Monday, September 28, 2009

Free Gift

From all I understand, no one who is the subject of a New York Times obituary gets to actually pick who is going to write it when the time comes. Parts of these are written in advance, and can occasionally produce a byline by a writer who pre-deceases the subject. One such obituary was the one for Jack Dempsey, written by Red Smith. It was first quite a shock, then a delight, to see Red's name pop up for Jack's going away present. Red had passed away before the Manassa Mauler.

We don't really know, but my guess is William Safire would have loved his written by Robert McFadden in today's Times. One of the best, was sending off one of the best.

No one writes a more concise lead than McFadden. He usually gets the big crime stories, fires, and accidents; New York happenings. When I read what he's written I think of the movie Teacher's Pet, in which Clark Gable plays a veteran newpaperman who poses as a student in Doris Day's journalism night school class. He surprises her when he turns in the best lead in the class, within seconds of being given the classroom assignment.

So it is no wonder McFadden got the nod to do Safire's obituary. Certainly he's done many others, and in yesterday's blog posting I quoted a classic lead he did for Mayor Lindsay's obituary. I still recite it to myself.

It was almost a year ago when there was an obituary writing gathering at the New York Public Library. It was a full house in the Trustees room as the attentive audience listened to Daniel Okrent and others. Mr. Okrent, a former Timesman, pulled a copy out of his jacket of McFadden's September 6, 1998 obituary on Amory Bradford who had passed away at 85. Mr. Bradford was many things, but at one point he was famously the chief negotiator for the newspaper publishers during the 1962-63 114 day newspaper strike that changed many things.

Mr. Okrent read large portions from the obituary, one of which was McFadden's recounting of the Times's labor reporter, A. H. Raskin, who once wrote a top-level mediator said of Bradford that he "brought an attitude of such icy disdain into the conference room that the mediator often felt he ought to ask the hotel to send up more heat."

I remember the strike, and now I know why it lasted 114 days, wiping out the newspapers through the heavy Christmas advertising season, and ultimately forcing some papers to cease publication. The strike actually gave birth to television news.

It also revealed what the negotiators ate when there was a meal break. They always sent out for roast beef sandwiches. Every strike I ever heard about growing up had the negotiators taking a break from whatever hotel they were camped in, and ordering out for roast beef sandwiches. If they were ordering sandwiches, there was no progress in the talks.

More passages revealed the full measure of Bradford's life. And there were some terrific turns. The obituary is a work of art, and a lesson in labor negotiations in the 1960s.

And so it is with Safire's obituary in McFadden's hands. Certainly a different personality than Bradford, but it is full of words and playfullness that surely would have made him happy. You get a full measure of the man as if you just spent a few hours talking with him.

McFadden lists some of Safire's rules for writing, some of which I didn't get at first. I used to read "On Language" enough to now know literally how to use the word "literally." I also learned to see through the redundancy of "free gift."

The obituary closes not with a zinger, but really a nod to the master. Perhaps McFadden plays the pupil here.

It seems there was an occasion when Safire called Hillary Clinton a "congenital liar" in one of his columns. Hillary was said to have been offended only for her mother's sake.

A White House aide said that Bill Clinton, "if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response on the bridge of Mr. Safire's nose."

McFadden tells us that Safire was "delighted, especially with the proper use of the conditional."

This of course leaves people like me to wonder what the improper use would have been. And now Safire is not here to tell us. I am however informed that that's why there are copy editors.

And Robert McFadden.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sultan and the Piano Player

The chance to read about someone who has passed away and who was linked to events in the early 1900s is diminishing with each passing year. But the other day we learned that Ertugrul Osman, a grandson of the last Sultan of Turkey, passed away at 97.

His grandfather was Abdul Hamid II, who ruled Turkey from 1876 to 1909. Ertugrul remembered playing at the palace in Istanbul as a small boy. It's a short obituary, because Ertugrul did not ascend to power. His family was ousted from Turkey in 1924, when it became the Turkish Republic.

The obituary reveals that Ertugrul did not lead a royal life and lived most of his life in a walk-up apartment in Manhattan. This reminds me of the absolute great lead Robert McFadden wrote in the Times when John Lindsay, a former NYC mayor and congressman passed away in February 2000 at 79.

At times he had no pension or health insurance. The riches evoked by his patrician manner turned out to be illusory, and he and his wife, Mary, lived for years in a one-bedroom apartment.

The Sultan's grandson seems to have gotten out a bit and lived a longer life. He was in Istanbul when he passed away.

But here's the connective tissue. Saturday's WSJ reviews a book about Ignaz Friedman, a famous pianist from another era who lived from 1882-1948. Ignaz played for the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid, who commented to him, "It must be difficult to play the piano so well."

Ignaz replied, "Much easier, your majesty than governing the Orient."

Lindsey led New York for 8 years, but along the way found it a very hard place to govern, and afterward lived a simple life in Manhattan in a simple apartment.

The Sultan's grandson it seems lived a simple non-royal life after his family could no longer govern Turkey and the Orient. Ertugrul told a documentary film maker that they'd have more to work with if he had a bad life, "it would be better for your film."

Let this be said for both Ertugrul and John. They were part of big events and saw great power, but they both wound up leading simple lives in small New York apartments.

Ertugrul and John Lindsey were not from the Lower East Side.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Years ago, Rocky Graziano, the former middleweight champion was on the Johnny Carson show. He talked about growing up on The Lower East Side and how he and Jake LaMotta, another figure who became a middleweight champion, were alike in that they grew up and stole anything with an "a" in front of it.

Carson looked a little perplexed, but Rocky quickly added in his lovable, punch-drunk patois, "yeah, a bike, a car, a truck, a lot."

Rocky further explained that if he learned to talk proper they wouldn't want him for those Breakstone yogurt commercials that equated the product and Rocky with "culture."

But it's the reference to the Lower East Side that would always get my attention. There was NEVER anyone on television it seemed who came from New York that bragged about being from anywhere north of 14th Street. You would think there were only schools south of 14th Street, because that's where everyone started. Or, if you went to school north of 14th Street, you were immediately disqualified from ever getting on television. It might be true. My father and others were only famous to their families.

My father came from Midtown! Never mind that he came from a cold-water walk-up flat, was delivered by a mid-wife who only days later would get the birth registered and who lost at least one younger brother to the Spanish influenza in 1918, Thirty-second and Second, hard by the Second Avenue El does not qualify you to brag of a hardscrabble upbringing.

The actual birthday date was a jump ball. It was May. It was 1915, but the date is fuzzy. It was sometime between May 20th and 25th. As a kid we always recognized it as whatever was a convenient day of the week that came in between those numbers. Close counts in horseshoes and birthdays.

I still laugh when I think of Rocky Graziano's story. I once saw him at a pizza parlor he owned in Kips Bay, 32nd and Second, (the El was long gone by then) believe it or not. He almost looked like he was jumping rope as he slid pies into the oven off the wooden palette as his footwork kept him bouncing behind the counter. He was non-stop motion. When you got your slice you thought maybe you should duck, but if there really was a punch coming you would have been way too late anyway. He was fun to watch.

So why on earth was I thinking about Rocky this morning and his story?

The papers today are full of Iran attack plans. You have to wonder if there's a military objective out there that is targeting everything with an "I" in front of it.

I raq...I ran...I owa.

You hope there's no confusion.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pierless Fish Corporation

Post a blog a few days ago titled Pier Pressure after a WSJ book review and you're further confronted with evidence that the world is connected by unseen on-off ramps.

Pier Pressure is of course the play on words the Journal used to headline its review of a book about the piers, the Irish mob, and the Code of Silence. So why should I be surprised today at lunch when I see a small white truck turning on 26th Street that carries the logo of a fish inside a circle?

The name around the circle is PIERLESS FISH CORP. There are no other markings. No street address, no telephone number, nothing else.

So, what are Pierless fish? Artificial fish? Farm fish? Seafood that Norm Peterson from Cheers had at a franchise restaurant when he ordered the "lubestar," some kind of contrived concoction meant to be surf and turf? Norm apparently couldn't afford to eat at Melville's, the restaurant above the bar.

Come to think of it, the truck turned on 26th Street, hard by the fairly inconspicuous plaque that marks where Herman Melville's home once was. It would be great to make this stuff up, but the truth is way more fun.

A little Web research revealed Pierless is in Brooklyn, at an address that I suspect puts it in an industrial park that was once the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my father once worked. There is no real Web site from the company itself, but rather information from a business site that informs us that Pierless has 20-49 employees and does $20-$50 million is sales. Holy mackeral. I've never seen their truck before.

Signs and lettering are things I seem to notice. Like the time I noticed a George Stiel oyster truck as the first thing that caught my eye after returning to the city and work after two weeks on Cape Cod, a good portion of which was spent shellfishing in Wellfleet for clams and oysters.

Maybe Dan Brown's right, and there are symbols all around us. Mine seem to be on seafood trucks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Charlie on the MTA

As the lyric goes..."this could happen to you..."

Nothing about riding trains, but all about trying to synchronize an iPod with a USB connection while your printer is ON and also connected via a USB port.

Kept getting USB Device not Recognized.

Hours on the tech support phone, iPod and Dell, neither one fixed it or came up with the solution. The last guy wanted to consider reinstalling WINDOWS, which is like starting out back in diapers. Declined.

Then something I fleetingly read in one of those troubleshooting, self-help messages made me think that the printer can draw too much power from the USB controller, and then the other ports don't work.

Spot on.


If you're trying to synchronize your iPod, keep the printer off unless you're a small power plant.

That, or make sure that anyone who enters your house is Microsoft certified. Might add more time to your Saturday. Come to think of it, that's a great test for any persons who might be trying to become future members of your family. My luck, so far, they're not.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


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.

No one ever dies
Who lives in hearts
Left behind.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jody Powell And the Zinger

We've already learned that zingers can be added to somoene's obituary to poke fun at the deceased, or in some cases get the writer's point across about the deceased's true character.

Then we can have the zinger that comes from the deceased themselves about something in their life that they might have been famous for saying, or implying, that the writer feels a quote of will reveal some of their character. These can be considered positive zingers and show how the deceased weathered their times.

Take today's obituary of Jody Powell, by David Stout in today's Times. There are actually two Jody Powell zingers.

The first involves how mad he'd get at the columnists Evans and Novak. And since Robert Novak just passed away himself, we know he gave as good as he got, and he got often. Jody Powell is said to have described the columnists "as two bombastic rascals whose only redeeming virtue is their lack of pretension to be anything else." A great hissy fit line.

Of course, we must remember that Jody Powell was president Jimmy Carter's staunch defender, and Carter could get monuments mad at him.

The last one is better. And in keeping with The Final Word it closes the obituary, and is so good I've even added to it I like it so much.

When Carter was governor of Georgia and Jody was a press secretary he responded to someone's letter he didn't like that "one of the governor's burdens was having to read 'barely legible letters from morons.

'I respectfully suggest that you take two running jumps and go straight to hell.'" He certainly could have made it on talk radio.

But here's what I'd love to add: "But if you can get there in one running jump, then by all means do so. You'll get there quicker."

Mr. Powell passed away from a heart attack. I wonder if there's an opening.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


There's something endearing about getting a phone call from an offspring who's out at the cemetery looking for grandpa.

"Are you out there because it's Grandparents' Day? I know you asked me last night about where he was buried, but I didn't realize it was Grandparents' Day until I stared at the calendar this morning."

"No, I didn't know it was Grandparents' Day until you just mentioned it. Isn't that weird?"

"What brought you out there."

"It's a nice day."

Now I know the Irish genes she possesses and those she married are controlling her tides. There are other ingredients, but they're obviously not enough to cancel anything. The Irish may have lost yesterday's football game, but they won somewhere else today.

"You told me it was 8082, Section D."

"Isn't the office open?"

"No, they're closed on Sundays."

"Let me check. I know exactly how to get there, but I'll check the location again. It's Section 8083, Section D. The place isn't that big. Why don't you start over at the beginning, turn left after you pass the office, look for a HUGE mausoleum with HADJIYIANNIS on it, continue on a little bit on the same road, and you'll see the fairly large tombstone on your left with someone named KRAMER in front of it. These things don't move around."

"Found Hadjiyiannis."

"You're close. I don't know who she or he was, but they've been there forever. I delivered flowers to a Hadjiyiannis once. She owned the 33rd floor of the Sherry-Netherland. I think I got a tip."

"Found it. We must have passed it before. Yes, Kramer's in front."

"Great. Read the foot stones to me. I want to know if anyone else has been added they didn't tell me about."

"There's John."

"Yes, that's my grandfather. When did he die? 1956? 1958?"


"When does it say he was born?"

"1885. Where's your grandmother?"

"That's Helen. But they never marked it. She passed away in 1964, but the last time that bunch ever agreed on anything and forked over money was when the old man died. Four brothers and even more opinions.

"Not only is my grandmother unmarked, but her bachelor brother Tom is there, as is my grandfather's bachelor brother Peter. Then my father's brother Jimmy. There's another brother Angelo, and assuredly at this point, his wife Mary. The place is the tomb of the unknown Greeks. It sleeps 12. Four across, three deep.

"Oh, I remember you talking about that."

"Who else is there?

"There's your mother and father. You added that, of course. There's Jimmy and Alma."

"Alma! Alma passed away then? When does it say?"

"It doesn't. It just says James, 1916-1988. Then Alma's name."

"Wow, that's something. Somebody put Jimmy's name out there. I told you that story. Mom and I went out there many years ago and found the ground freshly dug up and replaced. Someone had been added, but I never got any phone calls. Turned out my father's youngest brother Jimmy died a year after he did. They never marked it. Alma went to California. Never heard from her again. Their adopted son must have done right by them. He couldn't be related to the bunch that I am. That, or Alma did it, and because there are no dates, she's only getting ready. She's not Greek, so maybe she sprung for something for Jimmy. She probably didn't pass away. She was a second wife, so she'd be a bit younger.

"As a kid I remember hearing people described as being so cheap they wouldn't spend a nickel to see the Statue of Liberty. My family tree has their names.

"Glad you went. Do the shrubs need pruning? Several years ago I went there and was going to prune them but they didn't need it. So, I figured they were taking pretty good care of the place."

"Yes, a little overgrown onto the headstone."

"Okay, you and I will get out there and take care of that soon. Glad you found it."

"This place is hilly. It's got a great view of Manhattan."

"Yes, Maspeth does. That cemetery is full of Greeks. They're not Catholic, and not Jewish, and everybody's got to be someplace."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Pier Pressure

Some of the fun of reading the Wall Street Journal is realizing when they're cute.

Take the book review headline from Wednesday. It says Pier Pressure. It is of course about the waterfront, On the Irish Waterfront, by James T. Fisher.

It sounds like a book that already repeats what we know a lot of, but it still sounds interesting. There's plenty that may not be familiar. The Pier Pressure is of course a pun on the code of silence, or never being a "rat." It lasted a while.

And what better timing for the book to emerge. The Waterfront Commission itself has lately been in the news, and not in a good way. It seems they became practioners of what they were put in place to remedy. Great stuff.

Karl Malden, who played the crusading priest Rev. John Corrigan, has just passed away. The screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, has also recently passed away. Turner Movie Classics goes into overdrive when someone like Malden leaves us, breaking the schedule and showing his films. On the Waterfront is an all-time classic. I know I re-watched it when it was just on again.

I remember Rod Steiger, who of course played one of the most famous passengers in a cab ever, telling the story that there was trouble trying to get the movie started. Trucks kept rolling through the shots they were attempting to film in Hoboken. "A trluck came by, then another trluck came by, we couldn't get anyting done." He further explains a call to Frank Costello seemed to work magic, and the next day there no "trlucks."

The book review is by Edward T. O'Donnell, who has written about other waterfront events. He correctly points out what becomes true about all things good and bad--they come to an end. The advent of containerized cargo quickly began to put an end to all that era was about.

Several years ago a New York Times reporter, Anthony DePalma, wrote a terrific story about the Hoboken waterfront he knew growing up. His exposure to it was through his father, who had been a longshoreman for nearly 40 years. It's a lovely piece and appeared in the Sunday Times February 21, 1988. It hardly seems dated.

While Mr. DePalma discloses he never spent a day working on the docks himself, he does know a lot because of his father, his grandfather, and three uncles. He lovingly describes the work ethic of his father who wasn't one of "those guys."

Things go missing on the docks. Everyone knows that. Containerized cargo was the reaction to the labor costs, time and pilferage that took place. Mr. DePalma re-tells a story he heard about the near old days before containerized cargo when an Italian shoe manufacturer would get so tired of losing portions of his shipment that he decided to send thousands of shoes over, but just the lefts.

The rights followed on another ship.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Careening and Sleeping

My daughter has a cat named Cannonball. Cannonball is a Maine Coon cat, which if you're not familiar with, looks like something with eyes that moves around on its own and cleans your floor. When it is not sleeping.

Cat names can fit the cat. And while the word cannonball can give you an image of an explosive projectile, it can also bring to mind an inert stack next to the courthouse cannon in the village square. Like most words in a dictionary, there are a few meanings. And a few images.

Cats have been on my mind lately, ever since I read Margalit Fox's obituary on Karla Kuskin, a children's book author and a poet, who passed away a few weeks ago. The prior posting refers to this.

We've always had cats, and our current one is named Cosmo, an orange tabby from the shelter. He is like what every poem about cats says. "Careening and leaping...then 20 hours of sleeping." He looks like a perfect idiot being distracted by descending dust mites, but then, we probably look like complete idiots to him when we go to work. I think we enjoy each other's presence because we make ourselves feel better when we compare ourselves to the other.

I'm sure there's a poem somewhere that describes my daughter's Cannonball, but it would naturally have to say nothing, because he does less than little. But what he might lack in being kinetic, he does act as a cerebral catalyst every time I see him.

The "coon" part of his breed's name is well earned. His tail is like that of a raccoon's. And when he's swishing around the floor I always think my Davy Crockett hat has somehow come back and attained legs.

For anyone not old enough to remember, the Walt Disney Davy Crockett series was tremendously popular in the 1950s, and had a good number of little boys across America wearing fur on their heads. A raccoon cap, with a tail dangling down the back.

I don't know if there was a PETA then, but they would now be apoplectic if they were faced with a population of boys who were now wearing fur. (Key chain rabbit's foots were very popular then too, and were dyed into many colors. I had lots of those, but no keys.) I don't remember hearing any protests. The only protests likely came from kids whose families didn't get them a Davy Crockett cap. It was a fad, and didn't last too long. But I do remember running around with that thing on my head, and having it on the bed post at night. At least we didn't ask Dad for a rifle. Yet.

So, every time I've over my daughter's and Cannonball comes swishing through the living room (which is hardly a guarantee) I think of my Davy Crockett cap. I know we grew into the generation all the adults seemed worried about, if they weren't already scared to death by then. And if most of them were alive today, they'd probably tell us they are still worried. But they're not here, and we are. The difference is I'm not going to worry.

Well, not too much.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Bear in the Woods

If there's anyone to thank, it's Margalit Fox, who writes obituaries for the Times. She takes on virtually any subject, but does seem to shine even more when it's a deceased deli luminary, or a poet. Poets are her thing, I think.

Take the fairly recent obituary on Karla Kuskin, a creator of "witty children's books." Never heard of her. Not because I don't like, read, or buy children's books, but because, I never think of them as being written by anyone. I know they are, but I know who wrote The Grapes of Wrath. I do not know who wrote Drummer Hoff, also one of my favorites.

But after Margalit's piece I've spent some time in the children's section finding a few of her books. This behavior is made even more acceptable by having a nearly two year old granddaughter. So, I fit.

I've learned more about poetry by reading Margalit than I ever learned in school. And I did like English. The out quotes are beguiling. Take one of the ones that are sprinkled in the two column obit on Ms. Kuskin:

When a cat is asleep
There is nothing asleep
That is quite so asleep
As a cat.

I've now managed to buy two of her children's books and have ordered a book of her poems from an online bookseller. Dying drives commerce.

The obit piece and the books have had an effect on me. I haven't started talking out loud as if I'm reading a children's book, but I find myself thinking that way sometimes, and certainly, on at least one occasion, found myself writing that way.

Someone who I used to work with sent me and MANY others an e-mail that begged: "please bare with me."

Despite the invitation and whatever attractiveness this presented, I did gently remind her (and only her) that she's just asked everyone to reveal something. Generally this is thought to be flesh, but I am a guy.

I hope I helped when I gave her this to remember:

A bear bares all because he has no clothes at all.

Blame Margalit.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Everything But

Not all ago I was leaving work work on Park Avenue South and 26th Street when I spotted a very scruffy, apparently homeless guy carrying something very oddly shaped. It was still daylight, the weather was good and he was carrying what looked like pipe.

Well, it was pipe. It was a configuration of pipe that was soldered at different angles and looked like it had been ripped out from somewhere. It looked like the metal framework for an awning, without the awning. Large, and unwieldy. There were even faucets attached. Without being in either a building or a dumpster, it looked very much out of place.

He was making his way along the sidewalk, somewhat balancing this plumbing around his head, and somewhat trying not to hit anyone with it. He stopped at a corner and waited for the light to change so he could cross Park Avenue South.

So far it's the closest I've come to seeing someone carrying everything but the kitchen sink.