Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Summer of Klackers

I see kids of all ages out and about on the Bronx's summer streets who are completely mesmerized with their iPhones and engrossed in their iPods. This contemporary digital snapshot is a far cry from the way things were when I was a boy. You know: stickball games in the street; open fire hydrants cooling off the cool atop the blazing hot asphalt.

Once upon a time, we amused ourselves with outdoor games and objects. The walkie-talkie was high technology. The fads that blew in and out of our lives were at once less technical and less expensive. be young again and carrying around a pair of acrylic or glass balls. I'm speaking, of course, of Klackers: two solid balls connected by a single string, which debuted sometime in the late 1960s. However, they made a tsunami-like splash in 1972 as a very visible—and very loud—fad.

Klackers were merchandised by more names than can be chronicled here: Popper Knockers, Click Clacks, Nik Noks, Whackers, Quick Waks, etc. But whatever name they went by, the toys, which featured a handle device in the center of the string between the two balls, worked with the yo-yo principle. The object was to get the two balls banging into one another with some aplomb, and, if you were any good, performing neat tricks in the process. For one brief shining moment at least, it seemed that every boy and girl on the block had a pair of Klackers. They came in a kaleidoscope of colors, too, ranging from orange to bright pink to lime green—you name it.

The Klackers’ craze, however, rapidly went by the wayside amid persisting rumors of the glass balls smashing to smithereens like buckshot into youngsters' eyes and faces—something akin to what happened to former Vice President Dick Cheney’s former hunting partner. And, naturally, when two rock-solid balls crash into one another with brute force in the vicinity of unprotected body parts, there are bound to be never-ending stories of bruised arms, hands, and knuckles. Kids will be kids, too. Accidentally, and sometimes intentionally, many a youth got whacked on the head with the uber-active Klackers' balls.

You can see the problem here. Klackers had to go…and they did. They remain, however, knocking away in the hearts and minds of the boys and girls—now men and women—who let them rip some four decades ago. Now, if you want to get your mitts on a pair of Klackers, eBay and not Wal-Mart is where to find them.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Steinbrenner's Legacy

I always admired Yogi Berra for standing up to his bullying, unprincipled employer the way he did. Berra vowed never to return to Yankee Stadium—in any way, shape, or form—as long as the blustering man upstairs, George Steinbrenner, owned the team. Bullyragged from on high, he rightfully felt dissed by his superior, who not only promised him an uninterrupted season as the Yankees manager, and then fired him after only sixteen games, but had an emissary deliver the knockout punch. From Yogi's perspective, it was this weaselly latter act that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Berra ultimately returned to the "House that Ruth Built" fifteen years later when the both larger than life and smaller than life Steinbrenner uncharacteristically apologized.

I'm currently reading Bill Madden's biography Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. This compelling page turner underscores yet again how the truth really is stranger than fiction. Hollywood couldn't craft a more colorful bully boy to own and operate a professional sports team than King George himself. Nor could it create a manager for him to hire and fire five times as animatedly unpredictable and unstable as the scrappy Billy Martin. And intermingled in the decades of bluster and blather as the owner of the most famous sports franchise in the world are incredible acts of generosity and kindheartedness.

Quite often in the life and times of George Steinbrenner, the battered and bruised in the man's march to the sea returned for more abuse, and frequently they were rewarded with largess, and sometimes a lifetime's worth of it. There were individuals who left the Boss's employ with utter scorn for him and desired no second acts. But many came back for seconds and sometimes thirds and fourths, and fed out of the the multi-millionaire's deep trough in perpetuity.

Exhibit A: Hall of Famer Bob Lemon was hired and fired a couple of times by the Boss. He was subsequently given a scouting position for life in the organization—at $50,000 per year, which was a nice piece of change for a player who plied his trade in the financially unrewarding 1940s and 1950s. Who could blame him for accepting such a sweet deal?

If somebody regularly lied to me, publicly humiliated me on occasion, and then offered me security for life, my pride just might have to take a back seat to this warm and reassuring pipeline of green until death did us part. I guess this moral and ethical conundrum is George Steinbrenner's lasting legacy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fred and Ted's Excellent Adventure

There are life lessons lurking just about everywhere, including sometimes in Hollywood and in the wayward winds of popular culture. The actors who portrayed Herman Munster and Lurch, on television's The Munsters and The Addams Family, respectively, came to resent their mega-popular on-screen characters. Ultimately, the pair felt typecast and unappreciated for the width and breadth of their thespian and artistic abilities.

Apparently, Fred Gwynne came to loathe, for a period of time at least, the genially naive Frankenstein monster he played with such aplomb on the small screen in the mid-1960s. And Cassidy desperately wanted his fans to know that he could do Shakespeare, too, and not just a hideous giant who grunted and mumbled in the richest of rich baritones. But these two characters were true originals given life by two fine actors. Their iconic popularity, which has stood the test of time, is the proof in the pilaf.

It's quite understandable how achieving monumental and longstanding notoriety for playing TV parts could get under one's skin, particularly when the public will not similarly applaud anything else that the actors ever do. But what exactly are actors' jobs anyway? Entertaining the viewing public, I'd say. They are charged with touching us in some demonstrable ways, whether it's to make us laugh, cry, or think—or some combination of the three. To have breathed life into a character like the universally beloved Herman Munster should have brought Fred Gwynne a mother lode of joy, not misery, after the series ended. And Cassidy's charismatic Lurch ideally should have lifted his spirits for all time. The six feet-nine inches tall Cassidy died unexpectedly in 1979 at the age of forty-six, a not especially contented man from all that I've read.

Really, how many of us in our lifetimes will bequeath the world decades of unbroken entertainment? And with their timeless shows in syndication, there are no ends to the yuks in sight from Gwynne's "Herman" and Cassidy's "Lurch." That's quite a legacy and a powerful life lesson, too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Bohack's Injection

While combing through a box load of miscellaneous relics from the past, I came upon a Bohack's supermarket matchbook. Bohack's stores were a New York City chain that went the way of the dodo bird sometime in the mid-1970s. In fact, there was a Bohack's a block away from where I grew up. It operated for many years on the southeast corner of Tibbett Avenue and West 231st Street in the Bronx. And after the Bohack's brand fell by the wayside, a Sloan’s supermarket took over the spot, then a C-Town, and then a Sloan’s again. Today, a health and fitness club conducts business on this formerly hallowed ground.

The Bohack's matchbook find lit a fire in my memory bank. Bohack's is where a sixteen-year-old friend and neighbor, my fifteen-year-old brother, and yours truly, not yet thirteen, shopped for our August 1975 camping trip to Harriman State Park, which is an hour or so north of New York City.

My brother, a Boy Scout at the time, purportedly knew the park's terrain and various nooks and crannies from past scouting trips. He was, for all intents and purposes, our fearless leader. We had the Boy Scout's handbook with us, too. And since this adventure of ours wasn't choreographed as a survival mission, we brought along a box of Bohack's matches, just in case the rubbing of two sticks together didn't do the trick.

To make a long story short: Dad dropped us off in an undisclosed location—an obscure, dead-end road somewhere on the periphery of a picturesque village called Sloatsburg. This spot admirably functioned as our portal into the forestland, where we had every intention of spending three full days and nights camped out under the stars on some off-the-beaten trail in the woods, and not some sissy campground. Unfortunately, we neglected to consult the weather bureau before our excursion, and day two in the great outdoors featured the heaviest rainstorm of the entire summer. Luckily, we had our Bohack's bounty with us: hot dogs, bread for peanut butter sandwiches, and Milky Way bars for snacks. While drowning in a flash flood or mudslide was always a possibility, we weren't about to starve to death.

We also brought a radio with us, so we knew what was happening in the outside world. Yogi Berra was fired as the New York Mets manager while we were one with nature, and the rumors were that Brooklyn Dodgers great and Hall of Famer, Roy Campanella, was his imminent replacement, even though he was confined to a wheelchair. We had no cell phones. These devices were still a quarter of a century away from being in the hands, ears, and pockets of the hoi polloi. So, if anything, God forbid, happened to one of us, a long and meandering haul to find help would have been required. And worse still, if a Jeffrey Dahmer-guy turned up, we were toast and could have effortlessly been disposed of sans a trace that we lived and breathed, except perhaps for a few Milky Way wrappers.

It was unquestionably a simpler time to be both alive and a kid. Nowadays, it's hard to conceive of parents permitting their teens to experience such a walk on the wild side with or without a means of communication. Anyway, the footnote to this tale is that our respective fathers rescued us a day earlier than the scheduled pick up, surmising that the monsoonal rains had put a serious damper on things. Fathers knew best in this instance. And no social workers showed up at our doors, either, to place us in foster homes. 

Thirty-five years have now passed since this camping trip of a lifetime. It was the one and only time that I bedded down on roots and tubers, slept under both stars and rain clouds, and employed a decomposing log—home to a colony of ants and community of roly-poly bugs—as a toilet seat.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Nails in the Coffin

I recently read an account chronicling the latest chapter in the Lenny Dykstra saga. It was an ugly, bizarre, almost comical footnote to the life and times of a formerly feisty, tobacco-chawing, scrappy professional baseball player who traded in his romp through the green fields of America's pastime for a bull-headed charge through the green streets of Wall Street.

Just one year after the swaggering New York Mets of 1986 won 108 regular season games and a World Championship, I devoured a spate of memoirs about that crazy and wondrous baseball season authored by various players and their quirky manager, Davey Johnson, too. But there was only one tome among this library of anti-literature that stood apart from the pack, and it was Lenny Dykstra's NAILS: The Inside Story of an Amazin' Season. The "with" guy, who actually wrote the book in Dykstra's incomparable voice, was sportswriter Marty Noble. NAILS was in a class by itself, as Noble nobly channeled the memories, observations, and opinions of this short, lean, and gritty centerfielder affectionately known as "Nails." "Today we played the fucking Cardinals" was the kind of stuff interspersed throughout the book's narrative, as well as Dykstra's dismissing all things with which he disagreed with a pithy "I call bullshit on that."

Flash forward more than twenty years and this very same man is apparently broke, bankrupt, and living in the back of his van or something only slightly better than that. It is reported that he owes tens of millions of dollars to a whole host of people and entities who bought lock, stock, and barrel into the mega-hype that he, a former baseball player, was a financial whiz kid. Frequently wrong guru in the world of high finance, Jim Cramer, even sang Dykstra's praises on his CNBC program.

Once upon a time Lenny Dykstra hit a walk-off homerun against the Houston Astros in the 1986 NLCS. It was an extraordinary baseball moment and a Met fan memory of mega-import that we will not soon forget. In all of professional sports, there are few happenings more dramatic than walk-off, game-winning home runs, particularly in critical games and during the post-season. It's too bad Dykstra didn't walk-off into the sunset of positive memories that October day....

Instead, life went on, and Dykstra has since been fingered in the Mitchell Report as a steroid user—no big surprise here considering that he morphed into a major muscle head and power hitter, which he certainly wasn't with the Mets, in the later years of his career. And recently, of course, this celebrated financial genius inaugurated a magazine called The Players Club for a readership of well-compensated professional athletes, which embodied investment and brokerage counsel among its myriad services. And as they are so often wont to do, the moneyed lemmings came out of the woodwork and poured millions upon millions of dollars into what turned out to be a black hole with no there there. I, for one, just wish I could turn the clock back to 1986—for Lenny's sake.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wrong Aid at Rite Aid

Yesterday, I shopped at my local Rite Aid, one of the omnipresent drug-store chain's multiple stores. They sell virtually everything nowadays but without the bargains commensurate with the economies of scale they are supposed to possess. Bigger, after all, is supposed to mean cheaper.

But I’m not concerned about their inflated prices right now. It’s their overall customer service, which is sorely lacking, that bothers me most of all. And I expect very little from the businesses that I patronize. In fact, all I ask is that a physical presence be there to take my money after my completed rounds, and that I not have to wait very long to complete the transaction.

I don't get it. These corporate chains seem to place a very low premium on this fundamental aspect of customer service. They frequently have managers on the scene who don’t appear remotely concerned about people waiting on lines. My latest Rite Aid encounter involved a coupon dispute between an annoying old woman and the only cashier on duty, which ground everything to a halt. I was next on line, and there was no one yet behind me. After several minutes of futile tit-for-tat, a manager was summoned to adjudicate the coupon war of words. She appeared completely oblivious to the customers on line, which numbered six by now.

I worked in a retail environment for many years—initially in a mom-and-pop pet food and supply store that established a reputation for conscientious customer service. The business grew in leaps and bounds because it distinguished itself from the competition in putting the customer first. When our patrons wanted to give us money, job one was to take it from them as quickly and as courteously as possible. I always thought that’s why businesses were in business.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Socket to Me

A footnote to my prior rumination: I’d just like to say that my C-Leg is a spectacular specimen of technological wonder. I walk miles with this mechanical marvel of a knee; I ride the subway with it; I shovel snow; I mop the floors of my apartment—the sky's the limit. But, alas, it’s not the C-Leg but the socket that attaches to it where my greatest problems lurk. The socket, by the way, is what embraces the "residual limb," which is a welcome euphemism for the oh-so-disagreeable and ugly sounding "stump" word.

Heat and humidity have ruled this week in the city that I have forever called home, including two days that surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Now let me just say that my revered C-Leg attaches to the residual limb courtesy of a suction device made of silicone rubber. And as you might imagine, perspiration and suction are an unhappy and uncomfortable coupling....

In fact, countless times this volatile commingling has thrown me for a loop with the upper reaches of my socket invading some very unwelcome body territory. And even in New York City, it’s not considered kosher to readjust oneself in the public square—to make things right and proper—with a hand down one's trousers. So, I live and let live, and accept a little chafing, pinching, and occasional pain—the genuine article—to avoid a worse fate. And here’s hoping for cooler and drier days ahead. But then again, hazy, hot, humid are a whole lot more hospitable than cold, snow, and ice on the ground...and the very real prospect of falling on my tookus with one wrong step.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Once You Pass Its Border...

Four years ago this month is my unhappy anniversary of a grueling thirty-day hospital stay. While the first forty-four years of my life were patient free—save a brief stay upon birth—that all changed in one fell swoop.

I’d like to borrow a line from the Christmas song classic "Toyland": “Once you pass its borders, you can never return again.” Unfortunately, I’m not speaking of a “Little Girl and Boy Land” chock full of every imaginable plaything, candy canes, and wide-eyes beaming innocence and wonder. This is Hospital Land I am talking about: a place replete with pain, suffering, and the ultimate humbling. Once you have ventured beyond this border, you can never return again. You can never quite see life the same way.

Despite making it out of Hospital Land alive, I feel something deep down now that I didn’t feel before—something very unsettling and forbidding. Finding yourself in Hospital Land could happen at any moment and without fair warning—that’s the scary reality. In fact, it’s even more likely than not to happen at some point in your life and times. What particularly haunts me four years after the fact is the knowing. That is, how relatively easily I acclimated to the hospital regimen and resigned myself to pain, and the days and nights of getting shuffled around like a stick of furniture, and pricked and prodded like a slab of meat.

To make a long story short, I was rushed to the emergency room with a foot that had turned completely white and numb, not to mention snowballing amounts of pain rippling up my leg. I was informed in the ER that one of three things would likely be done to me—A, B, or C—with the last possibility the most in-depth and serious. In other words, to reestablish blood flow, transplanting a vein from my groin area to my lifeless foot was as bad as it could get. Wrong! Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t procedure A, B, or C that I experienced on the operating table, but D—none of the above. The surgeons unexpectedly discovered a mass of tissue behind my right knee, which very nearly caused me to bleed to death on the operating table. Considering the massive blood loss, if I survived at all, I was certain to have irreparably damaged some vital organs.

First the good news: I not only have lived to tell but with no lasting damage to a single organ—not a one. Now the bad news: My post-operative leg looked like it had been the main course at a coyote-vulture barbecue. It really did. More good news: That mess has been cleared away and replaced by a computer. I plug in my right knee before I lay me down to sleep each night, take no medications for anything, and am as fit as a fiddle. Lucky me....

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ye, John Adams

In December 1972, the entire fourth grade class of St. John’s parochial grammar school ventured down to Radio City Music Hall to see its annual Christmas show, which in those days featured a full-length movie in addition to the leggy Rockettes. Via the Number 1 subway train, which we could spy outside of our east-facing classroom windows in the Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge, we made it to midtown Manhattan in under an hour.

The movie we saw that year was a musical: 1776. It starred, among others, William Daniels as John Adams. Portrayed in the film as strident, insufferable, and generally disliked by his congressional peers, Adams was nonetheless depicted as the chief proponent for American independence—a man of principle above all else. He once wrote: Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to record, think, speak, and write.

Sadly, Adams doesn’t get his just due as a founding father. There are no memorials for him in our nation’s capital, which by the way was not named “Adams.” He's not featured on any coins or currency. He's considered a failed president. Meanwhile, author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson is on a patriotic pedestal. And while he was indisputably brilliant, a giant of American history, and key founder, Jefferson the man was quite hypocritical, often distastefully political, and downright strange. For all of his flaws, Adams was a man of great insight, unflagging decency, and genuine courage throughout a very long life lived. Coincidentally, both he and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, fifty years after America officially bid adieu to porcine King George III and his sprawling empire.

In my opinion, one of the best biographies ever written is David McCullough’s John Adams. Not only are Adams's lifetime of achievements impressive, but his voluminous letters are frequently poignant, particularly the correspondence with his wife and children. The very private Jefferson destroyed all missives between he and his wife. I say, "Ye, John Adams" on this special day....

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Laugh and the Whole World Laughs with You

Once upon a time I had a high school teacher. Let's call him Mr. D. He taught a freshman-year course called "Afro-Asian history." Mr. D was an affable and entertaining man who frequently tickled the funny bones of his fourteen-year-old students. Sadly, I fear that this educator’s keen sense of humor and wry wit would bomb on the contemporary school stage.

At some point in the school year—1976-1977—we were studying the Southeast Asian country of India and its independent founding in 1947. The nation’s first prime minister was a man named Jawaharlal Nehru, a Mahatma Gandhi disciple. He is perhaps more renowned for inspiring a western fashion trend: the Nehru jacket. Throughout Mr. D’s lecture on the subject matter—India’s fledgling democracy and not sartorial predilections—our teacher would speak in his normal tone of voice, and at his normal pace, until he came to the polysyllabic Nehru first name. He would then pause—drum roll, please—and roll his tongue with consummate comic timing. I wish I could spell what I heard, but since it’s beyond my ken, I won't even try. After Mr. D’s unique and colorful pronunciation of “Jawaharlal,” he would promptly return to his natural speaking pattern and quietly say “Nehru.” It was something akin to the late Victor Borge’s phonetic punctuation routine—conventionally reading aloud from a book but supplying things like periods, commas, and question marks with their own individual and expressive sounds.

If Mr. D did any such thing today, a young snitch would likely turn him in. If nothing else, schoolkids are trained in this duplicitous art at a very young age. And Mr. D would then be horsewhipped by the overly sensitive and feckless powers-that-be for not respecting another culture, or even be accused of more nefarious crimes against humanity. But you know what: Jawaharlal is an unusual name from our vantage point in the Land of Jacob and Isabella. Bet you can’t say it three times real fast. If teachers in India or anywhere else in the one world we live in want to make fun of American surnames, I say: More power to them. Laugh…and the whole world laughs with you. And no safe spaces required....