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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Lieu Of

The Obitsman from the WSJ reports on a noticeable trend of death notices that close with an expressed desired to having those left behind support whoever the political candidate is in 2012 who will run against Barack Obama. They do this, or they express wishes of support for Republicans in general, or the Tea Party.

This of course is not quite like voting from the grave. It is a version of having a building named after you when you don't really have the money to achieve a plaque. It is something I saw a month or so ago when a friend sent me one of those Forwarded e-mails that have been everywhere. I generally delete these automatically, because to me they're never really worth reading. They're usually about how the land mass of the United States in Republican states is so much more than the land mass for Democratic states that obviously we're under some perverse rule. Never mind that the land mostly has sheep and wheat on it, no water, and certainly fewer people than the rest of the country. It does however have missiles. Somewhere.

A trend like this can be spotted and called a trend because so much of what gets written is digitally searchable. As Obitsman points, out a search for 'Tea Party' in these notices produced the Alice in Wonderland kind, and the Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck version.

It is not an alarming trend, although based on the comments from the blog this story appears in you wouldn't think so. People take sides. An alarming trend would be starvation, but that's another story.

For myself, my own comments went toward the observation that the possibilities for what people might further leave us with become endless. A little Twitter tag before the shuffle off.

I believe Dan Rather will leave us instructions that in lieu of flowers or a donation to whatever it is he succumbs to, will be to send money to launch an investigation.

Any investigation.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tony Curtis and The Legend

It was no surprise to me the other day when I came into the office and no one even mentioned that Tony Curtis had passed away. I'm the oldest person in the office by about 10 years, and Mr. Curtis's last movie that might have been seen by a wide audience pre-dated the MTV, reality show crowd. And they're not so young anymore.

In another office I once remarked to the fellow I worked with that Robert Wagner has just passed away. He said, "You mean the fellow who was married to Natalie Wood?" Sigh, "No."

I suppose if there are any Tony Curtis impersonators out there who aren't getting their meals in homes, some would start with lines that have always been attributed to him. From a medieval sword and costume movie in which he is to have said, in as rich a Bronx accent as they come, "Yondah lies da castle of my foddah." In the NYT obituary for Mr. Curtis, Dave Kehr asserts that he never said that line in the 1954 movie 'The Black Shield of Falworth.'

In another obituary, an AP one, the writer claims that he said the lines in a 1951 picture 'The Prince Who Was a Thief.' Perhaps both writers are correct. Sometime between 1951 and 1954 the studio got Mr. Curtis a speech coach who flattened his Jewish Bronx accent. Probably not

Another obituary claims he said the lines in the 1952 movie, 'Son of Ali Baba'. Stephen Miller in the WSJ wisely completely ducks the disputed rendition of English and concentrates on other aspects of Mr. Curtis's life, of which there were more than enough.

In somewhat of a bonus track, Mr. Miller forwarded an out quote from a 1980 interview with Roger Ebert where Mr. Curtis claims to have never said the line that way. He doesn't however clear up what picture he never said it in. Perhaps, as Sinatra recorded a few versions of the same song, the studio hired the same screenwriter and used the same script many times. Tony was certainly in more than one movie that had a castle in it. It's a possibility.

Again something additionally provided by Mr. Miller, Mr. Curtis's reputation for being a ladies man is enhanced by his own version of an event he shares in his "ungentlemanly" autobiography, 'American Prince,' in which he boasts to someone he knows standing on a street corner that he just added Yvonne DeCarlo, to his list of horizontally happy people.

I grew up when Tony Curtis movies were the current releases. I saw several on them. One of my favorites for the memories it brought back was when he played a musician who just comes to New York, in the 1960 movie 'The Rat Race.'

Tony gets to play with some musicians who send him on an errand and then steal and hock his instruments. Tony doesn't have enough money to check into the Dixie Hotel, a fairly nice Times Square hotel that goes for $7 a night.

The Dixie Hotel! Swank at $7 a night! I used to go there with my mother when it was also a bus terminal in 1950s and get on an Adirondack Trailways bus headed for Malone, New York some summers when she went to visit a woman she was a nurse with during the war. Malone, New York, and no Thruway. Twelve hours of hearing gears being shifted as the bus made it's way through upstate New York.

The Dixie lost whatever cachet it had when it became The Carter Hotel and was basically a single room occupancy welfare hotel. It is still there as the Carter, but the bus terminal part is long gone.

And in what became life imitating art, Mr. Curtis suffered an arrest on marijuana possession in England when he was making the 1970s TV series 'The Persuaders' with Sir Roger Moore. Tony's character was somewhat like himself; Bronx born, little formal education who become the forerunner to Ivan Bosky and Gordon Gekko: a tycoon. He and Roger set out on good deeds, I think.

After being arrested Mr. Curtis didn't have enough money for bail, so he wound up being detained a bit in an English jail. It seemed his assets weren't liquid enough to even post freedom from a low-level marijuana charge.

But you had to like his directness. Years ago he told the story during a televised interview that on the set on 'Some Like it Hot' he mentioned something about another female's anatomy within earshot of Marilyn Monroe, who, as Tony tells it, strides over to him, pulls her top forward and offers him to look down and tells Tony, "I bet she doesn't have tits like mine."

Probably not.