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.


Thursday, January 9, 2020

Those Movie Expressions

Watch enough old movies on Turner and you're bound to hear some confounding, long outdated  expressions. Some you might even know if you yourself go back far enough. Others need looking up if you're still interested in their meaning.

I think was New Year's Eve day and Turner was running all six 'Thin Man' movies consecutively. These are the great William Powell/Myrna Loy movies that combine the drinking capacity of Robert Benchley with the coolness of a couple's relationship that allows him to solve crimes and her to never look out-of-place wearing the latest fashion. And Myrna's voice! Restrained sauciness and sophistication.

I've seen several of these movies, but it was only this time that I caught some of the things I'll write about. The Nick and Nora Charles characters were the creation of Dashiell Hammett in the "Thin Man." That novel was made into a movie and five more movies followed, all starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, but not based on Hammett novels; just his characters.

Years and years ago I read something Christopher Buckley wrote where he quoted Dorothy Parker who said: "If the girls of Bennington College were laid end-to-end, I wouldn't be at all surprised." Dorothy of course didn't go to college, and Bennington was seen as providing a bit of a permissive education.

So, when Myrna Loy in 'The Thin Man Goes Home" tells us about Nick's romances before her..."if all his sweethearts were laid-to-end, you could use the for a sidewalk," I held my breath until she finished her dialogue. Was she going to say something risqué like Dorothy Parker?

Turns out she doesn't, but the image of something being laid end-to-end must have been a bit of a common phrase in 1944 when the movie came out. Dorothy Parker or the screenwriter just appropriated it.

Learning doesn't stop there. In 'After the Thin Man' Nick finds himself in a basement ducking bullets from a casino operator. It's dicey, but the bad guy, Dancer, played by Joseph Calleia, keeps missing, only to hit a large hamper that Nick has sought cover behind.

The bullets unhinge the hamper's lid and a dead body rolls out on top of Nick. Nick, always one to never panic, asks out loud if it's 'Bank Night.' Huh?

Turns out Bank Night was a very popular lottery-style promotional feature of movie houses in the '30s that saw management give prizes away to the moviegoers who had to be there to win it. They were assigned numbers, and if their number matched the number of a winning horse, they received a top prize of $100. Nick apparently wise-cracked that the body falling on him was a prize.

The last movie in the series, 'The Song of the Thin Man,' provides further education.

We have Nick bending down to pick up a single edge razor blade in the office of a gambling ship. He thinks out loud, "what have we here, Somerset Maugham's razor?" Don't get it.

Not until I find out Somerset wrote a novel titled "The Razors's Edge in 1944 about a traumatized  American pilot over his experiences in WW I.

The single edge blade is also a clue. Was it dropped by the killer? Turns out no, it's a red herring. Keenan Wynn, who plays a hard be-boppin' saxophone player, is seen by Nick massaging his saxophone's mouthpiece with a single edge blade.

Turns out it is a common practice by sax players to make a saxophone neck cork. Keenan Wynn is no killer. The things we learn.

In the same movie, we have Nick visiting a waterfront dive diner. These places are only ever gotten to by walking through fog and climbing onto one of the two seats at the counter and telling the person behind the counter (male or female) who's wearing a hat and who doesn't look like they've washed themselves in  in a week, what your order is. If there is a menu, it's on a blackboard. These are always small places.

Nick hears a watchman order a sandwich "with no piccalilli." Got to be something with pickles, right? But what?

After fumbling through some odd spelling combinations, I found "piccalilli," "a pickle of chopped vegetables, mustard and hot spices." Never heard of it, but would definitely try it, especially on a hot dog. Or, do we now just call it "relish?"

You never stop learning.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Gleanings from the Obit Pages

Who says a 1950s Catholic High School in Brooklyn is all about discipline?

Unless Joe Torre is making the story up, the administrators at St. Francis Prep High School in Brooklyn on October 8, 1956 excused him from school because he showed them he had a ticket to the World Series Game that afternoon at 1 o'clock between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Yankee Stadium.

Joe had been hoping to see his brother Frank playing for the Milwaukee Braves against the Yankees that afternoon, but a late surge in the pennant race saw the Dodgers become the National League pennant winners. Thus, it was the Dodgers vs. the Yankees that afternoon in Game 5, with the Series tied at two games apiece, each team winning their first two home games.

The series was a rematch between the Dodgers, the 1955 World Champs over the Yankees, which was the only Brooklyn-based team to win a World Series. And in 1956, that didn't change, when the  seven games were over, with the Yankees prevailing in Game 7 at Ebbets Field, 9-0.

So, is this from Joe Torre's obituary? No, Joe is still very much with us, but the story of the excuse from school is in the obit for Don Larsen, the Yankees pitcher who that afternoon pitched a perfect game, 27 up, 27 down, in what was the first World Series perfect game, and what has remained the only perfect World Series game.

My father was at that Game 5. His boss from the Brooklyn Navy Yard took him. In that era of daytime World Series games, there was A LOT of workplace absenteeism when the Yankees played at home. I never found any souvenirs from that game. No ticket stub, no program. Nothing. I did find a ticket stub from Game 7 of the 1957 World Series played at Yankee Stadium, a game the Yankees lost to the Milwaukee Braves, with Don Larsen as the losing pitcher. so I guess that's something.

The stub is from a Lower Stand, reserved seat, Section 26, row Q seat 10, with a face value of $7.35! (tax included) I wasn't at that game either, but I was at Game 5 for the 1960 World Series game against the Pirates. Maybe there's another stub somewhere.

It you weren't already up on Yankee lore, you learned from Larsen's obit that he was a bit of what you'd call a partyer, a stay out-at-night drinker who was probably seeking female companionship. Larsen was most likely part of a group of hard-core Yankee players that Stengel observed were distracted not by women per se, but by spending the night looking for women. Larsen would recount that his hangover was only starting to lift as the perfect game progressed.

Larsen was also among the players that might have been reported to be seen in the hotel lobby at 4 A.M., to which Stengel replied the observation still needed to be looked at, because the player might have been arriving very late, or leaving very early. Stengel always saw distinctions that others missed.

In another obit, this one for George Laurer, 94, Creator of the Bar Code, we learn that young George was drafted into the Army during WW II before graduating high school. Talk about needing bodies to put in uniform.

In my own family, my great-uncle Peter, a bachelor and my paternal grandfather's younger brother, was drafted into the Quartermaster Corps, serving in Kentucky, at the age of 47 in 1942. Even if he wasn't sent overseas, that is certainly middle-age for a florist to be expected to get through basic training. The reach of the draft was extensive for a nation that put nearly 10% of its overall population in uniform.

As lastly, going through my stack of clippings at year end, I came across one for 'Werner G. Doehner, 90, Last Hindenburg Survivor.'

The November 18, 2019 obit tells us Mr. Doehner was 8 years old in 1937 and was the last survivor of the horrific explosion when the zeppelin Hindenburg was docking at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey and burst into flames. The inferno was caused by St. Elmo's fire that sparked the highly flammable hydrogen used to inflate the blimp. Inert helium gas was in short supply in the late '30s, so the more dangerous hydrogen was substituted.  Three dozen people were killed.

Years ago, Mike Lopresti, a reporter at USA Today, in 2002 observed:

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

Mr. Lopresti might just as well have mentioned Hindenburg survivors, because apparently someone has been tracking them. But he is absolutely right. We track numbers. There are now 13 Triple Crown winners, with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 joining the 11.

Tyler Kepner, perhaps the best baseball writer there is these days, writes his lede for the NYT story of Don Larsen's achievement (separate from the obit by Richard Goldstein) telling us:

"The ultimate pitching achievement comes with no warning. For a while, even as a perfect game unfolds, nobody suspects a thing."

And because we count things, we know there still has only been ONE World Series perfect game; not even a no-hitter.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Subway Seating II

Who knew that a Twitter posted photo of an empty subway car with the numbers 1-5 superimposed on a cluster of seats could spawn so many comments from New Yorkers (mostly) from all walks of life, that would include responses from the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the former mayor and one of the many Democratic presidential hopefuls, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, as to what their preferred seat would be, of course assuming there is a seat to be had?

The posting proved so popular that the evening news even carried a segment asking their viewers what seat would they most likely occupy.

The Tweet  from @gplatinum_ seems to have been given a boost when the former NYT transportation reporter, Emma Fitzsimmons, (@emmagf) tweeted her response. Emma has now moved on to become the City Hall Bureau Chief for the NYT, despite being Houston proud. She has certainly made it in New York.

Ms. Fitzsimmons chose seat Nos. 1 and 4, much to my own surprise. I waded in with a response to Emma with seat No. 1 and No.5, offering reasons for the thinking. And many, many more people waded in with their opinions, chiefly as replies to @gplatinum.

The "survey" got so big that in today's print NYT Ms. Fitzsimmons carries a story about the response phenomena, under the puzzling headline "The Best Subway Seat? 8 Million New Yorkers and 5 Choices, All Wrong." The outquote is even more puzzling, "A viral Tweet spurs a debate that would put 'Which Ray's' to shame." Who discusses Ray's pizza these days? Ray's Pizza is not even mentioned in Ms. Fitzsimmon's story. I'm not sure there are even any Ray's pizzas left. No matter. Ray's is another story.

There can be no right answer, and the choices represent preference, so how can they be wrong? Cogent logic is offered.  I wrote the prior posting about the subway seating question, and since then I trolled @gplatinum_'s Twitter feed for the responses that poured in. And did they ever pour in.

Ms. Fitzsimmons recounts some of the responses, but since I read as many of the replies to @gplatinum _as I could before my fingers cramped up, along with bringing up the profiles of the account holders (Twitter lets you do this), I was surprised at how many lawyers responded, how many offered good reasons for choosing seat No. 4 (sleep, as I mentioned) and long inter-borough rides.

Someone posted a scene from the living room in the 'Frazier' sitcom; another from inside the Star Trek spacecraft.

The 'Frazier' living room shouldn't really count since there are only four seats, and 'Star Trek' shouldn't count since there are six seats. But it's the spirit that counts.

Ms. Fitzsimmons missed the gif that someone posted (@gothamist) from the 'Seinfeld' episode that shows the mad scramble for seating that occurs when the doors open on an empty car, that leaves Kramer on the floor. A good one.

Often, the only reply to @gplatinum_'s tweet was the seat preference. Other replies were more prosaic and offered logic for each choice.

No one mentioned any desire to occupy seat No. 2, other than the photo of Mayor de Blasio who seems to be simultaneously occupying Seats 1, 2, from a link in the online version of Ms. Fitzsimmon's story. The mayor is Big Bird at 6'6" and is obviously not being transported in a black Chevy Suburban to his Brooklyn gym. He's where some New Yorkers think he should always be: riding mass transit.

A few replies offered humor.. Someone said it was obviously a trick question because the empty car meant there was an unseen smelly homeless person at the other end, or the air-conditioning wasn't working. One offered their nightmare of forever never sitting in No. 4 because it once had poop on it. Another said any seat that's not wet.

Mayor Mike, who is slight, short and who could easily fit in any seat  that has been measured out to be occupied by naked, anorexic Asian women, proclaims he always stands, although Emma chastises him for blocking the door. Somewhat unfairly, I say.

Even in his Paul Stuart suit—and I know he shops at Paul Stuart because I was in the store once when his police detail preceded him from the black Suburban double parked out front—Mike would fit in any seat and not "manspread" anyone.

The very savvy subway rider knows which sides the doors will open on. On an express train leaning against the door that does not open at express stops is almost as good as having a seat. When I rode the No. 7 for decades I usually couldn't get a seat at Main Street, but always opted for the door that opened at Willets Point, where basically no one ever got on or off. The doors on that side never opened again until Grand Central, where I wanted to get off. I thus had a door all to myself, blocked no one, and was amongst the first to get off at Grand Central.

Ms. Fitzsimmons through her chops as a reporter, has identified @gplatinum_ as Gabriel Bautista as a 20-year-old college student from the Bronx who photographed the empty car on New Year's Eve from the Bronx terminal stop on his D train.

He admits he never, ever expected the question to take off like it has. "I didn't expect it to blow up the way it did. Everyone has their own opinion."

Links from Emma's online story connect you to other cities where the seating question has been posed. Toronto and Philadelphia have begun their own informal surveys. (Note Toronto's padded seats.)

Philadelphia presents perhaps not subway seats, but rather waiting area subway seats, designer,
funhouse amusement park style.

It would be interesting if Russia would weigh in, because Ms. Fitzsimmons fairly recently toured Moscow's subway system

Obviously, trough the power of Social Media, a new parlor game has developed: numbering the seats. It will be interesting to see if it spills over to the Senate impeachment trial whenever that gets started. Which one is the hot seat?

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Subway Seating

It didn't take me long to find out what I was going to first write about in 2020: Subway Seating.

Someone posted (@gplatinum_) the above photo and asked which is the best seat(s) to have? A former transportation reporter for the New York Times, Emma Fitzsimmons, (@emmagf) responded that #1 and #4 were the best seats since you couldn't get elbowed on both sides. Ms. Fitzsimmons is now the City Hall Bureau Chief for the NYT, which shows you she has completely acclimated to living in NYC from her native Houston.

There are no wrong answers, just preferences, really. Actually, following that logic, #5 seating also only allows one-sided elbowing. as does #3. The only real double-sided elbow seat is #2, which as anyone can see is the proverbial monkey-in-the-middle seat, always the least desirable of all subway seating.

These are the bucket seats introduced with a subway car design that found its way onto the IND line decades ago. If you don't know what the IND is, look it up.

This seating arrangement had been used before. I remember it on the BMT line, when the seats were not scooped out, but were covered in rattan. For whatever reason the scooping was done, I don't know. I only know they made the scooped size only accommodating to naked, anorexic Asian women. No regular sized New Yorker wearing even a just a t-shirt and slacks can mange to fit into one of those scoops without spilling over to their neighbor's scoop. Add a North Face puff jacket and all pre-conceived dimension needs fly out the window.

And then there's that "manspreading" phenomena, where no male of any ethnicity, in any season,  seems capable of being seated without expanding their legs like goal posts ready to receive a kick. And a kick is what women want to give them, right up the alley for being so inconsiderate.

And it can be rude, but somewhat understandable. Men have a bit more of "package" between their legs than women. But no matter. That's just anatomy.

To me it's odd that Ms. Fitzsimmons listed #4. Unless you're getting off at the last stop, or plan on sleeping for most of the trip, this is really the least desirable seat. You're boxed in. You need to get past two people to get off, or get control of the seat. There's zero chance you're not going to bump into someone's anatomy doing this. And the last thing you should like to do on a subway is bump into someone's anatomy.

No. 1 is good, and No 5 is good, the only two good choices. No. 3 is flawed because you are most likely to get kneed by three people. Not a good prospect.

In all fairness to Ms. Fitzsimmons, she's a woman and has no life-long experience picking out the right urinal to head for in a men's room. Choice is everything, and it used to count for a lot before they put those dividers up between the urinals years and years ago.

Woman have been diving into their personal stalls for years—with a door no less—while guys have been left with their dingus on possible view for years. Anyone who knows anything about New York, knows that no straight guy wanted to take a leak in the Port Authority men's room before those dividers, and even then, it's still to be avoided unless you really have to go.

Straight bench subway seating puts everyone in the middle unless you occupy the ends, the catbird seats. At least with straight bench seating, variability due to "manspreading" and clothing is better accommodated. Having been a near lifetime rider of the No. 7 train, the bench seating should have always been able to accommodate 40 people—eight in the four doubles, and 4 x 8 in the facing benches.

At least that was true until they added the air conditioning support poles, which I'm not sure, perhaps are gone from newer cars. This pole, in the middle of the longest benches, supported the retro-fitted air-conditioning, a welcome addition.

However, the pole introduced a dividing line that usually meant someone sat of either side of the pole, unless they were athletic and decided that could put a pole between their legs. Not many go this route. So the eight-seat bench became a seven-seat bench. Four seats are generally lost.

So, what is perfect subway seating? Walking, if you can.