Friday, May 28, 2010

Is 70 Really Not Old Any More?

I was born on this day in 1940, the same year as Tom Brokaw, Nancy Sinatra, Al Pacino, Raquel Welch and Don Imus.

Shortly after my birth, this country became embroiled in a world war, which had been raging for several years in Europe since the Germans decided to conquer the world and annihilate several segments of the population in the process. The U.S. of my early childhood was obsessed with that war, as our men had been drafted to fight, and everything from the entertainment industry to small businesses were involved in the propaganda machine. This thinking was to pervade my generation for over 20 years; for, after World War II ended in a victory for our side, our leaders told us that Russia was now our enemy, and that the Russians were planning another, more horrible war, directly against us, and would involve weaponry far more devastating than that which had been used in the past.

This period of national paranoia was called a “Cold War.” Little children in big city schools were drilled to hide under their desks in mock air raids, as if this would be helpful for them to do if and when the Russians dropped big bombs in the neighborhood. Of course, because they were little kids all it did was imbue them with a fear of early and painful death--and the sneaking suspicion that there were no grownups around who could do anything about it. It was not a good time to grow up.

The generation that came of age just after I did is known as the “Baby Boom” generation, referring to the tremendous swell in the number of babies conceived when the men came home from the war. They, and we who came just before them, were taught a number of traumatic things by well-meaning but uninformed adults. One thing we knew for a fact as children was that the world contained weapons of mass destruction which might be used against us at any moment.

World War II had brought us prosperity, as wars do, and uneasiness, as well they might. As teenagers, we felt safe with our great General–Dwight David Eisenhower–as president of our country, but to me he seemed a distant, dull old man, and I was glad to see the vigorous young John F. Kennedy with his beautiful wife and family as the next residents of the White House. I was too young to vote in the 1960 presidential election, but I will never forget the feeling of exhilaration at the youthful president. His empowering initiatives such as the Peace Corps brought fresh thinking into politics and therefore into the whole country. I later came to feel we had been a bit too gullible, because I became disenchanted with John Kennedy after his death, after more was known about him. Later presidents in my lifetime have brought outright disgrace to the White House and Kennedy is looking good again. However, with all his good intentions and many brilliant programs and ideas, he did not have long enough in his presidency to see if he really was up to the whole job or not, but he was good at selecting lieutenants and he was smart enough to get a few valuable programs started.

The brevity of human life is in itself a time capsule. I remember all the way back to blackouts, rationing, and everybody’s daddy being away while the women were left to tend the children and fend for themselves. We listened to the radio for shows with stories and humor and running characters, such as The Great Gildersleeve (an actor named Harold Peary with a distinctive, long, low laugh) tearjerker soap operas like Stella Dallas and One Man’s Family and adventures like The Green Hornet, Gangbusters, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the afternoon there were shows for kids. I remember ordering a signet ring from Sky King, which promised a compartment for secret messages. Weeks later I was thrilled to receive the object in the mail, although I had no one to send secret messages to or no idea why there would messages in my ring.

People my age remember the 50’s vividly. When we think of Audrey Hepburn we think of the gamin in Roman Holiday and Sabrina more than the city sophisticate of a later film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As teenagers we wore dungarees or circle skirts (but wouldn’t have been caught dead in one with a poodle on it); we danced the jitterbug at soda shops, we went to movies after school and dances at the Elks Club every Friday night. Our parents didn’t make play dates for us; we lived at each others' houses almost as much as our own, and we explored the streets and neighboring woods without supervision.

I remember when Elvis wasn’t “the King” of anything. He was a hillbilly singer and your mama wouldn’t have let you go out the door with him or anyone remotely like him if he showed up for a date. Okay, he was a few years older than I, and was indeed making tours of my home area in those days, but his brand of rock and roll had not yet caught on with the middle class. He caused quite a buzz, and I swear this is the truth: The father of one of my high school girlfriends played in an amateur dance band and told us with vehement authority, “Elvis Presley is just a flash in the pan. Mark my words, a year from now none of you will even remember who Elvis Presley was!”

Before moving from Atlanta to New York City in 1964 I had to pick up some things at a little corner "gas and go" type grocery in the part of the city known as Decatur. I was struck by a boy in the store, a nice, middle-class-looking kid about 12 years old with brown hair cut below his ears. The reason I took note of him was that his hair was long compared to all the other boys his age. I remember being somewhat amused that there was actually a kid in this neighborhood in Atlanta with the guts to wear a haircut inspired by the Beatles, that happy group of English guys whose picture was on every magazine cover that month. They had not yet landed in America, but here was someone who was already making a statement in this outpost in the South, by copying them. I never would have believed the impact that haircut was to have on the world, even Atlanta. Elvis was pretty well known by then, but even yet he was not a fashion role model.

Most children of the late 60’s were raised by affluent parents, indulged with all their families could give them–perhaps as overcompensation for their own deprivation in the Great Depression. People my age had education and ideas, but our demographic lacked the numbers to be particularly effective in carrying these ideas out. Sheer critical mass of those Boomers would overwhelm whatever (or whoever) got in their way.

Popular music of my day was a pale imitation of that of our parents–where they had Sinatra, we had Eddie Fisher, Tommy Sands and Bobby Darin–the Boomers were bored to death with the music that came before them. They were convinced there was no music as good as theirs. Our look had been much the same as those who came just before us too, but all that would change in the 1960’s when the generation just behind me reached full visibility with long hair on both males and female, beards on men as soon as they could grow them, and jeans, love beads and tie-dyed tee-shirts for all. Jerry Rubin said, “Never trust anybody over 30." I had already rounded that corner, so I was just on the other side of trustworthiness. Life was now referred to as “life style,” and mine was decidedly over the hill already. But I have waited it out. I have given up trying to understand and instead have taken to pontificating.

There is this thing about time, once you get well into your sixties. It fucking flies by you. You’ll start to remember an event or incident or person you haven’t seen in awhile and realize it was 30 years ago! Little babies that were born that day are doctors and lawyers now.

Your doctors look like kindergarteners. Your own children are adults. Years disappear with amazing alacrity, and projects just fall into your hands, whether you are looking for them or not. The next thing you know they are done and you are halfway into something else. Even if you’ve never written anything, you start to write, something to validate your time on this earth–a family history, an autobiography, a blog, or all three. You become obsessed with defining what it was all about. You think if you can just get a handle on it, what you are writing will matter to someone else, living now or scheduled to be born in the future.

And, if you’re me especially, you keep doing weird things that you think will provide a portion of the answer. You read self-help books. You join an Internet Dating Service. You go to a lot of movies. You go on a lot of diets. You travel long distances to reconnect with friends you haven’t seen since high school. You invest time, money and emotion to re-kindle a romance that never was.

And wherever you go, if you pass a mirror, you glance into it and see a stranger.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More of the Best of Slezak

Information from Hoboken's past has been funneled to me by Bob Slezak over the years. Here are a few more of his great memories:

"My wife’s dad – what a nice guy he was...played with the big bands during the war. (His dad was an opera singer from Dublin who toured Europe with the Carl Rosa opera company. He came to America in 1900...and started his own opera company, Joseph Sheehan Opera can look him up on the computer. In them days he was the greatest tenor English opera singer in the world. After he retired from that he worked for RKO Radio studios in NYC...and later it became NBC studios...he lived on Garden Street just across the street from me) My wife’s both grandmothers lived across the street from me when I was a kid. I have a picture of me and my wife in the same picture – she was 5. I was 9, not knowing I would marry her some day and spend the rest of my life with her. I got lucky and always had good luck...with every thing I did in life. On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando...well that’s another story – filmed in Hoboken. You must see it...some of my friends were in it, I was not. (I could have been a contender.)

"I’ve been looking for a picture or pictures of ABLE’S ice cream parlor that was across the street from the Acadamy of Sacred Heart on 7th and Washington Street, my wife’s old all girl school…plaid skirts, white blouses, and vest and beanies they had to wear. Only the rich girls went there. My old hangout in the 50s, the early rock and roll days...BUT with no luck in looking for the add to my large photo album collection that I have. I call them albums The Adventures of Maureen and Bob. We all can’t live forever, BUT the photos will.

"I think in the early days of television, Dumont was the king of the tv airwaves. In the late 40s we had only three stations and an Emerson 7-inch tv. My mom said if you watch it too close YOU WILL GO BLIND.

"On Washington Street a store had a tv in their window...people would bring their folding chairs...and sit watching tv...a sight to behold...I must say.

"MONDAY MORNING WASH DAY, and the daredevils who had the job of putting up the clotheslines, when one broke. Every block had one brave soul...and I was the chosen one for my block. My mom got me the job...THANKS MOM.

"You carried a hammer and the line around your neck...and began your climb...hitting each spike to insure that it was safe to step on. It always seemed to be the one at the top that was broken. Most of the time and on a cold and windy day, freezing your hands till they were numb, as all the wives braving the cold on their fire escapes watched me as I made my climb...praying for me. I FELT LIKE A CIRCUS ACT WITH NO NET.

"WASH DAY was when every one knew if you had a hole in your undies. IT WAS PUT OUT FOR ALL TO SEE. And you only got a dollar a climb. I SUPPOSE THEY DON'T DO THAT ANYMORE IN HOBOKEN, thanks to washers and dryers."

Now that you mention it, Slezak, I haven't seen any clotheslines in Hoboken since I moved here in December (2007). Call it progress. Call it 21st Century technology. Call it the avoidance of child abuse. But you must have been a nimble lad in your day, putting up those clotheslines for the local housewives, and surviving to tell the tale some sixty years later. As usual, you paint a vivid picture of days gone by. At least after all your death-defying work you could drop by Abel's for an ice cream with your dollar. Now that wouldn't get you much.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Slezak's Hoboken II

Over the last couple of years my buddy Slezak has conveyed a lot of information about the Hoboken he remembers. He lived in the town when it was different:

Hoboken is still beautiful...yes, the buildings are still there but people and places have vanished with time ....the happy days of the 1950s should be remembered ...a book maybe with pictures .an era never to return ....the smells of coffee from the maxwell house plant and fresh baked bread of the wonder bread factory, and fog horns on a foggy day the Hudson river ..the many large parades down Washington Street ...the Kramer’s clock on Washington Street that always told the right time twice a day: 12 o’clock....THE CRIME none to speak never locked your doors or car if you had one...Church doors were never locked could pray any time of the day or night. COPS walked the knew them by the first if you needed one...the mayor’s office door was always open...he would always get you a job just with a phone call. SCHOOLS – the teacher you had your mother had had also...lastly, the people...depending on what part of the city you lived. Downtown was the Italians, uptown was the Irish, Germans, Poles. The blacks lived on 1st Street...that's the way it was.

Manhattan was just short a bus ride away.

About this time I was living in a third-floor walk-up on Hudson St. and had published some pictures of the lions that stood out in front of some of the brownstones in that area. Slezak remembered the lions well, and explained that the were all over Hoboken, although mostly "uptown." And as far as uptown-downtown, I, like all newcomers, assumed that the street numbers indicated which section was "up" and which was "down" in Hoboken, but Slezak and his old friend Dennis ("The Rabbi") Maloney set me straight on that.

From Dennis (“The Rabbi”) Maloney:

“A note to new Hobokenites. Uptown was and is Washington St. to Clinton St. 1st. to 14th.

“Downtown is Grand to Harrison 1st. to 14th. For some reason, newbies have changed uptown to 7th to 14th and downtown from the Path to 6th.”

Slezak said...

“He is right on the money. UP TOWN, AND THERE WAS DOWN TOWN, it has nothing to do with numbers...from Clinton Street to Washington Street was uptown. We called it the upper crust.

"HUDSON STREET and Castle Point Terrace was the Beverly Hills of Hoboken. Feel honored that you live there. It meant you had money...and lions on your stoop to protect you".

I still smile when I see a lion in front of a Hoboken house, and I salute Bobby Slezak for correcting me. I guess the "newbies" have taken over now, however, as nobody seems to think of uptown as meaning Washington to Clinton. Times change, and the new people have a way of changing things everywhere.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bobby Slezak's Hoboken

I knew very little about Hoboken when I first moved here in December of 2007, but I started writing the blog as a way to introduce myself. One of the nicest results was an email from a former resident, Bobby Slezak, who was growing up here about the time I was finding myself in Fairhope, Alabama, where I moved here from.

In May of 2008 I got this in my email:

I came from Hoboken. I'm 69 now and I came across your site by mistake. I'm glad. YES, Hoboken has's not the quiet town it used to be back in the 1950s. As a young boy there was some great hangouts to have fun in, BUT they are all gone now. I'm not talking about the bars. There was always plenty of them. I'm talking about the ice cream parlor hangouts, such as ABELS across from Sacred Heart Academy on Washington Street; JACK-O -DINES on the corner by Demarest H.S.; JANETTES on First and Washington Street; Biggies I think is still there but it's not the same. They were the fun centers of our youth. Famed D.J. ALLEN FREED rock and roll shows at the Fabian Theater, now destroyed. The mood and values all vanished it seems...the girls were just lovely. I'm sure time has changed that, just a little. I still have my girl friend I met in ABELS in 1958...she was a Sacred Heart Academy grad. Me, I was the black-jacket, grease-haired hot rodder that you did not want your daughter to go out with. BUT YOU CANT JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. I was sweet and charming back then...and still am. THEN CAME THE VIET NAM WAR. Well, my girl friend married me in St. Ann's Church and off we went to war together. Looking back to Hoboken with fond memories...4 kids,12 grandchildren later...we still love Hoboken...its memories that is.

As time has gone by, I've gotten hundreds of emails from Slezak, who likes to be known as "Hoboken Kid" when he comments on the blog. His descriptions and old photos of Hoboken have amused and informed me as I learn what the town has always been about--nice people and wonderful memories. The streets resonate and vibrate with them. Slezak and his wife Maureen are both going into the hospital next week, for very serious work, and I want to wish them well and let the people of Hoboken know more about them. I'll publish more Slezak on the blog for the next few days and reminisce about our extraordinary Internet friendship, looking forward to the day we'll meet in person and have a few hearty, heartfelt laughs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The End of Yet Another Era

A television entry that was peculiarly New York in tone, almost like the old live black and white dramas of my teenage years, will be relocated to Los Angeles and lose its mojo as well as most of its audience. Tonight will be the finale, populated by a whole universe of actors that look to me like newcomers.

Like most Americans, I have devoted quite a bit of time to watching the "original" Law and Order over the past 15 years or so. It captures the city in a unique way, its actors becoming as familiar as the cop on the beat. I watched the stage actress S. Epatha Merkeson play a police supervisor all this time; I watched when Michael Moriarty had the Sam Waterston role; when Jerry Ohrbach so convincingly played the troubled recovering alcoholic police detective Lenny Briscoe that he was often stopped on the street by guys calling him Lenny; when a trail of beauties from Angie Harmon to Carey Lowell worked in the D.A.'s office.

I still lament the exit of the best District Attorney New York ever had, the complex yet avuncular Steven Hill. Hill was one of those solid New York actors seldom seen on the screen, a founder of the Actors' Studio and an early proponent of Method Acting. His own personality melted into the characters he played, and his mental acuity and intensity permeated his every performance. In Law and Order, the character he played was based on real life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom he is said to have captured perfectly in his nuanced and elegant style. His Adam Schiff was a man you respected without question, a man of integrity and wisdom, and, although a bit jaded by his job, a man with a big heart. He was detached without being bloodless.

The actor was one of the most interesting men ever to work in television. Born Solomon Krakovski, he was appearing as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country on Broadway when he confronted his own heritage. A character screamed the line "You are a Jew!" to him in the play and the experience sent him right back to his roots. Hill realized the impact of his Jewishness and embraced it by becoming strict Orthodox -- he began observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing,and strictly observing the Sabbath. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances and effectively ended his stage career and closed many roles to him in the movies most notably The Sand Pebbles.

Nevertheless, Steven Hill has had a good career without ever becoming a household word. He felt that artists needed to take breaks from their work for years at a time to refresh and he practiced what he preached.

He had undergone one of those long breaks before taking on the role in Law and Order, and it served him well. His work on that show was a seamless as a bolt of fine fabric. He was as real as an actor can be. If you missed the show under his reign, try to find a re-run that old. He was just wonderful.

Law and Order replaced him with Dianne Weist, an excellent actress who never seemed at home in the role. It was a rare misstep for both the show and Weist, who just didn't have much gravitas and was somehow unconvincing as the boss of the heavy, knowledgeable Jack McCoy as played by Waterston. Of course, her biggest problem was that she was being set up as a replacement for a man who had owned the show for some ten years.

In comes stolid Fred Thompson to replace Weist. Here is an actor with so little range, so little charisma, so little energy that he seems to have gotten the role just based on the fact that he looks likes everybody else. That is, there is nothing about him that looks actorish (like, say, Ronald Reagan), or nothing about him that seems wise (like Steven Hill) or even anything that looks complicated, like Dianne Weist.

He later went back into politics and announced, with consummate poor timing, a run for the presidency that went nowhere. Even his credentials as an actor came into question. The charm that usually goes with that territory is decidedly missing.

Eventually Waterston took on the role, but the new cast, though competent, just didn't seem to fit the roles we had come to think of as friends. The show has run its course, even though its spinoff will probably continue until television itself is just a memory. I hope they'll reach all the way back into the files and show the early shows with the original cast. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'll derive comfort from the persona of Steven Hill back in my living room.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Autobiographical Urge

In 2006, long before I was finding myself in Hoboken, I had a small reputation as a writer in Fairhope, Alabama. Almost everybody in Fairhope had a reputation as a writer, but I had published a memoir about the town and wrote an almost-daily blog called "Finding Fair Hope," which you can still find on the Internet.

I was approached by a man in his late 80's about ghostwriting his autobiography. He had lived a rich and varied life and loved to tell stories of his accomplishments and crises. He had coped with great success and tragedy, and about all he had not done was chronicle the events.

He had known lots of interesting people and been in very high places in his day; he sent me a packet of snapshots and newspaper articles about his life. Pictures revealed that he was a good-looking man, movie star good-looking in his youth, and the articles told of the fortune he had made in dealing with big corporations, selling the rights to his inventions and occasionally suing for large sums when his invention ideas were stolen. I was interested in his story, and felt that I would be good as a ghostwriter. I was up for the job. I encouraged him, admonishing only that he would have to be very open with me about some of the life situations in the newspaper items, situations that still might cause him some pain.

He would have had to relocate to be interviewed, or pay for my expenses if I had to travel. He would have to be candid. I would agree to work for him at a fixed rate for about six months, including writing time, and then submit what I had written for his approval. I would not be the salesman for the work, but I felt certain that with his lively personality and his truly unusual life story we could come up with a book that would sell.

I laid out the proposal and waited. Time passed, and he passed off my radar screen, by not acting. He probably thought better of the project and did not want to be under this kind of stress at this point in his life, no matter how strong his urge to be immortalized in print. I never received a refusal, but I had lobbed the ball to his court and it was never returned.

I didn't blame him. For years he had probably regaled friends and acquaintances with tales of his childhood inventions, his successes and near-successes, and the odd and unexpected turns his life had taken. He was probably told by many an acquaintance, "You really should write a book about all this," but the reality of such a venture was not one he could handle.

An urge to write hits us as we grow closer to what we perceive as the end of life. There is a need to get it down in black and white, this little life, before it's gone. I can understand this myself, hacking away at a daily blog and thinking of books I must get done. This being Mother's Day, I am thinking a lot about my late mother, and the book she produced. Always an admirer of writers (and married to a first-rate one), she spent years researching a family history that including anecdotal tales going all the way back to family members who gave Robert the Bruce of Scotland a ride across the river in the middle of a war--being awarded in later years with a coat of arms that read "I Saved the King." She completed her family history in the and self-published it in 1994 after almost 20 years of exhaustive research, and the result is a family history that reflects all the charm of its writer and is constantly used as research by her three grown children. She printed copies for all living members of the family and distributed this work to as many of them as she knew. I gave a copy to my 12-year-old grandson Andy for Christmas, and he glowed. "Now I can answer any questions I have about the family," he said.

Her little book is a treasure trove of information about our ancestors. It was a project that consumed her as she edged into old age, and a copy of it was in her bureau at the nursing home when she died. She would sometimes mention it ("the book I wrote") and we having it handy when we visited her made it possible to pick it up to confirm a birth date or year, or cause of death, or any little piece of family information we could get nowhere else.

It is good that much of mankind is equipped with this autobiographical urge. The stories, even those that might be apocryphal, are the stuff of life and the best we can do toward carving a place in the mythology of generations to come. Blogs, diaries, family histories, and just newsy letters and emails serve a greater purpose than the writer may realize.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Discovered Near Hoboken: Union City

Cristina has long told me that if you take the Light Rail almost to the end of the line you'll hit a section full of Colombians, with wonderful bakeries and and some memorable restaurants. She waxes nostalgic about the wonderful breakfasts as she grew up in Colombia--hot coffee, guava buns and Spanish cheese; and rainy childhood afternoons when she was given hot chocolate and cheese toast to compensate for having to stay inside. I remember seeing some Hispanic neighborhoods from the window of the bus I took to get my driver's license when I was new to New Jersey, but I never explored the area until yesterday.

It was so beautiful I decided to check out the nabe early Saturday. I took the Light Rail, which I was surprised to find so crowded at 2 P.M. on a weekend, and got off at Bergenline, the stop before last on the line, seeking a restaurant whose name and address I'd found online. I was in Union City, as it turns out. Sidewalks not wide and walkable like Hoboken, but a lively, crowded Hispanic atmosphere with little shops for trinkets, religious icons, clothes, and souvenirs. As I walked I began to see bakeries. I went as far as the restaurant, some five or six blocks in, but it didn't look like much. I did note that it was still pretty busy for an off hour and that all the patrons looked like they knew what good Latin American food should taste like. Coming back to the train I stopped in a little bakery and bought just three items, not having any idea what they were. One was an empanada-looking thing, the other looked like a bun that might have guava jam inside, and, seeing a local buy what looked like a huge coconut cookie, I bought one of those too. As I began to make my decisions I wondered if I could make my choices clear, not knowing Spanish, and then I caught myself. I was in America--the girl behind the counter speaking Spanish to her customer was as American as I and could certainly speak English too! I had been so impressed with the authenticity of this little pocket of Union City that I forgot what country I was in!

All the way home I was getting more excited to try what I'd bought. Still thinking I was beginning a program of weight control I promised myself I could have ONE bite of the cookie and half of the empanada, and that I would stop there. However, I know myself pretty well and know that once I've had a bite of something, if it's pretty good it's highly unlikely that I'll stop.

When I got home I tore into my bag. I couldn't resist starting with the cookie, still thinking that I would stop after one bite. I had my reading glasses on by now so I could tell it was not a cookie at all. It might even be something savory. Tasting it, I knew it was definitely not coconut. It was slightly sweet, very chewy as opposed to crisp, and tasted clearly of corn. Of course I couldn't stop eating until I'd finished the whole thing, even though I was thinking about how good it would be for breakfast, maybe with ham or bacon or an egg--and lots of strong coffee. No matter, it was gone. Now I had permission to have one bite of one more item, which was to be the empanada. It turned out to be a nice pastry that was rather hollow, but inside, instead of a spicy meat mixture, was guava jam and a dollop of some kind of cream cheese. I had half of it. I stopped myself, because I had to try the bun. I cut the end off, and saw it was stuffed with just a little ham and cheese. The second slice went into the microwave because it clearly needed to be heated.

I looked up Colombian Corn Cake on the Internet and sure enough found out the thing has a name: An arepa. I have a recipe which I must try even though you have to buy a special kind of Colombian corn meal--I can find that for sure, if not in Hoboken, then certainly on my next trip to Union City. But as long as I'm up there, I think I'll just buy a dozen or two arepas at that bakery.