Thursday, December 23, 2010

'Is That You Santy Clause?'


Now it can be told...

I was speaking with my niece in San Francisco the other day and she told me about an incident from her childhood that happened at Christmas time many years ago.

She was just a little girl--she's a teen-ager now--and her father/my brother decided to do the Santa-Claus-coming-down-chimney routine for her.

So he starts banging on the wall to make her think Old St. Nick is coming in for a landing.

The only problem with this plan, she tells me, was that she was terrified by the noise and ran crying into her room.

The next day she asked my brother who was making that awful racket.

"He told me it was Uncle Robert," she said.

Say what? How did I get left holding the Santa bag? I was 3,000 miles away minding my own business in Brooklyn and I have to take the rap for spooking small children?

Why couldn't you just blame Santa? The guy doesn't exist anyway--sorry, kids--so he doesn't have to worry about adorable little girls hating his guts. It's a wonder my niece ever spoke to me after that.

Apparently Victoria got over this episode and somehow managed to forgive me, which is good to know seeing as I didn't do anything.

I have to say Christmas has been a little tough this year. Both I and family members have been struggling with colds this season and I've been dodging coughers on the subway left and right. (Someone is coughing in this internet cafe as I write this. Oy!)

I haven't seen the trees at Rockefeller Center or at the Met, which is hands down my favorite Christmas tree. It's also indoors, so you can enjoy it without risking frostbite.

However, despite all the hassles, including a computer that is as dead as Jacob Marley, I intend to enjoy the holidays this year and I want you all to do the same.

And if someone starts banging on your wall on Christmas Eve, don't blame me.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Oh, Mother!


My old Dell computer finally died on Saturday and as much I hated the damn thing, I have to admit I miss it.

It seems the mother board went south and now I finally have to get that new computer I’ve been threatening to buy for over a year.

The Dell had been giving me trouble for ages. There was a point where I was on the phone with tech support so often I could have run for prime minister of India. And that probably wouldn't have helped much.

They pretty much rebuilt the thing from scratch and repair people were coming to my house more often than the mailman. I even threatened to sue them at one point I was so furious.

On Friday I was uploading pictures from last Christmas when the thing crashed and refused to get back up.

So now the thing is dead, but my holiday plans are going to prevent me from getting a replacement until early in January. I don’t think it will be a Dell.

I went to an internet café in my neighborhood this weekend and it had this creepy kind of peep show feeling to it. The only thing missing was a few old guys in raincoats.

It's strange not being able to log on whenever I want to and look up something on the Internet. I lived a large part of my life without computers, but that is unthinkable now. When I was a kid, computers existed on Star Trek. Now we carry them around in our pockets.

But this experience has shown me that I spend--waste--far too much time on the web looking at one site or another.

I look at videos, movie trivia and, worst of all, I read the comment sections under legitimate news stories. Most of these comments are offensive, ignorant and downright stupid, but for some reason I keep reading them.

Maybe I can use this time away from the keyboard constructively, so that when I come back online, I'll use the computer only when I need it.

Today I also pulled the plug on our old home phone number. I haven’t been using that number and it was a waste to keep it, but it still hurt a little to have it disconnected. I was a teen-ager (or younger?) when we first got that 238 number and getting rid of it is yet another sign of time’s passing.

If you don’t hear from me for a while, don’t take it personally. I’ll be back online as soon as possible.

Have a great holiday!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

'Fly from Evil'

Dillinger died for this?

I finally got around to watching Manhattan Melodrama, an old movie I had recorded several weeks ago.

The 1934 film stars Clark Gable and William Powell as lifelong friends who wind up on opposite sides of the law--something that seems to happen a lot in old movies.

Myrna Loy plays the love interest and this is the first time she and Powell were paired up. The two would go on to make the "Thin Man" series, eventually starring in 14 movies together.

The film is hardly a classic. The plot is creaky and contrived, even allowing for the passage of time, but it’s got so many great people in it that you really don’t care.

But the reason that I really wanted to see this movie was because this was the last film that the infamous bank robber John Dillinger saw before being gunned down by FBI agents as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago.

FBI agents had staked out the theater, but they didn’t want to move in on Dillinger until the film was over. My first reaction upon seeing it was that they should have nailed him before he saw this thing. But that's a little harsh.

Manhattan Melodrama opens with the young heroes Blackie and Jim, (portrayed by Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Butler) on board the General Slocum, which caught fire on June 15, 1904.

An estimated 1,021 were killed that day, making this the New York area's worst disaster in terms of loss of life until September 11.

The ship had been chartered by St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Little Germany district in the lower East Side of Manhattan.

I once took a historical walking tour of that area and our guide told us how the husbands of the victims had come home from work that day to learn they had lost their wives and children. The German neighborhood pretty much disappeared after the fire as people moved away in an attempt to escape all that grief.

Blackie and Jim are orphaned in the fire, but they are adopted by kindly Mr. Rosen, who lost his son in the blaze as well.

This relationship, however, doesn’t last very long, as Mr. Rosen is trampled by a police wagon during a riot and the hard-lucked duo is orphaned once again. No one attempts to adopt the boys this time, perhaps fearing a grisly death. When they called this thing a melodrama, they weren’t kidding.

It’s intriguing to note that Mickey Rooney went on to have a long career in the movie business, but Jimmy Butler, who played the younger version of William Powell, was killed in World War II. He was 23 years old.

The boys grow up and Blackie becomes a racketeer while Jim becomes the district attorney and eventually the governor. Throughout the film we see shots of a clock tower bearing the words “Observe the time, young man, and fly from evil.” Blackie never gets the message. And neither did Dillinger.



The two buddies meet again for the first time in years as they are going to see Jack Dempsey fight Louis Firpo.

The fight took place in the Polo Grounds on September 14, 1923 and Firpo knocked Dempsey through the ropes toward the end of the first round, inspiring the George Bellows painting. Dempsey came back in the second round to knock Firpo out.

Gable and Powell don’t actually see the fight, however, since they spend so much time catching up that the fight ends before they take their seats.

Blackie ultimately winds up on death row, thanks to Jim’s superior courtroom skills. Both men suffer great losses and by the end of the film—spoiler alert—Blackie walks the last mile while Jim tries to put his life back together.

Dillinger unknowingly walked his last mile, too, as he left the Biograph. Outside Melvin Purvis and a team of FBI agents were waiting for him and the "Woman in Red," a madam who had tipped off the police in the vain hope of avoiding deportation back to her native Romania.

When Purvis saw Dillinger leaving the theater, he signaled to the other agents by lighting his cigar. Dillinger ran into an alley, where he was shot to death and people were supposedly dipping their hankerchiefs in his spilled blood.

Dillinger has been portrayed countless times in the movies, but my favorite version of his story was Michael Man’s Public Enemies with Johnny Depp portraying Dillinger.

I never bothered seeing this film in the theater and it took me a long time to rent it because I didn't think there was much anyone could do with the gangster genre in general and the Dillinger story in particular. How many blazing tommy gun battles can we stand?

However, I called that one wrong. Public Enemies was a blast in ever sense of the word.

One of the final scenes of the picture has Johnny Depp sitting in the Biograph watching Manhattan Melodrama.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Book Mark


The thing about buying a used book is that sometimes you can get two stories in one.

The first, of course, is the book itself; the thousands of words the author has pulled together in an effort to enlighten, amuse, outrage, or otherwise entertain us.

But another story--or at least traces of one--can come from the book’s previous owner—inscriptions, notes, doodles, and even the underlined sections that someone has put on the pages before they belonged to you.

They are incredibly small pieces of other lives and that’s probably why I enjoy them so much. It's fun to imagine who these people were and what they were thinking when they decided to write in their book.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of the “Spiritual Diary,” a book of a yoga master's inspirational sayings, at a used book stand on the Upper West Side.

An inscription by the previous owner, dated Jan. 1, 2001, read “As an art journal of sorts…all soul, babe, Love, D.” It’s followed by something I can’t begin to make out.

Whoever “Babe” is, his birthday is apparently January 13 because there is a heart-shaped photo of a woman holding up a sign reading “Happy Birthday” stapled to that particular page.

The November 4 page has a cut-off image of a diving woman in a bathing cap all tucked in and ready to hit the water. The book seems like a nice gift, but for whatever reason, Babe decided to part company with it.

I’d love to reverse the book’s history, learn more about Babe and D and why this gift ended up on book stand on Columbus Avenue.

Things got a little more personal last month when I ordered a paperback copy of “The Pistoleer,” a novel by James Carlos Blake. The book, which tells the story of the notorious gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, had received good reviews, so I decided to go online and get a used copy.

I haven’t started reading the novel yet, but when I first opened it, I saw there was an inscription on the inside of the cover page: “Merry Christmas, DAD. Love ya.” I can’t make out the signature, but I think the name is “Christine.”

So who is Christine? Where does she live? Why did she give this book to her father? And why was this book--with its very personal message--put up for sale?

Part of me fears the worst. Maybe the father died and Christine found the book to be a painful reminder of his loss.

Perhaps he didn’t have room for the book in his house—I know that story—and decided to let someone else have it. I hope the father and daughter didn’t have a falling out and the book was sold in anger. But that's just me fearing the worst again.

Looking at that inscription got me thinking about my relationship with my own father. I don’t think I ever told him I loved him, at least not as an adult.

I must have said it to my mother thousands of time, but it was different with my father. I think it’s different for a lot of sons and theirs fathers. You don’t really do the “I love you, man” thing.

I bought plenty of books for my father over the years, but I never wrote any kind of inscription in them; it never even occurred to me to do something like that. I guess I thought I would be defacing the book if I wrote in it--especially with my handwriting.

Once on his birthday I got my father an autobiography of Paddy Chayefsky, author of “Marty,” “Network,” and several other great movies. My father had grown up with Chayefsky—back when he was called “Sid”—and he told me he had gotten such a charge out of reading the book and remembering his youth.

He seemed so moved that I wish now I had written something in that book. I see that it’s a stealth way of getting your message across without blurting out your feelings and embarrassing everyone. I could have told my father that I loved him and only he and I would have known about it.

And if that book ever ended up being sold, the person who bought it would know, too--which would be just fine with me, babe.