Thursday, December 25, 2008

A TALE OF TWO CITIES


Isn't Bangkok known for its Draconian law enforcement? Isn't that where they put drug smugglers to death, or at least throw them into jail for life? (Go see the wonderful, scary movie Brokedown Palace, in which Kate Beckinsale and Claire Dane run afoul of the Thai authorities.) I guess that image must be hurting the tourist industry, if the cops are turning themselves into emoticons on motorcycles.

And now check out the approach recently put into play by the resort town of Southampton, on the East End of Long Island:



"Strictly Enforced" is putting it mildly, judging from the picture on this enormous billboard -- one of two flanking Route 27. That cop isn't taking a radar reading of someone's speed; he's in full combat crouch, pointing what can only appear to be a weapon at anyone foolhardy enough not to heed his warning.

The odd thing is that these signs appear on a stretch of road newly widened from two to four lanes -- where the original speed limit was 40, and where the speed limits to the east and west are, respectively, 45 and 55.

New York City adorns its cop cars with the acronym CPR, which stands for "Courtesy, Pride, Respect" -- it's not clear whether that's what they're supposed to be showing the public or whether that's what they're asking for, but a respectable goal either way, if in practice not likely to be attained. But South Hampton might as well stencil RAMBO on its units, if the menacing figure on the billboard is to be taken as a promise of a threat.

So, Officer, don't shoot! I promise to slow down. And consider putting a Smiley Face on that billboard, if you don't want to scare away next summer's beachgoers.

Friday, September 26, 2008

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES


A couple of weeks ago, another in a long line of Meaningless Baseball Records was set when Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig in the non-category of Most Hits at Yankee Stadium. Never mind that Jeter still trails Gehrig in total career hits by over a hundred; the press, the fans, and even the players unleashed a chorus of hosannas that made the Bronx shake.

Of course, this is Yankee Stadium’s swan song, and any opportunity to heap encomia on the venerable arena (it opened in 1923, the first three-tiered ball park and the first to call itself a “stadium”) was not to be shunned. But from Queens, where Shea Stadium is also scheduled for demolition, nothing. Who has the most hits in Mets’ history? Does anyone know or care? It happens to be Ed Kranepool, who has probably never been mentioned in the same sentence with Jeter or the Iron Horse.

That’s part of the Yankee Stadium “mystique” that even visiting players acknowledge, the echo of baseball history that they experience either as a paralyzing burden or a spur to greatness. It’s much more than just a baseball park, of course. Three Popes have celebrated mass there; Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano all fought title bouts there; and both the New York Yankees and Giants football teams played there as well. But it never worked as a football stadium. The gridiron sat awkwardly in its peculiar dimensions, and nobody (I’m speaking from memory here) had a great view. It was indeed the House That Ruth Built, or at least, that was built for him: after the Yanks stole him from the Red Sox, flush with cash, they tailored their new home to his peculiar strengths. The result was as lopsided a baseball field as has ever been seen: the Babe was a dead-pull left-handed hitter, and the right-field stands stood only 295 feet from the plate – a pop fly by Ruthian standards. By contrast, left-center was an enormous poke – over 490 to deepest left center – and perhaps righty Joe DiMaggio’s career home-run stats are as impressive as Ruth’s when that’s taken into account. Fans used to entertain themselves in the off-season by speculating on what trading Joe D for lefty Ted Williams would have meant: Joe would have been bouncing balls off and swatting them over the Green Monster at Fenway, and Williams could have picked up where Ruth left off.

My first memory of Yankee Stadium (the old one, mind you, not the 1975 make-over) was sitting next to my father, watching a DiMaggio line drive split the outfielders for a double during his last season, 1951, against Boston. Later in the same game, Ted Williams defeated the Yanks’ defensive shift (pretty much the same as the one used against Giambi these days) by scorching the ball just inside the unguarded left-field foul line; I could see him laughing as he stood on second base, though Dad had to explain to me the subtleties of his gambit. Another vivid memory is of a game that my high-school baseball coach took the team to, in which Mickey Mantle, in the ninth inning, hit a two-hopper to the shortstop that lifted him off his feet and literally knocked him on his ass. Mantle, sensing an infield hit, turned on the speed and ten feet from the bag went down as if shot. To stunned silence, he curled into a ball and tumbled over and over, clutching his thigh. The play ended the game, with the Yankees losing, and the crowd filed out in silence, like mourners leaving the funeral chapel. That quadriceps pull was one in a long line of leg injuries that cost Mantle his speed and stability, and the chance to become the greatest outfielder in history.

Over the following decades, perversely, I seem to have attended more games at the stadium when the Yankees had lousy teams than when they were on top. In the early 60’s, all my friends were baseball crazed and we went all the time (with a student ID, it cost no more than a movie), and we got to watch Howard and Boyer and Kubek and a team that was always in contention. But after I was married, though I successfully made my wife a baseball fan, the roster had turned over: the big bopper of the early 70s was Curt Blefary (who?), and his supporting cast included the likes of Horace Clarke, Stan Bahnsen and Jerry Kelley. I remember us arriving there on a promotional day when anyone under 14 got in free. Nancy was 22, but we thought she could pass; she put her hair in a pony tail and untucked her blouse, bought one seat, and made it past the ticket-taker before a security guard gave her the fish-eye and sent us back to the box office. But we kept going to games, though the stadium was literally disintegrating around us: one night (it was a playoff game), a light mist was falling, and we thought we’d be OK because we were in the lower deck protected by the mezzanine, but the water was channeling down the rusting girders over us and splattering on our heads like a cold shower until we gave up and left in the fifth.

Still, win or lose, the park itself – particularly in the daytime – had grace and majesty, a dependable thrill whenever I emerged from the ramp into the sun and saw that distinctive columned fa├žade and that extraordinary curve (is there a mathematical name for it?) that enclosed two-thirds of the field. Anyone could have thought up Shea – just draw a circle, stick a diamond in it, and fill it with seats. Some of the newer parks like Camden Yards and Jacobs Field, at least on TV, look inviting and stylish. But none of them has the charisma of the ballpark in the Bronx.

Dave Anderson asked, in the Times last week, what’s the big deal about the Stadium closing? It’s not as if the team is moving to Los Angeles; they’ll be at the same subway stop, a few hundred yards away, in a new Yankee Stadium that will closely resemble the old one. Granted, Dave. But the idiosyncrasies will be gone. No more Monument Park right there on the field of play (everyone has seen film of Bobby Murcer trying to wedge himself between two stone slabs as he chases down a ball); no men’s rooms with long troughs for urinals; no more wooden seats, painted blue, with just the right curve for the spine. Instead, diminished capacity because of the sky boxes, huge price increases, and of course a very iffy team in the midst of a difficult transition. No longer will a rookie outfielder trot to his position in the first inning thinking, “I’m standing where Babe Ruth stood.” Instead, it will be more like “Right this minute, I might be the best right fielder who ever played here.”



Further reading: Harvey Frommer, Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of ‘The House That Ruth Built.’

Saturday, May 24, 2008

DOWN AND OUT AT THE EDGEWOOD SCHOOL



Who else would carry the following baggage around for almost half a century?

If you have no interest in baseball, stop reading here. If you're an obsessive fan, or a former ballplayer, you might find this interesting.

Have you ever heard baseball announcers refer to someone as a "five-tool player?" That means he can run, catch, throw, hit for average and hit for power. There are very few five-tool players, even in the major leagues: Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and a few others. When I played high-school baseball, I was a two-tool player: I could make the scoop at first base, I could inside-out the ball to right field (.319 senior year), but I couldn't run worth a damn, I had no power, and (at last I arrive at my subject) I couldn't throw.

First basemen don't have to throw often, which is why I was positioned there. But whenever I did have to make a throw (usually to second or home, which is a short, easy toss), the ball would leave my hand looking good but then sort of . . . die. It seemed to lose its way, its will to live. It would slow down, sink, and swerve to the right -- every time. I worked on my throwing obsessively, but nothing ever changed, and I took this as simply more evidence that I had little athletic ability.

But that turns out not to have been the case. For some reason, when I gripped the ball to throw it, I placed my fingers along the seams, like so:




That, I learned decades later, is what pitchers call a "two-seamer." It's designed to do just what my throws did -- lose velocity and break down and to the right. If I had gripped the ball ACROSS the seams (what pitchers call a "four-seamer"), like so --




-- it would have flown straighter, harder and truer.

What rankles me is that my coach, Bob Kondracki, had been a professional ballplayer -- a pitcher! -- in the high minors. Coach Kondracki was a genial, laid-back sort of guy, not too bright, but willing to tell us endless funny stories about life in the Class AA, sort of like the movie Bull Durham. This man watched me bounce throws in the dirt for three years, shaking his head each time, and never once thought to examine the way I held the baseball. It was only when I was in my 40s, playing catch with a friend (still using my old first-baseman's glove and a ball hit by Stan Musial in batting practice at Shea back in the 60s), that I experimentally discovered the amazing results of gripping the ball across the seams.

Today, this could not happen. Kids are drilled obsessively in fundamentals from Little League on, and they're adepts by age 10; they have all the techniques and nuances of style down pat. Every peewee in America, stepping up to the plate, calls time by extending his back hand, palm out, to the umpire while he digs in, just like Derek Jeter.

I'm fundamentally opposed to Little League, with its uniforms, its competitiveness, its jealous, ranting parents and beleaguered coaches. What happened to playing the game for fun? But Coach Kondracki, what happened to coaching?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

THE SEMIOTICS OF PARKING

NO STANDING
EXCEPT
COMMERCIAL TRAFFIC
METERED PARKING
3 HOUR LIMIT
8AM – 7PM
EXCEPT SUNDAY
<----------------->

So read the parking sign on First Avenue in the 30’s. It was five in the afternoon, and I’d been circling the neighborhood for twenty minutes, and immediately beneath the sign was a space, meter and all.

But this was New York, and the sign was an unreliable signifier. Ever notice the complete absence of punctuation and lower-case letters from street signs, so that one must guess where sentences end and begin, based on nothing but hunch and whatever devious clues can be gleaned from line breaks?

So it is not enough to read according to the rules of English grammar. One must also commit what in my circles is known as the Intentional Fallacy, which holds that reading a text in order to discover what its author intended it to mean – as opposed to what it actually means – is improper. For how can we know what was in the mind of, say, Shakespeare, who has been dead for 400 years, or some anonymous toiler in the local DOT office, who may well have received an inferior education, deficient in instruction in the techniques of expository prose, but who is nonetheless charged with the responsibility for wording communications such as this one. Or who may be a dropout from grad school in English, who knows exactly what he’s doing.

Thus my reading of the sign had to depend upon my reading of the signer and his purpose, which might have been to make clear what the parking regulations are or, alternatively, to boost revenues by tricking motorists into parking where they should not through verbal ambiguity and Jesuitical equivocation.

My default guess is always that the intention of the Traffic Department is to thwart, bully, and extort, and I’ve always been right so far. I knew that if I parked in that spot I’d get a ticket that would cost me $110.

And yet . . . by my reading, the sign said it was legal to park there. It makes two separate statements, I believe. The first says that only commercial traffic may stand in the area governed by the sign; all private vehicles must keep moving, at all times on all days. "Standing" means something different from "parking": it's parking plus, moving your car to the curb but not leaving it. The second statement is about parking (that is, locking your car and leaving it at the curb). The implied period after the sentence “No standing except commercial traffic” makes that statement complete and self-contained. The following statement – a paraphrase of which would read, “Metered parking is available to all for up to three hours between 8 AM and 7 PM, except on Sunday, when anyone may park for any duration without paying,” is not dependent on the early statement about who may stand and who may not, either grammatically or logically. It was 5 PM; it was a Monday; therefore, I was entitled to park at the meter if I paid for two hours, after which I need not pay until the next morning at 8 AM.

As I pondered lonely as a cloud, I noticed a cop car idling at a pump at the end of the block. I pulled up next to him, rolled down my window, and said, “Excuse me, officer, is it legal for me to park here?” The exemplar of New York’s Finest to whom I spoke, a burly man with, appropriately, a five o’clock shadow, looked at me as if I were being a wise guy. “Didja read the sign?” he asked? “Yes, I did,” I replied. “Then you know ya can’t park.”

For a moment, I thought of engaging him in earnest discussion. Then I asked myself what happens to people who come off as elitist and condescending to cops, and I nodded briskly, rolled up the window, and drove slowly up the avenue, looking for the nearest garage.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

FAREWELL TO SCRABBLE


"All words labeled as a part of speech (including those listed of foreign origin, and as archaic, obsolete, colloquial, slang, etc.) are permitted with the exception of the following: words always capitalized, abbreviations, prefixes and suffixes standing alone, words requiring a hyphen or an apostrophe."

Those are the rules of Scrabble, perhaps the best board game ever invented, which has been around since the Great Depression and is now, as far as I’m concerned, over. I joined Facebook (under a pseudonym) solely because I wanted to play Scrabble on line, but whether I play another person or a computer (on a related cite called Scrabulous.com), I’m done in by those insidious Scrabble dictionaries (of which there are several) – lists of “words” (no definitions) that go by such names as Sowpods (how’s that for a word?) or TWL (Tournament Word List), that exist solely to help people cheat at Scrabble, and are the courts of last resort at Scrabble tournaments all over the world. Both were originally based on the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, but clearly they’ve been corrupted: I have no idea under whose authority we’re meant to accept words like the following, which the computer on Scrabulous used against me in three games I played this morning: qadi, jun, azon, hooty, enuf, sheal and worst of all dogvanes, which earned a 50-point bonus as a seven-letter word. A check of the Oxford English Dictionary turned up none of these. It played spue (which I accept, along with the OED, as a variation of spew), but it refused to allow me to play spuer, which would have allowed me to connect to a triple. Fortunately, I had a d on my next turn, and played spued – for some reason, that passed muster.

What has happened, naturally enough, is that Scrabble enthusiasts have taken to memorizing lists of nonsensical neologisms. Sowpods includes a convenient list of two-letter words (invaluable for hooking your own word onto, so you can access a triple-word score) that includes ae (which is not a word but a diphthong), bi (a prefix), es, et, fe, mm, mu, pe, xu and za.

So what’s the point? I lost two out of my three games, and the computer’s biggest scores in each game came on words-that-are-not-words. And so corrupted have I become that in a game with my friend Ellen, I added a g to baron and made barong, a non-word that I found in SOWPODS and that gave me many points. It would have done her no good to challenge; it’s not in any dictionary of the English language, but is on Scrabble word lists. I was sickened by my perfidy.

So, I guess it’s back to checkers. Too bad. You had a great run, Scrabble, but, as Stephen Crane's Scratchy Wilson said to the sheriff, speaking of the passing of the West, “I expect it’s all off now.”

Friday, February 29, 2008

BOB BOCHROCH


My old friend Bob Bochroch died last week. This is the obit I wrote for him in The East Hampton Star.



ROBERT BOCHROCH, 75

Robert Bochroch, of Northwest Woods, East Hampton, died of heart failure at the hospice in Southampton Hospital on February 28th.

After graduating from Lafayette College, Mr. Bochroch entered the Signal Corps and served overseas in the Korean War. He would further his education in later life, attending writing courses at Columbia and reading literature at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A stint with CBS Radio in Philadelphia led to a 25-year career as an account executive with WABC-TV, during which he divided his time between New York and East Hampton.

Mr. Bochroch -- Bob to his countless friends -- conducted a life-long love affair with the automobile. Early in his life, he raced sports cars at Lime Rock, Sebring, and Watkins Glen, and in 1970 became President of the Bridgehampton Racing Group, which was dedicated to reviving the Bridgehampton Race Track. His passion for the open road culminated in 1984, when he and his close friend Bob Sinclair, driving a turbocharged Saab Aero prototype, finished seventh out of 76 entrants in the grueling 8800-mile-long race known as One Lap of America. He was justifiably proud of the fact that they collected only one speeding ticket as they circumnavigated the country.

Bob also loved to travel, particularly to countries known for their cuisine. His wife’s career at TWA enabled him to take more than 20 trips to France, dining in three-star restaurants and acquiring the knowledge and sophistication that made him an extraordinary cook. Perhaps the first East End resident to install a Garland restaurant range in his home, he gave famous dinner parties at which his geniality, wit, and wonderful food endeared him to his friends. His kitchen was his theater. Sipping aperitifs and slathering home-made terrine de veau on crusty bread while sitting at the bar that framed his workspace, his guests could chat with him while he put the finishing touches on his classic boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin.

He was first married to Patricia Suransky, the mother of his three children – Robert A. Bochroch of Philadelphia, Lisa (Mrs. Frederick Erikson) of Williamsport, and Susan (Mrs. Robert Ratcliffe) of East Hampton. He is also survived by his second wife, Mary Joyce, whom he married in 1971, and with whom he raised his daughters locally, and by his grandsons, Frederick and Patrick Erikson.

Friends and family will participate in a celebration of Mr. Bochroch’s rich life at 1:00 P.M. on March 8th, at his home. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a contribution to the East Hampton Day Care Center (PO Box 63) or to Meals on Wheels (33 Newtown Lane).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

TIMES-TOSSING


One of my most cherished routines takes place every morning. Nancy and I invariably rise at the same moment, and if we’re in East Hampton, what follows next is a ritual as unvarying as a Kabuki play. I go downstairs and into the kitchen, take out two small glasses, pour orange juice into them and then head for the front door. Nancy follows me, and makes eight cups of coffee in the Krups as I head down the steps, down the path, down the driveway, retrieve the Times, and repeat my journey in reverse. Sometimes, if it’s cold or rainy or snowy, I have to throw on a pair of sweats and a parka and real shoes, but mostly, I venture out in bathrobe and LL Bean mocs.

Re-entering the house, I make a beeline for My Chair, which is an oversized copy of the iconic Eames chair. So tyrannically do I assert my claim of possession that no one else (least of all Nancy) would dream of sitting on it, any more than a courtier, or even a wife, would have thought to perch casually on Henry VIII’s throne. I drop the Times on the ottoman, go into the kitchen, and we busy ourselves pouring coffee (Nancy’s black with sugar in one of her own mugs; mine with a drop of half-and-half, in a thermal cup). Nancy carries hers to a large, comfortable club chair facing mine; I set mine down on the little table next to the Eames, perhaps accompanied by a schmeck of something sweet, strip the wrapper off the Times, separate the first section from the rest and throw Nancy the Metro.

This business of throwing newspapers across the room has evolved over the five-year period in which we've lived in this house. At first, when it came time to trade sections, I would rise, carry what I had finished over to her, pick up what she had for me, and seat myself again, but there are always five or six sections, which is a lot of tedious messengering, and one day I simply flung Business at her. I did this with a wristy, backhand motion, as one would toss a Frisbee, and to my surprise, it sailed across the room – some twenty feet – and landed gently, intact, face-up, in her lap. That was beginner’s luck, of course, but what began as a whim became, with practice, a surprisingly effective method of delivery; now, hardly noticing that we’re doing it, we trade sections without ever leaving our respective chairs, the only sounds the occasional clinking of cup on coaster and the susurration of newsprint flapping through the air. Sometimes a section goes awry, separating or diving to the side or falling short, and the receiver hisses disapprovingly: “Error on the throw!” Surprisingly often, however, it works fine. Heavy sections are easier to throw accurately than light ones, but after years of practice, both of us can manage even something as flimsy as Getaways.

No one until now has known of, let alone witnessed, this strange marital game. It occurred to me, though, that many couples who are blessed with large living rooms must have developed routines similar or perhaps quite different to this one. So let me hear from you, fellow Times-Tossers! Maybe we can get a team together and qualify for the Beijing Olympics!

Monday, February 18, 2008

CURRENT PIXIMS





I'm the most inattentive blogger; not only can I not keep up with my own life, I can't keep up with my family's. And in the case of Maxim, of course, change is the order of each and every day. He just turned 5 months old, and looks nothing like he did when he was a child. So here are a few shots -- some from Christmas, when Nancy and I were in Utila, and some sent to us last week by Danielle.

Have I mentioned that D, B and M are coming to East Hampton for the month of June? One of the treats in store for Maxim will be meeting his cohort; so many of Danielle's friends in the States have just had or are about to have babies, we may be able to form a softball team. . . .

Thursday, January 10, 2008

GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY


We left the island of Utila, where our daughter and her family live, on January 5th -- not without divine intervention.

In an attempt to shorten the long and arduous trek, we opted for the 3-leg route instead of the usual 4, even though it cost twice as much: from Newark to Houston to Roatan (a larger neighboring island with an international airport) to Utila, the last jump via chartered plane. No problem going there, in perfect weather; the Cessna 172 (4 seats and a single engine, about the size of a lawnmower’s) covered the 20 miles expeditiously. I monitored its progress via the instruments from the co-pilot’s seat: altitude 900 feet, airspeed 80 mph.

But going home was a different story: rain pelting, wind blowing. We got to what passes for an airstrip on Utila, a cracked and rutted length of pavement about 400 yards long, at eleven A.M. and to our surprise, there was the Cessna. The bad news was that the airport in Roatan was closed, and there was another couple ahead of us. The flight from Roatan to Houston was due to take off at 2 PM, and flew only once a week.

We cooled our already damp heels. Another passenger arrived, a young woman with, it seemed to me, much too much luggage to fit in the Cessna. At 11, the Roatan airport opened and the Cessna pilot, after carefully inspecting the runway, which was full of puddles, pronounced his intention to fly. He loaded up the other couple and told us he’d be back for the three of us in an hour. We watched as the tiny plane lurched and splashed its way down the runway, struggling to become airborne, and narrowly cleared the trees at the end.

The rain intensified. The puddles became ponds. We abandoned hope of the Cessna’s return. But all at once, much too soon, we heard engines in the sky. A large twin-engine plane, painted a snazzy blue, with the words “Central American Airways” stenciled on its tail, landed smoothly and taxied to the shed where Nancy and I and the young woman waited. “I guess this is for me,” said she. As the purser (!) opened the compartment door, I saw that there was not a single passenger aboard. “Where are you going?” I asked him.

“Roatan,” he said.

“Will you take us?” I queried.

The answer was not a foregone conclusion. He pondered the matter. His piercing gaze sought my own. “Only,” he said, “if you pay cash!”

“How much?”

“Fifty dollars. Each!”

We struck the bargain, boarded, and were in Roatan fourteen minutes later. The Cessna was still on the ground; we explained what had happened to its pilot, and he gave us his blessing. The couple he had ferried over earlier were standing on line to pay their airport departure tax; the double-take they gave when they saw us was worthy of a Mack Sennett comedy. “How . . . how. . . ?” They had landed only ten minutes earlier.

We made our flight to Houston with an hour to spare. When I got back to New York, I googled Central American Airways, my new best friends. What came up was a company located in Louisville that charters fancy jets. I consulted lists of all the airlines in Central America, in the Western Hemisphere, in the world. Nada. I can only conclude that some tiny part of my atheistic soul was praying for deliverance, and the prayer was answered. Thank you, CAA – whoever you are.