A colleague has spent part of the past decade wishing the subway construction would be over.
Enough with the drilling and the rumbling.
A few days ago, they flicked the switch for the Second Avenue subway.
Her euphoria ended abruptly.
“An all-night test has those of us facing Second Ave. most upset,” she reports. “The long escalators hum and the motion causes a vibration, which is felt even in my apt. (on an upper floor.) Worst of all we hear the trains rumbling past every six minutes.”
Guess those artistic entrances allow the sound to escape. (As Casey Stengel said about artificial turf in the new St. Louis partk, 1966: "It sure holds the heat well.")
“The stations look beautiful but we are quite sure the engineers on this project had never worked on a subway,” my colleague adds. “They should have studied the system in Paris. It is QUIET.”
C’est vrai. The tires in the Paris Métro are made of rubber. So are the tires in Montréal.
All right, so Second Ave. is not Paris or Montréal. We already knew that.
But the planners don’t even know north from south.
The sign for one exit:
"The exit is at the NE corner,” my colleague said. “I told the mucky-mucks at the preview. They stared at me blankly.”
There is a moral to the story as we try to escape 2016:
New Yorkers used to snicker at the lumbering scam artist with the orange hair in our town. The vast majority of street-smart New Yorkers wished the guy would get a hobby and go practice it elsewhere.
Ha!!! Meantime, Happy New Year.
* * *
But first, a little ditty from 1969:
The first time I heard The Band, late Sixties, I had known them all my life.
They were the music of Canada and the States – the guitars and basses, the drums and organ, the wails and whistles, the trains passing through, the wind in the pines.
I knew that music, even though they were just inventing it, four Canadians and a guy from Arkansas. The Band.
Now Robbie Robertson, who wrote many of the songs and played the guitar so beautifully, has lived to tell his tale, in “Testimony” -- his new book about the nuclear fusion that produced The Band.
I love shop talk from cops and miners and athletes and musicians and I learned a lot about how the Band came together – and broke apart.
For all that, I found myself profoundly saddened by the unsurprising lowest common denominators of these five people – the music and the drugs.
Richard Manuel hung himself at 40 and Rick Danko died in his sleep at 56 and Levon Helm lived to 71 when he succumbed to cancer, leaving Garth Hudson, now 79, and Robbie Robertson, now 73, in their very separate orbits.
Robertson wrote such haunting lyrics but cannot summon up one primal scream about the impending doom of his mates. (The book ends before all that comes down.) And then I wrote. And then I played. Lots of girls around. And then we broke out the white powder that fueled the rages and the withdrawals, the car wrecks and the illnesses.
I come at this, having only once held a joint and taken a few puffs, but I also inhaled enough second-hand smoke at the Fillmore and other places to know that the stuff works. I covered the Dylan-Band tour in New York in 1974; I briefly met all of them except Hudson, at other times.
Hardly naïve, I nevertheless felt saddened at Robertson’s book. Did all those drugs produce that glorious music, summon the pain and the insight and the chords? Or did those drugs, so casually discussed in his book -- a shopping list of wanton self-destruction -- keep some of them from enjoying middle age, to say nothing of old age? Depends on how you define “enjoy.”
It was the age. Robertson lists four or five geniuses he knew who died at 24. Twenty-four. People whose music still stirs me. They died for our pleasure?
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that the most thoughtful, most generous person is, get this, Bob Dylan – who was close to Robertson, often there with a mature observation, a generous gesture. Dylan was a survivor, whose backup band caught fire only to crash and burn. He has lived long enough to show his butt long distance to the Nobel Prize people.
Thanksgiving was the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz, their farewell concert (and catered dinner) in San Francisco and the classic Scorsese documentary. We took our son when he was, what, nine? Last month, three generations filtered into a family den to watch segments of it. Oh, my God, how good they were.
I didn’t know much about Robertson, who tells about learning as a teen-ager that he was really the son of a Jewish gambler who died young, with exotic relatives in Toronto including a goniff-uncle right out of some Band songs, who later did time. Robbie’s striking mom, Rose Marie, earth mother to The Band, was of Mohawk descent, from the Six Nations Reservation near Toronto.
Robertson was drawn to write songs about characters and flim-flam artists and restless souls, like the Cajun wanderers who leave Louisiana, to sail home to Acadia:
“Set my compass north/ I got winter in my blood.” (I quote it all the time about why I winter on Long Island and not in Florida.)
Having helped a few folks write their books, I had this urge to pull more reflection, out of Robertson. “Talk about your own voice; why were you not a soloist?” “Slow down and tell us more about how you wrote some of those lyrics?” “Do you think rehab might have helped some of you?”
Am I asking too much of Robertson? This is, after all, the guy who wrote and played some of the most beautiful songs I know.
Imagine trying to get Mad Vincent to slow down, put down the palette, tell us what you were feeling when you painted the orchards and the stars?
So I don’t know how Robertson came to write “Rocking Chair,” about an old sailor who decides it’s time to stay home on the front porch. But I sing it when I am giving thanks I am puttering around the house with my headset on, not at some ball park.
It's for sure, I've spent my whole life at sea/
And I'm pushin' age seventy-three;
Now there's only one place that was meant for me:
Robbie Robertson just got there. I can’t help feeling badly that some of The Band didn’t get to those shores. But listen to what they left behind….
“It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” -- Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hindus celebrate Diwali at different times of the year. We once saw uniformed bobbies dancing with celebrants in Trafalgar Square, London. Very sweet. This October, 35,000 people celebrated in Leicestershire, England, my mother's ancestral roots.
This year Hanukkah begins the same evening my family celebrates Christmas Eve. We have had a menorah in our home for years.
In the next few days we will go for a good meal at a modest Halal restaurant near us – and celebrate the diversity of this blessed country.
This came over the electronic transom, a mass posting by Bishop Sally Dyck of the United Methodist Church, about the symbolism of an inverted tree, in a store near her:
“Jesus’ birth over 2000 years ago was in the midst of unrest, oppression and violence as the people of Israel labored under the Roman Empire. He brought a message of hope, peace and justice in the midst of a time and place where there was no hope, no peace and no justice. Jesus came to turn the values of the Empire upside down!”
He’s already been a hero three times, by my count.
*- When he refused to take a pass from Hanoi because his father was an admiral.
*-When my wife sat next to one of John McCain’s buddies on a flight out east, and the man told her how they ferried supplies to post-war Vietnam.
I met McCain years later and asked why he ran a pipeline to people who tortured him. Eloquent shrug, with those ruined arms, told me: it’s the right thing to do.
*- When the lady in red started with the Trumpian b.s. about Barack Obama being a Muslim, and John McCain said, “No, ma’am,” and took away the mike.
Now I’m asking John McCain to be a hero a fourth time.
Sometime in late January, the new President is going to legally and officially and publically expose himself as maliciously unqualified. He cannot help himself.
I’m counting on John McCain, the man who is not a hero to Donald Trump because he got captured, to mix his miserable SOB persona with his idealistic free-thinker persona (that he exercises way too rarely) and become the congressional leader of the what-were-we-thinking movement.
The movement needs a leader, a role model.
Republicans are contaminated from eight years of sabotaging a black President (oh and also the country.)
The Democrats are a disaster after rigging the delegate count against Bernie Sanders.
The country needs somebody in Congress to stand up at the first blunder and say, “Enough.”
My candidate is the guy who impulsively snatched back the microphone from the bigot-lady.
Haven’t seen him much in eight years. But I know he’s in there.
Right now, that’s all I’ve got.
The commotion of Muhammad Ali was often accompanied by the tranquility of Howard Bingham.
He was the friend who did not get in the way of the bright sunlight and sudden squalls around Ali. He was just there, a benign presence, with camera, with talent.
Howard Bingham captured Ali when the spotlights and microphones were not on, when something approximating normal life was transpiring. He brought peace.
Now, peace back to Howard Bingham, who passed Friday at 77. The obits are flying onto the web – things I never knew about him. Son of a southern preacher. Flunked photography in college. Was accepted as trustworthy by the Black Panthers in the ‘60s but could not get his photos published for decades.
So much to know about Howard Bingham, who never talked about himself. He just observed -- what artists do. At any Ali happening, Bingham might be taking photos, or he might be in a corner, watching.
The boxing guys were puffing out their manly chests and urging Ali to perform more of that rope-a-dope. Take a few more shots in the head, Champ. The religion guys were all dressed up and looking important and slightly menacing, too. Business people getting their percent. Cheerleaders like Bundini shouting “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!” The crowds chanting, “Muhammad Ali is our champ!” Family members. Hangers-on. I remember a cook from the Middle East who somehow came to America with the Champ. A tiny African pilot who flew Ali from Zaire to Louisville. PR people galore. Reporters, all insiders. What a crew.
And on the periphery was the most solid of them all, Howard Bingham, who remembered names and faces and always said hello to me on my irregular visits. We watched. I thought of him as a friend I didn’t know very well.
Bingham had a much more important admirer. I just read a very sweet obit that the Los Angeles Times had on line by Saturday morning. Esmeralda Bermudez describes Nelson Mandela telling Ali about his friendship with Bingham.
But you should read the story in context:
I just want to say that today I am thinking about Howard Bingham, whose pocket of serenity and decency endures.
Now they got the stadium at Beşiktaş.
Whoever they is.
It sat right below our window on the hill near Taksim Square, during our visit.
Turkey is one of the most fantastic (in the Orhan Pamuk sense) places in the world.
I’m glad we got there in 2012, just before all hell broke loose.
Of course, that goes for a lot of places these days. We have seen familiar streets, places we have recently walked, get blown up by nihilists of one persuasion or another. Boston. London. Paris. Nice. Istanbul. The world we knew. The world where people still try to live.
The sun comes up over Asia, lights up the Bosporus, shines on Beşiktaş Stadium and our hotel, diligently guarded.
The window from which this photo was taken had a little round arrow, pointing south and east, toward Mecca, so tourists could say their prayers.
Sitting at my laptop in the mornings, I prayed for people, for cities, for the collective impulse for life that made the streets throb with life, the pungent odors of coffee and kebabs, in all directions off Taksim Square.
Now somebody has blown up police officers, there to guard humanity, that is to say, us – to keep fans from rioting, from hurting the innocent. Now blown up.
We walked past that stadium every day, downhill, toward the tram that glided to a terrific art museum, to ferries to Uskadar – Asia! – to mosques and cafés and bazaars, the staples of life.
Even football is part of life, with its rivalries, its ballet and speed and power and fakery and thuggery.
Somebody got Beşiktaş. Struck life itself.
Here’s a Santa’s workshop for you – the local bicycle shop, packed with gleaming machines with that nice-new smell.
But here’s the problem: I dropped into Port Washington Bicycles at 18 Haven Ave. in Port Washington, L.I., the other day, to say hello to the staff that keeps me rolling all year long.
Things were way too quiet for December. People are not making a big rush on bicycles for holiday presents for children, the staff told me.
Apparently, kids hunker in their homes, flicking their smartphones, playing games and gaping at who-knows-what. They are using their thumbs when they should be using their knees.
“It used to be that when kids were punished, they were made to stay indoors,” said John Pappas, one of the bosses. “Now if they are being punished, they are sent outside.”
It is a true social phenomenon. As American children grow heavier, they do less. Helicopter parents drive them to play dates. In our neighborhood park, we have modern play equipment with all the apparatus clustered, so parents can hover, holding cellphones and Starbucks cups.
Gone are the days when kids could swing or climb in a corner of the park, daydreaming, or take a walk or ride a bike, looking for their friends in the neighborhood.
At least, that is how it looks to me, as well as Ralph Intintoli, the owner of Port Bicycles, and his two colleagues, Pappas and Mike Black. Over the years they have sold me a Schwinn and more recently a Trek Hybrid, as well as a treadmill and an exercise bike. They also sell car racks and are terrific at service.
Pappas also gives paid lessons when it’s time for children to stop using training wheels and take off on a two-wheeler.
However, at holiday time, when the newest electronic gadget is the present kids absolutely must have, parents don’t buy the traditional new bike to put under the tree.
Actually, grandparents buy bicycles for kids more than parents do, Intintoli said.
When I was there, a guy my age was buying a beautiful Trek to bring to a grand-daughter on a Christmas visit. I hope the girl appreciates the gift, and takes off down the block to play with a friend.
The New York Times asked me to write a column for Monday about whether George Steinbrenner should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I remembered being a frequent critic of Steinbrenner, when I became a sports columnist in 1982. I often wrote that he should get out of town, go back to Tampa or Cleveland, because his crude bullying did not belong in Big Town. (Supply your own current punch line to that.)
He did odious things but over the years I developed a partial grudging respect for him as a big-timer who could take a certain amount of banter, like most politicians and public figures.
I looked at him from the perspective of a childhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who had suffered terribly, who never, ever, rooted for the Yankees. But at least the Yankees stayed in the Bronx, a symbol of domination and bluster and endless sentimentality with all their deities and trained American eagles swooping around the big ballpark during post-season games. Overkill. The Yankee way.
But when the Times asked me to write about George and the Hall, I decided he had upgraded a historic franchise, and was – in neutral terms – an epic figure in his business, and he belonged in the Hall.
When the column appeared on the NYT web site Sunday evening, many knowing readers criticized my reasoning, in the Comments section. Others wrote to my NYT address. (firstname.lastname@example.org.) I was impressed by so many arguments to keep him out:
--His meanness discredited anything the Yankees won.
---He broke rules, not as a player but as an owner, and that should count to keep him out.
---In fact, he went from 1978 to 1996 without winning a World Series, the longest drought since Babe Ruth arrived. How smart could he be?
---It was wrong of me to compare his splurging with cable and attendance money with the bargain-basement tactics of pioneer Hall of Fame owners like Connie Mack and Clark Griffith, both former players who helped build baseball.
--The Hall voters (NYT writers, including this pensioner, do not vote for such honors) have shunned known and suspected users of PEDs. If McGwire and Clemens and Bonds and Sosa are still outside, what about an owner who hired a gambler to dish dirt on Dave Winfield, who made illegal political contributions?
---He was a bully who mistreated many people, from baseball officials to players to humble workers. This was true. Some readers had one nasty brush with The Boss, and never forgot it. The first time I met him was in 1976, when I was still a cityside reporter and was sent up to the Stadium as the Yanks prepared for their first World Series since 1964. The Boss gushed over my work on Loretta Lynn’s book, but a minute later he reamed out a Stadium supervisor named Kelly for minute imperfections. It was a way for him to demonstrate his power to me. It was embarrassing to be present for this.
But four decades later I have come to think he was a giant as an owner, and should get in the Hall one of these years.
I love the readers’ comments – so informed, so passionate, and polite. But I think character has long been ignored by the Hall anyway. There are racists in the Hall, from players to commissioners; many great stars led terrible lives – drinking, carousing, misbehaving, to disgrace and early death. Some executives in the Hall are mere lodge brothers, voted in during a simpler time.
George Steinbrenner was complicated. He bought a failing franchise and forced it back to the top. He won 11 pennants. He made the Yankees big-time.
Finally, I made an allusion to a column I wrote in 1986 urging a burned-out Boss to sell the franchise to a local builder who needed a hobby, a focus in life. I did not mention Donald Trump by name but many readers compared Steinbrenner’s bullying with Trump’s.
As a New Yorker, who has met both men, I can attest that Steinbrenner was more centered, more educated, more generous than Trump.
It’s not as if anybody was voting for George Steinbrenner to be President, for goodness’ sakes.
I thank the readers who prodded my reasoning. Those who care to prod it here are welcome. The debate goes on.
On a murky, rainy Tuesday, I was with a gaggle of baseball-writer types at a friend’s apartment in the city.
Our hostess provided a nice lunch and we celebrated the 96th birthday of our colleague, who saw Lou Gehrig play.
Late in the lunch, I started getting texts from two rabid Mets fans.
“Céspedes back! 4 years!” one wrote.
“Finally, some good news!” the other wrote.
“This could get us almost all the way up to the next election,” the first one added.
I broke the news to the dozen writers, including Mets, Yankees Tigers and Orioles fans.
"Céspedes should play right field,” one of them said. "With that arm, that’s his best position.”
We debated that, and the $110-million price, for four years. Money well spent. (Not our money, to be sure.)
We talked baseball til it was time to go home.
Forty-five minutes later, I was driving through my home borough of Queens, in the dark, in the rain, right past the Mets’ ball park. (I know it has a corporate name, but I hate banks -- more since the crash.)
The huge message board was hawking stuff – probably a hazard for drivers trying to negotiate the shifting lanes and insane rush-hour drivers on the Whitestone Expressway.
But I took a quick glimpse anyway – commercials, some U.F.C. event, season tickets.
Céspedes, I said. Brag that you just locked up Céspedes for four years.
That would have been big-time celebrating – lighting the candle rather than stumbling in the dark, which the Mets have been known to do. But nobody in the Mets' office had pushed the button to tell the Whitestone Expressway about Céspedes.
I kept my eyes on the road but my mind was on April, when Céspedes, that imperfect star, will start swinging for the fences, and catching almost everything hit near him, and throwing out knuckleheads who run on his arm.
The Mets remain a contender particularly if their young pitchers recuperate.
I thought about the ball park buzzing, buying a hero at Mama's stand, watching Cabrera's sure hands and Granderson's smile and DeGrom's and Syndergaard's locks flapping in the breeze.
I felt better than I have in a month. We would get through the winter. Baseball will be back.
I suspect Yankee fans feel the same way about the prospect of the first full season of Gary Sanchez.
Yankee fans are human. They got to live, too. They look forward to driving around with John and Suzyn calling the game, the way Mets fans feel about Howie and Josh.
In the winter, in the red states, in the blue states, in the big markets and the small markets, fans are lying dormant, dreaming their dreams. (What dreams can Cubs fans possibly have, now that their tormented circadian rhythms have been forever disrupted?)
That's baseball. On a gloomy afternoon, somebody sends a text, and the ever-hopeful fan thinks, I can make it through the dark months. We will survive.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.