Marathon Sunday

That the New York City Marathon happens on the morning we set our clocks back an hour in the Eastern time zone only makes it more special. It passes by the end of my block, just a few miles into Brooklyn from its start on the bridge from Staten Island.

More than once I’ve woken up on Marathon Sundays to the sound of cheers, but most years, like other people, I wander outside my apartment and wonder that it’s still so  early. Half the clocks are wrong. Outside at 8:30 are the usual retirees drinking bodega coffee, and families shuffling off to church, but on Marathon Sundays there are more: Cops looking bored staring into their cell phones. Tape and police cars everywhere. And increasingly between nine o’clock and eleven there are neighbors with bedhead out to cheer on the runners.

The only thing like it is when a blizzard shuts the city down. The gentrifiers and the O.G. call a truce, and we make fools of ourselves cheering. First come the wheelchairs. Then come the tears. Then I scrounge up another cup of coffee, and we wait in the damp cold for the women leaders, who run past like quiet lightning. Thirty minutes later, the men come, the biggest cheers, then a weird lull.

Then they come. The masses, thousands of them. We yell for random countries. “Go, Costa Rica!” “Go Svensk!” I break out my Spanglish, shake a few hands, try to commit some names to memory, and the neighbors say, “See you around.”

Why No Man Should Ever Sing “House of the Rising Sun” Again

Music can give you sustenance during spiritually meager times, and this spring I kept going back to Joan Baez’ first album again and again.

Joanbaez

Recorded here in New York City in the summer of 1960, Joan Baez (the album) is a spare production of folk classics. She was only 19, and no one had heard of Dylan and she wasn’t a spokesperson for anything just yet, and the songs are all stories more than statements – and sung by that voice. Lots of them, songs like “East Virginia,” come off as so lively precisely because she’s still such a girl, and the heartache of lost love is palpable in them. “Silver Dagger” is her version of  “Katie Dear,” a ballad of doomed love which, because it’s sung in the first person from the girl’s perspective, is darker and scarier.

These songs also evoke the macabre Appalachian heart of America, our people, and an old soul of a girl who can stare into it without fear, with nothing but clarity.

Last week when the President announced his decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, I naturally started thinking hard about Appalachia and its mythical meaning to us (more on that soon). Coincidentally, it was also the week the art scene in my former hometown of Minneapolis hosted a controversy about racism in art, in Sam Durrant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center. A white artist was the wrong artist to tell the story of the mass execution of Dakotas during the great uprising, they said.

I rarely get excited about artists or writers overstepping the bounds of what content they’re allowed to take on. Is this my white male privilege? Maybe, but I’m more inclined to agree with Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine: “The real problem with [Scaffold] is that ALL its supposed content is in the work’s explanatory wall label,” a damning comment about lots of political art, no matter who’s controlling the story.

But even I had just determined, after listening to Baez’ “House of the Rising Sun” dozens of times this year, that no man should ever sing that song again. The Animals’ version, which is part of the classic rock canon you just can’t avoid, is utterly lifeless. “It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy” changes the meaning of the story. Eric Burden wasn’t the first man to sing it – even Dylan had a version of it – but that doesn’t mean we should ever  have to listen to it.

It’s about a girl in a whorehouse, a “ruined” woman, and devastating in a first-person version by an artistic giant like Baez:

Can we at least agree on that? If your telling the story is going to screw it up, leave it alone.

Spring Comes To Montauk

The spring equinox is the start of the calendar year in many traditions, and it feels like a new beginning these past few weeks. I was lucky enough to be in Montauk, New York, with my wife when March 21st came. We were almost the first New Yorkers to see the sun rise in the “new year” – almost, that is, except we chose to sleep in a bit longer rather than drive the ten minutes from town to lighthouse, the easternmost point, to really be the first.

We had beers and fish and chips at Shangwong’s, and took long hikes through Camp Hero, and Montauk Point, and around the lighthouse, and just took in the emptiness.

I’ve noticed tourists everywhere have a habit of going to the end of peninsulas, seemingly just for the hell of it. We enjoyed Montauk so much, even in the off season, that I made a short list of things to see when I go back, almost all of which were closed in March: the Lighthouse Museum; the Montauk Indian Museum; a hike by the “Walking Dunes” in Hither Hills; a spa in a salt cave; and the Maritime Museum in nearby Amagansett.

Or maybe next time I’ll go even earlier in the season, when fewer things are open.

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Sunrise in Montauk, March 21, 2017.

Montauk

The beaches on the ocean side

come sloping down from shrubland –

these piles of boulders and dirt

scraped from the Berkshires and pushed

sloppily to sea. It still invites

a sleepy person to sit and face

the south, luxuriating on

an Ice Age glacier that lost its

vitality and shriveled. There’s

nothing to do in Montauk but

watch the sun and moon come and go.

You hear the jingle of keys from

your motel room: your neighbors,

also from the city, people

who have lists of miniature

experiences that must be had,

detailed plans for where to go and

what time to get there and what to bring,

and cherish crossing things off their list,

are up before the light: They’ve heard

the best precise place, the point

to which the sun reveals herself

while wearing her most garish bonnet,

is furthest to the east, beside

the lighthouse, but you’ve succumbed to

the nothingness: You plant your elbows

in the sand outside your door and crane

your neck and watch the shadows

stretch out and breathe in, the way

the continent sees them.

 

A Snow Storm of the Mind

I give yesterday’s snow storm in New York City a B-. B for Boring. B for “Best ya got?” B for over-promising and under-delivering by a whole foot.

I would give it a C, but it did have enough bluster to shut the place down, giving most people the day off, and that’s one of a snow storm’s most important jobs. So give it a B, for getting it done but leaving us with the nagging feeling that we probably could have gotten out and done all we were supposed to do yesterday if we had a little pluck, and a Minus for being unpleasantly full of hail charging horizontally.

IMG_2155I love snow days and don’t entirely trust anyone who doesn’t. Time slows down, and lists of things to do get radically re-written on the backs of envelopes, if not completely ignored. I look forward to them like a 9-year-old. The storm that was supposed to come last week, I gave a D. D for disappointing. D for Durham, because that’s what I’m told winter is like in North Carolina, and yesterday’s storm was going to redeem our disappointment.

I know it’s March, and we should take what we can get, but I fear for our local climate, that it’s becoming boringly more mid-Atlantic on account of global warming. (I know, it’s indulgent to talk about this when there are real climate refugees already, but the mind needs to wander.)

We are Yankees, after all, and that’s part of our identity: We endure winters, and a part of that endurance is the suspension of ambition. On snow days inward reflection becomes the norm, and if it’s not making soup or shoveling the path from the door to the street, then whatever you intend to do can probably wait.

It turns out, the National Weather Service had a notion that the snow wouldn’t add up, but kept its prediction of 12 to 20 inches in place, they say, to keep people alert to the dangers of wind and ice, which got pretty serious last night. They didn’t even need that good of a reason, in my book. Snow days are mass mental health days, and we had to have at least one this winter, didn’t we?

Fairytale of New York

This Christmas Day Shane MacGowan turns 59. I wonder if he realized thirty years ago while he was writing the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” (co-written with Jeb Finer) that the saddest Christmas song ever would be his most widely-listened-to:

That woman singing with him is Kirsty MacColl, may she rest in peace. Her father Ewen MacColl was a Scottish Communist and folk-singer. The story goes, he wrote his most popular song for his young mistress Patty Seeger while he was still living with Kirsty’s mother. It’s had many versions, including a super one by Engelbert Humperdinck, but Roberta Flack “owns” it:

Not a bad song for the yule log either. Merry Christmas.

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.

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.

honda-civic-mugen-rr-6www-sportsmodifiedcars-blogspot-com

“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.

crazy-eddie

“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?).

jimmy

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?

Little Bears Who Wash

I dreamed this morning that raccoons were in my house.

I discovered this while running water for a bath. One had knocked over a dish of cat food and was lounging in the scattered snack tray, picking at it, disinterested in me. I fetched a broom in case he gave me any guff while I chased him out, and discovered another was terrorizing the cats in the bedroom. I figured I’d better turn the faucet off, since this could take some time, and discovered a third raccoon splashing around in the few inches of bath water. I approached, and he laid his humanoid hand on the knob, as if to say, “It’s not full yet.”

Raccoons in my neighborhood are no joke. A friend of mine spent $1,000 paying a trapper to take one after another from her yard and walls. If we leave food for the outdoor cats after dark, we watch them eat it, then take in the leftovers, or else raccoons will come and finish them. Something killed our neighbor’s cat by chewing on its leg, leaving it to bleed to death. Some say it couldn’t have been a raccoon, and must have been a fox, but I’ve never seen a fox around here.

The first time I saw Grey Gardens I was struck by the raccoons in the attic. The Beales are a fallen American dynasty, like the DuBoises in Streetcar, partly because Little Edie and her mother are absolutely nuts. The raccoons were the bats in the belfry.

Raccoons

If you leave a cat dish out at night…

I can tell, in the morning, when a raccoon has visited overnight because I can see the water in the cat bowl or bird bath is dirty brown. They have a fantastic habit of washing their hands. The Italian phrase for them is orsetti lavatori, “little bears who wash.”

What does it say about me that I dream about little bears washing themselves in my house? Am I a bit crazy like Little Edie Beale? I just know it takes a lot of concentration – and it causes a very different flavor of stress – keeping the indoor animals from going out, and the outdoor animals from coming in.