Penser à des amis à Paris

I am sad to my core about the fate of the regal cathedral in our first ally’s City of Lights. Various BBC reports have provided additional, suprising information about this tragedy.

Had fire crews not entered the building, “without doubt it would have collapsed” said French Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez. He explained that multiple fires ignited in the towers, but were successfully stopped before they could spread.

During my 10 years as a firefighter I fought many fully-involved fires in large structures, though none nearly so precious. I’ve had the priviledge of visiting Notre Dame on three occasions, and think I have a small idea of the imperative the crews must have felt yesterday. The firefighters worked through the night, causing the overwhelming fire to be declared “under control” after only 12 hours, with no loss of life and only one firefighter “slightly injured,” according to Commander Jean-Claude Gallet. Many artistic treasures and religious artifacts were saved. Among them was what is celebrated to be the original Crown of Thorns that Jesus wore as he carried his cross, along with the robe worn by King (later St.) Louix IX when he brought it into France in 1239. These items were fearlessly recovered by Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, already respected for his ministry to the dead and wounded when he entered the Bataclan music venue in 2015 after Islamic State terrorists murdered 89 people using guns and explosives, and for surviving an ambush in Afghanistan when 10 soldiers were killed. These are examples of the kind of French bravery and resolve we’ve seen throughout history.

A few years ago, along with my daughter Sammy, I even attended a mass at this singular monument. It is impossible to exaggerate how vital this place is to our humanity. At once it represents us at our best and at our worst. Throughout the world, people are pledging to help rebuild it. I am among them.

The Purpose of a Karate Uniform

I’m exactly the wrong person to write this article, given how much of my life I spent avoiding anything I associated with uniform dress. Why do fancier clothes always come with discomfort and impracticality? Why do women enjoy an endless variety of fashion, while men get variations on a single outfit? Why can’t police wear sneakers? Today, however, I find myself happily distributing a high-quality uniform (known in Japanese as a “gi“) to each eager, beginning student who joins our karate school. What happened?

In my 20s, I was invited to be a wedding groomsman for a second time and it brought an epiphany. (It didn’t during the first one, in large part because the entire bridal party was required to wear sneakers. The only clue I’ll give you of who offered this fun gaffe is his status as one of Granite Forest Dojo’s Shotokan instructors and most senior students. Today, Jim {oops} owns more uniforms than you and me put together.) I realized that I was dressing out of respect for someone else. In one evening I learned there is no benefit to minimal dress, and in fact there are several to dressing in the best way appropriate to honor my hosts. 

Since then I’ve discovered that outward logic to be secondary, trumped by the inward benefits of proper outerwear in general, and your karate uniform in specific. These aspects can benefit even three-year-old children. They drive our uniform policy at Granite Forest Dojo.

The care and wearing of a uniform brings a small amount of self-consciousness even for those of us who seldom look in a mirror. That awareness influences our self control. For worry-free children, a uniform begins to guide them toward the sense of responsibility that accompanies small tasks, like when to remove and where to store their shoes, how to line up in class, and how to address the instructor. It lets them know, at a developmentally appropriate scale, the boundaries of what is acceptable. It is the smallest, most accessible stepping stone on the path toward personal dignity.

We ask that each student in our dojo be fastidious in the care of his or her uniform. Here are some suggestions to help make this more feasible:

  • Give it a home, a special place where only your gi is stored. Whether it’s a hangar on a hook or folded in a bag, setting it aside from other clothing will help form the habit that will grow to become a value. 
  • Set the rule. Once its location is established, your gi is either there, being washed, or being worn, period. I’ve always owned at least two gis so I’ve never been without one at the ready. (Now I have…more than two!) Because I participate in outside events, I’ve even established complete setup that stays folded and in a bag (along with water, a towel, a spare belt, and spare undergarment) for grabbing at a moment’s notice.
  • Hygiene first. To support fellow students in their focused karate practice we should remain odor-free. Our gi must be always clean and in good repair when arriving to class.
  • Wear your full and proper uniform. That is, an obi (belt), uwagi (jacket) with all patches, and zubon (trousers).  As the jacket can often become disheveled during training, ladies are encouraged to add a T-shirt and/or sports bra beneath it. It is considered improper for a gentlemen to wear a T- shirts under his uwagi. Youngsters may wear imprinted Granite Forest Dojo T-shirts (and no other T-shirts) during normal Kids’ Class training. But in that context the shirt is to be considered a part of the uniform, and must be clean and unwrinkled. When class begin, those out of uniform (i.e. missing any part of it) are expected to respectfully line up at the end of the student line, below the lowest ranking students. Some schools don’t allow students to train at all when arriving late or out of uniform. I believe it’s better to train in less-than-ideal conditions, so karate-ka should always show up and do what they can. All black belts have experienced less-than-ideal dress and timing during our karate career; as with everything else in class, we have been encouraged to do our best with what we bring. During exams and mock exams, however, a full, white gi and early arrival are required.
  • Use dojo dressing rooms. We encourage students in adult classes to change at the dojo, rather than wearing their uniforms to it. This may sound trivial, but using a bag to speedily change and a tidily repack civilian clothes is a practice that actually aids your awareness of the world around you and your preparedness for its challenges.

In the practice of martial arts and elsewhere, uniforms aren’t only about dogmatic dress-code adherence. They are visible manifestations of self control, which is one of the highest purposes of our craft. Our training hall is a forge for tools we use in a challenging world. Our gi is an important reminder that we can meet those challenges. It helps us stand at full height, find our spirit in lesser moments, and enables us to better approach the hard tasks we signed up for.

All this having been said, your uniform is only a tool to facilitate your training. I own many books. Those in perfect condition have been of little use to me. The ones with worn spines, however, have contributed to my growth. My better gis, like my better books, are dog-eared. Enjoy your gi, and the obi that secures it. You further earn your right to wear them every time you train hard in them.

Spandex Enthusiasm

I often disdain the unworthy enthusiasm of those who reserve early seating for release dates of today’s superhero movies. Not a one of you have forgone the kiss of a girl or endured a wedgie for your crimes. I do so wish you all could have felt what it was like to read these stories in 22-page installments with a month between issues, and experience what we all had to go through for the privilege. There was a line outside C.A.V.E!, the comics shop I owned immediately next to the Keswick Theater in Glenside PA, almost every Wednesday, or New Comics Day. (C.A.V.E! stood for Comics, Adventure, Video, Excitement! Lit by flourescent tubes, my sign adorned a near monastery to spandex-clad imagination, decorated in the manner of the Batcave. The name was created with the help of my friends. To us, it was a perfect description.)

Similar to the way in which fans will attend midnight premiere movie screenings today, people did a lot to try to accelerate their first glimpse of a new story. My friends Jim, Kurt, Mo, Mike, and others often pulled all-nighters on Tuesdays and took the 2 am journey with me in the Batvan — yes, it was what you’re thinking — toward my distributor in center city Philly. All this just for the joy of fighting motion sickness while they, with neither seats nor windows, were first to read their fave titles as I zigged and zagged back home along Lincoln Drive. Worse, they’d help me sort the hundreds of new issues and get them on shelves by 11 a.m., a deadline so difficult to meet that all hands, nauseated or not, were welcome.

I remember one such morning when only my not-a-fan wife-at-the-time could be cajoled into losing sleep and helping me pick up, sort, and display the week’s haul. A couple of (as we called our subscription club members) showed up early to buy their X-Men issues. They were 9-year-old kids, playing hookey. As was the case each Wednesday, we couldn’t allow them in ‘til 11 so everyone would have a fair shot at something that might sell out. I was well practiced at rejecting protestations and smiled at them sympathetically as we stood on the inside of the locked glass door.

One of them huffed in resignation, then threw up his hands and said, “Ugh! Middle-aged people!!” We were 29.

Lowered Shields

This is brief but, to me, was so densely packed I found it worthy of many pauses. It is possibly the best relationship advice I’ve heard. I’ve listened to it three times.
I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts if you’d care to share.

Samurai Parenting

This article was originally published in Bux-Mont Living in 2010.

Children are built to learn. Like ants in your kitchen, they’ll explore every square inch of their universe, discovering wonders and determining exactly where the boundaries are. Then, they’ll try to broaden those boundaries. Such tenacity is an extraordinary gift, perfectly designed for survival in the modern world. 

The younger a child is, the more evident her capacity for learning is. We may have trouble seeing through the adorable nature of her struggles, but if you look objectively, you’ll be amazed. Consider what it takes for a child to learn to walk, for example. You or I would be daunted by such an educational requirement: the jarring failure of being repeatedly thrown to our rear ends would frustrate us in short order. Yet a child has more than enough tenacity to endure such trials, lifting herself to her feet for the twelfth time without a thought of defeat. As parents, it is important that we understand how she brings that tenacity to all aspects of her learning, especially when that learning involves apparent disrespect. 

It is common for us to misuse the concept of respect in the context of dealing with a child. We know that at infancy, parents are the defining vision of comfort and completeness for most children. Most toddlers feel a profound source of unease when, having been engaged in play, they suddenly realize that they don’t know where their mother is. They will drop their toys in mid-fantasy and come over to mom (who, for the millionth time, almost got something half-done). But when you are the parent, it is your demigod status that makes you the very boundary that your juvenile explorer will push against. 

Having taught the discipline of karate to countless children, I’ve enjoyed being a privileged contributor to many young families. Often, in my ability to tell a child what to do, I have greater privileges than his parents! Young parents so often try to take a reasonable approach with their children. Recently I witnessed just such an exchange. A harried young mother, Mrs. Raymond, jostled in with her 4-year-old just before class. The little girl took her jacket off and threw it onto the floor indignantly, offended by some offense that had evidently just transpired. 

In a completely calm voice, Mrs. Raymond reasoned with her daughter. “Christine, I’m sorry that you did that. Was that a good choice, Christine? What would be a better choice? Christine, I’m waiting for you to tell me what a better choice would have been.” 

The young rebel kept her eyes averted. She was not scowling, but actually looked rather confident. Finally, under the pressure of the class start time, Mrs. Raymond told her child to “just go.” 

During class, Christine was the least attentive student. She frequently refused to do what she was told, and even spontaneously run off of the floor in the midst of an activity. Despite our protests and denial of class privileges, she left the floor a second time to casually receive a water bottle from her mother and take a drink. 

The next day, Christine’s father called on the office phone. He said that he wanted to put in notice that he was canceling Christine’s membership. “I guess it’s her age,” he said. “Maybe this will work when she’s a little older.”

“Mr Raymond,” I began, “I respectfully disagree that this is a matter of Christine’s age. As you can see, there are several other children in the class who are younger than Christine. They stay put and follow commands. In Christine’s case, it’s more of a matter of boundaries.” 

I told him how a friend of mine, John, has three children of the exact same age as my three kids. He was an ex-marine and we were karate training partners for many years. It was a joy to discuss our parenting trials as the children grew. Once he had a reasonable discussion with his middle son, Evan, when he was eight. “Look at your room,” he said, distracting Evan from a game. “Do you really want to trip over your toys and step on all your nice clothes as you cross the floor?” 

Evan, bright and expressive, looked at his father quite seriously. I suspect he was thinking that he finally had an opportunity to get his own point across. “Yeah, Dad,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “That’s not a problem for me.” 

John, perhaps benefitting from his military experience, said, “Okay, then stop what you’re doing and clean your room. You’re going to know what it’s like to grow up in a clean room. Now.” 

I told Mr. Raymond that when John told me that story, he was exasperated, and being a young father myself at the time, I had no advice for him. But now, I would tell him that he had done the exact right thing. 

I explained to Mr. Raymond how I witnessed his wife’s gentle, reasoned approach the day before. I said, “The answer to ‘Was that a good choice?’ had Christine been able to voice it, would have been, ‘Emphatically yes!’ She’s only doing what all children her age do. She’s testing her boundaries. And I need to find a polite way to tell you that the two people who lay down those boundaries are offering her malleable ones. 

“Karate instructors seem plenty formidable to the children, standing tall in our black belts in class,” I continued. “But the truth, of course, is that you are a far more formative influence in Christine’s life. I want to encourage you toward clarity in your handling of Christine. For example, I’d like you to refuse her water when she runs off of the floor without permission. I promise, she will not suffer dehydration during one brief class. Indeed, she’s not even thirsty. She’s controlling her universe.” Mr. Raymond was receptive to my suggestions. Christine is still with us, and is happily learning boundaries. 

Children gravitate toward, and seek the approval of, adults who provide structure. I see it in my classes all the time. Children anxiously come in to tell me stories of their day, when the parents of those same kids squirmed in the viewing gallery the week before as they watched their child confront a disciplined approach that they’d never before seen. I saw it myself while shopping in the supermarket recently. The story was related in one line from a mother as I passed her and her frustrated daughter, who was standing in the food section of her shopping cart. Pointing with two hands to the child seat and the food section simultaneously, the mother said, “Natalia, it’s either sitting here or sitting back here.” 

The mother understood the design of the cart. Two-year-old Natalia, however, saw no reason that she could not influence the cart design as she could many other things in her universe. She needed help, and the cart wasn’t moving until her bottom was in place. 

What magnificent clarity. 


Love your children with all your hearts, love them enough to discipline them before it is too late.
—Lavina Christensen Fugal, 1955 Mother-of-the-Year 

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Yoga “Versus” Christianity


The title of this column is so tasteless, isn’t it? “Yoga versus Christianity” sounds like the line shouted into the microphone at a Saturday afternoon World Wrestling Federation match. Yet it is the antagonism that some people of faith apply to the two concepts. 

Both Christianity and yoga provide terrific and precious benefits, and are complementary. But Christianity and yoga aren’t in the same category, so couching them as being in “conflict” isn’t even appropriate. It’s like saying, “exercise versus nutrition.”

Yoga can seem scary to an American of Christian faith, because it is unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable. A Christian might ask, “Since yoga was founded in Hinduism, isn’t the use of yoga a form of prayer to false Hindu gods?”

In a word, no.

Indeed, it is possible that yoga predates the very Hindu gods that some Christians worry about praying to. While the origins of yoga continue to be debated by academics, it is generally agreed that Yoga was created more than 5,000 years ago as an ascetic practice to develop unity with the divine universe (“yoga” is derived from yuj, a Sanskrit word meaning “to unite”). Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is not prayer. It is a toolkit that can be used in a number of ways, as any set of tools can.

For example, yoga is among the best physical exercises one can perform. It is rare in its ability to increase both strength and flexibility in the same practice. Rarer still, yoga is an exercise that can be used to lower blood pressure and stress levels. It can be used as a social bond. As a student of meditation, I enjoy its use as a methodology toward serenity. It requires an open-minded submission to its practice, and I like things that challenge my preconceptions. Yoga is designed to do exactly this. Its variety of tools — focused breathing, chanting, balancing, twisting and stretching — are not a threat. In fact, for millennia and for millions of people, they have been and are trusted, intimate, and nurturing.

Meanwhile, yoga does not have any ecclesiastical significance whatsoever. I was raised in a devoutly Christian family. As a karate teacher and as something of an A-type personality, I was curious about the overtly peaceful nature of the yogis and yoginis (male and female yoga practitioners) that I had met. When I began my practice, it did not impinge on my spiritual beliefs. In fact, the provision for meditation provided a forum for me to practice them. When I meditate, whether through prayer or yoga practice, I defer to God in humility. I am reminded that I am but a small part of the universe. I am afforded the opportunity to think deeply, seeking to be the best part of it that I  can be. And in so doing, I began to understand the peaceful joy of the yogis and yoginis I had met. 

Yoga is a celebration of spirituality, like Christmas is. Practicing yoga makes me no more a Hindu than buying gifts at Christmas makes me a Christian. Of course, I can choose to spend all of my holiday time in material fixations, or deny the validity of Christmas with a fundamentalist argument that Jesus was more likely born in March. Similarly, I could spend my entire yoga class concerned only with pose alignment or working up a sweat. In both instances, though, I would rob myself of a wondrous opportunity for spiritual reflection.

Consider the journey of Jessica D’Angelo, chief instructor at Hot Flow Yoga. “When I first started to practice yoga, I was doing it primarily for the physical benefits,” she said. “I’d heard that it was the ultimate exercise for building a strong core and healthy spine, and that it developed long, lean muscles and optimal flexibility. 

“After about a month or so,” she continued, “I started notice of how positive I felt after classes. I noticed how yoga would get me out of a funk like no run on the treadmill had ever done. It helped me unwind after a very long day at my job. I even noticed that my sleeping patterns we more regular and uninterrupted. My yoga practice was following me ‘off the mat’ and becoming a positive influence in my life.

“As I started to delve deeper into my practice I realized that yoga made me closer, or more connected to my own faith. I was in awe at the gift my body was to me. I was closer to God. Now, for me, every yoga class is a celebration of spirit.”

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.  — Thích Nhất Hạnh

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

This article originally appeared in Bux-Mont Living.
© Bruce G. Costa


This is an article that appeared in Comics Buyer’s Guide in the fall of 1992. It was the last of my columns, entitled Suggested for Mature Retailers, to appear in that fan publication. Krause, CBG’s publisher flattered me with an invitation to bring my readership to their new trade magazine written specifically for my audience. It was to be called Comics Retailer.

While this article was directed toward business owners, I’ve encountered the phenomenon so frequently in my life as a consumer that I felt it to be worth sharing. Please let me know what you think.

You spend a lot of time trying to make your store presentable. After all, its presentation is the packaging of your product, if you will allow an analogy, and a product’s packaging is really more important to its initial sale than the product itself. So you initiate policies of daily vacuuming and dusting, no eating lunch on the front counter, daily shelf maintenance, etc. Somewhere in the course of all this, you realize that a lot of the‹‹reason that maintenance is required is due to certain habits that customers have. Obviously, some of these policies need to extend to customers, as well. You don’t want food in your store, for example. Past shoplifting experiences require you to check bags and packages. If someone’s property is stolen, you don’t want to be responsible for a customer’s indiscretion in leaving it lying about. And so on. So you post signs.

And you end up contradicting the very principle you were trying to uphold in the first place.

A couple of years ago I went into a T-shirt store—you know, the kind where you can quickly have a shirt made to say just about anything. I have to admit that my main purpose in going in to the store was not to buy a shirt (though as a recovering T-shirtaholic, I would have bought one if it were really cool) but to see how they were displayed. I was never satisfied with any T-shirt display I’d seen at the time; on a circular rack like I had, no matter how professional it looked, the customer had to fumble through the shirts to see them, hung on a wall they took up too much room, and an imprint-only wall display, while solving the first two problems, didn’t leave the thing looking like a T-shirt. So, I figured, this T-shirt store looked like a pretty upscale place; they might have some ideas for shirt fixturing and display.

I can’t even remember how the shirts were displayed. Nor can I, an admitted T-shirtaholic, remember what they had for sale. All I can remember is the 11 x 17 inch sign standing erect, shrinelike, on the counter. Written in red and black ink, it was prominently visible for all to see who entered the store. It read as follows:

NO checks
NO credit cards
NO money orders
NO pets
NO food
NO shirt (on you), no shirt (from us)
NO smoking
NO loitering
NO handling merchandise without assistance

A broken water line in front of the store couldn’t have been a more severe deterrent to business. As I hastily copied the text from the sign into my ever-present date book (I just knew I’d have occasion to recite this someday), I was amazed. I was in a beautifully appointed, well merchandised store in a busy shopping mall at lunch time, but I was the only one in the place. The sign might not have been the main reason for that, but it sure didn’t help.

It was a severe example of what not to do, but all of us run into situations that could give a negative message to customers. Some years prior to the T-shirt store incident, shortly after I opened my store, I needed some signs. I had a street-front store which had one of those annoying doors that you can never figure out whether to `push’ or `pull’. So my mother-in-law, a talented artist and a terrific help in creating my store, bought me stickers that explained this. She also gave me a third sticker-sign, which exclaimed “NO BARE FEET” in bold metallic letters. I was amused at what I felt was an aberration of her usually impeccable design sense. As I chuckled, a confused expression played across her face. She wasn’t amused in the least. With eyes wide, she challenged, “What’s so funny? You don’t want anyone in here with bare feet!”

I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of the disadvantages of bare-footed patrons. I suppose, if forced to actively choose, I would have preferred shod customers. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I had never before thought about this potential problem, it was intuitively and instantly clear to me that it would not be enough of a problem to warrant a negative sign on my door.

Shortly thereafter, I started to pay attention to signage as a concept, instead of simply a necessity. This is why I was sensitive to the one in the T-shirt store. Not only is it destructive, but there is never, ever a need for it. In fact, since signs are often a necessary part of a business, they can be used for expressing yourself in a positive way to your customers.

I heard a story one about how businessman Whitt Schultz favored businesses that exuded a positive attitude toward their customers. Specifically, he noted some interesting signs, and how they affected the way he viewed the business he was visiting. He mentioned a financial institution that posted, instead of the normal “Closed” sign, one that read: 

Our next opportunity to serve you is at  8:30 a.m.
And we look forward to seeing you.

In his favorite restaurant, there was a sign in the cloakroom that stated:

Of course we’re responsible for your personal belongings when you’re a guest here. Relax, and please enjoy your meal. Our number one responsibility is always to serve you well!

Compared to the normal “Not responsible for personal property,” how memorably this stands out! He mentioned a washroom that contained an eloquent sign that read: 

Because of the quality of the people we employ, we don’t have to remind them to wash their hands before returning to work.

What a difference a little creative thinking can make! When a sign is necessary, think about its wording. You’ll always be able to come up with a positive way to get your message across.

And if you get stung, think twice about the necessity of preventing future problems with signage. My grand opening day was somewhat tarnished by a woman who came in and said, “The entire neighborhood is up in arms, because we’ve heard that you sell adult comics.” I had already put my adult stuff on the top shelf, but I instantly printed a sign that said, “You must be eighteen years old to purchase adult comics.” The result? A year and a half later, I pulled the sign down, and began bagging adult books and inserting a slip of paper with the store logo and a sentence that stated the same thing. All that sign ever served to do was invite people to ask, “Hey, you sell adult books here?”

You see, no matter how bad the sting, it just might not be worth negative signage because of the infrequency of such an occurrence. How many coats did that restaurant have to buy as a result of its sign? $1000 worth per year is probably an overstatement, but it is a small price to pay for the feeling its patrons got when they hung their coats. And all told, I don’t think I had more than a few bare feet in the history of my store.

And by all means, blow your own horn! Positive signs make your place a nice place to shop. If you have a pretty good track record about fulfilling rare back issue requests, flaunt it! A cash register sign that states, “We at Comic World will make every effort to fulfill any special request” will raise some eyebrows, and give you more business, as well.

Of course, signs are only advertisements of policy. The first step is to have your store policies in place. Generous service and return policies are what will keep your customers generous and returning.

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Stan Lee Doesn’t Know You

If it makes you feel any better, Stan Lee doesn’t know who I am, either. I know of what I speak. 

In the early ‘90s, when it came my turn to work in the Direct Sales Department of Marvel’s Hallowed Halls, it gave me a thrill to see The Man himself walking down them. After my initial introduction and an offering I’m sure he’s NEVER experienced before — a gushing expository on how he was profoundly responsible for my career, sense of ethics, and need to look both ways before crossing the street — I’d always make an effort to say hello when we passed one another.

“Heyhowyadoin’!” was, without exception, Stan’s reply.

As weeks went on, despite his home in California, he did spend much time in New York. I started to get it through my fanboy head that it defined some version of “normal” to actually share workspace with this legendary man. Nevertheless, despite countless Hallowed Halls encounters, despite watching him sit through my presentations of the season’s offerings at retailer and distributor functions (pressure!), and despite taking every opportunity I could muster to have The Man just hear my name, he never learned it. Never.

Then came a once-in-a-lifetime chance which, I was sure, would solve my dilemma.

Each year Marvel’s Direct Sales Department hosted a Distributors’ Conference, wherein we’d invite executives from our dozen distribution companies to join us in some exotic locale to be treated to amazing experiences between presentations of what was coming out of Marvel during the ensuing year. It was — in a world where those on the front lines of selling our product typically worked in dimly lit, filthy stores, drove a 15-year-old car, ate 7-11 hot dogs for lunch, and lived in their mothers’ basements — a mortifying extravagance. To wit, in 1992, we spent a couple of hundred grand hosting our conference in Old San Jan, Puerto Rico. While there, in addition to crab races and a conch feast, we (…wait for it…) rented a private island. We also rented crewed sailboats to silently ferry our guests quickly to and slowly from our leeward island’s exclusive beach soirée. Ridiculous. Amazing, but ridiculous.

Once we set ashore, our evening was again filled with all-things-conch and other catered island food, the limbo, bonfires, and beach volleyball. At departure time, since we were headed windward, the captain told us the voyage back would take triple the time to return to Puerto Rico as it did to arrive from it. I unenthusiastically boarded, preparing for a 90-minute trip in darkness, hoping at least for a seat in the open air at stern so that I could enjoy the stars. There was, indeed, an empty seat in the back — right next to Stan Lee and his beautiful and charming wife, Joan. There were other people already in the stern, but the seat was open, as many people didn’t quite know how to approach Stan.

I lit up like a star myself and jumped at the seat. I introduced myself and reminded Stan of what I did at Marvel. Then, for an hour and 45 minutes under the clear splash of the Milky Way, I peppered both of them with questions about their life-long love affair, Stan’s teenage years at Timely Comics, the early office environment at Marvel, and given our overhead backdrop, the development of some of Stan’s cosmic, albeit second-tier characters like Dr. Strange and The Silver Surfer.  Both of them were generous, entertaining (she as much as he) and entirely forthcoming. Out of courtesy more than anything else, I found ways to remind them of my first name during the conversation. I felt like I was in the company of respected relatives. At the end of our journey, we embraced. It felt like magic.

The following week I was back at 387 Park Avenue South, and so was Stan. I soon saw him coming my way, down one of The Halls. I walked toward him ecstatically. From now on, Stan “The Man” Lee would greet me by name! I couldn’t wait for it to happen the first time.

“Heyhowyadoin’!” he said.

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Empty Handed


On Saturday, September 15th, 2001, we chose to drive in to New York City.

I still don’t know what we were thinking. Five days after the devastation my wife and I both remained unable to shake our depression, or to bring any of the normalcy of life back into our routine. Perhaps our impatience with our children and each other imparted on us the requirement of an event, one similar to that enjoyed by the country’s religious peoples the day before, on Mr. Bush’s national day of mourning. If this was the case, our need wasn’t conscious; Janet and I looked at each other blankly as we attempted to think of what our journey could contribute. Reports had indicated that rescue workers were being overwhelmed with food, and even volunteers to help clear the rubble were far in abundance of the seemingly insurmountable need.

So, with a trunk that contained only our needs, we crossed Pennsylvania and New Jersey and soon began the long, slow arc into the Lincoln Tunnel. The children anxiously poked their heads through the sunroof as the stuttering traffic gave us a painfully long, first view of the decimated New York landscape. Like a great, disharmonious scale, Manhattan seemed to teeter about the Empire State Building, Uptown glittering toward the left, Downtown smoldering on the right.

The tunnel delivered us into the somberness that pervaded all of New York, unfamiliar and immediately apparent. Police manned barricades at every corner, and passersby greeted them respectfully. Many returned a pleasant smile. Some furrowed their brows with pain. Others looked angry.

I drove randomly, without a plan. Our intuition told us to get to the thick of things, to let our senses fill as they could not through the telescopic view our television provided. I thought we might park as far south as allowed, then simply stumble about, and pray.

Our trip through Midtown delighted my children. Indeed, Times Square and the Empire State Building remain daunting places, larger than their young eyes can imagine. Their unfamiliarity with the former ambiance and skyline of the city benefitted their joy. I let myself come out of my fog and appreciate the youngsters’ small reservoir for sorrow. They chirped at one sight after another and, in the privacy of our car, I joined them.

Soon we found ourselves in Greenwich village. It was sunny there; not cheerful, but warm. We easily found free street parking and began walking at a pace more casual than appropriate to the distance my wife and I knew we needed to cover. But we felt both melancholy and secure as our children toddled through this immense urban neighborhood.

We quickly gained an understanding of the distracted city that no two–minute news clip could communicate. Every corner, every phone booth, every mailbox was pasted with the faces of the missing. Countless restaurants displayed hundreds of postings on their facades, placed by the desperate, the mourning, and those not yet willing to mourn. And always there were candles, ubiquitous and silencing, lit by families of the fallen, relit by we who couldn’t bear to let them extinguish. There seemed no need to head farther downtown to join the grieving community.

It was very difficult to be in a hushed Manhattan. Few spoke. We felt compelled to read all details of each missing person: every tattoo, every scar, every clothing choice made early that Tuesday morning. And, in this difficult instance, our multitude of ethnicities proved a great advantage. The pretense of obliviousness seemed wonderfully gone from our multicultural society. At a time when every distinguishing characteristic was a valuable piece of information, skin color was boldly proclaimed: dark, pale, sunburned, olive. All of the varieties of brown provided to our species were listed on those pages, just as that spectrum stood, shoulder to shoulder, beautifully meshed, studying them.

My wife and I had cried often during the first four days of this horror. We were glad to be free of tears so far into our journey, allowing such anguish to be given to others more in need of its powerful cleansing. After all, we felt somewhat guilty being in New York. Were we just irreverent tourists? I had been selectively using the camera in my pocket. But while we had done our best to explain the situation clearly to our young children, we could see that they did not understand the reality of a situation that I strongly believe belongs to their generation historically, uniquely. We knew to not force a reaction out of them. We had chosen to immerse them in its presence, but remained uncertain of that decision, its affect on them, and its courtesy to a suffering community. We wished to keep our sorrow private, so as to not tread on the grief of those who found the tragedy immediate. It was an intent as improper as it was futile.

We came upon a firehouse in Greenwich Village. It was a captivating place: a narrow old portal that offered a shiny chariot of hope. On its bay door was an oil–painted mural: the truck emerging with a colorful crew, a Dalmatian and, in the shotgun seat, Uncle Sam. But that door was closed, blocked by an avalanche of flowers, candles, and letters of admiration and love. We imagined that truck crushed and burned, along with its valiant crew. Our prayers blended with those of the dozens gathered there, and we found new tears.

At countless smaller shrines we stopped to pray, read, cry, or relight candles. Their photographs gave glimpses of nights out, family gatherings, parties, lunches, and many, many weddings. Some paper faces were becoming familiar, others broadened our awareness of the depth of the catastrophe. Every picture seemed to have been taken during a happy time, a former life, another world. There were also photocopied lists of items needed: gloves, boots, goggles, protein bars; I agonized at the realization that many of these items sat unused in my home. There was a listing from the ASPCA asking for volunteers to assist trapped animals. Another face of the disaster I hadn’t considered: how many victims were unmarried pet owners? Given the multitude of the missing, perhaps hundreds. And there were signs, posters, and banners, begging for peace.

Eventually we came to Union Square. As large as the block–sized park is, it was dwarfed by the affection of its inhabitants. Here an acoustic guitarist sang his sorrows. There two hundred Tibetan Buddhists chanted for peace. Spread across the ground were huge, artfully printed sheets with black markers and countless words of praise and condemnation scattered upon them. My children contributed their thoughts, as did I. One young man handed out cards and pens as yet another way for people to express their feelings, which he would then pass on to fire fighters. I asked if I could send my card in the next day. “Just hand it to a cop,” he said. “Give ‘em a boost, y’know?”

Then there was the prominent, concrete circle of Union Square, the scene so well publicized by television cameras, magazines and newspapers. Would that the postage stamp lens of a TV screen could translate its grandeur and, at the same time, its humble veneration for the missing. Hundreds gathered about to view its display, as we had at other impromptu memorials. But this was different, more intense. In another context it would have looked a mess, items strewn haphazardly about as they were. But this place was irreproachable. I looked at the people surrounding the elegant, spontaneous shrine. Many were in reverence. Some were in agony. One woman, speaking on a cell phone, wrinkled her face in pain, then buried it in a hand wet with her tears. All stood in silence and studied the scene, piece by piece, learning of the fallen, civilians and servicemen, tattooed and clean shaven, parents and singles, all loved by flowers, candles, cards, posters, prayers. This was the epicenter of the citywide funeral that Manhattan had become.

Darkness fell, bringing with it the glow of the ever-present pyre emitting from the disaster area. It looked like the rising of countless souls. We ambled toward it mindlessly, like moths. But a glance at our map showed that the southernmost point we could reach, Canal Street, was still far away. Our young children had been walking for a long time. We chose to return to the car.

It was a good choice. Our path crossed a playground bustling with kids. As ours climbed over the equipment, Janet and I were amazed by the place. Everyone was so happy. The parents’ eyes were full of love and smiles, not tears. We all seemed safe in this welcome retreat.

As we drove south, ambulance after ambulance passed us. We were delayed momentarily while one pulled into a building to our left. I looked up, feeling an odd mix of strength and dread. We were in front of Saint Vincent’s Hospital, the primary facility receiving victims of the attack. Behind that brick facade were hundreds of dead and injured. I found myself praying more emphatically during this fortunate, brief traffic inconvenience than I did at any other time during my visit to New York City.

As we expected, each road continuing south from Canal Street was blocked by police barricades. Only a couple of officers manned each blockade: state police, city police, or a combination thereof. Their task was simply to limit the foot traffic farther south to those unfortunate enough to have their homes in that area. Here, too, people were polite, generous and selfless. A middle aged woman rolled her European consonants against an officer’s thick New York vowels until he finally got his request for identification across. A block later, we found other officers charmed by the thoughtfulness of a local resident, who brought down a tray with coffee, cups, and condiments. All present—once again there were hundreds—could look south and see the glowing smoke. It was yet another place for reflection and sorrow. We stayed for a long time. Then, off to the right, we saw a different, brighter glow. I was moments away from my lifetime high point of American pride.

We followed the lights and discovered South Seventh Avenue, the road that the President had travelled the day before. The street provided a thoroughfare for massive dump trucks, filled to the top with concrete picked free of precious cargo. Also departing and arriving were rescue workers, some traveling by the bus load, others riding in a cart or jeep, still others walking out in pairs, or alone. An unfortunately positioned Mobil station was blocked off from traffic. Its selfless owner, however, used its bright bays as a rest stop where weary rescue workers and donated goods could find one another. I admired his energetic efforts to accommodate the filthy, footsore rescuers so in need of his hospitality.

During my observation I heard the unlikely sound of enthusiastic cheering. At the nearby street corner, standing shoulder to shoulder before the corner barricades, hundreds of people gathered. Now past midnight, they stood with no other goal than to give heart to the weary workers. Their cries rose and fell with the passing of vehicles, large and small. My family was overcome. Children were lifted to our shoulders, and we hurried to contribute our enthusiasm to this unrehearsed expression of gratitude.

It was a magnificent finish, to contribute our admiration to the selflessness of the Americans of New York City.

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

© 2001 Bruce Costa

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