Saturday, July 31, 2010

Star Island

Carl Hiassen has a new book out, Star Island. I read and enjoyed his last two books, Nature Girl and Skinny Dip. Despite finishing those two books, I didn't review them. And although I have bought Star Island, I've barely started it and have no immediate plans to review it. Reviewing unfinished book is frowned on in some quarters and is probably a good habit to get out of. Waiting for me to finish a book and then review it will likely take you to the author's next release.

So, as much as this might be a pre-review of Star Island, it is also just a few words about Carl, the people he writes about, and some observations on books in general.

Maybe you can't, or shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but boy, does a good one help. A good cover should be able to help sell a book. Carl's 'Florida' series comes in South Beach pastels, glossy dust jackets with embossed lettering. I had a cousin who printed these kind of book covers from a business he had on Hudson Street. He made his living printing book covers, and it was quite an operation with a huge Heidelberg press.

Star Island. Two word title. Two words for Carl's name, and two small print words that tell you 'a novel.' Anyone who has recently spent some time cruising book store tables knows that non-fiction books generally have subtitles that seem to go on like chapter headings, or chapters themselves. Two examples.

The Story of Success
Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

The departed comedian Alan King would remark that if you wanted to read about love and marriage you had to buy two books. Can you imagine what subtitles they'd have in today's publishing era? Just cruise the tables.

So,we've got simplicity with Carl, right on the cover. And the back? The usual effusive praise from cross-pollinated businesses or folks who have been over Carl's house lately? Hard to tell. But the back of Star Island has blurb praise about his prior book, Nature Girl. Five raves from media companies. Nothing from anyone about the current book. That's confidence.

And the people who inhabit the books? Carl claims that writers are attracted to "lowlifes and bottom-feeders." I'm sure this is not universally true, but he does seem to make the most of describing fictional surrogates for the real ones. You might say these people are just folks, but they are people whose reproductive glands control their thoughts. Drained of secretions, they'd have no minds at all. These aren't necessarily "my kind of people," but if Florida had OTBs, I'd probably run into them there.

I was hoping to catch Carl at his New York book signing at a Manhattan Barnes and Noble on Tuesday. Unfortunately for me my real work required more of me than I usually like to give it, and I couldn't make it.

I did however substitute it by taking in Carl's interview with Al Roker on the Today show that was held that morning. Like many, I was able to do this through the miracle of the Web. This of course was a poor substitute for hoping to be in the presence of someone who put the words "vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed and stool softener" in a single sentence when describing consumed ingredients. I got that far into the book. Chapter one.

Thus, I missed my chance to ask Carl if there was an antidote to that mixture, or, were we going to have to wait for FDA approval on it?

Maybe it's in the book. I'll get there.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The View

There are no good reasons for ‘The View’ to exist other than to afford Barbara Walters the opportunity to be in broadcasting longer than Arthur Godfrey.

I'm sure however harsh this sentiment is, it's not the only one. Nor, I'm sure would an opninion of praise be the only one. It's a big world, with a lot of time and a lot of stations. It's the punch line to a great Myron Cohen joke: everybody's got to be someplace. (Of course Myron Cohen's joke has to do with a lover being discovered in a bedroom closet by a husband whose wife is under the sheets, but this shouldn't get in the way of anything.)

Even the president has to be someplace when he's not where he usually might be. How else to explain President Obama dovetailing a New York fund raising appearance with an appearance on the show.

And there we have it. A front page tabloid picture of President Obama once again on a show with 5 women.

I don't know how a guy crosses his legs like they do and still manages to sit still.

Monday, July 26, 2010

There's A Call

There's a cute story in today's NYT about how the White House switchboard operators may not be the vaunted locator of people they used to me.

As one might expect, the story revolves around the attempts that were made to get an Agriculture Department employee, Shirley Sherrod, (former employee) to call the boss.

The story is a little tough to follow, but basically comes through that Ms. Sherrod didn't call the Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack back to discuss the aftermath of Ms. Sherrod's "resignation." The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs sets out to explain to the press corps the attempts that have been made to get Mr. Sherrod to call in, even while she's appearing on television giving interviews left and right.

We don't really get a clear picture if Ms. Sherrod is not responding because she doesn't want anything to do with Mr. Vilsack (he did fire her), or she's really not getting the message that there's a message for her.

And that might really be the problem. A message that there's a message. The story is filled with tales of people being confronted that the White House (not the secretary of agriculture) is trying to get them, and that the bearer gets results and the intended calls in. This is attributed to the prowess of the White House switchboard operators who act like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and always get who they're after.

The story about these White House operators is not new. I distinctly remember reading one that told of the time they got someone to show up on the shoreline of a lake, wave two officials in who were fishing, and tell them that president Eisenhower wanted them to call. They did.

In somewhat typical Times angst, the fact that Ms. Sherrod either couldn't be reached, or didn't call back is offered as "a metaphor for social incompetence," as Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice, seems to sigh out loud.

But when it's apparent that's it's the president who's trying to get a hold of her, and not the secretary of agriculture, the loop is closed. Ms. Sherrod makes contact with president Obama.

But face it. Not everyone wants to be reached, even when the bearer of the message is right in front of them. Years and years ago there was a fellow at work who was a pompous jerk.
His name was Ed. In those days, people answered other people’s phones, and told them of a call. He didn’t like those that did this to tell him, “Ed, there’s a call for you.” (Thank God, “Yo” was unheard of then.)

He insisted on being called Mr. Ahr. It was then they started calling him Mr. Ed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Finally, A Bit of Kookiness

With the passing of Robert McG. Thomas we haven't been treated to many off-beat obituaries in the NYT. They're usually all very GOOD obituaries, but the subjects, through no fault of their own, just can't be held even remotely close to The Goat Man.

The recent winners of Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog eating content are still with us, but Bill McCabe, who may have been the only man to score a 100 on the NYC Sanitation Department employment physical—known as the “Superman” test—has, at the age of 90, left us. Apparently, he always stayed fit.

His life wasn't really all that interesting. A NYC resident passes a civil service exam and physical in 1940 and becomes a Sanitation man, all the while waiting to get on the list for the police, becomes a cop, desiring even more to become like four other family members and become a fireman, which be eventually does. He retires from the Fire Department, works at the airport and passes away in a nearby NYC suburb.

But the hook is the singular event, the perfect score on the Sanitation physical that helps land Bill on the Times obituary page, complete with three column of story and a picture at 19 years old (when he passed the exam) that would now probably put him on the short list for a fitness billboard, or an underwear ad.

What Bill accomplished became an unrecognized world record. He lifted, hoisted, lifted, ran, broad-jumped (long jumped), dashed, jumped, dodged, ran, climbed, vaulted, and ran--at times with various weights over different heights and distances--the course in 10.8 seconds.

Given as we are to slogans, it might then be expected to call Sanitation workers New York’s Fittest. Pass a test like that, you’ve got to be fit. Police are already referred to as Finest, and the Fire Department uses Bravest.

In fact, it’s not urban legend, it’s true, that when the Sanitation workers went out on strike in January 1968 and the garbage started piling up at the curb, Governor Rockefeller would not call out the National Guard to remove the trash. He claimed they were not in the demanding physical shape it takes to do that job.

Luckily, it was a very cold January, and stink and health hazards didn’t get too bad before the strike was settled. And the Guardsmen weren’t suddenly forced into doing pushups, situps, and running over things while carrying weights.

Being fit does remind me of the time I was so taken with Carlos Lopes’s World Championship cross country running performance at the Meadowlands sometime in the 80s, that I took to making my own hurdle course. Being a bit of an avid track and field fan and a persistent runner, I always knew it was hard to run AND jump over things at the same time. To keep going, and to do it fast. I always admired steeplechasers. I always thought they were the fittest.

So I stacked an apple crate on top of a picnic bench in the back yard. I ran down the driveway, make a turn into the yard, and made my leap. I cleared everything, but distinctly remember hearing something in one of my knees make a sound. It didn’t sound encouraging. I landed fine and was not hurt. But I listened. The bench went back where it had been, and the apple crate went back in the garage.

Finest, Bravest, Fittest. Safest?

I’m not exactly sure, but I can almost swear the NYC Correction officers had an ad out recently that said they were NYC’s Safest. One can only imagine the T-shirts and the wearer’s leering looks after a few drinks.

I think the ad was meant to imply we are all safe because they keep everyone who is supposed to be removed from us away from us and don’t let escapes happen. They have a point.
I don't know if they got the raise.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Karate Kicks

The reader might remember back in March a bit of a rant on the naked men statues that began appearing in NYC.

A letter I wrote to Mayor Mike with a copy to the Daily News got prominently placed in the Daily News in their Voice of the People feature. I have to say, very prominently placed. It appeared in the April 8th edition of the paper, complete with headline, puns fully intended, and an appropriate picture of the mayor contemplating something. Perhaps a navel. Perhaps not. The picture was worth many words.

Well, the statues are still there, and by all accounts will still be with us through August. They’ve held up well, and I can recount how well.

I pass a statue that graces the northeast corner of 26th Street and Fifth Avenue. (Pictured above.) It’s a busy Madison Square Park area. Going home, I’m headed for Penn Station, so I’m walking west on 26th, with a view of the statue before I actually reach the corner. Last week I spotted someone who quite plainly wasn’t all there, who was taking a keen interest in the figure. I knew something was going to happen.

This was around 6 P.M. and the spot was busy. The interested individual was somewhat husky, had his baseball ball cap askew on his head, and was dressed somewhat shabbily, but not automatically homeless looking. His eyes did appear to be on the side of his head. He was distracted by the figure.

I reached the corner and had to wait for the light. The distracted fellow by now had measured how far to stand away from the statue so he could deliver smashing karate kicks to its groin. The statue didn’t budge, much as I hoped someone would fulfill a wish.

As he was kicking I made sure I stayed in motion at the corner, pacing in small circles. I didn’t want the kicker to think I too was a statue (despite being dressed) and that he had to deal with two of them.

A few kicks at a well cemented piece of bronze and the kicker gave up. But now he took out a large marker and was scrawling on the statue’s forehead. A price, maybe?

Quite honestly, others were starting to look, but I’m not a gaper. The traffic stopped, the light was in my favor, and I just plain kept going, somewhat disappointed he wasn't able to accomplish what it seemed he set out to do. It's hard to make something cast in bronze double over in pain.

The statue is still there. No price on his head.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In a Word

I don't know if I promised myself I wouldn't get picky, but sometimes you do just feel you want to say something about what someone is saying. Sometimes this gets very confusing, especially when I read Letters to the Editor about other Letters to the Editor about stories I never read. I really have to start to cut the cord somewhere.

The following is culled from a 3-Star reader Amazon book review someone wrote on Last Call, Daniel Okrent's book on Prohibition. There are way more 5 and 4 star reviews, and only a smattering of lower ratings. For someone who claims not to be critical, the writer goes on about things that are not liked. The following:

The book is informative and lively, but eventually the mannerisms in the writing can get irritating, April 25, 2010

HARD WORDS. The author sometimes uses words that are rarely used in speech, and that are only encountered in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) that is taken by high school students. This is not a criticism of the book, it is only an observation. Of course, it is widely recognized that the ultimate book that uses hard words is Melville's MOBY DICK. At any rate, we encounter these words: dithyramb (page 25), anodyne (p. 18), emolument (p. 29), eponymous (p. 35), punctilious (p. 45), disingenuous (p. 93), eulogists (p.110).

Hardly makes it Finnegan's Wake. But of course, that's not exactly what they said. Last Call is 468 pages long and the reviewer cites 7 words as examples of rarity. Perhaps. But the list stops by page 110. I guess Mr. Okrent got a hold of himself, or the reader knew all the other ones that came after.

Certainly nothing wrong with being sent to the dictionary now and then. Another reviewer notes they were sent to the online dictionary now and then. I confess to being sent to the hard copy ones. And I didn't mind. I learned a few new words.

Like today. In a book review in the WSJ of Voyager, by Stephen J. Pyne, the reviewer, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, uses the word "hairshirt" to describe a confab of guilt ridden academics talking about space colonization.

I couldn't get the definition from the context, so I had to look it up. It's a great word. I can't wait for someone on Fox News to use it. I think I can guess the context.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The 18th Amendment

I grew up with people who directly experienced the results of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The amendment was known as Prohibition and it banned the creation, sale and consumption of alcohol in this country from 1920 to 1933. 'Banned' is the right word. It hardly stopped it.

Even now in my 60s I still marvel at how a nation passed such legislation. I've hardly been alone in my amazement. Daniel Okrent did more than just be amazed. He sets out in his just published, highly detailed book, Last Call, to explain how the forces and the mood of a people came to create, pass and sustain such legislation for 13 years. And they didn't just get mad at alcohol and its effects in 1919 and reach January of 1920 and start the Prohibition clock. As Mr. Okrent finely shows, there was a history behind it that started as soon as people hit the shores, at least as early as the 1700s.

My amazement began when growing up in Manhattan I heard stories of how my grandfather's flower shop on 18th Street and Irving Place was the front for one of New York's many speakeasies. In this case, Pete's Tavern, an establishment that started serving the nectar in 1864, and realistically is still doing it today--without interruption.

The shop occupied the first eight feet or so of the storefront. You gained access to the speakeasy after going around the flower shop refrigerator. There is still a break in the floor as you walk in that shows where the tile was disturbed to accommodate the flower shop. There is also a break in the bar's rail where it was made to end so the flower shop could be squeezed in to provide "cover."

Apparently, flower shops were a favorite "cover" for speakeasies, which were hardly hard to find in New York at any time. If you couldn't get an illegal drink in New York, you weren't thirsty.

Immediately to the left of the entrance still hangs a huge weight driven pendulum clock, that sadly, for some time now, has not been working. My father always filled me on stories of the shop and Pete's and told me that he'd climb up on a stool after school and wind the clock in the family shop. He had a good number of years to do so, too. He started doing it when he was in grammar school, and by the time he graduated high school, Prohibition was repealed and now he too, could legally drink. And he did.

Aside from letting people pass through to take advantage of what was behind the refrigerator, my grandfather and his brother did sell flowers. Certainly enough to support them, gradma and the four boys, making enough to eventually move to a far bigger store a block away on 18th Street and 3rd Avenue (after Prohibition, when Pete's said they'd like the space back), and to even move from there across the street, north to the other corner, and remain in business until 1975. For over 50 years, there was a family flower business on three different corners, all within a block of each other. They knew the neighborhood.

Mr. Okrent's book is as much a history book as it is anything else. It is richly detailed, heavily documented, has pictures, and is going to take me forever to read, for one because it probably would be considered a slow read because of its content, but also because I take time reading a STOP sign.

But the explanation for Prohibition is revealed. And that's what matters. To me, in an astounding piece of scholarship, Mr. Okrent recounts how a Currier and Ives print of George Washington is altered to please the current "Tea Party" to keep Washington from being portrayed with a glass of wine in his hand as he addresses his troops. The bottle itself on a table is replaced by his hat. The print was reissued in 1876, in its altered form, from something that was first published in 1848. There was "spin" in 1876. And it didn't just start then, either.

Mr. Okrent, has often happens when so much history is researched and fed back to a curious public, is now the go-to guy on Prohibition. A Ken Burns piece awaits, made possible by the book.

Recently, Dan summarized five books that all had something to do with alcohol for a piece in the WSJ. Among these books was one I pounced on, The Speakeasies of 1932, a book illustrated by the great caricature artist Al Hirschfeld, with text by Mr. Hirschfeld and Gordon Kahn. There is an introduction by Pete Hamill.

The book is a treasure, with full page Hirschfeld prints of various speakeasies and their bartenders and customers. The adjoining one page of text is lively written and describes a style of people and times that can really only be seen on Turner Movie Classics these days. Al Hirschfeld passed through the Prohibition era as an adult, a customer and an artist. His life span of 99 years allowed him to see people attend Broadway shows in tuxedos and then, to him, sadly in tank tops and shorts.

Pete's was famous. Still is. I thought surely Al made it to 18th Street and took notes. Maybe I'd read about my grandfather holding the door for him and pointing which way to go in case he wasn't there for the roses.

Sadly, Pete's didn't make it into book. Al and his drinking buddy were uptown from there, and downtown from there. East and west. Of course this doesn't mean he didn't make it past the carnations one night.

He just might not have remembered.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bob, George and Teddy

As it is with all great New Yorkers, you were either born here--or you were born someplace else. Origin of birth neither confers or withholds greatness. Birth only puts you on the planet. The rest is up to you.

Even the most rabid World Cup soccer fan knows by now that Bob Sheppard passed away on Sunday, July 11th. Bob was 99, and was one of the few who could be called a non-playing Yankee legend. He was of course the voice of the New York Giants and the New York Yankees, announcing lineups, batters and fielders for the Yankees since 1951. He was born in Queens, one of the four "outer boroughs" of NYC if you write for the New York Times.

Bob grew up surrounded by the precise speech of his parents, apparently driven by their joy in speech itself. We don’t really know if God has a voice, or what it sounds like, but Noah likely heard Him, or someone who sounded an awful lot like Bob Sheppard before he went ahead and built that ark. Otherwise, how else could we have gotten here?

And then we have the passing of George M. Steinbrenner, the principal owner of the New York Yankees who passed away on Tuesday morning, at the age of 80, just a little over a week after his July 4th birthday and two days after Bob Sheppard. Fireworks are a fitting backdrop to George's life.

I was at the Ali-Frazier March 8, 1971 fight at Madison Square Garden, the first of their three momentous meetings. The ring announcer, a legend himself, Johnnie Addie, didn't introduce many people. He merely motioned with his hand and said that anyone who was anyone "is here tonight."

No introduction or replay of George's life is needed here. He wasn't born in New York. But that hardly matters.

George passed away on the morning of the day that Major League Baseball would hold its annual All-Star game, this year in Anaheim, California, home of the Angels. There was nearly an entire day for all forms of media to recap and discuss George's life before the first player was announced in that night's game.

I once read someone who described Teddy Roosevelt as the person who wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, or the bride at every wedding he ever attended. He wanted to be the center of attention.

George, you didn’t do this on purpose, did you?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Future

Work from home.
We've already heard that one.
Living it, to some extent.
Before long, there will be 'work from the grave.'
Apple is working on it now.
And others.
This will cut down on unemployment numbers.
It will increase the world census.
No strain on the food supply.
Deceased don't eat.
Health expenses will not rise.
DNR will hold down costs.
It will be like the Internet.
Disruptive technology.
There will be no more obituaries.
Only status reports.
Communication via Twitter will be supplemented by Twitch.
There will be LOTS of time for everything.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Les Miz

I wouldn't have even freshly thought of this except for the piece in today's NYT on Nick Jonas starring in a summer production of Les Miserables in London.

A few weeks ago we were at a wedding on Cape Cod and in attendance was an Emerson College classmate of the bride. I don't remember his name, but like the bride, he's done shows. She's done Disney and dinner theater, and he was in a Broadway production of Les Miserables, playing what, I don't know. Not the lead, however.

The fellow at the wedding was married, in his late twenties, like the bride. Nowhere near as young looking as Nick over there, but certainly not without stage appeal and matinee idol looks. My unmarried daughter got her picture with him. His wife got a bit jealous. Oh-oh. He was headed to London to play in the same production as Jonas.

I'm old enough to answer my own questions and get them right. At the wedding, what did that guy have that I didn't?

The attention of nearly every female in the place.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Peter's Grill

As is so often the case, incredibly one thing leads to another.

Yesterday, July 4th and people were over. One couple had never been over before. A tour ensues.

Melissa pointed to the print I have of Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks.' It's a familiar scene and has been imitated with different people sitting at the counter. Melissa mentioned the Elvis version. We've seen that one too. With lights around it. Yikes.

Hopper's diner always reminded me of Peter's Grill, a corner establishment on 17th Street and 3rd Avenue, southwest corner, one block south from the family flower shop. The place had a huge curved window, a curved counter, and the usual coffee urns of the day. The place was fronted with so much glass I always thought it was impossible that it stayed in place.

A picture of Peter's can be seen somewhat in Lawrence Stelter's book on the 3rd Avenue El, a collection of remarkable color photos of the El taken along the route in the 1950s. In a telephoto shot, the sign that hung diagnonally from the storefront can be seen. Peter's Grill.

The walls were covered with diamond shaped embossed stainless steel. The place was plain as day and did serve food, but certainly didn't look like it had any to offer. I was in it enough times in the 50s and 60s. The owner was Peter Demas, and his son was a year ahead of me at Stuyvesant High School.

At some point in the 60s, I think, the place was torn down and I think an apartment house went up. So, why think about this now?

In today's NYT, on the Op-Ed page, Jerimiah Moss has a great piece, complete with the drawing captured above, on his search for the inspiration of Hopper's diner. Mr. Moss has done a GREAT deal of work, and basically comes away with the conclusion that the place never really existed as drawn, but was more a composite of Hopper's. It reminded him of an all-night coffee stand on Greenwich Avenue.

Mr. Moss expresses loss for what might have never really been there. But for me, I never even thought or considered where the scene might have come from, what city, what corner, what whatever. I never went looking for it. For me, it's always been Peter's Grill.

It always will be.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wooing LeBron

It's a current sport with the media. Suggest reasons LeBron James should sign with their city's basketball team. It's not just New York, but that is where I get exposed to the blitz.

A day does not go by that MANY, somewhere weigh in on reasons for LeBron choosing City/Team X. They do this using all media formats. The only place I've felt insulated from the pitches is in the elevator. But that of course doesn't prevent someone from talking about LeBron.

Since it is now getting close to when a decision on his part is reasonably imminent, furious entreaties are going out. Billboards have become the canvas for convincing. Recently, the NY Nets occupied space within sight of Madison Square Garden, home of the NY Knicks, making a billboard pitch about their desirability. The Garden people got upset and filed a protest with the NBA. Senate hearings might be next.

But an end might be in sight. In today's WSJ, Jason Gay offers 25 absolutely last-ditch, non-financial inducements to LeBron as to why he should come to NY. Each offering is coveted, even if fulfillment is doubtful. Some surely are not in Mr. Gay's control, and some are really the wishes of ALL residents, regardless of their ability to bounce a ball and shoot it at an unguarded net.

No. 2 was especially gratifying to read. I was sure I wasn't alone in my weariness of Ms. Sara Jessica Parker and her female friends, but it was nice to see in print the value of an offer, that a multi-million dollar basketball star might take New York over any other city/team, because it can be guaranteed...

Nobody will make you watch "Sex and the City."

Mr. Gay's list is worth reading, re-ranking and perhaps adding to. It was however interesting to note that an offer to have Grimaldi's pizza home delivered was made, considering the last time, and the only time that was done was for Sinatra.

That would be a coup. Most interesting was what Mr. Gay left out: a table at Rao's. With food.

Some things are impossible. There are things even beyond divine intervention. Like when Lee Trevino remarked that when there was thunder and lightning on a golf course he'd start running toward the clubhouse waving a 1-iron over his head. Lee reasoned that made him safe, because even God can't hit a 1-iron.