Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Sixties

I had occasion to use the words "mid 60s" in a Tweet. I was telling whoever cared to follow me that during the 1960s I listened to Del Shields and Billy Taylor on the radio in New York. Jazz. The reason for the Tweet was that Billy Taylor had just passed away, and, well, I was remembering when I first heard him.

Within a few hours I got an
e-mail notice that my Tweets were now being followed by @Swinging60s. They are now my fourth Tweet follower; my absolute high water mark.

I know no one consciously added my Tweet to their list. But someone's computer code did create an HTML tag that swept cyberspace for "60s" and brought me on board.

Every decade swings for someone. And the decade years don't even have to be 0 through 9. Everyone's got a 10 year period they consider to be their decade for something notable. The media and historians create the default decades.

When anyone asks, and it's rare they do, "what were the 60s really like?" I pause, just a bit. I usually just tell them, with emphasis, "hot." Sometimes I expand the answer to acknowledge that once you got past the assassinations (and there were several) you realized you were always sweating.

If someone tells me the 60s were really "great" I ask them which one was their favorite assassination? This usually gets me a bad look and we move on. Separately.

So, keeping to the topic of temperature, there was little residential air conditioning. It was usually found commercially, in a store, restaurant, hotel or movie theater. But not always. When it was available, the owners liked to advertise that they had it, and that you should come inside, it was cool in there.

They may have used a big lighted sign, like the one pictured above, or simply a placard in the window that was blue and white and depicted what an undefrosted freezer looked like inside, that told you it was cool inside. Come on in. And you were glad when did. It did feel good.

Even though they've been around for decades, I still can't over the fact that subway cars are air-conditioned. But then again, it's not the Swinging60s.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


We will be forever be accused of pushing the Christmas holiday further and further back in the calendar, until one day the decorations will start to appear the day after Labor Day. Even then, we may not resist.

Catching up with yesterday's paper--which for a Saturday, and a holiday Saturday to boot-- seemed especially large, was a story on the famous letter to The NewYork Sun from Virginia O' Hanlon, an eight-year-old Manhattan girl asking for affirmation of the existence of Santa Claus.

The letter is famous, the response is just as famous, and the story annually makes its way into any number of newspapers at Christmas time, even on Christmas Day itself.

It's not that at eight years old Virginia should not have been thinking about Santa Claus, but does anyone realize she must have been thinking about Santa Claus in September? It's 1897 and the newspaper responded quickly with its now world famous editorial response on September 21, 1897.

It might have just been Virginia's nature to be thinking a little ahead of everyone else, and perhaps outside the box, by following her father's advice to seek confirmation of the jolly old guy's existence from one of New York City's many newspapers. Virgina, after all, did go onto receive a doctorate in education from Fordham University in 1930 and had a full career in the city's school system.

In September 1897, Thanksgiving is many decades away from being a national holiday and a demarcation for the start of the Christmas season. September is also a month ahead of Halloween. In fact, September 21 is just around the time astronomers are telling us summer is turning to fall.

Virginia O'Hanlon is given credit for eliciting one of the great printed responses of all time.

She should also be commended for being way ahead of her time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What Are the Odds?

1 Dropo Dr
Moosup, CT 06354

What are the odds with a last name like Dropo that you would grow up at 1 Dropo Drive?

This is exactly what is described as being part of Walt Dropo's life, a multi-sport star athlete at the University of Connecticut, who went on to play major league baseball while starting out as the American League rookie of the year in 1950. Mr. Dropo just passed away at 87.

He is described as having grown up at 1 Dropo Drive, Plainfield, Connecticut, in a section of town referred to as Mooseup. And grow up he did, because he became 6 foot 5 and gained the nickname Moose from Moosup. Easy to spot.

Now considering he couldn't have become as famous as he did until after he grew up, how did the street he grew up on come to be named Dropo?

His parents, or grandparents are not described in the obituary, so the street naming doesn't seem to stem from any notoriety on their part.

The chicken and the egg? Don't know. But it's got to be nice to have a street named after you. Or before you.

You certainly could do worse.

Fighting Back

It isn't often I can read something and not be left with a cynical, or as some would say, a smart-ass reaction. But today I met my match.

The obituary Stephen Miller wrote in today's WSJ accomplished that. When Mr. Miller can, he finds a worthy subject who may not be a household name. Then, given the constraints of the space they allow him, he polishes the gem. Today's obituary on Sally Goodrich makes you think given her name, she was destined to do the things she's done. Perhaps.

But, we'll get corny here, and paraphrase the Bard, and just say by any other name, she'd still be a rose.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


After reading some tweets about why don't people text instead of stand on line and yak on their cell phones, and why do people disrupt you on the train with their cell phones when you forgot your iPod defense, and while also being annoyed by these same things in life, I've come to update the great quote about other people:

Hell IS other people, especially when they come with batteries.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

They Didn't Write That, Did They? Wow!

You need no further proof that the writing style of obituaries has changed than to read the obituary for Blake Edwards, screenwriter and director who just passed away at 88, as written by Aljean Harmetz in yesterday's NYT.

Mr. Harmetz describes an anecdote about something Mr. Edwards said about Julie Andrews, years before they became husband and wife for 41 years. He attributed the cause of her popularity to be the sweet smell of a part of her anatomy that he compared to an attractive and fragrant bush.

Personally, I now think I'm going to come across a greeting card with that sentiment on the inside now that the quote has appeared in the NYT.

Time will certainly tell.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Keeping Track of Pennies

It is hard to believe we even still have pennies in circulation, hard to believe we think we need pennies in circulation, and even harder to believe we redesign them as often as once every 50 years. But we do all that.

The penny won’t be going away. It has an even stronger lobby than any labor union, corporation, nation, or anything you might think of. It has sentimentality. And that’s all it needs. Even long after Andy Rooney passes away, we will still have pennies.

The reverse of the penny has been redesigned—again. The last time was as recent as 2009, and before that, 1959, which was only 51 years ago. And back in 1909, the penny got a complete overall in order to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Gone went the Indian Head design. An image of Lincoln was stamped on the front, or the obverse as the numismatic people like to say, and wheat strands were engraved on the back. Other lettering, dates, mint marks and words, Latin and otherwise, completed the design.

Along came 1959 and the reverse of the coin was changed to depict the Lincoln Monument in Washington. Now it had a totally Lincoln theme to it.

The Indian Head cent was sometimes referred to in derogatory fashion, when someone in a Western would say they wouldn’t give you a ‘red cent’ for something. This meant that whatever you were hawking was of no interest to this person, who wouldn’t even part with an unliked Indian Head penny. I never heard anyone say anything bad about the Lincoln cent; or at least nothing bad about Lincoln. The penny itself might be maligned to describe something that is useless, or bad, but that’s about it.

It was only the other day I realized the penny had gotten its backside worked on. There was an extra shiny one in my change that caught my eye. I initially thought it was something foreign, but it was a 2010 Lincoln cent, with the newly designed 'shield' back, that looks like the logo the Union Pacific Railroad used.

The only other time I realized the coins of the realm had been monkeyed with was when several years ago I saw strange quarters in my change from the barber. I thought for sure a Canadian ice hockey team had wandered up the block from The Garden and deposited their pocket change in my barber's cash register. Turns out, this wasn't the case. It was the beginning of the redesign of the reverse of quarters to commemorate each state.

And now that I think of it, I think the nickel has undergone a renovation as well. Haven't noticed anything with dimes, and I do know all about the dollar coin. I keep thinking I'm in the Twilight Zone and someone has handed me a gold piece. The excitement, however, goes away fast. And the 2009 four-themed change to the back of the Lincoln cent? Fuhgetaboutit! Never saw it up close and personal. Hoarders, I guess.

By some accounts, the penny can cost nearly a penny to make, thereby seemingly appear to be a bad endeavor. That’s an argument against it, used by those who would just as soon see it go away. And as much as it may have outlived monetary usefulness, if you add up its worth every time it changes hands, that one penny has certainly cumulatively accounted for more than a penny in value. It can be a busy bee when it’s not in a jar.

The Lincoln cent has survived over a century of events. Lincoln is unimpeachable. He’s not even copper anymore, but he’s bigger than U.S. Steel ever was. He’s only worth a cent, but looms bigger than the national debt in our consciousness.

A penny can be seen. A penny can be understood. A trillion can’t even be imagined. The penny is here to stay.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Flying Squirrel

It's the kind of story that we like to read. Or, if TV news is your thing, to hear about. Maybe even see footage from the scene of the crime.

Gleaned from a Twitter posting, it was learned that a dead squirrel was tossed through a drive-through window. The complete story is far better than that dry summary, and can be found at the link to a newspaper in Peoria, Illinois. It takes a bit to get oriented to the name of the perpetrator's town, but once you do you realize he has brought the townsfolk of Pekin shame, and the guys at the tavern enough to talk about for a month.

It's a great story because no one was really hurt, there was no massive financial loss, and the perpetrator was apprehended, held up to scorn, and made to feel contrite. A win all around, except for the squirrel, whose cause of death we don't really know about, but hopefully it wasn't brought about just to be placed on a dashboard and ultimately flung through a drive-through window.

A story likes this also lets you add your own possible ending to it.

Sarah Palin was flying to Peoria to see if there were any campaign issues she could exploit for use against the Democrats in 2012. Something about the money used as a tax check-off for Gift to Wildlife, perhaps.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Victor Victoria


Is this a picture of Sonja Kohn, the Austrian banker mixed up with Bernie Madoff, OR, a picture of Bernie Madoff disguised as Robin Williams disguised as Mrs. Doubtfire in an escape attempt?

Maybe Bernie's going to try and sneak out through the beauty parlor.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


NYC OTB has finally shut its doors for good. No more threats to do so. It is done. This has briefly plopped it back in the news, not as some shining spot that has now disappeared but for what it was: a not too attractive place that did not attract the white wine and shrimp set.

Longevity didn't give it even grudging respectability. Thus, the tributes are hardly pouring in. Nothing like the end-of-the-era odes that have been sparked by the death of Elaine Kaufman, the centerpiece owner of Elaine's restaurant on 2nd Avenue.

Most of the quotes are from unhappy patrons who claim that OTB ruined racing and turned it over to the homeless, to those who believe that organized crime should have been more involved, because government can't run anything. Some truth to all the gripes, and funny, that OTB's passing will likely send a ripple effect through all business precincts, legal and otherwise.

But it did create some memories, and they are not particularly bad. There is the sunny fellow who has made a living picking up discarded OTB tickets that later prove to be worth something. A 'stooper' in Damon Runyon parlance. And 'stooping' can sometimes yield significant sums. Have success doing this long enough and you gain respectability. They start to write about you.

Certainly the success Jesus Leonardo has enjoyed doing the 'stooping' should move him to the obituary-in-waiting list, ready to be used when his own ticket becomes cashed in. He is a legend we can read about now, and should be reading about later, whenever that is.

My own memories of OTB start at its inception in 1971. I was already three years into what has remained my interest in horse racing, and OTB brought the track to the sidewalk. And because it lasted nearly 40 years, there are likely people who have been using it and going there for years who don't even know about the start.

Initially they didn't use numbers to designate the horse you wanted to play. Because they needed more advance time to create entry lists OTB introduced letters for horses. This allowed them to keep the same letter right up to post time. It wouldn't change because of scratches. In the early days, trainers were allowed to change their mind about entries nearly up to post time, or enter within a day of the race. This didn't allow an organization like OTB enough time to pre-publish entries and distribute them as early as they'd like to. Scratches shuffled program numbers, which became assigned the day of the race. To keep things smooth for identification purposes, OTB assigned a letter to a horse as soon it was entered. If it became scratched, no other horse assumed its letter.

The letter system went on for many, many years, until the trainers were given less time to make changes. It was easy enough to understand, since you wrote or called a letter rather than a number. It also offered some 800-like mnemonic possibilities for those who delighted in fun. I had a neighbor in Flushing who told us one night when he was over that he and his buddy always bet the 'GA' Daily Double when they could. The 'GA' reminded them of their Gamblers' Anonymous meetings.

As soon as I could, I became a phone account bettor. It was just easier. My plays continue to be recreational, (through Nassau Downs OTB) and my need to collect is not immediate. I've always been credited with what was coming to me.

But I didn't shun the parlors altogether. There have been occasional needs. I always knew where to find them, where to find a pencil, how to fill out a betting slip, and what window to take it to. And where to collect, if winning occurred. At the outset there was no TV viewing of the races. But simulcasting eventually changed that, so you could actually bet and watch, but it wasn't always so.

In the aftermath of 9/11, when we were displaced by the collapse of the Trade Center, a few of us like-minded individuals would head for a nearby OTB after wolfing down lunch. We'd play the first two or so races from a NYRA track, then return to work. No great scores, and no great losses either. It did provide us with our form of recreation.

The two times the company was made to find temporary space, we found OTBs. The one on Second Avenue was positively posh. There were curtains on the windows, no doubt at the edict of some Community Board. Once our company permanently relocated, we didn't do lunch the same way.

Certainly OTB wasn't my home, but I never felt I was seeing something I wasn't already used to. In the 60s, at the family flower shop, there was a fair cast of characters who sometimes converged on the shop to shoot the breeze with my great-uncle. Barney Greene, John Stern, Dave Levine and Gus. Gus occasionally did deliveries when I wasn't pressed into service. Gus, like the others, came complete with an overcoat, and in all kinds of weather. He did differ in that he really did have a triple row of watches pinned to the inside of the coat--looking somewhat like a Russian general at a May Day review--just in case the stores were closed and you needed something at the last minute.

Collectively, they looked like they were at the Automat; there just wasn't any food around and they were standing. Fast forward them to an OTB, and they would not have been out of place.

And neither was I.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Trip to My Loo

The WSJ again has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek when they run an A-Hed piece on the annual British Loo Awards and ask you, in a headline, to refrain from bathroom humor, and in a sub-heading tell you that the accolades leave the winners flush with success. But this is what the WSJ does when they can.

How or why the British refer to their bathrooms as 'loos' is never revealed, and a modest amount of Internet research hasn't coughed up the origin. I'll leave that to research inclined readers, if there are any.

In particular, this piece is worth reading, if only because it is something we probably know something about: going to the bathroom when we're not at home. It seems in Britain there is an annual contest to judge public loos in several categories. And they're serious about it.

So far in my lifetime there are two bathrooms that I am willing to tell nearly anyone about. The first one was in an office I was doing an audit in. They were a union health and welfare fund for cleaners: janitors, office and bathroom cleaners. I still remember walking into the not old, not new men's room and the place truly sparkled. The grout was clean. Everything worked, and you would have felt ashamed of yourself if you didn't leave the place as clean as you found it.

The second bathroom is more in the public eye, and can be viewed at any time. It is the 'comfort station' inside Byrant Park, just inside the 42nd Street border. This is a New York City park mind you, and actually one of the jewels these days.

There are flowers in the vestibule. A fresh arrangement, perhaps every week, or sooner. The head of the Business Improvement District that helps keep city property clean boasts of a tens of thousand dollar budget for just the flowers year round. If only my family was still in the flower business. All we would have needed was a comfort station or two and we would have made it past the second generation.

I have pointed this bathroom out to my children. I have purposely guided them past the park to take a peek. Over the years, they in turn have shown it to out-of-town friends from college. The place should be on a map. Maybe it is.

The British it seems have a historical link to nearly everything, and apparently bathrooms are no exception. The WSJ piece explains that John Harington, a writer under Queen Elizabeth I, is credited with inventing a flush toilet in 1596.

And just in case you're back to taking things seriously, they tell you, with no fanfare whatsoever, that Thomas Crapper built ornate toilets for British royals that helped give indoor plumbing the boost it enjoys today.

I kid you not.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ode to Tinhorn Parlors

I am steeped in NYC nostalgia. Given my own memory, and that of my father's passed on through recollections, I go back a 100 years without being a 100. The best way to be a 100.

When OTB nearly closed its doors this past Friday after nearly 40 years in the business of legally taking bets on horses and greedily taking a surcharge on winnings, it didn't go without my notice. It did it seem to escape the notice of most of the rest of the population. OTB has had more endings than the Polo Grounds, and even when its ending seemed permanently imminent, like Friday, they got a reprieve to await a NY Senate vote on Tuesday that is still not expected to save it.

Much is being made of the passing of Elaine Kaufman, the female Toots Shor saloon keeper who greeted and fed the famous East Side thirsty. Nothing wrong with that. As John Huston's character, the public works tycoon, Noah Cross uttered over lunch in the movie 'Chinatown', "politicians, public buildings and whores all gain respectability if they last long enough." Not that Elaine was any of these, it was just a way of saying if you're around long enough, you are an institution. Like OTB.

OTB never gained respectability, despite its longevity. It started in 1971, opening in its first location, the old ticket windows of the New Haven and Hartford Railroad in Grand Central Terminal. It was an august setting for an operation that was not much more automated than a Chinese laundry. The computer system still hadn't been developed, so you got a tearaway receipt for your bet that if you won, you presented back to someone at a window. They in turn matched it to its first part that was being kept in a small file box; they punched a hole in the matched tickets when they paid you, and you were back on the street ready to go again.

Eventually there was a computer system and telephone betting. I was able to bet the 1971 Kentucky Derby for several people in my office through my freshly established phone account, accessed by a user id and password, basically how it works today. You did have to talk to someone though, which wasn't bad and really was what you expected to do. But when a woman at work wagered $4 to win on Canonero II, a rank outsider from Venezuela, and he won, I got nervous. The returned value was supposed to be $118 that I was now responsible to give this co-worker. It worked out. The bet was properly recorded, and I was able to withdraw the money from the account and get a check. Thankfully, the woman wasn't in a hurry for her money. She was so tickled by winning she gave me a photo book on New York City.

OTB parlors, and soon there were over 100 of them throughout the city, basically became vilified as hangouts for undesirables. Still, I always thought one of the most observant comments of its patrons was made by the inestimable sports reporter for the NY Times, Robert Lipsyte, who commented that they really reminded him of people at the public library, because where else could you see so many people reading and writing?

And every time I went to the library and filled out a call slip with a 3" yellow pencil from a small box, I have always been reminded of how those pencils resemble the 3" green pencils OTB made available to fill out its betting slips.

OTB and the library. Connected by carbon. A binding element of the universe.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Parenthetical Phrases

If years ago I hadn't learned a lesson about paying attention to parenthetical phrases, how would I know now that in Denmark, saying something about "Tycho" is akin to the American phrase-- which I have never understood--"I've got to see a man about a dog." They both mean, "I've got to go." Why someone needs to be that informative about it has always eluded me.

Nevertheless, paying attention to what's inside a set of parentheses started sometime in the 60s when a high school French teacher we had gave a pop quiz on vocabulary. The teacher was one of the school's more memorable characters, who was without a doubt the first man I ever saw in the 60s wear a solid colored pink dress shirt. We were an all-boys high school and things like this caught our attention. We also suspected Mr. Haas lived in the 'Village', which helped explain everything we speculated about him. Regardless, we learned.

Well, no one got a 100. This positively delighted Mr. Haas. He tripped up a classroom of smart Alecs because he chose a word from the book's text that was defined in parentheses. Only one of the 30 something kids in the class correctly answered that the French word banlieues meant suburbs. The kid got something else wrong, so he didn't get a 100. He too, was imperfect.

I have never forgotten this. The class protested that the word was not in the book, but Mr. Haas happily showed it off to all the eyes that hadn't paid attention.

So, when in Tuesday's Science Times I took in the story about the exhumed Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe--who has never been a household name in my house--I happily reflected on my lesson in learning to pay attention to what's inside the brackets. There was a good deal going on in this guys' life, including providing the plot line for 'Hamlet'. The news story is worth reading.

Explanations of less than natural causes have been advanced regarding his death at age 54. At the time however, it was believed he succumbed to a bladder disease caused by not relieving himself while drinking profusely at a banquet. This is what is explained in the article's parentheses. Danes with a sense of history and wit excuse themselves from the table by invoking his name as they head to the restroom.

Alas poor Tycho. There but for the grace of God, went I.


Turn the Sound Down, Will You?

Yesterday's WSJ 'A-Hed' piece was about Congress finally getting close to regulations regarding the loudness of commercials relative to the shows they've just segued from.

It's been an issue for decades. More decades than I suspect the reporters might even be aware of. The show you were just watching and listening to cuts to commercial and suddenly it's Dolby Surround Stereo IMAX theater sound coming at you with a volume reserved for interrupting General Noreiga's sleep, before he was taken into custody.

It's a good story and serves to explain why it's been so difficult to create regulations. Definitions. It's always definitions. The problem has gotten worse I imagine because people can switch from channel to channel so quickly that they are likely to encounter a commercial coming from a show that wasn't following the show they were just watching. Definitions.

Believe it or not, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon did a skit on this very annoyance sometime in the late 50s, early 60s, when they were doing a game show called 'Who Do You Trust.'

It was a lot harder to change channels then. You had to GET UP, and spin a dial, and according to some people, ONLY in one direction. Always clockwise, or counter-clockwise. I can never remember. Otherwise, you were just hastening the set's trip "to the shop." There also weren't very many numbers on that roulette wheel either , so basically, you just waited for the commercial to be over and you could get back to what you were watching. Captive.

Invariably, the commercial would come at a distinctly greater volume than the show. Johnny and Ed showed the effects of this when Johnny was "watching" something on TV, holding a cup and saucer of coffee, maybe. The commercial announcer come on (Ed) and bellowed the product. Johnny shook as if it was the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake, spilled the coffee and dropped the cup and saucer. He might have even leaped into Ed's arms he was so frightened. I forget.

Exaggeration? Sure. But funny. And in essence, true. Still true, it seems.


More Angela

She's still with us.

This isn't the exact picture, but Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, is once again front page news, this time in today's Wall Street Jornal, above the fold, as she's seen conferring with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The shores are secure.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I've been renewing my relationship with libraries. I was thinking of this this morning. When I first set out for a living I still went to libraries. I figured this was because I had just about left childhood and was still used to going to libraries. Now, over 40 years later, the connection to childhood is fairly distant, and so were my library habits. So, maybe it's true, as we get older we get more like children.

My latest visit was tonight when I looked into a book of photographs, 'The New York School: Photographs, 1936-1963', compiled by Jane Livingston. My interest in the book started when I attended a photograph exhibit of one of the photographers in the book. The book is out-of-print, but still available as new, at a hefty price, or somewhat more reasonably priced as used.

It's a heavyweight, door stopper coffee table book, with black and white prints from perhaps 20 photographers, all whose works can be connected to New York subjects: Richard Avedon, Weegee, Diane Arbus, David Vestal, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and others.

I wanted to look at the book before recommending it to members of my family that even a USED edition would be appreciated for the holidays. They need hints. Printed from a printer. Happily, the book is worth lobbying for. And, I think I'm worth it.

I couldn't check the book out, but I did manage to spend some time with it. And, if my family members resist, I can always go back to the library.

Many of the images were familiar. I saw Richard Avedon's print of W.H. Auden walking along Second Avenue in a snowstorm. I remember seeing the image in The New Yorker with a strangely caustic caption that it was of, 'The Fag of St Mark's Place.' Auden lived near St Mark's Place in the 60s, before moving back to England. It's a great portrait, even if you don't know who it is. Ms. Livingston's book has no captions, and a far nicer credit in the back telling you it's Auden, near St. Mark's Place.

Auden might have been going to that great Ottendorfer library branch on Second Avenue, just below St. Mark's Place. I used to. Never saw him, however.

But more striking was a photo I hadn't seen. It too was by Avedon, and showed a well-dressed full-figured matronly woman of an age certain to be in her 50s, who is holding up a newspaper with both hands about chest high. She has a hat or headpiece on of some kind. She has several strands of pearls around her neck, and a stylish tote bag is dangling from her left arm. There is no sign of a purse. She is standing on a sidewalk in Times Square, and other passersby are near, but not in focus. She and the newspaper are the subject.

It's a black and white photo, but you guess she's wearing mostly black anyway. The headline is large. Very large. Several inches high, on two lines. Larger than any headline I've ever seen since:


The date is November 22, 1963, and the newspaper is The New York World Telegram and The Sun.

President Kennedy has been assassinated. And by December, when the New York newspaper strike started, the New York World Telegram would also be dead after the 114 day strike.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Take this for a symbol of durability.

Robin Williams in the 1987 movie 'Good Morning Vietnam', set in the latter part of the 1960s, plays an Air Force radio personality who makes fun of Mick Jagger's lips. Because everyone in the mid 60s is aware of Mick Jagger's lips.

The movie is viewed again in 2010 and Mick's lips are still moving, and everyone is still aware of his lips.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Once a Hero

Kids can retain fond memories of the oddest of places their mother and father took them. One of the best ones I have is when my father and I visited a crime scene.

My father had nothing to do with law enforcement, but when the Museum of Natural History was broken into in 1964 and several very valuable gems were stolen, it was big news. A heist. Worth plenty. And what made it even bigger news was how easy it was for what turned out to be a trio of robbers--two of whom got into the museum at night after closing, and one who drove the getaway car--who made off with the stones, one, a heavyweight sapphire known famously as the Star of India, and another famous gem, the Delong Star Ruby. Lesser pieces were also easily scooped up from glass and wooden display cases.

Occasionally I'd think of our post-heist visit to the museum to take a look at the window that was left open, and the the display cases that seemed less secure than those holding Timex watches in a department store.

I was reminded of all this again when in yesterday's NYT there was the Op-Ed essay, 'Lost and Found New York,' that James Stevenson occasionally puts together of something quite bygone in New York City's history. Mr. Stevenson is a cartoonist, whose style is quickly remembered from cartoons in The New Yorker. He also remembers more presidents than most of us and summarizes nostalgic events with word and line.

The whole heist is summarized in word and pictures, and I learned a few things I didn't know, or didn't remember from something that took place 46 years ago.

The absolute ease of entry is described. How two of the robbers just climbed through a window that was one of many windows that were left open at the top. This is one of the things my father and I looked at. The newspapers had a field day describing how easy it was. Windows were routinely left open a crack at the top for ventilation. These were tall windows that reminded me of the ones in my grammar school. The ones that the teacher had to open at the top with a pole when the classroom got too hot.

There weren't enough guards for the whole museum, and the display cases had no working alarms. They hadn't worked in years. All this is neatly recreated in Mr. Stevenson's piece.

My parental field trip took place a few weeks after the heist, after the trio had been arrested and most of the gems were recovered. The public was once again being allowed into that part of the museum, but I don't think the stones were on display.

How the trio came to be arrested is also revealed in Mr. Stevenson's piece and is either what I forgot, or maybe never paid any attention to. Classic detection. Something is wrong with this picture. React to it, and you've got something. And the police did.

Of the three robbers, Jack, "Murph the Surf" Murphy had immediate box office appeal. Jack Roland Murphy was a former violin prodigy, national surfing champion, tennis pro and movie stunt man. He was a good looking playboy beach bum. And despite a felonious lifestyle, as a teenager he seemed to be at least several things I wouldn't mind being. I figured girls, or better yet women, had to be a pleasant by-product of that lifestyle.

Luckily, the role model effect never took hold. "Murph" continued his thieving ways, and was eventually put away again, for murdering two women. He didn't look or sound glamorous then. He really wasn't a great guy, and from what I remember from the pictures after he was apprehended for the murders, he didn't even look like anyone I'd like to emulate. He looked fat and was wearing flip flops.

Turns out "Murph" is now out of prison, and gives inspirational talks to other prisoners. I didn't know he was still alive. I also didn't know he is not ancient. A somewhat older friend was over for dinner last night and figures "Murph" is only a little older than he is.

Exactly so.

Friday, November 26, 2010

All Angela All the Time

Angela Merkel is easily the most photographed woman in the world. Or, if she isn't, she's easily the one world leader whose photo appears most often in a U.S. newspaper.

Let me count. No, actually, I've lost count. I have to start again, and I'll start with today's papers, The NYT and the WSJ. Three pictures. Two in the NYT, on facing pages. (Actually four pictures. One picture shows her picture within a picture, on a TV screen.)

Just in case you are not a newspaper hound, or a caption reader, Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany. I don't know what it is about her face, besides seeing it a lot. It just seems friendly, maybe. She's ready to press candy into my small palm at Halloween. She's a cross between Captain Kangaroo and Julia Child without swinging a mallet at a chicken.

Make no mistake. She is everywhere. I've been observing this since sometime in August when my reading is basically confined to anything from the town of Saratoga and the Daily Racing Form. The only paper I didn't see her in was the Racing Form.

Today's captions:

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel says the private sector should share the pain in future debt crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble meeting Thursday in Berlin.

And now that this is has been pointed out to you, you will no doubt become aware of how often you're seeing her.

If she's not on 'Dancing with the Stars' or 'American Idol' by the time the year is over, I'll eat a Euro.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jar City

The Sundance Channel recently showed an Icelandic movie, ‘Jar City,’ based on a detective story by Arnaldur Indridason, a writer whose works have recently been translated into English and who is worth looking into if you like mystery, detective stories.

The fact that a sheep’s head can be someone’s "usual” and that it is blithely obtained at a drive-through window of what must be an Icelandic fast food joint certainly alerts you that you’re in a different land. Maybe planet. Yes, that sub-title did say "sheep's head."

I'm not usually much of one for the Sundance Channel. I don't walk around indoors wearing a scarf and hat, and even when I neglect a haircut, I've never been mistaken for being 'artsy.' But the thumbnail review a week or so ago, along with a bleak black and white picture, attracted me to the listing. I've also read one of Mr. Indridason's books, and liked it.

There was also an outtake from the NYT review: "Jar city is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse." The movie also makes you wonder what Icelanders feature in their version of Bon Apetit, or whip up on a cooking show.

A blurb on Iceland somewhat warns you about their cuisine when they describe it is as not being famous for its delicacies, considering the main purpose of traditional food preparation was to preserve it. They seem proud of the fact that you can keep some of their dishes for months behind a radiator or under your bed and they would still be safe to eat, although for some reason this is not recommended.

The detective, Erlendur, is fairly typical of fictional, and likely real detectives. He's a loner, with family problems, who ignores his health and seems to wear the same sweater throughout. He does live in a fairly nice looking high rise, that is decently furnished and actually looks clean. So when he brings dinner home and opens the fast food container and we're presented with what a sheep's head meal looks like, you do get more repulsed than by anything you've seen so far.

But it's how our hero eats the meal that attracts the real attention. In this nicely furnished apartment that looks well equipped with what we'd likely find in our own homes, Erlendur reaches in his pocket for a pocket knife, opens it up, and saws away a bit at the food and eats it off the knife blade. Up to now, we've been conceding things to culture. But right now, this guy can't even get up and use a knife and fork, and apparently they forgot to put plastic ones in the bag. Maybe all his are in the dishwasher, and that's where the mess is. Apparently the case files he's looking at preclude him from getting up.

It is a good movie, even given the fact you have to follow with English sub-titles. And despite a few of the characters who look alike, you can ultimately follow the plot and either figure it out, or wait until it's all revealed.

Even given there are scenes of violently murdered people, corpses being exhumed, shelves of preserved organs, skeletons and reactions to smelly gas from unearthed crypts, nothing sticks in your mind more than that sheep's head.

And it didn't come with fries, either.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Still No. 1

I try and read almost everything in a day's newspaper. And book reviews are included. And when there's a picture of Marilyn Monroe hawking Chanel No. 5 headed by the tag line: "What do I wear in Bed? Nothing but a few drops of Chanel
No. 5", well, attention will be paid.

Say what you might about Rupert Murdoch, the man likes print, and the man likes books, and the Review section in the Saturday/Sunday edition of the Wall Street Journal is a testament to both.

Ms. Monroe's picture appears above a book review titled 'Sweet Smell of Success', about the recently published The Secret of Chanel No. 5. by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

I don't have much of a connection to Chanel No. 5, only to remember there was a bottle of it on my mother's dresser for decades. The same bottle. Some of it must have either been used, or evaporated, but it was there, looking a bit like a small flask of bourbon, or maple syrup.

Years ago I bought a bottle for my wife, likely part of some Christmas gifts. I think it is destined for the same fate of sitting on a dresser for decades. It's there to remind me of what not to buy this year for Christmas. Been there, done that.

Pictures of Marilyn Monroe are still with us, and I suspect still recognizable even to those who were born long after her her suicide of nearly 50 years ago. I was a teenager then, and I've freely told others, even women, that I've never really gotten over it. I've been told to, "move on," but not by guys.

I closed my Tony Curtis October 2010 blog entry about a story Tony told about Marilyn when they were on the set of 'Some Like it Hot.'

See was right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Roast Beef Sandwiches

I grew up worrying about the atomic bomb and the 15 cent fare. For the first one we had Duck and Cover drills. For the second, we followed the progress of what was ordered from the deli.

I still think about the atom bomb, but I really find myself thinking more often about the 15 cent bus and subway fare. This proves what stays uppermost in a New Yorker's mind long after immediate threats have passed. The fare has always been almost pegged to the price of a slice of plain pizza. And at the current $2.25 it doesn't really seem that bad, adjusted for inflation, to be compared to a price that was existence more than 50 years ago. And just think, it really was once a nickel.

In the 50s and 60s the most important thing in New York City was the preservation of the 15 cent fare. And it was preserved, even after numerous contract expirations with the Transit Union came and went. Money was always found to provide wage increases and preserve the fare. For years.

It doesn't take much to make me think of things and every morning on my way to work when I walk down Seventh Avenue I pass an old, but well preserved, 1920-1930s office building, now condominium, named KhEEL TOWER. It sits on the SE corner of 28th Street. The name is carved, as shown, as part of a granite archway over the entrance. The entrance is flanked by two very contemporary storefronts: T-Mobile on the corner and Starbucks on the other side of the entrance. And nearly every morning, until the other day, I always wondered if the building had anything to do with Theodore W. Kheel, the labor negotiator who seemingly single-handedly helped the contentious sides come to agreements, and in the process also SAVED THE FARE.

I could have easily Googled the name and likely found out if the building and Ted Kheel were connected. I didn't think he had anything to do with it. It wasn't his style. Invariably, by the time I'd reach 27th street on my way to hanging the left at 26th Street, I'd forget about the whole fit of association and would instead concentrate on crossing the street safely.

And as soon as I'd think of Ted Kheel I'd think of the 15 cent fare, Mike Quill, head of the Transit Workers Union, threats of strikes and how we'd hear news reports on the "progress of the talks." I'd also think of hearing that when they took a recess from the talks, whether they were in the same room, or separated in different parts of the hotel, that the principles were still talking, but were taking a meal break and sent out for roast beef sandwiches. Meal breaks were good, because that meant the talks hadn't broken off. There might not be a strike. The fare might stay the same.

Always roast beef sandwiches. It's only now occurring to me that we never heard about corned beef on rye, pastrami, brisket, or ham and cheese. And definitely not tuna fish. It was always roast beef. Negotiators eat roast beef. I wouldn't really know if there was some reporter who might have asked if anyone ordered anything other than a roast beef sandwich. If they did ask, they were probably working somewhere else the next day.

And in the two years I've been walking past KhEEL TOWER I also knew I had never read an obituary for Ted Kheel. I knew he had to be in his 90s and that when he died, maybe I'd learn more about the building. Was there a connection?

Ted Kheel was born in Brooklyn of a wealthy family. His father, Samuel, was in New York real estate. I no longer wonder about KhEEL TOWER.

Except for that funny typeface.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Aside from buying and reading a newspaper wherever I am, the next best thing I enjoy is reading about newspapers. I'm sure it's hard to imagine for some, but I was happy to read about the Toronto Globe and Mail, and other Canadian newspapers in general when the NYT recently ran a story on their publishing styles and approach to the Web.

It's been 10 years since I was in Canada, and reading about the newspapers made me "homesick." I've seen so many NHL games, on TV and in person, listened to the Canadian anthem so often, and heard so many hockey players interviewed between periods that soon after this immersion I'm nearly ending sentences in, "eh."

So, I set out to buy a weekday edition of the Globe and Mail here in New York. This proved impossible. They do not distribute to the States. Even Hotalings, that last refuge for out-of-town papers, that's now moved so far west in Manhattan that they're nearly in the Hudson river, doesn't get the paper.

I'm so used to coming to work and buying a paper that my only approach to acquiring a paper has been a newsstand. I resorted to ordering a back copy from the paper itself and paying a good multiple of the $1.50 cover price, which by the way is not on the cover, but noted instead in a small box in the lower portion of page two.

When I mentioned this to someone who might be recognizable as the sunny doyenne of library advocacy, they were shocked. The library doesn't have a copy of the paper?

Along with forgetting I could have had a V-8, I also completely forgot libraries do carry hardcopy back issues of newspapers. My somewhat expensive alternative was however already being shipped. And I got it, and I enjoyed looking at it and of course taking in the obituaries, which quite appropriately were placed in the Sports section. They know what they're doing in Canada.

But the library remained a possibility. The big guy on 5th Avenue is not far from work so I figured one night I'd be able to sit down with a small stack of Globe and Mails and have what for me passes as fun.

Well, I did have a little. The august building holds the equally august DeWitt Wallace periodical room. Oozes charm, nostalgia, great lighting, marquetry tables and ONE copy of the Globe and Mail, from March 29, 2010. I was getting some post-Winter Olympic news, as well as some spring training reports for the coming 2010 baseball season. I know how it turned out.

But the obituaries were there, and are a bit timeless. In the Sports section. However, the three news obituaries were from the NYT News Service, and I had already read them. They get a nice 4-5 column layout, with good size pictures, so it's obvious this is a feature they pay attention to in Canada.

But off the obituary page, on the last page of the last section, is a 'Lives Lived' column. This is a 'Portraits of Grief' style piece about someone who has passed away, and not necessarily someone most people knew of. What distinguishes these pieces is that they are not written by the staff of the paper, or from a service. They are written by family, likely edited by the paper, but original to someone closely connected to the deceased.

The one I read in the March edition was about someone who had passed away in November 2009, a 60 year old man from PEI (Prince Edward Island) who loved hockey. Played it, coached it, breathed it.

The piece was written by his daughter Chera, and had a lead worthy of any professional.

Paul Jelley acknowledged that growing up he was difficult, hot-tempered and determined. Over the years he was able to control everything but the last.

The piece went on for a good 7-8 column inches and closed with the heart-felt sentiment you would expect from a loved one:

We live in a better place because he lived.

O Canada.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Little Grey Cells

Being a fan of PBS’s ‘Mystery’ series and obituaries I was grinning the other night when Alan Cumming introduced a Poirot episode by telling us that Hercule was so popular that when Dame Agatha decided not to continue with him in 1975 the NYT wrote, on the front page no less, a Poirot obituary.

Think of that. 1975 and they were doing a bit of a spoof. I had to read this one.

I’ve been continuously employed since I was 19, and for just as long I’ve been buying the Times each day. Only in the last several years have I stopped buying the Sunday edition. Too much fluff, and it puts me even further behind in my reading. So, surely I read the 1975 story.

Library digital document retrieval has been added to my skill set. As easy as brushing my teeth, I secured and printed a copy of the August 6, 1975 Poirot “obituary,” written by Thomas Lask.

And there it was. And it was fairly quickly familiar. I remembered reading it.

The piece starts out with all the obituary phrases. Without knowing anything you’re not aware of his fictional origins. However, it quickly becomes apparent the story is about Dame Agatha’s forthcoming book using the Belgian detective for the last time. The piece goes on somewhat at length about Dame Agatha’s career of writing detective books, almost as if she died. Which she hadn’t. She’d live to be 85, but did pass away on January 12, 1976, soon after the news of Poirot’s death.

There’s a picture accompanying the article that is a portrait of Hercule as painted by W. Smithson Broadhead in the 1920s. The portrait is true to Christie’s description of the fussy Belgian, and serves to remind anyone who has watched David Suchet play the detective in the ‘Mystery’ series that Poirot does indeed look like a fried egg in a skillet.

There doesn’t really seem to be any precedent for writing about a person of fiction as if they really existed. We do know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did kill off Sherlock Holmes because he grew weary of him, but was forced to bring him back, JR-like, because he was so popular. A tongue-in-cheek obituary doesn’t seem to have been undertaken, either.

I suspect there are those who might think that because 1975 was so long ago in the past that it might represent a cultural high water mark when people read more and therefore were actually going to mourn the passing of a fictional character. Times were different, sort of thing. No.

I don’t buy into that. I can think of at least one fictional character, who if they were to be terminated today would create a “fuss extraordinaire.” Harry Potter.

By all accounts, he’s still with us.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Who Knew?

It's occurred to me that my own biography is coming out because of reading other people's obituaries. It seems as one hits the earth, or vaporizes into ash, out comes a memory. At the rate of people dying and being written about, and the frequency I read about them, when it comes to my own time there probably won't be a thought left in my head.

I may have anticipated this years ago when I recognized that something always seems to remind me of something. Hence, the Onofframp blog, and life as a Mobius strip. We just connect.

The obituary on Mary Emma Allison, 93, in today's NYT served to once again refresh a memory, this one about Halloween and Unicef, on Halloween. What are the odds of that?

In a delightfully told tale recounted by Margalit Fox we learn how Mary, a mother of three, a librarian, and the wife of a Presbyterian minister, came to start a charity, 60 years ago, what we now know as Unicef. The United Nations International Emergency Children's Fund, or more recently known as simply United Nation Children's Fund. A more wholesome set of goodness credentials are not possible. Mary it seems had them all.

I do remember holding the waxy, orange milk container when trick or treating in the 50s, shaking it and pushing it forward for some coins to be dropped in. What people dropped in I don't really remember, but there were probably pennies, and probably some "silver," likely dimes. It was the March of Dimes in October.

Before we got to enjoy the candy we had collected we took te cartons to the Episopal church that was the point of origin of this charity for me. My mother was Catholic, my father was Greek Orthodox, and I was baptized Greek Orthodox, but I went to Episcopal church and Sunday school. Alone. The only religious thing I've been left out of is a bar mitzvah.

My good friend who grew up in Manhattan went to Presbyertian Sunday school (his mother was a Presbyterian, his father Jewish). He remembers Unicef collctions and presenting the proceeds from the public elementary school to Eleanor Roosevelt at a school ceremony after Halloween. He always remembers the teachers being very dressed up that day.

For whatever reason I don't see much of the Unicef collection boxes on Halloween. And sometimes I do get stuck having to answer the door.

And what did the orange Unicef cartons remind me of in the 50s? I always thought they were the same color as St. Joseph's aspirin for children.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Dot and A Banger

When The New Yorker was funny years ago there was fun in spotting the comments they'd make that followed something that appeared in print that either was quite funny by itself, poorly phrased and therefore left with a double meaning that they pounced on, or came with a typo of some kind that changed the message completely. I used to like this part of the magazine when I read it in the 60s and 70s.

The urge to make fun of something has never left me. E-mail is a great source for faux pas pouncing. People's command of the written word gets laid bare a bit when they set out to write what they might have said. It also leaves a permanent record of what they said. There's no quick correction that comes your way as when they're speaking and suddenly realize they've made a mistake, maybe touched off by the funny face you just made.

So, when a woman I used to work with wrote something to the effect, "to bare with her" I couldn't help but tell her she might be inviting someone over who was willing to take their clothes off with her if she was. Not necessarily myself, because I did know what she really meant.

This produced a return e-mail that left off with, or started with, the 'lol' notation--what most people by now know means laughing out loud.

Surely 'lol' can be annoying. But I don't write much e-mail and therefore don't get much e-mail. I myself don't use it, but when I do get it from those who are acknowledging humor, I get a kick out of it. These are people I know, and who I've seen and heard laugh at things I've said. So, I genuinely believe they're telling me they're laughing. I like that.

These little opportunities don't come your way too often, but when they do, you have to pounce. Quickly, while what they wrote still means something to them.

So, consider when this same person wrote to fill me in on a detail about something they were trying to tell me when we met a few days before, but forgot. This can sometimes be like getting an answer from Rain Man to a question you might have asked hours ago. You really don't know what the hell they're talking about.

But not this time. A little intro freshened the memory and they told me over the weekend they had gone out on the Island to Mill Neck, near where there was a school for the dead.

No tantalizing typo goes unanswered. I of course quickly wrote back: "Wow, they must be a challenge to teach! Do they give them homework? When is it due?" There was more I could have written, like, "do they come to school every day?", but I had to act fast.

They in turn acted nearly just as fast, but not until they told me they meant 'deaf.' I knew that. I looked at keyboard. Somewhat like a Gilbert and Sullivan piece, the letters are much alike that close together.

But they closed with LMAO.

I could have Googled it, I guess, but I tried to decipher it, and got nowhere. I gave up. Since it might still be possible to keep this exchange going, I wrote back that I didn't know what that hell that meant.

Laughing My A** Off came back.

I felt like I had just been given the Mark Twain award for humor. No one had ever replied with a 'LMAO.' I told them so.

The bar's been set at a new height. Lol is just a period. LMAO is an exclamaton point!

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Saint

Some people are declared saints by the Catholic church, and some consider themselves to be saints. The latter designees usually come equipped with their own criteria as to why they are a saint. This can make for some interesting people, who if they're not psychotic might prove approachable and willing to explain how their sainthood came about.

It turns out one such individual drew attention to himself by advertising in the NYT that he was now entering his 49th year of sainthood. He gave his name, and his address, an apartment house in Manhattan on the West Side, uptown, but not all the way up.

He placed the ad on August 30th, a tombstone ad that appeared on page B7, in the lower right hand corner. Even in my house, we no longer have the paper for August 30th stacked up in the garage, despite this only being near the last day of October. The retention policy has changed a bit.

It turns out Corey Kilgannon wrote in the October 14th NYT edition a thoughtful piece on the self-proclaimed saint, Anthony Carpentier. Given the time between August 30th and October 14th, one can assume the ad may not have been noticed right away. No matter.

Without taking too much away from the piece, we learn Mr. Carpentier is basically a lapsed Catholic who claims to have seen a vision of Jesus while in the hospital 49 years ago for a stomach ailment. He recounts other lifelong events that he considers proof of being a saint.

The reporter weaves in some other claims by Mr. Carpentier. He received $535,000 for being a holdout tenant in the Windermere apartments; he is helping a friend, who happens to be Jewish, with his medical bills for his cancer treatments.

There's more, and the story is worth reading. What's left out of the story is why Mr. Carpentier chose to announce his sainthood the way he did, or if he's been doing it annually and now finally someone noticed. E-mails to Mr. Kilgannon have gone unanswered.

Luckily for Mr. Carepntier the reporter does not print his full West 108th Street address. He says it was in the August 30th ad, but prudently leaves it out. Digital searches don't dredge up ads, and damn if I can find the paper.

A man who claims to have gotten $535,000 and is currently living in a rent-subsidized, one-bedroom apartment, claiming to be a saint, could certainly attract a flock of faithful if they could find him. He's already received at least one visitor.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

There's a Word for It

The gold standard for obituary writing is usually on display in the New York Times. And when one of their writers, either by luck of the wheel, or by their cajoling, gets a hold of something that is close to their heart, it shows.

A perfect example of this is Margalit Fox's obituary on Sol Steinmetz, 80, a writer and a lexicographer who breathed his last word recently, but who inspired others to heap more than a few very well chosen ones on him.

Ms. Fox is a linguist who has written at least one book on language, sign language. But she is usally found on the obituary page turning out the more than occasional gem, generally about an inimitable New Yorker who has passed on and possibly vacated a rent-controlled apartment.

Mr. Steinmetz was right in Ms. Fox's wheelhouse. We was a writer, a lexicographer, and maven on the Yiddish language, who was sought after by the likes of William Safire (a mensch himself), media outlets and several major publishing houses for his insight into how words came to mean what people take them for.

Ms. Fox has evident fun is using her own knowledge of words to describe Mr. Steinmetz. Gilbert and Sullivan-like prose gets woven with Yiddish and Germanic entymology that after reading about Sol you wonder why you suddenly crave hot pastrami, strudel, and cold beer.

Since I’ve been growing up in New York (which I still am) I always knew that there is usually a good, succinct Yiddish word for something. And perhaps like a good researcher, I set out one day to find the word I knew that must exist.

When New York's governor Eliot Spitzer was free-falling from grace because of a prostitution scandal a few years ago, I asked the salesman at Saks in the menswear department, Jerry Straus, (who I knew knew Yiddish) what would be the Yiddish word to describe Spitzer?

Jerry, while still sizing me up and the inventory, didn’t miss a beat and told me the word/phrase would be “pes koon yack.” (My phonetic spelling.) I asked him what it meant.

I recorded his explanation on a piece of paper that I still carry around with me. I gave it a hieroglyphic notation on my note page of ‘<<,’ meaning what Jerry told me, "lower than low." As expected, I was right about Yiddish having the perfect way to describe someone. I learned a few other Yiddish words that evening while picking out a sport coat, but that’s another story. Ms. Fox closes her ode to Sol by by quoting someone as saying that Mr. Steinmetz was known as never having a bad word to say about anyone. But then again, he did know Yiddish quite well.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

June Cleaver

Barbara Billingsley...Dies at 94

The last name was familiar. Wasn't Sherman Billingsley the guy who ran the legendary Stork Club in New York? Watering hole for the rich and famous?

Turns out there was a connection to the name, but quite unexpectedly, there was also a connection to TV's June Cleaver, the mom on the show 'Leave It to Beaver,' a 50s, 60s family sitcom that oozed goodness and understanding, and created envy, at least amongst those who didn't see their own households as such nice places to be.

It turns out that Barbara's first of three husbands was a nephew to Sherman. Barbara was born in California in 1915. Prohibtiion started in 1920, and lasted unti 1933. No famous saloon in New York wasn't also a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Growing up I used to watch 'Leave It to Beaver' when the TV wasn't being hauled away down the front steps to "the shop." for inevitable repair. "The shop" were two words no kid wanted to hear the TV repairman tell his mother, who, through no real fault of her own, didn't act, look, or talk at all like June Cleaver. I think I'd have been the first to know, if she did.

I was closer in age to Beaver than Wally when I watched the show. I can't remember the content of a single episode. I do remember always thinking that Wally had too much to worry about, though. Like girls, AND trigonometry. I really wasn't in any hurry to grow older. It looked tough.

There's a great line in the movie Casablanca where Claude Rains as Inspector Renault tells Rick, Humphrey Boagart, that he likes to think he killed a man. It's the romantic in him.

Now, as an adult reading about an adult who I saw as kid, I like to think Barbara was quite the item, flirting with stage hands, smoking and drinking in the Stork Club, and in general, having a life that wasn't really what she had on TV. I like to think we could have dated. It's the romantic in me.

She did remain true to the character and wouldn't take parts that made fun of June or the 50s era sitcoms. And just think, if our own TV didn't leave the house so often, I might have done a better job at remembering an episode in June Cleaver's life.

Friday, October 22, 2010

This Is Good to Hear

One of my efforts in progress is to record what I feel are great newspaper leads, quotes or descriptions within stories I've read. This is a pure work in progress that is never over. Wake up and buy a paper, and there might be something to marvel at.

Some days are better than others. And some days are all-time classics. Take today for instance. The NYT is not often tongue-in-cheek. Certainly nowhere near as often as the WSJ's A-head pieces that can contain double digit double meanings before you even turn the page. But today, the NYT wins.

This morning, front page, below the fold, the lead under the headline New Way to Help Chickens Cross to Other Side goes:

Shoppers in the supermarket today can buy chicken free of nearly everything but adjectives. It comes free-range, cage-free, antibiotic-free, raised on vegetarian feed, organic, even air-chilled.

Coming soon: stress-free?

This is certainly enough to grab your attention. No real hint of what's to come. Just wait. The headline will come into focus.

"...are preparing to switch to a system of killing their birds that they consider more humane. The new system uses carbon dioxide gas to gently render them unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit..."

Until now, chicken nuggets never brought out images of what it might be like to be in a Turkish prison.

The story goes on, complete with a picture of the new gassing apparatus. The story is so good that the quote of the day comes from the end of the article. It seems the technique, while not completely new in all countries, creates some marketing challenges. How do you brag about killing chickens? "People don't want to know too much," Marc Cooper, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is quoted as saying when discussing methods for slaughtering chickens.

Just a few days ago the NYT Quote of the Day came from the story about people who were living to be a 100 and their observations on how they got there. Secrets of the Centenarians appeared in Tuesday's Science Times section as the page one story. Three of the four nicely pictured people on the page are female, so the "survived by" tilt to women is again borne out.

I always thought it was a funny question that had no real answer when someone would interview one of these people and always ask what is their secret to their longevity. I always wanted to hear someone say is wasn't the oatmeal they ate for 60 years, but really rather just the fact that they kept breathing, hadn't died, and were still here. Turns out, someone did answer it that way.

"There's no secret about it really, You just don't die and you get to be 100," is how Hazel Miller answered the inevitable question. Brava Hazel. You told it like it is.

If you do think about it though, a chicken never gets quoted on what it's like to be a 100.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Unscripted Fate

Johnny Sheffield, 79, the actor who played Boy in the Tarzan films, died after suffering a heart attack when he fell off a ladder while pruning a palm tree.

I only hope I can go out with that much irony.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Come On Down

In the 1960s there was a fellow on TV named Jim Dooley. This Dooley was in no way related to Tom Dooley who the Kingston Trio were singing about to, “hang down your head and die,” but was rather a hunky, good-looking, suntanned pitchman for Florida tourism who stood in orange groves and urged frozen New Yorkers to, “Come on down.” It obviously worked, because Florida is full of New Yorkers eating oranges, if they don’t cause unwanted side effects with their medications. Jim said, “Come on down.” quite a lot on TV at the time.

Also in Florida in the 60s was a humdinger of a murder trial. Young Melvin Lane Powers was accused, along with his aunt, Candace (Candy) Mossler of murdering Candy’s wealthy husband, Jacques. Aside from being lovers, Melvin was Candy’s nephew. She was his mother’s sister. Air conditioning wasn’t advanced enough to cool this one off.

Through the miracles of a nifty defense, they were acquitted. Any resemblance to any other Trials of the Century is not coincidental. It’s just life.

The authorities pursued no other suspects after the pair was acquitted.

Melvin has now just passed away; Candace preceded him years ago. Also no longer with us is the columnist Dick Schaap, who then writing for the Herald Tribune, wrote that since the jury acquitted the two there must be someone still out there who did it. We weren’t safe.

Dick implored them to, “Come on down.” They never did.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

They Miss Someone

A perfect storm of circumstances took me from a short vacation in Chicago where an offspring was running the Chicago Marathon, to Greensboro, North Carolina, where a possible business view of the future was unfolding.

As is my practice, I always get the local paper, and I always check out the obituaries. Chicago newspapers were wholly disappointing in a tabloid format. Gone was the broadsheet Chicago Tribune that I remember when I first was in Chicago with my mother in the 50s. They had the only newspaper I had seen to that point that had color, during the week, and on the front page!

The obituaries were obituaries. Informative to those who needed to know, but bland to the outsider.

Greensboro was another story. It was my first time in the region, and while a stay at an airport Marriott and a day of meetings at an office park gave me no sense of population and sightseeing, the newspaper provided. It was also the first time I was ever in a hotel room with the Gideon Bible AND The Book of Mormon. Phone books are gone, but these two remain.

The Greensboro News & Record treats obituaries like the Times did with its 'Portraits of Grief ' after 9/11. A Wednesday edition boasted two pages of thumbnail sketches, nearly every one with a picture. Some outtakes:

In keeping with his sense of adventure and romance, Mac often flew his training missions at a low level over her house, and they were married after the war on December 29, 1945...He served under Wing Commander, Col. Jimmy Stewart...His Scottish heritage allowed him to be tenacious at work and play and to maintain his great sense of humor, story telling ability and contagious laugh.

Erin Lynn Riggs, 26, died Friday, October 8, 2010 at Moses Cone Hospital...In her free time she was a competitive pool player. She will be remembered for her big smile and even bigger heart by her very large circle of friends.

Beatrice Joyce Martin Clapp, 96...went to be with her Lord and Savior Monday...She had ten children who loved her dearly. She was the center of their world. There was no one like momma.

On this date his faith was made sight with his Lord, Jesus Christ...He fought a long battle with acute leukemia and fought like the Marine he was and died as a Christian warrior that he is. He fought the good fight and finished his course and has entered the presence of his Lord. His desire is for others to join him.

Frederick "Fred" William Rorrer left his earthly home in the early morning hours of Monday October 11, 2010...Those left here on this earth to honor and cherish his memory include...

World without end. Amen.