Friday, October 30, 2009

Nikola Tesla

This must happen to other people. Someone, something that I've never heard of pierces my consciousness and before you know it, I hear of them or it again. Quickly. At this point, I've travelled over 60 years in earth's time zone, never heard of someone, and before the day is over, I've heard of them twice. Gotten to know them, so to speak.

On my way to work each day I pass the back of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral on 26th Street, between Broadway and 6th Avenue. The church runs through the block. It's of Gothic design, but to me, not particularly attractive. Maybe it's the mid-block setting, the cleaned, but still muddy looking stone, or the fact that for many months now the place is ringed by large half-dead potted palms. No landscaping is better than that.

On Wednesday I had an errand to do after work and passed in front of the church. Not much better; still more nearly dead palms. But to the left of the entrance was a modest bust of Nikola Tesla on a polished black marble pedestal. I don't know who everyone is, and I don't know who Nikola was. I'll assume Serbian. A legendary pastor?

Going home, reading the Wall Street Journal's column by "The Numbers Guy" the story goes on about lucky, unlucky numbers, their origin and how different cultures react to them. There are "missing" floors in some places. I work on the 13th floor in a building that I was surprised kept a 13th floor in its numbering scheme.

Anyway, the column, by Carl Bialik, gets to describing people who are just a tad compulsive about these numbers, and other numbers and their combinations. "Electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla demanded 18 clean towels a day and showed an intense preference for multiples of three."

This is incredible. A bust of a Serbian in front of a church has made the pages of today's newspaper.

It turns out Nikola Tesla was no scientific slouch. He worked with Thomas Edison, went out on his own, is credited with improving the efficiency of electric motors and is considered to be the inventor of the radio. The guy was on the cover of Time magazine. He lived from 1856-1943, and was of course born in Serbia-Croatia.

"Obsessive about threes" is mild. He lived the remaining years of his life in New York, in the Hotel New Yorker, insisting on being on the 33rd floor, in room 27: 3327. No doubt the hotel was chosen as much for its height as it was for its ability to supply towels.

The Sebian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava New York was originally the "uptown Trinity" church, meant to serve the Episcopalians in New York who lived just a little further north of Trinity Place and Broadway. The building is a NYC landmark and is on the Register of National Historic places.

It became a Serbian church in 1943, the year of Tesla's death. So, can Nikola be happy where he is? He's no longer at 3327, and 26th Street, is not evenly divisible by three.

Well, the front of the church is on 25th Street, and 2+5+2+6 = 15. Last I looked, evenly divisible by three.

Nikola, rest in peace.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Big Whistle

No, it's not about a train. The Big Whistle was the nickname given to Bill Chadwick, a legendary NHL referee and Ranger broadcaster, who has now passed away at 94.

It's been a long time since Bill was on television doing Ranger color commentary, but anyone who was a Ranger fan during the 60s, 70s and 80s would know him. And to know him, was to love the gravel voiced broadcaster who could tell you stories of early days of NHL hockey and who more than once called them like he saw them. Even if he only had vision in one eye, what he saw and told was worth twice as much.

The years he was a Ranger broadcaster, either with Marv Albert, or with Jim Gordon, were some of the best and the absolute worst Ranger years. There were good teams, even great teams, but no Stanley Cup. Players came, but mostly came and went.

One player, Gene Carr, was memorable because he was fast, had flowing blond hair (no helmets, then), but nearly no offensive ability. He was fragile looking. A revolving door was likely to leave a bruise. Bill described Gene's chances of adding a goal to the scoreboard by telling us, and his broadcast partner: "Jim, Gene Carr couldn't put the puck in the ocean." Carr really couldn't, and was eventually another ex-Ranger. Many, many people became ex-Rangers.

Another favorite Chadwick observation was when he described the Rangers as being sluggish: "Jim, the Rangers are skating in sand tonight." They were painful to watch at times.

Bill's between period interviews with King Clancy, scion of the Toronto Mable Leafs, were the stuff of legend. Clancy, who had to be an an octogenarian, watched the Maple Leaf games from a private booth at one end of the old Maple Leaf Garden, complete with his cane (or was it a shelagh?) and keen eyesight.

When he and Bill got going we'd hear of how the rinks used to be lit by drop lights. So the players adopted the practice of flipping the puck into the offensive zone high, like a pop-up, in the hopes the puck would be above the lights and not be visible to the defensive team until it was too late when it came down below the lights.

In the the era that Chadwick was a referee there were only 6 teams in the NHL. Six teams, 20 players to a team. One hundred-twenty men, usually all Canadians, were professional hockey players. Given the length of the season, eventually 80 games, they could play each other 18 times a year. A LOT of animosity built up between players when they played each other home and home, as they often did on the weekends. Bill said he often had a referring mess to clean up because everyone was trying to settle a score from the game before.

When I first started to follow the Rangers as a kid Chadwick was also described as a Vice President of Weissberger movers. I could never reconcile an ex-hockey referee and broadcaster being associated with a company that had a warehouse two blocks from my family's flower shop on Third Avenue. Weissberger movers delivered the voting machines when we once became a polling place one election year. (Never sold a single flower that day.)

Chadwick never looked out of shape, always looking good in a suit. Somewhat like John Forsythe, steel grey hair, executive looking. I guess he did look like a vice president, come to think of it.

The Garden as I've known it has always been on the West Side. The "Old" Garden on Eighth and 49-50th Streets, and the "New" Garden, over Penn Station. There's a line in the musical West Side story that is sung by one of the Jet gang members: "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day."

I like to think Chadwick never stopped being a Ranger fan. Even when they were skating in sand.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Obituary Archeology

The prior posting refers to the obituary and the news story about the passing of Howard Unruh, at 88, who by all accounts was America's first mass murderer.

I asked a friend of mine who is as old as I am, (we remember the same presidents) if he ever remembers hearing anything about the rampage. I was over his house watching television when Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper was picking people off in the 60s, but don't remember anyone making a reference to Unruh. Not the news, not my friend's mother.

My friend said he only heard of Unruh becasue there was an episode on one of the cable stations about evil people, and he qualified. One of those crime-type shows. I had never even seen that.

We further talked about the story and the pieces of information I picked up in reading the archived news account. I told my friend about the reporter who called Unruh's house and got him on the phone as he sought refuge after his killing spree. The reporter and Unruh talked for a bit, but then Unruh broke the call off and said, "I'm too busy now." Tear gas had just crashed through the window.

The reporter got Unruh's phone number quite simply by looking it up the phone book: CAmden 4-2490W.

My firend and I certainly remember phone numbers that started with a geograhical exchange, but NEVER a number that had an alpha character in it. Then as now, the alpha characters would translate to numbers, what was then on a dial, but never heard of a W. West Camden?

In that era, Q and Z were not on the dial, and the 1 had no letters associated with it. My own number as a kid was an FL 9, for Flushing. I vaguely remember party-lines in which people on the block shared the same number. You had to wait for their call to be through before you could get a dial tone. You could listen to their call, and they to yours, but there was a distinctive sound when someone else was "on the line" so the eavesdropping was detectable.

If anyone needed a new phone number after September 6, 1949 it was Howard's mother. Maybe a few other people did too.

Friday, October 23, 2009

After The First, There Is No Other

There is a Newtonian Law in physics that basically states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I'm sure it doesn't quite apply, but Willie Nelson loves to deadpan the story that his home town of Abbot, Texas has the same population it's always had: when a baby is born, a man leaves town.

Obituaries can be guided by physics as well. When someone bites the dust, something else might also take on life. Something from their past, or something resuscitated by their passing. If they've lived a fairly long life, we might learn of an event that few people alive today are even aware of.

Such is the case when I read of Howard Unruh, 88, America's first mass murderer, single episode. Thirteen people in 20 minutes. The award goes to.

It was 1949, and while I was alive at the time, I was hardly old enough to remember it. It was certainly something every adult had to be talking about for a good while. But it receded into the background so sufficiently that even when other nearly similar rampages erupted, I never remember hearing a reference to it.

The New York Times obituary in Tuesday's paper by Richard Goldstein recounts the story. It also tells me that the obituary was on file, and it took a life of 88 years before Unruh's tale hit the paper again.

The obituary makes good use of the reporting that earned the Times reporter, Meyer Berger, a Pulitzer for local reporting. If the obituary leaves you with a bone chilling, hair raising account of the events, an archival retrieval of the story itself positively leaves you with goose pimples.

Camden then, and now, is hardly New York Times territory. There were only two stories in the Times within 9 months of the shootings. The first story is someone's announcement that all firearms should be registered. The second story reports the ruling of insanity and that no trial will take place. According to Mitchell H. Cohen, the Camden County prosecutor, Mr. Unruh will be committed to the state mental hospital and that he, Mr. Cohen, will "vigorously oppose any attempt by anyone at any time to have this man released into society."

Howard Unruh's high school year book shows a pen and ink drawing of "How" and a stated goal of becoming a lifetime government employee.

Mr. Cohen, and likely others, made sure that Mr. Unruh never did make it back into society. He was only released when he passed away in a state psychiatric nursing home, and we once again read about him. A reaction following an action.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

File It Under...

I can't seem to help it. Something always seems to remind me of something else.

Take yesterday's NY Times book review of their own Gail Collins, who's just published, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present.(With the right font, all that does fit on the cover.)

The reviewer, Francine Prose, recounts one of the incidents in the book when Ms. Collins tells the story that the draft of a Congressional bill to insure equal pay for women was discovered to have been filed "under B--for broads."

To have to have passed through that era is to completely believe this could be true. In fact, someone was likely thinking they were gallant by not using the other "B" word.

So, filing systems are in the eyes of the filer who bring their own spelling, alphabet and view of the world to the job. What this reminded me of was Jimmy Breslin's account of doing his research for what became his lively biography of Damon Runyon, the legendary New York newspaperman who wrote for the Hearst papers.

It seems through some philanthropic gesture, the University of Texas came up with enough money to buy the entire New York Hearst newspaper morgue. So here's Jimmy, in Texas, doing research about a New York newspaperman being confronted by some New Yorker's filing system that would place a card in the M drawer telling anyone interested that:


Which of course proves that everything has got to be someplace.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oh Well

All the digitalization and all the microfilm lookups couldn't reunite me with something I know I once read.

It was a great vignette, written perhaps for an earlier edition that was later eclipsed by the one they use for keeping records. It surely was on the front page, but in its preserved state it slid from the front page to the first page of the second section. No one was killed.

Plane Slids Off a Runway at Snowy La Guardia, the headline of March 3, 1994 proclaimed. All 115 passengers and crew were evacuated with some minor injuries to a few. It seems the pilot aborted the takeoff, but the plane kept going on the icy runway, dipping the front into the mud and water of Flushing Bay. Runways at La Guardia are notoriously short.

Late, dark, cold, wet, it was quite a scene. But everyone got off the plane. A man waited around for a few hours, wondering what to do. Would his luggage be available? Was there going to be another flight soon?

But New York can ignore you, sometimes so much that even if you're a plane crash survivor there's no one to tell you what to do. No direction, a complete unknown, all alone, certainly not a rolling stone. The gentleman, after putting in a few hours of wonderment finally grew weary and took a cab back to Manhattan and checked back into the hotel he had checked out of.

At least when you survive a plane crash, there is still tomorrow.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Things in Threes

Someone I know who pays more attention to these things than I do once asked me if I noticed the three "makers" who passed away and were written about on the obituary page. I thought for a bit, and didn't remember seeing three family members named Maker who bit the dust together and deserved a writeup. In fact, even after checking the paper and carefully (so I thought) going over the names I could find no "makers."

Well, it wasn't names, it was occupations. Each headline for the person who passed away contained the word "maker" in their occupation. It seems a chocolate maker of note passed away, as well as a dressmaker, and a car maker. Three "makers." Yes, people do notice things.

So today I thought I'd score a grand slam when I spotted a Martin-o, an Alban-o, and a hoped for someone else whose named ended in O. No. Denied.

But it did remind me of the famous on-air exchange between Phil Rizzuto and Bill White, his Yankee broadcast partner.

It seems Phil one day was going on about how people whose last names ended in a vowel were pisans. Italians. Everyone knew that.

Well, Bill White, who is black, quickly followed with, "Oh, I get it, you mean names like Shapiro and White."

Rizzuto nearly choked on a cannoli and missed a birthday wish.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Mirage

Now you see it, now you don’t.

No doubt anyone who pays even a little attention to these things has come to realize that newspapers are in trouble. Advertising revenue has been taken over by the Web, and people can get whatever news they feel satisfied with through Web sites, that are often only taking it verbatim from the print people. It’s been like handing your opponent your weapon and letting them use it on you.

Feel sorry for the papers? Not really. They don’t really know what to do, even at this point, with the Internet well over 10 years old. Talk about playing Hamlet.

Take the WSJ. Online edition. Print edition. Charge for both. Yet, they still make items available on the Web just by logging in. Okay, teasing can be good. But papers can be annoying with their indecision on who to be.

I like the print editions, with some need to search for items when I leave the paper on the train and suddenly realize I’m still interested in something I saw. I’ve subscribed to the Journal for years. I like the fact that the Journal has made a home for Stephen Miller, the obituary writer from the now defunct Sun.

But maybe they’ve put him under house arrest. His last piece appeared in the paper on September 30, 2009. It was about the Russian woman, Elizaveta Mukassei, who was a spy for Russia for her entire life and who worked at from Hollywood. She was 97, and her husband pre-deceased her, but he was also active in the spy trade. They were a real-life Natasha and Boris.

The next piece appeared online, October 7, 2009, about Craig Johnson, a venture capitalist lawyer. The online version said the piece appeared in the paper on page A16. Checked, but it wasn’t there. I didn’t miss it.

Went back the next day to read it online, but now the online entry is gone. There is a blog reference to the Miller piece, but no Miller piece.

So, besides the annoyance of expecting something to be in print and then only seeing it online, it doesn’t stay online long. There are other Miller pieces online, but not the latest.

Electronic media is the best medium for air brushing the news. Just change it, or make it disappear. It took a while, but some of Orwell’s fears have come to pass.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

North, South, East and West

The slender building pictured at the right is an artist's drawing of a proposed Santiago Calatrava building for lower Manhattan. It is not yet started, and may not even be built, but does represent where current design is headed.

There are already buildings that look somewhat like it, and one in particular is going up on 23rd Street at the start of Madison Avenue. There are even buildings that are proposed that will have floors that rotate independent of each other, somewhat like a Rubik's cube. This will allow your apartment to face all four directions in the course of a day.

Obviously engineering details still need to be resolved. To say nothing of people's desire to sue each other when their apartment can't face the fireworks because it isn't on the schedule.

There will be trouble.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Buddy List

How nice to be someone's buddy.

And when you're the buddy of JFK and pass away at 91, as Paul B. Fay recently did, you get quite a two column send-off, complete with cropped picture of you and JFK.

Mr. Fay apparently was a great friend of JFK's. They came from similar family backgrounds, went through basic training and PT boat training in the Navy, and served in similar waters in World War II. So, when all those things coincide and you are shot at by a common enemy and have your boats sunk by the Japanese, you share a lifetime of memories.

Paul was an usher at JFK's wedding. Certainly an admission to an inner circle. He was appointed as an under secretary of the Navy, despite Robert Strange McNamara's objections. Their families vacationed together on the Cape. But most importantly, he was a friend, and made JFK laugh.

JFK said that when you're president, it's hard to make new friends, so he was going to keep the old ones.

My father had a friend like that. They grew up together on New York's midtown east side, were mentored at the 29th Street Boys' Club together, became camp counselors, went into the Army together, (Joe a CO and a medic) and remained in touch until death. My father never really liked the Catholic religion because not being Catholic prevented him from being Joe's best man. He held a bit of a lifelong grudge at organized religion.

So Paul Fay was like a lot of guys; he was someone's buddy. I've often said, the best we can hope for is to be remembered affectionately, and it seems Paul was.

And as for being a president's buddy, that's even better. And it seems rarer. Someone said that if you're president and want a friend, get a dog. Didn't Bill Clinton have a dog named Buddy?

Someone I know at work whose word I trust told me the story just the other day of the time he encountered Richard Nixon walking his dog outside his home in Saddle River, New Jersey.
This was of course after the presidency, and was likely about 20+ years ago, or so. It seems from taking driving lessons in the area, the instructor pointed out that Nixon lived at the end of a long street that became a cul de sac.

One day, after attaining his license and driving through the area again, he and his buddies spotted Nixon walking his dog, accompanied by two Secret Service men. They rummaged around for autograph material and the only thing my co-worker could come up with was his acceptance letter for college. They approached Nixon, and the Secret Service closed ranks. But Nixon sort of waved off the guard, and they wound up spending half an hour walking with the former president, talking about school, and football.

He said when he tells the story people always ask him why didn't he mention Watergate to the former president? He didn't, but probably because when you're in between your high school senior year and going to college, and the country hasn't fallen apart, Watergate might well be the furthest thing from your mind. It certainly was for him and his buddies.

My co-worker did add that Nixon's mind was sharp, but he seemed lonely. Probably was. He was out with his buddy and it was only a dog.

Note: The picture above is of the headstone of Nixon's somewhat famous dog Checkers. Checkers is buried in an animal cemetery in the town where I live in Nassau county. How this came to happen is entirely beyond me, but Checkers is listed in the Notable Residents section in the Wikipedia recap.

And why not? He was a buddy.