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.