Monday, June 29, 2009

Untitled Works

It's an art itself when someone can write an obituary like the one William Grimes did today on Michael Martin, essentially an underground graffiti artist who seems to have been as well known as Picasso, but was also paradoxically anonymous to the general public.

It is incredible that there are that many facts about someone whose work was basically displayed illegally, inside and outside subway cars with no commission from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

I have to say I was never a fan of graffiti, but I did realize it represented a form of artistic talent that to me was just not where I wanted to see it. I first became aware of graffiti in the 60s when I noticed that just about anything in Manhattan had the tag TAKI183 written on it in what looked like Magic Marker. I first noticed it fairly high up on light poles. If "Pong" was the first version of video games, then this was the genesis of graffiti. It came a long way.

Apparently there is a great deal of source material to draw from on the better known graffiti artists. A simple Google search for TAKI183 produced a page of solid hits, and is worth checking out. Nevertheless, the assembly of all these details and quotes is what makes Mr. Grimes's obituary stand out today.

Michael Martin as Iz the Wiz might have pushed his last aerosol button a few years ago, but today's obituary will keep him among us.

And when I want a can of Rust-Oleum spray paint at Home Depot and encounter a locked cabinet, I will know who to thank.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Goodbye Ed

I didn't know Ed McMahon any better than anyone else who was an avid viewer of The Tonight Show, particularly in the 1960s, when it came from the NBC studios in New York. I did sort of get to meet him, or at least be in his presence live, when I was in the studio audience twice in 1966. Even then, Carson was taking off from the show, and Johnny was only hosting the first show I saw; Corbett Monica the other.

Normally, getting tickets to see The Tonight Show would have required advance planning and writing for tickets. But January 1, 1966 saw New York City not only with a new mayor but also saw itself burdened with a transit strike, and people weren't getting around too well. Buses and subways were kaput.

So, with NBC Studios hardly an unreasonable walk from where I then lived on 19th Street, I set out to see if I could get in on the Provisional ticket holders' line. You'd get in if all the ticket holders didn't show up. Somewhat like the Also Eligible entries in horse racing. If enough horses scratch, you can be entered. And with a transit strike in full swing, my chances of those scratches were very good.

Sure enough, there weren't even a lot of people on the Provisional line and getting allowed in was a snap. I remember seeing Johnny's brother Dick in the lobby, just as he was getting into an elevator. He looked exactly like Johnny, and was the show's long-time director. All in the family.

Ed McMahon warmed up the audience. In that era, The Tonight Show still had an opening 15 minute segment that was not broadcast on the network. It was done for the studio audience and affiliate stations that picked it up. It aired from 11:15 to 11:30. When the 11 o'clock news was 15 minutes. The Tonight Show used to start on network TV at 11:15, with Johnny coming on at 11:30. It ran to 1 o'clock.

But when the 114 day newspaper strike was on during 1962/63, the networks started to fill in the news "void," and they extended their 11 o'clock news show 15 minutes. When the newspaper strike ended the networks never went back to 15 minute 11 o'clock news. The beginning of a still long running end for newspapers.

Ed explained a few things while walking up and down one of the aisles. What I remember most was his instructions on what to do when the camera panned the audience for the 12:30 A.M. break. Ed advised, with that baritone chuckle, that if you were sitting next to someone you shouldn't be, maybe you'd want to "duck down" as the camera caught you in its view. Waywardness was nothing new. Being caught on television was.

The only guests that I remember were a singing duo who Johnny came out to introduce on the set as Simon and Garfunkel. As he did, he opened his jacket and peered at the label to see if he was wearing a "Simon and Garfunkel." They sang Sounds of Silence, probably for the first time on TV, and by all measures did pretty well from there.

The transit strike wore on a bit, and within a week I thought the Provisional ticket line gambit would work again. It did. Ed warmed up the audience. What I soon realized was that he said the same things. He advised about being seen with someone you might not want to be seen with. Basically, his presentation was the same. It was a stump speech without being a politician.

It was then I realized something I hadn't thought about: show business can be quite repetitive, especially for people doing shows like that. But very comfortable.

In Richard Severo's NYT obituary on Ed McMahon he quotes Ed as saying, "I laugh for an hour, then I go home. I've got the world's greatest job." That was when the show had been whittled down to an hour.

In the earlier days he had to laugh almost twice as long before going home.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Potential Successor to The Goat Man

Not many literary openings can rank up there with these: In the beginning; Call me Ismael; It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; There is an old fisherman, Santiago, in Cuba who has gone eighty-four days without a catch; It was a dark and stormy night. But certainly Robert McG. Thomas's opening lines to his obituary of Charles McCartney will stay preserved in the vault: You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat and it won't be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man.

Hard to imagine there might someday be a successor to Mr. McCartney, but one might be on the way.

Today's WSJ book review covers a book titled Goat Song, by Brad Kessler. There is of course a sub-title that's long enough to tangle the creature up. It nearly leads to the back flap. The book sounds simple enough: man and wife move to Vermont, connect with house and earth, and attempt to make something grow besides money. Goats turn out to be what they start to raise.

Cheese becomes an objective, but commercial sale is an administrative headache and is abandoned. But not the goats. Brad Kessler and his wife start with two adults and two kids. There is no mention in the review what count they might be up to at this point, but from outtakes in the review you certainly get the sense that reproduction is not discouraged.

The whole project started a few years go for the Kesslers. The review doesn't mention how old they are, but their energy level sounds as if there might be a good 20 years ahead of them before some limbs start to feel cranky. An obituary doesn't seem imminent.

However, given what age and goat growth can deliver, it may not surprise anyone if the Kesslers find themselves living in an abandoned Vermont school bus with their herd. After all, Charles McCartney eventually called a bus home with his herd.

It's too bad McG. won't be around to write the sequel.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Long Life

Live long enough and some people will think you've already passed away. You mean he was alive yesterday?

This was my reaction as I sat in a doctor's waiting room yesterday and heard someone on the omnipresent television set respectfully intone that Dusty Rhodes passed away at 84 on Wednesday; a major league ballplayer who played for the New York Giants, and who helped them win the 1954 World Series, their last Series victory. Turns out Dusty was on his way to the doctor's, and I was already there. I felt better.

In today's Times, Bruce Weber recalls Dusty and the era in fine fashion, an obit sprinkled with good chuckle quotes and enough facts that make re-reading the piece even more informative. Missing however is how James Lamar came to be called Dusty. Just growing up in Alabama picking cotton doesn't give us enough to go on. It's likely a reliable source could not shed light on the origin, and the man himself had just passed away, probably without telling anyone who happened to write it down and publish it. Small matter. Imagination can work, too.

My own reason for thinking Dusty wasn't here on Tuesday was that it was in the 1950s! when I came across a signed dollar bill with Dusty's autograph when I was turning pages in a book in my friend's apartment, the rented part of our two-family house. My friend George and I were under 10, and a whole dollar not in an adult's hand was a tempting sight. But my friend explained that it was his father's, and his Dad was a big Dusty Rhodes fan, so he got his autograph. Simple enough. The dollar didn't leave the book on our watch.

But reading about Dusty today, and knowing what my friend's father did for a living made me imagine that perhaps his Dad didn't get it at the ball game. His Dad was the manager of the Lamb's Club, a theatrical based club where liquor and food was served to a membership. And guests.

Reading today's obit it is clear Dusty enjoyed many aspects of life, but not the hangovers. But then, who does? Ballplayers in the 50s in New York got around, just like today. And with three major league teams in New York, Manhattan had to have a few players in circulation on any given night. So, it is not too hard to imagine that George's father was a somewhat less well known Toots Shor, and met his share of people too.

I like to think so.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Obit Connection

I have to say that before a New York Public Library discussion on obituaries in October 2008 I don't think I had heard the name Daniel Okrent, one of the discussion mates of Anne Wroe and Marilyn Johnson. I knew someone had been appointed an Ombudsman at the Times in the wake of Jonathan Blair and Howell Raines, but his name was not familiar. He had since left that post and sounded like he was straining to complete a book on American history. I do remember he was funny. In fact, they were all funny, but maybe none more so than the moderator Paul Holdengraber, who further immortalized Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.'s famous piece on Edward Lowe by asking in his Austrian clock-maker accent what was so special about "keeeeety-liter?" Nothing, until he says it. Well, he did ask.

But, catching up on the papers, there in the The Wall Street Journal, June 6, on the Op-Ed page is a story about Rudy Mancuso's photo of "The Shot Heard Round the World," taken at the moment Bobby Thomson's homer put the Giants into the World Series in 1951.

The writer of the piece, Joshua Prager, has made a bit of a career on the event and published a book about it. He is also the writer who broke the story in the Journal in 2001 that told of the Giants stealing pitch signs with a telegraph and a buzzer. I remember writing to Dave Anderson after reading that one, telling him their lunch had just been eaten by the then financial paper.

Anyway, Prager writes, that Thomson's homer commenced inspiring so much prose that Daniel Okrent weighed in that it imperiled "great stretches of Canadian pulpwood forest."

A great line. I doubt Okrent said it in 1951, because he didn't look that old in 2008 at the NYPL, but how nice to be quoted in what actually becomes a tribute piece to Rudy Mancuso, who passed away on May 10, at 89.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dere's a Wabbit Here Everywhere

I don't think I've read a news story with its tongue so firmly planted in its cheek as today's Wall Street Journal's 'A-Head' piece on chocolate rabbits. Go on an Easter egg hunt for how many times the writer and his accomplices pull, well, one out of the hat.

Start with the headline and the sub-heading, and count. I get two right there. Keep going.

Europe's High Court Tries On
A Bunny Suit Made of Chocolate
The Case: Can a Foil-Wrapped Flopsy
Be Trademarked? Hunting Rabbit Knockoffs

The absolute best part, like many obituaries, is the final word. I don't think it would ever occur to me, whatever snit I might be in, to describe a foil-wrapped chocolate bunny as looking "rather snobbish." But the world is full of opinions.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Herman Melville Slept Here. Sort Of

Obituaries never stop informing. Even books and articles about obituaries never stop informing us. Take a fairly recent online piece by Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set, a Drexel University publication.

Ms. Golberg writes an informative account of how obituaries have morphed from mere notices into short story-like art forms. She references several works that have recently appeared about just that type of trend, notably Marilyn Johnson's The Dead Beat, a book that affirms Ms. Johnson's status as a bit of a high priestess on the subject. Other sources are noted as well.

As an example of a mere death notice, or what used to pass as all that would be said about the departed, however known, Ms. Golberg uses a 1891 blurb as an example:

Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, of heart failure, aged seventy-two...

There's a little more, (very little) about survivors and the names of some books he wrote, one of which is misspelled. But that's it.

Re-reading Stefany's piece I realized I was being told why the single street sign across the street from where I work proclaims the east side of Park Avenue South and 26th Street to be Herman Melville Square. (There is no Square, however.) I always figured it had something to do with the fact that he lived nearby, but I never knew where. Now I do.

There is a 104 East 26th Street. Or at least a heavy black metal door that is to the left of the freight entrance of a cast iron office building with that number above it. There is a bell that says the door is for the "Penthouse Only." But the best part is there is a plaque, Virginia, however poorly placed and nearly inconspicuous that proclaims that Herman Melville lived there from 1863-1891, and that he wrote Billy Budd and other stories while "living" there.

The building this plaque is attached to was built after Melville's residence. The plaque is hard by the building next to it, the 69th Regiment Armory, also built after Melville. So, the address lives, but little else.

There wouldn't be anything Melville would recognize if he were to emerge from where that door is now. If he looked hard to the east or west along 26th Street he couldn't see the water. He'd only see a masted ship if it was a logo on a passing beer truck.

But back to Stehany's example of terse notices. This was probably as much a product of the style of the times as it was that to write more meant you had to set more type, and that was labor intensive and time consuming. It was easier to talk about someone than to write about them.

Take this example for directness. While not an obituary per se, it is a news item about the death of someone. It appeared on the front page of the May 6, 1912 New York Times and was at the bottom of a column. It's a favorite.

Dynamite in Man's Pocket Strikes
Stone Causing Fatal Explosion.

The very short story goes on to explain that a tree stump remover in Sharon, Mass. sat down on a rock for what would have probably been lunch and a 1912 version of a Subway sandwich. He forgot about the dynamite in his back pocket. He hadn't even heard about trans fat.

But even in today's era something short can be very sweet. I don't know who takes this In Memoriam out each year, but I've been noticing this one now for a few years.

It's all music.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


It's a big world, and lots of things happen. And certainly in the 20th century there were plenty of events. But one of the more enduring ones surely would have to be the Watergate break-in of 1972 and its aftermath. And one of the connections to that somewhat long-ago event just passed away at 92.

Bernard Barker, A Watergate Burglar Dies at 92

It was June 17, 1972 when Mr. Barker and others were arrested at the Watergate complex, having broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Ultimately, President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office in 1974.

Articles, books, movies galore have been produced about the story. But aside from starting with planning the break-in itself, the presidential world started to unravel when the burglars placed a piece of retaining tape over a door's catch that left it visible from the outside, rather than placing it completely vertical on the door's edge, making it invisible with the door closed.

It was the misapplied tape that Frank Wills, a Watergate security guard noticed that alerted him to a burglary. The rest is history. And plenty of it.

So, if nothing else, the Watergate burglars added a piece of crime detection lore to the manual. The serial killer Son of Sam was eventually apprehended after a parking ticket that he received at one of his shootings drew enough attention to make an investigator ask why was someone with a Yonkers address on Shore Parkway in Brooklyn at the time of the shooting?

Spotting missing license plates played into quickly catching up to the Oklahoma City office building bombers. A L.I. serial killer of prostitutes was ultimately done in by a traffic check for a missing license plate. The body in the back of truck under the landscaping debris was also incriminating. The list can go on.

In the obituary, Susan Jo Keller writes that Mr. Barker, a Cuban-born American said he was involved in the break-in because he felt they might get some goods on the Democrats and that it would speed up the "liberation" of Cuba.

In 1972 Fidel Castro was president of Cuba. In 2009 it seems his brother Raul runs the show. All in the family. In the 1950s when I was growing up in Flushing and going to grammar school at P.S. 22 Castro's son or nephew was attending P.S. 20, less than a mile away. This of course was when the United States was still trying to woo Castro to be an ally.

All these years later and Cuba is still under a Communist thumb, and might remain that way if it continues to stay in the family. It is being significantly delayed from becoming a de facto 51st state hosting game shows having a week-long change of venue.

Ms. Keller closes the obituary with an obituary writer's technique of quoting the recently departed. The last words, so to speak, to remember them by. (The Last Word is also an excellent collection of New York Times obituaries, complied by Marvin Siegel, forward by Russell Baker.)

In repeated interviews, Mr. Barker expressed no regrets about his role in the two break-ins [there was another famous one], saying he believed he had been acting in the interests of national security. But in 1976 he did tell a reporter: "Washington's a place to keep away from. Cubans don't do very well up there."

And when they don't put the tape on the door right, others don't do too well either.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Kickoff

Been over this before. Book reviews and obituaries. Each can be counted on for some cleverness.

Take today's book review in the Wall Street Journal: Make Room for Daddy, by Judith Walzer Leavitt. (Yes, there's a sub-title: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room.)

The review is entertainingly written by Jonathan V. Last, so there is some male balance to a book about how men and their participation in, presence at, childbirth has evolved over the years. And how women's acceptance, even insistence of their involvement has changed.

The cleverness comes when the reviewer points out:

Fathers today are stepped in the fine points of birth coaching and Lamaze, but once upon a time they had literally nothing to do with the event other than participating in the kickoff nine months earlier.

I'm old fashioned. It's nice to be acknowledged. I'm not sure I can ever hear the term "kickoff meeting" at work again without trying to suppress some sort of smile.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Last Of

We like to count. We like to know how many we started with. How many are gone. How many are left.

A USA Today reporter, Mike Lopresti commented in 2002 when the horse Seattle Slew passed away that he was the last of the living Triple Crown winners. "There were but 11 Triple Crown winners in the last century, only three in the last 54 years. And with Seattle Slew’s passing the other day, all of them are dead. This we know because living Triple Crown champions are kept track of like ex-presidents and Titanic survivors."

Millvina Dean, Last Survivor of the Titanic, Dies at 97

The Titanic sunk on April 14, 1912. I never used to remember the year until I bought one of those Legacy ancestral collages from The Times that frame out someone's record through Ellis Island, a copy of the front page of the paper the day they got to America, and a picture of the ship they traveled on. It's quite a display and I was able to find my grandfather's arrival with some last name variations and allowances for not counting all the birthdays.

What I landed on was actually my grandfather's third arrival in 1912, in May. I couldn't find the first, but I lucked out with the third one because there on the passenger list on the line below his name is that of his 18-year-old brother, Peter, who was brought over from Greece by his married 30-year-old brother.

And then I realized that 1912 was rather a 9/11/2001-type year for ocean-going travel. I have to think that anyone in the world who wasn't in a coma heard about the Titanic's sinking. It had to be on passengers' minds in May 1912 as they set out for America. Of course, leaving a Mediterranean country in May and crossing the Atlantic in warmer weather had to at least give them assurance that icebergs weren't going to get them, but something else could.

Well, they made it. And my grandfather and great-uncle spent the rest of their lives as close together as they were on that passenger list. My uncle never married and lived with his brother and my grandmother. And eventually their four sons.

Millvina Dean is described by the obituary writer, John Burns, as reluctant to draw attention to herself about what she survived. She was only 9 weeks old at the time, and survived with her mother and 2-year-old brother. But not her father.

When she gave a nursing home interview years ago she said that for decades after the sinking she never spoke of it or her part in it to people she met or worked with. She did not want to be seen as drawing attention to herself. Almost like the opening line from an Alice Fulton poem: "the universe's ignorance of me is privacy."

The obituary is a great piece about a watershed event of the 20th century. And the kind of people who survived it.

On 9/11/2001 there were an estimated 25,000 survivors of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. And there were survivors from the Pentagon attack. There were some small children in a day care center in one of the Center's smaller buildings. They were all retrieved by their parents or guardians. I doubt any were as young as 2 months old, but they were pre-schoolers.

A hundred years from 2001 it will be 2101. There is no official list of who the 25,000 or so are who survived 9/11. So, we don't know how many we've started with. So we won't know who will be the last.