Monday, December 27, 2010

New York: The big post-Christmas blizzard of 2010

New York is just beginning to recover from one of the biggest snowstorms in recent memory, which began yesterday afternoon--Sunday, December 26--and wound down this morning.  This is what the newspaper said about it.

And this is what the city looked like afterward.

Early morning, Seventh Avenue.

Suddenly, the city doesn't seem so crowded.

This sidewalk seems pretty clear...but the one reflected in the window still needs work.

Four or so points of color in a very bleak scene.

How many winters, do you suppose, has the Truemart Discount Fabrics store lived through?

One hot cup of coffee vs. the elements.

This picturesque Greenwich Village house might be the result of an illicit liaison between Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade.

This could be Paris, but it's New York.

Sometimes, sadly, in a blizzard or other emergency, "all your plastic needs" just can't be met.  This plastics center is gated up tight.

And don't think you can just fall back on rubber--no one seems to be home here either.

And whaddayamean Out the Box is closed too???  WTF???

But still, despite all the hardships, a fresh snowfall can make even the projects look...look...ahh, never mind.  It'll melt soon.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

New York: Christmas Eve, 2010

Christmas Eve, 2010, New York City--a few photographs.

Electric snowflake, East 57th Street.

Lobby, Palace Hotel.

Archbishop Dolan (wearing hat with gold cross), Midnight Mass, St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Archbishop Dolan, Midnight Mass, Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

Altar after Midnight Mass, Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

A Christmas prayer.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Boxing: Frazier, Spinks and company at the Ring 8 Holiday Event, last night

Several well-known prizefighters, and many decades of boxing history, were in the room last night--Sunday, 12/19/10--at the annual Ring 8-Veteran Boxers Association of New York Holiday Event and Awards Ceremony, held at Russo's on the Bay in Howard Beach, Queens.

Ring 8, one of several veteran boxers associations around the country, is a more-than-half-century-old organization dedicated to helping older boxers, and others associated with the sport, who are encountering financial or health problems.

Here are a few photographs from the evening.

Former boxing champion Emile Griffith
Emile Griffith (above), a former welterweight and middleweight champion, and a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, may be best known for a tragic 1962 fight in which his opponent, Benny Paret, died after being pummeled by Griffith--an incident that is said to have haunted Griffith ever since.  The boxer currently suffers from pugilistic dementia (a neurological problem, sometimes called being "punch-drunk," caused by blows to the head) and had obvious difficulty in chatting and signing autographs--although his painful struggle to do both for each person who approached was an indication of what is, from all accounts, his warm and generous nature.

Former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier (right) with his son Marvis Frazier, also a former boxer.
One of the most famous names in boxing, Joe Frazier (above right)--best known for his three epic fights with Muhammad Ali, including 1975's "Thrilla in Manila"--was on hand with son Marvis (above left) to accept Ring 8's Father/Son Award.  Marvis, an ordained minister, was an amateur and professional boxer in his own right; although he's most remembered for spectacular losses to Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson, some consider him to have been an underrated and talented fighter with a solid overall record.

Joe Frazier signs autographs for attendees.

The Fraziers were attended by a few beefy bodyguards who controlled access to them, but they nonetheless chatted graciously with fans and signed memorabilia--including a couple of my Frazier/Ali posters.

From left:  Former world heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, Marvis Frazier, heavyweight boxer Vinny Maddalone, unidentified member of the U.S. military, and Joe Frazier.

Heavyweight fighter Vinny Maddalone (above, 3rd from left), who had fought and lost to Tomas Adamek at Newark's Prudential Center only 10 days previously, was also at the event.  Maddalone is a board member of Ring 8, and the owner of the Ringside Bar and Grill in Whitestone, Queens.

Former undisputed heavyweight champion Leon Spinks (above left)--like Joe Frazier, a fighter most famous for his battles with Muhammad Ali--was present as well.  Spinks faced Ali in two 1978 fights, winning the first against all expectations to gain the championship but losing the second.  Spinks never again attained similar success, and retired from boxing in 1995.  And, sadly, like many boxers, he's not doing all that well post-retirement.  "He lives in Nebraska, and he has a job where he just sort of sweeps up around the YMCA or something," one boxing journalist said privately.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Writers: Pete Hamill discusses immigration, boxing and Dylan at the Tenement Museum, New York City, last night

Anyone who's grown up reading the New York newspapers, as I have, and has a taste for good writing, as I do, learned years ago to look for Pete Hamill's byline.

Hamill, the legendary journalist and writer from the streets of Brooklyn, has few rivals--actually, Jimmy Breslin may be his only peer--when it comes to distilling our whirling, complex, petri dish of a city into a series of perfect sentences, assembled into memorable 700-word columns.

His writing style is unmistakable.  He commands a broad knowledge of history, politics, art, literature and music, all of which enrich his work; but he often brings his topics back to his youth, and the New York he knew as a youth.  That part of his life and experience serves as his touchstone--the lens through which he views the rest of the world--and gives his writing a rich texture that combines sepia-toned nostalgia with a hard urban edge.

At its best, Hamill's prose can approach the level of poetry.  Listen to this, for example, about P.J. Clarke's, a well-known New York City bar/restaurant:

On this night in the rain-drowned city, we were safe and dry at an oak table in the back room of the saloon.  Clarke's was, and remains, a place out of another time, all burnished wood and chased mirrors, Irish flags and browning photographs of prizefighters.  A few aging men at the long, bright bar could gaze out the windows and still see the Third Avenue El, gone since 1955, or the Irish tenements that were smashed into rubble and replaced with steel-and-glass office buildings.  They were each drinking alone and looked as if they remembered other nights too, evoked by the music of the jukebox.  (From Why Sinatra Matters by Pete Hamill, 1998, Little, Brown and Company.) 

And Hamill has lived a life of accomplishment and adventure that many men (and maybe a few women) would envy.  He served as editor of both the New York Daily News and the New York Post; wrote for these and many other publications, from and about almost every part of the world; produced numerous books; originated, in one of his stories, the tradition of tying a yellow ribbon to let someone know he's missed at home; palled around with Frank Sinatra; dated Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Shirley MacLaine;  and was present at the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, helping subdue Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

Hamill spoke last night--Tuesday, 12/14/10--to an audience of about 50 people at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.  His topic, appropriate to the venue, was immigration, although he touched on a few other subjects as well.

Hamill is an old-school New York liberal, and that worldview was on full display as he argued for amnesty for illegal aliens present in the U.S., particularly Mexicans.  We need their work, and their work ethic, Hamill said; they're here to better themselves and their lives, and are happy for the opportunity to do difficult jobs--like agricultural labor--that America needs done but Americans aren't anxious to do themselves.

Like Hamill's best writing, his argument was grounded in humanity, not ideology.  Today's Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, he contended, are part of the same tradition as the European immigrants who came to the U.S. in years past; they are largely decent, hard-working people whose presence makes us a stronger and better country.  This is not to say I agreed with him--I support strict enforcement of our immigration laws, and deportation of those here illegally--but I've never heard the pro-amnesty case presented more persuasively.

Hamill took questions after his talk, and a measure of his intellect is the respect he showed for those who disagreed with him.  I was one who engaged him in a bit of debate.

I'm not persuaded, I told him, that we have enough work for the millions of uneducated laborers who are flocking here.  When my grandparents, or Hamill's parents, came to the U.S., a man could support a family by working in a factory, as Hamill's father did, or working on the docks.  But the factories are gone, and the waterfront is dead--and there are far fewer blue-collar jobs than there once were.

Hamill nodded, and talked a bit about the tragic loss of manufacturing jobs, and the sad state of New York Harbor.  But there are still some low-level jobs, he argued--agricultural work, for example, and restaurant work--enough, at least, to employ newly-arrived immigrants until they move up the economic ladder.

But what about unemployed Americans, I countered, who could benefit from these jobs themselves?  Unemployment among young African-Americans, in particular, is very high.  It may not be that Americans don't wish to do these jobs--it may be that they won't, or can't, do them for the wages that illegal immigrants are willing to work for.  (Indeed, illegal aliens, being off the books, can, and often do, work for less than minimum wage.)  In this way, don't illegal immigrants undercut Americans in the job market?

Hamill thought about it.  No, he answered, I don't think African-Americans would be willing to do these agricultural jobs, even if the Mexicans were not here, for a host of reasons.  For example, many Black people have negative feelings about the experiences they, or their forebears, had working the Southern fields--they're not going to be too enthusiastic about going to work as fruit pickers.  And Americans in general, not just African-Americans, don't seem inclined to do that kind of work.  In California, for example, during periods when there was a shortage of agricultural labor, there were people on welfare in Oakland who were not applying for those jobs.  Similarly, Hamill concluded, young people in New York are probably unlikely to be vying to replace Hispanics in restaurant jobs.

Like arguments about abortion or gun control, debates about immigration rarely change anyone's mind; the best you can hope for is to hear both sides presented with intelligence and passion.  Hamill made his points brilliantly, as was to be expected from him.  But when he was done, I remained as uncomfortable as I was before with the idea that allowing untold numbers of poor, unscreened, unskilled and uneducated people to enter or remain in the U.S. is in our national interest.

Hamill sat and signed books afterward, chatting at a leisurely pace about whatever came up.  He was asked about the late boxing champion Jose Torres, a close friend of his.

"I miss him every day," Hamill said.

This led to a story about Hamill's first published article, written about Torres for a Greek-language magazine.  Hamill pitched the piece to the editor, who was the son of the owner, an older Greek man.  The owner wanted to know why they should be printing a piece by an Irishman about a Puerto Rican in a Greek magazine.  "Oh, Pop, Torres is very popular among the young Greeks," the editor improvised to his father.

Segueing from sports to music, I said, "Someday I hope to write something as good as the liner notes to Blood on the Tracks."  (This striking essay, written by Hamill for the cover of the classic Bob Dylan album--and for which Hamill won a Grammy--remains one of my favorite pieces of anybody's writing.)

Hamill recounted having been in the studio when Dylan was recording the album.  Mick Jagger was there, too, and told Dylan something to the effect of, "The lyrics are great but the music sucks."  This led to Dylan re-recording most of the album with new arrangements, and this is why there are now two versions of Blood--the one that was eventually released, and the original, some say better, version that can be found on bootleg.

At this point, having glanced behind me and seen a long line of increasingly impatient people waiting to get their books signed, I decided to give someone else a chance to talk to this endlessly intriguing writer.   Fortunately, he lives here--a New York lifer if one ever existed--and we can hope for more conversation with Pete Hamill in the future.  

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

New York: It's Christmas time in the city...

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Music: Gil Scott-Heron at B.B. King Blues Club, 42nd Street, Tuesday night

On Tuesday I told a friend of mine, another cop, that I was going to a concert that night.  Who was I going to see?  I thought for a moment how to explain an artist whose name I wasn't sure he would recognize, and on whom I'm no expert myself.

"His name is Gil Scott-Heron," I said.  "He's kind of an old-time soul singer, who also did some sort of rap."

He pondered briefly, then remembered.  "Oh, 'The Revolution Will Not be Televised'" he said triumphantly.  "Bet you didn't expect me to know that."

Perhaps due to that very song--his most well-known, which has been featured in commercials--more people have indeed heard of Gil Scott-Heron than one might expect.  But few actually know much about him--partly because his work is so hard to categorize, and partly because his checkered personal life has kept him from the level of fame his talent might otherwise have earned.

I remember Howard Stern years ago doing a hilarious dissection of Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon."  "Are we supposed to take the NASA budget and pay his sister's rent?" Stern asked rhetorically.

And I'd see Scott-Heron mentioned periodically in the papers, often because he had been arrested in upper Manhattan, the police having come across him in a crack house or observed him buying drugs.

But I knew little about his work--which was seldom presented on radio or television--other than that it sometimes involved spoken-word pieces set to music.  Still, that alone was intriguing; to see how powerful such a recipe can be, check out this clip of Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road over Steve Allen's jazz piano (the best part starts at the three-minute mark).

A fine New Yorker profile in August gave a saddening overview of Scott-Heron's life and art, the art having all but dried up as crack addiction took control of the life.  His current scene, as I recall the piece, is a squalid one of relative isolation, financial woes, poor health and long disappearances that end with him being tracked down by friends in SRO hotels, sleeping off a high.

Yet he had gotten himself together enough this year to put out a new album, I'm New Here, and to schedule some appearances.  I got tickets to his planned October concert at B.B. King's, the great club on 42nd Street, only to learn upon arriving that it had been postponed "due to artist illness."  Enough said.  The gig was rescheduled for Tuesday, November 30, and I again bought tickets, wondering if he'd show up for that one.

Did he ever.

When Scott-Heron took the stage--at only 61 a gaunt, ravaged, white-haired scarecrow of a man--everything you ever needed to know about the results of drug addiction was on display.  His gaze was unfocused; he seemed weak and unsteady on his feet.  And his mouth worked continually, as if he were chewing on something; when he began to speak, his words were muffled and unclear.  "I think his false teeth don't fit right," my date whispered sadly.

It was easy to see why several announcements had been made to the audience, prior to his coming out, that photography during the show would not be tolerated--to photograph him as he was would have been too great a violation of his dignity.  The next time I hear a liberal whinging about the unjust severity of the Rockefeller drug laws, I will picture this talented man on that stage, brought to ruin by drug dealers' poison.

And yet...

Whatever makes Gil Scott-Heron himself is apparently still there, despite all damage to his body and spirit, if this brilliant performance was any gauge.

He opened with a long monologue that combined Borscht Belt humor with wry observations that were sometimes political, his voice becoming clearer and stronger as he went on.

An example of the former:  "A Jewish lady is waiting at the airport for her daughter to get off the plane with her new husband, who the lady has never met.  She sees the daughter walking toward her with an 8-foot-tall brother.  The lady yells, 'I said a rich doctor.'"  (Get it?  She wanted her daughter to marry a rich doctor, not a witch doctor, but perhaps the daughter misheard her...well, if you have to explain it...)

An example of the latter, riffing on U.S. foreign policy: "I just got back from Europe."  Pause.  "The Europeans are worried about you."  Pause.  "See, they in-between us and whoever we gonna be f---in' with."

Yes, Scott-Heron's worldview, from what I know of his writing and what he said at this show, is some amalgam of Black militancy and plain old leftism.  And yes, I think about as highly of that philosophy as any other White cop would.  But in Scott-Heron's hands, leavened with humor and music and wordplay, it becomes powerful, nuanced and worth hearing.

I won't try to provide a setlist, not being familiar with many of the songs, but the music was a rich mixture of blues, R-and-B and jazz.  He played keyboards most of the time or just sang, backed by a small band that included a guitarist, a bassist, a riveting harmonica player, and a female keyboardist/singer.  Especially memorable was a song called "Is That Jazz?," preceded by a monologue purporting to explain how jazz was invented (seems there had been something called "jizm music," which originated in brothels, and something else called "ass music"--and, well, "You know how folks in America always be squeezin' shit together?...").

Then, I guess, Gil Scott-Heron left the B.B. King Blues Club and headed north, back to the streets, back to his crack life.  And we who like his work and admire his gifts, witnesses to a tragedy we're powerless to stop, could do nothing but pray for a miracle that might lead to his liberation, to his recovery, and to many more years of music and poetry.

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