Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Middleweights

I was about a decade or so too young to have seen first hand what might have been the Golden Age of boxing--the 50s, which of course followed the 40s, 30s and 20s, the other Golden Ages. My becoming a boxing fan started in 1971 when I had last row tickets to see Ali-Frazier I at Madison Square Garden.. Being a boxing fan ended when Tyson bit off Holyfield's ear in 1997.

The adults at the flower shop talked of Louis and Dempsey, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, and always Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep, the featherweights who fought four times. I think I heard their names the most.

I don't remember hearing Jake LaMotta's name too often, despite his fighting Ray Robinson six times. In those days you didn't have the alphabet soup of sanctioning organizations with their bank accounts out for replenishment. You had one champion in each division, and the rest of the boxers were "contenders." And who got to be a contender was often determined by which gangster owned a piece of who.

Boxers and thoroughbreds competed what would now be considered an ungodly number of times. Jake fought professionally 106 times. Sugar Ray fought 199 times. Each would often fight just weeks apart from their last fight. Thoroughbreds could have over 100 starts in their lifetime. And why wouldn't they? Those were two popular spectator sports, with boxing starting to be televised as the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports on Friday nights, a broadcast I can remember hearing come on as I was supposed to be sleeping in the 50s.

LaMotta fought Marcel Cerdan, the French middleweight, who he beat for the title.  Cerdan was killed in a plane crash as he was coming back to the States for a rematch. Cerdan was married to the French singer Edith Piaf, who on hearing her husband was killed in the plane crash still went on with her night's performance in France. Marcel's son, Marcel Jr. was a boxer for a while, and carried his father's bloody gloves in his equipment bag after his father's death.

From the movie 'The Raging Bull' we learn of LaMotta's nightclub and acting career. What I didn't know until I read the obituary was that Jake played Big Jule in a revival of 'Guys and Dolls' at New York's City Center in 1965. Big Jule's character famously plays Nathan Detroit craps with his own dice, dice with no pips on them. Big Jule wins whenever he wants to because he knows where the "spots" are.

I saw that revival when I was in high school. Jake must have either just finished playing the part, or hadn't yet assumed the role, because the night I saw the show B.S. Pully played Big Jule, the original actor from the Broadway show.

Not hearing LaMotta's name too often may have been because he was rough around the edges, to say the least, in and out of the ring. His boyhood friend Rocky Marciano, also a middleweight champion (they never fought each other) seemed to be more the man-about town, appearing on the Johnny Carson show and doing commercials for Breakstone's yogurt, where he turned a punch drunk patois into plummy English because eating Breakstone's gave you culture.

On a Carson show I remember Rocky remarking he wouldn't get work doing commercials unless he spoke in "dee and does" speech. He also said that growing up with Jake they used to steal anything with an "a" in front of it. A car, a bike, a truck...

As if to prove what he said, consider a Wikipedia entry that goes:

"A couple of weeks into amateur fighting, Graziano was picked up for stealing from a school. He went to Coxsackie Correctional Facility where he spent three weeks, with boyhood friend Jake LaMotta and then he went on to the New York City Reformatory where he spent five months. After he..."

"A school." The man didn't lie.

What I learned about Jake LaMotta I learned from the movie 'Raging Bull,' a movie I did see in the theaters. It is one of Scorsese's best, coming from his knowledge of the era and the characters, growing up in Little Italy after moving from Long Island at an early age.

I never saw Jake LaMotta anywhere, but a neighbor described seeing him at a Local 3 IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) gathering, signing autographs. I did see Graziano though, at his pizza place on Second Avenue in the Kips Bay apartment complex. One lunch hour I saw him just about dancing behind the counter, reaching up with the paddle to handle the pies, in and out of the oven, all the while bouncing on the balls of his feet, as if he was skipping rope. He was still in the ring.

Before leaving, Rocky was at a table showing someone's young son who he knew a boxer's hand exercise, alternately flipping either hand on the table and and using the other hand to hit it when the palm was up. Boxers have very fast hands, and Rocky still had something in the tank.

Why I didn't get an autograph I'll never know. Probably just didn't want to bother him at work.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Happy Birthday

It is a strange, strange world we live in.

Has anyone picked out a Carvel ice cream birthday cake lately? They come in a variety of shapes and decorations, easy to choose from in the store's freezer showcase. There are football shaped cakes, smiley faced cakes, cupcake looking cakes, and then there's the one my wife and I picked out for our 6-year old granddaughter on Sunday in Pleasantville.

The cake made Olivia and her older sister laugh. My daughter laughed. Our other daughter laughed when a picture was sent to her on an iPhone. Our son-in-law didn't laugh, but he does work a good deal, and likely doesn't spend as much time online as they seem to. Are there any alert readers out there who know what is depicted on the cake we picked out? I'll give you a hint. It is an emoji. That's right, there's a cake with an emoji on it. No labeling on the box telling us what the emoji means, however.

And so, what does that brown emoji represent? Poop. That's right, we picked out a cake decorated with a poop emoji.

Carvel ice cram cakes are good, and since a good deal of it was consumed despite what the brown swirls were trying to represent, there was no chance to get our money back. And frankly, I wouldn't have anyway. The experience of buying a poop emoji cake for a 6-year old grandchild is way too good to be wiped by by a refund.

Of what use is a "poop" emoji? Tell someone symbolically you feel shitty? A Google definition tells us it is generally used to signify bad content (restaurant reviews on Yelp?) or self-deprecatingly. I
mean the poop is smiling, so how unfriendly can this emoji be? And how realistic? I've looked back. We've all looked back. Have you ever seen your poop smile back at you? Make smiley faces at you? I didn't think so.

Emojis of course are the millennial hieroglyphics for the 21st century. Who issues them, anyway? A control board, like they do for domain names? I know recently a new batch has been made available. Do users get updates?

I always had a cellphone that took pictures, but now I have my daughter's iPhone 5s after she upgraded to a higher number. Now Dad gets the hand-me-downs. Stick around long enough and life is a boomerang.

I learned how to forward the picture of the birthday cake to a friend I used to work with, and asked if she could identify what was depicted on the cake. This person is nearly a generation younger than I am, so I felt there was a good chance they would know what it is. Response?


Yeah, very funny, laughing your ass off.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Down Memory Lane

I was there when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes in 1973, when he become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. Penny Tweedy was there, of course. She was running Meadow Stable, and was the owner of Big Red.

Penny Tweedy Chenery has just passed away at 95, but certainly the memory of Secretariat, and even Riva Ridge, will not pass away anytime soon.

The Marlboro Cup was inaugurated so that Riva Ridge and Secretariat could appear in the same race. Mrs. Tweedy said afterward it broke her heart to see Riva Ridge lose, even if it was to his stablemate.

They handed out red caps to everyone that said 'Marlboro Cup' on the front. My friend and I wore ours several times, notably once in Vermont when we were playing golf. A woman in the clubhouse told us she was wondering who those two fellows were with the red caps. She thought were part of a team. She couldn't have been paying any attention to how we were playing. No team would have had us. I wish I still had the cap.

When Mrs. Tweedy was in the racing news in the 70s I remember her telling a reporter that the farm hands didn't want her to witness the actual breeding of a mare, when the stallion is teased and led to mount the mare. The male population of a stable didn't think it was becoming for a female owner to watch that. She did of course, and found nothing really untoward about it.

Secretariat was a horse for the ages. 1973 is now quite a while ago, but it can be yesterday when I'm at the computer and I look up at the framed black and white 16x20 photo I have of Ron Turcotte on No.2, cruising to the finish line in the Belmont Stakes as Ron is looking at the tote board. It is a famous photo, and is now so long ago that it contrasts with the the other color racing photos I have.

Ron of course is not looking at the tote to see what price the horse went off at, he's checking out the fractions, which were astounding. (Secretariat paid $2:20 to win, but $2.40 to place, a quirky payoff caused by a long shot, Twice a Prince finishing second.) As Big Red crossed the wire I pounded on my friend's shoulders and kept screaming, "Look at the time. Look at the time!" Ron certainly was looking at the times.

I keep a framed chart of that race on another wall in the room where no more pictures can be hung. I sometimes look at it and still marvel not only at the final time of 2:24, a track record that still stands, lowered from Gallant Man's 2:26 3/5, but at the fractions, that got the "tremendous machine" there:
23 2/5, 46 1/5, 109 4/5, 134 1/5, 1:59. There were no Beyer speed figures then, but a retro-assignment of a number gives Secretariat a Beyer of 139, the highest ever achieved by a horse to date.

I've previously mentioned the older fellow who we learned a good deal about racing from, Les Barrett, aka Mr. Pace, who wouldn't even stay and watch Secretariat's race, despite our having saved a seat for him. Les was so in love with his Citation he couldn't bear to see another horse become his equal, or better. This despite it was Les who told us that when we saw Secretariat's first victory in a maiden race as a 2-year old that, "they're expecting big things from that horse."

Today's NYT obit is adequate, but because the achievement of Secretariat was so long ago it is hard for anyone who wasn't part of that era to realize the big deal his Triple Crown achievement was. Even mentioning that the horse appeared on the covers of three news weeklies, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated lacks punch because it doesn't tell you that Secretariat's appearance on the three covers was after the Preakness, but before his Belmont victory. The king was crowned before the ceremony.

I always thought this was ballsy hings to do, and I viewed it suspiciously. Superstition. Even though by 1973 I hadn't yet seen as many races as I have now, I knew enough to know that anything can happen in a race. Just ask the people who backed Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar recently. Ouch.

Fittingly, there is a bronze statue of Secretariat in full flight in the Belmont paddock. I've had my picture taken there. On Belmont Day there is an array of white carnations placed around the pedestal, making it seem as if he's buried there. He's not.

I'm hardly the only one who holds onto Secretariat memories, or memories of his owner. The racing journalist Teresa Genaro tells us in a Tweet that she won't get rid of her landline because she's saved a voice mail message from Penny Chenery.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean

Anyone who might a regular reader of these posts might remember that I usually pick a bone with Maureen Dowd about her work ethic. She just doesn't seem to write often enough to deserve her position as a NYT columnist. She's more of a somewhat frequent Op-Ed contributor.

And if wasn't for Donald Trump, it would seem she would have nothing to write about. She's great with snarky one-liners that cut to the quick. A stand up comedian who doesn't have to stand up.

But lately, after another hiatus in filing a "weekly" piece of output, Ms. Dowd seems to be traveling over the waves and setting her sights on the Old Country, the U.K. Last week she gave us a nifty profile of the newly elected Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who at 38 is young, admittedly gay and of half-Indian descent. Hardly an O'Brien.

It was a good piece, and I wrote a comment to that effect. Unfortunately, my comments never seem to get published, despite filing them before the comment section fills up. Perhaps it is because I comment more about Maureen than the topics she has flapped her wings about.

Take today. Two weeks in a row for Ms. Dowd to file a piece, and this one is about Britain's Tony Blair, Nigel Farage and Brexit. The dateline is London. Maureen is still overseas and filing expense reports for meals presumably.

And again it is a good piece. Some digs of course to the folks back home, but a little more nuanced. Knowing that Ms. Dowd's column appears online as early as 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night, I was surprised, no shocked to see that this Sunday morning when I caught up to it, there were only 70 comments filed. It currently, at this Sunday dinner hour of 7:00 p.m. has 152. None of them are mine. Again. This despite telling Ms. Dowd I liked the piece.

The low comment count of course means the readership doesn't want to read about U.K. politicians with names like Leo and Nigel, but wants domestic spears thrown at our own. And if The Donald is the one the spears are being chucked at, all the better. Sex sells. Trump sells better. Ask Steve Colbert and his ratings.

Of course I did suggest that when she's not railing against The Donald her ratings suffer. Only 152 souls were stimulated enough to make comments, whereas if The Donald were being discussed the comment room is full and closed with something like 600 or so comments filed by very early Sunday morning. This of course means that when you give people something they want, a raking of The Donald over the coals, people will log on for it.

I also did point out that she spelled Ivanka as Javanka, unless of course I missed the joke and she was making a portmanteau of Ivanka and Jared, and she may well have been. I attributed it to the Times getting rid of layers of copy editors and other editors in a recent downsizing. This may not have been at all the case. See what happens when you don't know the whole story?

I did have one comment germane to the piece when I said ISIS is at war with us as much a we are at war with ISIS. It takes two sides to make two sides.

Perhaps it was my suggestion to Ms. Dowd that with two consecutive columns about politicians from across the Pond she might consider staying over  there and retaking a position of someone who writes columns rather than phones them in while in Uber cars. She might learn to like bubble and squeak and curry takeaways. She did once receive a Pulitzer. There is a path to former glory.

It also may have been my suggestion that she's a good interviewer, and maybe could take the place of the long departed David Frost and work for the BBC. Additionally, I suggested that since the Times reporter Sarah Lyall came back to this country that she, Maureen, might be able to gain access to whatever space Ms. Lyall vacated and work from there. I bet it was nice.

Maureen could then become the player to be named layer in the transatlantic deal of switching correspondents. All of course before the trade deadline.

At this point I might of course have answered my own question as to why no one includes my comments anywhere.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Metal Man

A crude form of poetry is often referred to as doggerel, defined formally as "burlesque verse in irregular rhythm...trivial pedestrian verse." It is not going to win any awards and its authorship is generally unknown.

One piece of doggerel that has stuck in in my mind is a rhyming quatrain of lines I remember reading when I was an adolescent that someone wrote on a bathroom's stall walls.

Some come here to sit and think
Others come to shit and stink.
But I come here to scratch my balls, 
And read the bullshit on the walls,

Given that this piece of verse was probably constructed many years before someone scratched it on the stall's wall, it is doubtful that the originator of it was actually in the same stall I was. There are knock-offs everywhere in life. It was like a fake Bansky.

Bathroom verse used to be somewhat common, along with phone numbers, ostensibly from gay guys who could be called for sex. Or numbers of straight guys who had friends who were practical jokers who scrawled their friends' names on the walls. Get any funny calls from guys lately? I guess everything is online these days.

Another piece of verse, not at all raunchy, that has stuck in my mind, and surely countless others, is by a legitimate writer, the M.I.T. educated Gelet Burgess, who in 1895 wrote...

I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to be one.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'd rather see and than be one.

Great rhyme, probably introduced to a lot of us when we were children.

M.T. Liggett, 86, a folk artist who skewered politicians with wood and metal artwork has passed away in Wichita, Kansas. He lived his entire life in the rural farming community of Mullinville. His NYT obituary by Richard Sandomir is a good one in the print edition, but even better if you can take advantage of reading and seeing it online. There's video from a segment of a show on the History Channel, 'American Pickers.' There are more 'YouTube' segments that are a pure delight. The Wall Street Journal did an A-Hed piece on Mr. Liggett's art, and others in Kansas, somewhat of a cauldron for welded art.

Mr. Liggett was indeed a character, who created acres of metal and wood sculptures that were in effect political cartoons. He portrayed Hillary Clinton as having a swastika for a torso, and labelled her "Our Jack-Booted Eva Braun." This particular piece appears in a photo taken in 1997, when the Clintons were in the White House. It can be seen in the above photo at the extreme left. Hillary thinks people are tough on her now.

Then president Bill Clinton is portrayed as a bright red hog (Arkansas, remember/) with the label, "Razorback Draft Dodger." Mr. Liggett had been a career military men in the Air Force.

Not just Democrats. Mr. Liggett could be said not to like anyone who was elected, despite his own efforts to run for local offices, finishing last every time.  President George W. Bush was excoriated for ties to Big Oil. And the hits keep coming.

Mr. Liggett held many jobs and supported himself and his family in many ways. One of the occupations described is that of someone who "custom-cut wheat." No idea what this is. Is this where we get steel cut oatmeal from?

He was from a farming background. His parents were sharecroppers who were eventually able to buy the land they worked. He described himself as "poor, poor, poor." He recounted the story of being mocked in grammar school by the teacher when he drew a purple cow with the only crayon he had--purple, What a moron teacher. She never heard of a purple cow? Luckily for the world, his sensitivities to being mocked only temporarily discouraged him from creating art.

There are three photos accompanying Mr. Liggett's obituary. Two are credited to Terrence Moore, NYT, one showing Mr. Liggett's pieces, and the other showing a 50s/60s looking tail-finned Chrysler convertible parked on the shoulder of the rural road that runs past his place. The passenger door appears open. Someone is likely paying a visit to the acreage of wood and metal pieces. Mr. Liggett explains that he uses quarter inch iron to ensure that his pieces will outlive him by a wide margin.

My guess is no one went out to Kansas to take recent photos of Mr. Liggett's outdoor spread.
This tells that perhaps the Times did an earlier piece on Mr. Liggett, when was alive. Bingo! They did.

'The Gospel According to the Grouch' is a May 4, 1997 piece that appeared in the Sunday magazine under the category labeled Art. The piece is not bylined, but it is a lively piece that incorporates a description of the man that would have been useful if it had been put into the obituary. There's even a quote by the subject that would have made a great ending.

Mr. Liggett is described as a "prairie philosopher, folk artist, supremely disgruntled citizen." His life's philosophy is summed up by...

"If you live your life worrying about what somebody's going to think, man, you might as well kill yourself right now. If you like me, fine. If you don't like me, that's still fine."

And what now might be a perfect sentiment in this age of Twitter and memorialized Tweets and video segments turned into news stories...

"A man is never remembered for words he did not say."


The dates on the stones let you measure the time
Of the lives that lived in between.
The bracketed years reveal to the current
The joys and the troubles they've seen.

On any given day a person is born
You can record the date of their birth.
And on any given day a person can die
And you can record that they've left this earth.

And the morning we made our dusty descent,
An accomplishment undiminished,
We learned of the others and their bracketed date,
And our own, that remained unfinished.

So it is incredible to believe the end can be met
At the hands of someone we knew.
He put an end to life, he put an end to himself,
But he didn't put an end to you.

Fifteen years. Still true.
No one ever dies
Who lives in hearts
Left behind.

These people left many things well begun.
He didn't put an end to you.

Friday, September 15, 2017

One Less Wise Guy

If the name Frank Vincent doesn't conjure up a face, then the face certainly will conjure up a wise guy who has inhabited several modern gangster films. Frank had a face made for an indictment.

I never really watched the 'Sopranos', so I wasn't aware that Mr. Vincent had made his way into that TV series as, what else, a wise guy. One look at that kisser and head of slicked back grey/white hair and you knew you were in trouble if he was mad at you. And in several movies he was very mad. When people wound up dead, or plopped into shallow desert graves. Frank's character was behind it.

In fact, I saw enough movies where Mr. Vincent's character offed someone that I feared for my own life when I saw him, even if it was only on the small screen. He was a most menacing figure.

Even in the cop movie 'Cop Land', where he plays a police union official, we are introduced to his character where he spends his quality time: at a grave, in this case a burial in a cemetery, rather than a plot dug in the middle of the night with a borrowed shovel.

It seems the director Martin Scorsese saw Frank and Joe Pesci in a movie, 'The Death Collector', and immediately used both of them in 'Raging Bull.' Mr. Vincent was part of the stable of actors who lived as gangster goombas in his films.

No one could look bad look more authentic than Mr. Vincent wearing a pinky ring, drinking espresso in a social club, sporting a pocket square and wearing a piece of gold jewelry around their neck. He was born for the parts.

Mr. Vincent was a actor, who has now passed away at 80. Somewhat amazingly, his NYT obit appears right next to another actor, Gastone Moschin, 88, who memorably played Don Fanucci, who as a Black Hand boss, controlled his Little Italy neighborhood, at least until the young Vito Corleone, as played by a young Robert De Niro, puts a violent end to his shakedowns and influence. Vito is well on his way up the Mafia ladder.

But Mr. Vincent is just playing those roles. He started out as a drummer, even playing with Joe Pesci, who played guitar. They even once had a comedy act, proving that mobsters really can make you laugh.

Apparently Mr. Vincent appeared in 30 'Sopranos' episodes, after initially being bypassed for a part in that series. Perhaps fittingly or not, Mr. Vincent passed away in New Jersey, at an undisclosed location.