Thursday, August 27, 2020

Last Call at Murphy's Pub

That’s my shadow, holding up a cell phone to capture this image at 5:19 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, 2020, on Second Avenue, between 51st and 52nd streets.

It was the first time my wife and I were back together in New York City since the outbreak of the pandemic. We walked around our old haunts on the East Side, without any direction.

Nancy turned to me at one point and said, “It’s odd. I’ve never seen New York look like this.”

“How so?”

“The city looks vulnerable,” she said. “I never thought that would be possible.”

As we approached 52nd Street, I had an idea. “Let’s have a drink at Murphy’s,” I said, eyeing a temporary terrace, constructed of 2x4s, jutting out into the empty red bus lane along the west side of Second Avenue. A temporary sign proclaimed that the site was “Murphy's Pub,” although the permanent signage on the building called it “Jameson’s.”

When we were dating, Nancy and I often had drinks at Murphy’s – usually with colleagues from the newspaper where we worked nearby. We were regulars. When my wife entered, the bartender would cheerfully call out, “Gin and tonic!” – as if she were Norm on the sitcom “Cheers.”

We took seats at the outside bar, and a waiter dutifully handed us menus, since we’d need to order food (in accordance with Gov. Cuomo’s restaurant-opening restrictions). We did – and Nancy, who for years has ordered only wine on date nights, ordered a gin and tonic with her meal.

Surprisingly, from a makeshift stage at the front door, music began to play. It was “Mae & Henry” – a guitar and violin duo of locals Mae Roney and Henry Raber.

Mae is a wonderful fiddle player with a soulful vocal range, and her version of the great 1990s song by 4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up (What’s Going On),” gave me goosebumps. Live music is vibrant and immediate, raw and energizing in a way that can’t be replicated in the streaming videos of homebound musicians.

The waiter retuned with two large, clear plastic cups, one filled with a perfectly-headed Guinness for me and another, with ice, containing a strong, cool, smooth gin and tonic.

It was as if a ghostly bartender had been waiting for 30 years just to serve a perfect drink, in a perfect moment, to Nancy.

The gin and tonic looked refreshing and timelessly regal. Drops of condensation made the cup glisten in the descending sunlight.

My wife offered me a sip, and it tasted like New York.


In the month since, I’ve returned to New York other days in my current job. Last night I detoured past Murphy’s Pub on my walk from a parking garage… and found out that it was vulnerable too.

A post on its Instagram account (adorned with the logo of its co-owned sister/neighbor, Jameson’s) said, “our attempts to negotiate reopening that would allow us to operate and recover from the pandemic proved unfruitful… Go raibh maith agat!

I tried Murphy’s door, but it was locked. An amiable young man with close-cropped curly red hair poked his head from an open window. “Couldn’t get another lease,” he explained with a brogue.

I looked past him and saw chairs stacked on top of the pub’s familiar wooden tables, and some half-packed boxes. “We’ll be open around 5 today, if you want to stop by then. But we’re closing this weekend. On to better things.” He shrugged and smiled.

So after work last night I had a last burger and drink at Murphy’s. No music played, but I imagined Mae & Henry performing an old Dylan tune, and I toasted all of us who once shared some time together here.

Here’s to you, Nancy, and Joe and Cathy, Mary and Dennis, Mia and Bill... to Tricia, Ken, Rich, Monica, Laurel, Claudia, Sue, Mia, Gina, Marguerite... to Randy and Barbara.

We were once together in a magical place. It wasn’t just this bar near the corner of Second Avenue and 52nd Street. It was all of it.

On to better things.

Wherever any of us are now, in New York we are forever young.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Aspiration, Faith (And Poetry) in Montclair, NJ

I had a friend who lived in Montclair many years ago, right after college, when I lived with my parents before moving to New York.

Me and E spent many happy hours exploring her home town. It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend.

She had studied to be a broadcast journalist, and she resembled the actress Candice Bergen. This was a few years before the first episode of her legendary sitcom. E’s fate was to have her alternate life meticulously scripted and portrayed by a talented actress for our viewing pleasure.

In real life, E was always better than Candice Bergen. Years ago, I had promised to write her a poem explaining why.

I didn’t keep my promise. I thought of that the other day when my wife said she had an appointment to get her hair done in Montclair on Sunday. I offered to tag along so I could spend the waiting time re-exploring Montclair.

I’ve been there other times in the ensuing years: our wedding reception was at the Marlboro Inn in town, and our oldest daughter graduated from Montclair State.

But, since the pandemic, every familiar place seems irrevocably different.

In Montclair, the Marlboro Inn, which my wife and I drove past on the way to the hair salon, is now a condo complex. The big old Hahne’s store downtown, where E’s mother once worked, is now a condo complex too. Those two changes happened long before the pandemic.

However, here are two telling photos from Sunday: one outside the iconic Clairidge Theatre on Bloomfield Avenue, which was closed (temporarily, I believe) on March 16, 2020… and the other advertising events at Hillside School, also frozen in time in March 2020:

All that remains the same in Montclair, I found, are its magnificent churches. Consider these photos:

Immaculate Conception Church

Christ Church

First United Methodist Church

First Church of Christ Scientist

All these churches are within blocks of each other.

I’d like to write something profound here about the permanence of what E.B. White once called our visible symbols of aspiration and faith.

But I don’t trust these troubled times one bit.

Consider the photo at the very top of this page: It’s the hair salon. It used to be a Baptist church, then a Masonic temple.

So I’ll offer this instead. It’s a poem I finished last night. The pandemic can never change a word of it:


Why You Are Better Than Candice Bergen

(for E)


To begin with,

despite your striking resemblance,

you weren’t an actress.

You wore no makeup. You had no lines.


Replaying scenes with you in my mind, 

I see Isabella Rossellini, without pretense;

Eva Gabor, in the city;

Jane Fonda, unbound.


You are the tangible version of Candice Bergen

in Montclair, New Jersey, pre-“Murphy Brown.”

I still see us spooning ice cream at a diner.

In our booth, I hear the sound of the mini jukebox.


We improvised.

You took my hand,

and we sang about the morning rain,

when I felt so uninspired.



Before the day I met you, life was so unkind.

Your unrehearsed laughter was the key

to my peace of mind.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Read Any Good Books Lately?

Do you have a suggestion for a book to read before Labor Day?

I've only read seven books since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Eight, if you count watching the movie version of "The Great Gatsby," a book I usually re-read every Memorial Day weekend.

In the age of COVID-19, reading seems to take extra concentration; meanwhile, my mind frets and wanders.

Watching 1974's version of "The Great Gatsby" rekindled the memory of driving my daughter to college in DC. We were listening to the book together, but the Turnpike traffic was so light that our version of the story ended with the scene at The Plaza, when Gatsby might have ended up with Daisy.

My daughter's reaction? "As far as I'm concerned, Gatsby never went for a swim before they closed up his pool."

So in our version of the Great American Novel, we still live in a land where happily ever after is possible.

A dear friend in Minnesota once rapturously describing movie-going as the shared experience of strangers in a darkened room staring at a screen filled with infinite possibilities of light and sound.

In the age of COVID-19, watching a movie alone in my living room on Memorial Day, I realized that this magic now eludes us.

An excellent alternative to reading, I've found, is listening to books. Audible is a great service (and a company proudly based in New Jersey). An email this morning reminds me I've now been a subscriber for nearly 20 years. How is that even possible?

No matter. But I am curious about what you think. Have you read any good books lately?


Here's what I've recently read or listened to...

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American DemocracyGhosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy by Margaret Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this was poignant in the recent days following Pete Hamill's death and the shuttering of the Daily News' New York City newsroom. A long intro lays out an ambitious premise for what is ultimately a short book. Perhaps there's simply not that much more to say.

I admire Margaret Sullivan very much, and there's good reason to give this read 5 stars -- and, yet, for all the fawning admiration of the talent of trained journalists and the god-like qualities ascribed to Washington Post editor Marty Baron, there's still a germ of a doubt in my mind about how we got to this place and how we can recover.

For one thing, I believe smart people will adapt to the changes caused by technology that led to many self-inflicted problems in the business of journalism.

For another thing, a recent story in the Post (precipitated by an email to Ms. Sullivan, or so I have read) devoted a good deal of the paper's resources to investigating a DC-area Halloween party several years ago where a private citizen wore an ill-considered costume (for which she expressed regret) and was shamed and fired from her job because of the Post's coverage.

If what remains of hallowed journalism is so precious, it should not have been squandered like that... by people who should have known better. 

Blood: A MemoirBlood: A Memoir by Allison Moorer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an outstanding book by a talented writer.

Even better: Listen to the version of this book narrated by the author.

"Blood" is a memoir centered on the murder/suicide of the author's parents outside her bedroom window when she was just 14 years old.

In less-capable and thoughtful hands, such a shocking story might be impossible to tell.

Instead, I found listening to Moorer's plaintive voice both touching and intimate. It inspired me.

On one level, it's inspiring to experience the act of being told a story. It harkens back to Homer and Shakespeare, to the days my parents read stories to me, and to memories of reading stories to my daughters.

On another level, I was inspired by the book's theme of acceptance, forgiveness and love.

This book is stunning: haunting and lyrical.

Mariette in EcstasyMariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm so angry at this novel. It reminds me how my senses have become so numb lately. Blame the pandemic.

I started and stopped, started and stopped reading this book so many times over the past two months. I even read many thoughtful reviews, which encouraged me to read on, because Ron Hansen's work is so highly regarded.

Rightfully so, I imagine. The writing here is impressive. But all the pretty words and imagery, the author's impressionistic style and slow pacing, all the petty characters (save Mariette)... ultimately left me flat and cold and, much worse, uninterested. Was it the storytelling? Or me?

I've read or seen reviews that this book's ambiguous ending is very profound and holds many secrets. This is a reflection of me today: I am not able to discern a single one. 

Rejoice and Be Glad 2020: Daily Reflections for Easter to PentecostRejoice and Be Glad 2020: Daily Reflections for Easter to Pentecost by Mary DeTurris Poust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book very much; the personal stories from the author made the daily reflections entertaining and relatable. (Full disclosure: Mary DeTurris Poust is a former colleague, and a good friend. Also, I supplemented this book with daily emails from the great Notre Dame website

SPOILER ALERT: The main character disappears into thin air in the middle of the story... or does He? 🙂 

Casino Royale (James Bond, #1)Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Billions" used to be one of my favorite shows. But the recent premiere of Season 5 left me with a hollow, "so what?" feeling.

The Showtime series is a soap opera about rich people, and the outstanding production and writing quality hasn't changed since Season 4.

The world has changed. I've changed.

So too with Bond. I couldn't concentrate on the psychological/religious novel I began to read a few weeks ago ("Mariette in Ecstasy," above), so I picked up Ian Fleming's novel instead, hoping that the escapism would comfort me.

I was wrong.

This is the original, best Bond. It lacks the Bond Villain Stupidity of some of the lesser movies based on subsequent installments. (My wife could always tell when I'd watch one of these because, like Dr. Evil's son, I'd be shouting, "Just shoot him! Just shoot him!" from the living room).

This is the Bond-in-Writing that attracted my Dad as a fan. Dad was an intelligence officer in the Navy. So, high praise.

This book -- like "Billions" -- is a still Worthy Effort. It's just not resonating with me these days.

Curiously, both the Bobby Axelrod character in last night's "Billions" episode and the James Bond here wonder if there's something more to life than what they've devoted their efforts to. Then both are betrayed, and both revert to their broad, impossible, more-appealing-to-a-commercial-audience selves.

I willingly suspended belief for Bond's view of women the way I suspended belief during all the plot twists in "Billions" -- but I can't suspend the haunting feeling, in the age of COVID-19, that there's something more to life than reading or watching all this.

The world has changed. I've changed.

As my Mom says, "Did I already say that? I'm sorry. I find I'm repeating myself a lot these days."  

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chalk this up to displacement in the age of COVID-19. I've read a little of this book every night these past three weeks... to put myself to sleep. I found the book incredibly boring, like slogging through ankle-deep mud. Uphill.

I've had similar reading meltdowns: for example, my epic "Pride and Prejudice" debacle of 2013.

As much as I want to give this less than 3 stars, I can't: Alan Alda is a favorite actor, and he seems like a perfectly wonderful person in what I can glean is his real life. I wish him all the best. I really do.

I even promise to read any sequel titled "My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating... and Zombies." 

What the Dog Saw and Other AdventuresWhat the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently enjoyed -- and highly recommend -- Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "Talking to Strangers." When I subsequently realized I had purchased "What the Dog Saw" as an audiobook years ago without listening to it then, I dove into this one too… and was not disappointed.

I can't quite give it 5 stars because I didn't find it as relevant. I wasn't as interested in all the topics covered here as Malcolm (I now feel we're on a first-name basis) was. This is an eclectic compilation of past New Yorker articles, so stories also date back years earlier than the book's 2009 publication.

And yet, Malcolm's depth of reporting, writing style and analysis are consistently thought-provoking. He challenges all assumptions. He analytically and anecdotally shows that life is complicated and messy, and truth is elusive.

The moral: We aren't as in control of things as we like to think we are.

This especially hit home for me this morning (March 11, 2020). I finished the book on an almost-empty bus during my commute to New York City. Walking to work, I found only a ghost of the usual crowd on the midtown streets.

I wonder, what is to become of us?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Adventures in Photojournaling: 3 Views of Love

These past two months, I've taken part in a photojournaling class organized by the New Milford, NJ, library (thank you, Anna Kim!) and led by an encouraging teacher and neighbor, Janet Dengel.

We bring photos to Zoom class, and Janet gives us prompts to write extemporaneously for a few minutes and tell a story about each one.

We never know what to expect. Two high school students in the class are talented writers, and I am enchanted by what others write about random images.

It's evidence that if we approach the world with curiousity, awe and wonder, we find the mundane can be profound and the ordinary can possess deep beauty.

I've also learned two things about myself: I'm fascinated with photography because it gives me the superpower to stop time, and I'm obsessed with writing about love.

As I grow older, both time and love grow more magical.

Here are three examples of what I've written: from an old photo found in my garage, a recent photo I took at the boardwalk, and a photo by classmate Luzel San Pedro.

First Love

I don't know why my first girlfriend gave me this photo. It shows her at a party at Seton Hall, when I was a thousand miles away.

We had broken up a few years earlier. We were still friends... and had been for years... but by that Halloween I was already several boyfriends removed.

What I'm showing you here is a poor Polaroid print, dark and faded. She's the one with red bangs, wearing a green knit cap, and an oversized orange rain slicker in reverse.

It was just a fraction of a second, so many years ago, but this photo explains everything about why I loved her:

Dressed like a pumpkin, she almost looks vulnerable.

Into the Mystic

That's my daughter near the water... on the Seaside Heights boardwalk on a foggy night in June 2020.

She had come home to visit on Father's Day. I hadn't seen her since the pandemic lockdown in March.

I didn't post photos of the two of us together on social media. No matter. The outside world wouldn't be able to see me smiling from ear to ear under the mask I wore that night.

Before this moment, I had stopped to take a photo of a comically large stuffed gorilla at an amusement stand. My daughter kept walking, without knowing I wasn't beside her.

I want to believe she simply assumes I'll always be at her side. I want to believe I will be. But each day it becomes clearer that "always" is an empty promise.

I am powerless to stop time, except when I take photos.

That's why this image matters. It matters because the distance between us will never grow any larger. It matters because even as my daughter steps forward into the mystic, she is never diminished in my view.

I dare you to look at this photo of my daughter. I dare you to unmask me. I dare you to try to see how much I love her.

Photo by Luzel San Pedro
3 Questions, 1 Answer

This photo suggests three questions:

- Is everything beautiful inherently dangerous?

- Are we afraid of beauty when we shouldn't be?


- Are we too foolish to heed the warning signs?

I have only one answer, and everyone of us learns the same lesson the hard way:

The closer you get, the more likely you are to be stung.

Me on the left