Sunday, September 11, 2016

The 9/11 diary entries

[This is a combination of two diary entries: one from September 22, 2001 -- my first entry since the attacks -- and another from October 6, where I fleshed out some of the details. All of the words are original.]

But the thing that's most important and that has pretty much dominated our existence for the past 11 days are the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. I've been a bit consumed by it lately (I've amassed a healthy collection of magazinzes, largely un-read so far) and have written my fair share of stuff about it for my journalism classes.

The need to record things for posterity compels me to start at the beginning of this thing, from my first day of Digital Journalism class, which was interrupted by someone from the Journalism office delivering the news. It was just after nine, so the 2nd plane must have just hit. A student worker knocked on the door and said "Just so you guys know, 2 planes just crashed into the World Trade Center." I guess they wanted to leave the ultimate decision up to the professor, although it was abundantly clear to us that the first day pleasantries could not go on. One girl, in fact, emphatically insisted that class adjourn so she could make a phone call. She left almost immediately.

Our friendly messenger told us that there was a TV in the 5th floor office. Although I could have gone outside and seen it for myself in a matter of minutes, I went upstairs.Maybe, as Jeffrey says, I just didn't want to see it for myself just yet.

An older professor, who I had never seen before, was watching the TV in the lobby. It was tuned to NY1. The professor was crabby. He ordered us to file in quietly and take a seat. The image was worse than I expected. I don't know what I expected. I knew that a plane had hit the Empire State Building in the 30s, and that building survived (duh). But I wasn't prepared to see all that billowing black smoke. The anchors had precious little idea of what happened. It was clear that I wouldn't be getting much in the way of news just yet. So I left. On my way, I saw the girl who needed to make a phone call, and she seemed okay. I thought everything must be okay.

Outside -- a gorgeous day, flawless sky, 70s, etc -- the students didn't seem rattled at all. I allowed myself to be convinced, if only for the moment, that it wasn't as bad as it seemed. I went to the bookstore. All seemed normal. I was prompted to ask the cashier if she heard what happened. She had. That was all. She hadn't seen it, but she knew. Did I want a bag?

People still seemed largely oblivious -- save for a few people already throwing around rumors ("It was a Delta plane -- red and blue -- definitely"). I still had it in my head that I could attend to scholarly duties and do some research for an assignment on Charles Dickens, so I walked to Bobst Library on Washington Square South and LaGuardia Place. And then I saw the smoke.

At that point, 9:15, the Towers were still standing but with large, gaping, smoking jagged gashes. The Towers had the trick of taking on the color of the surrounding sky. On rainy days they were stark and gray. At sunset, they glowed orange. On September 11, they were deep blue. Deep blue with large black gashes spewing black smoke. There wasn't much evidence of flames, only a few isolated fires could be seen throughout the exposed floors. But the smoke was thick and black.

I actually went into the library.I didn't realize at that point how many people had already died in the plane crashes (let alone how many more would die a short time later). I didn't think the Towers would fall. I thought that it would take forever to fix that, and that I'd have to look at those gashes every day for the rest of the school year when I walked to class. That is, until they covered it with an ugly-ass blue tarp or scaffolding or something.

But it slowly started to hit me that this was something more terrible than I originally thought. I tried to concentrate on the volumes and volumes of Dickens before me. I never realized how narrow the hallways in the library were. I got dizzy. I wanted to go back to the dorm. I left, having accomplished nothing at all.

The crowd outside was bigger now. As I walked north up University Place to my dorm on Union Square, others were going south. Some had professional looking cameras. I started to run.

No one spoke. People were still trickling into the streets. Standing in the middle of them. Most of the cars didn't even honk. Everyone who had a car parked on the side of the road had returned to their vehicles and turned on their radios, opened the doors and windows so people could crowd around and hear. Each had turned to a different station, making a cacophanous sound that told me the whole story as I ran north. "White House evacuated." "Could be more planes." "Possible explosion at the State Department." Occasionally I'd look behind me, but not for long.

At the dorm, someone chose this to be the time to get their hand scanned for our high-tech security system. This caused the line to enter the building to grow, and tempers to get short. When Mr. Brainiac was done, the guard asked who was next. None of us gave a damn about handscanning, We wanted to go back and try to connect with our families. I ran back to my room to see suitemate Laura in her bedroom watching the news. "Enjoying the chaos?" she asked. [editor's note: I hated Laura]

I too put on the news and tried the phones in vain. I decided to go back outside where I thought my cell phone would work. I didn't know that none of the cell phones worked.

I ran back outside to see the first tower enveloped in a cloud of dust. When the dust cleared, there was no more tower. I raised my camera to take a picture. It was then that I realized that my hand was shaking.

Two people came out of the subway behind me. Ostensibly, they had been stuck on the train since the attack and knew very little, if anything. "What the hell happened here?" the man asked. I tried to tell him, but he walked past me. My cell phone was no help. I went back inside.

I got off on the wrong floor. I turned the knob of the wrong room, shaking it in frustration, not realizing my mistake. A girl opened it and stared at me. I stammered an apology. She said that she understood, that everyone was a bit mixed up.

The next few hours kinda run together. I remember talking to John before my parents as his was the first number to go through. I finally reached Mom and Dad on AIM. They were evacuating the Navy base in Philadelphia. Jeffrey came to my room. He had seen the second explosion and even though he knew I was okay, he wanted to be sure. Christine was eating a sandwich that she had brought from the bakery where she worked the day before. The bakery, Ecce Panis, was in the WTC concourse. We watched the bakery not exist anymore.

We watched the news for nine more hours. We watched 7 WTC fall. At 11 pm, we turned the TV off. We couldn't sleep, so we played Trivial Pursuit.

The next day the wind shifted and everything below 14th Street was barricaded (we live between 15th and 16th). It smelled awful, like burning chemicals. Jeffrey and I went to Pennsylvania, where we contiunued to assure the curious that we were indeed alive.

Since then I have been mighty cynical. I've been frightened by the sudden spurt of red, white and blue bloodlust, and "war fever," although it seems that more people are beginning to hold off on wanting to go to war (although our president doesn't seem to be one of them). I was initially tuirned off by what I perceived to be empty gestures -- memorials and poems in Union Square, "light a candle at 7 pm", "wear a ribbon, buy a flag" -- but I'm beginning to soften.

I guess I'm most concerned about my little brother going off to war to fight an undetermined enemy. I'm saddened by the backlash against Arab and Afghan people (Jeffrey and I ate at Bamiyan tonight, and were happy to see that it was fairly busy). I'm depressed by the barrage of Missing Persons posters for people that I know are pulverized. I'm concerned that I'm not more horrified at the fact that I just witnessed the destruction of thousands of people, let alone the skyline of the city that I love. I worry that it's all going to hit me @ once -- in a public place. Maybe the produce section. I'll just start screaming and throwing lettuce or something, jjust generally disgracing myself.

I'm  mad at the people that are letting fear control them, like my friend who didn't want to go out tonight because she heard there was going to be biological warfare. The only times I felt really touched were when it first happened, when my Literature of Journalism professor wanted to casually blow it off, when Conan O'Brien almost broke down during his monologue, and when I thought my president was going to declare war. I'm sure it will hit me sometime. In the meantime, I'm looking for a job and carrying on with life, because that's all I know how to do right now.

Bad writing, but I thought it was necessary. Sorry to bore you.

11:25 pm

[Editor's note: it's not bad writing, kiddo. And it will hit you. Buckle up.]

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Reminiscence by Benjamin Kushner

The following is a long post, but pretty special to my family. I never knew Great-Grandpa Ben, and I never knew his daughter, my Grandma Pauline. I knew Ben emigrated to the U.S. from a village in Russia (in what's now Moldova) and loved reading and classical music. I knew that at one point he owned a grocery store in Philadelphia. And I knew that he left a small stack of typewritten pages that he wrote in his 80s describing his life in Russia, his voyage to America and his early years in Philadelphia as a struggling immigrant. We finally got around to typing it up. And here it is. 

I recognize this all may not be as interesting to you as it is to us, but it underscores the need to talk to your grandparents, and maybe keep some notes of your own life, because this is more valuable than any heirloom. The last paragraphs are particularly touching, summing up what he is grateful for and what has caused him pain, including my grandmother's death which had happened within a year of his writing. 

Write it down. Write it all down. Sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones that might otherwise never get told. 


As I begin to write this reminiscence, I am close to my 82nd birthday and my thoughts turn more and more to the days of my beginning.  It is a partial history of my life.  It is not the introspection of old age that leads me to reminisce about my childhood days and about my life in Russia and my early years in America.  I am not yet so far gone that I cannot look to the future, even though less days lie before me than behind.  My grandchildren or great-grandchildren may be curious to know where their Grandfather or Great-Grandfather came from and how life was like in my childhood, so this story is for them and for their children if they wish to pass it on.

I was born on February 22, 1896.  There was some doubt about the date of my birth.  In my days in the old country vital statistics and registration was not kept for the population of Russia and certainly not for the Jews.  We were later able to figure out the day I was born, because it was two weeks before Purim, and my Father remembered a portion of the Torah that week and we concluded that I was born Feb 22, 1896 in a small town on the banks of the Dniester called Vad Rashkov.

My family consisted of my Father Avrum and my Mother Charna, and us six children three boys and three girls.  I was the second child in line of birth, the first boy.  Our house was the largest and most modern in town.  It consisted of 14 rooms and was the only house in town with wooden floors, and it extended almost a city block.  It was surrounded by trees.  We had no sanitation facilities and no running water. Water for drinking, cooking and other purposes was brought in by water carriers with two wooden buckets from a nearby well.  For bathing during the summer, we used the river known as Dniester, and during the winter months we had a special Public Bath House which the entire population used.

I remember vaguely when my brother Burich was born even though I was only six years old.  I remember the excitement and jubilation and the festivities which lasted all week long after the birth.  The birth of a third son made my Father so excited that he wanted to have the best of everything.
I started to go to (Cheder) school at the age of six.  There were no public schools available except a few in the big cities and few Jewish children dared to go to them.  My school was private and in the home of the (melamed) teacher. He only lived in two rooms, so we had to acquire our education in rather crowded circumstances.  In the class were ten boys, who sat along a table five on each side.  

The lessons were in Hebrew.  Our school hours were from 8 in the morning until 9 at night.  We went home for lunch at noon time and for supper about 5 o’clock.  We had school all year long.  In the summer we went barefoot, and in the winter we wore leather boots and heavy clothing with fur hats.  We walked to and from school.  The streets were not paved and the mud was deep.  We had no lights on the streets and during the winter months we carried lanterns which we made out of cardboard with a candle in the center.

The winters were very long.  The snow started to fall in October and lay on the ground until late April.  Winter was fun for us kids.  We would make our own skates and slide one foot over the frozen river the Dniester.  Those who did not have skates were sliding on their shoes, but it was fun.  Transportation in the winter was by horse drawn sleds.

In the summer we would go bathing in the Dniester in the nude.  There were no bathing suits.  When the river was muddy, we came out with more dirt than we went in.  It was a lot of fun though.

On Sunday morning, my Father and Mother went shopping for the week.  I had cheder school all day as usual, but we did manage once in a while to run wild until my Father and Mother returned home.  On Monday morning my Father would leave for the week to a railroad station called SHOLDONASHT.  He was a commissioner and his job was to receive merchandise for the town merchants and also to ship all kinds of merchandise to various parts of Russia…

My day began early because I had to be in (cheder) school at 8 o’clock and I had to say my prayers before eating breakfast.  My Mother would say, Berale, put on the tfillin before you eat your breakfast.  After prayers I was served breakfast – kashe with milk, a piece of herring, and a piece of chala.  On Fridays we would have a piece of hot malai, a substance of corn meal with cottage cheese.  We had no juices nor vitamins or cereals of any kind.  Most of our food was flavored with beef fat (schmaltz) and garlic.  Coming home for school for lunch there would be for a change potato soup with noodles or teglich mit fasolis, little creamettes with navy beans.  For supper around 4 or 5 o’clock there would be a russel with a mamaliga, a lamb stew with a substance of corn meal, or dairy such as sour cream with cheese latkes and borsht.  When I came home from school at 9 o’clock in the evening I was served farfel flavored with schmaltz.

Friday was the big day for us.  In the morning when we arose my Mother had already the bread and chala in the oven.  She had it prepared the night before, 2 for Shabas and one for each day of the week.  On Friday the house was cleaned and made shabostic, ready for the Sabbath different from any other day.  My Father’s shoes were already shined when he came home for the week end.  He immediately inspected us kids to make sure our nails are cut and our ears clean.  My Mother was already cooking Yoich mit lokshin, gefilte fish and tzimis from lima beans or chick peas (Nahit).  We went to services and when we came home, my Mother blessed the candles and we ate by the light of the candles and a kerosene lamp.  My Father made the kiddish and later I made the kiddish and when my brothers Burich and Isrul grew older, we sang the kiddish together.

We lived without worry.  It was a time of happiness.  We had no radios, televisions nor phonographs, so during the winter we sat by the stove eating pumpkin seeds and telling stories.  On Friday night my Mother would put the food, such as the beef stew and lokshen kigel in the oven and seal it so it would keep hot for the following day, and when we came home from shul, we would serve dinner.  After dinner when we boys were able to sneak away for a few hours, we would go to the wine yards and pick grapes.  Our district was best known throughout Russia for its fruits and grapes which we shipped to all parts of Russia. On Shabas afternoon we had to go back to Cheder for a few hours.

The week started again and it was always the same, and so the years went by fast until I reached 13 years to become Bar Mitzvah.  I was Bar Mitzvah at the old synagogue where my Father was President for many years.  Most of the synagogues were near the river, six in all.  In my day there were no Bar Mitzvah parties.  One was called up to the Torah, and that was it, but since we were considered a wealthy family, my Mother baked a honey cake, bought a half dozen herring and a bottle of vodka and that was it. 

When I reached 14 years, my Father said it was time for me to join him in his business at the (Stanzia) railroad station where he was engaged as a commissioner, receiving and shipping all kinds of merchandise to all parts of Russia.  Even though I was only 14, I was a big help to my Father. And I assumed responsibilities fit for a much older person.  My Father was able to stay home for a week, and I stayed on the job. 

I continued to work with my Father until I was 16, and then I began to realize that there is no future for a young man in doing what I am doing.  In the early part of the 20th century immigration to Palestine and the United States was at its peak, and my thoughts turned to the idea of going to America.  My Mother’s sister, my aunt Ethel and brother Chaim were already in America since 1908.  I wrote to them about my decision and asked them to send me a ticket which they immediately did, and on July 3rd 1913, I was ready to leave.  On the night before my boyfriends gathered at our house to bid me farewell, and we were up all night eating and drinking and singing.  Since I was of military age, I could not get a passport, and I had to sneak out of the country at night.  They called it “Stealing the border”.  On Sunday July 4th, my Mother made a big dinner and invited some friends to the house to say good bye.  I remember very vividly at the dinner table while the guests offered a toast, my Father broke down and tearfully remarked, He will have everything in America except his Father and Mother, brothers and sisters.  My Father was very emotional and very attached to his children, particularly to me since I am constantly at his side.  On that same evening, Sunday July 4th, my Father took me to his home town (Ribnitza) to say good bye to his brother and to all our cousins and friends.  The following day, July 6th, we left by train to a town called Slobodka where I was supposed change trains and travel to a town far away called Vladimir Volinsk where I was supposed to cross the border from Russia to Austria.  We stayed up all night in the waiting room until 7 in the morning, and I will never forget, my Father did not take his eyes off me for a minute.  When the train arrived, he escorted me to my seat and when the train pulled out, he kept waving until the train was out of sight.  I was later told he fainted and collapsed on the platform.

On the train, I met many young people from all over Russia, and after travelling 48 hours, we reached the town Vladimir Volinsk from where we were supposed to be taken to the border at night.  An agent met us at the station and took us to a boarding house where we were kept in hiding. During the night the boys were taken to a nearby stable where six of us slept on straw on the bare floor.  The following night we were ready to be taken to the border.  Even though it was the month of July, the mud was knee deep.  We finally reached a place, a wooded area and we were told that someone would soon be here to take us across the border.  We waited almost three hours.  In the meantime, it started to rain and we were soaked to the bone.  Finally a Russian soldier appeared and told us to give him each two rubles and he will lead us across the border.  We were 33 boys and he led us across the border.   After walking several hours in no man’s land an Austrian soldier appeared and took us to a boarding house to dry up and have some coffee.  This is where the story of the cup of coffee originated, which years later I used as a bed time story when I put my children to sleep, and it remained as a legend with them to this day.  The following morning we boarded a train and after traveling for 3 days we finally reached Hamburg Germany which was our embarkation point for America.  We waited 3 days in Hamburg and on July 16th we finally sailed on the German American Line on an ocean liner called Printz Adalbert which was named after the oldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.  On July 16th at 3 P.M. the ship began to move and I realized for the first time that I am alone and far away from home, and the tears began to roll.  On the ship I met many people and I had a good time.  I travelled 2nd class and in those days 2nd class passengers were very few.  The meals were not bad, but nothing to compare with the present day luxury liners.

Finally on July 30th at about 7 A.M. we sighted land and at about 11A.M. the ship docked at Front & Washington Ave.  I immediately spotted my uncle Chaim and I started to yell real loud in Jewish, Chaim, Chaim here I am.  He noticed me and motioned to keep quiet.  He was obviously embarrassed since he already changed his name to Herman.  After going through customs which was no problem for me and the doctor’s examination I got off the ship and met Chaim.  We started to walk from Washington Ave. to 16th and Tasker in a 95 degree temperature and me with a fur coat and a big black hat…On the same day Chaim took me to see my Aunt Ethel who was my Mother’s sister and I also met my cousin Sylvia who was then one year old.

For almost two weeks, I was taken around to see the sights of Philadelphia.  In the meantime, I enrolled at a night school at 515 Pine St., and one of my school mates was Dr. Brenner, who later became a dentist since his brothers were doctors and lawyers.

After resting for 2 weeks, I began to look for a job and soon found out that it is not the goldina medina and money is not strewn on the streets.  After looking for several days I finally found a job at a jobbing house at 2nd and Market and my assignment was to sweep four floors and help unload the trucks when the merchandise is delivered.  My salary was Four Dollars a week.  I stayed on this job for two weeks and got the pink slip.  They soon noticed that I was not the type for this job.  I started to look for another job and soon found one at 6th and Moore St. at Frank’s soda factory and my assignment was to wash empty bottles. In those days there were no washing machines yet to do the washing.  I stayed on this job one week.  I continued changing jobs for almost 8 months.  One of the jobs was at 17th and Reed St. and my assignment was to kill chickens and clean chicken coops.  I began to feel discouraged, degraded, and my thoughts turned to the idea of going back to Russia, but on May 14th 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe and of course I gave up the idea.

One day while walking on 5th St. with Chaim, we ran into a landsman whose name was Gavril Karol who lived in Allentown.  He was a very good friend of my Father, but I vaguely remembered him.  They told us that they are opening an apron factory in Allentown and since he and his son Alex are constantly on the route peddling, they want someone they can trust to run the factory, to do the bookkeeping, the payroll, etc.  He suggested that I move to Allentown and I immediately accepted, even though I was somewhat apprehensive about my ability to handle the job, but I already had sufficient schooling and I had confidence.  A week later I left for Allentown to begin the job which I felt was more suitable for me than any of the previous jobs.  My salary was 15 dollars to start and I lived with the Karol family.  There was where I acquired my taste for classical music, since the Karol family was a musical family.  I must say that the years I spent in Allentown were some of my best.  I was treated with respect and dignity.  It was a small town then and everybody knew me and I knew everybody. 

I occasionally made trips to Philadelphia to visit my aunt and uncle, but the wheels of destiny keep turning and where they stop no one knows, and one day while visiting a landsman family by the name of Milgrom, I met a young man whose name was Nathan Mosenson, who was a boyfriend to one of the Milgrom boys.  In the course of my conversation with him I learned that his Mother also comes from Rashkov, and of course aroused my curiosity.  He showed me a snapshot of his family and my attention was immediately attracted to his sister who was a very attractive and charming young lady.  Without losing any time, we left for his house to meet the family.  Needless to say it was obviously love at first sight and after a three year courtship we were finally married the date and year January 1st, 1922. 

We moved into an apartment at 4032 Girard Avenue, on the third floor and set up housekeeping.  I was then in the jobbing business for myself, but soon the depression began and like many others went broke.  My beloved wife of six months suggested that she go back to work at Gimbels, but that was out of the question, since she was already pregnant, so my in laws suggested that we put the furniture in storage and move in with them.  Since they lived in a very small house it was rather crowded and with no privacy.  In the meantime, I got a job as a traveling salesman selling boys suits.  My salary and commission were quite well and things began to look brighter, only to be overshadowed by my wife developing kidney trouble during pregnancy and as a result lost the first baby at birth.  Time went by fast and in 1924 we moved into our own apartment at 1201 N. 41st St. where my daughter Shirley was born on July 11th 1925.  It was a time of joy and happiness which did not last long and when my daughter Shirley was 11 months old, my wife was stricken with a kidney stone, has undergone major surgery and was confined to the hospital for seven weeks.  Despite doctors’ advice and to take precaution against pregnancy, my daughter Pauline was born 19 months later, the date and year 1927 April 7th.  

I continued to travel as a salesman and in 1931 my uncle Harry, who was in the wholesale butter and egg business decided to open retail stores.  He opened one on Marshall St., where my cousin Sylvia managed and one at 614 S. 4th St.  and suggested that I quit traveling and manage the store.  To please my wife who was not in favor for me to be constantly away from home, I accepted the proposition, and a year later I took over the store for myself where I spent seven years which I must say under a very unpleasant environment.  In 1939 I moved to 1702 North 42nd St., where I remained until my retirement in the grocery and delicatessen business.  In 1941 after Pearl Harbor, I got a job from 12 midnight to 8 in the morning and my financial condition began to show marked improvement.

I said at the beginning that this is a partial history of my life, so I will stop right here and conclude by just saying that I have lived a full healthy life and I am grateful.  I have no regrets, excepts for the fact that my beloved wife passed away at an early age and was deprived of the pleasure to see her granddaughters married and her grandson become Bar Mitzvah, as well and the pleasure of enjoying together our retirement years.  The subsequent untimely deaths of my two younger brothers and the most recent tragic death of my younger daughter Pauline left a deep scar and an indelible mark on me for the rest of my life.

I remember those who are gone and I look fondly upon those who are with me.  I always believe that a man has an obligation to himself, his family, and to society.  I always believe that man and wife should under any circumstances uphold the oath they have taken on their wedding day.  I believe that one fellow man should try to help another fellow man.  My Father used to say, if you want to stay well and live long, you must help other people as much as you can, and even if he was the most charitable man in town, he died at the age of 57.

As you know I am not a professional writer.  I have written this story in my own words and answered questions to those who may be interested and to those who care to read it, I will just say
  “May God Bless You and keep you well”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tippy Shepherd (1997-2016)

For 12 years, the cat nobody wanted has been my spoiled, snuggled, ride-or-die beastie sidekick who saw me through some of the most difficult times in my life and given me more joy than I could ever return to her. Tippy could be as sassy and swatty as she was cuddly, but whenever I felt bad she knew to take care of me. Today I had to do the same for her, and we said goodbye before she had to suffer anymore or lose any more of what made her the Tipster. I am devastated, and the house is already way too quiet without her mini-pterodactyl squawk, and it will be some time before I stop sleeping on the left side of the bed to give her room to jump up and cuddle at night. But I hope anyone who has a pet feels this bad when you part ways, because that's the price of having loved and been loved by a special critter companion. I'm so glad I picked you, Tippy. And I'm glad you picked me too.
Tippy Shepherd (May 24, 1997-June 19, 2016)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Late Show with David Letterman and the Best After School Gig I Ever Had

My first tour of duty in New York City began in 1999 as a young squiblet of a freshman at NYU. And it was a magical time. I was living on my own, I had a new boyfriend, I was going to Broadway shows and concerts on the regular and I was so, so happy.

And after the first semester, I was also so, so broke. Your girl needed an after-school job. Right quick.

I had done my share of suburban retail work back at home, and would have been happy to go back to that after class, but a quick look at the NYU career services site offered something a bit more enticing, if obtuse: “Audience Page.”

It did not say for what show, so I imagined it might be for a small-ish program, like a daytime talk show that was probably going to get canceled sooner rather than later. Otherwise, why be so mysterious? It wasn’t until I called to set up the interview when they told me what the gig was: audience page for the Late Show with David Letterman.

New York City. Concrete jungle of which dreams are made, you guys.

This is what is said on my paycheck. This is what I had to fill out on my taxes.

It was early 2000, and the show had been on an extended hiatus due to Letterman’s heart surgery. Which was unfortunate for the pages, many of whom were not getting paid and sought employment elsewhere. As for those who might have been a little ambivalent about taking advantage of this situation…well, welcome to the big city, kid.

I was less than ambivalent, is what I’m saying.

So for the next year and a half, with a generous summer break, I reported to the Ed Sullivan Theater four days a week at 3:30 pm to assist with audience wrangling for the daily program Monday through Wednesday, and two shows on Thursday. Fridays off. Shabbat shalom.

The best picture of me and the set in existence. Affordable digital cameras could not be invented soon enough.


I made $10 an hour which seemed extravagant to me, and it was for 1999…until you realize that I only worked 16 hours a week. But at 19, and the youngest person on the Late Show payroll, getting that sweet $150 Worldwide Pants check was good enough for me.

I wore a (loaned) Late Show-issued gray Eddie Bauer V-neck sweater, a white collar shirt, and a black necktie. I got some cheap elastic band black pants from the Greenwich Village K-mart that looked smart enough from a distance, but were thin enough to slip over layers of tights and jeans because we had to work outside and yes, it was cold as hell inside the theater.

There were about 20 other pages, and we oversaw a fairly ridiculously complicated operation for checking in audience members, lining them up, corralling them on the sidewalk, and loading them into the theater.

Those with tickets had to come at 4 pm, get a number written on their ticket, disappear COMPLETELY for 30 minutes (no milling about, clogging up the sidewalk) and then come BACK. The first 180 folks reported back at 4:30. They had to line up in numerical order by color coded ropes arranged in an impressively thought-out formation that allowed for them to assemble while still allowing for sidewalk traffic. They were given a spiel by some aspiring comedians -- whose names have been lost to the passage of time and thwarted showbiz ambitions -- who combined the rules of the theater with some lulz.  We would load them in just in time for the next 180 people to arrive. And do it again.
Ed Sullivan Theater lobby ready to receive an audience. There is an art to stanchion formation that cannot be underestimated.


Not as shiny sparkly in the harsh light of day, now, is it?
Sometimes if we were short on time, the Comedy Kids would do their routine for the First 180, while someone like me would draw aside batches of the Second 180 as they got their tickets, and give them an abbreviated version of the house rules. When it was discovered that I could deliver these quickly, cheerfully, and at a volume that belied my tiny stature and overrode the box office din, I got to do this a lot. You had to be chipper even while administering some fairly draconian rules. This is where I learned the fine art of feigning enthusiasm.

It went a little something like this:


Aside: this, as my audiohead friends will note, is bullshit. Someone -- maybe Dave, maybe not – just thought “wooing” was obnoxious and didn’t want it. They’re not wrong, but you try telling that to happy hour tourists looking to get silly with Dave. Maybe this rule was relaxed in the 15 years since I was there, but it sure as shit was gospel back then.


This was true. An empty seat is no bueno on TV, so we had a row of folks in the way back of the balcony on folding chairs. Usually these were the sad sacks who arrived late, or standby folks. If someone did get up to pee, one of these people would be dispatched to their seat QUICKLY and the unfortunate urinator would be banished upstairs.

The only time the empty seat scenario was thwarted was when someone straight-up pissed in the seat. Granted, they did not get that seat back, as they were summarily removed, but they did beat the system, in a sense. You have to respect that in a funny way.

Anyway, after telling them about the weird numbered lineup situation, we’d end with “SEE YOU BACK HERE AND HAVE A GREAT TIME (you snacking, picture-taking, wooing weirdos).”

I told you it was ridiculously complicated.


I was one of the few pages with no showbiz aspirations, which is good, because unless you want to get in on the tech side of things, it wasn’t a glamorous gig. You didn’t get to meet the celebrity guests. You didn’t really get to meet Dave. You would occasionally see him in the basement corridor that connected the office building to the theater (and also housed the bathrooms, so we had to be alerted to his impending presence and shoo audience folks away before he played through), and he would say hi, but he didn’t exactly have time to kick it.

But you DID get to hang out with the crew, including Alan Kalter the announcer, (who bonded with me as a fellow ginger), Biff Henderson the stage manager (who was LOVELY and helped me with my homework sometimes), and all of the security folks who would throw out the people who were REALLY drunk or REALLY mean to you while using their best Tony Soprano voice, which was satisfying.
Biff Henderson: Stage Manager. Folk Hero.

There were some privileges enjoyed just by the pages. When it was really cold out, and if the Roseland Ballroom across the street didn’t have a show that night, we would line folks up in there and have the run of the place before they arrived. That was fun.

We also got to reward audience members we liked with a coveted “dot” on their ticket which put them in the front row (and, more than likely, on camera) so Dave could see them.  We might even get to pick the people to play “Know Your Current Events” or "Know Your Cuts of Meat." It was a stupid power, but it was ours.

We could also exact revenge on people who were rude to us by surreptitiously sending them to the balcony. We’d mark them by walking alongside them when they came in, and when we got to where our boss was standing at the foot of the staircase we’d say “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, STEVE!” and he’d say “THANK YOU, ROBYN. UP THIS WAY, FOLKS,” and away they’d go.

Though truth be told, you could see way better up there. I always liked being stationed up there for this reason…and because no one could see my solo dance parties during the musical acts. But the jerks didn’t know that. As far as they were concerned, they were being punished. And as far as we were concerned, they could go on thinking that. STUPID POWER BUT IT WAS OURS.

We got to go to the holiday party, which was usually at the theater. The important folks (Paul, Dave, et al) mainly kept to themselves, but whatever. There was lobster in EVERYTHING. And we got Worldwide Pants sweatshirts and tiny pre-printed cards in little envelopes that said:


A Very Late Show Christmas
Creepin' on the colleagues creepin' on the fancy people
And we did get to see a BUTTLOAD of famous people. I got to see Madonna, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Oasis, Nick Cave, Paul Simon, Bill Murray, Stevie Nicks, Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Roberts, Janet Jackson, Mitch Hedberg, Paul Newman, Sting, Al Green, Patti Smith, a pre-famous Zack Galifinakis (who confused the crap out of EVERYONE), Robin Williams, George Carlin... and on and on and on.

One night (incidentally, the episode where George W. Bush made his in-studio late night campaign debut), James Brown just sat in with the band and sang during commercial breaks. Which was weird for the TV audience but AWESOME for us since we got our own private James Brown concert. And they PAID me to be there.

And of all these people, the only person I begged the security folks to ever let me meet was…Moby. Like I said, I was very, very young and very, very silly.


Eventually, the page program shifted to a seasonal, term-limited system, so when I came back to school in the fall of 2001, there was no room at the Ed Sullivan Theater for me anymore and so endeth my showbiz career.  I did go back as an audience member not too long after that, but it’s sort of like going back to see your old high school teachers thinking they’ll be SO GLAD to see you, but really, thanks for coming but we kinda have a job to do and you’re kind of getting in the way of that, but HAVE A GREAT TIME. I have not been to the Ed Sullivan Theater since.

It’s weird for a lot of us to think of a TV landscape without David Letterman, even if, like me, you haven’t watched regularly in a long, long time. Mr. L was a powerful part of my New York story, and I am especially sad to see the garish blue-and-gold marquee outside the theater change now. It was always thrilling to round the corner of 57th on to Broadway and see those lights and think “That’s where I’m going. That’s where I work!” even if I was just a marginally-glorified usher. I never wanted to stop feeling that way. And though my destiny may not have been within the entertainment-industrial complex and I now work in an office building in Midtown rather than a celebrated theater in Times Square, six years into my second tour of duty in New York City, I still do.

And Mr. Colbert, if you do nothing else as you inherit the stage, the audience and the pages of the Ed Sullivan Theater…let them “woo.” For God’s sake, let them “woo.”
Me on the far right in my Xmas sweatshirt from Mr. L, surrounded by my fellow pages and friends with whom I formed lifelong...nah, actually we never kept in touch and I forget most of their names. But look at how much we're pretending to like each other! SHOWBIZ.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On Ferguson

I'm back home in Richboro for the holiday after being in Ferguson for three days. I don't want to debate the issue too much on Facebook because I've learned that never ends well. But as far as what I saw and experienced:

You have all seen the bad things. I have posted about the bad things on Facebook and Twitter as they were happening. And the bad things were very bad, and very scary. I felt the heat from the burning buildings on my face. I tasted tear gas three times. I heard a mother screaming for someone to help her wheezing son when a coffeehouse full of people doing nothing more extraordinary than what you'd see at any Starbucks was suddenly filled with tear gas. I have learned that gunshots and smoke bombs make disconcertingly similar sounds when they are fired 15 feet away from you. At you.

But Ferguson is not a war zone. For the most part, just a block away from any of the fires you saw on TV is a side street with houses with picket fences or big backyards where people were sitting in their living room watching the news. It is a city of 20,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom just want to live in a community where everyone lives in peace and mutual respect.

I saw extreme acts of anger. And I saw extreme acts of baseless, reactive fear. But I also saw extreme acts of kindness, courage, and hopeful determination to commit to the long-term effort to make a better future. Because as the protests and the reactions across the country show, there is a fundamental problem that goes beyond Ferguson. Until we bridge the gap in trust between those who enforce the law and the people they are sworn to serve and protect, we cannot move forward. I realize that is not an original assertion. But that does not make it feel any less true. However, rather than being discouraged by what I saw in Ferguson, I believe that the will to make that change is stronger and more durable than any news cycle, and I am actually encouraged by my experience there that such change is possible.

Our team was in the coffeehouse that was gassed. The coffeehouse was a designated safe space for activists, protesters, or really anyone who wanted to come in at any time of the night and catch their breath both literally and figuratively from the tension in the world outside. The following evening, when we were not there, the coffeehouse was gassed again. And then the events in the clip below happened. We've seen the bad things. We have not seen enough of the good things. Because good things don't make for good TV. Or so we're led to believe. So here is a clip of one of the good things, that does, in fact, make for good viewing. Yes, the people in this clip are clearly on one side of the issue, but I was moved by their spirit of unity and optimism. Maybe you will be too. Maybe not. But I feel like it needs to be seen.

We can all do better. We can all be better. And I believe we will. Starting with swearing off Facebook-fighting about this and actually getting off our butts and doing something more positive than shouting each other down online.

Thanks for listening. Okay, here's the video for real this time:

Friday, August 8, 2014

This Is My Goodbye Email

After five years, I’m sad to say that today is my last day at the ACLU. It may sound trite to say, but my time here has been the most rewarding and challenging job of my life so far, and I am grateful to a lot of people. I am grateful for the patience shown to me as a newbie who ran headfirst into the brick wall of a learning curve that was the national security project and the human rights program until I got settled. That was nice. I am also grateful to the patience shown to me when we instituted the center structure and SURPRISE! now you work on LGBT, RFP, WRP, and religion! I am grateful to those projects for not chucking me out of the staff meetings while I mastered the various Center for Liberty dialects. That was nice, too. I’m glad we got there in the end.

I’m grateful to work with a brilliant team of passionate people who are not only speaking up for those who are oppressed but ACTUALLY GETTING THINGS DONE. I am so proud to have been a part of the Windsor case, the BRCA gene patenting case, the fight to ensure that servicewomen get the recognition and the reproductive health care they deserve, and to have stood up against those who would have prevented an Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan. And I will miss the Christmas mail. Boy howdy, will I miss the Christmas mail.

But I’m not going too far. I’ll just be uptown a bit serving as the deputy press secretary at Amnesty International USA, where I look forward to carrying on some of the good work we do here. I hope to stay in touch both through those endeavors and outside the office. After August 18, you can reach me at and at @AmnestyRobyn on Twitter. Be good to each other, keep fighting the good fight, and just accept the edits to the press release, already.


Robyn Shepherd
Media Strategist
American Civil Liberties Union
125 Broad St., New York, NY 10004
■ (o) 212.519.7829 ■ (cell) 917.302.7189

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Put On Your Booties Cause Its Cold Outside" -- A Groundhog's Day Tale by Bob Shepherd

My brother wrote this a few years ago, and it has been a Facebook favorite. It deserves to be liberated on the Internet, for the benefit of the tens of additional people who may see this. Take it away, Bob:

I've had a few people bring up this story to me today so I figured I'd share it with the rest of the world. It is definitely better told in person but here it goes...

It is 1am on February 2, 2004. The New England Patriots had just defeated the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl. Instead of turning in and getting ready for class the next day, I head outside into the balmy 12 degree Pittsburgh night and meet Josh and his trusty red Tacoma pickup truck affectionately referred to as "the red dragon." I hop in and am handed a cup of coffee as our night has just begun. Despite my previous experience with a plan laid out by Josh, I have agreed to ride to Punxsutawney, PA to witness Phil make his yearly prediction. I was told to expect an all night party, and that it was an event not to be missed. I was reluctant, but as usual Josh convinced to participate.

Now Josh is a very good friend of mine and I was honored to be a groomsman at his please read the rest of this knowing that I have a lot or respect for him...however..I should also mention that previous good ideas by Josh include the following events: A sailing trip that resulted in me jumping into the lake to swim after an un-manned vessel, then a ticket issued for not having life jackets. Screaming insults at the Pitt football team's offensive line from his porch. Repelling out of his second story window. Driving onto the front lawn of a frat house in front of a cop then getting out, tying a rope from his truck around a snowman and driving off. Running down Forbes Ave with a pumpkin on his head telling everyone they knew it, and breaking into a certain prominent Pitt building under construction to steal blueprints. I have also witnessed Josh put a brilliant spin move on a cop while rushing the basketball court at a Pitt game...needless to say Josh was pretty good at college.

We hit I-70 and head north. It's not long before I happen to notice that the red dragon is approaching E which I point out to Josh. I have been in this situation several times before with Josh so I didn't worry too much when he assured me we'd be cool and he had a place in mind.

Skip ahead 45 minutes where jamming to Credence has helped pass the time and we approach the off ramp in Kittanning, PA to head east.

J: " ...Um dude"
::: sputter:::
B: "NO...don't tell me that"
J: "OK I won't"
:::Sputter:::: :::silence:::
J: "We're out of gas dude."
As we're coasting down the ramp with only our momentum carrying us, an 18 wheeler has attached itself to the bumper and a constant barrage of air horn fills the cab. He passes with a few choice words and we continue to coast down the ramp.

The truck comes to rest directly in front of an ominously dark gas station, we push it in and Josh fruitlessly tries his credit card.

Its 3am, literally 0 degrees, there is nothing in sight, and we have no AAA. Josh calls 911 and asks if someone can "bring us some gas."

It begins to sleet while the dispatcher tries to stop laughing and then tells us there's a gas station two miles up the hill to our left. We begin the trek and I share the same choice words the trucker had with Josh moments ago.

We get a can of gas and a ride from the sympathetic station attendant back to the truck...Josh asks me for gas money....I have more choice words.

This is getting pretty long so I'll skip to my assessment of Groundhog's Day in Punxsutawney.

It looks nothing like the Bill Murray movie. The actual event takes place in the woods nowhere near town at "Gobblers Knob." You are bussed in from town after the most invasive pat down of my life and arrive at what I can best describe as a wedding with no booze and no dancing, no food and it's freezing. There is a stage with a fake stump that houses the rat and they blast loud awful music at you all night...when finally at 7am, they rip the now deaf, disoriented Phil from his cage and hold him up so every flashbulb hits him directly in the eyes. He immediately pees all over the handler and most of the front row. Some dude in a top hat reads a scroll and tells you whether or not there was a shadow and everyone goes home. That's it. The end. I look at Josh and he confirms that the event is complete and its time to head back to the Burgh.

Long story short don't go to Punxsutawney...ever. I make sure to tell this story ever time Josh and I catch up usually to berate him...and to remind myself that college was way too much fun!