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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Andy Rooney Angry

My wife is over there at the sewing table leafing through a catalog of kid toys. There's a two page spread of fire truck/construction vehicle toys and there's boys playing with said toys. On the next page, there's a two page spread of fairy wings and kitchen sets, and there's girls playing with said toys.

Surprised? I'm not. Indignant? Not me.

I don't know what has come over me lately, but I don't care-- about a startlingly high number of things that, maybe, one day, would have got me outraged enough to... um.... I don't know. Write a blog post?

I used to be what might be called an A.Y.M. (Angry Young Man). I got really hot and pissy at the drop of a hat, and I'd write A.A.L.'s (Angry Ass Letters). I'd sit at the computer and pound out a fire-breathing letter to a company, an organization, an editor. My letters were often answered, or published-- I guess my words aren't so easy to toss in a bin or insert in a shredder, and maybe I take some amount of comfort or pride in that. I like my words. My words with friends.

These days, it takes a lot to get me A.R.A. (Andy Rooney Angry). Maybe I'm more mature, maybe I'm more depressed, maybe I'm more consumed and more draggin' the wagon. More... tired. Maybe I've realized that getting angry only raises my pulse and my blood pressure. Generally speaking, my anger does very little for and to other people, it hasn't created much social change or more world order.

My anger got a plaque replaced on the Ben Franklin Boulevard-- but that was years ago. In 1970, a police sergeant named Frank Von Colln was talking on the phone at a small guard house when someone burst through the door and shot and killed him. Von Colln's holster was empty-- his revolver cold and useless inside his desk drawer.

Years later, a small park on the Ben Franklin was dedicated to him, and a wooden plaque was erected proclaiming that this small patch of ground with a ball field was to be known as Von Colln Memorial Park. But the years hadn't been kind and it had fallen into disrepair, it was falling apart. Maybe it had been vandalized, or just weathered-- I don't know. Still, the end result was the same: the sign looked like shit, and wasn't exactly a fitting tribute to the man whose name was etched into the wood.

So, I wrote a letter-- I think it was to the director of the Philly parks & rec department. I tore him a new asshole, ripped into him for allowing such a sacrosanct thing to go to hell, though I'm sure even this guy had never even heard of Von Colln Memorial Park. For good measure, I searched through newspaper archives and found a photograph of Von Colln, lying on the floor by his desk, riddled with bullet holes, the telephone receiver beside his body, and I paper-clipped the picture to my letter. A little gratuitous-- maybe. Three weeks later, I received a letter of apology (Apology? To me? Who the hell was I?) and a couple months later, there was a new, beautiful sign up. Money well spent.

Years earlier, while I was still in college and had just published a book honoring fallen police officers, I was on the phone with the daughter of slain NYC Patrolman Waverly Jones. Jones and his partner, Joseph Piagentini were killed on May 21, 1971 as they walked back to their patrol car together after answering an unfounded call at a housing complex in Harlem. Jones, black, was shot from behind four times and killed instantly. His white partner was mercilessly tortured as he lived through being shot thirteen times. He died on the way to the hospital. Jones's daughter, now a grown woman, told me that there were two trees planted outside the 32nd Precinct to honor her father and his partner, and that her father's tree and plaque had fallen into disrepair, while Piagentini's was clean and beautiful.

So, I picked up the phone and called the Precinct commander. Miraculously, the desk sergeant transferred the call and the commander picked up. I told him who I'd just spoken to and what she'd said, and I shared how disappointed she and I were in the department-- adding that the inequality with which the memorials to these two men were being treated smacked of the very racism that a black-and-white patrol partnership in Harlem in the 1970s was trying to betray. I said that the "New York Daily News" would probably be very interested in covering that angle of the story, should they happen to hear about it from someone.

A few months later, I was invited to a re-dedication of the trees and plaques. Both patrolmen's families were invited, there would be pipers, and a Catholic police chaplain would be there to bless the trees and the plaques, I was told. I declined the invitation, probably because I was still Andy Rooney Angry.

Looking back on who I was, I miss being angry, because it got things done. It strikes me that this post might strike you as self-congratulatory but, it's not-- it's just a bit of story-telling of a bygone era in my life, when I was different-- wound up and pissed off. Nowadays, it seems like everyone's getting angry-- it's suddenly fashionable when, ten years ago, I felt like I was doing that dance by myself. With Facebook, though, people get angry and they make a status update, they post a link to a polarizing article, they sign an online petition by clicking a box, they say something snarky about a Republican candidate in a sweater vest. If they're REALLY angry, they'll change their Profile Picture.

And I get it-- we don't have time to get all panty-twisted about every injustice in the world. Brad Pitt can't build affordable housing everywhere. If we spent all our time activisting, who'd wash the dishes and feed the marmoset? But maybe we can do more, if we really care. And, if we don't really care, why pretend? Because we want to look good for our "friends"? Maybe we should wait until we're Andy Rooney Angry, or risk looking disingenuous, or H.C.P. (Holden Caulfield Phony).

Sometimes I wish I was still an Angry Young Man. But usually I don't. It's just too damn hard.

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