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

New York Minute

I was in a cab last week. The driver was from Afghanistan and we got to talking. He told me about the political history of his country since the early part of the 20th century. Sometimes it was hard to hear him so I leaned forward in my seat. After awhile, I asked how long he’s been here and he said twelve years. Then I asked him what he likes most about America.

“Freedom of speech,” he said. “Where I am from you look but you cannot see,” he covered his eye with his left hand. Then he put his hand over his ear, “You listen but you cannot hear.” He touched his forehead. “You think but you cannot speak.” He looked at me in the rear view mirror.

“I am a passionate man. Here, I can speak my mind and not be afraid of going to prison.”

I felt aware of how I take the freedom of speech for granted. But in that moment, I appreciated it like never before.

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.

Lost and Found

Over at Sports on Earth I have a piece about my college girlfriend, New York pizza and Joe Carter’s memorable home run:

It had been a long day but once we got home from the wedding and changed our clothes we were still hungry so we walked a few blocks to Little Italy to grab a slice. The only people in the joint were the guys working behind the counter. It was nearly midnight and the heat from the oven cut through the cool air from the outside. It smelled like tomatoes, garlic and charred dough, an aroma New Yorkers immediately recognize as something unalterably good.

My girlfriend told me to order for myself as she went to the rest room, so I did, then sat at a table away from the front door. I looked up at the TV hanging from the corner of the room and there was Rickey Henderson, the guy I’d patterned my swing after in high school. He was a Blue Jay now, playing against the Phillies in the 1993 World Series. It had been four years since he had been on the Yankees, but it felt like longer.

It took a moment to figure out the situation but when I did — bottom of the ninth, Jays down by a run in the sixth game of the Series — I was alert.

 

[Image Credit: Luis Andrei Munoz; Jorge Columbo]

New York Minute

I remember watching people talking on pay phones when I was a kid. I waited for them to hang up to see if they would stick their finger in the coin return, looking for a dime, or later, a quarter. It seemed like a reflex, as if they were scratching a morning lotto ticket.

Hey, you never know, right?

They were different from the schnorrer’s who walked up to a pay phone and stuck their finger in the slot looking for change without any intention of making a call.

[Photo Via Retro New York]

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]

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]

Aren't You…?

One of the enduring images I have of my grandfather on my father’s side is of him leaning against the window of Zabar’s. It was a Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, a time of day when nobody in their right mind would venture inside. Grandpa was a pragmatic man. He waited outside while my grandmother bought Nova and was throwing bolos inside.

I’ve always tried to be practical like him but sometimes I’ll throw caution to the wind. Like last night, when I thought it’d be fine to stop by Fairway on the way back uptown to the Bronx. Late afternoon, Sunday. Brilliant. In no time, I was sweating like a madman, navigating around the crowded store. I couldn’t have just gone to the market a few blocks north, owned by Fairway no less. No, I had to be clever.

As I came to the end of my shopping list, I was standing in the organic department. I realized that I had to go back downstairs for English muffins. I wanted to throw a punch or at least a punchline. Some gallows humor was called for. I looked up and there was Tina Fey and her family, a daughter with big, beautiful eyes, and her husband, a short, nice-looking guy. Who else would appreciate a good Fairway joke but Tina Fey? But I was dripping with sweat and had bad breath. And I didn’t have anything funny to say. If I tried to say anything to her I’d come across even dorkier than Liz Lemon. I didn’t want to blow up her spot but even more than that, I just wanted to get my English muffins and vamoose.

Anyhow, it was a New York moment.

Closed and Open for Business

I went to the movies on the upper west side yesterday afternoon and stopped into the big Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center. It was the final day of business for B&N at that location. Depressing. Then I walked uptown on Broadway and at 72nd street, I found this treasure trove:

Hot dog.

…and Happy New Year.

Million Dollar Movie

I thought of the old New Yorker theater the other day because it is where my brother and I saw “Tron.” Our old man dropped us off outside the theater and we asked some grown ups to get us in. Later, I saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” there. This was well past the theater’s prime, but I am fortunate enough to remember a bunch of the old movie theaters on the Upper West Side.

My favorite was The Regency which showed double features of old Hollywood movies. I’ll never forget seeing Harry Langdon’s “The Strong Man” (directed by Frank Capra). My bro did a spot-on imitation of Langdon by the time we got home.

 I also remember the Metro and the Cinema Village and the Thalia, and downtown there was St. Marks 80. What were some of your favorite spots?

Har Har Hardy Har Har

My old man used to drink at The Ginger Man, a restaurant near Lincoln Center. The place was named after the play based on J.P. Donleavy’s novel. Patrick O’Neal, one of the owners, had stared in the short-lived play. The novel, was reissued not long ago, and over at The Daily Beast, Allen Barra calls it “the funniest novel in the English language since Evelyn Waugh.”

Dig the review.

Step to the Left

The wife and I were on our way home Saturday night, riding the IRT back uptown to the Bronx. Two young, heavy-set women sat across from us with a stroller in front of them. One of the women drank a can of orange soda and played with her infant son; the boy gripped her fat fingers and laughed. The other woman tapped her cell phone and complained about how long it was going to take for them to get ready–showered and dressed–to go out.

“It’s nine o’clock, you gunna take forever to get your ass in gear. I don’t even know what I’m going to wear.”

The women chattered along–giggling and talking loudly like teenagers–and the child became restless.

“What are you bothering me for?” the mother said to him. “Why do you keep saying, ‘Papi’? Your father isn’t here.  Papi, Papi, Papi. I’m here. He’s not here. You want me to call him so you can talk to him? I brought you into this world, why you need to always bother me? I’m the boss. You do as I say.”

The Mrs and I were tucked into the two seats at the end of the car. We were distracted by the mother, our conversation halted. Finally, Emily turned to me and said, “Can we move?” I had been thinking about changing our seats for several stops. At 168th street, we moved to the next car.

It’s not about being judgemental it’s about comfort. If you can do something about it, why expose yourself to something that makes you uncomfortable, anxious or upset? Yeah, when I’m aware of it–and both Emily and I are exceedingly sensitive to this kind of thing–I don’t think, I just move.

Watch the closing doors.

A Death in the Family

For most of us, death will not announce itself with a blare of trumpets or a roar of cannons. It will come silently, on the soft paws of a cat. It will insinuate itself, rubbing against our ankle in the midst of an ordinary moment. An uneventful dinner. A drive hom from work. A sofa pushed across a floor. A slight bend to retrieve a morning newspaper tossed into a bush. And then, a faint cry, an exhale of breath, a muffled slump." *
A Ridiculous Will —Pat Jordan

The summer is almost over: The last days of Yankee Stadium are upon us. Over the weekend, my neighborhood was crowded with kids returning to Manhattan College. A few days ago I went to Brooklyn to get my haircut. I hadn’t been in a few months and was starting to look downright shaggy. When I walked into the shop, early in the morning, the owner Ray was sitting in his chair. I noticed the place looked bigger and asked where my barber, Efrain was.

"He’s gone," said Ray.

As in retired, not dead. Up and left three weeks ago. Moved to Florida with his wife. Didn’t tell any of his few remaining clients. He only gave Ray a few days notice. 

"His legs have been hurting him," said Ray.

I felt stunned although not surprised. I had been waiting for the day that I walked into the shop to discover that Efrain was gone–retired or dead–for some time now. I sat in Ray’s chair and listened to him as he cut my hair. But I didn’t really hear him. I could only think back on Efrain.

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Missing the Old Man

As you can well imagine, yesterday was tough, and today feels even tougher. It feels so strange saying, “I watched my father die two days ago.” Here is the Death Notice from today’s Times:

Don Zvi Belth, 69, of the Upper West Side in Manhattan, died unexpectedly on Monday, January 15. Son of Helen and Nathan Caro Belth, loving husband of Kathy Neily, father of Alex, Samantha and Ben, father in law of Erin and Emily, grandfather of Lucas, brother of Bernice Belth, brother-in-law of Fred Garbers, nephew of Anita Fried, cousin of Don Fried, Paula Luzzi, Deborah and Mary Wallach, Rosanne Stein, and Stephen and Andrew Belth, uncle of Gordon Gray, Alexandra Pruner and Samantha Garbers. He will be remembered for his encompassing warmth, his humor, his intense loyalty and the vigor of his opinions. For the past 23 years Don has been an active and vital member of the Upper West Side recovery community. His passion for his beliefs and the way in which he shared them has been an ongoing gift to countless people and that voice is his legacy. His signature greeting, “Hello anyone,” is sadly now “Good-bye anyone.” The family will be receiving visitors at the home of Bernice Belth, 875 West End Avenue, on Wednesday and Thursday evening, from 6:00 to 9:00 PM. A memorial service will be held at a later date. Donations can be made in his name to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Pop wasn’t much of a sports fan as an adult, though he did admire the isolated great play if he happened to catch it on TV. He liked baseball best, and followed it casually in the Times. But growing up he was a passionate fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers–even though he was raised in Washington Heights, which was Giants or Yankee country. Dad liked to say that he was “second-to-none” as a fan of Jackie Robinson. He actually got Robinson to sign a copy of an early Jackie autobiography for him when he was a kid (Pop was ten-years old when Robinson broke the color barrier). Dad gave me the book when I was a teenager.

One thing was clear, though: Pop was a classic Yankee-hater. He hated them because the Bombers beat the Dodgers every year. Dad was 18 in ’55 when the Brooklyn finally defeated the Yanks in the Serious. That was a highlight for him for sure, but he seemed to have remembered the many defeats more than that one highlight. (He was riding in a car down the West Side highway with my grandparents when Bobby Thompson hit “the shot heard ’round the world.”) My grandfather was friends with a man who owned a company that printed the Yankees’ programs. This guy had box seats at The Stadium, just behind first base, and so my Dad went to see many of those World Series games in 47, 49, 52, 53, and 56.

Pop took me to see a handful of games as a kid–including an extra-inning affair in the early eighties where Bobby Murcer hit a game-winning dinger in extra innings against the Birds–and claimed to have never seen the Yankees lose in person. He stopped going to games, mostly because he wasn’t particularly interested in baseball, truth be told, but also because he felt he was a reverse jinx. If he went, the Yankees would win. And while Dad respected and even liked certain Yankees along the years–Reggie Jackson, Joe Torre, and Mariano Rivera come to mind–he absolutely loathed George Steinbrenner as a bully, and interloper.

One of Pop’s favorite Yankee moments when I was a kid involved Reggie. We were at a game where Jackson hit a game-winning bomb. I don’t have a clear memory of it, but according to Dad, it must have been in ’80, or ’81, maybe against the White Sox or the Brewers. Dad liked to tell me he called the shot, and I believe that he did. The following day, Pop was at Tiffany’s on Fifth avenue with his friend Jim Thurman. They spotted Jackson, wearing a fur coat, across the room looking at some jewelry. He was the toast of the town on that day. Thurman yelled out, “Hey Reg, good game last night. Who won?” Jackson, according to my dad, got a good laugh out of that, and my dad always laughed, deep and hard, whenever he told the story.

The language of baseball, the history and culture of baseball, is something that Dad and I used to communicate with each other, to remain connected. It was a safe topic when others seemed too uncomfortable or strained. It didn’t matter that he hated the Yanks. I could ask him about Cookie “Wookie” Lavagetto, and Pete Reiser over and again, as I would tell him about parts of the game I was writing about. He was proud of the book I wrote on Curt Flood, and we agreed that Marvin Miller was, and is, criminally underappreciated these days. It didn’t matter that we never shared great catches when I was a kid, baseball helped keep us together when we were adults. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby

Last night, Cliff and I met up after work for a bite to eat. On my way over to his office–”the ugly building with the rounded corners,” as Cliff calls it, or the building with the garish Frank Stella sculptures in the lobby, as I remember it–I see some girls getting ready for a softball game. On the east side of Hudson street between LeRoy and Clarkson streets is James J Walker Park, which has a fenced-in turf softball field. Beyond right-center field–and moving due east–are a series of handball courts, and behind that is the Carmine Street pool (which was where Martin Scorsese shot the pool sequence in “Raging Bull,” when DeNiro meets Cathy Moriarty). The Hudson River is not far off, and a gentle breeze helps cut through the summer haze.

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Passing

Have you ever heard the term “passing?” Until recently, I had not. The way I heard it used, “passing” refers to a situation where you decide not to address something that might offend you. For instance, you are in a conversation with some people–at work let’s say–and somebody says something bigoted. It bothers you but you choose, for whatever reason, not to confront it. You change the subject or ignore it altogether. That’s called passing.

Most of us encounter these kinds of situations all the time. Two days ago at the ball game, I found myself unable to “pass.” I was watching the Yankee game with my cousin and two guys I played high school ball with–one of whom is a good friend. The two jocks started talking about women and baseball and the gist of the discussion was, “Let’s make fun of women because they don’t have a clue when it comes to sports.” I just knew where the conversation was going and it instantly made me uncomfortable, not only because my girlfriend is a devoted fan but because sitting in front of us was a woman who is more knowledgable about the game than most men could ever hope to be.

I caught myself and thought, “Aha, so this is a ‘passing’ sitation.” At first I didn’t know how I was going to respond. One instinct was to join them. I had an ideal story. Earlier in the day, my cousin Eric and I were playing stickball on 5th street between first and second avenues. We were pressed for time and only had about ten minutes left to play when a sexy young thing walked towards us. She had been watching us play for a few minutes when she approached me and said, “Can I play?” She was friendly and exceedingly cute. How do you say “no” to that? If I were single, I’d have turned into Charlie Lau and not only let her play with us but I’d teach her how to hit, anything, in the process. But not only am I not single, I don’t have wandering eyes like that and am not that tempted to flirt with hot young East Village women. So I told her that it was nice of her to ask but that we only had a few more minutes left and we wanted to finish our game. “But if you ever see us playing down here again, feel free to stop by and you can join us then.” I was as friendly as possible and it felt good not to compromise the moment Eric and I were sharing. She looked surprised–not quite comprehending how we could turn such an offer down–and quietly walked away.

Anyhow, I was pleased with how I handled the situation–tactfully but with conviction. Now, I could use this story as a way to join the “He Man Woman Hater’s Club” brewing behind me. Screw women, this is our sport, kind of a thing. I turned around to the guys and instead of directly confronting their chauvanism, or joining it, I started talking to them about Emily and how much of a baseball fan she’s become. I told them that sometimes Em will ask me what I think is a ridiculously stupid question but other times she’ll come up with something simple and logical that I just can’t answer. For instance, say the Yankees are at home and have a runner on first. If the opposing pitcher throws over to first more than once the crowd–any home crowd–will start to boo. One day Emily asked, “Why are they booing?” I stuttered and finally had to look at her and tell her I hadn’t the foggiest idea why. “Because…that’s just the way it is,” was the best I could come up with.

My friend Adam was amused by the story and told me I was so right. The conversation shifted and that was that. But it got me thinking about the different, often refreshing sensibilities women bring to a male-dominated world like baseball. Nancy Smith, the woman sitting in front of us, had an opportunity to meet several of the Yankees last summer and she told me that she had a pleasant ten minute conversation with Mariano Rivera. “He’s a very nice man,” she reported. What did they talk about? Where he lives when he’s up here, how much his kids love the winter and the snow. You know, regular stuff. Things that most guys would never think of talking about if they were to ever to meet a baseball player.

I’d be asking him all sorts of questions about baseball, about pitching. I’d never think to talk to him about such mundane things as the weather. The irony is Nancy probably put Rivera more at ease, and had a more intimate, natural conversation with him than I would have in the same situation. She might enjoy being around him as much as any male fan, but even if she was geeked about it, there was probably nothing urgent beneath the surface, no agenda. She didn’t “want” a piece of him, she just wanted to chat.

Nancy’s story reminded me of something Jane Gross, a former sports writer, once told Roger Angell (from the story “Sharing the Beat,” which can be found in Angell’s “Late Innings” collection):

“I think women reports have a lot of advantages [over male reporters], starting with the advantage of the players’ natural chivalry. We women are interested in different things from the men writers, so we ask different questions. When Bob McAdoo gets traded from the Knicks, my first thought is, How is his wife, Brenda, going to finish law school this year? And that may be what’s most on his mind.

Not better, not worse, just different. Sure, there are times when Emily asks a question that has my snotty-ass rolling my eyes. Other times, she’ll just floor me with her insights–whether simple or profound. I deliberately use my love of baseball as a way to relate to other men. But some of the greatest fans I know are women. And that’s a beautiful thing, bro.

As Good as it Gets

Every time I ride out to Brooklyn to visit my old barber I get this feeling that once I get there, he won’t be around anymore. It is not only because he’s getting older but because the Carroll Gardens-Cobble Hill neighborhood has become so gentrified that the older shops along Smith street are regularly replaced by chic boutiques, hip bars and trendy new restaurants. I lived in Brooklyn for five years (1995-2000) and loved my barber, Efrain Torres, a soft-spoken Puerto Rican man who lost the lease on his barber shop four years ago. Since then, he has a chair in another shop on Smith street, and still happily works six days a week.

It may seem like a long way to schlepp for a haircut. After all, I live in the Bronx now. But Efrain approaches his work with great care and respect for his craft. The barbers around my way are a good bunch of guys, but they cut hair like they are late for dinner. And not only do they rush, but their movements are coarse and violent. Their work is often sloppy. I’ve got a hard cut to screw up–a conservative fade (1 1/2 on the side and 2 on the top with a straight razor to clean up the lines). But I usually come home with small nicks from the razor with random little hairs sticking up from the top of my head.

Emily, who loves my hair short, will inspect their work and usually has some cherce words for their craftsmanship. “You should go back down there and have them get it right.”

“Ahh, sweetie, it just doesn’t work like that. It’s fine, whatever.”

I know I’m getting a second-rate cut but it’s depressing trying to find a new shop. I always know that I’ve got Efrain, who I visited last Friday afternoon. (I’m not the only one who will travel a ways to see him either. He has regulars that come in from Long Island and Weschester as well.) A father and son–also Puerto Rican–own the shop and cut heads too. They will be silent for long periods of time and then suddenly come to life with tall tales of fighting and “How to be a man.” They speak a mixture of Spanish and English, usually depending on who is in the shop. A heavy-set Spanish woman has a corner area where she cuts women’s hair. A glass statuette of a dolphin sits on top of a can of hairspray next to her. I’ve rarely seen her with any clients. She spends most of her time rummaging through her bag or through the drawers of her table looking for make-up. You’d think her bag was a clown’s prop. She’s in there forever. Then she applies more lipstick, eye-shadow. She is comically vain. When she’s left with nothing else to do, she will take a hot-iron and touch up her big, orange hair.

Efrain speaks with a heavy Spanish accent, but has a gentle voice and is unhurried in virtually all of his movements. It is always comforting to see him. He works in a predictable, almost robotic manner. Always the same routine. It’s one that I’ve come to forget. I used to get impatient waiting for him to finish, but now, I appreciate the pace. His hands are soft. When he wipes away small hairs that have fallen in my face with a brush, he does it as if he touching somebody who is asleep, afraid to wake them.

He’ll tell me stories that have no punchlines. He’ll stop what he’s doing at one point for the payoff. I sit there with a frozen smile on my face waiting for the kicker which never comes. So I keep smiling and offer a laugh which prompts him to laugh back, pleased that I’ve enjoyed his story.

When he’s finished with the straight razor and everything is done, he’ll take a pair of sissors and snip behind my ears or on the top of my head. As he was doing this last Friday he stopped and told me, “I’m sorry it takes so long, but you have to pay attention to the details. It’s the small details that make the difference.”

Ain’t it the truth. The telling detail. It’s hard to find people who take their craft seriously, but when you do find them, they are worth their weight in gold. Am I right? No matter what they do. If they drive a bus, or cut heads or write for a living. Pat Jordan is a throwback baseball writer. He is a journalist who writes “straight” stories in a style that pre-dates New Journalism or Gonzo writing, though he came of age in the era of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. His best pieces are long profiles, but he doesn’t get to do much of them anymore. His most recent baseball piece for The New York Times Magazine wasn’t longer than 2,000 words. He used to write 6,000 word articles regularly.

It’s hard for a writer like Jordan to thrive in the today’s magazine culture, which is a shame for someone who takes his craft seriously. He writes clearly, and has a keen eye for observation, not to mention human behavior. He respects the language and doesn’t let cute language or gimmicks get in the way of the story. But even if he doesn’t get the opportunity to pen longer pieces anymore, he is now offering a look at some of his best unpublished work. Jordan recently launched a website which posts a new story every month. They are no baseball pieces yet, but a sampling of all kinds of work: a piece about a healer, an expose on the porno industry. Jordan is charging up to four bucks per story. The shorter stories are only one or two dollars.

Anyhow, they are worth the money if you appreciate honest and unpretentious craftsmanship. Jordan writes like Efrain Torres cuts heads: with sensitivity and discipline. His work also suggests that he is doing exactly what he was meant to do on this earth. He cares about his craft which makes the visit well-worth the trip. Tell him I sent you.

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