man from Long Island had owned a funeral home I would happily profess a lifelong desire to be a mortician. Hunger is a harsh master.

We eat a huge meal of steak and salad, and then there is lasagna and garlic bread and I am beginning to think heaven and Long Island are one and the same. I know this is true when some very strong delicious coffee is served in tiny cups with tiny saucers and tiny handles. I don’t at all understand why people with this much money don’t get regular size cups with regular size handles and saucers but I don’t say anything because as far as I’m concerned I’d be happy if they served the very strong delicious coffee in thimbles.

After dinner the priest tells me he has to leave and I’m in good hands with the Good Man from Long Island. He puts his hands on my shoulders, his face and blue eyes smile at me. He promises he will pray for me. I say, “Thank you, Father,” happy to use the word Father again knowing the word Daddy belongs to one person only.

The Good Man from Long Island and his beautiful wife feed me a desert of warm apple pie and a bowl of vanilla ice cream. I am so stuffed I almost don’t feel well but I know to get as much food in me as I can because I can’t count on the next meal.

The Good Man from Long Island says, “I’ll drive you home myself,” and I can tell by the way he says it that this is a big deal and I should be grateful and I am because like me he had a hard life too and now he is rich with a beautiful wife and a beautiful house.

I am sitting in the front passenger seat. The car is warm and I am full and the Good Man from Long Island has given me three suits which are too large for me but he tells me he’ll fix that. I have a bag his wife and maid packed for me filled with shirts, ties and belts. He says it’s okay to wear my sneakers with the suit and says he will take me out for new shoes. I can’t remember the last time I had new shoes. He smokes a cigar and I fire up a cigarette from one of the two packs he bought me at a corner store.

“Good kid like you shouldn’t have to worry about his next smoke,” he says.

I watch the other cars as we drive. I see parents in front with their children in the back and I try not to think of the days when my father and mother were in front and I would look at the back of my Dad’s head and the way he held the steering wheel and wish he would drive a little faster when cars passed us.

“I’ll take good care of you, kid. Your worrying days are over,” the Good Man from Long Island says and I think maybe Dad’s in heaven and had a talk with God and they had the priest bring me to meet the Good Man from Long Island so I would be okay. Everything will be okay now and my eyes wet up so I look out the window because somehow I know these tears are between me and my Dad only.

We pull up in front of my abandoned building in Brooklyn. The Good Man from Long Island gives it a glance and says, “Not much longer kid. See you Monday morning.”

I say, “Thanks, man.”

“For what kid?”

“For helping me out, giving me a chance.”

“Not to worry, kid. I’m going to teach you to be an estimator. You learn to read blueprints, learn the business a bit and come up with a bid. My company bids on a job and that’s how we get some big jobs. I can see you’re a smart kid, you’ll learn this stuff easy. Not to worry. You’re gonna be alright.” He looks out at the abandoned house and says, “That’s not too dark?”

“No. I’m cool. Shep’s inside, there’s guys like me living on the first floor.”

We shake hands. He says, “God bless you, Peter,” and I think he has.

In my room I turn on the hot plate and boil water for coffee. I sit down on the mattress and Shep curls his head into my lap and sighs. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt this happy. I look at Shep and I think the two of us will have a place to live soon. All I want is a room with a bed and clean sheets and a bathroom of my own with hot and cold running water and a shower and if I am really lucky, a bath tub. The Good Man from Long Island even said God Bless you – to me.

It is Monday morning before daylight and I am awake, the first cup of coffee in hand, Shep wagging his tail, smiling at me, the room warm and cozy. I have shaved and scrubbed myself down and begin to get dressed. The shirt is too big and the pants too long and the waist too big but I roll-up the cuffs and pull the belt tight and tie my tie like my Dad taught me and his presence in that task helps me.

I am embarrassed walking out of the abandoned building in a suit that’s too large and dirty sneakers and I am embarrassed on the train into Manhattan surrounded by well dressed commuters who I know are looking at me so I keep my eyes on the subway floor. I know everyone is staring and my face is hot and I want to die or fall to the floor and sob and beg someone to please help me, I can’t bear to live like this anymore.

I enter a polished lobby in a mid-town office building. It is so clean and shiny I think dust and dirt aren’t allowed. I enter an elevator with men in suits and women that sparkle with beauty, sexiness and confidence. I am ashamed to be alive.

The Good Man from Long Island welcomes me with a smile but he is distracted. He takes me to a large room with draftsmen’s tables along each wall. He shows me rolls of blue prints and tells me to the study them until he gets back.

“I don’t expect you to learn it all in one day, kid,” he says. He glances at his watch. “Just relax and learn as much as you can. I’ll be back in awhile.”

The wall clock says 9:15 and I turn my attention to the blueprints, glad to finally have something to put my mind to. I feel like I am making progress when I begin to recognize stairways and windows and elevator shafts. Time creeps along and boredom sets in. Even so I keep studying, trying to understand. I am learning some things and can’t wait to tell the Good Man from Long Island. Already I want him to be proud of me.

The Good Man from Long Island returns around four that afternoon. “Common, kid,” he says, “I’ll drive you home.” He seems distracted and this makes sense to me because I am sure he has been out there all day on big jobs and if you are a Good Man from Long Island with a large house and beautiful wife you’re bound to have a lot on your mind.

I haven’t eaten all day so I get a bag of chips and two Baby Ruth bars at a newsstand in the lobby. The chips will absorb the acid in my stomach and I like Baby Ruth bars and my Dad told me once Baby Ruth bars were his favorite candy.

The Good Man from Long Island says little on the drive back to Brooklyn. I know he is a busy man with lots on his mind and if I had to think about big jobs with different floors and stairs and elevator shafts and how much they would cost me so I could figure how much to bid I’d have a lot to think about too.

I am thinking Christmas is right around the corner and I don’t want to ask but I am hoping I’ll get paid before Christmas because I’d like to get Lyn a present and maybe have enough money left over for some clothes that fit and I want to eat at the neighborhood diner. There’s no better meal on planet earth than sitting at the counter in a diner and having the waitress put a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy and string beans in front of you and then apple pie for desert and all along as much coffee as you can drink, after you buy the first cup of course. Sometimes if you get a waitress in a good mood she’ll let you take a coffee to go for free. Sometimes they charge you. But there is no better feeling than stepping out of a diner into a cold winter day with a full stomach, a fresh cup of coffee and a cigarette to light up.

We pull up in front of my abandoned building. The Good Man from Long Island puts the car in park and leans back. The engine runs so quiet you can hardly tell it’s on. He looks out the front window, reaches into his shirt pocket, removes some money and hands it to me. “Take this, kid,” he says. I look down and see two ten dollar bills and I think I am beginning to know what it is like to get rich. “Listen, kid,” the Good Man from Long Island says. “I’ve been doing some thinking and the truth is I think I bit off more than I can handle with you so I’m afraid I don’t have anymore work for you. Sorry. You’re a good kid, you’ll be okay.”

I look at him. He is looking out the window. I am gutted. I think he must feel bad too but he proves me wrong. He looks at his watch and says, “Listen, kid, I wish you all the luck in the world but I’ve got to get going. Do me a favor, I need the clothes back, run in and get them for me.”

A few minutes later I am back at his car and hand him the clothes through the window. He says good luck and drives away and now I know that Long Island and Heaven are not the same thing.

OUTSIDE MY WINDOW

Outside my window the light leaves the day and the snow continues its slow retreat into the earth. My two dogs nest near my feet and the darkening grey-blue sky for reasons I don’t fully understand reminds me of the dangerous divide between humanity life and earth life, of humanity and nature. I think of how dishonesty and greed and the all too noticeable absence of compassion for our fellow human beings drives this divide even wider. It seems to me this divide, unless closed, seals our planet’s end, unless humankind, driven by its poisonous fuels, manages to hurry it’s end with violence.

I worry for the human family, so divided by borders, skin color, sexual preferences, religion, gender, wealth, poverty, language, custom and more. While leaders of nations may know each other the people in these nations are kept in their respective rooms, segregated, their voices tempered, ignored or annihilated.

I love mother earth. I love the sky. I love clouds and streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, mountains, the wind at night and the magnificence of thunder and the crackle-blaze glory of lightening. I love humanity and the idea of humanity. I love that there is laughter and the ability to sway with the intoxication of love. I love that music sends chills dancing on the spine and the nape of the neck. I love words that wet my eyes, words that run so deep they reach, touch, taste and tell on our very souls.

The light has left the day now; a lamp casts my writing table in a soft glow. There is a peace here in this moment, gratitude that I am alive to write these words whatever their worth. And, there is a joy knowing that tomorrow the sun will rise, tomorrow.