"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Arts and Culture

The Anatomy of a Memoir

Deep into Here I Are: Anatomy of a Marriage, an Audible Original released last week, Alex Belth describes his wedding to co-writer Emily J. Shapiro. It was a private ceremony on a Caribbean island, the type of wedding you see in the closing scene of a romantic comedy that makes you wonder why you bothered with the stress of a hundred and fifty guests and three entrées and a petulant flower girl. The smart ones elope to paradise.

But buried in the beauty of that moment lies a metaphor that’s likely unintentional. Alex spins a charming tale – Alex and Emily are both charming throughout – about how nervous he was walking from the beach to the end of the pier where the ceremony would take place, worrying with every step that the heirloom ring meant for Emily’s finger might slip from his hand and fall through a gap between the planks of the wooden pier, never to be seen again.

When we think about walking a plank, images of pirates and circling sharks come to mind, or perhaps a ship’s captain falling victim to mutiny. I don’t mean to compare a marriage to such a morbid scene, and neither would Alex or Em, but there is something in that moment to which any of us who have walked down the aisle – or a pier – can relate. 

While the captured pirate might take those final steps under threat of a drawn sword, the happy couple is equally powerless, driven by their beating hearts and intertwined souls. But here’s the irony: no matter how deep the love, no matter how committed the mind, each couple walks this plank and takes this leap knowing that the future is uncertain. And like the pirate, they must ask themselves a simple question: dare we look beyond the end of the plank?

In this beautifully produced memoir, Emily and Alex take us on an intimate tour of their marriage, shying away from nothing, illuminating everything, looking fearlessly over the edge. It’s a project more than two years in the making, stemming from a seed planted long ago in an article Alex wrote describing his role as husband and caretaker to Emily as she struggled first with panic attacks and Crohn’s disease and later debilitating vision issues.

The two of them have expanded that original article into a two-and-a-half-hour expedition, beginning with their cautious courtship, continuing through the early days of their relationship, and extending into a marriage that has not just survived but thrived. 

Structured in a series of alternating interviews, the piece feels less like a book than an afternoon with friends. As Emily describes her numerous hospital visits or Alex admits to childhood issues that have lingered into adulthood, something remarkable happens. The two of them draw the listener in, laying out their intertwined stories and memories with such vulnerability and confidence that the exercise feels less like the dissection of a marriage and more like a coffee klatch. You picture yourself sitting at their dining room table, and when the narrative switches from Alex’s discussion of his father’s drinking problems to Emily’s explanation of why she didn’t want to have children, you imagine that Alex has simply left the room for a moment, perhaps to fetch some cookies from the kitchen.

Without question, the personalities are the strength of the production. I should admit that I’ve known Alex for almost twenty years, but Emily is the star of the show, and probably of the marriage. (Sorry, Alex.) Her matter of fact explanation of her various maladies and her frank discussion of what she’s lost along the way are somehow completely devoid of self-pity; we see her not as a victim of her body’s betrayal but as a survivor always ready for the next fight. Listeners will wish they could undo what’s been done, but not once will they pity Emily J. Shapiro.

Alex and Emily clearly recorded this with hopes of providing inspiration, and they’ve succeeded. As specific and extreme as parts of their journey may be, it is somehow relatable and universal. Any listener who has been married will recognize themselves at some point, perhaps as Alex talks about releasing his need to find solutions to his wife’s struggles or when Emily’s voice softens as she describes her husband’s gentle nature. Listeners who have traveled some of the darker roads described will no doubt find solace and comfort, but even those who have not will feel uplifted.

Here I Are soars because it’s about so much more than medical mysteries and marriage therapy. It’s a love story, something every one of us will recognize. It couldn’t be more familiar. All of us have done what Alex and Emily do here. When one couple meets another, it doesn’t take long before we begin unspooling stories. We stare into each other’s eyes and tell about first dates and near misses, of coincidence and happenstance. We draw sustenance from the sharing of these origin stories, but we don’t usually go deeper than is comfortable. We don’t usually look over the edge.

Emily and Alex do. They tell us about their first date, but also their first breakup. They tell us about their wedding, but also why they don’t have children. They give us everything. They walk the plank, and they ask us to follow.


[Photo Credit: Caleb Kenna]

Thanks, Buddy

“They talk about Bernie being the bridge between old and new; but Gerald was there, too. Even though he was more of a natural ballplayer than Bernie, Bernie was the one who ended up being the better overall player and having the longer career.  But Gerald has a place in our hearts forever.”   – Alex Belth

He was the man who shepherded one of the greatest homegrown Yankees of all time, no small feat in our modern times.  Ironically, he was not around to share the glory of the Yankees’ most recent dynasty beyond its inception, and returned at the tail end after the winning was done.  Yet he was a fan favorite throughout, and no matter where he was playing, we always seemed to be waiting for him to come home.

Rest In Power, Old Friend. We’ll be talking more about you in a New York minute…

 

Book it, Dano

Baseball. Remember that?

Well, over at Esquire I compiled a list of 100 great baseball books. Give a look.

In Memory of Henry Aaron

From the time I was old enough to hold a bat, my heroes were always baseball players, and Hank Aaron was the first. I was only four years old in April of 1974 when he hit his historic home run to pass Babe Ruth, so if that moment was spoken of in my home, I don’t remember it, but it wasn’t long before my mother put a slim paperback book in my hands, The Home Run Kings: Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. It was the first of many books I’d read about Aaron, and it would deepen my love of the game while kindling a love of reading, two passions that have never left me.

When I saw the news of Aaron’s passing this morning at the age of eighty-six, I thought about that first book and what Aaron has meant to me. 

It begins, obviously, with his name. When I was a boy, there were only two people I knew who shared my first name. My father, who stood in a frame alongside my mother in a picture from their wedding day, and Hank Aaron. That was it.

One biography led to another, and soon the stories and statistics began to fill my head as if they were my own memories. I learned that he had been born in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, and had taught himself how to play, the same as I had. (I even took more than a few swings cross-handed, with my left hand above my right the way he had before someone set him straight.) I worried for him when I read about his leaving home at the age of 18 with nothing but two dollars and two sandwiches for the train ride to Indianapolis where he’d play in the Negro Leagues for a time with the Indianapolis Clowns.

Before long he was in the major leagues with the Milwaukee Braves, and he quickly developed into one of the best players in baseball. Aaron’s game matched his personality. He was quiet off the field, and quietly great between the lines. We know him now solely as a home run hitter, but he was brilliant in all phases of the game. If steadiness can be dazzling, that was Aaron. He built his mountain of home runs with workman-like consistency, never once hitting as many as fifty home runs in a single season but only twice falling short of thirty from 1957 to 1973. He kept his head down, both figuratively and literally, as he hit all those long balls. Aaron once said that he had never seen a single one of his 755 home runs land, choosing instead to put his head down and circle the bases. That story may or may not be true, but it fits the man and player he was.

Aaron’s greatest accomplishment, his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1973 and ‘74, was one of the darkest times of his life. Ruth was more than just a baseball player, he was a myth, and there were those in the American South (the Braves had relocated to Atlanta in 1966) who couldn’t stomach the idea of a Black man eclipsing a white icon. The hate mail was horrific, and the death threats were frequent. Just six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, those death threats were taken seriously. When you watch the clip of Aaron’s historic 715th home run and you see the crowd of fans spilling out of the stands and onto the field, it’s easy to see it as just a celebration; Aaron later admitted that he feared for his life in what should have been the crowning moment of his career.

His stature in the game is secure. He is one of the five greatest hitters ever to play in the major leagues (Ruth, Williams, Mays, and Bonds are the others, end of discussion), but his legacy was ironically solidified when Barry Bonds pushed past him with his 756th home run in 2007. Everyone knew what was going on, and everyone knew that Bonds’s record was tainted, but after Bonds circled the bases that night, there was Aaron on the video scoreboard, praising the new home run king for his “skill, longevity, and determination.” And there was more: “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase down their dreams.” 

I hit only one home run in a baseball career that ended at age fourteen, but Aaron still inspired me to chase down my dreams. I never saw him play a single game, but he was still my hero.

My dad and I met him at a baseball card show when I was fifteen. He was probably the same age then as I am today, and he sat at a table before a long line of memorabilia hounds. Sometimes the signers at these events would chat a bit with their fans, but Aaron was keeping his head down as usual, signing one item after another, baseballs, bats, and photos. No conversation.

But when my turn came and I set down a glossy 8×10 for him to sign, my dad couldn’t help himself.

“His name is Hank,” he said. “Just like you.”

My hero paused, then looked up at me with a smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

The Sun RZAs in the East

© Bronx Terminal Market 2020; Universal Hip Hop Museum {R}Evolution of Hip Hop; VIP Party 2019

So this happened:

Fellow Banterite Mr. OK Jazz Tokyo beckoned to Fearless Leader and me for a contribution to a podcast he was working on with some good ol’ NYC-style Hip-Hop, and of course my big mouth said if you gave me a minute and a theme, I could come up with an hour’s worth of tracks; or something like that. Jazz took me up on that and so I dove into my reserves and off the top of my head (as is the wont of anyone who was or is “about that life”) and with a little editing, I created a playlist that lightly (hah!) spans the Golden Era and into the present of that beloved genre of street flavor… and boy, is it salty!

Representing the Jeep-banging Boom-Bap of the five boroughs from back in the day to the still-glowing embers of the underground are 19 tracks featuring legends mainstream and not, including a couple of less-heralded veterans whom are well worth researching if you wonder where all the good Hip-Hop has gone (please don’t answer that, we have already know).

After that, Jazz asked me to tell you all, which admittedly I was hesitant to do at first; not because of the largely NSFW (and I sincerely stress that if you’re unfamiliar with how Hip-Hop generally works) content, but because I’m actually rather modest about showcasing my own creations on a site that’s not actually my own, but then Mr. Belth called porkscrubs (or something of the sort) on that and encouraged me to share. And really, this is a group effort; I made the selections and Jazz and company put them together in a podcast, so who am I to not appreciate that and share it with the rest of the family?

So it is with great pleasure, and with the blessings of Fearless Leader, that we present to you all the way from NY to Tokyo and back, the K.O.L. Radio New York City Hip Hop Mix (by yours truly!) And remember; whether you like Hip Hop or not, the spirit of the streets has begun to be heard again in the darkness of the hour, and we’re here to help >;)

Creepin’ (Score Bard Remix)

Credit: https://ya-webdesign.com/imgdownload.html

With major apologies to Stevie Wonder, all the former denizens of Baseball Toaster and basically everyone on Planet Earth dealing firsthand with our pandemic, I nevertheless bring you a throwback to lighter times…

(Ahem…)
 —-
I can hear you sayin’
you’ll stay six feet away and
When will it be
That we can creep…
Back to our teams
 —-
On the beach we’re sittin’
Observing social distancin’
When will it be
We get to creep…
Back to our teams
 —-
Watch our teams…
—-
When I’m sleep at night beybey
I contemplate some herd immunity
When you sleep at night beybey…
I wonder do I creep into your dreams
Or could it be I sleep alone cuz of quarantine…
 —-
Opening’s complicated,
Uh, uh, uh, ah-choo!!!
How players are compensated,
As you can see,
Still too soon to creep…
Back to our teams
 —-
Watch our teams…

Taster’s Cherce

Oh-ho! Haven’t seen this for a while now, have you? However, this time it’s ol’ Chyll Will taking a ride up the kitchen isle in order to share a neat recipe that he sort-of made up while doing a little R&D in his apartment kitchen. So, while we wait for the team to start up a new series in Arizona, why don’t I give some serious consideration to an experiment gone right with some pulled pork.

 

Happy Noo Yearz!

© Julienne Schaer, c/o ILoveNY.com

If you’re from New York and you know what WPIX means, you know what I’ll be doing after the bell. How are you guys spending your New Year’s?  >;)

Just Hanging Out

Aw, man, my apologies for being remiss in this space of late. Hope all is well and that your Thanksgiving was plentiful.

So interesting that the Yanks don’t have a skipper yet. Can’t wait to see who it’ll be. Been a still off-season so far. That won’t last forever. Hey, you hear that Aaron Judge had surgery on his left shoulder—maybe that accounts for his second half swoon. If so it makes what he did even more impressive.

In the meantime, hope you guys are watching something cool, or reading something interesting, and listening to something incredible. And, of course, eating something tasty and finding a way to laugh.

He Loves to Say Her Name

Here is our pal John Schulian’s 1980 column on Jake LaMotta, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 95. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.—AB

 

She keeps dabbing at her left eye with a hanky as soft as an angel’s breath—dabbing, then smiling and pretending nothing is wrong. Maybe this is way all beautiful women growing old protect themselves. When nature can’t be depended on anymore, they master the art of illusion and produce what Jake LaMotta sees before him now. She is no fading flower. She is, rather, the same long-legged honey blonde he met beside a Bronx swimming pool thirty-seven years ago.

“That’s the Vikki that’s in the picture,” LaMotta says.

The hanky comes away from her eye quickly.

“He loves to say my name,” she purrs.

Once they were man and wife. Now they are friends and business partners, reunited by Raging Bull, the movie of LaMotta’s star-crossed life. They may even be more, but time apparently has taught them the virtue of discretion. When they checked into the Continental Plaza, their request was simple: same floor, separate rooms. “All I’m gonna tell ya,” LaMotta says, “is that I don’t go for that brother and sister stuff.”

Under the scarred brows that were part of the price he paid for the world’s middleweight championship, his dark eyes twinkle roguishly. It is what you expect, but it is not the complete picture of Jake LaMotta’s crowding sixty.

There is no more of the fire, the savagery, the craziness that could have made this untamed street kid a murderer if he hadn’t discovered the joy of mayhem in the ring. In a deftly-tailored gray suit, with his chair adjusted so you can speak into his good ear, he seems totally incapable of destroying his championship belt or, worse yet, punching his beloved Vikki.

“Feelin’ any better,” he asks her.

“I’m gonna go see the doctor in just a little while,” she replies.

She turns to a visitor.

“Isn’t Jake cute?” she asks.

Vikki LaMotta used different adjectives for him that grim day when his jealousy boiled over and he accused her of rampant infidelity, garroted his brother on a hunch, and blackened her eye. It was the same one that is bothering her now, and the funny thing is, her latest injury can be blamed on Robert De Niro, the actor who plays Jake in the movie. Vikki was holding De Niro’s picture the other day, and when somebody tried to grab it, she pulled back and poked herself in the eye. Just like that, history had repeated itself.

If Jake LaMotta flinches at the thought, you need only see Raging Bull to understand why. He has sat through it twice, and twice may be all he can bear. “I come out a bad guy in the picture,” he says. “It’s the way I was, it’s the truth, but that don’t make it no easier on me. The first time I watched it, I didn’t know what happened; I didn’t know whether to like or dislike it. There was something wrong and I couldn’t figure out what it was until the next day: I was reliving my life.”

It was a life in which the good times were almost extraneous. Sure, LaMotta waged a glorious holy war with Sugar Ray Robinson for the better part of a decade. Sure, he pole-axed Marcel Cerdan to win the championship in 1949. Sure, he refused to concede that Laurent Dauthille had him beat and knocked the stubborn Frenchman stiff with just thirteen seconds standing between him and ignominy. But the bulk of LaMotta’s legacy is as sad as a cauliflower ear and as ugly as nose split down the middle.

The ruination of Jake LaMotta began with the fight he threw to Billy Fox in ’47. The mob may have been leaning on him and he may have had to play along to get a shot at the title, but he went in the tank all the same, and when he did, he stamped himself as a bum forever. No wonder people were saying it figured years later when LaMotta got run in for letting a teenaged hooker operate out of his Miami strip joint.

He wound up on a chain gang, did time in the rat hole dedicated to incorrigibles, and never heard a word of sympathy. Maybe it would have been different if the word had gotten out that he pried the diamonds out of his championship belt to pay for a defense attorney, but Hollywood wasn’t going to make Raging Bull for another twenty years.

“When I done that to my belt,” he says, “I was symbolically—is that the word?—destroying the thing that made me the way I was. See, I was like one of those dogs that go to war. They’re trained to be vicious, they’re rewarded for it. But when the war’s over, and they’re back with their civilian masters, they can’t understand why they’re punished when they attack people. That’s the way I was, and I had to figure it out myself. I couldn’t afford no psychiatrist. I had to adjust by myself. There’s the word. I had to adjust.”

Not until now, however, did LaMotta have the chance to prove that he has succeeded. With Raging Bull hitting theaters across the country, he gets paid to leave New York and hold court in fancy hotel rooms in the cities where he used to fight. He does Marlon Brando’s back-of-the-taxi speech from On the Waterfront, and when the telephone rings, he leaps from his chair and shouts, “What round is it?” And always there is Vikki, the second of his four wives, the mother of two of his six children. She is up from Miami, back into his life, and for just a while, Jake is young again.

“Ya know why she didn’t play herself in the movie, don’tcha?” he asks. “I didn’t want her kissin’ Robert De Niro.”

“You mean you didn’t want me to kiss Bobby’s booboo?” she teases.

“That’s the truth, Vikki.”

He loves to say her name.

 

Postscript

Thirty-seven years ago this December, Jake LaMotta Jr. ushered me into his father’s hotel suite and introduced me to the man himself, sitting there in a high-backed chair looking like a Mafia don. Then Jake Jr. turned to a beautiful blonde of a certain age who, if I hadn’t seen her in Playboy, I might have guessed had been kidnaped by these two characters. “This is my mother,” he said. “You believe it?”

He was balding and rumpled, in his 30s somewhere but the extra pounds he was carrying made him seem older. He’d probably asked the same question of every writer he’d met on this press tour, but he still tensed up as he waited for my answer.

“To tell you the truth,” I said, “no.”

His father laughed first. Vikki just smiled serenely even with her bothersome eye tearing up.

She didn’t say much beyond what I used in my column, but she turned out to be the salvation of that cold Monday morning anyway. Whatever humanity Jake LaMotta possessed, she coaxed to the surface with a look or a laugh or a few gently teasing words. The rest was part of the show he didn’t need much encouragement to put on. His On the Waterfront routine wasn’t bad, but it was still LaMotta imitating Brando, just as Raging Bull was an imitation of LaMotta’s life.

There really wasn’t enough meat on the bones of LaMotta’s life to sustain a movie. Martin Scorsese made one anyway. His infatuation with tough guys and wise guys blinded him to the lack of a dramatic arc in the story. As Barney Nagler, the vinegary columnist for the Daily Racing Form, once said of LaMotta: “He was a prick the day he was born and he’ll be a prick the day he dies.” Not that Raging Bull was without brilliance. Those brutally beautiful scenes depicting LaMotta’s war with Sugar Ray Robinson leap to mind every time I think of the movie. Unfortunately, Scorsese turned the violence into a cartoon that neither man would have survived for six fights. They might not have lasted six rounds.

It was Roger Ebert’s job to review the movie for the Chicago Sun-Times. I would write a column about LaMotta that would be paired with Roger’s review in the paper’s promos. The day before my audience with LaMotta, I’d damn near frozen to death in a press box in Minneapolis before racing to catch the last flight home so I could get up early and drive downtown. I wasn’t sure he was worth the trouble. Then Vikki said he liked to say her name and he was.

Afternoon Art

Dairy Queen

Painting by Will Rafuse. 

Taster’s Cherce

sour rasberry float

Sour raspberry float with marshmallow creme. Uh, d’okay.

Keeping Up

Carmen Miranda 2

Sally Kempton on keeping up with Carmen Miranda. Short and Sweet.

Beat of the Day

Legs This Isnt Happiness

Indeed.

Picture via This Isn’t Happiness

Afternoon Art

Trix

R.I.P. Joe Harris.

Taster’s Cherce

Opening Day 2017 lunch

Opening Day didn’t go as planned for the Yanks but at least I had a good lunch. Burger with green Hatch chilies, cole slaw, sweet potato fries.

Beat of the Day

Bags window

Happiness is Acid Rap:

Picture by Bags

Taster’s Cherce


sandwich

Lunch.

Beat of the Day

Lee Morgan Search for the New Land

The new Lee Morgan documentary is evocative and emotional and well-worth catching.

In the meantime…

Taster’s Cherce

French Fries

Frites!

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver