‘You can’t say that anymore’ (unless you’re a racist)

Tire tracks cigarette butt

Sunday was the first truly gorgeous day after a long winter — 65 degrees and sunny, perfect for doing yard work.

A regrettable decision, in retrospect.

I’d been meaning to get rid of an old lawn mower, so I hauled it from my shed to the curb, figuring someone would want it.

Soon, a pickup truck slowed in front of my house, and a woman in the passenger seat asked if I was giving the mower away. Yes, I replied, grateful to recycle it.

A man hopped out of the driver’s side, came around and opened the tailgate.

As he reached over to pick up the mower, I showed him where I had used clamps to repair the handle, which had snapped off. “I kind of jerry rigged it,” I said.

He loaded the mower into the truck bed, laughed and said, “I’d use another word for it, but it begins with N and you can’t say that anymore.”

He drove away, and I stood there confused and uncertain about what I had just heard.

Surely he couldn’t have meant the “N word.” I had never heard it in the context of fixing something in a haphazard way, as “jerry rig” implies. Even in my politically incorrect, ethnocentric upbringing, the N word was not acceptable.

Of course, I had to find out. Sure enough . . . the Urban Dictionary definition of “jerry rigged” (a World War II term based on a nickname for German soldiers) included a list of synonyms. “N-rigged” was among them.

Seeing that on the computer screen was awful, and I’m trying not to beat myself up for failing to question what the man meant.

The encounter raised other questions:

Why did I so casually use a term that insults one ethnic group, yet not realize I was hearing something even more offensive to another?

Would the couple have stopped to inquire about the mower if they saw an African-American man in the yard?

How do I squelch the stereotype that white males who drive pickup trucks are good ol’ boys who are pleasant enough — as long as you share the same skin tone?

I also have to fend off a default response that, while cynical, would have come in handy on an otherwise pleasant afternoon: Expect to be disappointed by human behavior; be surprised when people turn out to be genuinely good and kind.

Seems like it should be the other way around.

Posted in Irish Investigations, language | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Army veteran to bicycle 10,000 miles around America

Bicycle Around America

Brian D’Apice with children in Bogor, Indonesia.

Brian D’Apice was backpacking half a world away when he dreamed up his next adventure, a 10,000-mile fundraising odyssey he’s calling “Bicycle Around America.”

It’s exactly how it sounds. Brian, 30, of Glen Rock, Pa., will ride solo through every state on the perimeter of the continental United States. He’ll start out in New York City May 4, and make it back about a year from now.

The Army veteran is riding to raise money for two charities, Pencils of Promise and Connecting Families. Pencils of Promise builds schools in Southeast Asia and Africa, and Connecting Families provides health care to the poor in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Brian spent the past two-plus years teaching and working in Southeast Asia, after serving two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army and earning a degree in marketing from York College in Pennsylvania.

Brian D'Apice

Brian D’Apice will ride through 30 states during his Bicycle Around America trek.

“This whole ride is based on appreciation,” Brian said. “I can’t emphasize it enough. It’s to remind people to appreciate what they have. We get this idea that it’s pretty bad here, but compared to other countries, we have it so good.”

The idea for Bicycle Around America was born two years ago, when Brian was backpacking in Southeast Asia.

“I wish there was some sort of story,” he said by phone from his home in southeastern Pennsylvania last week on the eve of turning 30. “I was in Vietnam, and I just woke up one morning and knew what I was going to do. I contacted a friend I had met there and told him, ‘I just got this crazy idea.’ ”

When his friend expressed skepticism, Brian didn’t budge.

“I knew I wanted to speak about what I saw in Asia,” he said, referring to poverty and gaps in education and health care. “The conditions are so extreme, I want this (ride) to be extreme, to draw attention to it.”

Brian will average 30 miles a day, with some long days and recovery days mixed in. Some nights he’ll camp out, others he’ll stay with friends new and old. He wants to speak to as many individuals, school groups and veterans’ organizations as he can. (Contact him via his website, bicyclearoundamerica.com.)

Brian D'Apice with a child in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Brian D’Apice with a child in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Brian welcomes other cyclists to accompany him here and there. His route, fundraising updates, video interviews, his blog and other information are on his website. He’ll also use Twitter (@BikeAroundUSA) and other social media to update his followers.

For the launch, he’s going big. On the morning of May 4, Brian will be in Rockefeller Center outside NBC’s TODAY show studios, holding up a sign promoting his trip.

Then he’ll get on his 2015 Jamis Aurora Elite touring bike and ride.

He’ll pedal north toward Boston (where younger brother Brent lives) to speak at a school May 11. The rest of his itinerary is fluid. He plans to reach the Pacific Northwest this summer, ride down the coast in the fall and pedal across the southernmost states during the winter. From Florida, he’ll head north to New York City, where he hopes to arrive close to his 31st birthday next April.

The goal is to raise $100,000 and split it between Pencils of Promise and Connecting Families. Donors also can help pay for the ride; Brian has already spent about $2,000 of his own money on camping and bike equipment. He has sponsors, but will burn a lot of calories and will need to “go grocery shopping just like everyone else,” he said.

Brian suspects the mental challenges of the ride will be tougher than the physical, and he hopes to minimize the dreaded headwinds that take a toll on body and mind. (A windblown 52-mile training ride on Easter Sunday was not fun, he said).

Preparing for the ride has consumed his life in recent weeks — logistics, media interviews, training rides, even a visit to his old elementary school to speak to classes.

“I’ve never worked so hard and not earned any money,” Brian said. “But I couldn’t be more motivated.”

His brother Brent isn’t surprised that Brian is giving up a year of his life to do this, noting his military service and his work with aid organizations in Southeast Asia.

“Even growing up, he always wanted to help others,” said Brent, who’s 25 (another brother, Brandon, turns 32 this month).  “Now that he’s back, he exemplifies his giving nature with this bike ride. The one thing I didn’t see when I was young, but clearly see now, is the one resounding trait Brian possesses — selflessness.”

I’ll keep track of Brian’s trip, which will bring him to Syracuse, NY (Irish Investigations headquarters) in late May. Anyone who wants to help Brian — or ride with him — can contact me by commenting below, or reach out to Brian directly via social media.

Bicycle Around America

Brian D’Apice with friends in Bogor, Indonesia.


Posted in Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

A sad and vacant house, soon to become a home

The upstairs of a house being renovated to house three homeless men in Syracuse.  By day's end, the roof had new plywood and tar paper.

The upstairs of a house being renovated for three homeless men in Syracuse, NY. By day’s end, the roof had new plywood and tar paper.

When my co-workers and I arrived Friday morning to help restore a vacant, neglected house, it was hard to envision its future — a residence for three homeless men.

The house and surroundings were in awful shape. A few of us wondered why the structure, built in 1900, hadn’t been demolished.

Rescue Mission of Syracuse

The house as it looked mid-day Friday.

The roof was a mess. Some interior beams were charred from a fire. The upstairs floor had holes you could step through. Debris and dust were everywhere inside. The situation outside was worse.

But the closer we looked, and the more we worked, signs of hope emerged in this effort known as Community Build to End Homelessness.

Teams of volunteers have been working on the house, evidenced by newly framed interior rooms, new sheet metal ductwork and new plywood on parts of the roof. The three homeless men are scheduled to move in by the end of May.

One of dozens of syringes found on the property.

One of dozens of syringes found on the property.

Roofers still have to finish their grueling work, tearing off three layers of roofing and replacing rotted boards, putting on new tar paper and shingles. Windows have to be installed, and then the interior work begins — plumbing, electrical, drywall, paint.

Our crew accomplished quite a bit in less than six hours. More than a dozen of us toiled outside, hauling load after load of old roofing shingles and hoisting them into a rollaway dumpster . . . trimming overgrown bushes . . . raking wet leaves . . . picking up litter and debris, including dozens of used syringes and condoms.

The house has a long way to go, mirroring the neighborhood and the hurting segment of society that it symbolizes. (The roofers arrived Friday morning to find two men who had spent the night on the back porch. By day’s end, the rear entrance was boarded up.)

We can choose to be pessimistic about the chances for this house and its prospective inhabitants. Or we can choose to be optimistic.

Snowdrops appeared from under cover in front of the house. A symbolic sign of hope.

Snowdrops appeared from under cover in front of the house. A symbolic sign of hope.

Syracuse’s Rescue Mission, the United Way and the many volunteers and companies are turning their optimism into action. The Community Build program has already rehabbed a nearby house, now home to five men.

If that first home doesn’t work out, or this second project falls flat . . . at least they tried.

With enough hands, money and energy, it’s astounding how quickly things can improve. At one point Friday afternoon, one of the volunteers remarked on how good the grounds looked. Another noted how full the rollaway dumpster was.

There was talk among our crew of coming back another day to help.

The end of May seems optimistic, perhaps unrealistic. But this house will be a home some day. By then, the tiny snowdrop flowers blooming in the front yard will be joined by other signs of hope and beauty.

This sign says it all.

This sign says it all.



Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

Is it worth the risk for a business to help the homeless?

An encounter in a restaurant today confirmed a pattern I’ve noticed in the treatment of my city’s homeless and destitute.

I’ve come across several local businesses — restaurants, mainly — that extend kindness, either with free food or coffee, a place to stash belongings, even a place to sleep.

Today, I was having lunch in a locally owned restaurant when a man shuffled in and said something to me that I couldn’t understand. It was hard to hear and I thought he was asking for bus money, a common con line.  So I told him sorry, can’t help you.

As he walked past, the smell of stale urine on his clothes was unmistakeable. He went to the counter, asked for a cup of coffee or anything else they could spare — and was treated kindly and with respect. Coffee appeared in front of him. He sat at the counter and didn’t bother anyone as he drank it. A few minutes later, he left.

It clicked. Here was yet another example I’ve witnessed of businesses helping the homeless. (How do I know this man was homeless? I don’t. But he was in rough shape).

* One chain sandwich shop in Syracuse allows my friend James to sit in a booth for hours to get out of sub-zero temperatures. He’ll buy a sandwich and play video games on his Gameboy while his clothes dry out.

* Two chain restaurants near the Syracuse University campus feed homeless regulars, sometimes in exchange for odd jobs; one restaurant allows a man to store his belongings behind the counter.

* A Syracuse factory allows a man to sleep outdoors behind its property; some employees supply him with food and clothing.

Over the years, I’ve heard of other establishments that extend similar kindness.

As much as I want to promote and applaud these businesses, I hesitate to identify them. Maybe the employees are doing this on their own, and the owner wouldn’t appreciate it. (Today, however, the restaurant owner was right there and didn’t miss a beat in helping a fellow human being.)

When I witness these gestures, I thank the employees and usually buy something. I will go back to the restaurant that helped the man today, and do the same.

I’ll also try to spend more of my money there, and talk up their good deeds. They’re taking a chance, but I like to think the benefits outweigh the risks.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Photo 101, Final Day: Triumph, best shared

ChuckHalfNearFinish copyToday’s Photo 101 assignment asked us to capture an image of triumph.

I went to the files for one of my favorite vicarious triumphs — one of my sons completing his first half-marathon, in 2011. I snagged the above shot of Chuck as he rounded the final corner at the 13-mile mark, with just one-tenth of a mile to go. He was happy (and ignored the red signal for pedestrians).

Running is a huge part of my life, and it’s even better when I get to share it with my sons. This October, my oldest (Dan) and I will run a full marathon together — his first, and my 12th go at the 26.2-mile distance. Below is a photo of my bib and shirt from last year’s Columbus Marathon.

The word on the front of the shirt? “TRIUMPH.”


Posted in Irish Investigations, photography, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo 101, Day Nineteen: Double, double, toil and … stars!

Stars1Today’s Photo 101 assignment — find something that’s a “double” and then rotate the image if you feel like it — was a fun challenge. I actually caught myself looking for sets of twins everywhere I went, but quickly decided that made about as much sense as shopping for Doublemint gum.

So, I did what I don’t do often enough. I looked up.

When I did, I happened to be in the 12th-floor solarium of Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital, which is affiliated with the medical university where I work. The day was dreary and rainy, but no matter. We have our own stars, and a quiet place to enjoy them day or night.



Posted in children's hospital, Irish Investigations, photography | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Photo 101, Day Eighteen: Finding the edge

Court 1Today’s Photo 101 assignment — “show us an edge” and use a photo editing tool to check the alignment — made me think of an outtake from Day Seventeen’s assignment with classmate Mark Bialczak.

I retrieved this shot of our city court building, knowing it had a lot of lines and edges. But the original wasn’t straight, so I tried out free editing site PicMonkey to check and fix the alignment. (I wish I could get my car’s front end aligned for free after dealing with a winter of Syracuse potholes.)

There’s only a slight difference in the before and after, as I tried to remove a sliver of blue sky showing on the left side of the building. Either way, I like the plentiful lines and sunlight streaming through the glass. And the more I compare the two, I like the original better. The sliver of sky gives the building some depth, some context.

Court 1a

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Photo 101, Day Seventeen: Glass and a happy hour

OnCenterGlassEvery day of Photo 101 has been instructive, and today was no exception.

It also was fun, because I teamed up with fellow blogger, Photo 101 classmate and long-time friend Mark Bialczak of markbialczak.com on the “glass” assignment.

It was instructive for two reasons.

1. I learned just how difficult it is to create an image that works, or fits a given assignment. I think Mark did just fine, and I’ll check his homework shortly. I, however, failed miserably during our “working lunch,” so I went out later on my own.

2. I became aware of how little attention I sometimes pay to my surroundings. The photo above is of one of a set of circular windows that I walk past five or six times a week. Until today, I never thought to look for any kind of reflection or image in the glass. So I gave it a shot, trying to capture a representative street scene on a very sunny afternoon.

I added the photo below, of our local Justice Center, because the reflected “dazzlers” on the wall caught my eye. I couldn’t determine what was causing them, and I didn’t want to push my luck by snooping closer. Standing outside a jail and taking photos of the windows isn’t the wisest thing to do these days.


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Powerful echoes of a simple sound at 6:50 a.m.

The 6:50 a.m. school bus ... squeaky brakes and all.

The 6:50 a.m. school bus … squeaky brakes and all.

Weekday mornings, if I’m in the kitchen with my coffee at the right time, I’ll hear a familiar sound coming from the stop sign at the corner. And an entire era of my life replays in my head.

It’s the sound of squeaky brakes on a school bus. If I time it right, I can either look out the window to see the bus, or see its flashing lights dance off my living room walls. Sometimes I just hear the brakes, and then it’s gone.

For several years, that sound meant one of three things — my sons were at the corner en route to high school; they missed the bus because they were still getting ready in a sleepy fog and would need a ride; or they were at their mom’s house, meaning my house was empty and quiet.

Emptiness. The nest has been officially empty for a few years now, my three boys now young men on their own, following their bliss, doing well and doing good.

Their absence, and the quiet that accompanies it, are the norm except at holidays or occasional visits. I miss having them around, and the times we are together are usually festive and occasionally raucous. I am often not the most responsible adult in the room.

I don’t consciously await the 6:50 a.m. school bus any more. So the mornings I do hear it, the sound grabs me and takes me back.

It’s comforting, yet there’s a twinge of sadness. That’s not unusual, I suppose, when parents see, hear or feel something that recalls the blur of diapers, day care, play dates, lunch-making, teachers’ conferences, practices and games, concerts, girlfriends, cars, jobs, parties . . .

With my boys gone, every time I encounter a mom or dad with a little one, I tell them, almost evangelically: “Yes, it’s a cliche, but it’s true! Enjoy them while you can! Hang onto them for dear life — it’s over before you know it, and they’re gone!”

And on and on. The polite ones smile, then go back to their screaming toddler who is tired, wet, hungry or just wants to be anywhere else at that moment.

Yes, it’s all true. Everything the books say, everything the “experts”  tell you, it’s all true. It’s there, and it’s gone. Enjoy — better yet, appreciate — being a parent. Some of it is brutal, honestly, and you give up a lot of yourself to do it right.

And then, one morning . . . you wake up in the dark, put on the coffee and hear a school bus at the corner.

Posted in family, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Photo 101: A closeup of a treasure? Good grief …

Charlie Brown in my house, 2015.

Charlie Brown in my house, 2015.

It took all of two seconds to choose a “treasure” to photograph today for our Photo 1o1 assignment.

Charlie Brown has been a part of my life since I was old enough to read “Peanuts,” the ingenious and tender comic strip penned by Charles Schulz. My Charlie Brown figure is actually older than I am. I seem to recall family photos of my older brother with it before I was born; somewhere I have photos of the two of us in our snowy front yard with “CB.”

When the snow was deep enough, we’d take turns throwing Charlie behind us over our heads and then race each other to find him buried in the snow. All three of us survived the ensuing mayhem.

The photo below shows me with my Dad and Charlie. I think I’m probably a little over 1 year old; Charlie is at least 60. He holds a place of honor on top of my refrigerator.

Charlie Brown in my house, circa 1958.

Charlie Brown in my house, circa 1958.

Posted in Irish Investigations, photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments