CONSPIRACY THEORISTS A LA MODE
by Shaun Costello
There is a type of person for whom reality is just not enough. They hunger for truth, and suspect the hand of Satan behind the everyday events that most common folk find acceptable. They have a keen interest in science fiction, and can’t understand why others don’t share their awareness of the dark powers that lurk just beneath the surface of daily life. They know, for instance, that the CIA and the Defense Department control a secret base just outside Roswell New Mexico, where for five generations, they have bred, in captivity, the descendants of the original Martian colonists, who were captured in 1947. They know that Castro killed President Kennedy. And that, in 1993, President Bill Clinton caught his aide Vince Foster fucking Hillary on the White House kitchen table, shot him in the head, stuffed him in the trunk of a car, and staged a phony baloney suicide scene in a nearby park.
And they know beyond doubt, that Hillary Clinton, acting in cahoots with splinter groups of the Muslim Brotherhood, plotted to have Ambassador Chris Stevens, along with three other State Department personnel, murdered at the American Consulate in Benghazi. The reason? Suspicion of cheating at Bridge, while a guest at the White House the previous summer. Secretary Clinton just hates a cheater. And the proof? Just look at the date, friends. September 11, 2012. Say’s a lot, doesn’t it?. Clinton thought that American people would be too grief stricken over the anniversary of the Twin Towers attack to pay much attention to the swarthy doings at some remote Libyan outpost. A clever trick Madam Secretary, but you can’t pull the wool over the eyes of these folks. They’re on to your little revenge game. These people know a thing or two about what’s really going on in this country. They want America to be great again.
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Le Journal d’un Pornographe Unrepentant
Par Shaun Costello
The finished manuscript. Just over ninety thousand words. It took me ten years to complete this book. I gave up many times along the way, stunned by the universal rejection I had received. Then, a year or so later, I would start again, find another agent willing to take it on, and get hammered with rejection once again. I don’t take rejection well. But now, thanks to a French publisher, it’s finally finished. A hard cover edition will be available, in French, in October 2016, at book stores in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Canada. Thank you to all of my friends who kept after me to finish it: Gil Markle, Thomas Eikrem, Andy Waller, Jeff Eagle, Robin Bougie, Mike Forhan, Mary Jo Rayfield, Elizabeth Main, and many others. If I have forgotten you, go out and buy a gun and shoot me. Thanks to Congress, you won’t need a background check.
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MY SIX DINNER GUESTS
by Shaun Costello
I’m sure that everyone has pondered, from time to time, who exactly they would invite, if they had their druthers, and could choose from the vast list of possibilities, living or dead, that have occupied this planet at one time or another, to be guests for an entertaining and eventful dinner; and I’m certainly no exception. But what would be the criteria? First, I think, they should offer the possibility of entertaining company – good story tellers and raconteurs. Second, their contribution to the world, as I know it, should be incontrovertible. Third, the time frame of their lifetimes should be recent enough to give me a comfort level familiarity with their accomplishments, physicality, and behavioral traits. No need to drag up history’s behemoths – after all, this is a party. So, we can automatically eliminate dinosaurs of yesteryear like Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Aristotle, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Torquemada (although I’m tempted), Charlemagne, Themistocles, Mozart and Napoleon. Besides, none of the aforementioned spoke English, which will be the lingua franca of this little get together. So, let’s stick to fun folks from the Twentieth Century, who are liable to make me laugh, engage me in insatiably interesting conversation, and sometimes simply make me stare in awe. None of my selections are still among the living, not that having died is a criterion, but merely a coincidence. Like top ten lists, this assortment of dinner companions reflects the subjectivity shuffle – your guests, I’m sure, would differ from mine. But, for whatever it’s worth, here’s who I would invite.
In alphabetical order:
Julia Child 1912 – 2004
Chef, Teacher, OSS Spy (Yes, she did work for Wild Bill Donovan in Ceylon during WWII), and an unusual and endearing Television Personality – The woman who taught America how to cook. Her seminal volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking forever changed America’s palate. Her performance on her cooking show was courageous, and hilarious. Julia, in the midst of explaining some culinary technique, dropping a goose to the floor, and simply picking it up and continuing on as though nothing had happened. The woman was unflappable. Nora Ephron’s immensely popular 2009 film Julie & Julia introduced a whole new generation to Child, delivered by Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance. Julia was married to State Department “Spook” Paul Child, and the couple suffered greatly at the hands of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. After all, the Childs hosted dinner parties where many languages were spoken, and by people who might, at one time or another, have listened to classical music – grounds for suspicion in post WWII America. But most importantly, Julia was a gal who liked a good party.
Clarence Darrow 1857 – 1938
Mercurial trial attorney, charter member of the ACLU, and defender of the undefendable – Sometimes referred to as Attorney for the Damned. Darrow argued for the defense in two of the most notorious trials of the Twentieth Century. First, the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law. In Tennessee, in 1925, a state law had been passed making it a misdemeanor to teach, in public school, any theory that contradicted divine law, as written in The Bible. What began as a small incident, mushroomed into a national circus, as both sides brought in their giants. Darrow in the defense of young Scopes, espousing science and reason; and William Jennings Bryan, Bible Thumper supreme and two-time presidential candidate, to argue for Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
It was the first trial to be broadcast on radio. Scopes was of course found guilty, and fined $100, which Darrow refused to pay. But Bryan and his Bible Thumpers were made to appear foolish in front of a national radio audience. The court’s ruling was finally overturned in 1968. The second was the Chicago Thrill Killer Trial. On May 21, 1924, two wealthy Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, decided to commit the perfect crime. They would murder without motive, save for the thrill of it. They lured a 14 year old Bobby Franks to a remote area and killed him, hid the corpse, and thought they had covered their tracks. But the body was found, and evidence revealed Leopold and Loeb’s involvement. There was no doubt of the thrill killer’s guilt, so Darrow surprised the nation by entering a plea of guilty. The Chicago District Attorney wanted the boys to hang, and Darrow was a staunch advocate against the death penalty, so the trial became, not just about a senseless and brutal murder, Darrow had put the death penalty itself on trial. On August 22, Darrow gave his final summation. It lasted two hours, and is often referred to as Darrow’s greatest piece of legal oratory. The judge ruled for life in prison, and Darrow had won one of his greatest legal victories.
Charles Eames 1907 – 1978
The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames were industrial and graphic designers, artists, film makers, and joyful creative mavericks. Eames brought fun to furniture. His design genius reshaped the way we looked at structures and the furnishings that filled them. Greatly influenced by architect Eliel Saarinen, and his son Eero, who would become Eames’ partner in many projects. But more than anything, Eames was not afraid of fun, which influenced everything he created. Somehow, I think he would get along well with Julia and Clarence Darrow, and I can’t wait for the banter between courses.
Richard Feynman 1918 – 1988
Theoretical Physicist, raconteur, and bongo drum aficionado, Feynman will probably be best remembered for his testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He had figured out what had happened, and his name would be forever linked with O-rings, the rubber sealers that failed because they were temperature sensitive, a fact that NASA had overlooked. But beyond being a genius, I’m thinking that this dinner needs a bongo drum player.
Dorothy Parker 1893 – 1967
Writer, critic, poet, satirist, acerbic wit, and foundational mainstay of the Algonquin Round Table. I’ve had a crush on Parker for most of my adult life. She was so extraordinarily clever, and so maddeningly sad. What better dinner guest could there be, particularly with a few drinks in her. How delicious. Too many quotes to list, but here are two you might recognize:
“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone. Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
Billy Wilder 1906 – 2002
Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Poland, Wilder would live to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and his undeniable talent as a raconteur would make him a mainstay on Tinseltown’s dinner circuit. If Wilder couldn’t make it, Arthur Hornblow Jr, Hollywood’s storied dinner host, would simply cancel the event, or reschedule for when Billy had some free time. If you were planning an event like mine, wouldn’t you want Hollywood’s greatest story teller?
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by Shaun Costello
Love him, or hate him, The Donald has entertainment value. He’s a one man media circus. He’s an accident happening right before your eyes. People are fascinated by the sheer audacity of the man. We’ve never had a Presidential candidate from a major political party who talked penis size. The media loves him because the more outrageous his remarks, the higher the ratings on Fox News and CNN, and the more they can charge for advertising. He’s a kind of Millennial version of Huey Long, that man of the people from yesteryear. The GOP wants to somehow get rid of him, but how exactly are they going to do that? The Republican Party is in free-fall chaos. No sensible, intelligent, reasonable Republican wants to show his/her face during this memorable and tragic political campaign. The quality of the Presidential candidates offered by the Republican Party this year is disgraceful. How could the GOP have lowered the bar to this level? The answer is easy – Charles and David Koch. Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the Koch brothers hijacked the Tea Party movement years ago, funding right wing fanatical congressional candidates through Koch-controlled organizations like the Heritage Foundation, and outspending the opposition enough to get them elected to Congress. So now the right side of the aisle is populated with just enough Evangelical, knuckle-dragging wackos to render Congress dysfunctional. And why? Because the Koch brothers are in the fossil fuel business, and the recognition of climate change means increased regulation of the fossil fuel industries, eating into the sacred profits of the one percent. Anyone who doesn’t think America is in serious trouble has been too busy cheering for the likes of The Donald to notice that the righteous administration of our Constitution has become corrupted by greedy profit takers, and the sycophantic, obstructionist politicians who keep the money flowing. America itself has become dysfunctional.
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LULA AND CHRISTY GO TO TAMPA
An Uber Adventure
By Shaun Costello
Friday afternoon began without any surprises. I headed for my car carrying a bag of garbage to take to the community compactor, and a grocery list for the day’s shopping. When I got behind the wheel, I tapped the Uber App on my smart phone, which would connect me, through the GPS system, with Uber’s network. I had been driving an Uber cab for about two weeks, and was anxious to get some trips because last week I had gotten no fares at all. After dropping off the trash, I got back in my car to the sound of Uber’s trip signal. On the phone’s screen a circle was flashing on the GPS map, and my little Samsung Galaxy was beeping its heart out. A trip – just what I needed. Normally, the screen on the Uber App would provide the address and name of the passenger, the destination and the distance. But my screen was too dark to see any detail in daylight. Uber’s software was not yet fully engaged. So I let the voice on Uber’s navigation system guide me to my passenger. The Uber software is pretty glitchy, and seldom works as advertised, and Uber’s tech support is defensive and relatively unhelpful. As an Uber driver you’re pretty much on your own to wrangle your way through Uber’s software jungle, and somehow make it work.
The navigator’s voice guided me over the Peace River Bridge to downtown Punta Gorda, and a few quick turns took me to the front of one of the town’s waterfront hotels. I parked under the hotel’s portico and waited. No one approached the car, and the navigator’s voice kept squawking about another left turn and one hundred feet to the destination. I slowly made my way around the parking lot, and, sure enough, there was a second entrance. As I came to a stop, my phone’s screen lit up and told me I had arrived, but there was still no passenger’s name or destination provided. Not that I cared. I had a fare, and like Travis Bickle, I was prepared to take them wherever they wanted to go.
There was a substantial pile of luggage outside the door to the hotel. Four large hard bags, with handles and wheels, and several smaller bags, including several plastic shopping bags which were overflowing with contents. Standing behind the pile of luggage were two thin women, I would guess to be in their mid-forties, puffing on cigarettes and intensly babbling at each other. I got out of my car and asked them if they had ordered an Uber cab. The luggage might mean an airport run, which meant fifty bucks in my pocket, so I’m sure I had a smile on my face. At first they were a bit baffled by the car and the luggage, and how to fit all this into my little Honda Civic, and they shuffled their feet a bit, and puffed on their cigarettes. As we began to stuff my little trunk with their baggage, I asked if they were headed to the Airport. ‘No honey”, said the taller of the two in a seriously southern accent , “We’re goin’ to Tampa. A long trip today, sugar.” Tampa – that was over a hundred miles north, good news for this eager Uber driver.
After packing my little Honda’s trunk to its absolute limit, and the girls agreeing without complaint, to not smoke in my car, they crammed themselves and their overflowing shopping bags into the back seat, as I wiped the Uber App’s ‘Begin the Trip” bar to officially start the journey. They would introduce themselves as Lula and Christy. Two southern babes who had found themselves abandoned in Punta Gorda, Florida.
As we made our way toward I75 for the trip north to Tampa, they began to tell me their story, which, of course, was obvious from the get go. Lula, the taller and older of the two was from Memphis, and young Christy was from Biloxi Mississippi. Lula said she used Uber cabs all the time because she traveled so much, but she was vague about the nature of her travels. Christy seemed to be along for the ride. It seems they met this guy, which is, of course, how all stories like this one begin. They met him in an airport, although it was difficult from their babbling to understand where exactly, in the terminal cocktail lounge, waiting for a flight to Orlando. The guy bought them drinks, and after a while, began to persuade them to skip Orlando and come with him to Punta Gorda. “Orlando’s for losers”, he told them. “Come with me. My car’s in the lot at the Fort Myers airport. We’ll fly there and I’ll drive you to Punta Gorda.” He told them he would put them up in the best hotel in town and rent them a car. They would have the time of their lives. He would pay for everything. After several drinks, their Punta Gorda adventure began sounding more and more appealing. So, they changed their flight, and joined their new and generous friend on his journey to Fort Myers.
The whole business began to unravel as they checked in to the hotel in Punta Gorda. It seems that their new friend’s credit cards were maxed out. He told them that it was no problem. He had other cards at home and he would bring them over in the morning to pay for their room and take care of that rental car he had promised them. Although they were not specific about what took place in their hotel room that night, I think it’s safe to assume that a menage et troix of some kind was the order of the evening. They awoke with hangovers, their new friend long gone, having made his escape during the night. When they attempted to call him they found that his cell phone was out of order. He had never mentioned his last name. They had no way to find him. So, here they were – a couple of southern babes with serious hangovers, out two hundred bucks for the hotel room, in a strange little town about a million miles from nowhere. Lula had been to Tampa several times and liked it. She told her hungover companion that they would go to a waterfront hotel she knew in Tampa, and just try to forget the whole unpleasant episode. How would they get there? Lula had an Uber account.
Enter yours truly, dear reader, now on I75, headed north with a packed car, and two hungover and frisky women, who had decided to forget their misfortune and seize the day. We had barely put ten miles on the odometer before two fleshy objects revealed themselves on the arm rest between the two front seats – Two bare feet, containing ten toes, and two toe rings. Lula, who was sitting behind me, had placed her right foot on the arm rest, along with Christy’s left. I have to admit that they were attractive feet, and to thinking that this was the most promising Friday I had spent in a while. After a moment or two of silent anticipation, Lula pleasantly demanded to know which of the two feet were sexier. Was I being tested? Seduced? What exactly was happening here?
“C’mon now, honey. Who’s got better feet? You know you’re gonna like one more than the other. I think mine are pretty sexy, but if you like Christy’s, I’m OK with that. C’mon honey, you pick ‘em.”
The ten toes seemed engaged in some kind of choreographed wiggle routine, perhaps to help me decide. Was there a candid camera hidden somewhere in their luggage? All I knew is that I was up a hundred bucks for the long distance Uber trip, and presently engaged in an outrageous flirtation with two whacky women who had been abandoned in my neighborhood. I tried, of course to be “Solomon-like” in making any comparison. I told the girls that each foot had a different shape and that both were attractive in different ways. I said that I found both feet to be appealing, and that, if I came upon either of them in the course of an evening’s activities, that I would certainly create an inventive and satisfying use for them. Silence now. No response from the girls until I heard Christy telling Lula no to Patty Cakes.
“I don’t want to play Patty cakes.”
“C’mon now Christy honey, you know you want to.”
“No I don’t. No Patty cakes”
“Yesterday you played. You said you loved playing Patty Cakes.”
“No, I don’t want to. You can’t make me.”
“Suit yourself, Chisty honey, but you know you want to.”
During the Patty Cake exchange, the two bare feet disappeared from comparative consideration, my carefully crafted comparison evidently ignored. But the inquisition continued. Inquiring minds wanted to know.
It was Christy this time. “What do you think makes me horny, honey?”
The acoustics in my Honda favored road noise over back seat dialogue, so Chisty’s question seemed muffled, and my response was idiotic. “Christy, you want to know what I think makes you a horny honey?”
“No, no, no….You’re the honey – I’m just horny. I asked you, ‘What do you think makes me horny, honey?’ So, what do you think? C’mon now, guess.”
Were they just messing with me? I wasn’t sure. This was now far outside my very limited Uber experience..
“Christy, I don’t know you well enough to know what makes you horny. I know that you have an attractive left foot, and that some guy played some havoc with you both. That’s about all I know.”
“Drinkin’. Drinkin’ makes me horny as hell. The more I drink the hornier I get. You like drinkin’?”
“Sure, I mean, I guess.”
“I bet I could drink you under the table.”
“I’m sure you could, Christy. At my age, I don’t really do much high-volume drinking anymore. I’m too old for that kind of thing.”
“Nonsense. You’re not old at all. Younger men are stupid. I can’t tolerate ‘em. I like older men. Wisdom comes with age, don’t you know that? Hey, what sign are you, anyway?”
This conversation peaked with the foot comparisons, and had gone steadily downhill since the introduction of the Patty Cakes. “Capricorn, Christy. I’m a Capricorn.”
“Capricorn. That’s the goat. I like that. You know, I’ve learned a lot from hangin’ with older men. Older guys know stuff. Older guys have taught me everything I know about sex. And I know a shit-load about sex, I’ll tell you. A mega shit-load. “
Lula chimed in. “She sure does. Knows everything there is to know. Christy’s a fuckin’ encyclopedia, pardon my French, in the sex department.”
Was there a hidden microphone recording all of this? Adjectivally speaking, ‘hoodwinked’ would best describe how I felt at this moment. This couldn’t really be happening, could it? We were approaching the Sunshine Bridge on I75 and there was a scenic rest stop on the water, so I exited the highway, and pulled into the parking lot. I told the girls I was giving them a bathroom and cigarette break, and they squealed with delight. They needed the trunk opened so that they could rearrange some of their luggage, and for the next half hour, all of their bags were taken out of the trunk, and emptied on the pavement. They seemed to be taking the contents of each bag and placing it in the bag next to it, which had been emptied for this purpose, the contents now spread all over the ground. They sat in the midst of this mini-mountain of their possessions, babbling incomprehensibly, and passing cell phones back and forth. Christy had two, and Lula three, and they began to send text messages to unsuspecting recipients. The babbling had stopped now, and their thumbs were ablaze, texting away – using all five cell phones at once – passing them back and forth in an orgy of tele-communication.
If I were a normal taxi driver, I think I would be concerned at this point. Had these two escaped from psychiatric incarceration somewhere? Did they really have the money to pay for this very expensive ride? But with Uber, the minute a customer requests a ride, a hold is put on their credit card for the approximate amount of the fare. There was no way that I was not getting paid for this adventure. But this was time consuming, and I had to crack the whip. I told them that if a state trooper came by, we might get a ticket for littering, and to please get all of this stuff back in the trunk. They reacted surprisingly well, like naughty children who knew they had overreached, and began to fill the trunk with their newly rearranged possessions. We had now been in this parking lot for an hour, and neither Lula nor Christy had peed or had a cigarette. It was time to do both and get on with the trip.
I took advantage of the girls’ bathroom visit by activating the navigation system on the Uber App, which immediately lit up and started squawking directions. I now knew that I was getting paid for this bizarre endeavor, and I had directions to our destination, which made me feel better, since the girls were vague about knowing how to get where they were going. As we began to ascend the towering Sunshine Bridge, Christy spoke up mournfully, “When my Mama drew her last breath, a tear trickled down her cheek, like to break my heart right then and there.” Well, this was certainly a conversational game changer. Not to be outdone in the ‘last breath’ department, Lula answered, “When my Gramma drew her last breath, it was so soft you could barely hear it, I loved my Gramma.” Without skipping a beat, Christy responded, “When my Papa drew his last breath, it sounded like the last note in a sad song.”
Lula was now fully engaged. “When my Uncle Abner drew his last breath, it was as crackly as could be. Sounded like a chain saw.”
“Last breaths can’t be crackly, Lula. The good Lord made last breaths to be soft and soothing, like angel’s feathers.”
“You never met Uncle Abner. Every time that man opened his mouth it sounded like a chain saw. Like to drive Aunt Esther to drink. Not that she needed much help.”
The ‘last breath’ competition continued for a few more minutes, before the girls remembered that I was in the car. At least Christy remembered.
“Hey there, you don’t have to go back tonight , do you? I got plans for you, mister. I’m gonna drink you under the table. Hey, you’re not married or nothin’, are you?”
I told Christy I was divorced and she squealed, “Eeeeeeehaaaa…..I bet you’re not as innocent as you look. I bet you’re a guy who’s constantly on the prowl, lookin’ to meet up with someone just like me. Aint that true? C’mon, fess up, you’re a horny bugger, aint you? I’m gonna drink your cute little ass right under that table. Then we’ll see what’s what. I don’t take no for an answer, do I, Lula?”
“Nope, she sure don’t. You’ll be stayin’ with us tonight. We’ll get a room, and when the fun starts, the sky’s the limit.”
For purpose of disclosure, I have to admit to being both amused and tempted when those two feet suddenly and playfully appeared on the arm rest. But now, that seemed so long ago. I did not feel that these girls put me in danger in any way, but we were now three and a half hours into this trip, with at least another half hour to our destination, and there was the return trip to consider. Spending the night in a hotel room with Lula and Christy was not on my bucket list. I did not say no, however. I thought it prudent to play them along, and wait for the right moment to make a graceful exit.
We were now in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic, and the navigation system’s voice was giving me different directions than Lula, who had told me she had stayed in this hotel several times. She said that she might have given Uber the wrong street address. Uber’s navigation system was extremely precise, and if she address had been off by a single digit in the street number, the directions to the address would differ substantially. Lula had said turn right when Uber said left, and since she had been there before I followed Lula. We made a few more turns until we would up in a parking lot a few hundred yards from the hotel. Lula said to stop here. That someone was meeting them here, and they would decide on where to stay when he arrived. This was a new wrinkle in their story. Someone was meeting them. The Uber App was telling me that we were 300 feet from our destination, and until that destination was reached, the trip could not be concluded, which meant of course, that I would not be paid. I had to get these girls out of my car, and their ton of luggage out of my trunk as gently as possible, and drive that 300 feet.
Lula and Christy were now sitting on the pavement next to my car, all five cell phones actively engaged in another texting orgy. I mentioned to Lula that she should call her friend rather than texting him, since he was obviously on his way, and driving a car. Christy responded that Lula didn’t talk on phones, she only texted. My Samsung kept squawking about the 300 feet to the destination, and I tried, as gently as possible, to explain that if my car did not travel the 300 feet, that Uber would not pay me. They responded well to this information, and began removing bags from the trunk, while continuing to text to God only knows whom. But as the bags were placed on the pavement, their contents began being switched, just as they had at the rest stop. Distracted by their texting, the girls were removing half the contents of the bags, leaving the stuff strewn all over the pavement. This is where Lula had said that her friend was meeting them – right here in this parking lot.
Just as they had done at the rest stop, Lula and Christy were now sitting in the midst of a mountain of clothes, various and sundry bathroom items, and odd electronic devices, texting away on all five cell phones. I announced that I was going to drive that final three hundred feet to complete the trip, so that I would be paid. They grunted a vague acknowledgement, but pretty much ignored me. So that’s where I left them, in the middle of a now-trashed parking lot, sitting on the pavement in the midst of all their worldly possessions, texting their hearts out, seemingly unaware of my leaving, or of anything else for that matter. As I got back in my car, they didn’t look up. I watched them in the rear view mirror as I drove away, hoping that they might wave, but they were in another world entirely, and quite oblivious to mine.
By the time I reached home, eight hours had elapsed since my smart phone lit up with the Tampa trip. As a purely business venture I consider these eight hours to be badly invested. The hundred and twenty miles to Tampa was a paid trip, but the hundred and twenty mile return was not. Two hundred and forty miles on my car, a lot of gas, and eight hours of my life that I’ll never get back. But everything you do in life is not measured in dollars and cents. I will be paid $99. for the trip, which is hardly enough. But the eight hours I spent in the deliciously insane company of Lula and Christy will linger in my psyche for quite some time. Was anything they told me true? I really can’t say. Were they simply toying with me? I just don’t know. But those wiggling toes, the “Last Breath” stories, “I’m gonna drink you under the table”, “C’mon, fess up – you’re a horny bugger, aint you? “The sky’s the limit.” The texting orgies. These are moments I won’t soon forget.
And where do you suppose they are now? Did their friend ever show up? Are they still sitting in that parking lot? Did some wayward cop cite them for littering, or even vagrancy? Are they attempting to explain themselves to the psychiatrist assigned to their case? Who knows. I like to think that girls like Lula and Christy just keep on keepin’ on. That, even in the midst of their apparent confusion and seemingly irrational behavior, they somehow triumph. That there will always be some guy who has a scheme that isn’t true, who will persuade them to change their plans, and follow him to paradise. That they will wind up abandoned once again in a strange hotel that they were forced to pay for. And that they will need to leave that strange hotel, and go somewhere familiar to recuperate and regroup. And how will they get there? Well, after all, Lula has an Uber Account.
© 2016 Shaun Costello
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TOP TEN SITCOMS OF ALL TIME
By Shaun Costello
Early television existed on a steady diet of rehashed and recycled material, mostly Westerns that had been exhibited theatrically in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In 1952 Gene Autry became one of the richest men in America when he purchased the old Monogram Studios, and its inventory of 750 “B” Westerns, renaming it Melody Ranch Studios. Autry saw the future, and recognized the vacuum of programming on early television as a gold mine for any enterprising soul with readily available entertainment to sell.
Those 750 “B” Westerns, newly owned by Autry, filled that programming vacuum with non-stop cowboy culture. A stop-gap measure to be sure, but an enormously profitable endeavor for the Singing Cowboy, until shows specifically produced for television could be developed. And Melody Ranch Studios became a major production facility for Western themed TV shows like; The Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, Hopalong Cassidy, Rin Tin Tin, The Cisco Kid and many others.
Most of the earliest shows specifically produced for television, that filled the gaps between Autry’s “B” Westerns, had been successful radio programs. I can remember listening regularly to radio shows like Gunsmoke, Jack Benny, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Lone Ranger; all of which became newly produced as television programs. America was hungry for television, and before long, newly produced entertainment began to outnumber Autry’s “B” Westerns.
The Fifties would give birth to a new phenomenon – television’s Situation Comedies. Some, like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Jack Benny had been radio hits; but television production was now in high gear, churning out original sitcoms like You’ll Never Get Rich, with Phil Silvers as the shameless Sergeant Bilko, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, Donna Reed, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which introduced Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld. The variety shows like Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Perry Como, and Red Skelton ruled the airwaves, but the Sitcom was knocking on America’s door with growing success, and would quickly become a staple of the country’s entertainment culture.
I recently Googled the top ten sitcoms and was horrified to find nothing, other than Seinfeld, on any list that was produced before this current millennium. List after list of bubble gum entertainment, all millennial fodder. Sorry kids, but shows like Friends, or How I Met Your Mother hardly qualify to be on an all-time top ten list. I decided right then and there, that the Top Ten Sitcoms of all Time list was a wrong that needed righting, and my Blog seemed like the appropriate venue for this adventure. Many years ago, Groucho Marks was interviewed on Dick Cavett’s late night talk show. Cavett asked him if he watched television. Groucho responded, “Not really. Well, I do watch Bunker. Oh, and the schwartzes.” (Sanford and Son) Both of Groucho’s programs made my list. Whittling all the Sitcoms ever produced down to ten has been difficult. Quality shows like You’ll Never Get Rich, Cheers, Happy Days, and Welcome Back Kotter didn’t make the cut, much as I loved them. Top Ten lists are subjective, so yours will probably vary from mine, but these ten stalwart shows, each born of great writing, and unique performers, all of which sociologically impacted the era in which they aired, in this viewer’s opinion, are the All-Time Champs.
In alphabetical order:
ALL IN THE FAMILY
(1971 to 1979)
Created, developed and produced by the redoubtable team of Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, whose names will appear again on this list, seldom has a television character so befuddled and delighted the American audience as Archie Bunker. Bigoted beyond all reason, Archie becomes the perfect tool though which Lear and Yorkin tackle the social issues facing America in the Seventies: racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, religion, miscarriage, abortion, breast cancer, Vietnam, menopause, and impotence – all seen through the dependably debauched eyes of Archie Bunker. The series became arguably one of television’s most influential comedic programs, as it injected the sitcom format with more realistic and topical conflicts. Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie yielded what is arguably television’s most controversial and unforgettable character. O’Connor is nimbly supported by the hilarious Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. In 2013, the Writer’s Guild ranked All in the Family the fourth best written TV series ever, and TV Guide ranked it as the fourth greatest show of all time. In September of 1979, a new show, Archie Bunker’s Place, picked up where All in the Family had ended. It ran four additional years, ending in 1983.
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW
(1961 to 1966)
The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on October 5, 1961, introducing to the television audience two relatively unknown performers who would become multi-media mega stars – Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. The show was developed by Carl Reiner and produced by Reiner along with Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Loosely based on Reiner’s life as a television writer, the show follows the adventures of TV writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) who is the head writer for the fictional Alan Brady Show. Brady is played by Reiner as an arrogant, egocentric, and of course insecure TV star. A solid supporting cast including Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, and Richard Deacon as Reiner’s snobbish, bullying brother in law. An equally solid writing team including Reiner, Persky and Denoff; as well as Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson and Carl Kleinschmitt. Among the show’s directors were Sheldon Leonard, John Rich and Jerry Paris. The series won 15 Emmy Awards. In 1997 the episodes “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouths” and “It May Look Like a Walnut” were ranked at 8 and 15 respectively on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. In 2002 the series was ranked 13 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. A bit dated now, but Van Dyke’s nimble sight gags are still tops, and the dialogue’s still juicy.
(1955 to 1956)
Many of you will be stunned by the years listed above. I certainly was. How can something like The Honeymooners, a corner stone of American entertainment culture have only aired for a year? It debuted as a half hour series on October 1, 1955 and aired its final episode on September 22, 1956. There are only 39 episodes, now referred to as The Classic 39. The show’s history is complicated. Jackie Gleason was introduced to early television audiences on the DuMont Television Network’s Cavalcade of Stars (1949 to 1952). Gleason, who had made his mark on the first television incarnation of The Life of Riley sitcom, stepped into Cavalcade on July 15, 1950, and became an immediate sensation. He offered several skits including – The Loudmouth, Joe the Bartended, Reginald Van Gleason III, The Poor Soul, and The Honeymooners, which co-starred Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph. In 1952, CBS president William S. Paley offered Gleason a considerably higher salary. The series was retitled The Jackie Gleason Show and premiered on CBS Television on September 20, 1952. The show had a five year run, making its finale in 1957. An immediate hit for the network, Gleason’s format was basically of the Variety genre, offering guest performers, a musical interlude with the weekly appearance of The June Taylor Dancers, and Gleason’s standard skits, the most popular of which was The Honeymooners, a comedy sketch about a Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason), his pal Ed Norton (Art Carney), and their wives, played by Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. This sketch became so enormously popular that Paley’s CBS network would lengthen it to a half hour, and offer it as a weekly sitcom. Although the new show was initially a ratings success, becoming the number two show in the country during its first season, it faced stiff competition at the beginning of season two from The Perry Como Show, dropping to number nineteen, and Paley decided to pull the plug. 39 episodes – that’s all that were produced, yet the show and its colorful characters have become a part of American entertainment folk lore. Everyone’s got a favorite episode. Mine is Chef of the Future. What’s yours?
I LOVE LUCY
(1951 to 1957)
I Love Lucy was the first scripted television program to be shot on 35MM film (in black and white) before a studio audience. The series won five Emmy Awards, and received numerous nominations in many categories. Although distributed by CBS, I love Lucy was the first television program to be owned by its creators, It was a DESILU production, shot at DESILU STUDIOS in Los Angeles, and owned by Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and their partners. I Love Lucy was the most watched show in America for four of its six seasons, and was the first to end its run at the top of the Nielsen ratings. The show is still syndicated in dozens of languages, and remains popular with an American audience of 40 million each year.
Lucille Ball as Lucille Esmeralda “Lucy” McGillicuddy Ricardo
Desi Arnaz as Enrique Alberto Fernando y de Acha “Ricky” Ricardo III
Vivian Vance as Ethel Mae Potter Mertz
William Frawley as Frederick “Fred” Hobart Mertz
Richard Keith as Enrique Alberto Ricardo VI (Ricky Jr.)
Twins Mike Mayer and Joe Mayer played Little Ricky as a toddler
Originally set in an apartment building in New York City, I Love Lucy follows the adventures of Lucy Ricardo (Ball) her singer/band leader husband Ricky (Arnaz), along with their best friends and landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz (Frawley and Vance).
Lucille Ball’s real life pregnancy was scripted into the show. During the second season, Lucy and Ricky give birth to a son named Ricky Ricardo Jr, (Little Ricky) whose birth was timed to coincide with Ball’s real-life delivery of her son Desi Arnaz Jr. The American television audience watched their favorite television star give birth to what would become their favorite baby on their favorite show: and the Nielsen ratings went off the charts.
After the final episode in 1957, a modified version continued for three more seasons with 13 one hour specials, running from 1957 to 1960. It was first called The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, and later in re-runs as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. In 2012, the original I Love Lucy show was voted “Best TV Show of All Time” in a survey conducted by ABC News and People Magazine.
THE MART TYLER MOORE SHOW
(1970 to 1977)
In the late Sixties Mary Tyler Moore was a hot commodity. Her six season run as Laura on The Dick Van Dyke Show endeared her to America’s television audience, not to mention Hollywood, and the offers were plentiful. When she was offered her own show, which had been developed by James Brooks and Allan Burns, she took full advantage of her celebrity, taking a feather from Lucille Ball’s cap – why be a passenger on your own journey, when you can Captain the ship yourself. The show, originally entitled Mary Tyler Moore, would become the first production of MTM Enterprises, and would parody MGM’s Leo the lion, by featuring a cameo of a kitten meowing under the company name. Mary Tyler Moore would become a sociological breakthrough for television, with the first never-married, independent career woman as the central character. Mary Richards is a thirty-something single woman who settles in Minneapolis after breaking up with her boyfriend. She lands a job as Associate Producer of the evening news show on WJM-TV. The show’s characters consist of Mary’s co-workers and neighbors. Her Boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner), egocentric and inept anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), “Happy Home Maker” Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White), her upstairs neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), and another neighbor Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). The characters were so strong that three became spin-off shows. Ed Asner starred in Lou Grant (1977 to 1982), Valerie Harper starred in Rhoda (1974 to 1978), and Cloris Leachman starred in Phyllis (1975 to 1977). The show was one of the most acclaimed programs in American television history, winning Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row ((1975 through 1977). In 2013 The Writers Guild of America ranked The Mary Tyler Moore Show Number 6 in its list of the 101 Best Written TV Series of All Time.
(1972 to 1983)
The long-running and incredibly successful TV series known as M*A*S*H was an adaptation of Robert Altman’s hilarious 1970 motion picture of the same name. The series was developed by Larry Gelbart. The writers included Gelbart, Alan Alda, Mike Farrell and McLean Stevenson. Gelbart kept Altman’s theme music (Suicide is Painless), and most of the original characters from the movie. The series follows the antics of the members of the “4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital” during the three years of the Korean Conflict. A wide range of bizarre characters interact in a show that spanned 256 episodes over eleven seasons. Cast members include: Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, McLean Stevenson, Loretta Swit, Larry Linville, Gary Burghoff, Mike Farrell, Harry Morgan, and Jamie Farr. I can remember where I was when Kennedy was shot, and during New York’s great blackout in 1967, and where I watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. The show’s finale on February 28, 1983, Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen became, at the time, the most-watched, and highest-rated single television episode in American television history, with a record breaking 125 million viewers (60.2 rating and 77share). Many of the scripts in the early seasons were based on tales told by real MASH surgeons who were interviewed by the production team. Like Altman’s movie, the series was as much an allegory about the Vietnam War (still in progress when the show began) as it was about the Korean Conflict.
THE ODD COUPLE
(1970 to 1975)
It’s often the case that a theatrical character, given a signature performance by the perfect actor for that role, becomes unwanted territory forever after for actors seeking a role to play. Would any actor be believed as Patton, after the world has seen George C. Scott? No one in his right mind would consider attempting it. But then, rare as they might be, there are exceptions. When Neil Simon wrote the Odd Couple for Broadway, he created two characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, whose quirky personalities were so delightfully extreme that they might be performed by a variety of actors, with equal appeal to an audience. Simon’s original Felix was Art Carney, and his Oscar was Walter Matthau – perfect actors for those juicy roles. I saw The Odd Couple on Broadway with that cast three times, and at the time I couldn’t imagine any other actor playing either role. They were perfect. No one else could ever play those parts. It would be like trying to imagine anyone other than Zero Mostel as Max Bialystok. Then came the 1968 movie. Jack Lemmon was given the role of Felix, and the chemistry between Lemmon and Matthau was every bit as good as the Carney/Matthau combination had been in the stage play. I can remember looking forward to seeing the movie with some trepidation, having loved Carney in the play. But I was surprised – Lemmon was fabulous. This happens rarely. Then, in 1970, The Odd Couple, which had been an incredibly successful stage play, and equally successful movie, became a television sitcom. But who would play Felix? Who would play Oscar? Would a famous movie star like Jack Lemmon lower himself by acting in a TV series? The television version of The Odd Couple was developed by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for Paramount Television. Among the original casting considerations were Mickey Rooney or Martin Balsam as Oscar, and Dean Martin or Art Carney as Felix, the role Carney had invented on Broadway. Eventually, Tony Randall was cast as Felix, and Randall lobbied hard for Mickey Rooney to play Oscar. But the show’s producer, Garry Marshall, lobbied even harder for Jack Klugman, and Klugman got the part. So now we have Randall and Klugman as Felix and Oscar, and, surprise of surprises – they were great. Among the show’s directors were Marshall, Belson, Jerry Paris, Hal Cooper, and Alan Rafkin. The writing team included Marshall, Belson, Neil Simon, Mickey Rose, Ron Friedman, and Rick Mittleman. The Odd Couple is a permanent fixture in anyone’s recollections of the Seventies. I just loved the Seventies.
SANFORD AND SON
(1972 to 1977)
When Groucho Marks told Dick Cavett that he watched “The Schwartzes”, he of course meant Sanford and Son, a ground breaking sitcom with an entirely African American cast of characters. The show was based on the BBC’s hit sitcom Steptoe and Son, and was developed by, I told you they’d be back, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin; although Lear went uncredited. Has there ever been a more irascible and cantankerous character than Fred Sanford? He seemed like NBC’s answer to All in the Family – the black Archie Bunker. Fred Sanford’s bigoted banter – “Son, there aint nothin’ as ugly as a ole white woman.” – was tempered by his kinder and gentler son Lamont (Desmond Wilson), who is often bewildered by his father’s venomous opinions. The show was filled by an equally irascible cast of characters: Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page), Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo), Bubba Bexley (Don Bexley), and Rollo Lawson (Nathaniel Taylor). Sanford and Son was a ratings hit throughout its six season run. In 1977 Redd Foxx left the series to do a variety show for ABC. There were three NBC spin offs: Sanford (1980 to 1981), Grady (1975 to 1976) starring Whitman Mayo, and Sanford Arms (1977). The writing team included: Ray Galton, Norman Lear, Alan Simpson, Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub. In 2007, Time Magazine included the show on its list of the “100 Best TV Shows od All Time.
(1989 to 1998)
The last of the great sitcoms. Created and developed by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the series would remain a ratings colossus throughout its nine seasons, topping the Nielsen charts in four. The syndication royalties were astronomical, making Jerry Seinfeld a very, very rich man. In 2000 he would purchase Billy Joel’s oceanfront house in Amagansett for 35 Million Dollars. In 1997, the episodes The Boyfriend and The Parking Garage were respectively ranked numbers 4 and 33 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. In 2009, the episode The Contest was named number 1 on the same magazine’s 100 Greatest Episodes. In 2013, The Writer’s Guild named Seinfeld the 2nd best written series of all time (The Sopranos was #1). The show is set predominantly in Jerry’s Upper West Side apartment, the surrounding neighborhood, and the corner Diner. The characters, a craftily cast bunch if there ever was one, include: Jerry’s High School buddy George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Jerry’s former girlfriend Elaine Benes (Julia Louise-Dreyfus), and Jerry’s neighbor across the hall Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). Seinfeld was produced by Castle Rock Entertainment. In syndication, the series has been distributer by Sony Pictures Television since 2002. Week after week, season after season, Seinfeld consistently delivered cleverly written, hilariously performed, and craftily delivered shows on a level of the very best ever aired on television. The writing team included: Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Charles, Peter Mehlman, Steve Koren, Jennifer Crittenden, Tom Gammill, Marjorie Gross, Elaine Pope, and Spike Feresten. The Directors included: David Steinberg, Art Wolff, Tom Cherones, Andy Ackerman, and David Owen Trainor. As with The Honeymooners, everyone has a favorite Seinfeld episode. Mine are any containing the Soup Nazi.
(1978 to 1982 on ABC – 1982 to 1983 on NBC)
The series, which won 18 Emmy Awards, including three for Outstanding Comedy Series, follows the lives of a handful of New York City taxi drivers and their delightfully abusive dispatcher (Guess who). Taxi was produced by the John Charles Walters Company, in association with Paramount Network Television, and was created and developed by James L. Brooks, Stan Daniels, David Davis and Ed Weinberger. The show is basically a one set production, the action taking place in the fleet garage of the fictional Sunshine Cab Company. The formula here seems to be: create an extraordinarily off-beat bunch of characters, cast these characters with an equally off-beat bunch of actors – throw it all in the hopper, and, with clever scripting and direction, hope for the best. And the best is exactly what happens. The employees of the Sunshine Cab Company are a motley crew, including frustrated actor Bobby (Jeff Conaway), struggling boxer Tony (Tony Danza), art gallery receptionist Elaine (Marilu Henner), and tyrannical dispatcher Louie (Danny DeVito). For almost everyone, the cab company is just a temporary job that can be left behind when they make it in their chosen professions. The hardened core of the company is disillusioned Alex (Judd Hirsch), who’s sure he will be driving a cab for the rest of his life. Burned-out ex-hippie minister Reverend Jim (Chistopher Lloyd) and mechanic Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman) to round out the group. I don’t think there has ever been a funnier character on television than Danny DeVito’s devilishly despotic Louie. James L. Brooks’s formula worked to a tee, delivering six seasons of delicious nonsense.
© 2015 Shaun Costello
DONATE ANY AMOUNT THROUGH PAYPAL
August 3, 2015
Congressman Thomas J. Rooney
226 Taylor Street – Suite 230
Punta Gorda, Florida 33950
Dear Congressman Rooney,
I am a 71 year old Veteran who, until recently, was homeless. Through the interdiction of your office in Punta Gorda, and the help of organizations like Jewish Family and Children’s Services, The Punta Gorda Veterans Village, and the VA’s Hud/Vash program, I have been able to find permanent and affordable housing. When confronted by demands from the HUD office, to provide documentation from the IRS that was impossible for me to obtain, I turned to your office in Punta Gorda for help. I was graciously received by your staff, who gave that help with enthusiasm and dispatch. Within 48 hours, and with the help of a Congressional liaison named Linda Berkman, I received the necessary documentation in the mail. This is supposed to be the way America works, but all too often, does not. I am grateful to your staff for their assistance, and for the gracious demeanor with which that assistance was given.
During my months of homelessness, I was exposed to the system, on many levels – good and bad, through which homeless Veterans struggle to navigate, with the hope of eventually finding permanent and affordable housing. From the VA’s Medical Center in Bay Pines, to local transitional housing situations like Stillwater House in Port Charlotte, and the Punta Gorda Veteran’s Village, run by the Volunteers of America; and the VA’s Hud/Vash program, I have lived through it, and thought it my responsibility to share my experiences, both positive and negative, with your office. The positive aspects of my transition from homeless Veteran to affordably housed Veteran should be applauded; and the negative aspects, so desperately in need of fixing, need to be fixed. The plight of the homeless Veterans has become a media-intensive issue in America, and it seems only right and just to bring my own experiences to the attention of my Congressman, particularly since that Congressman’s office had been so helpful to me.
So, here is an outline of my journey, good and bad, from homeless to affordably housed. But first, let me preface this description by explaining that homelessness has been on my horizon for the last two years. Because, for most of my life, I was self employed, my Social Security stipend is quite small, and impossible to live on. Supplemental income that had enabled me to pay my monthly bills dried up, leaving me with a deficit at the end of each month, and I was aware that those months had become numbered. During the past few years I have sought the help of many VA representatives who have given no help whatsoever. Prevention of homelessness seemed to have no place in the VA’s agenda, while chronic homelessness was a different matter. I saw a man named David Donohew on three separate occasions. He ran the Veterans Office at Charlotte County Human Services. Donohew seemed like an affable and friendly guy, but each time I saw him he told me the same thing, “Come back and see me when you’ve been homeless for one year. Then I can help you.” This made no sense to me. By not preventing homelessness, the VA was exacerbating the situation. I needed to get into the VA’s system, in order to profit by it. And so I did.
On April 14 of this year, then officially a homeless person, I checked myself into the Psychiatric Unit at the VA’s Medical Center in Bay Pines Florida. I would spend nine days in this facility. The staff, from top to bottom, seemed experienced and capable. I saw a psychiatrist and a social worker every day I was there. They were goal oriented and the goal, in my case, was finding permanent, affordable housing. Most of the patients suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, or combat related conditions like PTSD. I suffered from none of these problems. I just needed an affordable place to live.
The psychiatrist was eager and focused on getting me into some kind of transitional housing so that I could resume my life. The social worker was enthusiastic but inexperienced, so that she needed constant back up for any questions or problems. She wanted to help me find housing, but had no real world knowledge of what that housing would be. The nursing staff, without exception, were attentive, and caring. There were Veterans at this facility with serious problems and they seemed to be getting serious care. Two days before I was discharged, the social worker told me that she had found me transitional housing in Port Charlotte, where I had lived for the last ten years. This seemed like good news. The problem was that the social worker had never visited any of the facilities she was to recommend, so she relied on the opinions of the people who managed them. I was to go to Stillwater House, a transitional housing facility subsidized by the VA, and live there while I attempted to find permanent, affordable housing. I was excited at the prospect, having listened to the glowing description of the place from the eager but inexperienced social worker. I was told that my all-inclusive rent would be $300, which seemed reasonable enough.
On April 23rd I was discharged from the Bay Pines facility and headed south to Port Charlotte. I arrived at Stillwater House about Noon that day. It was a small, two story building located in the center of Port Charlote, close to the library, the Cultural Center, and the local hospitals. I was greeted by a woman named Trish (I never knew her last name) who showed me a few of the available rooms. I was stunned. The rooms were tiny, dirty, and decrepit. Trish then announced that I needed to give her a rent check for the $500. I was to pay each month. I was horrified. I immediately got on the phone with the social worker at Bay Pines, who had bought Trish’s glowing description of her venue, and told her the reality of this place, and the $500. that Trish was trying extort from me for rent. She called back, giving me the name and phone number of Gilbert English, who she claimed would be able to help me. She also told me that the rent would be $300. and to pay no more. I chose the least offensive room, gave Trish a check for the pro-rated portion of the month’s rent, and got on the phone with Gilbert English. He seemed friendly, and told me he would meet me an hour later at the Coalition for the Homeless in Port Charlotte.
Gilbert English turned out to be my salvation. I spent about an hour with him, during which time he gave me several names and phone numbers, and the order in which I should call them. For any homeless Veteran who might wind up reading this document, and who lives in this part of Florida, Gilbert English is the man to see. His number can be found through any VA social worker. The first person on Gilbert’s list that I called was Michelle Hammond at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a well funded, Veteran-friendly organization that Gilbert said could provide help. The second was a man named Tom Yanoti, who worked at Punta Gorda Veteran’s Village, a transitional housing facility. I spent an hour with Michelle the next afternoon, providing her with personal information, and making a list of the documentation that would be necessary for me to provide in order to receive their help. I then stopped by Tom’s office and got on the waiting list for space at Veteran’s Village.
For the next three and a half weeks I would live at Stillwater House, while every day setting up and going to appointments with the objective of obtaining affordable permanent housing. At 8AM on the day following my appointment with Gilbert English my phone rang. It was Gilbert, checking up on whether I had called the numbers he had given me. He was pleased to find that I had two appointments already, and rewarded me by letting me know that he had given my name to the Hud/Vash office in Bay Pines in order to get me into the Hud/Vash System. This was good news since Hud/Vash was the portal to a Hud voucher, which would enable me to obtain affordable housing. Gilbert is a relentless advocate for his Veterans.
Life at Stillwater house could best be described as problematic. Stillwater House exists under the corporate umbrella of Renaissance Manor, both being non-profits that are federally subsidized in order to provide low cost housing and care for those in need, primarily Veterans. As at the psychiatric unit at Bay Pines, most of the Veterans at Stillwater House are substance abusers, or have serious psychiatric problems requiring care. Unfortunately, at Stillwater House, care is the very last thing they receive. Not once, in the three and a half weeks I lived there, did I see the presence of a single medical professional of any kind. The facility is completely unsupervised. This is tragic because most of the men who live there are in need of psychiatric counseling. Instead of providing care for its residents, Stillwater House appears to be a storage venue, where needy Veterans are shelved and forgotten.
My first week there, one of the Veterans told me that I had mail, which could be found on a table in the lobby. It was one of those super strong plastic envelopes that the VA uses to ship pharmaceuticals, impossible to open without a knife or scissors. When I picked it up I noticed that it had been cut open. Every Vet knows these containers, and that they contain prescription drugs. Someone, one of the many substance abusing residents, had sliced it open hoping to find recreational drugs. None of my prescriptions fit that description, so nothing was missing, but I was disturbed that someone had violated my mail.
I waited a few days, giving myself time to think it over, and decided that it should be reported. I called Trish at Renaissance Manor. I told her that something disturbing had happened and that I would like to discuss it with her in person. She demanded to know the nature of the event, but I insisted that it was not a matter for telephone discussion. She said that she was quite busy and couldn’t see me. I then called her boss, a man named Todd Abbott. He was not in and I left several messages on his voicemail. The next day, I assume because Todd Abbott told her of my calls, Trish called me and told me to come to her office at Renaissance manor in Punta Gorda. When I told her of the opened mail, she was defensive, dismissive and adversarial. She seemed angered that I was reporting a problem, almost as though by reporting it, I was creating it. It seemed that Stillwater House was a mess that she did not want to deal with. Later that day Todd Abbott called me and had basically the same attitude. Problems at Stillwater House? Ridiculous. Abbott made some vague suggestion that he would do something about it, but of course, never did. So the Veterans at Stillwater House, many of whom were in need of counseling and care, continued on without it, shelved and forgotten, victims of a corrupt bureaucracy, and the laziness of management. There were many incidents during my stay at Stillwater House that were a result of behavioral problems exhibited by needy Veterans, too many to mention here. Stillwater House, in my opinion, should either be closed, or placed under new management. These men need care.
During the next few weeks I was relentless with Tom Yanoti, stopping by his office every other day, reminding him that I was his next best tenant. Veteran’s Village appeared to be a well run facility, and I desperately wanted to move there. I quickly moved up on the waiting list, and moved into apartment 221 on May 18th. The next day I sent an invoice to Todd Abbott at Renaissance Manor, asking for a refund of the rent I had paid for the month of May, which I had paid in full on May 1st. My request was for that pro-rated portion of the month (13 days) that I was not in residence, having moved to Veteran’s Village on May 18th. It is now August and I have sent Todd Abbott three invoices, with cc’s to his boss Scott Eller. They have gone unanswered. So, the management of Stillwater House are not only abusers of Veterans in their care, but are deadbeats as well. Why am I not surprised.
Punta Gorda Veteran’s Village would become my home for the next month, and was an altogether different kind of facility. Located on Taylor Street in Punta Gorda, the Veteran’s Village takes up four two story buildings and houses up to forty Veterans. It even has a swimming pool. Like Stillwater House, Veteran’s Village houses many Veterans with drug and alcohol problems and psychiatric disorders. But unlike Strillwater house, here the Veterans are offered the care they need. The manager is Kerrie Wilson, who has a difficult and sometimes thankless job to do, and does it well. Homeless Veterans can be a disgruntled and difficult group, who can, and sometimes do, lash out at those who are trying to help them. During my time there I saw Kerrie fall victim to much undeserved criticism from Veterans she was trying to help. I found her to be a caring, even loving overseer of a difficult bunch. Two days a week Kerrie receives help from Linda Briggle, a small woman with enormous energy, who, when confronted with a problem, simply rolls up her sleeves and attacks it. One day a week Kerrie and Linda are joined by Barbara Sousa, whose official title is: Grant Per Diem Liason/VA Homeless Program. (Liaison is misspelled on her card) Barbara acts as liaison between the Village and the VA. She is knowledgeable, and offers Veterans help navigating their way through the sometimes complicated maze of the VA bureaucracy. I will be forever grateful to these people for the help they gave me and the care they showed me at a time when I needed both.
At Jewish Family and Children’s Services I was turned over to a woman named Mindy Saldana, who would become my case worker. Mindy is a tireless and caring advocate for those in her charge. During the following month, JFCS would pay almost a thousand dollars to have my car repaired, purchase a new bed for the apartment I would eventually obtain through Hud/Vash, pay the security deposit on that apartment, as well as deposits for utilities, and supply my new apartment with many household items. JFCS, an organization I previously was unaware of, would become an integral component in my return from homelessness to a normal life.
Obtaining a HUD voucher should be the goal of any homeless Veteran who is serious about permanent housing. Navigating the VA’s Hud/Vash system is not without its difficulties, but if you are resourceful and determined, it can provide a homeless Veteran with the road to affordable housing. My Vash case worker was new at his job, so I took it upon myself to make sure that the HUD people were provided with the enormous amount of documentation they require in order to qualify for their help. The Vash personnel are the VA’s liaison to HUD, which holds the purse strings for housing. HUD has the power, and power corrupts, so I found the HUD people a bit arrogant to deal with. They hold all the cards and they know it. My advice to any Veteran going through this process is to remain patient, but to be determined and persistent. Do not wait for anyone to do anything for you – do it yourself.
After several interviews with HUD personnel, during which I had to provide, in my opinion, a ridiculous amount of documentation, I was granted a HUD voucher. It was now up to me to go out into the community and find available housing that my HUD voucher would pay for. This was no easy task. The voucher is County specific. I live in Charlotte County where the availability of affordable housing is quite limited. I was able to obtain lists of apartment complexes that were Hud-friendly and got on many waiting lists. The HUD voucher has time constraints. You have three months from the date the voucher is issued, to obtain appropriate housing. If you do not, then the voucher becomes invalid. So I pounded the pavement in search of an appropriate apartment. By sheer luck, I wound up at the Charleston Cay apartment complex in Punta Gorda. The manager Keith Livermore, told me that there was a six month waiting list, and asked if I was a Veteran. When I answered yes, he told me that Veterans go to the front of the list. Within two weeks I had a two bedroom apartment. I moved in to the Charleston Cay complex on July 25th.
My journey, from checking myself into the VA’s psychiatric facility at Bay Pines, to moving into my new apartment took three and a half months. I had to navigate my way through the mine fields of bureaucratic obstacles that lay waiting for any pilgrim who undertakes this process. I received so much help along the way from friends, family, and the organizations I have mentioned here, for which I shall be forever grateful. To any homeless Veteran reading this epistle, who wishes to undertake the same journey, I would give this advice: You’ve got to want it to make it happen. Do not get discouraged. It’s not easy. Stay the course. You’ve got to be determined and persistent. Do not take no for an answer. If I could do this, so can you.
I send this chronicle to you Congressman Rooney, with the hope that your good office can take the lead in Congress to eliminate the problem of homeless Veterans in America. I hope that becoming aware of my personal journey, will inspire you to take action. To help and federally fund those organizations that are so helpful to homeless Veterans like; Jewish Family and Children’s Services, The Punta Gorda Veterans Village, and so many others. And to defund and close down facilities like Stillwater House, a storage venue for Veterans in need, who are ignored and forgotten while in residence.
I hope that you find this information useful.
For purpose of disclosure, I should inform you that it is my intention to post this letter on my Blog: shauncostello.com
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