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.