Thursday, November 26, 2015

About food, Uncle Slappy talks.

“There was a place,” Uncle Slappy began, “down in the Garment District, called Dubrow’s Cafeteria.”

I poured the old man another magma-hot stew of my wife’s viscous coffee and handed him a knife so he could help himself to yet another slice of what he was charitably calling ‘breakfast babka.’

“Dubrow’s was the epicenter of the schmata business. Everyone went there, from the lowest pattern cutter to the most exalted designers in the business.

“The old Orthodox with long beards that they carefully kept out of their mushroom barley, would often have rainbow colored nips of thread in their beards from biting off the ends with their teeth of something or other they were sewing.

“Dubrow’s,” he said. “Right on Seventh Avenue, between 37th and 38th.  A huge place, it probably sat 200 or 300 people. And it was stuffed to the kishkas every day.”

Uncle Slappy picked at his babka, licking his forefinger and dabbing at the little bits of cinnamon sprinkled about his plate with the tip of his digit.

“I would imagine that for about 50 years,” he continued, “much of how America and the world dressed was discussed at Dubrow’s. What patterns were hot, were hems long or short, were pleats in? It all happened at Dubrow’s.”

I got up to turn down the heat in the oven. Even though I have the approximate patience of a hummingbird, somehow I am given the task of cooking an oversized bird for three hours or so.

Uncle Slappy waited till I returned to my seat and continued his story.

“The pinnacle of Dubrow’s, the pinnacle of food, perhaps the pinnacle of life itself, were the Kaiser rolls they threw in gratis along with a pat of the sweetest butter."

"You sound like 'Bontshe the Silent,'" I reminded him, referring to a classic of Yiddish literature by I.L. Peretz, perhaps the classic story.

He ignored me and continued.

“Hard like peanut brittle on the outside, and soft and warm and chewy on the inside. Warm, they were, and with the sweet butter inside, they were pure ambrosia.”

He finished his babka and stood up to go read in his bedroom. He was just about through with reading William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the 200th time.

“And the poppy seeds,” he said upon leaving, “somehow they never got stuck between your teeth.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Uncle Slappy and I visit the cardiologist.

I left work last night amid end-of-the-world Thanksgiving traffic and headed straight to LaGuardia airport where Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy were landing at 7 having boarded the 4:20 flight from Ft. Lauderdale.

Uncle Slappy, I was pleased to see, was carrying a small duffle bag, while Aunt Sylvie has succumbed to the exigencies of age and has embraced the roller bag. Uncle Slappy swears that when he can no longer carry his own luggage, well, that's when he'll finally give up traveling. They're 87 now, Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy, and while they'd be the first to admit that they're certainly not getting any younger, all things considered they walk pretty well, and they look pretty good.

I wrestled their baggage from them, and we walked together and slowly to parking lot three, where I had parked the 1966 Simca 1600 I had bought some years ago and which was lovingly restored by Lothar, my Croatian mechanic in Toms River, New Jersey. Truth be told, the Simca runs today better than it did when it was new, and that's due to Lothar, who installed, when he overhauled the car for me, a practically brand-new BMW 3-liter engine. The car is faster than any I've ever driven, and unlike having a proper BMW, or an Audi, Lexus, or Mercedes, well, you don't see Simcas coming and going.

In just minutes, thanks to the assertive charms of my rebuilt German engine, we were back in the city and Aunt Sylvie and Uncle Slappy were already sitting down to a magma-hot cup of my wife's surpassing black viscous coffee and a plateful of cinnamon rugelach she had picked up at Fairway, one of the last places you can get a decent piece of pastry.

"Boychick," Uncle Slappy said between bites, "We've got Blumenthal tomorrow. You ready?"

Dr. Blumenthal is one of New York's premier cardiologists, and once-a-year Uncle Slappy and I visit him for our annual physical. It's not that there aren't good cardiologists down in Boca--Uncle Slappy has one down there as well, but there's no one like Blumenthal when you really want a check up, so Uncle Slappy and I have been going religiously since the early 80s.

Uncle Slappy stripped his shirt and t-shirt off first and lay down on the examining table. A young nurse came in and loaded him up with EKG sensors. She pressed a few buttons and in a moment or two had his readings printed out and ready for Dr. Blumenthal to read. Then, it was my turn and I stripped and traded places with Uncle Slappy and the nurse took my readings.

Just as we were getting settled, Dr. Blumenthal, all business as usual, came into the small examination room. He read Uncle Slappy's EKG and said to the old man, "your heart's as healthy as his is," nodding to me. Then he read my EKG and nodded to Uncle Slappy, "you'll live till you're his age," he reassured.

Without even weighing us he told Uncle Slappy to lose five and me to lose ten. Then he sent us on our way.

"Oh, one more thing," he said as we were leaving, "don't let me see you for another year."

Old man and older man, we walked together the whole mile home.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A night and a day in Uruapan.

In the little town of Uruapan, the Avocado Capital of the World, we were to play nine local men in an exhibition baseball game.

We had just bounced through a five or six hour bus ride, and many of the Seraperos already found themselves two or four cervezas to the wind. What's more, we had just played a four game set against the Charros and were heading to another four game set against the Diablos Rojos of Cuidad Mexico.

In other words, we were hardly at fighting trim. Nevertheless, Hector Quesadilla put together a lineup of sorts, and as four o'clock rolled around, those of us sober enough to play, were suited up and ready to face the Uruapan pick-up squad.

Our line-up read like this:

Teolinda Acosta, 2B.
Jorge Ibarra, LF.
Jorge Navidad, P.
Hector Quesadilla, 1B.
Gordo Batista, C.
Fernando Perez-Abreu, 3B.
Dr. Jesus Verduzco, SS.
Genaro Andrade, CF.
Refugio Cervantes, RF.

Not only was Hector--the legend--playing, Gordo Batista, our bus-driver and Jesus Verduzco our team doctor were too. Additionally, I would be pitching, so as to save our regular arms, and Genaro Andrade, who had just joined the team a day or so earlier would be playing center. He was called up to the team when Juan Macias, one of our usual substitutes went on the injured list with a fish-hook through his throwing hand.

Suffice to say, it was not our primo line-up. But I cared not a whit. First off, I loved to pitch. Secondly, I would at last get to see Hector play in an actual ball game, something many of my teammates had witnessed in their youths, but of course, I had yet to see.

The Uruapan squad took the field and they were as you'd expect. Fat men in shorts and black socks trying for two hours to summon whatever ball-field glory they had once been a part of. They chattered a bit in the field, and tossed the ball around with some gravity. But when their arm started warming up from the hill, I knew they were done for.

In short, he was the best they had and he had no stuff. Not even batting practice stuff. I knew against him, even our make-shift line-up of team doctors, scrubs and newcomers could bat around endlessly. 

For whatever reason, I thought of a poem by AE Housman, "To An Athlete Dying Young," that Mr. Pike, my English teacher had made me memorize in 9th grade.

There wasn't a lot of glory left on the field that day. 

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose….

Acosta took the first pitch that came his way, then he drilled the second pitch deep into right-center. Acosta, who had hardly hit the ball out of the infield all year, Acosta, who weighed about 165 and wasn’t batting his weight, looked all at once like Willie Mays.

Ibarra, up next, hit the Uruapan arm’s next pitch in more or less the same place as Acosta’s. Three pitches into the game and we were already up by a run. I took a pitch, just to see one, and then sent the next pitch deep down the right field line. I landed at third, having driven in our second run.

Next Hector came up, 15 years and 40 pounds off his playing trim. Like the rest of us, Hector took a pitch, then swatted pitch two, hugging the line on left. I came in easily, 3-0, and Hector chugged like an old locomotive into second.

Gordo Batista, our bus-driver, and a catcher retired from playing for 20 years, also hit one down the line, easily bringing in Hector and wheezing into second with our fifth stand-up extra-base hit in a row. At this point in my life, I had played thousands of games—from pick-up to scholastic—no team I had ever played for had ever romped like this before.

Hector came in on Batista’s two-bagger and sat next to me on the bench. We were up four-zip and had not yet even fouled one off or swung and missed.

“Let’s play lefty,” I said to the old man. “Let’s make it respectable.”

So, we switched to our distaff side and let the Uruapan nine back into the game. Our offense went, as you’d expect, south and with me pitching lefty and our fielder now favoring their weak wings, Uruapan slowly crawled back. At the end of three full innings, we led 5 to 4.

And then it rained.

Rained a rain it could only rain in the highlands, in Mexico. It rained buckets with the buckets included. Rain like water out of a fire hose. We ran for cover—all of us—to a small ramshackle painted white cinder block building that served as the municipal center. We entered the large main room which was decorated with streamers and bunting. The town of Uruapan was celebrating Reina del Festival de Aguacate—the Queen of Avocados Festival.

The contestants were all there, eleven avocado girls, each wearing a colored sash over a pastel gown, each representing another precinct of Uruapan. On stage, they practiced their speeches, they practiced answering questions, they practiced in the hopes of being named La Reina.

One avocado girl caught my eye. She was wearing, appropriately, an avocado-green pinafore and had across her chest a sash that read “Xicalan,” which represented the district she was from.

Castenadez, the mayor, put some music on the radio, and soon the avocado girls, their helpers (mostly their mothers) and ballplayers from both the Uruapan squad and the dozen or so still sober Seraperos—still in uniform—were doing a rough approximation of dancing. I danced with Tess, Senora Xicalan, until the music stopped and we were called inside.

Soon the Festival de Aquacate began in earnest. Castenadez asked Hector to be an honorary judge, and Hector turned to me as his assistant, which made me, in my opinion one of the luckiest men in Uruapan, if not in all of Mexico. Judging a beauty pageant where the contestants wore, in at least one competition, little more than avocado skins on top.

In the end Tess was crowned La Reina.

Our bus was repaired the next morning.

We bounced our way to Mexico City, where we split four with el Diablos Rojos.

Tess, the Queen of the Avocados, I hardly knew ye.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The world is too much with us, Part XXIV.

As I get older, and unlike those be-whiskered denizens of Brooklyn who wear shorts and sandals in November and woolen knit caps in August, I am getting older, I find more and more comfort in those things that still contain a vestige of the way things used to be.

That's a round-about way of saying, I guess, that the world I grew up in, that I am accustomed to, that I've accepted as my reality, is all but dead. However, I find comfort in the traces that remain.

I'm taking the day off today to get away from a world that is too much with us.  

(For the Wordsworth-deficient, I give you a hors d'oeuvres:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!)

The modern world makes demands on humans like humans make demands on machines. In fact, to go all Capek on you, or Elmer Rice, or Fritz Lang, or Charlie Chaplin, the modern world has fairly and essentially turned us into machines.

Things that took weeks, we do in days, days we do in hours, hours we do in minutes. The Bernbachian agency model of art and copy working together has been all but abandoned. Craft has succumbed to Ikea-ization. Everything is modular now. Nuance has been replaced by the Allen wrench.

I try to hold on.

I go to a butcher shop where there is still sawdust on the floor.

I prefer Buster Keaton to Adam Sandler.

And I read at least one classic a year. Don Quixote. Gilgamesh. The Green Knight.

You can't resist the passing of time, especially as my time is running out.

But you can take your dog for a walk, read in your leather arm chair, and listen to Ravel and try.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Work patterns.

When I was a kid I secured a job at an amusement park not far from my parents' home. For $2.30/hour I would keep order in the game-room (kids would come by bus from the Bronx and they were, often, none-too-genteel).

Even back then, as a 16-year-old, I had size enough and a natural gruffness that tended to keep people in line, and only once during the whole summer did I have to summon the police for help. I also had to make change--turn dollar bills into dimes for Skee-Ball (the greatest game on Earth) or into three-plays for a quarter for pinball.

I was also given a small broom and a dustpan on a swivel so I could keep the place in Apple-Pie order no matter how many cigarette butts were dropped to the concrete, or how many hotdog wrappers blew in from the beach.

I quickly learned the routine of the place. We were busy from opening at around 10 till 1 o'clock when the main precincts of the park opened. Then the kids would clear out and go on the rides, or chase girls or go to the other game-rooms which were more modern than mine and had electronic machines rather than the old mechanical ones I guarded.

From 1 to about 4, I would sit in my little caged change booth and read, or I would sweep up, or I would practice my Skee-Ball skills.

One thing I took great pride in was the cleanliness of my area. I would sweep my game-room and the abutting boardwalk like the Nazis swept over the Russian steppes. There wouldn't be a butt or a gum wrapper or a scrap of paper anywhere.

It occurs to me as I wrestle with some work demons that I was exactly the same worker back then as I am now.

I keep my area clean.

I'm not talking about my desk, which is most often strewn with the detritus of the day, but of domain or domains I'm meant to watch over in my job. I keep things neat, efficient, and well-done. There is no rough-play, no garbage strewn about, and things get done on time and with a minimum of fuss.
As an aside, the best part of my summer started each afternoon around 4.

At that hour, old Mr. Nelson would stroll by the game room. He was old as Methuselah and I believe he had been around when ibn Musa al-Khwarizm invented algebra in the 9th Century.

Though I never met a quadratic equation I ever liked, Mr. Nelson and I liked each other. He saw something in me that very few teachers did, and he liked hanging out with someone one or two hundred years younger than he.

Mostly we would perch around the four or five Skee-Ball machines that were in the corner of my game room. I had a small metal "trip," a coin on a stick, really, that could clear jams and give free games. And Mr. Nelson and I availed ourselves of that trip that summer.

Mr. Nelson was a huge baseball fan and much of our conversations that summer were around a game he had seen on TV the night before. We would talk about bonehead plays, or sterling pitching, or towering home runs.

Of all the grown-ups I had in my life back then, it was Mr. Nelson and an English teacher called Mrs. Chapin that did the most for me. And though I never played Skee-Ball with Mrs. Chapin, she was more the bridge with the ladies type, she'd often give me a metaphorical chop in the head when I was acting too dumb for my own good.

I lost touch with Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Chapin after I went to play ball in the Mexican League. After that, my parents moved to Chicago, and while I was in college in New York City, I never really traveled up to see either of them.

I suppose Mr. Nelson would be about 1,100 years old now, and Mrs. Chapin probably 90.

I'm sorry I never got to tell them two things.

1) Thanks for believing in me. I eventually learned to believe in myself.
2) I am not a hooligan, a neer-do-well, or a ruffian. I turned out all right.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Our bus breaks-down in Mexico. Part I.

Back in the summer of 1975 when I manned el esquina caliente (the hot corner) for the Seraperos de Saltillo in the Mexican Baseball League, a detour by the team bus fairly changed my life.

We were on the road, traveling by team bus from Guadalajara, where we had played a four-game set against the Charros de Jalisco—the Cowboys—to face Los Diablos Rojos del Mexico, the Mexico City Red Devils. Los Diablos were the class of the league and had been since it was founded in 1940. They were the Yankees del Sud…the Yankees of the South, winning league championships in 1956, 1964, 1968, 1973 and 1974.

Maybe it was the terror of playing the Red Devils that did it, but for whatever reason, our driver, the usually reliable Edgar “Gordo” Batista, veered around traffic on route 15D and onto a local highway, also called route 15. This sent us south through Zamora, Jacona, Zacupu—and past a hundred dusty little villages that were little more than a Pepsi-Cola sign and a shack or two—and before we knew it, we were as lost moth in a cyclone.

This wasn’t the road to Mexico City. This was high up in the mountains, where the dirty air was clean and the heat was chilled. Instead of travelling due east from Guadalajara, Gordo, our bus driver and equipment manager had driven due south. After two or three hours on the road, we were farther away from Mexico City than we were when we started.

These were the days, of course, before GPS. These were the days when you could get good and lost. So lost, no one knew where you were or how to get to where you were going.

Hector and Gordo went at it. “Papilla de cerebros,” Hector said to Gordo. “Mush for brains.”

Gordo stopped the bus, opened the swinging doors and sat on a boulder on the side of the road. And he cried.

“We will be lost forever,” he cried when Hector came to comfort him. “We will never come back.”

Mexico was like that in 1975. There were roads that seemed to travel in only one direction, the wrong one. And Gordo was sad.

Hector got him back in the bus, and once again we headed due south. Before long we started seeing signs, beaten, bullet riddled signs for a small city in the highlands called Uruapan, Ooo ru pahn. Gordo sped toward that place. Hoping it would put us closer to our destination, Mexico City, rather than farther away.

The men on the bus, my teammates, mostly slept, or played music on their radios or horsed about. We looked out the window. We thought about girls. Or home. Or girls at home. The hours and the miles passed.

We reached Uruapan. There was a painted sign across the road as we drove into the town. “Uruapan. La Capital de Aquacate del Mundo.” Uruapan. The Avocado Capital of the World.

The bus sputtered under the sign toward the center of the small, clean town. There were colorful banners everywhere, announcing the Festival de Aquacate, the Festival of Avocados. We had at least reached a place where we could wash our faces, grab a cerveza and a meal, get directions and get to Mexico City.

But no.

The bus died, just as we reached the town’s central plaza.

Three men joined Gordo as he looked under the hood. They poked at the engine. They checked the radiator. The belts. Finally, we all got out and pushed the bus to a small garage where there were three more men and an assortment of old Fords and Volkswagens, all with their hoods up, some resting on cinderblocks.

It would take hours, said one mechanic.

It won’t be until the morning, said another. “We have to go to Patzcuaro,” a town 30 miles away for parts.

Soon a short, fat man came over to the garage. We quickly discerned that he was the mayor or Uruapan. In short order, he was deep in conversation with our Hector Quesadillo.

“You are the great Hector Quesadillo,” the mayor began. “I am Jose Castenadez. I played baseball when I was young.”

Mostly when you’re a ballplayer people talk to you about how they used to play ball. A large number of them were one pitch away, or two, from having achieved greatness. Hector didn’t take Castenadez’s bait.

“I am mayor of Uruapan. This is my city,” he said and we scanned the dusty buildings that surrounded the plaza. “We are the Avocado Capital of the World.”

These were the early days—at least for Americans, of avocados—before the Guacamole revolution. Being the Avocado Capital of the World didn’t sound all that impressive to me.

“We would like to have our local boys play a game with your squad. A friendly game in our small and humble stadium. Afterwards, we will commence the avocado festival, crown La Reina de Avocado and have a hardy meal for all of us. In the evening, you and your boys, you can stay—for free of charge—at our humble town hotel, of which I am the proprietor.”

“Es bueno,” Hector said, shaking the mayor’s hand.

“At the ballpark, just down this road, we will meet at four. I will gather up our local boys to form a team, and bring also the Queens of the Avocado. Until then,” he walked off, as did we, walking to the small stadium.