Friday, February 21, 2020

Geez, No One?

Unless you've been in a coma for a few years, you are likely to have heard of the current and planned technology for electric powered cars, as well as the nascent technology for self-driving cars. Yep. sit behind the steering wheel, press a few buttons, and tell "James" to get you home.

My own experience of sitting behind a wheel and doing nothing occurred in a small plane years ago. I was taking what would be called a "puddle jumper" from New York's LaGuardia to Provincetown, Massachusetts. A trip of not many miles and short duration, but one that required going over water.

I think the plane might have had a six or seven passenger capacity, and there were that many of us. We were asked what did we weigh (no time to start lying) so that the airline people could evenly distribute the weight in the cabin. This is important in small aircraft, and even somewhat larger aircraft.

I was once on a bigger, but still what you would call a small plane, a prop as well, that maybe carried 20-30 passengers coming from Wausau, Wisconsin to Chicago when the airline people separated the two professional wrestlers that found themselves sitting next to each other in the front, and put one of them further in the back. Each wrestler had to be at least 300 pounds, and apparently sitting together was not an option for a safe flight, which by the way went well.

If you've ever been on a so-called "puddle-jumper" you've observed the pilot shimmying into the cockpit by sliding over the wing. Passengers are pointed to their seats. I was pointed to the co-pilot seat, sitting behind the half-circle wheel and all the cockpit dials..

It was then I realized there wasn't going to anyone other than the pilot that could be considered part of the flight crew. I never touched the wheel, just kept staring at it. I leaned over to he pilot and told him, "just remember everything I've taught you." He grinned.

It was October, and the visibility, at least to me, was poor. We seemed to be going through mist the whole way. It was hardly a sightseeing experience. I watched the dials and what our air speed was. Based on the time we were in the air and the expected flying time, I knew when we were getting near Provincetown. I couldn't see Provincetown. I couldn't see land.

At what turned out to be our approach, I felt the pilot guide the plane into a bank, drop the plane's altitude, and kept going. If I couldn't see from where I was sitting, what the hell did the pilot see?

As we continued to drop in altitude coming out of the mist, there, clear as day, was the runway. Within seconds we were on it, landing safely. The pilot and his instruments knew where it was, even though it wasn't obvious.  An instrument landing. I was proud of my "training" the pilot.

If un-piloted aircraft is not the horizon, how can there be un-piloted spacecraft, carrying passengers who have ponied up wads and wads of cash to fly 500 to 750 miles above the earth and orbit our blue sphere for up to five days?

I know how to read, and that's exactly what I read in a small AP piece tucked away on page two of yesterday's NYT Business Section.

SpaceX Plans Launch Of Tourists Into Orbit.

In this five paragraph story we learned several things.
  • SpaceX, working with Space Adventures, plans to launch up to four tourists into a super high orbit by the end of the year.
  • Ticket prices are opened-end, but expected to be in the millions.
  • SpaceX, working with Space Adventures, has already put tourists on the International space Station. (I didn't know this.)
  • For this trip, no space stations stop, but instead the orbit, on a flight for up to five days.
  • A Dragon capsule will be used, that so far has only flown once, in a successful test without a crew.
  • The capsule is expected to be used in a few months to take NASA astronauts to the space station.
  • Stacey Tearne, a spokeswoman said of the planned orbiting flight, that no professional pilot or astronaut will be required because the Dragon is fully autonomous.
  • Passengers would be able to control, if needed.
So, SpaceX/Space Adventures is telling the world that are planning a flight in a capsule that has only so far been tested once, is going to be used in a non-test journey with professional astronauts aboard, but will then be used to ferry up to four tourists into a super high orbit of the earth for up to five days with no professional pilot/astronaut aboard because the Dragon capsule is "fully autonomous."

There was Twilight Zone episode in the '50s that was the story of a group of people who sought shelter in a bomb shelter in someone's basement when there was a nuclear attack. Bomb shelters were really a thing back in the day, with local newspapers telling homeowners how build one. Cinder blocks required. 

I remember trying to convince my father that we better get busy. He even worked for the government at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the Design Division (hulls). He kept smiling at me and kept drinking scotch. We never did build one. And no one I know ever did either.

Well, in this Twilight Zone episode the neighbors of the guy who did build one descend on his shelter, and by the sheer number of people now present put a strain on the design and the stored resources. Who's in charge here? Who gets to stay? Who can't enter? Like plenty of Rod Serling stories there is a morality play at hand over who gets to control what.

So, up to four people who perhaps don't know each other other than by reading about each other's wealth, are expected to go into space, and if they encounter trouble, someone has to take to control. That's some jury.

If only Rod Serling were still alive.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Scarlet Letter

I don't remember the grade in high school we were required to read 'The Scarlet Letter' but I know I started it, fogged out somewhere and didn't finish it.

Not finishing it had no real consequence. I don't remember that we had to do one of those "book reports." I guess that's why I figured finishing the book was optional.

One day in class, when the teacher thought we probably all should have finished it, the book was discussed. Go ahead. I don't care. Knock yourselves out. I didn't stay with it.

Listening to the smart Alec Lotharios try and impress the teacher, who I think was the attractive one, I realized I missed something very major about the book. I leaned over to the kid next to me and whispered, "you mean Hester and the minister got it on." I was now having non-reader's remorse. The kid leaned back and said, "you didn't read the book did you." How right he was.

Maybe because of that experience of not reading 'The Scarlet Letter' through to its conclusion, but forever knowing the gist of the story, I still get the biggest kick of lyrics in the musical 'The Music Man' when Professor Harold Hill proclaims he wants to meet a woman where "Hester earns one more A." You rascal, you.

It's already been mentioned somewhere in my postings that the NYT Tyler Kepner is probably the best baseball reporter in the nation these days. And while I may have been asleep at the switch when it came to Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale's bout of passion (the sex scene in today's movies) I'm not out to lunch when it comes to reading about the Houston Astros and the cheating scandal involving their stealing catchers' signs with electronic surveillance and tom-toms on trash cans. A high-tech/low-tech spy gambit.

Everyone has an opinion on the proper punishment, no different than what people think should happen to murders. The baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred is being roundly derided for his solution of a confession from the offending players. Something like catch and release in fishing.

Mr. Manfred feels that the shame of what they did, how it shows on the players' face, is punishment enough. A whole lot of other people do not agree. And it is keeping sports radio and sport channel talking heads with A LOT to talk about. There is always something, and right now, this is it.

In sports, there is always talk of putting an asterisk somewhere in the record books to denote special circumstances surrounding the stat. When Roger Maris was hitting 61 homers in a 162 game reason vs. Babe Ruth's 60 in a 154 game season, the asterisk, or dagger notation was nearly violently suggested. Babe Ruth was a deity, and you can mess with a deity.

My friend, who is a lifelong Yankee fan who started to absorb box scores in the '50s, and rooting for the Yankees because it pissed off his New York Giant loving father—goes ballistic when the stat of playoff homers is trotted out and Mickey Mantle's not number one anymore.

"Well listen you morons, Mickey's homers were ALL in the World Series. They didn't have playoffs then. The season was the playoffs." Of course he's right. Apples and oranges. But there's no asterisk or dagger.

Everyone expects there to be several instances of purposely hitting the the Houston batter with a pitch. Call it what you like, and warn about all you want, it's going to happen.

If Roger Clemens was an offended losing 2017 pitcher whose catcher's signs were stolen by the Houston KGB, you could surely expect Roger to drill one at someone's helmet and perhaps be the first player arrested for homicide committed during a game. No wonder the Huston players have long faces. They're targets.

If Clemens beaned Piazza over too many homers, think how he might react to being kept out of the World Series. Mickey Mantle always said you knew you were going to have to hit the deck when your teammate in the batting order ahead of you just put one over the fence. "You were going down."

Into the punishment fray comes Mr. Kepner, whose solution to the kerfuffle is nothing less than elegant and certainly worthy of some kind of award made to arbitrators. Know what you can't change. And Manfred's ruling is out there and is not going to change.

Few people know how to use an apostrophe properly. It might be the most widely misused punctuation mark ever. There are always the smug writers who tell us where the apostrophe should go when we reach Presidents' Day, or Presidents' Day, or Presidents Day. Forget them. Consider Tyler's elegance.

In today's NYT there is  story in the sports section by Danielle Allentuck with the headline: Union Disputes M.L.B. Over Astros' Immunity.

Count on writers and editors at the NYT to use the apostrophe correctly. They went to college. But don't avoid Tyler's solution when at the end of his February 17th story he ends with the simple sentence.

"The Astros* play on."

And what letter does an asterisk start with? It's so simple it can make you cry.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Gracie and the Surprise Party

It is a presidential election year. Lately, it always seems like it's a presidential election year, but this year, 2020, is on the cycle to have votes cast that count. (Well, maybe) Think Summer Olympics. Think Leap years.The other years are just part of the exhibition season. There is only one presidential year, and it's every four years.

If there were no politicians running there would be no cable news. No talking heads. We should be grateful there are so many politicians, and non-politicians, seeking the highest office in the land. If there weren't, cable news would be relegated to covering Town Hall variance meetings across the country.

In 2004,Cynthia Crossen of the Wall Street Journal gave us all a glimpse of presidential campaign silliness. Or was it silly? "To Ensure Loyal Voters, Gracie Allen's Buttons Were the Sew-On Kind."

And of course, someone has just written a book about 'The Presidential Fringe, Questing and Jesting for the Oval Office,' by Mark Stein.
Mr. Stein's book was given a lively, positive review in the WSJ (Love that section. It's always in the same place in the paper.) by Dave Shiflett.

From Mr..Shiflett's book review it is easy to gather that Mr. Stein tells us of the antics of those who are "running for president" who are doing it for real and satirically. And the attention they get. We like to laugh. Laughter is the best medicine. At least Reader's Digest always said that. (Is there still a Reader's Digest?)

Like baseball, there are names before the Common Era: Leonard Jones, Joseph Smith, (the Mormon), George Edwin Taylor and Victoria Woodhull.

There are the satiric candidates, the ones I recognize in one way or another: Steve Colbert,Rosanne Barr, Will Rogers, Pat Paulsen and Gracie Allen.

There's one surely from the '60s that I don't remember, Pigasus, the candidate for the Youth International Party, Youth International Party, YIP, the Yippies, who were fond of promoting the flaunting of authority. Pigasus it turns out was an actual pig who at the end of the campaign was turned over to the Humane Society and may have wound up in a package of Oscar Mayer bacon.

I haven't yet read the book, but will. Mr. Stein and Mr. Shiflett both graciously responded to my email and Tweet giving them the link to Cynthia's piece.

Who is Gracie Allen? It's a legitimate question if you are not 'of a certain age' and weren't exposed to her daffiness that made sense on the 1950s TV show 'Burns and Allen.'

George Burns and Gracie Allen were top billing vaudevillians and radio personalities 'back in the day.' At the end of their TV show in which they played themselves living at home and being what would now be considered waaaaay overdressed for relaxation, they would come out from behind the curtain, George nattily dressed holding the ever-present cigar, and Gracie, in her sweeping, pleated puffy dress, looking like she was hosting a  cocktail party, and address the audience, you the TV viewer.

Gracie and George engaged in a delightful verbal duet, with Gracie's sentences racing ahead so fast with names of relations, that you needed instant replay to figure out what she said.  She had more relations than the Kennedys that we were yet to meet. It was a bit almost like Abbot and Costello's baseball routine. Lots of early television was inhabited by radio personalities, vaudevillians and sketch humor.

George played the befuddled straight man trying to dissect what Gracie was saying. My daughter, who is a speech pathologist, tells me there is an actual name for people who ramble on with no antecedent (cohesive) hooks: word salad. Gracie was the entire salad bar.

So, in 1940, in shows and on radio, Gracie ran for president against FDR and Wendall Willkie Ms. Crossen's piece opens with telling us of Gracie's platform: "redwood trimmed with nutty pine" and that she welcomed "foreign relations," so long as they didn't stay too long and they brought their own bedding."

She really did campaign. There was a 34-city whistle stop tour (train) from Los Angeles to Omaha, Nebraska where her newly formed Surprise Party held its first, and only convention. She of course was the nominee. (Was a young Warren Buffet in attendance?)

Mr. Stein in his reply to me told me of Gracie actually getting 61 votes in the Wisconsin primary,. while of course not being on a party's ticket. Gracie declared victory by a landslide.

Gracie of course produced a book recounting her campaign, 'How to Become President.' "Presidents are made, not born. That's a good thing to remember. It's silly to think that presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won't admit it."

Farmers were a much bigger constituency in 1940, and Gracie appealed to them, by feeling farms should be bigger, "so asparagus can grow lying down."

Her slogan was 'Down With Common Sense." Interestingly enough, into today's NYT there is a column by James B. Stewart sub-headed 'Common Sense' where he writes of the pardoning of Mike Milken and how it flies in the face of "rule of law."

Tonight Mike Bloomberg (Mayor Mike) joins the assembled for a Democratic Presidential debate. To the politically minded it promises to be a good show. Maybe a free-for-all. It's ratings will be bandied across the country tomorrow, and will likely approach Super Bowl debate ratings. Whatever that is.

I for one have no interest. Gracie's not going to be there. At least not physically.


Hardware Stores

My Twitter muse (@coreykilgannon) has done it again. He's posted a photo of an Upper West Side hardware store that is going out of business after 120 years, one year after displaying a proud banner outside the store wishing themselves a Happy Anniversary, and telling anyone who can read that they've been there for 119 years.

Do you know who the president was 119/120 years ago?  William McKinley! Of course that would have been before he was assassinated in Buffalo in September 1901, thus giving us Theodore Roosevelt as president and the dawn of Teddy Bears on children's beds.

I'm probably as nostalgic about independent hardware stores and their disappearance as any male "of a certain age." I made a blog posting in 2017 about Warshaw, a Third Avenue hardware store that could still be counted on to find hanger bolts.

As a kid growing up in the Murray hill section of Flushing, my father took me on trips on many Saturdays to the B&D hardware store on Northern Boulevard, just west of 154th Street, two blocks from the house. We were generally buying batteries for the flashlight, getting a quart of benzene, —a solvent for ceiling paint—poured from a holding tank in the back, or a supply of nails plopped in a small brown paper bag, taken from tin tins and weighed. Eight penny nails weren't 8¢ cents a pound, but they were called 8d (penny) nails. The longer the nail, the more per pound they were.

My father also probably bought turpentine, poured into a quart container with a skull and cross bones label, to be used to clean paint brushes that applied oil based paint. There was no water-soluble latex paint then. It was oil and lead based, and the brush was fairly heavy once dipped into such paint.

The hardware store then was called B&D, and I never knew what the initials stood for. In the '50s it was owned by a German couple, Herzog. Eventually a neighbor across the street from us, Nelson, bought the store, then Rocco Tesco, who had the store until it closed sometime in the '90s, yielding the building to a Korean Karaoke place I think.

Rocco had the store for the longest time. He eventually expanded into the adjacent building, cutting a archway between the buildings, where his wife generally worked selling the household items, wallpaper, and blinds. The place was Sears Roebuck without a catalog.

Aside from missing Rocco, I miss the fact that you could buy a piece of custom cut single pane window glass there. For various reasons, we needed window panes, and we could always count on getting the fit at Tesco's.

Another hardware store in the neighborhood, Beplats' is still on Roosevelt and 150th Street, looking the same as when I was a kid. It is Asian owned these days, but you can still get cut glass there. There are no hardware stores I'm aware of near where I live in Nassau County that will cut glass for you. (I generally need it for making frames.)

I don't think there is anything that you could buy at a 1950s hardware store that you can't find at a Home Depot or Ace Hardware of today. There are of course waaaaaaay more items you can buy at the Ace Hardwares and Home Depots of today than you would ever think of finding in a hardware store back then.

Given an Ace Hardware (Costello's) of the size found nearby in Bellmore,  you can look at and consider gigantic multi-jet hot tubs! Tubs. As in more than one.

In my workshop I keep a New York City tax photo from 1940 of what the Flushing hardware store looked like then. The proprietor is Feldherr, and predates my father and mother buying the home nearby in 1946. There is an older women in front of the store, talking to someone who looks like a customer.
Typical of most hardware stores then, and now, items were placed on the sidewalk in front of the store. Next to Mrs. Feldherr you can spot the reel mower of the type my father bought there, or the one he inherited when buying the house.

Our property was 50' and 106' and had enough grass to mow in front and back that a mower was needed. Lots of Queens homes then, and now, have only a "beach blanket" patch of grass that could be mowed with a scissor, or now, a weed whacker.

I still have the mower in my backward, propped up as a museum piece next to a large McGuire bamboo rake. The mower's handle is secured to the shaft by a plate with the initial "PQ." When I rebuilt the wooden handle and the shaft I looked into it enough to find that "PQ" meant Pennsylvania Quality.

Did the New York State governor know that mowers from another state were being hawked at the local hardware store?

Rod B.

Just when newscasters, talking heads, the general public, and even President Trump seem they might be learning how to correctly pronounce the last name of a Democratic candidate for president (Mayor Pete) Buttigieg (Boot-Edge-Egde) we are now being asked to learn a whole new tongue and lip memory in an attempt to get Rob Blagojevich's name out of our mouths.

Rod's name is not so bad if you're used to doing play-by-play of NHL hockey games. Doc Emrick has probably been pronouncing variations of it for years, if not the name itself. There must be a Blagojevich on a roster somewhere.

Rod of course for those with memories, or who are keeping up with the news, is the former governor of Illinois who was convicted in 2010 lying to the FBI regarding his activities of influence peddling, for what in effect was putting the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama's promotion to president in 2008 out for bids to those who might be willing to pay for being named as Obama's replacement. Talk about quid pro quo.

Back when Rob was sentenced he cut a bit of Peter Lawford-looking figure, sporting a massive amount of hair over his forehead, somewhat reminding me what I might do for shits and giggles by wearing my Davy Crockett imitation coonskin cap backwards on my head in the '50s.
The big news of the day is the pardons and sentence commutation President has handed out. Some of these actions wipe a felony conviction off a person's record; other actions actually release a prisoner who is wearing prison clothing somewhere.  And that is exactly what happened in Rod's case. He was sprung.

Anyone will look different 10 years later, and Rod is no exception. His appearance today sports short white hair, seen in the photo.

The photo was posted by a Chicago photojournalist, Erin Hooley, (@erinhooley) who was on the same flight as Rod after his release from Federal prison in Colorado.

Obviously the best thing about being released from prison is that even the middle seat in an aircraft is a welcome seat. Rod doesn't seem perturbed or encroached upon by those sitting adjacent to him, and no one's seat is so far back that he can't breathe. Life is good again.

When Rod is a bit more settled and finishes opening the mail, someone should have him complete the subway survey popularized by @emmagf) the New York Times reporter who retweeted someone's questionnaire about which of the 5 pictured subway seats would you prefer/not prefer to sit in.

When you're a free man, you can go where you want to. Even the seat in the middle.

Monday, February 17, 2020

In a Manner of Speaking

If you're not learning something with every obituary you read, you're not alive.

When I got to the third paragraph of Bruce Weber's NYT obit on A.E. Hotchner, friend and biographer —notably to Ernest Hemingway—and lemonade and salad dressing partner with Paul Newman in a philanthropic business that has donated millions, I thought faux pas, how could Bruce write that Hotchner was "not to the manner born?"

It's not "to the manor born?" Bruce and his highly literate crew over there on 8th Avenue wouldn't have let that one slip, right? They didn't.

A.E. (Aaron Edward) passed away at 102, and as such, his advance obit was written by Mr. Weber before he retired from the NYT (or took a buyout). Normally, when someone over 90 passes away you can count on an obit written by Robert McFadden. But as the ship pulls away from dock, the advance obits for the nonagenarians and centurions will be written by Margalit Fox and Bruce Weber, who were assigned to keep them updated on sunny days when no one was dying to get on the obit page. (Margalit has also left the paper.)

So, before thinking I'm right, I consult the O.E.D. And there, under "manner" is an example and definition of "to the manner born" with the source is given as Shakespeare's Hamlet. the manner born [Shakes. Hamlet] destined by birth to be subject to some custom; collog. naturally fitted for some position or employment."

Manor and manner. The words are much alike. Even in envisioned context. "To the manor born..." Certainly the Crawley daughters in Downton Abbey, Mary, Edith and Sybil, were certainly "to the manner born, and "to the manor born."

And Tom Branson, the IRA-chauffeur/mechanic, Sybil's husband...certainly "not to the manner/manor born." At least as far as it goes to being a member of the Crawley clan. See, much confusion.

I asked my wife to spell "manner" in the context of saying "to the manor born." M-a-n-n-e-r. Apparently not.

Of course her conditioned spelling response is reinforced by watching nearly everything British on the NPR stations (we get three here in New York), where she is addicted to the 1990s reruns of  "To the Manor Born." The English language.

Okay, so in what context in Hamlet is the expression "to the manner born" uttered?

Phrase Finder tells us:

HORATIO: Is it a custom?
HAMLET:  Ay, marry is't;
 But to my mind, though I am a native here
 And to the manner born, it is a custom
 More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

The meaning is clear. Hamlet knows the custom being spoken of because he is native, that is, born locally.

To paraphrase Jimmy Breslin about the journalists that can write long sentences: the guys at the Times went to college.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The A-Hed Piece

It is hard to believe the WSJ ever once thought of doing away with its wonderful A-Hed piece featured on each edition's front page.

But such a thought did rear its head when Rupert Murdoch took control of the paper. But that was years and years ago, and the decision was made fairly soon after the deal closed in 2007 that the piece would remain. And all these years later, it has.

The piece gets its name from the layout, something called A-Hed in print setting parlance that describes the shape of the headline, sub-heading and border surrounding the piece. The A-Hed shape is a lot more easy to discern when the piece is given a one column front page presence, as it always did have until now, when it can span something up to three columns, making the "A" shape somewhat harder to pick out. Sort of like trying to see the Big Dipper when it's cloudy.

The piece is always light-heated, and usually replete with puns. Counting the number of puns can be a game, with no answer to compare your result to.

I'm in one of my catching-up-with-the-unread-newspaper modes that finds me putting a dent into the stack. "Unread" is really a misstatement. I've gone through the NYT and the WSJ cherry-picking articles from each day's fresh editions. It's only when I get around to do the deep dive that I get to really find out what I might have initially missed.

Thus, I have just come across the A-Hed piece from the January 31, 2020 edition by Te-Ping Chen on what happens to old business cards.

I was once in touch with a WSJ reporter when I asked about the A-Hed piece and how it is developed. At the time, he explained there was a darling editor who has stayed on, resisting buyouts, who solicits stories from staff reporters who might have a good idea for a piece. In all my readings, I don't think I've ever seen a byline repeated.

For a while there I thought I detected a surge of stories coming from Belgian sources, but it proved to be a transitory blip. It seems whoever gets a story published as an A-Hed piece only gets the distinction once.

According to my source, the editor of the piece spent all their money years ago when they were convinced they were going to die, only to recover and find they were going to outlive their money by a wide margin. Needing funds to finance this unexpected new lease on life, they stayed on, and continuously edit the piece.  True or not, the A-Hed piece is a delightful piece of continuous journalism,

Ms. Chen's A-Hed piece is somewhat atypical in that there is a paucity of puns. There is a reference to a Marie Kondo, who is not explained in the piece, but is an organizational guru whose advice business card holders might refer to when deciding whether to keep or discard their unneeded business cards.

There are many types of people who either get rid of, or keep their old business cards. Unmentioned are those who don't fall into any category other than having the decision on the retention of the cards made for them. Such as myself.

I Tweeted Ms. Chen (@tpingchen) the following:

No need to wonder what to do with my old business cards. A well-aimed 767 crashing into Tower One removed my supply from the 29th floor at Empire BlueCross BlueShield permanently. Only the few on me at the time remain.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Charlie the Tuna

The NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon (@CoreyKilgannon)is once again proving to be a muse. In a Tweet today he notes the passing of a New York Mets usher, Luke Gasparre who has passed away at 95. Mr. Gasparre had been an usher for The Mets since 1964 when Shea Stadium opened. He was also a decorated WW II veteran who fought at the Battle of the Bulge in Metz, France, and forever got a kick out of how the town they liberated is pronounced the same way as the baseball club he worked for.

It's been quite a few years since obituaries by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. made their way onto the NYT obit pages, (Mr. Thomas passed away in 2000.) but Mr. Gasparre would easily have been a subject of one of  McG's inibitable obits of the people who were never elected, acted, sang, won Nobel prizes, commanded armies, wrote books or music, or did any of the many things the people who get those tribute obits do. He got you to your seat after you showed him your stub, and did it for over 50 years.

Mr. Kilgannon sung of Mr. Gasparre's fortitude in 2015 when the Mets made the World Series and everyone was asking him for tickets. From that story, linked to the Tweet of his passing, we learn of a singular man who witnessed a lot of very bad and very good baseball.

I do not write obituaries, but I'd like to think Mr. Thomas might start off..."Mr. Gasparre, a teen-age tap dancing hoofer who once teamed with Anthony Benedetto (Tony Bennet) performing in clubs in Astoria earning $10 a show, and who later became a decorated WW II infantryman who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, who worked for the post office delivering mail in the Byrant Park area, and then who became a senior usher at Shea Stadium showing fans to their seats ever since Shea opened in 1964 (now Citi Field), is now finally off his feet, having passed away at 95." Something like that.

Anyone who has ever gone to ball games for as long as I have knows that ushers and ticket takers at Shea and Yankee Stadium were of a certain congregation. They were mostly Italian-American men who belonged to the same union—which one escapes me but it was for ushers only.

First, generally, you needed a ticket to get in. But depending on your appearance, attitude, and overall decorum, you might be able to find yourself seating in a better seat than your ticket was for if you waited a few innings and negotiated with the usher at the head of the aisle a gratuity to be offered in cash—folding money—that would allow your butt to take over an empty seat seat from a ticket holder who wasn't going to show up.

There's been a bit of kibosh put on this practice, emphasizing to the ushers that no tips are allowed, and bribes to allow someone to seat themselves in a better seat is not a very good idea for continued employment.

But that is now, and there was a then, especially when a scrum of us left the Blarney Stone at 32nd Street and Madison Avenue, and through Eddie the bartender's contact with an usher who was a solid customer, we could walk up to a designated turnstile at Yankee Stadium and pass through—with no ticket—to be picked up on the other side of the border and be directed to an empty media box waaay down the left field line and watch the game, albeit with no seat.

This was accomplished for the 1977 and 1978 playoffs and World Series home games. We saw a lot of baseball history for $5 a game.

My guess is the usher who engineered the infiltration of Yankee Stadium is no longer with us, but his name was Charlie, who in his usher uniform, bow tie and cap reminded everyone of Star Kist's Charlie the Tuna. We forever referred to him as Charlie the Tuna.

This also worked at certain Jet games at Shea when decent seats were obtained for a similar $5 donation. The football we saw was not as good as the baseball we saw.

My father was at Don Larsen's perfect game, and there is no souvenir ticket stub. Whether my father got in with his boss with a ticket or not, I can ask, but no one will answer.

We were there in 1977 when Reggie clouted three homers on three first pitches from three different pitchers, and a World Series was won. I was there thanks to Eddie and Charlie the Tuna. I have no ticket stub.

The Möbius Strip

One thing will always lead us to another.

Plowing through the Tweets from @SarahLyall of the NYT doing a Don Dunphy-like round-by- round report from ringside at the Madison Square Garden Westminster Dog Show, in which she revealed the abject crowd disappointment that Daniel, a golden retriever,

didn't get Best in Show (a golden retriever has never been Best in Show), and was defeated by Siba, a French Poodle, who if I was in a state of incandescence, I would mistake for my neighbor's topiary, I finally got to the end of the feed and came across a retweet she made from @MatthewGarrahan.

(That a golden retriever has never been a Best in Show is a serious misgiving. I've never seen a French Poodle who looks like Siba in harness getting a blind person across Sixth Avenue at 23rd Street, hard by the building housing the Institute for the Blind.)

@MatthewGarrahan must have been relating an anecdote about newspaper corrections, when he Tweeted:

Trying to ban "iconic" and other superfluous adjectives from FT copy, [Financial Times] which brings to mind the 1980s intro by an English sports reporter. In his dispatch from Israel covering an England game, he wrote that he was in "Bethlehem, birthplace of the legendary Jesus Christ"

Which of course brings to mind the legendary sports reporter Dick Schaap who in the early '70s told a network news audience that Riva Ridge and Secretariat were the two most famous stablemates since Joseph and Mary.

Dick took A LOT of flak from that one. But not from anyone with sense of humor.

Thursday, February 13, 2020


No, the title doesn't refer to a new kind of virus, but it does refer to the posture of men seated in the subway, particularly the spread of their legs encroaching on the air rights of those seated next to them.

Emma Fitzsimmons (@emmagf), the former transit beat reporter for the NYT who is now the NYT City Hall Bureau Chief, cannot resist a transit Tweet when she sees a good one. Houston, we have a manspreading problem.

She's retweeted one from @dansaltzstein who has posted a picture with text over his frustrations with adjacent passengers taking up too much room on subway bench seats by spreading their legs beyond their hips. It is a big bug-a-boo, and it is committed by males.

Male bodies are different than female bodies, and as such, men's legs seem to be guided by a spring at their apex, that when seated pops their legs open like one of those spring clothes pins. (You might remember clothes pins.) But face it. Outdoor plumbing takes up more space than indoor plumbing.

Never mind that large people (read fat) take up more room than others, or that women tend to be carrying on the average three bags and gain width with their luggage, manspreading is being portrayed as just another misgiving of the male gender. Seat hogs are not always men.

Even when the subway has scooped out seats meant to designate individual seating, the average New Yorker of any age, any income, gender, short or tall, thin or hefty, with or without puff outerwear, carrying or not carrying anything, is going to be larger than the anorexic, naked Asian women who seem to have been the model width used by subway designers when they set out the specs.

I will give up my seat for a pregnancy looming overhead. And I will scoot over the best I can to allow more space, even though I am now the Senior Citizen those signs are pointed toward. But manspreading is here to stay. A campaign of awareness of it is not working.

Gaining seated space on a subway is like the Oklahoma land rush. You have to get there first.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

She's Back

Showtime's Homeland started its eighth and final season on Sunday and Carrie's back, immediately up to her blonde hair in international do-do.

We find her being grilled by a psychological medical team trying to determine if she should be allowed back in the game. After all, she was held by the Russians for 213 days, and hardly treated with candy and flowers.

She's whipping herself back into shape by doing laps back and forth on a fenced in tennis court. A court so fenced in returns can only be made from behind the baseline. It's a bowling alley.

But Saul comes a-calling. He needs Carrie to get Afghan peace talks resumed. They've broken off by something as so insignificant as the release of 100 Taliban prisoners being held by the U.S. The medical team is very much on the fence about Carrie's fitness for re-certification for duty as a CIA operative. She's been away too long, and might have coughed up asset names under the Russian's enhanced interrogation process, which we're led to believe was mainly through drugs.

But the show must go on, and Saul has Carrie on a military jet headed for Kabul in a day. On landing. she's whisked to the CIA station in Kabul, brought up to speed a bit, and shown a room to settle in.

But of course anyone who knows Carrie knows she's not there to start reading novels while propped up in bed. She's there for action, and she immediately proves it by wearing the Muslim head gear required of women, revs up a motor cycle in the station's basement, and heads out to make contact with an informant she's never told anyone about. Or has she?

It's amazing the people she still knows. She makes contact with an intermediary who is now running a fleet of gasoline trucks in Kabul. It seems Carrie got the lucky guy started in business when she was last there, which looks like it was eight years ago.

She naturally asks how things are going, and he tells her. It's a timeless response about government, plots, corruption and power grabs that could probably he recited by a chariot driver in ancient Rome. Carrie nods knowingly.

She reaches the informant's home, but finds out he's been killed by the Taliban. Apparently, during her Russian interrogation she did give up a name, and the Russians are working with the Taliban. This gets confirmed by the CIA's station chief in Kabul who tells Carrie that the Russians will do "anything to mess with us." It's the understatement of the century.

Meanwhile Max, remember Max, the tech guy? He's been flown into Kabul to be imbedded with a Special Forces squad to reach a listening device planted in the Afghan hills that has stopped transmitting. It's a Taliban controlled area, so getting there and back is quite dangerous. Not the time to learn you didn't pack the right screwdriver to get the lid off the unit—if you even get there. Tension.

A bit of a spoiler, but Max does realize he's got the unit working again when he checks with his laptop back at the base. Conversations made by the Taliban are now theirs to intercept. This of course means everything, including Taliban take-out. Everyone's got to eat, right?

The wrap-up in this setting-the-table episode is when Carrie is just about to meet the Afghan mucky-muck—who she of course is supposedly on good terms with—and sees a Russian delegation leaving his office. And in that group, is her principle Russian interrogator who mentally worked her over while she was a prisoner.

They didn't use a musical soundtrack to this scene, but Willie Nelson's "Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning" would have been appropriate. You know, where the lyrics include, "and the hinges fell off the gate."

Carrie's got a lot to do. She better have the right screwdriver.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Log Cabin

Can a woman who just passed away at 100—she was born in 1920— have had a father who was born in a log cabin? You betcha.

The woman is Ann Cox Chambers, media heiress and ex-ambassador to Belgium, and in her NYT obituary written by Douglas Martin, it is revealed that the father, James Cox, was the Democratic candidate for president who had an up and coming Franklin Delano Roosevelt on his ticket for vice president in 1920.

Cox and Roosevelt were solidly beaten by Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.  Mr. Cox had been a three-term governor of Ohio (non-consecutive two year terms), and despite Ann Cox Chambers being the subject of the obituary, becoming fabulously wealthy from her father's business interests, newspapers, radio stations, auto auction business, and the big one, cable systems, (Cox Communications) her father becomes a huge person of interest when it is revealed he was born in a log cabin.

Think of it. A woman whose last full day on earth was the next-to-last day in January, had a father who was born in 1870, who could tell her what the country was like in the post-Civil War era, and whose father (her grandfather) was alive when Lincoln was assassinated. That is some reach back into time. Parents don't tell their children enough, but surely she absorbed some stories from those who were really there.

The last president born in a log cabin was James Garfield, and that was 1831. If James M. Cox had beaten Harding, he would have advanced that "last-log-cabin" distinction to 1870.

You don't have to wonder, but I do, if in 1870 is was a modern log cabin. Like campers and RVs, did log cabins progress in creature comforts over the years? Was there running water provided by a well-water pump in the kitchen area? My guess is the toilet facilities were still an outhouse.

In the 1950s I accompanied my mother to visit her WW II army nursing buddy Gracie on the farm where she, her husband and daughter lived in Brushton, New York, very upstate, and fairly close to the Canadian border.

The house wasn't a log cabin by any means. It had running water, and an indoor toilet. but it did have a water pump handle in the kitchen next to the sink that could be primed and pumped to get well water. I remember the father, Hollis, preferring the well water that he drank from a ladle he scooped into the pail. A farm house version of Poland Springs with a no deposit bottle.

After the tangential distraction of learning about Ms. Cox's father, you can absorb her story of her anonymous wealth and very public philanthropy and political backing. She and her sister tried to fly under the radar. "The more anonymous you can be the better. Why, then you can just do about whatever you want."

It would have been a blast to have met her. She certainly lived an interesting life in what are always interesting times.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

We Definitely Went to Different Schools

Anthony Tommasini tells us in his recent review of Gustavo Dudamel's performance conducting the New York Philharmonic playing Anton Dvorak's chestnut 'New World Symphony,' that he always feels the piece is played far too often by most orchestras.

He goes on the tell us he attributes this feeling perhaps to the overkill of a gym class instructor he had in college who played excerpts from the symphony during exercise sessions. He admits that when he hears the third movement he gets the urge to scoot out into the aisle and start doing jumping jacks.  He so far resists.

What Mr. Tommasini is of course describing is that something always reminds us of something. And of course music can be the greatest of all memory catalysts.

I had a friend who told me Maurice Ravel's 'Bolero' was "the greatest fuck music ever written." He attributes this conclusion to the fact that it always reminds him of when he was a young, unmarried fellow and he was boffing a judge's daughter in the judge's study, with of course Bolero playing in the background. (Timing is everything.) Jump in the aisle and start doing that and they will definitely lead you out.

It is funny, but the same friend had a subscription to a box at Carnegie Hall in the '80s and took me to see, and of course hear, what was my first classical music concert ever. The feature piece was Dvorak's Ninth. the famous 'New York Symphony.' From that moment on I added classical music to music I enjoy. And I can't help but remember my friend Tom whenever I hear the symphony performed. And I've heard it several times, even taking him to a performance of it years and years after as a way of a thank you.

But right from the outset of Mr. Tommasini's review, it is made clear that he and I went to entirely different schools. The only sounds I ever heard in any gym class were grunts, whistles, and the squeaking of sneakers on polished gym floors.

Even into college, my exposure to classical music was either through cartoons, (Carmen) or Rossini's 'William Tell Overture' played at the start of Lone Ranger TV episodes. No one, particularly in a gym class, ever revealed themselves to be a fan of what I grew up referring to as "long hair music."

Mr. Tommasini obviously went to a college that likely had a tuition far in excess of anything my family could afford. I never heard of student loans, but my father certainly heard of loan sharks. Perhaps he got a special rate for the pursuit of a higher education. It's way too late to find out.

Even without seeing someone, or reading something they wrote, generational differences can become apparent.

At my next-to-last job I distinctly remember being on the phone with a very pleasant sounding female voice, trying to provide enough answers to her questions so that she could design a sales brochure for our unit in the hope of snaring more clients to use our fraud detection services.

We were both part of a very far-flung company, Trizetto, and she was in Chicago. We went on and on quite well, but I just knew by things I said, and what she said, that I grew up knowing way more presidents than she did.

I finally consolidated our differences by telling her, "I think you and I grew up being taken to different movies."

The brochure was a winner.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Mayor Pete

Finally. Someone wrote about how to correctly pronounce Mayor Pete's last name: Buttigieg. Boot Edge Edge. The double G's without a D in sight will get you every time.

Thank you Sarah Lyall, a NYT reporter at-large who has thoughtfully provided the pronunciation guide.  Mayor Pete is a descendant from a Maltese family. His father was born in Malta, which is a tiny island country somewhere between Italy and Tunisia that probably can only be found on a map by Jeopardy champions.

Of course, most people will recognize Malta as being one-half of the famous Humphrey Bogart movie 'The Maltese Falcon,' itself based on an equally famous Dashiell Hammett detective mystery story of the same name.

Mayor Pete's name has been as hard to pronounce as it was hard to hang onto the statue of a falcon, "the stuff dreams are made of." And certainly running for president is the stuff dreams are made of, no matter where you come from.

Mayor Pete's supporters have recognized the difficulty in pronouncing his last name. Seen at a rally is a display of the phonetic pronunciation. The photo accompanies Ms. Lyall's lively piece.

Ms. Lyall recounts the stumbles made by many in pronouncing Mayor Pete's last name. 'Mayor Pete' is itself a sobriquet given to the candidate because of the difficulty in pronouncing his last name. I myself have a somewhat difficult to pronounce Greek last name, but nothing as difficult as it is to get Mayor Pete's last name correct.

Ms. Lyall recognizes that President Trump has pretty much come the closest to a correct pronunciation. But President Trump being President Trump, would much rather use 'Mayor Pete' as his way of inflecting derision.

Years and years ago we had another last name prominent in the news with a surname that maybe wasn't that hard to pronounce, but was a dickens to spell correctly. The last name is of course the one most associated with the Long Island Lolita case, when an older man's much younger girlfriend thought she was doing him a favor and tried to kill his wife, an act of course that would allow the two lovers to spend more time together without having to make all those annoying phone calls home, pretending he was working late.

Thus, we were introduced to Joey Buttafuoco, the older man, Amy Fisher, the Lolita in the case, and Mary Joe, Joey's wife who was shot in the face and survived the attempt on her life by Ms. Fisher. There has never been an era when there wasn't something to report.

That Joey's last name didn't prove difficult to pronounce was probably due in part to the familiarity people in the New York area had with buying different kinds of pasta. Spelling the last name was a challenge.

I can imagine reporters who had Post-It notes attached to their computer screens with the correct spelling of the last name. Or, for the tech savvy, keyboard macros programmed to their computers so they could get the last name right.

And Mayor Pete? He's got the last name that is difficult to get your mouth to say correctly, and the brain to choose the right letters to spell it.

A name for the stuff dreams are made of.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Baritone

There was a group of four of us who in the 1980s found ourselves a few times a week at a table in the Tap Room of the New York Athletic Club after work, downing prodigious amounts of beer. I wasn't a member of the NYAC, but my friend Tom was, and he invited me to imbibe with Jack and Don.

Don was an opera buff, and at some point he informed us that all baritones were cock-suckers. No one argued, and Tom, who I know also liked opera, seemed to agree. I'm not sure if by then I had ever even attended an opera, but the statement is one I will forever remember.

I tested the accuracy of the statement when I did happen to see a few operas, and sure enough, the father who was protecting his daughter's virginity, the jailer, the landlord, the scoundrel, was always a baritone, or a bass, or a bass-baritone. I paid close attention to this and have forever found it be true.

So when I saw in a recent NYT obituary that Franz Mazura, 95, has passed  away and that he was the voice of villainy in operas, I knew I'd soon be reading he was a baritone. And he was, a bass-baritone. Don's long ago statement told me so.

The obituary, by the Times's chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini, doesn't go so far as to declare that Mr. Mazra was the greatest of all cock-suckers, but he does list a lengthy set of roles that Mr. Mazura added his booming voice to:

  • Klingsor, the evil sorcerer in Wagner's 'Pasifal.'
  • Don Pizarro, the corrupt governor of a state prison in Beethoven's 'Fidelio.'
  • Dr. Schön, a morally bankrupt and lecherous newspaper editor and the murderous Jack Ripper in a double-role (perfect for a bass-baritone) in Berg's 'Lulu'.
  • Alberich, the sneering nasal-toned dwarf in Wagner's 'Ring' cycle.
  • The Doctor, a darkly buffoonish role in Berg's 'Wozzeck.'
  • Scarpia, a sadistic police chief in Puccini's 'Tosca.'
  • Hans Schwarz in Wagner's 'Die Meistersinger.'
Apparently, like in wrestling, opera needs a heel to present to the audience.

It seems he played some good guys with deep voices, but much preferred the villains. His wife playfully said he didn't have to act in those parts, he was just making himself feel at home.

Mr. Mazura was born in Salzburg Austria and lived in Eisenstadt, and later Vienna. He passed away in a hospital in Mannheim, Germany.

As a cock-sucker, Franz followed in his father's footsteps, his father, also Franz, being a tax inspector in Austria.


Friday, January 31, 2020

The Irish Sport Pages

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading the NYT for let's say, decades. The amount of space devoted to obituaries  is now almost equaling that devoted to sports. Thursday's (1/30) sports section spans four pages. The space devoted to obituaries covers three pages. And this is not a one-off. This is a trend in the best definition of the word.

In her book on obituaries, The Dead Beat, Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, Marilyn Johnson has a chapter sub-headed The Irish Sports Page. She recounts the story of taking a train ride into Manhattan when she happens to find herself sitting next to Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States.

The conversation turns to poetry and obituaries. The Irish have a preoccupation with death, a preoccupation that grows with them as they grow older. Ultimately, they look forward to having a good wake.

And on the way to that event they go to wakes. And sometimes to wakes for people they've never heard of, or ever met. They follow death notices like a baseball fan follows box scores. Ms. Johnson tells us Billy Collins's father, and no doubt others, have called obituaries the Irish sports page.

When my father in-law Patrick Brennan was waked in the Bronx in 1980 my wife and I were sitting in the funeral home one afternoon when an elderly couple came by to offer condolences. They were no one I certainly knew, and no one my wife knew.

They murmured to my wife that her father was a fine looking man. And to this day, she and I still agree he was the best looking corpse we've seen. Forty years later, no one has ever looked better.

The notice we placed in the Daily News gave his birthplace as Tubbercurry, County Sligo, Ireland. The elderly gentleman, or his wife, had no connection to the birthplace; they just wanted to pay their respects to a fellow Irishman.

They asked where the wife was, and my wife explained her mother was back in the apartment for the afternoon, and would be down for the evening session. They asked where she was from, fully expecting to hear that she too was from Ireland.

When my wife informed the elderly pair that she was English, and came from Liverpool, England, they nodded and fairly quickly left to go down the hall to the next viewing room. Apparently, this one had been a major disappointment, an Irishman married to a women from England.

The NYT sports page has been shrinking in narrative content for years now. Since scores are available from all kinds of sources, and instantly, the paper has taken to enlarging the photos they use—sometimes making them really big—and significantly shrinking the narrative text that would otherwise tell a story.

You really can't blame them. The Internet has been a very disruptive technology that has left the print media clinging to the side of a cliff by their fingernails. The Times however has been very adaptive and boasts an increasing online presence that adds greatly to the bottom line.

At the same time, the narrative devoted to obituaries has been increasing—greatly. There are now more front page obituaries than ever before, even if nearly none of them rise to the space above-the-fold. An obituary above-the-fold is like having your likeness carved onto Mount Rushmore, even if it is only for a day. You will however exist there forever in a digital version that will allow readers decades from now the ability to call up your life's story. (As long as the software works.)

Take Thursday's print edition. There were four pages devoted to sports, six bylined stories, with half a page of agate type results and standings.

Contrast this with the obituary section, which took up three pages with seven bylined "tribute" obituaries, with a third of a page devoted to the Paid Notices section, itself a larger presence than it ever was, now with photos and sometimes lengthy text written and paid for by family members and friends. And not cheaply, at that. The page is a revenue source.

It used to be I'd always head to the sports section first. Now it is obituaries. Sports takes me no time at all to read. Obituaries, much like short stories, take somewhat longer to digest.

The sports page has a story about the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the teams in the upcoming Super Bowl on Sunday; one more story about Kobe Bryant; Dusty Baker becoming the manager of the troubled Houston Astros; Major League Baseball's feud with the minor leagues; a left tackle's life, Eric Fisher, who plays for the Chiefs and a story on tennis, Dominic Thiem beating Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open.

The lead-off obit page contained obits for Sonnny Grosso, one of the real life NYPD French Connection detectives that broke the case. The other obit was for Bill Ray, a photographer, famous for many photos, one of which was the overhead shot, from behind, of Marilyn Monroe breathlessly singing Happy Birthday at JFK's 45th birthday party/fund raiser at Madison Square Garden in May 1962.

Marilyn Monroe from behind was a way more attractive sight than looking at a shrunken Babe Ruth at his 1948 Yankee Stadium tribute. Ruth is dying from cancer, and Marilyn is not, although she would commit suicide in August 1962, only months after the birthday bash.

Other bylined obits cover Arnold Aronson, a successful Saks Fifth Avenue executive; Rhona Wurtele, one half of Canada's 'Flying Twins,' a pair of national champion skiers; Lina Ben Mhenni, an activist blogger in Tunisia who died at 37, having started many good things in that country; Pete Stark, a Congressman who fought for health care issues and Harry Harrison, a popular morning DJ in NYC who called himself the 'Morning Mayor.' And was.

They're all good stories. I just happen to prefer the Irish Sports Page, and am happy it has grown so.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Who Is A New Yorker?

On Monday, the observance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's. birthday, the Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams gave a speech that was widely perceived to be divisive, when he said of people who have transplanted themselves from other parts of the country to live in any of the five boroughs, "You go back to Ohio. New York City belongs to the people that was here and made New York City what it is."

Whew! This is saying all kinds of things, such as "stay where you are." "Go back to where you came from." It is also saying that New York City has already been made what it is, and we don't need anyone else to come here and make it any different.

Oh boy. The comments were critically descended on by many, including his friend the mayor himself, Bill de Blasio. As you might imagine, the comments were quickly "walked back" to be phrased that all people of good will are welcome.

The story surrounding the comments became New York news today in the NYT when the City Hall Bureau Chief, Emma Fitzsimmons, wrote an article that was headlined: "A Leading Candidate for Mayor Suggests Newcomers Should 'Go Back to Iowa.'" Perhaps not the best of campaign slogans.

Totally aside from the speech and the comments about the speech, Ms. Fitzsimmons extracts a bigger question from the speech: "When does a transplant become a true New Yorker?" She suggests some answers.

Is it, "after a decade or two?"
"Once you kick a subway rat or stop toasting your bagels?"

Perhaps unwittingly, Ms. Fitzsimmons (who in her Twitter profile, @emmagf, tells the world she's from Texas) has again help create a New York parlor game to play with loved ones in the setting of your choice (preferably near alcohol), "Who is a true New Yorker?"

Emma just recently set off a Twitter storm by re-Tweeting someone's question asking which of the 5 empty subways on the D train are preferable to sit in? The Tweet had a sharp photo of the empty seats labeled 1-5, asking for your vote. It made TV news. A story evolved out of that one, and a story has evolved out of this one.

Ever since I was a schoolboy in Flushing in the '50s I remember kids always telling some other kids, "why don't you go back where you came from?" Sometimes this meant that their immigrant parents shouldn't have bothered to come here; the kids shouldn't have bothered to come here; they should go back to where they came from, even if it was only just Whitestone.

Emma's two answers are just as good as any two answers to the question. A decade or two is obviously time related, with the waiting period being of your own choice. Kicking a subway rat is a good criteria because if it means actually kicking the rat, and not just kicking at the rat—making all important contact—then you are a psycho and are fast tacked into the club. Of all the people who I consider true New Yorkers (more on that later) I daresay no one has ever told me a story of kicking a rat. They've seen a rat. Yeah so?

The toasted bagel or eating your pizza with a knife and fork or just folding it and jamming it in your mouth without aid of cutlery are just criteria being currently used to show that, Bill de Blasio, despite being in his second and last term as NYC mayor, is NOT a New Yorker. We all know this just by watching what or how the guy eats.

And if you happen to eat the toasted or untoasted bagel, or the folded slice of pizza in the subway, then there's a good reason there might be a rat to even try and kick at. You're feeding them, stupid.

For years my own answer to the question of who is a true New Yorker is to consider if you are the product of a New York City education, K- through high school, public or private, or, if going back to where you where born just means going to someplace in New York.

And when it comes to that, you can have it both ways. Without kicking a rat.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


I have no idea if you've ever been say on a platform in Penn Station, looked at some girders, and pondered how the hell is what's above us being supported? I have.

Why doesn't Manhattan just cave in? Okay, it's composed of schist rock, one of the strongest type of stone anywhere. And it's in Manhattan in abundance. But to build things, above and below ground, the engineers have drilled the shit out of this rock and piled buildings on top of it.

And nothing small, mind you. Humongous buildings, and connected them to other buildings with tunnels. I once met @justjenking from Australia with her husband as they were on the Amtrak level at Penn waiting for a train to D.C. so that newsperson Jen could flash her press credentials and get a White House tour, completing a U.S. tour.

We only chatted for a bit, but I told her husband Steve that Madison Square Garden was above us. He looked up, perhaps a little apprehensively, and then I told him that at 7:30 that evening the Rangers were hosting the Maple Leafs and there would be nearly 20,000 people in attendance watching an NHL hockey game over his head if he waited long enough. How is this possible? He took another glance upward. Rock, concrete and steel, the engineers will you. But how hollow can you make the place?

Fifty-two tracks, upper and lower levels, radiate north from Grand Central Terminal. What's on top of them? Park Avenue and buildings. Big buildings.

The LIRR East Side Access, when completed (2022 now) will deposit LIRR commuters 10 storeys underneath Grand Central Terminal. If the elevators and escalators decide to go kaput one day (and they will decide to go kaput) the commuters will need oxygen to get to the surface. Sherpa guides will need to be dispatched from EMS.

I always think of the scene toward the end of 'Paint Your Wagon' when the Western town above the mining tunnels start to sink as the shafts weaken. Gold dust spilled in the many saloons above starts to seep down in the mine shafts. Furious digging for the gold weakens the shafts, and eventually the entire town disappears into a sinkhole.  What an ending. Is this how the Big Apple ends?

There are some cave-ins in Manhattan, usually a burst water main that weakens the roadway and sidewalk above, creating a sinkhole, sometimes of Biblical proportions. Just the other day a water main burst on the West Side, 61st Street-65th Street, between Columbus Avenue and Broadway, the Lincoln Center area, flooding subways and underground parking garages, leaving at least 60 high end cars ruined.

The NYT has been reporting on this for two days. Two of the bylines were by Corey Kilgannon (@CoreyKilgannon), to whom I Tweeted the query I posed above: what holds this place up?

Mr. Gilgannon replied with a link to an even bigger water main break in 1998 that basically turned East 19th Street-East 21st Street on Fifth Avenue into Lake Erie. I remember that one. At the time, in the words of the city's Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, Joel A. Miele, "this one's a beaut." It's always more fun when disaster records are broken.

Massive water main breaks in NYC are not a common occurrence, but do occur because the mains are over 100 years old and do not get replaced unless they break. If they ain't broke, leave them alone. They're too fragile, and require a massive outlay of expense, labor and disruption if they were to be replaced proactively.

When I lived in Flushing I once noticed that ice was persistently forming at a spot on the sidewalk, despite there having been no rain or snow. The ice was forming around the cutoff valve embedded in the sidewalk in front of the house. No water was coming into the cellar, but it was clear we had a service line leak.

And who is the repair expense on? The homeowner. The service line from the house to the street is part of the homeowner's responsibility. Usually, nothing ever happens, and people come and go without ever having to replace the service line. We were not that lucky.

I think it was $3,000 sometime in the '80s, when a large crew in many vehicles came from a private firm, Division Water, that specialized in that kind of work. They had all the maps of what was underneath.  They descended on our address. Holes were made, pipe was removed, and pipe was replaced, all rather quickly. I was sorry to see the black cap shutoff valve, secured with a brass screw, go. I always remember that cap from when I was a little kid.

The house was built in 1923, and my folks bought it in 1946. Talking to the guys I asked what kind of pipe needed to be replaced? Brass? No. Lead.

In other words, our house, and I'm sure countless other homes in the area, were serviced with lead water pipes? Yep. Who knew?

The Periodic Table symbol for lead is Pb, which I suspect is the origin of the word plumbing. Historically, plumbers used lead pipes.

I never knew of any health concerns that were voiced about our lead water pipes. No one ever seemed to be in need of treatment for lead poisoning. NYC water is always considered the gold standard of clean water, I guess if even delivered in lead pipes.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Cold Case Blog

A witness has come forward. Sort of.

Whenever the mob rub out at Umberto's Clam house in 1972 comes up I always think of the memory I can't get rid that I remember reading in the NYT that Jerry Orbach, the actor, was with the Gallo birthday party in the wee hours of the morning, sipping cokes and probably waiting for the sun to rise.

Jerry was a Broadway actor, and later the star of 'Law and Order.' Back in the '70s he played a part in the 1971 movie 'The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight,' A not-so-good movie version of Jimmy Breslin's book of the same title about the Brooklyn mob in South Brooklyn, complete with the lion that Joey Gallo kept in the cellar, as well as Kid Sally (Jerry Orbach), the sometimes clumsy arsonist.

It was a comic sendup of the mob as a coterie of outsized personalities (it always is) and some of the rather outrageous things they get away with. The book was a best seller, and I still have my hardcover copy.

Orbach became friends with Joey and even had him staying over his apartment at the time of the shooting. It wouldn't be so far fetched to expect that Jerry would be part of the Gallo birthday party that left the Copa and went down to Mulberry Street.

So, when the first editions came out reporting on the shooting I distinctly remember reading that Orbach was there. I tried to confirm my memory by looking through microfilm, but the name Jerry Orbach wasn't there. Had I conflated the relationship with presence? Did the name get air brushed by an editor in response to an actor's agent to wipe the slate?

All of this is nearly half a century ago. Jerry Orbach is dead, and there was nothing in his obituary to confirm what I've always felt I read.

The rub out at Umberto's is part of New York mob-war lore. The '70s saw a lot of hits. The Gallo and Profaci factions were always whacking each other. The movie 'The Irishman' depicts a scene where the Joe Pesci character, Russell Bufalino, orders a hit on Crazy Joey Gallo, who is briefly bopping around at a birthday party for Frank Sheeran, the Irishman..

It is ridiculous to imagine that a Pennsylvania gangster could get a hit approved on a made man from Brooklyn. Joey was deprived of a long life because he orchestrated the shooting of Joseph Columbo in Columbus Circle on Columbus Day, a day that Columbo was seizing as Italian Solidarity Day. The Columbus Circle shooting is depicted in 'The Irishman' but not in the context of Italian Solidarity.

Columbo was very outspoken out Italian solidarity. He even managed to convince all the pizza parlors to close on that day. Imagine, not being able to buy a slice in New York City! That's as bad as looking for a #10 envelope on Yom Kippur. (Before Staples)

Mobsters hate other mobsters attracting attention to themselves. It was not well received by the commission. Thus the hit on Joseph Columbo, and the retaliatory hit hit on Crazy Joe.

Joseph Columbo didn't die until years later after being in a coma from his head wounds. The shooter was immediately killed on the spot by someone who was never apprehended. The shooter was someone Joey recruited from his stay at Sing Sing.

So, who's the new witness? I wrote a blog posting on September 8, 2013 about Umberto's and Jerry Orbach. In was kicked off by reading a column in the NYT by Michael Wilson, the crime reporter, about how even after 40 years the site of the shooting is still part of tours for those interested in locales of mob hits.

The Umberto's story was again in the a story by Mr. Wilson when he did a who's who in the movie 'The Irishman,' a thumb sketch primer of sorts of the leading characters. It's already been acknowledged that 'The Irishman' despite depicting true events and actual characters, does stray from what is truly known, and adds what is claimed to be known.

And the witness? There is the ability in my blog postings to leave comments. I get very few. I get few hits on my postingd in general. The average would be in the low double digits. After a posting I always check on the traffic of the most recent postings. I do not look back years.

But the software tracks these comments, and when I noticed a comment on a recent post, I dove into it. Even blog posting attract spam, and occasionally attract someone who is promoting movies. I delete those comments. But why was there a December 17, 2019 comment on a September 8, 2013 posting?

Someone was attracted to the posting by a link somewhere and anonymously left the following:

"My memory as a then pa for a local news station says orbach was at umvertos [sic]."

We really do live on a Möbius strip.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Wakefield, Massachusetts

The news traveled the new way news travels these days: Facebook and email. Also, the old way, telephone calls. But the news was the same. My wife's cousin Joey had passed away in Massachusetts.

Joe was 69 and had been treated for Stage 4 prostate cancer for four years. Ten years ago he had a prostatectomy, but active nodes were still noted. Once upon a time 69 would seem like a long life. Not these days.

My wife's family is a large one, consisting of aunts, uncles and cousins that extend through several generations. Joey was perhaps my wife's 3rd cousin. His mother and my wife's mother were first cousins, their mothers being sisters. so I think I got that right.

The family tree would start in Ireland, and quickly spread to many branches, principally settled in Ireland, the Boston area and Freehold, New Jersey. With my wife and her family, New York figured in there as well.

Families of four and five, with families of four and five quickly populate the world with relatives to some degree. Cousin Clubs, weddings (and now funerals) create quite a gathering.

My own family is small, despite my father having three brothers, and my mother having only one brother who had only one child. My mother's side is nestled in Illinois, my father's in parts of New York, New Jersey and San Diego, but with no family adhesion. If my family were stuck in an elevator my guess is no one would talk to anyone. Being in a elevator together would be the closest they'd get.

My first exposure to my wife's extended family occurred sometime in the mid-'70s when she and I attended a wedding in Freehold. The morning after the wedding we went to an aunt's house (really a cousin) to say goodbye.

As we approached the large corner house on Jerseyville Avenue on a quiet Sunday morning the noise from the house kept increasing. Not enough to disturb the neighbors to call the police, but there were clearly people stirring. And some were literally stirring. Stirring another one.

My wife's quick assessment told me, "they haven't been to bed yet." And they hadn't. Several people were paddling around the kitchen, some still in portions of Saturday's clothes, some in sleepwear, but all bleary-eyes and still drinking. The kitchen looked like a bar at closing before everything is put away. There was a lot of cleanup left to do.

And there was Joey, sitting under the phone and blowing a bugle or a trumped into the phone at someone the family woke up. They spent the night singing Irish songs, drinking, and calling people up in Ireland and talking their ears off. They were somehow making tapes of the conversations and playing them back to the people they called. No idea when they started this, but given the time difference, they were likely sure to have woken folks up across the pond. Why should they sleep?

My wife's Aunt Emma, Joey's mom, appeared fresh as a daisy. My wife knew Aunt Emma was a bit more sensible and went to bed when you might be expected to go to bed on a Saturday night after a wedding—late, but not the next day.

Joe was just plain popular and a decent fellow. He was a Sequoia-tree of a man, just like his fireman father. Joe was by vocation an accountant, but by avocation was "the old fashioned handyman" a business of one who could do anything constructive for anyone.

Attendance at Tuesday's wake and mass the following day filled the funeral home and the church. There was always a line waiting to pay their respects. Joe was an avid golfer, and a few golf caps were in the casket. There were many floral arrangements from golfing clubs, and one arrangement from his sister Lorraine. brother-in-law and niece that mimicked a golf ball, and an flag stick. The flag had the number 21 on it. There was even a persimmon-headed driver in amongst the flowers.

Twenty-one? Turns out that was his high school basketball number. His coach from high school brought Joe's jersey to the wake and draped it in the casket. Why or how he still had the jersey was not disclosed. I asked the family if the coach took it down from the rafters, that perhaps Joe was so good they retired his number. Not the case. The coach just had it. That was typical of the gathering. Everyone had a memory of Joe.

The procession from the funeral home to the church in Lynn was a long one. There were easily 50-60 vehicles. There was police presence at major intersections to keep the flow continuous.

A catholic funeral mass can be a family affair, and this was no exception. Reading and offering of the gifts were all conducted my family. The centerpiece to this was the niece Mary, Lorraine's daughter, who is a professional trained singer and music teacher. She sand all the hymns and songs.

Joe's daughter Collen gave a lovely eulogy and got through it without caving in to emotion. It was a masterful presentation of love.

Just prior to that, the priest, literally described as a friend in the program, father Paul Kilroy, gave the homily, that was a recollection of his knowing the family since his and their formative years at St. Clement's in Somerville. He knew Joey's mother Emma, a strong-willed woman when it came to religion (she befriended Ethel Kennedy at the Centerville church on Cape Cod) and who made sure Joey could be interrupted from his schoolyard basketball when Father Kilroy called because he was short an alter boy. A call to the household bullpen took care of that.

Father Kilroy admitted it was hard to fully call this a celebration of life when someone dies, but there is a celebration to be free from the pain of dying.

Knowing the family means a lot in situations like this, and Father Kilroy was quite acquainted with the Cantys. At Joe's absolute insistence, he married Joe' daughter Colleen in the same church.

The homily wove in a phrase I didn't know was biblical, but one I always loved:  "'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

The phrase always reminded me of Robert Louis Stevenson's poem 'Requiem,' part of which serves as his epitaph:

Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

As Catholic burial masses go, it was quite standard in content. But the fact that the niece Mary did the singing added to the love. And when toward the end she got to the Celtic Farewell, well, if there were bagpipes playing the moist eyes would have burst. I never knew the melody to 'Danny Boy' had other lyrics. And they rang loud and clear.

As with any mass, the priest greets the congregants in the vestibule at the end. On the way out I told Father Kilroy that I wasn't Catholic, but I'd take an Irish-Catholic burial any day.  I told him his homily was beautiful.  I commented he should be in marketing promoting the church. He said they can always use new members.

Wakefiled, just north of Boston, a 25 minute commuter train away, has the Currier and Ives charm of Bedford Falls in 'A Wonderful Life.' The main street has a grassy median, and the Christmas decorations were still up.

The procession to the cemetery passed through a few communities, Lynnfield, where Joey and his wife Susan lived, Lynn and Peabody. At times it was hilly, and on a few occasions I couldn't help notice there were HUGE boulders on properties. They looked like something left over from when the glaciers melted, and they probably were.

The cemetery in Peabody is unique, at least to me. Puritan Lawn Memorial Park allows no headstone. It it wasn't for a hearse going through the entrance and numerous sprays of Christmas wreaths on the footstones, you wouldn't know you were in a cemetery.

Gravesite services are always short, and this was no exception. Other Canty family members are buried there as well. My wife had been there before for an uncle's funeral. It was my first time. The lake, trees, and birds certainly give the place a place of rest setting.

And with no surprise, food and drink were offered at a party room at the Gannon Golf Course in Lynn. Gannon is a public course run by the city of Lynn, and where I'm sure many rounds were played by Joe and his golf buddies. Joes' wife Susan is also an avid golfer.

Midway through the affair Joe's nephew Matthew gave a short toast to Joe. And never to be upstaged, Joe's sister Lorraine gave the assembled what might be considered an Irish blessing. She claimed to have found the words when looking for something as they were gathering mementos for the funeral.

As you go slide down the banister of life, may all the splinters be facing the right way.