A high school friend of mine worked as a successful lawyer for roughly the past two decades. He won a great ROTC scholarship in high school. While in the U.S. Army, he went to law school. After serving in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, he worked as an attorney for the Department of Defense before going into private practice law.
But change has come. My friend gave up the life of an attorney to chase his dream of being a radio D.J.
“Because terrestrial radio is such a big thing now,” he joked.
Today commercial radio is a ghost of its former self while music streaming services dominate music landscape. But people still do make a living as radio D.J.s, why shouldn’t he? He took classes at a local broadcasting school and has managed to cobble together an income from various sources—a few nights hosting a lotto drawing here, running a bar trivia night there, he’s not homeless or starving.
Another friend also took a similar plunge, working in comedy and going for broke. Show business is a brutal and heart-rendering business that leaves some its most earnest and talented people out in the cold. My buddies have no illusions they face an uphill battle, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.
I yearn for the courage that my friends have shown.
I moved back to New York for several reasons, but one of them was to seek fame and fortune and become a great American writer. We writers are a hopeless romantic lot, even those of us that like to paint ourselves as curmudgeons. Even the most anti-social hermit scribbling away in obscurity harbors dreams of being the stuff of book covers and bookstore postcards someday. Any writer that tells you they do not dream of somehow writing themselves into immortality is a liar. Like all artists, we hope our work will live after us and testify to the improbable infinity that we lived.
One of the problems with creative people is that many of us spend more time dreaming and pondering than working at our craft in a way that is productive. We have overly romanticized notions of what our craft is, that it somehow exists in a sphere outside of the normal marketplaces and human conditions. Crash landing into the realities of business and the arts is a hard thing, but the worthwhile things are always hard.
I am in the same boat with so many hopeful others. My dreams have tempered a bit. I will settle for not being the next Jack Kerouac or William Faulkner, but I still hope to make a living creatively, by doing work that is creative, artistic in nature or at least taps into my talents to write about things that I find legitimately interesting.
I am very lucky in the life that I have. I have a great family and group of friends; my health is good; I can say with confidence I will go to bed tonight with food in my stomach and a roof over my head. And yet, there is the dream I must still chase. I’m not low on ambition, but on direction and focus.
Despite all the reasons to be jaded and negative, I live with the confidence in my own creativity and the ability of New York to feed our greatest ambitions. Wish me luck and hard work.
A pre-Thanksgiving “Tofurkey Trot” charity run on Randall’s Island was overcast and blustery, with high winds making logistics a difficulty. Opening the back door of the van sent various pieces of paper, old candy wrappers and other flotsam and jetsam of family life spraying across a parking area, prompting the awkward conscientious shuffle to step on and pick up every piece of litter before they could blow away and make us the city’s environmental villains of the day.
My wife and I arrived with our three children just as the event was getting off to a start. We got our numbers and soon were off, trailing most of the runners and walkers with our two strollers.
This particular Tofurkey Trot was cosponsored by My Dog is My Home, a charity that helps homeless people find shelter that will accommodate their pets and was vegan themed. The organizers were friends who had a fun vegan wedding at an upstate animal sanctuary earlier this year. It was an example of how life can be interesting and varied at all times: the day before the run I had spent in the woods hunting deer, now I was at a vegan event. I didn’t even see a deer—maybe I had been hexed by some vegan mojo—but free doughnuts from Cinnamon Snail makes for terrific comfort food.
My wife and I had our goal to make sure we were not last, and that meant we had to jog a bit now and again while pushing strollers. We were able to stop and chat with friends who were either running or manning the doughnut and water stations at the 5k. It was a chance to see Manhattan from Randall’s Island, a place we rarely get to visit. The run took us over a small footbridge called “Little Hell Gate Bridge” to part of Ward’s Island, which is now connected to Randall’s Island by landfill. The run went past the grounds of the Kirby Psychiatric Center, a state hospital for the criminally insane.
We feasted on doughnuts and got to visit with friends, and it was a great way to start the day. We even won a gift certificate for a Tofurkey meal in a raffle, which we sent to a vegan friend. It was a satisfying start the Thanksgiving season.
Gratitude is a helpful practice and it is good to keep a running list all through the year of things you are thankful for. Refer to that list when you are going through some dark times, and it will help you to see things through with a more balanced view.
Here are some things I am thankful for in 2017:
A wife who loves me and our children and who has infinitely more patience than I do. She signed us up for the Tofurkey Trot and has made me a better person.
Three great children who make me proud every day.
A wonderful extended family that has been there for me in the worst of times.
Great friends who represent the best of what friends have to offer.
The creative urge. Losing the will to create means losing the will to live, because life without literature, art, and music would not be worth living. No matter how burdened with work or other obligations I may be, that spark stays alive somehow. For that I remain grateful.
A roof over my head, a job, and my general health.
I’m thankful that I’ll spend this Thanksgiving having a meal with family and enjoying more time with my wife and children than I normally would get on a Thursday.
The Flatiron district is an interesting place to work. It has a much more mixed milieu than working in midtown or the financial district. Most of the people you see on the street are not office workers involved in the capital markets. While there are financial people from Credit Suisse and the other firms that inhabit the old Metropolitan Life Tower Building, you also have college students from Baruch College, shady characters from the St. Francis Residence on 24th Street, hopeful comedians in the evening performing at the People’s Improv Theater, and a host of well-off residents who live in the area. You’ll find rock starts getting ready to play at the Gramercy Theatre. One evening my coworkers and I were at Black Barn on 26th Street across the street from Madison Square Park when we saw Hilary Clinton come and go with her Secret Service escort (her daughter Chelsea Clinton lives in the building above, as does Jennifer Lopez, a waitress told us).
I try to make it a point to go for a short walk at lunch time, going to Madison Square Park. There is always an unusual art project in the park, and when the weather is nice there are musicians there. There’s a jazz trio that often busks there and I once saw a visiting Algerian theater group Istijmam that was singing in front of the statue of Admiral Farragut.
One day this past week there were few visitors in the park on account of the cold. That didn’t stop people from lining up at the original Shake Shack to pay for the honor of eating over-hyped food outside in the bad weather.
I exited the park on the Southwest by the statue of Roscoe Conkling and headed East on 23rd to get lunch and head back to the office.
On the corner of 23rd Street and Park Avenue was a person in a giant costume, yellow with a big happy face head. The giant happy face was waving and giving the thumbs up to passersby. At first I thought this was one of the costumed people from Times Square that take photos with tourists for tips and have become increasingly aggressive and competitive. Did this person decide to branch out from Times Square? The Flatiron district is not as tourist-heavy as Times Square but may be touristy enough to support one person in a costume? I didn’t see anyone taking a photo with the big happy face, which seemed exceedingly jovial despite not having any commerce.
I thought perhaps this was a promotion for something. A few months ago a parade of Yeti made its way down the sidewalks of 23rd Street to promote a television show about looking for the elusive creature. But I saw no sign that indicated what this might be for and no overt promotion was evident.
As I walked by, I noticed a few young men positioned discreetly near the smiley face watching people pass by. Each held a small stack of business cards in their hands.
I stopped by one of the men and asked if he was with the happy face and if he knew what it was for.
“Yes, we’re here promoting this service,” he said, discreetly handing me one of his business cards. The sleek black card had a smiley face on one side. On the other side was a phone number for a marijuana delivery service “For Major Connoisseurs & Enthusiasts” that is available “For Residents In Manhattan And Select Brooklyn Locations.” “Listen to greeting for instructions.”
I’m not a fan of marijuana. The last thing I need is to be paranoid and compelled to eat more. But I think it should be 100% legal in all states in America and it’s a national shame that anyone is in jail for simply possessing or selling it.
The happy face gave me a thumbs up. Part of me is glad that this was not some group of religious zealots or other do-gooders trying to make everyone happy for the sake of it, and I am happy that industrious New Yorkers are flouting an unfair law and making a profit on it. I wish this business success and thank them for bringing some additional happiness to our corner of the Flatiron district.
Hauling musical gear on the back roads of the Connecticut countryside was satisfying. I followed my friend Steve past some interesting houses in the woods of Killingworth: one giant massive estate that was under construction was already completely out of place with the houses around it. Another house was built in a strange dome-shape, eccentric to the last.
We were done loading the gear for my friend’s big July 4th party. I invited Steve to join me for some pizza, but he couldn’t. He had to make a phone call to a friend’s mother. The friend was in Texas and had committed suicide. It was an online gaming friend; they had never met in person, but the loss was hard to fathom. The guy was young and had a lot to live for if he had only been able to see that. Now it was up to my friend Steve to try to console his friend’s mother. Steve has a lot of friends and cares deeply about people despite his cynical and jaded exterior. He’s a person people are drawn to and for good reason, but this also means he spends a lot of time facing life’s tragedies. He’s seen more than his fair share.
The day after July 4 my father flew into town and rented a car at LaGuardia airport. He came to our apartment in Queens and visited briefly with me and my wife and our two little girls. My Dad lives in Georgia and doesn’t get to see his granddaughters much.
Then we headed to Poughkeepsie for a wake.
Mickey Murphy was my father’s best friend. They had been friends since they were 13-year-old freshman at All Hallows High School in The Bronx.
Mickey and his wife Denise are my godparents and were a very good influence. They were adults that spared me the drama of regular hectoring and criticism required of parents. There are times in every person’s life when they hate their parents; but I could never think a bad thought about the Murphys Mickey was always a friendly face, a calm voice even amid the sturm and drang of adolescence. His wife Denise is the liveliest and friendliest person of every place she goes.
Mickey had diabetes and had not had an easy time of it. He had experienced heart surgery, kidney dialysis and a lot of other non-fun things. He’d be permitted a measure of self-pity about it but that was unthinkable. He was a constant doer of good and could keep his head up even through very bad times.
My father and I drove to Poughkeepsie talking about things to keep our minds off of our destination. We gabbed about the sorry state of politics, the health and well-being of our own family, how his granddaughters are growing and his difficult travel schedule.
At the wake the significance of the loss was evident. Whether people knew Mickey for 15 years or 50, they considered him their best friend.
I owe Mickey a lot, because he was always giving my father interesting books to read and helped shape him as a voracious reader in high school. Not too many 16-year-olds can tackle Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness but Mickey Murphy and my Dad did.
My father was asked to say a few words and he came with prepared remarks prepared. As per usual he made me very proud to be his son.
Here is what he said:
“I met Mickey in freshman year high school now more than 50 years ago. In the past few days many of our classmates have been exchanging reminiscences and nearly all of them recall his amazing abilities. One of us wrote that, given what Mickey could do on the basketball court as well as in the classroom, he was a kind of superhero to the rest of us. And that was true. I remember describing Mickey to someone once who said, ‘Really, a guy who can do everything really well, sounds pretty hateful.’ But in Mickey it wasn’t. He was a gracious man and there wasn’t an ounce of swagger in him anytime, ever. In fact, if there was a flaw to point to at all, it was that he seldom paused long enough to even take in the great thing he had just done before he went on to the next.
“Mick had a successful career at IBM before illness cut it short. He had a series of important positions in our Human Resources function and ended up as Director of HR for the company’s corporate headquarters division where he had responsibility for the global headquarters site in Armonk. When I asked him about his executive responsibilities he said, ‘It’s simple, it’s just the stuff you already know. ’ Mickey had a welcome sign placed at the desk in the headquarters lobby. So yes, that’s simple and it was certainly something that Mickey knew to do, but no one had thought to do that before. He carried a reflexive graciousness with him throughout his life and applied it everywhere.
“Thirteen years ago Mickey and I visited Ireland. The trip was a Christmas present from our wives. Neither of us had ever been and it was a pilgrimage of sorts. We visited our mothers’ birthplaces. Mickey’s mom’s in Charleville and my mother’s hometown of Roscrea. We also hit all the sites that would draw any self-respecting brooding romantic Irishman. We went to Kilmainham prison and saw the yard where the leaders of the 1916 uprising had been executed. We traced the bullet holes in the walls of the post office on O’Connell Street in Dublin. I remember joking that if we had to have all of the darkness of this heritage couldn’t we at least have some of the light? I get the brooding intensity and sense of injustice unpunished and all that but what about the mirth and the magic? Isn’t there supposed to be a pot of gold here someplace, Murphy? So I got him to go to the Art Museum. It’s really convenient being right here next to the prison. I insisted we go to the Abbey Theater in Dublin to see a play. True, it was a brooding tragedy about a dying young man, but it was the theater.
“This struggle between the darkness and the light – not letting one overtake the other – is something all of us of Irish descent inherit. We don’t always achieve a manageable balance and it can be a life’s work. There is one thing this week that gives me comfort. Today Mickey is with Our Lord of whom Scripture says, “In Him there is no darkness only light.” So we know that for Mick a perfect balance is now achieved and all the physical challenges he bore so graciously throughout his life are resolved. Because we understand the truth of the Resurrection, we know that Mickey is restored to the fullness of his abilities and all the great gifts God gave him just as he was when I first met him. This is a promise made to all of us and in the sadness we feel at having to say goodbye to our great friend, this gives us legitimate cause to celebrate.”