Friday, December 30, 2011

Carnegie Hall and the Coats

The first time I heard the story about the coats, Madison Square Garden, and the Six-Day Bicycle Race it came from a retired NYPD detective who spent some time each day hanging out in the family flower shop in the1960s. Barney Greene, a retired 3rd grade detective who started on the police force so long ago he told of the era when the patrolmen spent tours of duty that lasted days as they slept in the station house. They weren't called New York's Finest then, but perhaps New York's Most Fragrant.

Barney looked every bit a retired detective. Clean-shaven, pink faced, fedora, three piece suit, white shirt, tie, cuff links, collar pin, NYPD tie clasp, polished black shoes, and overcoat that he never seemed to take off. He was the house dick in the hotel lobby in any movie you ever saw, and that you'd now see on Turner Classic Movies. He lived in the neighborhood, was a bachelor whose brother played with my father as kids. He smoked cigarettes and didn't speak much, but did occasionally tell a story.

At some point in the 60s they renewed the Six-Day Bicycle Race at Madison Square Garden. This was the "old" Garden, on 8th Avenue and 50th Street. Six Day Bike Races were once very popular, but like a lot of things, disappeared.  The Six-Day Bike Race was six days of 24 hours of riding by bicycle teams from all over the world, competing on a banked, indoor track.  In today's lexicon I guess it would be billed as 24/6. Sundays were taken a little more religiously then.

Barney's taciturn story went that when people in the audience stood up and cheered during one of the special sprint portions of the race program, thieves would pop out of the old Garden's stairwells and scoop up the overcoats and minks left on the back railings and head for the exits, loaded down with whatever outerwear looked good enough to steal.

It was these special sprint portions of the program that drew a wider audience and a more flamboyant crowd that liked to bet on the outcomes. Typically mobsters and their girlfriends. Thus, better coats.

I was reminded of Barney's story when I read Jimmy Breslin's coat-grabbing account in "A Life, Damon Runyon."  The book is a biography of the reporter Damon Runyon and is filled with stories and characters from his era, described in Mr. Breslin's own descriptive, wise-cracking, sarcastic style that is as much a part of New York as Times Square.

Mr. Breslin, being a newspaperman himself, and a writer, describes the same scene, but in rich detail. Basically, the same thing happens, as it would repeat itself throughout the six day event. In Mr. Breslin's account, a coat with bullets in it goes accompanied out the exit with a new owner, a coat Damon Runyon was holding for someone.

The other night at intermission at Carnegie Hall I wandered toward the back of the hall on the main level and stood looking at the stage from the back railing. Just inside the railing I was leaning on was an inner railing that ran the width of the seats. Seats were empty for intermission, and several coats were draped over this inner railing. All within easy reach.

I could only think about the story from the flower shop and Jimmy Breslin's description. No one appeared from the shadows and made off with the coats. A colorful selection of North Face puff coats. Not a damn one was worth stealing.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Obits Annual 2012

When you're a media company as large and influential as the New York Times, you can set the standard. You lead, not follow.  There are fiscal years, calendar years, and NYT years.

Take one of their latest publications, "The Obits Annual 2012." It landed wrapped under our Christmas tree with my name on it. I unwrapped it.

Since we haven't yet crossed the divide into 2012, no one has yet passed away in what will be the new year.  Yet the Times uses 'Annual 2012' in their title for a book that contains selected obituaries that appeared in their newspaper from July 2011 back to August 2010. Thus, the Times "obituary year" is August 2010 through July 2011.

No problem really, once you absorb the ground rules. They do present a year, 12 months, and provide a controlled substance for obituary addicts like myself and others. They are providing a drug and a service.

The book is a fairly hefty paperback, arranged by months and trumpeted by some literary celebrity blurb, one of which is so forceful it makes its way onto the cover, above the title. There is a foreward by Pete Hamill, which might be seen as bad news for some of Mr. Hamill's enemies, since his foreward is not being published posthumously. He's not included as an obituary entry. The NYT obituary editor, William McDonald contributes an introduction.

Mr. Hamill leads off as sonorously as he talks: "The cause of death, or course, is always life." My own thoughts run that life, however short, is what always precedes death, and obituaries are about that life. Mr. McDonald gives us the numbers, and the nuts and bolts of the business of delivering the stories of the selected deceased. Neither of these sections are so long that you are tempted to skip them. They are good setups to what follows. Lots of reprinted obituaries, arranged chronologically, with pictures. Not bad at all.

Before I even saw the book, I longed for something like it. There have been compilations before, but it's the inclusion of the photos that add life to stories about someone's passing. I will forever remember when I read Robert McG. Thomas Jr's. 1998 obituary of Charles McCartney, 'The Goat Man,' whose obituary was accompanied by a picture of Mr. McCartney in front of the school bus he had lived in at one point, the day it appeared in the paper.

Reading obituaries was nothing new for me, and reading them in the Times was also nothing new, but reading that one that day, I got so excited I felt I had to tell others there was something they should read. I at least shared the joy with the guy who sat next to me at work. I can't say he became a convert, but he did enjoy what he read.

Robert McG. Thomas is no longer with us, himself getting a nice sendoff in January 2000. But nothing ended there. A lot more passings, and a lot more well-written, witty, ironic, informative pieces by very capable writers await us in the Annual 2012 edition.

Even if we haven't put the new calendar up yet.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Sign of the Times

Yesterday's WSJ carried this picture of  France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel having a Euro discussion in sign language, made necessary because their vocal cords had given out after a year's worth of meetings and PowerPoint presentations.

Recovery is expected, that may also include the Euro.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Speak Low and Get Ready for Speech Therapy

I'm not at all sure how these things happen, but yesterday, @obitsman Tweeted a link to a story from Scientific America, along with an audio clip, of what is being detected as a rapidly gaining practice among 20-something women to end their sentences with a low guttural vibration sound. This practice has a name, and it's called 'Vocal Fry.'

Of no surprise, it is believed young women are consciously, or unconsciously imitating patterns of speech of Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian. Imitating speech of celebrities is nothing new, and the current trend is seen as a pleasant replacement to the 'uptick' at the end of sentences. The audio clip gives examples of each, but frankly, I can't detect the 'Vocal Fry' sound. The uptick, yes.

Add to this today's WSJ's  'A Hed' piece on capturing a stray cow that came to be known as 'Ninja Cow,' and you have what may be evidence of species regression.

Ogden Nash famously penned two lines that went: "The cow is of the bovine ilk/One end is moo, the other milk." This seems to be the 'moo' story.

In its own right, the cow story is the usual great blend of a unique, funny story, with loads of WSJ puns. Words are played with more often than children.

Where the WSJ finds a reporter who really knows something about cows is unknown, but apparently they know where to look. The story evolves from the inability, over a period of time, to recapture the stray cow who is believed to have gotten loose from a cattle truck in front of the Plattsmouth, Nebraska City Hall.

One effort, unsuccessful, was to bring in another cow, Tasha, a show cow in hopes of luring the Ninja cow to a corral. The story goes that the show cow's handler played cow sounds from a laptop (the latest app in on its way) and got the show cow "to low." Ninja cow responded, but didn't fall completely for the trap, and trotted off.

"To low" apparently means: the action or act of lowing; a bovine animal's deep subdued resonant sound.

Bovine 'Vocal Fry' is not mentioned. But if I were a young female, I think I'd seek some advice about sounding too low.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 16th Pole

My Saratoga buddy is Irish-American. Both his parents came over from the green isle many, many years ago. This explains his near perfect attendance at wakes. If obituaries and death notices are the Irish sports page, then there is usually a game to go to.

The most recent attendance was at a wake for the 86 year-old brother-in law of his brother-in-law, the fellow married to one of John's sisters. The deceased's name was Harry and he loved betting on the horses. He was genuinely known as 'Harry the Horse.'

He lived in New Jersey in the latter part of his life, but still liked to go to Aqueduct in Queens. He favored Aqueduct over any other track, but in the last two years of his life he favored breathing and rest more than anything, and generally went nowhere.

Harry was of Lebanese descent, who somehow married into an Irish-American family. How this occurred is unknown. There was a mixup somewhere.

My friend John reports it's not many a wake you come away from feeling better than when you went in, but the good feeling generated at Harry's wake was rejuvenating. Harry's son filled in the attending with on the cremation plans. Harry apparently wanted his ashes spread at Aqueduct. No surprise there, but not something encouraged by track management.

The son, perhaps being like his father, advanced the idea of approaching some trainers the family came to know and see who might be willing to distribute the ashes at the track. The son figured the 16th pole would be a great spot, since this is generally where his father's selections stopped running, if not sooner.

So Harry made to the finish line, but his ashes may not, unless there is a good tail wind. No problem. They'll likely figure in the exacta, or the trifecta, or even the superfecta.

Harry will not get shutout.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Left Bank

I don't know if I ever saw an obituary about a person that shows a picture, not of the deceased at any age, but rather what they left behind.

@Obitsman has Twittered the world about what turns out to be just such an obituary. It's an AP piece, appearing online in what looks like the Washington Post, about George Whitman, an American who lived in Paris and owned and operated a legendary bookstore on the Left Bank.

The picture of the bookstore is thoroughly charming, and the good news is that Mr. Whitman's daughter plans to keep it going. Good news indeed.

Anyone who lives to be 98 who was taken to China in 1925 at the age of 12 by his physics professor father on sabbatical probably really did snuggle with a beautiful Eskimo woman in Greenland for a period of time at some point. I don't know if Mr. Whitman was the last of the romantics, but his life does make you think there won't be many more like it.

It sounds like if he slowed down, he did it very gradually.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Good British Fun

If the British dryly define good sex as the absence of something going wrong, they do seem to get rather excited about debate. Or heckling. Or heckling during a debate.

There seems to be a British tradition of not listening to the opposition, and instead zinging as many barbs as they can at the speaker, no matter who it is. Here, we call it standup comedy, but over there it passes for government. Sometimes things really are the same, they're just described differently.

Take a very recent picture of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, explaining to Parliament why European Union treaty changes were not signed by Britain. It is nothing short of fantastic. It's not DaVinci's 'Last Supper,' or Rembrandt's 'Dutch Masters,' but it is Britain's version of 'Saturday Night Live,' or, 'Having Fun at Work.'

Four members of the opposing party are seen simultaneously addressing, or heckling, the prime minister. The first guy on the left seems to be saying "Where's the beef?" (Wellington?) The next two are either telling Mr. Cameron his fly is open, or his mind is closed. Something like that. The woman pointing a directional with her left hand most certainly has been a teacher, because she seems to be showing David where the door is that bad boys should go through on the way to the headmaster's office. Why the two at the end seem to be restrained is unknown. They may have been given the wrong seats.

And the prime minister? He seems to be loving it.

Perhaps in Britain, good government is the absence of things going well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Itsy Bitsy Petit

As admitted to recently, when someone passes away whose music I haven't heard of, I generally check out iTunes, listen to a sample, and then decide whether to download it and put it on my iPod. My iPod purchased list really does contain a good deal of music from dead singers and songwriters.

But when Lee Pockriss recently passed away and I learned he had written several songs that became hits in the 50s and 60s I had no need to purchase songs he had written. I already had them on CDs, notably 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.'

While I haven't yet transferred my CD version to the iPod, I have just downloaded the French version and transferred it to the iPod. Pourquoi, you might ask.

Aside from using iTunes for archival research into music of deceased artists, I also use it to flush out sound track music, from movies and television.  This generally works well, and leads me to some new artists that I would have never heard of or listened to. Perhaps they are dead, but that's not the point.

A recently viewed movie, with a very lively soundtrack, was 'A Good Year', the 2006 Russell Crowe movie that finds Russ shedding chain mail, guns, and boxing gloves while getting into a Peter Mayle story set in Southern France about a rich guy inheriting a chateau and vineyard.

It's actually a fun movie, propelled by the lively playlist in the sound track. The movie predates Marion Cotillard's best actress Oscar award for the 2007 movie 'La Vie en Rose'. There's visual candy for everyone in the movie. Landscapes and architecture as well.

The movie ends, for some reason, with the French version of 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.' There hasn't been a bikini in sight for the whole movie, but the arrangement is so lively with the French lyrics, that you get a whole new image of the girl embarrassed to come out of the locker room wearing the latest two piece.

The lyrics in French make it seem that the bikini is not only small (petit) it's barely there at all. It sounds even more alluring. Perhaps it's nearly transparent. The song became a hit in 1960, and a bikini then was really a two piece that revealed the navel. It hadn't yet gotten close to being dental floss.

I do remember when the song became a hit. I did have visions of perhaps seeing something really outstanding at the beach, but by then we weren't going to the beach anymore for some reason. It did cause excitement with the male adults as well, our neighbor and my father's best friend in the neighborhood making noise toward the radio that sounded something like "hubba, hubba, hubba." when the song was played. Sound as image.

Come to think of it, we used to go to the beach with that neighbor and his son, going in his truck to Rockaway Beach. Perhaps because of the song, the guys were no longer allowed to take their kids to the beach.

And they weren't even playing the French version in the states.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Good Defined

The British aren't the only witty people in the world. There are witty Americans, and witty everybody else, I'm sure. It's just that English is the only language I'm completely fluent in, so it seems I only get to recognize either American or British wit.

Who's wittier? Who knows? The British do seem to add a bit of scholarly tone to their wit, as if they're quoting it out of the Oxford Dictionary. Perhaps it's the accent, but I don't read with an accent.

Take the recent story that appears as a 'London Journal' piece in yesterday's NYT by Sarah Lyall. With a last name like that, she's got to be British. Bureau Chief, perhaps?

The headline itself is great, and so fits the story: 'A Nod to Willing Flesh Entangled in Dispiriting Words.' Four columns, with a picture of Barbara Windsor and Alexander Waugh in London in an baronial setting announcing the winner of the 'Bad Sex in Fiction Award'.

Ms. Lyall beats us to it and quickly poses the rhetorical question, "Why not a 'Good Sex in Fiction Award'?"  Turns out it's not a rhetorical question, and I don't know if it's being British that allows a columnist at The Independent, John Walsh, to provide a ready answer, but he has one.

"What on earth would you do that for? Good sex is like good driving--it's the absence of things going wrong, and it is an extraordinarily boring thing to write about."

If you really think about it, even a little bit, he's probably right.  A scholarly definition of good sex: no one got hurt, embarrassed, or otherwise suffered any traumatic mental anguish. Certainly it must happen a lot, because we're up to 7 billion people here on earth, and artificial insemination can't account for all those people.

So, the next time someone crows that, "the sex was good," "the sex was great," "the sex was fan-tastic!," there is absolutely no need to be the least bit envious, jealous, or sullen.

In Britain, it merely means they got in and out of the parking lot without causing a 12 car pileup.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Angela vs. Angelina

Angelina Jolie was in NYC the other day. You didn't have to be a fan, or a stalker to know this, because she was literally everywhere, photographed in more outfits in a single day than Leslie Stahl wears during one '60 Minutes' segment. Angela was here because of a movie about Bosnia she's directing. She's trying to become the next Robert Redford.

But the truly most photographed woman of all time outdoes her. Once again, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany hits the newspapers, along with her sidekick Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France.  Of course it's about money, and in this case the saving of the Euro. I think.

Once the Euro is saved, I'm wondering how many times Angela will get coverage. She's been photographed with Sarkozy more times than Roy Rogers with Triggger.

There are two things in life that seem to trump all: money and sex. The appearance of Angela Merkel in more publications than Angelina tells you who the ace in the suit is.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Viva Viagra

The man whose 1956 guitar licks to Howlin' Wolf's recording, Smokestack Lightin' that have recently come to be used in an ad for Viagra, Hubert Sumlin, has passed away at 80.

It's just another example of what you can learn from obituaries. Not really being up on blues guitar, I learned more than the Viagra tie-in. We know music of all kinds (Beatles, Beethoven, Carl Orff, Bob Seger) comes to be used in commercials. It's a second wind for someone who has usually already passed away.

But not Hubert. He just passed away, and the commercial is out there. The audience the product is aimed at might well remember Howlin' Jack, Hubert Sumlin and Smokestack Lightin'. Marketing to the demographic.

Imagine the durability of one's music that it's popular in 1956 and comes to be used in a 2011 commercial, and you're around for it.

What I usually do when I read of a musician who has passed is check out iTunes for a sampling of the song, or songs mentioned in the obituary. If I like what I hear, I download it and put it on my iPod. My iPod purchased playlist is filled with dead people. People I never heard of until they passed away and got written up. But I like the music.

When I got to iTunes I easily found Smokestack Lightin'. Hardly an obscure song. There was a premium price of $1.29 attached, and popularity bars that went nearly all the way to the right. Several people were there ahead of me, it seems.

I'm sure I've heard and seen the Viagra commercial that has Hubert playing. It's impossible to watch football of any kind without a Viagra commercial. I really don't remember the music, however. This weekend should fix that.

The only commercial for that type of product I do remember is the one where two people are so relaxed in twin outdoor bathtubs overlooking a meadow, with so little else on their minds that they haven't yet realized the house has blown away. The earth shook, and someone came and hauled away the debris. That's a powerful mood to be in.

A good friend is a singer is a Doo-Wop group called 'The Emotions'. They appear at several venues throughout the year but I always catch their act at a Catholic high school in Flushing in the annual Doo-Wop show. It's a great show, reasonably priced, and quite entertaining. Five to six acts perform for different durations around an intermission, with a live orchestra. A well produced show.

A few of the members of the 'The Emotions,' my friend included, have red, white and blue Medicare cards in their wallets. Nothing stands out there. Most of the audience does as well.

Soon into their act the leader is telling a joke about people in a bathtub and the music, played by the orchestra, is clearly Presley's 'Viva Las Vegas.' But the words have changed. It's now 'Viva Viagra.'

My friend tells me he was always concerned about doing the number at a Catholic high school with the monsignor standing by.  No problem. He's counting the house and happy to have them.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Main Reading Room

Once a year, the New York Public Library, the grand pile of marble on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, is open for tours as a thank you to its supporters and contributors. 

This is not an especially select bunch, since everyone needs money, and a $40 contribution from someone like me gets myself and a guest in to join the other several thousand people who show up to sip wine, eat cookies, listen to carols from a military glee club, get their face painted, or picture taken with people dressed as lions, Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, the Grinch, and others on stilts, who aren't there to change the light bulbs,

There really isn't anything about this open house that isn't open if you just pop-in on a given day and wander around yourself.  Except for the stacks. There is an opportunity to tour the stacks of books that are beneath the main reading room, that go down seven levels, and extend west under Bryant Park.

The tour doesn't really last long, but it is informative. Our tour guide promised us we'd have the "longer" tour, but afterwards I figured this must have meant we walked more than the other group at the other end.

The first level of stacks, and the only one we went through, was down one flight of stairs from the main reading room. It was nice to go down a flight of stairs in NYC and then not need a MetroCard to keep going.  We entered a very humid, low-ceilined place with fairly narrow aisles, with open metal-slated shelves that held nothing but books.  Not a best seller in sight. These were books for reference, filed in the library's own system by size, that users can request from above that someone will hopefully retrieve and deliver before the lights go out.

Millions of titles are described as being there. The sort is so densely packed that OAP-OAW could be one shelf, or several. The third letter is the break. There is a narrow slot in the floor that runs along the base of the shelves that allows a view of the floor below, almost as if you were looking back down a staircase. This allows ventilation between the levels.

Pipes and wires in steel baskets run overheard. There isn't much height, and there is a submarine feel because of the narrowness of the aisles. If I had bumped into a periscope I wouldn't have been at all surprised. I would just hope the sub was one of ours.

The titles that I passed were obscure. Thick volumes with "Dutch Law" on the spine. I imagined someone trying to figure out how to void the sale of Manhattan from the Indians. Or, maybe New Jersey was also part of the deal, but no one ever bothered to cross the river and claim it to be New York.  New Jersey's Governor Christie could be in for a real surprise. Other books passed were about "German Law" and Irish windows.

Miles of aisles, and I wasn't in Hope Depot. The stacks was described as going under Bryant Park to a western spot that could be entered or exited from a secret spot.  No secret was divulged.

I imagined following an aisle of books and maybe popping up near the bust of Gertrude Stein, or perhaps all the way to the corner of 40th and Sixth and tickling the toe of the nine foot tall statue of  Andrada, the hardly-known Brazilian who was considered a contributor to their independence and who loosely provides a tie-in that has never stuck, as Sixth Avenue is officially known as Avenue of the Americas.  (Get it, North and South America? It is hard.)

But the Main Reading room is the real show, but you gotta look up. All the way up. Over 50 feet. It's one of the highest ceilings you'll ever see that doesn't have a scoreboard attached.  The room itself is nearly a football field long, with the famous parquet, marquetry tables and brass shaded lamps that can intimately provide seating for 600 close, warm personal friends.

Say who you will about Donald Trump, and most will say plenty, he did once identify the library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as the two best examples of surviving architecture in New York City.

I told my daughter who accompanied me that the Main Reading Room always reminded me of the passage Thomas Wolfe wrote about the old Pennsylvania Station that was torn down in 1964 for offices and Madison Square Garden.

There are still people who can tell you about the old Penn Station, but we are starting to get ready for co-pay gift cards from Mt. Sinai, or nursing homes, but we haven't completely disappeared. And to prove how things tie in my daughter told me that while she was waiting for me to get out of the freshly completed, unadorned men's room on the Amtrak level of the "new" Penn Station there was someone on their cell phone telling someone else that they were now at Penn Station, and it certainly wasn't Grand Central Terminal. Bring that guy back on the show.

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) wrote of the long departed upper level of Penn Station:

"The station...was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time. Few buildings are vast enough to hold the sound of time.

"Men came and went, they passed and vanished, all were moving through the moments of their lives...but the voice of time remained aloof and unperturbed, a drowsy and eternal murmur below the immense and distant roof."

You won't catch a train out of the library, but you can certainly give your imagination a ride.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Most Quoted

William Shakespeare is certainly a most quoted fellow. Sources in the Bible are probably the most quoted. Presidents, prime ministers, generals, all get quoted during and long after their stint on earth. But mid-20th century writers? Certainly not so much.

But then there's Raymond Chandler, famous mystery writer whose many works were turned into many movies. Hard-boiled, steel-plated characters whose lips never moved when they spoke. A turned up snarl was a smile.

How proud Mr. Chandler would be, and how pleased his many fans have to be, to realize he was quoted, paraphrased twice during the same week, in the same newspaper, by different reporters.  This was surely a toast at his grave, and it wasn't his birthday.

Maureen Dowd earlier in the week used a Chandler intelligence put-down on Rick Perry to convince us that Newt Gingrich was at least smarter than a man whose brains, if they were elastic, couldn't make suspenders for a parakeet. If negative campaigning were this good, we'd want elections all the time. It could have it's own channel. But maybe Comedy Central already is that.

One Chandler utterance is usually enough to keep you from forgetting, but two?  Later in the week is the weather story coming out of Southern California and the damage caused by the Santa Ana winds that blew in, from a different direction this time, and toppled trees, wrecked some buildings, and certainly jangled people's nerves.

Friday's NYT carries a first section story by Jennifer Medina that opens with a Chandler passage about such winds from a short story 'Red Wind.' Near the end of the piece the nature poetry in the story gives way to what we expect from a Chandler story: booze, fights, knives, and women.

He even had a way with the weather.