Carefree Highway

Last year around New Years, my wife and I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song For a Winter’s Night” and asked each other, on a lark, “I wonder of he’s still touring.” Within minutes we discovered he’d be playing in April in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, on our wedding anniversary, and couldn’t resist.

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Gord in Stroudsburg, PA in April. He’s had the same bass player, Rick Haynes, for 48 years.

On our way we wondered if he’d pay any tribute to Prince, who’d died a few days before – dedicate a song to him perhaps. (Springsteen played “Purple Rain” that same weekend.)

For the record, he did speak fondly of Prince, describing him as a “genius,” but didn’t play any song for him. Nor did he play the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” which disappointed me a bit. Months later I heard the WNYC interview with him and realized that this century he’s suffered both an aortic aneurysm (six weeks in a coma) and a minor stroke, and that he rehearses more than he ever did, because he has to! So you have to forgive him for skipping his hardest songs.

Today is my birthday, and I have too much to do to fall into a YouTube hole, but I’ve been known to spend hours watching singers. I even love seeing them try to lip sync to their own records during TV appearances. “Where are those strings coming from?” you wonder, “and was anyone really fooled by this?”

I also adore homespun attempts to sync up studio versions of songs with live footage, like the one below. I picture a guy with a Mac or at a cable access studio poring over the exact outpoint when the singer is obviously going “off script.”

I don’t know how you experience birthdays and anniversaries, but they’re starting to make me feel old. Like the pain in my feet and the extra second it takes to remember a coworker’s name is who I am. This year Gord was there, all 150 pounds of what used to be an imposing Northwoods frame, with a sweet smile and lovely manner, to say, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be cool old people.” He turned 78 a few weeks ago.

He started his set by playing about a half dozen of his recent songs – a classy maneuver – then played his 70s hits, starting with “Carefree Highway.”

The Designated Mourner

“These people, and God knows why, well, they don’t like us. They don’t like us. They simply don’t like us.”

That’s Jack from Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, a film I’ve watched more than once this week. That phrase rang in my ears the night I watched the election results from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump was going to win! Of all the reasons we were already starting to hear about why, I had to fixate first on one plain truth. Working class men in Erie and Kenosha really don’t like us coastal “elites.” So much that they’ll shoot themselves in the foot just to spite us.

 

By the next morning friends were texting and emailing hopeful quotes from Gandhi and Hafiz encouraging me to stay hopeful, but I went straight to Shawn. The whole film is on YouTube now, but if you don’t feel like watching it, it’s about a disintegrating marriage in a fictional post-coup America: If Chile in ’72 happened in New York today…

Jack is an unabashedly low-brow writer married to the daughter of a leading liberal intellectual. The first thing he tells us about his father-in-law Howard is what a capacity for contempt he has when he judges others, describing the pleasure with which Howard wins an argument by comparing it to a knife going into his body being twisted gratuitously.

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Wallace Shawn in the stage version.

Wallace Shawn knows how to savage liberal intellectuals. (While Judy’s giving her account of the coup, she takes a moment to describe how perfect the chutney complements the cheese at the last get-together.) On stage he played Jack in this play himself, but the film version is a good chance to see Mike Nichols act.

By the end of the film (spoiler alert!) he describes shitting on a book of poetry. It’s all about the release a person feels giving up any high brow aspirations, the accommodations we make with crass culture – in this case writ huge by the fictional coup setting, but really about all our lives. It feels a lot more prescient than ever.

 

 

 

Why I Love Horror Films This Week – and I Hate Horror Films

I’ve never liked horror as a genre, and yet the most timely film in theaters right now is Ouija: Origin of Evil. I came across it at the end of a horror film bender I started a week or so ago. I could blame Trump, but really the devastating fall cold virus that’s been haunting the continent dropped off a demon spawn in my bloodstream for a long weekend, and it just seemed right.

It started with 2016’s Sacrifice (written and directed by Peter Dowling, based on S.J.Bolton’s book), a Wicker Man knockoff about an American obstetrician who moves to her husband’s hometown in far northern Scotland – Big mistake! This whet my appetite for 2013’s Neverlake, written by Carlo Longo and Manuela Cacciamani, whose credits include production-managing The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. The story, not unlike Sacrifice, is about a British girl who goes to visit her Italian father in southern Tuscany and finds he has more than just a passing interest in the the bizarre fertility rituals of the Etruscans. When production managers start writing stories, you can expect them to be about this exciting.

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“Which Oxford twit dies first?”

This made me crave a classic, so I watched 1973’s The Legend of Hell House. I recall this one being the late movie on television – one that was so late getting started, it seemed unthinkable that anyone could tolerate watching it in a dark house. It’s about a team of scientists and psychic experts who go to spend a week in a house haunted by a patrician serial killer.

By now I was sensing the old familiar patterns of horror of films, and the minute Pamela Franklin appeared as Florence Tanner, the young psychic whom the “real scientists” don’t respect, I said to my wife “She’s going to get sexually violated,” and she was. Horror films tend to be moralistic. Dionysian pleasure, and especially sexual precocity, get rewarded with violence.

They’re also often about self-righteous believers in science and reason getting their comeuppance, and that’s why the classic British horror films are the best. Enter Christopher Lee or Basil Rathbone talking about how thank goodness we don’t believe in superstition anymore, and wait for the spirit world to make a stunning comeback. Take that, Oxford twit!

Richard Matheson, who wrote The Legend of Hell House based on his own novel, had a long writing career that included the novel I Am Legend, episodes of Night Gallery, The Twilight Zone, and The Night Stalker, and screenplays for the series of Roger Corman versions of Edgar Allen Poe films from the early 60s like The Pit and the Pendulum.

For good measure I thought I’d watch Children of the Corn, the 1984 film written by George Goldsmith based on a Stephen King story. This is about kids reimagining Christian fundamentalism in a brutal and childish way. One thing I always found frustrating about horror is the need of story-tellers to reveal “the secret” inside the story: the nuclear accident or experiment on monkeys that went awry and got covered up. It makes me tune the stories out for offering so much new information just when they’re promising clarity.

In their defense, horror films are often just about perfect in length. 90-100 minutes of tight story-telling that rivets you for the first 60. Then comes the unnecessary backstory about a sexually abusive bishop or Nazi doctors.

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Sheila Vand in “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”

For this, among other reasons, 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, is in a class by itself. Setting the film in an imaginary Persian underworld called Bad City, she takes the moralism inherent in horror and jacks it up by turning a feminist vampire on the loose. Her vampire, who devours drug dealers and shows mercy to prostitutes and children, is someone we get to see having downtime, enjoying English language music in her apartment. Her cape, coupled with a striped shirt, is equal parts burqa and vampire cape, and manages to evoke Jean Seberg from Breathless.

Amirpour has a new film coming out soon, and has to live up to the hype of being “the next Tarantino,” but I hope she just keeps writing stories like this. Really A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a love story that uses horror as a setting. No bombshells from the backstory needed come the one hour mark.

Which brings me to Ouija: Origin of Evil, a film that reviewers kept insisting is “actually not that bad,” which is true enough, for an hour. It’s written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Elizabeth Reaser, who many of us know as the diner waitress-siren of death from Mad Men, has bills she can’t pay so she starts spicing up her scam psychic business with a ouija board, and lays a moral trap from beyond the grave for herself and her daughters.

That the film is set in 1967 fascinates me, and that the dad figure who almost returns to make the family whole again in the conservative, Hitchcockian way, is a priest who’s obviously regretting his celibacy, also makes this movie extra titillating. So many lovely plants in the first hour of this film, you hope for a tight story, and just then it spins out of control. This week has been all Trump versus Hillary, which the Times is calling, correctly I think, a final rematch in the intra-generational fight inside the Baby Boom.

What hell they’ve unleashed on us.

Herr Tamburin Man

Did Bob Dylan deserve the Nobel Prize for literature? A better question might be, “Who is this cabal of Swedes that decides what greatness is?” Me, I don’t know, but on the face of it I suspect he does…

My friends are mostly elated about it, each of us under the spell of Dylan in some fashion or another. His award, if you believe their comments on it, is a return of literature to its rightful place, in a circle by a fire, with a blind poet plucking at a lyre.

People lose their minds over Bob, as Woody Allen lampooned in Annie Hall. When asked by Shelley Duval’s Rolling Stone reporter whether he’d caught a recent Bob Dylan show, Alvie answered, “Me? No, my raccoon had hepatitis.” (Woody never liked the Beats, or the counterculture in general.)

When Stephen Metcalfe of Slate laid out a case for why Dylan the musician was no poet of Nobel size, he punctuated it with a line whose sentiment comes up sooner or later whenever any writers doubt he deserves it: “We pathetic literati have a few days to pretend to world importance. We just lost another.”

Do we all have such petty, shriveled hearts? Do we look at what the world thinks of writers in general and feel we’re so under-appreciated we can’t clap when the old Stephen Foster and Reverend Gary Davis fanatic gets a medal pinned to him?

I think we can.

 

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle was to the French New Wave what the Kinks were to the British Invasion. Though he is not the first name you think of associated with it, nor the second or third, he is clearly of it and did many of the things it did first and better.

That’s what occurred to me yesterday as I left the matinée screening of Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) on the last day of its run at Film Forum. It was quite a sight: There were two dozen of us, by my count, which included one couple and all the rest of us solo viewers. What is it about arthouse cinema that inspires the same kind of following as weekday masses, where widowers and heartsick people worship in semi-private? But I digress…

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Jeanne Moreau and Yori Bertin, “So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you-ou-ou.”

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, written by Malle and Roger Nimier based on a novel by Noël Calef, was released in France on January 29, 1958, but didn’t come to the U.S. till the summer of ’61. In that interval, both The 400 Blows and Breathless came out. In the U.S., Hitchcock released both North By Northwest and Psycho, and a Papist became president. What a time.

Malle’s better known film The Lovers (Les amants) was also released in the fall of ’58, and in the interval between Elevator‘s French and U.S. releases, The Lovers caused a famous obscenity trial in Ohio, which it ultimately won. (The Kinks later got blackballed by the U.S. music business, and couldn’t tour right when the Beatles and Stones were solidifying their following with major U.S. tours.) So The Lovers became known as Malle’s first big film, and its upper middle class characters, and decidedly middlebrow atmosphere, put him at odds with the New Wave.

Elevator to the Gallows is basically a pulp novel story with higher aspirations, like lots of early Truffaut and Godard, and also looks like a New Wave film. Seeing Jeanne Moreau’s face lit by flashing lights, her makeup smudged, makes it feel like a low-budget labor of love. In the new digital restoration, you can see the boom operator’s reflection in the glass phone booth. Having seen it, I feel like I’ve been to Paris in ’58, and I can’t say the same for the Plaza Hotel or Mount Rushmore, as many times as I’ve seen North By Northwest.

Like Psycho, it begins like a step-by-step crime film, but instead of killing its heroine and becoming an admittedly unique whodunnit (a dull one, in my opinion), it sustains the tight time frame in three different stories: Tavernier, the man who just killed his rival, stuck in an elevator; the woman whose husband he just killed (Moreau) having a meltdown because she believes she’s being stood up; and the impulsive teenagers joyriding in Tavernier’s car, using his name. This all goes on a delightfully long time till the final unraveling.

The young couple playing the part of rebels is every bit as compelling as the kids in Breathless or A Band Apart, but Malle would never have been content with a story that was all about them. When Moreau finally tracks them down, it’s like an adult has broken up her teenagers’ beer party. Never mind your theater of rebellion, a broken heart is at stake here.

This is the kind of art-babble that kept me from going to grad school, but here it goes:

Elevator to the Gallows is ultimately a conflict between what medium is authoritative. It starts with the crime novel, which is just a point of departure. You know Tavernier will ultimately get caught, it’s in the title, but which crime will he get caught at, and how? Once he’s in custody, the free-wheeling New Wave locations give way to 100% atmosphere. The police station looks like a minimalist theatrical set, and we see some of the Malle we’ll get to know in My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. It looks like interrogation – simple dialogue – is going to one-up the detective story, and have the last word, but in the end it’s photography that’s decisive.

It’s often remembered for its Miles Davis soundtrack, and that’s a good enough reason to keep watching this film:

My Donald Trump

The TV event of the year is happening tonight. I’m invited to a viewing party to see it, and have a bottle of party wine picked out (a liter of Italian grenache) and nothing else going on, but still I’m leaving the option of skipping it on the table till the last minute.

Based on past experience, I’m not sure I can sit through it. In October 2012, I’d spent a week on a solo writing retreat near the Vermont border and was driving back right on time to see the second Obama-Romney debate. My wife and friends had a nice supper waiting, and as we tuned in I could feel the peace and focus evaporating through my temples. I started pacing, then doing the dishes. Romney was pestering Obama about domestic oil drilling, and Obama, who knew it was nothing to be proud of, bickered right back, saying his plan allowed for more drilling than Mitt’s plan. “This is how we choose presidents?” I finished my drink in the kitchen.

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Melania. Be very afraid.

And this year, I’ve actually had face time with one of the candidates: Donald Trump used to be my boss! In the spring of 2005 I was new to New York and answered an ad for crew wanted for a TV show. An interview was scheduled for Trump Tower, which I naively figured was just a space another production was renting. It was one of those situations when you’re expecting an interview, and you show up and they want to know why you didn’t bring any ID’s for an I-9. There’s no discussion, you’ve got the job.

So, I figured, “What the hell? Let’s see what working for The Apprentice is like.” It would be good for a laugh anyway. My way with assistant-level jobs was always to wear a nicer shirt than anyone else, which isn’t hard on a TV shoot, because everybody looks like crap, and before you know it you’re promoted. The first day was a full crew meeting, where we watched a sizzle reel of that season’s contestants. We laughed, often at their expense.

We were warned that although The Donald would be on set at times, we were not to talk to him: He has a habit of going down the chain of command when he has a bad idea. If his producers disagreed with him, he asked his producer’s assistants. If they disagreed, then he started talking to random guys in baseball caps until someone nervously answered, “Good idea.” It seemed like a curious thing to say to – I don’t remember how many of us there were, but the meeting was held in the Hammerstein Ballroom, which tells you something about how many of us were present.

The first episode of that season started on Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, NJ, with Trump telling the gathered contestants that he would give a leg up to one person by giving him or her a ride back to New York City in his helicopter if they’d be the first to run to it, which started a race across a fairway to his waiting chopper, a scramble reminiscent of the longshoremen fighting for a token to work in On The Waterfront.

That night, after a twelve-hour day, I was told that I looked something like one of the contestants, and asked if I could come back for the reshoot the next day. A “reshoot” in reality TV? Yes they do! If they need a wide shot without the twenty-plus video cameras in the frame, they restage the action a day later with stand-ins. I was told that it paid better and could lead to steady work doing it.

Producer: Can you come tomorrow?

Me: Sure.

Producer: Do you have a black suit?

Me: Yeah.

Producer: Do you have a red tie?

Me: I don’t think so.

Producer: Can you borrow one by tomorrow?

Me: I doubt it.

Producer: Well, do your best and let us know.

The Apprentice was the number one show on NBC at the time, and it relied on the aspirations of not just its cast to break the actors union, but its stand-ins’ own wardrobes to get the correct color of tie for its reshoots. I had no aspirations of being on screen, so I showed up sans cravat and figured it would be their problem if they needed a red tie. We shot it without it, the production manager himself playing Trump in the wide shot, wearing a Chinatown Trump wig. That’s the great business genius in a nutshell.

Crew members were tired of constantly going through security and up the elevator, so one day I offered to run an envelope up to set. My $24.99 shirt from H&M separated me from the riff raff and I strode right in. Trump smiled at me, and we nodded hello, but I could see by his handlers’ expressions, something like the look on the cop’s face the moment Jack Ruby shot Oswald, that it wasn’t the time for introductions.

After a few weeks of dozing behind the wheel of a van in the no-parking zone outside of Trump Tower I asked the coordinator if maybe we can excuse a few of us to leave early, since we had too many vehicles anyway, and he leveled with me: It was cheaper to keep them attended than to park them in a ramp. That’s when you realize you’re taking the long way in your career.

And now Trump could be president. I guess it only makes sense that the person responsible for putting so many TV writers out of work is flummoxing so many writers as a politician. As columnists one after another publish their own version of the definitive reasons Trump is not fit to be prez, it feels like they’re falling on their swords, realizing that discursive writing itself is meaningless.

I’ve said in the past that the real determinant of elections is the first ladies: Voters turn out to vote for the kind of sex life they want the country to have. Democrats lose when they try reviving Eleanor Roosevelt, and they win with youthful, exciting first ladies.

That’s the unknown that terrifies me as much as the prospect of another numskull with a pipe bomb tilting the election to Trump. Bill Clinton, as the first male “first lady,” has to play the part of the sagacious grandpa; being the frisky grandpa like Bob Dole doing Viagra ads is off limits for him. He’s always more Eleanor than Jacqueline or Michelle. Voters are hardly deft enough thinkers to identify with a 70-year-old leader (I know, I’m rounding up: Hillary will be 69 next month.), and we’re asking them to do that and get over their bias against female leaders, when Trump has Melania standing next to him.

I feel the urge to hide come election time, not because I fear the opponents but because I get frustrated with my friends, many of whom, this time around, are breathlessly repeating every last transgression of Trump, whose strategy is obviously to keep people talking about Trump the released American id, so we never talk about Clinton.

I refuse to believe that the 55 million Americans who are going to vote for Trump are either fascists or willing fascist-enablers. There must be some other motive at work, but judging by the reception a column by an anti-Trump Republican got last week, the Left doesn’t want to hear it. Ross Douthat posted a cheeky piece with the admittedly misleading title “Clinton’s Samantha Bee Problem.” Judging by the online response, you’d think he was blaming a beloved feminist comic for Trump’s rise, when all he was doing was pointing out that, historically, the ascendance of cultural liberalism doesn’t necessarily translate into political power, and in fact inspires a knee-jerk response against liberalism in the hinterlands, one that Trump is riding right now.

Are voters really so short-sighted? So tasteless?  The answer is apparently yes, except for our saviors, the women of the suburbs in Cleveland, Philly, and Miami. If Hillary keeps up this message, she’ll rally them and win:

This is the Hillary I’m looking for tonight, or the Hillary I would be looking for, if I weren’t in my friend’s kitchen, washing the wine glasses and looking for a lid for the Tupperware container that’s just the right size for the amount of tabouleh that’s left over.

Slimier Things

Why are dystopian road movies all full of people wearing leather, and yet we never see any cows in them?

I’ll never forget Roger Ebert asking Gene Siskel that while reviewing a Road Warrior knockoff in the late ’80s. It seemed like a fair question to me at the time, since I hardly gave a damn about the movies then. Years later, of course, I would have found it a buzzkill. It’s a movie! Suspend that disbelief.

Coincidentally, this week a friend sent me a very funny 2003 article entitled “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters” on the same day I decided I really ought to finish watching Stranger Things, the Netflix hit of the summer that I’d lost interest in. The article, by marine biologist Michael LaBarbera, is full of musing like, “Enlarging an insect to this size raises other interesting problems that don’t arise with large vertebrates. Take the respiratory system.”

Yes, take the respiratory system. LaBarbera uses his favorite old films to give us some readable discourse about the kind of work his colleagues do, studying the metabolism of shrews and all that, so he’s not really defending disbelief. And yet I could not get around my own disbelief about Stranger Things, which was, by most accounts, just enjoyable TV. Friends kept saying they sat and watched the whole miniseries in two sittings, and I’d shyly say I’d gotten to the last episode and couldn’t finish it.

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The girl in the vintage dress is the only person who knows what the hell she’s doing.

Not that the series lacks its charms, like seeing Matthew Modine return with a sinister side. As Vox points out in a profile of the designers who did the series’ opening credits, Stranger Things gets a lot of things right about the period, the early ’80s. But it also has a very contemporary girl power message.

I often say that thrillers are defined by the nexus of evil inside them. Is it supernatural? Science fiction? Government conspiracy? Corporate? A killer on the loose? The series is not a thriller, so different rules apply, but eventually I want to know, what kind of villain are we facing here? What’s it going to take to topple it?

As the title implies, there’s always something stranger in Stranger Things, and that bottomlessness leaves me unsatisfied. It’s a government coverup of a military-scientific experiment gone awry, with a cheap Freudian father-daughter thing at the center, and a break into the extra-dimension. Robert Rodriguez can do this in Planet Terror, since he’s playing for laughs, but after four hours I want to know just how strange things are.

It also hurts the series that it’s so innocent. You know you’re never really going to see anything gruesome: The first three minutes of Saving Private Ryan are scarier. It compensates by dialing up the gross factor. The portals to the next dimension aren’t clean, Escher-like discontinuities, they’re nonsensically membraneous, and the parallel world covered in slime, a place where walking causes the sucking sound of aspic being tossed from a vacuum-sealed can. I found myself wanting to skim the action scenes and get to the unrequited teen romance.

A lot of people are looking forward to the return of this series. I guess, like M.J. in the “Thriller” video, “I’m not like other guys.”

Souped-Up Honda Civics

Of all the ridiculous things Ahmad Rahami could get obsessed with, he found souped-up Honda Civics. Until he grew up, that is, and got serious, and thought he’d try his hand at terrorist bombing.

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“His other known obsession was souped-up Honda Civics that he liked to race.”

Shortly after I woke up yesterday, like many people in the New York area, I got an eerie, Orwellian feeling from the screeching alarm sound coming from my iPhone to warn me that Rahami the bombing suspect was on the loose, and presumed armed. It offered a link to a photo.

Since Rahami was already identified, I assume that N.R. Kleinfeld, the The New York Times writer, spent the morning in Elizabeth, New Jersey, asking Rahami’s neighbors around his family’s First American Fried Chicken restaurant about him, because the Times had a profile up within minutes of his being arrested, it seemed.

Friends quickly posted it on Facebook, some with dubious, “Look how clueless the Times is as usual” kind of comments, objecting to what they saw as a rush to tell a too-obvious story of radicalization caused by his going home and seeing Afghanistan for the first time. (It seemed like it had a li’l something to do with it to me.) Others, such as a Muslim friend of mine, seemed to like the story though. Since yesterday it routed  over 5,000 people to see the First American Fried Chicken Rap that some of Rahami’s customers made for him a few years ago.

The sad truth is, it’s a lot easier to make a homemade bomb than it is to pimp out a Honda Civic, or run a chicken joint profitably, or get a B.A., or immigrate illegally through the Arizona desert, or to do lots of other things. Nothing is really stopping any religious fanatic or white supremacist or anti-government conspiracy theorist from making one at any time. Nothing, except the fact that so unbelievably few of them are actually that hateful. We are closer than we think.

 

Crazy Eddie & Jimmy the Greek

Crazy Eddie died last weekend – not the star of the TV commercials I loved as a kid, but Eddie Antar, the founder of the chain of Brooklyn-based electronics stores his iconic commercials advertised. His Times obituary headline identified him as “Retailer and Felon,” which seems like a gratuitous kick in the nuts of a dead man, even if he did used to fly to Israel with bundles of cash that should have belonged to his shareholders taped to his body.

I never set foot in one of his stores. I grew up far in the suburbs after all. I am not, however, the only person with a childish fondness for him. On those infrequent days when I wear my Crazy Eddie tee shirt, strangers stop me and say they love it.

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“He’s practically giving it all away!”

Eddie Antar was 68 when he died, a descendant of the famously insular Syrian Jewish community of Gravesend, Brookln. Did Eddie have to die to make room for the Syrian ceasefire, which was announced that very day, to become possible? No, that would be crazy.

But when we mourn his passing we mourn the loss of a regional-sized TV market and consumer identity. His homespun commercials remind us of a time before practically all brands were national, before “Charlie Bit My Finger.” People of regions outside New York have their own fabled marketers and, often, children’s TV shows, such as Minnesota’s Axel and His Dogthat they love. Living on the cusp of the Philly-New York markets, I was, if anything, even more fond of Philly retailers such as Ideal, whose jingle my wife and I still sing around the house.

Crazy Eddie was special though. And his legal demise years later made him even more so. There was truth in advertising in Crazy Eddie. I feel a wee bit sorry for whomever he defrauded, but, y’know, he did tell you he was crazy!

Thinking about that fact yesterday, I was reminded of another great TV personality who flamed out around the same time: Jimmy the Greek. Yesterday was the beginning of American football season (and the anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, and Eid, but what can I say about that?).

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Jimmy the Greek.

I hate American football, and have hardly watched it at all since Jimmy the Greek was still a fixture of football commentary. I always found it sad that The Greek got fired for making racial comments, alleging that African-Americans are better athletes because slave owners specifically bred them to be stronger. Never mind that it’s racist bunk. Can you really fault an odds-maker for thinking in ethnic categories, when he goes by the name “Jimmy the Greek”?

I discovered an ESPN documentary, surprisingly viewed less than 10,000 times on Youtube, about Jimmy the Greek’s life. Born Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos in Steubenville, Ohio, he would have turned 98 on Friday. (What a weekend!) He was neighbors with Dean Martin as a kid, and his uncle shot both his mother and his aunt, and then himself, in a murder-suicide. Three of his five children died from cystic fibrosis, but his public service announcements about the disease have been scrubbed from public memory too.

He popularized sports gambling, for which he’s hopefully suffering some torments in hell. But he was a real personality, from a time when personality was rewarded, a time that receded a lot further in the past this week.

A Bad Century To Quit Smoking

Anne Roiphe’s essay that appeared in Tablet yesterday, about her late husband’s smoking habit, moved me deeply. Its complete title, “My Husband Quit Smoking, Then He Started Again: And that was fine with me: He was a 20th-century Jew,” says most of what you need to know to “get it,” but there’s so much more substance to it than that.

I’m a bit biased, perhaps, because Roiphe’s daughter Emily Carter was an indulgent mentor to me when I was a 20-something writer almost finding my way. Last year, when writing about my own father not long after his death, I tried accounting for some of his flaws. In any kind of writing it always makes the characterization rounder, and therefore more moving, to include the unflattering bits. It gives you the reader/viewer a deeper bond to sympathize with the flaws and not just the virtues.

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U.S. Marines, 1944.

If only we were so generous in real life. So often we witness other people’s bad habits and see in them nothing but evidence of their weakness of character. The obese person just can’t control himself the way we svelte people can. The substance abuser needs to get his shit together.

Just yesterday – same day, coincidentally – I was switching to an express train at Union Square, and an angry-looking guy gets off it smoking a cigarette down to its butt and, for good measure, drops it on the platform. I know, we should all be on board the public health campaign to stop smoking, but people have been smoking tobacco for a long time, and there should be someplace in public you can still sit and do it – though I suppose not the Q Train.

The portrait Anne creates of her husband, ten years after his death, is of a man whose demons were of his time and place, but who, all told, bore them with grace. If the American Jew who, at 18 and 19, smoked cigarettes from Normandy Beach to Dachau, can’t sneak a few puffs here and there, then who can?