Thursday, May 25, 2017

Shabby Digs

Anyone who has ever been in the offices of public sector employees might be a little surprised to see how somewhat shabby they can be. Nearly two decades ago I had occasion to go with my boss to the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District to see an Assistant United States Attorney who was going to be presenting an insurance case against a medical provider. The allegation was that the provider had significantly defrauded the health insurance company I worked for, and others.

I had already met the young woman AUSA at our own offices nearby. She was an eager Harvard Law school grad who was going to be working the case. Now for what was the first of the next few visits we had to go where she worked, at
1 St. Andrew's  Plaza, in lower Manhattan, the building pictured to the right, and the subject of yesterday's A-Hed piece in the WSJ, describing the place as a little frayed at the edges on the inside.

My visits were nearly two decades ago, but I distinctly remember being in the AUSA's office on a piece of furniture I'm sure I sank in, looking around at the neither small or large office, but thinking "this place is really a shit-hole."

The whole place was a municipal purchasing agent's idea of mis-matched decor. I believe there was a flag in the office and I immediately thought of my old P.S. 22 in the 1950s that had a flag on the auditorium's stage, tucked away in the corner. Of course then, there were only 48 stars in the flag.

I distinctly remember taking the place in and felt it was badly in need of a paint job, so much so that my Greek heritage came out and had me volunteering to come in on a weekend and paint the office, or at least let me buy the paint. Because if there are any two things anyone of Greek heritage has experience with it is wearing an apron, and holding a paint brush or roller.

The place was dimly lit, with mismatched file cabinets and the prosecutor's in line roller blades resting on the floor. I imagined her skating over the Brooklyn Bridge in the morning from their apartment someplace in Brooklyn. She was after all young enough to be doing stuff like that. I was always the oldest person in the room.

The WSJ A-Hed, as is typical of A-Hed pieces is filled with puns. The print headline and sub-headline alone start if off: Manhattan Prosecutor's Smell a Rat/Or maybe mold in the decrepit U.S. Attorney's office.

It seems my turn-of-century visits might have found the place in far better shape than it has now fallen into. The A-Hed piece describes even old office furniture that employees stake out and take for themselves when someone is leaving. One departing attorney kept coming back from lunch and kept finding another item made off with from their office.

When water coolers were found to dispense water with a high lead content, the office staff simply covered the fountains with garbage bags and took up a collections to keep bottled water in the place.

A nasty smell lead to the discovery of a dead rodent being found decomposing in a radiator, and there have been bed bug outbreaks. Mold and a mountain of finger nail clippings have been found in desks when newly taken over by someone starting out.

The Manhattan Correction Center is right next door, a detention facility for those awaiting trial. Apparently when one prisoner was brought into the offices for a conference they asked that the next meeting be held back at the jail: it had better accommodations.

The notorious drug lord El Chapo is currently in the Manhattan Correction Center. There have been no stories that he's been brought to St. Andrew's Plaza and asked to next have the meeting in a tunnel. He's not getting moved around much, so he doesn't really know how much worse it can be.

Added to my memory of offices in bad need of a paint job, I distinctly remember there was construction going on, ceiling tiles were pulled out in the lobby by the elevators and the pipes and electrical wiring were visible. This is the same lobby that appears on the news when there is a press conference announcing a major arrest where lots of weapons and drugs are fanned out for the public to see on the evening news. My guess is the ceiling work might now be over, but the cameras should stay away from pointing up, just in case.

If you've watched the Showtime series 'Billions' you get a feeling that the U.S. Attorney's offices are not bad. Of course that's television, and they only show a floor portrayed as where the U.S. Attorney themselves have their office. The rounded stucco edges of the walls are what I also remember, and are part of the overall building's architecture, something the WSJ tells us is evocative of a Soviet-era building, circa 1974. It does have that look.

The prosecutor we used to meet is now gone from St. Andrew's Plaza, after I think 9 years of AUSA employment. My guess is they have some fond memories of the place, but no doubt are now enjoying vastly improved surroundings.

Aside from the offices I came to realize that anytime we were in an AUSA's office there was an FBI agent with us. They act as the body guards for these people. In one famous instance an AUSA was about to open a present they thought was a Christmas gift from their family when the agent abruptly stopped them and whisked the package away to the bomb squad.

It turned out the package was actually from an Asian drug lord who was the defendant in a case the prosecutor was involved in. The briefcase gift would have exploded if it had been popped open. This was pre-9/11.

One morning when it came time to be shown where I had to go to find the courtroom to give testimony in the case, an FBI agent was walking me through the vast lobby of the Federal courthouse, the one whose stairs are always seen on television. The place was as empty as a vast railroad station at midnight.

He told me the story of once escorting a prisoner who gave him directions on where they had to go in the building.

I wonder if he was found guilty and got a little time shaved off for helping out.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What ARE the Chances?

I recently finished the book 'Fluke, The Math & Myth of Coincidence' by Joseph Mazur, a book that attempts to explain that the odd things that happen really do happen within the realm of statistical probability. We like to call things we think are one-offs, flukes, but are they really flukes?

According to Mr. Mazur, things that happen happen because there was a probability of it happening, and when it happened, you just happened to notice it. It is true there may not have been much of a chance of what just happened to have happened, but what we all fail to consider are all the times it didn't happen.

Think of seeing someone you haven't seen for decades suddenly appearing in the same hotel lobby you now find yourself in on a business trip. You both recognize each other, so they are having the same "fluke" experience as you of "what are the chances of this happening?" You're both amazed. One in a million, right?

Well, one in something for sure. What neither person is considering is all the times you've been in a hotel lobby, or some other public place, and didn't run into anyone you haven't seen for decades. You've made no count of those non-encounters. You've miscalculated the universe, so when you do run into someone you haven't seen for decades it might really be because of all the non-encounters you were due to run into someone you knew from the past. And it could have been anyone from the past. You've certainly known a good number of people, or seen a good number of people in the past who you might now remember if they suddenly appeared in front of you. That face does look familiar.

I think I've caught the essence of the author's text. I especially enjoyed learning how it is calculated that of 23 people at a gathering, there is a 50% chance that two of the people will share the same month and day of birth (not necessarily the same year). And if there are 30 people at this gathering, there is near certainty (1.0) that two people will share the same month and day of birth. It is astounding, and it is calculable.

So, if you're still with me, I want you to consider the odds of a wooden representation of Karl Marx being displayed in Trier, Germany in advance of his 200th birthday that is a prototype of a more permanent gift China wants to make to Germany when the event formally rolls around next year, being photographed by a news photographer at the exact instant a man strolls by in the lower left of his camera's lens who bears a decided striking likeness to Karl Marx. Himself.

You can take your time and get back to me. The Internet is standing by.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Pursuit of the Triple Crown

After watching the conclusion of yesterday's marathon Preakness telecast, even the casual race fan knows that there cannot be a Triple Crown winner this year. The Derby winner, Always Dreaming, finished eighth, after giving it his best by going throat latch-to-throat latch with Classic Empire in a front-running duel that was starting to look like Alydar vs. Affirmed in 1978. The fractions were quick, and the riding intense. What are we going to see here today?

What we saw was Always Dreaming, who has never run back on only two weeks rest, and Classic Empire, who was so banged up from his Derby trip that his trainer and the writers were calling him Rocky. At the end of the Derby, even an eye was shut. They were going at it from the bell and were throwing it down.

Always Dreaming eventually relented, and Classic Empire looked like a sure winner. But for that to happen the race has to be over and you have to cross the wire first. It is a rule.

So, while the backers of Classic Empire were feeling relieved, Cloud Computing emerged on the outside and took dead aim at the leader. I once bet on a horse named Dead Aim, a Starter Handicap horse who liked to come from behind, seriously behind, and try and win. And one afternoon in the last race at Aqueduct a long, long time ago, he did take dead aim at the leader and finished in front. But at 5-2 he was no real surprise. Cloud Computing was a bit, at 13-1.

No Triple Crown, and no Rocky story, but always a story.

On these marathon network telecasts I play music and keep the sound off until the post parade. If there is something that looks like it might be interesting I mute the music and unmute the set. And when a well-coiffed Bob Costas was interviewing the two principal owners of Always Dreaming, I turned the sound back on.

There was Frank Viola and Anthony Bonomo being interviewed, with cut-away shots of the gang back at the Brooklyn restaurant Bamonte's, dutifully cheering when the camera's red light went on and telling the world who they were backing.

I've been to Bamonte's restaurant years and years go. It is hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, off Meeker Avenue and you have to know you are going there, You are not going to find it casually. On the summer evening we went there old Italian ladies were sitting on their beach chairs  in the doorways of the stoop buildings, catching a breeze. The table we sat at had a plaque on the wall that said it was "From the Boys" No names,. They knew who they were. And the owners knew as well. The place is a larger Brooklyn Rao's, with seating more easily attained. The food of course is good. It has to be.

We head a story of the local monsignor blessing the horse. We heard Costas ask the owners how would they handle ticket requests from friends if Always Dreaming were to win today's Preakness.

Viola fielded this one and said they were going to give everyone "in the neighborhood" admission to the 4th floor at Belmont. If so, Jet Blue was going to need extra flights to ferry those that moved away back to New York for the race and the party.

I've seen the 4th floor given over to a party, in 1971, when Canonero II was trying to win the Triple Crown. Since the horse with the crooked foreleg was from Venezuela, it seemed the entire country was jammed into the 4th Floor clubhouse stands.

They were an especially festive bunch as the afternoon wore on and post time approached. The place seemed to shake with their excitement when Canonero II, under jockey Gustavo Avila, pulled away from the field at the clubhouse turn, right in front of us.

The rest is history. Leading at the clubhouse turn in a mile and a half race is not winning, and of course Canonero II didn't. He finished a very tired fourth. There were a lot of folks who had a long way to go home who didn't see their horse win.

No story about the 1971 Belmont would be complete without mentioning our mentor Les (Mr. Pace) and his $2 wager on Pass Catcher, a horse he handicapped the night before and announced to all who would listen to him that he was going to win.

Pass Catcher's jockey Walter Blum dropped the whip in the stretch, and used is hands to urge him over the finish line. Pass Catcher's prior race went totally overlooked by the bettors. He had finished a more than respectable second to Bold Reasoning in the Jersey Derby. Bold Reasoning at the time might have been the best three year-old in training who wasn't in the Classic races.

Les, who handicapped the prior night, was whipping his Morning Telegraph out of his back pocket every chance he got to tell anyone whose attention he had that Pass Catcher earned a "2," a significantly low number in Les's system of pace calculations.

In today's NYT Joe Drape has a story about Chad Brown, the trainer of Cloud Computing who just won Saturday's Preakness, giving the young, but highly experienced Chad Brown his first victory in a Triple Crown race.

Chad Brown learned his trade working as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who in turn learned his trade from Buddy Jacobson. Both Buddy and Bobby are no longer with us, but they further the axiom of learning from the best and becoming the best.

Mr. Drape quotes something Frankel said about bettors, a sentiment I've held for my nearly 50 years of going to the races and betting. "It's nice to be right. You ever been to the racetrack and heard someone yelling, 'I told you that horse would win?' It's not even about the money. They just want to be right." I can tell you how right that is when you stand next to someone who didn't see or care about someone winning the Triple Crown, but who picked an $80 mutuel out of a 75 cent newspaper the night before.

And that's how it goes. There will be no crowd with Brooklyn in their blood filling the 4th Floor clubhouse stands. When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015 he was the first to do so in 37 years, the longest span of time that no one won the Crown.

Triple Crown winners do not grow on trees. Even if those trees grow in Brooklyn.

Friday, May 19, 2017


Anyone who knows anything about the race for the 'World's Most Photographed Woman with Clothes On' will realize that Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has been seriously challenging Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, to the point where it seems Theresa May has pulled ahead. And with today's photo of Prime Minister May holding up a "manifesto," 'Forward Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future' she is more than a neck in front inside the three-sixteenths pole..

If you've also been aware of the recent French elections, there was a possibility, however small, that France too would have a female leader, Marine Le Pen. This didn't happen, as she got soundly defeated by a 2 to 1 margin by Emmanuel Macron, a near look-alike for the coach of the NHL's Ottawa Senators, Guy Boucher (without the not hockey-related nasty right cheek scar). Both being French probably helps drive the similarities.

Prime Minister May's advantage in the race is driven by the attention Britain is getting due to her upcoming June snap election, as well as the plans for the historic separation from the European Union, Brexit. She also just seems to dress better than any of the other possible contestants.

Seen above is a tailored blue suit over a white top, and sporting a string of understated pearls, the prime minister exudes the image of confidence and age appropriate clothing choices.

She is a serious contender for the title.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

I Can't Tonight, Honey

In case you're missing the story of Tom Brady, his wife Gisele and the NHL's concussion policy I'm here to bring you up to speed.

It seems yesterday, Tom Brady's super model wife Gisele Bundchen told someone in a television interview that Tom had a concussion last year, and that he suffers from concussions often.

Gisele may not be stupid, but she's not very smart. Her eye-popping disclosure has the NFL running for cover since concussions are supposed to be reported and usually take a player out of the lineup for at least a game. The only games Super Bowl Tom missed last year were those from the Deflagate four game suspension.  Tom Brady and the Patriots need this piece of piece of news like they need a bomb going off at the stadium at halftime.

But really, Gisele might really only be revealing pillow talk here. It could be possible that Tom wasn't feeling as up for sex as Gisele might have been on one or more evenings. I means, guys can get tired too, no?

Tom simply begged off the nocturnal exercise and told Gisele he had a tough day getting sacked and really, could they go at this some other time since he had a headache.

I mean, despite Gisele's charms, it is possible, right?


Britain's Most Wanted

Yesterday's NYT  print obit was the most starling I've ever seen, with two of the largest pictures I've ever seen used in an obit for Ian Brady, a serial killer in Britain, who with his accomplice Myra Hindley, were responsible for an especially grisly series of crimes against children in the early 60s. They were perhaps the most evil pair of people on earth.

Britain's newspaper, The Guardian, of course carried a reporting/obituary blitz on the death of their monster; The Telegraph as well. The Daily Mirror ran a headline that said, "Burn in Hell, Brady."

The side-by-side large photos of Ian Brady and his accomplice Myra Hindley take up so much of a NYT obit page that together they are larger than the story itself. A follow-up story appears in the NYT a day after the obituary detailing the nature of the killings, the apprehension and profiles of the five victims. It is no wonder the obit and news carries across the Atlantic ocean.

As a kid in the 60s I remember going through the FBI's Most Wanted photos at the post office. For the most part, I remember the fugitives to be wanted for armed robberies, banks and armored car heists. The difference with Ian and Myra was that they were unknown to to the police until a family member turned them in after they killed their fifth victim. They were quickly apprehended, making no attempt to flee.

The details of the murders are sickening, and it is no wonder that Brady's demise was as newsworthy as welcome. He was Charles Manson with an exponent. His accomplice Myra had previously passed away, while also serving a prison sentence that never let her see the light of day.

The Times obit page again keeps up to its gold standard. But given the treatment for a notorious killer from across the pond, one does wonder what kind of treatment Charles Manson, Leslie Van Houten and Squeaky Fromme will get.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Locked in the 60s Tonight

This past Saturday I took the opportunity to finally a attend a high school reunion. It was not a milestone gathering, like what would have been last year's 50th anniversary, held at a restaurant for a ridiculous price of $150, ($120 if you acted early) that I passed on, but a more reasonably priced gathering at the "new" school, with tours of the building by this year's seniors.

I say "new" school, despite the fact it was opened in 1992, a gem of a building built on Battery Park City landfill at Chambers and West Street. The old 1904 building, at 345 East 15th Street is still used for education, being the venue for three separate public schools under one roof.

The $20 on Saturday got you a nice T-shirt that I didn't have to run 10K for, a lunch, a tour, and some presentations by keynote speakers, including the current principal, Eric Contreras.

Since 2017 is the 51st anniversary of my 1966 Stuyvesant High School graduation, I was placed in a 60s state of mind. As of course were the few others who I met from my era, but not my class year.

One fellow from the class of 1965 recalled with me the 2:00 o'clock or so dismissal we got on the Friday that President Kennedy was assassinated, November 22,1963. No reason was given for the exodus, and most of us believed it had to do with the earlier enthusiasm that played out in front of the school in the morning for the upcoming Saturday football game against the dreaded rival, now in the Bronx, DeWitt Clinton High School.

The current school building is its own treasure. Ten stories, with elevators, escalators and wide hallways and staircases. The cafeteria has an unobstructed view of the Hudson River. Subjects are grouped on certain floors. I forget what floor was devoted to history, but there was a plaque I spotted for my history teacher Marjorie S. Tallman, 1907-2000. She apparently was the first female faculty member of the school, and there was appropriately a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on the plaque.

As I got older I began to think of which teachers I had that might have been born in the 1890s. I may not have had any, but obviously some were close to being born at the turn of two centuries ago. My father went to Stuyvesant as well, class of 1932, I believe. When I got there in September 1963 his chemistry teacher was still on the faculty, Mr. Lieberman. I didn't get Mr. Lieberman for chemistry, and he likely retired soon after I arrived, but he surely was born in the 1890s.

I had Miss ( I think, Miss) Tallman for a double period of of history, probably American history in my junior year. She was an animated character, and like all the teachers whose classes I was in, were devoted to their craft and good at it. They were great teachers.

I will forever remember Miss Tallman for providing the mnemonic to remember the difference between Bull and Bear trading. Whatever the reason the subject came up, she physically demonstrated being a bull, using her hands to point up alongside her head, as bull horns did, and telling us that "up" meant buying, and therefore a good market, a Bull market.

She then became a bear by using both hands again and making a downward sweeping motion of a bear on their hind legs, pawing at something, hopefully not you. This downward motion, indicated selling, and therefore was called a Bear market. I can still this woman doing this. If only I had an English teacher who animated when to use effect and affect I would have been spared years of indecision.

Last year, one of my classmates came over the house with his wife and we had dinner. Of course lots of conversation of filling in the years, but also one in which Miss Tallman came up. My friend Izzy apparently had Miss Tallman in another history period and for some reason she demonstrated something by standing on the desk.

Izzy had no memory of what point she was trying to convey, but if I were to guess I would think she was doing an imitation of William Jennings Bryan, since she seemed to always be teaching American History.

I didn't spot any more plaques, but that didn't mean I didn't remember some more people. Like our English teacher, Peter Wozniak, who also taught the Creative Writing course that the Pulitzer-winning writer Frank McCourt later taught.

Mr. Wozniak, like all male teachers, wore a jacket and tie, and was always somewhat nattily dressed. His speech was slow and measured. I'm sure there were those of us who probably thought he was gay, but that was something we didn't really pay much attention to, and anyone who was stayed in the closet in the 60s.

I will forever remember Mr. Wozniak for one day in class announcing, in a bit of a wispy voice, that the "cut" rate in his class had reached "epic proportions" and he was prepared to take action on it.

For myself, I was surprised, because I knew what cutting a class was, but I didn't know anyone who did it. I never cut a class. We weren't supposed to leave the building until afternoon dismal, even for lunch, so where did you go if you cut class? It never occurred to me that anything could be gained.

From some source my classmate Izzy told me the story of Mr. Wozniak at some point coming out of the closet and pulling up to school's 15th Street sidewalk on a Harley, dressed in biker leather with an earring in one ear and sporting spiked hair. I don't know if he revealed any tattoos.

And although I wasn't there when Frank McCourt was the son-to-be celebrity author, I do have a Frank McCourt story my wife was told when two young fellows came to the house years and years ago to install an air conditioner we bought from P.C. Richards.

It seems one of the fellows had gone to Stuyvesant and had Frank McCourt for a teacher. He mentioned this to my wife when he spotted a copy of Mr. McCourt's best-seller and Pulitzer Prize-winning book, 'Angela's Ashes' on my daughter's desk.

It seems one day Mr. McCourt came to class with an obvious shiner and a bedraggled look. Being a writer it seems he told the class of being punched by his girlfriend's former boyfriend. A Stuyvesant education gives people a lot of  memories. The fighting Irishman.

The trip down 60s Memory Lane didn't end at the school. I got home and read a story in the Times filed by Emma G. Fitzsimmons, the paper's mass transit beat reporter. I love to repeat that Ms. Fitzsimmons is from Texas, where we might assume mass transit is a stampede of cattle, Just like here.

I've commented before on how Ms. Fitzsimmons is a young lady from Texas who gets to prowl around backstage and underground, reporting on what makes the city move. She and her editors seem to be on a bit of crusade on reporting how the subway system's delays have soared and their ripple effect on the lives of New Yorkers.

The second paragraph of the piece on delays goes: Signal problems in Queens. Reports of a sick passenger in the Bronx. A train breakdown in Manhattan.

I'm certain unbeknownst to Ms. Fitszimmons she has channeled the lyrics to the 'Car 54 Where Are You?' theme song from the 1960s

You have be be a about a decade away from being shoved into a nursing home to remember 'Car 54 Where Are You?' an especially silly sitcom about a pair of New York City police officers, in patrol Car 54 from the 53rd Precinct, starring Fred Gwynne (before 'The Munsters' and 'My Cousin Vinny') and Joe E. Ross (in between lunch and dinner, probably).

The theme is as infectious as the one from Gilligan's Island, and goes:

There's a holdup in the Bronx, 
Brooklyn's broken out in fights,
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights.
There's a scout troop short a child,
Khrushchev's due at Idlewild. (now JFK airport),
Car 54
Where are you?

There is a link to YouTube for your listening pleasure.

And to close out the day, as if my memory circuits weren't already nearly fried, there was the NHL televised playoff game between the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins, opening in Pittsburgh.

The center ice logo has a huge 50 as part of its design. Fifty what? you might ask. Well 50 years of Pittsburgh being in the league. Fifty years since the NHL went from six teams to 12 teams by adding: Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Los Angeles Kings and California Seals (Oakland).

And then it hit me. The kids I saw giving tours today at Suyvesant weren't even born when the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup in 1994. Sam Rosen, a 1964 graduate of Stuyvesant and long-time Ranger announcer, who when the Rangers finally did win the Cup after 54 years, intoned that "the waiting is over," is, along with me, watching whole new sets of generations who are alive without seeing the Ranger win the Stanley Cup. (And it is not happening this year, either.)

Thanks goodness for a life expectancy that goes into seven decades.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Learning New Words

I think I've written about this before. I learn new words from television because I use the closed caption option to help me understand the sometimes unintelligible words due to mumbling, or accents. And since nearly everything I watch other than sports is something I've recorded on the DVR, I can roll the recording back and replay it forward so I can concentrate on the word.

If you watch the series 'The Americans' you know it is a story about Russian agents posing as an American suburban couple, all the while spying for 'The Center.' They even kill some people in the process. They make an otherwise nice couple, raising a teen-age boy and girl and running a travel agency in suburban Washington D.C.. They recently even got married in the most recent episode.

Also in this episode, Philip is in the kitchen of a Russian agronomist who has been sent to America to learn things. The Russian invites Philip to have some kvass he's made. He takes two jars of what looks like an overflow urine sample out of the refrigerator. Philip, wanting to be polite cautiously accepts the jar. No doubt he thinks it might be urine, or at least some lab experiment gone bad. The host explains it is kvass. He's made it himself, and it reminds him of Russia,  He misses home.

Philip sniffs the jar just to make sure it could be potable, and pronounces it good. Turns out kvass is a Russian beer, made from rye. It has a rather low alcohol content. I guess we'd call it near beer, or Bud Light.

So, now I know the Spanish word for beer, cervesa, as well as a Russian word for homemade beer. Television is educational.

The second word I learned last night is a doozy. It is one you can spring on friends in a conversation and leave them wondering what the hell you're talking about: poontang.

If you're familiar with the FX Series 'Fargo' then you know about the loopy stories and North Dakota accents that are clipped and flat, emanating an infectious cadence that if you leave yourself exposed to them for more than an hour, you too will start talking like that.

To show you how loopy 'Fargo' is consider the latest episode follows the narration and music of Sergei Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf.' It takes a certain type of creative mind to blend that into a crime story.

Without going too much into the plot, there is a character Nikki Swango, an alluring ex-parolee who becomes her parole officer's girlfriend. Nikki is as crafty as she is cute. In October she manages to push an air conditioner out of its apartment house sleeve and incredibly time its fall to wipe out an idiot coming out of the entrance below, who her boyfriend put up to trying to steal back a rare stamp from his brother, with whom he has a deep-seated rivalry. So far, she has accomplished this while convincing the police it was all an accident and the building was warned about a loosly secured air conditioner.

I forget who, but either the brother of her boyfriend, Emmit Stussy, the millionaire parking lot king of Minneapolis, or a shadowy character with a mouthful of shipwrecked teeth, V. M. Vargas, who is trying to infiltrate the Stussy business empire and turn it into a conduit for illegal funds, refers to Nikki as a poontang.

You know form the context it is not a nice thing to say about the young lady, even if it might bear some applicability to Nikki. I still like to look words up in a hard copy dictionary, and took the chance that poontang was not some made up North Dakota slang, but actually was a word. The trusty OED told me: the word has its origin in French, meaning prostitute. The definition follows; sexual intercourse; sex; a woman or women regarded as a means of sexual gratification.

Nikki is a nice girl who you really could bring home to meet mom. She's a competitive bridge player, and waaaaay smarter than her boyfriend Ray. The female former chief of police, now just an officer due to a county merger, Gloria, is smart too. Somebody is going to catch up to someone.

And I'm keeping my dictionary handy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Saving the Seat

Tucked away in Joe Drape's NYT post-Derby report from Churchill Downs, the story he filed on Monday that became headlined: 'Colt's Story Starts With 2 Boys' Trip to the Track," was another trigger for my memory to come up with some racetrack nostalgia.

There are two principal owners of the winner of this year's Derby, Always Dreaming. It's as if George Steinbrenner came back to be described as the principal owner of the Yankees. If you made use of the Daily Racing Form's past performances you would have noted that the owner of the horse is listed as: MEBBklynTViolaStEliasSienaWPT.  That is a scramble of  upper and lower case letters befitting an unhackable password.

Parsing the ownership with Mr. Drape's story, you can see that the two principal owners, Anthony Bonomo and Vincent Viola, the two youngsters from Williamsburg Brooklyn who were taken to the racetrack by their fathers, you would understand the Bklyn part of the password. One of the two, Vincent Viola, went to West Point and was President Trump's designee for Secretary of the Army until he withdrew his name because he'd never be able to clear the conflict of interest hurdles his background would be subjected to. It seems the boy from Williamsburg became a Wall Street billionaire. Showtime's 'Billions' anyone?

The West Point attendance of Mr. Viola does not solve the WPT part of the stable's name. The WPT stands for West Point Thoroughbreds, run by Terry Finley, a stable of partnerships in itself. The rest remains unknown, at least to me. The former racetrack announcer Tom Durkin is said to own a piece of Always Deaming's tail. I can't tell if his association made it into the law firm's letterhead.

Anthony Bonomo is known for being the former Chairman of the New York Racing Association. (NYRA) He had to abandon that position when his insurance firm, Physicians' Reciprocal Insurers (PRI), was coming under heat during the federal corruption trial of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Mr. Bonomo was a witness at that trial. Mr. Skelos, was convicted, along with his son, and both are now getting their mail at a different home address. Along with visitors.

The insurance firm, PRI, was in financial straits before Mr. Bonomo resigned, having a negative rating with liabilities exceeding assets. He seems to have escaped the attention given to Paul Reddam,when I'll have Another won the 2012 Derby. Mr. Reddman's business dealings were front page NYT news. Mr. Bonomo seems to enjoy a bit of favorite son status.

The fifth member of our group, The Assembled, who is similarly Brooklyn born and raised, told me he might have had Always Dreaming if he knew about the Brooklyn connections of the owners. Whatever angle gives you a winner is a good angle.

There is a front page Sports section picture that accompanies Mr. Drape's story showing Mr. Viola holding up the Derby trophy. Mr. Bonomo can be seen in the lower left of the photo. To me, neither man looks old enough to have Brooklyn memories of playing stickball and punchball. They look more like guys who might have gotten Atari for Christmas. Not guys who went to the corner candy store who bought a few Spalding "Hi-Bounce" or "Pinkies." Never mind, it doesn't matter.

The memory trigger in Mr. Drape's story is the reference to these gentlemen, as young boys, being taken to the track by their fathers. As for myself, my own first time at the track was not with my father. He didn't like anything to do with the racetrack and was convinced I was headed down a road to doom. It didn't happen, Dad.

Mr. Viola is quoted as saying, "Anthony and I...who went to the racetrack for the first time with their dads and were just astonished by the brilliance of these athletes, equine athletes," is basically full of horsefeathers. No dad ever went to the tack to admire athleticism. They went there to hit the Daily Double; to stand in line at the Sellers windows and hope the tickets (the pasteboards) they paid cash for would entitle them to go around to the other side of the bay of mutuel windows after the race was declared official and receive some Alexander Hamiltons, Andrew Jacksons, U.S. Grants and maybe even some Benjamins in return. The more the better.

A long-ago sports writer for the New York Post, Leonard Schechter, accurately pointed out that no one would go to the racetrack just to watch. If there was no wagering, there would be no attendance.

My own repeated attendance became solidified when on my first outing on Belmont Day in 1968 I hit the Daily Double--then the only exotic wager--cold, meaning I bet $2 on one horse in the first race, and coupled it with one horse in the second. And when Across the Sea and Metarie Padre each won their race and paid $22 for my $2, I knew I had found a place I wanted to be.

If you were aware of athleticism at all, all you ever had to witness was the mad dash some patrons would make if the subway was a bit late at Aqueduct, or the LIRR was a bit late at Belmont before the first race. Wagering for the Daily Double closed 10 minutes before the first race post time in those days, and any guy who felt he was not going to make it to the window in time to plunk down his sure things could be seen sprinting and knocking people over in an effort to clear admissions and get in line. Coaches with stop watches could have scouted NFL prospects if they stood by the turnstiles.

If you know anything about the show 'Billions' you know that Bobby Axelrod of Axe Capital, hedge fund owner extraodinaire, had working class beginnings and tells anyone who will listen how he went to Yonkers raceway (harness track) and watched the tote board and tried and figure out where the smart money was going as the odds flashed their updates. Figure this out, and you too could be a winner, if you could spot the winner by his bets.

So, who is Bobby Axelrod based on? Did Andrew Ross Sorkin, a co-creator of 'Billions' and a NYT business reporter, have Vinnie in mind when he created Axe?

Consider that Vincent Viola tells Mr. Drape that his father had him stand where he could watch the tote bard flash the latest odds and tell his father of sudden shifts that might indicate "late money" coming in. Late money was always considered to be "smart money" since anyone who had what they thought was "inside information" would purposely shove large amounts through the windows as close to post time as possible in order to prevent others from piling onto their information and driving the odds down even further.

In the era when I was the youngster at the track, the old guys who stood under the TVs watching the tote board and the races were always talking about baseball, the stock market, and racing.

I've met Mr. Drape at a book signing, and my educated guess is he's old enough to have witnessed what he wrote about the fathers of these two young fellows. He tells us of the custom of placing an unwanted part of your Morning Telegraph or Daily Racing Form on the seat, wedging it into the corner if it was a seat at Belmont, or wrapping it through the slats of Aqueduct's seats, to lay claim that that seat was your seat. It was part of the horseplayer code that you didn't try and sit in a seat that had someone else's newspaper on it.

And when there were nearly 40,000 people at the track on a Saturday, any Saturday, seats disappeared underneath those butts pretty quick. And they all had paper on them.

My friends and I would get there early enough to get the seats closest to the finish line without having to pay for a reserved seat. We claimed our seats in the usual fashion, only I brought along masking tape wrapped around a short pencil. I used the tape to make any removal of our paper a conscious act of aggression by the perpetrator, and therefore cause for a fight. We never had an incident. I still have the pencil. The tape on it is quite dried out.

On Belmont Day in 1973 my friends and I sprinted to the only section that was unreserved and taped three seats for ourselves. Of course this was when Secretariat won the Triple Crown in yet to be repeated style.

Nowadays, on just a regular day at the races, not Belmont Day, there is absolutely no need to put anything on your seat other than your butt. There is no one there to take your seat, or any other seat in the joint.

Saratoga is the exception. There is no need to place paper on your seat because every seat there is a reserved seat. Even the picnic tables

If you do find paper on your seat, you take it off because you're in the bathroom then. The only unreserved seats there are at Saratoga. For now.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The First Saturday in May

Anyone who knows anything about sports--even if they don't follow, or know anything about horse racing--is likely to know that the above title refers to the common reference when the Kentucky Derby is held, the world's most famous thoroughbred race, run yesterday for the 143rd time.

Find the first Saturday May, count two weeks forward and you've got the Preakness; then count three weeks forward and you've got the Belmont Stakes, the three races that make up the Triple Crown, something else even the non-horseplayer has heard about.

Yesterday, was the First Saturday in May, and The Assembled, while not geographically in the same place, had their minds in the same place, and were poring over past performances and looking for the angle.

I don't remember the first Derby I watched on television, but the first Derby I bet was the 1971 edition, won by Canonero II, the crooked legged horse from Venezuela, who later won the Preakness and was thought to be a cinch to win the Triple Crown. Well, that  didn't happen.

The betting was made possible because New York City in 1971 started their Off-Track Betting operation in March. Now you could bet the Derby without knowing someone in a bar who was making book.

OTB, as Off-Track Betting became known as, did not get off to a smooth start. The computer system wasn't really ready, and you filled out betting slips that produced carbonless copies. The mutuel clerk, then only in Grand Central Terminal at the old New Haven and Hartford ticket windows, kept a copy in a cardboard box. If you hit, your part of the slip had to be matched up to the copy in the box before you collected.

At that time you got a payout based on the OTB pool. The monies wagered were not yet combined with the track. A pari-mutuel war broke out over who should get what. The New York Racing Association (NYRA) wanted nothing to do with OTB. Their patrons were the great unwashed. They were the enemy. You did get a payout that wasn't yet garnisheed by a "5% surcharge" on OTB payouts, an invention of Mayor Beame as part of helping the city through its financial crisis in 1973. So, just wait two years, and you will get screwed even more.

The operation was run by Howard J. Samuels, an upstate business guy who made a fortune in plastics. Whether he did this because he took the advice given in the movie 'The Graduate' is not known, but by 1971 Mr. Samuels was a multi-millionaire and a political candidate for governor. The newspaper reporters had a field day, especially Dick Young of the Daily News, who labelled him 'Howie the Horse.'

Howie the Horse was made extreme fun of because the promise of OTB was that it was going to put bookmakers out of business. It was as if this is what America was dying for--no bookmakers within 300 feet of a school. Well, that would eliminate all the neighborhood gin joints.

The premise of wiping out organized crime was indeed laughable, and the sportswriters had a field day. When there were eventually more places to make a bet in, the the "parlors," storefronts around town, Robert Lipsyte wrote a piece in the Times that I will forever remember. He claimed he loved going into an OTB parlor because it reminded him of the public library: he "never saw so many people reading and writing." He was right of course, but the material wasn't Plato.

OTB was a bit like Ford's Edsel. It looked funny, but it had a lot of good features. One innovation of NYC OTB was telephone wagering. Establish an account, call the mutuel clerk, make your bet, confirm you're bet, and you were in. Winnings were credited to your account. There was no bookmaker-style credit however. Like all the ADMs-Advance Deposit Wagering sites there are now--you had to have money on deposit to make a bet.

I immediately established a phone account, and probably kept it for several decades. My password was 'Snoopy." Having an account made me the go-to guy to make a bet for the 1971 Derby amongst my co-workers. And they did somewhat flood me with bets. I was all too willing to do my part to drive out the insidious bookmakers no one was ever betting with anyway. I was swelled with civic pride.

Another feature of OTB was that each horse was an betting entity in itself. This may sound strange, but you had to realize at the time the mutuel machines at the track could only operate up to 12 entries. If there were more than 12 horses in the race they were grouped into something called the "field." The field was the number 12, with however many horses the oddsmaker needed to group in there to account for all the entrants. Generally, the longshots were placed in the field.

So, in the 1971 Derby, Canonero II was placed in the field. He was considered a longshot, despite having run the mile and qarter distance in Venezuela. One thing about the field and the Derby crowd, was the mentality that by betting the field you were getting all these other horses with your bet. If was as if you were getting coupon two-fers. I don't remember how many horses were in the field with Canonero II, but the final odds dropped significantly from the morning line longshot status, all because the crowd looked at the field betting as getting a bargain.

Well, at OTB the was no field grouping, just like now you never see a field grouping as a wagering option. There can be multi-horse entries, a form of grouping driven by common ownership, but they are less common than they used to be.

Thus, Canonero II's odds were allowed to float on their own, and at OTB they floated up. He did win, and I don't remember what he paid at the track as part of the field, but it was nowhere near what he paid at NYC OTB. I distinctly remember at OTB I was on the hook for having to give Tina at work $118 for her $4 win bet on the horse. She liked the Spanish angle.

When you're dealing with as unproven operation as NYC OTB was at the time-- matching betting slips at a window from a cardboard box--your confidence in their telephone system can descend. I was starting to imagine my bets were unrecorded, and I was never going to get to take out the $118 to pay Tina. I started to sweat.

The good news is that the phone system did work, my account was credited with the winnings, and I did get to take the money out and pay Tina. She was so excited at winning she bought be a nice coffee table book as a gift. Imagine, the "bookmaker" got a book.

The First Saturday in May is often called "the most exciting two minutes in sports." The memories can last longer.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Obit. Life on Deadline. The Film

I know someone who has professionally written obituaries and who has said the New York Times obituaries are the gold standard. They didn't write for the Times, but did for other newspapers.

So, perhaps it was almost fitting that the day the Times published an obituary on Malcolm Toon who had passed away at 92 in 2009 (He certainly wasn't alive yesterday, or even the day before.) I was on my way into the city for some errands and a viewing of the documentary, 'Obit. Life on Deadline' about the obituary staff at the Times and their way of doing things and of looking at the world.

And being the Gold Standard, the obituary writer, Richard Goldstein, explains why the Times is now publishing an obituary on someone who has been dead since since the Yankees last won a World Series.

The passing of Malcolm Toon fell through the cracks. There is someone in the film who explains that there are perhaps 10-15 calls or emails a day from people who notify the Times that they think there should be a tribute obituary written on a family member, or someone they are close to. It is not often that a notice received this way gets the staff to write a piece about a deceased. Every day the staff has new arrivals to consider from their own sources.

Mr. Toon's obituary was not now being written because someone felt guilty. Apparently, no one thought to contact the Times when he passed away.  Mr. Goldstein explains they even had an advance obit on him, but the file never got pulled. It was when a staff member came across news of his death in an online reference that the trigger was finally pulled.

Mr. Toon was noteworthy enough to rate the maximum six columns, with two photos. He was a career United States diplomat, ambassador to several countries, notably The Soviet Union. He was as colorful as he was respected.  He once referred to his Soviet counterparts as "clods," also saying that he thought his job entailed teaching the Soviets how not to act like "some two-bit banana republic."

The fact that he lived so long after retirement, and his words weren't memorialized by the Internet, I'm sure contributed to his disappearance from public view.

The 94 minute film, produced by Vanessa Gould, has been making the rounds nationally and internationally at film festivals for about a year now. I missed it when it was at The Tribeca Film festival, so I had to wait for it to circle the globe and come back to art house distribution.

It works that 94 minutes is just the right dose. The film never gets sentimental, and carries the viewers' interest throughout. As one of the blurbs states, "One of the few great films I've seen about writing." The film, and the writers the film is about, are both great.

Today's take was at The Film Forum on West Houston street, a multi-screen venue that has been around at various locations since 1970.  Perhaps even more fittingly was that the best I could tell, every seat in the approximate 200 seat theater has a plaque on its back dedicating the seat to someone who has passed away. It was like the 'Charge of the Light Brigade.' Dead people to the left of me, dead people to the right of me, dead people behind me and dead people in front of me. I did get out alive.

I've been an avid reader of Times obituaries for quite some time now. I've met some of the journalists that were in the film and e-mailed some others. The best I could tell was that the filming was done on site at the Times and in the homes of the reporters around 2014. A good deal of the film is devoted to the family interview, heard live from the reporter's end only--Bruce Weber--and the process that Mr. Weber goes through to create a piece that is as much about the nascent era of televised politics and media consultants, as it is about the fact that William P. Wilson has passed away at 86.

My interest in reading obituaries once produced a link to two brothers I went to high school with, one who was in my home room. Years and years ago I noticed short piece that Dr. Hyman Biegeleisen had passed away. The short obit went on the describe Dr. Biegeleisen as being known for developing sclerotherapy for the treatment of varicose veins. The obit caught my eye because of the last name. It is rather unique, somewhat like my own. And sure enough, he was survived by two sons, Kenneth and Robert, who was in my home room. Both brothers went on to become physicians themselves. No surprise there.

Archival film footage shows portions of the stage being set up for the first televised debate between the 1960 presidential candidates, Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. I can recognize Don Hewitt in the background as one of the producers for the debate. And as the obits editor William McDonald so rightly points out, an obituary is meant to capture the historical context of the person's life, and serve to transport the reader who might have been alive during that era and how that obituary reminds them of say, their parents.

Volumes of words have been written about that debate. It truly marked the demarcation line between old politics and the new era of politics created by image. I will forever remember being told by a teacher that we had to watch the debate that night and write about it for class the next morning. And I did watch it on a fuzzy black and white TV, with rabbit ear reception that left a lot to be desired, in a dump of an apartment on East 20th Street with my father.

Years and years ago I came across that piece of paper that had my take on the debate. I wrote something to the effect, "they were both very serious about the whole thing." And there in red ink was the teacher's comment, "what was the whole thing? It was much more than a thing."

I'm sorry I didn't save that piece of paper. Jesus Christ lady, I was 11 years old. What were you expecting, the book Theodore H. White eventually wrote, "The Making of the President, 1960?"

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Weber recounting the story of how Mr. Wilson ran out to a drug store and bought some Max Factor makeup and applied it to Kennedy's face. And given that we all have by now absorbed tales of JFK's (Mattress Jack) extra-curricular sexual activities over the years, it hardly had to be first the first time his face was touched by Max Factor Creme Puff. No wonder the guy looked so cool.

For me, watching and listening to the people talk about their work was like being in the office with them. And the fairly new offices on Eighth Avenue looked well laid out and comfortable. With their seats near the window on Eighth Avenue you could overhear the unmistakable sounds of New York--sirens.

The film takes us inside a managing editors' meeting that occurs later in the afternoon, where the various department editors pitch their best stories and see if they qualify for Page 1 display. The Times is now putting more obits on Page 1, and on one unprecedented occasion put two obits, side-by-side, on Page 1: the comedian Jonathan Winters and the ballet dancer Maria Tallchief in 2013.

A subject might get sort of a consolation prize if they don't warrant a Page 1 display, but are still considered noteworthy enough for any number of reasons by having a "reefer" appear at the bottom of Page 1, pointing the reader to a page further in the paper. William McDonald is seen and heard pitching William P. Wilson's obit for possible reefer placement. It did earn a reefer placement.

The journalists are a clever, seasoned bunch, and as Mr. Weber points out, they are generally older than the average age of the staff in general, so they have all experienced someone's passing in their own lives.

The writer I referred to at the start of this posting is Stephen Miller, who used to write obituaries for The Sun (now defunct) and The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Miller now works for Bloomberg News, and now only occasionally do we get to see something he's written about the departed.

It is a shame Mr. Miller didn't get to transition onto the staff of the Times. At least not yet. As Marilyn Johnson relates in her seminal 2006 book on obituary writing, 'The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries,' Mr. Miller possess the puckish humor and impish impulses of the legendary Times obit writer, Robert McG,Thomas Jr. Any man who could write the following about the death of Jeffrey Dahmer, the convicted serial cannibal who was killed in prison by another inmate with a broom handle, would make a worthy edition to the page, even if you had to pay very close attention to what he was writing before publishing.

"What is every mother's nightmare? Is it squashing junior while on a bender? Is it driving off a cliff with junior in the back? Is it sending junior off to an insufficiently researched kindergarten that turns out to be a front for NAMBLA? It is of course none of these, but they sound like teething pains compared to the nightmare few mothers could have had: junior turns out to be murderous homosexual cannibal. And then come all the inconvenient, impolite questions, because everybody wants to know why."

Certainly time to get a name change.

Having met Mr. Miller, he reminded me of the guy we used to have at work who was a graphic artist who did work for the internal publications. Richie needed supervision. His boss once forced him to confess where he stuck the words "Fuck You" in a drawing, something he did for the corporate phone book. Like an Al Hirschfeld embedded "Nina," Richie was going to hide a message if he could get away with it.

I've met Ms. Johnson and was able to give her an A-Hed piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in the 90s, well before her book, on how the British style of sendoffs differs from the American sendoff. She covers that aspect of obituary writing in her book. The unsigned obituaries in The Economist, generally written by Anne Wroe, illustrate the British style.

For anyone smitten by obituary writing, Ms. Johnson's book is a delight to have. I was disappointed, but understood why there were only two books, both equally worthy, that were advertised at the theater as being available in the lobby. They both shared a commonality of being products of Times people. 'Book of the Dead' edited by William McDonald, the current obits editor, and a collection of Robert McG. Thomas's obits, '52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Reporter Robert McG. Thomas, Jr.'

The 'Book of the Dead' is a doorstopper, both in print, and digitally. The book is subtitled: "320 Print and 10,000 Digital Obituaries of Extraordinary people" The digital part is delivered to you by access to a proprietary website that lets you search for subjects.

And if anyone is truly interested in how the art of the craft has progressed, reading some of those older obits on the "extraordinary people" is an eye-opener.

I purposely read the one on Albert Einstein, and believe me, if the man were to pass away today we would have gotten a completely different view of the fuzzy-haired genius who is currently the subject of a 10-part National Geographic series on television, 'Genius.'

A one-time editor of The New Yorker, Tina Brown, once wrote a piece on president Clinton and how when he entered a room of well-wishers there was a sexual spark that he transmitted. Dolly Parton said of Bill, "he's a horny little toad, isn't he?"

I'm sure the Times wouldn't tells us Einstein was a "horny little toad" but the National Geographic series makes it plain he had urges.

There is a current biography by Marty Appel out on Casey Stengel, the legendary baseball manager who was either a manager or a player for all four of New York's ball clubs, the Giants, the Dodgers, the Yankees and the Mets. I thought I knew a good deal about Casey Stengel, but when I read the book review the writer told us Casey's first name, as we know it, was created from his nickname KC, because he came from Kansas City, Missouri. I told this to a friend of mine whose blood stream is Yankee blue,and he knew nothing about the origin of the name Casey.

Charles Dillon Stengel's given name was not Casey. His 1975 obit doesn't mention anything about this. If he were to pass away today, there is no doubt that the writers at The Times would tell us the origin of Casey.

There is a section of Ms. Johnson's book where she describes meeting the editor of the obits page, Charles Strum. We learn of "advance" obits, obits written in advance of a subject's death. This is done so there isn't a complete mad scramble to get something  in the paper, or now on the web, when someone of noteworthiness dies. Plan ahead.

The film highlights the story from the custodian of the morgue files who tells of an advance obit that was written for someone in 1931, who it turned out didn't pass away until nearly 80 years later. Elinor Smith, of Freeport, Long Island was 16 when she got her pilot's license. She passed away in 2010 at 98, so doing the math, you can understand why in 1931 there might have been an advance obit on her.

She was from the biplane era, setting endurance records, and barnstorming her way across the country doing stunts at a very tender age. In 1931, when she was thus only 20, someone on the staff at the Times figured this kid is soon headed for heaven, and not in an airplane, so let's get ready. Obviously, in 2010, there was some updating to do. She was the first woman to appear on a box of Wheaties cereal.

And here is where I register a complaint about 'Book of the Dead.' Despite its claims for what one would assume is comprehensiveness, there is no online or print entry for Elinor Smith,  The Times did write about her in 2010, with Dennis Hevesi telling us, "In the days of rickety open-cockpit biplanes seemingly held together by baling wire, 8-year-old Elinor Patricia Ward got her first flying lesson--at her kitchen table in Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island." After her first solo flight she had to hurry from the airstrip because she had to get to school in Wantagh, where I now live.

The editor Ms. Johnson meets, Charles Strum, tells her there are 1,200 advance obits on file.  The current editor, a smooth-shaven, choir boy faced William McDonald, tells us in the film there are 1,700 advances in the file drawers.

The custodian of this warren of file cabinets of hard copy clippings and photographs, Jeff Roth, shows us the section where the advances are kept. There is an extra lock on the drawers. No one is permitted to access these advances other than the current editor. No peeking by other reporters looking for general background on a subject. Do your own leg work.

Ms. Johnson tells us the same thing. Mr. Strum refuses to show her any advance obits. She eloquently describes being touched by how they are guarded: " carefully, as if the obits were hearts that Strum will transplant to the obits page after their hosts are declared dead."

Advance obits and their bylines sometimes produce what Ms. Johnson has referred to as the "double down." The subject has obviously passed away, but so too has the writer. The obit of course doesn't tell us this in its text, but there is an editor's note that tells us the bylined writer has passed away.

The first occasion of this "double down" that I can remember was when I was startled to see the day's paper contain a byline by the sports writer Red Smith (who I still miss). Red was writing about Jack Dempsey, the former Heavyweight champion who passed away in 1983, at 87. I knew Red Smith had already passed away on my birthday in 1982.

I wrote to Dave Anderson (who is still with us, but who I still miss as well) and asked if Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, had someone been shown his advance obit, say dropped off by Red at Jack's restaurant in Times Square, where Jack could be seen sitting in a somewhat elevated chair, allowing himself to be greeted. I remember Jack in this chair, and how he looked like a bear of a man, thick, still with a good of hair, and bushy eyebrows. He still looked capable of doing damage, and did one time when some jerks tried to mug him. The Manassa Mauler flattened both of them. Jim Croce could have sung about him, "you don't mess around with Slim." Mr. Anderson replied that to the best of his knowledge, the obit was not shared with Jack.

Another occasion of a double-down occurred when Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 2011 at 79. Mel Gussow's byline appeared, and Mel had passed away in 2005 at 71. Ms. Johnson herself had written an advance obit when she worked for Life magazine. It seems the people who she wrote about outlived the magazine, so very few of her advances were ever published. When Elizabeth Taylor passed away, she did post the obit on her website.

Her advance obit on Katherine Hepburn did see print, with Kate the Great unable to outlive Life magazine, passing away at 96 in 2003.

In 'Dead Beat' Ms. Johnson tells us of some rising stars in the obit writing world. She mentions Margalit Fox, who she had in a journalism class she taught at Columbia. Ms. Fox is featured in the film, telling us she has been writing obits for about 10 years now. She gives a thorough explanation was to why it seems most of these "tribute" obits seem to fall on deceased white males.

She explains that the window of time is sliding froward, and now we are getting to prominent people in the Civil Rights and Women's movements. My oldest granddaughter is nine, and  my daughter tells me she got a little teary-eyes listening to Hillary Clinton's concession speech.

Well, in all great statistical likelihood, Hillary Clinton will pass away before my granddaughter, and if my granddaughter still has an interest in current events, she will probably read Hillary's obituary in the New York Times, I'm sure prominently placed somewhere on Page 1.

In a reply to one of my complimentary emails to Ms. Fox, she remind me the film was now in art house theaters and that she would be appearing after one of the screenings in the evening at the Lincoln Center Plaza theater. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it into the city last week, instead having to settle for yesterday afternoon.

Perhaps by way of this posting, my question would be does the obit staff edit the paid notices that people take out? Some are quite extensive, a bit flowery, and even are accompanied by a photo. Considering the charge for these is based on lines used, some of these are costing a small fortune. Of course, these do get the  the person into the Times on the obit page. The objective.

The Wall Street Journal recently did another A-Hed piece on obituaries describing the trend of the family or friend of the deceased who writes a tribute that often gently pokes fun at the deceased.  The headline went: Haze the Dead! More Obit Writers Tell It Like It Was--Warts and All.

The obit writers are not the newspaper journalists, but those close enough to the deceased to tell the world that Wayne Brockey "was an old grump: QVC lost a loyal customer on September 28, 2016," or that Allen Lee Franklin, had nice qualities, but was "probably the biggest tightwad in the mid-Atlantic region." Ouch.

It is highly doubtful the Times would publish that about a deceased, but I do remember one of those paid notices that told us the deceased's last meal was seasoned with cinnamon, a favorite.

There are writing coaches for seniors to help them pen their own obituaries. Perhaps the best defense against getting roasted beyond the grave is to leave specific instructions and a well-edited text.

My recall is good, and as images of obituaries flash by in the film I realize how many of them I've read. But the best image I take away if that of Margalit Fox, who I have met, and on whom I am willing to wager hard-earned United States paper currency on the fact that she purposely placed a paper coffee cup in front of her as she was being filmed.

What's so special about a paper coffee cup? Well, left unsaid, but not unnoticed, is the fact that Ms. Fox wrote the 2010 obituary for the man, Leslie Buck  who designed that paper coffee cup, the Anthora, of Grecian design.

As Casey Stengel would tell anyone who listened: you can look it up.