"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Childhood

Million Dollar Movie

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My father was a Sid Caesar man. Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour trumped Benny, Berle, and Gleason.

So when My Favorite Year came out, Dad was eager to take his children to see it. I was eleven years old and we went one Saturday afternoon to the Paramount. I always loved that theater because it was underground. Dad fell asleep during the movie but my brother, sister and I enjoyed ourselves. It didn’t matter that Dad passed out (he was still boozin’ then). The subject meant something to him. The movie was funny and sentimental. And O’Toole was nominated for an  Oscar.

And Dad woke up for the finale:

[Photo Via: Cinema Treasures]

New York Minute

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My grandparents lived across the street from the Museum of Natural History. They were older grandparents, not the kind to get down on the floor and play with my sister, brother and me. When in doubt, they took us to the Museum. We went so often that for years I never returned. It just reminded me of being bored out of my skull. But when I was in my twenties I went back and remembered just how cool the place is. I haven’t been in awhile but am down to go again.

[Picture by Bags]

Made in the Shades

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I visited my mom recently and she showed me photographs from her trip to Africa in 1966. It was on this trip that she met my dad. She didn’t only have pictures, she still had the sunglasses she rocked that summer. They were in a plastic case stored in a box along with letters and photos.

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Pretty cool, right?

New York Minute

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My father did some work for CTW in the 1970s. He’d bring us home Sesame Street albums and once we cleaned our rooms were allowed to listen to them. One time, Dad took my sister and me to visit the set of Sesame Street. We sat on this stoop and looked into Mr. Hooper’s store. Nobody was filming. The crew was busy. I remember a kid riding a bike around. We sat there, next to Oscar’s garbage can, quietly, and wondered where Mr. Hooper was.

[Pictures via: Loosetooningaround]

New York Minute

 

Check out what I found over at Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York–man, this is so dope–Roy Colmer’s photo collection of New York City doors. Three thousand pictures taken in 1976.

Here’s the front of my grandparents apartment building:

Man, this brings back memories. I was five when this picture was taken. Sometimes, the Internet is cool in unexpected ways.

 

Forgotten Bookmark

I e-mailed with a friend yesterday about James Agee so I went to my bookshelf this morning and picked out an old paperback copy of Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. The pages are yellow and brittle–I think I got it in high school–and I haven’t looked at it in a long time. I read through the book on my subway ride to work. After about twenty minutes I noticed something lodged in between the pages–a personalized bookmark that my father had made for me when I was a little kid. It features a drawing by my uncle Fred.

Dad had stickers with his name that he put in all of his books and he was proud to make stickers for my brother, sister, and me. I remember having a stack of them, held together with a rubber band, like they were baseball cards. I loved peeling off the back and sticking them on things, not just books, and I quickly depleted my stock.

I have no idea how one of them–an original, with the backing still attached–found its way into the Agee book, but it was like finding a tiny, intimate treasure.

Morning Art

I made this painting when I was nine-years old and gave it to a family friend. When she died, her son gave it back to me and it now hangs in my apartment.

From this card.

New York Minute

I was standing on the uptown platform of the 7th Avenue line at 42nd street last night with a friend when we heard a young woman’s voice. It was clear and also annoyed. She was climbing up the stairs from the 7 train. “We’ve been in New York for a couple of hours and we’ve already walked five miles.” She was holding a McDonald’s cup and she stomped up the steps, looking ready for a fight.

Not everyone from New York enjoys walking. But it sounded so strange to hear someone bitching about it. I just take it for granted that this is a place for walkers. Then again, when my sister and I were little we complained about having to walk all the way from 103rd Street to 96th to McDonalds. Our babysitter used to make fun of us. But we were four-years-old, so I’ll give us a pass.

The Minor Fall, the Major Lift

My mother’s father died in the spring of 1995. I went to Belgium for the funeral with my brother and sister, mother and step father. We stayed at my uncle’s house and for the three days we were there he played Jeff Buckley’s Grace constantly. It was a mournful soundtrack and the songs are inseparable from the mental pictures and emotions I keep with me from that trip.

I don’t imagine I would have heard the Buckley record, let alone be so moved by it, unless it had been such an indelible part of saying goodbye to my grandfather, staying in the home of his only son, a man with whom I shared little language but ardent feeling.

That trip and Buckley’s album came to mind today.

Here is Janet Maslin in the Times on The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, & The Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’:

The album containing “Hallelujah” came out on an independent label in 1984, and then it languished. See Ms. Simmons’s account for an understanding of why, by 1991, the world was nonetheless ready for a Leonard Cohen tribute album: “I’m Your Fan,” put together by the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles. This album prompted a major overhaul of “Hallelujah” by John Cale, once of the Velvet Underground, who re-edited the lyrics, coming up with a version that has proved more enduring than Mr. Cohen’s. Mr. Cale’s stark, exquisitely pure rendition, with an emphasis on the song’s eroticism, is by some lights (like this one) the best “Hallelujah” ever recorded.

A remarkable stroke of fate sent Jeff Buckley, then an aspiring young troubadour, to stay in a New York apartment that happened to contain a copy of “I’m Your Fan.” Buckley heard the song and, like many who have heard it, claimed he had no idea who had written it. But he included an intensely, beautifully ethereal version of it on his 1994 album, “Grace,” giving it a young man’s hypercharged sensibility rather than the Cohen-Cale seasoned one. When Buckley died young (as his doppelgänger father, the singer Tim Buckley, had), “Hallelujah” developed a cult following. “Leonard penned it, but Jeff owned it,” Mr. Light writes.

[Photo Credit: jucanlis]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Clear Line

My mother was born in Brussels in the spring of 1944. Three years later my grandfather moved the family to the Congo, then a Belgian colony, where she would live until she was sixteen. She came back to Belgium with her sister at the end of June in 1960 just a few days before the Congolese Independence. During her childhood in Africa, my grandfather read his daughters the latest adventures of Tintin–first as they were serialized in newspapers and magazines, and later in hardcover books.

Mom kept most of those books and brought them to America when she married my father. She read them to my sister, brother, and me when we were kids and now she reads the adventures of Tintin to her grandchildren. I’ve known those stories, and more to the point, those books and Herge’s drawings, for as long as I can remember.

So it with great personal pleasure that I share with you the following piece on Tintin by Luc Sante, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. This story, written in 2004, can be found in Sante’s fine collection, Kill All Your Darlings.

“The Clear Line”

By Luc Sante

In a corner of my office, on top of a bookcase, lies a hunting horn–a sort of bugle, curved in the manner of a French horn. It has occupied a place in my inner sanctum wherever I’ve lived since childhood. Such horns are not hard to find secondhand in the Ardennes Mountains of southern Belgium, since these days there’s not much call for them by hunters of the stag and the boar. The reason I talked my parents into buying me this horn can be found in the fifth panel on page 4 of the sixth adventure of Tintin, The Broken Ear. The panel shows Tintin visiting an artist’s garret, a low skylit room with a bed on the floor amid a panoply of artistic bric-a-brac: a plaster bust, a horseshoe, a sixteenth-century helmet, a skull, a few paintings and sketches, and, directly above the pillow, a hunting horn. Since I wanted to be an artist at an age when most kids want to be firefighters, I knew that I would one day live in a room just like that, and wanted to get started accumulating the props. Possession of such a horn would ensure my future as an artist. The Tintin albums were never wrong about such things. Had I wanted to be a sea captain instead, I would have pestered my mother into knitting me a blue turtleneck sweater with an anchor motif on the chest, the kind worn by Tintin’s friend Captain Haddock. The sweater would automatically have conferred upon me the authority to command a vessel.

But if the adventures of Tintin were my guide to life (and worryingly, perhaps, they still are; just a few years ago I bought a floor lamp at a flea market because it looked like the sort of thing Tintin would have in his living room), they were also the reason I wanted to be an artist. I was not alone. Because of Tintin, kids in Belgium, where the series and I both originated, aspire to draw comic strips the way their American counterparts want to start rock bands. I was typical: As soon as I could draw recognizable figures, I started working on a comic strip featuring an adventurous lad and his faithful dog. But even Belgians with no discernible talent have incorporated Tintin and his world-view into the fiber of their beings. The boy reporter made his debut in 1929 in the children’s supplement of a Catholic newspaper, crudely drawn at first, but with his personality and that of his white terrier Milou (called “Snowy” in translation) fixed almost from the first panel of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, the first adventure. That he was an ageless kid, of less than medium height and of an uninsistent modesty despite his many accomplishments, answered to the best aspects of the suffering Belgian self-image. Overnight, or almost, he became a national icon.

Tintin is of indeterminate age; he can drive a car and shoot a gun but is said at least once by another character to be “hardly more than a child.” He is invariably called “the boy reporter” in the fictional newspaper and radio accounts that are quoted within the panels, but is never seen doing any reporting or writing nor is any such work ever otherwise alluded to. He has a nice apartment and a substantial library although no apparent income; his constant travel might be paid for by law-enforcement agencies–Interpol, maybe–since the trips always lead to the solving of some crime or other, but he is never seen being assigned, debriefed, supervised, or compensated. He has no parents or any other relatives unless you count the all-male elective family he accumulates over the course of the series: Captain Haddock, the eccentric Professor Tournesol (“Calculus” in translation), and the twin detectives Dupont and Dupond (“Thompson” and “Thomson”).

Milou (I can’t bear to call him “Snowy”) goes with him everywhere, including to the moon, where he has his own four-legged spacesuit. Tintin has a little tuft of blond hair sticking up in front, and unless he is in costume or disguise he wears the clothes of a jaunty youth of the 1930s, including plus-fours with argyle socks. My father, who was short, blond, and usually wore plus-fours, was called “Tintin” by his friends back before the war, although by the time I knew him his hair had turned black.

I began absorbing Tintin before I learned to read. I know that my father’s mother gave me a subscription to the Tintin weekly magazine before she died, which was sometime around my fourth birthday. I’m pretty sure the magazine was then serializing Tintin in Tibet, the twentieth of the twenty-three volumes–twenty-four if you count the one left in rough sketch form by the death in 1983 of Georges Rémi, known as Hergé, who wrote and drew the series and refused to consider a successor. Hergé attained his peak of productivity in the ’40s, right in the middle of the war, when he published his strips in the Brussels daily Le Soir. The paper from those years is referred to as Le Soir volé–the stolen Soir–because it was overseen and censored by the German occupiers. Unlike most collaborators, Hergé got little more than an administrative slap after the war, and hardly any public opprobrium, because it was so clear he was an innocent by nature. His ideology was conservative, but it was molded for all time by the Catholic Boy Scouts. His world-view was that of a serious-minded twelve-year-old.

A serious-minded Belgian twelve-year-old in, say, 1939 would think of the colonial subjects in the Congo as simple, happy people who derived enormous benefits from being colonized. You couldn’t expect them to understand complex matters, but at least you could send in the White Fathers to convert them to the Roman religion and stop them from eating each other, or whatever it was they did. Tintin in the Congo, book number two, makes for painful reading today, and not only because Tintin is so determined to bag every sort of big game that, unable to shoot a rhinoceros, he blows it up–although he uses too much powder and is left with just the horn.

The caricatures of foreign cultures in the Tintin books are hardly virulent, just indicative of a smug ignorance pervasive throughout the Western world then, but the treatment of the Congolese is shocking because its grotesque simplifications had to have been based on self-serving firsthand accounts by the colonizers. To confirm this, all I have to do is look in my family album. My Uncle René, a drunken ne’er-do-well who lived in the Congo in the 1950s, is pictured with a much more mature-looking African gentleman standing a few paces behind him; this man is identified on the back as his “boy.” The English word was used to mean “manservant” for obvious reasons–it wouldn’t do to think of the Congolese as adults. Tintin is not an adult, either; he is the champion of youth, fighting the scary and corrupt adults of the world on their behalf. In the Congo these inimical adults are nearly all white, while the natives belong to Tintin’s constituency regardless of their ages–it is the only country he visits where everyone recognizes him. When he leaves, the people cry.

Possibly the most striking thing in the Tintin universe is the almost complete absence of women. Of the 117 characters pictured in the portrait gallery on the endpapers of the hardcovers, only seven are female. Women are thin-lipped concierges or very occasionally the silent consorts of male characters; few have more than walk-on parts. The only significant or recurring female character is the overbearing diva Bianca Castafiore, who periodically appears to sing the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, a performance that has the effect of a gale-force wind.

This is not so much misogyny as, again, the perspective of a nerdish pre-sexual twelve-year-old. There are no young girls, or attractive women of any age, because the frightened boy is determined not to see them. Tintin has been psychoanalyzed voluminously–the critical literature is vast, and canted upon every sort of postmodern theoretical framework–so that I’m certain that some academic somewhere has already suggested how much Tintin’s family, as it were, resembles the Holy Trinity: the boy reporter as Jesus, Captain Haddock as an irascible Old-Testament Jehovah, and Milou–small, snow-white, and ever-present–as the Holy Ghost. You might still expect women to hover on the periphery of consciousness as mothers and whores, although both would distract from the serious business of adventure and crime-fighting, and introduce all kinds of unwanted ambiguity. Hergé, ever the Boy Scout, simply excised them.

Hergé redrew the first several stories (with the exception of the irredeemably crude Land of the Soviets) for their postwar publication in album form. Nevertheless, they are set in a period that while undefined necessarily predates May 1940, when the Nazis invaded Belgium. Even the later stories seem to take place in the 1930s, although none of us kid readers of the late ’50s and early ’60s minded or even noticed, since until the “economic miracle” of 1964, postwar Belgium itself effectively lived in the prewar era, at least with regard to technology. The world of Tintin’s adventures is one in which servants wear livery, savants wear long beards, men emerge from fights with their false collars jutting out, and the lower orders are identified by their caps. The world is big enough to include little-documented countries you’ve never heard of, although no subject is so obscure that there isn’t in Brussels some smock-wearing expert who knows all there is to know about it, and possesses the book- and artifact-stuffed apartment to prove it. It is a cozy world in which every detail is correctly labeled and filed away on the appropriate shelf. The world may contain its share of evil, but it is regularly swept and, like Belgian sidewalks, washed every week. There are no areas of gray. Villains–they are most often drug smugglers, sometimes counterfeiters–look and act like villains, and if heroes have their share of human failings (Captain Haddock’s alcoholism being the major case in point), there is nevertheless no doubt about the purity of their souls. Sex, of course, would mess up everything.

The clear moral line is beautifully expressed by Hergé’s graphic style, which is in fact called “clear line.” This method of rendering the world accurately, sensuously, and yet very simply by distilling every sight down to its primary linear constituents derives most obviously from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japanese popular woodblock-print style called ukiyo-e, and its masters Hiroshige and Hokusai. Those graphic artists were introduced to European eyes in the late nineteenth century, when their work had a particular impact upon the French Impressionists, especially Manet and Degas, who learned from them the value of cropping and of visual shorthand. Hergé absorbed not just those lessons; he swallowed their style whole. He enclosed every particule of the visible, no matter how fluid and shifting, in a thin, black, unhesitating line; made that line carry the burden of mass and weight without modeling; and endowed the line with an accomplice in the form of pure, clear, emphatic but not garish color. The style makes the world wonderfully accessible, in effect serving as an analogue to its hero’s mission: Just as Tintin, a mere boy, can travel the world and navigate its dark passages and defeat its oppressors without himself succumbing to corruption, so you, too, whether you are seven or seventy-seven (the advertised age-range of the weekly), can confront the overwhelming variousness of the perceptual universe and realize its underlying simplicity without sacrificing your sense of wonder. And that is the core of Hergé’s genius: to mitigate his young audience’s fears and convert them into sensual delight.

When Tintin, menaced by Chicago gangsters in Tintin in America, must exit his hotel room through the window and make his way to the next one by inching his fingernails and shoe soles along the mortar between the bricks, the young reader prone to acrophobia (me, that is) can translate his trepidation into pleasure at the magnificent geometry of those many unyielding rows of windows as depicted very precisely from a dizzying oblique angle.

The terror of suddenly coming into an entirely foreign landscape–notably, Shanghai in The Blue Lotus–can give way to joy at the immense panels of streets crowded with very individual pedestrians and surmounted by overlapping ranks of colorful banners and signs filled with intriguing if indecipherable Chinese characters. (For this volume Hergé sought the advice of a young Chinese artist then resident in Brussels, Chang Chong-Jen–who became a character in the story–so that the details possess particular authenticity.) The great heights, deep cold, and blinding snows of Tibet; the horror vacui of the featureless Sahara; the threat of a tempest at sea as experienced on a raft; even the empty and unknowable surface of the moon (circa 1955)–all of these can be not only managed but appreciated. To say that Hergé domesticated those locations and experiences would be putting the emphasis in the wrong place. What he did was to bring them into the child’s compass, not only through the heroic surrogate of the boy reporter, but also visually, by scraping away murk and muddle and purifying it, revealing the world as an awe-inspiring but comprehensible series of planes.

In every way but the visual it is easy to dismiss the simplifications of the series. They are the legacy of the comfortable world view that rationalized colonialism–that complacently taught African children in French possessions to remember “our ancestors, the Gauls.” They are of a piece with the creed of scouting as devised by Baden-Powell, with pen-pal clubs and ham radio and collecting stamps, which Walter Benjamin said were the visiting cards left by governments in children’s playrooms. They belong to the same branch of literature as the Rover Boys and Tom Swift and the fantasized travels of Richard Halliburton. They are predicated on nostalgia for a world in which strength rested upon ignorance, and this was so even in the ostensibly simpler times in which Hergé conceived them. Their world is the cosmos of childhood, after all, and childhood past is what all nostalgia refers to, even if wrongheaded adults insist on situating it within historical coordinates.

The visual, by today’s lights, might be diminished just as easily, you might think, considering by contrast the dark abstract tangles that represent the world in many of today’s strips, including some of the better-known superhero adventures, or noting that the heirs of the clear line, most famously Joost Swarte, have applied it to an ironically jolly delirium in which there are not only no moral certainties, but not even any definite up or down or inside or outside. But even Batman has one foot in the adult world these days, even if politicians are no closer to growing up. That the adventures of Tintin remain unsullied by maturity or experience allows them to preserve their power as a visual primer. They are an Eden of the graphic eye, in which every object–each shoe, each road, each flame and book and car and door–is in some way the first, the model that instructs the beholder on the nature of the thing and makes it possible to grow up knowing how to cut through fog and perceive essentials. What Hergé did is as serious and as endlessly applicable as geometry. Small-minded, reactionary, immature, he is not the Rembrandt or the Leonardo or the Cézanne of the comic form–he is its Euclid.

2004

 

Chasing the Game

Over at SB Nation check out this long article I wrote on an old friend:

He’d played a lot of positions over the years. Today, he was a pitcher. It was more a testament to his willingness to be a good teammate than his talent. His curveball was non-existent, his knuckler average, and his fastball wasn’t all that fast. But he worked quickly and threw strikes, valued skills on a Sunday in the Westchester-Putnam (N.Y.) Men’s Senior Baseball League. The MSBL is an 18-and-older organization whose motto is “Don’t go soft, play hardball!” The national website claims more than 45,000 members, and it’s one of several amateur adult baseball programs to form over the past several decades. Nationwide, there are perhaps as many as 100,000 grown men still playing baseball every week.

“I don’t go to court thinking I’m Clarence Darrow,” Birbrower told me this summer. “But I hit a ball in the gap and think I’m Don Mattingly.”

For the past 20 years, Birbrower, a lawyer and divorced father of a son with autism, has played ball for teams like the Alleycats and Robins, the Smokers, and now the Braves. He was the guy who’d talk about at-bats from as far back as Pee Wee League. He had stories about everything: plays the scrubs made, wise cracks from guys on the bench, what the third baseman’s father yelled at an ump. But he loved nothing more than talking about himself. Anyone who has hit a ball on the sweet part of the bat knows it’s one of the greatest feelings you can have with your pants on, and Birbrower knew that rush as well as anyone. When he was a sophomore in high school he once hit five home runs in one week. It changed the way he saw himself. He wasn’t a regular guy who had gotten lucky; he was a star and now expected more, from both himself and the game.

“Until recently, everything was exaggeration,” Birbrower said. “If I went for a run it couldn’t be a nice run. I would be like, okay, I should run a marathon. I should write a book about running a marathon. Fuck it, I should write the best book about running a marathon that’s ever been written.”

Hope you like one. It’s about a kid who has become an admirable man.

A Real Mensch

 

Wayne Coffey has a nice piece in the Daily News today about R.A. Dickey and my friend, the late Mike Gitelson. Mike died earlier this year from myeloid leukemia.

It is a touching story. Mike, who we called “Getty,” was my best friend in middle school. We collected comics, records, and pined for someone to take us to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the 8th Street Playhouse. Getty did not care about sports. At all.

My mother once took a group of us to Yankee Stadium for my birthday to see the Angels because Reggie Jackson was my favorite player. We sat in the bleachers. Mike made a placard at home and brought it with him. It read: Reggie Sucks. During batting practice, Reggie shagged flies near us and Getty waved the placard and yelled at him. At one point, Reggie turned in our direction, grabbed his crotch and spit on the ground. Getty whooped and laughed, his mission accomplished.

He was a political kid. Both of Getty’s parents were social workers and so he came by his left-leaning attitudes naturally. (I remember him railing about something once when we were in high school. We were  in the car with his father, who was a funny guy, and his dad said, “Michael, you are the only socialist I know with a bank card.”) By the time we were upperclassmen in high school, Mike had gone through the Clash and the Sex Pistols and was listening to the Dead Kennedys and Jello Biafra. He was the only guy we knew who was into the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone and Bad Brains.

His senior quote came from a Chili Peppers song: Don’t be a slave/No one can tell you/You’ve got to be afraid.

Getty was an angry kid (then again, so was I). He couldn’t wait to get to college. We had a falling out by then and I didn’t talk to him again for more than twenty years. But because we still had some of the same interests, I ran into him periodically: at a rest stop in New Jersey in 1994 or ’95 on the way home from a Mumia Abu Jamal demonstration in Philadelphia; at Fat Beats, a hip hop record store in the village; in ’96, on the night the Yankees won the Whirled Serious, at a De La Soul/Fishbone concert at Roseland; on the subway platform of the Carroll Street station in Brooklyn. I approached him at the rest stop after the Mumia Abu Jamal rally and startled him. It was clear that he didn’t want to reconnect so the other times I saw him–”Getty Sightings”–I left him alone.

I was surprised, then, when he reached out to me about five or six years ago. We exchanged e-mails and whatever hard feelings that might have existed were gone. We didn’t see each other but touched base every now and then. Mike had become a baseball fan through his wife who was–and is–nuts for the Mets. I thought that was amusing coming from a guy who loved to ridicule overpaid, conceited jocks.

Mike suffered with Crohn’s and he died too young. Go figure that baseball would provide distraction and comfort for him. His encounter with R.A. Dickey was moving. You know, when we were kids, Getty laughed in the movie theater at the end of Terms of Endearment when everyone else sobbed. During The Breakfast Club when the kids bared their souls and the theater was quiet, Getty cackled.  He was allergic to sentiment. But after R.A. Dickey called him on the phone, Mike cried. And I think he’d very much appreciate Coffey’s article.

Yet another reason to pull for Mr. Dickey who sounds like some kind of mensch.

[Photo Credit: Matt Cerrone]

Remember That?

I recently found a diary that I kept in 1985. I turned 14 that June. Pasted to the pages are ticket stubs  from the movies I saw (“View to a Kill,” “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”), from the Eric Clapton concert my mom took me to for my birthday, and the ball games I saw. There’s some writing in there, updates on Pony League games and school work,  but there’s more drawing than writing.

Here’s a few pages…

My man, Reggie.

Good ol’ Knucksie,  Phil Niekro.

In August my mother rented a cheap little cabin for a week out near the tip of Long Island. My twin sister, Sam,  and one of her friends came along with us. The highlight of the week was finally getting to see “Back to the Future,” which I’d be pining to see for weeks.

What I’ll remember most, however, is listening to the Yankees on the radio. The night before we left, I went with my father to see them play the first of a four-game series against the Red Sox. The Yanks won in extra innings and then won again on Saturday and Sunday too. On Monday afternoon, Ken Griffey made a great catch in the 9th inning as the Yanks swept the Sox.

Mom didn’t want us watching TV while we were on vacation  so I had to listen to the games on the radio. But I begged her to let me watch the news later that night to see the highlights and she did. The next day, Griffey’s catch was on the back page of the Daily News. We bought the paper and  I copied the picture into my diary.

That’s my favorite Yankee catch of the 1980s (which is saying something considering how many sick plays Winfield made).

Speak, Memory

Here’s more movie memories from the great Charles Simic:

Back in the 1990s, I got an interesting call from a newspaper editor in Europe. He asked me if I could remember the first movie I saw as child that I liked, not because of the plot, but because of something else in it, something I had no words for at the time. Without ever thinking about it before, I knew what he had in mind. I recalled instantly trying to convey to a couple of my pals back in Belgrade what I liked about Victorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and becoming incoherent, as far as they were concerned. Like me, they were strictly fans of Westerns and gangster movies, but these were in short supply in the postwar Communist years, when we had a choice between upbeat Soviet films about fighting the Nazis and building socialism, or bleak Italian and French neo-realist films that were supposed to teach us a lesson by showing us the miserable lives of the working classes in the capitalist world.

The day I saw Bicycle Thieves I had become an aesthete without realizing it, more concerned with how a particular film was made, than with whatever twists its plot had. All of a sudden, the way the camera moved, a scene was cut and a certain image was framed, were all-important to me. I’d lie in bed at night replaying some scene from a movie again and again, making it more suspenseful, erotic and, of course poetic, and taking immense pleasure in that activity. No wonder my friends began to think of me as being a little weird when it comes to movies. I was twelve years old, clueless about most things in life, but already carrying in my head my very own exclusive and constantly expanding film library, not yet a match for Halliwell’s, but large enough to occupy me and enrich my inner life when I lay awake at night.

Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing in the theater other than Lassie and my Dad took my brother and me to see Superman, as well. But The Empire Strikes Back was the first movie that I was obsessed with. It came out six months before my parents’ marriage ended and I got Darth Vadar and my father and the frozen Han Solo all wrapped up in my mind and it wouldn’t let go. It was thrilling–a true escape–but gave me no relief.

Taster’s Cherce

In 1974, when I was three years old, my grandparents returned from a trip to Florida with a gift for my mother and my aunt. They carried it in a box, a few small branches of an orange tree. My aunt planted hers and it died immediately but mom, who has a way with plants and flowers, potted the branch and it  grew into a small bush. For years, it didn’t produce any fruit. Then, a few, small yellowish oranges appeared, too sour to eat.

Still, mom brought the orange tree with us when we left Manhattan and it survived a divorce, a new marriage, and five homes.

In a recent e-mail, she explained:

I had close-to-death encounters with this one: once going on vacation and finding it all dried up, I put a plastic tent over it and misted it to bring it back to life. Another time one of the cats peed in the dirt and nearly killed it. I had to wash the roots and repot the tree. I kept my fingers crossed on that one, I can tell you. Before we left Croton, a bug infestation, the tree got covered with scales. I hand picked the bugs and spay each leave on the top and on the bottom…

The tree survived and then flourished once mom moved up to Vermont two years ago.

I never knew you could eat the fruits. Then in a catalog recently, I read that a calamondin is a cross between a clementine and a kumquat.

This fall, as by conspiracy, the tree was covered with the biggest fruits ever. (The Vermont air and the Vermont compost…) So I decided to try to make marmalade. I added an orange to brake down the tartness of the calamondin, and bingo. Delicious, tart but nor sour, clementine-parfumed marmalade. The natural pectin in the fruit worked like a charm. All I needed was sugar and cute little pots.

She needed more than that. Patience, devotion, love. Mom’s got it. Got it in spades. It took close to forty years but she never gave up on her little plant, and I can’t wait to taste the marmalade.

Country Ball

By Ben Belth

“Bring the wiffle-ball bat,” I say to my son, Luke, but he wants the aluminum one. “Let’s bring a few tennis balls,” I say. He shakes his head. He wants the hard balls. I admire his courage, but I take a few tennis balls anyway.

When we lived in the city, we would walk a block to the park, find a quiet corner and take BP. He always insisted on running bases, a tree for first, a hat for second and his mitt for third. “He’s like a Boarder Collie, run him out,” our family counselor Ronda tells me. “He needs it to regulate his emotions.”

We live in the country now, and there’s no park down the block. Our yard is too small, so we get in the car and drive to the school field. But it’s Sunday and the soccer leagues are in full blossom. Kids in orange or green jerseys swarm on the field. The parking lots are crowded with parents and expensive cars. We don’t know any of them yet. There’s no room for us.

We go to each ball field in town and find the same scene. Luke’s getting sleepy in the backseat (when he feels out of place: he dozes). So I take him down to the park by the river – a long stretch of landfill on the other side of the Metro North tracks. It’s dotted with families, mostly Latino. There’s plenty of room for us.

“What if I hit the ball in the river?” Luke asks. I give him a wink. He’s good, got a natural lefty swing, but he’s not that good. He slashes the ball to all fields but rarely hits it in the air. I’m not worried about the river.

We start in with the hardballs. “Baseball is a hard game,” I say. He tips the ball, fouls another, and misses a lot. “Underhand,” he says. He gets into one but it’s off the end of the bat and the vibrations unnerve him. He drops the bat and runs to me in a sobby bundle. His hands hurt but it’s more than that.

“I quit. I wanna go home.” he tells me. I repeat it, like Ronda taught me, “You wanna go home.” He looks directly at me. “No I wanna go home. Where my friends are. Where we can walk to the park and where I used to hit home runs.” I nod. “You miss the city,” I say. He falls into my chest, letting it all out.

I want to tell him everything will get better, that he’ll meet new friends, and that next year, he’ll be playing soccer with all the other kids. He’ll find his spot and this will start to feel like home soon enough. But he’s only seven-years-old. So instead I bring out the tennis ball and urge him back to the bat, which is not easy because I just want to keep hugging him. “That’s coddling”, Ronda says, “It makes you feel better, not him.”

“Bat up,” I say. “Plant that back leg.” He follows the directions.

“Coming overhand,” I say and let one go. He drills it, right back to me. A smile breaks across his face. I take a few steps back and throw another pitch, this one with a little more heat. He fouls it straight back. “Got another one,” I say, holding up the hardball. I let it go and he pounds it into the ground, the foul side of first base, but nice. It hits a stone, veers right, pops over a rock, and disappears into the Hudson.

I look back at him, my eyes wide. I’m silly happy but he doesn’t notice. He’s too busy running the bases.

Warrior Pose

I was never a brave child. I faked a groin injury at a roller-skating party because the other kids were stronger skaters than me. I refused an invitation to try out for an all-star team that would represent America in a Canadian tournament because I didn’t make the cut the year before and couldn’t face another rejection.

More than anything, I don’t want my sons to be paralyzed by that same kind of fear in their childhoods. But at the first sign of trouble, I want to run in there and pull them out of the fire.

Searching for something to occupy our oldest son during his first summer vacation from pre-school, my wife and I stumbled upon a day camp at a local yoga studio. It advertised a full week of art, music, dance, cooking, field trips and, of course, yoga, all appropriate for three-to-nine-year olds. Since our potential camper was three going on four, this seemed to be a viable option to kill off a week of inactivity.

When my wife dropped him off on the first day, he was shy, but also excited. He’s timid in new situations but always loosens up. As my wife looked around, she noticed that though the camp was appropriate for younger kids, only kids seven and older had signed up for this week.

Out of a dozen children, he was the youngest by several years. For some of you who were tough kids or who have tough kids or just don’t think about kids that much, this might not seem like a big deal. But imagine walking out of pre-school one day and walking into second or third grade the next. It has the potential to be scary.

“Im trying not to cry.” She texted me from the bus on her way to work.  “He’s too little, what have we done?”

Should I go get him? No, he’s not an egg, I reminded myself. The instructors will look out for him. He can make it through one day. But I was terrified that he would be terrified and I was angry with myself for screwing up something as simple as summer camp.

We could have researched the camp more. We could have made sure he was signed up with a buddy. We should have been better prepared than we were. I was afraid we looked liked neglectful parents. Sitting at my desk, I could feel I was blushing.

When I got home that night I braced for bad news, but he immediately began to show me some of the yoga positions he had learned that day. He especially loved the pose with his feet up on the wall and his hands down on the floor. And he showed me a pretty decent warrior pose as well.

I was so relieved. I thought everything was OK, that he must have enjoyed the experience. Maybe even he would be excited to go back?

My first clue that this was not the case came when I put him to bed that night. He said, “Today was my last day at camp.” I corrected him , “No, today was your first day at camp. You have four more days.” I put four fingers in the air. He was messing with me and he smiled as he said, “No, it was my last day.” He went to sleep.

The camp posted some pictures of their activities and my wife and I scrolled through the set. Our faces sagged together. All the pictures in the beginning were of the older kids. They were doing a complex art project. They were playing poker for crissakes. My son has never even seen a deck of cards. Even in the wide shots, there was no trace of him. We imagined him curled up in a corner by himself.

And then there he was playing with Lego. And then doing yoga. And then in the music circle. The other kids dwarfed him. He looked like their batboy. It was hard to tell if he was having fun, but he wasn’t visibly upset. We reassured ourselves that he was OK and that we should try another day. Our unspoken doubts hung there in the negative space of our agreement.

When I went to work in the morning, he seemed set to go back. But when he had to walk out the door, he was a mess. And it wasn’t the meltdown of the tired, or of the hungry, or of the bratty. I’ve experienced all of those. This was the last resort of the powerless. Please don’t make me do this.

Clinging to the door frame of the yoga studio, in between sobs, he said, “It’s too hard. I’m not good enough. I can’t do it.” I wish I was there for that moment to help him and I’m glad I wasn’t because I don’t know what I would have done. I might have let him off the hook. He’s too young to worry about all that stuff.

I also remembered the shame I still feel for all the times I shrank away from challenges like this. But whose fear am I accomodating, his or mine? There’s a line somewhere here but I can’t see it.

At the end of the second day, he had survived. There were more tears to come, but smiles too. The next morning was easier. The week passed and maybe he won’t even remember the particulars. But my wife and I will.

After that second day, before he went to sleep, he made it clear that he understood he was going back three more times. But he had also come to another conclusion:

“After camp is over, I’m never doing yoga again.”  Ah, well. Good thing it wasn’t baseball camp.

 

 

The Goon Show: A Love Story

 

Mike Fox on "The Africa Project," 1966

In the fall of 1984, my brother, sister and I met Mike Fox, one of my dad’s old friends. My sister and I were thirteen. A few months later, Mike and I started a correspondence that continues to this day. Here’s his first letter to me.

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Taster's Cherce

I loved to eat breakfast at my grandparent’s home in Belgium when I was a kid. I spent a few weeks with them during the summer, alternating years with my twin sister and younger brother. Bonmamon and Bonpapa lived in a farm house in a small village between Brussels and Waterloo. Bonmamon made sure that we visited all of our relatives during my stay there so we traveled around the country, but I preferred when we stayed home. The days passed leisurely and were based around lunch and dinner, and late afternoon tea. There was always the potential for something scary to be served at those big meals–and I was expected to eat what was put in front of me–but breakfast was safe. It consisted of a cup of tea, often Earl Grey, and fresh bread from a local bakery. At the time, there weren’t many quality bakeries in New York, not as many as you find today, so good, simple bread was something to cherish.

I ate slice after slice of bread, butter and jam. Bonmamon made all sorts of jams and jellies but red currant stood out. Maybe it was because it was sweet and tart. Back home in the States, my mom also made red currant jelly and to this day, I love it. Because of how it tastes, of course, but also because it takes me back to a far away place where they spoke French and I felt welcome, like I was home.

Our man in Paris, David Lebovitz tries his hand at Red Currant Jam.

Dig it.

Good Old Sidney: A Father’s Day Story

Drawing I did of my father, 1983

My father was an incorrigible name dropper. He called famous actors and directors by their first names, suggesting an intimacy that didn’t always exist. He had met a lot of celebrities when he worked as a unit production manager on The Tonight Show. One chance encounter with Richard Pryor and he was “Richie” forever. Dad reached the heights of chutzpah when he went to the theater with a friend one night and spotted the actress Gwen Verdon. He walked down to her, introduced himself, and kissed her on the cheek as if they’d known each other for years. Ms. Verdon was delighted. Dad’s friend was amazed.

I remember watching “12 Angry Men” with the old man when I was a kid. “It’s almost as good as the original,” he said, referring to the TV production. “You see how exciting a movie can be even if it takes place in one room?”

I was captivated and by the end, I felt intelligent, finally on the right side of the line that separates boys and men. It was directed by “Sidney,” Sidney Lumet. They had crossed paths once; Dad had wanted to turn “Fail Safe” into a movie, a project that Lumet eventually directed. The old man admired Lumet not just because he was a fellow New Yorker but also because they shared a similar aesthetic, a love of the theater and actors. Dad was an avid theatergoer starting in his early teens through his mid thirties when he became an independent documentary producer. He revered Lumet’s quick and efficient approach to shooting a movie.

“Sidney always comes in under budget and has it in his contract that he keeps the difference,” he told me, raising his eyebrows. “Now, that is a smart man.”

The Old Man with Senator Sam Ervin

Not long after my mother kicked him out, Dad saw “The Verdict” and raved about the performance Lumet got out of Paul Newman as a lawyer who became an alcoholic when he got screwed over, then sobered up when the chance for redemption arose. His clients got justice, he got back his self-respect, and I got squat because I was 11 and Dad said that was too young to watch the movie. The closest I got was the commercials on TV. Everything looked dark brown, courtrooms and bars alike, and Newman seemed so frail I didn’t even notice his famous blue eyes.

Dad holed up on his own in Weehawken, across the Hudson, after his next girlfriend gave him the boot as well. There were two things that he liked about New Jersey: the view of New York City from his bedroom window, and that the liquor store down the block opened before noon on Sundays.

I remember visiting him without my brother or sister one time in January 1983, shortly after “The Verdict” came out. It was a late Saturday afternoon, almost dark, and the sun reflected off the tall buildings overlooking 12th Avenue. The old man was lying on his bed in his underwear and t-shirt smoking a Pall Mall. The heating pipes clanged. The windows were sealed shut around the edges by duct tape but still rattled when it got windy. A glass of vodka sat next to the ashtray on his night table. I used to fantasize about emptying his Smirnoff bottle in the kitchen sink and filling it back up with water. But I never had the nerve.

Most of the time he’d make me entertain myself on the other side of the apartment, in the room without a view of the city. He didn’t want me reading comic books but I did anyway. Or I’d trace the movie ads from the Sunday paper. “The Verdict” was nominated for five Oscars including best actor and best picture. The movie ad showed Newman in a rumpled white shirt, tie loosened, his eyes half closed looking down. The light from a window washed over his face. He looked defeated. The text above read: “Frank Galvin Has One Last Chance at a Big Case.” I traced the movie poster and then drew it freehand. I felt the seriousness of the title “The Verdict.” I didn’t know what that term meant and didn’t ask.

Now I was content to sit next to Dad on his bed and look out the window at the orange light bouncing off the New York skyline. The view reminded us of how far we were from where we wanted to be.

There was a small black-and-white TV on the chest at the foot of the bed. An episode of M*A*S*H, the old man’s favorite show, ended. The familiar and mournful theme song, “Suicide is Painless” filled the room. Dad was talking about his girlfriend. He didn’t seem too bothered by their breakup. Leaving Manhattan was the bigger issue. With Mom, he was devastated. He still believed she was foolish to divorce him and was convinced that one day she’d come to her senses and have him back

Soon enough Dad returned to the subject of Sidney  because Lumet directed the Saturday Afternoon Movie. “He always comes in under budget, do you know why? Because Sidney is not stupid, that’s why.”

“Dog Day Afternoon” was on TV: an Al Pacino movie for grown-ups, but Dad let me watch it with him anyway. Maybe the vodka he was drinking softened his resolve. I knew enough not to question why. Pacino—Dad called him “Al”—played Sonny, a little guy who robbed a bank in Brooklyn. The movie was about what happened in the inside of the bank with Sonny and the hostages. It was tense but parts were funny and I laughed when Dad laughed.

During a commercial break, I saw that his eyes were closed. I studied him. His stomach inflated and deflated in short, hard spurts. Dad was forty-five, almost six years removed from a heart attack, and his deep, uneven breathing worried me. He flexed his right foot and his big toe cracked so I knew he wasn’t asleep. Maybe he was meditating. He opened his eyes and smiled at me, put his hand over mine and looked back at the TV. When he took it away, it was to reach for another cigarette. I stared at the movie until I heard him start to snore. So I slipped out of bed, moving like a cat on the branch of a tree, and butted out his cigarette in the ashtray sitting on a table covered with burn marks. Then I climbed back into bed, careful not to rouse him. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to the old man. He didn’t have a job and wasn’t in show business anymore. If only he would quit drinking.

I checked to see the progress of the light on the skyscrapers during the commercials. The orange glow began to fade as the sun set, turning softer, then pink as the sky darkened to a purplish blue. I thought of what Dad said when Channel Five ran the same public service announcement every night: “It’s 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” He’d say, “No, I don’t know where they are. I know they are not with me and that makes me very sad.” He told me so himself.

In “Dog Day Afternoon,” things were only getting worse for Al. It was nighttime in Brooklyn in the middle of summer and the air conditioning in the bank was turned off. The cops brought his boyfriend, Leon, to speak with him on the phone. Al was robbing the bank so he could afford a sex-change operation for the guy. That made sense to me. It was the right thing to do.

At last, the cops agreed to give him an airplane to escape. I imagined what the inside of the plane looked like and where they were going to go. But when they got to the airport, the FBI nailed him, the hostages were freed, and the movie was over.

I put my hands behind my head, lay back and looked at a water stain on the ceiling. I thought about Al, pushed onto the hood of the car at the airport, the loud sounds of planes taking off and landing in the background. His eyes looked like they were going to bug out of his head and he was on his way to jail which didn’t seem fair even though he was a criminal. Then I imagined Paul Newman. I was happy the old man had let me be a grown-up with him for a little while.

The white lights of Manhattan were twinkling on the other side of the Hudson when he woke up and refreshed his drink. I didn’t want to say anything stupid so I kept my mouth shut. Another cigarette smoldered in the ashtray. He picked up the New York Times crossword puzzle and said,  ”Good old Sidney. He never left New York.”

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