Saturday, April 26, 2014

The 50 Year Anniversary

If I had known 1964 was going to be so important 50 years later, I might have paid more attention. But I didn't. I plowed on with my life, which at that time involved quadratic equations, English literature and the mysteries of why my father was now working in Washington D.C. and not at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So, times were tough? No. They were just times.

In 2014 we've had the news of the 50th anniversary of the signing of Civil Rights legislation by President Johnson. Certainly noteworthy. We've had several articles and picture essays about the World's Fair that was in Flushing Meadow Park in 1964. How have we changed? Did the predictions about the future come true?

The one futuristic aspect of the World's Fair that I can say did come through was I think AT&T's exhibit about being able to talk on the phone and see who you are talking to. Video phone calls. I distinctly remember doing this with my friend George, seeing a small, fuzzy black and white picture of him talking to me. Today, while it's not a land line phone that does this, it is Skype, or Face Time, or other things I have no knowledge of. That part did come true.

Fifty years ago also saw the death of Richard Nixon's dog Checkers, the cocker spaniel that was given to Nixon and caused quite a stir because it was seen as a gift, and gifts to politicians (this one made in 1952) were seen as bribes. The stir was so great that then Vice Presidential candidate Nixon took to the nascent airwaves of television to tell the nation that the dog was given to his two small daughters, and that he was keeping the dog.

The speech wasn't just about a dog, but it came to be known as the 'Checkers Speech.' Nixon even made reference to his wife's humble cloth coat that was certainly not a mink. Six years later a mink coat would play a part in the resignation of Eisenhower's chief of staff, Sherman Adams, and Nixon's part in telling him to resign.

I know of the 50th anniversary of the death of Nixon's dog because the local advertising newspaper for the little piece of Nassau county that I live in, is carrying a front page story: "Here lies the dog that saved Nixon."

The Nixon family had Checkers for 12 years. The dog was named by Nixon's 6-year-old-daughter Tricia. Apparently, in 1964 when Checkers passed away, Mr. Nixon was familiar with some people in New York and the dog came to be buried in a Bideawee cemetery on Beltagh Avenue, where fresh flowers are placed at the headstone. A friend of mine knows an employee of that cemetery, and they are very familiar with what is sometimes a tourist attraction.

I don't exactly know when Harry Truman said it, when he was in office or after, but he made reference to how few friends you could really have in Washington D.C. Truman said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Apparently, Richard Nixon took care of his friend.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Bletchley Circle at the Big A

To those who may not be familiar with the latest PBS British import show, 'The Bletchley Circle,' it is about a reunion of four women in the 1950s in England who all worked at Bletchley Park during WWII. This is the famous site and effort at breaking the German codes and creating allied advantages as to knowing all about German troop movements, etc. in advance. Bletchley is also generally given credit as the place where the first computer was created by Alan Turing, whose 1950s suicide by eating a poisoned apple is said to be the origin of the Apple computer trademark.

The four women portrayed in the show are fictionalized versions of the actual type of person who worked at Bletchley and the eclectic skills they brought to the code breaking effort.

Jean was and is a librarian, who supervises one of the all-female units. Susan becomes a housewife, who is a dynamo at solving puzzles; a match wizard. Lucy, perhaps the youngest, has a photographic memory and later works for the Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) doing clerical work. Millie is a linguist, highly fluent in German, who works post-war as a German translator. She is the tallest of the four women and gives off a bit of a Kim Cattrall look from 'Sex and the City.' She smokes. In fact, these four brainiacs could be labeled 'Text and the City,' but the producers thought otherwise.

Jean, as a natural leader, is the catalyst for the reunion. She brings the girls together when there is a particular crime or injustice that she thinks they can apply their skills to solving. To see the women troop around the streets in sensible shoes following someone is almost funny. There is a Hardy Boys quality to their spirit, and they do get themselves into some truly dangerous and sensitive do-do.

The five guys who meet at either the Aqueduct or Belmont dining room a few times a year loosely resemble the women from Bletchley Park. They all at one time and at he same time, worked for the same employer, a major health insurer in New York. They brought various skills to this job, programming, investigating, retired surgeon, analyst and knowledge of machinery. Four of the five are card-carrying members of the government's Medicare program.

They are rounded up by an equivalent of Jean, and work to apply their techniques to the generally nine or ten race puzzle that is presented to them in the form of the day's entries. As in horseshoes, close can count.

This past Saturday at Aqueduct saw the gathering number four guys, with one scratched due to a rescheduled Easter dinner.

Results of their efforts at solving the enigma that is a race card vary greatly. The last gathering saw one of the members score so well with a triple bet that financial advice was needed. Anyone who has spent some time with the Esquire channel show 'Horseplayers' can get a little bit of an idea of the nature of four or five brains looking for the same solution: the winner and a good exact or triple to play on each race.

No computers are used. Pen, paper and conversation go into the process of creating selections. One member does use an array of colored Sharpies to create PowerPoint graphic presentations on scraps of paper. He leaves behind a trail of color looking like an Easter basket.

Another member assigns numbers to each horse based on the sum of ten variables that are assigned and assessed on each entrant. There is method to this madness, and it does produce winning selections. If acted on.

The phrase "coulda', woulda', shoulda'" is often used to describe horseplayers. They see everything after the race is over and of course would have, or should have done better if only could have seen what they now see.

I've come to like the current Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's description of sub par mental acuity that describes someone who shoots themselves in the foot, and then reloads as the best description of the mental vacillations that take place when a selection is made and a bet is actually called to the seller at the window. Things can change greatly. In writing, this might be called editing. In playing the horses it is called shooting oneself in the foot and then reloading, especially when the first choice, changed and unplayed, is the one that brings home the bacon that you didn't get to hold.

True to their prior race statement, one member did continue to win the ninth race, a race on the card (generally the last race) that for them they've won more times than any other race in the over 40 years of attending races.

The assembled four on Saturday picked winners, exactas and triples. But to a man, no one came out ahead using money as the measurement.

That's why the show always has more episodes.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Doctor Dr. Fager

Anyone who knows me, or at least spend some time with me, knows I'm a horse racing fan. I've been going to New York thoroughbred tracks since 1968, when with two friends, brothers, we went to the Belmont Stakes. I hit the $2  Daily Double "cold" (only making one bet for $2) and was permanently hooked. Stage Door Johnny won the Belmont that year, and I still get a kick out of the name of the mare that produced him: Peroxide Blond.

A few years ago the repair guy from Verizon had to walk around the house to get to the cable box. In doing this, he was observant of the garden plaque sign I have on the side shed that says "Aqueduct,"  fittingly, with a blue background. A continued stroll through the garden brought him past a similar plaque, reddish background, spiked into the ground that says "Saratoga," where you'll surely find me in August. At the track, not spiked in the ground.

Then, around the corner wedged near the patio and the house, is the third New York track sign, "Belmont," on an appropriate green background. The Verizon guy took all this in and when it was time to come back in we were talking horses. The fourth, and final sign was not yet there.

How many obituaries have a horse's picture in the same piece as that of the deceased? I've never seen it. But there it is in Tuesday's NYT obituary (print edition) on the good doctor. When I saw the headline that "Dr. Charles Fager, Dies at 90; Lent Name to a Champion" I knew immediately what I'd be reading.

I know all about the association with the famous race horse and how he came to be named Dr. Fager. It was described in the obit, and without the horse association, it might be doubtful that the good doctor would have been a news obituary--at least in New York.

What was missing from the obit was that the trainer whose head he repaired, Johnny Nerud, is still alive and is over 100. He still comes to the track on a regular basis. The horse, Dr. Fager has long left us, but when he was racing at the height of his career in 1968, he was something to behold. Sprints, routes, all carrying weight, meaning the saddle was loaded with lead to handicap his advantage over the rest of the field. And the fields were usually small, because he was that good.

His races with Damascus were the equine version of Ali-Frazier. But the one truly outstanding race was his last, the Vosburgh Handicap at Aqueduct on November 2, 1968, a seven furlong affair, carrying the incredible impost, or weight of 139 pounds, spotting his nearest rival Kissin' George 12 pounds, and a further incredible 34 pounds from the lowest weight.

In those days, assigning weight was a big deal. It was widely used to equalize the competitive chances of the horses and theoretically make them arrive at the wire together.

This of course doesn't happen, and it didn't happen in the Vosburgh, as Dr. Fager took the lead and produced the still outstanding fractions of 22 1/5, 43 4/5, 1:07 4/5, and a final time of 1:20 1/5, a new track record, that stood for decades until Artax broke it, carrying nowhere near the weight of the good doctor.

No one runs a 43 4/5 half and wins a race. No one usually runs the second quarter faster than the first quarter. Quarter horses, another breed from the thoroughbred, and bred for distances up to 600 yards, don't run as fast as the doctor did that day.

Dr. Fager won by six lengths that day, ridden by Braulio Baeza. It was his final race that saw him win 18 times from 22 starts, grass, dirt, routes and sprints. The most versatile horse there has ever been. His record for the mile on dirt still stands: 1:32 1/5. When he was transported back to New York after an out-of-town race the police escort for the van gave the driver a mock "speeding ticket" for  transporting the horse.

The fourth and final plaque in the yard is spiked into the ground near an azalea bush. When I had a cookout last year, a former co-worker scanned the yard for gardening ideas and of course  came across the sign, "DR. FAGER."

She and her boyfriend asked, "who is Dr. Fager?"

I explained we buried the family dentist--but only the hands. The co-worker knew who my family dentist was, so she didn't believe me.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spider Woman

I really can't resist sharing this one.

Years ago I was on one of those day-trip fishing trips, where they take you a few miles out in the ocean, you drop a baited line, and wait. A so-called 'party boat' with no party on this trip.

I was with a friend and we were catching quite a few fish. Someone much younger than us, and further down the rail, hauled something in that was ugly. Plain ugly. Butt ugly. It was spiny and prickly, and motley brown, and looked like nothing you could keep, or want to. The younger fellow that caught it asked the mate what kind of fish it was. Neither my friend or I knew.

The mate looked at the young man, paused just a bit, asked him if he was married ("no") and told him it was the "mother-in-law fish."

When we got back to shore and home I asked another friend, who really was a fisherman, what the fish might have really been. He said it was a "hacklehead,' and yes they are quite ugly and nothing you'd keep.

This picture of an Australian spider was plucked off a Twitter tweet of a journalist in Brisbane, @lifeasinzy.  The credits follow:

Habitat of the stunning banksia peacock spider, found only in Perth, is protected by 9 WLT refuges. Photo: B. Fremlin

If that spider were a witch doctor you'd have to get well, or die from a heart attack.


Joseph Yule Jr.

I don't really have much to add to the passing of Mickey Rooney. I might add that I just talked to a neighbor who was on their way to the store (still driving) who told me they were 93. I said keep it up and you'll pass Mickey Rooney.

They replied that they met Mickey Rooney once. "He was jerk. I just read that all he had left was $18,000. That's what you get for eight wives."

I added, that and craps, playing the horses, coupled with drinking, and it's amazing he made to 93, even if he spent the last several years of life not drinking.

Sure, Mickey famously had eight wives. Elizabeth Taylor had seven unique husbands, married eight times. She apparently liked Richard Burton twice as much as any of the others. King Henry VIII had only six wives, proving that Mickey's patience and love of women exceeded that of a king's, especially when one of Henry's wives developed breathing problems when her head became detached from the rest of her body.

Another friend of mine said he almost met Mickey Rooney. This friend worked for a racing Publication, 'Racing Star Weekly' in NYC, and Rooney apparently stopped by for something. Maybe to personally renew his subscription. This would have been about the time Rooney was on Broadway in 'Sugar Babies.' The magazine's offices were not far from the Broadway theaters.

Usually someone in show business who likes the racetrack owns a horse now and then. Apparently Rooney didn't. Probably never held onto money long enough to pay for the hay.

That same friend who follows these things, said that the other day radio personality Don Imus literally played 11 instances! of radio, network and cable broadcasters and news people who informed all of us that, "Andy Rooney has passed away yesterday at 93. He will be missed."

Oh, you mean that CBS '60 Minutes' sourpuss who passed away in 2011 did it again? Wow. Not that guy who starred in four MGM musicals with Judy Garland and who probably raised more money singing, dancing and "putting on the show" than PBS does in a week playing 1960s music. (Judy who?)

This of course shows that these "journalists" are as unknowledgeable and superficial as I've always thought them to be. But then again, live to be 93 and no one really knows if you were alive yesterday or not. Luckily for the Rooney family of Pittsburgh Steelers ownership and Empire Racing Casino they haven't been pronounced dead any more than what was necessary.

Which leads to a terrific piece of poetic prose when Aljean Harmetz, in his NYT obituary of Rooney sums up Rooney's finances and lifestyle when he writes: "...for the mirage of running his own production company, and ended up mired in debt and B movies. Suits for alimony, child support and back taxes pursued him like tin cans tied to the bumper of the car he was driving to his next wedding."

But Rooney, by his own accounts, had fun doing it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

John Updike, Redux

Through the graciousness of an alert reader, an attempt was made to provide access to John Updike's
'New Yorker Talk of the Town' column of February 11, 1956. The previous blog entry made reference to this column, spurred on by what can only be described as "Updike in the air," since a biography has been just released and is being vetted in book reviews by New York's cognoscenti.

Alas and alack, the attempt didn't work, but what was attained from this alert reader was a reprint of the February 5, 2009 'New Yorker' piece that chronicles, with splendid color photos, the retracing of Updike's steps 53 years later. Mr. Updike had just passed away in January 2009, so an odd-year anniversary seemed in order. You're not a fabled periodical without having a few quirks.

A trip to a library and their proprietary access to 'The New Yorker' is going to sort this out once and for all, but nevertheless, a good deal has come through the ether.

The second paragraph of the 2009 piece quotes Updike's 1956 words: "the odors of cheap candy, cashews, cosmetics, and cookies at Woolworth's on Forty-second Street..." The singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith has a delightful lead-in to her song 'Love at the Five and Dime'.

She introduces the song with a great narrative that comes out of her visit to a Woolworth's in London. "Woolworth stores are the same everywhere," she tells us in her sweet Texas accent. "They smell of popcorn and chewing gum wrapped around the sole a brown leather shoe." Ms. Griffith further captures the spirit of even going into a Woolworth's store..."so I can go in and fill up on unnecessary plastic objects." Yes, you never knew when the aisle would be blocked by someone considering if the ceramic dog they were now inspecting for hairline cracks was really the right gift to give someone.

Truly, John and Nancy have captured the smell of Woolworth's.

To this, I would like to add the sound and sights of the IRT 14th Street station in the 1960s. Anyone who has been to this subway stop and stood waiting for a 4,5,or 6 train will know there are parts of the platform that move. On purpose.

There are heavy steel sliding portions that come out to meet an incoming train to order to decrease the size of the gap. Anyone who has watched a train either come in or disappear from this station will know that they do so at nearly a right angle. Why this is is not known. Somewhere in the original plans there must have been a very immovable object that could not be budged when they were digging for the subway. They did this line "open trench" so it must have been something mighty. Like several buildings.

Regardless, the platform grates move to meet, then retract when the train doors are closed again. There is still an announcement, I believe, but I will forever hear the one (over and over) from the 1960s in that auditioned male baritone: "Please stand clear of the moving platform as the train enters and leaves the station."

More sounds? How about the Puerto Rican music that blared, (and I mean loud enough to scare a trapped General Noriega) seemingly day and night from a record store that only sold Spanish music on a mezzanine level of the station? Right next to the guy with large wire baskets of oranges who would freshly squeeze several for you, for a price. At least he did until they got after him because he was soaking the oranges in water before setting them out, having the oranges absorb water and weight before squeezing them and filling up the size you selected. Thus, wonder of wonders you didn't get "100% pure orange juice." This guy did this before Tropicana.

To this day I go through that section of the station and am looking for pale orange spheres and expecting a headache.

Back to 'The New Yorker's' 2009 retracing of Updike's steps. Mr. Updike prefaced his 1956 journey as one someone might want to make if "they were too frail or shy for good-natured hurly-burly." God, he was from out-of-town, wasn't he? Needless to say, we now have buses that kneel, right? And of course we still have cabs, And most of them are still yellow.

The 2009 journey has to admit to the places that are no longer there. So, in order to make the journey in Updike's footsteps, there is some sleight-of-foot. It's almost a 'Spy Game' in training in how to get your way without causing a ruckus. The two reporters appear to be successful, especially when they talk their way through the office building that was Orbach's, enlist assistance from the man from Bangladesh at the clothing store in a scene from 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as well as get past a NO ACCESS TO 40th STREET THROUGH THE LOT sign at a parking garage.

But like the gaps at the start of Updike's 1956 tracing, the 2009 journey begs some clarifications. Like, after walking through Bryant Park and coming to 42nd Street, how do they pop out at 25 West 43rd Street, to continue to 44th Street?

25 West 43rd Street is on the north side of 43rd Street, so how did they make it through the block from 42nd Street? Not described. My guess is there might be access through 11 West 42nd Street, where we once had offices.

Unless something has been left out, the piece and its narrative goes from 44th Street to 46th Street. Maybe they threw doubles.

We're going to get to the bottom of this.


What's a bagataway? Is it a joke, as in: "what's a henway?" About five pounds.

I've never seen or heard the word. But apparently John Updike thought it was a great word choice in 1956 to describe the gait of New Yorkers on Fifth and Sixth Avenues as he wrote in a 'Talk of the Town' column in 'The New Yorker' magazine about going from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center without once walking on either Fifth or Sixth Avenues.  To me, it is significant that Sixth Avenue, named 'The Avenue of the Americas' after WWII would be referred to as Sixth Avenue, even by 'The New Yorker.' No one has ever called it 'Avenue of the Americas' except City Hall and the post office.

The mid-50s were Updike's years at 'The New Yorker' as an employee. He was fairly freshly from Harvard and a small town in Pennsylvania when he hit the big time as a staff writer, filing copy directly to the editor William Shawn.

The first biography of John Updike, 'Updike' is by Adam Begley, and was first read about in 'The Observer.' The reviewer, Mark Kassel, spends a good deal of time discussing what he describes as Updike's best known 'Talk' piece in "which the author expertly navigates his way from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center--all without stepping foot on an avenue." Mr. Kassel offers an Updike observation: "Fifth and Sixth Avenues teem these days' the thronging pedestrians maneuver under rules skimpier than those of bagataway."

I tried to get a copy of the February 11, 1956 column. I need to be a 'New Yorker' subscriber to get past their paywall. I'm not.

Perhaps an alert reader with a valid 'New Yorker' magazine subscription will oblige me in my quest. I did get to read what must be part of the piece from an entry found online. It confirms my initial thoughts as to Updike's route: walk through the Empire State lobby, cross 34th Street in the middle of the block, and then go into the department store Orbach's and pop out on the 35th Street side..." (No longer possible. Orbach's has been turned into an office building and the guards might try and stop you.)

'The Obvserver' piece recommends the Updike bio for invoking the bygone parts of New York. The viewable online posting gives the route away:

Talk story about a walk from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center that involved no contact with either 5th or 6th Avenues. Our reporter started from the Cantigny Printing & Stationary (31st St.), through the Empire State Building, Ohrbach's, Meyers Brothers System parking lot, & under a wire fence at 36th St. Through Herald Square Garage to 37th St.; then via subway tunnel to 38th St. Next through Lord & Taylor's, Schumacher's, Bryant Park, Woolworth's to 43rd St. Several arcades lead to 44th St. Describes the rest of the buildings, basements, etch. he had to walk through to reach Rockefeller Center.

Immediately, I have to wonder. The Empire State Building is still where it was in 1956: on the west side of Fifth Avenue, from 33rd Street to 34th Street. (It doesn't however occupy a solid city block. Another game: name the buildings that do.) How Updike got from 31st Street to 33rd Street without mentioning something after Cantigny's makes me wonder. Maybe Cantigy's ran through the block, starting at 31st, but then that could only deposit you out on 32rd Street. A block south of 33rd Street.

Maybe Updike means he really started on 32nd, or 33rd Streets? I never knew Cantigy's, but I can't be sure what he meant.  All I know is the place didn't exist literally through 32nd Street to 33rd Street.

It's just native carping, I know. Something like taking issue with Admiral Peary's claim to have found the North Pole. Or, Grand Central Terminal vs. Grand Central Station. It's still a great premise, and does remind me of how my friend and I got in out of a very heavy rain and closer to Madison Square Garden (the current one) by literally cutting through all aspects of St. Francis of Assisi church in order to stay dry. Every time I'm on that block, I think I'd like to try that again.

Observant people new to Manhattan, and from small towns, love to describe what they see in Manhattan. I remember a newspaper reporter coming into Manhattan for the first time who marveled at how people kept popping up out of holes in the sidewalk. A lot of people. He thought we were a population of gophers.

And how through personal sonar and radar, we don't seem to bump into each other. We don't even sideswipe each other. Bats.

But "bagataway?" No luck in my print edition of the shorter version of the OED. Online, Merriam & Webster wants to send me to an expanded 300,000 word reserve they have that may help make me a paying member of their online service. No thanks.

I did find it seems to refer to lacrosse. So, I guess to the fresh-faced Updike, what looks like skittering all over the place, reminds him of lacrosse. Whatever.

My own poetic rendition of watching people in New York always occurs when I look either north or south from the west side of Fifth Avenue at about mid-block, at the low spot between 43rd and 44th Streets. In either direction, a lunch hour, or rush hour crowd lit by the sun is "a sea of bobbing heads."

One of the best examples of urban spelunking was graphically depicted in a 1970s edition of 'New York' magazine that showed how you could travel underground from 31st Street and Eighth Avenue to Rockefeller Center.

By using upper and lower levels of Penn Station and its then connection to the PATH trains on Sixth Avenue, subway, and other pedestrian tunnels, it was thoroughly possible to do this.

Unfortunately, the access directly to the PATH trains from Penn Station has long been sealed off. It was a dark trip, but extremely handy. It did take you past Gimbel's and their bargain basement (no access), huge fire doors, and past a usually closed, cluttered stamp and coin storefront (greatly missed) behind a stenciled glass door.

Post-911 New York does not offer as many street level, or underground shortcuts. But the ones you can still find and use are always cherished. Especially when it is raining.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

In Memoriam

It's no news I read the obituaries. But I also glance down at the paid notices, with particularly lengthy ones getting my attention. It's not just their size, but their expense. Those lines add up, particularly in the NYT.

My eyes then usually hit the "In Memoriam" section. These memoriams are smaller, far quicker to read, and there aren't as many. Perhaps because I've placed some there myself on the anniversaries of two simultaneously departed colleagues that I pay attention.

Last week a solo memoriam caught my eye for several reasons. There was a Yiddish word I wasn't familiar with, and the 18th anniversary of a son's murder was being recognized.

The notice was for Howard Pilmar, who was murdered 18 years ago in an office near the Empire State Building, and whose killer remains unknown. It was a particularly brutal slaying involving a knife attack. The unsolved murder must be one of the older ones in New York City. It would seem the investigation might still be considered open.

According to online Yiddish sources, "the Yiddish word, 'yuertzeit,' or 'yahrtzeit' is the yearly anniversary of a loved one's death – being a mitzvah for the rest of the survivor's life. There is no 'closure' per se; ..."

Even when you know more, there is still always why.

Seated Alphabetically

I would have to say that anyone who I became good friends with in high school generally didn't have a last name that started with a letter past "G." This was no doubt due to the fact that in homeroom we were seated alphabetically.

My "D" put me in the first seat in the second column, and immediately to the left of the fellow whose "A" led us all off in the first seat in the first column. We became close enough friends to usually have lunch together in a room where you ate lunch if you brought your own. For some time I guess he and I did bring our own, and did share a common lunch period, which in that school could start as early as 10:30. (Luckily I never drew that time slot.)

So, when my long ago lunch-mate posted a query asking to hear from anyone in our class in the alumni newsletter, I smiled at the name I knew, and immediately connected via e-mail.

After the biographical catching-up and usual exchanges I mentioned he probably wasn't going to hear from anyone else whose last name started with a letter past "G." That's just the way it was. Seated in a homeroom, the same way for three years, I came to be friendly with no one myself past the letter "L."

Whether this arrangement has prevented any of us from being able to boast that we sat next to, or near someone who won a Nobel or Pulitzer, I don't know. It may also be keeping us from saying we never sat near someone who has proved to be a publicized maniac. Good things can come out of all things, somehow.

A few weeks passed, and my buddy got back to me to tell me I was right. The only other person he heard from was someone we both knew whose last name started with a "G."

The whole part of being seated alphabetically came back to me again when I read a story in the NYT about the songwriter E.Y. Harburg, who is best known for writing "Over the Rainbow," featured in "The Wizard of Oz" and of course the signature song for Judy Garland.  He wrote other standards as well. "April in Paris," for one.

For someone of Harburg's late 19th century birth he had fairly typical origins for those who became prominent in entertainment: growing up on the Lower East side of Manhattan, and going to a NYC school, where thanks to the alphabetical seating system long favored by NYC schools, he sat next to Ira Gershwin, who of course became a songwriter of some note himself.

The high school my friend and I attended was also a NYC school (all boys then), not quite on the Lower East Side, but tucked away on East 15th Street. In today's parlance, it would be described as being "Lower East Side Adjacent," I guess.

It's now occurred to me that if my friend and I attended that school decades before, we might have been able to say we used to have lunch with Jimmy Cagney. But only of course if he brought his own.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The New Kid in Town

It is a bit too soon to tell, but there might be a photographic subject that will knock Germany's Chancellor Angel Merkel off her perch as the world's most photographed woman with clothes on.

She's the new Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen. And if she doesn't turn out to be as photographed as often as Ms. Merkel, she will at least establish a new category of being the world's most photographed woman with white hair.

Ms. Yellen is seen here watching a welding demonstration as she tours the College to Careers Program in Advanced Manufacturing at the City Colleges of Chicago's Daley College on March 31, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.

Ms. Yellen is obviously a smart cookie. She appears to be peeking out just a tad from behind the welding mask with her left eye to ensure that she is not being fed some virtual reality rosy picture through the mask's visor.

We'll be watching further for appearances by Ms. Yellen.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Advance Lede

I've never taken a journalism class. And I suspect, if I took one that centered on writing obituaries I might be asked to write my own, hypothetical obituary.

Any attendance I might have had at a place of formal education ended sometime a few years before the first lunar landing. And I've never been disciplined enough to give myself the obituary assignment. However, unless you're too superstitious about writing about your own death, the assignment could be a juicy one. You could describe innumerable achievements. The world's a better place for your having spent living moments in it.

I read something in the WSJ recently that made me think of the self-penned obituary, or eulogy. In this past Friday's 'Personal Finance' section, John Koten relates the story of his father, who at AT&T may have been the one who was instrumental in giving us the # and the * symbols on touch-tone phones. Mr. Koten also expresses regret at what all children regret later in life when their parents are gone: no one talked enough about themselves, and no one asked enough questions.

Mr. Koten describes his dad as being an active, robust 84 when he passed away, and one who basically thought he was never going to die. Mr. Koten's sentence, "my dad certainly didn't see his own death coming and would be greatly  shocked to learn of it were he still alive," is one of the all-time great time-warp statements I've ever read. It's irresistible. If only the future revealed itself by going backwards.

Mr. Koten's appreciation of his father is a great piece. It hasn't moved me completely off the block of inertia that I sit on, and it certainly hasn't dampened my tongue-in-cheek attitude, but it has moved me enough to pen at least the outline of the lede to my own self-penned obituary. I have no doubt that someone else, if seriously asked, will come up with something different.

First name+last name, who always claimed that everything always reminded him of something else, and who would no doubt have told us what was going through his mind if only his death hadn't prevented it, passed away yesterday at nn after an intense, but short battle with a rare strain of toenail fungus, that untreated, somehow proved fatal.