C is for Creepy

What would you do if a stranger on the street grabbed your daughter or sister in a bear hug? What if he insisted on taking a photo with her, then demanded money?

Call a cop? Punch him in the mouth?

Now, what if he were disguised as Cookie Monster, Elmo or Spider-Man?

According to statistics from the Times Square Alliance, the number of costumed characters in the area has skyrocketed in the past few months__and the above scenario happens about once a minute, according to my on-hand observation last Thursday.

Most of the characters behaved responsibly. But in the hour I was there, too many acted inappropriately, including a Spider-Man manhandling teen girls who passed by. Later, Spidey and Elmo counted stacks of 10s and 20s they’d finagled from intimidated tourists.

But the issue isn’t just costumed characters. Two guys sold CDs by requesting a tourist’s name, writing it on the CD, then growling, “I can’t sell this with your name on it; you owe me $10.” And virtually nude “Vegas showgirls” targeted a group of teen boys for photos.

One Cookie Monster approached a tourist family with a hearty, “Hi! Welcome to New York!” Many of the tourists believed the characters are hired by the city — not independent operators shaking them down for cash. (A Cookie Monster was arrested in April after he allegedly grabbed a teenage girl’s breast.)

One scam repeated more than once: Minnie Mouse corralled a visiting family for a photo, Mickey rushed over to take part, then they demanded $20 each.

I saw one dazed tourist break away from a predatory pack of costumed characters, fuming, “They forced me to pay all of them.” Another cried to a Cookie Monster, “You didn’t give me enough change.” Perhaps it’s time to drop the “Cookie” part of his name.

“I have no issue with people asking for tips, but aggressive solicitation and intimidation is something else,” Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance, told me. “There are hundreds of people a day being made to feel uncomfortable or worse, and it’s just not being dealt with.”

Is this how we want NYC visitors treated?

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Glistening Towers Cast a Dark Shadow

The sun shone brightly on a gorgeous June weekday afternoon in Central Park. A sudden chill surprised Victoria Keane and her sons enjoying their time at a park playground, as the sky darkened. A passing cloud? An approaching storm? Nope, just the long shadow cast by One57, a new megatower on West 57th Street.

One57 recently broke the record for the highest price paid for a NYC residence: More than $100 million. The 1,004-foot skyscraper will be joined in 2018 by the Nordstrom Tower at 217 W. 57th. Other mega high-rises on what is being called “billionaires row” are also under construction. Many of these new luxury palaces are being purchased by rich foreign investors.

Down below, many New Yorkers look up at this rapidly developing, haphazard new skyline and see red. Manhattan’s Community Board 5 recently asked for a moratorium on construction of all buildings 600 feet or higher without them first undergoing a public review, giving city officials time to study the impact of these new skyscrapers on average New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, the race to the sky continues. According to the board’s Sunshine Task Force (desperate times call for desperate names), “seven new supertall buildings are underway along the 57th Street corridor,” with more skyscrapers in the planning stages.

The board recently held a packed meeting to air grievances. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer demanded more transparency regarding air-rights transfers to developers, and expressed concern about the shadows cast by these gargantuan structures.

But Gary Barnett, president of Extell Development Co., the developer of One57, has said “the shadows cast by these tall, slender buildings . . . are very brief” and that the structures are creating many permanent jobs.

Back in Central Park, Keane’s older son said the shadow on the playground reminded him of an episode of “The Simpsons” in which evil gazillionaire Monty Burns plunged the town of Springfield into darkness just because he could.

So which is it? Are the mushrooming skyscrapers a blight on our city or a jobs-creating tribute to progress and prosperity? I guess that depends on your perspective — whether you’re high up in the gleaming towers, or down on the shaded ground with Keane, her sons and the rest of us.

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When Politics Becomes Religion, We All Suffer

Another spate of shootings in the city last week, and another week of denial by our mayor.

Just as some right wingers deny all evidence of evolution, left wing Mayor Bill de Blasio ignores statistics showing the number of shootings and homicides in NYC are on the rise. Why?

If your arguments are based on reason, you will abandon them if the facts go against you, said philosopher Bertrand Russell

But if your arguments are based on faith, no amount of facts will change your mind. De Blasio was, is, and always will be a political ideologue, whether the issue is education, housing — or crime.

NYC first lady Chirlane McCray let the cat out of the bag earlier this month when she talked lovingly about 1977, her first year in New York, recalling how, “The city was strong. The city was inclusive and dynamic. We want the city to stay that way.”

Excuse me? The city was a hellhole in 1977. A time when a serial killer was shooting women in parked cars (“The Summer of Sam”), crime was out of control, the Bronx was burning, the subways were graffiti-covered and filthy, and a blackout led to mass rioting. Outside of that, things were swell.

Despite all this, the mayor said his wife made “a really powerful point.”

“. . . Those were not ideal times,” conceded de Blasio (you think?), “but at least you could find a place you could afford to live.”

Of course you could. The city was in chaos, and people were fleeing in droves.

For someone who is for strict gun control, it’s amazing how much Democrat de Blasio mirrors his true believer Republican counterparts when it comes to shootings. It doesn’t matter how many bodies pile up — if it clashes with their respective ideologies, they don’t want to hear it.

In 1990, a 22-year-old tourist from Utah was viciously attacked and killed on the subway defending his family in a case that drew national attention. Three years later, law-and-order candidate Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor. The city had had enough.

Hopefully, it won’t take another attack on a tourist before de Blasio stops ignoring rising shooting and homicide rates and takes action — even if it goes against his political religion.

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What Is It About Brooklyn’s James Madison High?

What do Democratic presidential contender and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, singer-songwriter Carole King, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Judge Judith (“Judge Judy”) Sheindlin have in common?

They are all graduates of Brooklyn’s James Madison High School. Somehow, the public school nestled on Bedford Avenue between Avenue P and Quentin Road has produced three U.S. senators, four Nobel Prize winners and an eye-opening list of other graduates who have made major contributions to society.

The school has selected honorees for its 2016 Wall of Distinction, former Madison alumni association president Richard Kossoff told me. They include food critic Arthur Schwartz, renowned physicist and mathematician Barry Simon, screenwriter Roger Schulman, who co-wrote “Shrek,” and the late David “Sonny” Werblin, the NY Jets owner who brought Joe Namath to the team.

“People always ask me, was there something in the water?” said Kossoff. “I tell them the real key was middle- and working-class parents . . . who stressed education so that their kids could do better than they did.”

Past honorees include former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, radio personality Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and health journalist Jane Brody.

Through the years, Madison High has tried to live up to its namesake’s belief: “Education is the true foundation of civil liberty.” Honorees talk about two things: a particular teacher who affected their lives, and the unique experience of growing up in Brooklyn.

When New York Sen. and Madison graduate Chuck Schumer attended the award ceremonies, he said, “We received two degrees at Madison: an academic degree, and one in street smarts, which served us well over our lifetimes.”

Kossoff founded the Wall of Distinction in 2001 to assure that these grads who had a positive influence are never forgotten. James Madison students look at the wall of neighborhood kids who achieved so much and are inspired.

Kossoff told me a student quietly studied the names on the wall recently, then asked, “Were they rich?” “No,” Kossoff replied. “They were smart and they worked hard.” She thought for a moment, then said, “That’s what I’m going to do.”

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We’re Curious, George–Why Are You Running?

Can you identify George Pataki? An actor on “Star Trek”? Nope, try again. That’s right, he was once governor of New York. And now Pataki is running for president. And we can only ask: Why, George, why?

Pataki made it official Thursday in New Hampshire. He’s seeking the Republican presidential nomination, boldly declaring, “It’s time to stand up, protect our freedom and take back this government,” and a few other cliches already used by the mind-numbing number of GOP candidates in the race. Plus the obligatory bashing of Democratic front-runner and fellow New Yorker Hillary Clinton.

Pataki has about as much chance of being our next president as Lady Gaga. Pro-abortion rights and pro-gun control, Pataki is “a voice of moderation,” says his loving wife, Libby, which sounds very reasonable, and also guarantees him getting trounced in the Republican primaries.

In an increasingly crowded GOP field in which no one has pulled away from the pack, a lesser-known candidate can convince himself that he has a shot. But a smart man like Pataki has to know deep down that he has no real chance.

So why does he run? Denial? Delusion? Ego?

Most likely for the same reason Donald Trump throws his hair into the ring every four years — to promote his name brand. It’s a surefire way for vaguely remembered politicians such as Pataki to get their mugs plastered all over the media. A declared candidate can tour the nation, making speeches and giving interviews, which leads to greater name recognition, higher speaking fees, more corporate board appointments and other moneymaking opportunities.

Look, it worked for Mike Huckabee, who parlayed a 2008 presidential run into a book deal and Fox News gig. Now they all want to be like Mike.

Five candidates are tied atop the Republican presidential polls with 10% of the vote each, according to a Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday. It’s easy to fantasize that you’re the guy (or gal, in Carly Fiorina’s case) who’ll get lucky. It’s a win-win either way, right? But what about the gazillions wasted on the seemingly endless race? Hey, it’s other people’s money.

And politicians wonder why we’re so cynical about them?

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Frequent Fliers or Frequent Liars?

About to board a flight out of LaGuardia Airport Saturday for a brief vacation, I noticed a half-dozen passengers in wheelchairs at the front of the line. When we landed, only two required wheelchairs to leave. Was my plane diverted to Lourdes?

Nope, just the latest scam from fliers without shame. Don’t want to wait on line with the rest of us? Fake a disability.

Infuriating, isn’t it? People with disabilities deserve compassion, but those who fake being disabled deserve only contempt. Federal law requires accommodations for disabled passengers, and airlines provide them, usually without requiring proof of injury or disability. And of course, the usual suspects think they’re brilliant to game the system.

Two dogs were on my flight as well. Were they service animals? Who knows? On most airlines, service and emotional support animals travel at no charge. The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t allow businesses to quiz people about their disabilities.

And so the number of emotional support dogs, monkeys, parrots, ferrets and other species is proliferating, as is the number of certificates issued for them online, no questions asked. In November, a woman brought her “emotional-support pig” on a US Airways flight and was tossed off after the porker became disruptive and relieved itself in the aisle, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Most people who use service animals truly need them. But sorry, just because you’ll miss your little Fifi doesn’t make her an emotional-support dog.

Those who use bogus disabled placards or tote fake service animals anger those with real disabilities, and can you blame them? These scammers bring doubt upon those with real disabilities, especially those that are not obvious, like serious heart conditions.

Someone once offered me a disabled-parking permit, like the ill-gotten one he used. I said no, that I had no desire to deprive some truly disabled person of a spot. He glared at me like I was calling him a heartless sociopath. Which I was.

When the plane landed and the miraculously cured sprinted off the plane, I fantasized about tackling them and making them earn their disabled status.

I resisted the urge. This time.

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My Top Ten Memories of David Letterman

Goodbye Dave! After 33 years hosting late night television, tonight David Letterman pulls off the ultimate “Stupid Human Trick”__he’s vanishing from the airwaves. In honor of his last show, here are my top ten memories of Letterman’s late night run:

10—Legendary singer Darlene Love, backed by Paul Shaffer’s terrific band, belting out “Baby Please Come Home” every year at Christmas for three decades.

9—The “Fun With Rupert” segments, in which mild-mannered “Hello Deli” proprietor Rupert Jee would ask passersby obnoxious questions suggested by Letterman, hidden away in a nearby parked van. The bit comes to an abrupt halt when someone pulls a knife on Rupert.

8—Letterman’s return to the air less than a week after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, an inspiring night in which Dave salutes New York firefighters, police and NYC Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, previously the butt of Dave’s barbs. “We were told that they (the terrorists) were zealots fueled by religious fervor,” Letterman says, “and if you live to be a thousand years, will that make any sense to you?”

7—Actor Joaquin Phoenix shows up with a bushy beard, mumbles his answers and appears close to passing out. Dave ends the interview with “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”

6—Dave’s integrity in not exploiting the O.J. Simpson murder trial for cheap laughs, while Jay Leno and others have no problem doing so.

5—Letterman devotes an entire show to his dying singer-songwriter friend Warren Zevon, despite knowing it would cost him in ratings.

4–A German shepherd reads poetry, a pit bull bowls a strike, a border collie jumps rope “double dutch”, a labrador retriever dances the merengue__yes, I’m really going to miss Stupid Pet Tricks!

3—Getting to know Mujibur and Sirajul, immigrants from Bangladesh who work at a nearby souvenir shop and are recruited by Dave to do comedy bits. They are sent on a U.S. tour, greeted as celebrities and serve as Late Show correspondents at Super Bowl XXIX.

2—On his first show back after quintuple bypass surgery, Dave brings the doctors who operated on him onstage to thank them publicly. “I couldn’t have been prouder when these guys carved their initials in me,” says Letterman.

1—That despite network pressure, Dave keeps The Late Show With David Letterman in New York City for its entire run!





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Hot on the Trail of Welfare Moochers

Don’t you hate giving your hard-earned money to moochers who leech off us poor working suckers? Some politicians love to rile us up about those feeding at the public welfare trough, especially those with jobs.

I recently went into a midtown McDonald’s at lunchtime to see whether some of its employees were, indeed, on the dole. “May I help you?” asked the Eastern European-looking young woman behind the counter. “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your salary and benefits?” I said with a smile.

She replied her name was Ida Raternodsai (or maybe it was “I’d rather not say–it was pretty noisy in there). I managed to pry out the fact that she made $9 an hour and was a single mom. Was she also on public assistance?

“You said McNuggets, right?” Ida responded.

I know — just leave the woman alone. I felt even worse when I sat squeezed against the wall with my McNuggets, trying to read the newspaper. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had written an op-ed in The New York Times saying that when fast-food workers do not receive a living wage, they are forced to go on public assistance to get by, while those at the top rake it in.

“The average fast-food CEO made $23.8 million in 2013, more than quadruple what they made in 2000,” Cuomo wrote. “Meanwhile, entry-level food service workers in New York State earn, on average, $16,920 per year . . .”

In other words, the government is subsidizing fast-food and other companies that refuse to pay a living wage.

The inflated chief executive salaries mentioned by Cuomo are at least in part sustained by taxpayers who pay for the food stamps, Medicaid and other social services their workers need to survive.

At a rally in Union Square Thursday, he lambasted fast-food fat cats for underpaying workers so seriously that the state had to spend $700 million last year on public assistance for their employees. He called for raising the minimum wage in NYC from $8.75 to $11.50. (The state minimum will rise from $8.75 to $9 at year’s end.)

Can’t do that in retail? Costco pays its hourly workers an average of $20.89 an hour, and the company is thriving. Meanwhile, who are those government welfare moochers again?

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Hey Youse Guys…I’m Running For President!

Can a gruff 73-year-old socialist from Brooklyn beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination?

Absolutely not, say the pundits.

Just don’t tell that to Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator (I-Vermont) who on Thursday said he will seek the Democratic nomination — and by Friday had raised more money in 24 hours than any of the declared GOP candidates garnered in that period.

“I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where billionaires own the political process,” Sanders said.

The message struck a chord. By Friday, he had raised $1.5 million from 35,000 working stiffs, averaging $43.54 per donation.

Raised in a working-class Brooklyn family on Kings Highway and 26th Street by a paint salesman whose family died in the Holocaust, Sanders is attuned to the struggles of the American masses.

Bernie, who never lost his Brooklyn accent, moved to Vermont in the great hippie migration nearly half a century ago. Working as a freelance writer, filmmaker and carpenter, Sanders took to rural life and made Vermont his permanent home, dabbled in politics and became a beloved figure in the land of cows, maple syrup and Ben & Jerry’s, eventually landing in the U.S. Senate.

Sanders absolutely hates the gotcha politics and shallow media circus our elections have become.

“If I walked up on stage and fell down, that would be the top story,” Sanders once told The New York Times. You wouldn’t hear a word about the issues, he lamented, “such as the growing gap between rich and poor.”

Sanders is an adherent of the democratic socialism practiced in Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, noting they have higher standards of living and better health care than we do.

He believes giving corporations and billionaires the right to donate unlimited cash while making the average American virtually voiceless is the true danger to our freedom.

But a democratic socialist as U.S. president? Not in our lifetimes, right? But hey, they once said a man named Barack Hussein Obama couldn’t be elected either.

Strong early support for Bernie’s campaign shows how his message resonates. If his only contribution to the race is raising awareness of how big money perverts our democracy, then more power to him.

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Happy Birthday to a Local Legend

Born in Brooklyn, Jerome and his sister Carolyn were soon whisked off to the suburbs of Long Island by their parents Kalman and Betty, of Hungarian and Syrian-Jewish descent. But as soon as Jerome was of age, he came back to the city, attended Queens College and moved into a studio apartment on the Upper West Side.

Still uncertain about a career, Jerome dropped in on open-mic night at NYC’s Catch a Rising Star comedy club. Almost immediately his observational humor and likeability led to a regular spot, quickly followed by an appearance on an HBO Rodney Dangerfield special.

Young Jerome was soon hired for the role of Frankie on the sitcom Benson, and just as abruptly fired. Back on the comedy club circuit, his career shot into orbit after a successful spot on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.

In 1989, he was invited to create a sitcom bearing his name. The show had lousy ratings, and NBC almost canceled it after four episodes. Eventually it caught on and turned into one of the most successful sitcoms in history.

The show was set on the same West 81st Street block where the real Jerome lived when he was a struggling comic. Whether about fighting for a parking spot or impatiently waiting on line in a Chinese restaurant, the sitcom’s plots resonated with New Yorkers. In one episode, they discussed eating at La Caridad, a no-frills Latino-Chinese joint in my neighborhood where I once sat beside series co-creator Larry David and his family as they noisily squabbled over the menu.

Now a multi-millionaire, Jerome bought a lavish co-op just a block down from that West 81st Street apartment. He also upgraded from collecting white sneakers (over 500 pairs) to collecting Porches.

A major New York Met fan, the married father of three is often seen at the games in his private box. He has also helped broadcast a number of games with his pal Keith Hernandez.

Since his TV series ended, Jerome has kept busy, hosting a popular web series (Comedians in Cars Having Coffee), co-writing an original film (Bee Movie) and returning to his first love__standup comedy.

So happy birthday, Jerry Seinfeld. Hard to believe you’re turning 61 today.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


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