Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Straphangers

Mr. Haberman's 'Breaking Bread' piece has once again loosened the muse over a bit of nostalgia.

For those who may not have been following, Mr. Clyde Haberman of The New York Times, interviews a different New York City player every other week.  This puts Mr. Haberman and his interviewee in a restaurant of their choosing, usually for breakfast, or lunch.

The most recent interview was with Gene Russianoff, staff attorney and public face of the  Straphangers Campaign. Apparently in keeping with Mr. Russianoff's modesty and not-for-profit leadership, a very plain breakfast/lunch place was chosen near City Hall and the Straphangers' offices. The inside word is that the next 'Breaking Bread' interview might be somewhere where they use tablecloths.

No matter, it was interesting to read about Mr. Russianoff's background and learn, quite surprisingly to me anyway, that he's only 60. It seems he's been around forever. Anyone who has absorbed some local news telecasts over the years has surely heard his name when there's a report released on the subway's cleanliness and on-time performance. Or, a reaction to a fare increase, always a hot button NYC topic. His organization is a bit of a gadfly to the MTA, representing the ridership that has no real representation.

The easy euphemism for subway riders is 'straphangers.' I know what this refers to, as do both Mr. Hasberman and Mr. Russianoff, and anyone else who started riding subways in Brooklyn in the 1950s when they were four years old. But do other people know?

It seems when Daniel Okrent, a newspaperman, editor, and author of 'Last Call'  first encountered the word in print he mentally pronounced it 'straff-hangers,' reacting to the 'ph,' likely thinking it was something to do with German WWI bi-planes. Mr. Okrent is from Detroit, so ignorance was understandable.

Pictured above is what replaced the strap, a porcelain grab loop that once was a looped leather strap that looked like a barber's strop. I don't remember the leather straps, but they were phased out because vandals kept cutting them in half. There's always someone you have to build a defense against.

Those above morphed into stainless steel grab loops, making the subway cars look like a the inside of a giant leather key holder held upside down, dangling loops to hold keys. Now, it seems there is a continuous bar that on a few occasions I have seen become a piece of gym equipment for those who perform an acrobatic stunt accompanied by boom-box music, and then look for a bit of folding money, or jingle for their jeans. Amazingly, no one seems to get hurt.

The take-away from the interview was a reminder that there is a half-fare transit card awaiting those who turn 65.

It was good to be reminded of this.


Monday, August 26, 2013

The Nuns of New Skete

Anyone can go to Saratoga and wax rhapsodically about the place. The tradition, the beauty, the gorgeous horses in running flight. The mineral springs, the ballet and the symphony at the Arts Center. The Victorian architecture. The town of Saratoga Springs is so well preserved even the new is made to look like it's been there 100 years. The gas station on Broadway is architecturally trimmed in wrought iron. Yeah, yeah, yeah, all that good stuff.

But how many people go up there and use the off-day of racing to check out where the cheesecake comes from?

It was sometime around 1975, or 1976, The B.C.-era (before children) when we went to the restaurant at the Fair Haven Inn in Fair Haven, Vermont. We were leaf-peeping, as the locals would say, and heard enough about the restaurant to warrant a visit. Plus, it was known for its Greek food. In Vermont. Owner is from Astoria.

Was good then, and has remained a destination restaurant ever since. That first visit though introduced us to the dessert menu, featuring cheesecake from the Nuns at New Skete. Really? Nuns are making cheesecake? Yes.

The cheesecake was good. Good enough to want it just about anytime we went back. Some other desserts were sometimes chosen, but the nuns were always there churning out the cheesecake, whether we took it or not.

The nuns make cheesecake every day and supply it to restaurants, etc. They're nearby, in Cambridge, New York, not in any place called New Skete.  The word Skete refers to a Coptic word meaning monastic communities, of which there are three in Cambridge. The nuns, the monks, who raise and train German Shepherds, and the married monastic companions.  The above photo is of the Transfiguration Temple.

Near the Temple is a bell tower, with an array of 12 bells that are rung daily. The ropes attached to these bells are new and white. There is a door at the base that easily opens to the curious where there is an area about 10 by 10 where the bell-ringers would pull on their assigned ropes. On the ledge is some sheet music, and three noise cancelling headphones are draped over a rail. Even with no one around, the temptation to ring a bell was resisted.

The monks raise German Shepherds and run a dog obedience program. The dogs are sold to all kinds of owners, and include law enforcement and organizations for the blind. While the kennel area was not seen, some dogs were seen in the company of monks while being schooled in commands. The throaty bark of a German Shepard would sometimes be heard. Even if they're not seen, they mean business.

But the objective was cheesecake, not puppies. This was found in a plain double-doored building that allowed an entrance vestibule to serve as an off-hours chance to self-serve (and self-pay) for any items taken from the fully stocked freezer. A lettered sign said the place was under video surveillance, but it was not evident.

Since we arrived with Sister Sharon on duty the self-serve part was not needed. In fact, the cheesecake wasn't even needed on Tuesday, since we weren't leaving till Saturday, and had no place to keep it frozen.

Shipping it back was known about from a story the NYT did on the nuns and their product in a Wednesday Dining Section, March 13, 2013. Online ordering is fully available. But what flavor were we interested in, Sister Sharon wanted to know. Flavor? "Yes, we have 13. I can find out which ones we sell to the Hannaford supermarkets and you can pick one up on your way home." Another something learned. The best of all worlds. A retail outlet for the nuns' cheesecake.

We knew where the Hannaford supermarket was on Route 254, Aviation Road, in Glens Falls, not far from where we stay. And the early Saturday visit lead us to a very well-stocked dairy freezer, with many flavors to choose from. And $31 for a four pound edible anvil seemed quite reasonable, considering it yields 16 hefty slices. Flavor? Coin-toss between key-lime and raspberry resulted in raspberry winning. (Note for the future: deluxe cheesecake is really plain cheesecake; the nuns don't like to consider anything they produce to be called plain.)

So, the annual pilgrimage to Saratoga has a new sequence of events added to the Saturday departure plan. Breakfast at Poopie's, then a short drive on-the-way-home-anyway, to Hannaford, and a decision at the grocer's freezer.

I have to say, knowing about the nuns of New Skete and their cheesecake at least several decades before the NYT did a story on them has only made it taste even better.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Hard, Hard Ground

It's been a few years since I've picked up a copy of The New Yorker. (It's been a few years since there was anything in The New Yorker.) It must have fallen off the subscription bundle of my ENT physician. Plenty of Vogue, and Harper's Bazaar, though.

Regardless, what I remember was that they'd take an outtake of a magazine or newspaper story that was either phrased funny, or reported on something really out of the ordinary. The editors would then add a single sentence blurb to the bottom of the reprint that deadpanned the whole thing. If it wasn't outright funny (hard to describe even the best of these, or the cartoons as outright funny), there was usually a good droll wit to it.

Death, as we know, can be one of the most ironic events in life. Pete Hamill, in a foreward to a collection of obituaries, quite succinctly points out that life is the leading cause of death. And the life we lead, can very often play a part in the events of our passing.

No better example of this, and what could appear as a New Yorker outtake, is the story of Mark Sutton, the 'James Bond' Olympic parachutist who helped open the 2012 games in London. Mr. Sutton was (and now the tense as given it away) a "wing suit" enthusiast who would leap off cliffs, or was dropped from helicopters, and then flew like a bird, aided by the aerodynamic design of the suit, before opening the parachute at some point in the flight, when he then came down somewhat conventionally.

His last effort at doing what he enjoyed was on Thursday, August 15, when he leaped from a helicopter at 11,000 feet and struck the side of a mountain at 150 miles an hour.

A police spokesman explained that Mr. Sutton died instantly. "It appears that the victim opted for a trajectory that was too close to the ground."

Goddamn ground. It wins every time.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

And Then There Were ...

There were but 11 Triple Crown winners in the last century, only three in the last 54 years. And with Seattle Slew’s passing the other day, all of them are dead. This we know because living Triple Crown champions are kept track of like ex-presidents and Titanic survivors.

--Mike Lopresti, USA Today, May 21, 2002
We do keep track of things.

I think since the above observation was made, the last of the Titanic survivors has passed away. No new Triple Crown winners were added, and the living ex-president count has decreased by one.

Added to the list of who we track we should add veterans of long-past wars. World-wide, we might be near the end of living WWI survivors.

This kind of countdown is maintained by obituary news staffs so that they can cite that the end of the line has been reached. Or nearly reached. It seems anything can be counted, and you have to give credit to those who follow how many living Munchkins from the 'Wizard of Oz,' are left. It seems we started with 124.

We're down to two now. Margaret Pellegrini, 89, has passed away, leaving Jerry Maren, 93, and Ruth Duccini, 95.

According to the obituary just published in today's NYT, Margaret danced in lilac pajamas with a flowerpot on her head after hearing that the Wicked Witch of the East was dead.

I can never read about the Munchkins without thinking about the one who told the story of the Munchkins on the set who overdid it with alcohol during a lunch break that went too long. They recalled that little seen to date had topped seeing a cast of inebriated Munchkins chase after each other like they had just finished devouring the spiked watermelon at the company picnic.

With or without the flower pots and the purple pj's, it had to be quite a sight.


In God We Trvst

I can't the only one who has ever looked up at a building's engraving and wondered why the stonemasons couldn't make a U rather than a V. They couldn't make a curve on the bottom? There seem to be other curves in letters, so why are Vs found where I'd expect to see Us?

I never pursued an answer to this. The people I hang out with tell me they didn't even notice it was a V instead of a U. And by the time I crossed the street, or walked a block away, I forgot about what I wondered about. Thus, I never filed it away and then went to the Internet for an explanation.

But what about a smart phone? Couldn't I with Internet access scratch that itch with my head down and hope that a UPS truck doesn't hit me as I tap my way across a busy street? Sure, if I was someone else.

I'm not eligible for a smart phone. I went for one, filled out a form, and they assigned me a number. I didn't have enough points. They apparently subtract your age from your IQ, and if you're not above the minimum, no phone. Sorry.

As someone may remember, I do read book reviews. And in doing this, I came across a review in yesterday's WSJ for 'Spell It out,' by David Crystal. The reviewer, Henry Hitchings explains that the author, David Crystal, does a lively job of explaining how words have come to be spelled the way they are. Perhaps this doesn't sound like a book for everyone, but it certainly might be for someone who takes an interest in words and how they got that way.

Mr. Hitchings gives a quick summary that 23 letters were adapted from the Roman alphabet. Huh? What's this, something like an old rotary phone dial that omits Q and Z?

No, apparently J, W and U were not part of the Roman alphabet.

Thus, when you needed to carve a U, you used a V.

Mr. Hitchings makes no mention of this, but that's got to be the answer to explain what I've been seeing all these years. Perhaps because of some desired adherence to ancient spelling, the masons stuck to the original Roman alphabet, despite adorning a building that was built no earlier than the 19th century.

I shared my discovery with someone I've only recently become acquainted with who I suspected always knew why we saw Vs for Us.

Perhaps they've been covering the numerous NYC campaigns for the full slate of offices that are up for grabs in the coming general election in November. General elections in NYC are often moot points, occurring after fierce battles in the primaries that eliminate many.

With Eliot Spitzer running for NYC comptroller, and Anthony Weiner running for mayor, and the Page Six back stories these two bring, it's no wonder the reply to my discovery was that at least we don't look up and read 'In God We Tryst.'


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Where's Nick Beef?

If anyone has been following some of these blogs, or even some news from the New York Times's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, you will then remember that the NYT has started a policy of putting more notable obituaries on their front page. The frequency of front page death spreads has visibly increased, to the point that even a gorilla has been given the honor. A real gorilla, not just someone's opinion of what someone was like.

So, given this editorial enlightenment, we now have a front page story about footstones in a cemetery and the grave marker of someone who is not yet dead, not even using their real name, and who might eventually rate an news obituary of their own. The placement of this future news obituary, given that there will be one, is yet to be determined. Alive, the guy made the front page anyway.

We thus have the oddest of stories that involves someone who was six years old when they saw JFK and Jackie Kennedy at a Texas airport, the day before the president was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

The story progresses to where a young man purchases the plot next to that of Lee Harvey Oswald and later tops the plot with a footstone that plainly just says Nick Beef, a joke name of Patric Abedin, a person who is of great interest in all this, who lives in Greenwich Village. 

Anyone who knows anything about Greenwich Village knows it creates a very wide version of artistry. Mr. Abedin's inspiration and explanation for all that he's done is revealed in the story. Well, maybe.

The bigger picture, to me at least, is that it means a grave marker can be placed over a plot where no one is yet buried. Advertising has to follow.

Consider the possible fast-food markers that could be plopped into the ground, mistaken for names of people, or a family clan..

Long John Silver
Roy Rogers
Colonel Sanders

I know on many occasions grave markers contain the name of someone who is not yet interred. But this is usually when the spouse has already passed away, and their name and years are on the stone. The one to follow might have their name and year of birth on the same stone, awaiting the inscription of the final year. But at least someone is already under the stone.

My guess is, given the reach of yesterday's story, cemeteries will be extremely careful, if they aren't already, about markers, and if anyone is really there yet.

This won't prevent the inventive thinking of markers that might be placed in a cemetery that might really be advertising in granite.

A recreation of the Burma Shave signs that once lined the highways might occur. Start with a headstone in the front, and follow it to a surprise, perhaps further up the hill. Advertising and games.

Or, think of the grave markers that should be somewhere, if only there were some physical evidence.

James Hoffa
Judge Joseph Force Crater
D. B. Cooper
Amelia Earhart
Michael Rockefeller
Glenn Miller

No Internet cheating allowed. Batteries not included.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

The World Without End

The world without end, that forever blends.

Saturday's NYT, Michael Wilson's 'Crime Scene' column. An entertaining tale of Gypsies in the 1950s and 60s in New York City, flim-flam, pursuit, extradition, and people who later become famous.

Why does Mr. Wilson's column about detective Allen Gore sound familiar? Mr. Gore, a long-ago detective in New York City's squad of detectives known as the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad has written an e-mail about psychics in New York City. A particularly large 1956 fleecing looms large in his memory and takes center stage. Mr. Gore is now 85, so bravo to him for keeping up with technology, however he did it.

Where else have I read about detectives from this squad keeping their own files on Gypsies and using their reference material to keep track of them as they tried to bring them through the criminal justice system, usually for fraud and larceny?

One of Mr. Joseph Mitchell's long-form pieces titled 'The Gypsy Women,' 1955, is a seminal piece about their activities in New York City, and the efforts of a then retired police captain Daniel J. Campion in instructing the next generation of New York cops on the Gypsy's way of seeing the world. One of Mr. Campion's eager learners is detective Allen Gore.

It's a great 'Crime Scene' piece that screams for more space. By linking Mr. Mitchell's piece we get a view of the pursuit of Gypsies prior to detective Gore tracking Volga Adams, from Madam Lillian's parlor to Alabama and eventually hauling her back, via Florida, to New York for trial in 1963.

And then there can be the link to the future when it is revealed in the 'Crime Scene' piece that the prosecutor in the 1963 trial was Burton B. Roberts. Mr. Roberts goes on to become a long-time Bronx DA, judge, and a central character in Thomas Wolfe's novel, 'The Bonfire of the Vanities,' the tale of how the jury system in the Bronx is used as a means to redistribute the wealth.

Mr. Roberts also sheds Volga Adams's Gypsy curse of eternal bachelorhood at the age of 59, some 18 years after her trial.  At the age of 88 he passed away, survived by his wife Gerhild.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Slow Boat to the Ending

I'm currently reading Carl Hiassen's latest book, 'Bad Monkey.' I'm enjoying it so much I don't want it to end. I've read a few of his books, enjoyed them, but am really enjoying this one. It does seem to be better than the last few he's turned out, even as good as they were.

Giving nothing away, the book is funny. It's filled with a crew of characters whose application for employment at Wal-Mart would be turned down. Well, maybe one or two might get in.

How do you make the book last? Not finish it? Not a sensible option, since reading it is what is enjoyable. Not reading it is silly.

Read real slow. Out loud. Like you're trying to get a person who is hard of hearing to hear you? Also, not an option. Bothers others in the household who are watching 'I Dream of Jeannie' reruns.

Read it upside down? Yes.

It doesn't cost any more to do this, since all you have to do is turn the book upside down and start. Words staring with d, p and b are tough to get right at first, but you do get the hang of it. It doesn't change the meaning of anything either. The sentence can be as informative, or funny, as if it were right side up.

For example. Consider the monkey, Driggs, who has intervened in a confrontation between good and bad people

When you get through this passage upside down, it's just as funny an image of what's happening to the thug named Egg as when you're reading it right side up. And it's quite uncomfortable for the thug named Egg no matter how you look at it.

I'm at page 239 of a 317 page book. Upside down, the ending is a good way off.