In the final hours of an ugly year, I stuck with the tried and true.
Our local classical station, WQXR-FM, was playing the top 100, as chosen by listeners. It was reassuring to hear music that stirred people and soothed people in other dark times, with other crackpots and despots flailing around, and the music survived.
Then again, we have seen votes go wacko in a democracy. When the Gilbert and Sullivan spectacle, “Pirates of Penzance,” popped up in 10th place, my reaction was, “Wait, WTF, how did that get in there?”
The WQXR–FM web site had the same reaction:
Was it was the work of Gilbert and Sullivan superfan sleeper agents? Or is everyone just really excited about the end-of-year New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production of Pirates at the Kaye Playhouse. (It turns out that it very well might be both, as the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players staged a campaign to launch the opera into the countdown — and it clearly worked.
Trolls. Bots. Hacking. Malware. Whatever they are. Sounds like a job for Super-Mueller, but Our Civic Protector is said to be otherwise occupied with his investigation into more serious shenanigans.
Other than the jolt of Gilbert and Sullivan coming in 10th in any classical music ranking, it was a joy to hear oldies soothe the dark days and nights as 2018 slunk off into history.
Beethoven had four symphonies in the top 10, including his Ninth, with the rousing “Ode to Joy,” now becoming a staple ‘round midnight on Dec. 31.
Some of the most familiar music can be considered chestnuts, but I was happy to hear them, knowing that new and adventuresome and inventive music will be presented by John Schaefer on “New Sounds” and by Terrance McKnight on his weeknight show.
Plus, as 2018 ebbed, I heard some of my favorites, Dvorak and Copland and Vaughn Williams and Smetana and Bartok and Barber and Ravel and Satie and Lenny Himself, conducting his “West Side Story: Symphonic Dances,” which always makes me feel 16 again, walking the streets of my home town, feeling, “could be, who knows?”
In the symphonic version, I could hear the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim:
Could it be? Yes, it could
Something's coming, something good
If I can wait
Something's coming, I don't know what it is
But it is gonna be great.
Happy New Year.
There I was on the F train, creeping (and I do mean creeping) through my home borough of Queens on Tuesday.
In her final days at home, Marie DeBenedettis propped herself in the kitchen of the fabled family delicatessen – Mama’s of Corona, Queens – and devoted herself to teaching her kid sister, Irene, how to cook.
Not an easy task, Irene would say. The three sisters had their roles. Carmela Lamorgese was now La Nonna, Grandma, caring for her own family after years of helping run the business. Marie was the chef. Irene had taught school and now her job was to “run around and talk a lot” – that is, coordinate the deli and their awesome throwback pastry shop two doors down.
It revolved around Marie – the sweetest person I have ever hugged, optimistic and positive, but a taskmaster in the kitchen as she tried to impart her knowledge to Irene and a few assistants.
“One day she said to me, ‘Irene, basil, lots of basil in everything, that’s what makes it taste so good.’”
So, that is the secret of life on 104th St. – the reason the tomato sauce, the daily specials, all taste so good.
Irene was trying, knowing their sister was not well, could not easily budge from her perch in the cramped kitchen.
I dropped into the deli in late spring and asked Marie how her protégé was doing.
“All right,” Marie said.
“She’s tough on me and the girls,” Irene said later. “She wants us to know everything.”
The time came for Marie to go to the hospital a month or so ago.
One night Irene counted 17 workers -- younger women with roots in the Bari area of Italy and Latinas from Corona – visiting Marie in a group.
“I didn’t know she had that many people working here,” Irene said.
One of the workers told Irene, “She keeps saying ‘cavatelli, cavatelli’” -- small pasta shells often stuffed with garlic and broccoli or broccoli rabe.
Irene deduced that Marie was reminding the assistant to prepare cavatelli for the regulars who would expect it on Thursday.
“She knew who liked what,” Irene told me the other day at the wake. “She would see somebody coming in the door and she would tell the girls to prepare an egg-and-sausage hero.”
All that love, all that skill that was Marie DeBenedettis passed away on Sept. 4. The funeral was held on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The Mets, a mile away, where Mama’s has an outlet, held a moment of silence before a game last weekend, via Jay Horwitz, PR man and loyal keeper of the Met flame. David Wright, the captain, dropped into Mama’s to offer his condolences. The prince of Corona, Omar Minaya, who introduced me to Mama’s in 2006, is back where he belongs -- with the Mets.
(My first visit with Omar – here.)
Mama’s is a family place – new neighbors speaking Spanish, Italian and English, old neighbors who moved away but come back for mozzarella and cannoli, and a steady clientele from the FDNY, the NYPD, the schools and churches and seminaries, and assistant district attorneys from nearby Kew Gardens. (Mama’s is the safest place in Queens.)
The institution will go on. Mama’s is officially named Leo’s Latticini, for Frank and Irene Leo, who began the dynasty in the 1930s. “Mama” was their daughter, Nancy, who ran the store with her husband, Frank DeBenedettis. Nancy, who passed in 2009, was such a force in the traditional Italian neighborhood that the public school up 104th St. has been named in her honor.
(Please see the lovely article by Lisa Colangelo in that civic treasure, the Daily News:)
The family tradition continues. Carmela's daughter is known as Little Marie....and
she and her husband, Fiore Difeo, named their first-born Gina Marie, followed by Anthony and Dominic.
Mama's has reminded me that I am a Queens boy. I have introduced friends and family to Mama’s, watched World Cup matches (featuring Italy), chatting with my friend Oronzo Lamorgese, Carmela’s husband, as a guest in the private dining room behind the pasticceria – lavish plates, prepared by Marie and staff.
I am sure Marie was as good a teacher as she was a cook. Mama's goes on, with basil. My love and condolences to La Famiglia.
I’ve been reading a lot of books lately.
I think I know why.
My latest has been a gripping history of the first settler to advocate local government and polyglot culture among people he labelled “Americans” -- a new concept in the mid-17th Century.
Adriaen van der Donck was perhaps the first “New Yorker” – except that it was still named New Amsterdam in his time.
Of course, my discovery is a trifle late. The book, “The Island at the Center of the World,” by Russell Shorto, was first published in 2004. I don’t know how I missed it, until our friends Ina and Maury gave us a copy recently.
New Yorkers know the names of Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, executives sent to the New World to regulate commerce for the Dutch West India Company. Van der Donck, trained in the law, was also sent to New Amsterdam to help the company make more money, but he saw the mélange of Dutch and England, French and Spanish, Africans and Native Americans, and he realized they constituted something far more than company workers.
Van der Donck was sent as a lawman to another Dutch region, Fort Orange, now Albany, where he learned Indian languages and encouraged trade and visited their villages. Native Americans were somewhat free to bargain, to visit, to argue and even sue.
Why don’t we know more about him, and more about the contribution of Dutch society? For that matter, why don’t we know about the petition signed on Dec. 27, 1657, by 31 English settlers, protesting the persecution of Quakers. (Not one signee was Quaker.) And, while they were speaking up for Quakers, the English protesters proclaimed:
“The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks and Egyptians, as they are considered sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe (sow? GV) love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage.”
The petition was signed in the Long Island village of Vlissinge, today known as Flushing, the home of the Amazing Mets and a bustling Chinatown and the start of a thriving Korean diaspora moving eastward along Northern Blvd. (the roadway of Tom and Daisy Buchanan.)
The Flushing Remonstrance – issued at the end of the time of Adriaen van der Donck -- is one of the great statements in the history of North America. It has rarely been more relevant than now, when “sonnes of Adam” are being separated psychologically, as children are grasped from their parents by agents of an increasingly cruel state.
In a way, the current regime led me to read this book about Dutch settlers.
The puffy, petulant face of a child tyrant -- as well as his dissonant voice, the President as shrill earworm -- have driven me from the news channels (and the repetitiveness of most commentators, and the commercials for old-age “remedies.”)
Lately, I have taken to sitting near the evening music on WQXR-FM and reading books. My wife, as part of her family genealogy studies, just finished “Domesday: a Search for the Roots of England,” issued by Michael Wood in 1986, and also a classic television documentary.
One more point about books: one of the heroes of Russell Shorto’s book is Charles Gehring, an American scholar, who has spent much of his career on an un-numbered floor in a state building in Albany, translating historic Dutch handwritten documents into contemporary English.
This book adds to my immense respect for scholars like Gehring – and Shorto – and Wood. They help us see ugly times in the 21st Century, in perspective.
* * *
The Flushing Remonstrance:
When the lights went out in New York City on July 13, 1977, looters took over many streets, breaking into stores, carrying merchandise away.
The next morning, Alan Rubin, the owner of an electronics store at West 98th St. and Broadway, posted a sign in his window: “WE ARE STAYING.”
Order was restored from the blackout and the general good will of New York returned. Alan Rubin was but one of thousands of small-business operators committed to making a living in the neighborhoods of the city.
Now his daughter, Jen Rubin, has written a book about those days, and the feeling for people and the city that many New Yorkers have. Her book is titled: “We Are Staying: Eighty Years in the Life of a Family, a Store, and a Neighborhood.”
Rubin, who lives in Madison, Wis., is a regular on the Moth story-telling series.
She comes from an accomplished family -- her mother, Sandi, worked for the Jerusalem Foundation, and her brother, Josh, is an attorney for the city. Regulars on my site will be familiar with frequent posts by Alan Rubin.
His daughter uses his quotes in 1977 to explain why he stayed:
“I’m responsible for twenty-five families—the families of people that work for me,” Alan Rubin said. “What’s going to happen to them if I pull out? As bad as I got hit, there are other guys that got wiped out. What’s going to happen if they can’t reopen? What can the city and government do to keep people like us from leaving these neighborhoods?”
And she writes about his feel for his business, then known as Radio Clinic:
“Forty-three years earlier his dad, who had run for his life from Russia, put his stake down on this block and slowly built up the business. When Grandpa became ill with cancer, he passed the business on to his son and son-in-law. This was the family’s business, and my dad wasn’t budging.”
Alan Rubin kept his store going and retired in 2006. He and Sandi now live in the Berkshires, where he, a former star goalkeeper for Lehigh University, teaches the position to young people, out of his love for the sport.
Jen Rubin’s new book is available through her website:
You could feel the rumble of power, all through the building.
The New York Daily News had the highest circulation in a country that used to read newspapers.
I was privileged to work there two summers – 1956 and 1957 – as a copy boy, doing lowly tasks like fetching a liverwurst sandwich and a container of beer for the sports editor, Charlie Hoerter.
Every so often, he would lurch back into the department at 9 or 10 PM and fire me or some other hapless wage slave.
“He won’t remember,” my mentors told me, and they were right.
The building quivered and shook in the evening, as the presses emitted 2-million copies and dropped them onto powerful trucks idling in the bays. Those trucks would speed them out all over the Northeast, put them on trains, delivering salty murder tales and sassy sports articles and snide editorials aimed at bleeding-heart liberals (like me, and my father, who moonlighted a few nights a week in Sports.)
We didn’t like the editorial slant but we lived for inside stuff on our Brooklyn Dodgers, by Dick Young, one of the best baseball writers I have ever read. Dick liked my father, and used to talk respectfully to me, a 17-year-old who asked questions, and later he welcomed me to onto the beat.
The Daily News had platoons of world-wise reporters, including pioneer women like Kitty Hanson, who could absolutely make my day by sashaying from the elevator to the news room in a summer dress. Oh, my.
Every afternoon, just before 3 PM, I would enter through the vast, high lobby, with its gigantic globe rotating in the middle. Tourists were respectfully quiet but not the printers or copy editors, planning a foray to the Old Seidelburg at 41st and Third.
One of the better sports copy editors would go there every time the Milwaukee Braves got to town, to fight with Johnny Logan, the Braves’ shortstop. It was their little ritual.
Between the late '50s and early '70s, the Daily News morphed into one damn good New York tabloid, along with New York Newsday. I know because I was a metro reporter for the Times from ‘73 to ‘76, trying to match wits with Daily News and New York Newsday reporters who knew all about crime and schools and City Hall and transit.
I have told the story of the best newspaper lead I ever read, three times as good as mine:
When the federal government chose to stiff New York during a financial crisis, an editor named William J. Brink (patriarch to other newspaper people named Bill Brink) wrote the best headline any of us will ever see:
FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD
To our chagrin, people stopped reading newspapers when they could convince themselves they were learning something from comedians on late-night tv or underwear guys typing blogs in their basements (like me these days.) The Daily News dwindled, with a smaller staff but a keen eye for NYC phonies and buffoons who somehow fooled the people Out There.
Now the Daily News hangs on in some anonymous skyscraper, owned by a company called Tronc, a name that says everything about the kind of person who would own it. (Tronc!!! It sounds like a jackass, braying.)
On Monday, this Tronc “laid off” half the newsroom. I know a lot of good people who could swear they have been “fired.”
I also know some good people who are still working for the New York Daily News, as long as Tronc feels like it.
The old building on East 42 St. still has the globe, and the name, but the trucks don’t rumble anymore. We have all lost something.
* * *
(For more on the Daily News lobby, please see)
One of the most heinous things about living around New York City is crossing the George Washington Bridge onto the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Abandon all hope, as Dante warned.
It’s even bad when Chris Christie’s little pals are not monkeying with the traffic lanes.
On Saturday evening, we encountered a cloudburst and a breakdown in the center lane, right around Webster Ave. in the Bronx. Thousands of assassins and cut-throats were doing evil things at the wheel, hacking their way toward Long Island or New England.
But I did get by.
My wife worked the FM tuner and somehow found a Grateful Dead hour on wonderful WFUV from Fordham University.
In short order, David Gans played one of the most ethereal of all Dead songs, “Attics of My Mind,” sung not by Jerry and company but by children from the Barton Hills Choir of Austin, Tex.
Apparently, the children perform Dead songs as well as other familiar pop tunes Their harmonies are amazing. They enunciated the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter lyrics so sweetly. They mellowed me right out to where I could withstand the assassins and cut-throats of the Cross-Bronx.
When I got home I downloaded the video of the Barton Hills Choir (above.)
I don’t know much about them or their repertoire but their faces and voices are so sweet.
Can’t see them covering “Mexicali Blues” or “Pride of Cucamonga” or “Me and My Uncle.”
But late Saturday night, in a cloudburst, with a middle-lane breakdown, surrounded by thousands of cut-throats and assassins right out of a Dead classic, these children got us through. We did survive. .
What a perfect sign of spring -- survival and hope.
Man, do we need that.
I’ve been moping with a head cold, or maybe it’s from the front pages, but along with Passover and Easter come the openings for the Mets and Yankees, and not a moment too soon.
Soccer-buff Andy Tansey took this photo at the Mets/Willets Point IRT station.
I remember the first day at funky little Jarry Park in Montreal in 1969. First game ever in Canada. I got there early and workmen were still touching up the premises.
* * *
Who doesn't love Opening Day? Lonnie Shalton, baseball buff in Kansas City, wrote his own appraisal of the big day. (He mentions a few things I typed -- and also lots of other baseball insights.)
* * *
Fresh paint may cover some of the flaws of the Mets. They have Syndergaard and DeGrom going in the first two games, and we’ll take our chances after that.
The Mets don’t seem any better than last year – scary thought, that – but the owners did bring back old-reliable Jay Bruce, and maybe Conforto will be ready in late April, and maybe Céspedes can make it through a week or a month.
At least the Mets are haimish – with familiar faces like Weeping Wilmer and Old Pro Cabrera and Prodigal Son Reyes. They are ours, for better or worse, or for right now.
Having seen the first home game in 1962 in the Polo Grounds, I know that to be a Met fan is to root for the familiar, with all its goods and bads.
The Yankees open in Toronto. Why is this Yankee team different from all other Yankee teams? Because they have a new look with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, both powerful, both charismatic.
I’ve been conditioned by the recent dynasty to respect and enjoy the Yankees, as much against my religion as that is. Judge is so mature and Stanton is so poised.
Plus, I read that good old John Sterling is working on his home-run call for Stanton – and that John had his cataracts removed and doesn’t have to fake his long-ball calls so blatantly. (What took you so long, dude?)
This is all avoidance, of course. The world is screwed up. Russia incinerated some of its young people in a mall fire through incompetence the way our lawmakers and their NRA patrons put our young people in shooting galleries passing as classrooms.
Did you see the faces of young Russians protesting the shoddy construction and careless operation that killed their contemporaries?
This masterful photo by Mladen Antonov of Agence France-Presse mirrors the mournful but determined never-again postures of American youth last week. The world is indeed small.
I can read a bit of Cyrillic – the young person with the long hair and olive jacket has a sign that says коррупция – Corruption. Can they haunt Putin the way protestors from Parkland are haunting Rubio and all the other “public servants” on Wayne LaPierre’s handout list?
In the meantime, may the paint dry in Queens by Thursday morning.
Ed Charles played only 279 games for the Mets but he touched New Yorkers – really, everybody who met him – with his humanity.
This was apparent on Monday at a farewell celebration of Charles in Queens, his adopted home borough. People told stories about him, and I kept thinking of all the ways, Zelig-like, he popped back into my life.
His 1969 Miracle Mets teammate Art Shamsky told how he and Charles and Catfish Hunter and Jack Aker were making an appearance at a boy’s camp “up near Canada somewhere” and how Ed Charles drove – “one mile below the speed limit, always. Ed never went fast. That’s why they called him The Glider.” When they finally got there, the players elected Ed to speak first to the campers. After 45 poignant minutes, Shamsky said they had learned never to let that charismatic man speak first.
Everybody smiled when they talked about Charles, who died last Thursday at 84. His long-time companion, Lavonnie Brinkley, and Ed’s daughter-in-law, Tomika Charles, gave gracious talks, and his son, Edwin Douglas Charles, Jr., made us smile with his tale of playing pool with his dad, and how the old third baseman never let up, in any game.
A retired city police officer alluded to Ed’s decade as a city social worker with PINS – People in Need of Supervision – and how Ed reached them. People talked about barbecues and ball games and fantasy camps with Ed, how it was always fun.
As sports friends and real-life friends at the funeral home talked about Ed’s long and accomplished life, I thought about how we connected over the years, in the tricky dance between reporter and subject.
---The first time was between games of a day-nighter in Kansas City, on my first long road trip covering the Yankees for Newsday, August of 1962. Old New York reporters were schmoozing in the office of Hank Bauer, the jut-jawed ex-Yankee and ex-Marine with two Purple Hearts from Okinawa.
Ed Charles, a 29-year-old rookie – kept in the minors because of race and bad luck – came to consult the manager, maybe about whether he was good to go in the second game. I watched Bauer’s face, once described as resembling a clenched fist, softening into a smile. “Bauer likes this guy,” I thought to myself. “He respects him.” (I looked it up: Ed went 7-for-12 with a homer in that four-game series.)
--- We met in 1967 when the Mets brought him in to replace Ken Boyer at third base. During batting practice in the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor ball park, Ed summoned me onto the field, behind third base, shielding me with his glove and his athletic reflexes.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing at the erratic hops on the rock-hard "turf" -- one low, one high, a torment for anybody guarding the hot corner. I must have stayed beside him for 15 minutes and nobody ran me off. I have never been on a field during practice since. That was Ed Charles. Easy does it.
--- We had a reporter-athlete friendship, but there are always gradations. During a weekend series in glorious mid-summer Montreal in 1969, somehow there were three VIP tickets for a Joan Baez concert. I went to a brasserie with Joe Gergen of Newsday and Ed Charles and then we saw the concert, with Baez singing about love, and the Vietnam War.
--- The Mets won the World Series and Ed went into orbit near the mound, but then he was released, his career over, with a promotions job with the Mets gone over a $5,000 dispute in moving expenses. But I was walking near Tin Pan Alley in midtown in 1970 and there was Ed, working for Buddah (correct spelling for that company) Records. He was destined for Big Town. He later had some ups and downs in business but patched things up with the Mets and settled into his groove as poet/Met icon.
---When Tommie Agee died suddenly, Ed was working at the Mets’ fantasy camp, and he took calls from reporters to talk about his friend. Ed Charles, as this New Yorker would put it, was a mensch.
--- In 2012, the 50th anniversary of the Mets, Hofstra University recruited Ed to give a keynote talk on his poetry and his deep bond with the Mets. I was asked by my alma mater to introduce him, and I suggested to Ed that I could help him segue into his poems. He smiled at me the same way he had calmed down Rocky Swoboda and all the other twitchy Mets kids back in the day. “I got this, big guy,” he told me – and he did.
--- Last time I saw him, a few months ago, I visited his apartment in East Elmhurst, Queens. Lavonnie was there, and I brought some of that good deli from Mama’s in nearby Corona, plus enough cannoli to last a few days. Ed was inhaling oxygen confined to quarters. I saw sadness and acceptance, He let me know: he knew the deal.
On Monday, The Glider had his last New York moment. There will be a funeral in Kansas City on Saturday and he will be buried, as a military veteran, at the national cemetery in Leavenworth, Kans.
The funeral home Monday was a few blocks from the first home owned by Jackie and Rachel Robinson in 1949. The first Robinson home, on 177 St. in the upscale black neighborhood of Addisleigh Park, has been declared a New York landmark, as written up on the StreetEasy real-estate site (by none other than Laura Vecsey, a sports and political columnist.)
Ed Charles often talked about taking inspiration from sighting Jackie Robinson as a boy in Florida; the proximity of the funeral home and Robinson home was a sweet coincidence, the family said.
The karma was unmistakable. Like Rachel and Jackie Robinson, Ed Charles encountered Jim Crow prejudice, but came to New York and won a World Series, and left a great legacy of talent and character.
(The Charles family has requested that any donations go to worthy causes like: The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City or the Jackie Robinson Foundation in New York)
The terrible plight of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates reminds me of the best newspaper crime story I ever read.
January, 1973, I had just moved to Metro news at the Times. The editors sent me out to deepest Brooklyn, where jewels had been stolen from the altar of an ornate church.
I wrote a wordy lead about the caretaker of the church muttering “Che coraggio” – what gall, in Italian. And I did quote a store owner in the neighborhood, noting the influential persons who supported the church, as saying: “No fence is going to touch this stuff.”
But the reporter from the Daily News wrote a classic.
I cannot locate the exact words by Frank Faso that day, but his story began something like this:
“Some nervy crooks stole the crown jewels from the altar of St. Rosalia Regina Pacis in Brooklyn the other day.
“If they are lucky, the police will catch them.”
Oh, yeah. How New York. How tabloid. How wonderful. (This was when two great tabloids, New York Newsday and the Daily News, were covering the city with zeal and skill.) I was chastened and respectful.
The jewels were recovered 24 hours later.
* * *
This tale of criminality reminds me of our current administration, in that Manafort and Gates, now making front-page headlines for their stunning variety of indictments, seem to have owed a good deal of money to some other rather unpleasant people – Russians, Russians with a memory, Russians with poisoned umbrellas and lethal cups of tea.
Paul Manafort. Is there anything on public record of him ever being or doing anything respectable, before he became an American shill for thuggish Ukrainians and Russians? What did he ever do to put him in the middle of a presidential campaign in a country whose income taxes he had apparently ducked?
Who is this guy? He seems to have had money problems, with bad people looking for him, to try to recover millions and millions of dollars. And Gates was a hapless Robin to Manafort’s compulsive Batman.
In this, they resemble a couple of pigeons with a gambling jones who bet too much on the third race at Aqueduct or 23 on the roulette table.
Suckers. Suckers on the lam. They tried to get it back by aligning themselves with two real-estate hustlers from Noo Yawk and Noo Joisey.
If this were a never-released season of “The Sopranos,” we would have new characters, Paulie Peanuts and Rusty Gates, trying to make it all right for themselves by serving in the family of Donnie Combs and his son-in-law Squeaky.
But remember in “The Sopranos” -- I have not watched any series since -- how there were always investigators listening on tapped wires, or cooped in a windowless van, or waiting to scoop up a member of the clan for a friendly chat?
Paulie Peanuts and Rusty Gates seem to have fallen into the right hands. Now they just have to watch out for lethal umbrellas or laced tea in their next abodes.
But wait, there seem to be a few more episodes in the series:
What about the money-laundering and real-estate nightmares of Donnie Combs and his son-in-law Squeaky? These guys seem to have Russian troubles and Chinese troubles, respectively.
To paraphrase the great Frank Faso of the old New York Daily News:
If they are lucky, Robert S. Mueller will get them.
The old lady had a look of merriment – not often seen in the subway.
She was talking to herself and talking to strangers around her, trying to create a bit of community on the F train, creeping its way toward the City, as we people from Queens call Manhattan.
I love my occasional rides into The City from near my old neighborhood – legal parking on Midland Parkway right in front of Trump’s old house, between 10 to 4, just right for lunch.
I particularly love these day trips for the interplay between the young and the old, the mixture of ethnicities. Queens. Benign and hopeful and so very American.
Never losing her smile, the old lady apologized, in Spanish, to the woman on her right for jostling her, thereby waking her from a quick nap.
She smiled at a man standing up and pointed to an empty seat next to me. He declined.
Then the old lady began to pay rapt attention to the woman on her left – a much younger woman of Asian ancestry, making up her face, no easy task on a train lurching noisily on mismatched rails.
The younger woman was applying makeup to her cheeks and then she began to touch up her eyebrows, an intricate maneuver requiring a surgeon’s touch.
The older lady followed every stroke as if she were watching an Olympic event – curling, maybe.
She had a rapt smile, perhaps being reminded of her younger self. Her smile was still beautiful.
The younger woman pretended not to notice. Upgraded, she put away her kit and stared straight ahead.
The older lady had two shopping bags on the floor and a bag on her lap. Her tights, under her topcoat, had a couple of holes.
She inspected a black man in a topcoat standing near me.
“Muy bonitos,” she said, pointing to his well-shined shoes.
Several times she made eye contact with me and I smiled back. She was making me happy with her merry but somewhat melancholy smile. She deserved a smile.
She pointed to her imaginary watch, the universal sign.
“Mediodia, menos unos minutes,” I said.
The young woman on her left got off at 63rd and Lexington. Another woman of Asian background took her place, also young, also pretty. The old lady said something to her in English. The young woman looked her in the eye and responded, sweetly. They chatted for a minute or two.
Then the older lady resumed her soft, sweet, bilingual monologue more or less to herself. In Spanish she said she liked to cook but could not afford it. She rubbed thumb and forefinger, indicating no money.
“Donde va hoy?” I asked her. “Wherever somebody will buy me a drink,” she said in Spanish, giggling. She made the universal sign of a glass being tipped to her lips.
I was getting off at Herald Square.
“Buen dia,” I said, getting a big smile.
I hope she’s all right.
* * *
Something nice often happens on my rides.
One day I saw an abuelita struggling upstairs with shopping bags at 179th St. “Pesadas,” I said. Heavy. And I lugged them to her bus stop for east Queens.
* * *
A year ago I saw a couple of young (white) innocents get on the E train at 23rd and Ely, from one of those expensive high rises looming up in Long Island City – two girls, maybe just out of college, probably staked by parents to an expensive new condo, one stop from the City.
One innocent, clearly an out-of-towner, had a large wallet or maybe an iPad sticking out of the back pocket of her designer jeans – three or four inches of value, exposed, for the swiping.
An older Chinese woman waved her index finger at the young woman, as if to say, “Put that thing in your bag.” The innocent smiled, clueless. The older Chinese woman persisted, as a granny would. The innocent’s friend got the point and the valuable was safely stowed. The granny smiled, grimly, and that was that.
* * *
A few months ago, I saw another elderly Chinese woman, also on the E train, pointing to a young African-American woman, standing up, holding an infant. The older lady was pointing to an empty seat. The young woman smiled and nodded to the door, to indicate she was getting off at the next stop.
One New Yorker taking care of another. You see that a lot. My friends from out there in America tell me that New Yorkers are always offering help with street maps or the maze of a huge subway station.
Then again, I remember salarymen and women offering me help – in English -- with the strange addresses of Tokyo. And people walking us a few blocks in Cairo or Mumbai. The old babushkas of Moscow making sure my wife got off at the right bus stop for the circus. It’s a city thing.
Big Al passed last Sunday morning.
What that means – what I think that means – is that I will not be getting any more emails out of the blue, like:
“Just asking. How good a clutch hitter was Yogelah, anyway? Ask your friend Newk.”
This was a very personal barb, aimed not just at me but at the admirable Don Newcombe, still working for the Dodgers out in LA, who got creamed by Yogi Berra for two – count ‘em, two – two-run homers in the seventh game of the 1956 World Series.
Oh, yes, Big Al remembered. And made sure to remind me.
Big Al was a loving member of his own family, but his special charm was getting on a point and pushing it. This made him a great lawyer for a major insurance company, according to Joseph LoParrino, for whom Al was mentor and friend.
“Al and I debated every major sports and news story since 1999 and since email was invented,” LoParrino wrote to me. “When the Tiger Woods scandal broke - my phone buzzed. His commentary made you fall over laughing. I could press his buttons in any category.”
Big Al was a master in button-pushing. My first contact with him was via his company envelopes and company stationery, before the advent of emails. Big Al would scribble – penmanship obviously not his forte in the public schools of East Queens – lengthy screeds about how I had insulted the current Yankees or, much much worse, The Mick.
Al – who was a decade younger than me – thought part of the problem was that I had attended Jamaica High in the 50’s whereas he had attended rival Van Buren High in the 60’s.
(He couldn’t blame college, since we both attended Hofstra as undergraduates.)
Al let me know, in six pages of briefs, that he knew more about sports than I did because he had played basketball and baseball for the demanding Marv Kessler at Van Buren.
I loved his descriptions of Kessler, vilifying him in Queens billingsgate, for sins committed in games or practices. (Many years later, Kessler praised Big Al as player and mensch; Al felt that praise was a tad late.)
Every journalist would be thrilled to have a critic like Big Al. We became mail pals, bonding over the long-lost Charney’s deli at 188th and Union Turnpike, and zaftig Queens girls, and Alley Pond Park, and the way the old Knicks played, and really what else is there?
Al became my Yankee Everyman, a stand-in for all of them. What he felt, they all felt. Eventually we met for a few dinners at the old Palm on the west side of Second Avenue. Al would deride me for ordering broiled fish and salad rather than the double primo beef and potatoes. Sissy. Weenie. And other Marv Kessler terms.
Sometimes he would order a full meal to bring home to his mother who lived in New Jersey.
He was such a Palm regular that his caricature was on the wall of valued customers, celebrities or just people who liked to eat beef. (Alas, that caricature seems to have been lost in the move across Second Ave.)
By then, Al was no longer the rail of a forward that Marv Kessler had berated back in Queens Village. He was Big Al, Manhattan bachelor, Eastside Al on one email handle. We would talk politics, and he would tell me tales about his service veteran/fireman/tradesman/paper hanger father who gave up his love of the Brooklyn Dodgers for his Yankee-fan wife, Ruth, who had seen Gehrig play.
Al was proud to tell me how his mother loved Andy Pettitte more than she loved him. He ascribed it to Pettitte’s schnozz but knew it was about Andy’s gentleness.
With no context whatsoever, Al dropped little e-bombs on me about or how Casey Stengel stuck with lefty Bob Kuzava against Jackie Robinson in the seventh game of 1952 and how Billy Martin raced across the windy, sunny infield to catch the popup. Always there was Yogelah, golfing homers off his shoetops, an endless loop of homers off poor Newk (one of the great people I have met in baseball.)
Al went silent one year, and I worried, so I sent a letter to his office, and somebody told me he was out on sick leave. When his mom passed in 2009 he took over her house in New Jersey and lived near his sister and her family -- and raved to his friends at work about the joys of the Jersey suburbs. Via the email, he never stopped taunting me, or raving about the Yankees and in particular The Mick. (He loved Sandy Koufax, too.)
One time he spoke for all New York fans who flocked to the ball parks on opening day over the decades:
Recently I sent an email: “Al, where are you?” His sister, Roberta Taxerman Smith, emailed me Monday morning saying Big Al had passed Sunday at 67 and the funeral would be held Tuesday in New Jersey. His paid obit was in the Times and on legacy.com:
I smiled when I noted that Big Al passed in the Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. He was a loyal Jew, and a most ecumenical dude, as many of us were in Queens. He and I exchanged greetings at Rosh Hashanah and Christmas and the first day of pitchers and catchers and other holy days. He knew I had grown up with mostly Jewish friends and he called me “landsman.”
When I found out, via DNA testing, that I am 47 percent Jewish, via my father, who was adopted, Big Al's reaction was: I told you so. Then again, that was often his reaction.
Roberta Taxerman Smith told me Al believed, to the end, that the docs were going to take care of him and he never complained. He had saved his complaints for Joe Torre’s strategies, and we argued over that, too.
Here’s what I really hate about losing Big Al: he I were both looking forward to seeing Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the same lineup, the same pinstripes.
Murderer’s Row, 2018.
If there is justice, on Opening Day they go back-to-back.
Maybe Big Al will send me an e-mail.
There's nothing like a good old movie. My wife and I were reminded of that Saturday night when we kept warm together and watched the local PBS station in New York present “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which came out in 1961.
The movie is still wonderful – at least for those of us who came of age in that city, in that time.
Then again, there is nothing like a good old actress, or actor. We reaffirmed that Sunday night as we watched eternal favorites Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey (delivering a righteous sermon on fairness for women in the arts; if America ever elected a television celebrity as President, at least it could choose one with brains and conscience), Shirley Maclaine, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and many others warming up the night at the Golden Globes. (Some older guys, and younger people, were there, too.)
Audrey Hepburn was not there, sadly, because she passed in 1993, way too young at 63, but lit up the night on Saturday, in the role of her life, lovely in her little black outfit.
The second star of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is New York itself – the city that existed one way in Truman Capote’s book and another way in the movie-makers’ minds.
That New York remains implanted in the memories of people who dared to dream that a one-bedroom walkup near midtown could be affordable for somebody who has not necessarily scored a gigantic deal.
My wife and I, a couple of kids, had a one-night honeymoon at the Plaza – Castro and Khrushchev were also in town -- before getting back to work on Monday. There was magic in Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue and Central Park and the side streets with their surprises and secrets.
In that apparently genteel playground, out-of-towners like Holly Golightly, a party girl, and Paul Varjak, a writer of fading potential, could meet on a fire escape -- kindred souls, both living in that playground courtesy of wealthier patrons.
New York seemed to offer glamour, stability, hope. When “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was issued in 1961:
--Penn Station had not yet been demolished, replaced by that contemptuous dungeon of a terminal, and soon afterward the neighborhood-strangling “new” Madison Square Garden.
--The Pan-Am Building (now called the MetLife Building) had not yet been plopped down, ruining the esthetic of Park Ave.
--John F. Kennedy was the new President.
--Rupert Murdoch was making stuff up, but in Australia.
--George Steinbrenner was still bullying his lackeys in Cleveland.
--And Donald Trump was still living out in Queens and fidgeting his way through classes in college.
In other words, the good old days.
The movie endures despite blind spots and gaffes:
--Mickey Rooney, as a put-upon Japanese photographer upstairs, is a total embarrassment with stereotypical accent and offensive false teeth. They should have known better, even then.
-- There is no trace of social issues, of Vietnam, of race. The only glimpse of African-Americans is on visitors’ day at Sing Sing, and some extras at the library and a five-and-dime store. The four other boroughs do not exist.
--A sub-plot involving a planned caper in Brazil contains many confusions of language and custom. I bet my friend Altenir Jose Silva of Rio, who has written movies himself, notices his middle name mispronounced the Spanish way rather than the soft, throaty Portuguese-Brazilian way.
Still, the movie crackles when Holly Golightly sings "Moon River" to herself on the fire escape or lowers her sunglasses to inspect Patricia Neal, a domineering designer who is supporting the younger writer, played by George Peppard.
Martin Balsam is fine as a Hollywood agent, and a familiar New York character actor of the time, Jim McGiver, is superb in a cameo as an officious salesman at Tiffany’s, who bends to Hepburn’s smile.
I have been under the impression that Buddy Ebsen is cornball as a rustic face from the past but the re-viewing convinced me that Ebsen is dignified and touching.
By the way, Capote’s book is much darker than the movie, including a graphic hint that Holly did indeed have adventures in deepest Brazil.
That’s all I’m saying, in case somehow you have not seen the movie about a beautiful and tormented drifter, “off to see the world.”
* * *
(Unfortunately, on some Saturday evenings, Channel 13 switches to stale oldie pop concerts; go figure. I cannot fathom why a high-level public station cannot find a landmark movie every freaking Saturday night, for those of us who have not figured out what “streaming” or “Netflix” are. I’m sure the hardy band of regulars on this site – including screen writer Silva – could suggest 52 classic films a year to help Channel 13 present a consistent series.)
As he passed 80, Ray Robinson had an idea for a new book – the last recorded words of prominent people.
He knew how to write books, of course – the Lou Gehrig bio, the Christy Mathewson bio. He was a magazine editor and a freelance writer.
The book came out in 2003, when Ray was 83 – “Famous Last Words: Fond Farewells, Deathbed Diatribes and Exclamations Upon Expiration,” published by Workman Publishing.
It fits in the hand or the pocket. Perfect quick-take reading. Perfect little gift.
This is a blatant plug. Ray would approve.
Alas, Ray Robinson passed on Nov. 1. He would have been 97 on Dec. 4 and was to be honored by a coterie of baseball buffs who meet monthly in the city.
Ray’s last words? I don’t know, but I talked to him the night before. What was on his mind was a perfect guide to this grand old man of New York and Columbia University and publishing.
In our last chat he did not bring up seeing Fidel Castro in Havana or how he met Lou Gehrig as a young New York fan or how he spilt ink on Lefty Grove while asking for an autograph at Yankee Stadium, or his activism with the ALS Association of New York, in homage to Gehrig.
Neither did he tell the great story of how a precocious New York girl named Betty Perske called him a “cheap SOB” or maybe it was “cheap bastard.”
This underscored link will explain the brief meeting of Ray and the future Lauren Bacall.)
Among Ray’s last words to me:
Ray’s passing will leave a huge gap in our lives -- for Jerry, our token ball player, who escorted Ray to the doctor, and Ernestine, who fussed over Ray, and Darrell, one of the originals from 1991 (!), and Lee and Marty and Willie from our group, and Bob and Jeremy, the busy superstars, plus Al and Rosa, who knew Ray and Phyllis forever, and all the other buffs who sat around the table once a month and talked baseball and politics and everything else.
We’ll meet on his birthday, I’m sure, and try to remember some of Ray’s good stories.
Before the summer totally gets away, I need to write about one of my loveliest outings of recent months – a visit to a historic cemetery I had not known existed.
I went with a few history-minded friends from Jamaica High School, who are forever bonded to central Queens, where we were raised.
The region goes back to Dutch and English settlers in the 17th Century, and, of course, the Jameco tribe of Native Americans, who named themselves after the Algonquin word for beavers, who were here first.
We acquired our educations and lifelong friends at Jamaica High without ever knowing about Prospect Cemetery, on Beaver Road, now surrounded by York College in South Jamaica.
The private cemetery is one of the oldest in New York City for English settlers.
Our tour was conducted by Catherine Ludlam, who is related to other old Long Island families; (the name is sometimes spelled "Ludlum," but the original, from Matlock, Derby, England, is spelled "Ludlam.")
Either way, Ludlam, a retired computer consultant, has helped revive the cemetery from the neglect and vandalism over the decades.
How did old Jamaica types, now scattered in our worldwide diaspora, hear about Prospect Cemetery? The credit goes to my good friend Michael Schwab, who went to Jamaica half a decade later than I did, and is now a retired judge from the apple-and-cherry paradise of Yakima, Wash., living in Seattle.
Michael and I became pals through his veneration of Joe Austin, the grand mentor to generations of basketball and baseball players at the St. Monica’s Parish. (Michael is as Jewish as the prune danish he craves on his regular homecomings to Queens.)
Michael and his lovely wife Jane, of blessed memory, would seek out historic spots on visits to Queens.
Across the street from where St. Monica’s (with its basement basketball court, where a player named Cuomo practiced running his defender into murderous tile pillars at center court) used to be, is the historic cemetery. Who knew?
Michael Schwab became a fan of the cemetery, via Cate Ludlam, and asked me to round up a small group of Jamaica pals when he was in Queens a few weeks ago.
So I rounded up history buffs -- West Side Shelley and East Side Jean and Trumpland Michael and Westchester Wally and my wife, the non-Jamaican.
Cate took us first to a family chapel, built for three Ludlam sisters. During the lawless 60s and 70s, vandals delighted in shooting out the stained-glass windows, now replaced since the site was secured by the growth of York College.
Next, we walked through thick grass (Eco-Lawn, a brand that needs no mowing) and Cate pointed out tombstones that told of life from one generation to the next -- no historical footnotes or explanations, just names and dates.
The earliest recognizable tombstone was: for Mary Fitch: (“Died: Jan. -- (?) 1709. Age 17 years.”)
Nearby in the Hariman family section was the tombstone for “Jane Lyons, a colored woman, who upwards of 65 years was a faithful and devoted domestic in the family of James Hariman, Sr. of this village, died Dec. 19, 1858. Age 75 years.”
And not far away was the tombstone for James Henry Hackett, a noted Shakespearean actor who in 1863 impressed a resident of Washington, D.C., who wrote a fan letter signed “A. Lincoln.”
As we trekked around the cemetery, Cate told us about her earlier explorations – the homeless man, living in the underbrush, who shocked her, and the student dig for obscured markers that ended prematurely with the discovery of the skeleton of a child – identity and cause of death, unknown.
Cate mentioned the sad discovery to a relative, a writer named Cornelia Read, who subsequently included Cate in a novel called “Invisible Boy.”
Nearby, we saw the weathered tombstone of Increase Carpenter -- a stunning flashback for me to the late 40s, when my class at P.S. 35 in Hollis used to take a walk to the site of the farm of Increase Carpenter, the quartermaster in the upstart militia.
This farm was where Gen. Nathaniel Woodhull was captured while ferrying cattle eastward to keep them out of the hands of the British. When Woodhull refused to say "God save the king," a British soldier whacked him in the arm with a sword, and the general died of the wound.
Cate Ludlam knows the details. She is a member of the Increase Carpenter chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
My friends are proud of our roots in a landmark public school. (The city, in all its wisdom, lost control of the school and terminated it a few years back.)
In our ways, we luxuriated in being in downtown Jamaica, where the el used to run, where Gertz used to be, just south of the main line of the Long Island Rail Road, still rumbling.
After the tour, we repaired to a terrific Portuguese restaurant -- A Churrasqueira -- a block from the modernized Jamaica station -- a perfect ending to the day.
* * *
I have barely touched the surface of Prospect Cemetery. For further information, here are a few links:
Donations to maintain the cemetery may be made to: PCA ℅ Cate Ludlam, PO Box 553, Oyster Bay, NY 11771
As we write post-mortems of this failed presidency, may I ask a favor of everybody, including media people I admire?
Please, in trying to explain the roots of this dangerously flawed man, stop referring to him as being from an “outer borough.”
Also, please, stop the automatic segue into Archie Bunker and the grand old TV show, “All In The Family,” as if everybody in the borough of Queens sat around on a front step in a sleeveless undershirt and reminisced about the good old days of Herbert Hoover (or George Wallace, or Jefferson Davis, or Adolf Hitler.)
As it happens, I grew up half a mile from the Trumps, although blessedly unaware of them for a long time. Friends of mine knew Fred Trump, his older brother, at PS 131, and said he was a lovely guy, but with learning disabilities. I met him a few times in the late ‘70s, and totally agree.
That neighborhood is not exactly Bunkeresque. It is Jamaica Estates, an enclave of large homes, many of them on glacial hills just north of Hillside Avenue.
When I was a kid, my parents would pack all five kids in the family sedan and drive around Jamaica Estates looking at the lavish Christmas decorations.
My parents were Newspaper Guild activists, real lefties from the ‘30s. After the War, they helped form a discussion group, expressly 50 per cent black, 50 per cent white – idealistic bootstrappers from Queens, who talked about books and politics and life, sometimes in our living room. My parents loved Eleanor and Franklin, and praised Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson.
In later years, my parents voted at the same polling station as that lovely couple that had moved into Holliswood, Mario and Matilda Cuomo. Not exactly Archie Bunker country.
I just looked it up: In milestone elections, Queens voted decisively for John F. Kennedy in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992, Al Gore in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008 – and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That’s right. The people who, theoretically knew their home boy best voted for Clinton, 75.4% to 21.8%.
Queens has been consistent politically, even with all the changes. In the early 50’s, Jewish families were moving out from Brooklyn and the Bronx -- my new friends, settling into Tudor homes, reminisced about stickball games and six-story apartments in their old neighborhoods. There were few, or no, traces of Muslim or African-American or Asian families, part of the picture today.
It was an enclave, but the nasty middle Trump brother missed it -- sent to private school in Kew Gardens (until he was caught packing a knife, and was shipped to boarding school, where goodness knows what transpired.)
Most kids in Jamaica Estates went to Jamaica High – for me, a one-mile walk, via Henley Road, near the future TrumpHaus.
Jamaica High was a bastion of academics but a mixed bag for equality. My friend Al Gibson recalls having to badger the “counselor” so he could take academic classes. (PS: He has advanced college degrees and a good career.)
The nasty Trump boy missed this part of growing up: side-by-side with blacks. I served detentions with a black guy (college-bound) after we both thought it was fun to pester a young sub teacher. I shoved back at a black guy who constantly backed into me at the “good” basket in gym class. I also tried to guard Teddy Jackson, with that great first step, later a star at Hofstra – and still my lunch pal.
Our yearbook advisor, Irma Rhodes (who rescued me in English class), held soirées for her staff at her home a few blocks from TrumpHaus; afterward I took the Q-17 bus with a young African-American woman, an art editor on the yearbook. All of this was superficial, of course, but part of the de-mythicizing of race.
But the most integrated part of Jamaica was the choir/chorus of Jean Gollobin (one of the great leaders I have ever encountered in any discipline) who always had mature helpers like Carole Gardner, also a class officer.
Five guys (P.A.L. basketball players from the 103rd Precinct) formed that early doo-wop group, The Cleftones, and would harmonize out in the hall, as if singing under the proverbial streetlamp.
One of my classmates, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, has been a major force in the feminist movement; another, Sid Davidoff, has been a stalwart of Democratic politics; a third, Herb London, has been a conservative candidate. We all gained from the crowded halls and classrooms of a thriving public school. (The city gave up on Jamaica High a few years ago. Some of us keep thinking it will come back.)
Life in the Jamaica area was and remains complex. The middle son of a builder was soon conniving with his father to exclude minorities from their buildings. He’d be doing it today, if he could get away with it. But please don’t tag all of us from Jamaica with the Bunker label.
My daughter Laura Vecsey is a New Yorker. She loves upstate and she loved Seattle. But she’s a New Yorker.
Her only criticism of Seattle was that nobody talked. Non-verbal. An entire city.
Maybe it was the rain. Or the e-culture. Or being the end of the line, south of Canada, east of the Pacific.
We loved Seattle, too. If she had stayed, my wife and I might have moved there.
But, geez, we are New Yorkers. She’s back on Long Island, horrifyingly aware that our “sleepy little fishing town” suburb is full of desperadoes who propel their fancy cars down the middle of narrow streets to express their rage at not being rich, or richer.
Laura’s a writer (also a poet). She’s been driving her daughter to summer school in a town near us, where she recently discovered a really good little Afghan restaurant. Today she decided to do some reading in one of the many magnificent libraries in Nassau County.
This is her stream-of-consciousness about the library:
* * *
by Laura Vecsey
Working at the public library in Hicksville today. Walked into the building with a familiar sense of gratitude: We pay taxes and pass special levies to pay for these places to continue to exist.
Sitting here for only a few minutes, in the air conditioning, with WiFi and outlet, amidst some book stacks and DVD collections, all I can hear are librarians talking at full volume; many unemployed 60-year-olds trying to master web applications on the free PCs offered. Lady next to me at the laptop desk drumming her long finger nails as she putzes around on her Kindle Fire.
I don't see anyone reading a book. FYI. I'm going to go read one. (Now the librarians talking about how one of their colleagues orders too much food at lunch. ("You should just go with the soup.") THERE WILL BE NO WORK FOR ME TODAY! Also, this short stint in the library has already confirmed that New Yorkers, especially Long Islanders, really do talk ....a lot.
I could have been in the Magnolia branch of the Seattle Public Library for 4 years before I heard this much talking. Make that 10, I mean. No one talks in Seattle. You have to use sign language in the libraries there or risk expulsion -- from the state.
The conversation at the librarian station is now shifted from lunch and soup to ... acupunture.
The lady with the Kindle Fire just said to me: "Why don't people whisper? I whisper when I'm here and all they do is talk loud over me!"
I was not actually complaining as much as ....very aware that this IS a community space, not a study hall. And it is amazing the service residents are given. Questions answered. Resources for jobs, notaries, computer help ... it is indispensable stuff!
It is also a fascinating place to observe what the heck people are up to and, frankly, how inept so many people are. I am not judging, per se. I am just ... amazed at how many things you assume people know … they don't. Hmmmm. Let me draw a parallel to the victory of a certain fraud elected to White House by these fellow Americans. ELITIST speaks!
The Hicksville High School Tech Squad is giving a seminar on computer programming. I am not joking: About 28 of the 30 kids in there are ... of Indian or Pakistani descent. Which is why Hicksville is pretty cool these days.
* * *
(The bustle in our libraries includes English as second language, storytime for children, current events discussions, as well as computer training. I can order up books from the entire county system; a book on my desk is from East Meadow, one of the best-stocked in our county.
And if there is a buzz, a hum, the services offered in our county more than make up for the my-half-out-of-the-middle SUVs and wagons blasting around our town. The suburbs pulse with life from recently-arrived cultures, people on the old main streets. We often drive half an hour to the thriving House of Dosas in Hicksville.
Laura, who knew the best pho joints on Aurora in Seattle, has found Thai and Colombian and Afghan places in sleepy old Nassau County. She insists her family is moving upstate one of these years. What – and miss the Aush-E-Boreeda at the Afghan place?)
Here is yet another poll I don’t want to hear. According to the highly-respected Quinnipiac Poll, residents of New York City prefer the Mets to the Yankees by 45-43 percent.
I’m a Met fan, totally out of the closet since retirement as a thoroughly impartial, you-never-could-tell sports columnist.
I come by my National League/Long Island bias honestly as a boyhood Brooklyn Dodger fan who suffered terribly at the hands of the Yankees (to say nothing of, periodically, the New York Giants.)
Quinnipiac is undoubtedly more correct when it says residents of New York State favor the Yankees by 48-34 percent.
Those are the kind of odds I would have expected, what with all those World Series plus icons from Ruth and Gehrig to Jeter and Rivera.
I have come to assume a lot of perfectly nice people have been swayed by the echoes in the “Big Ball Park in the Bronx” (Red Barber’s alliteration, not Mel Allen’s) and all those championships.
Mets fans see their team as an occasional delightful surprise -- that World Series every decade or so, plus gallant efforts foiled by the 1987 Pendleton home run and the 1988 Scioscia home run and the 2006 Molina home run and the 2016 Inciarte catch – plus, the 2000 World Series when rich Yankee fans bought up huge swaths of Shea Stadium tickets. The gloomy words of George Orwell, personified.
Now some New Yorkers may be swayed by all those fine young arms and the power of Céspedes and the dash of the prodigal son Reyes and the professionalism of Cabrera. Mets fans have expectations? Dangerous.
I still want the Mets to be a minority taste which makes the Swoboda catch and the Mookie grounder all the more special.
Then there is this: I don’t want my life guided by polls. Not anymore.
Last autumn I was reassured by within-the-margin-of-error polls: the rational would squeak past the raging id.
No more polls.
* * *
Play ball. Which the Yankees did, indoors, at Tampa Bay, on Sunday. By the second inning, I was immediately delighted with the fine details of baseball:
-- Rays' LF Mallex Smith took a circular route but caught a fly in foul territory.
-- Then, Smith (new to that team) took a piece of paper out of his pocket to scan the defensive scouting on the Yankees. Don't know that I've ever seen that.
-- Between innings, the immortal voice of Bob Sheppard urged us -- stylishly, of course -- to follow the Yankees on the YES network. Nice touch.
-- As starter Masahiro Tanaka faltered, he was watched intensely by three people in the Yankee dugout -- manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and trainer Steve Donohue. Their faces told me: the real season has begun.
Before I tell my Jimmy Breslin-Casey Stengel story, let's talk about bad timing for obituaries. (For example: Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis both died on Nov. 22, 1963.)
Likewise, it is not a good career move to compete with Jimmy Breslin, “the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious persuasion,” as Dan Barry calls him.
Chuck Berry died the same weekend as Breslin; the Times rolled out the big guns for his strut and the clanging of his guitar, outside the schoolhouse, urging boys and girls to come out and play.
John Herbers was also honored with a Times obituary on Monday. He was 93, one of the great reporters of the civil-rights era, a gentleman all the way who politely treated me like an equal when I joined the national reporting staff. He had been in bad places – Emmett Till’s murder – and never lost the unassuming air of a small-town southerner.
Bob McFadden and the Times did right by John Herbers:
Okay. Here’s my story about Jimmy Breslin, my fellow Queens boy. Elderly editors still marvel at his imagination in the wonderful interviews he turned in for $10 fees on long-forgotten sports magazines.
In 1962 the New York newspapers acknowledged the Mets' raffish ineptitude early on. By late July Sports Illustrated dispatched Jimmy for his take on the worst team in the history of baseball.
Breslin arrived in St. Louis the weekend of Casey Stengel’s 72nd birthday, and watched them bumble away games. One evening the club held a party for Casey in the rooftop room of the Chase-Park Plaza.
Casey greeted the headwaiter, who had once tossed batting practice for visiting teams in the old Sportsmans Park. Casey imitated his motion, remembered his nickname.
I was fascinated by Casey and never left his side all evening. Breslin was also there, observing. If anybody was taking notes, I do not remember.
A year later, a Breslin book came out, entitled "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" a plea ostensibly uttered by Casey during his long monologue that evening in St. Louis.
Not long afterward, Breslin called me for a phone number or something and at the end I said, "Jimmy, just curious, I was at that party for Casey, never left his side, and I don't remember him ever saying, 'Can't anybody here play this game?'"
"What are you, the F.B.I?" Breslin asked, his Queens accent turning “the” into “duh.”
Years later, Breslin conceded he just might have exercised some creative license.
Casey never complained about being misquoted. He would have said it if he had thought of it.
That was the thing about Jimmy Breslin. He got the inner truths. He had an insight into people’s hearts, almost like a mystic or a psychic. Given his imperfections and his imaginations, he was a universal voice. He was also a very local voice.
As the world becomes homogenized, we lose the local voices, the salt and the spices that make life exciting. (Fortunately for readers everywhere, Corey Kilgannon is covering Queens for the Times.)
Chuck Berry caught the feel of Route 66 (“Well it winds from Chicago to L.A./More than 2000 miles all the way/Get your kicks on Route 66.” Makes you want to rev up the engine.
John Herbers reported from the Deep South, which he loved and sometimes lamented.
Jimmy Breslin understood Queens…and the world. He has not been well for years. I would have loved to read him on the scam artist from our home borough.
* * *
MUST READ: Dan Barry's personal tribute to Breslin on the NYT site:
Our friend Ina sent this video from a live French broadcast. World was never the same.
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:
I look and listen for this man whenever I change subway lines at Roosevelt Ave. in Queens.
I often find him midway on the Manhattan-bound platform, facing the E and F trains.
In quiet moments I hear the melancholy strains of the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin.
The chords convey the vastness of China, the long history, the pain, the hope.
His own story, I do not know.
He keeps his head down, plays to the beat from a mobile speaker.
He puts a modest cardboard box between his sneakers.
I stand up close. His China is not the neon-and-skyscraper China I encountered at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, after they bulldozed most of the hutongs, the old neighborhoods.
I take a few photos on my iPhone. He does not seem to notice.
I drop $5 in the box and say “Xie Xie” -- thanks, in Mandarin.
He says, “Thank you.”
Then my train arrives.
(With homage to Joni Mitchell's "For Free" 1970)
In the end, the Mets’ final game had nothing to do with ancient failures and curses on the Brooklyn Dodgers and early Mets. The Mets lost to a great pitcher, a great October pitcher.
I saw Madison Bumgarner’s expressionless face as he trudged out to the mound nine times. I was visiting my friends Gary and Nancy, and I explained to them that he was a mountain man from western North Carolina, neither north nor south but Appalachian. He had a job to do, and he had the tools to do it.
Later, when the job was done, he submitted to an interview, and I could hear the mountain accent; he comes from a hamlet full of Bumgarners, for generations. One tough, self-reliant dude, with great arm, great purpose.
My friend Big Al from Queens, who used to pitch off the scruffy mound in Alley Pond Park, wrote me this morning that as a former hurler he marveled that Syndergaard could bust in 98- mph fastballs, with admirable location, but that Bumgarner’s 92-mph pitchers went even more precisely to the right place, where Céspedes and others could not harm him. Big Al thinks Bumgarner could have gone 11 or 12.
I’m just sorry it was Familia at the end. He’s such a nice guy, gave us such a good season.
Then there is Granderson’s catch. He is already the favorite Met to so many people. (I know a few women who refer to him as “my boyfriend” when he smiles and hits home runs.) On Wednesday night he ran straight to the center-field fence knowing he could make contact, and he held the ball for the third out.
My son David wants to know how Granderson’s catch compares with Endy Chavez in 2006 and Tommie Agee and Rocky Swoboda in 1969, and I say quite equally.
Big Al had to bring up – he always does this – Mantle’s catch off Hodges to preserve Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, and I retort with names like Gionfriddo from 1947 and Amoros from 1955. But that’s old stuff.
Right now it is 2016 and Bumgarner evokes names like Ford and Gibson and Koufax.
For me, la guerre est finie. I got no dog in this fight from here on in. I’ve seen all the baseball I want for this lovely surprising gritty season of the Mets. I’m checking up on the Premiership and Serie A, and books, and classical music.
Big Al suggests Chopin and Schubert. I’m thinking Dvorak and Bartok. As we said in Brooklyn, wait til next year.
(Your comments on the game and 2016 are welcome; my earlier premonitions of gloom and doom are below.)
Brian Savin asks if I have any thoughts about the Mets in the wild-card game Wednesday.
Oh, yes, doctor, I have thoughts. I also have fear and trembling on this 65th anniversary of something terrible.
It happens every October, when I feel that something terrible is going to happen in a ball park near me. I mean, it’s only baseball terrible. Henrich terrible. Thomson terrible. Sojo terrible. Molina terrible.
This has nothing to do with Syndergaard vs. Bumgarner, Mets vs. SF Giants. They are on their own and will perform what they perform. I am talking about the miasma of gloom that hangs over an old, I mean old, Brooklyn Dodger fan at this time of year.
Let’s start with Oct. 5, 1949, first game of the World Series (still played in sunlight, before the current long march toward freaking November.) I race home from school, turn on the radio, just in time for the bottom of the ninth, and Tommy Henrich blasts a homer off Don Newcombe, first and only run of the day.
Traumatic? And not just me. Let us fast forward half a century or so. My good friend and Newsday colleague Steve Jacobson is typing in the press room of Yankee Stadium on old-timers day. He sees Tommy Henrich, still spry, heading toward the men’s room.
Steve accuses Henrich of ruining his childhood with that home run. From that point on, Steve laments, he could no longer study, and therefore had to drift into the sordid life of sports columnist.
“Tough shit,” Henrich says genially. “What were you going to be, a doctor?” (Perfect Noo Yawk inflections and gestures.) And like a man taking a trot around the bases, Henrich continues to the men’s room.
Next stop: Oct. 3, 1951. I am in shop class in junior high. The teacher lets us put on the radio. My Dodgers have a lead on the annoying New York Giants in the third game of a playoff for the pennant. A classmate, a Yankee fan, says, “I can’t imagine how you will come to school tomorrow if the Dodgers lose.”
I take the subway home. Bobby Thomson hits a home run. Perhaps you have heard of it. I go to school the next day. Giants fans and Yankee fans jeer at me.
The only good that comes of it is Don DeLillo’s great “Pafko at the Wall” segment of the otherwise murky (to me) novel, “Underworld.”
Later, the New York Mets will be formed, and the collective angst of the Dodgers and Giants will be infused into the Mets’ DNA. The Mets will know glory in October, but also despair, as in 2000 when Yankee fans outnumber Mets fans for World Series games in Shea Stadium and Luis Sojo dribbles a crushing hit up the middle, and in 2006 when Yadier Molina hits a two-run homer as the Cardinals beat the Mets for the pennant.
Now my friend asks if I have any thoughts about the Mets’ game on Wednesday.
This has been one of the most enjoyable baseball seasons I have ever had, with the Mets playing beyond all hopes and expectations in the final six weeks or so. I will always glory in Granderson and TJ Rivera, Cabrera and Familia, and the prodigal son Reyes.
But I am writing this on the 65th anniversary of Bobby Thomson.
The game will be played on the 67th anniversary of Tommy Henrich.
I have thoughts.
Strictly by coincidence, the Times has a feature on the Op-Ed Page Saturday about the vanishing storefronts of New York, victims of rising rents.
I was already planning my ode to the vanishing landmark of Queens, the house of upsets, the cramped, smoky pit known as the Grandstand.
Once upon a time it was the second court at the United States Open, an afterthought grafted onto the main arena, Louis Armstrong Stadium, itself a tennis improv. But now in the name of modernity, the Grandstand has been phased out. It is serving as Practice Court 6 for this year’s Open but then will be bulldozed, gone, like ancient temples destroyed by vandals.
The Open is one of the two best sporting events in my home-town, along with the one-day phenomenon of the Marathon in the fall. I can look past the money and the privilege and see the Open, with its roots at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, as still very much a Queens event, right off the No. 7 elevated train.
This year the Open has a new retractable roof over Ashe Stadium to keep the show moving when the monsoon hits. The Armstrong will be replaced by a new second stadium. The Open also has a new generic bowl, called the Grandstand with 8,200 seats. I am sure it has more amenities than the old Grandstand but it does not exactly have the feel of an Elizabethan bear-baiting den.
For many years, the players had to inhale the meaty fumes from a restaurant suspended above the west stands. Something was always out to get the favorite at the Grandstand:
In 1985, Kevin Curren, the fifth-seeded player from South Africa, was bumped off in the first round by upcoming young Guy Forget of France. Curren promptly emitted a Hope Solo solo, blaming the site for his troubles.
“I hate the city, the environment and Flushing Meadow,” Curren said. “There is noise, the people in the grandstand are never seated and it takes an hour and a half in traffic to get here. It’s sickening that with all the money they get from TV, the USTA doesn’t build a better facility. The USTA should be shot. And they should drop an A-bomb on the place.”
Curren was not the only player to get bushwhacked in the Grandstand. On Friday I ran into a former player who had benefited from the blood lust of the fans.
In 1981, Andrea Leand, all of 17, met second-seeded Andrea Jaeger in the second round – in the Grandstand.
“Andrea was up a set and 5-2,” Leand recalled. “I could hear a broadcaster saying, ‘That’s it, she’s done.’”
Then again, you could hear everything in the Grandstand. “I heard a man asking his son, ‘Do you want a hot dog?’”
The mob began howling for a new victim to be sacrificed to the Grandstand deities. “The sound went right through you,” Leand recalled with a beatific smile. She beat Jaeger, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. It could happen to anybody, and often did.
The litany of Grandstand upsets is long – best left to an expert like Randy Walker, who last year wrote a farewell to the Grandstand, well worth reading:
The great thing about the ramshackle center of the 80’s was that reporters could watch Grandstand matches from the back of the press box in the main stadium. One match turned into a heavyweight fight -- Roscoe Tanner, one of the hardest hitters on the tour, and Chip Hooper, a big fellow, trying to drill each other, up close and apparently quite personal.
This being the yappy borough of Queens -- Trump! McEnroe! Archie Bunker! -- the fans egged them on.
Competition was also nasty in the lines as fans tried to get into a match that had suddenly turned epic. I visited the old den the other day – a few fans watching John Isner and a hitting partner whacking the ball around, but no yelps from fans seeking a new victim.
The Grandstand could have served forever as an anarchic, irregular heirloom – a tribute to history. But Open executives can still revive the gritty aura of the old place: pipe fumes from the grille directly onto the court. Kevin Curren would feel right at home.
Ted Cruz, the lawyer who scorns election ambiguities and disclosure rules, also scorns “New York values.”
We know what Cruz is doing – going after the evangelical vote by raising that old specter, the urban type, with noses and accents and odd names and weird food tastes. You know. The city where America’s children go if they think they can make it there.
Cruz was going after Donald Trump – and welcome to that – by making him typical of New York. But as somebody who grew up a crucial half mile from the Trumps, I have to admit, the Donald, in his own vulgar way, represents a sub-group, his home borough of Queens.
Simon & Garfunkel. 50 Cent. My Jamaica High chorus members, The Cleftones, who played PAL basketball for the 103rd Precinct. Bernadette Peters. And I remember my friend’s older sister, when I was 10 or so, raving about “that Tony Benedetto from Astoria”. The man is still singing, but now to Lady Gaga.
Many of us from Queens form a yappy lot. Is it the vital separation from “The City” – Manhattan? Looie Carnesecca, for many years from Jamaica Estates, says New York pizza is the best because of the water. Is it the brackish water of Flushing Bay and Jamaica Bay and Newtown Creek that makes Queens people tend to mouth off? Or is it the relative space and light that grows characters?
John McEnroe. Jimmy Breslin. Howard Stern. Fran Drescher. Christopher Walken.
Trump is a mouthy rich boy, but Cruz prodded him into the first dignified moment of his campaign, maybe of his life. Trump stuck up for us, the people with the New York values.
Athletes? The common ingredient of Queens jocks is the need to handle the ball. Point guards. Control freaks.
Bob Cousy-Dick McGuire-Kenny Anderson-Kenny Smith- Mark Jackson-Nancy Lieberman, who took the A train from Far Rockaway to Harlem to get a game. Peter Vecsey, who played for Molloy and writes about hoopsters. And from Jamaica High and St. John’s, Alan Seiden, known in the P.S. 26 schoolyard as “And One,” because he called a foul every time he took a shot.
Bob Beamon, from Jamaica High, was a dunker, not a passer. He could leap. Leaped to a world long jump record in Mexico in 1968.
The thing about Queens is that the subway and elevated lines all head west, toward The City. I remember slouching in class at JHS 157 in Rego Park, watching the No. 7 El rumble toward The City.
Trump lived a few blocks from the last stop on the F Line but I wouldn’t bet he ever took the train. Probably got chauffeured to his prep schools.
With all this glorious diversity around him, somewhere along the line Trump developed outsize prejudices. This tells me he never spent much time with Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. He would have a different facial look if he had.
Queens College graduates: Jerry Seinfeld. Ray Romano. Howie Rose, Mets voice.
Cruz is playing to the base, the red-hots who cheered him in South Carolina and might caucus for him in Iowa on Feb. 1. His code words of “New York values” are an insult to the Chinese in Flushing and the Koreans along Northern Blvd. and the Latinos around 82nd St. and the South Asians around 74th St. -- and my friend Alton Gibson from South Jamaica who disregarded his guidance counselor’s advice to take vocational classes, and got himself advanced degrees and a good career. Those New York values.
Mario Cuomo from South Jamaica who married the beautiful Matilda Raffa and led a life of good works and talented children.
In Queens, we talk and write and sing and dream.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Stephen Jay Gould. Stephen Dunn, zone-busting guard and Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Francis Ford Coppola. Sam Toperoff. Lucy Liu. Russell Simmons. Idina Menzel. Michael Landon. Cyndi Lauper. Joe Austin, Mario Cuomo’s coach for life.
The bright young woman from the English class in Jamaica High a decade ago, now a college graduate doing advance work for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. The bright young woman from two decades ago, now getting her teaching certificate in the grand building on the hill.
Those voices Those accents. The great spices emanating from open doors and adjacent apartments in Astoria and Bayside and Hollis and Ozone Park. The dreams. The drives. The New York values.
I associate Roger Cohen with his skateboarding on a small ottoman, at risk of a broken neck, to celebrate a Chelsea goal on the tube.
I associate Tracy Kidder with his long legs racing around the bases on a softball party, decades ago.
Yes, serious writers, have their sports side.
I just caught up with books by both of them, touching the deepest issues in the world – genocide, inequity, identity.
Cohen’s book is “The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family,” published this year by Alfred A, Knopf. It is partially about the imbalance in many members of his family, which has made the trek from Lithuania to South Africa and onward. His mother became troubled shortly after emigrating from South Africa to England early in her marriage and never recovered.
The book also delves into what it means to be Jewish in a dangerous world, with some of his family escaping ahead of the murders in Europe, making a success in South Africa, but never feeling quite accepted in England – hearing the discreet lowering of voices and being described as “Jew” rather than “Jewish.” Later Cohen re-settled, for reasons he came to understand.
“One day, banking over New York City on the approach to LaGuardia, watching the serried towers of midtown, a single word welled up from deep inside me: home.” Cohen writes of the city of “incomers.” He has become one of journalism’s most staunch defenders of the marginal.
Tracy Kidder has also been exploring corners of the world, ranging from the emerging computer society to poverty in Haiti, often seeking people who take chances, who make a difference. His idealism is on display in his 2009 book for Random House, “Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.”
Kidder traces the wandering of a people, and an individual, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, a member of the Tutsi tribe in Burundi. Barely escaping a bloodbath while in medical school, Deo survives in Africa the same way some of Cohen’s family survived in Europe – through the grace and courage of others.
In Kidder’s book, the man called Deo lands in New York, is helped by a baggage handler named Muhammad, a former nun, and an intellectual couple from Greenwich Village – the parallel layers of strength that work so often in this city.
Kidder recreates Deo’s survival in Burundi, and moves toward the present, with Deo, now a poised 40-something New Yorker, running a medical facility back home in Burundi, where the prevailing custom is to not remember terrible things that have happened.
My conclusion is that there is no such thing as light summer reading. These books by Cohen and Kidder would make me think and care in any season.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: