Friday, May 31, 2013


Mother Europe, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel dusts lint off the shoulder of her oldest son, France's president Francois Hollande just before he is set to receive an honorary degree in Paris, yesterday.

The proud mother was later seen with her son walking along a garden path near the Louvre. They discussed savings banks.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Doctor Is In

I was already aware I hadn't heard about her for a good many years when I read that Dr. Joyce Brothers had passed away recently at 85. As the current vogue in speech goes: anyone of a certain age remembers Dr. Brothers, first as a game show contestant, and then with shows of her own.

She was everywhere. Not quite Arthur Godfrey, but certainly close. Her neatly swept back hair and prim clothing was seen on her show, and all the talk and game shows of the era.

But it was her voice that was the center of attention. Calm. Reasoning. Reassuring. Explaining whatever it was that was the current trouble and why we felt that way, and how we were going to deal with it. She was Walter Cronkite, with a slight overbite that made her quietly cute.

She came to fame by rocketing through a game show's rounds by her knowledge of boxing. Knowledge she gained not by hanging out with 'da guys' at Gleason's gym, but through scholarly research and a total recall memory. When you ace an answer about who wrote about someone who boxed someone else in 1821, you go to the head of the class.

She was an academic psychologist with mass appeal. In the NYT obituary by Margalit Fox, Dr. Brothers is described quite like the obit's headline says: 'Psychologist Who Made House Calls Via TV.'

She was the first medical professional to appear on radio and TV with perpetual regularity. As Ms. Fox points out, 'before Drs. Ruth, Phil, and Laura,' there was Dr. Joyce Brothers, always known by her complete professional name.

Realizing how true this is, I speculated how Dr. Brothers might be known in our less formal times. Despite there having been a basketball player (Julius Irving) who became known with a similar nickname, I'm sure Dr. Brothers would at least be known as 'Dr. J.' or perhaps 'Dr. Bro.'

She would have still been the same voice of reason.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Winners

Horses can't talk. So, when it comes time for pre- and post-race interviews, the jockey, or the trainer is usually the one talking into the microphone.  This still works well, even though we don't get to hear from the athlete themselves how it felt to do whatever it was they just did. What they were thinking as they "headed for home,"

Most jockeys are Spanish, who do speak English, but sometimes just barely. After a race, they're usually out of breath, even though the horse did the running and they did the riding. There is still tremendous skill and exertion involved in steering the animal through the race.

Telecasts of major races, such as yesterday's Preakness Stakes, have plenty of people on the grounds and on the track, who can point microphones. The winning rider of Saturday's Preakness was Gary Stevens, an American jockey who can be easily understood. Gary is 50 years old, and has just come back to the sport after a retirement of several years that saw him do some acting, and TV horse racing analysis.

Gary was always a good rider, and racing, unlike other sports, inducts Hall-of-Fame members even while they're active at their craft. Gary has already been inducted into racing's Hall-of-Fame.  Trainers and owners get inducted, as well as horses, but for them, not until after they hang up the shoes.

As Gary finished the race and was corralled by the horse-backed NBC interviewer, Donna Brothers, Gary of course couldn't stop beaming and trying to catch his breath. He had just scored a major upset with Ox Bow, a horse that unexpectedly won in a wire-to-wire performance, paying a hefty mutuel.

Gary gave thanks, as most winning jockeys do. Gary mentioned loving his dad, but loving the trainer, D. Wayne Lukas nearly as much. Trainers play a pivotal role in success and failure, even though the horse does the running and the jockey does the steering.

D. Wayne Lukas has been on the major thoroughbred stage for over 40 years, winning many, many races, and many, many Triple Crown races. He is a commanding, dapper 77 year-old figure with a near full head of silver hair, usually sporting tinted glasses. He gives a good interview, and leaves a usable sound bite. If there was a GQ magazine for the AARP set, he'd be on the cover several times a year.

So Wayne, what were you thinking as Gary had Ox Bow in the lead coming down the stretch? "At the 3/8ths pole I turned to my girlfriend and told her we got this."

If I didn't think it was already too late, I'd want to grow-up and be just like Wayne.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Billy Sol Estes

Billy Sol Estes definitely falls under the surprise of, "he was alive on Monday?"

That's what happens when you go at 88, have spent time in jail, and outlived whoever it was you scammed, flim-flammed, bamboozled, or otherwise cheated. And if he did murder anyone, he surely outlived them as well.

Billy Sol was news so long ago Time magazine's cover story on him was over 50 years ago. Today's obituary in the NYT is bylined by Robert McFadden, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who I suspect retired some time ago. Any pictures associated with the obit are black and white.

Billy was colorful, in all the hues. My favorite story about him was when he fooled the auditors into believing he had more soy beans than he really did. He let them inspect one huge storage tank, and the inventory was there. He then delayed them from inspecting the second tank. When he did allow them to take a look, be had pumped the contents from the first tank into the second tank. Billy got certified.

Having done audit work in a prior segment of my life, I love this story. Most auditors will tell you they don't look for fraud, but instead concentrate on generally accepted accounting practices: GAAP. This hair-splitting approach has given us some colossal frauds that went undetected. Enron, anyone? Most auditors can't find their ass with either hand.

Billy's shenanigans were so long ago and so outrageous that a figure no less than Richard M. Nixon, running for governor of California at the time, called them the "biggest national scandal since Teapot Dome."

That's how long ago this was. Billy's exploits had so many politicians implicated that his doings were being compared to a Department of Interior petroleum reserve misappropriation during the Harding administration. Teapot Dome was the area of Wyoming where the reserves were held.

Teapot Dome is on no one's radar these days, but it is the second time I've read about it in the month of May. Re-reading Joseph Mitchell's piece, 'King of the Gypsies' gives us a head New York gypsy, Johnny Nikanov--King Cockeye Johnny-- who proclaims his relative innocence in fraudulent matters when he asserts that he never stole "no oil well," like Teapot Dome.

Mr. Mitchell wrote the piece in 1942, and first came in contact with King Cockeye in 1936, so Teapot Dome was less than 20 years before that. So it is easy to understand it was a fresh and gigantic incidence of high-up, political malfeasance that stayed in a Gypsy's mind and helped him rationalize.

One suspects living Gypsies have updated their comparisons to Bernie Madoff and perhaps Lance Armstrong.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Historical Friutcake

I don't know if Russell Baker knew the historical accuracy of his statement years and years ago that fruitcake was the one food that could be classified as a family heirloom. He might have just perhaps been droll in his childhood memory of the unopened brick that annually arrived in December from crazy Aunt so-and-so who long ago moved away from the family and was living out west somewhere. Her fruitcake might have been seen more often than she was.

I nearly missed the story. The Friday 'Anitiques' column in the NYT is not a required destination for me. However, I do like to turn every page and at least read the headings and sub-headings, look at the pictures, and take in the captions. Even then, a picture of a 127-year-old piece of Grover Cleveland's wedding cake in a Tiffany & Co. box nearly kept me moistening my thumb for the next page.

But then I saw something about 'no expiration date' and I could swear I saw the words 'fruitcake' in the text somewhere.

Hooked. A memorabilia dealer in Los Angeles has sold numerous cake portions, including a chunk of Queen Victoria's 1840 fruitcake for her wedding, at what is reported to be $50,000.

There are other descriptions of saved cake, fruitcake as well, but the 1840 vintage, well, you guessed it, takes the cake. Historically momentous cake winds up in a collector's hands, or even in museums. The nation's attic, The Smithsonian, has a 1934 piece of FDR's birthday cake.

The Smithsonian's curator, William L. Bird says that Americans like saving things, which should come as no surprise to anyone. And saving items from the noted and powerful give the benefactors the chance to let the rest of the hoarding Americans enjoy the item in a museum.

Also to add, the chance to challenge the IRS on charitable deductions.

Mr. Baker's immediate family may have been on to something quite early on. If only that aunt was Annie Oakley, or someone like that.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Translation

Coded messages have been around a long time. Julius Ceasar and his armies used code to communicate. Writers use code in subtle ways to soften what might easily be taken offense to, or to dance around a taboo.

The taboos are disappearing, however. There was a time when no one would allude that someone was gay. Obituaries had a way of saying that someone was a 'confirmed bachelor. ' Hint, hint.  Now, the partner is the one who is identified as reporting the death.

Still, coded writing can be fun. It uses more words to say what could easily be said in one, or two. "You stink," becomes a legal brief. People hire lawyers and pay lots of money to confront adversaries with words. Lawyers make lots of money chewing up billable time so that you can yell at your neighbor.

The lighter side to this can be found in a cleverly written obituary. Playfullness is encouraged if it's done with a wink.

Take the NYT obituary on Jeanne Cooper, a soap opera legend who was 84 when she passed away in real life. Margalit Fox's sly insertions convince me that if my father spent five minutes with Jeanne he would have enjoyed her and told me she's, "quite a dame. A real pistol." I would have understood this to mean she was saucy, slept around, smoked, drank, and had a sailor-on-shore leave mouth, and was good to look at.

Well, the sailor mouth does come through when Margalit tells us, "Ms. Cooper had a far more extensive Anglo-Saxon vocabulary than her soap opera patrician character, Catherine, that she used with robust delight in interviews."

Translation: Jeanne dropped the f-bomb with aplomb and several other words that George Carlin said you can't say on television.

She must have been quite a dame.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Darlene, Please Write

Just finished Peter De Jonge's second, and so far last Darlene O'Hara detective novel, 'Buried On Avenue B.'  Darlene, using her usual mixture of alcoholic beverages and a definite lack of home cooked meals, sinks the eight ball off a three cushion carom. She is a legend in the making.

I'm beginning to understand why the population might have missed Sherlock Holmes after Conan Doyle shoved him off the falls. Mr. De Jonge is only two novels into the character, so my hope and my guess is that he's not tired of her. And she's certainly not too old. She doesn't even have her time in yet to retire from the NYPD. Lucky for us.

The 'Avenue B' book finds Darlene slowly caught up in the world of New York Gypsies. This by itself is inspired writing, since they are the subject of so little. My own knowledge and experience with Gypsies is pretty limited. I never took any of the flowers any of their young adults, or kids were offering in Times Square in the 70s. This was a technique to slow you down, beg, and maybe even pick your pocket. The characters I see in Times Square these days seem to wear action figure, or animal costumes and hug you for money and a picture.

There certainly aren't as many fortune tellers as I seem to remember. Shallow storefronts lit by purple neon, whose fronts were separated from the back by a dingy curtain. The buildings have changed, and the rents are too high, even for charlatans. When I was recently working I was amazed there was a fortune teller storefront on 25th Street, between Park Avenue South and Madison Avenue, in a fairly new apartment house. Every lunch hour a young, blond, Russian-looking woman from the parlor would stand on the corner and hand out small cards advertising the madame's services. Just half a block west from where she was standing.

Gypsies in New York were known for their metal work and their ability to do body work, to a certain degree, on cars in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when there was more metal used in cars. They would approach you in the parking lot, and if you happened to be deemed attached to something dented, they would offer to fix it for you. Rates varied widely.

I had one such encounter in the Sears parking lot on Fordham Road in the Bronx when two Gypsies approached our car, a functioning, but somewhat dinged 1969 Chevy Nova, and offered to smooth out those fenders. We declined. They went away.

One can't read about Darlene and the Gypsies she encounters and not think of Joseph Mitchell's masterpiece, 'King of the Gypsies,' a long form story published in 1942. Mr. De Jonge is surely familiar with it. Joseph Mitchell lived downtown, as well.

Comparing both works, the Romany words are in each: krisa, gajo, gadje, patchiv, o boro, dukkerers, diwano, pomanas, ofisa, diklo, kasa, marime. The Gypsy proverb about the one-eyed being king amongst the blind applies to both stories. And Darlene, with two eyes open after an 8:00 A.M. round at Milano's, is the Queen on the chess board.

So, where will Darlene find herself next? The NYC homicide rate is plummeting, and Darlene just made homicide detective and has been assigned to a slow squad. She's apparently in Homicide South, (below 59th Street) which is nicknamed Homicide Soft because there just aren't a lot of cases. She literally dug up the last one. Darlene may have to put a corpse on the downtown 6 train and yank it off at 33rd Street in order to get her next case.

We'll leave that to Mr. De Jonge's fertile imagination, and his contacts in the NYPD. Surely Darlene might stumble onto something at the Spanish-Portuguese cemetery, or see a loose icon at St Sava's, the Serbian cathedral with a bust of Nikola Tesla in front. They are all in her district. And she's already been paired with a detective of Armenian descent.

Maker's Mark, one of Darlene's favorite alcoholic beverages, has just announced it is not lowering its proof rate from 90 to 84. I'm rooting for Darlene. She should be fine form for the next case.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


My vocabulary is not bad, but that doesn't mean I don't have to look words up. And they might even be sort of medium-complex words that some might scoff at me for not knowing. I don't care. I look them up anyway. There's no public admission of my ignorance when I read the word in my living room and feel it's important enough for me to look it up in order to fully understand what the writer is trying to convey. It usually works. Add the new-found definition to my knowledge, and I understand the text more completely.

Take the word "desultory." Had to look it up and learn it has the expected numerous meanings, basically centering on randomness, lack of definite planning, or purpose. It can frequently apply to my wife's shopping when it seems that she and the car return with numerous items that are inedible, but did gain attention by irresistible coupon offerings.

Never mind. We'll get through that inventory of Swifter Dusters in the garage, even if we have to open a housecleaning business on the side.

But after looking up "desultory" I was still in no better position to understand why Paul Vitello, in his NYT's obituary of Orville Slutzky, a founder of the Hunter Mountain NY ski resort, describes its proximity to New York City as being "within a desultory conversation's drive of the city."

Hunter Mountain is close to NYC, as noted that it is 125 miles or so away, well connected by the New York State Thruway. The office crowds I worked with often talked of their basically quick alcohol-fueled trips up to Hunter, and their hungover trips back.

I guess I just didn't hang out with people who would ever describe the trip as a "desultory conversation's drive."

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mother Europe

Like the quarterback of the winning Super Bowl team heading for Disney World, Italy's new prime minister had somewhere to go after winning his election. Destination: Mother Europe. A visit to see the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin.

Italy's new prime minister, Enrico Letta, looking like a contestant on a long ago American quiz show, is seen giving Angela the thumbs up shortly after his arrival, which was hours after his election victory.

Over the years, other winning quarterbacks who have made the journey to break bread with Angela are, from the left, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Spain's Mariano Rajoy and French President François Hollande.

Quite honestly, if she can eat all the ethnic foods there are in New York without being filmed getting sick, then she should consider running for Mayor.