Monday, February 29, 2016

Some thoughts on race, advertising and change.

A few months ago I read a book review in the Sunday Times about America's first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. Reading the review I realized though Marshall was appointed in my lifetime--and within a couple years of LBJ's historic Civil Rights legislation, I knew nothing at all about the man.

That said, the review I read was not entirely favorable, so I went Amazoning for another book on the man and found one called "Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America" by Gilbert King. This book seemed to fit the bill for me, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and, at 453 pages was, for me, mercifully short.

The book follows the trumped up case of four young men in Groveland, Florida who were accused of raping a white woman. One was lynched, one was murdered for "trying to escape" while handcuffed to another man, one was electrocuted and one--well, that's where I am now in the book.

This man was beaten, shot, threatened, denied a trial by his peers, convicted in the press, beaten, had his family threatened and so on.

All this happened just 60 years ago.

I wonder those of us who grew up in the 1960s when peace and love and kindness and brotherhood were supposed to take over the world, if we had, if we have any idea of the depth of racial prejudice, ignorance and hatred.

I wonder if the racism we had hoped was disappearing just went in to hiding for a couple years, or decades, but never really changed.

I wonder, though we have an African-American President, how much has changed in the last 60 or last 100 or last 200 years.

There is a meme that runs through our business that "this will change everything." That some transformative tic will upset the order of things and people's behaviors will fundamentally change.

I dunno.

I wonder if anything ever really changes.

I wonder if hatred of the "other" is still the motivating force behind American life as it was in decades and centuries past.

I wonder, how many of us know my favorite line from Faulkner: "The past isn't dead; it's not even past."

Friday, February 26, 2016

OK, it's Friday.

I got home relatively late last night and almost immediately, just after I kissed my ever-understanding wife and ever-welcoming puppy, an insidious chime emanated from my cell-phone, reminding me that a conference call was beckoning.

Dante has been dead for nearly 700 years, but had he been alive in our times, he would have found a circle in hell for the worst sinners that surrounded them with bad hold music and bad manners.

"Who just joined?" is how they usually start, as if, perhaps, Elvis is coming back and making an appearance.

"Is Joshua on? Should we wait for Joshua?"

"Who just joined?"

"Let's start without Joshua."

"Who just joined?"

"This is Joshua."

"You're breaking up."

"Could you move closer to the speaker?"

"Who just joined?"

Such banter usually takes up about fifteen of the allotted 30 minutes, which more often than not means your call goes over.

"I have a hard stop," says someone, usually someone who has nothing else to say.

"You're breaking up."

"Who just joined?"

Maybe the toughest part about being the oldest one in the agency, is that you don't feel a sense of doom and inclemency that seems to infect most everyone around you. You've been in dire situations before, you've faced horrid deadlines, you've stared down the end of the world.

Not long ago I read a book by a neuro-surgeon (not Ben Carson) from the UK called Henry Marsh. The book was titled "Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery."

Marsh is a damn good writer. Like me, he's constitutionally an outsider and a cynic and he takes his job very seriously. Of course, even the best brain-surgeon loses patients. Sometimes there's nothing you can do to save someone--you got there too late. Sometimes you give into pressure and have a younger doctor do something and under your aegis, he screws up. Sometimes, of course, you yourself screw up.

This is life.

It's life in relationships. Raising kids. And raising ads.

All you can really do is try to have perspective.

Sometimes your kid spills milk and it gets everywhere.

You can't scream. You can't hit. You can't take your own fucking life.

Clean it up. It's not that big a deal.

And whatever you do, don't have a conference call about it.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Met, Emojis and us.

The big news, of late, in our industry, has been emojis on Facebook and The Metropolitan Museum of Art's lousy new logo.

Both topics confirm my belief that we have really lost the plot line.

Of course, I have a lot of friends in the "branding" business. People who design logos and such (though now we call it 'brand identity,') so I don't want to disparage the pursuit too broadly. But truth be told, The Met's new logo, crappy as it is, is as consequential as a small fart in a large wind tunnel.

What's important about The Met is not that their maps in 27 languages are cohesive, or that their signage is lovely.

Those are nice to haves, not must haves. At least for an institution like The Met.

What's key to brands, in my humble but likely inflammatory opinion, is what they actually do.

The Met--crushed logo or not--has 2 million square feet of art spread over 5,000 years and 400 separate galleries.

I understand that for some workaday brands their branding might be the greatest asset they have. But if there's a subject-object split between the quality of the logo and the quality of the product, well, that helps no one.

A crappy hotel is a crappy hotel even if they have a nice logo.

In fact, most nice logos are a lie because the product or service they're fronting is not as good as the logo. Think of a psychopath in a $2,000 suit.

I'm tired, frankly, of people branding turds and other people falling for it.

It's sad that we're not smarter than this.

But, alas.

As for Facebook's new emojis, well, whoopdedoo.

I suspect they will fade in six months or so simply because they take more work than simply liking something.

My point, however, is not about emojis or The Met.

It's that as an industry, I find it sad that our conversation is conducted on the level of gossip, fetish and trivia.

Frankly, it makes me want to go home and read a good book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Rainy day thoughts on work.

We're getting down to the wire on a ton of work at work.

Actually, that's not accurate.

We're way past the wire--whatever the wire is--and we're still tinkering.

We're snipping this, and changing that, and re-jiggering those.

There's a mania to it all that outsiders, people not in related industries or some kind of "arty" field would find silly.

In fact, I find it silly.

It is silly.

We are improving things, and then improving the improvements.

We are spiffing up parts on the Large Hadron Collider.

No one will ever notice what we're doing, but it's important.

We are making beautiful dovetail joints.

We are Georges Seurat laying down one more point of oil on a huge canvas.

The one that either makes "Sunday Afternoon," a masterpiece.

Or ruins it.

This isn't fun.

This isn't, probably in the large scheme of things, productive.

But it's what we do.

It's called integrity.

It's straining every muscle to go a bit faster, or jump a bit higher.

It's what we do.

Work, as Alain de Botton wrote, has pleasures and sorrows.

Sometimes they're both combined in the most minute of tasks.

Sometimes they exist side by side in the madness, chaos, frustration and frenzy of late nights and bad Chinese food.

It wasn't until Rousseau in the 18th Century that the notion of work and fulfillment and/or happiness became linked.

It's a tough concept.

And considering the history of our species, a new one.

Sometimes it's like pushing water up-hill with a sieve.

But we try.

We try to do the best job we can. We try to create something that entertains, that informs, that moves the needle for a brand. And we put our sweat and sinew and cerebellum into it.

And deal with the sorrow.

And the pleasure.

That's what we do.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Let a million penises bloom.

The agency in which I WORK has decided, for whatever reason, that we need to PLAY more.

This in addition to the ping-pong tables that seem to be in constant ping and incessant pong.

Someone's decided that we need to, in addition to our daily toil, find ways to unleash our prodigious creativity in other realms. If we want to make a replica of the Great Wall of China out of pizza boxes, they will support us. If we decided to lead a client presentation in the language of interpretive dance, well that's fine, too.

We need to be creative.

Flamboyantly so.

To egg us on, to spur our inner-Michaelangelos, the agency powers have cargo-culted little containers of Play-Doh hither and yon.

In a conference room on 8, there was a pink container and a blue one. Up here on 11, I've come across red and yellow.

I remember the smell and colors from my children's pre-school.

I don't exactly pine for the stuff. I've found ways to release my abundant creativity without regressing to toy corner.

What's happened to this Play-Doh is interesting.

Little Play-Doh penises have arisen everywhere.

Of course they have.

This is par for the course.

And most agencies, to be frank, have the maturity level of an eighth-grade boys' locker room.

I'm all for creative people working on side projects. But most truly creative people I know work better when they are under pressure. When they have to balance the many demands of work, life, family and art.

This kind of shit is silly.

If there's art you want to pursue, that's fine. But work, I'm sorry, is work. That's what we're here to do.

Work.

Then you can play.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Almodovars join the Saraperos.

The Almodovars joined the squad after game one of a double-header we were playing in Aquascalientes. It was hot that day—it was hot every day—and we were bushed. A lot of playing minor league baseball is getting through an unmanageable number of games in an unmanageably short amount of time. Our twin bill against the Rieleros, the Railroaders, took place after a string of something like 12 games in ten days.

On September 1st rosters expanded in the Mexican League from 25 men on a squad to 34. Six of our nine new guys met up with us in Aquascalientes’ Parco Alberto Romo Chavez and we welcomed the extra men with open but tired arms.

These new men in general were guys from the lower echelons of the Mexican Baseball League who, because of some demonstrated ability at those lower levels, earned a promotion to more prominent teams. They were players “management” wanted to take a look at, hot bats, strong arms, or prospects demanding closer inspection.

The four who I first got to know were Alfonso, Alonzo, Alberto and Alfredo  Almodovar. They were quadruplets with beards the size of a small backyard garden, and hair long, down to their shoulders or beyond, so they looked like they played for the old House of David barn-storming teams. I’ll be the first to admit I found it nearly impossible to tell the four apart. Not only were they almost identical in looks, their mannerisms, ticks, and verbal fillips were almost identical, too.
The House of David team, circa 1932. Members of a religious order that prohibited ball games on Sunday.
And cutting their hair.

Hector Quesadilla began to size the quartet up.

“Alfonso,” he barked.

Alfonso replied, “Primera.” He was to play first base.

“Alonzo.”

“Segunda.”

“Alberto.”

“Campocorto,” he said, shortstop.

“Alfredo.”

“Esquina caliente,” Alfredo said. He was playing the hot corner, third base, my position.

“Eso es al cuadro.” This is my infield, said Hector. Giving me at third, Adame at second, Rojas at first and Angel Diablo at short the night off.

The four Almodovars quickly changed into uniform and ran to their appointed stations on the field and began playing pepper like the Harlem Globetrotters on amphetamines, tossing the ball like magicians, between their legs, behind their backs, and every which way imaginable. Their hands, if you must know, were like wild birds, a blur of movement and…prestidigitation.

I was sitting next to Hector on the bench as the Almodovars were warming up, my usual position when I wasn’t at bat or on the field.

“Where have they been all season,” Hector asked me.

I read the crumpled “Transfer of Players,” from the home office, eight type-written pages, two for each Almodovar.

“It says they were playing for Los Indios de Iguala,” I told the old man.

“Class B,” Hector said. “And how did they do? What does the scouting report have to say?”

“Los Indios were 17 wins and 49 losses,” I said. “It says that Alfonso is strong defensively, but with limited range. Alonzo has no arm. Alberto goes left well, but can’t go right. And Alfredo,” I stopped and handed the sheaf of scouting reports over to Hector.

Hector read aloud.

“Alfredo él es bueno, pero a veces pierde la pelota de béisbol en la barba.

I translated to myself.

“Alfredo is good, but he sometimes loses the baseball in his beard.”

--
 continued later this week.




Friday, February 19, 2016

Deep-dish Friday.

I just came across a sentence in an interview I read with the two-time Pulitzer winner and National Book Award winning author Robert Caro.

Caro, for those of you who don't know him, is the genius of modern biography. If anyone read anymore, or anyone cared, Caro would be regarded as one of our national treasures. What Shakespeare is to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Caro is to just about any other historian.

Continuing my aside, Caro's four-part story of Lyndon Baines Johnson is--all 3,000 pages of it--an absolute must read. You will learn more about America and the nature of power than you'd learn in a dozen years in the most exalted universities. In fact my brother, in all probability the smartest person I know, reads Caro in a circular fashion, like painting a bridge. He barely finishes his LBJ tetralogy before picking up volume one and starting again.

In any event, back to the sentence at hand.

Time equals truth.

Let it sit on your tongue a bit like a fine wine or an expensive bit of chocolate.

Caro, famously, took 14 years to write his seminal biography of New York's Robert Moses, "The Power Broker." He talked to everyone who knew him. Read everything about him. Interviewed Moses extensively.

Caro's spent literally the last 45 years writing about Lyndon Johnson.

Spending time so that he can get to the truth.

Today, especially in our business, we wallow in shortcuts. Expedience is our guide.

There is no time. There is no truth.

We toss "insights" around like cheap cable-company-giveaway frisbees.

Then we shake our heads.

And wonder why.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Downcast Thursday.

video
You've never seen, in all likelihood, Orson Welles' 1947 movie, "The Lady from Shanghai," but it is really worth watching.

If you can get over Welles' really "Gilligan's Island"-Irish accent, you get to see Rita Hayworth deshabille and the always brilliant Everett Sloane (Bernstein from "Kane.") You'll also see one of the great movie climaxes of all time, the famous mirror scene.

As a parallel to agency life however, I give you the above. Even out of context it's great. In context, it's even more.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Uncle Slappy saves the day. (A repost.)

Uncle Slappy called late last night, past if you must know, his usual bed time. I picked up the phone and immediately noticed a slight tremolo in his voice.

"Boychick," he said.

"Uncle Slappy. It's late. Is everything ok?"

"Oy, I have to tell you what a night we had. We just got home a few minutes ago."

I took a deep breath. When your surrogate father and surrogate mother are 86, every action that is out of the norm makes you more than a trifle nervous.

"Your Aunt Sylvie and I went out to dinner tonight with Saul and Mindy, the Siegels."

The Siegels live three units down in a two bedroom with a view of the pool. He was an internist in Roslyn until they retired and moved to Boca.

"We went to the early bird," Slappy continued "to my favorite place, "From Schmear to Eternity." On Monday nights they have all-you-can-eat lox and bagel, $14.95."


"That's quite a deal. I imagine Aunt Sylvie took some home for later."

"They expect that," Slappy temporized, "It's built into the price. In any event, you would think Saul Siegel hadn't eaten in a week. He was wolfing down the food like a rabid dog."

"Or a wolf," I amended politely.

"Whatever," Slappy ignored. "In any event he was eating a piece of pickled herring that had to be the size of a whole pickled herring."

"He didn't cut?"

"No, into the mouth like a seal the herring went. And in a minute he's choking like a horse. He's turning red and blue like a bruise."

"Oy," I added sagaciously.

"The man eats like his throat was cut."

"And a cardiologist no less."

"In any event, a burglar, comes into the Schmear and I see he pulls a gun on the cashier. A nice Cuban girl who sits in the front. She freezes like a snow man but meanwhile, Saul Siegel is about to plotz."

"Death by herring," I tsked.

"I get up in a flash, or what passes for a flash when you're 86. The burglar sees me getting up and screams at me pointing his gun. 'Get down,' he says."

"You got down, I assume."

"I did not. I yelled at him, 'He's choking. I'm giving him the Heinrick Manoeuvre. At this, the gunman gets irked with me. 'Get down,' he yells."

"Oy," I added again.

"I yell again," Uncle Slappy says, "I am giving the Heinrick Manoeuvre. And the burglar yells at me. 'Heimlich, you idiot. It's Heimlich, you idiot.' At that point I push in on Siegel's chest and out flies, and I mean flies a giant piece of pickled herring."

"It's said the average piece of food someone chokes on is the size of a cigarette pack. Remember when Mama Cass died?"

"Ach. Ham sandwich," he said. "The herring flies out like a rocket and hits the gunman in the eye, stinging and startling him. The kitchen guy sees this and at that point jumps on the burglar and knocks him to the ground. Aunt Sylvie was the hero. She picked up his gun."

"That's quite a story." I was breathing again.

"The police quickly arrived and we all had to go to the precinct to tell what happened. We just now got home."

"Well, thank god everyone's ok."

"Actually," Slappy paused, "Actually, I'm a little hurt."

"You're hurt?" I asked.

"He shouldn't have called me an idiot."

And with that the old man hung up the blower.

I'm sure he was asleep in minutes. Me, an idiot, couldn't sleep all night.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Bronx? Yes, thonx.*

I was born in the City of Yonkers, the fourth largest city in New York (after New York City, Buffalo and Rochester) but given Yonkers' adjacency to the Bronx, have always had an affinity for that benighted borough.

The Bronx of my youth was a frightful place, the symbol--perhaps even moreso than Detroit--of urban blight, white flight and the end of the promise of America. Practically the whole of the South Bronx had gone in little more than a generation from working class, or even middle class white, to drug addled and impoverished horror

Tenement fires, often set by proxies sent by insurance scammers, ripped through the borough and one World Series in the Bronx's Yankee Stadium, Howard Cosell, seeing fires beyond the precincts of the stadium loudly declared to millions of viewers that "The Bronx is on fire."

After 9/11, I had hoped that the city and the financial moguls who run it, would decide to relocate Wall Street to the South Bronx. Not only is the area well-served by subways and close to New York's airports, it would have revitalized a blighted area of city that really needed revitalization.

Of course, the best laid plans of George and man ang gaft aglay, and no such beneficence occurred. However, as I travel through the South Bronx nearly every week, I see signs of life. Restaurants are opening, the streets are better paved and bustling, and new housing seems to be going up everywhere.

Even the gigantic old factories that once provided jobs for the neighborhood are slowly springing back to life. The warehouse building that held the iconic History Channel billboard for decades and decades--it used to be an ice factory--is missing the billboard now. The building is being renovated to the tune of $25 million.

I get off of 87 at the Third Avenue exit, drive past the tenements and housing projects on Alexander Avenue, then scoot over the Third Avenue Bridge to Manhattan and then onto the FDR and home. Underneath an overpass there's an abandoned car burnt up old Chevy on the back of an old truck. It's been there forever.  That's the old Bronx, in a nutshell.


But, there's a counterpoint. I spotted this beer--made in a brewery at East 136th Street--in a gourmet shop. No point here today. Just don't count people and places and institutions out. Most of them have more life in them than they let on.
--
* Ogden Nash famously wrote,

The Bronx?
No Thonx.

He recanted many years later: "I can't seem to escape the sins of my smart-aleck youth," he said in 1964, seven years before his death. "Here are my amends.

"I wrote those lines, 'The Bronx? No thonx!' I shudder to confess them.
Now I'm an older, wiser man. I cry, 'The Bronx, God bless them!"'

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Nancy.

I sat down to dinner last night with my wife and before I had even begun to cut into my pollo, a ghost visited me and I began to feel tears wash over me.

I sent the ghost away and suppressed my tears but my wife noticed something was wrong.

"Nothing, I said," really not knowing at that point why I all of a sudden had felt so horribly sad.

The ghost came again, just a moment ago.

I was doing the Sunday Times crossword--a small reward I give myself for the week I have gotten through, and listening to Dvorak, my favorite, on the radio.

Then boom.

I felt punched in the kishkas and a monsoon of tears filled the back of my eyes.

And then it hit me.

Tomorrow is Valentine's day, my younger sister Nancy's birthday.

She would have been 56 tomorrow.

But she never made it past 47.

She died in a motorcycle crash on May 13th, 2007.

Nancy and I were the closest of siblings. Though at times we had gone years without talking.

Not talking is something I do exceptionally well. When something bothers me, or when someone really and truly disappoints me or hurts me, well, I'm apt to never talk to them again. It's how I deal--or don't deal--with things that annoy me or scare me or pain me.

Nancy was the youngest. I was the middle. My brother, Fred, the oldest.

She got the short end of a very short parenting stick. A drunk of a missing father. And a raging harridan, a termagant, a virago of a mother.

Nancy dealt with her abuse by turning to drugs and things that were generally destructive to her.

But she was trying to get better and was succeeding. She had gotten a Masters from NYU and was--yes, at 47, trying to figure out what she wanted to try to get out of life and who she wanted to spend her life with.

She had just bought a Ducati motorcycle the day before and on the day she died--the next day, was up early, driving it to upstate New York where she could unwind on some twisty roads and enjoy the light greens and yellows of a blooming New York spring.

A drunk man ran across 12th Avenue.

She swerved to avoid him and crashed her bike which crushed her to death.

I identified her in the hospital. There was my beautiful sister, beaten like a piece of too tough steak. Bruised.

I could still see the indent in her left cheekbone where she got hit with a foul ball at one of my baseball games and had to be rushed to the hospital.

It's been almost nine years, and I miss her.

We talk when we can.

I cry about Nancy a lot.

I am crying now.

A lot of shit happens to us all as we make our way through the crap of life. We all have our horrors to live and breathe and cry about. None of us are alone in that.

But right now, when it's 11-degrees outside and people are thinking of their Valentine's or their romantic dinners tomorrow, or even me, when I'm so sporadically happy with my saint of a wife, my strong and intelligent and successful daughters, my walks with my dog, my classical music, my career and friends and reading and the writing I do, I am crying.

A part of me will always be crying.

Because tomorrow is Valentine's Day.

And I miss my little sis.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Thoughts from Saltillo.

Right after I joined the Saraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican League back almost 41 years ago, I went on the best hot streak of my entire life.

My first at bat, as you may or may not recall if you've read this space with any regularity, I lashed a double off the wooden left field wall. A double standing up.

Jorge Navidad, batting average: 1.000.

I don't know if you, reading this, safe in your office, or in the dank of a New York subway, or somewhere in some green and pleasant land, have ever hit a ball really well. It doesn't matter what kind of ball actually, it can be golf, I suppose though I never hit a golf ball well, or tennis, or even football, either American or the real rest-of-the-world deal.

Whatever the case, when you hit a baseball well, you feel power, electricity even, radiating up your arms and into your shoulders. Everything seems to slow, and you see the ball sail. Maybe you even see a fielder--300, 350 feet away, flapping at the ball with his glove. And you drop your bat and you take off with all your sinew and strength.

You make your way quickly down the line and round first looping your way to second. Maybe your hat falls off as you're running (we wore no helmets in those days) like Willie Mays, maybe you hear a small, pretty senora or a kid even, shouting your name from the bleachers.

Jor ge...Nav-eeee-dad.

That's how I started my foray down in Mexico.

Apparently, I was a rabbit's foot for the Saraperos. Because once I joined the squad, new as I was and speaking the language with the marginal command of someone who had barely cracked a book in Spanish class, everyone started larruping the ball, even pitchers.

And we Saraperos did what teams do when they start hitting the ball hard. We started going up to bat with the confidence of a matador facing an old, fat bull. We hit and hits begat hits. Grounders that used to bounce directly at opposing fielders would find their way through gaps in the infield. Long foul balls would hug fair. And line drives would dip before outfielders could make a stab as if they had eyes.

With the hitting came the winning.

In my first week, six games we went 5-1. The next week, eight games, 6-2. As a team we had gone from having a 27-35 record, to being dead .500, 38-38.

We moved up in the standings of our six-team division, from fifth to fourth to third, just 1 1/2  games from the top.

Then, predictably perhaps, everything changed.

We'd swing over a grooved pitch and bat it harmlessly to an infielder. Or get under one and pop it stupidly to shallow left.

We couldn't, in the words of the great Hector Quesadilla our manager, we couldn't hit our way out of a flauto de pollo.

I sit at my desk as I write this feeling a little bit like Robert Frost's narrator with his horse in the wood.

Alone.

No longer batting 1.000.

The only other sound is the click-clacking of a fellow writer's mac and  the sweep of artificial white noise from the unfinished ceiling.

Life is like this, work is like this.

Sometimes you hit the ball and you are like the Mighty Thor.

Sometimes, you feel as miniscule as we really are.

All we can do, really, is what Hector counseled us to do so many years, so many dusty bus rides ago.

Keep swinging the bat.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Five Minutes with our CVO.

Ad Aged: CVO. Pardon my ignorance, but what does that stand for? Chief Value Officer?

CVO: Value? Ha! CVO stands for Chief Vomit Officer.

Ad Aged: Chief Vomit Officer? That's absolutely vile. What is it that you do?

CVO: Well, indirectly, I test the mettle of the people working for the agency. I'm here to see if they can come through in a pinch.

Ad Aged: Please explain.


CVO: It's pretty simple really what a CVO does. I talk an excessively big game and I am therefore given major assignment after major assignment.

Ad Aged: And then?

CVO: And then, I do nothing. I don't create, I don't do any work. I show up to meetings late or not at all. 

Ad Aged: So, get to the Vomit part.


CVO: Basically, when I'm through, where the assignment used to be, I leave a steaming pile of vomit. A crisis. A problem. A panic. And then I spring into action and...

Ad Aged: And...

CVO: And I disappear. I'm at a luncheon, or a client, or an edit suite. 

Ad Aged: I see. That's all very....

CVO: Listen, I have a very simple slogan that describes my modus operandi.

Ad Aged: And that is....

CVO: "If I don't shirk, you'll have no work."

Ad Aged: Thank you for that.

CVO: I'd love to go on talking. But I have work I have to avoid.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Only the living know Brooklyn.

It seems to me that everyone and his cousin have left the rarefied island of Manhattan, pulled up stakes and made it across the bridge to the even more rarefied air of Brooklyn.

It occurred to me that now that it appears that Bernie Sanders will be our next President, now might be the time to once again let our inner Brooklyn-accents out and embrace our god-given dese and dose.

To that end, I am posting here a story I've always loved by the great (and today, virtually unknown) Thomas Wolfe. A story of Brooklyn. Of life. And more.

Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh goddam town.
So like I say, I’m waitin’ for my train t’ come when I sees dis big guy standin’ deh—dis is duh foist I eveh see of him. Well, he’s lookin’ wild, y’know, an’ I can see dat he’s had plenty, but still he’s holdin’ it; he talks good an’ is walkin’ straight enough. So den, dis big guy steps up to a little guy dat’s standin’ deh, an’ says, “How d’yuh get t’ Eighteent’ Avenoo an’ Sixty-sevent’ Street?” he says.
“Jesus! Yuh got me, chief,” duh little guy says to him. “I ain’t been heah long myself. Where is duh place?” he says. “Out in duh Flatbush section somewhere?”
“Nah,” duh big guy says. “It’s out in Bensenhoist. But I was neveh deh befoeh. How d’yuh get deh?”
“Jesus,” duh little guy says, scratchin’ his head, y’know—yuh could see duh little guy didn’t know his way about—“yuh got me, chief. I neveh hoid of it. Do any of youse guys know where it is?” he says to me.
“Sure,” I says. “It’s out in Bensenhoist. Yuh take duh Fourt’ Avenoo express, get off at Fifty-nint’ Street, change to a Sea Beach local deh, get off at Eighteent’ Avenoo an’ Sixty-toid, an’ den walk down foeh blocks. Dat’s all yuh got to do,” I says.
“G’wan!” some wise guy dat I neveh seen befoeh pipes up. “Whatcha talkin’ about?” he says—oh, he was wise, y’know. “Duh guy is crazy! I tell yuh what yuh do,” he says to duh big guy. “Yuh change to duh West End line at Toity-sixt’,” he tells him. “Get off at Noo Utrecht an’ Sixteent’ Avenoo,” he says. “Walk two blocks oveh, foeh blocks up,” he says, “an’ you’ll be right deh.” Oh, a wise guy, y’know.
“Oh, yeah?” I says. “Who told you so much?” He got me sore because he was so wise about it. “How long you been livin’ heah?” I says.
“All my life,” he says. “I was bawn in Williamsboig,” he says. “An’ I can tell you t’ings about dis town you neveh hoid of,” he says.
“Yeah?” I says.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Well, den, you can tell me t’ings about dis town dat nobody else has eveh hoid of, either. Maybe you make it all up yoehself at night,” I says, “befoeh you go to sleep—like cuttin’ out papeh dolls, or somp’n.”
“Oh, yeah?” he says. “You’re pretty wise, ain’t yuh?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I says. “Duh boids ain’t usin’ my head for Lincoln’s statue yet,” I says. “But I’m wise enough to know a phony when I see one.”
“Yeah?” he says. “A wise guy, huh? Well, you’re so wise dat someone’s goin’ t’bust yuh one right on duh snoot some day,” he says. “Dat’s how wise you are.”
Well, my train was comin’, or I’da smacked him den and dere, but when I seen duh train was comin’, all I said was, “All right, mugg! I’m sorry I can’t stay to take keh of you, but I’ll be seein’ yuh sometime, I hope, out in duh cemetery.” So den I says to duh big guy, who’d been standin’ deh all duh time, “You come wit me,” I says. So when we gets onto duh train I says to him, “Where yuh goin’ out in Bensenhoist?” I says. “What numbeh are yuh lookin’ for?” I says. You know—I t’ought if he told me duh address I might be able to help him out.
“Oh,” he says, “I’m not lookin’ for no one. I don’t know no one out deh.”
“Then whatcha goin’ out deh for?” I says.
“Oh,” duh guy says, “I’m just goin’ out to see duh place,” he says. “I like duh sound of duh name”—Bensenhoist, y’know—“so I t’ought I’d go out an’ have a look at it.”
“Whatcha tryin’ t’hand me?” I says. “Whatcha tryin’ t’do—kid me?” You know, I t’ought duh guy was bein’ wise wit me.
“No,” he says, “I’m tellin’ yuh duh troot. I like to go out an’ take a look at places wit nice names like dat. I like to go out an’ look at all kinds of places,” he says.
“How’d yuh know deh was such a place,” I says, “if you neveh been deh befoeh?”
“Oh,” he says, “I got a map.”
“A map?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “I got a map dat tells me about all dese places. I take it wit me every time I come out heah,” he says.
And Jesus! Wit dat, he pulls it out of his pocket, an’ so help me, but he’s got it—he’s tellin’ duh troot—a big map of duh whole goddam place wit all duh different pahts. Mahked out, you know—Canarsie an’ East Noo Yawk an’ Flatbush, Bensenhoist, Sout’ Brooklyn, duh Heights, Bay Ridge, Greenpernt—duh whole goddam layout, he’s got it right deh on duh map.
“You been to any of dose places?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “I been to most of ’em. I was down in Red Hook just last night,” he says.
“Jesus! Red Hook!” I says. “What-cha do down deh?”
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I just walked aroun’. I went into a coupla places an’ had a drink,” he says, “but most of the time I just walked aroun’.”
“Just walked aroun’?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “just lookin’ at things, y’know.”
“Where’d yuh go?” I asts him.
“Oh,” he says, “I don’t know duh name of duh place, but I could find it on my map,” he says. “One time I was walkin’ across some big fields where deh ain’t no houses,” he says, “but I could see ships oveh deh all lighted up. Dey was loadin’. So I walks across duh fields,” he says, “to where duh ships are.”
“Sure,” I says, “I know where you was. You was down to duh Erie Basin.”
“Yeah,” he says, “I guess dat was it. Dey had some of dose big elevators an’ cranes an’ dey was loadin’ ships, an’ I could see some ships in drydock all lighted up, so I walks across duh fields to where dey are,” he says.
“Den what did yuh do?” I says.
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I came on back across duh fields after a while an’ went into a coupla places an’ had a drink.”
“Didn’t nuttin’ happen while yuh was in dere?” I says.
“No,” he says. “Nuttin’ much. A coupla guys was drunk in one of duh places an’ started a fight, but dey bounced ’em out,” he says, “an’ den one of duh guys stahted to come back again, but duh bartender gets his baseball bat out from under duh counteh, so duh guy goes on.”
“Jesus!” I said. “Red Hook!”
“Sure,” he says. “Dat’s where it was, all right.”
“Well, you keep outa deh,” I says. “You stay away from deh.”
“Why?” he says. “What’s wrong wit it?”
“Oh,” I says, “it’s a good place to stay away from, dat’s all. It’s a good place to keep out of.”
“Why?” he says. “Why is it?” Jesus! Whatcha gonna do wit a guy as dumb as dat? I saw it wasn’t no use to try to tell him nuttin’, he wouldn’t know what I was talkin’ about, so I just says to him, “Oh, nuttin’. Yuh might get lost down deh, dat’s all.”
“Lost?” he says. “No, I wouldn’t get lost. I got a map,” he says.
A map! Red Hook! Jesus!
So den duh guy begins to ast me all kinds of nutty questions: how big was Brooklyn an’ could I find my way aroun’ in it, an’ how long would it take a guy to know duh place.
“Listen!” I says. “You get dat idea outa yoeh head right now,” I says. “You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn,” I says. “Not in a hunderd yeahs. I been livin’ heah all my life,” I says, “an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it, so how do you expect to know duh town,” I says, “when you don’t even live heah?”
“Yes,” he says, “but I got a map to help me find my way about.”
“Map or no map,” I says, “yuh ain’t gonna get to know Brooklyn wit no map,” I says.
“Can you swim?” he says, just like dat. Jesus! By dat time, y’know, I begun to see dat duh guy was some kind of nut. He’d had plenty to drink, of course, but he had dat crazy look in his eye I didn’t like. “Can you swim?” he says.
“Sure,” I says. “Can’t you?”
“No,” he says. “Not more’n a stroke or two. I neveh loined good.”
“Well, it’s easy,” I says. “All yuh need is a little confidence. Duh way I loined, me older bruddeh pitched me off duh dock one day when I was eight yeahs old, cloes an’ all. ‘You’ll swim,’ he says. ‘You’ll swim all right—or drown.’ An’, believe me, I swam! When yuh know yuh got to, you’ll do it. Duh only t’ing yuh need is confidence. An’ once you’ve loined,” I says, “you’ve got nuttin’ else to worry about. You’ll neveh forgit it. It’s somp’n dat stays with yuh as long as yuh live.”
“Can yuh swim good?” he says.
“Like a fish,” I tells him. “I’m a regular fish in duh wateh,” I says. “I loined to swim right off duh docks wit all duh odeh kids,” I says.
“What would yuh do if yuh saw a man drownin’?” duh guy says.
“Do? Why, I’d jump in an’ pull him out,” I says. “Dat’s what I’d do.”
“Did yuh eveh see a man drown?” he says.
“Sure,” I says. “I see two guys—bot’ times at Coney Island. Dey got out too far, an’ neider one could swim. Dey drowned befoeh anyone could get to ’em.”
“What becomes of people after dey have drowned out heah?” he says.
“Drowned out where?” I says.
“Out heah in Brooklyn.”
“I don’t know whatcha mean,” I says. “Neveh hoid of no one drownin’ heah in Brooklyn, unless you mean a swimmin’ pool. Yuh can’t drown in Brooklyn,” I says. “Yuh gotta drown somewhere else—in duh ocean, where dere’s wateh.”
“Drownin’,” duh guy says, lookin’ at his map. “Drownin’.”
Jesus! I could see by den he was some kind of nut, he had dat crazy expression in his eyes when he looked at you, an’ I didn’t know what he might do. So we was comin’ to a station, an’ it wasn’t my stop, but I got off anyway, an’ waited for duh next train.
“Well, so long, chief,” I says. “Take it easy, now.”
“Drownin’,” duh guy says, lookin’ at his map. “Drownin’.”
Jesus! I’ve t’ought about dat guy a t’ousand times since den an’ wondered what eveh happened to ’m goin’ out to look at Bensenhoist because he liked duh name! Walkin’ aroun’ t’roo Red Hook by himself at night an’ lookin’ at his map! How many people did I see get drowned out heah in Brooklyn! How long would it take a guy wit a good map to know all deh was to know about Brooklyn!
Jesus! What a nut he was! I wondeh what eveh happened to ’m, anyway! I wondeh if someone knocked him on duh head, or if he’s still wanderin’ aroun’ in duh subway in duh middle of duh night wit his little map! Duh poor guy! Say, I’ve got to laugh, at dat, when I t’ink about him! Maybe he’s found out by now dat he’ll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn. It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.