"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Life in New York

Par Avion

I got a package in the mail a few days ago from my friend in London. He sent books. And a letter.

I mean, talk about making my week. How cool is it to get an actual letter never mind British editions of American books? Hot damn.

The MET, Revisited

The first date I had with The Wife was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in January, 2002. Home field advantage I figured. Little did I know that painting and drawing don’t move her. So I took her on a tour and she smiled as I talked and talked. She was probably bored silly and finally she was hungry. Still, she was too polite to stop me and I was so nervous I kept talking.

As she tells it, “You talked until I was limp.”

She has not been back to the MET since. Until this past Saturday. This time we didn’t look at paintings or drawings but we went through the Japanese collection–The Wife loves the Japanese aesthetic. She wasn’t bored and we left before she was starving.


A Heppy Ket.

Cloud City at the Roof Garden.


New York Minute

My twin sister loved Marilyn when we were growing up. As much as I loved David Bowie or the Stones or Woody or anyone else I ever loved.

Sam had Marilyn posters on her wall, had Marilyn books, and of course, saw all of her movies, or at least the ones we could find on videotape. I remember going with her to a double feature of Gentleman Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire  at the old Regency Theater on 67th Street and Broadway. This must have been in the mid-80s sometime. I pretended not to care about Marilyn or worse, put her down because Sam dug her, but I remember that day, sitting in the balcony watching those two movies and enjoying Marilyn just fine.

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death.

New York Minute

Last night I sat in a barber’s chair in the Bronx. The rain had stopped. There was one customer in the place, the sound of an electric razor buzzing filled the room. So did the voice of one of the barbers. He sat in his chair, feet propped and talked into his cell phone.

My barber smiled and looked at me in the mirror. Maybe he thought I understood Spanish better than I do but I didn’t need to know what was being said to understand he was arguing with a woman.

“His girlfriend?” I said?

“Maybe,” my barber said. “Maybe her boyfriend.”

We both grinned.

While the buzzing and the arguing continued to the right of me, I heard Vin Scully’s voice coming from the television set to the left of me. The Dodgers and Phillies were in extra innings and the game was on the MLB Network. Vin sounded tired. So did the crowd. I remembered The Simpsons episode when Homer goes to a game and doesn’t drink: “I never knew baseball was so boring.”

But it was boring in a soothing way. Soon, the buzzing stopped and so did the arguing. The room felt still in that heightened way of quiet that occurs sometimes just before you fall into a deep sleep. The only sound was Vin’s voice. I felt calm and happy.

[Photo Credit: Flick River]

New York Minute

Sunset in Manhattan. I remember walking up Broadway during the summer as a teenager. As I crossed each block, I’d look down past West End Avenue and chart the sun lowering in the sky until it had disappeared beyond the Hudson River and the sky was pink and orange. It was like a walking flip book. Then the lights from the stores and traffic signs and cars popped on the city street. Magic hour, that surreal moment between night and day when everything seemed like it was out of a movie.

[Photo Credit: Atenacius via This Isn’t Happiness ]

Million Dollar Movie

Pass the mustard. This one is too much fun.

I once worked with a post-production coordinator whose husband did the sound for this movie. They didn’t use stock sound effects libraries back then. The screech of the train at the end came from the shower curtain dragged closed in the sound man’s bathroom. Also, you know the woman hostage on the train with the two kids? Her daughter babysat for my twin sister and me when we lived at 875 West End Avenue.

[Photo Credi: The Lively Morgue]

Hacking and Whacking

At the Uptown Sports Complex the other day taking BP with pals Adam and Eric.

Best piece of advice to any old bastards like us: take two Advil before you go hit.

New York Minute

It’s hard to figure that it’s almost been five years since my Dad passed away. I got to thinking about him on the subway this morning when a man came on the train with a bible in his left hand and started talking about Jesus. The man through the packed car slowly and was ignored by the passengers. I smiled as I remembered something Dad once said to a subway preacher. Dad looked up from his book when the preacher got close, looked up at him and in a loud, clear voice said, “Sir, your arrogance is breathtaking.”

Ah, the old man was a good one.

The Stacks

Check out these blog posts about how people organize their books. I’ve arranged my books by topic but am too lazy to do it by author within a topic. Sometimes, I do it by size, or I clump together one author’s titles.

Once a year, I might be inspired to clean the mess up but maintaining it is another thing. Plus, I’m forever running out of space so things tend loose any sense of strict purpose. What I need is more space (the New Yorker’s lament), or less books, or a nook or a kindle. But I can’t imagine not collecting more books. It’s how I was raised and I don’t see it stopping.

Course, there’s also the books that are stacked on my night table, but here’s a look some of my library.

Engine, Engine Number Nine (On the New York Transit Line)

Nine years ago today I wrote the first post here at Bronx Banter. It was about Bill James and the Red Sox. Hard to believe it’s been nine years. The beauty part is I’m as happy writing and blogging at the Banter as I’ve ever been.

Thanks for showing up and coming back.

[Photo Credit: Jeremiah Cox]

Boo York Minute

My cousin’s too big for trick-or-treating, but he was still bummed that Halloween was cancelled. Downed power lines, still rippling with electricity, all over his town. Kids had to stay inside, munching from the family stash.

In our neighborhood, it was business as usual, a rare time when Halloween in the city is better than the variety just across the Bridge.

We have a candy exchange in a big park. The scene is both efficient and chaotic as you can fill your pumpkin in minutes, but the total experience pales in comparison to the coordinated march from house to house that I remember from my childhood.

Luckily, we have a few local spots that give my kids an idea of how it’s supposed to be…

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.

New York Minute

I remember waiting for the subway once with my grandfather. 81st Street, Museum of Natural History stop.  He walked to the edge of the platform and leaned over to see if a train was coming. That image is frozen in my mind. He was not a physical man and I was convinced he would tip over and fall over, down to the tracks. He didn’t. When the train came, we got on and an older guy kept looking at me and I thought he was going to mug us.

Mug. That was a word that was always on my mind as a kid in New York. I don’t hear it so much anymore. Not “jack” or “rob.”  Mug. Whenever I was on the subway I’d try to guess who would mug me and how I could escape.

[Photo Credit: Bruce Davidson]

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.



New York Minute

The New Yorker movie theater (and bookstore), The Regency and the Metro, M.H. Lamston’s,  Morris Brothers, Big Apple Comics, Funny Business, Applause, Shelter, Broadway Bay, The Saloon, Paulson’s, O’Neal’s Ballon. Hell, Tower Records. That’s a quick jog down memory lane of places I used to go to on the Upper West Side when I was growing up. Long gone. And now that H&H Bagels is closed for good, some Upper West Siders feel that the old neighborhood is done, reports Alexandra Schwartz in the Times:

You can find dog accessories and artisanal soaps and Coach handbags, or trawl for oxidized silver pendants and kilt pins at Barney’s Co-op. You can withdraw cash on every corner from the bank branch of your choice. You can load up on chewing gum and razor blades at a host of Duane Reades. You can treat yourself to a perfectly mediocre manicure.

But some of us want more. We want to revel in a neighborhood brunch tradition that has nothing to do with endless waits and haughty hostesses and glasses of orange juice whose prices defy the logic of supply and demand — a tradition that means fresh bagels and whitefish with onions over the newspaper in the living room. When we’re wandering with a hangover down the silent stretch of Broadway at 3 in the morning and the need for an “everything bagel” is stronger even than the need for water and sleep, what are we supposed to do without H & H’s round-the-clock bakery at 80th Street?

Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint, I think of you and your root-beer-stained tables with trepidation. The smell of grease from your nonstop griddles billows out toward 77th Street 24 hours a day, seven days a week — a siren scent taunting gymgoers and health food nuts. You’re an unrepentant West Side institution, and that means that you, bubele, must be in the cross hairs, too.

Of course, it’s only natural for neighborhoods to evolve. My generation of Upper West Siders grew up during the Clinton years in a scrubbed-up iteration of the place our parents knew. Unthreatened by the muggings that were routine a decade earlier, we claimed the identity handed down to us: a certain shabbiness, along with a good dose of brains and a scrappy sense of local pride. Few of us noticed that the neighborhood’s personality had come under assault long before we started to take the subway by ourselves, when Shakespeare & Company and Eeyore’s Books shut their doors after Barnes & Noble took over the old Schrafft’s building at 82nd Street.

I remember when Amsterdam Avenue was a scary place. And parts of Columbus and Broadway too. I knew which sides of the street to walk down and which ones to avoid back in the 1980s. I still have some family on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood I knew as a kid is a memory. It’s safer now, well-heeled, less shabby. A different place. The old neighborhood has been gone for more than a minute.

[Photo Credit: Monika Graff, Marilyn K Yee, William Sauro, Bob Glass and James Estrin for the New York Times]

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.”

I Don't Care if I Never Get Back

I went to Citifield yesterday. Dig these two on line at Shake Shack…

I was there with my two cousins and the wife. We had a great time (Shake Shack, Mets Win, Shake Shack)…

That’s us singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

New York Minute

I had dinner at my aunt and uncle’s on the Upper West Side a few weeks ago and we got to talking about Morris, the deli counter man at the old Daitch Shopwell that used to be on Broadway. They loved Morris and the little old ladies who would visit him. This is what they overheard, back when.

Old Lady: Is the potato salad fresh?

Morris: Yes, we made it today.

Old Lady: It looks like yesterday.

Morris: Lady, you’re from yesterday.

Old Lady: How’s the roast beef?

Morris: It’s gorgeous.

Old Lady: Give me a half of a quarter pound of baloney.

Morris: You’re having a party?

New York Minute

Last night on the uptown IRT, packed train, rush hour. As we approach 181st Street, the conductor says, “I would advise the passenger who is smoking to get off at the next station. The authorities have been notified.”

I’ve seen people smoke on the train before, kids used to love smoking blunts in the last car back when. Mostly, anyone who smokes on the subway is furious or crazy or both. But to do it on a crowded train? That takes chutzpah.

[Photo Credit: John F. Conn]

Fruitcake Follies

I needed a winter hat and for Christmas my mom gave me a fruitilicious one.

“I thought you would like the colors!” she said. She quickly added that I could return it if it wasn’t my style (isn’t it great how you can spot European colorfulness a mile away–even though she bought the hat in Vermont.)

Anyhow, the hat is ridiculous but I need to keep my keppy warm so I’ve been wearing it.  I like to ask people, sotto voice, “Be truthful,” and then I whip out of the hat, “Do I lose my street cred with this hat?”

Some people say, “No, it’s fine,” while others don’t skip a beat, “Yes, you sure do.” It’s not that the people who say it looks okay are lying–though some might be–it’s just a matter of taste.

Last night, Jon DeRosa went out for a meal and I asked him if the hat made me lose my street cred.

“Yes,” he said, “but you get some of it back just by having the balls to wear it.”

My man!

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