Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Lovely Span of AAAs

It was quite a number of years ago when John Updike had a book of poems titled Verse. It was a naturally thin paperback of two of his published books of poems, The Carpentered Hen and Telephone Poles. It was 75 cents.

One of the poems goes on about an author's name, M. Anantanarayanan, and how it is a sumptuous span of "a's" and "n's" more lovely than "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan..."

Indeed it might be a sumptuous span, but it looks nearly unpronounceable. It seems like a name Murray would have purposely dug up to torture Ted Baxter on the evening news on the Mary Tyler Moore show.

Yet, something about the poem always stuck, and I became conscious of words that had strings of repeating letters. Like Canada. Always loved those hockey puck mints. And Saratoga. Always love going there. And this year was no exception.

There was a time I would have had absolutely no use for the place. It interrupted downstate racing. The month of August was spent upstate, and you couldn't reasonably get there and back by bus, or train in the same day. It just made for an extremely long day. At the start of every season, Frank Sullivan would publish some kind of ode to the place in the Sunday Times and I was further inflamed. In fact, Frank wrote so much about the place that there is a street bordering the track called Frank Sullivan Place. It only seemed like a place where the prices went up in August and the locals stiffed the downstaters. Or, at least that's what I believed when I read the cynical columnists who wrote downstate for papers that probably weren't sending them up there expenses paid.

Age changes attitudes, and now of course I love quoting Red Smith who wrote, "from New York City you drive north for about 175 miles, turn left on Union Avenue and go back 100 years." Red loved the place too, and probably would have even if his paper wasn't sending him up there with an expense account. They named a turf race after Red Smith. It's something they do.

So now it's a 6 week meet, when the downstate horse racing thoroughbred circus moves upstate, starting in late July and ending on Labor Day. So that means pretty much the same names are there: owners, jockeys, trainers and horses.

And one of those names is Patrick Kelly, a trainer from a family of trainers, but who is not known to many, certainly because he hardly wins. To be in the month of August and have been responsible for 3 winners is not a vote of confidence. But Kelly is patient, and makes good use of who he has under his wing. The trouble is, you need a lot of patience. Mr. Kelly seems to practice the craft of playing his cards close to his vest. You never really know when one of his charges is really ready to strike, or is just out there for exercise. He's called "crafty" if you're not cursing him. He's always a possible maybe. But with 3 winners and a percentage you find with a tweezer, you tend not to worry. But you should.

One of his notables is a horse named Naughty New Yorker. who has run nearly 50 races and who, up until Friday, had compiled earnings of just under $1,000,000. A tidy sum by horse racing standards. At least a second place finish in Friday's race will put him over the mark. For those involved, a nice club to be in.

Naughty New Yorker is a New York bred horse, which now means his mom (mare) was stabled in New York when he was conceived. Rules regarding breeding have changed a bit over the years, but there is still a cachet, and value to where you were born, and who had you. "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best" is the watch-word.

Now Naughty had won plenty of races. You can't get near a $1,000,000 without getting there first more than a few times. In his case, up to Friday, he'd started in 48 races and won 12 of them; finished second 6 times and third 7. A solid record.

But Naughty is now 7 and has not been doing well. At all. He's been 7th several times, and has been beaten by many lengths. He's 20-1, and deserves to be. But he's also at Saratoga, that lovely span of AAAs, where things go well for some. And this is no secret. His Saratoga record is in The Daily Racing Form for all to see: six starts, three wins and one second. He loves the place. This is called "horses for courses." Several years ago he won a stakes race at Saratoga when we were there. I congratulated the woman next to me who had him, because I certainly didn't.

No, he didn't win on Friday. But he did finish 2nd, and did go over the million mark. But most significantly, he nosed me out of my exacta (picking the first and second place horses) and a certain profit. It took me more of the afternoon to recover from that one.

Kelly was doing it to me again. He's a Naughty New Yorker.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dinner Parties

The benefits of reading obituaries has already been mentioned. And book reviews. Well timed tidbits from each will get you glowing chuckles at your dinner parties. But who would have thought plant catalogs could almost be as good?

I must have ordered something from Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens out of North Carolina because I'm now getting their catalog without asking for it. And glad to be getting it, too. Not just for the plants and the pictures, but the descriptions of the plants. (I do now remember ordering something. And it's doing well.)

The cover is a certain clue that this might be a plant catalog with more than Latin names. At the top it states: Catalog Price: 10 Stamps or a Box of Chocolates. The cover artwork is by a cartoonist and has a theme, not completely unlike Mad Magazine. This one is Desperate Gardeners and there are women in shorts who could be on television. Maybe they are. Joe Biden's there too. You're just going to have to take my word for it, or check it out yourself.

The rest is straightforward. Sort of. Nice color pictures, prices, advice, all the catalog stuff you'd expect. But here's the dinner party repartee. Maybe.

"Nolina nelsonii. (Nelson's Blue Bear Grass, Origin Mexico.) Resembles giant ponytail palms...with rigid but not sharply pointed 3' long silvery blue-green, grass-like foliage to 1" wide. To quote the redneck pick-up line, it resembles a parking ticket, because it has 'fine' written all over it."

I kid you not. It's a great looking plant, and I might just order it, or look for it locally next year. I'm sure I can tell someone about why I just had to have it.

I'm no longer in a position to find out if that particular opening will get you anywhere, but I'd love to know someone's experience with it. I don't know why it has to be a redneck pick-up line. From what I can see of what passes for a Manhattan bar crowd these days (at least in Chelsea), I can easily imagine it being at least half-way funny given good timing, a smile, and the consumption of a few drinks by both parties.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Direct Hit

At the strenuous urging of someone I know, I have taken to the public library for digital research and document retrieval. Inertia was holding me back, but probably like most people, once I get the hang of something and like it, I keep going back for more. This of course explains a good deal of why things are the way they are in the world, but that's in another portion of the library.

Last week the mission began with microfilm. Certainly not digital, but it was what I knew. Or, it was where I thought I had to look. After nearly two and a half hours of focusing and feeding microfilm for one month's worth of Wall Street Journals I still didn't have what I wanted. I only knew the approximate date, not the exact date.

A little more research and I learned I could access a digital database and probably find what I was looking for. If the cotton enGINe changed the world, then the Search Engine surely has made its contribution to change. Disruptive technology, they call it.

Two days later I was in the digital portion of the Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL) on Madison Avenue, a sleek looking space where books aren't immediately seen. The library is in the old B. Altman department store, where I once worked, many, many years ago.

Positioned at a computer and accessing the WSJ full text database it didn't take me long to find what I wanted. A few mouse clicks, and I was nearly back out on the street. I felt like what George Carlin described confession to be like with Father Rivera. Father Rivera, not being an Irish Catholic priest, didn't quite seem as disturbed by the confessions of teen-age boys. To him, things didn't seem so bad. (I once read one of those ridiculous statistics that said the average teen-age boy thinks of sex every 14 seconds! Honestly, with distractions like that I've always felt we're not given enough credit for ever getting done what we did, like graduate.) Carlin describes confession with Father Rivera as warranting a few Hail-Marys and, "you're back out on the street. You could see the line move." Even though I'm not Catholic, I've always appreciated someone who can move a line. I call them Father Riveras.

So now I'm hooked, and was back at it today. I wanted to get a reprint of a Russell Baker column I know I saved, but good luck finding it, about power vacationers in August. I didn't know the date, but at least I knew the author. I had been telling someone about August being the Power Person's month and wanted to test my new skills.

A direct hit. 1 of 1 came back when I filled out the search engine form and put in a two word search "power vacation," along with Mr. Baker's name. I was ready to be back out on the street so fast I could have had a cab waiting. I printed it too. The powder burns from my two word search remain in bold on the printed copy.

The column was written August 4, 1982, much longer ago than I would have guessed, and was titled The Power Suntan. What struck me was how many things were in the column that I appropriated as fitting other observations in life.

Mr. Baker tells the tale of vacationing on Wampum Island (read Nantucket), where the July crowd has to leave the island first so the August crowd can get on. It's China. I've used the same observation about getting on a evening commuter train that first has to empty a trainload of people before I can get on. I've got to get out of Manhattan so they can come in and party. I always knew my observation came from something of his I read, but I didn't know which column.

We once used to vacation in nearly a similar spot for two weeks in July. In July, it's not dark until well after 8 o'clock. But then we moved vacation to August to coincide with a road race in Falmouth. The night comes quicker. That July and August comparison is in the column as well.

But August has remained the vacation month. Not because of personal power, but because even though Saratoga is open at the end of July now, the racing is even better in August.

Mr. Baker turns 84 today. V-J Day. Proof, August is better than July.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Public Family

It might seem entirely odd, or even presumptuous, to equate the passing of Eunice Kennedy Shriver with losing another link to my parents' past. But it's true. Not because we knew the Kennedys. Far from it. The closest any of us ever got to them was to be have Kennedy half-dollars in our pockets when such coins were in circulation. No, we didn't know them like family or neighbors, but knew them as news items.

No end to writing about the Kennedy family. American Royalty and all that. But really, an American family that's just been in the paper. A lot.

And yet, the link is there. Eunice was born three years after my mother. Her brother John was born two years after my father. Eunice's generation is my parents' generation. And it's getting smaller.

Neither of my parents are alive. They passed away some time ago, six years apart. Eunice's 88 years puts her out there for longevity. Born in 1921, she saw plenty between then and now. But now there is one less person who can directly tell you where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed, or what they did during "The War." Or how they celebrated the end of it.

But we all hold some piece of news, feeling, or trivia that stays with us until we leave. Woodstock is getting a good deal of attention because it was 40 years ago. People are writing about it, playing the music, re-reviewing it, telling you where they were (if they remember) during the festival.

My own piece of memory is like a good deal of my life, tied to the daily paper. If you were to view microfilm of New York's papers for, I think the Monday after the concert, you should be taken by all the ads that were taken out by bus companies, and others telling everyone that they were proud of the people at Woodstock and how well everything went. In a sense, that there was no violence, or trouble. How the 1968 Democratic convention generation behaved itself. Imagine, newspaper ads after a concert praising the audience.

I'm sure Eunice had plenty of such remembrances. Things that no one is writing about but are as clear as the day they happened. From a family that size, at the the levels they lived at, you hold a lot.

A link recedes. Another one gets closer.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Oz on Seventh Avenue

You learn things from obituaries. We already know this. You also learn that what you thought might be an answer is not the answer, and there still is a mystery.

Take the recent obituary of Tony Rosenthal, a modern sculptor who just passed away. His works are famous and familiar. More familiar than his name it seems, but that happens. He did the metal sculpture, "5 in 1," in front of Police Plaza in lower Manhattan, the tilted cube Alamo, also in lower Manhattan, and a Dag Hammarskjold piece that was on exhibit near the U.N., but later moved to Fashion Institute of Technology, on Seventh Avenue.

And this is when I thought I had an answer. I pass this pictured piece of sculpture every day on my way to work. There are no markings on it, so maybe it is a Tony Rosenthal piece. The obit did say he was not that well known. Not to have your name on a sculpture is more anonymity than I'd care to have, but maybe it's so.

Turns out it isn't his piece. It's not the Dag Hammarskjold piece, which is modern, but looks nothing like this piece. So, who did it?

Turns out, no one seems to know. An e-mail from the fellow who took and posted the photo, Stephen Sandoval, asked me to get back to him if I found out. The people at F.I.T. don't answer e-mail. The people at the FIT museum, at whose entrance this sits nearly in front of, don't know either. A few Chelsea art organizations don't seem to log on with an answer either.

I like the sculpture, but it is in terrible shape. Dirty, at least. Every day I'm expecting to see a Stuart Dean, or Remco cleaning crew polishing the piece up. For a few years now: no. Stephen's photo is actually flattering, even though wear can be seen. It doesn't even look that good right now.

The sculpture appears to be in the Witness Protection program. And maybe for good reason. I've always wondered how the Fashion Institute building design ever left the drawing board. It was someone's good idea once. I wonder if it still is. To me, the only that should be in front of it is a wrecking ball.

At least Shelley's famous poem Ozymandias tells the story of the king, Ozymandias, whose name appears on the desert sculpture. No one here wants anything to do with what's on Seventh Avenue.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Zingers and Dingers

When it can be pulled off, a zinger in an obituary adds to the read. It might state some form of implied irony about the deceased, or it might be less subtle and announce that the world is a better place since the departed departed, as one recently did. (See Not All Created Equal)

Columns are another great source for zingers. Columnists, especially political columnists, are always sharpening their point. They either create their own zinger, or pull one out of the archives and polish it off for most to enjoy.

No better place to go for these than Maureen Dowd's column, which I just realized is no longer titled Liberties. Yesterday, she gave us a beaut.

There is no greater proof that onofframp mentality exists in others when the release of two American hostages by North Korea sends Ms. Dowd onto memory lane when she recounts an anecdote about Billy Wilder, the film director.

It seems Billy is having lunch with Leon Wieseltier, a literary critic, when the name of Swifty Lazar comes up. Swifty is an agent, publicist, all round media, movie maker and shaker. I do remember reading about him and seeing pictures of him. He threw a Truman Capote-size party once. Well, the name must make it higher up than Swifty, because he is short, and apparently a pain-in-the-ass, because Wilder tells Leon that Swifty should go hang himself from a bonsai tree.

Ms. Dowd uses this anecdote at the outset of her column, because the leader of North Korea, Kim-Jong-il, is short. So, a short North Korean leader who has allowed hostages to go free reminds Maureen of Swifty Lazar and Billy Wilder. The world is connected.

But it is a great zinger. So great, it reminds me of a similar one that my friend's father would occasionally utter about someone's unbelievable incompetence. To prove someone's unworthiness he would exclaim they were so bad they, "could f*** up a two car funeral."

I only came to know my friend's father briefly in the 1960s, before he passed away. I was a teenager, but when I heard that one I knew I was in the presence of a great zinger. The father was also in show business, having been a vaudeville booking agent, then a TV producer in the early days of television for CBS. The family lived near Black Rock, CBS's headquarters.

There must be something about show people, because they do come out with some beauts. Red Skelton, at hated movie producer Harry Cohn's funeral is said to have observed that if you give people something they want, they will come out for it.

I never really did grasp what it was about a two car funeral that if you got it wrong you were a complete nincompoop. I was never even really sure if you counted the hearse as one of the cars, or was it the two cars following that was where something was wrong. The Grover Cleveland and number of presidents riddle. Being only a teenager I never did ask what was meant by it, but I fairly assumed it was bad, and might have involved getting one car (or two) in front of the hearse leaving the funeral home. That would look ridiculous, and certainly qualify someone for ignominy.

My friend's father would also love to re-tell the story that when Broadway producer Billy Rose passed away he was so disliked that there were NO cars following the hearse.

I can only guess someone was afraid of screwing it up.