Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The News Gets a Second Chance

I will go along with recycling efforts as long as they don't get too strenuous. I will put the plastics, bottles and cans (those that my wife doesn't reclaim the deposit on, bless her heart) in the designated barrel. I will stack up the newspapers until they reach the height of a 10-year-old child, then conscientiously tie them up with the greatest display of twine and knots in easy to handle bundles. If I say so myself, we do set out an exemplary stack of newspapers. We might be the only people left on the block who read newspapers. (Well, I do anyway.)

Thus, I've always got a ready supply of newsprint to spread as a drop cloth whenever there's a painting effort underway in the house. And since I'm the one who does these efforts, and the one who read and stacked up the newspapers in the first place, I still find myself re-reading the papers I've selected to be dripped on.

I remember reading Russell Baker years and years ago who described household painting as a great way to review the news you think you've read, but have surely missed something of. Rereading articles, or landing on ones you might have missed, does delay the paint project a bit, but I've always found a second crack at the news to be rewarding.

There are two ways you can be rewarded. One is to glance at a story that seemed so important only a week, or month ago, but that by now has absolutely no punch left. Heard about that...the election didn't turn out that way, did it?...there really wasn't any reason to worry about what Brexit was going to do to us. We've already had the bad weather that was predicted and reported on. What's left?

And there's the chance that you will find something you either completely missed, or have already forgotten about, but has now grabbed your interest.

The small paint project I'm in the middle of right now in the kitchen rewarded me today with a second chance to catch a summary of books that the Wall Street Journal's weekend edition was describing.

Aside from reading obituaries, I have found visiting cemeteries to be interesting. Not in any morbid sense, but in a sense of gleaning some nuggets of history. Years ago I took a black and white photo of a row of headstones in a Maspeth cemetery that returned a great shot of a flight birds being reflected in the smooth granite.

I have a first cousin who is buried in historic Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn. As any reader of this blog should know by now, I was never informed of my cousin's demise five years ago, until perhaps a year had gone by after his death. Thus, I've never been to Green-Wood, and now look forward to going inasmuch to see what his daughters did for him, as to wander the grounds. Green-Wood is so historic that even when it first opened in 1838 people went there on Sundays for picnics.

So, what did today's reread of the news deliver? A summary of books that I probably did glance at in a weekend edition of the WSJ, that other paper that people don't seem to get. You can really only get it with a heavy home delivery discount. As much as I enjoy reading the paper, I see nothing in it to justify its $4.00! newsstand price. Rupert Murdoch is nuts.

I missed the short summary with a two-page example from the just released book, '199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, ' ($28 Black Dog and Leventhal).

Writing about cemeteries is not new, other than perhaps suggesting there are 199 of them to see before it will probably be impossible for you to see them, at least in the corporeal state of the living before you pass on.

One hundred ninety-nine does seem like a tall order to view. I'm sure you can approach it regionally, or by country, inasmuch as international repositories are highlighted. One cemetery is described as "romantic" (till death do us part?), the Bonaventure in Savannah, Georgia. Gettysburg gets mentioned in the summary, as well as the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.

There is the notably unusual in Hartsdale, New York, where 700 people have their ashes buried with the remains of their pets. This reminds me of St. Rose's Catholic cemetery in Freehold, New Jersey where many members of my wife's family are buried and where St. Rose's parish priest, Father Coffey put his dog Heidi, marked with a footstone. Since the cemetery is supposed to be consecrated ground, we later learned Father Coffey's canine was exhumed and placed further outside the ground's perimeter. Every dog may have their day, but not for eternity.

I have a friend who is a Civil War history buff who makes trips to Gettysburg every now and then, as much to feel the place as to take in a reenactment of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. This same friend, after retiring, made a point to go see Grant's Tomb in upper Manhattan.

I must admit I've never been to Grant's Tomb, but I do know who is buried there, and do especially pay him my respects whenever I get lucky enough to cash a winning voucher at the racetrack and am rewarded with a couple of $50 bills with his portrait on them.

At that point, Grant is my favorite president.


The Anglo Obsession and Prince Harry

Well, we're at it again. Paying attention to the Royal Family 241 years after the Declaration of Independence and after the defeat of the British in the War of 1812. You'd think by now we would have gotten those Limeys out of our collective American system. No.

Prince Harry just got engaged. You know who Prince Harry is, right? One of Princess Diana's two sons. And you remember Princess Diana, right? Wife of Prince Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth, the longest reigning monarch in the monarchy. And you do remember what happened to Princess Diana, right? Killed in a horrific auto crash after leaving her husband Prince Charlie and cavorting around with a Egyptian department store heir, Dodi Fayed, right?

If you can't remember any of this you must be perpetually tuned to NASCAR racing, or curling slow-mo replays.

The HLN morning news show that I start my day with was all abuzz with Prince Harry's just announced engagement to Meghan Markle, a 36-year-old divorced American actress. Another Royal Brit goes for an American divorcee. Seems they can't get American women out of their systems.

Prince Harry is 33 and the nephew of Prince Andrew, his father's brother who fought in the Falklands War with Argentina, who later dated an American actress, Koo Stark, who if memory serves me, was sometimes referred to as either an exotic dancer, porn star, or both, Prince Andrew was criticized for his relationship, but there were those who forgave him because anyone who fought in a war should be allowed the female companionship of his choice.

After yesterday's media buzz about the engagement, I was convinced we in the States had heard the end of it. I mean, Prince Harry is 5th in line for the throne, so quite a lot of his family members have to get on the same Russian aircraft and crash into the Urals before he ascends to the throne. The Ural crash with all those Royals aboard is considered highly unlikely.

But there this morning, on the front page of the New York Times, in a story by-lined by Sarah Lyall, the New York-born veteran reporter who has just come back from her London assignment after a decade of overseas reporting and eating bubble and squeak for Thanksgiving, is a below-the fold, four column story, complete with love-is-in-air photo of the couple in some garden in Kensington, meeting the press and showing off Mehgan's ring, apparently made from stones from Prince Harry's mum's jewelry.

The front page 'News Analysis' by Ms. Lyall jumps to an interior page with more stories and facts about the couple, including of course details about Meghan's Page 6 pedigree. It's a good one, one that will never leave the tabloid news aisle for some time to come.

Meghan Markle is certainly attractive enough, in the current style of brunette's with long straight hair. I mean, why do all these young ladies seem to look alike? Over the weekend my wife and I attended a wedding for the wedding of the youngest son of friends of ours. The bride, a youthful 22 was accompanied by so many bridesmaids that at the church as they kept pouring through the door I was convinced an entire squad of cheerleaders had vacated the halftime show at the local college and put down the pom-poms and wore matching grey dresses with matching hairstyles. I couldn't tell one from the other.

Meghan has that same shape and look as her soon-to-be sister-in-law Kate Middleton. Kate, we will remember from her wedding, gave us that lopsided piece of headgear with feathers popping out of it that has become so imitated by youthful women. You can't see a gathering of females at a Royal event or a Triple Crown race without gazing at young ladies with the "Kate" look.

The look doesn't always work for all, however, There is a New York-based thoroughbred owner, Shelia Rosenblum, head of Lady Shelia stable who sported the look at a talk on the direction of horse racing recently held in Saratoga Spring. Now Ms. Rosenblum still has the remains of a fine looking woman about her, but she is beyond the appropriate age to try and look like Kate.

So, what fashion will we get from Meghan's wedding no matter wherever it is held? It is sure to be covered here in the States no matter where it is held, in England, or California. The nuptials are planned for sometime in the spring, perhaps around the time our youngest daughter is to be married.

To be sure, I'll be at her wedding, not Meghan's.


Thursday, November 23, 2017


When I started working in an office in the 1960s there were of course no computers, cell phones, or any of the devices people will be lining up for to buy on Black Friday. There weren't even computer chip calculators. Mechanized adding and subtracting was accomplished with ratchet-type machines whose carriage would move. If the carriage hit the wall because of an extensive calculation, the machine conked out and someone had to come and attend to the Friden 500 calculator. It was now jammed.

Oh, another sign of the times? Women typed. Not the men.

The only people who had typewriters were the secretaries, a job title that has now disappeared.  The 'Gal Fridays' the employment ads would go.

By the late 60s all the typewriters were electric and were IBM Selectrics, with that spinning ball embedded with all the keyboard characters that whirled and spun type across a page, moving as fast, or as slow as you typed. The secretaries dutifully covered their machines at night, to keep the dust out.

Occasionally I typed an address on an envelope, but if something written need to be communicated you hand wrote a memo and gave it to the 'girl'; the girl was the boss's secretary. I never had a secretary. Somewhere in the mess of papers that chronicles my life I even saved a short piece of paper I gave to the 'girl' that requested a vacation day. Imagine, you proofread a one line piece of communication, initialed it, and handed it in.

Occasionally, when I share my age with younger people, I tell them of the strange world where men didn't type. I was reminded a bit of this era by reading the obituary for Lilli Hornig, a woman who worked at Los Alamos on developing the A-Bomb, who has just passed away at 96. Aside form her contributions, the NYT obituary by Sam Roberts reminds us of how long ago WW II was when it is revealed at there are only now about 12 people still living from the 1,500 who worked at the site in New Mexico. Ancient history.

Ms. Lilli Hornig arrived at Los Alamos with her scientist husband in 1943. He was a chemist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, she, a scientist in her own right with a Masters' Degree in Chemistry from Harvard. Lilli's parents were both professional people in Czechoslovakia; her father was a chemist, and her mother a pediatrician. Her scientific pursuits were almost pre-ordained.

Despite her advanced degrees, on arriving at Los Alamos, she was offered a job as a typist. She was there because of her husband Donald Honig, not because she was Lilli Honig, a chemist. Lilli later got her doctorate degree from Harvard in the 1950s.

Being unfit for typing, Lilli wiggled her way into working with her husband on the specifics of the bomb's detonation.  The TV series 'Manhattan' produced by WGN that ran for two seasons, 2014-2015, treats the story of the bomb's development through composite characters, with Benjamin Hickey playing Frank Winter, a character that could easily have been Lilli Hornig's husband, Donald.

The difference is Frank is a physicist, and Dr. Hornig was a chemist. Frank's' wife, Liza, played by Olivia Williams, is a Ph.D. botanist, who does wind up at the switchboard. She has no hand in working on the bomb, but does set out to analyze the effects of radiation on plant life on her own. Her training and curiosity cannot be suppressed.

Reading Dr. Donald Hornig's obituary from 2013, it is revealed that Donald was the last person to actually see the bomb before it was tested in 1945 at Los Alamos. The series Manhattan closes with a group of scientists in the tower from which the bomb is going to be dropped, making final electrical detonation connections, something Dr. Honig actually did.

The 'Manhattan' series ends with the explosion of the test blast. There is is almost a funny line that one of the scientists says when he realizes their work did produce something: "It works." Yes it did.

The series was a good one, and gave insight to the desert, dusty conditions of Los Alamos, and the reproductive activity of its workers that became so rapid that the director J. Robert Oppenheimer starting to insist that condoms he used a little more frequently. The place was starting to burst at the seams with newborns. It was a rabbit farm.

Of the era I grew up in, and the one that preceded it, females were slotted for secretary, teaching, or nursing jobs. High schools had Home Ecomonics courses that taught cooking and household skills, always to the girls.

My own typing "skill" started with a manual Smith-Corona, with a black and red ribbon. I used it to type papers for high school. I still have the typewriter, and once hauled it out when perhaps 30 years ago the computer's printer conked out on us and I resorted to typing a few things on the old Smith-Corona. My daughters, fairly young at the time did ask me what was that thing I've now got plopped on the desk. A relic.

Do you type? We all type. Think-fingered construction workers are seen with SmartPhones poking and scrolling. Gloria, please take a letter.

Type it yourself.


Ugly in the Eye of the Beholder

Now I know who did it. Who designed what was once known as the O'Toole Building, and what before that was the headquarters of the Maritime Union, when NYC was the nation's most important port.

I was always passing the above building when I made flower deliveries to St. Vincent's hospital at 11th Street and 7th Avenue.. The building was built in 1964, designed by Albert Ledner, who has now just passed away at 93, a "modernist architect who followed his whimsy." You can say that again. But now there's Frank Gehry who gives the world thought-provoking buildings with odd shapes that are hard to understand.

If you didn't know that the Maritime Union commissioned the building from Mr. Ledner, you might have understandably missed that the highly unique arrangement and shape of the windows is evocative of portholes. Thus, maritime. Even knowing that, I still have trouble viewing the building, which now houses medical services connected with Lenox Hill hospital, important to the area since St. Vincent's has closed.

Let me tell you, every time I passed that building I just shook my head. How did they get that one off the drawing board? Like New York's Fashion Institute (FIT) also on 7th Avenue, they are two building I've always considered the ugliest in New York. Mr. Ledner had nothing to do with FIT, so we can't blame him for that one. I could even find the so-called Lollipop building at Columbus Circle to be appealing, but never these two.

And just to again prove how difficult it is to get anything done in New York, consider that when it was proposed to demolish the Maritime Union building and replace it with a larger tower building,  there was such a neighborhood outcry that the plans were scrapped and the building was repurposed as a health facility.

Mr. Ledner apparently graced two other building in the city with his porthole style. Both have now been converted into hotels.

The Dream Hotel, pictured below, is a perfect example of what a hipster hotel in New York should look like.

On that, there is agreement.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Germany's Coalition Attempts

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has once again inched in front of Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May as a leader in the race for 'World's Most Photographed Woman with Clothes On.'

Today's "paper of record" shows a front page, above the fold photo of the Chancellor leaving a meeting where apparently things didn't go so well in her attempt to form a majority coalition government. Chancellor Merkel has some options, and one might be to call a new round of elections. Can you imagine living in a country that can float a national election just two months after the last one? We'd never get to the Super Bowl if that happened here.

It is already bad enough that a U.S. Senate race in Alabama with a December election date is getting so much national attention due to the backgrounds of the two candidates, with one in particular, Ray Moore, getting massive attention over inappropriate sexual allegations. Tis the season, Turn, Turn Turn.

Soccer's World Cup is every four years, but there is no guarantee a country like Germany will wait that long to have another election. Yikes!

Chancellor Merkel's party is apparently in a bit of do-do, despite her winning the chancellorship for the fourth straight year. That's almost like managing the Yankees. Sure you won, but what have you done for us lately. Ten years is a long time, Joe. Things are tough all around these days.

Pictured above, Chancellor Merkel is seen leaving a meeting with Germany's president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on Monday in Berlin. Ms. Merkel looks well togged out in her signature jacket, in this case red, nicely matching her purse.

Anyone who is a fan of some of the contemporary series on cable networks might be aware of the show, 'Berlin Station.' Season One was devoted to an Edward Snowden-like character working for  the CIA in the Berlin Station. This year's theme is the rise of the far-right parties in Germany and perhaps their embrace of manufacturing terrorism in order to make the general electorate fearful of foreigners, and thus making  the message of the far-right more appealing.

Both season's have been good, without the silly use of computer brainiacs who help locate a suspect at the movement of the mouse, or fantastic stunts and heavy armor found in the Bourne Series of movies. They are thoughtful plots built around webs of deceit and deception.

As for Ms. Merkel and Ms. May, they lead on until they won't. Until then, we can still expect to see a good deal of them in the news as they attempt to guide their respective countries.

Who will win the title of 'World's Most...?" Stay tuned. As that great baseball oracle Yogi Berra told us, "it ain't over till it's over."

Just ask Joe.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Power of the Press

There are three photos that accompany today's print NYT story on Bo Dietl, the former NYC detective, head of his own security firm, and radio personality who recently finished 6th out of 7 candidates in the recent mayoral race, won by an acknowledged nemesis, Bill de Blasio, the 6' 5" incumbent who Bo gleefully calls 'Big Bird.' Bo didn't even get close enough to demand a recount if he were to win.

The story courts Bo in his element: his Thursday table at Rao's, that Uptown, East Harlem Italian eatery that is still just as hard to get a table at, despite the recent passing of its co-owner, Frank Pellegrino, famously known as 'Frankie No,' "no" being his legendary and consistent response to anyone who called for reservations.  The place is always packed enough. Who needs people you don't know?

I've never been to Rao's. The closest I've ever come is to be on either the northbound or southbound lanes of the FDR Drive, crawling by its 114th Street crossstreet, or having an Italian meal at my daughter's who buys Rao's sauce. The sauce is good.

"Keep my name out of the paper." The ultimate powerful person. One who can be seen, even photographed, but one who you don't know the name of. There are a lot of people whose names you will never know.

There is one caption accompanying the three pictures in today's print version of the paper. All three have Bo Dietl in them, and he is easily identified. You don't get to run for mayor by being an anonymous phone bidder calling Christie's in an attempt to latch onto a Leonardo.

The top left photo in the print edition identifies the woman who we see from the back and who is seen touching Bo's back. The photo to the right, while not identified, is easily Bo, sitting outside making a cell phone call. The third, and by far the largest of the photos, (seen above) shows a head-on shot of Bo at his table for 10 by the door (table #1), lending a cocked ear to a
60-ish, well dressed gentleman who is standing, leaning in, touching the table with his left hand and making a quiet point with his right hand while making some sort of conversation. The man is not identified, but he bears a striking resemblance to the actor Joe Viterelli (now deceased) who played Jelly in many a De Niro mob-themed movie.

The conversation easily doesn't have to be conspiratorial. He could be reminding Bo that he knew Joe Girardi would not be coming back as the skipper for the Yankees next season. It might also be about something else. Only a very few know.

A now deceased NYC political reporter, Milton Lewis, would tell of purported lobbyists, or advertised "fixers" who promised their clients they could talk to the mayor about something on their behalf and the mayor would listen and say, "yes."

When City Hall was more accessible, these "lobbyists" would bring their client with them into the rotunda area of City Hall, and when the mayor was spotted they would rush over to him and ask if he thought the Yankees were going to win the pennant this year. This was the era when the Yankees always won the pennant, so the mayor was always shaking his head yes. There are lots of ways to make money in this world, and being a "lobbyist" has always been one of them.

But who is the guy in the picture with Bo? There are things no one needs to know. Life will go on.


Friday, November 17, 2017

The Coin Collector

As a lad, my go-to spot in Gimbel's department store, when it was on 33rd Street, opposite Saks of 34th Street in NYC, was the ground floor section where stamps and coins were sold. Yes, imagine a department store that engaged in the business of stamps and coins, in an earlier time one of America's favorite hobbies.

My memories of my early pursuits of coin and stamp collecting came back to me when I read Robert McFadden's NYT obituary on Eric Newman, apparently one of this country's greatest coin collectors, who just passed away at 106. Mr. Newman rated 6 columns in today's paper. He was obviously truly a legend, and someone I never heard of.

My own stamp collecting started when I guess my father gave me a small canvas sack that held what was being marketed in the 1950s as something containing 100 stamps from all over the world. The sack was a $1.00, and I think its top was secured with a tiny padlock, as if treasure was inside. The treasure was the stamps. The cancelled stamps were cut off from envelopes, worth at the time I'm sure next to nothing, but were exotic because of all the countries they came from. Helvetia was Switzerland. An atlas in a sack.

(I remember people in our mail room in the late 1960s who always cut off the stamps from incoming foreign mail. People collected stamps.)

I always loved maps and atlases, and the stamps sent me scouring the family atlas for the location of the countries. My father was a cartographer during WW II in Guam, and there were always maps in the house. I still love maps.

This sack of international stamps set me on a course of collecting stamps, basically United States stamps. I tried to fill in the blanks in my Scott Stamp and Coin album by visits to their location at
1 West 47th Street, and to Dumont Stamp and Coin close by. I expanded my collection of collecting single stamps to acquiring plate blocks, sheets, and first day covers. Lots of first day covers. Trips to Gimbel's expanded that collection. They always had first days on great, almost engraved envelopes, that depicted the history of the commemorative event the stamp was being issued for. These envelopes were much nicer than the plain Woolworth ones I had sent to myself at the flower shop, 206 Third Avenue, New York 3, New York. No zip codes then.

There was a fellow at he Cooper Union Post Office my father knew whose window I could always go to get plate blocks of the latest commemorative stamp. He never charged me. Eventually he lost his job though. I guess they found him short once too often.

Stamp collecting was big then. There was an annual stamp show held over a few days at the 71st Regiment Armory on 34th Street. The armory is long gone, being demolished for an office building and high school at 3 Park Avenue. The company I worked for once had office space in the building.

There were also a few places to buy stamps as collectibles. One place I never went into, but constantly passed, was located in the passageway between the 34th Street PATH trains and Penn Station, The passageway was a dank, nearly dark, subterranean underground alley that passed by the basement section of Gimbels's (no entrance ) and a few stores. One of the stores was a dusty looking office space with a door of glass reinforced with chicken wire, like the that found in schools, and gold leaf lettering that may have said something like Penn Stamp and Coin.

When my father and I used to use the passageway for a late evening connection from the subway to a LIRR train to Murray Hill/Flushing, we always passed the storefront. The place was never open at the time, and I never  thought to go back at an earlier time to see what I might find. The passageway has long since been closed, but effective use of did enable you to use it, Penn Station and the Path train station that would allow you continuous underground passage from 31st Street and 8th Avenue, to something like 36th Street and 6th Avenue. It was almost like going through a mine. You had to know about it. And we wern't the only people who did.

I still have the stamp collection, although I think I stopped adding to it even before I graduated high school, and that was over 50 years ago. Its value would be negligible, I think. The first day covers might be worth something. Someone once told me it's for the grandchildren. Well, I have those now.

I do not still have my coin collection. That was purloined by my father who pulled it out of its hiding place in the back of my closet and sold it, I assume, or stupidly just pulled the coins out for their face value. I never really knew. It was quite a while before I realized the collection was missing, and when I asked my father about it he claimed my older cousin had gotten into the house and must have made off with it. I never believed him.

I once had the collection in a safe deposit box in a bank near the flower shop, but because I was  a minor I needed an adult to accompany me to retrieve it. By great-uncle at the flower shop did this with for me.

But, at the urging of my father, who claimed it was an imposition on my uncle to leave the shop and walk two blocks with me, he suggested I just pull the collection out of the safe deposit box. I don't remember how soon after that the collection went missing.

In that era of coin collecting you would get these blue Whitman binders with round holes for the various denominations that you would press the coin into with the matching year and mint mark.
I was extremely proud that I managed to fill the Whitman book of George Washington quarters, starting in 1932, just by scouring the coins from the flower shop, and from my trips to banks to exchange $10 bills for rolls for quarters. None of my coins were in particularly great shape, and certainly not proof, or uncirculated condition, but I did fill up the folders. I did have some proof sets.

I kept the duplicates in plastic tubes. In the 50s and 60s you could still see Standing Liberty quarters--always greatly worn--and Mercury, Lady Liberty dimes and Indian Head nickels in general circulation. Indian Head pennies were never seen in circulation. I had to buy a roll of them from some other kid. Franklin half dollars were in circulation, and sometimes you could get a Walking Liberty half, but only rarely. Silver dollars were never seen, but I always heard of the stories of the people who would make a special trip to Vegas just to see if they could get a rare one from a slot machine. (As if the people in the money room were going to let a rare one pass.)

I rarely bought coins. I always tried to get the ones I needed to fill the blanks in the folders form general circulation. I still remember a coin store on 23rd Street, down a few steps, between 5th and 6th Avenues, south side, that my friends and I went into to inquire about hard to get Lincoln pennies, generally the D and S mint marks for certain years. The 1909-S VDB were always out of our price range.

I remember the guy trying to con us by overstating the condition of the offerings, but we knew more than he thought we knew. We were never "taken."

In all those years of my coin collecting I never realized that they started issuing Lincoln pennies in 1909 to mark the 100th year of his birth. And thinking of Lincoln, I always remember Pete's Tavern on 18th Street having a newspaper copy pasted in the window whose headline screamed LINCOLN ASSASSINATED. That was removed long ago.

Somewhat like Mr. Newman, the subject of today's obituary, I did get interested in paper currency. My first paper currency purchase, and perhaps my only one, was at Gimbel's when for 90 cents I was able to buy a $1 train ticket that looked like an engraved stock certificate from some long ago defunct railroad that was in pristine condition in a plastic folder. I never forgot the salesman telling me of the great bargain I was getting in that I was able to buy something that once went for a dollar, for now under a dollar. I agreed with him.

The online version of  Mr. Newman's obituary offers you more photos, and color photos of some of the coins in his collection. I also did start to buy the really older coins, the ones from the 1800s. Half pennies, three cent pieces, like the one pictured above. Just a sampling from what were then common years and not really expensive then, Never in pristine condition.

My father never owned up to taking the coin collection, and we eventually became somewhat estranged, even though we saw each other often enough. I used to think I would make him make a death bed confession that he took the coins. When that time came in 1987, I never thought about making any effort to force "closure." What's done is done.

But I never shed a tear at his passing, and I still haven't.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Family Planning

My Bronx-born Irish-American wife immediately knew what the advertisement was offering. As for myself, I knew what was being offered, I just thought perhaps some added punctuation would have helped clarify the exact details of the offering.

In yesterday's and today's New York Times, under the In Memoriam section on the obituary page, there was an ad for a cemetery plot for sale. This kind of ad is not unheard of, it's just that I'm not sure I ever remember seeing one in the NYT. If I have, it's been a real long time since the last one.

   Bronx, NY, 1 Hillside Plot for
   2 Double Decker, 1 Opening
        For Sale at 2008 prices.
      Historic Landmark Scenic
 Landscape, Call...   

I was confused. 2 Double Decker is taken to mean stacked one on top of another. Thoroughly possible to save land, and when the water table isn't too high, this is done. 2 Double Decker was not distinct enough, at least not to me. Are 2 Double Decker spots for sale? And 1 opening? This means there's one available spot open, that someone's family plot didn't quite fill up, perhaps due to a cremation, and someone can get in with strangers? Okay, you don't get to pick your relatives, but going on top of someone who is a stranger? Just so on the odd chance that someone you know is coming to pay their respects after the burial can be treated to a "scenic landscape in a historic landmark?"

"No. Don't you understand?" my wife said when I read it to her. And now that I think of it, perhaps because I did read it to her that she understood it better than I did, and right away.

"One plot for 2, in a double-decker arrangement, as opposed to a side-by-side arrangement like our plot, with one opening. Our plot, since it is a side-by-side, means that there are two top openings." Get it? That one for sale has only one top opening" Well, yes, when you put it like that.

My confusion probably stems from my family's history. When my grandfather passed away in 1956, the four sons and my grandmother planned ahead and bought a plot in Maspeth's Mt. Olivet cemetery that could sleep 12.

Maspeth is a section of Queens dotted with cemeteries. There are views of Manhattan from there. Mt. Olivet is a non-denominational cemetery, meaning the Jews and Catholics have their cemeteries, and the non-denominationals are for everyone else. This might be where I developed my theory that to be anyone of any accomplishment and success in New York City you had to be either Jewish or Catholic. I mean, they had their own cemeteries, right? There are lots of Greeks and others in Mt. Olivet. No O'Reillys or Feinbergs.

As for the plot the family purchased sleeping 12, this was accomplished by a four across, three-deep arrangement. Four times three is twelve.

Since there was one set of grandparents, and four sons and their wives, and two bachelor uncles--one my grandmother's brother, and one my grandfather's brother--the need was for 12. If there's one thing Greeks can do, it is count. They are great with money. Try and pull a fast one at a diner next time and tell me how far you get.

The planning was sound. There is one huge headstone with the family surname on it, despite my grandmother's brother's surname being her maiden name. Footstones mark where the family members are buried. Or, at least where some of the family members are buried. They're there. but just in unmarked graves.

The current population, that I know of, has 9 people in it. I say "that I know of" because members of my family don't tell the living others when someone has died. At least not always. Thus, I can account for 9 members. There is one brother's wife who may have passed away and I don't know it, or, she might have been buried elsewhere where an adopted son placed her. I don't know, despite my living in the same house, with the same phone number for 25 years now.

One brother and wife wife, both passed away, are definitely not there. He is in Arlington, Virginia, a decorated, WW II career naval officer, and his second wife who recently passed away, who is probably buried in Greece, likely with her family. They were still married when he passed away, but the disparity in their ages and birth countries may have had a hand in separating their resting places in death.

This of course is my theory, since no one really told me what arrangements they made for my uncle's wife.

Thus, the known population is 9, but there are only footstones telling you the names of 4. The bachelor uncles have no billing, and one of the brothers and his wife, that I know of, have no marker.  Significantly, my grandmother has no billing either. Only my parents, one of the brothers, and my grandfather are noted with markers.

The one brother whose wife may or may not be there, at least has a dual marker that has his wife's name on it, with a birth year on it. Overall, the place is the plot of the unknown Greeks.

Perhaps ironically, my wife and I today were going to go to the cemetery, not really because today, Veteran's Day, is my mother's 99th birthday, but because the cemetary's office would be open and I'd be able to try and inquire who is actually in the plot right now. Mt. Olivet doesn't answer their mail. Something came up and prevented us from going today, but it will be much sooner than later when we do go.

My wonder extends to seeing if one of the brother's wives made it in, and if a divorced first cousin, who I signed a form for 30 years ago so she could be buried with her Mom and Dad, finally shuffled off.

A simple visit to the plot does not tell you everyone who is there. It never has.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Disappearing Apostrophe

How do you pronounce an apostrophe anyway?

Sarah Lyall in her latest piece for the NYT almost poses that question. Her latest story is about the new Little Caesars Pizza arena in Detroit, home to the N.B.A. Pistons and the N.H.L. Red Wings.

Ms. Lyall correctly notes there is a missing apostrophe after the r and before the s in Little Caesars. A pesky English teacher, especially at an expensive school, would have your backpack in a shredder if you didn't know enough to write it as 'Little Caesar's Arena.' A less incensed teacher would probably not care.

Of course, any English teacher I had predated backpacks so their frustration at your not knowing where to put the elevated comma might involve slamming the chalk down on the tray of what was truly a blackboard. Black slate. White chalk. Mad teacher.

Go ahead, say 'Little Caesars Arena.' Did the missing apostrophe create a different pronunciation? Of course not.

Lynne Truss in her tongue-in-cheek primer on grammar and punctuation, 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves,' takes us on a journey through the minefield of punctuation. Fittingly, she dedicated her book 'to the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution."

(Since I doubt there are mistakes in Ms. Truss's book, I'm sure her omission of the period after St is not accidental. She's testing us.)

And since the apostrophe might be the most troubling of punctuation marks, Simon Griffin wrote a book titled with what Richard Burton called the greatest Anglo-Saxon word in the English language, 'Fucking Apostrophes.' And they are.

The elevated comma has been causing havoc ever since it first appeared in the 16th century to indicate omitted text. Its first purpose. More of course was put on its back, until it now scares you into indecision as to when you use it and where do you place it when there is a possessive noun, and worse, a plural possessive? Give me a beak. And if there a word ending in s...no one can live under that much pressure.

If horse racing's series of championship races were inaugurated today, the Breeders' Cup no doubt would be without that little guy sticking up there. It's a logo invader. But the Breeders' Cup was started in 1984, before cell phones hid the little bugger on another screen that you had to go to, and that of course just slows you down. And we can't have that.

The apostrophe has served as the copy editor's blackmail for too long. Correctly, the NYT headline over Ms. Lyall's story notes: At the Pistons' New Home, Empty Seats and Hockey Statues. Since Pistons is used in a plural possessive form, the apostrophes goes after the last s. Get it? Of course you do.

But editing layers are disappearing at the paper that has a motto of: "All the News That's Fit to Print." Will apostrophes start disappearing as well? Probably not with the current generation at the paper, but maybe when the next one gets employed who have grown accustomed to not looking for the pesky bugger on their cell phones.

Little Caesars Pizza is only the beginning.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Bringing Back What Was Asked

I once worked with a fellow in Auditing who was once described by our vice president as someone who was guaranteed to complete the assignment.

Ray was brought to mind when I read the obituary of Irv Refkin, 96, who was described as an 'impromptu spy' who during WW II completed assignments for the British and the United States. He was an American, who after basic training was further trained in Canada in the use of explosives. The obituary didn't explain why the Army sent Irv Refkin to Canada to learn how to detonate explosives and couldn't, or wouldn't provide the training within our own country, but this was the same Army that transferred my father from Guam where he was injured in a typhoon to a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, half a world away. Talk about not having any beds available closer.

(It did work out for my father because he met my mother who was an Army nurse at the hospital, and they married. They produced one son, who at this point in his life types an occasional story about them.)

Mr. Refkin was somewhat shoved into first working for the British by an American commanding officer who didn't like him. The officer had him shipped off on a plane to Britain, where they made use of him as a spy to be dropped behind German lines, all because he could speak German, a language he learned while being raised in a German Lutheran orphanage in Milwaukee, and of course because he knew how to blow things up. Some skills when combined can get you the most exciting and nerve racking of jobs. Whether you asked for them or not.

Mr. Refkin proved quite good at completing his assignments. In one particular assignment he was to bring back a file. When he couldn't open the combination lock to the file cabinet, he brought the whole cabinet back. He then had to return the cabinet before the Germans knew it was missing. Mr. Refkin was never caught, and lived to be a decorated 96-year-old.

As for my Auditing colleague Ray, he was described by our vice president as someone who if you asked him to "bring back a typewriter" Ray would bring you back a typewriter. No questions asked.


Manhattan Beach

I'm not one to read many novels. Mysteries, true crime and and spy stories, some fiction, some non-fiction are generally the Sandman.

But I do read the book reviews, so I do read about novels, and one caught my attention, Jennifer Egan's 'Manhattan Beach,' a WW II story with a Brooklyn Navy Yard backdrop centered on a female hard helmet diver, Anna Kerrigan. Anna may not crack the corporate glass ceiling, but she does crack the gender gap below the water's surface.

For me, the Brooklyn Navy backdrop was the hook. My father worked as a civilian engineer in the Design Division at the Yard after the war, and until the Yard closed in 1964. After that, he stayed as a government employee in the Department of Navy, working in Washington D.C., bound to a desk that didn't overlook water, and where nothing visible was getting built.

But in the 50s I was taken to the Yard on a few occasions to watch ship launchings. I don't remember the ship President Eisenhower's wife Mamie christened, but she did have to whack the champagne bottle several times before it broke on the ship's hull, just like the multiple times Margaret Truman needed to christen the USS Missouri, a wartime battleship ship built at the Yard, as described in Ms. Egan's book.

Apparently Ms. Egan spent four years doing background research before she produced the book. The reader is treated to a detailed map of the Yard on the inside of the hard covers. I couldn't identify the building my father worked in because I don't remember its location within the Yard, and don't know its number.

I was never in the Design Division building, but I did get a bit of a childhood tour, seeing the huge crane, described as a 'hammer head' that I remember had huge lettering on it that said 'Safety First.' I remember a scoreboard of sorts that reported the number of consecutive days the Yard had gone without a serious accident.

It was because of the memory of that scoreboard that I once wrote to the MTA and suggested they adopt a similar scoreboard, publicly displayed in Penn Station, on the number of consecutive days all the escalators were working. I sarcastically challenged them to hit double digits. They replied, but didn't adopt the suggestion.

On a particular visit I did get a thrill riding on the huge platform elevator used on an aircraft carrier under construction that was going to be used to transfer the planes from the hanger deck to the flight deck. The hanger deck and the flight decks were immense flat spaces that seemed capable of swallowing football fields.

The Sands Street gate gets mentioned a number of times in the book. That was where I had to go a few times to deliver my father's photo id card to the Marines at the gate. On a few occasions my father went to work without his id. I never understood this, but they let him in without it, but were not going to let him out until his card was delivered to the gate.

Since I always showed up with his id card after school, my father was able to come home. For some reason I never asked (there are tons of questions we never asked out parents) what would have happened if no one showed up with his id card? Where was he going to sleep? I'm not sure even he knew.

Marines, then and now, are outfitted in the greatest looking uniforms ever. They are walking recruitment posters. But for some reason, their uniform never induced me to try and enlist in the Marines. The Navy was for me, but I wasn't taken by anyone. 4-F.

There are tender moments in the book, but perhaps the best one to me is expressed by Anna's Aunt Brianne, her father's sister, who at a certain juncture in Anna's life tells her, "if wishing could make men die, there'd be nary a one left." In certain contexts I've told people "all men are alike; but the side effects vary."

Ms. Egan's research has conveyed the Yard's atmosphere. I almost feel what air my parents were breathing, even though they were both outside of New York at the time and in the Army. Unless you grew up even in that postwar era, I don't think you can imagine the pride that existed that warships were being built within the city limits--and huge ones at that. The Yard was a huge part of the Brooklyn economy.

Outside the walls of the Yard bars and other recreational spots, bowling alleys and pool halls, did a booming trade. A good friend of mine, slightly older than myself, remembers his father's bar on Court Street, not adjacent to the Yard, but close enough to get the rowdy clientele that filled the place on payday. My friend John has distinct memories of guys sent flying through the front door onto the pavement. Management and other patrons provided the propulsion.

The nuclear era changed that, and the Yard was mainly relegated to building smaller LSTs, landing ship transports, and doing repair jobs. The Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ordered the Yard closed in 1964, and my father's life and my life changed forever, not the same way Anna's life changed because of the Yard, but changed nonetheless. The place was our life as well.

I think Ms. Egan's book is promoted as historical fiction, with a bit of mystery woven it. Given the advance notice from the book reviews that a mystery is involved, you do guess fairly easily what the mystery is. Until you're wrong.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Breeders' Cup 2017

Or, How I learned to Stop Handicapping, Pick a Race, Play It and Come Out Ahead.

I've been handicapping and playing the Breeders' Cup races since their inception in 1984, when Harvey Pack and Pete Axthelm took television viewers on a trip through the Subway Special to Aqueduct.

The first set of races were held at California's Hollywood Park, but the handicapping pair opened the first televised show of the races with a trip down the subway stairs near the Port Authority, through the iron horseshoe Good Luck Arch that the Transit Authority had stuck on the platform and onto one of the oldest set of subway cars you ever saw that comprised the Subway Special.

If a token then was 90 cents, the Subway Special token was an eye-popping $1.50. It was a special token as well. But it was a special train, making one stop in Brooklyn at Hoyt Schermerhorn Street before arriving in Queens alongside Aqueduct Race Track. For some reason passengers thought they could smoke on this train, even though there was, and still is a NO SMOKING rule in effect on all subways and platforms, even outdoor ones. No sooner did some get on the train, open their Morning Telegraphs, or whatever, and light up.

No Roman numerals to tell us how many Breeders' Cup races there have been. Pete Rozelle didn't have a hand in this one. There are no Roman numerals in past performance lines.

Yesterday's renewal was the 34th, and was designated in the shorthand of the day as BC17, for 2017 no doubt.  I've never been to the Breeders' Cup, even with the few that were held at New York tracks. Too expensive to attend, and sometimes too hard to get tickets. Winning is tough enough without adding a cost prohibitive overhead to the equation. However, I've always been able to bet on the races however, thanks to Off-Track wagering and XPressbets.

But betting has always meant getting or downloading the Classic Past Performances from the Racing Form.  Thirty-three straight years of doing this, poring over more races, swollen size fields, and many, many foreign horses whose past performance are difficult to compare with the domestic past performances. European racing is mostly run on turf, at tracks, or courses with odd configurations, and hardly level surfaces. They go up hill. They come down hill, They bend to the left. They bend to the right. They split into two groups during the same race and race to the wire.  The field can resemble a swarm of birds giving those of us below an air show. The racing in Europe is the equine version of cross-country racing. It can be hard as hell to pick a winner. And hard as hell to win overall.

This year I gave up. Tired of being buffeted by the long shots and the Europeans. I didn't download a single page, a single race of the thirteen races held over two days this year. This doesn't mean I didn't watch the races. I did. And as usual, the results were full of upsets and boxcar payoffs, with one winner, a New York bred, Bar of Gold, lighting up the tote board with a win payoff of $135.40. The exotic payoffs in that race were so large they could had been displayed with exponents.

But that payoff was in the 6th race, and the Pick Six didn't start until the 7th Race. So, even with a few more long shots, albeit of smaller dimensions, the Pick Six was hit, for $388,423. The incoming new Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board will be expected to make a statement on using wagering as a means to keep the economy humming.

But even though I didn't download, a single line of a past performance I did still bet. One race, the Classic.

Gun Runner figured big time to win. No need to learn this from a past performance. West Coast, a late-blooming 3-year old who I had in the Travers was also an easy pick to toss into the exacta bet. And while at it, throw in Collected, a Bob Baffert trained
4 year-old. Leave out Arrogate all together. He's shown no affinity for the surface at Del Mar, and has lately just plain shown no interest in winning. He has a great future behind him.

Box the three for a $1 and play the permutations with a modest multiple of six dollars.

It's great to watch a race and see your exacta leading the field. And leading it every step of the way, all the way to the wire, despite some crazy fast fractions for a mile and a quarter race

Joe Drape and a fellow NYT prognosticator picked Gun Runner. It wasn't really all that hard. At the book signing for his book on American Pharoah at the Northside book store in Saratoga in 2016, Joe told the assembled that the really good horses take charge of the race, they head for the front, try and stay there, and control every call. It was in his pre-race comments in the paper yesterday. Gun Runner does that, and did that yesterday.

When Joe said that I immediately though of Dr Fager, the horse I fell in love with when I first went to the races in 1968. He wanted the lead, and pulled his jockey out of the irons to get it. He was so known to want that lead that a rival trainer, Frank Whiteley, would stick a "rabbit" in a Dr. Fager race, Hedevar, to soften the big guy up for Damascus to come from behind and pass the weakened Dr. Fager. It did work. Once.

Not all champions win from the front. Forego didn't. Zenyatta didn't. Gun Runner's style may not be unique, but it is successful. In this year's Whitney at Saratoga, Gun Runner famously annihilated the field while even carrying another horse's shoe in his tail. The shoe had flipped off a hoof during the race. It's a great picture. You can almost claim he won because he had 5 legs in that race while every one else had four.

As much fun as it was to watch Gun Runner win it was also fun to watch his trainer Steve Asmussen react to the win. Asmussen has a head of bushy silver grey hair that looks like a wild thicket. With his excited jumping up and down, hugging and arm waving his sun glasses dislodged from his face and disappeared into his hair. It happened more than once.  Asmussen became Gun Runner, with an object disappearing into his body. He was an Al Hirschfeld portrait with 'Nina' somewhere in his hair. It was fun to watch.

Exactas are nice, but triples are better, but I don't generally play them, and I didn't this time. I was very satisfied to hit with my only bet, getting $17 for every six dollars bet. A better ROI than on than most investments. A modest return, but one I hit without downloading a thing and spending hours scribbling on.

This is the way to win playing Breeders' Cup races. It's the beginning of a beautiful relationship.