Friday, June 28, 2013

Sherlock Holmes

I can't remember whatever sparked my interest in Sherlock Holmes stories. It might have been story of 'The Red Headed League,' anthologized in a textbook. Maybe the attraction was the axiom, "when you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth." I do know that I bought the complete edition of 56 stories and 4 novels, prefaced by Christopher Morley, over 50 years ago when I wasn't even in high school. The brown dust jacket still survives.

I went into a Doubleday book store on the arcade level of the old Pennsylvania Station, sort of a dark, cavernous walkway that lead from a 7th Avenue street level entrance to the upper level trains--the ones that left the state. There were other stores there as well. This is approximately where you can go into Madison Square Garden, where the Gerry Cosby store is.

I must have gone in purposely wanting the book, because when they didn't have it, I ordered it, to be called (not e-mailed then) when it came in. I've never forgotten that when I picked the book up, it was July and I was on summer vacation. As such, I picked it up during the day, perhaps soon after they opened. I'll never forget that the salesman asked me if I worked nights, and that was why I was coming in during the early part of the day. I've never understood how a functioning adult could have looked at me then and thought I was coming in the from the graveyard shift. I just told him "no."

I still refer to the book, and occasionally read one of the short stories, particularly when they've used one for one of the many TV series that have come though the air and cable, and seem to thankfully show no signs of stopping. I've enjoyed all these presentations, even the one with Benedict Cumberbatch, who is great, but is paired with a thoroughly miscast looking Dr. Watson. TV. Whatever.

Years ago there was an annual race at Aqueduct racetrack that a Sherlock Holmes society of some kind descended on. They always named the race The Silver Blaze, after one of the stories about a missing horse. The society president, who showed up goofily dressed in a mackintosh, deerstalker cap and holding a meerschaum pipe, would present something to the winning connections of the race. His name was "Wolf" something, and I'm pretty sure he got heckled. It's been a long time since the society was back.

The current Holmes TV incarnation, 'Elementary' is one of the best. The most inventive, and pure genius to fill the role of Watson with the rarely smiling Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson. To cast Watson as a woman who has had to walk away from surgical medicine for some reason (malpractice insurance denied?) is an inspired stroke.

The setting of the show in New York City, with an employed Aidan Quinn as a police captain as Holmes's handler is another stroke of invention. Jonny Lee Miller plays a barely shaven, nearly unbearably right Holmes, who makes you like, if not love him, just the same. And you learn things, if you pay VERY close attention.

Because of the quick patter, and Mr. Miller's British accent, I sometimes can't tell what the hell he just said. The captioning feature gets a bit of a workout, and sometimes I leave it on for long stretches, just so I don't have to keep going back and forth.

I find the shows, even in repeat, with occasionally remembering who did what the first time I saw it, still enjoyable. And then there's the dialog. The learning. In a recently repeated episode Holmes tells Watson that her friends are "ani" for not understanding her. "Ani?" That's a word? They just couldn't say assholes, right? Wrong.

Ani is a bird, a black, warm American climate cuckoo. Makes perfect sense when Holmes says it.

Then there was the episode about computer code in 'The Leviathan' episode. The uncrackable safe. "Malbolge" is gibberish, right? Holmes is ani, There is no such computer language, right? Wrong. According to Wikipedia, malbolge is a public domain esoteric programming language invented by Ben Olmstead in 1998, named after the eighth circle of hell in Dante's Inferno, malebolge, evil ditches. It was designed to be completely useless, but apparently can be made to actually do things. The code in the episode is actual code, and spells out 'Hello World."

Then there's the revelation that "shyster" means one who defecates, in German.

Think of the uses of knowing that the next time you meet a lawyer.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Red Smith, Part II

My curiosity about the book 'American Pastimes, The Very Best of Red Smith' was answered when I read the back flap. When reading the book review I wondered, who puts a book like that together in 2013, when Red stopped writing in 1982, just days before passing away at the age of 76? Red certainly couldn't have written about the 1986 Mets, or the recent New York Yankee World Series. Or Giants Super Bowls.

And who is interested in newspaper columnists anyway? No matter how good they were. The era's going, according to some. Gone, to others.

Isn't nearly everything digital? Print is dead. Newspapers are folding. Only today, The Newark Star-Ledger says it may fold unless there are union givebacks. The only magazines there seem to be that have any pages to them are those with shapely, tanned female anatomy posing back at you, and blurb that proclaims there is something associated with a number that you might want to try.

Turns out the publisher is the Library of America, and as the jacket blurb proclaims:

The proceeds from the sale of this book will be used to support the mission of The Library of America, a nonprofit organization created in 1979 to preserve America's literary heritage by publishing and keeping permanently in print authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing.

This is good. I've made a contribution, and they're not going to hound me for more money, like PBS. As I've said before, they're still looking for Jimmy Hoffa's remains, but they wouldn't be if he had once given money to PBS. They'd have found him long ago. They'd have found Whitey Bulger as well.

Who will buy the book? Literary sport junkie types.  Journalism classes might even assign it. I like to think a progressive English teacher somewhere will include parts of it in a lesson plan. Perhaps.

There are only pictures on the cover, back, and back flap, and that one's of Daniel Okrent, who wrote the introduction.

Looking at the back cover picture, Red at a typewriter in a press box, I immediately thought of Saratoga, because of the Bentwood, ice cream parlor chairs the reporters are sitting on. Turns out I was right, because the picture is courtesy of The New York Racing Association and shows Red truly at home in front of a typewriter, in a press box that overlooks dirt and grass. The same Bentwood-type chairs are still used at Saratoga today. Red's observation about going back a hundred years when you're on Union Avenue would still apply.

In Ira Berkow's biography of Red I remember Red saying that it takes a long time to be able to find your way to the press box at Yankee Stadium, and that once you're there, it would be a shame if you wasted the opportunity.

I remember a bartender telling us the story in the 70s that he was leaving Yankee Stadium after a playoff, or World Series game, and he spotted Red Smith and Dave Anderson leaving the building a good bit after the game in an obvious legless, incandescent state. Stories were surely already filed.

I have to think Red found fun finding the press box, and then finding his way out of it. How much fun he must have had.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Red Smith is the only Red I would like to see more of.

It's great to see there is a new decent book of Red Smith columns.  I learned of this via a book review by Tim Marchman, in Saturday's WSJ. The review gives us a re-creation of Red's era and technique through the book of collected columns, 'American Pastimes.'

Red Smith passed away on my birthday, in 1982, so he certainly didn't write any 'Sports of the Times' columns for any events after that. But he did write and publish nearly up to the day he died. I distinctly remember reading his last column of the subway on my way to work. It sounded a bit off, like several of his very last columns. You couldn't really locate the center of what he was writing about. It however, was still good writing, and he left us typing away.

A collection is by definition an aggregation of something, stamps, coins, paintings, cars, songs, writing; assembling a selection in one place. Thus, the items have been seen and absorbed before. A collection of column is no different, and Mr. Marchman warns that reading them can become monotonous. This of course means they shouldn't be read in lengthy doses. They are not a novel.

I always find the approach to a collection is to sample a few every now and then. When it comes to sports, it might work to select columns to read at the same time in the current calendar that they were written in. When trout season opens in Roscoe, NY, head for the fishing. Horse racing? Wait for the Kentucky Derby, or Belmont, or Saratoga to open.  That way, the weather and the month will match the story.

There is an introduction by Daniel Okrent, who of course beings legitimate journalistic credentials to the binder. Being slightly familiar with Mr. Okrent, I know he's certainly old enough to have read Red in the newspaper on the day the column was published, like I did.

In the introduction, Mr. Okrent offers some proof of Red's prowess when he writes about the Bobby Thomson home run that wins a playoff series for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers, at home, in the Polo Grounds. One wishes Red were here to tell us about the fans in Boston last night when Chicago scores two goals in the last two minutes to win the Stanley Cup on Boston ice. Bombs on Marathon Day, and now this.
The reason there are no more Red Smiths, aside from the fact that sports people gab now instead of write, is that their schooling curriculum lacks literature, and particularly poetry. Red was all about poetry. Now we have medical reports and AMA treatises on all forms of cancer filling the broadcast booth. I turned ESPN's John Kruk and the game OFF the other night as they went on and on about testicular cancer (which we learn he was cured from), all because June is 'Prostate Month.'

Whatever happened to HIPPA regulations and protected health information? It's Dr. Oz all the time with these guys. Blab, blab, blab. Jackie Gleason's mother-in-law. There isn't enough of David Cone explaining where to stand on the pitching rubber when facing left and right handed batters, as Paul O'Neill expresses wounded feelings that, "Coney, you didn't tell me about this when we were playing together."

Ira Berkow's biography of Red is a front-to-back tribute to the man, and a tribute to writing. Who else would have been so justifiably incensed at an editor who changed his copy from "half a worm" to "worm" when he was describing the screwed up, disgusted face of a man who had just bit into an apple and found something other than an apple core. Mark Twain's lightning, and lightning bug.

Dying for Jack Dempsey was probably not good for him, but it did loosen up Red Smith's pre-written obituary of Dempsey that was in the New York Times obit morgue, awaiting release on Jack's demise. Thus, the world was treated to Red's writing, even after his own demise, when the Champ met his.
There is was, front page, below the fold, Dempsey has passed away at 87, and Red Smith, dead now himself for a year and a half, has written the obituary. This does happen, somewhat with the frequency of total solar eclipses. Marilyn Johnson, author of the obituary book, 'The Dead Beat,' calls obituaries of dead people written by people who have since died themselves "double down obits." Red would have loved hearing that.
Anyone who considers themselves a reader who paid attention to reading Red Smith and reading about him can easily remember a descriptive passage, or an O Henry twist to things.
The brochure for the New York town Saratoga Springs, the home of course for Saratoga race track, where Red and many others would spend all or most of August, uses a Smith quote about the prevailing turn-of-the- century atmosphere still alive in the town: "turn left on Union Avenue--and go back a hundred years." And still true.    
Red wrote a good deal about horse racing, and it is missed. There is a Red Smith Handicap race run every year. It's a decent race, a Grade II affair run on the turf at a challenging distance of a mile and three-eighths. There aren't many races named after sportswriters. That I can think of, there are only the Damon Runyon and the Mike Lee. 
Ira Berkow, who was mentored by Red and who eventually joined him at the NYT writing sports, gained the family access he needed and he produced a biography of Red, "Red, A Biography of Red Smith."
The book is the source of one of my favorite comparisons of two cities and one borough. And I use it whenever it seems to fit. Ira Berkow tells the story of how Red was making his way east from his beginnings in Wisconsin, and was aiming to be on a New York City paper. Considered the top.
Red is getting offers that are bringing him east, and geographically close to New York. But he turns down an offer to work at a Brooklyn paper. There is a major league team there named The Dodgers, and Brooklyn is just across the river from Manhattan, considered the place to be. Why turn it down? 
With the Brooklyn offer declined, Red accepts one from a Philadelphia paper. Philly of course has two major league teams, but is 90 miles away from New York. Why Philly? Red reasons that in his mind, "Philadelphia is closer to New York than Brooklyn." (And there a lot of people who would still agree.)
It's the nicest thing anyone ever said about Philadelphia.

Monday, June 24, 2013

No One is Ever Asked

My guess is that there are few pictures of Queen Elizabeth II ever smiling. She always seems to have the most dour of faces that go along with being British, and in her case a reigning monarch.

The Royal Family has race horses. This is no surprise. King Henry VIII had wives. But even the most successful of racing owners knows that winning, especially in big races with everyone watching, comes rarely. Perhaps once in a lifetime.

So, when Queen Elizabeth's filly Estimate won the grueling and highly prestigious two-and-a-half mile Gold Cup race at Ascot's meet last week, it marked the first time in 207 years that a horse from the Royal Family had won that particular race.

There are all kinds of levels of thoroughbred races. There are maiden claimers for $5,000, and there are races like the one won by Estimate.

There is an expression is racing that no one ever has to asked to smile in the winner's circle.

QEII was no exception.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ms. Janette S-K

In case you don't know who this is, you probably haven't been having anything to do with walking or riding a bike in Manhattan in the last several years. She is Janette Sadik-Khan, Mayor Bloomberg's transportation commissioner for an astounding six years, and will be leaving office when the mayor does this year, 12-31-13, a date long looked-forward to by many.

Clyde Haberman's recent NYT piece on her serves as sort of a victory lap on foot around the city. It's nice to see Mr. Haberman back from possible banishment as strictly an online columnist after having a print byline for so many years. Now he's back on the paper page, still with a byline, and writing a
bi-weekly column called 'Breaking Bread.'

This definitely has to be a plum assignment for a senior reporter: getting to interview people over a casual meal on the paper's dime. From what I know of Mr. Haberman is that he's a native New Yorker who remembers, like I do, when wakes weren't turned into photo galleries by well-meaning relatives. He and I remember the same presidents as well.

For anyone's interest, I marvel at what Ms. S-K (as she's often referred to, like she's a brand, or something kinky) has been able to do. You can't walk through Union, Madison, Herald or Times Squares and not be taking advantage of her ideas put into reality. It's more than difficult to get anything accomplished in New York, particularly with streets and sidewalks.

I'm a hard-wired New Yorker who, when working, spent nearly 50 years coming in and out of Manhattan. I reflexively look both ways before setting a foot off the curb, one way street, or not. It's paid off, because I haven't been whacked, but have had some close calls with messengers going the wrong way on one way streets, and an unforgettable incident with a Sabrett cart being pushed the wrong way on a one way street. It's unthinkable that I might have been laid out by a Sabrett cart. They move slower than a cross-town bus.  Think of the photos in the funeral home for that one.

The creation of plazas at the aforementioned busy intersections is a testament to getting something done in the city. The only prior reworking of traffic was sometime in the early 60s when Henry Barnes, a traffic commissioner from Boston came to New York, stuck a screw driver in a traffic control box and stopped traffic in all directions at the 42nd Street, Vanderbilt Avenue intersection, hard by Grand Central Terminal. The multi-directional pedestrian parade was dubbed 'The Barnes Dance.' It still exists today.

Seeing cafe, bistro tables in the middle of the street and parking in a traffic lane (metered, still) is something I'll never get used to seeing in New York. But, it is a commissioner's legacy. I would no more plop down at one on of those tables and listen to someone play the piano in the middle of what used to be a street than I would make eye contact in the subway. But, perhaps that's my loss.

Ms. S-K has had an obvious European desire to graft onto NYC aspects of foreign cities. She's had an extremely tough time with the bike program, but probably had to settle for that versus putting New Yorkers on Vespas and having mating rituals consist of chasing females up the stairs of the New York Public Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art staircases. That wouldn't do.

'The Breaking Bread' piece is a nice sendoff to an accomplished commissioner, without being a pure valentine. The fact that Mr. Haberman meets Ms. S-K in a desirable restaurant hotel on 29th Street speaks silent volumes about how the city has changed. That area would have once been great for encountering welfare people in single room occupancy hotels, drug addicts, or hookers. The fact that 'steel-cut' oatmeal was served is another testament to the prices.

Perhaps hard to see in the above photo, but Janette is wearing a five ring necklace, perhaps as a conscious bow to the failed city bid to get the Olympics, or a clue as to what she's going to organize next.

No plans for the future are revealed. But no matter what: I'm still going to look both ways whenever a toe steps down, and I'm always going to be alert for a Sabrett cart set in motion.

I can't help it.

Witness for the Prosecution

Jeeesus, you can't even play a mobster and not get wiped out these days. In Italy, no less, James Gandolfini has succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 51.

Was never a fan of the 'The Sopranos.' 'The Untouchables,' DeNiro, Pacino, and Liotta filled me up over the years. But for all those who came along later in life, they certainly helped push the show's popularity over the top.

What can you say? It's fiction, of a kind, but if Tony Soprano came from Boston the prosecution in the Whitey Bulger trial might be minus a star witness at this point.

But, there always seem to be more where he came from. Imagination, or reality.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


There are many ways to describe someone's faulty, failing memory.

One might be described as having CRS: Can't remember shit.

Another might be described as suffering from the odd 'Senior Moment.' Tom Seaver said this so many times when trying to telecast for the Mets they ultimately believed him and said it's not just moments. Good-bye Tom.

"He can't remember his name." Not good, if it's true. Surely a sign of severe slipping down the slope. Life can't really be any fun at this point unless you've got the highlights on video, or your CD-ROM.

Others may be accused of having a 'selective memory.' Wives consider all husbands to be exhibiting this disease. Sometimes it works. In most domestic situations, it doesn't.

Then we have an ethnic version of a disease found in the International Classification of Diseases manual. One they might be assigning some sub-codes to if they ever produce the next edition beyond the draft version. It's been delayed. Again.

The trial of Whitey Bulger is starting today. Whitey, if you haven't succumbed to your own form of dementia, is the
83 year-old Boston-based Irish crime boss who is finally being brought into a courtroom after evading the authorities for 16 years. He was famously apprehended two years ago when his face appeared on an electronic sign in Times Square, courtesy of the FBI. The $2 million reward helped as well.

Whitey is accused of 19 murders. For starters.

With Whitey's trial during the day and the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals against he Chicago Black Hawks on the same day in the evening, media resources will be stretched toilet paper thin. Reinforcements are needed. The trial could easily warrant its own cable channel in the New England area.  Whitey is expected to take the stand.

And at this point, this is when Michael D. Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who investigated aspects of Bulger's activities, believes the new ICD code will be needed. Whitey, he believes will exhibit 'Irish Alzheimer's Disease.' This is characterized by forgetting everything there is to forget, except the names of your enemies. Crystal clear clarity. No static.

The Stanley Cup finals will finally end the last week in June. The Bulger trial is expected to go until September, around the time the unlocked-out NHL players will be getting ready to report to training came for the next season.

Win or lose the quest for Stanley Cup, when the puck drops again for the 2013-2014 season, given decent health, Whitney will still be with the good people of Boston. He was definitely the player they couldn't trade away.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Epitaph

There is an absolutely hilarious self-written obituary that @obitsman has pointed out to the world via Twitter.

The deceased describes his life in the most affectionate and glowing of terms that basically distill down to war hero and major league skirt chaser. To listen to himself, his skirt chasing was so successful he disputably helped increase the world's out-of-wedlock population and probably lead to some confusion as to last names when it came time to register kids for school.

No problem. It certainly didn't seem to shorten John E. Holden's life. Since Mr. Holden wrote his own obituary several years before his demise, we are spared a cause of death. Apparently he was in good health when he wrote about himself and didn't have that final detail.

We also don't know his exact age. His date of birth is omitted, but his date of death is given as May 27, 2013, perhaps fittingly, since that was when Memorial Day was celebrated this year, and Mr. Holden was a decorated Marine fighter pilot in WWII.

The date of death must have been filled in by someone, unless Mr. Holden ceased breathing in front of a computer after typing the date in himself. Given that he was a pilot in 1945, he'd have to have been in his upper 80s at his demise.

He describes his own life as "filled with endless laughter and debauchery." Given his stated membership in the Lancaster Country Club and the Hamilton Club I like to think that Jack made his way across Lancaster County running through adjacent yards and jumping into swimming pools and seducing sunbathing women. He certainly couldn't cram all the details into his own obit.

But it's his last words that are the showstopper: "I'm going to miss myself."

Who could have had a fuller life?