Thursday, March 31, 2011

Caveat Emptor

They're at it again. Renaming things.

The New York City Council approved a measure to add (which is really not quite renaming) former Mayor Ed Koch's name to that of the Queensboro Bridge, a 1909 erector set span that goes from 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, touches Roosevelt Island (formerly Welfare Island), and connects traffic of all kinds to Long Island City, Queens. The name addition is comewhat significant in that the former three-term mayor is still with us at the age of 86. The NYT in its Manhattan-centric world usually refers to any of NYC's four other boroughs (counties) as being "outer boroughs." Nowhere else on earth are so many "outers" connected by so many bridges and tunnels.

Years and years ago the Interborough Parkway, a sliver of road that connects two very hard to find points in Brooklyn and Queens was renamed Jackie Robinson Parkway, in order to honor the first Afro-American baseball player to play in the major leagues when he joined the Dodgers in 1947. Mr. Robinson had already passed away when the Interborough was renamed.

Another significant renaming came when the Triboro Bridge was renamed posthumously in honor of Robert F. Kennedy, a NY US senator. Triboro Bridge was a good name because the bridge connected three boroughs (two of them "outer"), the Bronx and Queens with Manhattan. RFK had been assisinated in 1968 as he was making a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The City Council's debate on adding Koch's name to the bridge produced some memorable lines for a Tonight show monlogue. The best one might have been from a Brooklyn councilman who felt that in Mayor Koch's 12 years in office he had more to do with providing housing for the population of Brooklyn on Rikers Island, where the city kept its jail, than anything else. This is known as sarcasm. The councilman's proposal was that Rikers be renamed after Koch. Descendents of the original Dutch family, Rikers, could not be reached.

The comments really only served to get statements memorialized on record and in the newspaper. The motion to add the mayor's name passed. Mr. Koch himself pointed out that there was opposition to naming the Geroge Washnigto Bridge after the first president. The span of course connects Manhattan with New Jersey, which is not a true "outer borough" since it happens to be another state. Yes, there was discontent in naming the bridge after the first president, but it opened as the George Washington Bridge, and wasn't renamed after the first caravan of cars crossed it. Originally Hudson River Bridge was proposed, but came to be discarded.

Mayor Koch in his enthusiam for having his name added to the structure even goes so far as to state he will stand like Horatio at the entrance to prevent any addition of tolls to what has been a free bridge since it was built. This is a nice gesture. But since they only collect tolls at one end these days, it is hoped the former Mayor can strategically position himself at the right end to prevent the levy. And he is 86. Bad weather might make his constant appearance difficult. But all this can be like whistling in the wind. The Sears tower in Chicago is now the Willis Tower, and the Marshall Field deaprtment store is a Macy's.

Perhaps just to prove that having your name associated with a major span is not always the most flattering of accolades, consider what the caption writer for the WSJ wrote (quite accurately) when they explained that the completly twisted, nearly inrecognizable wreck of an automobile that killed a pedestrian and injured the driver and a passenger was on a approah to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

Something like what the Bard said about roses, a bridge by any other name is still a pile of rust, potholes, steel, traffic, delays and accidents.

Your name here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

End of March

I've come to realize that after the winter we've had in the Northeast, I really appreciate a day that a foot of snow can't survive in.

Friday, March 25, 2011

This Name is Familiar...Didn't They...?

It may not be widely known, but a great deal of the obituaries that are seen regarding famous people are pre-written. Up to a point, of course.

Sometimes the subject has even come in for an interview to fill the obituarist in on their life. The subject, by all accounts, is never shown what the writer has crafted. Marilyn Johnson, in her seminal book on obituary writing, The Dead Beat, describes a scene in Chapter 4 where she is talking to the then obituary page editor of the The New York Times, Chuck Strum. He explains to her there are approximately 1,200 obituaries on file with the paper, waiting to be filled in with the details that have transpired since the original writing. Mr. Strum will not show any of them to Ms. Johnson.

She elegantly describes their existence: "There is a sense of the sacred; these files are the vessels of the world's fragile but still living history. Most of those 1,200 or so names in there are of marked men and women, of course, consigned to the list by age or disease or high-risk occupations like the presidency of the United States. But it touches me to see them guarded so carefully, as if the obits were hearts that Strum will transplant to the obits page after their hosts are declared dead."

And as can happen with anything living, it can die. And sometimes the writer of the obituary pre-deceases the subject. This doesn't scuttle the obituary. The original writer is noted, and any other additional writers who contributed to the now final product are also mentioned. The deceased, principal writer will however be the bylined author. As such, a reader who has been following their writers and subjects, might be jarred to see someone's name who they know is already no longer with us.

This happens, and happens often enough to be countable. A Tweet from Stephen Miller, (WSJ obituary writer) @obitsman, acknowledges the occurrence because much is currently being made of Mel Gussow's seemingly from-the-grave NYT bylined obituary on Elizabeth Taylor. Ms. Taylor, who just passed away, is recounted by Mr. Gussow, who passed away in 2005. Mr. Gussow's original piece was brought up-to-date by others.

As Mr. Miller points out, the criss-cross does happen. One of the more famous ones I can remember is the Red Smith obituary on Jack Dempsey. The Manassa Mauler passed away in 1983, and Red Smith passed away in 1982. Therefore, Red's bylined obituary appeared in the NYT, below the fold, after his own demise.

I remember noticing this and writing to Dave Anderson, a NYT sports columnist colleague of Red's and asking if, to his knowledge, did Dempsey ever see his own obituary.

Apparently, the protocol that Mr. Strum followed with Ms. Johnson was in effect. Dave replied that no, Jack hadn't seen the obituary, but "wasn't it great."

Yes, it was.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


We already know you can learn things from obituaries, and not just something about the deceased subject.

Take the recent Twitter posting from @Obitsman who links to the story of the nation's first Spelling Bee champion, Frank Neuhauser, who has just passed away at 97. Frank won the competition at the age of 11, correctly spelling g-l-a-d-i-o-l-u-s, a multiple blossom flower appearing on a stalky stem that apparently is in the the iris family.

I know gladiolus. I know plenty about gladiolus from my formative years spent in the family flower shop. I never knew they were part of the iris family, and apparently no one else in my family did either. I would have remembered that.

We sold plenty of them. We used plenty of them in funeral arrangements. In fact, they were used so often in funeral arrangements that people had an aversion to them because they reminded them of death. These customers, being alive, didn't buy the gladiolus.

The flower comes in a variety of colors, and given a mixture of these colors you can create some hideous pieces. They had a pretty good shelf life, but after a few days they were moved to the right of the refrigerator in hopes that a funeral order would come in and they could get used before they expired as well. As such, when they made it to a funeral piece, they weren't always at their freshest. And depending on far my overseers wanted to push the envelope, they could use some gladioli that were well past the freshness date, looking a bit weak around the petals, somewhat like gym socks that don't stay up.

I distinctly remember my great-uncle Peter using so many of these flowers from the right side of the refrigerator in a funeral piece that he basically cleared that side out. He got rid of all the "junk." The result was an awful looking wreath that was surely a "coat of many colors" that luckily my father intercepted before it left the shop. He basically ripped it all out and used slightly fresher flowers with a better sense of color coordination. The shop's reputation survived for another day.

The family is long out of the flower business. But I still slow down and look at flower shops, and have walked through what is left of the wholesale district on Sixth Avenue and 28th Street in New York. I remember a contemporary of my father telling him that he grew up in the family business as well, an apothecary--drug store--and always found himself looking at their windows with the pestel and mortar and glassware of colored liquids.

Frank's reward for winning the spelling bee is recounted as getting $500 in gold, a bike, and a visit to see the president, Calvin Coolidge. It was 1925. It is assumed that was all part of the first prize, and there was no ranking on the items.

Apothecaries as we knew them are pretty much gone, but there are still flower shops to gaze at. I have however noticed over the years that the flower gladiolus, "glads" as we called them, don't show up in florists' displays too often. In fact, I sometimes am hard put to even see any evidence of them.

And the only Calvin most people will think of is Calvin Klein.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Burial Mound

Was way behind on some reading, but did finally catch up to a February 25th WSJ story on the Yankees spring training in New Jersey during the war. Government imposed rail restrictions required the baseball teams to hold their training sites at locations north of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, and east of the Mississippi. It's a well researched story, with some great outtakes from the sportswriters of the day.

The weather in the north/northeast during winter is certainly not that of Florida, or the southwest. The writer, Joshua Robinson, reports that the newspaper reports of the era usually reserved the last paragraph for a comment about the lousy weather. One sportswriter, Rud Rennie of the New York Herald Tribune is quoted twice, once about the weather, when he concludes with the report that, "otherwise, everything is simply dandy. It's snowing."

But his best comment seems reserved for field conditions. In 1943 the Yankees trained in Asbury Park on a field so bad that Rud described the pitcher's mound as so poorly made that it looked "as if an elephant was buried there."

I don't think the legendary sportswriter Red Smith had made it to New York by then, but Rud is a typo away from Red.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Obit Within An Obit

Great line in an obituary:

Jean Dinning, 86 Songwriter of Pop Tragedy 'Teen Angel'

Her father is described by Douglas Martin as one whose "nine pitch perfect children improved a succession of church choirs."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

There Really Can Be Cultural Differences

A Twitter posting from @obitsman delivers posthumous recognition that the comedian Alan King might have really been Alan Kung, or at least someone more closely related to Confucius than anyone at the Friar's Club might have suspected.

One of Alan King's routines was to clearly point out that dead men are survived by their wives; that guys die before their spouses, and that perhaps, by inference, being married had something to do with shuffling off the mortal coil before the other half does.

It's a famous routine, available I'm sure on You Tube, that has Alan working his way through the assembled while reading death notices that, sure enough, point out that even octogenarians and older can be survived by equally elderly wives. "Survived by..." is the ongoing punch line.

Well, in China, it seems that even a bachelor male can be buried next to his wife. In fact, they like it like this. It keeps the descendants from having bad luck, even if the deceased male never even knew the interred member of the opposite sex while he drew earthly breath. "Survived by..." in Cantonese.

"Women are worth more money than men even after their death" is the axiom in certain Chinese regions. This of course implies they are worth more than men even when they're alive. This flies in the face of their logic and preference for male births over female births. The gender skewing over time can only create more gender disparity, to the point that statistically it will be even less likely that a male can ever have a female buried next to him.

Whether he's met her or not.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Grant US an Entrance

Stephen Miller, the obituary writer for the WSJ, goes by the Twitter handle @obitsman. Mr. Miller is well known for his craft, but the WSJ really only presents one opportunity, daily at best, to show off his skill. And this is generally confined to a business-type personality who has passed away. Occasionally, the complete oddball can find its way to the page, but it is not often.

Mr. Miller does his best to inform the world about others who have left us, and he does this via Twitter. The other day he informed us that U.S. Grant V, the president's great-grandson had passed away at 90, survived by others, but notably by U.S. Grant VI.

Talk about a dynasty! An unbroken chain of male heirs with the name U.S. Grant should assure the first Grant's presence on the $50 bill for eternity.

Fifties are my favorite bill. There is a special place in my heart for fifties. I only get them when I've been moderately successful at the racetrack and the payout from a bet warrants receiving at least one of them. Thus, fifties can only remind me of winning. Never mind that they get applied to a lunch or dinner tab, or suffer damage when reduced by another bet that goes south. They are the best thing to have in your pocket.

I once used a fifty to pay part of an outpatient deductible in cash as I was leaving an ER very late one night. I nearly cried. The reminder of my winning was disappearing. Fifties should not be used for health care. Ever.

Which of course brings me to what Mr. Miller's Tweet reminded me of. We already know something always reminds me of something, and U.S. Grant I-VI is no exception.

One of the more memorable side trips I ever made on a Tuesday when there is no racing at Saratoga was to take in Grant's summer cottage at Mount McGregor.

The Adirondack summer cottage, for some quirky reason known only to a land surveyor, literally sits inside an active miminum security prison's perimeter. You can get to the cottage without much trouble, but you are supposed to stop at the guard house and tell them you want to visit the cottage. My friend was driving and I neglected to tell him to do this. (Actually, I think he didn't listen.)

He didn't see anyone in the booth (the place is not Disney World) and didn't speed through, but did proceed through without stopping. We followed the signs and soon encountered a police car blocking the road to the cottage. One very annoyed, armed corrections officer got out and basically asked what did we think we were doing.

I don't remember if we had to get out of the vehicle, but it was no time to crack wise. I knew something was omitted from our entrance.

It didn't take much explaining, and we didn't have to open the trunk to convince him we weren't bringing in weapons, so we got to proceed after only suffering some very glaring looks.

The summer cottage is of course a museum and is where Grant died shortly after completing his memoirs. They stopped the clock in the parlor when he took his last breath, having succumbed to cancer, I believe.

Moral? Stop at the booth and tell them you'd like to see the cottage. Be patient. Wait for further instructions. Buy souvenirs.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Lion Burps Tonight

There's a plain-as-day out quote in today's WSJ by Dereck Joubert who spends time in Africa with his wife Beverly making movies about lions. The reporter Ralph Gardner, Jr. reports that the Jouberts have never been attacked by lions, and only once by a thirsty elephant who tried to steal their water.

They are not, however, totally nonchalant about their surroundings when they are tented in the wild. Dereck explains, "We don't walk around at night. It's like not going to certain areas of the city after dark." He further adds the kicker: "So many accidents happen when guys have a few beers and wander off and get eaten."

From a lion's point of view, this might spark debate. "Tastes great." "Less filling."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Things People Say

I had occasion the other night to attend a reading- presentation by an author who has been fortunate enough to produce two books in the last few years that have gone from hardcover, to paperback to electronic, and that still remain in people's possession. And since the author seems to be in good health and not about to contribute their name to what precedes a comma in an obituary, I'd say we're likely to find some more things that come from this person.

But people give without even being aware of what they're giving. And last night was an example. It came in the form of a quote that was not uttered as a sound bite, not scripted by a speech writer, but was just part of something they were saying. They happened to be talking about librarians and how they quite nicely and patiently translate the public's queries into something they understand and are thus able to provide the needed help. What we hope diplomats did.

The author it seems had spent some time physically near librarians and got a sample of what their day could be like. The context of the quote went something like this. "Believe me, there are an unbelievable number of ways to be misunderstood." Isolate this utterance, roll it around in your mind, and you've got a terrific sound byte, caption, something quite dramatic, or even funny (I think).

I've long loved the cartoons in The New Yorker. Going waaaaaaay back. I've worked their settings and captions into conversations when I thought they fit. It's just something I do. Something generally always reminds me of something. And like anything else, there are cartoons you love, ones you think are stupid, and ones that are just plain impossible to understand. Find what you like, and remember it.

The New Yorker long ago realized the commercial value of these cartoons and will of course sell you copies. PowerPoint presentations sometimes can't seem to be without at least one. I've also always liked editorial cartoons and sport cartoons. I've also always wished I could draw a cartoon. I can't draw, however. So I imagine an image with a caption.

I don't spend a great deal of time doing this, but it can be fun. I was once going to try and get a family friend who can draw create a single panel cartoon in a George Price, or Chon Day style of the front door to our house in Flushing. Since that era represented the height of sports activity by its inhabitants, running, roller hockey, biking, baseball, and swimming I thought if they were to draw our front door as if it were a gym locker door, with our address as the little plated number, and put a couple in front of the door that had one explaining to the other that, "the people inside are really into sports," it would be hilarious. I still think it's funny, but we never did get Cindy to do it. But it's not too late. She's still with us. And we know where she lives.

So, imagine,"There are an unbelievable number of ways to be misunderstood" being a cartoon caption. This is a reverse setup to The New Yorker's showing a drawing on its Web Site and having you suggest tag lines. Two images come to mind, one serious, and one I think is funny. Editorial style: Picture anything post-apocalypse, post-nuclear, post-war ravaged. New Yorker style: Bride and groom with a priest in front of them.

It's my world, and I try and have fun.