Potato Making

22 11 2009

Last night I made mashed potatoes for the Church. Peeling those bad boys made me think about my first day in New York.

I had met two nice gentlemen at the Center. They were both retired, white guys living comfortably in Upper Manhattan. Sadly, I can’t recall their names.

Nevertheless, when one of the gents learned of my Irish descent, he proceeded to tell me about the “great potato famine.”

“That’s what brought the Irish here,” he said.

Potatoes in High Demand

Fast forward some 150 years and Panama City had not run out of potatoes, but I was in New York, strolling the streets with two old fogies and sharing stories.

We went to the Barnes & Noble store in Lincoln Center to hear a panel discussion on famous Broadway composers, presented by famous Broadway composers.

Famous, that is, if you follow Broadway composers. These guys did and when a score was played they hummed and rocked in their chairs.

The music, for the most part, went over my head, but I sat and listened and hoped to hear a familiar tune. I felt very uncultured.

After the panel was over we decided to have dinner at a nearby diner. Another fellow joined us, making our party a foursome.

It was a civil dinner. The gentlemen all seemed intrigued about my arrival in the City, but it was a story they had read, heard and witnessed many, many times before.

“It’s really hard for a writer to find work right now, you know,” one of the men told me.

I acknowledged this and assured him that I was up for the challenge. He seemed skeptical.

The four of us split the bill evenly that night and the three wise men went off to their comfy condos in the sky as I headed to meet Barry in Union Square.

Last night, as I peeled potatoes in the sink, thoughts about that night resurfaced.  I remember getting the phone number for the fellow who told me about the “great potato famine” and how I tried to call him a few weeks after our initial visit, only to receive a gruff response.

Why did he even give me his phone number in the first place?, I thought. New York is such a strange place.

Meanwhile, back in Panama City, the mashed potatoes went over big at Church this morning. Food for thought.


Leaving New York

13 11 2009

I left New York after the Labor Day weekend. Barry was back teaching in Berkeley, Omar had moved to Iowa and Shaun was still collecting unemployment in Queens.

The summer in the City had taken its physical toll. All of the walking produced a realization that I am not 25 anymore.  Mentally, it was challenging as well. Shelter should never be taken for granted.

I have spent the last couple of months recovering from New York. Going to the Beach, riding my bike and writing. Old Man Winter will be here soon.

I have made plans to visit family in Texas. Life springs anew there. My brother is now a father. Dillan Kate McDonald celebrated her first birthday in August. Courtney, the proud mother, sent a photo of Dillan in my birthday card. She is beautiful. Blue eyes, golden hair and a smile that will warm the heart of the coldest journalist.

We will travel to Dallas via automobile. No Greyhound this time. Mr. Smith has taken care of the arrangements. He makes this trip every year. Without his help, I would not be able to see Dillan. New York broke me.

“That’s what they say about New York,” Omar told me. “It either welcomes you with open arms or chews you up and spits you out.”

New York did chew on my spirit pretty good. But now I must get back in the saddle and ride again. The lessons learned in the City will no doubt serve us well out West.

There are a couple of tasks that must be dealt with before the trip. Meetings with doctors and lawyers, of course, and brunch with Goede, my trusted director friend.

We have brunched for several years now and the meetings are always enlightening. Goede got a front row seat to my last flameout and, to his credit, has stuck around to help pick up the pieces.

He can be tough and brutally honest and many times I have regretted not following his advice more sincerely. Goede warned not to quit my job at the newspaper.

“There is a recession coming, John, some say we are already in it,” he advised.

Unfortunately, I did not listen.

Next week, Goede and I will meet before I leave for Texas. Through our e-mail communications, he has informed me that I have a few questions to answer and it is important that we brunch in an atmosphere conducive for listening.

This time I will be prepared.



God’s Blessings

8 11 2009

Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

To say that I strayed from my faith as a practicing  journalist would be an understatement. But, no matter how angry I got at God, I have never stopped believing in Him.

There are times when I reflect on the summer in New York as a pilgrimage. My grandfather, Joseph Arthur McDonald, was a devout Catholic, raised in the Bronx, the son of Irish immigrants. Like most young men of his time, Joe served in the European theater during World War II.

When I would visit him at his home in Apalachicola, visits that were far too infrequent considering our close proximity, I would always ask him about the War, but would never get much.

My grandfather did not like to talk about those times. All he would really say is that war was not pretty and the French were very dirty people.

And despite his upbringing, Joe rarely spoke fondly of New York, at least to his grandchildren. He considered it an unsafe place to live.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

New York had many temptations. Temptations of pride, lust and greed were everywhere.

And so was the Church.

In New York, unlike the South, Catholics were a majority, thus I did not have to look too hard to find a place to pray.

I decided to visit the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the West Village. It was a beautiful church with long wooden pews, stained glass windows and high arching ceilings.

The congregation was primarily Hispanic with mass in Spanish and English.

I asked one of the nuns if I could speak with a priest for confession. She told me to wait and she would see if she could accommodate my request.

The nun disappeared into the Church office and I took a seat in one of the pews, my bag, which was becoming heavier by the day, at my side.

It was a weekday morning and some of the City’s homeless had found refuge inside the church’s pews. After a few minutes, the nun returned with a priest who was willing to listen.

What we talked about was — and will remain — between the two of us and God.

I left the church feeling resolved, with more steam in my stride. For some reason, God had kept me away from harm as I wandered the streets of New York.

I never felt in danger, no matter how deep I traveled into the City’s networks. Whenever indecision or fear tried to creep in, Goede’s words would come to mind.

“Be confident, walk tall,” he told me some years back.

I was blessed to have people like Goede, who cared enough to offer guidance from afar during this difficult time in my life.

Blessed to have men like Omar, Shaun and Barry to offer support in ways I cannot begin to describe.

And blessed to be a child of God.

Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Peace Be With You.


Developing Rent

3 11 2009

When the GM found out I had a plane ticket to Panama City, my time at the bistro was over.

I was kind of bummed, but understood. He wanted someone dedicated to New York. And that wasn’t me.

I was ready to go home, only my departure was still a couple weeks away. Thankfully, Shaun, my host in Queens, was very cool about me staying with him, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.

Shaun had a tendency to brood.

So I did some Couchsurfing again and came across Mike, a young developer in the East Village who was willing to host me for one night.

“I usually don’t accept couchsurfing requests from Americans,” Mike told me.

Again, my Southern heritage proved to be a novelty.

Mike was Jewish and his apartment was pristine. Not a collectible out of place. He was well-traveled and planning a trip to Turkey.

We went to the corner coffee shop in his neighborhood and Mike explained how a revitalization had occurred here during the last decade.

“This was once the neighborhood of ‘Rent,'” Mike said, referring to the hit Broadway musical.

Rent Soundtrack

No Day But Today

But the desolation depicted in ‘Rent’ was hardly visible now. Mike seemed very proud of this.

Shaun, on the other hand, had a different opinion entirely. He blasted developers like Mike for ‘destroying the character’ of the East Village.

Whatever the case, I was a guest in Mike’s house for the night and I was determined to show gratitude.

During our visit to the coffeeshop, Mike revealed his connections to the journalism world. During the course of conversation, I learned we had mutual friends in Miami and, surprise, surprise, had attended the same media convention in Brooklyn a few years back.

After coffee, Mike insisted I purchase an umbrella because the rain was not going to relent. We then returned to his place and he graciously allowed me to check my e-mail on his fancy Mac computer.

Mike was a nice-looking fellow. His gray hair was just starting to sprout and he took good care of himself. We watched the Gary Cooper classic ‘Pride of the Yankees’ together.

Great baseball film with all the immigrant flair of New York’s early days.

Those were the days.

‘Pride of the Yankees’ is no longer playing on Broadway and, for that matter, neither is ‘Rent.’ Instead, they have been replaced by the likes of “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Mary Poppins,” “South Pacific” and “The Lion King.”

Mike had to be at the office early in the morning so he retired after the movie. His couch rolled out into a bed and, for the first time in a long time, I got a good night’s sleep.

The next morning we ate ceral together and I packed up my Ben Sherman bag and Mike escorted me to the elevator, past the building’s front desk attendant and down to the street.

It was a rare sunny morning for June. We said our goodbyes and Mike headed off to work and I to the nearest post office. It was time to send some more postcards to friends and family.

Time to wait in another line.

Sizing up the Labor force

31 10 2009

Reflecting on my summer in New York is like taking little pieces of random things and making it into one big puzzle.

Like the time, inside the Starbucks on Union Square, I walked past a long line of tourists, waiting to have their cappucinos and lattes and picked up a sandwich and left.

Basically, it was my big Fuck You to Corporate America. Here was a company trying to provide a service without the ample workforce.

There was only two employees and, bless their hearts, they were working as fast as they could.

In New York, time is of the essence. One two weeks into my stay did I finally come to grips with this fact.

Time is money.

Outside of the Starbucks, a man had set up a table with literature displayed about hungry children in Africa. I gave him a dollar and made my way to work, eating the sandwich as I walked.

When I got to the bistro, only Cody, the tattooed drummer with black-framed glasses was there. Cody was a waiter at the bistro. He lived in Brooklyn, like all the rest of the twenty-something hipsters, and was the kind of guy who could fit in at a gym just as well as a comic book shop.

Omar would be the other waiter on the day shift and I would be the bus boy. This entitled the three of us to the ‘house meal’ — served up by Miguel, who was running a tad bit late today.

The General Manager wasn’t there either, nor the sweet little Italian lady who did the books.

Cody told me the liquor license had expired so if anyone wanted to imbibe, tell them all we had was beer and wine.

I did have to turn away one nice couple because Miguel had not arrived. Can’t have a restaurant without a cook.

Cody slammed his notebook on the ground in disgust and that’s when Omar turned to me and smiled.

“I guess we’re going out of business today,” Omar cracked.

But we didn’t. Miguel did show up and cooked up a delicious omelet with rice for the house meal. Eventually, hungry and thirsty tourists would wander in, many seeking to simply use the bathroom.

Previously, Barry had assured me that it was not rude to enter an establishment and ask to use their bathroom.

By the time I had landed my bistro gig, Barry was in France, hiking through the Pyrenees mountains. I was still a little sore at him for so abruptly sending me on my way so when he asked if I’d like to accompany him to JFK for his flight, I politely declined.

The thing is, I enjoyed talking with Barry and, especially enjoyed attending theater with him. During ‘Twelfth Night’ he was like my interpreter, explaining Shakespeare in a way I could really understand and relate to.

O world! how apt the poor are to be proud.”

Alas, Barry was on his way to France and I had found labor in wiping down tables on Prince Street.

My cut from the lunch rush was 16 bucks, thanks to Omar. Cody, that greedy bastard, didn’t tip me out.

When the GM finally showed, he told me to get some black slacks because jeans were not acceptable on the floor.

So I took the money I made from my busy boy shift and spent it on a pair of pants. A foolish purchase, as it turned out.

My time at the bistro would be short-lived.

And the pants never really fit.


Off to Queens

30 10 2009

After close to a week of sharing the Gramercy apartment, Barry broke the news to me.

I had to go.

Seems a friend of the owner was due to drop by and, come to find out, I was a big secret.

This friend would surely squeal to the owner that Barry had another person living with him and that would violate their house-swapping agreement.

So I looked for other accommodations. Through Couchsurfing, I was offered a spot in Queens, by an artist, whose work reminded me of an old friend back in Panama City.

It would be my first real foray into this borough, sans La Guardia. Queens was definitely not Manhattan or Brooklyn for that matter. I’d be returning to the Greyhound crowd and that was just fine with me. It sure beat the streets.

My host, Shaun the artist, was younger than Barry and had a good 10 years on me. We got along well. Having spent some time in the military, Shaun enjoyed my Southern style, but he was not a real happy camper.

Currently unemployed, Shaun spent most of his days surfing the internet and watching ‘Family Guy’ episodes on his computer. He got a check from the government which helped him pay his rent and buy some groceries.

The rest of the money he spent on drugs, booze and Puerto Rican hookers.

Shaun lived in the Long Island City neighborhood, which had a unique claim to fame as being the most diverse section of NYC.

“They did a census here a few months back,” Shaun explained as we walked the neighborhood. “And they couldn’t come up with any ethnic majority.”

Our walk together told the story. Long Island City was indeed a melting pot with shops and restaurants catering to all kinds — Chinese, Mexican, Czech, Irish, Venezuelan, Greek, you name it. And for a long lost American, there was always McDonald’s.

One day, when it did not rain, Shaun and I took the bus out to Jacob Riis Park.


I took some pictures of Shaun laying on the beach so he could post on his Couchsurfing profile. He liked the idea of couchsurfing and was planning to do some traveling abroad.

Being from Florida, the beach is not really that big a deal to me. We are spoiled in Florida with beautiful beaches. In Panama City, in particular, the sugary soft sand and aqua blue water made Jacob Riis Park look like a scene out of Mad Max’s ‘Thunderdome.’

Still, it was cool to watch the big jets fly in for their landings and, occasionally some buff dude in a speedo would stroll by and smile.

“So tell me again, why are you here?,” Shaun asked.

I explained to Shaun that I was looking for the big break in the big city.

“Good luck, so is everyone else,” he snarkily replied.

Almost on cue, I received a text from Omar during our bus ride home. He informed me that my time for busing tables at the bistro had arrived.

It would be another first for me.

“See you in the morning,” Omar texted.

Twelfth Night

28 10 2009

During the summer in New York, the Public Theater performs works of Shakespheare in Central Park.

Tickets are free and the line forms early. This year featured The Bard’s “Twelfth Night” starring Hollywood screen actress Anne Hathaway

Barry really wanted to see this, but he hated waiting in lines.

This became apparant when he left me one afternoon inside the post office as I attempted to buy some stamps.

“You need to pick up the pace, John,” Barry would sometime remind me as we explored the concrete jungle together.

I was half his age, yet Barry had me beat when it came to energy. His spurts through the streets of Manhattan aside, Barry knew when to stop and breathe in and he often pointed out flowers and gardens to me.

“Smell this, John, isn’t it lovely,” he chimed upon spotting a beautiful arrangement of roses outside a west village brownstone.

Knowing Barry’s love for Shakespheare and his equal disgust for waiting in lines, I volunteered to get the tickets. Omar was game too so we decided to meet at Columbus Circle at 8 a.m. to get an early jump on the crowd.

It would be a dreary day. Rain and wind. Not too hard, but just enough to be uncomfortable. Still, we stuck it out and rented some chairs from an enterprising street vendor.

And we waited…for five hours.

Omar was quiet most of the time. We both had books to read and, occasionally, a text message to answer.

The fact that Omar and I were hanging out had to be raising a few eyebrows back in Panama City. It was my intent to make peace with him, to convey that the things we shared in life were much more precious than our differences.

After a few hours, a stage manager came out and informed the crowd that the show would go on, barring an intense storm.

We toughed it out and, eventually were awarded two tickets each. Omar decided to invite a psychiatrist friend of his. A young black man, who I was told was a confirmed heterosexual.

I called Barry with the good news.

“We got tickets,” I said.

Barry was elated and we agreed to meet outside the Delacorte Theatre before showtime. I explained that Omar and his friend would be sitting with us and, best I could tell, the seats were pretty good, center section about halfway up.

“This must be the gay section,” Barry snarked when we found our seats.

Amazingly, the weather co-operated for the most part, only delaying the performance once. The actors were all well-heeled professionals, making the Bard’s gender-bending plot even more hilarious.


On the way to the theater, I called Goede, my director friend in Canada, and left a little girl like message on his voicemail.

“Going to see Shakespheare in the Park!” I gleefully said.

Goede was the only one I was regularly writing to during my New York sojourn. A trusted confidant who understood me in ways that I could never understand.

I kept him abreast of my adventures and his feedback was like life support.

When Barry would go into one of his “Anti-America” rants, it was Goede who I thought of and how I wished he could be here to tear this man apart.

But Goede was in Canada. He had no use for New York, not now.

“Been there, done that,” he wrote.

Instead, I was traveling with Barry, but that relationship was about to take a turn.

A true test awaited.

I was about to be on my own … in New York City … with no place to sleep.

The Manhattan Bistro

27 10 2009

Like I have said to many of my friends, New York was challenging. Wall Street’s collapse had made it that much tougher on the working man.

I needed a job.

And I wasn’t the only one. The homeless population was up this year, some tending to congregate around the LGBT Community Center in Lower Manhattan.

“Lower Manhattan homeless have a much harder time of it as opposed to the San Francisco homeless,” Barry noted.

Determined to grab my share of the ‘American dream’ — in my grandfather’s birthplace no less, I persuaded Omar to speak to his manager about me.

This came after Omar had visited Barry’s house-swapped studio in Gramercy. In his boyish charm, Omar remarked that the staircase appeared like something out if “Gone With the Wind.”

Omar was staying in Queens at the time and he would ride the train into work. The Manhattan Bistro wasn’t the subject of rave reviews in the local press, but the neighborhood couldn’t be better.

An Apple store had opened a block away and now tourists were packing the area to shop, check e-mail and dine.

Omar waited tables at the Bistro, effectively running the front operations. The lunch crowd was light and there wasn’t much of a dinner crowd.

“Chalk it up to high prices,” Jimmy, the kitchen manager said.

Before I started working at the bistro I had to talk to the GM. Omar brought me in early one morning to meet with the GM, who was this really tall and really skinny guy.

His hair was cut like a mo-hawk. Sad to say, I can’t remember his name.

The GM told me he had family in Florida and that I needed a pair of black pants in order to work at the Bistro.

It also helped that I knew a little espanol, particularly the Mexican variety, because the kitchen was, for the most part, an “All-Hispanic Zone.”


Omar, in an amazing sign of loyalty, votched for me with Jimmy, who agreed to let me work his days off.

There was just one hitch….. Jimmy didn’t take a whole lot of days off.

From Gramercy to Chelsea

26 10 2009

Mary did come over the next day. She took pictures of Barry in Gramercy Park, the little green space with an awesome view of the Chrysler Building, particularly at night.


Gramercy Park

One night, one of Barry’s friends from Brooklyn came to visit. I was not invited to share in their dinner, but we did get to walk through Gramercy Park together before parting ways.

Barry’s gentleman-caller was around my age and build like a power forward for the New York Knicks. The three of us shared a glass of wine before dinner.

The Brooklyn chap laughed at some of my jokes, but when Barry wasn’t looking, he sneered at me in disgust.

In a possessive manner.

So Barry was his tonight and I went off to explore the City some more. There was this one place on the West Side, the Chelsea International Hostel, that I really wanted to check out.

I had stayed at the Chelsea Hostel before, during a previous visit to the City. That time I traveled with Warren and we switched from the dorm room after the first night, at my behest, of course.

I was on my own this time. That’s what this entire trip was all about. My parents had made it quite clear no more financial support was coming from them. Warren had long since tapped out. Even my best friend of the last five years was moving away — not physically movng out of Panama City — but moving mentally away from my downward spiral.

The hostel would have to wait a week.

Tonight I would meet up with a young man from my not-so-distant past. We shared a lover and had somewhat similar political views. I reached out to him with a text message after landing at LaGuardia.

“What brings you to New York City, John,” he asked.

“Delta,” I texted back.

Why Omar answered my reply is a shining testament to his character as a human being. We would indeed meet during my time in New York and it would be a lesson, I think, for the both of us.

A lesson in forgiveness and humility.

So as Barry and his Brooklyn date departed through the park, I went down to Prince Street. A bustling section of what was once dubbed “Little Italy” only the Italians, it appears, have headed for higher ground.

Omar was working here, as a server at a trendy restaurant.

The Manhattan Bistro.

My next employer.

Stay tuned!!!!!

Vieux Carre

23 10 2009

We had a penthouse view of Gramercy Park.

Legend has it, this is the only private park in Manhattan. And we had the key.

Well, Barry had the key.

Across from the park, on the Westside, was the apartment. A four-story walk-up, the stairs got narrower as you climbed. The place was quaint with a kitchen, bedroom, living room and bathroom; all the esstentials for a bachelor pad.

The owner was on vacation in Germany. He was a speechwriter for the President of one of the local colleges and his book collection was quite impressive.

He and Barry agreed to do a home swap, which is quite common, so I’m told, in academia. One condition was that Barry look after the cats.

Come to find out, there were other conditions, but we’ll get to that later.

The cats were shy at first, but became easily seduced once the cat nip was located.

Barry let it be known that he had work to do while in the City and old friends to see. But he was adamant about seeing theater. Together, we scanned the papers and read the reviews. There was a little-known work by Tennessee Williams playing in the East Village that caught our attention.

‘Vieux Carre’

Williams has long been a favorite playwright of mine. He stories of the Old South, particularly New Orleans, ring so true. Many times in my past jaunts into the Louisiana bayou did I find myself in situations that Tennessee had so vividly described in his writings.


Barry arranged for the tickets and we met three of his friends at the theater — Norman, a young actor and his artist girlfriend, Mary, who hailed from Wales and Mr. Christopher Berg, an older fellow from the Bronx.

The show was sold-out. It was a small theater, maybe 200 seats tops, and the crowd was primarily of senior status.

Some of the actors were already on stage as the audience filed in. It felt like we were a part of this French Quarter boarding house and that intimate atmosphere was something I had not experienced in a theater setting in a long time.

Christopher and I really enjoyed the show. Barry not so much.

“I thought it stunk,” Barry said.

Afterwards, I managed to get the director’s autograph and relayed my sincere appreciation for his efforts. My accent gave me away and the director smiled and thanked me for attending.

The five of us then headed for a nearby Spanish tapas eatery, Norman had highly recommended. The food was really good and the conversation free-flowing enough for Mary to invite us all back to her studio for drinks.

I bought a cigar on the way and Barry picked up a case of beer.

Mary said her building was once the home of the Ukrainian embassy. Inside her studio were large scale paintings and photography. She was most certainly a visual artist, but also very humble of her work.

Mary informed me of her ties to the South, having family in Tennessee. I relayed to her my fondness of the British Isles and how adorable I found her accent.

After a few drinks, Barry, Christopher and I called it a night. Minutes after saying our goodbyes, Barry received a call from Norman on his cell phone.

“So, Mary is Not your girlfriend,” Barry said in a voice loud enough for all to hear.

Why Norman felt the need to get that point across was beyond me. Nevertheless, Barry had arranged for Mary to drop by the Gramercy pad the next day to take some photos in the park.

We parted ways with Christopher at the subway station. He gave us both a big hug. Christopher was a nice man, very tall, bald and he wore distinguished purple-framed glasses.

We would see him again.